For disclaimers, see Part 1 .
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Mac glanced around the small waiting room with tired eyes before she hung her head over her knees. Her brother sat next to her with Carrie on her other side. The boys were asleep on two couches across the room. They had all played video games for as long as they could keep their eyes open. Eventually, however, they dropped off one-by-one and were out in the wee hours of the morning.
Unable to sleep with Lacey's life still hanging in the balance, Mac rested her face in her hands and tried not to worry. Huh. Like that was working. It wasn't. She couldn't help but worry. The ambulance had arrived in the ER two hours prior and there was still no word on Lacey's condition.
Mentally kicking herself again, Mac tried to take Heather's advice and put her fight with Lacey to the back of her mind. But that wasn't happening, either. She knew she shouldn't have left Lacey alone. But she didn't know what else to do at that point.
Heather sat down in the vacant seat next to her. She was still dressed in sweats with her red hair pulled back in a ponytail. She wore no makeup and looked like just another person awaiting word on a loved one. She didn't look at all like the well-dressed, well-coiffed psychiatrist that she usually presented herself as.
“How are you holding up, Mackenzie?” Heather's question brought Mac's head up, as bleary, red-rimmed blue eyes met the psychiatrist's gaze.
“Okay,” Mac answered in a tone devoid of emotion. “I'm okay.”
Heather looked skeptical. “Really?”
Mac inhaled deeply and let it out slowly. “I suck wads and am having a really hard time not kicking myself for what I did last night. Is that what you wanted to hear?”
“I just want the truth,” Heather said. “Be honest with me and with yourself, Mackenzie. It's okay to feel what you're feeling.”
“What? Guilty as hell?” Mac shot back with an annoyed glare.
“And why do you feel guilty?” Heather continued.
“Because,” Mac rested her elbows on her thighs and her chin in her hands. “I shouldn't have let my temper get the best of me last night. I shouldn't have left her like that.”
“And…” Mac closed her eyes for a moment, as tears threatened. “She wouldn't be here if I'd stayed with her,” she said in a tone barely above a whisper. “I could have stopped her from…” She choked back a sob.
Heather placed a comforting hand on Mac's knee and said firmly, “You're not to blame for this, Mackenzie. Do you understand me?”
Mac glanced sidelong at the woman. “Aren't I? I should have been there, instead of wallowing in self-pity at my place. If I had just been there for her…”
“She would have found a way to attempt to end her life, eventually,” Heather finished for her. “You might have been able to stop her last night or not. Who knows? Lacey has become very good at hiding her true feelings from the outside world. Outwardly, she appears to have it all together and is a strong, self-confident woman who can take care of herself. She's a soldier in command of situations and the people around her. But, inwardly, she's broken—wounded. She feels worthless. She was verbally abused for years. She was told that she was worthless and, eventually, she even learned to believe it, deep down. The man who was supposed to be her father—who was supposed to nurture and protect her—did a number on her long before you came along, Mackenzie. But, if anyone is to blame for not seeing this coming, it's me.”
Mac's gaze shot to Heather's. “What?”
“I'm a trained psychiatrist, Mackenzie,” the woman continued, as her professional demeanor slipped and she let her own vulnerability seep through. “I've treated a number of patients with severe neuroses, psychoses and a myriad of other disorders, including depression. I should have seen the signs. I should have known that something like this would eventually happen. It was up to me to take the necessary precautionary measures to make sure she didn't try to hurt herself. I didn't.” Heather sat back in her seat with a tired sigh. “Lacey tried to take her life because I thought she was actually making progress in those few sessions we've had together. I saw her as yet another success story to add to my extensive portfolio. I didn't realize that she was hiding a great deal of pain beneath walls that she's built up over many years. I made a mistake. But I also know that blaming myself won't help Lacey in her recovery. She needs me to pull it together and help her move forward. She needs to know that she isn't worthless and that there are people who really care about her and want her around for a good long time. She needs to learn to believe in herself again. But she also needs to learn to trust again. She needs to trust that others love her and that she deserves to be loved. But she also needs to learn to love herself, too.”
“I don't know if I can do this,” Mac shook her head sadly.
“You don't know if you can do what?” Heather prodded.
Mac sighed. “I don't know if I can pull it together and be strong enough to help her through this. I just don't know anymore.”
“Do you love her?” Heather asked simply.
“I…” Mac looked away with more tears swimming in her eyes.
She blinked and the tears slipped down her cheeks. She swiped them away impatiently and rested her face in her hands.
Carrie leaned forward and gently rubbed Mac's back. “Heather?”
“I could sure use some coffee,” Carrie looked pointedly at the psychiatrist. She had been silently listening to the conversation and decided it was time for a break. Standing up, she stretched. “Anyone else want some coffee? Ben?”
“Yeah,” he replied with a tired nod. “Sure, hon.”
“Mackenzie?” Carried looked expectantly at her sister-in-law's bent head.
“Sure,” Mac answered.
Carrie gave Heather another pointed look. “Why don't we take a little trip down to the cafeteria? You can help me carry.”
“Not a problem,” Heather followed the shorter woman out of the waiting room.
Ben watched his wife leave with the psychiatrist, then glanced at his sister's posture. He noted the tension in her shoulders, as she sat up with another tired sigh and leaned back against the wall behind her. She also had dark circles forming beneath her eyes. Not a good sign.
“How are you really doing, li'l bit?” Ben put a comforting arm around Mac's shoulders.
“Tired as hell,” she answered honestly, then glanced over at the three soundly-sleeping boys. “I wish people would stop asking me that.”
“We ask because we care,” he replied.
“I know,” she glanced at him. “Sorry for being so grumpy. I'm just really tired. Wish I could nod off without a care in the world. Look at them. They look so peaceful.”
Ben turned his gaze on his sons and smiled. “They don't have the same worries we do. Youth and childhood have their advantages.”
“Yeah,” Mac rubbed the sleep from her eyes. “I wish someone would come let us know what's happening. What the hell is taking them so long? They've had her in there for hours.”
“I know,” he gently rubbed her shoulders in an effort to relieve some of the tension he found there. “They'll send word when they have a handle on her condition, li'l bit. Just have faith.”
“I don't have much faith these days, bro,” Mac scoffed. “The Almighty seems millions of miles away in some other place, right now. I don't think he has much use for a couple of worn out soldiers with more scars than sense.”
“He's always here, li'l bit,” Ben gave her shoulders a firm squeeze. “You just have to believe it's so.”
“Even for those who don't prescribe to the Biblical references that people go on about?” Mac shot him a skeptical look. “We're not exactly your typical couple, you know.”
“Do you love her?” Ben cocked his head, as he looked at her sidelong. “I noticed you didn't answer the question when Heather asked it.”
“I do. With all my heart,” Mac replied with a tired shrug. “And please don't ask me how I know. I just do.”
“Have you told her, lately?” Ben added.
Mac glanced at the clock on the far wall above the waiting room door. “Not since last night.”
“And what was her reply when you told her you love her?” Ben continued with a raised dark brow that strongly resembled the woman next to him.
“She said she loves me, too,” Mac looked away, as fresh tears sprang to her eyes unbidden.
“The Almighty is love, Mackenzie,” Ben pulled her close and felt her resist, before she finally gave in and sank against him with a sniff. “He loves us, warts and all. He loves you. He loves Lacey. He loves that you love each other. I believe that with all my heart. So should you. Just believe it and ignore all the other religious rhetoric that's spouted in His name. What do they know, anyway? They've probably never experienced the kind of love that the two of you share.” He then leaned forward until he caught her gaze. “And I know what kind of love that is, li'l bit. I have it with Carrie. She's my heart, my soul, my entire life and reason for existence.” He then glanced at his three sleeping boys. “And those three boys are living proof of the love we share.”
Mac looked at the boys wistfully. “Lacey and I will never be able to have kids of our own, bro.”
“Maybe not,” he continued with a shrug. “But that doesn't mean you can't adopt a whole brood, if that's what the two of you want, Mac. Or maybe you'll just have a bunch of animals to take care of. Dogs. Horses. Goats. A donkey or two. Maybe a mule, too. A stubborn one that will help you realize just how stubborn the two of you can be.”
He glanced at her and noticed her head hung forward dejectedly again, as she sniffed back more tears.
“I wasn't there for her,” Mac said in such a soft tone that Ben barely heard the words. “I should have been there when she needed me. I wasn't.”
“Yeah, I know,” he rubbed her back again. “You're here, now. That's what's important. The rest will come in its own time. You'll work things out, li'l bit. Just be patient and don't give up.”
She turned her head and looked at him through watery blue eyes. “And if we can't get past this?”
“You will,” he nodded his assurance. “I know you, sis. You don't give up without a fight.” He then patted her knee to emphasize his words. “And after getting to know Lacey over these last few weeks, I've come to realize that she's just as much a fighter as you are. The two of you just need to stop being so stubborn—break down the barriers that are still standing between you—and move forward. But it won't be easy, for either of you. It will take work, understanding and a whole heap of patience.”
“If she makes it through this,” Mac added sadly.
He kissed her temple and pulled her close again. “She will, li'l bit. She will.”
“Talk to me, my friend,” Carrie said as she and Heather Morris made their way down a long, sterile hospital hallway in the general direction of the cafeteria. “How is Lacey doing? I know you've been to see her.”
“She's holding her own at the moment, Carrie,” Heather glanced at her shorter companion. “They pumped her stomach and are pumping her full of fluids and meds to counter the pills she swallowed. It will take some time before they have her completely out of the woods, though.”
