THE ROAD BACK HOME

By

Lynne Norris

©

February 2001

Disclaimers: This is an uber story. The physical description may remind you of two people weíve come to know over the past five years. All characters in the story are my own creation. This story is an original work and is copyrighted by the author. It cannot be sold or used for profit in any way.

Violence Warning/Disclaimer: This story takes place in and around a hospital. No patient confidentiality has been compromised in the creation of this story. It depicts scenes of violence, death and/or their aftermath. Some scenes may be explicit or graphic in nature. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something else.

Hurt/comfort Warning/Disclaimer: This story may be classified as a hurt/comfort story.

Love/Sex Warning/Disclaimer: The story depicts a love/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women. Some scenes may be explicit in nature. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it. If depictions of this nature disturb you, you may wish to read something other than this story.

To all the women who beta read this story, offering their advice, support and friendship along the way Ė my thanks. You are all very special to me.

Comments and feedback welcome Ė L66n@msn.com

This story is dedicated to the woman who holds my heart and soul, Catherine, who believed in me even when Iíve doubted myself.

 

 

 

Part 1

 

Chapter One

 

 

Steam pulsed from the bright yellow kettle followed by a high-pitched whistle a second later, announcing that the water was boiling. The tall, shadowed figure pushed off the wall opposite the stove and quickly turned the gas burner off, silencing the noise. The woman grimaced, her chest muscles still protesting the strain, as she lifted the kettle and poured the water into two white, ceramic mugs. Silently, except for the occasional gentle click of the spoon on the sides of the cup, she stirred the coffee and stared at the wall in the kitchen of her loverís home.

Lost in thought, Alex absently tugged at the neck of her oversized, white tee shirt draped over her strong, athletic form. Her body was almost masculine in its carriage except for the soft curves and full breasts that were hidden by the loose fitting garment. Whether the cotton was irritating the slightly raised, vertical scar that ran the length of her sternum she wasnít sure, but she was distinctly aware of the sharp, intermittent stabs of pain that drew her attention to the area.

For a split second, she was back in the trauma room and the sickening, vice-like clamp around her chest was making it hard to breathe again. The panic slammed into her like a freight train and she gripped the edge of the counter hard, steadying herself against the sudden weakness in her legs. She fought the rising bile in her throat and willed herself to stay upright against the tide of uncontrolled fear. Seconds passed and the hollow, empty feeling receded, leaving her with an almost irrational sense of giddiness. She exhaled hard and cursed softly as the sharp, staccato report of the gun firing immediately followed by the searing pain in her chest replayed in her memory.

She tilted her head, hearing a murmur coming from the bedroom that was a short distance from the narrow galley kitchen. It was still early, only five oíclock in the morning, but neither Alex nor Regina had been sleeping well as the day drew closer for them to return to work. The tall dark-haired woman sipped the hot beverage, and then set the mug down on the counter, deciding to let it cool for a couple of minutes.

She was expected at a medical directorís meeting at ten. The fallout from Dr. Jamesonís drug scandal was far reaching, and the community was quick to register its mistrust; the overall admissions to the hospital were down a drastic ten percent overall. Alex sighed, knowing ten percent didnít sound like much, but in this day and age with the hostile competitiveness of the health care environment, the other hospitals jumped at the opportunity to capitalize on Xavierís very public humiliation. Having been the catalyst that thrust the dirty little secret out into the open, Alex was left in the awkward position of being both a savior to the staff in the ER who worked for Dr. Jameson and a traitor to the administrators who were personal friends of the doctor.

A distraught cry jarred her from her thoughts and she moved quickly out of the kitchen toward the bedroom. At the door, Alex heard Regina moan from the bed as she thrashed beneath the blankets. She stepped closer and listened intently, straining to hear what the blonde was mumbling in her sleep.

"Oh God," Regina moaned. "No please ... Oh God ... Oh God ... Oh-"

Unable to stand the tortured sounds as her lover struggled in her dream, her hands twitching as she clutched at the covers, Alex crawled onto the bed beside her.

"Regina?" Gentle hands shook the sleeping womanís shoulders.

"Regina, hey, wake up." Alex reached up and stroked Reginaís face, trying to rouse her.

The horrible dream slowly receded and Reginaís body relaxed slightly as the desperate feeling of dread faded. Her hands slowly released their grip on the blankets and the worried frown on her face eased. The tousled blonde head turned and green eyes blinked, slowly focusing on the worried face looking down at her.

Alex curled up beside Regina, propping herself up on one arm as she wiped the damp tendrils of hair back off her loverís forehead. "Shh, you were having a nightmare."

Reginaís eyes widened and she sat up throwing her arms around the dark-haired woman. She buried her head in Alexís shoulder and held on tightly, scrunching her eyes together as she fought back the overwhelming sense of fear and loss.

"Youíre here," she finally whispered, still clutching Alex to her.

Startled by the intense reaction, Alex just held onto her, rubbing her hand over her back and neck and murmuring soft words of comfort to her.

"Iím right here, Reg. Iím right here." She held back a grunt as she lowered herself onto her side and wrapped her body around the smaller one that was plastered to hers. Alex watched the young woman huddled against her and wondered what was haunting her dreams.

The blonde inhaled the warm, familiar scent of Alexís skin, allowing it to calm her racing heart and ground her in the reality that her lover was alive and well and here, holding her tightly. Come on Reg. Get a grip. Sheís here, sheís fine. Damn, why am I still dreaming like this?

"It must have been a bad one. You were crying out." Alex brushed her lips against Reginaís forehead. "Do you remember what it was about?"

Regina shook her head and rubbed the bridge of her nose as she closed her eyes, trying to pull back the fragmented pieces that were rapidly fading into her subconscious the more awake she became. "No, no itís gone now."

The taller woman reached for Reginaís hand and squeezed it gently. "Itís ok."

Inside she knew they were both suffering from the after affects of the whole traumatic ordeal, but neither had ventured to broach the subject, afraid of the floodgates of emotion it would unleash and unsure if they could withstand the repercussions from it so early on in their newfound relationship. Alex rested her cheek on Reginaís head and closed her eyes, taking solace in the knowledge that they had grown so close as friends before having plunged into the emotional and sometimes turbulent waters of being lovers. The woman she held in her arms knew more about her vulnerabilities than anyone else in this world and she hoped their friendship would sustain them because right now, she felt her control slipping and it frightened her.

Alex squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her lips against the soft blonde hair. "I love you, Regina," she breathed. It was spoken as both a vow and a plea.

The blonde turned and reached up, encircling Alexís shoulders with her arm. Her lips found their mark, and Alex tilted her head, prolonging the soft, gentle contact of their mouths as their lips joined in a kiss.

The contact created growing warmth down in her belly and Alex trailed her hand down Reginaís jaw, letting her fingers come to rest gently against the side of her neck. She felt the smaller woman ease up the contact and then pull back to look up at her.

"That was nice," she murmured softly, rubbing her cheek against Reginaís, enjoying the slowly growing intimacy they were both beginning to feel comfortable with again. The first few weeks out of the hospital were miserable, leaving them both emotionally and physically drained during Alexís recovery.

"Yeah." Reginaís expression was wistful as she gazed back up at Alex. "I wish Iíd stop having these damn dreams." She watched as her companion swept her mane of long black hair back over her shoulder and peered at her from beneath her rumpled bangs. There was something about the way Alex looked at her that made her feel like everything would be right with the world if they could just stay right here.

"You donít remember what theyíre about?" Alex asked softly.

"Just bits and pieces, but nothing that makes any sense to me." Regina rubbed her face, flopped back down onto the pillow, and groaned.

"Mm, you want some coffee?" Alex changed the subject, hearing the rising frustration in Reginaís voice.

Regina turned and snuggled closer to Alex. "Yeah, Iíd love some. I feel like I have cobwebs inside my head."

Alex chuckled and let one hand stray down Reginaís side and rub gently over the soft, smooth skin of her hip before she climbed out of bed. "Come on Doc, letís get that coffee. No cobwebs allowed on your first day back."

Regina followed the taller woman and grimaced as her feet touched the cold hardwood floor. "So, are you sure youíre definitely up for this?"

"Yes, Dr. Kelly released me yesterday," Alex assured her as she walked barefoot into the kitchen and handed Regina the steaming mug of coffee.

The blonde sipped the hot liquid and studied the angular face of her lover. Even though six weeks of rest and eating well had made a world of difference in the physical appearance of the taller woman, Regina was still worried about Alex. Sheíd voiced her concerns about Alex returning to work so soon, but was met with stubborn opposition about suggesting that Alex take more time off.

"You certainly look like you feel better and youíve gained some weight back at least."

Alex smirked at this and wrapped an arm around Reginaís shoulder. "How could I not with the way youíve been feeding me? Iím going to get love handles soon."

Regina snorted softly and rubbed Alexís belly, grateful not to feel the pronounced outline of her ribs anymore. "As if that would ever happen. Hey, doctorís orders. Remember?" The blonde squeezed her waist gently, mindful of the pain that still frequently plagued Alex from the injury.

The brunette set her mug down on the counter and turned so she was facing the smaller woman, linking her hands behind Reginaís back. "You know, I am not going to break. You can squeeze me harder than that."

In response, Regina tightened her arms around Alexís waist slightly and tilted her head up to smile at her. "I know. I just donít-"

Alexís lips against hers cut off her sentence; Regina leaned against her, reveling in the sweetness of her lips, and the texture of her tongue as they gently explored each other. The taller woman ran her fingertips along the side of Reginaís cheek, letting them come to rest onto the sensitive skin of her neck before she broke off the contact and gazed down at the blonde wrapped in her arms.

"Itís ok. Youíre not going to hurt me." Alex slowly released her and leaned back against the counter. Her mouth quirked into a hesitant grin and she glanced down at the floor before she spoke again. "You still interested in coming over to my place after your shift tonight?"

Regina reached over and interlaced her fingers with Alexís, surprising the taller woman. "Sure, I already packed my bag." She squeezed the hand once, then opened the refrigerator and studied the contents, before deciding on making omelets for breakfast. "I assume we need to go shopping for food if we plan to eat anything," the blonde glanced back up at her companion.

Alex pursed her lips and tilted her head, eyes flashing mischievously before she spoke. "I donít suppose macaroni and cheese out of a box is going to cut it, huh?"

"Not even close," Regina countered, tugging at the hem of her loverís shirt. "Come on, if we donít get a move on weíre going to be late. I have rounds with Dr. Timmons at seven."

*******

After dropping Regina off at the doctorís entrance so she could make it to rounds on time, Alex entered the medical center through one of the lesser-used entrances and walked down the back corridor to the linen department. She signed out a pair of large gray-blue scrubs and was almost out of the area when she heard a womanís voice call out her name from behind her.

Alex turned around and looked warily at the petite, red-haired woman who worked in the linen department. This was exactly what she wanted to avoid when she came back: those first awkward interactions.

"Hello, Margarite."

"Itís good to have you back Doctor Margulies." The woman walked up to Alex and smiled tentatively. "You must be feeling better."

The dark head nodded briefly. "Yes, I am feeling better." Alex started to turn to walk away, but felt a touch on her arm.

"I am glad that you are the Medical Director. That other man is mean. He treated everyone badly."

Alex looked down at her hands, not wanting to discuss her predecessor or anything having to do with him.

The tiny woman squeezed Alexís arm. "My little boy still asks about you."

Alex blinked, trying to recall the name. She had set the boyís fractured arm last summer, that much she remembered. There were so many patients, their names and faces becoming blurs, and oftentimes she remembered them only by their diagnosis.

"Jose is seven now," Margarite offered, quietly. "He still wants to be a doctor."

Alex wasnít sure why but she felt the subtle unease growing in the pit of her belly as she stood talking to the woman and desperately needed to be alone to get a grip on her emotions. "You tell him heíll be good at whatever he wants to be." Alex responded quietly, before she turned abruptly and walked away down the dark, narrow corridor toward the back staircase.

She slipped into her office, shut the door and quickly changed into her scrubs. For a few minutes she stood in front of the window, staring out the window at the helicopter pad two flights below. She blew out a breath, her expression pensive as she wondered if she could still do her job after what happened. There was a part of her that felt like she would be looking over her shoulder all the time. Gone were the battle-tested defenses that protected her from the daily onslaught of human suffering and the toll it took on her psyche. With one last look out of the window, Alex collected her thoughts and left for her meeting.

Dressed in her usual attire of scrubs and a lab coat, Alex entered the small, rectangular conference room and regarded the group of physicians briefly before she settled into her chair. The conversation around the table dwindled quickly until the last two people talking finally looked up upon seeing the tall, dark haired woman take the last remaining seat at the table. Even ten pounds lighter than before her injury, Alexís tall, sinewy frame along with her sometimes sharp, hawkish demeanor was imposing to even the most callous of the medical staff.

"Gentlemen." Her voice carried easily across the room and betrayed no evidence of the inner emotions she was struggling with. She knew all of the men sitting around the table, having worked with most of them throughout her career. She was the first woman to have been appointed medical director within the hospital and knew it would be the topic of discussion in the medical staff lounges until she either proved herself or failed. It seemed to be an ironic twist of fate that everything happened at once and knew without a doubt that she would be tested to the limits of her ability.

Dr. Timmons, the mild-mannered Chief of Pediatrics, raised his head from the pile of papers in front of him and offered a subtle nod of his head in way of acknowledgment. The rest regarded her quietly, and then Dr. Matthews, the president of the medical staff, cleared his throat.

"Dr. Margulies, I trust you are aware of the agenda here today, so letís get down to business."

Good to see you too, Frank. She expected the icy exchange, knowing that the doctor was a close friend of Dr. Jamesonís. Alex pulled the stack of papers to her and flipped through them briefly. "Certainly, our ER admissions are down ten percent and the rest of the hospital is operating at sixty percent capacity," she replied without looking up.

There were a few coughs followed by an uncomfortable silence. The brunette raised her eyes and regarded the shocked looks coming at her from around the table. She settled her weight onto her elbows and looked at her colleagues. "What? Itís no secret. Iím sure no one here is surprised by it."

"The question is what the hell weíre going to do about it," Dr. Miller, a blonde-haired, lanky radiologist chimed in, looking plaintively around the table. "They cut my budget by another three percent in the past month. I can barely cover all the shifts with the staff I have."

"We laid off two more techs in Endoscopy, yet they want us to increase our caseload by at least fifty more a week," one of the other physicians complained.

Alex closed her eyes, steeling herself against a dull pain already starting in her chest and the vice-like headache that made her eyes feel heavy. So many times the problems became the sticking point in the meetings she filled in on, and the focus to find any worthwhile solutions were lost.

Not today. She was not in the mood for this bullshit and had better things to do, like treat patients. She needed to get her hands back in the mix of things and get over the nervousness that was more than beginning to annoy her.

As she listened to the complaints, she folded her hands together and rested her chin on her fingertips, going through the different options in her mind.

"Any suggestions, Dr. Margulies?"

Alex raised an eyebrow and glanced over at Dr. Matthews who was regarding her with a smug smile. Ah, let the games begin. You asked me to be here, Frank. Letís see if youíre up to the task.

"We need to streamline what we do, make a fast track for those injuries in the ER that we can get in and out in less than an hour. Itís also time we update the computerized inventory system. Weíre losing thousands of dollars a month because weíre not billing right." She glanced over at the Chief of Surgery. "David, I donít envy your job but you need to get your doctors on board. They need to stop fighting over primetime in the OR. You can schedule similar cases in blocks of time so the set up and break down of the OR rooms takes less time."

The surgeonís mouth set in a hard, thin line at the comment and his eyes darkened in anger. Several of her colleagues stared at her, having had the wind taken out of their sails. Good, Alex thought to herself, no need to let them get on a roll. Weíll be here all day and not accomplish a damn thing.

"Now as far as our reputation, Iíve had six weeks to read every bloody goddamn article the press has written about this drug fiasco." Alex stared down the table meeting each and every one of the doctorsí eyes, daring them to utter one word against Jamesonís termination.

In some respects, doctors were much like police officers in adhering to the unwritten code of silence they upheld when covering for one another. Alex had broken that code and knew she could expect little to no support in her idea for the hospital to regain the communityís trust.

"Thereís a clinic on the other side of town that the hospital used to staff with doctors on a rotating basis. We pulled out of there three years ago and left the community with no place to go to but the hospital for their routine care. It was a bad move and itís time we get our butts back in there." She spread her hands out on the table and waited.

"What are we supposed to do? Give our services away for free?" One of the directors complained loudly at the other end of the table.

Alex sat back in her chair, holding her temper in check against the lone skeptic willing to voice his opposition to the idea. The rest sat back in silent protest, staring down at the table in feigned interest. She learned a long time ago how to play the game with the boys. "Weíre a non-profit hospital. Things like vaccinations, well-baby checkups are quick and easy to do. You forget, Bob," she addressed the physician at the other end of the table. "Most of the people the clinic served donít have insurance. We donít have to spend a lot of time down there. A few hours a week from each of the specialties should do it."

"We? You mean us? Thatís a waste of our time. My department has research deadlines to meet." Dr. Miller pushed back away from the table, shaking his head and grumbling loudly.

Alex leaned forward and fixed a dark, icy stare on each of the doctors. "Listen, we can either sit up here in the ivory tower and hope the community will forget about what happened or we can go out there and show them that we have an excellent group of medical professionals who actually give a crap about what happens to them. Just remember, the public doesnít have to come here, they have other choices and I think theyíre making them damn clear what they are."

"I agree," Dr. Timmons chimed in, casting Alex a quick glance in her direction. "We see twenty kids a week in the ER for things that if caught earlier would take fifteen minutes to diagnose and treat in a clinic. Instead, they come to the ER sicker, wait three hours before anyone sees them, tie up the residents, equipment and require expensive tests. I think itís a good idea."

"It has some merit. Why donít the two of you put together a plan and weíll talk about it at the next meeting." Dr. Matthews looked between the two physicians then stood up and walked to the door, effectively ending the meeting.

The room quickly emptied and Alex met Dr. Timmons at the door. He smiled, briefly looking at her. "You look better than the last time I saw you. How are you doing?"

She studied his expression and relaxed her defenses, sensing his sincerity. "As well as can be expected."

"I hope youíre ready to take on this horde of non-believers, Alex. This isnít going to be easy for you."

Alex straightened up and squared her shoulders as she gazed steadily at the pediatrician. "Iím ready. I have to be."

The pediatrician nodded, knowing the open hostility some of the doctors expressed at what happened to Dr. Jameson. "As far as I know, the clinic was stripped clean when they closed it. I never understood why they shut it down in the first place."

Alex shrugged, and then looked down at her beeper as it shrilled loudly at her side. "Politics," she muttered as she picked up the phone next to her on the wall.

******

Her footsteps carried her quickly down the hallway and she weaved her way around a small cluster of administrators talking quietly among themselves. One of them separated from the group, moved toward the tall, dark-haired doctor, and reached for her arm. Alex recognized the characteristic straight nose, short, blonde, wavy hair and blue eyes that peered up at her cautiously.

"Alex, I didnít think you were coming back ... so soon."

The doctor slowed her walk and glanced down at the Vice Presidentís hand that gripped her bicep. Vague recollections of a past conversation replayed in Alexís head and she narrowed her eyes as she stepped away from the firm grip, her upper lip curling into a sneer.

"Your concern is overwhelming, Cassandra." Her words had the intended effect as the woman shrunk away from her. "At one point, I thought you were my friend." She snorted in disgust, angry at herself for being wrong about the Vice Presidentís loyalties. "I couldnít have been more wrong." Alex resumed her walk down the hall, having no intention of discussing anything else with Cassandra.

"Alex, thatís not fair. I always had faith in you."

The doctorís eyes darkened in anger, remembering what Regina told her about her conversation with the Vice President while she sat at her bedside. She whirled around, coming to within inches of the womanís face and snarled. "You call interrogating one of my residents while I was in the intensive care unit, having faith in me?" Alex jabbed her finger at Cassandraís chest. "You were willing to drag innocent people down, ruin careers, just to cover up what was happening right under your nose."

Cassandra stepped back. "Alex, you have no idea what rumors were flying around. Jameson already had an attorney and was threatening a discrimination suit against the hospital by the time I talked to you. Jesus, there are medical records that are missing and you were the only person who had access to them while he was out. What was I supposed to think?"

"Did it ever occur to you that he had them? He had plenty of time to do damage control after I confronted him."

"Alex, I didnít know what was going on!"

"How could you not know what he was doing? You have to sign off on all the research that gets done in the departments," Alex growled.

The Vice Presidentís face was scarlet as she let the accusation sink in. "I have twenty departments Iím responsible for. What I read in his preliminary report looked perfectly legitimate."

"Legitimate?" Alex shook her head, incredulous at the Vice Presidentís response. "You were covering your ass, Cassandra. I canít believe you let that slime pull you into his bullshit scheme! You knew what he was about a long time ago."

A vicious light filled Cassandraís eyes as Alex turned away and walked off toward the emergency department.

Alex felt her pulse pounding in her head as she fumed silently over what had happened. The whole thing had turned into one convoluted mess. Now that the lawyers were involved, God only knew how long it would take to sort out the who-knew-what and- when. In the meantime, Dr. Jameson was terminated and Dr. Mitchard still held her position, although the rumors were already flying that she might be resigning within the month.

The dark-haired doctor slipped through the double doors to the emergency department, careful not to jar her shoulders as the pain it would bring with it still took her breath away on some days. She inhaled the strong antiseptic smell for the first time since her discharge from the hospital and for a moment she held her breath, anticipating the overwhelming feeling of fear to soon follow. This time it didnít come and with it the hope she could resume her work and put this episode of her life behind her. Well, Alex let out a small sigh, maybe this wonít be so bad after all.

Her eyes scanned the department quickly and a smirk crossed her lips. Some things never changed, she mused to herself, spying radiologyís portable x-ray unit standing in the alcove by the door. One of the housekeepers looked up from mopping up a spill and stepped back in surprise as he met the sharp blue eyes looking back at him.

She spoke to him briefly in Spanish and he smiled back, answering in his native tongue. "I transferred here two weeks ago, Dr. Margulies."

"Good to have you, Jose." Alex clasped his shoulder briefly and kept walking. Jose was a tall, rugged looking man with curly dark hair and hazel eyes that twinkled when he smiled. As fate had it they both started working for the hospital at around the same time and Joseís warm and sincere personality endeared him to the often remote and callous attending. Alex chuckled to herself, remembering the night he showed up with a bag of crushed ice for her bruised hand, the same night she was suspended for being judge and jury to an abusive bastard who beat his son.

She heard Sandyís exasperated voice as she neared the desk and smiled, realizing she actually missed the damned place.

"Guys can we take that off speaker phone? That noise is bloody annoying," Sandy called out to one of the technicians. A brief hesitation followed as she picked up another line and put the caller on hold. "Hey, Thomas." She pointed to the two boys sitting slumped miserably in wheelchairs on the other side of the desk. "I need that kid in the cast room and this one goes into the suture room." The nurse set the phone back in the handset and rubbed her temples. "Jesus, this place is a zoo today."

"Having a rough morning?" Alex deepened her voice as she leaned closer to the blonde haired nurse.

Sandy jerked her head up and gasped. "Oh shit, you scared the crap out of me Alex." The curly blonde turned around and stared up at the tall, dark haired woman standing behind her. "Youíre back!" She reached up and pulled Alex into a hug, whispering into her ear. "Iím making good on that rain check."

The dark-haired woman gave a soft snort and brought her arms up around the blonde before she pulled away. "I think I would have passed out if you did that to me the day I was discharged from the hospital."

"I know." The nurse smiled up at her.

"So, what do you have?" Alex peered over Sandyís shoulder at the board.

"We had a group of high school students that went skiing last night and thought it would be a neat idea to bring a couple of flasks of alcohol along."

Alex shook her head and sighed. "How many?"

"Five. Two are three sheets to the wind, toxicology screens are pending on both. One kid has a tibia fracture and the other two have lacerations in various places. The parents are being called right now."

Oh boy. "Do we have an x-ray on the tibial fracture?"

"Right here." One of the residents walked up behind Sandy and slipped the film into the view box on the wall next to them.

Alex ran her finger along the well-defined black line that spiraled down along the shaft of the long bone. "Where is he now?"

"Prepped and ready for the OR. Weíre just waiting for transport to bring him up, now."

"Do we have a consent signed from the parents?"

Silence answered her question.

She turned around and regarded the round faced, rumpled looking resident. She read the name on the tag and inhaled before she spoke. "Dr. Tanner, do you have a consent from the parents for the surgery?"

"Uh, theyíre not here yet," he stammered, staring up at the dark haired woman who stood a full head above him.

"Get the consent before you send that kid up."

"But theyíre ready in the OR."

"Thatís not my problem. Get it! No surgeon is going to touch him without that consent."

Alex turned away, angrily dismissing the resident with an irritated wave of her hand. "Sandy, whereís Jon? Is he on today?"

Sandy hesitated a moment before answering. "Heís in room three."

Alex nodded her head and walked the short distance to the trauma room. She stood by the door, feeling the slight irregular flutter of her heart as she looked into the white tiled space and tried to ignore the significance of the room number. In a vivid flash of memory, she heard Regina cry out and remembered the sharp contrast of the cold tile on her body and the heat of her own blood pulsing from the gun shot wound in her chest. The brunette blinked her eyes rapidly, dispelling the image from her mind and blew out a breath. Come on, this is what you do, Alex. Deal with it.

"Jon, you need help in here?"

The dark-skinned physician stepped back, fumbling with the emesis basin as one of the drunken high school students leaned over the edge of the stretcher and vomited.

"Agh!" He held his arms away from his body and curled his lips in disgust as he stared down at the vomit that spattered his shoes and scrub bottoms. "Son of a bitch! If my kid ever does this I swear he wonít be able to sit for a month!" He turned around and smacked the intercom button, calling for one of the technicians to come into the room. Only then did the doctor stop with his back to Alex and stand still for a second before he finally turned around, his eyes widened in surprise when he realized who spoke to him.

A moment later, Thomas walked into the room, brushed past Alex and grunted in disgust when he looked at the mess on the floor. "Great, just great."

Jon handed him the basin and pushed him in the direction of the stretcher. "Have fun, Ace, thereís plenty more where that came from." The doctor stood quietly studying Alex and then a warm smile crept over his face.

"So, welcome back to the trenches, boss. You ready for this shit?"

"Ready as Iíll ever be." Alex held the door open as Jon slipped past her into the hall.

"Good, let me change and you can splurge for a cup of coffee. Hell of a way to start the day off." He nodded his head in the direction of the boy lying listless on the stretcher.

Alex reviewed several charts while waiting for Jon to return from changing out of his soiled clothes. Her back was toward the small consultation area of the emergency department but she still didnít miss the sudden familiar fragrance of perfume that caught her attention and made her breathing quicken. Now why would she be down here?

Slowly, she turned around and saw Regina, standing a few feet away alongside one of the oncologists, both peering up at a view box studying an x-ray. Alex felt a rush of pride as she discreetly glanced in Reginaís direction. The young, blonde-haired woman, her lover and best friend, was no longer a resident but an attending doctor with staff privileges in the pediatric department. Wow, you did great down here, Regina. Iím going to miss working with you. We made a great team together.

Out of the corner of her eye, Alex saw Jon step out of the locker room and head in her direction, stopping briefly to talk to both doctors. Alex didnít miss the pat on the shoulder he gave Regina. Everyone always did have a soft spot for you. Dressed in fresh scrubs, Jon finally walked over to Alex, shaking his head.

"Damn, Iím glad I donít have to tell the parents the news on that one."

"What is it?" Alex asked, her eyes focusing on the black film that was backlighted in the view box on the wall.

"Looks like it may be osteosarcoma. They have to run some tests to be sure, but the films donít look good."

Alex rested her arms on the counter watching as Regina walked away from the desk, carrying the x-ray films with her. She formed a mental note in her mind and concentrated on the petite figure.

The blonde hesitated outside the door her shoulders lifting slightly as she inhaled and then pushed the door open, disappearing from Alexís view.

"How old is the kid?" Alex turned back to Jon.

"Fourteen. The family support isnít great. The fatherís out of work and the mother is a wreck."

At the other end of the hallway, the double doors burst open with a resounding bang and Alex felt her body jerk in response to the loud noise of a stretcher bursting through the double doors. She stared down at the counter top, waiting for the sudden trembling in her legs to stop and hoped that Jon hadnít noticed her reaction.

She felt her colleague move away from the desk but she grabbed his arm to forestall him. "I got this one," she told him.

"Why donít you start easy and take minor traumas? Itís not like you canít. You are the medical director now."

"No, this is my call. I need to do this, Jon." She walked quickly down the corridor toward the trauma room.

Alexís hands trembled slightly as she pulled on her protective gear before she walked into the organized chaos of the ongoing admission. She took a couple of deep slow breaths to calm her nerves. Being an ER doctor was not for the faint of heart, and she knew her every move today and everyday would be under careful scrutiny by all the staff, checking to see if she still had what it took to do the job and be the captain of the ship.

She squared her shoulders and stepped up to the stretcher, glancing over at the head nurse as she did.

"Weíve got a thirty-two year old female with an apparent drug overdose. Her blood pressure is one ten over fifty and her pulse is weak," Bonnie reported.

"Nice and easy people. On my count," Alex called out as they started to lift the injured woman onto the treatment table. "Let's get a CBC, Tox screen and a blood gas," Alex ordered. I need two large bore peripheral lines, make them 14 gauge. Run ringer's lactate wide-open and get a catheter in her."

Alex started her examination, as a technician and medical student hustled to carry out her orders. "Does anyone know what she took?"

"The paramedics found a bottle of sleeping pills half empty on the nightstand," the nurse told her as she slapped electrocardiogram leads on the womanís bare chest.

"Letís get set up for a stomach lavage." Alex glanced up at the monitor and watched the girlís respirations. "Give me a number eight endotracheal tube. Her sats are dropping."

It took twenty minutes to administer the sodium sulfate and pump the patientís stomach contents out, but by the end it was clear that whether the woman appreciated their efforts or not, she was going to live to see yet another day.

Alex peeled off her gloves and tossed them into the garbage before turning to Bonnie. "Make sure you call psych for a consult and let me know when she starts to wake up."

 


Chapter Two

 

The hours past by and day turned into evening. Regina raised her head and rubbed the back of her neck, working out a kink in her tired muscles. The blonde closed the journal sheíd been reading and stared blankly up at the wall in the medical library, wondering how the young girl she admitted earlier to the oncology floor was doing.

Sheíd walked into that exam room dreading the words she knew had to speak to the family. Cancer. The word itself evoked images of something unholy and evil in most peopleís minds. It was a silent enemy, once whispered in fear by some who held the superstition that the word itself would bring the scourge to oneís self or family. Today there was more hope for survival, but the simple fact remained that to society it was still a disease, a genetic defect, something that was somebody elseís problem until maybe one day it wasnít anymore.

The girlís father was a tall heavyset man with light skin and blonde, wavy hair. He stopped pacing as Regina entered the room, walked over to the view box on the wall, and flicked the light on. Thick eyebrows knitted together as he eyed her suspiciously.

"Christ, this one looks barely out of high school," he muttered contemptuously.

Regina ignored the obnoxious comment about her youthful appearance and walked over to the stretcher where the teenage girl lay fidgeting with the frayed edges of the blue hospital gown. Terry was fourteen and in the throes of those awkward sometimes painful adolescent years. Her reddish blonde hair was pulled back into a ponytail and her face still held some of the youthful innocence characteristic of her age. The girlís mother sat in the corner; one hand clutched the small chain around her neck and the other hand wrapper tightly around a plastic soda bottle that was half empty.

"The x-rays are back," Regina told the family calmly, her voice belying the emotions she felt inside. She slipped the film up under the clip and stepped back to stand beside Terry.

"Itís not good is it?" the girl asked anxiously, looking up at the blonde-haired doctor.

"Iím afraid not, Terry." Regina directed her words to the girl. "That spot on the bone may be a tumor." Regina moved her finger in a circle pointing it out to them all. The mother stared up at the picture and said nothing.

"I want a second opinion," the father announced from his corner of the room. "Some wet behind the ears doctor is not going to walk in here and tell me that my daughter has a damn tumor on her leg."

Regina could feel the manís animosity radiating from him. It was understandable given what she just told them and only added to the guilt she felt for having to deliver this news.

"Mr. Edwards, Iíve consulted with the Director of Oncology already but you can request another doctor look at the findings as well."

"Youíre damn right I can."

"Dad, stop," Terry protested, the girlís face reddening as she sat there on the stretcher, staring down at her leg. She looked up at Regina as tears washed across her eyes and spilled over, falling down her cheeks. "A ... are they going to have to c ... cut my leg off?"

There was a muffled sound as the mother jerked her head up, focusing on her daughter for the first time since Regina walked into the room.

The young doctor looked the girl in the eyes and laid a hand on her thin shoulder. "I donít know, Terry. After we have all the tests done, weíll have a better idea of where weíre going with this. Right now weíre going to get you down to radiology and get a CT scan done."

Regina left the family after answering a barrage of angry and fearful questions from both parents. It was an inauspicious start for her first day on pediatrics and she let out a heavy sigh.

"Hey." A warm voice floated down, interrupting her heavy thoughts. The blonde looked over her shoulder at the dark haired woman standing at the head of the table, gazing down at her.

Alex lifted her leather bag off her shoulder, set it on the table and pulled out the chair next to Regina. She sat down facing the blonde, one knee lightly touching a firm thigh.

"Hi there."

"Hi, yourself. You look beat," Regina replied.

Alex tilted her head and gave a half smile. "We had five drunk high school kids in the ER this morning. One went to the OR for an open reduction of his shattered tibia and the other four are working off their well-deserved miserable hangovers on pediatrics." She flashed a Cheshire grin at the petite blonde.

"Lovely. Rounds will be a blast tomorrow." Regina shook her head in bewilderment. "Wait, you said they were drunk this morning."

"Yeah, a couple of seniors thought it would be cool to bring alcohol with them on their skiing trip last night. We even had the police stop by since one of them was eighteen. What a frigginí mess trying to convince them that he needed to stay until he was medically stable." Alex caught the alarmed look in Reginaís eyes at the mention of the cops being there. "Easy, Derrick wasnít there." She reached out and touched Reginaís hand. "Rumor has it heís on foot patrol now."

The blonde sunk back in the chair, her head dropping forward onto her chest. "Great, one more thing he can be pissed off at me about."

Alex leaned forward. "If he values his job at all he wonít come near you, Reg."

"I know but he just makes me nervous. Heís not the type to just give up and go away."

"What are you reading?" Alex changed the conversation and lifted the corner of the journal, reading the initials then glanced back up at weary green eyes. There was no sense trying to tell Regina that Derrick would stay away. The restraining order might help her piece of mind but it was not a guarantee of safety.

The blonde rested her head in her hands and rubbed her eyes. "I had a fourteen year old with an osteosarcoma on her tibia. I just wanted to review the different options for treatment." Regina pushed the journal away from her. "Not that it will make much of a difference. The best chance for a cure might be an amputation depending on the biopsy and lab results."

"Shit." Alex folded her hands together and hung her head, knowing that it was a highly malignant tumor and if not treated aggressively could metastasize to the lungs quickly.

Regina nudged Alexís leg with hers and tilted her head to look into the pale blue eyes. "How did your day go?"

The doctor shrugged. "Not bad, just weird getting back into the swing of things. Nobody quite knows what to say to me."

Regina glanced up as an exhausted looking resident staggered blindly past their table toward the rear of the library. She remembered those nights when she was so exhausted that her whole body ached and the only thing that kept her going was the knowledge that each minute that ticked by brought her one step closer to going home to sleep. Once all was clear again, she reached out and squeezed Alexís shoulder through her brown leather jacket, enjoying the feel of the well-worn soft leather beneath her hand. "You have no idea how proud I am of you, Alex. I donít know if I could have come back if it was me."

"Yes, you would have." Alex lowered her head and stifled a yawn. "Besides, itís the only thing I know how to do. Come on, letís get out of here."

******

Home. Alex drummed her fingers restlessly on the steering wheel as she guided the Jeep around a turn, squinting as the headlights from another vehicle illuminated the inside of the Jeep for a brief moment. The vehicle jostled over a bump at the beginning of the driveway and the blonde mumbled softly as she stirred in the passenger seat.

The dark haired woman glanced over at her companion and smiled wistfully. I think there are too many memories here for this place to really be home to me anymore. She reached over and touched Reginaís face after she turned off the engine.

"Wake up, sleepyhead."

The young woman startled and opened her eyes, a fleeting look of confusion clouding them until she got her bearings.

"Oh, I fell asleep. Sorry, I guess, I wasnít much company for the ride home."

Alex smiled warmly at the slightly disheveled look Regina had from just waking up. "Itís ok. Come on, letís go in."

Regina pulled her bag out of the Jeep and met Alex at the front door to her townhouse. The fact that Regina practically slept walked to her car on the way out to the parking lot at the hospital earned her a ride in Alexís Jeep. She waited as the doctor keyed the lock and pushed the door open. Inside the taller woman turned on the overhead light, walked over to the kitchen, and set down a bag of Chinese food they had picked up on the way home.

The blonde walked slowly around the first floor, and then poked her head into the kitchen to see what Alex was doing.

The taller woman looked over at Regina and motioned to the closet behind her. "Just hang your jacket in there. Iíll get some plates out and weíll be ready to eat in a minute." The Chinese food was a compromise to a full-blown shopping trip that neither of them was up for after their first day back.

Regina shrugged out of her jacket and glanced around kitchen. The floor was tiled in a white and blue diamond pattern and the appliances looked new. "Do you want some help?"

"No, I got it." Alex reached up into a cabinet and pulled down some plates, wincing at a pain that shot through her chest.

Regina stepped back out of the brightly lit room, missing the look of pain on Alexís face and opened the closet. She located a hanger and as she reached in to hang her jacket up she noticed the black guitar case shoved in the back corner behind the coats. Curious, she leaned closer and made out the initials A.M. etched into the black vinyl case.

Hmm, Alex didnít tell me she played the guitar. She made a mental note to herself to ask Alex about the guitar later on. Straightening up, she shut the door and turned around.

There was an entertainment center with a large television at one end of the living room. A brown leather couch faced the TV and a top of the line stereo system filled the shelves. Always intrigued by electronics, the young doctor walked over to investigate the sound system.

A single picture on the third shelf, caught Reginaís attention and she stepped closer to see the youthful faces looking back at her from within the silver brocade frame. A much younger looking version of her lover stood with her arm draped casually over the shoulders of a teenage boy she was standing beside. They shared the same strong angular facial features, piercing blue eyes, raven hair and wiry athletic builds. There was no mistaking the family resemblance.

The blonde jumped as the floorboards creaked behind her.

"Sorry, I didnít mean to scare you." Alex stopped a couple of feet from where Regina was standing.

The blonde looked up at the pair of wary blue eyes watching her. She folded her arms over her chest and smiled nervously. "You didnít." Regina turned around and looked at the picture. "Is this your brother?"

Alex glanced at the picture and nodded her head, avoiding Reginaís eyes. "Michael. Yeah, thatís him."

*****Her mother had taken that picture outside in the backyard of the single-family house they were renting. Alex felt her heart rate go into high gear, remembering how the moment was shattered seconds later when her father burst through the backdoor, drunk and pissed off at the world. He was out of work again and his drinking always got worse during those times. He hated that his wife showered Alex and Michael with love and affection; hated it because he wasnít a part of it.

His drunken anger guided his actions and he ripped the camera out of Annaís hands and slapped her viciously across her face. There was no hesitation on Alexís part when she let go of her brother and bolted across the yard, tackling him against the picnic table. Her father grunted in pain as he tumbled onto his back.

Alex found herself in a brief stranglehold and then was shoved facedown in the dirt. Overhead, her fatherís gravelly voice broke through the momentary fog.

"Well, it seems your sister has a pair of balls, Michael. Good thing one of ya does Ďcause you sure as hell donít," her father sneered. *****

She felt a touch on her arm and looked down to see Regina peering up at her. "Are you ok? You looked a million miles away for a second."

"Yeah, Iím fine, just hungry and tired." Alex slipped an arm over Reginaís shoulder, guiding her away from the picture and the memories she wasnít prepared to deal with yet.

"Letís eat, then Iíll give you the nickel tour."

Alex filled their plates with food and handed one to Regina. She glanced up at the blonde and tilted her head, as a wistful smile played across her lips.

"What?"

The smile faded and the brunette ducked her head, trying to hide the light blush coloring her cheeks without much success. "I guess I didnít think the first time I brought you here with me weíd be having take out Chinese food for dinner."

Green eyes sparkled and Regina set her plate down on the table. "Oh? What did you have in mind?

Alex pursed her lips and folded her arms over her chest. "Well now, if I tell you it wonít be a surprise anymore will it."

Regina pouted and slipped into her the chair. "Fink."

A moment of silence hung between them and the blonde felt her heart speed as she decided whether or not to pursue her earlier curiosity about what she found the in the closet. "Can I ask you a question?" Regina leaned forward, resting her chin on her palm.

Alexís fork stopped mid-motion and she studied Regina for a second before she answered. "Sure," she responded and then popped the noodles into her mouth.

"Do you play the guitar?"

Blue eyes widened briefly, Alex stopped chewing and nodded her head slowly. "Oh, you found that old thing," she finally managed after she swallowed.

"It was in the closet," Regina offered quietly, trying to read the perplexed look on her loverís face.

"I ... I thought I got rid of it with all of Lanaís things. I just forgot." Just leave it, Regina. I really donít want to go there right now.

"So ... do you still play it?"

Alex dismissed Reginaís question with a wave of her hand. "No, not for a long time."

The blonde toyed with her fork, feeling dejected by her friendís response, but still wanting to know the answer. "Alex, Iím sorry. You just donít talk a lot about yourself. I just want to know you better."

Alexís eyes darted nervously away from Reginaís gaze and she stabbed at the pile of noodles on her plate. Whatís to know?

They sat across from each other at the wooden kitchen table eating in silence for a few minutes. Finally, Alex sighed and peered across the table at the blonde who was focusing on the food on her plate. Only you could bring her over and manage to get into a fight in less than thirty minutes, Alex.

"I think thereís a chance we may be re-opening a clinic downtown," the brunette offered as way of a truce.

Regina lifted her eyes and focused on Alex. "Oh, was that what Dr. Timmons was so excited about?"

Alex swallowed some water and nodded her head, feeling her way tentatively. "Nothing fancy, just routine check-ups, giving vaccinations and treating bumps and bruises. It really helped those people that couldnít get up to the hospital or didnít have insurance."

"So, why did they close the clinic?" Regina asked, trying not to let the disappointment come through in her voice.

"The hospital was losing money on it." Alex shrugged. "Now with all the negative publicity that the hospital is getting the administration might go for it again and try to win some public support back."

Sheís trying, Regina give her a break here. "How convenient." Regina leaned forward and slid a hand across the table to touch Alexís hand. "I missed you today."

"Me too." Contrite blue eyes glanced back up at Regina. "Iím sorry, Regina. I didnít mean to bite your head off before."

Regina squeezed Alexís hand and smiled.

For a moment, they stared at each other, in quiet contemplation both wondering what the other was thinking. Alex broke off her gaze first and rubbed her face, feeling the fatigue from the day starting to weigh her down.

The young doctor watched as Alex finished off the last of the chicken fried rice and quickly rose from her chair to rinse her plate off in the sink. There was an air of edginess around the dark-haired woman tonight and she wondered what was troubling her, beside the questions about the guitar.

The blonde rose out of her chair and carried her plate over to the sink. Alex turned around, colliding with Regina just as she reached out to put the plate on the counter. The smaller woman lost her grip on it and gasped as it crashed to the floor, shattering on the ceramic tile.

"Shit Iím sorry, Alex." Regina knelt to pick the pieces up, then stopped and looked up when she realized that Alex hadnít moved or said anything. "Alex?"

Blue eyes blinked and then slowly focused on her face. "I ... Iíll get it. Donít worry about it, Regina." Alex took the pieces from Regina and quickly knelt to gather the rest from the floor.

The blonde stepped back, confused by the hollowness to Alexís voice. Regina realized as she watched the taller woman that her hands were trembling as she picked the broken pieces up. "Alex, whatís wrong?"

The dark haired woman turned away from her and shook her head. "N ... nothing."

Regina frowned and walked up beside her. Bullshit. "Hey, look at me."

Alexís jaw clenched and she blinked several times before turning her head. She didnít meet Reginaís gaze, just looked out into the living room over her shoulder. No ... no not now. You canít let her see you like this. A soft mewling sound escaped her lips and Alex shook her head, fighting back the tears threatening to fall.

Alarmed, Regina reached up and touched her face. "Honey, whatís wrong. Does something hurt?"

"Itís nothing ... just a pain inside." Alex tried desperately to brush it off. "Dr. Kelly said Iíd have them occasionally."

"This bad? Youíre pale as a ghost."

Alex allowed herself to be led to a chair and slumped into her it, praying for the sickening feeling to go away. The broken pieces of the plate were lifted from her hand and Regina knelt in front of her. She felt like a runaway car careening out of control down a dark, wet, winding highway and the wheels were starting to come loose from the undercarriage.

"Your pulse is racing and you're soaked. Are you short of breath? Any chest pain?" Regina asked, as she took hold of Alexís wrist, feeling her pulse.

The dark head shook slightly. "I ... Iím ok. Itís gone now. Just caught me by surprise, thatís all." Alex glanced up at Regina from underneath her bangs and forced a wan smile. "I think ten hours back to work took more out of me than I thought it would."

The worried look on Reginaís face gave to mild displeasure as she studied her loverís face. "Maybe itís too soon for you to be back full time."

Alex shook her head again and ran her hand up and down Reginaís arm reassuringly. "Itíll be fine, Reg. I just have to get used to it."

"Well, if thatís the case then we can skip the nickel tour and get you straight to bed."

Alex wrapped her arms around the blondeís waist and buried her head between the smaller womanís breast inhaling the warm, clean scent of her, glad that at least for now she had avoided any further questions about what was really bothering her. She glanced around at the kitchen quickly and decided that she could clean up the dishes in the sink tomorrow. The dark haired woman stood up onto shaky legs and pulled Regina into a hug.

"Iím glad you came over tonight," she whispered into the blonde wavy hair.

Regina rested her head against Alexís shoulder and held on to her tightly. "Iím glad you asked me to come over."

Alex led the way up the stairs to the second floor of the townhouse, all the while holding onto Reginaís hand. A few photographs mostly landscapes, decorated the walls in the hallway. She stopped at the first door on the left, stepped into the darkened room, and turned the lamp on the nightstand on. She stood quietly, waiting for Regina to join her.

Everything was as she left it, weeks ago. The room had a Spartan like appearance to it, with bare hardwood floors and what looked to be an almost new coat of white paint on the walls. A few toiletries sat on the bureau in a silver tray and some loose change lie in a pile to the left of it.

"I, um ... " Alex ran a hand through her dark hair and blew out a long breath. "I got rid of a lot of stuff around here after Lana died. Most of it was hers anyway." Her hands hung limply by her sides and she glanced nervously around the room. Christ, what is wrong with me? Itís not even the same room I shared with her.

Regina glanced up at the tortured blue eyes and rubbed her hand over the small of Alexís back reassuringly.

"That had to be so hard; losing someone you ... loved, I donít know how you dealt with it." Regina stopped, as a memory that haunted her subconscious sprang forward with a sudden harsh clarity, leaving her breathless until it slipped away.

"I didnít."

"What?" Regina blinked her eyes, focusing once again on Alex

"I didnít deal with it." Alex leaned over and pulled the maroon comforter back off the pillows. "It took almost eight months for me to make it back up to Provincetown to settle her will with Dana." She shook her head and turned to the blonde. "You donít need to hear any of this."

Regina gabbed hold of Alexís arm and pulled her back as the taller woman started to walk away from her. "Hey, itís the first time youíve been here ... with me anyway, since she died. It has to feel strange somehow," her voice faded away as she looked up into the blue ones cautiously peering back at her.

The dark head tilted forward and Alex rested her forehead against Reginaís, smiling into the green eyes. "Thanks," she whispered.

