By Kennedy Northcutt ©2011
For disclaimers, see Part 1.
Mac felt herself drift up from the first deep and dreamless sleep she could remember having in a long time. Peace surrounded her and warmed her to the core. It was quiet there in that place between sleep and wakefulness. She didn't want to move or think or…
Her eyelids slowly fluttered open, as she felt a slight movement from the warm body she was wrapped around. Lacey. Mac was spooned against her. It was how they had fallen asleep the night before. But they were both also wearing the flannel pajamas Mac had insisted they purchase the previous day.
Mac carefully lifted her head out from beneath the flannel sheets and thick comforter they were snuggled under. Her nose instantly felt the cold in the room and Mac knew she had a job to do. It was still pretty dark out, as she gingerly extricated herself from her warm cocoon and slipped from the nice warm bed.
The instant her feet hit the cold floor, Mac shuddered.
"Brrr," she quietly uttered, as she instinctively found her Ug boots and slipped her feet into the welcome warmth, then donned the blue and gray Dickies shirt jacket she kept on a chair next to the bed.
She then made her way to the fireplace in the next room. Kneeling before the barely-glowing embers that she'd banked the night before, Mac quickly stoked them and coaxed them back to life. She added several sticks and a small log, then waited. A small smolder quickly grew into a warm fire. Once she had some fairly strong flames going, she added three larger logs and really got a good blaze going.
"There," she quietly settled back on her heels to enjoy the warmth in front of her.
She extended her hands towards the flames and let the heat penetrate her stiff fingers long enough to chase away the chill. Then she realized she needed to use the bathroom. Quickly ducking into the small closet-sized room next to the living room, rather than the one in her bedroom, Mac took care of business and then washed up.
She emerged to find a whimpering furry mass plastered against her leg. Mac reached down and felt a warm tongue lick her hand, as she gave the soft head a quick pat in return.
"Hey, Mindy," Mac greeted the puppy by crouching down and giving the three-month-old puppy a good scratch. "How did you sleep in that warm bed of yours? Eh? Are you enjoying your comfy bed. Huh?"
The Australian Shepherd puppy enthusiastically licked Mac's face with eager kisses, as Mac made sure to thoroughly scratch behind the floppy ears.
"Who's a good dog?" Mac rested her forehead against the puppy's, in an effort to get her to stop licking. "Hm? Are you a good girl? Did you wait for Mama to get up? Good girl."
Mac went to the front door with Mindy close on her heels. She took the leash and collar from the hook next to the door.
"Sit, Minders," Mac turned to the puppy and waited for her to do as she was told. When Mindy was patiently sitting on her haunches, Mac put the collar around her neck and attached the leash. She then gave the puppy another quick scratch. "Good girl, Mindy."
She grabbed a doggie treat from the container on the shelf above her head and rewarded the puppy for good behavior. Mac then quickly donned her rancher's coat and one glove, then slipped several additional treats into one of the front pockets of her coat.
"Okay, girl," Mac said, as she pulled the door open and let the dog dash outside ahead of her.
She released the button on the retractable leash and let Mindy have some room to roam, as she stepped out into the chilly pre-dawn air. Mac walked down the three wooden steps and onto the paving stones that led from her house to the garage.
"Brr," Mac cringed down further into her coat. "Come on, Minders. It's really cold out here. Too cold to be picky about where you're peeing."
She didn't have long to wait. Mindy quickly took care of business and returned to Mac's side with a quiet whimper. The puppy wiggled and rubbed against Mac's lower leg.
"Good girl," Mac pulled a treat from her pocket and tossed it to the patient puppy. "Are you ready to go back inside and have some breakfast?"
Mindy answered with a shake of her stubbed tail and a quick bark.
"Okay, then, let's go," Mac retracted the leash as they returned to the house.
Once inside, Mac quickly removed her coat and hung it back on its hook. She then knelt next to Mindy and removed her collar and leash, slipping another treat to the puppy as she tried to lick her face again.
"You're such a good girl, Minders," Mac took the puppy's head in her hands and gave her a thorough rub again. "Mama is so proud of you for not dawdling out there in the freezing cold. Yes, I am."
She gave Mindy one last pat, as she stood up, hung the collar and leash on their hook and proceeded toward the kitchen with the puppy on her heels. She quickly grabbed the container of kibble and poured a generous helping into Mindy's ceramic bowl. She then refilled the water bowl with tap water and set it next to the enthusiastically munching puppy.
"Okay," Mac rubbed her hands together, as she crossed the kitchen to the coffee maker and quickly went to work making coffee.
She had just finished lowering the lid and flipping the coffee maker on, when a loud, bloodcurdling scream tore through the silent house.
"Shit!" Mac bolted for her bedroom instantly.
Mac slid to a halt just inside the doorway and felt her blood run cold at the sight that greeted her. Dawn was just breaking enough to cast the room in dim shadow. But Mac could see the figure sitting bolt upright in the bed.
Lacey's hair was a tangled mass and her eyes were tightly shut as she continued to scream.
Mac didn't think. She just reacted. Throwing herself toward the still-screaming woman, she wrapped her arms around Lacey and tried to hold her. It was a big mistake and Mac knew it the instant she did it.
The nightmare that had Lacey in its iron grip made her react violently against the arms that grabbed and tried to hold her. She thrashed around and continued to scream.
"Noooooo!!!" Lacey backhanded Mac across the side of the head and nearly sent her toppling to the floor.
"Lacey!" Righting herself, Mac shouted above the woman's screams. Not to be deterred, Mac tried to make a grab for Lacey's wrists, but missed. "Lacey! It's a nightmare! Please!!! STOP!!! You're going to hurt yourself! STOP…IT!!!"
Lacey couldn't stop. She couldn't do anything but scream in terror as the nightmare kept a firm grip on her. Images of bloody corpses and screaming soldiers flashed through her mind. She was knee-deep in blood and gore and couldn't break free.
When someone grabbed her she reacted on instinct alone. Using her military training, she turned and put her assailant in a choke hold. It wasn't something she'd done often. But it was effective for neutralizing the person who had grabbed her.
Mac was so surprised by the choke hold she suddenly found herself in that she had no idea how to react. Lacey's arm was locked around her head and held her firmly. She hadn't realized Lacey was so strong.
"Lacey," the name came out as a low groan. "Let go. You're choking me."
It took a moment for Mac's words to penetrate the darkness, death and fear. But Mac's persistence finally paid off when Lacey released her and the screams turned to mewling whimpers. Lacey collapsed against Mac, as the last vestiges of the nightmare receded and finally faded altogether.
Mac sat up and wrapped her arms around the shaking shoulders, as Lacey's tears spilled onto her sleeve.
"It's okay," Mac gently rubbed circles against Lacey's back, as she continued to hold the crying woman. "It was just a dream, Lacey. They can't hurt you. I'm here. They won't hurt you anymore." She gingerly touched her throbbing temple and worked a kink out of her neck. "Ow."