“Is she going to make it?”
“I honestly don't know,” Heather replied, as they rounded a corner and walked inside the spacious cafeteria. “Dr. John Dykes was in the ER when they brought her in. He's one of the best and will take really good care of her.”
They were silent as they filled several tall cups with steaming black coffee. Carrie then added French vanilla flavored creamer and hot chocolate to one of the cups. She tossed a few extra packets of dry creamer and sugar onto a paper tray that she set the cups into.
“You don't like your coffee black?” Heather commented, after seeing Carrie's actions. “Since when?”
“That's not for me,” Carrie replied, as she carried the tray over to the cashier and set it down. “I'll be right back with a few more things,” she said to the kindly older woman behind the cash register.
“Not a problem, hon,” the woman nodded.
Carrie walked over to the pastry counter, grabbed a box and put several donuts into it. She then grabbed a Danish for herself and two bagels with cream cheese.
“Ben doesn't like his coffee to taste like coffee,” she said to Heather with a scrunch of her nose. “It's totally gross, if you ask me. But that's his sweet tooth for ya. So, I keep a bottle of French vanilla creamer and my own mix of hot chocolate handy in the kitchen. Keeps him happy. It also keeps him from stashing candy around the place.”
“Ah, I see,” Heather nodded, as she grabbed a bagel with a packet of cream cheese for herself.
“Don't analyze my relationship with my husband, Heather,” Carrie narrowed her eyes at the redhead. “It will only get you into trouble. Besides, we're happy. That's all that matters.”
“Okay,” the woman held her hands up in surrender. “Point taken, Carrie. And I'm happy for you. You two seem to have things well in hand.”
They walked back to the cash register and paid the older woman for their food.
“So?” Carrie glanced at Heather.
“Can we sit for a moment, just the two of us?” Heather walked over to a small table in a corner of the room and sat down.
Carrie followed the woman and set her burden on the table before taking the seat opposite. She surveyed Heather for a moment, noting the tired set to her otherwise-straight shoulders.
“What is it, Heather?” Carrie asked. “Is this about Lacey?”
“It is,” Heather nodded, as she slumped in the French-style wrought iron chair with its black and white striped padded seat. She then ran a hand back against her hair and tried to put it into some semblance of order. “I just don't know exactly where to begin.”
“Well, it's been my experience that it's best just to put it out there,” Carrie said. “Say what's on your mind. You were a little hard on Mackenzie, back there. I was worried you were pushing her too far. But I can also see the toll this is taking on you, too. You feel just as guilty as Mackenzie does about what Lacey did.”
“I should have seen it coming and I didn't,” Heather said. “I made a terrible mistake and now I have to find a way to fix it. I'm just not sure how, yet.”
“Oh, I think you have an idea or two,” Carrie added.
“I do,” Heather sipped her coffee. “But I really shouldn't be discussing this with you. After all, you're not really a colleague, Car.”
The words stung, but Carrie girded herself against them. She knew Heather was tired and was saying the first thing that came to her mind. It happened, even to the best of them. Carrie also knew she couldn't take things personally at that moment. Not if she was going to help her friend get past this stumbling block, so she could help Lacey.
“Then think of me as a counselor, instead,” Carrie offered, as she sipped her own coffee and savored the flavor of the Columbian beans. “I do have a license in counseling, Heather. I just don't practice, anymore. The boys and the B&B keep me busy enough without taking on patients.”
“Okay, fine,” Heather said after a moment's deliberation. She then folded her hands around her cup and met Carrie's frank gaze. “Colleague to licensed counselor, you understand.”
“I understand,” Carrie nodded.
“If she survives this, I'm going to recommend Lacey be sent down to the state hospital in Evanston for treatment,” Heather said. “They have everything she'll need in the coming weeks.”
“You can't be serious!” Carrie's eyes went wide at the declaration. “Why on earth would you do that to her? Why would you do that to Mackenzie?”
“Carrie,” Heather put a hand on the woman's arm. “This isn't personal.”
“Oh, the hell it isn't!” Carrie suddenly shot to her feet. “Do you even know what those two have been through? Now you want to lock Lacey up in a mental institution? What kind of a psychiatrist are you, anyway? For that matter, what kind of friend are you? I asked you to consult on Lacey's case, Heather…”
“Sit. Down.” Heather's tone turned icy in an instant, as she issued the order with a stern glare.
Carrie hesitantly did as she was told, but her anger was still apparent in the set of her shoulders and the glare she was giving Heather.
“I know what they've been through,” Heather continued in a professional tone. “I also know more about Lacey Stephens than you do, Carrie. This isn't personal. This is my professional recommendation. She tried to kill herself and she will more than likely try again if she doesn't receive the proper care and treatment.”
“You don't know that,” Carrie argued. “You don't know that she intentionally tried to kill herself.”
“Don't I?” Heather's brow shot up. “There was an empty pill bottle next to her bed, Carrie. Do you know what the prescription was for?”
“Pain killers,” Carrie replied. “Dr. Johnson prescribed Vicodin during her last visit. She said he wrote the prescription when she told him her knee was bothering her.”
“That wasn't Vicodin, Carrie,” Heather countered. “They tested one of the pills they took from her stomach. It wasn't Vicodin. It was oxycodone hydrochloride, Carrie. They think it was actually Oxycontin 40. I told Sam not to give her anything stronger than Vicodin, because she is under psychiatric care. He agreed with my recommendation and said he would see to it.”
“Wait,” Carrie shot Heather a bewildered look. “How did she…”
“Could she have altered the prescription?” Heather asked. “Or maybe she talked the pharmacist into giving her the Oxycontin 40, instead?”
Carrie shook her head. “That's not possible. I went to the pharmacy myself. The prescription was sent in by the doctor an hour before I arrived. The bottle said Vicodin on it. I checked it myself.”
Heather stared into her coffee for a moment. “I don't have an answer, then. I can't think that the pharmacy made a mistake like that. Those two drugs are very different.”
“So, does that change your opinion in regards to Lacey trying to kill herself?” Carrie asked hopefully. “Or are you still going to send her to Evanston? Incidentally, I really don't think that's a good idea, Heather. There has to be a way to keep her here for treatment, rather than send her all the way down there. Especially after everything that's happened.”
Heather considered her friend's request for several moments, as she finished her coffee.
“Fine,” she set the empty cup on the table with a resigned sigh. “I'll advise the staff to keep her in a private room for the time being. And I'll work her into my schedule.” She then shot Carrie a smile. “But only because you asked me to, my friend. I wouldn't do this for anyone else. And I'll have to tell the police what you told me. They'll probably want to look into what actually happened to Lacey. Right now they have this listed as an attempted suicide. But,” she shrugged, “that could change, depending on what they find out.”
“Thanks, Heather,” Carrie returned the smile. “I owe you one.”
“Come work for me at the clinic?” Heather returned with a sly grin. “You would enjoy the challenge, and Marsha would be glad to have you there. We can always use another trained counselor on staff when things get hectic. I can put in a good word for you. You would have your own office, Carrie. Please, just consider the offer before you say no?”
“I…” Carrie stopped herself from commenting, as she raised her coffee to her lips and realized there wasn't any left in her cup. “Darn.”
“Let's get some more coffee and head back up to the waiting room,” Heather suggested. She glanced at the tray with the lukewarm coffee on it that Carry was about to grab. “Just leave it. I'll get them to bring us a pot of fresh.”
“You have that kind of pull here?” Carrie looked at her skeptically.
“Sometimes it pays to know people,” Heather returned with a grin.
“Apparently,” Carrie grabbed the pastry box and tucked it under her arm, as Heather refilled both their cups and rejoined Carrie at the entrance to the cafeteria.
“All set,” Heather said. “Shall we?”
“Lead the way, Dr. Morris,” Carrie said. “You're a lot better at navigating these hallways than I am.”
“Practice, Carrie,” Heather chuckled. “All it takes is a little practice.”
She sat with her hands folded on the cold steel table in front of her and just stared straight ahead. The lights in the small room were dim near what she knew was a two-way mirror. Otherwise, a bright light shone down on her brown head and cast an unwelcome reflection on the table in front of her.
That's what it would take to make sure this didn't blow up in their faces. Patience. Stone-cold patience. She caught movement out of the corner of her eye, as the door near the mirror opened and two suits walked into the room.
One of them, a tall older gentleman in a rumpled brown suit and with a receding salt and pepper hairline, carried a file and slapped it down on the table as he took a seat across from her. She barely glanced at it, as he settled himself into the metal chair that creaked under his weight. She met his intense steel-gray gaze with her own and let the barest hint of a smirk play at the corners of her lips.
“Ms. Frost?” He said in a voice gone raspy from smoking too many cheap cigarettes.
“Detective,” she gave him a quick nod of her brunette head, then nodded to his younger, scrawnier partner. “How can I help you?”
“Tell us what happened on that plane, Ms. Frost,” the younger of the two said in a voice that brooked no argument. “Tell us the truth.”
She turned her head and surveyed the younger detective beneath hooded dark lashes. He was cute, in a school-boy-meets-rugged-mountain-hiking-guide way. There was a gleam of something she couldn't quite make out in his dark eyes. And his sandy-blond hair was windblown, as if he'd just come in from a boat-ride on rough seas.