The blonde pulled away, a pink blush coloring her face. "W ... Why?"

"Because no matter whatís wrong, you always have this way of making me feel better," Alex replied, softly brushing her lips over Reginaís cheekbones.

Regina slid her hands around Alexís waist and pulled her closer. "Funny, you do the same thing for me."

They stood quietly, just holding each other until Alex stepped back, breaking contact first. The brunette was aware of the younger woman standing pensively behind and she kicked off her shoes before she turned back around. "Thanks for putting up with me these past few weeks," she whispered, gathering Regina into her arms and tugged her down onto the bed beside her. "I know Iíve been a bitch most of the time."

"You were in pain, correct that, still are and no you havenít been a bitch Ė not all the time anyway," the blonde conceded with a smile. "Iím just glad youíre alive, Alex." The smaller woman rested her head against the strong shoulder and sighed, letting her body relax into the comforting embrace. It felt incredible to be lying here on the bed curled against the tall, lean body of her partner, the strong, yet gentle hands massaging her arms and shoulders. "God that feels wonderful."

Alex nuzzled her neck and turned the blondeís head to plant a gentle kiss on her lips. She was exhausted and if the nagging pain in her chest wasnít so obtrusive she would have gone farther, but she just wasnít ready to.

The blonde snuggled closer and pressed her lips to the base of the taller womanís throat. "I love you, Alex"

In response, the brunette tightened her arms around Regina. "I love you too, Reg." She struggled with herself over dinner whether to share the significance of that damned guitar. It was difficult for her to open up the doors to her past and share them with anyone. They opened up old festering wounds. Alex ran her hands over the soft blonde hair and sighed, letting her heart guide her decision for the moment. "The last time I played that guitar ... was at Lanaís memorial service." Another piece in her well-constructed defenses fell away and she clenched her jaw tightly.

A small noise came from Reginaís throat, her eyes filling with tears, knowing the pain that Alex went through during that time in her life. She reached up and stroked the dark haired womanís cheek. "I didnít mean to bring up sad memories for you, Alex."

Alex shook her head, blinking her eyes to hold back the tears. "You didnít know. I never told you before."

"Iím glad you did. Please donít shut me out, Alex. I couldnít bear that, not after ... ."

"Shh, itís all right. I know," Alex whispered, and squeezed the smaller woman tighter.

It wasnít long before Alex felt Reginaís breathing deepen and slow as the young doctor started to fall asleep in her arms. She nudged her gently; smiling at the mumbled protest she received and thought better of waking her slumbering partner. Carefully, Alex rolled Regina onto her side and tugged the blondeís shoes off, dumping them onto the floor.

Alex sighed as she stripped out of her clothes and pulled a clean tee shirt on over her head. The dark haired woman pulled the leather clasp of her barrette loose and shook out the thick French braid she was sporting, then crawled into bed beside the woman and curled up, spooning her body against Reginaís. The doctor lay quietly for a while watching her friend sleep before she leaned over and pressed her lips to Reginaís temple. "Sweet dreams, love."

******

Derrick walked into the empty locker room and set his bag down on the bench in front of his locker. He had a few minutes before the rest of the guys from his shift would start arriving so he took his time getting ready. Part of the disciplinary action following his arrest and the subsequent fiasco at the hospital included being put back on foot patrol with a veteran, Ďso he could gain some perspective about what it is that cops do.í As far as he was concerned he didnít need a new perspective, but he kept that opinion quietly to himself knowing the Captain could make his life a living hell if he chose to.

He stripped out of his street clothes and changed into his neatly pressed uniform. Derrick inspected his reflection in the mirror that was glued to the inside of his locker door. His hair was cropped so short now it looked military style and accentuated his jaw line. He narrowed his eyes and looked down at his body. Since he was working out more in the gym over the past couple of months he had regained some of his bulk and definition that he had lost over the past year. Who needs her, anyway? All she did was mess with your head, man.

The door to the locker room slammed open and brisk footsteps rang out on the concrete floor. "Hey, Black. How do you like your new digs?"

It was Mark Reilly, one of the foot patrolmen on his shift. Derrick shrugged his shoulders, ignoring the snide remark. From the time they were in the Academy together, he never liked the younger officer and liked him even less now that he had to share a month worth of shifts with him.

He could see the smug look on the copís face and knew the kid was thinking that maybe his shot at a promotion within the department was looking better. Go screw yourself kid, one of these days youíll realize its who you know that gets you where you want to go.

"Whatís wrong? Youíre think youíre shit doesnít stink is that it?" Reilly persisted. "From what I hear you stunk up the whole detective division with your bullshit."

"Why donít you shut your trap, Reilly?" Derrick finished buttoning his shirt and then turned to face the ruddy faced man. The locker room door opened and several loud, rowdy voices announced the remainder of the officers arriving for their shift.

Derrick slammed his locker shut, spun the lock and stepped past the shorter and stockier officer, knocking him hard with his shoulder.

Reilly grabbed his arm and held Derrick fast for a moment. "Man, it must really piss you off, knowing your little lady ditched you for another woman." Mocking laughter bubbled up from the manís gut as he watched Derrickís face turn brick red with anger.

The officer curled his lip and snarled, before he shoved Reilly back into the locker, rattling the whole row. "Go to hell, Reilly."

The younger man threw an elbow up catching Derrick under the chin, snapping his jaw shut and splitting his lip.

"You little shit," Derrick spat the words out, balled his fist and cocked his arm back to hit the officer in the face. Before he could unleash it, two other officers rounded the corner having heard the scuffle and forcibly pulled Derrick off of Reilly before a real brawl got started.

"Ok, break it up guys," the taller of the two officers growled, pulling them apart.

"Derrick, youíre in enough trouble already. Keep it up and youíll be behind the desk doing dispatch again," one of the officers hissed.

Derrick wiped the smear of blood from the corner of his mouth and curled his lip, glaring menacingly at Reilly.

"Get off me," he growled, pulling away from the man who was restraining him. "This isnít over, Reilly." Derrick grabbed his gun belt from the bench, shoved past Reilly and the other officers. Angrily, he yanked the door open and stormed into the hallway. Still muttering to himself on the way to the equipment room he walked right past his partner.

"You look like your shift is starting out in the crapper."

Derrick glanced up at the middle-aged man standing behind him. His new partner, Ed Carrotta, was a twenty-year veteran on the force. Ed had salt and pepper hair, thinning on the top and an average build. He had a reputation as being a tough but fair cop on the street.

"Donít you start in on me too," Derrick snapped, defensively.

"Hey, its not my business what you do on your own time." Ed raised his hands up to ward off the verbal attack, then tilted his head listening to the crackling static of the handset as the dispatch radioed in a report of a young male acting suspicious. "Weíre on anyway, letís go check it out."

Since there was hardly any traffic, the ride through the darkened maze of side streets took less than fifteen minutes. Derrick peered through the passenger window of the police cruiser, silently brooding over the earlier confrontation in the locker room. His attention was drawn to a flash of movement in the shadows backlit by the overhead street light.

"Thereís our guy," he told Ed.

"Itís too dark. Let me get him with the light."

The lone figure froze as the light blinded him momentarily and then bolted down the dark alleyway. Derrick cursed angrily and shoved the door open, his feet hitting the pavement as he jumped out of the cruiser and flicked his flashlight on. He heard Ed curse loudly, then call for backup before he started running down the alley between the two run down buildings.

Ahead of him he heard the sound of fleeing footsteps and the crash of garbage cans as the man he was chasing blindly knocked over whatever was in his path trying to slow Derrick down.

"Police, stop!" Derrick shouted and increased his pace. He hurdled a trashcan and quickly gained on his prey. The figure ahead of him grabbed hold of a railing and leapt over it, landing at the foot of the darkened stairwell.

Derrick redoubled his efforts, and chased him down the narrow concrete staircase. He grabbed the door jam at the bottom of the stairs, swinging his body through the opening ducked under a broken door hinge and raced down the narrow hallway following the echo of retreating footsteps.

The radio attached to his shoulder strap crackled and he heard Edís voice requesting his location. Completely focused on catching the suspect, Derrick ignored the request. His chest burned as he sucked the moldy, dank stale air into his lungs. On no you donít, you bastard. You donít get away that easily.

A dim light at the end of the narrow hall filtered onto the concrete floor as a door swung open. Derrick yanked the door open and lunged at the figure scrambling frantically up the steps. The police officer grabbed the manís belt and threw him against the wall.

"Get off me, man. I didnít do anything wrong." To Derrickís surprise, the voice was young and hardly sounded like that of a grown man.

"Yeah, then why did you run?" Derrick hissed into his ear.

"Cause youíre a cop," he spat back at him.

"Wrong answer." Derrick drove him to the floor with a vicious kidney punch. A sharp cry escaped from the boyís throat as he curled into a fetal position. Across the street from the alley a dog started barking.

Derrick glanced up as he shoved his knee into the boyís back pinning him to the floor.

"Teach you to run next time, you jerk," the cop panted as he crouched over his quarry and roughly handcuffed his wrists together.

"Ow, theyíre too tight," the boy cried out, struggling beneath his captor.

"Shut up."

Derrickís radio crackled again, this time Edís voice was louder telling him to stop his chase, another unit having found the suspect in question.

"Son of a bitch," Derrick muttered. Shit, shit, shit! I went after the wrong guy. A frigginí kid, no less. God dammit all to hell!

"Did you hear that? You got the wrong guy, you bastard. Let me go."

Derrick knelt on top of him, still panting as he considered what to do. If someone found out he would be screwed for sure this time. Across the street, the barking grew louder and more excited. He didnít think the kid had gotten a good look at him and he intended it to stay that way.

"Must be your lucky day, kid." He quickly unlocked the handcuffs, and then shoved himself roughly off of the kidís back. Before the boy could roll over, Derrick kicked him in the head with his boot sending blood and spittle splattering across the cement floor. Without a second look back he slammed the door behind him and strode angrily back through the basement.

The boy curled up into a ball and clutched his head, moaning in pain. He could feel warm sticky blood dripping down his neck and the skin on the side of his face burned.

Somewhere above him, the boy heard a scrabble of claws as a large dog bounded down the concrete steps and circled around him curiously. A low growl rumbled deep from within the Shepardís chest after he sniffed along the base of the metal door. In response the boy curled up tighter and rocked himself as he heard a snuffling noise come closer and then a cold, wet nose nudged at his neck.

"P ... please d ... donít hurt me," the boy pleaded before he started to slip into unconsciousness.

The dog cocked his pointed ears, wagged his tail and lay down next to the boy, whining a little as he pawed at the boyís shoulder.

It was several hours before the large trucks with the flashing lights pulled back into the building across the street. He could hear his master calling for him, but instinct told the dog not to leave the boyís side. The large Shepard raised his face to the sky and howled; a low, mournful sound that rose in crescendo and then faded into the night. Once, twice and three times he howled before the sound of running footsteps across the macadam told him that help was coming.

"Lucky? Hey, are you hurt boy?" A bright light swept over the stairwell and the Shepard raised his head, sniffing the air and identifying the familiar manís scent.

"Ah shit. Guys we need help over here, now! We got a kid down here."

The fireman climbed down the stairs and crouched beside the limp form. "You did good, Lucky. Itís ok. We got him, now."


Chapter Three

 

Alex stood in front of the large, rectangular board the ER department used to log in each new patient with her hands planted firmly on her hips and her legs slightly spread apart. It was the first thing she did before the start of each shift. A quick perusal and she knew how many patients there were in the emergency department, where they were in triage and what doctors from each of the major specialties from within the hospital were on call for the shift. Satisfied with what she saw, she walked over to the desk and quickly reviewed the charts for all the patients.

It was ten minutes to the start of her shift and she knew all the vital information that she needed to know about everyone in her care. Down the hallway, Dr. Torres strode out of the lounge and headed in her direction, carrying a steaming cup of coffee. He was sporting a new haircut since Alex saw him last. It was cropped close to his scalp and had an even spattering of gray throughout. Alex acknowledged him with a quick nod as he leaned on the counter in front of her.

"Rough night?" she inquired, observing the dark circles evident beneath the normally sharp brown eyes.

"Iíve had worse." He shrugged and stifled a yawn. "I hear you might be taking a trip downtown to restart the clinic they closed."

Alex raised an eyebrow in response. "News travels fast. The administration is scrambling to do damage control. Full-page ads in a newspaper arenít going to win any support in this case."

"Youíre right about that. I had two people refuse to be admitted here last night. They requested to be transferred to County General. Hey, let me know if you want help. Iíd be willing to help out."

An eyebrow crept upwards as Alexís surprise at Alfonseís offer registered. "Thanks." Alex straightened up and winced at the sharp fleeting pain in her chest. "Shit."

"You ok, boss?" Dr. Torres looked up into her face and stepped closer.

"Iím fine, Alfonse." She let out a breath and braced herself on the counter.

He studied her for a moment. "If you say so. Just take care of yourself, Alex. No one expected you to be back this soon." He hesitated, and then added in a quiet voice. "Not after what happened to you."

She held up a hand to stop him. "Al, please letís just ... not go there. Theyíre not great memories and frankly Iím just trying to forget about them and move on."

The physician pressed his lips together and was quiet for a moment, debating the risks of telling his new director just what he thought of that. "All right. I guess Iíll talk to you later then."

Alex watched as her colleague walked away from her and for a brief moment wondered if she made the right decision in coming back when she had. The dark-haired woman dismissed the niggling doubt and looked around the department. It was quiet and Alex took the opportunity to go to her office and sort through the piles of inter-office mail and patient files that were sitting on her desk. Dr. Washington did his best while she was out to keep up with it all, making decisions and acting on some of the issues but there was still much that only Alex could make the final decisions on.

The medical directorís eyebrows arched as she listened to three different phone messages from directors who had been at the meeting the day before and all expressed an interest in their staff being able to use the clinic to provide services to the community. She tapped a pencil on the desk as she continued to listen and then shook her head in mild disbelief. Well, it seems as if some of the skeptics have broken ranks.

Alex turned her attention back to the remaining letters still sitting on her desk. One particular letter caught her attention and she sat back in her chair while she tore open the envelope. She blew out a breath as she read the contents that stated she would be required to give a deposition in the case of Dr. Jameson versus Saint Xavierís Medical Center. Alex knew all along it would come down to this and hoped that a deposition was all that would be required and not a court appearance that would undoubtedly turn ugly with all parties present.

A knock on the door distracted her. "Come in."

"Hey Alex." Dr. Washington walked into the office and sat on the edge of the chair, his tall, lanky frame tensed as he looked around the office.

"Whatís on your mind, Jon?" Alex asked, watching as her colleague settled back in the chair. She could tell something was bothering him from the expression on his face.

"Listen, I pulled your file the day ... everything happened." He leaned forward and frowned before he continued. "There was nobody listed as an emergency contact person."

Alex looked down at her hands and absently rubbed a thumb along the palm of her other hand. "I know."

Jon stared at her incredulously. "But why?"

"Jon, since my father died I havenít spoken to anyone in my family," Alex replied quietly.

"Alex, thatís been a long time."

"Eight years to be exact."

"Maybe ... " he started to say something, then, paused when he saw the grim expression on Alexís face. "I guess itís really none of my business." He rose from the chair and left the room without a backward glance at his colleague.

"Youíre right itís not." Alex whispered, listening to the click of the latch as the door shut behind the tall, lanky frame of the doctor.

By the time she extracted herself from underneath six weeks worth of accumulated mail it was late in the morning. Alex jogged down the stairs and walked into the emergency department. The overhead page system was blaring out a stat page for one of the surgeons to report to the ICU, several family members paced anxiously in the corridor outside the waiting room and the unit clerk at the desk was busy trying to locate a patient that was brought in hours earlier who was no longer on the unit.

The desk phone rang and the haggard looking unit clerk picked it up. "Emergency Department. Hold on, let me get the nurse."

The young woman stood up and looked around the department then keyed the intercom to page for a nurse. "Sandy, I need you at the desk now."

Alex watched as the nurse emerged from one of the trauma rooms and walked quickly over to the desk, pulling her unruly blonde hair back into a ponytail. Several doors down a technician ran out of an exam room and ducked into the supply room only to emerge a moment later with several sterile kits in hand. The nurse took the phone from the unit clerk, slid into the chair next to her and quickly scribbled a few notes on her scrub bottoms. She looked up at Alex as she hung up the phone.

"Weíve got a young male on the way, approximately sixteen years old, altered mental status, vitals stable."

"Go ahead and get room four cleared out. Iíll take him," Alex told the nurse.

Sandy stared at Alex for a second before she answered. "Why donít you let one of the residents take it?"

"Why?" Alex snapped defensively, turning around to glare at the nurse.

Sandy recoiled then set her jaw, clearly annoyed at the doctorís response. "Because youíre the Medical Director and you donít have to take every case that comes through the door."

Alex felt the sudden flare of anger fade, knowing she overreacted. She sucked in her lower lip and blew out a breath, staring down at the floor as she considered Sandyís words. Sandy was right she knew, but her pride and desperate need to answer her own questions about her ability to come back and do her job prevented her from backing down.

"Iím taking it."

"Fine." Sandy abruptly stood up and walked down the hall, grabbing Bonnie as she came out of the locker room. "Help me clear out this room."

Alex shrugged into a gown and pulled a plastic fluid shield mask over face as she walked quickly down the hall to meet the incoming stretcher. The paramedics were struggling to hold the patient down as they wheeled the stretcher along the floor.

"Blood pressure is one hundred over sixty. Heís been confused and combative since we found him."

Alex grabbed hold of the stretcher while she listened and guided them into the trauma room. "What happened to him?"

"A couple of firemen found him lying at the bottom of some concrete steps in an alley," the medic responded. "They donít know how he got there. Maybe he fell, who knows."

"Not likely. Looks more like someone kicked him in the head. Letís get him on the table," Alex ordered, still studying the dark purple bruise in the shape of a half moon on the boyís cheek.

There was an air of tension in the room but Alex quickly dismissed it as she focused her attention on the patient. Four sets of hands grabbed the sheet and lifted the patient from the stretcher to the exam table. Sandy cut through his bloodied sweatshirt and slapped leads onto his chest as Bonnie and one of the techs quickly tied his arms down to prevent him from flailing his arms about.

As all this was being done, Alex pressed the diaphragm of her stethoscope to the boyís chest, listening to his breath and heart sounds. She hesitated as a sudden wave of dizziness hit her and she broke out into a cold sweat. The doctor gripped the rail of the treatment table to steady herself.

"Alex, are you ok?" Sandy asked, when she noticed her leaning at an awkward angle over the table.

The tall doctor inhaled sharply and nodded before she spoke again. "His lungs are clear. Get a CBC, coagulation profile, electrolytes and toxicology screen. Type and cross his blood just in case we need any." She looked over at the paramedic. "Does he have any id on him?"

The man shook his head, his eyes darting nervously over to Sandy and then back to Alex. "Nope, youíve got yourself a John Doe."

Alex glanced up as a resident ran into the room, tying a mask over his face.

"So nice of you to join us, Dr. Tanner," she remarked snidely, remembering the resident from the day before. Her first impression of the resident was not a good one and showing up late to a new admission was not winning him any brownie points with her at the moment. She flicked her penlight in the patientís eyes and ducked away as the boy grunted and thrashed violently on the stretcher. "What kind of IV fluid do you want to use Dr. Tanner?"

"Ringerís Lactate," the resident replied automatically.

"Wrong choice. You have an obvious change in his mental status; decreased blood pressure and you donít have a diagnosis yet. Sandy, hook up a bag of hypertonic saline." Alex looked over at the resident who was inserting a catheter into the manís arm to set up an intravenous line. "If heís got a bleed the hypertonic saline wonít elevate an already increased intracranial pressure. Remember it." Alex stared at the resident as she finished her neurological checks. "Letís get a CT scan and call Neurology for a consult. Dr. Tanner, you can baby sit him in radiology."

Alex stepped back from the table and pulled her facemask off, tossing it into the garbage. She yanked her isolation gown from her body and tossed it into the linen basket as she walked past it. "Page me when you know what the results are, Tanner," she ordered before she walked out of the room.

Out in the hallway, a door swung closed to a room and she could hear Jon barking out orders as another trauma patient was being triaged across the hall. Out of habit, she was already slipping into a clean yellow gown and pulling on a plastic fluid shield mask as she elbowed the door open.

"Do you need help, Jon?" The words echoed in her head and the sight of the bloodied patient lying helpless on the stretcher surround by a myriad of cables, lines and tubing brought her up short, her breath catching in her throat.

Jon glanced up from his work and shook his head. He stepped back from the table and glanced at the clock before pronouncing the time of death. The doctor pulled off his gloves and quietly thanked the nurse and resident for their help before he walked over to Alex. "There wasnít much we could do for this guy."

He put a hand on her shoulder as he stepped up beside her. "You ok?"

Alex blinked and turned to look at him. "Yeah, Iím fine. I just remembered I forgot to do something earlier."

The tall, dark-haired doctor turned and walked hurriedly down the corridor dodging between visitors and stretchers. Alex slipped out the door into the cold winter air, sucked in a breath, stumbled over to the concrete steps and leaned against the metal railing.

The panic almost overwhelmed her; it was totally unexpected and she held her head in her hands. She felt another wave of dizziness and grimaced as the sour taste of bile rose in her throat. Her body started to shake, deep down in her gut and raced out until her arms and legs were trembling and she sat down at the top of the steps fighting for control.

Even in the cold, she could feel sweat trickling down her back as her body responded to the overwhelming emotions assaulting her. She knew all about post-traumatic stress syndrome and the symptoms that went along with it. Shit, what the hell is wrong with me? She gripped the edge of the concrete step beneath her, letting it bite into her fingertips, the pain somehow grounding her. Alex closed her eyes and rocked back and forth.

A moment later, she heard the outside door open from a few feet behind her. Alex pulled herself to her feet and turned away, attempting to compose herself. Tentative footsteps approached from behind.

Not now, please just go away.

"Alex, are you all right?"

She held her shoulders rigid as she continued to stare through watery eyes at the brick wall. She secretly wished the footsteps belonged to Regina but she knew they were not. "Iím fine, Sandy," she ground out between gritted teeth, refusing to turn around and let the woman see her this way.

The blonde haired nurse frowned as she stood behind the doctor. Half of her wanted to press the issue; she was worried about Alex, but the professional side of her dictated that she respect the doctorís need for distance. It was obvious that she didnít want company but after her unusual behavior in the trauma room she felt compelled to check on her friend. Sandy took half a step forward, stopped and then raised a hand, her frustration evident on her face as she let it drop helplessly to her side.

"Alex, if you need anything let me know. Ok?"

The dark head nodded and Sandy slowly walked back into the emergency department, casting an anxious glance behind her before she let the door close. Alone out in the bitter cold, Alex exhaled and walked around the corner so she was out of sight from anyone passing by. Her breaths came in ragged gasps as she crossed her arms over her chest, hugging herself.

"Shit," she cursed, fighting back the tears that welled up in her eyes. The entire time in the trauma room she had to fight back the urge to bail out of the case and run from the room. She knew her fear was irrational but everything she felt was complicated by the intrusive fragmented memories that kept haunting her from that day just seven short weeks ago, right up until the point that she had lost consciousness and the green eyes sheís been looking into faded from view.

No longer able to stand the cold, damp wind, Alex angrily wiped tears from her eyes, straightened her shoulders and forced herself to walk back into the emergency department to face her demons alone.

******

The cafeteria was nearly empty except for a few scattered people sitting at the different tables throughout the large room. Regina walked up to the large industrial refrigerator and regarded the prepared lunches. She wrinkled her nose at the meager selections, tuna fish or egg salad. Ugh, I have no idea what I want to eat. I guess this will have to do, for now, she thought morosely as she selected a tuna fish sandwich. On the way to the cashier, she spotted a small silver bag of Hersheyís Kisses and quickly snatched them up, knowing how much Alex enjoyed the tiny morsels of chocolate.

After paying for her lunch she walked out into the nearly cafeteria and scanned the few occupants for any familiar faces. There was no staff that she knew so she headed to the door, preparing to eat alone and catch up on finishing her charts from the afternoon.

Almost to the exit, Regina stopped, recognizing the middle-aged, red-haired woman who was the mother of the patient she had admitted with the leg tumor the day before.

From where she stood, Regina could see the woman was crying. The young doctor hesitated for a moment, wondering if she should just let the woman alone to deal with whatever was troubling her. A memory of a hot and humid day, a bottle of water and an offer of support that started a fledgling friendship changed her mind.

She had seen the results of the girlís lab tests in the computer earlier in the day and knew that the oncology doctors would most likely try an aggressive round of chemotherapy to see if the tumor would respond to it before trying a more aggressive approach.

"Mrs. Edwards?" Regina spoke her name hesitantly as she approached the table where the woman was sitting alone.

Red-rimmed brown eyes looked up at her in surprise and the woman seemed to shrink back down in her chair. She covered her mouth with her hand and shook her head, trying to collect herself.

"I ... Iím sorry. I just canít believe whatís happening to my baby girl." Her hands trembled as she folded them together in front of her on the table.

The young doctor sat down across from her and set the plastic container holding her sandwich down on the table.

The woman nodded and wiped her eyes. "I donít know how sheís going to handle this. What if it doesnít work and the cancer comes back?"

Regina sat quietly, listening to the womanís heartbroken words. "Mrs. Edwards, if you can, try and take whatís happening with Terryís treatment one day at a time."

"I just ... my husband lost his job and now Terry being sick, itís too much."

Oh dammit, she briefly closed her eyes. There was little Regina could say or do at the moment that would ease the motherís worries. So little of what would happen in the next few months would be in the familyís control. The journey they were at the beginning of would be an emotional roller coaster and a positive outcome was far from guaranteed. The blonde reached across the table and squeezed the distraught womanís hand. "The doctors will take good care of her, Mrs. Edwards."

Terryís mother wiped her eyes and nodded her head. "I know youíre busy, Dr. Kingston, but could you check in on her from time to time while sheís here? I know Terry liked you."

Regina stood and rested her hand on the womanís shoulder. "Sure, Iíll check in on her." She made a mental note to check the computer to see what room the young girl was in. The blonde left the cafeteria, walked down the back hallway, passing several of the dietary and housekeeping staff whose departments were located along this back corridor.

Regina walked up the metal staircase, her footsteps echoing in the empty stairwell as she headed to the back entrance of the emergency department. All day she struggled with the urge to beep Alex several times today to see how she doing. She knew deep down Alex was worried about coming back to work even if she hadnít voiced her concerns to Regina.

Several times while she was still recuperating, Alex brushed off her attempts to talk about the shooting and the blonde felt the unwelcome yet familiar walls starting to rise around her lover. Regina vowed she wouldnít let Alex shut her out, especially now, not after everything they had been through.

The day shift was finishing up, signing off orders and giving report to the incoming nursing staff. A door banged open at the end of the hallway and one of the technicians pushed the portable x-ray machine through the entrance. At the nursing station, Regina spotted the curly blonde locks of her friend, Sandy. The nurse was bent over the desk, speaking to one of her colleagues and didnít see the young doctor walk up to her.

When the nurse finally straightened, Sandyís face lit up and she walked around the desk to pull Regina into a hug.

"Hey, stranger. I was wondering when you were going to make it back down to here to visit the trenches."

"Itís been less than a week," Regina defended with a chuckle, as she glanced around the busy department. A part of her missed the frenetic pace and the organized chaos that characterized a normal day in the emergency department, but she was very happy with her decision to work in pediatrics. It gave her the ability to treat a wide variety of patients and Regina knew she would have many opportunities to still work in the emergency department.

"Howís Pediatrics doing?" Sandy slipped out of her lab coat and slung it over her shoulder.

"Busy. Weíve got a bunch of kids with respiratory viruses and the flu."

"I canít believe you gave up the ER for Pediatrics," Sandy replied, as she walked with Regina to the staff lounge.

The doctor gave Sandy a sidelong look and shook her head. "I didnít give it up, Sandy. Iíll still have plenty of patients whoíll be admitted through the emergency department. What, do you miss me or something?"

"I said no such thing." Sandy scowled, her face flushing red. "It ... itís not the same without you down here," she whispered conspiratorially in Reginaís ear.

"I miss you guys, too." Regina nudged the door open with her hip and motioned Sandy into the lounge, watching the pleased smile that crossed her friendís face.

The nurse wrinkled her nose as she sniffed the half-day old brew, and then poured herself a cup of coffee. "Do you want some?" She held the pot up offering Regina a cup.

"No, I havenít been sleeping well, so Iím trying to cut back to see if it helps at all."

"Mm, I could drink a whole pot and still fall asleep after a day here." Sandy sipped at the coffee and studied her friend closely. "Alfonse told me Alex is trying to reopen the clinic downtown."

Regina nodded her head. "Yes, she is. It might help with all the non-emergent admits to the ER."

"Mm." Sandy sipped the coffee. "Iíd be willing to help out if Alex needs any. So ... how come youíre not sleeping?"

Regina folded her arms over her chest and her face took on a distant almost detached look as she stared at the tiled floor beneath her feet. "Would you believe nightmares?"

"About what?" The nurse frowned and leaned against the counter.

Regina moaned softly and rubbed her face. "I never remember them ... clearly."

"I wouldnít be surprised if youíre dreaming about what happened to Alex." Sandy offered, venturing a guess that Regina might very well be suffering from nightmares about the shooting.

"I donít know. Youíd think Iíd remember if I were."

"Maybe not, Regina. Have you two talked about it at all?" Sandy asked quietly.

The blonde shrugged her shoulders and slid her hands into her lab coat pockets. "A little. Itís not exactly a popular subject with either of us."

"I canít imagine that it is, Regina." They both looked up as the door opened and Alex walked in with her lab coat slung carelessly over one shoulder. The taller woman hesitated when she spotted the Regina standing beside the nurse. Her eyes bore into Sandy. I hope you didnít say anything to Regina about today. This is my problem and Iíll deal with it.

"There you are." The tense expression on Alexís face relaxed as her eyes met Reginaís. The affectionate smile she was rewarded with warmed something deep inside her and she let herself revel in the sweet feeling. "I was just going to page you to see if you were ready to get out of here."

"Yeah, more than ready." Regina couldnít help the impish grin that crossed her lips as she reached into her lab coat and tossed the bag of chocolates to Alex.

The brunetteís pale blue eyes lit up and she snatched the bag out of the air. "Thanks." She smiled conspiratorially back at the blonde.

"Ok, Iíll take that as my cue to leave." Sandy grabbed her coffee and slipped past Regina, mouthing the words Ďtalk to herí, as she walked by. "See you guys later."

"Where are you going?" Alex asked.

"Home," Sandy replied.

Alex watched the door close and then turned to Regina. "Everything ok?"

"Yeah, Iím fine, now." Regina stepped closer and tugged at the bottom of Alexís scrub top as she continued to look up at her blue eyes. The dark haired woman leaned closer and barely stopped herself from kissing the blonde as she inhaled the scent of Reginaís perfume that lingered on the collar of her lab coat.

What she really wanted to do was just go home and curl up alongside of Regina, but Alex knew if she wanted a chance at making the clinic a success she needed to get started on it and soon. "I need to run downtown and check out the clinic we might be opening. Do you want to come along?"

"On one condition."

"Whatís that?" A dark eyebrow arched.

"We pick up something to eat."

"I thought thatís what these were for." Alex shook the bag of chocolates, holding over Reginaís head.

The blonde snorted and poked Alex in the side.

******

The clinic was located on the first floor of a three-story, non-descript, brick-faced building that sat across the street from the fire department. The lights from the inside of the two open garages reflected in a half moon shape, casting Alexís shadow over the macadam as she stepped out of the Jeep and waited for Regina to join her at the entrance of the clinic.

Alex spotted several kids lounging against the hood of one of the cars parked along the side of the street and studied them for a moment before she unlocked the front door and quickly keyed in the numbers to reset the alarm.

The taller woman stepped inside with Regina close behind her and turned on the overhead fluorescent lights. While Regina set down the brown bag filled with take out food from the local late night diner, Alex relocked the door.

"Here, you must be starved. I know I am." The blonde held out the neatly wrapped egg sandwich that Alex ordered.

"Thanks." The taller woman leaned in and wrapped an arm around the blonde as she took the sandwich from her. "Come on, letís check this place out."

The clinic itself was empty except for the reception desk that separated the waiting room from the treatment area. The curtains that hung from the ceiling, separating the four booths from each other, ruffled slightly as the two women walked past. Dust balls tumbled across the floor, stirred, as they walked across the room and several broken ceiling tiles lay on the floor unmoved from where they had fallen some time ago.

"Well, what do you think?" Alex asked as she gestured at the room. She rotated on her heel and stepped back a few paces, shrugging. "Besides the obvious," she added quickly with a grin, seeing Reginaís arched eyebrow as she looked around the clinic.

"Itís smaller than I thought it would be," Regina offered, before she bit into her sandwich.

"Yeah, but for what we would do here it doesnít need to be big. Remember, weíre just looking to do follow up visits from the ER, in addition to baby check ups and pre-natal care. Theyíre quick visits but doing them here would save us a lot of time in the emergency department. All we need to do is rotate a doctor and a nurse down here three times a week for five hours at a time. Most of our non-emergency, walk-in visits come from right around these two towns." Alex motioned with her arm as she talked.

"Whoís going to use it the rest of the time?" Regina asked, as she walked alongside her companion.

"The medical center is always looking for more space, especially for its medical training programs. Iíve had three directors call and ask about sharing the space with us."

"Thatís awesome!"

"Yes, it is. After the meeting the other day I wasnít sure there would be a great response to do this."

"Why did you think that?"

Alex bit into her sandwich and shrugged. "Regina, I ratted out a fellow doctor."

"Who was a sleaze and abused his authority! Everyone knew it, Alex, but you were the only one willing to do something about it."

"Some people might not think about it that way."

"Then screw them," Regina said, her voice rising in frustration.

Alexís eyes widened in surprise and Regina blushed slightly.

"I ... I mean it Alex. It took a lot of courage to do what you did."

The brunette hovered over the smaller woman. Her fingers tilted Reginaís face up to hers. "You were the one with the courage my friend," Alex said sincerely

Regina pulled her eyes away, feeling suddenly awkward and undeserving of the compliment. "Hey, did they leave any equipment here?"

"I doubt it. Dr. Timmons remembers the place being stripped clean of everything. If thereís any left its locked in the storage room. I think I may have the key." Alex suddenly realized as she dug in her pants pocket, pulled out a ring of keys and started to walk toward the back of the building.

Regina turned around to look at the space again and let out a gasp when she felt an arm unexpectedly slip around her waist and pull her back into one of the booths. A low chuckle sounded in her ear and Regina let herself lean against the taller womanís body.

"Come here, you." Alex growled playfully and leaned back against a treatment table, plucking the half eaten sandwich from her hand. She pulled Regina between her thighs and wrapped her arms around the blonde, pulling her into a hug. After a moment, Alex slid her hands up underneath the blonde hair and cupped Reginaís face in her hands, her blue eyes searching the green orbs.

"What?" Regina caught the fleeting look of uncertainty in the blue eyes and linked her hands around the womanís lower back.

Alex shook her head and brushed her lips against Reginaís, softly at first and, then, with more ardor as the smaller woman moaned softly into her mouth.

Regina braced a hand on the top of Alexís thigh, and slid the other around the nape of her neck as they continued their long, slow kiss. A small cry escaped her as Alexís hands lingered over the skin of her neck and then slid over her shoulders her thumbs lightly grazing the curve of her breasts on the way down to her hips.

After several minutes of gentle exploration, both women, their faces slightly flushed, eased up and gazed into the others eyes. Regina plucked at the top of Alexís scrub top and leaned in to kiss the base of her neck. "Too bad weíre not home, huh?"

"Mm." Alex quirked a smile and leaned back on her hands. Her eyes glanced down at the v-neck of her scrub top, where she could see the top of the reddish scar that ran down the length of her sternum. "Pretty ugly looking thing, isnít it?"

The entry wound of the bullet had left an ugly, purplish red mark on her chest just below her left breast, from there it had glanced off a rib, torn through one of the major arteries in her chest and imbedded itself in one of the vessels that fed life giving blood to her kidneys. The seconds between her living and dying had been that close. A thin red line with railroad tracks as the surgeons liked to call the marks the staples left ran down the length of her sternum.

Regina felt a lump form in her throat as she followed Alexís gaze and waited for the dark haired woman to look back up at her. When her lover finally raised her head the uncertainty Regina saw in her eyes made her heart ache. "All I see is you, Alex. Youíre here and thatís all that matters to me." The scars I worry about are the ones you carry on the inside.

Alex swallowed and looked away. "Thanks." It was barely a whisper. "I know it shouldnít matter but sometimes I look at it and it makes me feel ... violated." Her eyes blinked rapidly and she stared down at her feet.

The younger woman clasped Alexís larger hands in her own. "Can I do anything for you?"

The brunette shook her head and leaned toward Regina, resting her head on her shoulder she closed her eyes and sighed. "Just hold me, please." I hurt inside.

"Always." Regina wrapped her arms around Alex and rubbed her hands over the taller womanís back. "You donít have to go through this all alone. Let me help you, Alex."

Alex tensed as a sharp rapping echoed through the empty clinic as someone banged on the front door. "Oh, go away. We donít want any," she growled into Reginaís neck.

The blonde giggled at Alexís comment and continued to hold onto her.

Another more urgent knocking broke the momentary silence.

"Shit," Alex cursed and pulled reluctantly out of the warm embrace and stood up.

She walked to the front of the building and saw a man standing at the front door peering in through the glass. A large dog lay quietly at his feet, panting. Alex sighed inwardly as she unlocked the door and opened it partway.

"Sorry, but the clinic isnít open, " she said, as she partially opened the door. Underneath the streetlamp, she could see the man had dark curly hair with a light beard covering his jaw line. He wore a dark jacket with the fire departmentís insignia embroidered over the left breast.

"Oh, no itís ok," the man replied. "I saw you walk in and just wanted to check on you. A kid got beat up pretty badly in the alley last night. If it werenít for Lucky here, finding him he might not have made it."

Alex glanced down at the German Shepard and felt her breath catch when she recognized the familiar markings.

"Hi," Regina walked up next to Alex and glanced up at the fireman.

Brown eyes smiled back and the fireman reached out his hand. "Iím Todd. I work over at the station house."

"Regina," the blonde said and shook his hand.

"Iím Alex," the taller woman followed reluctantly, giving up on her idea of getting rid of the guy quickly.

"Do you two work over at the hospital?"

"Yes, weíre both doctors," Regina offered, ignoring the slightly irritated look she got from her taller companion.

"Hey, thatís right. I thought I recognized you," Todd continued, looking up at Alex. "You work in the Emergency Department. I read about what happened to you. I guess youíre doing better, huh?"

Alex shifted uncomfortably. "I got a clean bill of health."

"A bunch of the guys worked that accident. What a mess that whole thing was. That kid never had a chance. It took us forever to get the woman and her dog out of the car. Heís a lucky fellow." Todd reached down and scratched between the dogís ears. "Heís kind of adopted us, I guess."

Regina glanced up at Alex, the realization of what the man was saying slowly sinking in. She held her hand out and the dog sniffed her fingers enthusiastically, and then practically sat down on her feet. She laughed as he lifted his head and whined quietly for her to pet him.

"We named him Lucky, well, cause he is," the fireman announced as he bent over to ruffle the dogís ears. I think he likes you." Todd beamed like a proud parent.

"Alex, do you think this is Danaís dog?" The blonde looked up at her companion, missing the admiring glance she was receiving from the fireman.

Alex cringed, hoping that Regina wouldnít have recognized the dog. It wasnít that big of a deal, but for once she just wanted her past not to come back and haunt her. "He certainly looks like it." The taller woman looked down at the Shepard and reluctantly held her hand out. The dog nudged her fingers and gave them a friendly lick.

"You know him?" Todd asked cautiously, a worried look suddenly crossed his face.

Alex lifted her head and looked over at the fireman, her facial expression a mask of neutrality. "I know the woman who was his owner."

"Oh, y ... you donít want him do you?"

Regina glanced up at her friend and smiled at her while she tilted the dogís head to look up at Alex.

The doctor quickly shook her head. "Not home enough. It wouldnít be fair to him."

The blonde pushed out her lower lip in a pout as Alex returned her gaze then, rolled her eyes upward and emphatically mouthed the word, no, to Regina. Sheíd had enough of the social pleasantries and was feeling a growing annoyance at the appreciative glances that Regina was on the receiving end of and gave the bearded man her best Ďdrop dead before I have to kill you myselfí look.

Todd glanced between them and shoved his hands into his pockets, sensing a distinct change in the taller womanís demeanor. "Well, I just wanted to make sure you were ok over here. I wonít hold you up anymore. It was nice to meet the two of you. Come on, Lucky."

Regina tilted her head as the fireman walked back across the street with the dog trotting along at his side. "He seems nice."

Alex shrugged her shoulders and grunted before she quickly turned away to hide the jealous look she knew was plastered all over her face. "Iíd say you just made a new friend there." She winced inwardly as the words came out more sarcastically than she planned. Ooh, very nice Alex, you just leapt back twenty years in your maturity level. Are you planning on re-entering high school again maybe?

Reginaís eyes narrowed and she cocked her head, placing her hands on her hips. "What do you ... oh, the dog? Yeah, he is cute." The smaller woman lingered behind Alex as the taller woman strode through the door, appreciating the view then, walked up behind her friend, a knowing smirk growing across her face.

Alex blinked and turned around to look at her companion. "Regina ... what ... oomph ... " She found herself suddenly wrapped in a fierce hug. "What are you looking at?"

"You, love" Regina whispered before she pulled Alexís head down into a slow, lingering kiss.


Chapter Four

 

 

Regina pulled the large, clear plastic clipboard across the chest high counter and studied the lab values for the patient in room ten. They guessed by his weight and body structure that he was approximately sixteen-years old. With no means of identifying him, he remained a John Doe and in the twenty-four hours since he was admitted to the hospital, there had been no frantic phone calls from parents looking for a missing child or family members to stand vigil at his bedside while his battered body hung tenuously in the balance between life and death.

His condition was critical and his prognosis guarded. Both would remain so until the

pressure from the swelling in his brain resolved. The neurosurgeons were successful in removing the large blood clot that formed on the outer sheath of his brain as a result of the blunt trauma to his head, but no one could predict what his neurological status was going to be until he woke up.

Since the boy was under seventeen he was assigned to the pediatric service and the doctors there would be responsible for coordinating his care and ultimate discharge from the hospital.

Regina stood outside the boyís room in the intensive care unit, looking in at what she could see of him. A four-legged IV pole stood next to the bedside with three separate pumps stacked on top of each other continuously pushing a combination of electrolytes and antibiotics into his injured body. An intraventricular catheter was inserted through the boyís skull into a lateral ventricle to monitor the pressure of the cerebrospinal fluid.

A decision was made that morning on rounds to begin weaning him off the drug called Norcuron that was being used to paralyze him. It was always a calculated risk to do this. The longer he stayed on the drug the more chance he had of permanent muscle and nerve damage, but if he was agitated and still confused when the drug wore off, all it would take was one frenzied attempt to free himself from the tubes and wires that would elevate his intracranial pressure and possibly cause more damage to his already traumatized brain.

The click and whir of the pumps was all but drowned out by the continuous whooshing and beeping of the ventilator. Quietly, Regina stepped into the boyís room after donning an isolation gown, mask and gloves that would protect him from potential bacteria that his body was still vulnerable to.

As she ran through her standard series of neurological checks Regina talked softly to the boy. She had no sense of what he looked like yet, thick, white gauze was wrapped around his head hiding what would be left of his neatly shorn hair, his features were distorted by the facial swelling and mottle bruising to his skin from the injuries he sustained. She peered closer at his cheek, noting the sharp outline of horseshoe shaped bruise that ran up underneath the bandages.

"I donít know your name my friend so I guess youíll have to be John until you wake up and tell me what your real name is." She slipped her fingers into the palm of his hand. The skin was callused and felt clammy in her grasp. Regina leaned closer over the bed rail. "If you hear me squeeze my fingers."

Regina waited for a few seconds and got no response. "Thatís ok, John. I know youíre in there. You just keep trying."

She moved to the foot of his bed and lifted the sheets covering his feet. The doctor ran the metal end of her reflex hammer over the sole of his foot. The toes curled down in response to the noxious stimulus and Regina allowed herself a small smile. It was one small victory. The neurological tracts that controlled the movements of his muscles were still intact.

The blonde stepped back away from the bedside, wondering if he had parents and if so, did they even know he was hurt. It was no secret that patients with a supportive family presence faired better in these situations. Sometimes a touch, a familiar voice or soft words of comfort were the only things that could break through the coma and offer the patient a path to follow back to their life that had been so viciously turned upside down.

A sudden overwhelming sense of sorrow gripped her as she thought of Alex. Not once during the last eight weeks had the doctor heard from her mother or brother. She wondered if Jon was ever able to get hold of them. He never said and with all that was going on in those first few anxiety filled days, she never thought to ask him afterwards.

Regina quickly backed out of the room, stripped out of her gown and gloves and tossed them into the dirty linen cart by the door, fighting back a totally unexpected surge of anger.

Out at the desk, Regina sat and quickly scribbled a note in the chart, ignoring the banter of the staff going on around her. It wasnít until she noticed a shift in the light above her and inhaled a vaguely familiar cologne did she glance up from her work.

Her eyes widened and she fought the urge to push away from the desk. There, standing in front of her dressed in his black police uniform was Derrick. His face was thinner and his hair was cropped close to his scalp. He looked as frightening to her now as he did the night he showed up at Alexís house on the Cape. The memory of what followed was still fresh in her mind and she strangled a frightened gasp in her throat.

"Hello, Regina," he drawled casually as if his presence should be no big deal to her.

Her mouth was suddenly dry and her heart was double-timing it in her chest as she struggled to form a coherent thought. "What are you doing here, Derrick?" She had no reason to believe he came here looking for her but she couldnít help the defensiveness and fear that crept unbidden into her voice.

He must have sensed her discomfort because he crossed his arms and leaned on the desk, peering down at her through flat, emotionless eyes. "Iím looking for the John Doe that got brought in here last night."

Regina stood up irritated with herself for letting him sense her unease and flipped the chart closed, handing it to the unit clerk who was sitting a few feet away. "Why?"

"I need to get the kidís clothes and ask a few questions for the investigation."

Was that a smirk she saw on his face? You bastard, Regina silently cursed, knowing Derrick was probably enjoying the irony of the situation. This was how their relationship started over a year ago. She turned to walk away. "Talk to the charge nurse, Derrick."

"Iíd rather have you answer the questions. You do a better job of it, anyway."

The blonde turned and regarded him coolly. You have to be kidding me if you think flattery will get you anywhere, Derrick. "What do you need to know?"

"Was he awake when he was brought in?"

"Not enough to answer questions from what I heard." Regina walked around the desk and stood at the doorway to the boyís room her arms crossed over her chest and her jaw set. She felt a need to be by the boyís room with Derrick so close; it was almost a sense of protectiveness that brought her there.

Derrick stood several feet away from Regina and cautiously peered in at the boy. "Any idea what happened to him? A fall, someone hit him. We donít have anything to go on, not even a name, Regina."

Regina frowned, hearing the uncharacteristic break in his voice. "Derrick, I think the head nurse can answer any questions you have."

He stepped closer to the room and looked at Regina, ignoring her request. "Did they do a toxicology screen on the kid to see if there were any drugs in his system?"

"Ask his nurse Iím not discussing this with you anymore."

"Hey, wait a minute." He lowered his voice when several nurses glanced up at the two of them. "Canít we, um, talk for a minute?" Derrick fingered his cap as he stood before her, looking penitent.

Regina stared at him for a moment. Talking was the last thing you were ever interested in doing and you expect me to believe thatís what you want now. "No Derrick, we canít just talk. Thereís nothing to say." As she turned to walk away the monitor alarm sounded shrilly in the boyís room, his heart rate suddenly spiking sharply.