Lacey sat up and was instantly alert. "Did I hurt you?" She gently placed her palm against Mac's cheek. "I'm so sorry. I…"
"It's okay," Mac placed her own hand on Lacey's and pulled it down into her lap. "It's not that bad." She then looked closely at the disheveled woman in the increasing daylight. "I'm the one who should apologize to you, sweetheart. I shouldn't have left you alone like that. I didn't think..." She swallowed over the sudden lump in her throat, as tears sprang to her eyes and she pulled Lacey close again. "I'm so sorry."
"Not your fault," Lacey let her own tears fall, as the last vestiges of the nightmare finally disappeared completely and she felt her world right itself again. She clung to Mac like a lifeline and reveled in the comfort of the strong arms wrapped around her. "Nightmares suck."
Mac smiled through her tears. "Yes, they do."
They sat there in each other's arms in the middle of the bed for several long moments. The silence in the house was only broken by the occasional crackle of the fire in the other room.
"Is that coffee I smell?" Lacey finally sniffed back the remaining tears. "And smoke? Or is that you?" She sniffed Mac's clothes.
"Yep on both counts," Mac used her sleeve to wipe away her own tears. "I took Mindy for a quick potty break, fed her and made coffee. Also got the fire going, so it warms up in here."
"Mm, sounds so domestic," Lacey pressed her cheek against Mac's chest and pulled the covers up around her. "Can we just stay like this for a little while longer? I'm not really ready to face the day just yet."
"Take as long as you need, Lac," Mac lightly brushed the strawberry blond hair with her fingers. "I'm in no hurry." She continued to just hold Lacey and stroke her hair. "You want to talk about that nightmare? It must have been a whopper to have you screeching at the top of your lungs like that."
Lacey shook her head and snuggled into Mac's lap more comfortably. "Don't remember."
"Nope," Lacey replied. "Used to happen all the time before they locked me in that place and put me on all those damned drugs. I'd have nightmares at least three or four times a week. Didn't remember a single one. Then I was living a nightmare every day when they had me on those drugs. Didn't know if I was coming or going and started remembering all kinds of shit. Sucked royally. Sucked even more that I couldn't do a damned thing about it."
"You remember everything now, don't you?" Mac prodded.
Lacey nodded against Mac's chest. "I hated that fucking piece of shit place. But it did help me remember everything I'd forgotten after the crash." She pulled back enough to look Mac in the eye and smile sadly. "And the best part was remembering all the time I spent with you. It's what kept me going when things got really hard."
"Huh," Mac said. "I can't even imagine what it was like for you, Lac."
"Only someone who's been on those damned drugs can really understand the kind of hell they put you through," Lacey went on in a tone devoid of emotion. "As a doctor, you'd think I'd know what to expect. But I didn't have a clue. It was like being trapped in my own skin with no way out. I wanted to feel-to think-but I couldn't. The drugs made me so numb and lifeless that I was just there. It was like being in limbo with no escape. Except that I kept seeing all these images and reliving nightmares. Ugh! It so sucked."
"Sounds like it did," Mac shuddered. "I'm sorry you had to go through that alone."
"It was far worse than anything I experienced in Iraq, let me tell ya," Lacey went on. "Nightmares I can deal with. But that place and those drugs…" She shuddered and felt Mac's arms tighten around her. "I met some people, though."
"Oh?" Mac pulled away enough to look down.
"Yeah," Lacey continued. "There were four of us at the table for all of the meals. All women. Two of the women were pretty nice and tried to encourage me-to let me know that I'd eventually get used to the drugs they had me on. But the third…"
"Wait," Mac sat up a little straighter. "Let me guess. The third was a bleach-blond with a creepy smile?"
"Yeah," Lacey met Mac's gaze. "How'd you know?"
"I saw her," Mac pulled Lacey back to her. "Caught a glimpse of her when I was putting you into the car. Creepy is right. She looked at me like I'd just stolen her favorite play toy."
Lacey chuckled mirthlessly. "Yeah, that's what I was to her, all right. Her favorite play toy. Callie was what you might call a queen bee, first-rate bitch. No one liked her and Maria-she was one of the others at the table-threatened her every chance she got. She even promised to protect me if Callie got too close."
"So I wasn't your only knight in shining armor?" Mac softened the words with a half-grin.
"Oh, you are definitely my one and only knight in shining armor," Lacey reassured. "I'd have to say Maria was more like a mafia hit woman and self-appointed body guard. She was small and muscular and could probably take one of the orderlies down if given half the chance. But she was also sweet, in a don't-mess-with-me-or-I'll-tear-your-head-off kind of way."
"De Niro?" Mac said. "Or Dirty Harry?"
"More like Russell Crowe in Gladiator I'd say," Lacey shrugged. "But with a touch more femininity. She was attractive, but definitely not my type. Apparently, I wasn't hers either."
"Ah," Mac nodded. "Then she's nothing like Maria Sandoval. She's the woman you met at the clothing store yesterday."
"Yeah, about that," Lacey sat forward and turned her head so she could look at Mac. "Is she an old flame or something?"
"Or something," Mac sighed. "Maria has a boyfriend, but bats for both teams, if you know what I mean. She also doesn't take no for an answer and chased me for years while she took care of the boys for Carrie and Ben."
"She was pushy. I'll give her that," Lacey returned to her warm cocoon in Mac's arms. "No wonder your sister in-law fired her."
"When I returned home from Iraq, Maria tried to ply her charms on me several times," Mac explained. "I rebuffed. She tried to seduce me. Carrie finally got tired of her bull and told her to stop. Maria didn't, so Carrie canned her. End of story."
"Did you two ever…"
"No," Mac quickly answered. "When I came home there was only one woman on my mind-you."
"Aw, that's so sweet," Lacey undid one of the buttons of Mac's pajama shirt beneath the jacket and kissed the exposed soft skin beneath. "So you didn't sample even a little…"
"No," Mac felt a shudder of a different kind race through her at the intimate contact. "She tried to kiss me a couple of times and even caught me alone in the barn once, but..."
Mac's words trailed off, as Lacey undid several additional buttons and placed feather-light kisses on her chest. Lacey's tongue darted out and it was almost Mac's undoing.
"Crawl back under the covers and make mad passionate love until we're both screaming in ecstasy? You read my mind, Chief."
"Oooookay," Mac decided to just go with it, as her body responded to Lacey's touch. "I suppose I can handle that."
"Are you sure, Chief?" Lacey's head came up and she gave Mac a teasing grin. "Your family won't send a search party out here to see if something happened to us, will they?"
"They'd better not," Mac grabbed the covers and pulled them over both their heads.
"Oo, my hero," came the muffled response from beneath the covers.
Mindy, who had been standing sentinel in the doorway the entire time, let out a heavy sigh and returned to her bed next to the roaring fire. She did a few turns before she snuggled down for a long morning without her favorite play mate. But she didn't mind. There would be time later for a fun romp in the snow. And maybe her human's new friend would play with her, too. A dog could hope and dream.