“I really don't know,” she sat back in the semi-padded metal chair and crossed her arms over her ample bosom. “One minute we're flying along, all calm and cool as you please, and the next minute our only passenger is lying on the floor. Apparently, he was having a heart attack. It was very unsettling.”
“And you had nothing to do with it, I suppose?” The older detective leaned forward with a knowing look and folded his beefy hands on top of the open file folder in front of him. “He's not dead—yet. Just in case you were wondering.”
She feigned relief. “I'm so glad to hear it.” She then let her expression turn from feigned relief to something else entirely. “Why am I here, exactly? I told the investigators at the airport that I was in the galley for most of the flight. I wasn't even supposed to be on that flight. It was just a scheduling mix up that had me on it, in the first place.”
“Well, Ms. Charlene Frost—or should we call you by your real name?” The younger detective stepped out of the shadows and set his hands on the table, as he gazed intently at her. “The problem here is we're not exactly sure which alias is actually your real name. There are so many.”
A dark brow rose on her painted features, as her expression suddenly turned guarded. “I have no idea what you're talking about, Detective. I told you my name is Charlene Frost.”
“Charlene Frost died three years ago in an automobile accident,” the older detective added. “You're not her.”
“I…” She shut her rouged lips tight and slammed her open palms onto the table. “I want my lawyer. I will not be treated like a common criminal. This is ridiculous. I came here voluntarily.”
“Fine,” the younger detective continued his intense glare. “We'll call your lawyer and have him flown here, if that's what you want.” He then turned toward the two-way mirror and nodded imperceptibly. “But, just so you're aware, your partner is in the interrogation room just next door and is probably spilling his guts, as we speak.”
She remained stoically silent, not believing a word of what the detective was telling her.
“Marcus Abraham,” the older detective glanced down at the file folder in front of him. “Or shall I say Thomas Fisk? Monty Costas? Trevor Richards? Butch Fisher? We could go on and on with his aliases all day long, but we do know that he isn't a flight attendant. Who hired you, Ms. Frost—if that's even your real name?”
“I work for a private charter service out of Dallas,” she replied. “And I still want my lawyer.”
“Okay, fine,” the older detective slammed the file shut, picked it up and stood. “But this is your last chance to come clean with us, lady. The DA isn't going to be so kind, especially if James Stephens dies from whatever it was you two yahoos put in his champagne.” He watched her eyes and saw a brief glimmer before she looked away. “Yeah, I thought so. We found the bottle in the garbage and it is now being tested for trace elements of the poison you gave him. Your fingerprints were all over that and the champagne glass that you cleaned and stored in the galley.”
She just silently glared at him.
“Tell us what we want to know, Ms. Frost, and maybe we'll tell the DA you were a very cooperative witness, rather than a difficult accessory to attempted murder,” the younger man straightened up with a congenial smile.
She wasn't buying their good cop, bad cop routine. And she wasn't giving them the satisfaction.
“I believe I asked for my lawyer, gentlemen,” she said.
Silence hung in the room for several long moments, before the two men exited the room.
“She ain't talking,” the older detective said to a third man, as they entered the room behind the two-way mirror.
“I didn't expect her to,” the third man answered with a shrug. “Call her lawyer and get him here, right away. We have enough to indict her on the attempted murder charge, at least. Her fingerprints were on the bottle, which had trace amounts of heroin and several other drugs mixed in with the alcohol. That alone is enough to get a conviction.”
“Yes, but it doesn't tell us who she is or why she was trying to kill this James Stephens person,” the other detective added.
“Or why she had a partner who tried his darndest to resuscitate their victim,” added the older detective. “Why poison a man and then try to bring his sorry ass back from the dead? It makes no sense.”
“Unless they got scared—had second thoughts,” the third man said. “She thoroughly washed the bottle and the glass before she disposed of one and stored the other. She was trying to cover her tracks by getting rid of the evidence.”
“Yeah,” the older detective said, as she scratched his balding head. “I still don't understand how the NTSB boys figured out to check the trash on that plane. The evidence could have just as easily slipped through the cracks and disappeared—literally, with yesterday's garbage.”
“That one's easy,” answered the third man. “I called them and told them to gather up everything, including the trash.”
Two pairs of eyes were suddenly locked on him.
“I got an anonymous tip this morning that something was about to go down in the skies overhead,” the third man gave them both a satisfied grin. “The caller told me to keep an eye on the plane that James Stephens was on.”
“I thought the plane was scheduled for a non-stop flight once it took off from Jackson Airport this morning,” the sandy-blond replied. “How did they end up over here in Idaho Falls?”
“It was diverted,” the third man said. “Their final destination was Dulles International in New York, but this incident had the pilot running scared, apparently. I'm really not sure what happened or how they ended up going the wrong direction.”
“Well, I guess we'll find out, eventually,” the older detective chuckled.
“I sure hope so,” the third man shook his head. “This is all a little confusing. Who are these people and why did they literally land in our laps? We haven't had this much excitement in years. And now we have an attempted murder on our hands and two uncooperative suspects in custody.”
“I love a good mystery,” added the younger detective with a glance at the two-way mirror and the woman beyond who hadn't moved at all. “Do you think her partner will crack, since she didn't?”
“I tried,” the third man rubbed the tension from his neck. “He's as tight-lipped as she is on this whole affair. Won't even admit to using any of the aliases we have on him.”
“They're small time con artists,” the older detective said. “Probably why they were hired. They have nothing to lose and are probably only in it for the money.”
“What money?” The third man asked.
“Yeah, I didn't hear either of them say anything about money,” the younger detective added.
“It's always about money, kid,” the older detective slapped a beefy hand on his partner's shoulder and squeezed. “Rule number one: follow the money trail.”
“And rule number two: stay out of the line of fire,” added the third detective with a knowing grin. “Especially when guns are involved.”
“Yeah, what Einstein said,” the older detective agreed.
“Call me Einstein again, Chuck, and I'll have the captain put you on desk duty for the next three weeks,” the third detective growled.
“Yeah, yeah,” the older detective just waved the man off. “Ain't gonna happen and you know it, Strafford.”
“Don't push your luck, Chuck,” the man pointed a finger at the older detective. “You're too close to retirement to be shootin' your mouth off at a superior.”
The younger detective could see the flash of temper in his partner's steely gaze and stepped between the two men.
“Hey,” he grabbed the lapels of the older detective's brown suit. “Just let it go, Buranski. It ain't worth it.”
Charles Buranski glared at his partner of two years and then down at the hands on his suit coat. “You mind gettin' your mits off me, Sonny? You're ruinin' my only good suit.”
“Yeah, sure,” the younger detective dropped his hands, but remained firmly planted between the sergeant and his partner. “Just as long as you don't do nothing stupid, you big oaf.”
“I won't do nothin' stupid, kid, just as long as he keeps his mouth shut,” Buranski pointed a beefy finger at the smaller, dark-haired detective behind his partner.
“I should write you up, right now, Buranski,” the sergeant took a step toward the two men, but wasn't able to get past the scrawnier of the two. “Get out of my way, Pritchard. You don't need to ruin your illustrious career to protect this moron.”
“Please don't call him names, Sarg,” Sonny Pritchard said, as he held his hands up to ward off the man. “I'm beggin' ya. It'll just piss him off.”
Sergeant Philip Strafford stood his ground with his hands on his slender hips and his chin held high.
“Let him take his best shot,” Strafford growled. “One less mouthy detective in our precinct will make life much easier on the rest of us.”
Buranski spat in his hands and rubbed them together in anticipation. “Get outta here, kid.”
“That's ENOUGH!!!” Another voice joined the fray. “Stand down, both of you! That's an order!”
All eyes turned to the five-foot-four-inch woman standing in the hallway with her hands on her hips and murder in her eyes. She had brown hair, brown eyes and wore a tailored suit that showed off every feminine curve. Her dark hair was pulled back into a neat bun and she wore a gold chain with a St. Christopher medal that glinted in the dim overhead lighting.
“Hey, Cap'n,” Pritchard stepped forward and ran a nervous hand through his thick, curly hair. “This ain't what it looks like.”
“Oh?” A slender dark brow shot up on her light-brown features that were cocked slightly to one side, as she crossed her arms over her ample bosom. “Tell me, Pritch, what exactly does it look like?”
“Can it!” She barked, before he could speak further. “What is going on, Buranski?”
“We…um…” Buranski stuttered, as he ran a hand across his thinning hair. “Brought in a couple of suspects in that case we caught early this morning.”
“So?” She glanced at Strafford. “Why wasn't I apprised of the situation?”
“I…” Strafford glanced at Buranski when the man growled low in his throat. “We…were just finishing up with our interrogations.”
“And?” Their captain put her hands on her hips, as she continued to glare at them. “Why do I get the distinct feeling you three were not merely talking the case, just a second ago?”
“We were comparing notes, Captain Johnson,” Pritchard put in. “We just got a little carried away.”
Captain Liliana Milena Johnson eyed all three men, in turn. She knew Pritchard was blowing smoke up her ass. The kid did that whenever his partner was about to get himself into trouble with the brass. The kid was loyal to a fault. And she had a precinct to run. She didn't have time for interoffice backbiting or male bullshit.
Born in Colombia and sent to an orphanage at the tender age of three months old, Liliana had learned early on not to take shit from anyone. When a kindly American couple had adopted her and brought her to Idaho to raise as their own, she learned to put away her scrappiness in order to fit in with other kids in the neighborhood. But Liliana never really fit in.