A nurse darted around the desk and threw a gown over her shoulders, quickly joining Regina at the bedside. "I can give him another dose of Ativan. Itís not too soon." She glanced up at the blonde haired pediatrician.

"Do it," Regina ordered as she made a minor adjustment to the ventilator settings before she leaned over the bed and touched a gloved hand to the boyís face. "John, can you hear me?"

The boy nodded his head ever so slightly.

"You hurt your head and youíre in the hospital," Regina continued, watching as the nurse injected the sedative directly into the IV line.

His eyelids fluttered slightly and a single tear rolled down the side of his face.

"Itís ok, sweetheart, everything is going to be all right."

"Whatís wrong with him?" Derrick asked from just outside the door.

The boy grimaced and shook his head weakly side-to-side, straining against the restraints holding his arms down.

"Derrick, get out, now!" Regina ordered as she looked between her patient and her ex-boyfriend.

The nurse glared at the police officer over her shoulder and then whipped the curtain closed, blocking his view of the boy. Gradually, with the help of the drug and Reginaís soothing voice the boy ceased his struggles and his heart rate slowed its frantic pace.

Regina reached up to the head of the bed and checked the readout for his intracranial pressure. "Weíre still ok with his pressure, but call the neurosurgeon and see if they want to keep him on the medication for another day." Satisfied that her patient was in no immediate danger, Regina left the nurse at the boyís bedside.

She was more than disappointed to see Derrick still lingering on the unit, obviously waiting for her. Dammit, just go away, Derrick, she pleaded silently. Reluctantly, she left the sanctuary of the nurseís station and headed for the door leading to the hallway.

"Regina." He reached out with his arm and blocked the door as she tried to walk by him.

The blonde held her hand up. "Back off, Derrick. You might be here for police business, but I still have a restraining order against you. Nothingís changed. Donít forget it."

His eyes narrowed and he stepped forward. "Forget? No, I wonít. How can I?" Derrick growled.

"Derrick, back off, please." Regina carefully skirted past him quickly and made her way down the hallway barely avoiding a stretcher as a transporter shoved it out of the elevator. Regina glanced inside the open door and recognized the young girl sitting slumped in the wheelchair. She looked over her shoulder warily then, ducked through the open door relieved to find that Derrick hadnít followed her.

"Terry?" Regina touched the girlís hand then, looked up at the orderly who was standing behind the wheelchair, looking incredibly bored at the moment.

The girl lifted her head and blinked several times as she looked up at the blonde haired woman standing in front of her. "H ... hi." She cleared her throat, grimacing at the foul taste the medicine she took for the test left in her throat.

"Where are they taking you?" Regina leaned against the rail with her hands tucked in her lab coat pockets and watched in relief as the doors slid closed.

"Uh, radiology, I think." Terry shivered beneath the blanket and glanced up at the woman standing beside her.

"Do you want some company?"

Fearful brown eyes looked up at her and the young girl nodded her head eagerly, grateful for the offer since her mother was working and her father was looking for a job. "They have to put me in this machine to do a test and I hate closed spaces."

"Oh, theyíre doing an MRI."

"Whatever." Terry stared down at her hands and twirled the blue wristband around her wrist nervously.

The elevator stopped its descent and the doors opened. Regina followed the young man out and walked beside the wheelchair down the narrow hall that led into the radiology department. A large fish tank with several large angelfish floating in the blue tinted water sat next to the far wall.

A technician walked out and took the chart from the pocket in back of the wheelchair, then glanced down at the girlís wristband. "Terry, weíll all set for you. We can go right back and get started."

"Great, the only time this place is ever on time is when I get to go into a dark tunnel."

Regina walked with them to the door and squeezed Terryís shoulder before the woman pushed the wheelchair into the testing area. "Iíll be here when youíre done, Terry," the doctor reassured the young girl.

Terry stood up from the wheelchair and self-consciously pulled the faded blue hospital gown around her slender frame. The room was cool, and there was nothing but white walls in the expansive room. In the center stood the machine that would take pictures of her body to see if the cancer was anywhere else but the bone in her leg. The young girl swallowed hard and glanced nervously at the narrow bed she had to lie on that slid into the small tunnel like opening.

"I ... I donít want to do this," Terry stammered softly, fighting back the urge to cry.

"I know you donít, Terry, but your doctor ordered the test so we have to do it." The red-haired woman pulled a blanket out of a wall cabinet and laid it over the hard mattress. "Now hop up here and lay down for me."

Reluctantly, Terry climbed up onto the hard mattress pad and lay on her back. The table jerked as the technician unlocked the mechanism holding it in place. "You can close your eyes Terry. You might feel better if you canít see the tunnel walls around you."

The girl nodded her head and closed her eyes tightly just before the table started to slide into the machine. Already she was starting to breath faster and she squeezed her eyes shut tightly afraid that if she opened them sheíd find the ceiling of the tube inches from her face.

Over the speaker that was in the tube she heard the womanís voice. "This is going to take about forty minutes, Terry. Iíll let you know what weíre doing as we go along."

There was silence followed by a loud, hollow knocking that went on and on. Oh God, please just get me out of here. I canít do this. Her tears started to flow in earnest now as the loud knocking continued.

******

Alex finished writing an order to transfer two patients up to one of the surgical floors for observation. She rubbed a hand over her eyes and blinked as she looked up at the clock on the wall. The numbers blurred momentarily before her eyes adjusted to the distance and everything came clearly into focus. It was five oíclock and she knew Regina would be finishing up with her patients soon.

She drummed her fingers on the counter as she considered whether to page Regina or not. Since they had been back they had fallen easily into the routine of paging each other once throughout the day. Alex carried the charts over to the unit clerk and then headed into the staff lounge.

The tall, dark-haired doctor lifted the pot and sniffed cautiously at the bitter brew, then thought better about drinking the day old coffee. As she poured the stale coffee down the sink and pulled out a fresh bag of coffee grinds to brew, Alex shook her head mentally chastising herself for her foolish insecurities. Oh, who are you trying to kid? You know you want to talk to her, just get over it and call her already.

She picked up the phone on the wall and dialed the hospital beeper system, punched in Reginaís beeper number and the extension for her to call. Moments later as she was filling the now clean pot with cold water the wall phone rang.

"Hi," Alex answered absently.

"You were mighty confident it was me calling you back," Regina teased her on the other end of the phone.

"I knew it was you."

"How?" Regina challenged, a smile playing on her lips as she looked through the window into the testing area.

"You have a distinct ring," Alex answered dryly.

"Haha. Whatís up?"

"I just wanted to say hi and see when you might be ready to go home," Alex answered.

"Actually, I ran into a patient I admitted earlier this week. Sheís down in radiology right now for a test and I offered to wait until sheís through."

"Oh."

The blonde brought her hand up to her face. "Iím sorry, Alex. I didnít even think to look at the time," Regina lowered her voice as the technician reentered the room and spoke to Terry over the intercom.

"Hey, no itís ok," the medical director answered quickly, pouring the fresh grinds into the coffee machine. "What test are they doing?"

"Theyíre doing an MRI." Regina glanced through the window into the testing area. She heard muffled cries coming from over the speaker that was in the tube. "Hang on, Alex."

Alex stared across the empty staff lounge, thinking about Regina and knowing that she was probably very worried about the girl if she had taken the time to go with her to the test. In the background she heard a voice and then Regina came back on the line.

"Damn."

"Whatís wrong?" Alex leaned against the wall and rubbed the back of her neck, working out a knot caused from the stress of the day.

"The kid is claustrophobic and the doctor didnít order any sedatives for her. Listen, Iím going to go. Maybe if I talk to her over the intercom sheíll get through this better."

The tall, dark haired doctor closed her eyes as a trickle of fear and anger swirled in her guts. She hated closed spaces and the mere thought of them made her break out in a cold sweat. "Iíll be here. Just call me when youíre done there."

"You bet."

Alex set the phone back in the cradle and sighed. A distant memory nagged her conscious thought and she grimaced trying to force it away while she walked back out into the department.

*****

"Dad, stop. Youíre hurting him." She felt the rush of air as the black leather belt sung through the air and whipped against her brotherís bare backside.

"You stay out of this Alexandra or youíll be next. You hear me?" her father snarled at her, then turned back to her brother. "Teach you to lie to me about what you did with my liquor,"

Michael grimaced, refusing to cry out as the belt bit into his flesh again. It wasnít the first time he took a beating so his mother didnít have to, but this time his father had found out about him pouring his vodka down the drain and now they would all pay. Lord knew his mother already had. "Alex, be ... ugh ... quiet."

The tall, lanky girl stood outside the bedroom door with tears running down her face. "You bastard, stop it!" She could hear her mother crying in the bedroom, helpless to do anything after he beat her moments before.

Alex felt the anger boiling up inside her as her father continued to hold her brother down as he whipped him again.

"Iím warning you girl. Keep your damn mouth shut!" A rush of air escaped his lips as a solid form slammed into him sending him tumbling to the floor. As he scrambled to his feet he saw his daughter pulling Michael from the room.

"Go! Get momma and go, now," Alex hissed.

"You stupid bitch. This time youíre going to pay for what you just did."

Alex stepped back and ducked under an errant swing of his meaty fist. She waited another second hoping her brother had enough time to get out of the house before she turned and sprinted down the stairs. Behind her, she could hear her father bellow her name. She bolted out the back door and ran around the back of the house away from the lights of the car in the driveway.

She needed to keep him away from them just long enough so they could get away. Her feet pounded across the wet grass and she skidded as she rounded the corner, losing her balance for an instant. As she stumbled, a blur of motion caught her attention and she realized as she closed her eyes and braced for the impact of the bat that she had unwittingly run right into her father.

It was hours later when she finally woke. Alone, hurting and scared she blinked her eyes trying to make out objects in the darkness around her. Tentatively she reached her hands out and inches from her face she felt dry, splintered wood. Frantically, she kicked her legs out and heard the echo of her shoes on the side of the wall.

Desperately she tried to calm her breathing and not panic. She felt around her, trying to figure out where he put her and realized as her hands ran over the sharp edges of wood that her father had locked her in the crawl space underneath the stairs.

By the time her brother snuck back home later that night, her fists were raw and bleeding from pounding on the walls and her voice was hoarse from shouting. As she lay huddled in Michaelís arms after he pulled her out of the crawl space she vowed she would never let her father beat any of them again. ******

She wasnít out at the desk for a minute before the abruptly lights went out and she was bathed in darkness. Anxious cries from patients and families alike erupted from around the department.

Alex cursed softly and waited for her eyes to adjust before the emergency lights came on. She heard several of the staff around her as they moved awkwardly, finding their way through the maze of equipment and rooms in the darkness.

When nothing happened seconds later, Alex ran her hands along the back of the desk and found the flashlight they kept there for emergencies. Just as she turned it on the lights flickered and came back on.

"Figures," Sandy muttered as she stepped up beside the doctor, holding another flashlight.

"I thought they fixed the emergency generator." Alex turned to the nurse.

"Oh, they did. Canít you tell?" Sandy remarked snidely and set the flashlight down on the desk.

Overhead the operator announced a code ten in radiology. "And thatís probably the new MRI unit that just crapped out again. Every time thereís a power surge it blows a fuse."

"Youíre kidding, right?" Alex turned and stared at the nurse.

"No, Iím not kidding, Alex," Sandy replied.

An eyebrow arched up under dark bangs and Alex grabbed the phone quickly dialing radiologyís number.

A frazzled clerk picked up the phone. "What?"

"Is Dr. Kingston there?" Alex demanded.

"Yeah, but sheís busy. We got a broken unit and a patient is stuck in it."

She didnít even remember sprinting down the hallway or taking the stairs two at a time and bursting into the observation room. Inside she saw a technician and Regina desperately trying to pull the narrow table out of the tube. Two engineers and one of the biomedical technicians were already working on a panel at the other end of the unit.

"What happened?" Alex panted as she knelt beside Regina and looked at what she was trying to do.

Regina answered over the panicked cries of the girl, pleading to get her out of the machine. "The motor malfunctioned after the power surge. We ... canít," she grunted as she pulled on the end of the narrow bed, "get it to release."

"Let me see." Alex crouched beside her and tugged experimentally on the end of it. It didnít budge.

"Get me out of here," Terry sobbed desperately from inside.

Regina stood up and leaned into the tube, touching the frightened girlís ankle. "Terry, listen to me. Weíre going to get you out. I promise."

"Get me out, please! I ... I canít breathe."

Alex sat back on her heels and tugged on the stretcher again. She glanced up at Regina and shook her head. "Itís jammed," she whispered. "You think you can get her calmed down enough so that we can pull her out."

"You canít do that. Youíll damage it," the technician protested loudly.

"News flash, it already is." Alex glared at the woman and stood up, stepping past her and muttering angrily. "One million dollars they spend on this state of the art technology and a power surge does it in." She walked over to the engineers and peered at what they were doing. "Any idea whatís wrong with this hunk of metal?

One of the engineers scratched his head and blew out a frustrated breath. "Yeah, it blew another fuse and short circuited the wires."

"How long does it take to fix that?"

"We have to replace the wires and the fuse. It could be a couple of hours."

"Is there a manual override for the bed so we can get this kid out now?"

"Not that I can see on the schematics," the biomedical technician muttered angrily.

Alex moved back to the opening and placed a hand on Reginaís back as she leaned in next to her. She inhaled sharply as she peered into the tube. Oh God, thatís small in there. "Terry."

"W ... what?"

"I need you to lie very still. Weíre going to pull you out, ok?"

"If you break this machine itís on your head, not mine," the technician spluttered from behind the two doctors.

Regina glanced up at Alex with a surprised look on her face. "Can we do that?"

"You take one ankle and Iíll get the other." Alex closed her eyes and leaned into the small tunnel, reaching for the girlís leg. "Terry, I want you to scoot toward the opening when we start to pull. Ok?"

"Ok," her voice trembled and Alex could hear her sniffling.

"Here we go."

It took them another ten minutes before Alex and Regina could finally extricate the girl from the machine. She clung to both of them as they lowered her carefully to the floor. Alex ducked her head and unwrapped the girlís death grip from around her neck. She knelt beside her and draped a blanket that the technician handed to her over the traumatized girlís shoulders.

She watched as Terry buried her head against Reginaís shoulder, holding on for dear life as her sobs quieted down to soft whimpers. The pediatrician rubbed her hand over the young girlís back and raised her head, rewarding Alex with a heartwarming smile and mouthed the word, thank you, to the dark-haired doctor.

The medical director smiled back and helped Regina pull Terry to her feet. "Well, I think weíre done here for the day. How about we get our young friend here back to her room and give her parents a call? I donít think theyíre going to want to hear about this tomorrow morning."

The dark-haired doctor waited outside the Terryís room while Regina did her best to reassure the girl and her worried parents that what happened with the machine was a fluke.

"Thanks for waiting, Alex," Regina offered when she walked out of the room some time later.

"No problem. Is she ok?" The medical director started down the hallway with the blonde walking beside her.

"Sheís better now." Regina glanced curiously up at her taller companion as Alex held the door open to the stairwell. "How come you came down to radiology? It wasnít a medical emergency they announced."

Alex avoided the green eyes peering up at her. "Sandy told me the problems theyíve been having with the new unit and when I called down the clerk told me what happened."

Regina raised her eyebrows and tilted her head up at Alex. "Uh huh. That still doesnít explain why you came down."

Alex lowered her eyes and sighed. "Itís a long story and it doesnít really matter. I just wanted to help," Alex finished sheepishly and started down the stairs.

Regina recognized the defensive tone in Alexís voice and sighed inwardly, knowing further discussion was off limits about the subject for now. The blonde decided on a different tactic and glanced quickly above to make sure no one was coming down the stairs, then reached out from the step above and grabbed the collar of the taller womanís lab coat, halting Alex and pulling the taller woman back against her. "Even if you wonít tell me why, thank you, anyway," she whispered in the taller womanís ear and smiled when she saw the faint flush of pink against her tan skin. "When the electricity went off and the machine failed, I hoped you might come down."

Alex tried not to let the smile break over her face but it was futile as her senses were momentarily overwhelmed in this sterile environment with the physical closeness of her lover and the warm clean scent of her body mingled with a hint of her perfume. She swallowed trying to control the sudden racing of her heart. "Regina," she growled, drawing the womanís name out.

"Problem?" the blonde asked innocently.

"Youíre not playing fair," Alex groaned when she felt Regina lean against her.

"Who said anything about playing fair?" Regina laughed and bolted down the stairs ahead of her.


Chapter Five

 

 

Alex leaned in close, brought her lips to the back of Reginaís neck and gently nibbled the silken skin as she waited for the blonde to unlock the front door of her condo. She chuckled, enjoying herself for the moment as her younger companion squirmed and pushed back against her.

"Iím never ... going to get this door unlocked if you keep ... oh, doing that." Regina protested as her body reacted to Alexís playful teasing.

Alex sighed dramatically and straightened up, allowing Regina the opportunity to unlock the door without any further distractions. She followed the blonde inside; watching curiously as Regina tossed some mail on the table and then glanced over at the blinking light on the message machine.

Regina felt her companionís gaze penetrating her back and she turned, giving the woman a quizzical look. She waved her hand at the phone. "Ah, Iíll listen to that later." Regina gazed up at Alex and smiled warmly. "Thanks for helping out today."

Alex shook her head and stepped up to Regina slipping her arms around the shorter womanís waist, pulling her close. She intently studied the sea green eyes that looked back up at her and lit up when a smile touched her lips. "Mm, you already thanked me once."

"I know, but to that girl, you were a hero today. She was terrified when she got stuck in that machine."

Blue eyes blinked and Alex ducked her head, hiding her discomfort with the label before she answered. "Iím not a hero, Regina." I wonder how you would feel about me if you saw the way I ran out of the ER like a coward the other day.

The blonde snorted and ran her hands up over Alexís shoulders, feeling the strength still evident there. "You think what you want, but I know better." She silenced the protest rising on Alexís lips with a gentle kiss, enjoying the soft, fullness of her lips as they returned the steady pressure in turn.

Since the accident neither of them had pushed the issue of being intimate with each other, they held hands, kissed and hugged often but that was the extent of it and Regina sorely missed the physical part of their relationship they had yet to regain. She knew part of Alexís reluctance was because she was still in considerable pain at times, but there was so much going on behind those turbulent blue eyes that made the young doctor believe it was much more than that alone. What her dark haired companion wasnít willing to discuss with her left Regina feeling anxious and unsettled about their relationship.

The taller woman slowly opened her eyes, pulled back from the kiss and then briefly brushed the back of her fingers over Reginaís cheek. "You must be hungry. Do you want to order something to eat?"

The blonde frowned and shook her head. "No, no more take out food. I can whip something up for us," Regina replied, before she walked into the kitchen. "Let me see what Iíve got."

Alex followed the blonde into the kitchen and casually leaned against the wall, watching as Regina rummaged through the cabinet and pulled out a box of linguine, followed by several cans of clams.

"Linguine and clam sauce, sound good?"

"Sure, but wonít that take awhile?"

The blondeís shoulders shook as she snickered at the concerned expression on Alexís face. "You really donít cook very much do you?"

Dark eyebrows furrowed and Alex folded her arms over her chest. "Hey, Iíll have you know I can cook ... "

"Yes." Regina leaned against the counter and folded her arms waiting for Alexís answer."

Alexís frown broke into a sly grin. "Do hard boiled eggs count?"

Regina tilted her head back and let out an exasperated sigh. "You are too much."

"So, I took wood working and metal shop in high school," Alex protested good-naturedly.

The young doctor rolled her eyes, pulled a large pot out from inside the cabinet, and set it on the stove. "Well, get over here and fill this pot with water, Ms. Butch."

"Hey," the taller woman grumbled and then gave up, knowing sheíd been pegged as Regina just smiled impishly at her and pointed to the pot. "Watch it. You are treading on thin ice, here," Alex warned as she turned the water on in the sink and nudged the blonde with her hip.

"Ooh, I am so scared." Regina waggled her eyebrows and tried not to laugh again. It felt good to tease each other and laugh like this; releasing some of the tension they both were feeling around each other of late. So many things had gone unspoken since the day Alex was shot and the more time that passed the harder it was to talk about what was bothering her. "Aah, hey," she puttered as cold droplets of water suddenly splashed on her face. "Stop, that. Alex!"

The taller woman cupped her hand under the stream of water and flashed an evil grin. "Donít mock my skills."

"Ok, ok. Truce, please?" Regina pled as she wiped her face with her hand.

"Iíll consider it," Alex mused, a smile tugging at the corners of her lips as she set the pot full of water on the stove.

Alex retreated back to the doorway and watched with interest as Regina quickly went about creating her clam sauce while the pasta cooked on the stove. Her talents certainly did not lie in this area and a rueful smirk crossed Alexís face when she thought that most of her dinners consisted of cereal and milk when she was alone. It felt nice to have someone want to do this for her, but there was also another part that railed against having to depend on anyone for anything. She sighed inwardly knowing that the last two months she felt like sheíd done nothing except rely on Regina for everything.

"You want any help?"

Regina shook her head, glancing up at Alex. "No, why donít you go relax. This wonít take long."

"Ok." Alex disappeared into the living room and settled herself onto the couch. She let out a quiet sigh and pressed her hand against her chest, the contact offering a different sensation than the pain that seemed to be more pronounced when she wasnít distracted. The brunette sorted though her experiences over the past two days searching for why she was having such a hard time adjusting to being back at work. Alex youíre a jerk, you get shot, almost die, have major surgery and are back in less than two months. She shook her head, slightly disgusted that it was affecting her this much. Get past it, dwelling on it isnít going to help any.

She glanced down at her leather bag and then reached inside it, pulling out a folder. Work had always been a distraction for her and it was no different now as she opened the file and sifted through a pile of papers until she found the equipment list she was working on for the clinic and started reviewing it.

Alex made a note in the margin to ask Dr. Matthews for a requisition order to get equipment out of the warehouse that the hospital owned. It was convenient for the hospital to store old or unwanted equipment since the warehouse was located right next to the clinic, which was minutes away from the hospital. Once she found what she needed it would only be a matter of scheduling the movers to transport what they needed over into what would hopefully become the new community health center.

"Alex, come on itís ready."

"Oh, sorry. I didnít hear you." Alex pulled herself out of her thoughts when Regina set a steaming plate mounded with pasta and sauce down on the table a few feet away.

"Thanks," she offered quietly and slid into the chair opposite Regina.

As the blonde haired doctor ate and watched her friend sitting across from her she sensed the dark cloud of uncertainty and doubt that seemed to plague Alex ever since the shooting, descend once again. Regina winced inwardly at the memory of it, all too aware that the outcome could have been unthinkable given a slightly different set of circumstances. They had been lucky that day.

"This is really good Reg," Alex remarked in between bites.

Regina watched Alex quietly finish the food on her plate, her eyes hidden by the dark bangs. She thought of everything they had been through and all the things they had yet to experience and share together.

It came without warning and she found herself consumed by a flood of grief that choked her throat and brought stinging tears to her eyes. Without a word, the blonde shoved her chair back, fled into the bathroom, quickly shutting the door behind her. Her chest heaved as she covered her face with a hand and fought back a sob that threatened to burst out.

"Oh God," she uttered and leaned heavily against the door. Through the tears blurring her vision, Regina studied her hands and clenched them tightly into fists to stop them from shaking. Images flashed through her mind and she pressed her clenched fists against her eyes trying to block them out.

******There was blood everywhere and it quickly soaked through the front of Alexís faded blue scrub top. "Oh God, Alex ... Sandy! I need help in here, now!" ******

Her voice echoed in her mind, starting a cascade of memories she couldnít control. Regina could see herself clamping her hands over the bullet hole in Alexís chest and with a detached sense of horror watched as the blood stained her hands red.

Maybe if I listened to Alex when she ordered me out of the room that night, none of this would have happened, Regina thought and shook her head, staring up at the ceiling. "This is all my fault."

Behind her came a soft knock on the door and she cursed softly, knowing she left Alex at the table wondering what in the hell was going on with her.

"Regina, are you ok?"

The young doctor swallowed the lump in her throat before she spoke. "Yeah, I ... Iím fine. Iíll be right out." She moved to the sink, turned the faucet on and splashed water on her face.

When she emerged from the bathroom a few minutes later, she glanced over at the table to find it empty and cleared of dishes. Across the room, Alex was standing by the window with her arms folded over her chest, staring into the darkness, a pensive expression on her face. Iím so sorry, Alex.

When the brunette heard Reginaís footsteps she turned her head and watched her approach warily. She spoke first, breaking the heavy silence between them. "You know if you want to talk about anything, Iím here, right?" Alex asked in a neutral voice, trying to mask the hurt that lay just beneath the surface.

Regina started to say that everything was all right, but something in the way Alexís penetrating gaze captured hers broke the blondeís resolve. In two steps she was wrapped in the taller womanís embrace and holding onto her with all her strength.

"I canít lose you, Alex. Please, not again," she whispered into the fabric of her shirt.

The brunette tipped Reginaís head back and studied her face intently. "Youíre not going to lose me, Regina. Iím staying right here." Alex sensed Reginaís anguish and squeezed her tighter, whispering quiet reassurances in her ear. "Talk to me, please. Whatever it is, weíll work it out. I promise."

Regina closed her eyes unable to look at the pained expression in Alexís eyes. Iím sorry, Alex. I just donít know how to tell you that I just stood there and watched you slipping away. Everything I learned, everything you taught me, just flew out the window. I almost let you die in there.

"Hey, come on. It canít be that bad," Alex joked; Reginaís uncharacteristic silence unnerving her.

The younger woman sniffed and wiped a hand across her eyes. "I donít even think I can put it into words right now."

Alex frowned and tilted her head. "Why? Just tell me whatís wrong." She glanced over at the couch, deciding that it might be better if they both were sitting because this sounded like it was going to be one hell of a conversation. "Come here." She tugged the reluctant blonde over to the couch and sat, pulling Regina down beside her.

The younger woman curled her legs underneath her and leaned back against the corner of the couch, studying her hands, acutely aware of Alex watching her.

"Regina." Alex turned and rested her arm on the back cushion, waiting. "Did I do something?" She felt her heart jerk erratically in her chest when she heard a muffled sob.

Regina shook her head vigorously, several strands of hair falling over into her face as she fought back the tears. "No, Alex. Itís not you. I mean I am worried about you. I know itís got to be hard going back to work."

The taller woman pursed her lips and then leaned closer to her younger companion. "No. This isnít about me, Regina. You didnít just bolt into the bathroom before because youíre worried about me. Maybe you donít remember youíre dreams but I hear you every night. Somethingís been bothering you and itís eating you up inside."

Reginaís eyes widened and for a moment she worried that she said something in her sleep that Alex might already know. "I ... I donít remember them," her voice faded away as the pale blue eyes watching her darkened and Alexís jaw muscles clenched briefly before she stared straight ahead.

"I donít understand. Why wonít you tell me whatís wrong?" Alex asked in a small voice. Behind them on the table the phone rang shrilly. "Donít ... answer it,"

Regina pulled her hand back and cautiously glanced up at the dark haired woman sitting rigidly beside her. How did this conversation end up like this? Weíre practically arguing with each over something I donít even know how to explain. Then she heard her fatherís voice over the speaker. Shit, this canít get any worse, she thought and then it did.

"Hi, uh Regina, itís your father. I guess youíre still not home." Regina wrinkled her nose, realizing now who had left the message before. "Your motherís birthday is coming up in a couple of weeks and um, I thought you might want to come up for the weekend. It might be a good way for us ... I called your brother, Jeff and heís uh, well, heís thinking about it. Iíll tell you the same thing though. If you decide to bring your ... friend with you, you should plan to stay elsewhere than at the house. I think it will be better ... "

Completely mortified, Regina reached out and grabbed the phone from the cradle. "Dad, shit," she cursed when she heard her voice on the speaker and turned the volume off on the machine. "Hi, yeah, Iím home. No, I wasnít screening calls."

She glanced over at the brunette and cringed inwardly when she saw Alex slumped back against the couch with her head tilted back and eyes closed. "What weekend? Oh, ok." Regina pushed several flaxen strands of hair back off her face and rested her elbows on her knees, wanting nothing more than to just crawl into a hole somewhere and hide. "Is Mike going to be there with his wife? Ah huh, yeah, great." Her voice sounded more resigned now. "Yes, Dad, Iíll switch my schedule if I need to. Iíll talk to you later."

Quietly, she hung up the phone and rubbed her face before she looked over at Alex and noticed her eyes were still closed and could tell from the erratic rise and fall of her chest that she was breathing irregularly, obviously more upset now than before.

"Iím sorry," she breathed out, wanting nothing more than to reach out and touch the woman but the pang of her upset prevented her from doing so.

"What are you sorry about? Itís youíre parents prerogative who they want staying in their house." Alex started to say more but bit back the sarcastic remark about knowing how Reginaís parents felt about her now. It wasnít Reginaís fault and it would only serve to distance them further from each other, which they didnít seem to need much help with at the moment.

She hadnít meant for the conversation to go this way, but it seemed that no matter what she said only made Regina more anxious and determined not to tell her what was troubling her. The taller woman sighed, seeing the unhappy expression on her partnerís face. "Listen, itís late and weíre both tired." Alex reached over and tentatively brushed a lock of hair behind Reginaís perfectly shaped ear. "Why donít we call it a night? When you need or want to, you can talk to me." The brunette stood up and ran a hand through her hair, not sure of what else to say or do that wouldnít make the situation worse.

"Alex?"

She turned around looking at Regina uncertainly. "What?"

"I was thinking that maybe it would be nice if we could get away for the weekend. You know, just so we could be together."

The tall, dark haired woman pressed her lips into a thin line before she answered. "I wish I could Regina, but I planned to start work on getting the clinic set up downtown."

"Oh, I didnít realize it was going to happen that quickly," Regina replied, trying unsuccessfully to hide the dejection evident in her voice.

Ah shit. Alex hesitated before she walked back over and sat down on the couch. "Weíll do something, I promise. Maybe after you go visit your parents we can take a few days off and go somewhere. Ok?"

Regina rested her elbows on her knees and stared off across the room. "I um, I was hoping that maybe, you would come with me ... if you want." She nervously clasped her hands tightly together, her knuckles turning white from the pressure while she stumbled over her words. "I ... Iíll understand if you donít want to." She wanted Alex with her but the prospect of her mother meeting her lover, the same woman Derrick had badly maligned to her, was enough to make her stomach start doing back flips.

"Oh." Alex coughed and cleared her throat, floundering in deep water at the unexpected invitation. "Of course, Iíll come with you Reg. I just wasnít sure if that was what you wanted."

"Why wouldnít I want you to come with me?"

Alex blinked and looked back into questioning green eyes before she answered. "I know your parents gave you a hard time when you told them about yourself. Iím sure they think that Iím stealing their daughter away, corrupting you or something." Alex tried to keep her voice light as if joking about it, but realized there was more truth in that statement than she cared to admit. "I ... I just donít want to make things any more difficult for you, thatís all."

"Oh." Regina sat back, considering this for a second before she glanced back over at her companion. "Alex, it would be more difficult if you werenít there with me."

"All right, then," Alex responded still feeling a bit overwhelmed by the prospect of not just meeting Reginaís parents but being there for a weekend. No problem, right? Youíve been up to your ankles in blood and gore I think you can handle a weekend with her parents, Alex thought wryly. "I guess weíll have to plan to take some time off then."

A smile broke over the younger womanís face and she leaned into Alex, placing a feather light kiss on her temple. "Thanks, Alex."

"Your welcome." Alex turned to face Regina. "Do you think you can get the time off so we can spend a few days together after we leave your parents?"

"I can switch some shifts around with some of the other doctors. It shouldnít be a problem."

"That would be nice. Youíre right, we do need some time for just the two of us." Alex slid her arm around the Reginaís shoulder and pulled her closer, wishing that for tonight both of them would sleep without dreams.


Chapter Six

 

 

It was late afternoon the next day when Alex was finally able to find a moment to walk over to Dr. Matthewís office. It was located on the opposite side of the medical center, the farthest point away from the emergency department. The small rectangular room was cramped, overflowing with files, medical textbooks and journals.

The tall, dark-haired doctor waited several minutes as the President of the Medical Staff finished with a telephone call. The man was in his late fifties, with thinning, white hair and his doughy, poorly toned physique spoke volumes about his sedentary lifestyle.

Her interactions with the doctor were limited to one brief meeting ten years ago when she originally applied for her staff privileges. Since then, she traveled a much different path, working on the front lines, day in and day out, falling in love with the chaos and frantic pace of the emergency department.

Her counterpart moved up the administrative ranks, moving in political circles she had little use for. His was a world where decisions were made based on bottom lines and had little to do with how their impact might affect patients that were in need of medical care.

"So, Alex what do you have for me?" The doctor pushed his round, steel-rimmed glasses farther up onto the bridge of his nose as he stared distractedly at the piles on his desk.

"A list of equipment weíll need to get the clinic up and running. Most of it is probably in storage in the warehouse next door."

"Arenít you getting a little ahead of yourself?" The doctor asked and then took a large swallow of coffee from the Styrofoam cup sitting on his desk.

Alex handed a thin file across to him, dropping onto his desk when he made no attempt to take it from her. "No. There are five medical directors who believe this is a good idea and will help them streamline each of their operations. I have a report from each of them summarizing the initial cost and the community benefits, which at this point I think far outweigh any of the risks involved with re-opening up the clinic."

"You really think this will make a difference for the hospitalís reputation," he commented, without looking down at the folder.

"If weíre sincere in our effort, yes. Anything less and the community will see it as nothing more than a transparent attempt to regain their trust."

The white-haired physician tapped his forefinger against his lips a bemused expression forming on his face while he listened to the exotic looking woman standing before him. "All right, you can work on this, for now on your own time. I donít want this taking away from anything going on at the hospital until I see that itís going to be something viable for us." He held her gaze confident that the fledgling idea would lose steam with any of the interested parties with the limitations he set. "So, if youíre still interested in doing this, I suppose you can go ahead with it."

"If I didnít think it was a good idea, I wouldnít be here in the first place, Frank. Iíll be sure to let you know if I need any more help from you." Alex smiled in spite of herself, knowing the sarcastic remark was not lost on the President. Without another word, the doctor turned and left the office.

Lost in thought, Alex hardly paid attention to her surroundings as she made her way back to the ER. She hadnít expected much support from Dr. Matthews, but unfortunately, projects of this magnitude required the approval of the administration. Well, at least he didnít nix it all together.

She walked into the emergency department and hesitated before she negotiated her way around two engineering carts and a dolly loaded with electrical wire. Directly in front of her, two engineers were perched precariously atop ladders, threading electrical wire through the dropped ceiling and Sandy, still dressed in a bloody isolation gown, holding several plastic sealed packages, was standing beneath them looking rather miffed.

"Canít you guys find a better time to do this? Youíre set up right in the middle of the hall," the nurse protested loudly and then turned to the technician standing behind the desk. "Thomas, bring these in to Dr. Ortiz."

"Weíve got to get this done before the end of our shift," one engineer called back as he yanked another length of wire up through the opening. The large wooden bolt the wire was coiled around rolled several feet and bumped into one of the code carts lining the corridor.

"You canít string that cable while weíre this busy," Sandy insisted.

"Listen, Iíve got a job to do." One of the engineers poked his head out of the ceiling. "Youíre medical director signed the work order. Take it up with him."

Sandy turned to Alex. "You didnít, did you?"

The doctor folded her arms across her chest at this and then peered up at the two men half hidden from view in the ceiling. She caught Sandyís exasperated look and pursed her lips together, then walked over to the wooden bolt that held the wire, tipped it on its side and planted her foot on it.

A loud curse erupted from inside the ceiling when one of the men tried to tug more wire up and felt the resistance from below. Alex tilted her head and flashed him a toothy smile at the man as he clambered down the ladder and turned to face her.

"W ... what do you think youíre doing?" he blustered.

"I will not have you doing this during the middle of the day. Weíre too crowded and someone is going to get hurt," Alex advised him quietly.

"But, my boss told me to get this done. Dr. Jameson signed off on this two months ago." The engineer walked toward the large, wooden bolt.

Alex shook her head and held her hand out to stop him. "Two months ago and youíre just getting to it now? Thatís nice." She observed with a slight raise of an eyebrow.

"Here look hereís the work order." He pulled a wrinkled, grease-stained paper from his pocket and handed it to the doctor.

"I donít care. Youíre not doing it now so clear this stuff out of here! Oh, and for youíre information, Dr. Jameson doesnít work here anymore."

After the engineers cleared up their equipment and finally left, Alex pulled a pile of patientís charts who they recently discharged and needed to call back regarding various test results that required follow-up to make sure nothing more sinister was going on.

"Hey, Alex. Sorry, about that."

"Itís not a big deal, Sandy." The doctor picked up the charts aware of the nurseís appraising, dark, green eyes studying her from across the desk.

"How did the meeting go with Dr. Matthews?"

Alex shrugged and glanced over at the board, counting the number of patients on the unit as a momentary distraction before she answered. "Ok."

"Well, what did he say?" Samantha leaned closer, lowering her voice as one of the residents walked by them.

"To go ahead with it but do it on your own damn time," Alex replied matter of fact.

The nurse was quiet as she watched her friend studying the charts she was carrying in her arm. "So, I guess youíre going to need some help then."

Alex raised an eyebrow. "If people want to volunteer, sure. Dr. Matthews isnít going to approve any overtime for this, not yet anyway."

"So what needs to be done?"

"Everything. The clinic looks like a bomb hit it and all the equipment we need is in storage at the warehouse next door."

"I must be missing something." Sandy grimaced scratched her head. "How does he expect the hospital to open a clinic if heís not going to pay anyone to work there?"

"Thatís just it. I really donít think he wants this clinic to re-open at all."

"Why? I thought the whole reason for doing this was to try and make this whole mess better."

"Your guess is as good as mine, Sandy." Alex straightened up. "Iím going to go there Saturday and see what I can accomplish."

"Hm, Tina and I were going to go away but Labor and Delivery had two of its nurses resign last month so she got called in to work an extra shift this weekend. Maybe Iíll join you." Sandy grinned at Alexís surprised expression, then, tapped the desk in front of her with her hand. "Hey, before I forget, call Regina she was down here looking for you earlier."

******

Regina felt the vibration of the pager that was hooked on her belt and glanced down at the narrow LCD screen as she walked through the hallway. It was the pediatric intensive care unit and she only had one patient there that was on the service right now. John Doe. She only hoped it was good news as she picked up the beige wall phone by the bank of elevators.

"This is Dr. Kingston. Someone paged me," the blonde replied.

She waited on hold several seconds before another voice came over the line. "Itís JD, Dr. Kingston. Heís awake."

"When?"

"About ten minutes ago when I checked his vitals. Everythingís stable but heís agitated and trying to pull out his lines. I gave him ten milligrams of Ativan, but I need your ok to put restraints on him."

"No," Regina ordered sharply, then lowered her voice when she caught sight of several people stepping off the elevator. "Iíd rather not put him in restraints if we donít have to. The kid has been through enough already."

There was an audible sigh on the other end of the phone. "I donít have enough nurses on staff tonight to have someone sit with him."

Regina shifted the phone and glanced down at her pager as it went off again. "Donít do anything until I get down there. Iíll be right there."

She hung up and dialed the ER, hoping it wasnít another admission. The blonde smiled when she heard the deep voice come through the phone line. "Hi. I stopped by earlier but you werenít around."

"Sandy said you were looking for me," Alex answered softly.

"I was, but I canít talk right now. Iíve got to go check on a patient in ICU. Can I call you back when Iím done?" Regina twisted the phone cord around her index finger, wishing she could just go to Alex right now. She wanted nothing more than to just shut the door on the world and lose herself in the security of her loverís arms.

"Sure, Iíll be up in the office."

"Ok."

The blonde hung up the phone, trotted down the stairs to the first floor and followed the stark white corridor into the intensive care unit. A red-haired nurse she didnít recognize was sitting in a rolling chair with a tray table in front of her just outside the boyís room.

"Iím Dr. Kinston. How is he?" Regina slipped on a yellow isolation gown, pulled a cap over her hair and slipped a mask over her face. She glanced down at the nursing flow sheets and quickly scanned over his last set of vitals.

"Better, for the moment. The neurosurgeon was in about an hour ago and he discharged the intracranial catheter."

Brown eyes focused on Regina and followed her warily as she entered the small room and walked up to the bed. It struck her then, as she glanced around her how different this room was from all the rest. There were no cards with get-well wishes pinned up to the corkboard or balloons floating in the corner. The wall-mounted television wasnít even on; the only noise was the beeping of the ventilator and the motors whirring in the intravenous pumps.

"Hello there," Regina said, watching as the boy broke his silent observation of her and turned his head, staring out the window sullenly.

"How are his oxygen sats?"

"Heís been at ninety-eight percent all day, his blood gases are good and weíve been able to decrease the setting on the vent without any problem." the nurse replied as she slipped into a gown and stepped inside the room.

"So, what do you think about getting that tube out of your throat today?" Regina asked. A cold, stony silence greeted her in return as the boy continued to pointedly ignore her. She turned to the nurse. "Whatís your name?"

"June," the woman replied, as she pulled on a pair of gloves.

Regina looked back at the boy and tilted her head. "If I give you a pen and paper, will you write your name out for me?"

The boy continued to stare out the window.

"Well then, I guess weíll have to forgo any formal introductions until after we take the tube out. Iím going to unhook this from the ventilator first."

Regina started to reach over to unhook the tube but a hand reached up and blocked her. "What?"

The boy shook his head and motioned with his hand. "You want to write your name out?"

He nodded his head and looked away again. Regina took a clipboard and pen the nurse handed to her and set it on the boyís lap. His hand trembled slightly as he picked up the pen and then dropped it on the mattress. The blonde handed it back to him and supported his hand as he scrawled two barely legible letters on the blank paper.

"BJ," Regina said as she read the scrawled handwriting. The boy blinked and wrote another word out.

"I know, BJ." Regina deflated the balloon that held the endotracheal tube in place in the boyís throat. "BJ, I need you to take a deep breath and cough real hard for me, now."

In a matter of seconds it was over and the boy stopped coughing and squeezed his eyes shut as he swallowed the first few times. "Good job, BJ. Regina laid a hand on his shoulder and squeezed him. "You can talk but just a little today. Itíll take a day for the soreness to go away."

I ... want to go ... home," the boy rasped in a weak voice.

Regina chewed on her bottom lip and considered what to say to him. It had been three days since he was admitted and they had heard nothing about the boyís family. "BJ, can you tell me where you live?"

With that question the fleeting moment of open vulnerability vanished from the boyís face and was replaced with a toughness that caught Regina by surprise. "BJ, there has to be somebody we can call."

"I want ... my clothes."

"BJ, you canít leave yet," Regina reminded him gently.

"You canít make me stay," he protested and started to sit up from the bed.

Regina struggled to hold him down and was quickly reminded of the strength a sixteen-year old boy could possess. "BJ ... stop. Youíre going to hurt yourself. Youíre in no condition to leave the hospital yet."

"Let ... me ... go." He tried to shove her away but a second set of arms pinned him to the mattress as the nurse held him down.

"BJ, if you donít stop weíre going to have to give you something to calm down." Regina pressed both hands firmly on his shoulders, holding him in place. "I donít want to have to do that, but I will if you donít stop."

He glared back at her defiantly still not ready to back down yet. "Iíve got ten of Ativan, Dr. Kinston," June interjected.

Regina glanced over at the nurse and then looked back down at her patient. "Can I trust you or are you going to give the nurses a hard time all night?"

His lip curled up in anger and he shoved against her one more time. "Fine, give it to him, June." Regina stared into his angry brown eyes and waited as the nurse uncapped the syringe and injected the medication into the intravenous line.

"I hate you," he hissed at the doctor.

Regina stepped back and pulled her gloves and mask off. "Iíll write an order in the chart for the Aitvan as needed, June." It wasnít what she wanted to do, but BJ had given her no reason to trust that he wouldnít try to leave if given half the chance and she couldnít allow that to happen.

The blonde finished writing in her patientís chart and then walked off the unit. She stifled a yawn as a couple of residents walked past her in the hallway. All in all it hadnít been a bad day but still she was feeling out of sorts mostly because of what happened last night and the conversation she had with Alex.

It was early evening and the hallways were quiet as she walked toward the medical offices that were housed on the first floor of the East Wing. The door to Alexís office was shut and she knocked on the door before she opened it and peered inside.

Alex looked up from the papers she was reading and blinked, her eyes taking a second to focus on the slightly disheveled halo of blonde hair framing the youthful face. "Hi." She smiled and leaned back in her chair and stretched, feeling several vertebrae pop back into place. "Howís your patient?"

Regina shut the door behind her, walked over and sat on the corner of the desk, facing the beautiful blue-eyed doctor. "Heís awake, angry and combative." She toyed with one of the pens lying on the desk. "Thereís still no word about any family. Iím beginning to wonder if this kid ran away or something." She glanced over at Alex and sighed. "What are you reading?"

The taller woman edged her chair closer to Regina and shook her head. "Nothing earth shattering. Iím just going over the budget that the administration approved for the year." She could sense the conflict the young woman was trying hard to disguise. Alex leaned forward and let her arms rest on her thighs, thinking and then looked up into her loverís face. "Listen Regina, about last night-"

The blonde bowed her head and sighed. "No Alex, I hardly slept at all last night and I thought about this all day. I owe you an explanation."

A wistful smile crept over Alexís face and she shook her head. "You too, huh?" She laid a hand on Reginaís thigh and glanced over at the door. Itís late and screw the rest of the world, she thought. They needed desperately to reconnect and being back at work was leaving them little time and energy left to do so. "No wonder you have circles under your eyes."

Regina chewed on her lower lip as she gazed back at Alex. "This is hard to say and I fought with myself all day about whether I should even tell you or not, because you probably donít need this with everything youíre dealing with." She rushed on when she saw the alarmed expression on her loverís face. "Its just ... there are times when I see what happened that day so clearly. I think about how close we came to losing ... " her voice faded away and she took a breath, trying to calm her racing heart. "I ... I know itís crazy but I get this feeling like if I close my eyes and open them again ... you wonít be there."

She swallowed the lump forming in her throat and held her breath against the need to cry. How many nights had she woken up with a start and reached out to wrap an arm around Alexís body to reassure herself she was still alive?

A warm hand caressed the blondeís cheek and slid around her neck, gently massaging the base of it. Regina felt the brush of air against her and then the solid bulk of the taller woman as she stood up and pulled her into a bear hug.

Alex pressed her face against the top of Reginaís head, rocked the smaller woman in her arms and brushed her hand over the soft blonde hair, whispering quiet reassurances to her. She remembered so little of what happened after she was shot. Most of it was a blur in her mind; odd bits of conversation, the excruciating pain she felt after surgery and the drugs that made her feel like she was on a bad trip.

All that, coupled with her driving need to put the experience behind her made it difficult for her to understand what her partner had gone through in those first few days. Sheíd seen the scenario played out day in and day out at work, but somehow her mind had, for the time being, neatly hidden those emotions away. "Regina, Iím here and I always will be. I promise."

The smaller woman sniffled and nodded her head against Alexís shoulder. "I know, I know. But I almost ... "

"Almost what?" Alex leaned back and furrowed her brow, looking into the troubled green eyes. What arenít you still telling me, Reg?

Regina lifted her hand, brushed the dark bangs back off of Alexís face and let them fall back as she trailed her fingers down the angular cheek. "Nothing ... I ... can we just go home?"

Alex ducked her head, hiding the hurt in her eyes and whispered into the blondeís ear. "Sure."

******

Across town Derrick escorted his prisoner out of the courtroom and down the long narrow corridor that led to the back of the courthouse. From behind it was hard to tell if it was a man or a woman. The bright orange standard issue uniform with large blue numbers stenciled across the back hung loosely over the thin body and hid any defining contours. Ed stood up as Derrick approached and fell into step on the other side of the woman they were escorting back to the jail.

"The judge was way behind today," Derrick complained as he opened the door and walked down the stairs holding tightly to the womanís arm.

"Pretty typical for Judge Sorenson. Iíve never gotten out of his courtroom earlier than six oíclock."