Meredith stood in a corner of the private hospital room and just stared at the occupant of the bed. A soft, persistent beep told her the man was still alive. Too bad. After all the pain he had caused Lacey, Meredith wasn't above wishing him a painfully slow and agonizing death. But he wasn't dead. His chest rose and fell with each breath. His heart was still beating. He just wasn't awake.
James appeared to be sleeping. A white gauze bandage was wrapped around his head-a change from when she had visited him the previous day. Lily had been with her then. Meredith was alone on this particular occasion.
The hospital had called her during the night to inform her that they'd had to perform emergency surgery on her husband. It was a necessary procedure to relieve the pressure from a hematoma that had developed from his head injury. A neural surgeon had been brought in to perform the procedure, which according to him, was a success.
Meredith was hesitant to visit James that morning. She just didn't feel the need to continue the charade any longer. Her lawyer had filed the papers for their divorce and it was only a matter of time before James was notified.
If he ever regained consciousness.
The door to the room opened and a brunette woman Meredith recognized poked her head in.
"Delores?" Meredith crossed the room toward the woman and gave her a quick hug. "What in the world are you doing here?"
"I came as soon as I heard," Delores Pressman returned the hug and then air kissed Meredith on both cheeks. "I'm so sorry, Mere."
"Don't be," Meredith crossed her arms over her chest. "I'm only here because the doctor asked me to come." She looked at Delores. "So? Why are you here?"
"I…" Delores moved away from Meredith and sat down in the nearest chair. She glanced at James and then met Meredith's steady gaze. "James and I…Well, you know how it is, Meredith."
"Tell me you're not sleeping with my husband, Delores," Meredith scowled. "Because I'm really having a hard time reconciling myself to the fact that he has been abusing my daughter and had her locked away in an institution. I might just pull the plug on him if you tell me he's been cheating on me with you."
"We've been friends for years, Mere," Delores shrugged. "It's only been recently that he turned to me for…um…comfort."
"Comfort, my eye," Meredith snorted. "He's only using you for your money, Delores. James isn't a man who turns to a woman for anything. You of all people should know that."
"Did he really abuse your daughter?" Delores kept her gaze locked on Meredith's. "Or did she give him good reason to get angry with her?"
"It's really none of your business, now, is it, Delores?" Meredith bristled.
"No, it isn't," Delores conceded. "I suppose I just want to know what I've gotten myself into, Mere. We have been friends for ages-you and I-even though we didn't always see eye to eye on some things. I know all about you and Justin, and how devastated you were when he disappeared in Vietnam. I also know that James isn't your oldest daughter's real father."
"We haven't been friends for years, Delores," Meredith sniffed. "Not since you swooped in and stole Bobby Michaels out from under me during our junior year of high school."
"Okay, so friends might be a bit of an overstatement," Delores agreed. "We've run in the same circles for years, now. That has to count for something."
"Not if you're involved with my husband," Meredith continued. "And for you to show up here…"
"I didn't come for James," she glanced over at the still figure in the bed. "I came to warn you that he's hell bent on getting what he believes is his money from your daughter."
"What money?" Meredith was a bit surprised by the revelation. "Lacey has a trust she inherited from Justin, but she hasn't touched that in years. She said she didn't need it and wasn't going to touch it, especially since she thought it came from James."
"Does she know that he isn't her real father?"
"She does now," Meredith replied. "I told her the other night, before she left town. I wanted her to know that much."
"And does she know who her real father is?" Delores prodded.
"Again, Delores, none of your business," Meredith deflected with an irritated frown. "Why are you so interested in my family all of a sudden, anyway? Just because you're my husband's mistress doesn't give you the right to come in here…"
"I'm not," Delores held her hands up in surrender. "I just thought you should know that he will stop at nothing to get his hands on her money, Meredith. He told me that he had your daughter committed. He said he hired a drug dealer to lace some medication she was taking with hallucinogens that would make her act irrationally. When she appeared in court, she didn't have any clue what was happening to her. That's why she reacted violently and assaulted those people. That's how she ended up being sent to an institution under heavy sedation and medication. James was responsible for what happened to your daughter, Meredith."
Anger flashed in Meredith's eyes, as she glared at the unconscious man in the bed only a few feet away from her. He was responsible for so much more, too. She knew it.
"It's time I put a stop to this, once and for all," Meredith said with a resigned sigh. "I can't let him continue to hurt my family. Not anymore."
Neither woman knew the bed's occupant was eavesdropping on their conversation. They didn't know that he was listening to every word. He kept his eyes shut and his breathing even, but inside he was seething. How dare they conspire against him?
James knew what he had to do. It was just a matter of time before he found the right opportunity to act. And act he would. Lacey might not be his biological offspring, but she was still his responsibility. And he wasn't one to shirk his responsibilities, especially when it came to dealing with his children.
"I'm a little nervous," Lacey eyed the road ahead with trepidation.
"Why?" Mac glanced at the woman seated next to her.
"They're your family," Lacey said in a tone that said that explained it all.
"And?" Mac navigated her red Ford Explorer onto the main dirt road that led to the ranch. "They love you, Lacey. Didn't we have a great time at that water park in Dallas? Those boys were as taken with you as my brother was. And Carrie took to you like another sister. She doesn't do that with just anyone, let me tell you."
"Okay," Lacey nodded, as she absently wrung her hands in her lap. "Just keep reminding me how much they mean to you. That should help."
"They mean a lot," Mac said and then placed a comforting hand on Lacey's thigh. "But you mean the world to me, Lacey Stephens. If you feel the slightest bit uncomfortable, just say the word. We'll get right back in this truck and head back to my place in a heartbeat."
"And miss Carrie's cooking?" Lacey shot Mac a raised-browed look. "You said she's making fried chicken. I love fried chicken, Mac. I'm not passing that up, especially if it's homemade. I love homemade fried chicken."
"You just love food, Doc," Mac teased with a wry grin.
"I do," Lacey grinned. "The more's the better. Didn't get a lot of good food in the Army. You know that."
"So is that monster of yours on the prowl again?"
"It's your fault, you know."
"My fault?" Mac pointed to herself. "How is your growling stomach my fault?"
"Oh, you know the answer to that," Lacey shot Mac a seductive half-grin. "Teach you to make me skip breakfast."
"I don't remember you protesting when you were crying out in pleasure, Doc," Mac purposely averted her gaze and kept her eyes on the road ahead.
"I did no such thing," Lacey scoffed.
"Really?" Mac shot Lacey a saucy grin. "So that wasn't you saying 'Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, CHRIST ALMIGHTY!'? It certainly sounded like you. My mistake."
Lacey blushed to her roots and turned her face away so Mac couldn't see her face turn bright red. "I wasn't the only one using the Lord's name in vain this morning, Chief."
"No," Mac continued. "But you were loud enough to have Mindy whining. I think she thought you were in pain or something."
"She stuck her tongue in my ear," Lacey groused. "I thought it was you doing it."
"She was trying to comfort a friend," Mac chuckled and scratched behind Mindy's ears. "Weren't you, girl?"