And when her parents died in a car accident when she was in her teens, the scrappiness reemerged with a vengeance and followed her right into the police academy. It especially came in handy as she moved up through the ranks of the Idaho State Police force. Her attitude was one of the reasons she was promoted to the rank of captain at the age of thirty-two. She'd been captain of the Idaho Falls office for five years and was well-respected for her ability to keep her men in line.
“Strafford?” Liliana didn't bother looking at the little weasel of a man who was always throwing his weight around when her back was turned.
“Don't you have paperwork to do, Sergeant?” She shot him an irritated glare. “Go! Now! Before I knock you on your sorry ass.”
“Yes, ma'am,” he shuffled away and shot a grin over his shoulder at Buranski, figuring the man was in for one of Captain Johnson's scathing tirades.
Liliana waited for Stafford to disappear before returning her attention to the two men in front of her. Both men towered over her. Buranski was a giant compared to her and stood at a respectable six-foot-three. She had to crane her neck to look up into his features and caught an apologetic look in his gray eyes.
“Now,” she relaxed her stance a bit, as she glanced at the two interrogation rooms. “Want to fill me in on what you two yahoos have been up to since I assigned this case at the crack of damned dawn?”
“We…um…” Pritchard began, then glanced at Buranski.
“Two suspects turned over to us by the FAA guys at the airport,” Buranski said. “Our suspects were the flight attendants on the chartered flight that took off from Jackson Airport last night. One passenger. James Stephens. He was being resuscitated by the male suspect, one Marcus Abraham. It's a bogus name. We ran a check on him and turned up a whole list of aliases and petty charges that never stuck. His only conviction was for petty larceny when he was in his early 20s.”
“And why are these two suspects?” Liliana crossed her arms over her chest again. “Why not just witnesses to a man having a heart attack?”
“NTSB picked up a champagne bottle and glass with trace amounts of poisonous substances on them,” Pritchard answered. “We're running a check into exactly what the substances are, but prelims have identified traces of heroine.”
“We think they mixed a cocktail—literally,” Buranski added with a wry grin. “They then fed it to our vic. At thirty-thousand, his body couldn't handle the cocktail and he had a heart attack as a result.”
“Death at thirty-thousand?” A dark brow shot up on her features.
“Except he didn't die,” Pritchard added. “Abraham was giving him CPR when the authorities arrived. He was rushed to the hospital and is in a coma at Mountain View. We were heading over there after we finish here. Check with the doc to see if our vic's condition has changed.”
“Okay,” she nodded. “Good work. Follow up and keep me in the loop. I don't want to be blind-sided by any new developments. We don't need the media catching wind of a possible homicide in our friendly skies. You hear me?”
“Right,” Buranski nodded once. “Will do, Cap.”
She turned to walk away, but stopped and turned back. “And Buranski?”
“Try to play nice with Strafford until you're pulling your pension, will ya?” She smirked. “I know the guy's an asshole of the first order, but he's my sergeant and I really don't want him whining to me every time you two go at each other's throats.”
“Right, Cap,” he smiled tentatively.
“Carry on, boys,” she sauntered away toward her office without a backward glance, leaving the two detectives staring after her with bemused grins.
“That went better than expected,” Pritchard commented, as he blew out the breath he'd been holding. “I thought, for sure, we'd see the ugly side of that temper of hers.”
“Me, too,” Buranski patted his partner's shoulder. “Let's get back to work, so we don't.”
“Here, here,” Pritchard said.
Mac sat with her feet propped on the table in front of her and absently watched her nephews. Their heads were all together as they Dillon worked furiously to defeat some villain on the PSP in his hands. His two older brothers offered advice and cheered him on in hushed tones. Their father had already scolded them twice and their mother had given them several scathing glares of her own for their suddenly loud outburst. Carrie also threatened to take the small game device away from them if they didn't quiet down and be more respectful of the small room full of people.
Mac really wasn't watching the boys. She was merely staring in their general direction. Her mind had gone blank hours ago, when word finally reached them that Lacey was in a coma. Dr. Brenda Shubert had actually been the one to deliver the news. Nothing had changed since.
So Mac merely sat there staring off into space. She couldn't quite wrap her mind around the fact that Lacey had survived the overdose, only to slip into a coma. When asked about Lacey's chances of awakening from the coma, Brenda merely shrugged. She hadn't wanted to speculate at that point. She then said only time would tell.
As Brenda left the waiting room, Mac caught her and asked if she could sit with Lacey for a little while. But the woman merely shook her head sadly and said only family members were allowed in the ICU with patients. It was against hospital policy to allow anyone other than family to be in the ICU. She then leaned in conspiratorially, squeezed Mac's arm in sympathy and let her know she would find a way to make it happen.
That was more than four hours ago.
Four hours of sitting in the waiting room with her family. Four hours of listening to the boys bicker over who would get to play the next game on Dillon's PSP. Mac glanced at the clock on the opposite side of the room.
“Why don't you and Carrie take the boys home, Ben?” She suggested for the nth time since they'd arrived just after midnight. “You don't need to stay here. There's really no reason for it.”
Had it really been nearly nine hours ago that Lacey had been admitted to the ER for a drug overdose?
“I'll send Carrie and the boys home,” he patted her knee. “But I'm staying right here with you, li'l bit.”
Just then, Mac's cell phone rang. She pulled it from her pocket, as she got up and headed over to a window for a better signal. She didn't bother glancing at the display.
“ Hello, Mackenzie? ” Lily's voice crackled slightly, before Mac finally found a sweet spot with better reception.
“Lily,” Mac stuck a finger into her other ear, so she could hear the woman better. “I can barely hear you. You'll have to speak up. I'm in the hospital.”
“ What was that, Mackenzie? ” Lily asked. “ I can barely hear you. Must be a bad connection. ”
“Yes,” Mac raised her voice a little. “Wait a second and I'll find a better spot.” She moved outside of the waiting room to the double sliding doors of the emergency room entrance. “Can you hear me, now?”
“That's definitely better,” Lily said. “Where are you, anyway?”
“At the hospital,” Mac replied.
“ Is my sister there with you? ” Lily asked hopefully. “ I've been calling and calling her cell and she hasn't called me back. I'm really starting to worry. ”
“How did you get her cell number, Lily?” Mac's eyes widened. “Carrie just gave the phone to her yesterday.”
“ It showed up on my caller ID last night when she called me back ,” Lily answered matter-of-factly. “ God, I just want to tell her that I'm sorry for hanging up on her like that. I was being a real ass when she called and wasn't really in the mood to talk to her. Then she just royally pissed me off. Is there any way you can give her your phone, so I can apologize to her myself? I know she probably doesn't want to speak to me, right now, but… ”
“Lily,” Mac felt tears spring to her eyes. “Lacey's the reason I'm here at the hospital. Wait. You talked to her last night? What did you say to her?”
“ What? ” Lily gasped in surprise and didn't hear Mac's last two questions. “ What happened? Is she all right? Did she fall and hurt herself? She didn't contract an infection in that knee of hers, did she? ”
“She overdosed, Lily,” Mac said in an accusing tone, as she swiped the tears from her cheeks with her free hand. “They brought her into the ER late last night.” There was a long silence on the other end of the line. “Did you hear me? What did you say to her? And why did you hang up on her?”
“ We argued, ” Lily's tone suddenly went very distant. “ Do you think that's why she tried…”
Mac waited for the woman to say more. When she didn't, Mac felt her anger deflate slightly.
“We don't really know what happened, yet,” Mac said more calmly than she felt. Her anger was still seething below the surface that Lacey's sister might be partially to blame for her current condition. “From what we can tell, she took about half a bottle of pain pills sometime around 11:30 last night.”
“ Is she going to be okay? ” Lily asked. “ What are they doing for her? Is someone with her? Mackenzie, why aren't you with her? Are you with her? ”
“They won't let anyone but family into the ICU, Lil,” Mac's anger flared again. “Heather, her psychiatrist, has been in to check on her a few times, but they won't let me see her. Lacey slipped into a coma a few hours ago. That's not a good sign, according to her doctor.”
“They won't let you see her?” Lily couldn't believe what Mac was telling her. “Why not?”
“Hospital policy,” Mac replied with a shrug she realized the woman couldn't see. “I'm not family.”
“No, but you are…well, you're…” Lily sighed dramatically. “You love her. That's got to count for something.”
“Welcome to my world, Lil,” Mac pinched the bridge of her nose to stave off a growing headache. “Even if we were to have a civil union, it still wouldn't be recognized as a legal marriage. We just don't live in the right state for that.”
“Oh, I see,” Lily said. “That doesn't make it right, though, Mackenzie. You should be allowed to be with her. She shouldn't be alone at a time like this.”
“Then maybe you should get your ass on a plane and come here, Lil,” Mac barked. “You're her sister, after all. You're the only family she has left, except for that no-good son a bitch father who isn't really her father. And if he shows up here, I'll…”
“ Yeah, about that. ” There was a long pause, as Mac impatiently waited for Lily to continue.
“Just spill it, Lil,” growled Mac. “I'm not in the mood for games. And I'm certainly not in the mood for your melodramatics, right now.”
“ My mother isn't dead, Mackenzie, ” Lily blurted.
The phone dropped from Mac's hand and hit the floor with a thud, just as Ben poked his head out of the waiting room door to check on her. He saw the blood leave Mac's features and was by her side instantly.
“Mackenzie?” He put an arm around her shoulders and felt her lean heavily against him for support. He then glanced at the phone lying open on the tile. “Who are you talking to? What did they say? Is something wrong? You're as pale as a sheet, li'l bit.”