"Whatís wrong Derrick? Are you missing a hot date with your lover?" Dana purred seductively in his ear as he bent to open the door to the cruiser.

"Shut your mouth."

"Oops, thatís right I forgot. She left you for a woman." Dana cackled despite the pain in her ribs that was still lingering from where she hit the steering wheel in the car accident.

Dana smiled up at him and blew him a kiss before she ducked her head and flopped into the back seat. It was her first appearance in court since she was discharged from the hospital four weeks ago. So much for a speedy trial, she thought as she glanced down at the handcuffs that were locked around her wrists.

She scooted over to the passenger side so she was sitting behind him when he got into the car. Her lawyer seemed like he had half a brain and was able to capitalize on the fact that the boy driving the car she hit was just over the limit for driving while intoxicated. It wasnít much but it shed some doubt onto whether she was completely at fault or not.

Ed glanced over at the woman as he settled himself behind the wheel. He studied her reflection for a second in the rearview mirror and shook his head at the uneven, bleached blonde, spiky hair that gave the woman a slightly crazed appearance. "Christ, I hope you didnít pay anybody for that haircut," he remarked as he turned the key in the ignition.

"At least I have hair to cut," she quipped and settled back in her seat staring at the back of Derrickís head.

The older cop ignored her and pulled out into the street. "Iíve got to stop at the Quick Check for a gallon of milk. It wonít take a minute," Ed told Derrick, as he turned left at the next intersection.

"Ah, man every week your wife has you running errands for her."

Ed laughed at Derrick as he pulled into the parking lot and turned the car off. "Hey, itís not so bad. Theyíre plenty of perks that go along with it. You want anything while Iím in there?"

Derrick waved him off and turned his head to stare out the window instead. He caught the reflection of Danaís face peering back at him and he shifted in his seat. "What are you staring at?"

"His wife has him wrapped around her little finger," she laughed and tilted her head, regarding Derrick with interest. "Did Regina have you wrapped around her finger too, Derrick?"

"Shut up."

"Ooh a little defensive about that, huh? I guess it must sting a little to know that itís Alex keeping her bed warm at night and not you."

Derrick looked at Dana through the cage and snorted. "I wouldnít talk, Dana. Who keeps you warm at night, Blondie?"

She edged forward in her seat and ran her fingers down the grate, staring at him with a look of raw, sexual hunger. "Oh honey, whoever I want." She ran her tongue over her lips and flashed a toothy grin. "Tell me something, Derrick. Are you really content to just let Regina go?"

He blinked and stared back at her.

"I mean after all she made you look like a fool."

"The only fool I see is the one sitting across from me, Dana."

Dana rocked back and let out a high-pitched cackling laugh. "Oh thatís sweet, but not as sweet as the revenge I know you desire."

As the door opened, Derrick gave Dana one last look before he turned around to see Ed sliding back into the driverís seat. The older officer glanced between the two of them.

"Everything all right in here?"

"Just ducky," Dana replied saucily from her seat.


Chapter Seven

 

Regina rolled over and reached out from underneath the warm covers to wrap an arm around Alex. She fell asleep late last night curled against the taller womanís side, listening to the sound of her rhythmic breathing and the deep, resonant beating of her heart.

She woke now, in the darkness to find the bed empty but the sheets beneath the blankets still warm. Startled, the blonde quickly sat up in bed and turned the lamp on. Did she leave? No, no she wouldnít have left. She probably had another nightmare and didnít want to wake me up.

Regina pulled the blanket from the bed, wrapped it around her shoulders and walked into the living room where she found her lover sitting on the couch with a medical journal lying open in her lap, reading or at least trying to. She hugged her arms around herself, studying Alexís sculpted profile for a moment before she said anything.

The older doctor looked up, feeling curious eyes studying her. "Sorry, I didnít mean to wake you up."

Regina walked over and sat down beside her on the couch. "Couldnít sleep?" She asked, shivering a bit since the heat hadnít come up yet.

"No ... not too well," Alex confessed, while she straightened her back and grimaced at the gnawing sense of fatigue she felt. Vaguely, she recalled the nightmares and restless tossing and turning as her mind raced off in a million different directions all night long.

Regina curled her legs underneath her and scooted closer, resting her head on Alexís shoulder. She ran her fingers through the long, unruly raven hair and curled it around her fingers tips. "Alex, why donít you come back to bed? Itís early and we donít have to be at the warehouse for a few hours yet." Regina glanced out the window at the light coming in from the streetlamp and guessed they still had several hours left before the sunrise.

Alex tilted her neck back and closed her eyes, considering the tempting offer. Before she knew it, she heard the rustling of pages and felt the weight of the journal being lifted off her lap, and then, two warm hands curled around her wrists and tugged her forward to the edge of the couch.

"Come on, Iíll give you a back rub." Regina leaned back on her heels, pulled the taller woman to her feet.

Alex complied, allowing Regina to lead her back into the bedroom.

The blonde grinned as her taller companion sprawled out on her back and stretched, kicking her feet up and down on the bed in a brief flurry of activity. Regina crawled in beside Alex, snuggled up beside the woman and started to rub her hand in slow circles over the taut belly.

The dark head lifted and blue eyes watched the smaller woman in quiet regard, widening slightly when Regina looked up and graced her with a warm smile. The smaller woman leaned forward, brushed her lips against Alexís. She moved against her carefully and positioned her thigh over the taller womanís legs, pinning her to the bed.

"What are you doing?" Alex grumbled, looking down into sultry green eyes.

Regina chuckled softly and lightly ran her fingers up across Alexís collarbone. "Touching you." She gazed up into blue eyes, recognized the look of uncertainty there and slowed her advance. "Are you ok with this?"

Alex lay her head back down on a pillow, closed her eyes and nodded once. Dammit, when did I get this insecure about her touching me? "Yeah ... yeah, I am."

She swallowed then took a deep breath, forcing her body to relax under her loverís wandering touch. She really did miss making love with Regina, but the absolute nakedness and vulnerability of the act were too much of a risk for her fragile psyche just now.

Itís just a scar; she fought with herself. Lord knows I have enough old nicks and scrapes on me. Itís just one more. What Alex was afraid to admit was that this one ran deep and touched upon many of the others, opening old wounds and fears that threatened to overwhelm her during those quiet moments when she was alone and undistracted.

"Regina?"

The blonde looked up from gently tracing a pattern over the taller womanís neck and shoulders. "What?"

"I know you didnít sign on for any of this."

"What are you talking about?" Regina propped her head up on the palm of a hand and studied Alexís tense expression in the soft glow of the yellow lamplight.

Alex sighed heavily and stared off at the far wall, refusing to meet the sea green eyes she knew were observing her intently. None of this had been easy. It was six weeks before the cast was taken off Reginaís right arm, from having slugged Derrick and fractured a bone in her hand the day Alex was shot.

Tending to oneself with one arm out of commission was difficult enough, add an ornery, obstinate and a sometimes very emotionally, vulnerable patient was another story altogether. She knew she hadnít been an easy patient to deal with and yet Regina had managed to tend to her every day with a quiet determination.

"Come on, Reg. You know what I mean Ė youíve been my nursemaid, cleaning up when I got sick from the medication, doing my dressing changes ... hell, nobodyís wiped my butt since I canít remember when."

"Hey." Regina slid a hand up Alexís neck and cupped her jaw. When her attempt to turn the older womanís face towards her failed she pulled herself up and knelt over her companion. "Alex, look at me ... please."

Alex rubbed her thumb and forefinger over the bridge of her nose. "I ... I just ... I donít want you to feel ... obligated, Regina."

"Obligated?" She furrowed her brow and then wrapped a hand tightly around Alexís arm, her voice trembling with anger. "Donít ... you say that; donít you dare think youíre going to get rid of me that easily, Alex Margulies."

She sat back on her heels and ducked her head, the flaxen hair falling forward and hiding the tears that blurred her vision. The strong outward veneer she struggled so hard to maintain the whole time she was caring for her lover finally cracked. "Please ... Alex ... . this has been hard enough ... " she swallowed, her breath coming in short gasps. "Donít ... push me away ... not now. I ... I canít imagine my life without you."

The shadowed, blue eyes filled with tears. "Iím sorry, Regina" the taller woman whispered hoarsely. "Thatís all Iíve done lately is push you away. Iím so sorry."

A warm hand found Reginaís and she clenched her fingers around it tightly. "I know, Alex. Itís just ... I miss you, us ... making love ... being together." she murmured softly.

Alex opened her mouth once, twice, then, clamped it shut and just looked up at the most honest and open expression on Reginaís face.

You werenít expecting me to say that, were you? The blonde thought as she lay down beside her and pulled Alex into her arms, tucking the dark head under her chin. Arms and legs wrapped around each other as they twined their bodies together, each seeking and finding strength from the other.

"Iím not going anywhere, Alex. Weíre in this together."

"Promise?" Alex buried her face in Reginaís neck, wishing she could rid herself of the fear she felt gnawing inside.

"I promise," Regina breathed and hugged Alex tightly.

******

Sandy stretched under the covers and yawned loudly. She picked her head up and watched with half open eyes as her lover sauntered into their bedroom still naked from the shower. Tina was medium height with auburn hair and had an athletic build from her years of playing sports in college.

"Is it that time already?" the blonde-haired nurse managed to ask in a voice thick from breathing the smoky air and drinking a little too much alcohol from the bar they had gone dancing at last night.

Tina chuckled and arched a dark eyebrow as she pulled on a pair of faded blue jeans. "Ooh, you sound good."

Sandy ran her hands through her curly blonde locks and groaned. "You almost killed me last night."

"Hardly, we just need to practice it more often." Tina waggled her eyebrows, knelt on the foot of the bed and crawled seductively up her loverís body.

"I meant ... dancing," the woman underneath the blankets shrieked and tried to squirm away from the teasing hands. It was a futile attempt as Tina straddled Sandyís hips and pinned her arms down to her side.

"Gotcha," she giggled and leaned over, kissing the smaller woman on the lips. The kiss lasted longer than she expected and Tina lowered herself onto her elbows aware of the tightening she felt between her legs. With a sigh, she pulled back, cocked her head to one side and ran her fingers down Sandyís cheek. "I wish I didnít have to go to work."

"Oh sure, start something youíre not going to finish," Sandy pouted.

Tina dipped her head and kissed the nurse one more time. "Later, I promise. Besides, you need your strength if youíre going to go hunt through that warehouse for equipment with Alex. I canít believe you told her you would do that."

"What? Itís better than staying home and being mad about not being able to go away this weekend."

"I suppose." Tina stretched and then quickly swatted the hand reaching up for her breast. "Behave or Iím really going to be late."

"Well, then get off me and get dressed," Sandy quipped.

Tina complied, then grabbed a tank top from the dresser drawer behind her and slipped it on over her head. "Howís Alex doing anyway? I havenít seen her since she came back last week."

The blonde-haired nurse swung her legs over the edge of the bed and stared down at her bare feet, wiggling her toes. "I donít know, Tina. Iím really worried about her ... and Regina."

"I donít know how Regina held it together that whole time." Tina turned and sat down beside her lover and wrapped an arm around her shoulder, her playful demeanor suddenly sobering. "I donít know what the hell Iíd do if something happened to you." Her voice cracked on the last few syllables.

"Hey! Why are you crying?" Sandy inquired, alarmed by her usually stoic partnerís sudden display of emotion.

Tina wiped her eyes quickly and sniffed. "Shit, I donít know. I just remember you telling me what happened and how freaked out everyone was by it. That could have been any of you guys down there."

"I know," Sandy replied quietly, rubbing the back of Tinaís neck. She could still see Alex lying on the stretcher, deathly pale and covered in her own blood. "It was so weird the next day. It was like business as usual and no one talked about it ... at all."

"So, is Alex ok? You didnít say."

"Honestly, I donít know, Tina." Sandy looked over at her lover. "Sheís not the same, thereís this uncertainty about her, like sheís second guessing herself all the time."

"Have you talked to her at all?"

"Iím not sure I want to be the one to tackle that issue." Sandy looked down at the floor and shrugged. "I know sheís getting a lot of pressure from the administration about getting the ERís reputation back on track. Iím afraid she might think weíre ganging up on her."

"She trusts you Sandy. I think she would listen if you bring up your concerns as a friend and a colleague."

"Maybe."

Tina turned and drew a leg up underneath her and looked down at her hands. "I know one thing, that toughness she walks around with is a defense sheís cultivated over the years. Anyone whoís that tough is usually pretty sensitive inside."

Sandy leaned closer and lifted Tinaís head with her hand. "Mm, sounds like someone else I know."

Tina closed her eyes feeling a blush rising up from her neck. "And you know how hard it was to get through to me."

"Yeah, I practically needed a sledgehammer to break through the wall you put up."

******

Alex unlocked the metal door and stepped inside the warehouse, followed by her younger companion. The taller woman felt along the wall and turned on the panel of switches to her left. Overhead, fluorescent lights flickered momentarily and then bathed the large room in bright light. The inside of the building was one large rectangular room with large metal shelving units lining the walls. Small medical equipment and boxes that could fit there filled most of the shelves, while the larger items were crammed carelessly together on the floor.

Light streamed through the windows overhead, illuminating swirls of dust particles and as if on cue Regina sneezed loudly.

"My God, I had no idea they had all this stuff stored here." She could see her breath forming as vapor in front of her as she spoke. Another sneeze started to tickle her nose and Regina covered her face trying to stifle it unsuccessfully.

"Bless you," Alex replied and reached over to brush several strands of flaxen hair out of Reginaís face. "Are you going to be ok in here?"

"Yeah, Iíll be fine. There must be several hundred thousand dollars of equipment in here," Regina remarked, still getting over her shock at how much was jammed into the warehouse.

"Probably closer to a million or more if anyone ever bothered to keep track of it," Alex mused as she stepped around an old Stryker frame and looked around her.

Regina blinked and stared up into deadpan blue eyes. "Do I dare ask how weíre supposed to find anything in here?"

"Seek and ye shall find," Alex remarked with a wry chuckle.

Regina groaned and covered her face with a hand. "How did I know you were going to say something like that?"

A slow, sideways smile crept up Alex cheek and she winked at her lover.

Minutes later, the door swung open behind them and Sandy stepped into the open room, her face brightening into a smile when she spotted her two friends standing a few feet away.

"Have you guys been here long?"

"No, we just got here," Alex replied, watching as the nurse strolled up to Regina and embraced her.

She released Regina and peered up at Alex. "So why donít you tell me what you want to retrieve from this place."

Alex dug a copy of the list she made out of her pocket and handed it to Sandy. "The smaller stuff we can load up and bring over to the clinic today. Weíll tag any equipment we canít carry and Iíll schedule the movers pick it up this week."

"Theyíll do it that quickly?" Sandy asked while studying the list in her hands.

"They need the space for all the furniture from one of the billing offices they closed last month. Until they clear everything out of the building it was in, the hospital has to pay rent on the space."

"There doesnít look like thereís too much order to this place," Sandy remarked dubiously as she looked around at all the boxes shelving units. "Do you think anyone keeps track of whatís in here?"

Alex shook her head. "Why do you think they call this the Ďblack holeí for? If something goes into to storage you can pretty much kiss it goodbye. Come on, letís just start to look and see what we can find."

After a couple of hours they had accumulated two portable electrocardiogram monitors, several ophthalmoscopes, a couple of storage carts and other small pieces of medical equipment that would serve to help make the clinic functional.

The tall, dark-haired doctor watched in amusement from across the room as Regina and Sandy rummaged eagerly through several boxes they dragged off the shelves. "Both of you are like two kids in a candy store," she teased.

"Whatís wrong with that?" Sandy retorted as she pulled down another box off the shelf and set it on the floor by her feet. She waved her hand in front of her face, clearing the dust away that exploded up from the floor.

Alex shook her head and settled her hands on her hips. "Nothing, nothingís wrong with that. Just remember weíre not opening another emergency room, just a walk-in clinic."

Sandy stared down at the unopened box and nudged it with the toe of her boot. "Fine," she muttered, "Go ahead burst my bubble here. Iím taking a break." The nurse hopped up onto the three-drawer filing cabinet and leaned back on her hands, surveying the rest of the room while Regina opened the box on the floor and sorted through it.

Alex ducked her head and sighed, then, walked over to the blonde. "Sandy, look I ... agh! Why you ... " she shook her head and wiped the water off her face that the nurse had squirted at her with a large syringe. "Where did you get that?" Blue eyes flashed angrily then softened as Sandy spun around and slipped off the other side of the file cabinet, doing her best to look contrite.

"Nailed," the nurse snickered and winked at Regina.

"And to think I was going to apologize. You little ... " Alexís voice trailed off and she walked over to a shelf that Sandy had been rummaging through earlier. "Oh, you are in serious trouble my friend," she cackled wickedly.

Sandy shrieked when she saw the bottle of sterile water that Alex pulled out of the box at her feet.

"Thatís it go ahead and run away, you chicken." Alex walked back over to Regina and held her hand out. "May I?" She took scissor that Regina was using to open the boxes and punched a hole in the bottom of the plastic container.

"Regina, donít help her!"

The blonde shrugged and shook her head. "Iím staying out of this."

Alex grinned and handed the scissors back, holding the bottom end of the bottle up. "Pay backs are a bitch arenít they, Sandy?" She climbed over the desk and advanced on the nurse weaving her way in and out of the equipment until she saw that she had Sandy cornered.

"Alex, please donít. This is Tinaís shirt. Sheíll have a fit."

"And that would be my problem, why?" She tilted her head and smirked, then squeezed the bottle hard, sending a stream of water that splattered over Sandy.

The nurse ducked away avoiding most of the water and then stuck her tongue out at Alex.

The doctor snickered and walked back to Regina who was watching and shaking her head at the two women. "You are so bad, Alex."

"What? She started it," Alex replied and winked back at Regina when she motioned with her hands that Sandy was coming up behind her with another syringe filled with water. She turned and aimed the rest of the bottle at Sandy.

"Ok, enough you two." Regina intervened and grabbed the water away from Alex before she could completely soak the nurse.

"I thought you were my friend," Sandy pouted, glaring at Regina.

"I am. I didnít let her dump the whole bottle over your head." She glanced up at Alex who feigned an innocent look and smiled cheekily at Sandy.

"I have a sweatshirt in my trunk, Sandy," Alex offered.

Sandy glared up at the taller woman and then broke into a smile. "Youíre lucky I like you, Margulies."

Alex rolled her eyes before she left to retrieve the sweatshirt.

"Youíre crazy, Sandy," Regina laughed, watching Alex disappear out the door.

"Nah, we just needed something to make this more fun." Sandy wiped her face with her hand. "Did you two talk at all?"

"A little." Regina stared down at the floor and shook her head. "I canít keep from thinking that if I hadnít told her not to go after Dana, none of this might have happened. Maybe that boy might still be alive and that family wouldnít be devastated."

"Regina, you canít blame yourself. Danaís crazy. Thereís no telling what she would have done if Alex had gotten her alone."

The door opened a moment later and Alex walked back in. She tossed the gray sweatshirt to Sandy and settled herself on to one of the file cabinets. The nurse slipped the garment over her head and hopped up on a desk across from Alex, giving her a wry smile.

"Are you two going to be around next weekend?"

"No," Regina replied, sitting down beside Alex. "Weíre going up to my parents for my Motherís birthday."

Tina rocked back on her hands and looked at Alex. "Oh Lord, a visit to the in laws. Tinaís mother hated me the first time we met."

Alex pursed her lips and raised an eyebrow. "As I recall, she discovered the two of you in a rather compromising position."

Sandy bit her bottom lip and stifled a laugh. "Tina didnít think they were coming home so early."

"Yeah and whose idea was it to go skinny dipping in their pool in the first place?"

"Sandy!" Regina dissolved into a fit of giggles and leaned against Alexís shoulder.

An arm slipped around her waist and she found herself being pulled down into her partnerís lap. "I donít suppose your parentís have a heated pool now do they, Reg?" Dark eyebrows waggled up and down suggestively.

"No and if they did itís just a tad bit cold at the moment," she managed to get out in between her laughter.

"Funny, Alex." The nurse averted her eyes and looked around the warehouse, wondering what other hidden treasures they might find hidden among all the equipment. "Hey, whatís that over there?" Sandy pointed toward the middle of the room, slid off her perch and slowly picked her way through the maze of boxes.

Regina looked up at Alex and smiled at her. "How are you doing?"

Alex shrugged and made a non-committal grunt. Her insecurities seemed lost for the moment and she was trying very hard to convince herself they would not return to plague her later. A nudge at her side, made her glance down at the blonde snuggled up against her. "Iím all right."

Not believing her, Regina tilted her head and arched an eyebrow. "Try tired, that might be closer to the truth."

"Guilty as charged," she whispered, pulling the blonde back up into a sitting position. For a moment, everything faded away around them and she felt herself getting lost in the green eyes looking back at her from close range.

Regina leaned in and stole a kiss, chuckling softly as Alexís eyes widened in surprise. "Are we almost done here?"

"I think so." Alex turned her attention back to Sandy and changed the subject. "What is she looking at over there?"

In response, Regina shrugged and slipped off of Alexís lap. She reached out and took the taller womanís hand, tugging her off the cabinet.

"Hey guys, check this out," Sandy called to them. "Someoneís been camping out in here."

"What did you find?" Alex and Regina walked over to the nurse, letting go of each other as Sandy looked over at them.

"Here, look for yourself," Sandy lifted the backpack up and handed it over to Alex. Underneath the hospital bed, she found a brown bag filled with some candy, a Swiss Army knife and an apple.

Regina looked on as Alex unzipped the blue backpack. She reached in and pulled out two pairs of jeans, a couple of sweatshirts and a stuffed Tigger which her taller companion took from her and studied with a curious look on her face.

Alex ran her thumb over the worn orange fur of the stuffed animal she held in her hand and shook her head. "Odd assortment of stuff."

"Iíll say," Regina replied. "Looks like somebody ran away from home."

"What should we do with it?" Sandy stood up and brushed her pants off.

"Is there any identification in it?"

Regina dug into the pack again, her fingers brushing against something cool and hard. The sound of a tiny chain links and metal clinking together caught her attention and she curled her fingers around the item and pulled out a pair of dog tags.

"Hey, listen to this," she said as she read from the metal tags she held in her hand. "Jonathon Brooks Taylor; RA34650097; T 43; o pos, and thereís a capital C down at the lower right hand corner."

"Let me see those." Alex reached over and took them from Regina, letting her fingers mingle against the smaller hand for longer than she needed to. Her eyes moved back and forth as she studied the worn metal tags. "These are real. RA is the regular army service number; the ĎTí refers to a tetanus shot and the year it was given, 1943. ĎO posí is the blood type, O positive and the person was Catholic."

"How do you know all that, Alex?" Sandy asked skeptically, looking on with her hands on her hips.

"My grandfather served in World War II. He gave me his tags before he died."

"Oh," Sandy commented.

Alex fingered the chain, her eyes getting an unfocused look in them when she spoke. "I couldnít get enough of the old war movies and listening to him tell stories. He landed on the beach at Normandy on D-Day."

"Huh." Regina glanced up at Alex in surprise. Seldom had she heard Alex speak of her family and she tucked the piece of information safely away.

"So, what do we do with this stuff?" Sandy asked, glancing over at Regina.

Alex scratched her head and stared down at the backpack Regina was holding. "We need to call the police and report this. Shit, weíre not going to be able to move anything out of here now."

"We could just say we found it after we move all the stuff we need. No one would know," Sandy offered quietly.

Alex shook her head. "We would." She gave the nurse an apologetic look. "Sandy, why donít you take off? You donít have to hang around here while we wait for the police."

"Are you sure?"

Alex nodded her head and waved her on. "Yeah. Go on. Thanks for helping out, Sandy."

"No problem. You know where to find me if you need any more help. Iíll see you both later." Sandy shrugged into her jacket and headed for the door.

Alex dropped her arms to her sides and looked over at Regina. "Youíre right, it does look like some kid ran away from home."

"I know." Regina pointed at the stuffed animal and smiled. "You like that little guy, huh?"

Alex snorted and tossed it at the blonde, who fumbled to catch it. "What was it that Tigger did?" She shoved her hands in her pockets and bounced on her toes a couple of times in front of the blonde.

Regina tilted her head back and laughed, the sound echoing throughout the warehouse. Her shoulders shook and she doubled over, holding her sides.

"It wasnít that funny," Alex deadpanned, then, found herself laughing in spite of herself.

"Oh, yes it was." Regina reached out, grabbed Alexís arm pulling herself up and leaning against the sturdy frame of the taller woman.

Blue twinkled as Alex lowered her head and pressed her lips against Reginaís. She pulled away and blinked. "Thanks."

"For what?"

Alex shrugged and lifted an eyebrow. "Thanks for putting up with me."

******

Regina looked up as the door to the warehouse opened, letting in a sudden gust of cold air. She shivered and huddled inside her winter coat, watching warily as a police officer entered the building. An audible sigh of relief escaped her, when she realized she didnít recognize the face or the walk of the middle-aged man as he approached her.

"Iím officer Carrotta. Did you call about a possible missing person?"

"I did," Alex spoke as she stepped up beside the blonde-haired woman and held the backpack out to the officer. "We found this with some clothing in it and some old dog tags."

The officer slipped off his cap and tucked it under one arm as he took the pack from the dark-haired woman and unzipped it. "Where did you find it?"

"Over there." Alex pointed over to the hospital bed where Sandy found the pack earlier.

The officer keyed the radio on his shoulder. "Derrick, get in here so we can get this done." There was a momentís hesitation and then a static filled voice acknowledged the transmission.

Regina cursed softly under her breath and unconsciously stepped back toward Alex.

"Easy, Iím here. Nothing is going to happen." Alex whispered and rubbed her hand against the smaller womanís back.

Ed glanced between the two women. "Whatís the problem?"

Alex thought briefly about not saying anything and then thought better of it as she watched the color literally drain from Reginaís face in reaction to her exís close proximity to her. "She has a restraining order against your partner."

The officer frowned and then his eyes widened in surprise. "Oh, youíre that Regina." He seemed to consider the situation and then looked over at the blonde. "Sorry, about that. Iíll make sure weíre out of your way quickly."

"Weíd appreciate that," Alex replied.

A moment later, the warehouse door swung open and the younger officer walked inside. Derrickís eyes narrowed, but his steps didnít falter as he walked toward the three women standing by his partner. "Whatíve you got Ed?" His eyes moved over the three of them and he lifted an inquiring eyebrow as he met Alexís gaze.

"Ah, not much. A backpack with some clothes in it." The older officer looked around the warehouse. "What I want to know is how the hell whoever is sleeping here got in here in the first place."

"Thereís a loading dock in the back," Alex offered, glaring openly at Derrick as his eyes roamed over Regina. "Maybe you should go check it out," she said and then turned to the older officer. "Do you need us for anything?"

Ed glanced up at Alex, shook his head and then started to walk toward the back of the building. "No, Iíll find you if we have any questions."

"Good, then weíll be leaving now," Alex growled and ushered Regina away from Derrick.

The younger cop glanced back at his partner who was already walking to the loading dock. "Leaving so soon, Regina? Why donít you stay a while? Come on, we can catch up on old times." Derrick hooked his thumbs in his belt loops and leered at the blonde as she quickly walked past him.

Alex stopped and whirled around, her upper lip curling into a snarl. "Maybe youíd like if I stayed awhile and we caught up on old times, Derrick."

His face froze for an instant and he stepped back away from the menacing look. Alex looked him up and down once, then, quickly caught up to her partner.

Regina stepped out of the warehouse and covered her mouth with her hand, breathing hard and trembling as she turned around on the sidewalk. "Oh shit. I didnít know what it would be like ... to see him again. Alex ... " she took a breath and looked up at her taller companion. "He scares me."

The brunette wrapped her arms around Regina and pulled her close. "I know, I know, Reg." She closed her eyes, wondering what in the hell it was worth to have restraining order for since it seemed like Derrickís work was destined to cross Reginaís path. Alex clenched her jaw, feeling somewhat helpless given the circumstances. "Hey, are you ok?" She tilted her head and looked down at Regina.

The blonde nodded her head and looked up at the taller woman. "I think so." She pulled away from Alex and fixed an angry gaze on the door to the warehouse. It was the most awful, vulnerable feeling knowing she had been involved with him and that even now his mere presence brought back the sickening sense of being terrified of him.

"Hey, I didnít think Iíd see you two back here so soon," a gruff, male voice called out from the garage of the fire department.

Both women turned and watched as the fireman they met several nights ago gave the large Shepard standing beside him a hand signal. The dog backed up a couple of steps and reluctantly lay down on the concrete. He kept a watchful eye on his master as he jogged across the street.

Regina lifted her hand and waved at him as he approached them.

"Hi, Regina." His eyes lit up when he smiled at the blonde. "Alex, how are you?"

"Fine," she answered simply. Iíd be a whole lot better if youíd wipe that frigginí smile off your face and get a clue. "So, are you a volunteer fireman?" Alex asked, deciding she had no good reason to alienate the man.

"No, I do it full time Ė search and rescue, training the newbies. I love it," he enthused, jamming his hands into his pockets to keep them warm.

The door from the warehouse opened and the three of them looked over as the two officers walked out. Ed, the older of the two men, carried the blue backpack in his hand as he walked down the stairs in front of Derrick. He turned and handed his partner the pack and walked over to the small group.

"Weíre all set. Thereís not a whole lot to do at this point unless someone files a missing personís report. The dog tags might give us a place to start."

Todd glanced over at Alex as the officer was talking to her. "What did you find?"

"Some clothes and a set of dog tags from World War II," Alex replied and then blew into her cupped hands, warding off the chill.

A beeper shrilled and they all glanced down, checking their pagers simultaneously. Regina pulled hers off her belt and squinted as she read the number. "Alex, can I use your cell phone?"

"Sure. Whereís yours?" The brunette asked, as she unclipped it from her belt and handed it to the smaller woman.

"Home, I left it on the dresser," she replied sheepishly and took the phone from Alex. She stepped away from the group and dialed the number that she was paged to.

Across the street, the Shepard stretched and stood up, his tail wagging as he watched the blonde-haired woman. Regina glanced up and down the street, which was devoid of any traffic for the moment as she listened to the phone ring and waved at the dog, smiling mischievously.

That was all the invitation he needed to trot over to her. He pushed his head against her thigh and grumbled a deep-throated hello to her as she scratched his ears.

"Hi, this is Dr. Kingston. Someone paged me to this number."

She listened as one of the nurses in the ER explained to her that a young girl she admitted last week to the oncology service was being brought in by ambulance and they needed Regina to come in and examine her.

"Whereís her oncologist?" Regina asked.

"Out of town and we canít get in touch with the doctor whoís covering for him."

"Then have one of the residents examine her."

"I wish it was that easy Dr. Kingston. Her mother doesnít want anyone but her oncologist or you to look at her."

The blonde cast a wary eye over at Alex, not relishing the fact that she now needed to make an unplanned trip over to the hospital. This day was definitely not going as planned and it was obvious that Derrickís presence had upset her lover as well.

"Iíll be there in ten minutes," she replied and then turned off the phone. Regina bent down and ruffled the scruff of fur around the dogís neck as she spoke softly to him. "Youíre a good boy, arenít you?" She was aware of Derrick walking back toward Alex and Todd who were standing several feet away from her.

With a sigh, she stood up and walked back over to Alex. "Iíve got to go to the hospital." She looked up at the brunette and gave her an apologetic smile.

A cold nose nudged her hand and she looked down at the dog, which lifted his head for her to pet again.

"I see you made a friend," Alex commented with a wry smile as she looked down at Regina stroking the top of the Shepardís head.

"Iím a sucker for a cute face."

Todd laughed and walked over to them, taking hold of the dogís collar. "Come on, Lucky." He tugged the dog forward and was stopped short when the Shepard suddenly planted his feet. A low, threatening growl rumbled from deep within his chest as he fixed his dark, brown eyes on Derrick. "Hey, knock it off," Todd admonished, watching uneasily as Luckyís hackles rose up along the dogís back.

"You oughta have that dog on a leash," Derrick pointed out, quickly stepping away from the snarling animal.

"Sorry, he usually doesnít do this," Todd replied and pulled Lucky away from Derrick as the dog continued to growl menacingly at the other man.

Alex jingled her keys and raised an eyebrow when Regina glanced up at her. "Iíd say thatís one smart dog. You ready?"

"Yeah, letís go."


Chapter Eight

 

Regina strode into the brightly lit emergency department and made her way to the nurseís station. All twelve beds were filled and there were several stretchers lining the wall with patients that were still being triaged. One of the technicians walked hurriedly by her pushing two IV poles and carrying a warming blanket in his other arm.

"Geez, are they giving something away?" she asked the harried looking unit clerk as he hung up the phone on the desk.

"Itís been non-stop since the minute I walked in the door this morning. It must be a full moon or something," the young man replied and snatched the phone up again as it started ringing. "Emergency Department." He listened and then squeezed the bridge of his nose and shut his eyes. "Sir, you have to call 911 if itís an emergency. No, sir we donít pick patients up. Sir, I have to put you on hold." The unit clerk looked up at Regina and gave her a cheeky smile. "Tell me again why I do this."

Regina just smiled back at him. "Iím looking for Terry Edwards."

"Thank God. Her parents have been driving me crazy. Her Oncologist is out of town and they wouldnít agree to let anybody else see her. Sheís on the third stretcher in the corridor off to the left." He handed the chart to Regina and leaned over the desk to point out the stretcher.

"Thanks," Regina replied as she opened the chart and read the nursing admission sheet. Fourteen- year old female presents with fever of a hundred and two, nausea and vomiting for past twenty-four hours. Great! That could be anything. On her way to the girl, Regina ducked into a supply room and grabbed several items from the shelves, including an IV kit and a bag of Ringerís Lactate solution.

The blonde walked over to the stretcher and looked down at the sleeping girl. "Terry?" She touched her shoulder and watched as red-rimmed brown eyes blinked and slowly focused on her. "Hey, kiddo." Regina glanced around looking for the girlís parents but didnít spot them.

Terry grimaced and curled up on her side. "Everything hurts."

"When did it start?"

"Day before yesterday," she whispered and licked her dry lips.

"Have you been able to keep anything down?"

"No, I canít eat."

"Letís take a look." Regina pulled a pair of gloves from a box on the wall next to her. "Say, ah." She ripped the paper off around the tongue depressor and flashed a small beam of light from a flashlight at the back of the girlís throat. "Looks good."

"Does this hurt?" she asked as her fingers gently probed the lymph nodes along the girlís neck.

"It hurts a little."

A movement to her left caught Reginaís attention and she looked up to see Terryís father walking toward them. His expression as he stared at Regina was filled with nothing less than contempt.

"Hello, Mr. Edwards."

He nodded and averted his eyes, choosing instead to focus on his sick daughter. "Do you know whatís wrong with her?"

"Not yet. I need to run some tests first." Regina peeled off her gloves and stepped back tossing them into a wastebasket by the nurseís station.

"Tests," he spat the word out. "Thatís all you Goddamn doctors know how to do is run tests."

"Tim, stop," his wife pled as she stepped up beside him, giving Regina an apologetic look.

Regina regarded the adolescent girl as she lay on the stretcher drifting in and out of a restless sleep. "Terry, Iím going to start an IV so we can get some fluids in you," she explained as she slipped the rubber band around the girlís bicep and felt for a vessel.

Expertly, she slipped the catheter into a vein, piggybacked the IV tubing to it and taped it securely in place. In response, the girl murmured something and clutched feebly at the blankets covering her fever-racked body.

Regina turned to Terryís parents and motioned them to follow her. She walked purposely down the hall, pushed a wheelchair out of the way that was blocking the small consultation room available for families and then held the door open for them to walk through. She closed the door behind her and faced the distraught and frightened couple.

She chose her words carefully and spoke in a quiet but firm voice. "Mr. Edwards, I understand you being angry. I would be to, but itís not going to do Terry any good to see you get this upset about whatís being done for her. She needs to have confidence that what the doctors plan to do will help her get better. What chance do you think sheíll have if she doesnít believe in what weíre doing? Think about that. She needs you to be strong for her right now."

Regina waited for a moment and then reached for the doorknob. "Stay here if you need to take a minute before you go out to see her. Iím going to go write the orders for the tests I need to run for your daughter. The results will determine what we do from here and if we need to admit her to the hospital."

******

Alex parked her Jeep in the doctorís lot after she let Regina out by the Emergency room entrance. They had agreed on the drive over to the hospital to meet in the cafeteria after Regina was finished seeing her patient. She debated whether she wanted to just sit and listen to the radio in peace or venture up to her office and wade through the paperwork she knew was sitting on her desk.

An educated guess told her Reginaís consult would take the better part of an hour if not longer. Alex turned the Jeepís engine off and stepped out of the vehicle. Paperwork be damned, it would be there on Monday. What she needed right now was food

She stopped in the cafeteria and purchased a bottle of water, some frozen yogurt and a banana. Her breakfast was long since gone and her stomach rumbled in protest at the lack of food.

Since it was Saturday afternoon the cafeteria was relatively quiet so Alex drifted to one of the back corners of the room and settled into a booth where she ate half the banana and then cut the rest of it into her yogurt. With her concentration focused on her task, she didnít hear the footsteps approaching her until a shadow fell over the table and she glanced up in surprise.

"Hello, Alex. Mind if I join you?" the petite, platinum blonde psychologist asked with a smile.

"No, go ahead." Alex motioned with her hand and leaned against the back of the booth as she continued to eat her chocolate yogurt.

Patricia Burke was thirty-nine and had been on staff at the hospital for over fifteen years. Alex knew her professionally having referred several patients to her over the years that needed counseling.

"Itís good to see you again," Patricia commented as she settled herself in her seat and smoothed her skirt out over her shapely thighs.

Alexís gaze met the psychologistís briefly. "Thanks."

The woman shook her head. "Frankly, Iím amazed youíre back. Are you working today?"

Alex swallowed a mouthful of yogurt, before she spoke. "No, Iím waiting for a friend."

Patricia smiled and titled her head, hoping that her instincts were right. "Someone special?"

The brunette stared at the psychologist and then allowed a small smile to cross her lips. "I should know better than to talk to you about this."

The psychologist rested her elbows on the table and folded her hands together, resting her chin on them. "I think anyone who knows you Alex, saw something different in you over the past few months." She hesitated, before she spoke again quietly. "Before you got shot, I mean."

Alex set her Styrofoam cup down and rested her arms on the table, folding them in front of her. "After ... Lana," she took a breath, surprised to feel a tightening in her chest when she said her name. "I had pretty much resigned myself to being alone."

"Ah, but weíre so much better when weíre with someone we love, Alex."

Alex felt a warm flush on her cheeks and rolled her eyes. "Enough about my personal life."

"Ok, then. Youíve been back for what Ė about a week now?" the psychologist asked and then sipped her coffee as she continued to study the blue-eyed woman sitting across from her.

"Yeah." Alex opened the bottle of water and took a long swallow, feeling the coolness trickle down her throat as she swallowed the clear liquid.

"So how has it felt to be back?"

The brunette shrugged and twirled her spoon in the yogurt, making a well in the center of it. "Physically, itís been a challenge to keep up with the pace. Itís not the most user friendly environment to work in."

The psychologist smiled at her remark. "No, I donít imagine that it is. Are you still taking pain medication?"

Alex cast a sharp glance at Patricia as she began to wonder if she was here on just a friendly visit. "Just ibuprofen to take the edge off. The narcotics make me feel like Iím in a haze all the time."

Patricia nodded in understanding. "How are you doing otherwise?"

"Iím surviving." Alex frowned at the question, feeling a little defensive at the implication.

"Surviving?" The woman leaned forward in her seat and folded her hands on the table. "Alex, you had more than just a close call Ė you almost died."

"Thanks for the reminder, Patricia." Alex closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead in frustration, trying to hold onto what little self-control she still had at the moment. Come on, Regina. I wish you were done already so we could get the hell out of here.

Undaunted by Alexís reaction Patricia continued speaking. "Alex face it, you are right back in the same environment where you got hurt. You canít convince me that you havenít thought about that and probably had some second thoughts about being back here at all."

The remark was right on target and stung her sharply. Alex hung her head. "Listen, can this be between just you and me, Patricia?"

"Absolutely."

She fiddled with her spoon nervously before she looked up. "Everyday I ask myself if I can still do this. Honestly, I donít know if I can anymore. Iíve been sleeping like shit and itís starting to wear me down. Iím afraid Iím going to make a mistake and I canít afford that to happen."

"I think thatís pretty normal, considering what youíve been through, Alex. Do you want something to help you sleep? I can write you a prescription."

"No, no." She shook her head emphatically, remembering all to well what happened when she took sedatives the last time she was having difficulty sleeping. It almost cost her career and she was not about to walk down that path again. "Thatís not a good idea."

"You need to take care of yourself, Alex. I know the medical profession well enough to guess that nobodyís bothered to ask you how youíre really doing. Theyíre all just sitting back waiting to see how you handle the stress of your job and if you fall, you can be damn sure youíre going to have an audience there to watch."

"Iím well aware of that." Alex was irritated that she had allowed herself to be drawn into this conversation at all.

The psychologist leaned back in her chair and sighed. "Iím sorry, Alex. I donít mean it any other way than as a friend whoís concerned about your well-being. I guess itís just hard for me to know what you went through and not think that there arenít some lasting affects that are lingering inside waiting for an opportunity to ambush you."

"Gee, thanks for the vote of confidence," Alex snapped, her eyes flashing in anger at the doctor sitting across from her.

"Alex, itís great that youíre back to work, but thatís just one part of who you are. You need to be able to take back the rest of your life. Whoever youíre involved with, personally and professionally, is going to take their cues from you and how you feel about yourself."

The dark-haired woman laughed sarcastically. "Save it, Patricia, Iím not one of your patients. If I need to have my psyche examined I know where to find you." She stood up abruptly and took two steps away from the table almost bumping into Regina before she realized the blonde was walking toward her.

"Whoa." Regina held up her hands and danced out of the way at the last instant to avoid colliding with the taller woman.

"Sorry, I didnít see you," Alex said, her eyes darting nervously away from the intense scrutiny of Reginaís gaze.

"Are you ok?" The younger doctor reached out, touching Alexís arm in concern. She glanced back at the blonde-haired woman who sitting at the table, wondering what had transpired between them just before she arrived in the cafeteria.

"Iím fine. Dr. Burke and I were just finishing our conversation," Alex replied stiffly and squared her shoulders back, trying to reign in her conflicting emotions. Damn you and your probing questions Patricia!

Regina tilted her head as she was finally able to place where she knew the woman from. "Patricia Burke from psychology?"

The doctor smiled up at Regina. "In the flesh."

"Hi, Iím Regina Kingston. I just referred two kids to you that are up on pediatrics."

"Ah, so youíre Dr. Kingston. I saw your name on the list of new attending physicians last month. It's nice to meet you. Congratulations on joining the medical staff here." She held out her hand and Regina returned the warm handshake.

"Thanks." Regina turned back to Alex, swaying slightly as she did. "Sorry, it took so long. I ... um." She hesitated and rubbed her forehead with the fingers of her right hand. "I had to talk to the parents and it took a longer than I expected."

"Itís ok," Alex replied, her voice softening slightly.

Regina suddenly reached out and grabbed Alexís arm, steadying herself as a wave of lightheadedness gripped her momentarily. "Ugh, I think I need to eat something," she moaned and clutched her forehead.

"Here, sit down." Alex guided Regina to the table. "You havenít eaten anything since this morning have you?" she chastised her gently.

She knew from past experience when Regina didnít eat regularly her blood sugar sometimes plummeted and her normally cheerful and easy-going lover could turn cranky and irritable within seconds. "What do you want to eat?"

Regina shrugged and made a face as she slumped into the booth. "Anything theyíve got thatís edible and a Coke, please."

"You got it. Be right back," Alex said, relieved for any excuse to be away from Patriciaís prying questions for the moment. They stirred unpleasant memories for her, ones that she wasnít prepared to deal with, let alone confront head on.

Regina watched Alex walk away and then regarded the doctor sitting across from her. "Thatís what I get for not eating enough," she offered with an embarrassed smile.

"I know." Patricia waved her hand. "It happens to me all the time. So tell me about the two kids you referred to me."

Without thinking, Regina untwisted the top from Alexís bottle of water and took a sip, unaware of the amused expression on Patriciaís face.

"The boy is sixteen. He suffered a closed head trauma and needed surgery to remove a blood clot. Heís awake but very withdrawn and isnít being very cooperative with the nursing staff. As of now, weíve had no contact from any family members." Regina glanced up and shrugged, feeling badly for the boy. "The girl is fourteen and has a malignant tumor in her leg. Sheís not responding well to the chemotherapy and I just re-admitted her today with dehydration and a fever. Sheís depressed and her parents are struggling themselves."

"Sounds like quite the pair," the psychologist remarked. "Iím not sure if I will have time today but if I do, Iíll go introduce myself today before I leave." She paused and then spoke again. "Did you do your residencies here?"

Regina glanced up and nodded. "I did four years of residency here with my last six months on the ER rotation. Thatís where I met Alex."

Patricia sat back in her chair, regarding the young doctor with interest. "You must be quite special to have survived six months with Alex and managed to become a friend of hers as well. She has quite the reputation among the residents as being a consummate hard-ass."

"Her bark is worse than her bite. She demands a lot from her staff but when youíre making life and death decisions you have to expect people to give a hundred percent all the time." Regina smiled as Alex approached and handed her a sandwich in a plastic container along with a bag of potato chips.

"Here." The taller woman slid in beside Regina, opened the can of soda for her and slid it over in front of the blonde. Her eyes met the psychologistís across the table and she gave her a stony look.

"Thanks," Regina said, as she opened the clear plastic container and picked up the ham sandwich.

"Youíre right Regina, it is an awesome responsibility in the best of situations to make life and death decisions on a daily basis." Patricia looked at Alex as she said this and then stood up. "Well, I must be going. It was nice to meet you, Regina. Make sure the good doctor here takes care of herself."

The two women sat quietly for a moment after Dr. Burke left the table. Regina broke the silence growing between them first, sensing Alexís disquiet. "Is everything ok?"

"Yeah, fine." Alex turned her head and blinked trying to refocus her thoughts as she gazed back at Regina. She could see the wheels turning while the younger woman processed what she had walked into minutes earlier. The last thing she wanted to do right now was to get into any kind of discussion about it and to her dismay she knew that was exactly where Regina was heading.

Regina raised her eyebrows and pressed her lips together, absorbing the stilted reply in silence. Oh boy, something set her off. "So fine that you were practically tripping over yourself to leave the table when I showed up."

"If I wanted her advice I would have asked for it." Alex rested her head in her hands and rubbed her temples, trying to ward off the headache she could feel starting behind her eyes.

The blonde turned and rested her arm over the back of the booth. "Alex, thereís nothing wrong with talking to someone about what happened to you."

"I donít need to talk to anyone." The brunette stared off across the cafeteria, her jaw muscles clenching and unclenching in reaction to Reginaís words. She waited until an elderly couple walked slowly past their table before she spoke again. "I can take care of my own problems."

"Alex, Iím not saying you canít. Sometimes it just helps to have an objective outsider listen."

She started to speak, then, stopped herself and shook her dark head. "Reg, I really donít want to have this conversation here."

"Fine, letís get out of here then," the blonde offered, unwilling to let the conversation stop at this point.

The taller woman nodded and stood up from the table, waiting as Regina gathered her jacket and soda. "Are you feeling better?" She slid her hand down over the blondeís waist and followed her out of the cafeteria.

"I am. Thanks for the food." Regina looked back over her shoulder and smiled up at Alex.

Damn. Alex grimaced, knowing with that one glance she had just let herself be reeled in. The two of them walked in silence out to Alexís Jeep. The taller woman held the door open for Regina and then walked over to the driverís side, opened her door and slipped into the seat.

She could have let the Jeep drive itself to Reginaís home. She knew the route by heart and hardly paid attention as she drove out of the hospital.

Regina shifted uncomfortably in her seat, aware of the tension between them. "Dr. Burke really upset you didnít she?"