"Good thing I wasn't right in the middle of that earth-shattering climax you brought me to," Lacey shot Mac a saucy grin of her own. "I probably would have tongued your poor dog."
Lacey reached over and absently stroked Mindy's back.
"Ew," Mac scrunched her face. "That's just wrong, Doc. In so many ways. And I don't think even Mindy would have appreciated it."
"Hey, you started it," Lacey chuckled. "Don't start something you can't handle, Chief."
"With pleasure," Lacey seductively licked her lips and made sure Mac was watching when she did it. "You might want to stay on the road, though. This pickup may have four-wheel drive, but off-roading with snow still on the ground is only going to get us stuck way the heck out here in the middle of nowhere."
Mac returned her attention to the road ahead, quickly corrected to get them back on track and continued toward the house. She then sent a scowl to the woman next to her, who was grinning in triumph.
"Just you wait, Lacey Justine," Mac growled. "I'll teach you to mess with the likes of me."
"Oo, promises, promises," Lacey teased. "Just remember that I'm a doctor."
"Anatomy 101, Chief," Lacey wiggled her brows and the fingers of one hand. "Need I say more?"
"Nope," Lacey replied with a satisfied grin. "I just play to win."
Mac pulled the pickup around to the back of the house and stopped in front of the back door. She no sooner put the truck in park, when the back door flew open and a rambunctious six-year-old sailed out to greet them.
"Auntie Mac!" Dillon Papadopoulos, otherwise known as Digger, slid to a stop next to the driver's side door of the pickup. "Aunt Lacey! You finally made it!"
Mac's leg was engulfed in a tight hug the instant she emerged from the vehicle.
"Hey, Diggs!" Mac lifted the boy into the air and winced when he let out a loud squeal of delight. "How's my favorite co-pilot today?"
"Great!" He giggled, as she turned a few circles with him spread-eagle over her head. "I'm an airplane!"
Lacey rounded the pickup and came up next to Mac as a more reserved young man-Digger's older brother, Tanner-emerged from the house. Tanner was followed by Mac's sister in-law, Carrie, who held a dish towel in one hand and a wooden spoon in the other. Her pale cheeks were rosy from baking and there was a smudge of flour on her forehead, just below her bangs.
"Well, hello there, Tanner," Lacey greeted the ten year old with a warm smile and a quick ruffle of his light brown hair.
"Hi," Tanner glared at his younger brother, as Mac finally put the giggling child back on his feet.
"Hello, you two," Carrie glanced from Mac to Lacey. "It's about time you showed up. I was beginning to think we weren't going to see you until tomorrow."
"We…uh…" Mac rubbed the back of her neck at the chiding.
"It's my fault, Carrie," Lacey stepped forward and gave the woman a hug of greeting. "I slept in late."
"I'll say," Carrie shot Mac a raised browed look. "It's going on three, li'l bit. You missed lunch."
"We ate," Mac rested an arm on Lacey's shoulder.
Carrie glared at Mac skeptically. "Exactly what did you eat, Mackenzie? Last I checked there isn't anything worth spit in that place of yours. And I haven't had time to stock it with any of your favorites."
"Kibble?" Mac shot Carrie a teasing grin.
"Oh, you," Carrie used the towel in her hand to swat Mac across the arm.
"Ow!" Mac protested.
"She's always doing that to me," Digger piped in with a scowl at his mother.
"That's because you deserve it, DJ," said Tanner. "Aunt Mackenzie doesn't."
"I do not."
"I'm starving," Lacey piped in when it looked like the boys would just continue arguing. "I'd settle for a PB&J, if you have the fixings, Carrie. Besides, it's kinda cold out here. Brr!"
"Thin Texas blood," Mac shrugged when Carrie glanced her way. "Can't take her anywhere cold."
"Come on, Lacey," Carrie put an arm around Lacey's shoulders and guided her toward the house. "You must be frozen solid in that place of Mackenzie's. She refuses to use the brand new heater Ben installed last month."
"I don't trust a furnace," Mac commented from behind them. "Lived in one long enough to know what heat does to a body."
"It was a desert, Chief," Lacey glanced behind her, as they walked into the mud room. "Heat comes with the territory."
"Exactly," Mac confirmed.
"So freezing your friend's ass off is a good idea, li'l bit?" Carried added as she climbed the steps of the mudroom and entered the house. "I really don't think you have to worry about the furnace. It is state-of-the-art and won't kill you in your sleep."
"My helicopter was state-of-the-art, Carrie," Mac removed her coat and hung it on an empty hook, then followed her sister in-law inside.
Lacey snorted. "Your helicopter was a piece of junk, Chief," she quickly divested herself of her coat, hung it next to Mac's and followed the other two inside. "Oh, this is definitely more like it."
Carrie grinned, as she resumed her task of stirring the chocolate chips into a batch of cookie dough. "I'm not a fan of the cold, either."
"And yet you grew up right here in Jackson," Mac leaned against the beige granite countertop in the bright yellow kitchen.
"Where else would I go?" Carrie shot back. "Your brother refuses to leave the ranch. And his vet business is taking off like wildfire now that Dr. Sheridan passed away. Between him and Ross, they just don't have enough hours in the day to take care of all the livestock in these parts as it is. Which leaves Blackie and the boys to run amuck here on their own."
"There aren't any other veterinarians in the area?" Lacey glanced around at the spacious kitchen and modern appliances. "Nice place, by the way. Makes my kitchen look like a closet."
"You don't use your kitchen, Doc," Mac teased.
"I do, too," Lacey replied. "I've cooked many a TV dinner and bag of popcorn in the microwave."
Mac and Carrie snickered.
"Carrie won't let anyone cook in her kitchen," Mac said, as she grabbed a red apple from a wooden bowl on the counter and bit into it, then handed it to Lacey. "You might actually gain a few pounds while you're here, Doc."
"Good," Lacey started devouring the apple in only a few bites. "I need to gain some weight."
Mac frowned. "Speaking of food…"
"Why don't you two go into the living room and make yourselves comfortable," Carried chuckled at the look Mac gave Lacey, who tossed the core of the apple into the waste basket next to the center island. "I think the boys are watching a movie."
"Which movie?" Lacey perked right up.
"No idea," Carrie answered. "Knowing them, it might be something Disney-related or something from the Sci-fi collection. Tanner is a nut when it comes to all that Sci-fi stuff. But the boys all have different tastes in film. There's no telling which one they'll pick this time around."
"Okey dokey," Mac put an arm around Lacey's shoulders. "I can take a hint-subtle though it was not." She smiled at Carrie. "We'll get out of your way and let you finish up here."
"Yeah," Lacey agreed. "Can't wait to taste the…"
"Chocolate chip cookies," Carried supplied with a knowing grin. "And I'll bring you both something to tide you over until the chicken's ready."
"Thanks, Carrie," Mac led Lacey toward the far doorway and into the hallway.