“Buh…” Mac shook herself out of her sudden stupor. She then reached down and grabbed the phone, putting it back to her ear. “Are you still there, Lily?”
“ I'm still here, ” Lily said, as if the long silence hadn't really bothered her much. “ Are you okay, Mackenzie? Did you just drop your phone on the floor? That was an awfully loud noise I just heard. ”
“Yeah, your news kinda threw me for a loop,” Mac was still reeling from it, actually, but wasn't about to admit it to Lily. She was very grateful to her brother for his support and hoped he didn't go anywhere. She then mouthed “Thanks” to him and wrapped her free arm around his waist. “Did you just say your mother is alive?”
“ Yes, I did, ” Lily said. “ Believe me, I was as surprised—maybe shocked is a better word for it—than you are. You could have knocked me over with a feather. That was the reason I wanted Lacey to call me, as a matter of fact. She needs to know that Mother isn't dead. I never got the chance to tell her last night before I hung up on her. ”
“How? Why? Wait. Not that I'm not happy that your mother isn't dead, you understand…” Mac did her darndest to put a coherent thought together and failed miserably.
“ I told you it was shocking,” Lily continued. “ What's an even bigger shock is that she and our lawyer staged the whole thing in order to throw my father off her trail. The whole sordid affair is just too confusing to explain over the phone. Suffice it to say, I'm not the only family Lacey has left.” She then groaned. “I have to tell Mother that my sister is in a coma from a drug overdose. How in the world am I going to pull that one off, when she and Franklin are cooking up these twisted schemes of theirs? ”
“ Oh, never mind, Mackenzie, ” Lily went on. “ She'll probably just drop everything and catch the first available flight up there to be with Lacey. Count on her showing up on your doorstep in the next day or so. I really must be going. I'll call you later. Goodbye. ”
The phone in Mac's hand suddenly went dead and Mac pulled it away from her ear to look at the display. She flipped it closed when she saw that the call was disconnected. She then tucked it into her pants' pocket with a heavy sigh.
“What was that all about?” Ben guided her back to the waiting room without letting go. “Was that Lily, Lacey's sister?”
“Yeah,” Mac nodded with a bewildered expression. “Damn woman just told me her Mother isn't dead. Can you believe it?”
Ben stopped dead and turned Mac to face him. “What?”
“Yeah,” Mac tried to rub the growing kink in her neck from all the tension she'd experienced over the last few hours. “Go figure. That family is more screwed up than a ten-dollar whore in a seaside bordello. No wonder Lacey has completely lost her mind. I'm surprised she hasn't cracked before this, matter of fact.”
“Damn,” he got behind her and pushed her toward the rest of his family. “You ain't a kidding, li'l bit.”
“Kidding about what?” Carrie handed Mac another cup of steaming coffee, as she sat down in the vacant seat next to her. “What's going on now, Benjamin?”
“Lily just told Mackenzie that Lacey's mother isn't dead,” Ben supplied, as he took the remaining coffee from the tray on the table and sat down on the other side of Mac. “Makes our lives seem so dull and boring, in comparison.”
“What?” Carrie glanced from one sibling to the other in stunned surprise. “You're not serious.”
“As a damned heart attack,” Mac let her elbows rest on her knees, as she sipped her coffee wearily. “I thought you were taking the boys home, Car.”
“I sent them to the truck,” Carrie rubbed gentle circles on Mac's back. “Didn't want to leave until I knew you were okay. Ben said you were on the phone. Thought I would wait for you to get back before heading out. You want me to stay a while longer, Mackenzie? I could call Blackie to come pick the boys up and take them home.”
“No,” Mac shook her head, as she stared at the tile floor beneath her feet. “Go on home, Car. I'm okay. Besides, you have stuff to do before that first bunch of guests arrives at the B&B next week.”
Carrie could tell that Mac was beyond exhausted, by the lack of emotion in her tone. No sleep, coupled with this latest revelation, was taking its toll on the dark-haired woman. And the sparkle was gone from Mac's blue eyes. Not a good sign.
“You need to rest or you'll have a relapse of that nasty bug you just had,” Carrie said, as she moved her fingers to the nape of Mac's neck and massaged the kinks there. “Good grief, Mackenzie. You're all knotted up back here.”
Mac let her head hang. “Been a hell of a couple days.”
“You ain't a kidding about that, li'l bit,” Ben tilted his head back and downed half the coffee in his cup. “I could sure use a beer or two, right about now.”
“I was thinking more along the lines of something stronger, bro,” Mac muttered, as she let Carrie's magic fingers do their work on the knots.
“Want me to smuggle some whiskey in here?” Ben offered. “I could go to the local liquor store and get a bottle.”
“Mm,” Mac grunted when Carrie's fingers found a particularly tight spot. “Not sure they'll appreciate that.”
“I'll tell ‘em it's for medicinal purposes,” Ben added, as he finished off his coffee and sat back with one leg propped on a knee.
“You will do no such thing, Benjamin,” Carrie reached across Mac's back and slapped his arm.
“Ow, woman!” He exclaimed, as he grabbed his arm. “What was that for? I was just…”
“I know what you were doing, Benjamin Anthony,” Carrie cut him off. “As sweet a gesture as it might seem, I don't think bringing alcohol in here is such a good idea.” She then glanced pointedly at Mackenzie. “But I do know what may help this situation.” She then got up and headed for the door. “Be right back!” She called over her shoulder, as she disappeared from the room.
“Ungh,” Mac groaned, as she lifted her head, pushed her hair away from her face and sat up with her head leaning back against the wall behind her. “Where'd Carrie go?”
“Who knows?” Ben shook his head. “Hurricane Carrie is on the loose. I've learned in all these years that it's best just to stay out of the line of fire, until she blows herself out. Otherwise, you get caught in her path and she just knocks you on your butt.”
Mac opened one eye and peered at her brother. “Hurricane Carrie? She ever hear you call her that?”
“Nope,” Ben crossed his arms over his plaid flannel overshirt. “And she never will. I may be a simple rancher and vet, but I ain't stupid, li'l bit. And I've learned a thing or two during my years on this earth. One of those is to let my wife do whatever it is she's set her mind to. Hurts less than trying to wrestle a bull with horns.”
Mac chuckled. “Now you're equating her to a bull? Nice, bro. She ever finds out and you'll find yourself sleepin' with the hands in the bunk house. Or worse.”
“That is exactly why she will never find out,” he shot her a wry grin. “A man knows when he's met his match.”
“And yours is about five-foot and change with claws as sharp as a tiger's,” Mac continued chuckling.
“Damned right,” he added.
They sat there in companionable silence for almost fifteen minutes before Carrie hastily returned to the waiting room with curly-haired Dani Ellison in tow. The woman looked slightly harried and had some folded scrubs in her arms that were the same color as the pair of green scrubs she wore.
“Hey, babe,” Ben greeted his wife with a questioning look. “Who's your friend?”
“My…er…friend,” Carrie glanced at the nurse, “is Dani Ellison. She works in the surgical wing and was here when Lacey was brought in last week. Dani, this is my husband, Ben, and his sister, Mackenzie.”
“Hey,” Dani smiled at Ben and then turned her gaze on the woman with her eyes still closed. “Hey, Mac.”
“Hey, Dani,” Mac responded without opening her eyes. Bloodshot blue eyes shot open a moment later when the woman's presence actually registered in Mac's foggy brain. “Is there word? Are you here because of Lacey? What is it? Is she…”
“Settle down, li'l bit,” Carrie sat down in the chair next to Mac. “Dani is here on a mission.”
Mac glanced from one woman to the other in utter confusion. “Mission?”
“I brought you these,” Dani handed the folded scrubs towards Mac.
Mac took the scrubs and then looked up in utter confusion. “I have clothes, Dani. But…um…thanks?”
Dani glanced around the waiting room and then lowered her voice. “Come with me, Mackenzie. I'll show you where you can put those on.”
Mac was still confused. “I don't understand…”
“Just get your ass moving, Mackenzie,” Carrie said in a tone that brooked no arguments. “Go with Dani. She's gonna take you to see Lacey.”
It took another moment for Mac to register the words. Then her expression brightened and a little of the color actually returned to her pale cheeks.
“Ohhhhh,” Mac said, as she jumped to her feet and followed Dani out of the room.
“You're my hero, hon,” Ben took his wife's hand, kissed it and pulled her into Mac's vacant seat. “Have I told you, lately, how much I love you?”
“Not since last night,” Carrie leaned her head against his shoulder. “But I never tire of hearing it.” She then patted his leg. “I'll see you at home, handsome. I better get out to the truck before our boys get it into their heads to drive off on their own.”
“And they just might do that,” Ben sobered. “Taught Jimmy how to drive just last week. Thought it best that he know, just in case he's out with the men and something happens.”
“You taught our thirteen-year-old how to drive?” Carrie shot him a disbelieving glare. “What in the world were you thinking? He's…”
“My daddy taught me to drive our pickup when I was ten,” Ben said. “Thought I'd wait a few extra years before I put Jimmy behind the wheel. I don't think he'll have to drive one of the vehicles on the ranch until he's sixteen. But it's good for him to know, just in case.”
“Okay,” Carrie ceded the point. “As long as all he does is drive on the ranch. I don't want him taking any of our vehicles out on the main road. And I will certainly put my foot down when it comes to you allowing him to drive in town. That I will not have, Benjamin Anthony.”