Alex rubbed the bridge of her nose. "Yeah, I guess she did. Nothing about this week went like I thought it was going to."

"Why?"

Alex shot her a sharp glance and grasped the steering wheel tighter, causing the skin over her knuckles to blanch.

Regina could feel a gulf opening up between them and the knowledge gnawed at her gut, an unfamiliar trickle of fear running through her.

The doctor shrugged, still lost in thought. She pulled into Reginaís driveway, put the vehicle in park and turned the engine off.

When it was obvious she wasnít going to get an answer to her question, Regina opened her door and started to step out. She stopped when she realized Alex was still sitting behind the steering wheel, staring straight ahead.

"Hey, are you ok?" Regina leaned back into the Jeep and brushed her fingers against the soft skin of Alexís cheek.

A slight nod of the head was all the response she got. "Come on, letís go in. Itís cold out." Regina let her head fall forward and sighed in exasperation before she stepped out and shut the truckís door.

Alex walked slowly behind the smaller woman to the front entrance, then, waited as Regina unlocked the door and stepped inside. She followed her, shrugged out of her black leather jacket, draped it over the back of a chair and flopped down into the seat with a sigh of frustration.

Her earlier conversation with Patricia left her feeling weary and vulnerable. She was tired of everyone thinking they knew what she was feeling inside. At the moment, she felt a dark emptiness that seemed to be threatening to swallow her whole lately.

Regina walked over to the brunette, laid both hands on her shoulders and started a gentle massage, feeling the tense muscles beneath her fingers. Her hands moved up to Alexís temples and started a slow circular motion that elicited a groan from the dark-haired woman.

"Feel good?" she whispered in Alexís ear.

Alex straightened her shoulders and grasped the hands that were massaging her temples. "Reg, please, stop. I just ... " She stopped not knowing how to explain without causing her more pain, that because she was feeling rather lousy about her own self-image at the moment, the thought of any physical intimacy was out of the question.

Dejectedly, Regina stepped back and let her arms drop by her side. "Ok, fine." The hurt was plainly evident in her voice. She pulled out a chair, sat down across from Alex, and rested an elbow on the table. "Would you please tell me whatís wrong?"

Alex looked down and spread her hands palm down on the table. "Nothing." She turned her head and let her eyes roam over the room restlessly. "Listen, maybe this wasnít a good idea for me to come over tonight."

Regina arched an eyebrow and gnawed her bottom lip for a moment, the sudden change in Alexís mood making her uneasy. "Alex, ever since youíve been back to work, itís like thereís this wall that youíve put up between you and everybody else. Even Sandyís noticed."

When Alex didnít respond, Regina continued talking. "I ... I just feel so disconnected from you and I hate that." She wiped her eyes and stared out the window aware of Alex studying her from across the table.

"Iím not sure what I can do to change that right now."

"H ... how can you say that?" Regina stared at her incredulously. "Donít you see what this is doing to us?"

Alex sat stiffly in the chair and clenched her jaw as she forced herself to count to ten, which did little to stem the tide of anger that welled up inside her. "Dammit! I am so tired of everyone trying to tell me they know how I feel and what I should be doing. Hell, half the time I canít make heads or tales of all the crap going on inside my head."

Regina recoiled, feeling the sharp sting of Alexís words. "I ... Alex, wait!" She scrambled out of her seat as the brunette scraped the chair back and leapt to her feet.

"You have no idea what itís been like." Alex walked over to the window, staring at her reflection in the dark glass.

"How can I if you wonít talk to me about it, Alex?" The younger woman raised her arm and let it fall to her side in a gesture of frustration.

"Talk to you about it?" The brunette whirled around angrily. "Like youíve talked to me about your bloody nightmares."

"Thatís not fair," Regina whispered, trying not to choke on the words.

"Isnít it?" Alex walked back over and stood directly in front of the blonde, her ice, blue eyes flashing angrily as she looked down at her. "You say Iíve shut you out, well youíve been doing the same to me!" She stepped around Regina without looking at her and grabbed her jacket off the chair.

"Alex, donít leave. I know we need to talk, I just, I donít know where to start." Regina pled with her to stay, laying a hand on the taller womanís arm.

Alex stopped at the door, her hand on the doorknob as she stared down at the floor in quiet desperation. She hated arguing and here she was taking her anger and frustration out on the one person who deserved it the least. Her rational mind told her she shouldnít leave like this, that all she was doing was hurting Regina and their relationship, but her stubborn, bull-headed pride won out instead.

The angry and hurtful words tumbled out of her mouth without warning. "Well, maybe you should figure that out first."

Regina felt her heart lurch as Alex slammed the door behind as she walked out. The sound reverberated loudly in her ears. Frozen in place, she covered her face with a hand and leaned heavily against the door. Her lower lip quivered and hot tears rolled down her cheeks. "Donít leave. Please donít leave," she whispered to the empty room

She squeezed here eyes shut, when she heard the rumble of the Jeepís engine and then the sound of it faded as Alex backed it out of the driveway.

Despondent, Regina walked to the window, folded her arms over her chest, and stared bleakly out the window, wishing she could have the last few moments back to do over.


Chapter Nine

 

 

At the bottom of the hill, Alex pulled over to the curb and stopped the Jeep. The radio was playing Elton Johnís, Can You Feel the Love Tonight, softly in the background. For a moment, she listened to the words and unexpectedly felt a lump rise in her throat.

Thereís a time for everyone

If they only learn

That the twisting kaleidoscope

Moves us all in turn

Thereís a rhyme and reason

To the wild outdoors

When the heart of this star-crossed voyager

Beats in time with yours

Angrily, she switched it off, then, tilted her neck back, and rested her head on the headrest and closed her eyes. Go back, just go back and tell her. Tell her what? Tell her that youíre sorry? How hard is that to do?

After a moment of battling her conscience, Alex shook her head and slammed her fist against the steering wheel in frustration. "Shit!"

The headlights of a car reflected brilliantly off her side view mirror and she glanced over, her breath catching for a second, half hoping it was Regina. It wasnít. Obviously annoyed at where she was parked, the driver veered sharply in front of her, turned onto the main road, and drove off into the darkness.

With a sigh, Alex put the vehicle in drive and pulled out onto the road, following the red taillights for a couple of miles before the car turned off on a side street. Several times, she almost turned around and drove back to Reginaís but she couldnít seem to gather the courage she needed to do it. Instead, she decided to just go home.

She was in her driveway in less than twenty minutes. Dejectedly, the brunette slid out of the Jeep and trudged up the path to her home. Alex opened the front door, bypassed the living room, leaving it in darkness and walked into her kitchen. She pulled a bottle of water out of the refrigerator, twisted the cap off and nudged the door closed with her foot. Angrily, she flung her jacket onto the back of the couch.

Her footsteps carried her up the stairs and down the hallway into her bedroom where she unclipped her beeper and set it on the nightstand followed by her bottle of water. She stripped her clothes off, dumped them in a pile on the floor of the bathroom.

Reaching in she turned the shower on, and then, stepped in after the water warmed up. The stream of hot water soothed the dull ache she felt in her body as she let it pound on her back. Her skin was red by the time she was finished lathering and rinsing her body.

Tendrils of steam drifted and curled their way up to the ceiling after she shut the water off and stepped out of the shower. She wiped the steam off the mirror with a towel and studied her reflection. Alex frowned, running a fingertip down the length of the scar on her chest. Sheíd seen worse over the years but it still bothered her. Patricia was right, she let what happened to her begin to affect her confidence and how she felt about herself.

The brunette shook her head in disgust and turned away, the numbness she felt on the ride home was starting to fade only to be replaced with a feeling of emptiness deep inside her.

She pulled her robe from the hook on the back of the bathroom door, wrapped it around herself and walked over to her bed. With a sigh, she sat on the edge of the mattress and stared down at the floor. A glance at the answering machine told her she had no new messages. Did you really think she would call you after what you said to her? Coward, Alex berated herself angrily.

She reached over, picked up the phone and started to dial Reginaís number. She stopped and then quietly set the phone back down. The silence in the room was deafening. Sheíd fought with Lana on several occasions but never experienced the awful, sinking feeling she was experiencing in her chest like she was now.

Alex returned to the living room, settled into the corner of the brown leather couch, pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them tightly. Her chest felt hollow, like someone had punched her in the gut and she couldnít catch her breath.

Turning her head, she rested her cheek on her knee and closed her eyes. Sheíd been doing this ever since she could remember, following the same modus operandi. It was safe to allow herself to fall in love, as long as the game was played by her rules. If she could control the level of intimacy and shield her heart and soul from being too vulnerable it was safe.

The injury had brutally torn away any semblance of safety, leaving her more exposed than she had ever been before. It was too much, so she lashed out like a cornered animal, the angry words pouring out of nowhere, and now it was too late to take them back. She remembered the look of confusion and hurt on Reginaís face when she walked out, leaving the blonde standing at the door.

She needed to talk to her, now. Looking over at the glowing red light of the clock on the VCR she cursed silently. It was eleven oíclock and Regina was pulling a double shift tomorrow so she could get four days off to visit her parents the following weekend. It would be impossible to talk to her at work and frankly she wasnít sure Regina would even want to talk to her at all.

"Nice job, Alex. You really fucked this one up." The best thing thatís happened to you in years and you manage to throw it away.

It seemed as if everything that happened over the past year came crashing down on her all at once. There were so many things she wished she could do over, not the least of which was the senseless argument she had with Regina earlier in the evening. With that last thought, the tears sheíd been struggling to hold back finally overflowed.

******

Alex stepped out of the trauma room, walked over to the sink and stepped on the floor pedal. It was Monday and she was just starting her ten-hour shift. She held her hands under the stream of lukewarm water and soaped them, while she mentally calculated the amount of medication that needed to be titrated based on her patientís body weight.

After she dried her hands off, she walked over to the nurseís station and found her patientís chart amid the pile of other recent admissions that morning. Stifling a yawn, she rechecked her calculation using a calculator and nodded, satisfied that with her original decision.

Her beeper vibrated on her waistband and she checked it, half hoping it might be Regina but knowing it probably wasnít. She paged Regina on her beeper once on Sunday and got no answer. She didnít try again, figuring the younger woman was more than justifiably angry with her and just wanted to be left alone.

A grimace crossed her face and she reluctantly reached over the desk and dialed the number. She barely slept Saturday night and ended up dozing on and off most of Sunday.

"Itís Dr. Margulies. Someone paged me," she said, doing little to hide the irritation in her voice.

"Doctor, Iím Doug Marshís assistant, the attorney doing your deposition."

"I know who he is." She flipped the binder open and rested her head on her hand as she leaned over and wrote the order in the chart, while she listened.

"We have a slight problem. The charts are missing from medical records."

"What do you mean theyíre missing? All of them are missing?" Alex closed her eyes and shook her head, incredulous at what she was hearing.

"Theyíre not there and thereís no record of them being signed out."

"Talk to medical records about it."

"Well, unfortunately the Office of Investigations is sending someone down to review the records and the billing that was done. So we need to find those charts as soon as possible."

She didnít think it was possible, but the day had already gone from bad to worse with a single phone call. "Fine, Iíll see what I can do."

"Thank you, Dr. Margulies. Doug will be calling you to set up another meeting when the time comes."

Alex hung up the phone, listening to the overhead intercom as the hospital operator paged one of the surgical teams. Finished with her orders she pulled up the order tab and handed the chart across the desk to the unit clerk. She noticed Sandy coming out of the fracture room down the hallway; her blue scrubs splattered with wet, white globs of plaster used to make casts.

"Nice fashion statement there, Sandy," Alex remarked sarcastically as the nurse walked up to her.

"Ha, ha. Whatís up with you today?" The nurse regarded the medical director critically, the haggard looking expression not lost on the blonde.

"Nothing," Alex answered curtly and slipped her pen back into her scrub pocket. She walked over to the board with all the patients listed on it and erased two names, then, studied the remaining list to see which doctors were assigned to the rest of the patients. Still holding the eraser in her hand, her vision blurred slightly and she let out a breath, wishing her shift was over and she could try to repair some of the damage she had done.

"How long are you going to stand there and read that list?" Sandy stepped up beside the taller woman.

Alex arched an eyebrow and glared down at Sandy. "Is something wrong that I donít know about?"

"I think I should be asking you that. Is everything ok? You look like you lost your best friend today."

Fumbling, she dropped the eraser she was holding and bent to pick it up. "Iím fine, Sandy. Iím just pre-occupied with some things." The words were a thin-veiled excuse and she knew it.

Disgusted with herself, Alex set it on the tray and walked into the medication room where she keyed in her identification number and removed two ibuprofen tablets. The headache she had since Saturday had taken hold and stubbornly refused to let go. She glanced up as Sandy entered the room after her and stood just inside the doorway watching her. "What?"

The nurse glanced behind her as one of the technicians cleared his throat from out in the hallway. "I need to get something."

"Go ahead." Sandy waved him into the room, watching as he rummaged through several bins until he found the right tubing he needed. He glanced nervously between the nurse and the steely eyed medical director before he scurried out of the room to safer territory.

Sandy shut the door and stared at Alex as she popped the two pills and swallowed them. "Youíre in a fine mood today."

"Do you have something you need to say to me, Sandy?" Alex leaned an elbow on a shelf and regarded the nurse coolly.

Sandy stepped closer and looked up at the doctor. She had wanted to ease into this conversation but the doctorís mood was making it impossible. "Alex, are you sure youíre ready to be back here?"

Alexís eyes darkened as she stared at the nurse. Ah, this is the last thing I need today. "Are you questioning my ability to do my job, Sandy?"

"No, Iím questioning whether youíre ready to be back here. I saw how upset you were when you walked out of the trauma room the other day."

Alex folded her arms over her chest and shifted her weight on her legs. "I donít need youíre opinion, Sandy."

Sandy sighed when she heard the knock on the door. "What do you want?" She opened it and waited for the medical student to tell her what she needed. "Trauma room five has extra catheters. Get them there." She turned back around after she firmly shut the door. "Alex, donít give me your pompous doctor act."

"You know, I donít need to hear this crap." Alex started to walk toward the door but Sandy stood her ground, blocking the taller womanís path.

"Move." Alex tried to step around the smaller woman.

"No." Sandy held her hand up. "Maybe you donít want to hear it, but youíre going to listen to me anyway. Youíre trying to act like this hasnít affected you, but it has. It affected every single person here on this unit, and youíre walking around trying to act like nothing happened."

Alex stepped back, her pupils dilating as her anger built. "What do you want me to do? Iím the Medical Director, itís my job to run this department."

"Alex, havenít you figured out after all this time that youíre no good to anybody else unless youíre able to take care of yourself first?"

"Back off, Sandy. My life is none of your damn business," Alex growled, feeling like she was being hammered from all directions.

"Your wrong. It is my business, because youíre my friend and so is Regina." The nurse gestured angrily.

"Thatís it. This conversation is over!" Alex pushed past Sandy and stormed to the door.

"Whether youíre willing to admit it or not Alex, you need your friends and youíre shutting all of us out." Sandy blurted out the words as the doctor yanked the door open.

She watched as the broad shoulders shuddered and for a moment, she thought Alex was going to breakdown, but then the doctor seemed to gather herself and walked out of the room without looking back.

******

Terry sat in her bed glumly flicking through the channels on the television that was suspended up on the wall across the room from her bed. She was bored out of her mind and scared Ė very scared. Her blood tests came back positive for some weird kind of bacteria that was in her blood and she had been admitted so she could get intravenous antibiotics. That was two days ago and she still had a fever that seemed to get worse at night and left her feeling drained and empty during the day.

The bed closest to the window was raised up as high as it would go and neatly made with fresh linens. Her roommate was discharged and until another one arrived she would have the room to herself. With a sigh Terry scooted to the edge of the bed, stood up holding onto to the metal IV pole and gingerly walked over to the window. She rested her hand on the sill and peered outside.

"What a view," she muttered to no one in particular.

The hospital room window looked out onto the roof of the floor below and if she craned her neck enough, she could see into the patients room that were off to the right and several floors down. She looked up at the clock on the wall and made a face. It was eleven oíclock in the morning and her parents wouldnít be able to visit with her until late in the afternoon.

Her mother was working two jobs now to cover the rent and their other expenses while her father spent his days going on interviews in the hopes of landing another job. The whole situation sucked.

Her parents were arguing more and most nights Terry just ate dinner, then, escaped to her room and turned on the radio to drown out the angry, frustrated voices shouting at each other down the hall.

A noise in the hallway caught her attention and she turned around catching a fleeting glimpse of something dark blue speed by her room. Curious, she walked to the door, rolling her IV pole along with her and peered out into the hallway in time to see a boy pop a wheelie in a wheelchair and spin around on two wheels.

"BJ, you canít whip up and down the hallway in a wheelchair! Youíll hit someone," one of the aides yelled from the nurseís station.

Terry watched as the boy whipped the wheelchair around, bringing it to an abrupt halt in front of her. An ugly purplish bruise was beginning to fade into yellow and green streaks underneath his left eye and his head was shaved bald revealing a half moon scar running from front to back over his left ear.

"Hi." Terry smiled down at him in amusement as a surprised expression came over his face followed by a faint flush over his fair features.

"H ... hi," he stammered and wheeled back away from her unexpectedly bumping into the dirty linen cart behind him.

Terry stifled a giggle as she watched him fumble with the wheels. She thought he looked small and vulnerable sitting in the wheelchair with nothing but a blue hospital gown and faded green scrubs that were too long and pooled around his bare feet as he sat in the chair.

"Iím Terry," she offered, leaning against the doorframe as she secretly studied the bruising on his face.

"B ... J," he spoke his name softly, working hard to get the syllables out.

Terry took a breath, suddenly feeling her energy plummet as if someone had just sucked it out of her. "I need to sit down. You can come in if you want." She turned and walked back to the bed and flopped down onto the mattress, her limbs feeling like rubber once again.

A moment later BJ wheeled slowly into the room and peered cautiously around the curtain at her. "Whatís wrong ... with you?"

Terry lifted her head and regarded him with a serious expression before she answered. Usually she would have been defensive and angry if someone asked her that but for some reason his question didnít bother her. "I have cancer. Itís in my leg."

"Does it hurt?" BJ rolled closer and turned the wheelchair so he was sitting parallel to the bed.

Terry shrugged. "Not in my leg. Sometimes Iím just really tired, like now."

"Oh." He seemed to consider this before he spoke again. "Do you want me ... to leave so you can go to sleep?"

"No, itís ok." Terry pulled her legs underneath her, suddenly self-conscious that she was only wearing a hospital gown and quickly pulled the sheets up around her waist. "What happened to you?" She brushed her hair back behind her ears and glanced over at him again.

BJ blinked and he raised his left hand absently running his fingers over the scar that marred the surface of his head. He could feel the soft down of hair that was just starting to grow back on his scalp. "The doctors said I ... I hurt my head." He glanced up at the wall and frowned, wrinkling the skin on his forehead. "I donít ... remember much."

"BJ?" A womanís voice called out from just beyond the door to the room.

He slumped down in the wheelchair and stared morosely at his hands. "Yeah."

Regina walked into the room followed by a slim, blonde-haired doctor dressed in an impeccably tailored black pantsuit. "Hi, Terry." She forced a friendly smile at the teenage girl, then introduced the psychologist to her other patient. "BJ, this is Dr. Burke."

"I know one of the ... nurses told me a ... a shrink was looking for me," he spoke hesitantly, but the anger and resentment were in his voice.

"Hi, BJ. Iíve been looking for you," Dr. Burke told him.

"Great, well ... you found me."

"Iíd like to speak with you for a few minutes."

The boy curled his lip up and frowned. "Fine." He jerked back on the wheels, sending the wheelchair flying backwards and then wheeled himself quickly out of the room.

Regina met Dr. Burkeís gaze for a moment and exchanged a knowing glance with her before the psychologist followed her patient out of the room.

Regina turned back to the girl. "How are you feeling?"

The girl shrugged her shoulders and glanced down at the bed linens gathered up around her hips. "Ok," she whispered.

Regina sat down in the bedside chair and tilted her head so she could look at Terryís face. "Scared?"

Terry shook her head once and then her lower lip started to quiver slightly before tears started to roll down her cheeks. She pressed a hand to her mouth, squeezed her eyes shut fighting to maintain her composure because she desperately didnít want to cry in front of the doctor.

"Oh, Terry." Regina leaned forward and wrapped an arm around the girlís shoulders. "Itís ok to be scared. I would be to."

"I ... I think my parents are ... " she hiccupped through her crying, "mad at me because I got sick."

"What makes you say that?" Regina pulled some tissues from the box sitting on the hospital table next to the bed and handed them to girl.

"I heard them arguing last week and my ... my Dad said this couldnít have happened at a worse time."

Regina pressed her lips together; remembering how many times she heard her parents argue when she was a kid and how sometimes she thought it was her fault they were arguing. Knowing that Terry was carrying this around with her made her along with all her fears made Regina chafe with anger. "Terry, Iím sure your parents arenít mad at you. They love you very much."

The young girl laid her head on Reginaís shoulder and sniffled, wiping her eyes after she eventually cried herself out. "Iím sorry, Dr. Kingston. I didnít mean to cry."

"Itís all right. Sometimes it makes you feel better." The words sounded hollow to her. Regina shed plenty of tears over the weekend and couldnít say that she felt much better for it. She squeezed the girlís shoulder and stood up. "Time for me to go and finish up some things. Stay out of trouble."

Terry nodded and gave the young doctor a wan smile.

Regina kept up her professional demeanor all the way to the staff bathroom by the cafeteria. The last forty-eight hours had been hell. Hurt, confused and angry after her argument with Alex, she avoided thinking about it and delved completely into her work.

Now with a few minutes to herself she stared into the mirror, wondering how they had been so blind to what was happening over the past few weeks. Turning on the faucet, she let the cold water run, cupped her hands underneath the stream and splashed her face with it.

Regina wiped the excess water off with some paper towels, then, leaned on the sink and ducked her head. "All right, Dr. Kingston, letís get some food before you pass out."

******

Alex entered the cafeteria and quickly weaved her way through the growing crowd of staff and family members. Rarely, did the doctor bother with the cafeteria, usually bringing some nuts and fruit from home to snack on during her shifts. Today she just couldnít be bothered and found herself ravenous by noontime. Just get in and get out.

At the yogurt machine, she filled a Styrofoam cup with a large helping of vanilla and topped it with chocolate syrup and nuts. She paid for her food at the register and procured a spoon at the island where all the utensils and condiments were stored.

Behind her, she heard a familiar outburst of infectious laughter and froze for an instant. Regina. Damn, I would know that laugh anywhere. Alex turned and glanced in the direction of the sound and sure enough there in the cashier line behind her was the young doctor, talking with one of her colleagues.

She must have felt someone looking at her because the blonde head turned and Alex felt herself riveted to the spot when the green eyes met hers. She could almost feel the blood drain from her face as she stood there. Stay? Go? She could hardly breathe let alone find the motor control to move her feet.

Regina made the decision for her and stepped out of the line, leaving her food and walked over, standing a few awkward steps away, looking up at the taller woman. The brunetteís hair was pulled back into a loose braid that hung down to her shoulders. The younger woman realized as she studied the taller doctor that Alex looked like she had lost weight again and most likely hadnít eaten since she last saw her on Saturday.

Alex pressed her lips together, broke eye contact first and stared down at the floor. When she met Reginaís gaze again, the pain she saw in them was enough to make her legs feel like they would suddenly no longer hold the weight of her body. Please, donít tell me Iím losing her. "I ... I, can ... " she stepped out of the way, letting two doctors who were deep in conversation pass by them. "Can I talk to you ... later, please?"

She was sure if Regina said no she would have begged on her knees if she needed to. Donít walk away, Regina.

Clear, green eyes stared back at her and for a moment she thought she was going to have to hit her knees. Her beeper blared loudly and she jumped, forgetting sheíd taken it off the vibrate setting that was beginning to annoy the hell out of her. An overhead page followed it, and she heard her name announced with a stat call to the Emergency Department.

Shit! "Regina," she pleaded, needing to hear an answer before she left.

The blonde nodded once, stepping toward her hesitantly, then stopped, suddenly self-conscious of the growing crowd of people in the cafeteria. "Go on. They need you."

Alex ducked her head and shoved a hand into her lab coat pocket. "Iíll call you after Iím done?"

"Iíll be home after my shift," Regina responded quietly then turned and walked back to the cashier to pay for her food.

Alex blew out a breath and closed her eyes for a second trying to find some kind of calmness to the emotional storm that was brewing inside her. Her appetite gone, she took a step back and chucked her yogurt into the wastebasket behind her.

Their stilted conversation did little to ease the vise like pressure she felt growing around her heart all day, but at the moment she had little to choice as to her immediate course of action. She walked quickly out of the cafeteria, breaking into a run when she reached the hallway.

When she entered the Emergency Department she headed straight to the desk, where Sandy was bending listening to the radio dispatch calling in. She leaned over the desk and caught the last couple of sentences crackling over the static.

"Weíve got a four year old with severe hypothermia. Heís unresponsive, blood pressure is ninety over sixty, canít get a pulse. Core temperature is eighty-five degrees."

Sandy keyed the microphone. "Xavier to Medivac one weíre cleared for both patients."

The nurse straightened up and looked over at Alex. Her earlier conversation with the doctor echoed in her mind and she sorely wished that it had been less confrontational. "Weíve got two boys that fell through the ice walking across a lake. The firemen arenít sure how long they were in the water before they got to them. The first helicopter is five minutes out."

"What were they doing out on a frozen lake?" Alex rubbed her forehead in frustration. "Weíre going to need heated blankets and fluids on standby for the first one. Whereís Jon?"

"Heís in trauma four finishing with another patient."

"Ok." Alex glanced at the board. "Sandy, youíre with me on the first kid. Tell Jon heís got the second one." She started walking down the hallway and quickly ducked into the locker room to retrieve her coat. On her way past one the supply carts, she grabbed an isolation gown, which she hurriedly pulled on, followed by her leather jacket.

The doctor stopped one of the technicians as he ran out of an exam room. "Thomas, weíre going to need heated blankets and IV fluids on standby."

"Iíve got to get something for Dr. Washington," Thomas replied, stepping around her.

"Fine, youíve got five minutes to get it here." Alex snapped in irritation, then, walked down the hallway and climbed the stairs to the helicopter pad.

She opened the door, walked out onto the rooftop and stood in the corner of the building, waiting for the sounds of the first in bound chopper. The sky was crystal blue, with cold winds ushering the white cumulus clouds along overhead. Shivering, she cupped her hands together and blew into them to keep them warm.

A moment later, she heard the doors of the adjacent elevator slide open and Sandy joined her carrying a portable cardiac monitor. "Damn, itís cold out here."

"Whereís your coat?" Alex frowned at her colleague.

"I didnít think I had time to get it." Sandy shrugged and turned her back against the cold wind that cut through the cotton scrubs and isolation gown she was dressed in.

Alex glanced up at the empty sky, impatiently waiting for the helicopter to appear. The sound of chattering teeth drew her attention. "Here." She shrugged out of her jacket and draped unceremoniously it over Sandyís shoulders despite the nurseís feeble protests.

"Alex, no. Keep it."

Blue eyes narrowed and glared back at the nurse, silencing her. Alex turned away, hearing the rhythmic sound of the helicopter blades and the whine of the engine as the aircraft came into view over the tree tops several hundred yards away. Minutes later the helicopter was circling and coming in for a landing.

The doctorís gown whipped around her legs and she turned away from the windstorm as the helicopter started its descent. After it settled down over the large, painted, white cross on the rooftop, the blades slowly ceased their revolutions, then, both women ran toward the chopper.

The doors opened and a flight nurse stepped out pulling the stretcher toward her. Alex grabbed the other side of the stretcher, helping to gently lower it to the ground. While she listened as the woman shouted the vitals to her over the roar of the engine, Sandy quickly hooked the EKG leads to the portable monitor.

"We intubated him at the scene. His blood pressure is ninety over fifty and heís had one run of ventricular fibrillation, which we controlled with Bretyllium. His core temperature is eighty-five and heís still unresponsive. Heís got one unit of warm crystalloid fluid going in."

"Ok, we got him." Alex jogged alongside the stretcher, pulling it toward the elevator that stood next to the door leading to the stairwell. Sandy squeezed the ambu bag, rhythmically filling the boyís lungs with oxygen.

She saw doors slide open and Jon standing inside, holding the elevator for them. "The next oneís on its way." She motioned with her hand overhead, indicating the next helicopter.

"Ok!" He shouted as the chopper started to lift off and bank away. "Thomas has a room all set for you."

Alex nodded her understanding and hit the button to close the doors after Jon stepped out. "Slow it down, Sandy. I donít want this kid hyperventilated, weíll trigger another run of ventricular fibrillation."

The nurse nodded, adjusting how fast she was ventilating the patientís lungs. On the ride down to the Emergency Department, Alex listened to his heartbeat with her stethoscope while keeping a watchful eye on the cardiac monitor.

When the elevator stopped and the doors slid open, they pushed the stretcher out into the hallway, narrowly missing a man walking beside his wife. Maggie, another nurse, joined them and helped rush the stretcher sown the hall.

The cardiac monitor shrilled loudly as another run of abnormal heartbeats was picked up on the monitor. "Alex, heís in V-fib again."

"Start compressions," she ordered, boosting Sandy up on the stretcher, while Maggie took over ventilating the boy.

Glancing back at the monitor Alex pulled harder on the stretcher, steering it through the hallway, neatly avoiding patients and staff members that were walking in the corridor. "Thomas, what room?"

Hearing his name the technician looked up from what he was doing and pointed directly in front of him. Together, Maggie and Alex wheeled the boy into the trauma room. Inside Thomas and a medical student quickly joined them.

Sandy scrambled off the stretcher and pointed at the medical student. "See if you can get some information on who the parents are."

"On my count people," Alex directed, and on her count four pairs of hands easily lifted the boy onto the treatment table. She reached over Sandy, who started pumping on the boyís chest again and grabbed a syringe from a box along with an ampule of the Bretylium.

Quickly, she drew up the medication into the syringe and injected the dosage she needed into the IV line while she barked orders out. "Make sure heís on warm, humidified oxygen. Get a set of labs and a trauma panel, now."

As Alex was doing this, Sandy quickly hooked the EKG leads up to the wall monitor, while the technician turned on the ventilator and hooked up the endotracheal tube. Maggie stepped around Alex and pulled the crash cart over with the defribillator on it.

"Here." She flipped the switch, charging the machine.

The doctor stepped back and reached for the defribillator. "Set it for 2 joules." Alex leaned over the boy, waiting as the technician unbundled him. "Clear." She brought the paddles down and depressed the buttons watching the small body convulse briefly as the current shot through it.

"It worked, youíve got a normal rhythm Alex," Sandy observed excitedly.

"Heís not out of the woods yet. Someone get me two left-sided, thirty-eight French chest tubes. I need normal saline in three liter bags heated to forty-one degrees celsius." Alex ordered, as she quickly tied a fluid shield mask behind her head and then pulled on a pair of gloves.

Sandy quickly shrugged out of Alexís jacket and pulled on a mask and gloves. She grabbed the requested kit from inside a cabinet, tore off the packaging, and draped a sterile towel over the boyís stomach before she set the kit down on the field she prepared.

Alex looked over at the medical student who had returned to the room and was standing at the foot of the stretcher. "What year are you?"

"Fourth," the young man replied.

"Good. Get over here and get a catheter in him." She glanced over at Thomas who was setting up another IV line. "Thomas, whereís the heated solution?"

"Right here." He hung the IV bags on the pole.

Sandy, I need the thoracic lavage to exchange two liters of fluid every ten minutes until his rectal temperature is up to thirty-five degrees Celsius." Alex glanced up, hearing the wheels of another stretcher rattle by the room. She caught sight of Jon and his team wheeling the other boy into the room next door. "Okay, roll him onto his right side."

While Thomas rolled the patient over, Maggie squirted betadine on the boyís chest and then draped sterile towels over him. Alex reached into the kit, retrieved a syringe and quickly filled it with Lidocaine. She anesthetized the area below the third rib in the intercostals space, then, did the same to the skin.

Sandy handed Alex a surgical blade, which she used to make a quarter inch incision through the skin. "Give me a Mayo clamp." Alex switched instruments with Sandy and with steady pressure created an opening down into the chest wall. Discarding the instrument, Alex reached out and grabbed the tube that Sandy was already holding out to her.

Carefully, the doctor inserted the chest tube with gentle pressure through the lining of the chest wall. Satisfied with the position of the tube she began suturing it in place. She repeated the same process, inserting a second catheter below the first one that would suction the fluid back into the collection bottle. When she was done, she looked over at the monitor and then spoke to Sandy. "Go ahead and hook it up to the suction."

Alex stepped back and looked up at the monitor, watching the boyís heart rate. Now it was a game of waiting and watching. The warm fluid that was being circulated would bathe his heart and lung gradually bringing his core temperature up to normal. Sheíd done all she could for now. The rest was up to the boy.

"All right, call the pediatric intensive care unit and tell them that weíre sending up this patient." She peeled her gloves off and dropped them into the medical waste container. "Does anyone know if the parents have been notified yet?"

"Iíll find out," Sandy walked out of the room.

While she waited, Alex wrote her admitting note and orders for her patient. She looked up as Dr. Torres walked into the room. "Youíre here early," she commented.

The doctor shrugged and glanced over at the patient lying on the table. "Nah, got paperwork to catch up on. Sandy said to tell you the parents are on the way." Dr. Torres set his hands on his narrow hips and tapped his foot on the floor. "Why donít you head out? Iíll talk to them when they get here."

Alex set her hands on her lap and stretched her neck. A week ago she would have bristled at the offer, considered it a sign of weakness to leave and go home like this. Today, she just didnít have the energy or the resolve to dispute the offer. "I think I will, thanks."

The brunette stood up, handed the notes to the doctor, and walked out of the room. For a moment, she stood in the brightly lit corridor, watching and listening to the hectic activity around her. Two paramedics walked past, rolling a stretcher between them, a technician ducked into the supply room farther down the hallway. The voices around her, the sound of the phones ringing and the overhead page system all seemed a cacophony of noise.

She looked over her shoulder as Jon walked out of a trauma room. "How did it go?"

"Thatís one lucky kid in there. Howís the kid you worked on doing?"

"Weíre raising his temperature with warm fluid." She shrugged and stared down at her bloody scrubs. "Itís up to his body now."

Jon tilted his head, studying the medical director. "Alex are you ok?"

"Yeah, I think these ten hour days are taking more out of me than I expected. "Listen." She stepped closer to him and lowered her voice a bit. "I need you to cover for me at the end of the week. I need a couple of days to take care of some personal things. I was planning to spend those days down at the clinic so there wonít be any extra work to cover here Ė just put out any fires that might start."

Jon nodded his head. "Alex, take whatever time you need."

"Iíll be back the following Tuesday and you have my long distance pager if you need to get a hold of me."

He waved her off. "Donít worry about it."

With an odd feeling of detachment she walked into the locker room and sat down on the bench. She took her time changing, giving herself time to think about what she wanted and needed to say to Regina.

Alex closed her locker, rested her elbows on her thighs and sighed. She used her cell phone to dial Reginaís number and waited. After two rings, she answered.

"Hi, itís Alex." She tugged the elastic from around the end of her braid and ran her fingers through her hair. "You ok?"

"I donít know, Alex. You tell me" Regina replied, her voice sounding tired and resigned.

The doctor splayed her fingers out over her forehead and winced inwardly. Sheíd run out of Reginaís house the other night like a coward, not wanting to deal with what was standing between them.

She heard the blondeís voice on the other end of the phone sounding hesitant and a little scared. "Alex, Iím sorry. I didnít want to tell you anything," she paused, muffling a sniffle.

The sound echoed in Alexís head as she realized that Regina was beating herself up over the fight they had. She turned around and looked over her shoulder when she heard the door open. Sandy was standing in the doorway holding her leather jacket.

Reginaís voice came through the line again. "Alex, are you still there?"

She held her hand out and reached for the jacket as Sandy walked over to her. "Iím still here, Regina."

A worried look crossed Sandyís face as she handed the coat to the doctor. She stepped back, retreating to the door and slipped out of the locker room aware that she had walked in on a private conversation.

"The whole time I kept thinking about what you said and why I didnít tell ... " Reginaís voice cracked.

Alex pinched the bridge of her nose. Her palms were moist and her stomach churned bile as she listened. "Can I come over so we can talk?"

"I ... I wasnít sure youíd want to after what you said the other day."

Touché.

"I do." Alex slipped an arm into the sleeve of her jacket and stood up, switching the phone to the other hand. "Regina?" She pulled it on the rest of the way, struggling to get her other arm in.

"Come over."

"Ok, Iíll see you in a few minutes." Alex clipped her phone back onto her belt and walked out of the locker room.

She saw Sandy standing behind the desk. The nurse walked toward Alex and fell into step alongside her. "Sorry, I didnít mean to walk in on anything."

The taller woman shot her an annoyed look. "How do you know you did?"

Sandy shrugged. "Instinct. Experience. Whatever, it doesnít matter. Alex, about what I said earlier, I donít want you to think ... "

The doctor shook her head, stopped walking and faced the nurse. "No, Sandy. You were right and youíre the only one here with the balls enough to tell me to my face."

Sandy raised her eyebrows and blushed slightly. "I meant what I said about you and Regina being friends. You are."

Alex ducked her head and let a half grin creep up the side of her face. "Thanks. Iíve got to go."

"Oh and Alex?" The nurse put her hand on Alexís arm, stopping her.

"What?" The taller woman stiffened at the unwelcome touch.

"Roses always help."

The doctor arched an eyebrow and looked away blinking back tears that unexpectedly brimmed in her eyes. "Sandy, go back to work," she spoke hoarsely.


Chapter Ten

 

The ride over to Reginaís house seemed interminably long. With each passing moment, Alex felt like she was returning to the scene of a crime. The light was on over the front door when she pulled into Reginaís driveway. With a nervous sigh, she slid out of the Jeep and half-heartedly strode up the walkway.

After pressing the doorbell, Alex jammed her hands into her pants pockets and hunched her shoulders forward. Her stomach chose this moment to viciously cramp and she leaned her body against the doorframe, fighting back the nausea that assailed her.

Moments later, the blonde opened the door and gazed up at the Alex hesitantly. "Hi," Regina uttered quietly, as she stood just inside the doorway.

The older woman studied the floor at her feet intently, feeling guilty and awkward at the same time. "Can I come in?" Alex peered back up at her lover.

Regina stepped back and waved a hand out in front of her.

The doctor walked through the doorway and stood in the middle of the living room, her hands still buried in her pockets. Warning bells went off in Alexís head as she watched Regina shut the door and walk quietly across the room, staying well out of arms reach. Oh, this isnít good.

The younger woman slumped down on the couch and buried her face in her hands. She finally lifted her head, ran her fingers through her hair and sighed, looking at the brunette through red-rimmed eyes.

The silence between them was deafening and for a long tense moment they stared at each other.

Sensing Reginaís need for physical distance, Alex stepped back and reluctantly sat down across from her in the reclining chair. Sadly, the doctor recalled the night she fell asleep on the younger womanís couch and woke to find the blonde sound asleep in this very chair.

They both had been emotionally and physically exhausted after working in vain to save a young boy who was savagely beaten by the motherís live-in boyfriend. Following the first real conversation between them since they met and drinking a couple of beers, Alex drifted off to sleep, lulled by the luxurious feel of Reginaís hands massaging a muscle spasm from her back.

She remembered lifting her head after she woke and studying Regina, wondering what it would be like to get to know the young woman better. Even then, she couldnít deny that she was irresistibly drawn to the strong-willed and fiery resident who had walked into her life.

Sandy was right. She did look like sheíd lost her best friend today, because that was what it felt like since their argument on Saturday. Please, please give me a chance Regina.

Alex rested her elbows on her knees and rubbed her hands together nervously. Sheíd never been good at apologies in the past, but the thought of losing the one good thing in her life was enough to make her feel like her heart was breaking. "Regina, Iím sorry. I shouldnít have said what I did. You didnít deserve it."

Regina looked away and breathed out hard, trying to control all the feelings she was struggling with at the moment. "Maybe I did deserve it," she whispered hoarsely.

"No, you didnít." The doctor looked at the blonde expecting to see anger reflected back from her eyes and instead saw all the pain and anxiety the young woman harbored deep inside over the past several weeks.

Regina spoke unsteadily her voice betraying her emotions. "We came ... so close to losing you that day. Every night I dream, I see it happen all over again ... but itís too late and I canít help you." Her eyes welled with tears again.

The distraught voice ripped through Alexís heart. Two steps brought her in front of the younger woman. "Regina, look at me." Alex knelt down on the floor in front of her and laid her hands lightly on the blondeís knees. "Look at me. Please?"

Tearful green eyes met hers and Alex reached up and cupped her jaw in her hand. The brunette pressed her lips together and blinked back fresh tears. "Oh God, Iím so sorry I put you through all this," Alex whispered, her eyes darting back and forth nervously as she studied her loverís face.

"When I saw you get shot -" Reginaís hands trembled as she looked down, remembering Alexís crimson blood that oozed over them while she tried to stop the bleeding in those first few frantic minutes. "It was like someone stuck their hand inside my chest ... and was ripping my heart out when I watched you fall." Regina brushed a tear from her cheek. "God there was so much blood. I froze. I ... I couldnít remember what to do."

Alex made a choking noise and closed her eyes. The subtle realization finally began to sink in that they had both been denying the one thing they both desperately needed to heal more than anything: the rift that had grown between them since the day of the shooting.

Regina pulled away from Alexís touch. "Maybe if ... I didnít stop you from going after Dana, none of this would have happened."

"No!" Alex scooted up to sit on the couch beside the younger woman and gently grasped her shoulders. "Regina, listen to me. You are not responsible for anything that happened to me Ė not Dana, not anything. The only thing youíre responsible for is being there to bring me back, because you did, in more ways than you know."

Reginaís shoulders started shaking. Tears rolled down her cheeks and her body sagged in relief against Alexís side. The words were a soothing balm to the guilt that had been festering inside and torturing her subconscious since the day of the shooting.

Stroking a hand over Reginaís hair, Alex attempted to re-assure Regina again. "You didnít freeze in there or forget anything. You did exactly what you needed to do when it had to be done. Donít think for one minute, I donít know that."

Alex sighed, as Regina remained silent, staring vacantly across the room. Boy, what a pair we are. Iíve been so intent on getting past this and moving on, I didnít even see that she was carrying all this around with her.

"Iím so sorry, Reg."

"So am I," the younger woman admitted, burying her face against Alexís jacket. The scent of the well-worn leather mingled with the doctorís perfume soothed Reginaís senses. "Alex?"

"What?" She tilted her head and cautiously met Reginaís gaze.

"I feel like we just got started and then all this crap happened." Closing her eyes, she pressed into the doctorís body aware of the softness of her breasts pressing against her.

"I know, baby." Alex kissed the top of Reginaís head and wrapped her arms around the smaller woman. "Youíre the only thing in my life that makes sense to me right now, Regina. I love you, please donít doubt that."

Regina shook her head and looked up at her. "I donít Alex, but I need all of you ... " She hooked two fingers into one of Alexís belt loops and tugged hard on it, "not just the pieces you think I want or need."

Alex raised her hands and cupped Reginaís face, wiping the tears off the fair-skinned cheek with her thumbs. She mustered a weak smile, then, lowered her gaze and dropped her hands into her lap.

"Alex if you wonít talk to me about it, at least talk to someone else about whatís going on."

The older woman leaned back against the couch and turned her head to stare out the window. Shit. "Remember, when I told you my father was an alcoholic?"

"I do." Regina reached over and rubbed Alexís arm with her hand. She wondered where this was leading and if she was prepared to hear what her normally reticent lover was obviously trying to work through in her mind.

"When things got really bad, my mother told him she wanted him to go for counseling or she was leaving and taking us with her."

The older womanís voice was strained as she tried to disconnect herself from the bitter the childhood memories. "He just laughed and told her that he didnít need any damn shrink telling him what his problems were. When she insisted, he started yelling that this was the only counselor anyone in his house needed." Alex raised her arm and balled her hand into a tight fist in front of her face. "He beat her so badly that night, she ended up in the hospital for a week."

A small noise escaped Reginaís throat as the sickening reality of what Alex was telling her sunk in. "He had no right to do that to any of you."

"I know, but he did. More times than I care to remember," Alex replied bitterly. "I forgot what it was like to feel so vulnerable until this happened. Ever since I woke up in the Intensive Care Unit, I keep remembering things that happened to me when I was a kid." She looked over at the smaller woman and pursed her lips. "Things I havenít thought about in years."

Regina leaned closer and brought Alexís hand up to her lips and kissed the skin over the knuckles. When she looked up at her, she could see tears glistening in the corner of Alexís eyes.

"Alex, you were shot. You know most people who go through an injury like that have an excellent chance of getting Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome."

The doctor closed her eyes and sighed. "I just didnít think ... "

"It would happen to you?" Regina finished her sentence when Alex stopped talking.

"Yeah."

"It makes perfect sense." Regina watched a multitude of emotions flicker over the taller womanís face. "Thereís nothing wrong with talking to a psychologist if you need to."

Alex shifted in her seat and looked pensively at Regina. Her voice was quiet and flat when she finally spoke. "I know. But Iíd rather just deal with it myself."

"God, you are so stubborn!" Regina flopped back against the cushions and squeezed Alexís hand. How much more do I dare push her? Studying the tense profile, the younger woman let out a breath and gently increased the pressure on the hand she was holding.

"Hey, is everything ok in there?" Regina felt her own heart catch as teardrops spilled from Alexís eyes and wet her cheeks. "Come here," she implored and felt utter relief when the taller woman sank into her arms and allowed herself to be cradled.

Regina ran her hand over the raven hair, whispering quiet words of comfort and reassurance as she rocked Alex in her arms.

The broad shoulders started to shake and for the first time since she was discharged from the hospital, Alex finally let her guard down and allowed herself to cry in front of Regina, mourning all the losses over the past year.

Regina just kept her arms wrapped tightly around her lover, listening to the muffled weeping. She felt a pain deep inside that tore at her own soul; the sting of tears blurred her vision as she absorbed the intense emotions that rolled off the bereaved woman in waves.

With an irritated swipe of her hand, the brunette wiped her eyes and tried to pull away but Regina held her fast. "I ... Iím sorry."

"Shh, donít apologize. You are allowed." Regina pressed her lips against Alexís head and laid her cheek against the silky tresses. She wondered how her partner managed to keep all the emotions bottled up inside without breaking down before now.

After a while, Alex turned so she was laying on her back in the blondeís lap and looked up at her. A light, wistful smile touched her lips. "Regina, have you ever thought about what you would do if you werenít a doctor?"

Regina cocked her head and frowned thoughtfully. "No, I always knew that I wanted to be a physician."

Alex sighed in reflection. "I have. Iíve been afraid since I came back that Iíll screw up and make the wrong decision about something."

Fingers swept the dark bangs off to the side and Regina leaned over, placing a gentle kiss on the womanís forehead. "Alex none of us are perfect. We do the best we can each day."

"What if my best isnít enough anymore, Regina?"

Her hand strayed over to Alexís waist and pulled her closer against her. "Why are you questioning yourself so much?"

The doctor shook her head and closed her eyes, remembering the admission earlier in the week. "I had a young kid come in with a head trauma on Monday. I barely made it through the admission without getting sick. Do you know the last time that happened to me?"

Regina shook her head, listening.

"The first day of cadaver dissection in medical school. I made it as far as the nearest waste basket."

"Oh, no."

Alex grimaced. "Oh yeah. The instructor made a point of telling everyone right then and there that if we couldnít handle gross anatomy that we sure as hell werenít going to make it through the first year of medical school."

"What a jackass," Regina offered angrily. "What happened to you on Monday must have shocked you a bit."

Alex rolled her eyes in response. "It was all I could do to make it outside without puking. Sandy followed me. I guess she sensed something was wrong. I donít know if I can do this anymore. I feel like Iíve lost my focus in there and Iím not sure if I know how to get it back."