When they were alone, Mac stopped and stole a quick kiss that soon deepened into a full-blown makeout session. Tongues danced and they shared the same air. Lacey wrapped her arms around Mac's neck and pulled her close.
"Wha…" Lacey began, when they finally broke apart.
"I love you, Lacey Stephens," Mac smiled.
Mac brushed a stray lock of hair from Lacey's forehead and pressed her body closer. "I just wanted you to know that."
"Really?" Lacey couldn't help but smile. She then touched the side of Mac's head. "How's the head? And the neck? I really did a number on you, didn't I?"
"Oh yeah," Mac dipped her head and placed her lips against Lacey's pulse point. "But I'll live, Doc. Can't wait until tonight."
Lacey sighed. "Me, either. Can we just skip…"
"Oh, don't go there," Mac raised her head and shot Lacey a chastising half grin. "I am not making excuses to my family just so we can go back to my place and…"
"I wasn't suggesting that," Lacey frowned. "Give me a little credit, will ya? What I was going to say is can we just skip the post-dinner socializing and beg off for tonight? Maybe continue where we left off here?"
"Oh," Mac looked duly chastised. "Yeah, yeah. I suppose Ben and Carrie will be okay with that. As long as we don't leave before dinner."
Lacey sniffed the air. "I am not missing out on home cooked fried chicken. Nor will I give up the chance to sample a few of those cookies. Mmm. The smell alone is ambrosia to the senses."
Mac snickered. "Carrie is definitely going to have fun fattening you up, Doc." She then took Lacey's hand in hers and headed toward the living room. "Let's go see what the boys are up to. Shall we? I'm kinda wondering where Mindy wandered off to."
They stepped into the living room and Mac stopped dead. Lacey nearly collided with Mac's back, but managed to avoid her enough to step around to see what had stopped Mac.
"Wha…Oh," Lacey said.
Mindy was on top of DJ, who was giggling uncontrollably as the puppy licked his entire face. Tanner, who was generally a very reserved young man, was encouraging the puppy and giving her rubs. She then jumped from one Papadopoulos boy to the other and dove right back in again.
"What in the world is going on in here?" Mac put her hands on her hips and gave the scene her best stern scowl. "Are you boys teaching my dog bad habits?"
Both boys instantly stopped and turned toward their aunt with wide, innocent looks.
"No, ma'am," they both answered in unison.
Mindy piped in with a happy bark of greeting, but didn't leave her playmates. She just sat between the two boys and looked at Mac with her light blue eyes gleaming with doggie pride.
"Your mom said you were watching a movie," Lacey stepped forward. "What movie is that?" She nodded toward the dark screened TV.
"Chronicles of Narnia!" DJ jumped up from the floor, grabbed Lacey's hand and led her to the sofa. "Wanna watch it with us?"
Lacey had no idea what "Chronicles of Narnia" was. She didn't really care, either. Although she vaguely remembered hearing something about a movie with some kids and a lion from a popular children's story made while she was in Iraq. Then again, she'd heard a lot in Iraq and really didn't pay all that much attention to most of it. Iraq was Iraq. If you weren't paying attention to what was going on around you, you died. Being alert to your surroundings was the key to staying alive.
Lacey realized she had no choice but to comply with the insistent six-year-old, so she sat down. "Sure."
"We've seen it six times already, Deej," Tanner whined. "Can't we watch something else?"
"Okay," DJ scooted off the sofa and went to the cabinet next to the TV. "Whatdya wanna watch, then? Around the World in 80 Days? Dodgeball? Oo, that one's funny. Garfield? The Incredibles? Lemony Snicket? National Treasure?"
"Yeah! Let's watch National Treasure," Tanner piped in. "It's a really good movie about…well," he shrugged and grinned at Mac, "a really cool treasure."
DJ rolled his eyes. "We seen that one six times, too, Tan. We could watch Scooby Doo: Monsters Unleashed. We haven't seen that one in a long time."
"Last week," Tanner sat down in one of the three overstuffed hunter green chairs in the spacious living room. "We watched that one last week, Deej. It's annoying. The monsters don't even look real."
"Shrek 2?" DJ continued hopefully. "Spider-Man 2? Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? That one's really neat. Oo, what about Fantastic Four?" He pulled the DVD from the shelf and held it up for them to see.
"That sounds interesting," Lacey said, as she saw the hope gleaming in his eyes and realized the DVD library was more extensive than even she had imagined. She figured the best way to get right down to it was to just go with one movie and be done with it. "Why don't we watch that one?"
Mac sat down next to Lacey on the sofa and put an arm around her shoulders. "What's it about?"
"Superheroes," Tanner answered with a conciliatory half-smile. "Four people get super powers and team up to save the world. There were comic books before the movie came out, Aunt Mackenzie."
"Did you all find a movie to watch?" Carrie walked into the room with two plates in her hands. "Boys, grab me a couple TV trays, will you, please?"
Tanner and DJ hurried to set the TV trays in front of Mac and Lacey. When they were finished, Carrie placed the plates of sandwiches.
"We're watching Fantastic Four, Mama," DJ piped in with a grin.
"Mm," Lacey eyed her sandwich with interest. "Ham and cheese?"
"With all the fixin's," Carrie nodded. "Thought you might enjoy something more substantial than just a few cookies. Especially since dinner is delayed until Ben returns from the emergency vet call he took on the other side of Jackson. And did you boys ask your aunts which movie they might like to watch?"
"We're good with this one, Carrie," Mac answered before there was more discussion from the younger Papadopoulos boys. "I don't think Lacey and I have seen a movie in…"
"A very long time," Lacey put in. "Last one I saw was..." She considered that for a moment. "Actually, I don't remember the last movie I saw. It was that long ago."
"Me, either," Mac cut a grin at Lacey. "I guess Fantastic Four it is, then."
"Yippee!" DJ cheered, as Tanner helped him put the movie in.
Lacey picked up her sandwich and took a huge bite. She savored the flavors that hit her taste buds and didn't realize that she actually groaned in pleasure.
"You want to be alone with that sandwich, Doc?" Mac snickered at the pure enjoyment on Lacey's features. "I'm sure the boys won't mind. I do have to say that I'm a little jealous…oof! Didn't see that coming." She groaned in response to the backhand Lacey dealt.
"Nod fuhy, Sheef," Lacey mumbled around another mouthful. "'S fa'tastic, Carrie."
Carrie beamed. "Thanks, Lacey." She then winked at Mac and slapped her shoulder on her way out. "I knew there was a reason I liked her," she said over her shoulder as she left the room.
"I certainly do," Mac squeezed Lacey's shoulder. "Slow down, Doc. Don't want you choking on your food."
"'S rewee goof," Lacey continued to savor every bite.
Mac eyed her own sandwich. She was hungry, but the smell of fried chicken was warring with her need for food. She wasn't worried that Lacey's appetite would suffer any, though. The woman was a bottomless pit and could put away her fair share of food. And she had over the last few days.
"We ready for the movie, boys?" Mac picked up her sandwich and took a normal bite. "Mm, 's pitty good."