“Yes, ma'am,” he wrapped an arm around her shoulders and kissed the top of her head affectionately. “I hear and obey, oh wife o' mine.”
“Well, I gotta say those look really good on you, Mac,” Dani eyed her with a saucy grin.
“They're pretty comfortable, too,” Mac stepped out of the employee locker room and flexed her arms in the unfamiliar scrubs. “Men's?”
“Yeah,” Dani nodded, as she herded Mac down the hallway. “Couldn't find any women's scrubs in an extra, extra tall. You're kinda…um…” She looked up and saw the arched dark brow. “Never mind.”
“Yeah, thought so,” Mac said. “So, aren't you breaking the rules by doing this?”
“Eh,” Dani shrugged. “I'm kind of a rule breaker around here, anyway. Got a reputation to uphold.”
“And if we get caught?” Mac added.
“I have no idea who you are or how you got up here,” Dani shot her a wry smirk. “Far as I know, you're just a relief nurse from one of the neighboring counties.”
“Nice,” Mac chuckled. “I hope no one asks me to change an IV or anything.”
“Just give ‘em a blank stare and then come find me,” Dani shrugged. “I'll be at my post, Kemosabe.”
“And where's your post?”
“You sure ask a lot of questions, my friend,” Dani stopped in front of one of the glassed-in rooms in the intensive care unit.
Mac looked over Dani's shoulder and saw the still figure lying in the bed. Her heart skipped a beat and her stomach plunged as she instantly recognized the comatose woman. Stepping around Dani, Mac moved to the doorway and stood there a moment. The sounds of beeps from monitors and the rhythmic whoosh of the ventilator assaulted her ears, as tears sprang to her eyes.
“There's a chair on the other side of the bed,” Dani's quiet voice barely registered in Mac's mind. “Don't stay more than fifteen minutes or you'll have company and they'll be asking a lot of questions. Understand?”
Mac merely nodded, as she walked into the room and found the chair on the other side of the hospital bed. She took a seat in it and silently looked at all the tubes, needles and wires sticking out of the woman she loved. The whoosh of the ventilator kept a steady rhythm with the rise and fall of Lacey's chest. Several small wires protruded from the top of her gown and were attached to the heart monitor next to the bed. A low beep, beep, beep told her that Lacey's heart was still beating a steady rhythm.
Mac glanced at the hand closest to her and saw that it was free of tape and needles, unlike Lacey's left hand. A bag of IV fluids hung from a hook and was attached to a machine that delivered a steady flow of medication and fluids to the comatose woman.
Mac sniffed back her tears, as she took Lacey's hand in hers. The hand was limp and there was no response to her touch from the woman lying there. It nearly broke Mac's heart into a million pieces to see Lacey like that.
“Hey, Doc,” Mac said in a hushed tone heavy with unshed tears. “I managed to find someone nice enough to sneak me in here to see you.” She reached up with her free hand and brushed a stray lock of hair away from Lacey's pale forehead. “I really wish you would wake up, so I can see those beautiful green eyes of yours again. I really miss them.”
Mac waited patiently for a response to her words that didn't come. She gently squeezed the hand in hers, hoping beyond hope that Lacey was in there somewhere and would hear her or feel her touch. But there was absolutely no response whatsoever.
“I can't stay very long, Lac,” Mac continued. “I'm really not supposed to up here at all. They won't let me sit here with you, because we're not…” Her voice hitched and she couldn't finish the thought. “I love you so much, Lacey. I am so sorry for leaving you alone last night. I shouldn't have let my temper get to me like that. I know I was an ass. And I will spend the rest of my life showing you how much I love you and want to be with you. Just, please, come back to me. Okay? Please? We got through that shit in Iraq. We survived that helicopter crash and made it home—maybe not in one piece, but at least we made it. I got you out of that hellhole in Louisiana. Now, you need to fight one more time, Lacey.” She took in a deep breath and let it out slowly, as she leaned forward until her lips were next to Lacey's right ear. “Fight, dammit! You fight to live and I promise we'll have a lifetime together to show this world just what love really is. You hear me, Lacey? Come back to me and I will make it so worth your while that you'll never want to leave again.”
Tears slipped from her blue eyes and dropped onto the pillow next to Lacey's head. Some of her tears even got into Lacey's hair. Mac didn't care. She just sat there with her head resting next to Lacey's and cried through a myriad of emotions that had been building for hours.
She cried for the woman next to her. She cried out her guilt at leaving Lacey alone when she went home to stew over something that she couldn't even recall anymore. She moved closer until they were touching. Tears continued sliding down her nose and cheeks. Some landed on Lacey's cheek and slid down into her pale hair. Mac wasn't paying any heed to them. She just continued to empty her soul of the grief that washed over her.
“Come back to me, Lacey Justine,” she said in a hoarse whisper as the tears finally subsided.
Mac sat up slightly, dropped a gentle kiss on Lacey's pale cheek, wiped a few stray tears from the comatose woman's skin and then sat up all the way. She sniffed and glanced down at the still hand in hers. It hadn't moved once. The thought brought a fresh wave of grief, but Mac swallowed down the tears that threatened.
“I'll find a way to come back and see you, love,” Mac brushed the backs of her fingers against Lacey's pale cheek. “I promise.”
She then leaned over and kissed that cheek one last time.
“Hey,” Dani appeared in the doorway at that moment. “Time to go, Mac.”
“Yeah,” Mac swiped at her damp cheeks and used a thumb to clear the remaining tears from her eyes. “I know.”
Dani shot a covert glance over her shoulder, as Mac approached the door with one last quick glance over her shoulder in Lacey's direction.
“Come on,” Dani steered the tall, dark-haired woman toward a door on the other side of the ICU. “I think we could both use some coffee.”
Mac silently walked next to the woman with her shoulders slumped dejectedly. She wasn't really in the mood for more coffee. She'd already had more than her share of the hospital brew for one day. But she wasn't really in the mood to be alone or return to her family, either.
“I left my wallet in my sweats,” Mac commented absently. “There wasn't anywhere to put it in this getup.” She fingered the green scrubs she wore.
“Not to worry,” Dani held out the ID badge hanging from her neck. “I'll just put it on my tab. One of the perks of working here.”
They passed through two sets of double doors and turned down a long white hallway that looked like nearly every other hallway in the place.
“Place is like a damned maze,” Mac commented.
Dani chuckled. “You figure it out pretty quickly once you've been around a while. Most of these hallways just loop around on themselves.”
They made it to a lone elevator and Dani pressed the down button on the wall. Mac really didn't have anything to say, so just kept her mouth shut.
“You okay?” Dani commented, as the elevator arrived and they stepped inside.
They were alone, so Mac backed up against the wall and leaned against it for support.
“Tired,” Mac answered. “And a little disappointed that I couldn't stay with Lacey longer.”
“Yeah,” Dani replied, as the elevator stopped, the doors opened and they stepped out into yet another stark white hallway. “Sorry about that. It'll be different when she's out of the ICU. The rules there are a lot stricter there than they are in the rest of the hospital.”
“Yeah,” Mac shrugged, as they rounded another corner that opened into a small cafeteria. “I just don't have to like it. In my mind, Lacey is as much a part of my family as my brother and his wife are, ya know?”
“Oh, I get it. Believe me,” Dani headed straight for the coffee dispenser, while Mac decided on a soft drink, instead. “I'm all for letting significant others into the ICU. If it were u to me, I'd tell the hospital administrator where he can go with his stupid rule. I mean, I get the fact that you don't want a bunch of people disturbing the patients in ICU. But that doesn't mean a sig-o can't sit with their loved one. That particular rule just totally bites.”
“Yeah,” Mac agreed as she joined Dani at the cashier with an iced tea in her hand. “Thanks for this, by the way. I'll pay you back.”
“Eh,” Dani shrugged, as the older woman at the register scanned her ID badge. “Don't worry about it.”
“Thank you, dear,” the older woman said with a gracious smile. “Have a nice day.”
“You, too, Hildy,” Dani smiled at the woman, then returned her attention to Mac. “I probably owe you and Lacey a whole lot more than a lousy iced tea. After all, it was Lacey who practically threw Brenda and me together, finally.”
“Oh, how's it going between you two?” Mac said, as they returned to the hallway and made their way back toward the elevator. “Sorry, Dani. With everything going on with Lacey these days, I totally forgot the two of you were seeing each other.”
“It's going pretty well, actually,” Dani sipped her coffee. “We've had three dates and will have a fourth next Friday. We've also planned a weekend getaway, once the weather warms up a bit.”
“Yeah, I heard we're supposed to get rain by next week,” Mac felt her spirits lift a bit. “The last of the snow should finish melting before the end of the month, too. My brother will be happy about that. It was a tough winter for the herd. We lost half a dozen head to a pack of wolves that came down out of the foothills to find water.”
“Sorry to hear that. An early spring would be ideal,” Dani pushed the up button on the elevator. “I really can't wait to do some hiking and trail biking with Brenda. We figured out on our second date that we basically like the same outdoor activities, which is really cool. Elaine hated the outdoors. Literally hated it. The only time she went outside was to get in her damned Subaru and drive somewhere. It was one of the bones of contention in our relationship. I wanted to take the dogs out for hikes and stuff. She never wanted to come with us.”
“Well, at least you found someone who likes the same things you do,” Mac said. “That's good, right?”