Regina leaned in closer drawing her hand up along Alexís jaw and brushed her thumb over her bottom lip. The realization that part of why Alex was so afraid was that without her job she would be losing, in her own mind, her identity.

So much of who they were, was tied up in what they did everyday. It defined them. "I donít think you know whatís going on inside you right now or how youíre going to react in any given situation, Alex. Youíve been through something very traumatic. Maybe you just need to give yourself some more time."

Alex sat up and scrubbed her face with her hands, then, shrugged out of her leather jacket and tossed it over the arm of the couch before settling back against the cushions. She held her arm out and was rewarded with Regina cuddling up against her. "Iím afraid if I do itíll be harder to come back to this. This is all Iíve known. Itís what I do." The idea of not being able to work in the ER had been haunting Alex for weeks and the events of the last week had shaken her confidence badly.

"Alex, do you remember what you said to me the night Justin died?" Regina glanced up at her questioningly.

The brunette shrugged. "Yeah."

"Those defenses you talked about having so that you donít let every case eat at you arenít as strong as they used to be. Youíll get them back, but you canít beat yourself up over the fact that one trauma affected you so much."

"But ... "

"But, nothing," Regina interrupted her. "Youíre human just like the rest of us. There are always going to be cases that come along that will shock and affect you. Itís normal."

Regina shifted her body and reached up, running her fingers through the dark locks of hair, layering them back over Alexís shoulders. With a sigh, she leaned in and rested her head against the strong shoulder. "Alex, no matter what you decide to do, Iím here. I know things are hard right now, but let me help you. Donít carry this all by yourself."

The taller woman arched an eyebrow and looked down at the blonde head resting against her shoulder. "Regina?"

"Mm, what?" The blonde stirred, feeling emotionally drained and in a daze. The past several weeks sheíd been afraid they were drawing closer to a point of no return, neither able to reach past their own inner turmoil to help the other. Now at least it felt like they broke through the walls they were both hiding behind and acknowledged what it was they were afraid of.

The timbre of Alexís voice washed over her tantalizingly. "Only if you promise me the same, my friend."

Regina looked up and smiled, seeing warmth in the depths of the azure eyes she hadnít seen in weeks.

There was no denying how she felt about this woman. She loved everything about her; all the things that made Alex who she was - her strength and courage, her outright stubbornness and sometimes stark, vulnerability. Regina offered her a pinkie and they linked their fingers together. "I promise," she avowed.

With a sigh of relief, Alex wrapped her arms around the blonde and stretched her legs out in front of her. Weíre still together. The knowledge buoyed her spirits and she smiled broadly, squeezing the younger woman to her gently.

Alex closed her eyes and nuzzled the soft, flaxen hair with her face, inhaling the fresh herbal scent of Reginaís shampoo. "I ... um ... I didnít mean to dump all that on you tonight," she admitted softly.

Regina pulled away and held Alex with a stern look. "I donít consider that dumping. We needed to talk."

With a sheepish expression on her face the blue-eyed doctor nodded. "I know."

A tender smile tugged at the corners of Reginaís mouth. "Iím glad you told me." She leaned in and touched her lips to the corner Alexís mouth, tasting the saltiness left by the tears. God, I miss touching you, she thought as she let a hand stray over the older doctorís thigh.

The ebony haired woman closed her eyes and gently rubbed the smaller womanís back. "Me too," Alex whispered huskily.

Regina pulled back. She could feel the warm flush over her skin and swallowed, not quite meeting Alexís eyes. Good grief, I already need a cold shower.

Alexís gentle but insistent massage of her lower back was not helping her libido and the fair-haired woman extracted herself from her partnerís arms. "Oh boy," she exhaled and combed her hair back with her fingers.

"Reg?" Alexís voice was uncertain. There were so many times over the past few weeks where she had shunned Reginaís attempts at intimacy. At first it was the pain, but as time went on she feared the intimacy and the physical vulnerability more. Her sudden injury had forced her into accepting a level of weakness and helplessness sheíd never experienced and it had upset everything in her world.

"Iím ok. Just ... horny ... being this close to you after all this time ... I think everything is in overdrive."

"Sorry, I guess thatís my fault. I havenít been too interested, I know," she acknowledged quietly.

"I ... I wasnít sure you wanted ... " Regina closed her eyes and her voice faltered. She felt a heated flush creep up her neck. "I knew something was wrong but I didnít want ... I was afraid to ask."

"It was never you. Everything has been messed up in my head since I got out of the hospital." Alex reached over and clasped one of Reginaís hands in hers, wanting her to understand that it was her and not Regina who was the problem here. "I donít want you to be afraid to ask me anything."

Both women stared at each other for a few quiet moments.

Regina felt herself being drawn into those wonderful, blue eyes. "Kiss me?"

Alex tilted her head slightly, her lips curving into a smile. She leaned closer, her eyes riveted on Reginaís, closing just before their lips touched. It was a light caress at first and then with gently increasing pressure as she felt Regina open to her cautious advances. Her heart hammered against her ribs as her tongue explored the smooth textures of the younger womanís mouth. Iíve missed you, Reg.

Tentatively, the blonde moved one hand up to rest on Alexís chest between her breasts. Reginaís fingers curled, pulling at the soft, cotton fabric of the shirt the taller woman was wearing, her other hand traveled lower and rested on one muscular thigh.

The contact drew a muffled groan from Alexís throat.

Regina wanted nothing more than to crawl up into her partnerís lap and make love to her right here on the couch, but she followed her partnerís lead, letting her explore without feeling pressured.

She could feel her own breathing go ragged as Alex slid a hand up and caressed the side of her face as they continued their kiss. Her hands moved of their own accord slowly rediscovering and exploring the lean body against her. Moving across the firm stomach and up over the doctorís ribs Regina felt the raised scar from where the bullet tore through Alexís skin.

Alex broke off the kiss and pressed her forehead against Reginaís.

"You doing ok?" the blonde asked hopefully.

"Yeah," Alex breathed and peered into the green orbs at close range. "You?"

"Iím going to be in trouble if you keep kissing me like that."

"Like this?" Alex captured Reginaís mouth in a soulful kiss, letting her tongue tease its way between her lips. She felt her own anxieties slipping away as her lover melted into her.

Alexís hands slid around Reginaís waist, then, slowly tugged the shirttails from her pants and slid a hand underneath. She splayed her fingers over the firm belly before sliding up to caress a soft breast. Her lips sought Reginaís again and then traveled lower, where she gently kissed, sucked, and nibbled the soft flesh, sending waves of pleasure through her core.

A faint Ďohí escaped from Regina as she leaned into erotic the touch.

Oh sweet Jesus, what was my problem with this? Alex could feel Reginaís breathing quicken along with her own as she continued to leisurely explore the supple curves beneath her hands.

Reginaís smaller hands found their way beneath the taller womanís shirt. She wanted to feel the skin, warm and soft beneath her hands. "Alex ... I want ... " she whimpered as moist lips tugged at her ear lobe and she begged, her voice thick with desire. "Take your shirt off."

"Okay," Alex replied quietly. She hesitated momentarily and glanced into Reginaís eyes. Encouraged, Alex pulled it over her head. She held the garment in her hands, her breathing quickly becoming unsteady as she observed Regina watching her intently.

The blonde arched a golden eyebrow and hooked two fingers underneath her bra. "This comes off too."

Wordlessly, Alex complied and removed it.

Reginaís shirt landed beside it and she leaned forward, nuzzling the soft skin below her loverís ear before she nibbled an ear lobe teasingly with her teeth. Her fingers traced the outline of her loverís ribs and circled a breast before dipping down to her pants. "I never stopped wanting you."

Alex groaned in response to the throaty voice. She ducked her head, kissed the exposed collarbone, and trailed her lips and tongue up to the pulse point just beneath Reginaís ear.

The contact sent hot electric currents through Reginaís body and she arched against the larger woman, consumed by her desire.

Alex wrapped Regina in her arms, her long fingers nimbly unclasping Reginaís bra, exposing her perfect breasts. "Iíve missed you ... " she whispered to the woman as she pulled away and ran her fingers over the unmarred flesh.

"Alex, I want you on top of me."

She heard the urgency in Reginaís voice and breathed, "Back," through a kiss as she guided the smaller woman down onto the cushions beneath her.

With their bodies barely breaking contact, Regina slid back along the couch, pulling Alex along with her. She let out a small gasp as the weight of the taller woman settled against hers and her body responded with a rhythmic ache between her legs. Reginaís hands ran over the strong shoulder blades, and then slid down to the narrow waist, insistent fingers slipping beneath the waistband of Alexís underwear.

Alex pressed into Regina, feeling the younger woman arch against her to increase the contact of their heated bodies. "Oh, sweet Jesus." The friction as they moved against each other was intense, maddening, and exquisite all at the same time.

Clutching the woman to her tightly, Regina locked her thighs around one of the taller womanís legs and continued to arch her back and move her hips, meeting her partnerís fervent rocking motion.

Breathless, Alex broke off the passionate kiss and buried her face against her loverís neck. "Reg, oh God." She worked a hand between them, unbuttoned Reginaís pants and tugged the zipper down.

"Alex, you donít have to ... " her protest was cut off by a passionate open-mouthed kiss. Alex reached up and grasped one of Reginaís hands interlacing their fingers as she lifted the arm over the smaller womanís head.

With her hair falling over her face, Alex peered down at Regina. I need you so badly, right now. "I want you," she rasped, holding the intense, heated gaze of the women beneath her.

She didnít realize how close to the edge she was until Regina elevated her thigh and pumped with lustful determination between her jean-clad legs. Her dilated, blue eyes closed and her mouth slacked open in response as she rode hard against the strong thigh.

Her hips jerked and she felt her abdomen spasm as the first waves of her orgasm erupted hot and wet. Her mantra as she came, was Reginaís name, over and over again.

With her skin glistening from perspiration, Alex breathed hard and rested against her loverís body. Moments later, she lifted her head and looked at the younger woman, realizing, "Can you breathe? I must be crushing you!"

"Iím good," Regina replied calmly, holding Alex in place, basking in their closeness. When Alex shifted and her thigh brushed against the blondeís center, Regina inhaled sharply.

"Mm, I think thereís something I can do for you," Alex whispered, seeing her loverís raw desire. She ducked her head and teased the now hardened nipples with her mouth, while she tugged Reginaís pants down.

The younger woman gutturally cried out when she felt Alexís fingers reach her damp curls and slowly stroke between her wet folds. Oh, inside, yes! Regina arched her back and tipped her hips up, increasing the contact and finally drawing the long fingers inside of her.

Alex propped herself up on an elbow and kissed the younger womanís mouth hungrily, displaying her raw, overwhelming, love and desire. She filled the blonde with her fingers, steadily increasing the smooth motion of her hand as she stroked her thumb over Reginaís engorged clitoris.

"Yes, Alex! Oh God, please donít stop!" Regina pled breathlessly as she was driven higher by the husky voice encouraging her to come. Her hands clutched Alexís back tightly as she tumbled over the edge into ecstasy.

Breathing heavily, Regina curled onto her side and clasped Alexís arm to her. The doctor spooned against her, cradling the blondeís head in the crook of her arm as she ran her fingers through the disordered hair.

The coolness of the night air chilled the brunetteís skin and she pulled the half naked woman closer, savoring the heat of the smaller body against hers. She fumbled behind, seeking the blue and green checked afghan. When she found it, she pulled it down over their bodies and tucked it in around the dozing womanís shoulders.

"I want to make love to you," Regina pouted sleepily.

Alex chuckled and seductively pressed her hips into Reginaís backside. "Later, after you sleep. Iíll hold you to it," she whispered, kissing the golden blonde hair and wrapping her securely around the smaller womanís waist.

******

Shit! I canít believe the alarm is going off already! Regina thought hazily, and then, swatted her arm across what she thought was the bed. She jerked herself awake as she almost rolled off the couch, had it not been for Alex grabbing her around the waist. "What the?"

Disoriented she blinked and looked around the darkened room. "Ah, man who the hell is calling here at this hour?"

"I donít know but theyíre dead," Alex grumbled from behind her.

Finally, on the third ring Regina picked up the phone, answering gruffly. "Hello."

"Well, hello there sister."

"Jeff, ugh, do you know what time it is?" Regina struggled to sit up and finally made it with a little assistance from behind. In the darkness, she felt her open jeans and exposed chest, realizing sheíd fallen asleep, half undressed after Alex made love to her.

"Itís nine oíclock over here," Jeff replied blithely, bringing Regina back to the present.

"Which means it midnight here," she grumbled as she tugged her underwear and jeans up over her hips and squirmed feeling the evidence of their recent lovemaking. She sat back down on the couch, smiling as Alex kindly draped the afghan over her shoulders and caressed her back affectionately.

With a groan, Alex stood up, pulled her shirt on, and staggered over to bathroom still feeling a little weird from being woken out of a sound sleep.

"Somebody else there?" Jeff asked through the phone.

Groggily, Regina answered. "Alex."

"Ooh! Is that the same Alex that you called me about in a panic last fall?"

Regina rolled her eyes. "Weíve been together for a few months now. Agh," she groaned and blinked her eyes as Alex flicked a light on and walked back into the room.

Well, I guess that explains why you fell off the face of the earth," Jeff snickered.

"Jeff, back off. Alex was shot two months ago. She almost died."

Alex arched an eyebrow as she settled onto the couch beside the younger woman.

There was silence on the other end of the phone, then, he spoke again. "I ... I had no idea, Regina."

"I know. Iím sorry Jeff." Regina ran a hand through her tousled hair and looked back at Alex who gently started to knead the blondeís shoulders. "I didnít mean to dump it on you like that but itís been hard for both of us."

"So do Mom and Dad know about you and Alex?"

Reginaís voice was subdued, recalling the night she told her mother about herself. "Yes, they do."

"I gather it wasnít well received," Jeff offered quietly, recalling his own experience with his motherís blatant homophobia.

"Of course it wasnít."

"Did you get a call from Dad?" Jeff changed the subject.

"Yes, he called me. Are you going to go up for the weekend?"

"Thatís why I was calling you. I donít want to be ambushed without company. Are you going?"

"Yeah, weíre going," Regina replied absently as Alex leaned against her side and rested her head on Reginaís shoulder. She reached across and ran her fingers through Alexís disheveled hair, smiling when the older woman sighed contentedly and relaxed against her even more.

"That should be interesting."

"Arenít you bringing Darryl with you?" Regina glanced over at the sable head buried against her shoulder and wondered if she made the right decision about asking Alex.

"No way! Not after the way they treated him."

"Jeff, how many years ago was that?"

"I donít care. Why after all this time do they want me there and why have us both come at the same time?"

"Dad wanted us to be there for Momís birthday." She remembered that she needed to get a gift and asked, "Have you thought about what you might get her?"

"No. I havenít," Jeff groused, annoyed at his sisterís question.

"Jeff," Regina sighed in exasperation.

"Hey, why should I? They havenít sent me a card or called once for my birthday since they kicked me out!" he snapped defensively.

Alex lifted her head, hearing part of what was said.

Regina tapped her foot on the floor and shrugged. "Jeff, come on. Donít make this harder than itís going to be."

A long silence ensued before he relented. "All right what did you have in mind?"

"Do you remember the locket Mom used to wear? It had our pictures in it."

"Yeah."

"I remember her saying she lost it a couple of years ago. Why donít we get her a new one?"

"Are you serious?"

"Of course, Iím serious. I bet she would like it," Regina replied softly, feeling like she was starting to reconnect with her brother after all this time.

"I guess she would. You probably know her better than I do."

"Jeff, theyíre your parents, too," Regina insisted.

"It hasnít felt like it in a long time."

"Well, maybe itís time to try to change that."

"Whatever. Listen, Iím flying into Boston at seven on Friday night. Let me give you the flight number."

Regina looked around and saw a pad of paper and a pen on the table across the room. She motioned to Alex and the doctor nodded, and retrieved the objects for her. Regina wrote down the information her brother gave her for his flight and where he was staying. "All right, Jeff. Iím going to call and make a reservation for us. Weíll drive up Friday after work and meet you at the hotel"

"Yeah, donít forget your armor, Regina. Youíll need it!" he warned ominously.

"I hope not, big brother," she replied, and then after saying goodbye, set the phone down on the table. She closed her eyes and tilted her head up, releasing a nervous and tense sigh.

She didnít want another confrontation with her parents and hoped that Jeff would be able to set aside some of his anger. What she really wanted was just an opportunity to start to mend all the hurt they caused each other as a family.

Anxiously, she crossed to the window and stared out at the dark street, pulling the afghan tighter around her shoulders.

Alex followed her aware of the nervous energy she was exuding. She stood behind the blonde, barely touching but close enough to feel the warmth emanating between them. "You all right?" she asked with concern.

Their reflections stared back at them. A study of contrasts, Alex standing almost six feet tall, her dark hair framing her angular face with Regina in front of her with her flaxen hair in a rumpled halo around her head. "If things get too intense while weíre at my parents Alex, you just say the word and weíre out of there. Ok?" Regina made clear.

She felt the slightest touch of the taller womanís breast against her shoulder as Alex leaned in closer. "Reg, they invited you and your brother there. If they werenít ready, I doubt your father would have even made the phone call."

"I hope so."

"Come on. Letís get you to bed." Alex took her hand and started to walk to the bedroom.

"Will you stay?" Regina pulled her to a stop.

Alex glanced down at her rumpled clothes. "I didnít bring a change of clothes with me."

"Iíll throw them in the laundry," Regina offered quickly.

Alex pretended to think for a moment before she flashed a bright smile, pulling Regina to her. "Deal." She kissed the shorter woman gently. "Besides Iíd like nothing more than to wake up with you tomorrow morning."

Regina pressed against Alexís body, nuzzling the soft swell of the taller womanís breasts through the cotton shirt. Her hands found their way underneath, wandering leisurely up to fondle and caress them. She was rewarded with a deep sigh and felt some of the tension drain from Alexís body. Tilting her neck back, she fixed her cerulean-eyed lover with a sultry gaze. "I want to make love to you, now."

Hearing the emboldened words, Alex felt a fire start in her belly. She fingered the afghan draped over Reginaís slender frame and eased the fabric back, baring her shoulders. With her gaze riveted on the fiery green eyes, Alex captured Reginaís mouth in a deep, honest, soulful kiss. She could feel the firm body molding to her and she trailed her fingertips over the flushed skin of Reginaís face and neck. I love the way you make me feel. A smile tugged at her lips as she pulled away and felt Regina lean heavily against her, eyes still closed.

Regina blinked and moistened her lips with her tongue. "Wow." Her hands moved over Alexís strong back and then down to her buttocks squeezing them suggestively. "Where did that come from?"

Alex smiled and pulled her lover into the bedroom. Regina followed willingly.

Her hands went to Alexís shirt and quickly tugged it over her head. She ran her hands through the thick, dark mane. "I want to taste you," she whispered huskily.

Alex groaned and they collapsed onto the bed. Regina rubbed her cheek over the taller womanís stomach, then, kissed the tender flesh. She made quick work of the button and zipper on Alexís black jeans.

She needs this ... everything, Regina thought as she slipped her fingers downward, teasing her way through the damp curls, then withdrew and slipped her finger into her mouth, sucking the essence off with her lips.

"Regina ... "

"Be patient," the blonde teased, as she kissed the skin above the waistline of Alexís underwear.

"Oh!" Alex gasped as Regina tugged her pants down and pulled her shoes off impatiently.

I want you so badly, Regina thought as she inhaled the scent of her lover.

"Take me, please," Alex begged, lifting her hips up toward Regina.

Blonde eyebrows arched and Regina nibbled her lower lip before she quickly removed her panties. Slowly, she crawled back up Alexís body, allowing her breasts to graze sensitive flesh during her ascent. She paused over the red scar and gazed up into her favorite blue eyes.

Alex watched her closely, still wary of her reaction to her body. Regina smiled reassuringly and kissed her way up along the scar, before she captured the full lips beneath her. "God, you are beautiful," she whispered, kissing her again, their mouths melting together.

Alex opened her mouth to younger womanís advances, letting herself be cradled in Reginaís arms.

The denim of Reginaís pants brushed the inside of Alexís thighs as she shifted her position. Her mouth and lips began a slow, languid exploration over the taller womanís breasts before dipping lower.

Alex ran her fingertips through the golden blonde hair, encouraging her to keep going. She closed her eyes, feeling the scorching touch of Reginaís fingers between her wet folds. "Oh ... donít tease."

"Never," Regina breathed, gliding inside and meeting the thrusts of her loverís hips.

Alex felt the smaller womanís other hand touching her stomach and thighs before she gathered her hips in her arm. "Oh, Reg. Please, oh yes ... " she gasped, as she felt all the love Regna channeled into giving her this pleasure.

She felt like Regina was touching every nerve in her body, bringing her higher until her body felt like it would burst into flames if she didnít release her soon.

Sensing her loverís desire, her lips and tongue caressed the tender flesh, drinking her loverís passion as the older woman succumbed willingly to her touch.

Alex cried out Reginaís name breathlessly, reaching down and pulling the smaller woman up to her. "Hold me," she murmured, her body collapsing into her loverís arms.

"Always," Regina replied, spooning up against Alex. "I love you, baby."


 

Chapter Eleven

 

 

Sometime during the night, they managed to cover their naked bodies with the down comforter from Reginaís bed. Cuddling together, the two women made love again, slowly, and with a tenderness born of their newfound intimacy.

They awoke, limbs tangled together just before daybreak, with the bed covers in complete disarray around them. Alex stretched and wriggled her feet before she curled herself around the smaller body snuggled up against her side. She sighed contentedly, feeling free from her worries about Regina and their relationship for the first time in weeks.

Regina stirred beside her, lifted her head from beneath the nest of blankets, and blinked. "Mm, morning." She smiled sheepishly, feeling bruised and swollen from their long night of lovemaking. Once they crossed that particular bridge, their bodies seemed insatiable.

Alex kissed the tip of Reginaís nose and smiled down at her. "How do you feel?" She playfully ruffled the tousled blonde hair.

"Wonderful," Regina murmured and rubbed up against Alexís lean body. "Although, I think I may need a day or two to recuperate."

Alexís brow instantly creased with worry. "I didnít hurt you? Did I?" she asked, aware of the exuberance with which they rediscovered each other.

"Absolutely not." Regina assured her as she nuzzled her neck and affectionately nipped at the sensitive skin below her ear. "I couldnít get enough of you."

Alex rolled over and pinned the blonde beneath her. "We seem to be having the same problem," she growled, kissing her gently on the mouth. Her eyes twinkled and her lips curled into a lopsided grin. "I need a shower ... a very, cold shower," she announced with a rueful shake of her head as she slid out of the bed, trying her best to avoid Reginaís wandering hands.

Regina sat up in the bed and watched the sway of Alexís hips as she walked away. "Ooh, Iíll come with you."

Alex stopped at the door and peered back at her incredulously. "That is not going to help either of one of us."

"Please?" Regina crossed her arms and pushed her lower lip out into a pout. She burst into laughter at the comical expression that came over Alexís face, before the taller woman finally surrendered with a wave of her hand.

"Hurry up and finish laughing before I change my mind and use all the hot water myself," Alex quipped and darted into the bathroom ahead of the blonde.

******

After showering, Regina washed Alexís clothes as promised and then together they made breakfast.

"Do you want some company when you go shopping for your motherís gift?" Alex asked, in between bites of French toast.

"Ooh, that would be great fun," Regina exclaimed, obviously very pleased by the unexpected offer.

Alex couldnít help smiling at the younger womanís barely contained excitement. "Hey, come here." She crooked a finger at the blonde.

"What?"

"Just come here," Alex repeated, leaning closer. Her lips captured the corner of Reginaís mouth. "Mm, you had syrup on your lip," she whispered, as she pulled away.

"Oh." Regina touched her mouth and blushed as her body reacted to her loverís touch, remembering the sweet caresses from the night before. I am so in trouble.

"Problem?" Alex arched an eyebrow and pursed her lips, enjoying the affect she was having on the blonde.

The young doctor brushed her golden blonde hair back behind her ears in an effort to compose herself. "Do you have any ideas about what youíd like to do after we visit my parents this weekend?"

The taller woman sat back in her chair and considered the possibilities. "Well, the Cape is only a couple of hours away ... if you wanted to go back there." She had a fantasy that she created in her mind of the two of them walking on the beach at Race Point, holding hands. They would chase the waves as they ran out into the ocean and scramble back up the sand as the water raced back in.

Oh what a dumb, stupid idea. Alexís mind reeled as she recalled what a disaster the whole week had been at Provincetown the first time. She managed to embroil Regina in her problems with Dana. The poor kid had gotten horribly sick, and she still couldnít shake the memory of what Derrick had intended to do to Regina if she hadnít gotten there in time to stop him. "That was a bad idea. We can do something else. Anything, Reg."

"Actually, I think thatís a great idea! We could stay at your place."

Alex lifted her head and gaped at her in surprise. "Are you sure you want to do that? I mean, you canít have very good memories from the last time you were there."

Regina tilted her head. "No ... especially what happened with Derrick, but ... " she smiled disarmingly. "I fell hopelessly in love with you that week."

"Bu ... how ... what?" Alex stumbled pitifully over her words, her voice cracking. "That week?"

"Mmhm." Regina nodded and leaned toward her lover. "Do you know what I remember?"

"Iím afraid to ask," Alex groaned in dismay and lowered her head into her hands, hiding her face.

"Stop," Regina chided her gently. "I remember you holding me in your arms that night after we kissed on the couch."

"Reg, oh God, I made you cry." The doctor folded her arms on the table and dropped her head onto them in embarrassment. "Is there a hole I can crawl into?"

"No, you didnít make me cry. I wanted to make love to you, but when I thought about what we were doing I couldnít, not without knowing the results of the test first." Regina insisted. She grasped the womanís arm and shook it. "Alex, you rescued me from Derrick."

"I was pissed of and I beat the crap out of him, Regina." Alex shook her head back and forth, her face still buried in her arms.

"You took care of me in the hospital when I was sick. No oneís done that for me since I was a kid."

The doctor turned her face toward the blonde and blinked. A pink flush highlighted her normally tan skin. "We have very different memories from that week."

Reginaís expression sobered as she brushed Alexís hair back off her face. "I know that if all that didnít happen the way it did, you and I might not be sitting here today having this conversation."

Alex lifted her head and grazed the back of her fingers over Reginaís cheek, remembering the phone call that came out of nowhere. "I think we found each other at just the right time."

"Kind of like fate." Regina turned her face and pressed her lips to the back of Alexís hand.

"Yeah, something like that," Alex offered quietly.

******

Several hours after Alex dropped her off at the hospital, Regina walked hurriedly down the hallway toward the offices that housed the Psychology department at Saint Xavierís Medical Center. She received a cryptic message from Dr. Burke almost as soon as she finished rounds up on the Pediatric floor. Thereís something you need to see, now, the psychologist told her urgently over the phone.

She walked into the unassuming waiting area and stood in front of the receptionistís desk, waiting for the red-haired woman to finish her phone call. Water stained boxes filled to overflowing, lined the floor behind the desk.

"Can I help you?" Brown eyes smiled up at her.

"Iím here to meet with Dr. Burke," Regina replied, aware of the woman giving her a cursory once over. "Iím Dr. Kingston."

"Oh, yes. Dr. Burke is waiting for you. Sheís the third office down on the left."

"Thanks," Regina replied and negotiated her way through the maze of boxes. She poked her head in the door and saw the petite doctor sitting behind her gunmetal gray desk, scribbling furiously in a chart.

"Patricia?"

The platinum blonde head snapped up and the psychologist waved her into the office. "Sit, please. Thanks for coming down here so quickly." She stood and crossed the office and shut the door. "Sorry the department looks like a bomb hit it." She walked back behind her desk and reseated herself in her chair. "Weíre situated right below part of the Infusion Center and they had a flood last night. Poor Dr. Andrewsí office was a disaster this morning."

"What happened?"

"I think a toilet or something overflowed." Patricia shrugged, giving the woman sitting across from her a rueful smile. "At least weíre not underneath the Operating Rooms. All that medical waste." The doctor wrinkled her nose in distaste. Anyway, I wanted you to see these. I had a very interesting session with your young man, TJ. Heís quite the character."

Regina leaned forward and took the sheets of white, copier paper the woman handed to her. The thick, heavy-handed strokes of blue and black crayon caught her attention first. She frowned and looked back at the psychologist. "Sorry, but Iím not sure what I should be seeing here."

"No worries. I should explain some things first. TJ is very distrustful of any authority figures. Needless to say, trying to engage him in a conversation was next to impossible. I gather from the little he admitted, that he has been in and out of foster homes since a very early age." Patricia folded her hands and rested her elbows on the desk. "Some were good and some were not so good."

"Did you find out if he has a legal guardian?"

Patricia shook her head. "I wish I got that far with him. I found out he likes to draw, so I scrounged up some markers and crayons for him. I made him promise that he would let me look at the drawings when he was done. This is what he created so far." She indicated the drawings Regina held in her hands.

"Theyíre all so dark."

"Absolutely. The color choices tell us a lot. He doesnít have a lot of self-esteem and his outlook on life in general is one of hopelessness." Patricia walked around the desk and dragged one of the office chairs next to Reginaís. "I was an art major before I got my doctorate in psychology so I find this all very intriguing. Look at this picture."

One well-manicured, polished nail outlined the shape for Regina. "Thatís someoneís knee being driven into another personís back. Do you see that?"

Regina peered closer at the blue and black shading used to outline a muscularly defined thigh and bent knee being pressed into anotherís figureís back. She could make out two arms being held at an awkward angle behind the person lying face down in the drawing. "So what does it mean?"

Patricia turned the paper over and pointed into the lower left hand corner. Scrawled in black ball-point pen that left an indentation in the thin paper were the words, abuse of power.

Regina felt a chill run up her spine. "How old is he again?"

"I think we estimated his age at fifteen or sixteen since we donít have any birth records. Look at this one." She flipped through several of the sheets until she found the picture she was looking for.

It was a drawing of a misshapen box. A light from somewhere above created a shadow of a small, dark figure sitting huddled in a corner. All around the box was a blossoming puddle of maroon color that was spilling out from the sides of the box.

"Sweet Jesus," Regina whispered. "What has this kid seen?"

"Your guess is as good as mine. I think heís repressing some very traumatic events. They maybe recent or further back in his past. Either way, I need some time with him Regina. Our dear friends from Quality Resource Management have already been down to review his chart and want to know about what out discharge plan is for him."

Regina sighed and rubbed her forehead in growing frustration. "It figures QRM would already be sniffing around. Itís not their fault. Theyíre under the same pressure we all are. Get everybody out faster."

Patricia laid a hand on younger womanís forearm. "Regina, we canít afford to let this kid get shuttled off into another foster home without some kind of follow up care set for him. I know you donít want him becoming another statistic that nobody gives a shit about."

"How much time do you need?"

"I wish I knew. I donít think I can make a case that heís a danger to himself or others. If I could, Iíd be able commit him involuntarily."

Green eyes regarded at her sharply. "Are you sure youíd want to do that to him? Thatís a pretty drastic step."

Patricia pressed her lips together in a thin line. "My gut tells me this kid is a time bomb waiting to go off."

Regina sat back in her chair and stared down at the pictures. "Heís had another set of blood tests done today. Let me see if I can find something that will give me a reason to hold him longer."

"Thanks, I appreciate it Regina."

She wasnít sure what she was going to be able to come up with that would justify holding in the hospital longer. The boy had been recuperating nicely since he was discharged from the Intensive Care Unit.

The young doctor returned to the Pediatric wing to check on Terry and TJ. On her way to their rooms, she stopped at the nurseís station and pulled the boyís chart. She flipped through the pages until she came to the most recent set of lab values she was looking for.

It wasnít the red flag she was hoping to find, not that she wanted the kid to be sick but she needed something to justify keeping a couple more days. His white blood cell count was slightly elevated compared to the day before but everything else was normal. Well, Dr. Timmons might not agree with my decision but I have to do this. Iíll pay for the damn test myself if I have to.

She quickly wrote an order for CT scan to the boyís head to rule out a sinus infection. It was a reach, but it wouldnít be the first time an infection lay dormant in the sinuses only to flair up and cause serious problem later. With a sigh, she signed her name and set the chart down by the unit clerk and went off to look for her two charges.

She found Terry sitting cross-legged on her bed playing solitaire. Across from her, head bowed forward over a pile of papers was TJ. Scattered around him on the rumpled blanket were a myriad of crayons and pencils.

Regina hesitated at the doorway, taking the opportunity to study both of them curiously. The two kids seemed to have struck up a friendship borne out of their tough circumstances. She furrowed her brow, wondering if Patricia was right and TJ was a time bomb just waiting to go off. I hope youíre wrong Patricia.

Terry looked up first, her eyes darting nervously from the doctor to TJ.

"So, this is where youíre hanging out today TJ." Regina walked around to the foot of the bed, casually glancing down at the drawing he was working on. "Youíve got quite a talent there," she observed.

He finished scratching his pencil across the paper before he looked up at the blonde-haired doctor. The corner of his mouth twitched almost allowing a smile to form, before he ducked his head and resumed his sketching.

"Youíre hair is growing back fast," Regina commented, aware that Terry had stopped playing cards and was watching her intently.

The boy ignored her and continued to work on his sketch.

"Are you drawing that from memory TJ?" The young doctor studied the roughly drawn sketch of a city skyline in the distance.

He let out a sigh and put the pencil down. Without a word he slipped off the bed and hastily gathered his papers together.

"TJ, donít go," Terry whispered in a hoarse voice.

"Iím not answering a ... anymore stupid questions. Leave me alone!" he shouted and angrily shrugged away from Regina as he walked to the door.

"TJ," Regina lowered her voice, trying not upset him more.

"No! Iím not going back there," he cried and ran down the corridor back to his own room.

"You made him mad," a quiet voice spoke from behind her.

Regina turned and watched as Terry picked up all the crayons and pencils and placed them in a washbasin on her bedside table.

The doctor followed her instincts and sat down in the chair next to the girlís bed. "Terry, Iím trying to help TJ."

"He doesnít need your help," Terry stared down at her hands.

"Did he tell you where he doesnít want to go back to?" Regina leaned forward and studied the girlís youthful profile, wondering what secrets the two shared with each other.

The ponytail waved back and forth as the girl shook her head and fiddled with the cards lying in front of her.

"Terry, if you know anything, please tell me."

"He didnít tell me anything," she insisted.

"Okay." She didnít know why but she didnít believe the girl was being completely truthful with her. Regina dug into her lab coat pocket and pulled out a piece of paper and a pen. "Terry, Iím not going to be around for a few days. If you need to talk to me about anything, you can call this number and theyíll page me." She finished writing down the Pediatric Serviceís number and handed it to the girl.

"Youíre not going to be here?" Terry asked anxiously.

"No, Iím taking a few days off to spend time with my family." How benign it sounded coming from her lips, but the mere thought made her gut suddenly twist into a knot.

"I ... Iíll miss you," came the whispered response.

Regina smiled back at her young friend. "Iíll miss you too, kiddo."

******

Alex walked into the Medical Records Department, her eyes surveying the room. The large office was filled with cubicles and a floor to ceiling filing system that moved on floor tracks. She watched as several clerks went through the tedious process of logging in charts. Dozens of piles of medical records, lay in teetering stacks on desks and chairs all in varying stages of being categorized.

Usually it took a day or two to get the charts that were requested, but in her case, she knew the department head and right now she needed to call in a favor. "Hi Madeline," she greeted the older woman sitting behind one of the desks.

"Hi Dr. Margulies. I havenít seen you down here in awhile," the older woman replied, her fingers still dancing nimbly over the computer keyboard. "What can I help you with?"

"Is Robin here? I need to talk with her." Alex glanced in the direction of the open office door.

"Sheís in her office."

"Thanks," Alex tapped the desk with her hand and walked down the carpeted hallway. She spotted the brown-haired willowy shaped woman and smiled disarmingly at her when their eyes met.

"I thought I heard my name." Robin leaned against the doorframe of her office, watching the doctor approach. "Alex, as I live and breath. I canít believe itís you. How are you?"

Alex shrugged and offered a crooked grin in response to her question. "Hello, Robin. Itís been awhile since Iíve seen you. Howís your father doing?" Alex asked, remembering the nasty fall the man took when he fell off his roof two summers ago.

"Better, although heíll always have a limp from his leg being broken so badly. What brings you down here?"

"I need a favor. Thereís a case I have to give a deposition for and I need these charts. Somehow they seem to have all disappeared." Alex dug in her lab coat pocket, pulled out a piece of paper, and unfolded it.

Robin nodded. "Iíll see what I can do. Weíve been getting ready to send out all of the two thousand medical records for microfilming. Itís possible theyíre just sitting in a pile somewhere."

"Iíll be out of town for a few days, so just have someone leave them in my office. Security can unlock the door for you." Alex handed her the list of patient names.

The woman nodded her head as she read from the list. "Somebody must have requested these recently because I know some of these names." She looked up, Alexís words registering. "Away on business?"

"No, not business."

"Oh, well, maybe when youíre back, youíd like to get together sometime ... for a drink or something."

Alex regarded the woman from beneath a furrowed eyebrow. The indentation from her wedding band was still evident on the fourth finger of the womanís left hand.

She was surprised when she heard from Sandy that Robin was getting married to one of the surgeonís on staff. That was less than a year and half ago. Back in action and playing the field again, huh Robin?

The woman leaned closer and ran her tongue over her lower lip. "Iíd make sure you have a good time Alex," she whispered conspiratorially.

The doctor let out a low chuckle and shook her head. "Direct and to the point as always Robin."

"Well, being subtle never got me anywhere with you," the woman demurred.

Alex drew herself up to her full height. "Well, if you really want to go out for a drink, Iíll introduce you to Regina."

Shocked eyes blinked back at her. "Itís true then? Oh, I was hoping it was just a vicious rumor."

"Definitely not a rumor. So do you think you can find those charts for me?"

Robin pressed her lips together and tilted her head. "Iíll find them. Now go, so I can mend my bruised ego."

******

Several hours later, after two meetings and treating several patients Alex sat in her office finishing up some paperwork. A few keystrokes and she submitted last monthís statistics for the Emergency Department to the management team and a projection for the next to quarters.

She picked up the phone and dialed the nurseís station in the department. "Itís Dr. Margulies. I need to speak to Dr. Washington. Is he there?"

"Let me check."

She got put on hold and found herself listening to some classical music. With a sigh, she leaned back in her chair and waited.

"Alex?"

"Hi Jon. I have a request into medical records for some charts. Theyíre going to drop them off in my office when they find them. I want you to take a look at them if you have some time while Iím gone the next few days. Theyíre for the deposition on Jamesonís case."

She heard an audible groan on the other end of the phone. "Not a problem. Iíll take care of it."

"Thanks." She looked up when she heard a knock on her door. "Come in," she called out and smiled when Regina walked in and shut the door behind her.

The younger woman was dressed in a pair of light, sea green linen pants and an off white turtleneck. A simple gold chain hung from her neck. Alex reached her hand out and guided the younger woman around to the corner of the desk.

"Alex?"

"Iím still here. There shouldnít be anything else you need to worry about. All the monthly reports are done. If you need me, you have my long distance pager."

"I do, but I donít plan on using it."

She snorted and shook her head. "All right. Iíll talk to you when I get back Jon. Thanks."

"Done?" Regina inquired after Alex hung up the phone. She leaned forward with her hands planted on her thighs.

Blue eyes twinkled and Alex reached over and lifted one of Reginaís hands to her lips. She rubbed her face against the soft skin and then proceeded to leave a scorching trail of liquid heat with her lips and tongue on the palm of Reginaís hand.

She smiled as she felt the younger woman squirm and moan softly at the suggestive contact of her lips. "I though about you all day ... and yes, Iím all done." Alex stood up, letting her hand cup Reginaís face affectionately.

"Youíre a fiend," Regina chuckled as she leaned heavily against the touch.

"I canít help myself," Alex teased and squeezed Reginaís shoulder. You ready to go find that gift for your mother?" She could feel the ripple of tension in the muscles beneath her hand.

"Yeah," Regina breathed heavily and stood up.

There was a subtle edge to Reginaís voice that was not lost on the taller woman. "Whatís wrong?"

Regina folded her arms over her chest and turned away, feeling suddenly very self-conscious. "This is stupid."

Alex stood behind her waiting anxiously. What happened between then and now? What is she upset about? "Whatís stupid?"

"Iím scared about seeing my parents." Regina buried her head in her hand. "Iím worried about how theyíre going to react when we get there."

Alex put her hands on the shorter womanís shoulders and turned her around. "Reg, slow down. Listen, you canít control how youíre parents are going to react."

"I know. I just have no idea what to expect and thereís so much emotion tied up in Jeff coming home after all these years."

"Come here." Alex wrapped her arms around her, thankful that it was the end of the day and that her office was tucked away at the end of a long hallway that saw little traffic even during the day. "You know what I think." She tilted Regina face up so she could look in her eyes. "Your parents are just as nervous as you are. Theyíre going to see their son after how many years?"

"Seventeen," Regina supplied quietly.

"And if thatís not enough their daughter is bringing her lesbian lover home. I donít know where all this ranks in that list of lifeís most stressful events but Iím sure itís up there." Alex let both her arms slide down behind Regina and linked her hands behind her waist. "What I mean is, just be you, Regina. Youíre their daughter and they love you. Whatever their issues are beyond that, theyíll have to deal with them as theyíre able to."

Regina sighed and laid her head on Alexís shoulder. The nervousness was still there but some of the tension slid away at her loverís comforting words. "Where did I find you?"

"Um, in the Emergency Department."

"Brat!" Regina poked her affectionately in the side and then, rose up on her toes to kiss Alex lightly on the lips.

The brunette smiled and wrapped her arm around Reginaís shoulders. "Letís go so we can find this locket for your mother."

 


Chapter Twelve

 

Regina stepped down out of Alexís Jeep and shut the door. "Whose brilliant idea was this again?" she muttered, testily as she walked around the vehicle and joined Alex by the street corner.

"Yours, my dear," Alex draped an arm over her shoulder and squeezed her affectionately while she watched as several cars sped through the busy intersection. After having no luck at two jewelry stores, Reginaís spirits tumbled, as did the chances of finding the kind of locket that the younger woman was looking for.

A brisk, damp wind whipped down the street and ruffled the tails of Alexís long, leather coat as she stood beside her companion. After the traffic light changed, they jogged across the street and ducked underneath the awning of the corner jewelry store.

"Iím sorry I dragged you all over the place tonight," Regina sighed as she pulled the door open. Bell chimes announced their arrival inside the store. She knew shopping was not one of her partnerís favorite past times and Alex had been patiently trying to help her find just the right locket.

"Donít apologize," Alex replied as she followed Regina through the door. An older, white-haired man with a hawkish profile was standing behind the glass display helping a young woman pick out a pair of earrings.

The thick, pile carpet muffled their footsteps as they walked over to the glass counters. Alex studied Regina as the younger woman peered down at the array of shiny gold chains and bracelets. One particular necklace caught Alexís eye. Hmm, Iíd bet that necklace would look really nice on you.

Alex wrinkled her brow and tossed the idea out after considering it for a moment. Neither of them wore any jewelry to speak of except for an occasional pair of earrings. Between constantly washing their hands during the day, and changing protective garb in between patients it was more of a hassle to bother wearing anything of value at work.

"Iíll be right there ladies," the man spoke to them from across the store.

Regina sighed and looked up at Alex. "I donít see anything."

"Wait, maybe he has something in the back thatís not on display," the dark-haired woman replied softly, hearing the discouragement in Reginaís voice.

"What can I help you with?" The white-haired gentleman with startling gray eyes asked as he walked over and stood behind the glass counter.

"Iím looking for a locket that opens up and holds pictures inside," Regina described.

"Hmm, I know what youíre talking about. I donít think I have anything here but let me check the items that we offer as part of our silent auction. We get some pieces like you described every now and then, that people want to sell." He glanced at the door and gnawed at his lip for a moment. "Let me just lock the front door. Iím the only one here and itís almost closing time anyway."

Regina glanced up at Alex doubtfully.

"What have you got to lose? Maybe heíll have something."

They followed the man around the corner and down the carpeted stairs to another room that was occupied with small, circular display cases. He made a sweeping motion with his arm as he stepped back away from them. "Take your time and look around. Iíll check in the back to see if thereís anything that came in today that you might be interested in."

Alexís eyes followed the jeweler as he disappeared behind a dark green velour curtain. She shook her head and returned her attention to Regina. "Why is it all jewelry stores are decorated alike?"

The blonde shrugged as she peered into the different cases, looking for that elusive locket. "I donít know. Hey, look at this." She pointed at a gold band engraved with a Celtic design.

Alex arched her eyebrow as she peered over the blondeís shoulder. "I thought you were looking for a locket."

"Tch," Regina looked up at Alex and rolled her eyes. "I am. I just like the design." She moved away and looked down at another display case.

Alex glanced after her and then peered down at the ring curiously, recognizing the rope design, like vines weaving together forming an intricate never-ending circle. She tucked Reginaís comment away in her memory and turned around when heard the curtain rustle behind her as the older man walked back into the room.

He stopped for a moment at the case she was standing by and inspected the rings briefly. "Those are some beautiful wedding bands in there."

Alex gave a non-committal grunt and stepped back away from the display case.

"What do you think of these?" He walked over to where Regina was standing and set two rectangular black boxes on the counter in front of her.

Alex joined her, waiting as Regina picked up the first locket and held the delicate chain in her hand, examining the clasp that held the locket closed. "Let me see the other one."

"Ooh, Alex, look at this one," Regina exclaimed, as she took the other necklace from his hands.

Alex glanced down at him briefly, aware of his keen eyes studying the two of them with interest. Whatís going on behind those eyes of yours, she wondered, then, dismissed the thought, and turned her attention back to Regina.

The oval, gold piece had a delicately etched design on its cover. Reginaís fingers easily opened the clasp and two circular frames unfolded from within. "Ooh, Alex, look at this. Itís perfect."

The taller woman leaned closer, inspecting the gold locket. "You like that one?"

Regina nodded her head eagerly and then looked over at the elderly man with a hopeful look in her eyes. "Is this piece part of the auction?"

"It is but I think I can make an exception. I know the person who is selling this piece," he explained. "If you can wait a few minutes Iíll make a phone call and weíll see what we can work out."

Regina touched the sleeve of Alexís leather coat. "Do you mind? I feel badly, dragging you all over the place like this."

"Itís fine," Alex re-assured the younger woman and then turned watching the older man walk back up the stairs. "Iíll be right back." She trotted up the stairs after him. She was curious about who he was calling and the more cynical side of her wanted to make sure he wasnít going to try and take advantage of Reginaís eagerness.

The man smiled at her when she entered the main part of the shop upstairs. "That piece is my sister-in-laws." He shook his head, looking suddenly distracted and lost. "Itís my brotherís really, since his wife died last year. I am helping him sell the things he does not want anymore. They bring too many memories he can not bear anymore."

Alex hung her head, feeling rather foolish for her misgivings about the man. "Sometimes the most cherished memories become the most painful when we lose someone we love."

"It sounds like you speak from experience," he replied, watching the azure eyes darken with the changing emotions on the womanís face.

She wasnít quite sure where the swell of emotion was coming from but it caught her completely off guard. "I do. Itís been almost two years. I still miss her, but the pain is not so unbearable now." The words escaped unbidden from her lips and Alex squared her shoulders and prepared herself for the worst. Instead, it was an odd sense of comfort she felt as she met the penetrating gaze.

The jeweler looked down at his hands, his face flushing as he realized her meaning. "It looks like you got another chance though," he offered quietly, looking over her shoulder at Regina as she appeared in the doorway by the stairs.

Leaning forward, he motioned Alex to him and spoke softly in her ear. "You donít know what life holds ahead of you, my friend. Keep it special. Bring her flowers just one at a time, it means more that way."

His words were totally unexpected and left Alex speechless. She nodded her head, silently processing the meaning before a warm smile crept across her face. "I will," came the very quiet and wistful response when she was able to get her mouth to start working again.

The blonde glanced up between the two of them as she approached. "Everything all right?"