"Pretty good?" Lacey licked some mayonnaise off her lip. "This is amazing. I've never tasted a sandwich this good before. The ham is delicious. It has a sweet smoky flavor that just melts in your mouth."
"Your parents or the cooks didn't make sandwiches for you when you were a kid?" Mac gave Lacey a skeptical glance.
"I went to boarding school," Lacey deadpanned. "All the food was gourmet and high brow. I hated it. Nothing ever tasted like it was home cooked. It always tasted like…I don't know…plastic, I guess," she finished with a shrug. "And don't get me started on the stuff they served us at mess."
"Oh, I don't know. I thought the Army's food was decent," Mac took another bite. "Wasn't as bad as the stuff they served in our school cafeteria. That stuff was nasty. Tasted like garbage."
"Shhh," both DJ and Tanner turned in unison toward the two women.
"You'll miss the movie, Auntie Mac," DJ said in a loud whisper.
Mac and Lacey exchanged a quick smile.
"Shh," Mac chuckled. "Don't want to miss the movie."
"What's it called again?" Lacey asked.
"Fantastic Four!" The two boys replied in unison.
"Oh," Lacey ducked her head and tried not to laugh at the seriousness in their tones. "Sorry."
Mac and Lacey finished their sandwiches in silence as they watched the movie unfold on the large screen in front of them. While Tanner was intently watching every scene, DJ quickly became distracted and started playing with his Matchbox cars. Mindy just lay sprawled on the floor next to the couch and slept.
"Here," Lacey grabbed both plates before Mac could. "Let me take those to the kitchen."
"I…" Mac didn't have time to say more as Lacey quickly left the room.
Lacey entered the kitchen and crossed to the sink, just as Carrie was pulling the last pan of cookies from the oven.
"Hey," Carrie greeted Lacey with a quick smile. "You didn't have to do that. I was coming to grab those as soon as I finished with the last of these cookies."
"It's okay," Lacey quickly rinsed both plates off and set them on the counter next to the sink. She then turned and leaned back against the counter. "I actually wanted to talk to you for a minute."
"Oh?" Carrie finished moving the last cookie from the baking sheet to the cooling rack and set the spatula down on the center island. She then gave Lacey her full attention.
"I…um…" Lacey rubbed the back of her neck, as she composed her thoughts. "I wanted to thank you for inviting me into your home. You have a lovely place here. Very cozy and welcoming."
"It's a good place to raise a family," Carrie smiled warmly. "Keeps me on my toes, especially when we have a house full. Not many people come during this time of year, though. Most of the tourists stay in places closer to the ski resorts until spring. In another month we'll be full-up again and people will be swarming around here like flies."
Lacey nodded. "I'm sure they will. I also wanted to let you know that I won't be a bother while I'm here. If you need anything," she glanced at the stove and oven, "except my limited cooking skills, then feel free to ask. I'd even be willing to watch the boys if necessary. They're really great kids."
"You're a doctor, aren't you?" Carrie asked. "I think Mac mentioned that in one of her emails to us."
"Yes," Lacey replied. "A surgeon, actually. I was a field surgeon in the Desert until I took the flight surgeon training at Ft. Rucker. I still did a few surgeries after I returned to Iraq as a flight surgeon, even though it was no longer part of my duties."
"Well," Carrie continued. "The reason I mention it is because the men over at the bunk house tend to get cuts, gashes, splinters, bruises and such, but none of them will drive all the way into town to see a doctor. Maybe you can help out by being our doc on call here at the ranch? Ben can get any medical supplies and equipment you might need. That way Blackie and the others will have someone here to look after them when they get hurt or sick. And I wouldn't mind help watching my boys, on occasion. They can get kind of rambunctious at times, though. So, what do you say?"
Lacey considered both offers for a moment. "I would love to do both. I can bone up on my medical skills and keep an eye on the boys when you need me to. I wouldn't mind at all."
"And don't worry about being paid," Carrie put in when she saw the hesitation in Lacey's eyes. "Ben can put you on the ranch payroll as one of the hired hands, so you'll get a bi-weekly paycheck."
"I actually wasn't thinking about that," Lacey said. "I was wondering how anyone will get ahold of me when an emergency comes up. Mac doesn't have a phone at her place."
"Oh, that's right," Carrie considered that thoughtfully. "I'll just have Ben pick up another cell phone the next time he's in town. That way you'll have your own number and can be reached whenever you choose to answer."
"Well, I could just pick one up myself," Lacey added.
"Don't be silly," Carrie waved her off. "We'll just add yours to our group plan. Everyone here on the ranch has a cell phone, just in case. You'll see why, soon enough."
Carrie continued to tidy up the kitchen as Lacey leaned against the counter. Lacey had something more to say but didn't quite know how to breach the subject. She really hadn't known Mac's sister in-law for very long and didn't know how the woman would react to what she had to say.
"Is there something else, Lacey?" Carrie stopped what she was doing and moved to stand in front of the deeply-pondering woman. "Is it something I can help you with? What is it?"
"I…" Lacey shook her head, looked down at her feet and crossed her arms over her chest. She then blew out a breath and decided just to go ahead with what she had to say. "I had a nightmare this morning and Mac tried to…She grabbed me and..."
Carrie waited patiently for Lacey to continue. When nothing was forthcoming, she moved to stand next to Lacey and put a comforting arm around the distraught woman's shoulders.
"Tell me what happened, Lacey," Carrie encouraged. "Are you worried about Mac? Did the nightmare involve her in some way?"
"I accidentally hit her and put her in a choke hold," Lacey blurted and then she winced. "I didn't know what I was doing when she tried to grab me…" A tear slid down her cheek.
"Mackenzie didn't look any worse for wear when she came in," Carrie pointed out with a sisterly squeeze of Lacey's shoulders. "Besides, I think she's had worse scrapes and bruises in her life."
"Still," Lacey shrugged dejectedly. "I don't want to hurt her like that. But I can't seem to control what I do when I'm in the grips of one of those nightmares. They seem so real that I just react on instinct. I…"
Carrie turned Lacey until they were facing each other. Then she put a hand on each of Lacey's upper arms and held her at arm's length.
"She loves you, Lacey," Carrie gave Lacey an intent look. "And for Mackenzie that means everything. There are very few people in this world who earn her love and respect. You should count yourself blessed to be among us."
Lacey swiped the tears from her cheeks. "I'm not sure what to day to that. I don't know if I'm…"
"Worthy?" Mac's voice interrupted the moment.
Lacey looked up and tentatively watched Mac approach. Carrie stepped away and Mac closed right in and took Lacey in her arms.
"You are definitely worthy of little ol' me, Doc," Mac leaned down and gave Lacey a smoldering kiss, much to her sister in-law's immediate chagrin.
"You two want to be left alone for a few minutes?" Carrie discreetly scooted toward the hallway. "I'll just go check on the boys and make sure they're behaving themselves."
"That would be great, sis," Mac didn't bother to lift her head, as she took Lacey's mouth in another smoldering kiss that left them both breathless.