“Absolutely,” Dani pulled up in front of the same locker room door. “Well, I'm gonna leave you to change back into your street clothes. Just leave the scrubs in front of my locker and I'll take care of them when my shift is done. Or you can take them with you. Doesn't matter. We have plenty more where those came from.”
“I might just do that,” Mac fingered the garment. “They're kinda comfortable. I can wear them as pajamas.”
“Yeah,” Dani smiled. “One of the other perks associated with being in the medical field. But the long hours kinda suck.” She rolled her eyes. “I'll drop in on Lacey from time to time and come down to give you updates. Okay?”
“Sounds good,” Mac replied. “Thanks, Dani. I really appreciate what you did and are doing for us. It means a lot.”
“No problem, Mac,” Dani reached out and rubbed Mac's shoulder. “We girls gotta stick together.”
“Yeah,” Mac said and then she ducked inside the locker room to change.
Mac breathed a heavy sigh as she stepped back into the mostly-empty waiting room, stopped just inside the doorway and saw her brother sitting alone in the same place he was when she left. He was flipping absently through a copy of Field and Stream and ignoring the TV that was showing a basketball game between two college teams. The volume was down on the TV, at least.
She wasn't really in the mood to spend another long night sitting in the waiting room. Then again, she wasn't willing to leave the hospital while Lacey was still in a coma, either. What she really wanted to do was march right back up to the ICU and demand to be allowed to sit with Lacey for the duration. Maybe even have a cot set up right in the room with her, so she could get some sleep. But that just wasn't going to happen.
After getting dressed in her own clothes and tucking the scrubs beneath one arm, Mac had made a quick side trip back to the cafeteria to refill her iced tea and get a cup of coffee for her brother. She also picked up several sandwiches and bags of chips, just in case the family was still there.
Sitting down next to her brother, Mac dumped her load on the table in front of her.
“Hey, li'l bit,” he tossed the magazine down and turned to greet her.
“Hey,” Mac slumped in the chair and propped one foot up on the table in front of her with a tired sigh.
“You okay?” He looked at her in concern, then glanced at the food on the table. He reached for two sandwiches and handed one to her. “Eat. It'll help.”
“Not really hungry,” she replied dejectedly, as she fingered the sandwich without opening the wrapper.
He unwrapped his beef sub with the works and took a bite. “Nee's mayo,” he commented with his mouth full.
Mac reached into the pocket of her sweatshirt and pulled out a handful of packets of mayo, mustard and pickle relish. She dumped the packets onto the table with the other food.
“Thanks,” he said, as he put three packets of mayo on his sandwich. “Mm, better.”
Mac continued to stare absently at the TV, not really paying attention to what was happening on the screen. A blue team and a white team were pounding up and down the court. One would shoot for the hoop, miss and the other would get the rebound and take off in the opposite direction. It continued much like a tennis match.
She didn't care. Basketball was never her game, despite her height advantage. She just never quite appreciated all that running back and forth. And she couldn't hit the broadside of a barn with a ball, even though she eventually learned how to do the Globe Trotter spin on one finger and could keep it going longer than any of her friends. The boys all called her a show-off, so she quit doing it in front of them. But it never failed to impress, especially her nephews.
The sound of crunching next to her brought her attention back to her brother. He was savoring his sandwich and had almost finished it. He had a bag of BBQ chips open and was happily munching those in between sips of coffee.
“You can have mine if you're still hungry, bro,” Mac said and glanced at her still-wrapped sandwich in her lap.
“Naw, I'm good,” he popped the remainder of his sandwich into his mouth and chewed. “That hit the spot, but doesn't hold a candle to Carrie's cooking by a long shot.”
“Nothing does,” Mac let her head rest against the wall behind her, as her eyes drifted shut. “Carrie is the best cook in the world, as far as I'm concerned.”
“Yeah,” Ben shifted, so he could see the TV, as he continued munching the chips in the bag. “Who's playing?”
“No clue,” Mac mumbled. “Don't like basketball.”
“You don't really like watching sports at all,” Ben replied. “They never were your forte. You were more of a tech gadget geeky nerd who liked playing video games, instead.”
“Good hand-eye coordination,” Mac said. “Lousy footwork. Kept tripping over my damned feet.”
“Until you grew into your body,” Ben shrugged. “It just took you until after high school to get used to being so tall.”
“Thought riding horses would take care of the knock-knee problem I had after that last growth spurt,” Mac chuckled. “Remember how many hours I spent in the saddle my senior year?”
“You were practically glued to the damned thing,” Ben snorted. “I always wondered why you suddenly had such an affinity for horseback riding. Didn't know you were trying to become a bow-legged cowboy.”
“Didn't work,” Mac said. “Derek thought I was nuts for doing it. He hated it when you made him join the spring roundup. Didn't have any use for cattle.”
“He hated the ranch, period,” Ben sighed. “Couldn't wait to graduate and leave this place forever.”
“He left, all right,” Mac added in a tone that reflected the pain she still felt over losing her younger brother.
“Hey,” Ben wrapped a shoulder around Mac's shoulder and pulled her close. “How'd your visit with Lacey go, li'l bit? Did Dani get you in to see her? You were gone longer than I expected. I was beginning to think she kidnapped you and took you to the bar for a few drinks.”
Mac let her head rest against her brother's shoulder and kept her eyes shut. “I sat with her for a little while. Couldn't stay very long, though. We went to the cafeteria afterward.”
“You did get to see her, then?” Ben absently stroked her shoulder length hair.
“Yeah,” Mac nodded against his shoulder. “She was hooked up to all those machines and…”
Mac swallowed over the sudden lump in her throat, as she remembered how pale and still Lacey had been. She kept her eyes closed tight, but the images of her lover were still too fresh and wouldn't go away. It tore at her heart to see Lacey so vulnerable.
“Talk to me, li'l bit,” Ben pressed when she didn't immediately continue. “Tell me what's on your mind.”
“Not much of anything,” Mac said. “Just really tired.”
Ben glanced down at his sister's head. Her eyes were closed and she was slowly sinking against him more heavily.
“Never mind,” Ben continued gently stroking the side of her head. “Go to sleep, li'l bit. We'll talk later.”
“Mm,” she uttered subvocally, as her breathing evened out and she drifted off to sleep.
Ben just sat there with his sister leaning against him. He tried to get comfortable in the chair, but gave up the effort. He'd been sitting for the better part of the entire day—something he rarely did while he was home. But he wouldn't trade those precious moments with his sister for anything in the world. He knew she wasn't one to ask for anything, especially for herself. That was why he stayed. He knew she needed someone there with her and wasn't about to ask anyone. So, he silently volunteered.
He just wished Derek was there to see the two of them sitting there like that. Derek had always been on Ben's case about being there for Mackenzie. Ben tried to argue that Mackenzie hadn't wanted anyone there for her when she was struggling with her identity and her sexuality as a teen. Derek insisted. Ben argued. In the end, Ben knew Derek was right and he was wrong. Mackenzie had needed someone there for her. She just couldn't ask. She was that stubborn.
He glanced down at her.
“I guess you met your match this time, li'l bit,” he rested his cheek against her hair and listened to her steady, even breathing. “I just hope you don't give up on that stubborn woman before the two of you finally have a chance to figure out that you're more alike than you realize.”
“I came to tell you I'm leaving,” Meredith stepped inside the spacious office and walked right up to Franklin's desk. “I know where my daughter is and I'm going to her.”
“What?” Franklin looked up in surprise. “Tell me you're not serious, Meredith.”
“I am,” she replied, as she took a seat in one of the wing-back chairs. “She needs me. I just found out from Lillian that Lacey tried to kill herself. She's in a coma in a hospital in Jackson, Wyoming.”
“And James?” He folded his hands on the desk. “What about his efforts to track her down? What if he finds out that you've gone to her? What if he figures out you're alive?”
“You put her out there as bait, Franklin. Wasn't that the plan?” Meredith said. “My death was supposed to ensure that he would go after her, instead. You said he wants her money and will stop at nothing to get it. With me out of the picture, that's exactly what he is supposed to do.”
“Then we have a real problem,” he frowned, as he glanced at an open file folder beneath his folded hands. “I just got word from the men I sent to keep an eye on your daughter.”
“You knew Lacey was in the hospital and didn't tell me?” Meredith shot to her feet. “Why in the world didn't you tell me…”
“Sit. Down. Meredith,” he ordered in a stern tone. “Hear me out before you get all hot and bothered.” He waited for her to slowly resume her seat. “My men didn't get back to me until just this morning and I hadn't had a chance to look at their report until just a few minutes ago. She had an accident in the mountains a week ago and it took them a while to track down where she was. When they finally found out which hospital she was taken to, she was sent back to the Papadopoulos ranch to recover from the injury and subsequent surgery.”
“What injury?” Meredith asked. “Surgery?”
“Her knee,” he continued. “Apparently she was part of some kind of search and rescue mission that went sour. They carried her off the mountain and sent her to the hospital. My men also learned that she had been in some kind of scuffle with one of the other rescuers. The details were fuzzy, but apparently Lacey had some kind of mental breakdown, as well.”
“Oh, my poor girl!” Meredith gasped.
“Something else happened that you should be aware of, Meredith,” Franklin continued. “James was in Jackson.”
Her gaze shot to his. “What?”
“My men lost track of his whereabouts,” he continued. “When they finally tracked him down, he had assumed an alias and was working in a pharmacy near the same hospital where Lacey had surgery.”