"Fine," Alex swallowed and turned away, feeling the unexpected sting of tears in her eyes. Damn, why did I have to remember that, now? She walked over to the window and peered out at the street, waiting for the lump in her throat to ease.

****** "Happy birthday, baby." She placed a chaste kiss over the mound of damp curls and crawled back up to lie on top of Lana.

A fine sheen of perspiration covered their bodies, as they lay tangled amid the satin sheets on Lanaís bed. "Let ... let me catch my breath," the woman panted, her body still quivering from Alexís touch.

The brunette smiled and reached into the drawer of the nightstand where she hid the black box earlier that evening. "Close your eyes."

"What?" Lana struggled to sit up but got pressed back to the mattress by Alexís hand.

"Down. Close your eyes."

She complied with a small pout.

Alex shook her head, smiling down at her lover. Lana had no idea what sheíd gotten her and after many hours of looking for just the right one, Alex finally chose a gold band inlaid with a row of diamonds.

Carefully, she opened the box and pulled out the ring. *****

Alex jammed her hands into her coat pockets and closed her eyes, blocking the rest of the bittersweet memory out of her mind.

The blondeís brow creased in confusion for a moment as she watched the dark-haired womanís movements from across the room. "Um, did you get a hold of the person whoís selling the locket?"

The man cleared his throat and looked around the counter he was standing behind. His calloused and worn fingers trembled as he pulled a pen from his pocket and wrote a figure down on a receipt pad. "Here." He tore the paper from the bound stack and folded it in half before he handed it to Regina.

Hesitantly, the Regina took the paper from him and glanced briefly at Alexís somber profile before she unfolded it. She watched the hunched shoulders rise and fall with a deep breath. When the taller woman gazed in her direction she motioned her over.

She felt the warmth of Alexís presence as the doctor walked up and stood close behind her.

"I think you should get it, Regina," Alex told her quietly as she read the price written on the paper. The taller woman met the jewelerís gaze and they shared a secret knowing smile.

Afterwards, Alex busied herself browsing through the brightly lit glass displays while Regina paid for her purchase.

"Are you ok?" Regina walked over to the doctor, carrying the neatly wrapped box in a small bag the jeweler gave her.

One dark eyebrow arched and Alex regarded her with a well-practiced mask of neutrality on her face. "Yeah, Iím fine. Do you want to grab something to eat?"

"Sure," Regina agreed amiably as they walked out of the store. That will give me some time to figure out what happened to you in there.

******

They ended up in a small, cozy, dimly lit Italian restaurant on the edge of town. Inside, a large painted mural of ancient Rome decorated an entire wall. A young man with jet- black hair and bronze-colored skin escorted them back to one of the empty booths in the back of the restaurant.

Regina slipped into the vinyl-covered seat across from the brunette and waited for the young man to hand them the menus before she spoke. "You seemed distracted before at the jewelry store." She moved a candle off to the side of the table and leaned forward on her arms.

Alex looked up as the waiter returned with two glasses of water and smiled down at the two of them. "Distracted?"

She sipped the clear liquid, stalling for some time to compose some kind of an answer that would satisfy the blondeís curiosity. Her hands automatically reached for the menus, but Regina slid them away out of her reach.

The younger woman leaned closer and spoke in a low voice. "Alex, I hope by now youíd realize that you can trust me."

The doctor shifted in her seat uncomfortably and ran her fingers over the outside of her glass. "What are you talking about?"

The waiter re-appeared at their table a moment later. "Are you ladies ready to order?"

Regina sat back and looked expectantly at Alex, then, shook her head. You know what Iím talking about. "I think we need a few more minutes."

"No problem. Iíll come back," he replied and walked away from their table.

"Here." The blonde handed the menu over to the brooding woman and opened her own.

Alex glanced briefly at the menu and then closed it, unable to concentrate on whatís she was trying to read.

"Donít tell me you already know what youíre going to get." Regina tilted her head and raised a questioning eyebrow.

"Penne and vodka sauce," Alex stated and downed the rest of her water in two nervous gulps.

For the second time tonight, she found herself in unfamiliar territory. She made it a practice to never divulge personal information to a stranger and had done just that not less than an hour ago ... Christ, what is wrong with me?

The blonde nodded absently and went back to studying her menu in silence.

"The lobster ravioli is really good here," Alex offered quietly. She folded her hands together, set her elbows on the table, and rested her chin on her knuckles. Trust? Of course I trust her, she knows more about me than anyone else in my life.

"I guess youíve eaten here before."

Alex nodded and then sat back against the booth. "A few times." I canít believe I ended up bringing her here, of all places. Stop it! Her rational mind clamored. Itís close to where we were and the service is good.

The waiter walked back over and stood at the end of their table. "Ladies?"

"Ready?" She looked over at Regina and got a nod. "Iíll have the penne and vodka sauce and ... "

"Iíll have the lobster ravioli," Regina added, handing the menus over to the waiter.

"Both excellent choices. Youíll get a salad with that. What kind of dressing would you like?"

"Raspberry vinaigrette," Alex stated.

"Mm, make that two," Regina echoed, then, sat back against the booth and ran her fingers along the edge of the napkin nervously.

Alex watched one of the waitresses walk by carrying a tray, heavily laden with food, over one of her shoulders, before she drew her attention back to the woman sitting across from her.

She could tell by the far away expression on Reginaís face that she was lost in deep thought about something. I can see the wheels turning inside youíre thinking so hard. Youíre always analyzing and talking things through. Itís just not that easy for me. Long, tapered fingers twirled the glass around in the puddle that was left from the condensation gathered around its bottom. "Why donít you think I trust you?"

Green eyes blinked and refocused on her. "I didnít say that I donít trust you me, just that I hope you know you can."

"Of course I trust you."

"Then why is it so hard for you to tell me whatís bothering you?" Regina laid her hand down on top of the napkin and looked across the table at her companion.

Alex sighed and looked away. "I grew up not talking about things that happened. It was just better that way."

The blonde reached over and placed her hand over Alexís. "Who was it better for Alex?"

Oh God, why does she do this so well? The doctor smiled thinly and looked down at the table. "I think you missed your calling, Dr. Kingston."

"Really, what would that be?" Regina tilted her head to catch Alexís downcast eyes.

"Psychology."

The resident laughed and shook her head. "Oh no, I donít want to sit around all day and listen to peopleís wounded psycheís. I have enough of my own baggage to carry around."

"Well, youíve done a pretty good job with this one."

Regina continued to hold her gaze a smile playing at her lips. "Thatís only because Iím quite fond of yours."

"Oh, you are?" The doctor raised a teasing eyebrow as the conversation took a lighter turn.

Green eyes twinkled back at her and Regina leaned closer to the taller woman. "Actually, your psyche is only one of a few things Iím rather fond of."

Alex closed her eyes and swallowed hard. "I think we need to talk about something else."

"Youíre blushing."

"I am not," Alex growled.

"Yes you are." Regina smirked and looked up as the waiter appeared at their table with their dinners.

******

"I wish youíd let me pay for that," Regina told her as she slipped her jacket on and buttoned it up before they walked out of the restaurant into the cold night air.

"You can pay for the next dinner we have." Alex pushed the door open and held it for Regina so she could walk through it. "Besides, itís the least I can do after the last couple of months."

"Stop saying that. You donít owe me anything," Regina replied, and threw her arms up in exasperation.

Alex stuck her hands in her pockets and walked beside her in silence for a few steps. They passed several other couples strolling along the sidewalk, all engaged in their own conversations oblivious to the world around them. "Iím not used to having anybody want to do things for me, without wanting something back in return."

Regina stopped walking and just stared up at the dark-haired woman when she turned around. "Alex, Iím not them, whoever they are."

With her hands still in her pockets, Alex closed the distance between them and leaned in close enough to inhale the light fragrance of her perfume. "Regina, I know youíre not. Itís just hard to get over a habit that Iíve spent half my lifetime cultivating into a fine art."

Regina tilted her head up and stared into the depths of the anguished blue eyes as if searching for something. I know youíve been hurt before and youíre afraid to let me in but Alex, please, believe in us. "I know, but all I want is the chance to be in here," she replied slowly.

"After everything you know, what makes you think thatís such a good place to be." Alex straightened up and glanced over Reginaís shoulder.

She watched a white car round the corner and slowly roll down the street in their direction. Her lips pressed together in mute irritation as she made out the outline of a familiar set of lights on top of the car. Perfect and let me just guess whose slowing down to get a good look at us.

"It wasnít that long ago that you started to let me inside all those defenses."

Alex met the steady gaze of her lover and tried to ignore the police car as it drove past them. "I know whatís inside."

"So do I. Itís what made me fall in love with you in the first place." The blonde moved closer and slid an arm under Alexís coat and around her slim waist.

The doctor draped an arm over the smaller womanís shoulder and pulled her close. "We have an audience you know."

Regina sighed and shook her head. She saw the police car pull in to the space behind Alexís truck. "Derrick?"

"Probably," Alex breathed out and squeezed her reassuringly.

"Do you know what Iíd love to do to him right now?"

"What?"

"Shove a banana up his tailpipe," Regina stated matter-of-factly.

Alex snickered as they walked toward her Jeep. "Thereís a grocery store across the street. You could go get a bunch, in fact, hey, theyíre on sale."

The driverís side door opened and Derrick stepped out. He slid his nightstick into the loop that held it in his belt and curled his lip when he looked at Alex. Leisurely, he strode around the doctorís vehicle inspecting it and then walked up to stand in front of her. "It grieves me so much to tell you this Alex, but you didnít put money in the parking meter."

The doctor glanced over at the meter and shrugged. "So is this what they have you doing now, handing out parking tickets?" She felt Regina stiffen against her and she rubbed her fingers over her shoulder instinctively.

Derrick sneered. "Let me see your license and insurance card."

"You donít need that for a parking ticket," Regina snapped.

"Actually, this vehicle is overdue for inspection."

"Bastard," Regina muttered under her breath. She stepped away as Alex dug in her wallet and pulled out her license. Fine Derrick. Be that way. "Iíll be right back, Alex."

The doctor jerked her head up. "Where are you going?"

"I just remembered I need something from the store. Besides I donít want to be around him."

Alex opened her mouth to protest and then thought better of it. She took her time rummaging through the small glove compartment as she looked for her insurance card. With an air of complete boredom, she handed over the documents to Derrick. Warily, she kept an eye out for Regina. She knew her loverís dander was up and she wasnít sure what the blonde was planning to do.

By the time, Derrick called her information in and finally got around to writing out her tickets, she spotted Regina walking back across the street with a brown bag in her arms. Oh, Derrick whatever it is she has planned, you are in trouble.

"Can I have your keys?" Regina held out her hand and took them from Alex with a sweet smile before she disappeared around to the other side of the truck. The alarm chirped as she disarmed the Jeep and then opened the door.

Derrick watched her and then looked back at Alex. He tore the tickets out of his book and waved them in front of her. "Here."

Alex plucked them out of his hand and crumpled them into a ball up before she shoved them in her coat pocket. Come on Regina, whatever youíre doing hurry up!

Derrick snorted at her insolent display. "Youíll still have to pay them."

"Weíll see," Alex replied.

"That druggie friend of yours has her trial date coming up. She might just get lucky and get off on probation."

"What are you talking about?"

"Just what I said. It turns out the kid may have been drinking as well."

"Sheís got other charges against her."

He shrugged. "Thatís for the State of Massachusetts to figure out."

Much to the doctorís relief, Regina walked back around the truck and handed Alex her keys. "Are you quite done Derrick?"

He folded his arms and stepped back away from the two women. "For now."

Regina rolled her eyes and opened the passenger side door of the Jeep.

Alex walked around to the other side and hopped in behind the steering wheel. "Please tell me you didnít do what I think you did," she hissed as her cohort pulled the door shut.

Regina looked out the window and watched as Derrick walked across the street and stopped to talk to a group of kids that were congregating outside one of the stores. "Donít worry I didnít shove a banana up his tail pipe."

"Good." Alex glanced over at the blonde as she started the engine and pulled out of the parking spot. "Whatís so funny?"

Regina giggled and hugged her arms around herself. "Just go, please."

"Regina," Alex lowered her voice and tried not to let herself get caught up in the infectious laughter. "What did you do?"

"I used a potato instead."

"Regina!"

"Alex, donít be mad. Besides, heís lucky I didnít have more time. I could have put sugar in his gas tank or spread Super Glue under his door handles or ... "

"Okay, okay." Alex waved her hand. "I donít want to hear anymore. Since when do you have such a devious side to you?"

"Since he decided to hassle you tonight."

At the next stoplight, Alex put the Jeep in park, leaned over the console, and surprised the blonde with a deep, soulful kiss. It would have last much longer if the driver behind them had not been so impatient and started honking his horn.

"What was that for?" Regina finally asked after coming out of her daze.

"Just because Iím lucky enough to have you in my life." Alex smiled and winked at her before she drove through the intersection.


Chapter Thirteen

 

Alex walked up behind Regina and lightly rested her hands on the blondeís shoulders. "Are you almost ready to go?" Her fingertips started a light massage over the bulk of the tense muscles at the base of Reginaís neck.

The last two days went by quickly and with each passing hour she could feel Reginaís anxiety increase palpably about their impending visit with her family.

The blonde tilted her neck and rested the back of her head against Alexís chest. "Mm, as ready as Iím going to be." She closed her eyes and relaxed into the comforting touch. "That feels good."

The doctor wrapped one hand around Reginaís neck and caressed her jaw. "Where are your bags?" Alex whispered, as she bent and softly pressed her lips against her temple.

"Theyíre in the bedroom."

"Go on. Iíll meet you outside." The taller woman released her after one more lingering kiss and then walked into the bedroom to retrieve Reginaís two duffel bags. She hefted one bag onto her shoulder and let out a surprised grunt as the weight of the other bag strained her arm. I think weíre going to have to talk about how much you really need to pack, Reg.

The brunette walked outside, opened the back of the Jeep, and set Reginaís bags alongside hers. She looked up when she heard the front door shut and smiled at Regina as she walked toward the vehicle. "Did you pack your motherís gift?" she asked as she shut the back hatch.

"Yeah, I have everything." Regina stepped up into the passenger seat and settled herself in. She brushed her hair back and let out a nervous sigh.

Her stomach was in knots. She was glad Alex was coming with her but at the same time she worried about what it would be like when the entire family reunited for the first time in fifteen years. God, has it really been that long since Jeff left home? It seems like it was another lifetime ago.

The young doctor looked over as Alex climbed in behind the steering wheel and started the engine.

"Theyíre some CDís in the console between us. Take a look and see if thereís anything youíd like to listen to," the older woman told her.

A sweet smile crossed Reginaís lips as Alex turned and set an arm over her seat as she backed the Jeep out of the driveway.

"What?" She arched an eyebrow at the cheerful expression.

"This is our first road trip together; our first planned one anyway." Regina glanced down at her hands pensively before she looked back up at Alex. "Iím glad youíre coming with me."

"Me too, Reg." The doctor smiled at her and then turned her attention to the road as she pulled out into the street.

They drove almost straight through, stopping once to grab a bite to eat at one of the rest stops along the highway.

"Welcome to Massachusetts," Regina remarked as they sped by one of the interstate signs announcing their entrance into the Bay State.

Wellís now is as good a time as any, Alex thought and reached over to turn down the volume on the CD player. "So, give me some insight here. You have two brothers. Right?"

Regina nodded. "Yeah, Jeff is the oldest. He was sixteen when he left home." She snorted derisively at her description. "To be accurate he was thrown out by my mother."

"Has he been home since then?" Alex glanced up into the mirror and switched lanes to get out of the way of an oncoming tractor-trailer. She gripped the wheel tightly as the Jeep shuddered slightly as the eighteen-wheeler sped by on the left.

"Once or twice he came back to visit but it always ended up with Mom and him having a knock-down, drag-out fight," Regina replied bitterly.

"Your brother must be pretty nervous about coming back home again after all this time," Alex offered. She knew the next couple of days were going to be hard for Regina and she wanted to understand some of the dynamics about her family before they arrived.

"I think heís very angry and bitter about all the time theyíve shut him out of their lives." Regina turned her head and looked out the window. "It wasnít just them, we all did."

Alex heard the catch in Reginaís voice as she said this and cast a wary glance over at her friend. "How old were you when your Mom threw him out?"

Regina rested her elbow against the window and rubbed her fingers against her forehead, trying to fight back tears. "I was eleven."

"You were just a kid, Reg. Thereís not much you could have done to prevent what happened back then."

"I know. I used to write him every week." She felt her throat constrict at the sudden flood of memories and wiped tears from her cheeks. "I probably bored him half to death with all the mundane details of what was going on at home."

"I doubt it." Alex smiled at her and squeezed her shoulder affectionately. "Do you want me to stop peppering you with questions?"

Regina shook her head and sniffled. "No, itís okay, really. I donít mind."

Alex let her hand drift down and tucked one of Reginaís hands into her larger one. "Whatís your other brotherís name?"

"Michael. Heís the youngest of all of us. His wifeís name is Rachel and they have a baby named Zachary."

"Oh." So, youíre an Aunt. I didnít know that. "How old is the baby?"

Regina scrunched up an eyebrow as she did the math. "Heís almost a year old. I havenít seen him since he was born last spring," she sighed regretfully. "One more thing my mother can be pissed off at me about."

Alex frowned at the comment. "What do you mean?"

"You forget, I was supposed to get married and give them their first grandchild, instead ... " her voice trailed off as she thought about all the choices she made over the past year that brought her to this point. "I followed my heart," she stated with quiet resolve.

A glance to her left revealed the quiet and pensive profile as the taller woman focused her gaze on the road ahead. Regina studied her for a moment before wary blue eyes met hers briefly. The apprehensive look jolted something deep inside her and she squeezed Alexís hand reassuringly. "I would do it all again in a heartbeat if I had to." She brought the taller womanís hand to her lips.

Alexís shoulders relaxed noticeably. "Sorry. I guess meeting your family has me more on edge than I thought."

I wish they would just accept me ... us. I mean, how can loving someone be a bad thing." Regina stared out the window bleakly.

"You know itís not, Reg. Sometimes itís just outside of the boundaries of what people are comfortable with. They donít know any other way to deal with it than to lash out, because theyíre afraid."

Regina glowered angrily at the passing highway signs. "I have a hard time believing it was fear that made my parents throw Jeff out of their house." With a sigh, she shifted in her seat and closed her eyes.

******

"Maíam thereís only one bed in this room. Would you like me to change your room to one with two beds?" The man behind the counter looked at Regina expectantly from across the chest high counter.

Alex drew in a breath and then pressed her lips together as she watched a blonde eyebrow creep upwards in response. Oh boy, thatís not the question you should be asking her right now. Their conversation about Jeff and Reginaís parents left her lover in a defiant and prickly mood.

"That wonít be necessary," Regina stated in a clipped tone. She stared right back at the clerk, daring him to make a comment.

Luckily, he had more sense and retrieved the card key for their room in prudent silence.

"Thanks." Regina took the key from the hotel clerk. "Can you tell me if Jeff Kingston has checked in yet?"

After a few keystrokes, the clerk behind the counter looked over at her. "Yes, he is. Would you like to leave a message for him?"

"No, Iíll call him when we get to our room."

"No problem, maíam." The clerkís eyes followed the two women as they walked over to the bank of elevators.

After checking in, Alex and Regina rode the elevator up to the sixth floor of the Marriott. It was a Thursday night and aside from the small crowd they saw gathered in the Sports Bar downstairs the hotel seemed relatively quiet.

Alex followed her smaller companion to their room and waited as Regina unlocked the door. She smiled to herself when she saw the king size bed that dwarfed the rest of the room with its size. It was a typical suite with a small sitting area off to one side, a color television complete with cable, and a selection of paid movies to choose from.

The blonde glanced at her watch after she set her bags down on the floor. "Iím going to call my brotherís room and see if heís in. How do you feel about having dinner with him?" she asked hopefully.

The taller woman set down the room service menu she was reading and regarded Regina for a moment. "Iíd really like that Reg, unless you want some time to reconnect with him alone."

Regina stepped up closer to Alex and shook her head. "No, I want you there with me."

"You got me," the taller woman murmured and leaned in closer to taste the sweet lips. The gentle exploration lasted longer than Alex planned and when she slowly broke from their embrace, she watched as her lover swayed slightly from the intensity of the exchange.

Regina chuckled softly when she finally refocused on the pretty gray blue eyes regarding her affectionately. "That was some kiss."

"Just something you can remember if things get too intense over the next couple of days." Alex brushed her fingers idly through the golden strands of hair while she gazed at her intently.

"That sounds like a deal," Regina whispered back as she snuggled against Alex. A warm smile crossed her lips as a deep, tender feeling of affection flowed through her and she felt herself falling deeper into a love that she never imagined she would feel. The rest of the world faded away as they stayed like that for several moments, snug and secure in each otherís arms.

Three sharp raps interrupted their quiet reverie and Alex lifted her head from Reginaís shoulder.

"I bet thatís your brother," Alex whispered in her ear.

"Mm," Regina mumbled and stepped away from Alex reluctantly. She wasnít sure why she was so nervous; of all her family Jeff was the one she had the most in common with and despite their long estrangement they managed to keep in touch with each other over the years.

She opened the door expectantly and let out a squeal when she found herself lifted off the floor and engulfed in a bear hug. "Oh my God! Jeff!" Regina buried her head against his shoulder as the room spun around her.

"Ah, my little sister. Let me see you, woman." He set her down on her feet and held her at arms length. "You look just like I remembered you."

Jeff glanced over her shoulder and was captured by the intense gray blue eyes regarding him intently from a few feet away. He swallowed getting the sensation that in the few seconds he was in the room every infinitesimal detail about him had been studied and neatly tucked away for future reference.

"Thatís Alex?" he whispered, biting his bottom lip in appreciation as he took in the swarthy, wild appearance of the taller woman.

Regina blushed and glanced back at her lover who was standing behind her. Alexís hands were tucked casually in her pockets and the brown leather jacket hung open, framing her muscular, firm body. "Alex, this is Jeff."

"So I gathered." The brunette stepped forward and extended a hand to Reginaís brother. "Hi, Jeff."

A broad grin appeared on his face and he returned the gesture in kind, shaking her hand heartily. "So, youíre Alex. Itís nice to meet you, finally." His eyes gleamed mischievously as he cast a sidelong look at his sister. "So, whoís hungry? I donít know about you all, but Iím starved."

Alex bumped her hip against Regina and chuckled. "I see that runs in the family."

"As do many other things," he quipped, giving his sister an affectionate squeeze.

Reginaís sea green eyes twinkled softly as she looked him over, studying his features. Their faces had a similar bone structure with rounded cheeks and a slightly upturned nose. Both had green eyes, although Jeffís had a more solemn look to them now than Regina remembered.

With an impish grin she reached up and ruffled his spiky hair. "So whatís with the buzzed hair cut?"

"What? You donít like it?" He pouted and ran his hand over the closely cropped hair that showed the faintest hint of scalp as it tapered down close to his neck. "I had it done special for my homecoming."

Regina dropped her head into her hands and groaned. "Oh Jeff."

He threw his head back and cackled wickedly. "Hey, I might as well have some fun if I have to be here."

The three of them left the room and rode down to the lobby in the elevator. They received several curious glances from other visitors at the hotel as their boisterous laughter filled the lounge.

By mutual agreement they ended up at a Mexican restaurant a short ride away from the Marriott Hotel. On the way over, Jeff sat in the back seat, neatly perched between the two front seats so he could talk with his sister.

Alex smiled to herself as the two siblings bantered amiably back and forth. It was obvious Reginaís older brother had a great deal of affection for her and it made her hopeful that the next two days would not be as difficult as her lover was anticipating.

The restaurant had a bit of an authentic appeal to it with the earth tone tiles on the floor and the bright multi-colored tiles adorning the walls in a Southwest design. After a short wait at the bar, they were escorted to a booth by one of the waitresses.

Regina slid in beside Alex and took the menus from the woman as Jeff settled himself across from the two women.

His hazel eyes sparkled mischievously as he regarded his sister and her lover. "Okay, so spill it. I want details."

"What are you talking about?" Regina asked innocently, despite the snicker she heard coming from Alex.

Jeff rolled his eyes and leaned forward across the table. "How did you two meet?"

"Oh that? I did my last residency in Emergency Medicine. Alex was the Chief Attending at the time." Regina offered.

Jeff eyed her suspiciously. "Somehow I know thereís more to it than that. I seem to remember a panicked phone call I received at some ungodly hour of the night when you two got suspended last year."

"Jeff!" Regina threw a napkin at him across the table and buried her head in her hands, completely mortified.

"Mm, at the time she mentioned an Alex, but of course she left out one important detail."

"What was that?" Alex turned and regarded her embarrassed partner who was still trying to regain her composure.

"Oh, just that she was head over heels in love with a woman."

Regina lifted her head and glared at him. "Iím going to have to hurt you," she growled, her ears burning from the heated flush.

"What? Itís the truth. Isnít it?" He sat back in the booth and folded his arms across his chest. He winked at Alex. "Well, if she does hurt me at least I know Iím in good hands. I bet you have some good stories from working in the Emergency Department."

Alex leaned back against the booth and draped an arm over the back of it and Reginaís shoulders. "Plenty, but none you would want to hear while youíre eating."

Their waitress reappeared with a bowl of chips. "Can I get you any drinks here?"

"How about a pitcher of Margaritaís?" Jeff suggested enthusiastically.

"You two go ahead. Iíll stick with water for tonight." Alex glanced down at Regina, hoping that for tonight her friend could relax and enjoy the time together with her brother.

******

Two margaritas later, Regina held onto the table and laughed until tears rolled down her cheeks. Across from her Jeff was slumped against the booth still gasping for breath.

"So, let me get this straight." Alex leaned forward and looked between the two of them, incredulously. "You climbed over a barbed wire fence in the middle of the night, walked through a pasture, and then tipped over a sleeping cow?"

"Oh God, my stomach hurts." Regina guffawed and sunk lower in her seat. "Yeah, you know cow tipping."

"I canít say Iíve ever had the pleasure of doing that." Alex shook her head and plucked another cheese-laden nacho from the plate in front of her. "I bet that cow was pissed off!"

Jeff hooted and slapped the table with his hand. "Ah shit, you should have seen Regina run, when a bull came barreling down the hill, snorting and shaking its head. I swear it looked like something that got released from the gates of Hell itself!"

"As I remember, I managed to climb the fence and not leave the backseat of my pants and other parts that will remain unnamed, attached to the barbed wire," Regina snorted and started to laugh again.

Jeff sobered and shifted uncomfortably in his seat as he remembered having to explain the nasty cut he suffered as he scrambled frantically over the fence just in the nick of time. He could still see the large Black Angus Bull stomping its hooves and pawing the ground furiously at the indignity of having one of its mates toppled during his watch.

"Whose brilliant idea was this?" Alexís eyes glinted as she turned and regarded her partner expectantly.

Regina pointed across the table at her brother. "He dared me."

Alex laughed heartily, enjoying the rare glimpse into Reginaís youth. She had a hunch that the brother and sister were nothing less than two little terrors when they were younger.

"I couldnít sit down for a week," Jeff grumbled and threw a napkin back at his sister.

"Sit?" Regina squawked. "You could barely put on your underwear let alone walk for a week!"

"Thanks, Reg." Jeff shook his head ruefully. "Iíll be sure to remember some or your more dubious escapades before the weekend is out."

The laughter died down and Regina stood up from the booth. "Iíll be right back." She took an unbalanced step and grabbed the back of the booth to keep from stumbling. "Uh oh, I think I had too many of those." She pointed at the empty pitcher and made a rueful face.

Alex glanced up at her and touched her arm. "Are you okay?"

"Yup, just fine," Regina informed her cheerfully and then put her full attention to walking back to the restrooms.

"Sheís been nervous all week, anticipating what it will be like to have her whole family together."

Jeff leaned forward and looked over at Alex, his eyes boring into hers. "You know sheís the only one in my family whoís kept in touch with me all these years."

The doctor nodded her head soberly in understanding. "She told me about what happened with your parents." Alex watched as he fiddled with the napkin in front of him. "I canít imagine what it must have been like, having to leave home like that."

She marveled at how alike the Regina and her brother were. Between the physical similarities and their own idiosyncrasies, they might have passed for twins if they were closer in age.

"I donít know that I can ever forgive them for what they did." Jeff shrugged and tossed the napkin aside. "I think once I realized that I could survive without them, it was almost easier for me. I didnít have to worry about whether they would accept me or acknowledge my relationship with Darryl."

He stared at the doctor for a moment before he continued. "I made my own family, Alex. I hope that Regina can have that too, she doesnít need to be hurt again."

"Iíll take good care of her, Jeff." She knew he was playing the role of the protective big brother and surprisingly it didnít bother her.

"Take good care of who?" Regina dropped into the seat beside Alex and gave her a Cheshire grin.

"You." Alex draped an arm over her shoulder and glanced around at the thinning dinner crowd. "Speaking of that, we should get out of here so we can get some sleep."

"Yeah, so like maybe I donít wake up with a hangover tomorrow." Regina grumbled disconcertingly.

******

A short time later, back in their hotel room, Alex pulled on a pair of gray cotton boxer shorts and then slipped a tee shirt over her head. On the other side of the king size bed, her companion groaned audibly as she stood up and got her bearings.

The doctor shook her head and chuckled softly at the drunken sailor walk Regina seemed to have perfected as she shuffled into the bathroom. I think that last Margarita did you in, sweetheart.

She dug into her duffel bag, pulled out a small, plastic container, and popped the lid open. Shaking it, she dropped three pills into her hand, closed the bottle, and set it back into her bag.

Alex met Regina at the door of the bathroom and extended her open palm. "Here, this might help to ward off the evil hangover spirits."

The younger woman squinted and peered down at the pills. "Ah, a multi-vitamin and two ibuprofen. Youíre a lifesaver."

"Nah, just prepared." She dropped the pills into Reginaís open hand. "Believe me, Iíve been there enough times to know."

"Mm." Regina shook her head, feeling a little embarrassed that sheíd gotten drunk. "I guess I got carried away tonight. Sorry."

The doctor shrugged. "Donít apologize. You were having fun and you havenít seen your brother in a long time. No harm done."

Regina moved closer and slid her hand underneath Alexís tee shirt, grateful that her partner wasnít upset that she indulged a little more than she would normally have done. "I wish I didnít feel so yucky, because I know what Iíd like to do right now." Her fingers danced lightly over the silky skin of the taller womanís abdomen.

Alex squirmed and slipped away from the teasing fingers. "Whatís that saying? The spirit is willing but the body is weak." She captured the smaller womanís hand and wrapped her arm behind the Reginaís back. "Hey, drink some water so you can take those pills."

"No fair." Regina pushed her lower lip out in a pout and bumped Alex with her hips.

The brunette grinned and touched Reginaís nose with a finger. "Hurry up, and get into bed. Then weíll talk about whatís fair."

She pulled back the covers and stretched out on the clean sheets. A moment later, she felt the mattress shift as Regina crawled in next to her. "Come here," Alex growled in a husky voice. She slipped an arm underneath the blondeís waist and pulled Regina over on top of her.

Lying beneath her, Alex shifted so Reginaís hips were settled down snugly between her muscular legs. "You doing okay?"

"Yeah, just a little fuzzy." Regina folded her arms over Alexís chest and rested her chin on her hands. She gazed into Alexís blue eyes, reveling in the gentleness she saw there. "What did you think of my brother?"

She closed her eyes and smiled as gentle fingers brushed the golden bangs off her forehead.

Alex tilted her head as she considered her answer. "I think heís a good man. I get the sense he had to grow up quickly and thatís what you see when you look in his eyes." She slid her hands down over Reginaís shoulders and linked them behind the blondeís narrow waistline.

"Yeah," the blonde sighed quietly. "When he was young Jeff was always joking around, playing pranks on people and having a good time. I still see that part of him but heís changed too."

"You two sound like you were quite the pair growing up."

Regina ducked her head, hiding the blush that crept over her features and made her blonde eyebrows stand out more. "Iím sure Jeff will do his best to corrupt your image of me this weekend."

"I doubt that. He seems rather protective of you." Alex stroked the younger womanís back, smiling as she elicited a low moan from Regina.

"Oh, that feels wonderful." Regina shifted so she could rest her head on Alexís shoulder and draped a leg over the taller womanís thighs. "We both knew we were different growing up so, we spent a lot of time together. Neither one of us had a lot of friends at school. I think Michael was jealous of how close we were and felt left out a lot of the time."

"How much younger is Mike?"

"Heís three years younger than me and always wanted to tag along with us."

Alex nodded her head understanding a little of what Regina was trying to tell her. "Do you think he was resentful of your relationship with Jeff?"

"I think so." Regina looked up at her partner. "He never really got mad when Jeff got kicked out. I think he hoped we would get closer and that never really happened. I was so mad at my parents for what they did and I couldnít understand why Mike wasnít as upset as I was."

Alex let out a sigh and hugged Regina to her. "Your whole relationship with your family completely changed after that."

The blonde nodded in agreement. "I wonder what things would have been like if all that didnít happen," Regina replied sadly.

"I donít know Reg." Alex gazed down at her lover and realized the younger woman was dozing off in her arms. Maybe tomorrow youíll all get the chance to start over again. With a smile, she reached down, drew the covers up over both of them, and then closed her eyes, waiting for sleep to take her.


Chapter Fourteen

 

"Iím surprised Jeff didnít want to come with us," Regina remarked softly from the passenger seat of the Jeep. She watched the road curve to the right and shifted in her seat to accommodate the motion of the vehicle. "The driveway is the next right Alex," she informed her companion.

Regina folded her arms across her stomach and slumped a little lower in her seat as she felt her stomach respond to the nervous jitters that began when she woke up and had been intensifying ever since breakfast.

Alex glanced over at the blonde and shrugged as she turned the vehicle into the gravel driveway. "I think heís right. It might be a little overwhelming if we all showed up on your parentís doorstep at the same time."

The younger woman suddenly reached over and grasped Alexís arm. "Stop the car."

"What?"

"Stop the car."

The Jeep lurched to a stop and Alex stared incredulously at her partner. "Whatís wrong?"

"Nothing. Just come here." Regina reached up, curled one hand around Alexís neck, and pulled her closer.

The taller woman turned in her seat, reached down, and quickly shifted the Jeep into park.

Reginaís lips brushed the softness of the brunetteís mouth briefly and then lingered when Alex wrapped an arm around her and drew her closer. She slowly increased her pressure as she felt Alex relax and give in to the gentle probing and tasting.

A sigh escaped Alexís lips when her eyes fluttered open and she finally focused on the green eyes that were gazing back at her.

"May I ask what brought that on?"

"Thanks. I just needed to remember." She pulled back and brushed her fingers through Alexís bangs. "Iím scared," Regina admitted, fighting back tears.

"Do you want me to drive around for a little bit?" Alexís brow creased with concern.

"No." Regina shook her head and wiped tears from beneath her eyes. "Letís get this over with."

Alex parked the Jeep by the large, two-story barn. Her eyes roamed over the area as she studied the details. Off to the left, sat a white Cape Cod, with shutters that matched the brick red color of the barn.

The swirling wind carried the scent of horses in the air and she heard the squawking and clucking of chickens emanating from somewhere behind the barn. A large bay, flicked its ears at her from behind the fence as it munched contentedly on tender blades of grass.

"Is that the famous barbed wired fence?"

Regina looked over to where the doctor was pointing and made a rueful face. "That would be it." A curious look crossed her face and she turned to the taller woman. "Do you like horses?"

Alex studied the large animal for a moment. "Yeah, I guess so. I havenít been around any in years."

Encouraged, Regina smiled broadly and practically skipped over to the open barn door. She turned the corner and found the well-worn metal bucket that held a daily supply of green apples. Reaching in she retrieved several of the round, tart fruits and walked back across the driveway to where Alex was standing, waiting for her.

"Here." She tossed one of the fruits at the taller woman and strode over to the fence. Regina whistled to the horse. In response, it lifted its head and whipped its tail across its hindquarters, studying the two women with mild curiosity.

Regina snorted and shook her head. "You realize she assessing whether it will be worth her while to walk over to the fence or not."

Alex chuckled and leaned against a fence pole, resting her elbow on its rough surface as she watched Regina wave the apple out to the mare. "How old is she?"

"Eighteen." Regina glanced at her, a wistful smile crossing her face. "I remember the first time I rode her. She was so tall. All I could think was that it was a long way down to the ground. Ginger, come here girl. I know you want this."

The horse whickered softly and shook its head, then, trotted up to the fence and butted Regina in the chest with her head. "Oomph. Yeah, Iím glad to see you too, Ginger." She scratched the velvety skin over the horseís snout as it took the proffered apple and munched happily on it.

"Sheís beautiful," Alex said, admiring the red-brown color of the mareís coat. She held her apple out and was rewarded with a curious snuffling before Ginger quickly consumed it. A minute later, the horse finished off its third apple and then trotted back up the small hill with a self-satisfied snort.

Regina sighed and glanced up at her companion. "Iím glad youíre here with me."

"Me too." Alex smiled and laid a hand on Reginaís shoulder.

"Come on, we might as well go in. Iím sure my motherís wondering what weíre doing out here."

"How does she know weíre here?" Alex glanced across the driveway to the house that sat catty-corner to the other side of the barn.

"Believe me, sheís probably looked out the window a half a dozen times by now," Regina replied with a knowing expression on her face.

Their footsteps crunched on the gravel as together the two women walked across the driveway to the house. Alex fell a step behind Regina as they climbed the wooden steps of the front porch. Through one of the windows, Alex could make out the shapes of a wing back chair and a couch in the living room.

All right, Iíve got nothing to lose and everything to gain. Right? Alex mused to herself and softly blew out a breath as Regina opened the screen door and pushed the inside one open.

"Hello?" the blonde called out as she stepped through the front door.

"Regina?" She heard her motherís voice from the kitchen. "Iím in here."

The blonde glanced up at Alex and gave her a fleeting smile. Ok, worse thing s have happened in your life. This is not going to be that bad. Get over it, Reg. She shrugged out of her coat and hung it in the hall closet along with Alexís

With the taller woman behind her, Regina felt more confident walking into her motherís kitchen. Anxiously, she forced herself to stand by the table watching her mother stir something in a pot on the stove.

"Hi mom." She waited, holding her breath as her mother turned around, wiping her hands on a checkered dishtowel.

The smile that welcomed Regina faded into a mask of barely contained distaste as the brown eyes looked over at her companion.

"Mom, this is Alex," Regina swallowed and introduced her partner, hoping her voice didnít betray the nervousness she felt inside.

"Hi, Mrs. Kingston." Alex stepped forward and offered her hand to the woman. She could feel the womanís icy, cold gaze cut through her. Ok, she obviously thinks she just met her worst nightmare.

The gesture wasnít returned as Reginaís mom continued to wipe her hands with the towel and gave the taller woman a cursory once-over. "Hello, Alex," she replied curtly and turned back to the sink. "Regina can you get me the potatoes out of the pantry. I need to start cleaning them."

The blondeís shoulders stiffened in anger, and she walked over to the small area off to the side of the kitchen where she retrieved the mesh bag of potatoes for her mother. Still seething at her motherís obvious dislike, Regina set them on the counter and retreated to stand beside her partner.

"What time are Mike and Caroline coming?" she asked, making a feeble attempt at polite, small talk.

Her mother glanced up at the kitchen clock. It was early, only one oíclock in the afternoon. "They should be here around two."

Regina shifted nervously on her feet and glanced up at Alex. Blue eyes regarded her patiently, but she could see the edginess lurking there, behind the cool façade. Iím sorry, Alex. Maybe Jeff was right and I shouldnít have asked you to come up with me.

"Is Dad around?" Regina asked hopefully.

The sound of running water in the sink as her mother turned the faucet on almost drowned out the older womanís sigh. "He forgot to get the wine. He should be back in a little bit."

"Oh." Regina rolled her eyes at the comment. No, he was just smart enough not to be around for the initial onslaught. Smart man. "Iím going to show Alex around. Weíll be back."

Before her mother could respond, she grabbed Alexís arm, spinning the taller woman around and pulled her quickly out of the kitchen. "Do you think itís warmer out here? She looked up at Alex. "I think it is."

The brunette pressed her lips together. "Well, that wasnít too bad, Reg."

"As compared to what Alex?" Regina ground out through gritted teeth. "Iím sorry you had to experience that."

"Iíve dealt with much worse." The doctor shrugged, keeping her expression neutral as her emotions roiled beneath the surface. Mrs. Kingstonís reaction left Alex with no question about how the woman felt about her. Ok, so sheís a little intimidating; just remember the first time I had to tell a family their loved one died or the first trauma code I ran. Come on, Alex. She tried psyching herself up for the remainder of the visit. Itís all, relative. Besides, Iíve got news for you lady. Iím not going anywhere!

"Itís okay," Alex stated quietly. She knew Regina was nervous enough about this homecoming and didnít want to add to her worries. "What did you want to show me?"

With a hasty, glance back toward the kitchen, Regina grabbed Alexís hand and led her companion up the stairs.

Alex climbed the carpeted stairs, studying the pictures of Regina and her brother as children. She stopped on one of the steps acutely aware of two rectangular spots on the wall where the paint was less faded and knew without even asking that they were Jeffís pictures that were missing. The taller woman shook her head and joined Regina at her bedroom door.

"Hey," she whispered and let her hand rest on the blondeís shoulders.

Regina glanced up at Alex, feeling the warmth of the comforting weight on her shoulder. She was mildly surprised that her room was untouched since her last visit. "It looks like it did when I left last time."

"Did you think it wouldnít be?"

Regina shrugged and stepped through the threshold of the room. "I wasnít sure after what happened with Jeff."

The soft, pale blue walls still held her assorted plaques from high school and college. Most of them were scholastic awards but there were a few trophies interspersed between her books, on the wooden, built in shelves, from her days of playing softball. Off to the left, beneath a dormer, lay a double bed that was covered with a multi-colored, down-filled comforter.

Alex stood behind Regina with her hands tucked into her pants pockets as she studied the room with keen interest. "How does it feel?"

"Huh?" Regina blinked and looked up at her taller companion, coming out of her momentary daze of nostalgia. "Oh. I guess itís kind of weird, seeing all this stuff again. It brings back a lot of memories."

Alex stepped around Regina and examined one of the plaques. "I didnít know you used to write," she exclaimed in wonder.

"Yeah, when I was in high school, I used to love to write short stories," Regina replied with a slightly embarrassed look.

"I think thatís really great." The doctor beamed proudly at the younger woman. "I couldnít write to save my life. God, how I hated Creative Writing."

Green eyes glinted devilishly. "Mm, I seem to remember something about wood and metal shop being more to your taste."

"Yeah, I was your typical non-conformist. I used to drive my guidance counselor absolutely crazy with my choice of classes."

Regina snickered and poked Alex in her ribs with her fingers. "Somehow that doesnít surprise me."

The taller woman grabbed her hand and pulled Regina to her playfully. "Oh, it doesnít?" She wrapped an arm around Reginaís shoulders and squeezed the blonde full-length against her body. "Iíve got to get this in now, since itís going to be off limits later."

"I wish this wasnít so hard. Itís not fair." Regina sighed regretfully as she leaned against Alexís body. "If you wanted to leave right now, I wouldnít blame you."

There was a moment of silence as Alex considered Reginaís words, then, she turned the younger woman around and embraced her tightly. "No, I donít want to leave. I know this is important for you, Reg."

Outside they heard the slam of a car door followed quickly by another. Regina stepped out of Alexís arms and peered curiously out of her bedroom window.

"Mike and Caroline are here early." She watched as her sister-in-law reached into the back of the care and extracted their son from the child seat.

"Oh my God, Zachary got so big!" She cried out as she watched her nephew try and balance himself on the gravel driveway. He clutched at his motherís pants leg as he teetered on wobbly legs and then sat down with a surprised expression on his face. "Come on, letís go help them."

******

Alex followed Regina as she trotted down the stairs and out the front of the house. The blonde walked up to her sister-in-law and tapped on her right shoulder, then, deftly scooted over to her left side.

"Wha ... hey! Mike didnít tell me you were going to be here!" Andrea threw her arms around the mischievous woman and hugged her fiercely when she caught sight of her.

Regina glanced over at her brother in surprise. "Didnít Dad tell you he invited Jeff and I up for Momís birthday?"

"He might have mentioned it in passing," he mumbled, suddenly finding the color of his shoes more interesting than his wifeís fiery gaze.

"More likely, it got told to him while he was glued to some sports program on television," Caroline snapped irritably and shook her head in disgust.

"Hey, Regina." Mike walked over and stood in front of his older sister, holding a diaper bag and a backpack. He was a head taller than Regina and his hair was a light brown with a few gray hairs sprinkled along his temples.

"Hey, little brother." Regina rose up on her toes and gave him a perfunctory kiss on his cheek. "Did you really forget to tell her?" Regina whispered in his ear.

"Not you too, Reg," he groaned miserably.

Regina shrugged and motioned to the taller woman standing a few feet away. "Mike, this is Alex."

The doctor strode forward and shook Mikeís hand after he shouldered the backpack. "Nice to meet you, Mike."

"Hi, Alex." He eyed the dark-haired woman suspiciously, then, shook his head as his wife cleared her throat. "Iím going to go in and say hello to Mother," Mike grumbled, ruffling his sonís hair affectionately.

"Iím Caroline and this is Zachary," his wife chimed in cheerfully. "Donít mind him, Alex. Heís still trying to figure out how heís going to talk his way out of why he forgot to tell me you were all coming up here this weekend."

Regina knelt down and held out her hands to Zachary. "Look at you!"

The blonde-haired boy studied her and promptly plucked a small stone up from the driveway with his pudgy hands and started mouthing on it.

"Oh no, no, no, Zachary. Yuck." Regina gently extracted the stone from her nephewís mouth.

Caroline sighed and scooped her son up in her arms. "Ugh, everything goes into his mouth these days."

The boy laughed and flailed his arms, trying to squirm out of his motherís arms. Caroline shook her head and rolled her eyes as she struggled to hold onto him.

"He looks like heís a handful," Alex commented, as she stepped closer to Regina.

"Ha! You donít know the half of it. Here, hold him for me while I get his toys out of the car." She lifted the boy up and held him out to Alex.

Blue eyes widened in shock and Alex looked over at Regina for help. "Um, I ... Regina, why donít you take him?"

"Oh, go on he doesnít bite, at least not yet, anyway." Caroline winked at Regina after she had her son safely settled in the taller womanís arms.

Zachary stared wide-eyed at the tall, dark-haired woman and gurgled happily as she held him gingerly in her hands.

Caroline stood up and shoved the door closed with her hip. "Donít worry, you wonít break him, Alex," she teased jovially and walked ahead toward the house with an arm draped around Reginaís shoulder.

She leaned over toward the blonde and whispered conspiratorially. "Ooh, girlfriend. With looks like that, Alex might just get me to bat for the other team."

Regina inhaled sharply and felt the tips of her ears get hot. "I canít believe you just said that!"

Andrea snorted and let out a deep raucous laugh. "Donít worry, I wonít tease you too much."

She glanced back at her son who was snuggled up against Alex with his head resting on her shoulder. "That kid is such a flirt," she said, as Alex caught up to them at the top of the porch steps.

Regina looked up and squeezed Zacharyís leg. "Howís the weather up there champ?"

He gurgled his answer around his wet fingers. "Just fine, and so is the view, thank you very much," Alex answered for him, eliciting a giggle from Regina.

Regina held the door for Caroline and Alex to walk through and then followed, shivering from a gust of cold air.

"Whereís my sweet boy?" Mrs. Kingstonís voice floated through the air from the kitchen.

Reginaís mother stopped in the hallway. "Oh," she exclaimed, as she eyed the taller woman who was holding her grandson.

"Heís making new friends, Alice." Caroline smiled up at Alex and winked at the doctor.

Well, you certainly like to play with fire, Caroline, Alex mused. "Here, Iím sure you want to hold him." Alex stepped forward and held the one-year old out to Reginaís mom.