Neither Mac nor Lacey cared that Carrie left the kitchen. They were content to just share in the moment and continue making out like a couple of teens.
"Have I told you lately that I really, really love you, Lacey Stephens?" Mac said against Lacey's lips.
"Mm, never get tired of hearing it, let me tell ya," Lacey smiled up into bright blue eyes shining with love. "I could listen to your smooth talking charms all day, Chief."
"I could hold you forever," Mac pulled Lacey close and did just that. "You fit perfectly in my arms. You know that?"
"This is definitely one of those times that I don't regret my height one bit," Lacey snuggled close, wrapped her arms around Mac and let her cheek rest against Mac's cleavage. She inhaled deeply of the woman's scent and sighed in contentment. "I can't believe you did that in front of Carrie."
"It shut you up, didn't it?" Mac snickered.
"Yeah," Lacey deadpanned. "About that. How much of our conversation did you actually hear?"
"Enough to know you were beating yourself up over what happened this morning," Mac replied. "It wasn't your fault, Lac. You have to believe that. You weren't in your right mind. It was the nightmares. It wasn't you."
Lacey sighed again. "I hate it that I hurt you, Mackenzie."
"You didn't," Mac put a finger under Lacey's chin and lifted it until sea-green eyes swimming with unshed tears were looking at her. "I'm fine. You just surprised me with that choke hold you put me in. I wasn't expecting those moves you made on me. I'm actually kind of impressed that you knew how to do that." She rubbed her temple again. "And I wasn't expecting to be backhanded." She then held up a staying hand when it looked like Lacey was going to protest. "No, Doc. I really shouldn't have tried to grab you like that. It was stupid and I pretty much got what I deserved."
"No one deserves to have someone they love suddenly go all psycho ninja on them like that," Lacey continued with a wry half-grin.
"No, but the psycho ninja with deadly combat skills doesn't deserve to beat herself up just because she did what she was trained to do while serving her country in hostile territory," Mac countered. "And the woman who loves her with all her heart understands that the psycho ninja didn't mean to do what she did. Okay?"
"Okay," Lacey conceded and returned her cheek to Mac's chest. "Maybe we should find a shrink here in Jackson to help me deal with these nightmares. Do you have any idea where to start looking?"
"Oh, I'm sure I can come up with a few suggestions," Mac rested her chin on top of Lacey's head and just held her. "Are you sure you want to do the shrink thing again, after all that happened?"
"Oh, yeah," Lacey nodded. "Especially after all the crap that's happened." She lifted her head and looked at Mac with a sad smile. "Not that I don't appreciate using you as my own personal sounding board, but I don't think you need me dumping all my psychological burdens into your lap. I might just send you screaming into the night."
"Never," Mac chuckled. "I'm here for the long haul, Doc. I love you too much to give up on us now. And I'll probably do a little of my own soul searching with someone, too. Can't let you have all the fun, now, can I?"
"You? Go to a shrink?" Lacey shot Mac a faux scoff. "Why, Mackenzie Papadopoulos, whatever will you talk about with a complete stranger?"
"You're not the only one with scars from Iraq, there, Doc," Mac replied with a scowl. "I have my own scars to reconcile with before I can move forward with our life together. One of those is how I feel about the helicopter crash."
Lacey's expression turned serious. "I didn't realize, Mackenzie. I'm sorry. With all that's happened…"
"No need to apologize, Lac," Mac cut in. "You definitely have issues." She smirked and got a slap for her efforts. "Ouch." She then pulled Lacey close in order to keep the woman from retaliating any further. "I just need to talk to someone about some stuff. It might actually be nice to sit down with someone who wasn't there and just talk about what happened."
"I'm sure it will do us both good to get some things off our chest," Lacey agreed.
"Can't hurt, right?"
"I sure hope not," Lacey shuddered involuntarily.
"What was that for?"
"Just had a little flashback of being in that stupid hospital is all," Lacey replied. "That doctor or psychiatrist or whatever he is calling himself these days was a real quack."
"Wish I could go back down there and wring his lousy neck," Mac ground out between clenched teeth.
"Down, there, tiger," Lacey put a hand on Mac's belly and rubbed gentle circles to calm her. "He's not worth a stint in the state pen in Louisiana."
"No," Mac conceded. "Definitely not worth serving time over. But it would sure be worth it to wrap my hands around his neck and watch his eyes bulge out of his freakin' head. You could watch."
Lacey chuckled. "I wouldn't be watching, Chief. Believe me. I'd be right in there with ya."
Mac laughed. "Really?"
"Oh, yeah," Lacey nodded. "I ever see that son of a bitch again, wild horses won't be able to stop me from launching myself at him and tearing his windpipe out with my bare hands."
"Whoa, there, Doc!" Mac took a step back and looked at the huge grin on Lacey's face. "You're pulling my leg, aren't you?"
Lacey wiggled her brows a few times. "Gotcha."
Mac wrapped an arm around Lacey's shoulders and steered her toward the living room. "Let's go see how much of the movie we missed, shall we?"
"Aw," Lacey pouted teasingly. "You didn't like my little joke?"
"Let's just say, paybacks are hell, Doc," Mac kept her expression neutral, as they made their way down the hall.
"Promises, promises," Lacey shot back with sly grin, as they reached the end of the hallway and walked into the living room.
A loud blast from the surround sound speakers shook the floor beneath them, as the movie reached its pivotal climax and the two boys cheered loudly when the heroes appeared to save the day.
"…so you understand the urgency, Franklin?" Meredith sat across the large walnut desk from a man in his late sixties with gray at his temples and a gleam in his dark eyes. "This needs to be taken care of immediately and with as little fuss as possible."
"I understand completely, Meredith," Franklin Chamberlaine smiled his perfect smile, as he clasped his hands on the desk in front of him. "Your daughter has nothing to worry about. We'll take care of everything and have this resolved before the end of the week."
"And my divorce?" Meredith added.
"That's another story," Franklin sat back in his leather desk chair. "There are a lot of variables to consider. Are you sure divorce is the answer…"
"I'm sure," Meredith shot back. "James crossed a line where my daughter is concerned. And we haven't been on the best of terms in a long time. Divorce, at this point, is the only solution. I want it taken care of, Franklin. And I don't want a mess. As far as I'm concerned, James Stephens and I are finished. We were finished years ago. I just wasn't ready to see the writing on the wall."
He considered her words carefully. "I suppose you're right. I just hate to see you two give up so easily."
"James never cared about the same things I did, Franklin," Meredith added. "He was all about the money. Well, he'll get what's coming to him. Not a penny more. I trust that you will see to that."
"I will," he nodded sagely. "Our firm has always been at your family's disposal, Meredith. You know that."
"I do," she confirmed. "Just remember that when James comes crawling back to you with his tail tucked between his legs and a sob story on those lying lips of his."
"The partners and I are onboard with anything you need, Meredith," he reached across the table to take her hand in his. "I assure you we will do our best to make this transition as smooth as possible for you and your lovely daughters."