“What?” Meredith couldn't believe her ears. “What in the world was he doing working in a pharmacy in Jackson, Wyoming? He isn't supposed to leave Texas, is he? I thought it was a stipulation of his release from jail.”
“It is,” Franklin admitted with a shrug. “My men had no idea why he was in Jackson. As far as they could tell, he was filling in for the regular pharmacist until the man returned from an unexpected trip.”
“Oh, and that doesn't sound the least bit suspicious?” Meredith said sarcastically. “What else did your men find out, Franklin? Did James try to pay Lacey a visit? Did he talk to her?”
“James left Jackson early yesterday morning,” Franklin said. “As far as my men know, he never tried to contact your daughter at all.”
“And Lacey is in the hospital after she overdosed on pain pills,” Meredith quirked a dark brow at him. “Was James the pharmacist who dispensed the pills?”
“What are you thinking, Meredith?” Franklin eyed her with interest.
“I think James was up to something in Jackson, Franklin,” Meredith replied with a worried frown. “I'm sure he had some part in Lacey's overdose. After all, he never fights fair. Maybe he switched her medication and gave her something stronger than was originally prescribed.”
Franklin picked up his phone and hit a button. “Pamela, get me the state police in Jackson, Wyoming, right away.” He put the receiver back on its hook and returned his attention to Meredith. “That actually sounds pretty credible, Mere. Why didn't I think of it?”
“You didn't live with James for as long as I did, Franklin,” Meredith answered. “He was always coming up with schemes to improve his image. He loved being the center of attention and would do whatever it took to make that happen. He doesn't have a conscience to speak of. Nothing has changed in all these years. His lack of conscience eventually got him kicked out of his own practice and he lost everything. Now he wants to destroy my family. I won't have it. I won't.”
“I understand, Meredith,” he replied. “I also know that we have to go about this the right way. We can't play his game.”
“Why not?” Meredith shot back. “Why not play the same lowdown dirty game that he is playing? After all, he doesn't care who gets hurt in the process. Why should we?”
Franklin got up from his chair, skirted the desk and leaned against it in front of her. He then held his hands out to her until she put hers in his.
“Because we're not like him, Mere,” he said in open sincerity. “We're good people and we care about others more than we care about ourselves. James doesn't know the first thing about that. It's actually pretty sad when you think about it.”
“Oh, Franklin,” Meredith sniffed back the few tears that sprang to her eyes, as she squeezed his warm hands. “I just want him to pay for what he's put my family through.”
“I know,” he smiled warmly at her. “Let's do it the right way, though. Okay?”
She reluctantly nodded. “Okay.”
“Now,” he let go of her hands and returned to his seat behind his desk. “What's this about you leaving town? I thought we were agreed that you need to lay low for another week before we make the announcement that you're not really dead.”
“I need to be with my daughter, Franklin,” she sighed and let her chin rest in her hand. “She needs to know I'm alive.”
“Why can't Lily go, instead?”
“Because she and Bill have some events they need to attend in Washington,” Meredith replied. “Something about his re-election to the Senate. He wants to run his next campaign on a different platform than the last one. Apparently, Lacey and Mackenzie have inspired him to take a stand.”
“He is proposing an end to the military's Don't Ask Don't Tell policy,” Meredith continued. “He also wants to promote equality for all couples across the country. I'm not exactly sure what that entails, but it has something to do with getting states to recognize gay and lesbian spouses as equal in the eyes of the law or some such.”
“He wants to end the bans on gay marriage at the state level?” A gray brow lifted on the man's features. “That's quite the undertaking. I thought he was a tried and true Republican. Do you know what kind of uproar that will create in Washington? Not to mention it is political suicide to take a stand like that. There are a lot of folks in this country who are not yet ready to set aside the Biblical principles of a ‘one woman and one man' ideal for marriage. I hope your son-in-law is ready for the fallout he's going to create over this. The media alone will eat him alive.”
“He believes it is worth the risk,” Meredith said. “Between you and me, though, I don't think he can really fathom what this will mean for his career. Bill has always been an idealist. I'm really not sure how he ever managed to get elected to Washington. James figured he'd be eaten alive during his first week there. But he made it through an entire term and is ready to run for re-election.”
“Well, I wish him luck,” Franklin sat back and folded his hands on his stomach. “So, when do you leave?”
Meredith glanced at her diamond-studded Rolex. “My plane leaves in an hour. I have the limo waiting out front. I just wanted to let you know I was leaving town before I leave. You can reach me on my cellular phone, if you need to.”
“I will be sure to keep you updated on our progress,” he said. “I'll also let you know what the police have to say about this latest development with James.”
“Good,” Meredith stood up and reached across the desk. He took her hand and covered it with his other one. “Thank you for everything, Franklin. I appreciate all you've done for me and my family.”
“You just take care of yourself, Meredith,” he said as he reluctantly released her hand. “And try to lay low until we have a handle on what that skunk of a husband of yours is up to. I don't want to even contemplate what he might do if he sees you there in Jackson.”
“He won't,” Meredith took a scarf and a pair of large designer sunglasses out of her purse. She wrapped the pale pink scarf around her hair like a movie star and donned the sunglasses. “How do I look?”
“Beautiful as always,” he smiled. “I hope everything works out with Lacey, Meredith.”
She lowered the glasses and removed them with a sad half-smile. “Me, too.”
She then put the sunglasses back on and raised her chin with an air of resolved determination, as she left the office without a backward glance.
James awoke to the sounds of beeps and hums that were vaguely familiar and rather irritating. He opened his gray-green eyes and found himself in unfamiliar surroundings.
“What the…” he said in a gravelly voice gone hoarse from disuse.
“Well, hello there,” a young woman with her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail greeting him with a warm smile. She wore pale lavender scrubs as she stepped up next to his bed. “How are you feeling, James?”
“Thirsty,” he eyed the pitcher and cup on a rolling tray at the foot of the bed. “What happened, young lady?”
“Well, we're not really sure,” she said, as she poured water into the cup, added a bendy straw and held the straw to his lips. “It appears you had a heart attack on your flight from Jackson.”
His eyes widened slightly. “I did?”
She nodded and her ponytail bounced slightly. “The police have been here several times over the last few days. She glanced at the handcuffs around the wrist farthest from her and secured to the railing of the bed.”
He moved his wrist and then glared at the handcuffs. “What in the world? Who…”
“There's also an officer outside your door,” she said in a conspiratorial whisper. “He's kinda cute, too. His name is Chad. I think he likes me. He smiles every time I come in here to check your vitals.”
“Damn.” James let his head drop back against the pillow behind him.
“Yeah,” the young blond wrapped a blood pressure cuff around his arm and hit a button on the machine next to the bed. The cuff automatically inflated and took his blood pressure. “They won't tell us what you did to deserve being handcuffed like that. Chad told me he's not at liberty to say.”
“I didn't do anything,” he said. “Just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Well,” she removed the cuff and draped it over the machine, “your blood pressure is still a little high, but things seem to be much better than they were a few days ago when they brought you in.” She put a digital thermometer under his tongue and pressed her fingers to his wrist with her free hand. A beep signaled that the thermometer was done taking his temperature. “At least that's normal,” she commented with a nod and a smile. “I'm supposed to notify the officer that you're awake. So I'll just go ahead and do that.”
She made a few quick notes on his chart and then left the room. James just sat there with his thoughts whirling. What had happened to land him in the hospital? He remembered being on that chartered flight and sipping champagne. He was celebrating his accomplishments in Jackson, as the plane took him to his connecting international flight in New York. Wait. Where was he?
And how did he end up having a heart attack on the airplane?
More importantly, why was he in handcuffs? His lawyer was supposed to have taken care of the legal mess he was in. Why hadn't that been taken care of? He let his eyes drift shut as the questions just kept piling up in his mind, one after another.
“Hello, James,” an unfamiliar voice from the doorway caught James' attention. “It's been a long time.”
James opened his eyes and looked at the newcomer. “Who are you and what do you want?”
“Oh,” the sandy-blond man stepped just inside the room and leaned against the doorway with his arms crossed over his chest. “You'll find that out soon enough.”
He wore jeans and a white t-shirt under a navy-blue blazer. His eyes were pale blue and he looked like he'd lived a hard life. His face bore several scars, including one that ran from the hairline at his temple down to his jaw. James didn't recognize the man at all.
“I'm in no mood for visitors,” James groused. “Can't you see I'm a sick man? Go away. I'm not answering any of your questions, right now.”
“Oh, you are definitely a very sick man, James,” the man pushed off the doorframe and walked over to stand next to the bed. He put his hands on the railing and leaned on it. “I can't believe how sick and twisted you turned out to be. And everyone thought you would be the model son who would make something of himself.”
James met the man's gaze with wide eyes. “How did…”
“I know everything about you, James,” the man let the hint of a wry grin touch his scarred lips. “I even know what you did to make sure I never came back from Nam.”
James' eyes widened even more and the color drained from his features. “That's…You can't…It's not possible.”
The man reached up to his eyes and removed the pale blue contacts. He then ruffled his pale hair until it was down in his eyes.
“Does this help?” The man said with a smirk.
“Oh…God…” James felt the world around him suddenly spin out of control and then go black.
“Thought so,” said the blond visitor, as the man left the room with a satisfied grin.
He nodded to the police officer and continued on without a backward glance until he stood in front of the bank of elevators. As an elevator door opened in front of him, he stepped inside and turned around. The doors closed as a pair of green eyes danced with mirth in a face scarred beyond recognition.
Continued in Part 15
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