She stood up and let him take her hand in his. "Thank you, Franklin. That means the world to me, as you well know."
He stood, as well. "It has been a pleasure, Meredith. Let's do lunch some time, shall we?"
"I think that would be lovely, Franklin," she released his hand and turned to leave. "And do bring your lovely wife, will you? I so enjoy catching up on all that's going on with the local film industry."
"Allison would enjoy that," he said. "Her latest project is something I think you would really enjoy. It's a faith-based piece set a few miles outside Houston."
Meredith stopped in the doorway and turned to look at him. "We'll definitely get together for lunch. I'll bring Lillian with me. Goodbye, Franklin."
"Goodbye, Meredith," he waved to her. "Until next time."
"Until next time," she said and then ducked out the door.
She passed the receptionist and gave the young woman a polite nod as she continued on her way. Once she was outside the towering office building of the law firm her family had used for three generation, Meredith breathed a sigh of relief. She didn't pause on the sidewalk for long and quickly ducked into the waiting limousine sitting at the curb.
James' unexpected voice next to her nearly made Meredith jump, as she sat down on the black leather seat.
"James?" Meredith rounded on him in surprise. "What in the world are you doing here?"
"Taking care of some loose ends," he said.
She looked down and saw the small pistol aimed at her.
"Don't, Meredith," he warned. "Just sit back and enjoy the ride."
"No reason you should know that, just yet," he cut in again. "Wilson has the directions and will take us where we need to go."
"James," she continued in a firm voice that belied the terror she was actually feeling. "Think about what you're doing."
"Oh, I have," he said, as he kept the pistol trained on her chest. "I've thought long and hard about a lot of things. You. Me. Justin. Lacey. Lily. Our life. The fact you left me in Vienna with no way of getting home. Did you know Delores Pressman wired me the money for the plane ticket I used to get back to Houston?"
"Yep," he nodded. "She's been my mistress for going on six years now."
"That's right," he shot her a satisfied grin. "Ever since you kicked me out of our bed, Meredith. Delores made me feel like a real man."
"You're no such thing," Meredith ground out in anger. "You abused Lacey, James. You took her in your study behind my back and beat her. No man does that to a child."
"Well, she wasn't my child, now, was she?" He shot back with sly grin. "Lacey was never mine, Meredith. You and I both know that."
"She was just a child, James," Meredith emphasized. "You had no right…"
"Didn't I?" He moved closer and pressed the barrel of the pistol into her chest. "I was the only father she knew. For all intents and purposes, she was my child."
"Justin would have never…"
"Justin wasn't here, now, was he?" He pressed closer. "He's been dead for how long now?"
"Don't," Meredith shook her head.
"My brother always held your heart, didn't he?" James hissed adamantly. "Admit that you never loved me, Meredith. Admit it!"
"James, please…" She couldn't help the quaver in her voice, as fear gripped her. "Stop the car and let me go this instant!"
"No," he shook his head. "Not until you tell me where they went."
"You know who, Meredith," he held the pistol just a touch higher until it was pointed at her neck. "I want to know where Lacey went."
"I have no idea, James," she lifted her chin defiantly. "Go ahead. Shoot me! Kill me right here in cold blood. Do it! Then you can rot in hell like the piece of rotten garbage that you've become. I have no idea why I ever agreed to marry you. You're right. I never loved you. I always loved Justin. He's the only man I ever loved. And he gave me Lacey. She was my light until Lillian came along. I love both my girls. And I'm grateful to you for Lillian. But I don't know where Lacey is and, even if I did, I wouldn't tell you. She's happy and you're not going to spoil the happiness she's found."
"I don't give a good goddamned about her perverted version of supposed happiness!" James pressed the pistol beneath Meredith's chin. "I want her money. I want my money. That money belongs to me, Meredith! You know it does!"
"That money was Justin's, James," Meredith glared at him, despite the pistol barrel against her chin. "He was the one your father chose as his heir. He was the one worthy of inheriting the Stephens legacy. He would never resort to this kind of barbaric behavior, no matter the circumstances."
"You knew very little about my brother," James seethed. "He wasn't the saint that everyone remembers him being." He pulled the pistol away from her and waved it in the air. "My brother was a greedy little son of a bitch who just wanted to please the old man in order to get his hands on the family fortune. He never wanted to join the damned Army. That was Father's idea. Not Justin's. The old man wanted to continue the family legacy of military service. We've been serving our country for four generations, as far as I know. Your perverted bastard offspring was the fifth and the only female to have served. Too bad she'll never be recognized for anything but a damned homosexual reprobate who besmirched the uniform that my dear brother gave his life for."
Meredith managed to scoot to the other side of the limo enough that she was out of James' reach. "Justin was a good man, James. He was a far better man than you ever will be. He was brave and honorable, unlike you."
James snorted derisively. "Justin couldn't hack it in medical school, which is why he quit and went to West Point. Father got him a commission by pulling a few strings. I'll admit that he was a better soldier than I ever would have been. But he was no brave and honorable man. He was a failure. And good riddance to him for not returning from that godforsaken hell hole they call Vietnam." He then scooted over until he was right next to her again. "Now, tell me where that no-good excuse for a bastard offspring of his is. I want my money!"
"Never," Meredith crossed her arms over her chest and just glared at him. "Lacey escaped your tyranny. She deserves a life away from you."
"She deserves to be locked away forever," James hissed. "I want my money, Meredith. I'm not kidding about this. Where is she?"
"Yes!" He waved the pistol again.
Meredith defiantly pressed a button above her head. "Stop the car, Wilson!"
"You will do no such thing!" James pointed the pistol at the rearview mirror as it came into view. "Keep driving, Wilson. Do it, if you know what's good for you."
Wilson's eyes widened. "Y-yes, Mr. Stephens."
"No!" James turned the pistol back on Meredith. "Shut up, Meredith! Just shut up! I don't want to hear anything more out of you. Do you understand me?"
"You can't shoot both of us, James," Meredith glanced purposely at Wilson in the rearview mirror. "Pull the car over, Wilson. I'm getting out."
"I'm warning you, Meredith," James leaned in close and pressed the barrel against her throat. "Do. Not. Test. Me."
"And let you threaten my daughter?" Meredith lowered her chin until she was looking him in the eye. "Shoot me, James. I'm not telling you anything. We're through."
The car stopped and Meredith reached for the door handle.
"Don't…" James didn't keep the pleading tone from his voice.
"I hope Delores knows what she's gotten herself into with you, James," Meredith opened the door and climbed out of the car without hesitation. "My attorneys will be in touch."
She then slammed the door in his face and walked away to hail a cab. A gunshot sounded in the late afternoon hustle and bustle on the busy city street. Meredith never knew what hit her as she collapsed face-first to the sidewalk with a bullet in her back. The gunshot was followed by the squeal of tires, as the black limo sped away and disappeared from sight.
Bystanders rushed to the fallen woman's side and someone called 911 on their cell phone. But Meredith Stephens was already dead.
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