"Ah, come to Grandma, little man." She took hold of the boy, carefully avoiding having to touch Alexís hands.

Caroline turned to Regina. "So whereís Jeff? I thought you said he was coming."

"We ate dinner with him last night. I think he should be here shortly," Regina answered, acutely aware of her mother standing there listening to their conversation.

"So, Alex what do you do?" Caroline asked as she walked into the living room and flopped down onto a couch. "Youíll have to forgive me, but I donít get to sit too often with Zachary. Heís just starting to walk and heís into everything."

Alex followed the woman into the room and sat across from Caroline in a chair. "Iím a doctor."

"What kind?"

"Emergency Medicine."

Caroline leaned forward and smiled at Regina who walked in and stood beside Alex. "So how long have you two known each other?"

"We met last June," Regina told her, wondering how much her mother revealed to her sister-in-law about her relationship with Alex.

From the hallway, Reginaís mother cleared her throat loudly. "Oh finally, your fatherís back. Regina will you go help him?"

The blonde nodded and walked dutifully into the hallway, stopping as her mother grabbed her arm tightly before she walked out the door. "I will not have you talking about this ... whatever you call it, that you have with this woman in my house," her mother hissed.

Regina shook her arm free defiantly and glared at her mother. "Dad invited us here, Mom. If you have a problem with the conversation, talk to your daughter-in-law. Sheís just being polite, which is more than I can say for you, right now." She leaned forward and kissed the top of Zacharyís head. "Sorry, kiddo."

With that Regina walked outside and met her father by the car.

"You came out to help your old man. Huh?" he teased Regina as he handed her two bags of groceries.

"How are you, Dad?"

"Fine."

She peered into the bags and looked back at her father. "I thought you were just getting wine."

"I decided we needed a couple of things for you kids. Jeffís not here yet." He observed as he hefted a cardboard carton from the trunk and started to walk toward the house.

"Not yet, but heíll be here," she called over her shoulder.

"Good grief, Robert. How much wine did you buy?" Alice shifted Zachary in her arms and eyed the box her husband was carrying as he walked through the front entrance with Regina behind him carrying a large bag of groceries.

He shrugged and grinned sheepishly. "Six."

"Here, Mike. Take this." He held out the box to his son, trading the wine for his grandson. "Every time I see this little guy heís bigger."

"Hi, Robert." Caroline sauntered into the room, stroked her sonís head lovingly, and leaned in to kiss her father-in-law on the cheek.

A moment later, Alex walked into the hallway and joined Regina by the door. She didnít miss the furtive glance that passed between her companionís parents.

Robert maintained his composure and turned toward the taller woman. "Oh, hello, Alex. Iíd say you made a good recovery since the last time we met."

"Thanks, Mr. Kingston. I have."

"What happened?" Caroline studied Alex curiously.

"Itís a long story," Regina looked away from her sister-in-law.

Alex leaned closer to the blonde and spoke softly into her ear. "Is that Jeff who just drove up?"

"Oh, yeah it is. Iíll go meet him so he doesnít feel like heís on display." She took a breath and squared her shoulders back before she walked out of the house, leaving Alex to her own devices. She wasnít concerned, knowing her stalwart friend was more than capable of handling herself among her family members.

The amiable chatter faded to an uncomfortable silence as one by one the family realized who Regina had gone out to meet.

Interesting, Alex mused as she watched everyoneís reactions from the corner of the hallway. I wonder if Jeff realizes just how nervous they all are at the moment. He probably doesnít, poor guy.

Alice promptly retreated to the kitchen, while Michael followed carrying the case of wine.

Mr. Kingston handed his grandson back to Caroline and watched through the glass door, observing as his two oldest children strode back toward the house with their arms linked affectionately.

"I havenít seen my son in over seventeen years. Iím not quite sure what to say to him." He rubbed his hands together and glanced over at Alex.

"Welcome home might be a good start."

 


Chapter Fifteen

 

"What took you so long to get here?" Regina demanded, as she trotted across her parentís gravel driveway to Jeffís rental car. Remnants of the autumnís fallen leaves skittered over the frozen ground as a cold wind swirled around them. She slid her hand through her brotherís arm and huddled close to ward off the cold breeze that penetrated her thin, cotton shirt.

"I just drove around town, trying to figure out if I really wanted to come here or not." Jeff jammed his free hand into his coat pocket as he walked alongside her. He looked up at the house and sighed. "Is everybody here already?"

"Yes." Regina glanced over at her brother, hearing the nervous rasp in his voice.

"Crap, I need a drink." He ducked his head sorrowfully. "Do you think Mom really threw all my stuff out, Reg?"

Regina brought a hand up and ran her hand through her hair. "I donít know. Jeff, everything will be fine. Just remember, Dad asked you to come here. That should mean something." Regina squeezed her brotherís hand and then let him go as they approached the house.

"Yeah, but what?" Jeff trudged sullenly up the porch steps, then, turned around to look back down the steps at Regina. "Should, is the operative word, Reg."

"Jeff, maybe he just wants us to be a family again?"

"Ah, come on, after everything that happened how can you say that? Take the rose-colored glasses off, Regina." Jeff opened the storm door and swept his arm out in front of him. "After you."

Regina offered her father a hesitant smile as she stepped into the house and walked past him. She touched Alexís arm and guided her out of the hallway. "Letís give them some time alone."

Alex brought her lips close to Reginaís ear. "Howís Jeff?"

"Heís a nervous wreck and suspicious as hell. He can never take anything at face value. I guess thatís why he makes such a good lawyer." Regina walked through the living room and led the way into a small den. The room was lined on two walls with bookshelves that were overflowing with books.

Alex watched Regina lower herself into an overstuffed, leather chair.

The blonde glanced up at her companion and offered her a half smile. "This is my fatherís favorite chair to read in," Regina commented absently.

The taller woman tilted her head and folded her arms over her chest as she observed the emotional strain showing on Reginaís face. "How are you holding up?"

The younger woman ran a hand through her hair and pushed several renegade strands behind an ear. "Eh, got any Valium I can take?"

Alex snorted and let her arms drop to her side. "Nope, only the Haldol I need to keep my alter ego in check."

Regina frowned and then buried her head in her hands as a heated flush crept up her neck. "Oh Lord, I did tell you that didnít I?"

A low chuckle emanated from deep inside Alexís chest. "Yes, you most certainly did, my friend."

Alex crossed the room to where Regina was sitting and leaned against the arm of the chair. She cast a wary glance out to the hallway before she stroked the blondeís face and let her fingers slide down to affectionately scratch the nape of her neck. "I knew I met my match that day."

The blonde leaned into the caress and closed her eyes, awash in the security of the loving touch. "Can we just stay here, away from everyone else for the rest of the weekend?"

"Iíd love to Regina, but I donít think that would go over to well with the rest of your family." Alex tilted the blondeís neck back and placed a feather light kiss on Reginaís lips.

"That was a nice kiss," she murmured into Alexís shoulder. With a sigh, Regina peered up into gray blue irises that steadily returned her gaze.

"Just nice?" The brunette nuzzled Reginaís neck, inhaling the warm scent of her perfume. Oh you are so bad, Alex chided herself as a thrill of danger coursed through her. Knock it off. She doesnít need her family walking in here with you hanging all over her.

"You know what I mean." Regina poked her playfully in the ribs.

"Uh oh, I think I hear your brother." Alex lifted her head and listened as Jeffís voice got louder, and then faded away only to be replaced with his brotherís a moment later.

Regina stiffened when she heard the angry voices coming from across the hallway. "Damn, I can hear Mike and Dad arguing." She stood up from the chair and shook her head. "Let me go talk to them so this doesnít get any worse."

******

"So, you actually made it. I wasnít sure you were going to." Robert eyed his son warily, realizing that a lifetime of betrayal, missed opportunities, and bitter memories stood between the two of them.

The early afternoon sunshine coming in through a window cast their long, narrow shadows along the floor and halfway up the side of the wall.

Jeff shrugged out of his coat and draped it casually over his arm as he spoke. "I probably wouldnít have bothered if Regina didnít come."

"I kind of figured that." His father stepped forward and reached out for the garment. "Here. Let me take your jacket, son."

"I can do it." Jeff deftly avoided his fatherís hand and walked to the closet, where he deposited his coat on a hanger. "See, after seventeen years I still remember where things are in this house. Surprised?"

"No." Robert ignored the insolent remark. "Your motherís in the kitchen."

"Christ, give me a few minutes before you throw me to the wolves." Jeff turned around and glared angrily at his father.

"Watch your mouth, Jeff," his father warned him. "No matter what you think, your mother still cares about you."

"I donít get it." Jeff waved his arms out in front of him. "Why after all these years, did you invite me out me here, Dad?"

Robertís jaw worked several times before he finally uttered a word. "Sixteen years is a long time. How long do we have to wait to be a family again?"

Jeff turned away with his arms folded tightly over his chest, his brow furrowed in aggravation.

"I put the wine in the ... refrigerator." Michael walked out of the kitchen and stopped in his tracks when he saw his older brother standing in the hallway. "Oh, I didnít know you were here already."

Without a word, Jeff walked into the dining room, refusing to answer his brother. Son of a bitch! He focused on the room, noticing that his parents had it repainted since ... it seems like forever, Jeff thought.

His motherís china cabinet still sat against the back wall of the house and the liquor cabinet was right where he remembered it, in the corner next to the bay window. If Mom only knew how many times we raided their liquor supply, he mused.

Jeff walked around the oval table, counting seven place settings. Well, I guess they really did plan on me coming out here. He opened the liquor cabinet. "Do you want one?" He lifted a bottle of Scotch toward his father, sloshing the liquid in the half-filled bottle.

"No thanks."

"Suit yourself." Jeff shrugged and pointedly ignored his brother. He poured the tawny colored liquor into a glass tumbler. "You didnít want me to be part of the family sixteen years ago." He took a swig of the alcohol and grimaced as it burned its way down his throat. "Iím still gay. So what changed your mind?"

"Bloody hell if I know. As far as Iím concerned you could have stayed gone!" Michael growled at Jeff from the hallway.

"Michael, enough!" his father snapped at him.

"Donít hold back, Michael." Jeff returned his brotherís fiery stare. "Tell us how you really feel about me."

Michael looked away and shoved his hand in his pockets. "You know, I really didnít think you were serious about this, Dad."

"I see you havenít changed much. Nice to see you too, Mikey," Jeff retorted and tossed back another swallow of Scotch before he stalked out of the dining room.

Robert glanced down at the hardwood floor and sighed. Well, I guess that answers how they would get along. "Michael, please donít make this weekend any harder than itís going to be."

"Youíre the one who decided to ask him to come home, not me!" Michael snapped. "We could have had a nice quiet dinner to celebrate Momís birthday, but no, you had to go and invite them all back."

"Donít you think weíve all suffered enough?" Robert spread his arms wide and implored his son to be reasonable.

Michael threw his arms up and then jabbed a finger at his fatherís chest. "Donít you dare blame me for what happened!"

"Nobody is blaming you. How can you say that?"

"Jeff was always your favorite. You couldnít stand it when you found out he was a queer."

"Michael, your mother and I did what we thought was best for the family." Robert turned his back to his son and stared out the window with a forlorn expression on his face. Maybe this wasnít such a good idea after all.

"Go ahead. Turn your back and pretend Iím not here. Thatís what you did to me after Mom threw Jeff out. Thatís why I know you blame me, you bastard!"

Caroline walked into the room, carrying Zachary in her arms. "Hey, you woke the baby."

The boyís face was burrowed in his motherís chest and loud sobs hiccupped from him.

"Whatís all the shouting about in here?" She wiped the tears from her sonís face, then, looked at her husband and raised a questioning eyebrow.

Michael rubbed his forehead in agitation. "Nothing hon, just an old disagreement." He walked over and lifted his son from his wifeís arms. "Sorry, Tiger." He turned away from his father. "Are you coming, Caroline?"

"Yeah, Iíll be right there. Your mom needs help in the kitchen with the roast, Michael." With a worried expression on her face, she watched her husband leave the room and then turned to her father-in-law. "Robert, is everything okay?"

"Everythingís fine, Caroline." Robert swallowed and looked away as the echo of ancient memories that haunted his soul.

******

"Alice, what are you yelling about?" Robert looked up from reading a book as his wife stormed into his office.

"Your son! Do you have any idea what he was doing out in the barn?"

"Which one Mike or Jeff?" Robert pulled his glasses off his face and frowned at his wife. He knew it had to be something bad, her nostrils were flaring with every breath, and her face was beet red.

"Michael just told me, he saw ... " Aliceís face paled and she took several gulping breaths. "He just saw Jeff in the barn with another man."

"Oh, Tom? Theyíre cleaning out the horse stalls for me."

"Robert, how can you be so blind? They were, oh God." She clutched her hand over her mouth and shook her head. "Get him out of here! Get him out of here, now!"

"Alice! Get a hold of yourself. What are you talking about?" Robert stood up and glanced out the window at the wooden structure across the driveway.

"They were doing things to each other."

"No! Jeff? No way." Robert threw his book down in the chair behind him and walked hurriedly out of the room. "Michael?"

At the front door, he looked toward the barn and in that instant his world stopped. There in the driveway, he saw Jeff desperately gripping one of Michaelís arms. The smaller boy was flailing his limbs trying to scramble away from him.

He opened the door and stepped out onto the porch. "Jeffrey!"

Michael broke loose from his brotherís grasp as Jeff snapped to attention and stared helplessly at his father. Jeffís usually neat attire was hopelessly rumpled and what Robert saw in his sonís eyes, damned him more.

"Dad, please."

Michael screamed something at Jeff, ran past his father into the house, and raced up the stairs.

Robert cringed as he heard the bedroom door slam from an open window. "What did you do, Jeff?"

"Dad." It sounded more like a moan from a wounded animal.

"Look at me, son. What were you doing in the barn?"

Jeff staggered toward him and glanced anxiously up at his brother as he opened the window and hung his head out. "Please, Dad. Donít listen to Michael."

"Jeffís a faggot!" Michael screamed at the top of his lungs from his bedroom window.

******

After many bitter arguments, he relented and finally gave into his wife. He could still hear his wifeís angry voice ringing in his ears. "What kind of an influence is he going to be on Regina and Michael? Do you want them exposed to that lifestyle?"

He did after all have two other children to worry about and they lived in a small town, where everyone knew everybody elseís business. He convinced himself that they had made the right decision, but as time passed and he watched Regina withdraw from the family and Michael get involved with the wrong group of kids at school he regretted the decision more and more.

Looking back now over a decade later, he wondered how his family might have been different if Jeff was allowed to stay.

******

Jeff wandered down the hallway toward the kitchen. Behind him he heard Michaelís angry voice as he argued about something with his father. Crap! Why did I bother to come here?

He snapped his head around when he heard his motherís voice from the kitchen.

"Caroline, can you help me with this?"

Silently, he cursed his cowardice. He dreaded this meeting with his mother ever since his father called him a month ago. What the hell do I say?

He took half a step toward the front door and stopped as he felt a surge of anger. No, dammit! You chased me out of the house once; Iím not going to let you do it to me again.

Jeff swallowed nervously, as the short walk to the kitchen felt it took like forever. He saw her from the doorway and stopped, absorbing the image of the woman who stood before him. She seemed smaller and less imposing than he remembered but all the same his heart still raced in his chest.

Her silvery hair was shorter and hung limply about the base of her neck as she bent over the open door of the oven. She struggled with the large roasting pan as she pulled it out and for a moment it teetered precariously in her arthritic hands.

"Caroline can you help me with this?" Her voice wavered as she struggled to control the weight of the pan as she lifted it from the oven rack.

"I got it." Jeff walked over, slid his hands around the potholders, and took the pan from his mother. Gingerly, he set it on the stove and then quickly stepped back away from her. "Hello, mother."

The emotions that crossed her face when she looked up at him were unreadable. The silence between them stretched on interminably.

"Itís you," she finally uttered, her face paling as she leaned heavily against the counter.

Jeff struggled between going to her and the memory of her outright rejection of him as her son so many years ago.

******

"Mom, why canít you understand? I love him," Jeff pleaded.

"Love! Youíre seventeen. What do you know about love?" She walked away unable to look at her son and reconcile the vile images she had been torturing herself with since she learned the truth about him. She stopped at a closet door, pulled out a broom, and carefully started to sweep the floor at her feet.

"I know that itís the best feeling Iíve ever known." Jeff followed her down the hallway. He stopped short when she whirled around and shouted at him.

"Why canít you just be normal?" She shook a finger at him angrily. "Itís unnatural!"

"This is the most natural thing Iíve done."

She turned away and continued her sweeping. "Just go. I donít want to talk about this anymore."

******

The moment passed and his mother turned away to pull a platter out of a cabinet.

"Your father said he called you."

Jeff couldnít help feeling defensive, wondering, if his mother wished he hadnít shown his face here today. "He asked me to be here."

"I know." She nodded in response as she went about the task of lifting the roast out of the pan. "You came alone," she commented quietly.

"I barely got myself here. Why would I want to subject Darryl to this?"

"Regina brought her friend with her."

He watched her shoulders stiffen at the remark and cringed at the harshness of her voice.

Jeff laughed and shook his head. "Thatís how Regina is, Mom." She was always braver than I was.

"Darryl?" She glanced briefly over her shoulder at her son. "I thought that boyís name was Tom."

Jeff leaned against the wall and closed his eyes. Iím surprised you even remember his name. "It was. Tom died ten years ago."

"Died? She finally turned and studied the young man standing in front of her. "He was so ... young."

He saw the questions reflected back in her eyes and folded his arms. "Tom liked to live fast." ĎDie young and leave a good-looking corpse.í It was Tomís favorite come back whenever I asked him to stop using drugs and frequenting the baths.

"I ... Iím sorry," she struggled to get the words out. "What happened to him?"

Jeff shrugged. You didnít want to know about my life then, why should I allow you to have those pieces back now? "Itís a long story."

"I donít mind."

With a sigh, Jeff spoke the words quickly, afraid that if he didnít blurt them out he never would. "Tom was diagnosed with HIV a few years after we met."

His motherís expression sobered as a heavy weight of uneasiness settled in her chest. Her voice trembled. "Jeff, before you say anything else, please, tell me youíre not positive."

Hazel eyes blinked and he stared down at the floor. "I wasnít the last time I got tested."

His mother choked back a sob of relief and covered her mouth with a hand. "Iím sorry," she whispered and turned away from him. Still reeling from what he told her a moment ago, she clutched the edge of the sink with her hands.

Jeff stood at the table unable to approach her. What are you sorry about? You werenít there. "Tom didnít die of AIDS Mom. He took an overdose of drugs so he wouldnít end up like some of his friends did."

"He killed himself?" Alice wiped her eyes and blew her nose loudly before she faced him again.

"We talked about it as he got sicker. It was what he wanted." Jeff glanced over at the hallway as Regina appeared in the doorway.

"Hi." She looked questioningly between her brother and mother. "Are you okay?"

Jeff blew out a breath and shrugged. "I was telling her about Tom."

"Oh." Regina stepped hesitantly into the kitchen and walked up beside her brother. She wrapped an arm around his waist and squeezed him affectionately.

"Did you know about him?" Alice looked at her daughter, realizing now, as she watched her two oldest children how little she knew about their lives.

Regina nodded her head. "I flew out to California for the funeral."

Their mother sighed heavily, her gaze somber as she regarded them. "I donít pretend to understand your choice of lifestyles."

She wasnít sure she could ever accept it. At moments when she least expected it, the words, ĎIím gayí, still crushed her. Her own hypocrisy haunted her, knowing she had become in one moment of all-consuming and powerfully destructive rage, Ďone of those peopleí who ostracized and condemned her own son.

By the time the magnitude of what she did finally broke through her ironclad defenses it was too late. The one time she spoke to Jeff on the phone it quickly spiraled down into an exchange of heated and angry words. The words ĎI hate you!í followed by the dial tone of the phone, still woke her in the middle of the night.

"Itís not a choice, Mom," Jeff quickly protested.

His mother held a hand up. "Iím not going to debate what it is or is not. I just ... I went through life believing that things would always be a certain way. I learned the hard way that theyíre not."

"Mom," Regina whispered. She dropped her arms to her sides and gnawed on her lower lip as she watched the anguish in the older womanís eyes.

"Donít you think that if you werenít ... gay that you would be happier?" their mother stammered as she wrung her hands together, still keeping her distance from them. "Both of you?" She looked desperately between the two of them.

"No. Iíd be miserable if I tried to act straight. Besides, if I did do that, Iíd be lying to everyone, including myself." Jeff glanced anxiously at Regina. Feel free to jump in at any time, Sis.

"You didnít teach us to be that way, Mom."

"I sent you away." She looked at her son and her lower lip started to quiver slightly.

Jeff ran his hands through his hair and looked away from her. He couldnít bear to see his mother cry. "I told you to fuck off and die." His eyes met Reginaís and he swallowed nervously. "No, donít you dare cry."

The blonde shook her head and covered her mouth with the back of her hand. "Too late."

"Damn you, Regina." Jeff acted on impulse and put his arms around his sister. They held on to each other not saying anything. He turned his head and stared at his mother through his own tears, then, slowly, he reached an arm out to her.

"Iíve missed you," she whispered as she walked toward them and wrapped her arms around her children.

Regina sagged into the embrace when she felt Jeffís shoulders shudder as he let out a long held sob.


Chapter Sixteen

Regina stepped back out of her brotherís arms, content to let him stand there in their motherís embrace. It had been so long, she started to believe that she would never see the day her brother would come home and be part of the family again. Not, that things would be normal after this brief interaction; there was so much damage that had to be undone from all the years of separation.

She watched as Jeff pulled out of his motherís arms and cleared his throat, obviously uncomfortable with the parental display of affection that had been absent from his life for so many years. "Um, isnít there something you have to do with the roast before we eat? I already hear Reginaís stomach growling." He flashed an evil grin at his sister who smacked him in the arm in return.

Even after being apart for so long it was easy for them to fall back into their old habits of teasing each other mercilessly.

Alice sniffed and looked over at the counter. "I need to make the gravy. Regina tell your father to come help me in here."

In that single moment, the rare glimpse of the woman who her mother truly was slipped away. Her emotions efficiently reigned in and back under control.

Regina felt that if she breathed or blinked she would wake up and what she just experienced would be the quickly fading tendrils of a dream. Something she couldnít grasp or hold onto to prove to herself that it was real. She wasnít sure what she expected to happen but somehow this wasnít exactly it.

Quietly, she left the kitchen and went in search of her father. I should be really happy that Mom was finally willing to have Jeff come home. So why do I feel this way?

"Dad?" She found him standing in the living room with a glass of scotch in his hand.

He cleared his throat before he answered her in a gravelly voice. "What?"

"Mom wanted you to come into the kitchen and help her."

He nodded and set his unfinished drink down on the bar. "I guess weíll be eating soon. See if you can find Michael. Iím not sure where he went off to."

Regina sighed as her father walked out of the room. "Michael can find himself," she muttered irritably. She found herself suddenly miffed with him. Why didnít he tell Caroline we were going to be here? What is that all about?

She felt someone watching her and raised her eyes to look out into the hallway. Alex was standing in the foyer with both hands tucked into the pockets of her denim jeans. There was concern etched in those incandescent, blue eyes as they studied Regina intently.

For all they had been through over the past few months, it was simple moments like this when Regina would find herself tumbling deeper in love with this woman.

Questioning eyebrows arched beneath dark bangs and the taller woman tilted her head slightly in response to the quiet smile that graced Reginaís features. "Whatís happening?"

Regina had to shove her hands into her pockets to keep herself from wrapping her arms around Alex and indulging in a desperately needed hug. Her soul craved the contact but for now she let the gentle, reassuring voice fill the void.

"Everything and nothing." Regina tucked several strands of flaxen hair behind her ear, an unconscious gesture of her nervousness. "I think dinner is almost ready."

Alex stepped closer, watching the conflicting emotions warring in Reginaís eyes. She heard the angry voices before Regina left her fatherís study and wondered what battle lines were being drawn between the family members.

"Regina?" Her motherís voice coming from the kitchen broke the quiet reverie they shared.

"Yeah, Mom?" Reginaís eyes glanced nervously towards the kitchen.

"Come help Caroline carry these dishes out to the table."

"Be right there." Quickly, she stepped closer to Alex, took hold of her hand, and squeezed it. "Thank you for being here."

"Your welcome," the taller woman whispered back and brought the blondeís hand to her mouth, briefly brushing her lips against the soft skin before she let her go.

******

Regina and her sister-in-law brought out the garlic, mashed potatoes and green beans while Jeff uncorked two bottles of wine in the kitchen.

"Here, Alex." Jeff walked over and held out a bottle of red wine for the brunette to take. "Sit by me an I promise to keep your glass full all night."

Alex gave him a wry, sidelong glance and shook her head. "Who drinks red wine?"

"Dad and Mike do." Regina took the bottle of white wine from her brother and started to fill the wine glasses on the table.

"So is it really going that badly?" Alex tilted her head closer to Jeff as she poured the burgundy liquid into the two remaining glasses on the table.

He caught sight of his younger brother walking toward them, carrying Zachary in his arms. "Letís just say Mike would be just as happy if I fell off the face of the earth and died."

"Actually, it would have been fine if youíd stayed in California." Michael sauntered past his older brother and handed Zachary to his wife. He continued past her, pulled a highchair out of the corner, and set it down at the corner of the table.

Caroline set her mouth in a straight line of disapproval. "Michael itís your motherís birthday. Canít you set your feelings aside for one day?" She settled Zachary into his seat and buckled him in. She lowered herself into a chair next to where Alex was standing on the other side of the table.

With a frown, her husband walked over to where Alex was standing and gave her an expectant look.

"Alex stay there. Michael you can sit across from me," she spoke firmly, without looking up at her husband.

Alex traded surprised glances with Regina as Michael walked stiffly to the other side of the table and pulled the chair out to sit down. The blonde shrugged her shoulders slightly when Alex continued to hold her gaze.

"It might be nice if you sat with your brother and sister since they are here." Carolineís eyes bore steadily into his.

Michael started to retort but fell silent when Reginaís father carried the platter of meat into the dining room and set it in the middle of the table.

As if on cue, Zachary pounded his fists on the plastic tray in front of him and pointed at the food on the table.

"Spoken like a true Kingston," Jeff replied. It broke the tension in the room and even elicited a chuckle from his younger brother.

"Does mom need anymore help?" Regina offered quietly, stepping away from the table.

"No, sheíll be right here."

Jeff grabbed her sleeve and nudged his sister forward so that she was seated across from Alex and next to Michael. "I am not sitting next to him," he hissed fervently when Regina frowned up at him.

"Does everyone ... have everything they need?" Alice walked into the room and hesitated as she took in the seating arrangements.

"Sit down, Mom. Youíve done enough already. Itís your birthday," Michael urged her.

"Nonsense. You know I like to cook," she responded, sitting at the head of the table across from her husband. Hesitantly, she let her gaze settle on her three children and took a deep breath before she spoke. "Well, Iím not sure I ever believed I would see all three of my children back home again."

Michael gave his father a dark, sidelong glance before he stared back down at his plate. "I donít think any of us did, Mom."

Mercifully, the conversation faded as everyone filled their plates and began to eat. Only Zachary babbled on in blissful ignorance of the uneasiness in the room.

"So, Alex, do you watch any of those television shows about trauma or that one called ER?" Jeffrey asked in between mouthfuls of food.

The brunette swallowed and shook her head. "Not usually."

"How come?"

"Theyíre not entertaining to me." She sipped some wine and set her glass back down on the table.

She knew Jeff was trying to break the icy chill that seemed to have settled over the room and willingly obliged him in his efforts. "I see these people on the screen and my brain automatically starts to think about whatís wrong with them, the course of treatment and what is going to happen to them. Whether theyíll live or die." She gave him a wry smile. "I do that all day. I donít want to have to worry about it when I go home."

"I didnít think about that way."

Michael cleared his throat and looked at his sister. "So Regina, what happened with Derrick? Last I heard he was going to propose to you."

Regina almost spewed out the wine she just sipped from her glass and set her fork down on her plate. "Well, now thatís a quick way to kill my appetite, Michael. Thank you."

"Didnít you say Derrick was going to ask her to marry him, Dad?" Her brother leaned forward and looked at their father.

"Michael, stop it." His father glared at him from the head of the table.

"Christ, would you have more couth, Mike?" Caroline hissed from across the table.

"What? I just want to know what happened." He shrugged and looked at her with a hurt expression on his face.

Iím so glad you all knew his intentions before I did. Regina glanced over at Alex who fixed her steely gaze on the blondeís younger brother. "Derrick was a mistake," she stated.

"What do you mean a mistake?" Michael turned and put his hand on the back of her chair.

Reginaís father shook his head and stood up from the table. "Does anyone want more wine?"

Regina heard her mother sigh from her end of the table before she spoke firmly, trying to get him to back down. "Michael, I donít want to get into this now."

Michael started to protest and then jerked in his chair. "Hey! What did you do that for?" He glared at his wife and reached down to rub his smarting shin.

"I canít believe youíre behaving this way," Caroline stood up and unbuckled Zachary from his highchair.

"Where are you going?"

"He needs his diaper changed. I donít suppose you would want to help. Would you?"

Regina took advantage of the opportunity, shoved her chair back, and quickly stood up. "Iíll go with you."

Caroline laughed. "Oh good, Iíll pawn the job off on you or maybe, Alex." She smirked and bit back another snort as the brunette coughed loudly and stared up at her in unabashed horror.

Michael rolled his eyes and sighed. "I donít understand why women are so enthralled with this."

Regina smacked Michael in the arm. "Bite your tongue or Iíll tell Caroline how many times you woke up with a -"

She didnít get a chance to finish the sentence as her brotherís hand clamped over her mouth. "Donít you dare!"

Regina disengaged herself from her brother and stuck her tongue out at him. "You forget, I used to change your diaper."

Caroline smirked and then nudged Alex. "Come up with us."

Iím not getting out of this. Alex wiped her mouth with her napkin and shrugged as she looked across the table at Jeff. "Guess Iíll be back in a few minutes."

"No you wonít," Jeff sulked, knowing he was losing his one ally at the table.

"Lovely." Mike grumbled, as he watched the brunette saunter out of the room. "My son is up there with a couple of Lesbians."

"Michael, one of them happens to be your sister or doesnít that count for anything?" Jeff snapped.

"Caroline doesnít have a problem with it, but if it was just my decision I wouldnít have them near him."

"God, you are such a bigoted pig!"

Alice looked at her son gravely. "Michael, it would suit you well to display some more temperance around your brother and sister."

With a look of irritation, her youngest son slumped back against his chair. "How can you say that after all the pain Regina and Jeff caused you?"

Jeff poured himself another glass of wine and drained half the glass in one swallow. Oh and I guess you never did anything to disappoint them! Did you?

With a thoughtful expression on her face, Alice rested her forearms on the table. "Zachary is barely a year old. Right now, heís your ultimate joy and heíll be the source of your greatest pain during your life, but you wonít ever stop loving him; no matter what he does."

There was silence for a moment, followed by the sound of a chair scraping back on the hardwood floor. Aliceís eyes followed her eldest son as he abruptly stood up, grabbed the bottle of wine, and hastily retreated from the dining room.

After a moment she stood up and sighed. "One day youíll understand that, Michael. Hopefully, long before I did."

*******

Regina giggled as she stumbled up the stairs behind Caroline. "Oh, I think the wine went straight to my head."

Alex snorted and reached out a hand from behind to steady her lover. "Youíre a little, lightweight arenít you?" She straightened a picture the blonde had accidentally nudged out of place on her way up the stairs.

"I am not!" Regina declared as she turned around on the step and stared at Alex indignantly. "Actually, I think Iím just glad as hell to be out of that room," she continued in a softer voice as blue eyes widened slightly.

You can say that again. "Ditto," Alex whispered back.

She welcomed the brief respite from the turmoil that was brewing between Reginaís family members. Even though she knew Regina was quite capable of handling her brother, it still took a considerable amount of effort on her part not to reach across the table and smack Michael across the face for his obnoxious comments.

"Well, I have a rule," Caroline announced as she reached the top of the stairs with Zachary curled up in her arms.

"Rule?" Alex looked up at Reginaís sister-in-law. "Donít you know rules are made to be broken?"

"Not this one." A smirk crossed Carolineís face.

Alex arched one eyebrow and pursed her lips. "Why do I know that Iím not going to like this?"

"Regina youíre not changing Zacharyís diaper."

"B ... but, hey!" the blonde complained loudly.

"I think Alex should do the honors." Caroline leaned against the wall and smiled cheekily at the taller woman.

"Oh no!" Alex pivoted and started back down the steps only to be grabbed from behind by Regina. "Youíre the pediatrician, not me," the brunette protested loudly.

"Whatís wrong, are you afraid of a little baby?" Regina teased her.

"Regina Kingston, you are in so much trouble." Alex twisted around to face her. " Do you know how long itís been since Iíve changed an infantís diaper? Itíll probably end up around the kidís neck!"

"Too bad." Regina leaned forward and kissed the tip of Alexís nose. "This, I have to see."

Alex tried one last ditch effort to plead for mercy. "Caroline, sheís not drunk. Honest. Besides, I do not do children."

"Well now, no time like the present to learn, is there doc?"

"Shit," Alex muttered in defeat as Caroline disappeared around the corner. With a resigned sigh, she trudged up the stairs, letting out a startled grunt as Regina smacked her playfully on her buttocks.

"Watch it." She turned and wagged a finger at the blonde.

"Oh, I am," Regina retorted and winked saucily at her.

Good thing your mother isnít around. You might just give her a heart attack, Reg. Alex smacked her forehead in mock exasperation before she trotted up the remaining stairs to escape Reginaís wandering hands.

She stopped short just inside the doorway to Reginaís bedroom as Caroline held a diaper up in front of her. Alex stepped back and then stopped as two hands pressed firmly against the small of her back.

With a groan, Alex stepped into the room and looked dubiously at the blonde haired boy sitting cross-legged on the floor.

Ten minutes later, Alex sat sprawled on the carpeted floor of Reginaís bedroom with both her long, muscular legs stretched leisurely out in front of her. A self-satisfied smile graced her features.

"I canít believe you did that!" Regina complained as she worked to undo the buttons on her shirt.

"Hey, youíre the one who leaned over when I was changing him." Alexís blue eyes twinkled while she watched her partner strip off her cotton shirt and then tug a green sweatshirt over her head. I am in so much trouble, but I have to admit, it was pretty funny. She failed miserably, trying to stifle a snicker.

Regina turned and glared at Alex with her hands firmly planted on her hips. "Not one word, either of you."

Unable to resist the temptation, Alex gave Regina her most innocent look and gestured at herself. "What did I do?"

The blonde snatched a pillow from her bed and threw it across the room at Alex who deflected it easily. "Brat!"

Caroline cackled as she lay on her back on Reginaís bed, with both knees bent and Zachary perched, in his freshly changed diaper, on her lap. "Guess she forgot about what cold air does to little boys. Right, Zachary?"

In response, he raised both of his hands over his head and squealed in delight when his mother tickled his stomach.

Caroline looked at both of them and sighed. "Iím sorry Michael is being such a schmuck to both of you."

Regina waved her off and sat down on the floor next to Alex. "You shouldnít be the one apologizing, Caroline. Heís known most of his life that Jeff and I were different. I guess I never realized how much of a problem he still has with us."

Her sister-in-law shrugged, her expression sobering. "Honestly, Regina, and I hate to say this because I love him to death. I think heís afraid that if your parents accept Jeff back heís going to lose the relationship heís had with them."

"Thatís insane. Why would he think that?"

Caroline crossed her legs and tilted her head back. "Regina you havenít been home since you went to college. Michael never left. We got married two years after he graduated high school. Heís had your parents to himself all these years."

"Doesnít he understand that after this weekend Jeff will go back to California? How much can change if heís all the way on the other side of the country?"

Caroline rolled onto her side and cradled her son in the crook of her arm as she slipped off the bed and joined them on the floor. "I donít know, Regina."

Zachary crawled over her legs and gurgled contentedly as he rocked back and forth on the floor as he decided what to do next. Intrigued by the shoelaces moving on Alexís sneakers as she jiggled her feet, he began to creep toward her.

"Ga!" He tried several other variations on the sound, announcing his intentions to his audience.

Alex arched an eyebrow as Zachary stopped in front of her and knelt at her feet. He swayed slightly when he tried to stand up. With his arms spread wide he teetered and then lurched forward as he lost his balance and landed in a tangled heap on her ankles.

Brown eyes gazed up at her seriously and his lower lip quivered slightly.

"Yes, that would be gravity at work." Alex leaned forward and carefully lifted him off her legs and set him on the floor between Regina and herself.

With a displeased look on his face, Zachary shook his head and promptly crawled back up onto Alexís lap.

"He likes you." Regina smiled as she watched her nephew climb over Alexís legs. Zachary watched the blonde-haired woman as she reached over, and walked her fingers up his leg and then tickled his belly. He tilted his head back and giggled.

The taller woman snorted and folded her arms as the boy straddled her thighs, peering up at her curiously.

It was rare for her to feel comfortable around people she just met but Caroline had made her feel at ease since she met her out in the driveway. Maybe it was just the simple fact, that Reginaís sister-in-law seemed to take her relationship with Regina in stride and was unaffected by their obvious affection for each other.

She glanced over at her lover, feeling guilty about being at least partly responsible for getting Reginaís shirt messed up. She leaned in closer and whispered in her ear. "Iím sorry about your shirt. Donít be mad at me. Please?"

Regina tilted her head back and arched an eyebrow as she gazed up at the sorrowful expression on her loverís face. "Keep groveling."

The blonde tried to ignore the slumped shoulders, focusing instead on Zachary. When Regina caught the pout from the corner of her eye she knew she was done for. Penitent blue eyes met hers and a smile twitched at the corner of her lips. "I couldnít stay mad at you even if I wanted to."

Alex gave her a relieved smile and draped one arm over Reginaís shoulders.

The three women looked up as the floorboards creaked outside the bedroom and Reginaís father peered into the room. He cleared his throat, his face coloring slightly as he took in the sight of his daughter leaning comfortably against Alex. "Ah, I thought this is where you all might be. Come downstairs so we can give Mom her presents."

"Okay, Dad weíll be right down."

Caroline stood up and gathered Zachary in her arms. "Come here, little man. Letís go get grandma her present."

Regina and Alex followed Caroline out of the room. At the landing of the stairwell, Regina hung back, waiting for her sister-in-law to disappear around the corner. When she did, Regina turned around and wrapped her arms snuggly around Alexís waist. Her eyes closed and a smile touched her lips as strong arms embraced her and she rested her head against Alexís chest.

"Mm, I needed that," she whispered, listening to the strong, rhythmic beating of Alexís heart.

"Anytime," Alex replied and pressed her lips against Reginaís hair. "We should get down there before someone comes looking for us."

Regina squeezed her tightly, eliciting a small grunt from the taller woman. "I canít wait until we go to Provincetown. I just want it to be you and me, Alex. No one else."

"That sounds wonderful," Alex replied and then ducked her head to kiss the blonde lightly on the lips.

Slowly, they released each other and walked down the stairs and into the living room where the rest of the family was already gathered.

"Whereís Jeff?" Regina asked, noting her brotherís absence.

"I think he went out for a walk after you girls went upstairs. I couldnít find him," her mother replied quietly from her seat on the couch.

"Iíll see if I can find him." Regina glanced over at Alex and motioned her to come with her.

She was halfway to the front door when it swung open and her brother stepped through into the hallway, carrying an empty wine bottle with him. "Hiya, Reg." He waved the green bottle in her direction.

"Jeff, are you all right?"

"Iím fine." He weaved slightly as he walked towards the kitchen. "Hey, Alex. Whereíd you go? I thought I was going to keep your wine glass filled all night."

"We went upstairs for a bit." Alex reached out and rescued the wine bottle before Jeff lost his grip on it as he staggered against Regina. "Whoa, easy there, Jeff. What did you have to drink?"

"Ah, letís see. I had some scotch and some wine. Lotís of wine." He squinted as he looked over at the brunette. "Wow, you have really beautiful, blue eyes."

Regina covered her eyes and groaned as her brother continued his best impression of a babbling idiot. "Jeff, youíre drunk."

"Well, I should hope so. I drank enough." He turned completely around, staggering against Alex as he lost his balance. "Did you get her the locket?"

"Shh, not so loud. Iím right here Jeff," Regina told him. Together the two women guided him into the kitchen.

Alex pulled out a chair and gently pushed Jeff into it. "Sit."

"Did you get Mom the locket?"

"Yes, I told you I was going to," Regina replied as she opened a cabinet. She pulled out a glass filled it with water, and handed it to her brother. "Drink this," she ordered, looking over her brotherís head at Alex, who was standing behind him with a wry expression on her face.

After a swallow he handed the glass back to Regina and pressed his head against her stomach. "Iím drunk," he slurred.

"No kidding, Jeff." Alex rolled her eyes and pulled Jeff against the back of the chair as he started to slump heavily against Regina.

"Jeff, are you going to be all right if I leave you for a few minutes?"

Her brother opened his eyes wide and then blinked several times, trying to focus on her. "Why wouldnít I be?"

"Iíll stay with him," Alex offered.

"Thanks." Regina smiled at her gratefully before she left the kitchen.

Jeff swayed and leaned back in the chair, oblivious to the fact that his sister left the room. "Shit, I didnít mean to get drunk. Iím sorry, Regina."

Alex patted his shoulder and pulled a chair out from the table so she could sit beside him. "Drink some more water."

Jeff took the glass that she held out to him and sipped the clear liquid. "Whereís Regina?"

"I think she went to give your mother her birthday present."

He frowned and struggled to stand up. "No, no she canít do that."

"Jeff, sit down." Alex reached out to steady him as he staggered away from the table.

"You ... donít understand." He licked his lips and wiped his mouth as he braced himself against the doorframe. "Mom didnít lose that ... locket. Michael stole it from her jewelry box and smashed it to pieces with a hammer."

Alex stood up and walked over to Reginaís brother. "When did that happen?"

"I found him in the basement trying to put it back together the night I left home." Jeff looked away from her as he sucked his lower lip in and scowled, trying to hold back the tears that brimmed in his eyes.

******

"Mikey?" Jeff slowly walked down the basement steps, letting his eyes adjust to the dim light, coming from the single light bulb attached to an overhead rafter. "What are you doing down here?"

"Leave me alone." His brothers snarled from over by his fatherís workbench.

"Mike, I just ... I came to say goodbye."

His brother didnít look up as he stepped closer. He could see him bent over the worktable trying to glue something back together. "What are you trying to do?"

"Nothing. Just go away, Jeff!" His brother whirled around and tried to push him back.

"Mike, isnít that Momís pendant?" Jeff asked, as he caught the glitter of shattered glass and gold pieces spread out on the table. "What did you do?"

"Go away! Itís all your fault."

"Jeff, hurry up your ride is here!" his father called down from upstairs. "What are you doing down there?"

"Iím just saying goodbye to Mike." He glanced down at the fearful look in his brotherís eyes and put a finger over his own lips to tell him to keep quiet. "Iíll be right up."

"Donít tell them. Please?" Michaelís eyes filled with tears. "I didnít mean to do it."

"Mom is going to be pissed off." Jeff shook his head and stepped up to the table, using a rag to wipe the pieces off into his hand. "Donít worry, Mike. I wonít tell them, ever."

He slipped the broken pendant and chain into his pants pocket. "Stay out of trouble and donít touch your sisterís stuff. Sheís still big enough to kick your butt." He punched his younger brother lightly in the shoulder before he turned away and slowly climbed back up the steps.

******

"Jeff that was years ago."

In frustration Jeff slammed his fist into the wall. "We all chipped in to get it for her as an anniversary present. Heís going to think Iím trying to get back at him for getting me kicked out of the house."

"Do you think heíd honestly remember after all these years?" Alex walked over to him and stood by the doorway.

"I donít know. I guess I should go in there." He looked sheepishly at Alex.

"Iím sure Regina would like you to be there with her." She clasped a hand on his shoulder as he turned and took several faltering steps toward living room. "Easy. Just lean against the wall."

In the doorway, they watched as Reginaís mother opened the rectangular box while Zachary sat cradled in her lap, playing contentedly with the wrapping paper.

"This is from both of you?" Alice asked in amazement as she removed the layer of white cotton and peered inside. "Oh ... " She lifted the delicate gold chain up, watching as the locket spun slowly around in the air. "Oh, my." Her eyes darted between Regina and Jeffrey as her face flushed red with excitement.

"Well, look at that." Robert leaned forward and peered at the necklace, obviously pleased for his wife. "We never did figure out what happened to that locket."

"Itís beautiful." Alice handed Zachary over to her husband and awkwardly stood up, reaching out to embrace Regina. "Thank you," she whispered in Reginaís ear as she hugged her.

Jeff stared down at the oriental carpet as his mother turned and walked over to him. "Thank you, Jeff. It means so much to me."

The dark look he received from his brother as their eyes briefly met, answered his question about Michaelís obvious recollection. He closed his eyes as his mother embraced him, offering a silent prayer that his brother would keep his temper in check at least while they were in their parentís house.

"Your welcome," he replied as he let her go and shoved his hands into his pockets. He leaned against the wall, fighting off a wave of lightheadedness, as his mother stepped away and walked back to her seat.

"What did you get Mom, Michael?" Reginaís question broke the awkward silence in the room.

"Theyíre going to stay at our place out on the Cape for a week in the fall."

"Thatís a great time to go," Alex offered. "The weather is still nice but itís not so crowded."

"Have you been out to there before, Alex?" Caroline asked, as she leaned over and picked up scraps of wrapping paper that Zachary had shredded.

"I own a small house out in Provincetown. Thatís where Regina and I are going tomorrow."

"Oh, I remember going out there a couple of times with some friends when I was still in school."

"You never told me that!" Michael exclaimed as he twisted in his seat to stare at her.

"Yes, I did. You just donít remember," Caroline laughed at his shocked expression. She reached over and squeezed his thigh. "Donít worry, I only looked Honey."

"Oh, thanks a lot, Caroline." Michael stood up abruptly and walked out of the room, rudely shouldering his way past Alex and Jeff.

Caroline sighed and shook her head. "I guess I should go apologize to him."

"Apologize for what, bruising his delicate ego?" Jeff asked as she walked toward him.

"Itís a touchy subject for him. I guess I pushed him too far, joking about it." She patted Jeffís arm as she walked past him to go find her husband.

Alice cleared her throat and stood up. "Does anyone want some coffee?"

"I donít." Regina glanced over at Alex who shook her head.

"What about you, Jeff?"

"Huh? He lifted his head when he heard his name through his alcohol-induced fog. "No, thatís all right. Iím going to get some fresh air."

Jeff walked over to the closet and retrieved his coat. He struggled to shrug into it as he fumbled to open the front door.

"Here, let me get that." Regina walked over and opened the door for him. "Are you okay?" She laid a hand on his back and peered up into his glazed over eyes.

"Fabulous, Reg." He gave her a sidelong glance. "I just need to go outside."

"Give me your keys."

"What? Iím not going to drive anywhere," Jeff protested.

Regina held her hand out. "Donít argue with me. Just give me your keys."

"Fine." Reluctantly, Jeff dug in his coat pocket and dropped them into her hand. "Feel better?" He pushed the outer door open and escaped outside.

Outside, he groped in his coat pocket for a pack of cigarettes. He found them, tapped one loose from the package, and captured it between his lips. He cursed softly at the nervous trembling in his hand as he tried and failed to get his lighter to work.

Behind him, Jeff heard the front door open and soft footsteps approached. "Need a light?" Alex asked as she walked toward him. She struck a match and cupped her hand around the fragile flame, protecting it from the wind that threatened to snuff it out.

"Thanks." Jeff sucked greedily on the end of his cigarette and inhaled deeply. "I keep trying to quit but I just canít do it." He glanced back over his shoulder. "Whereís Regina?"

"Sheís inside playing with Zachary."

"Iíd offer you one, but itís my last one," Jeff told her, as he crumpled the pack in his hand and shoved it into his jacket pocket.

"Itís all right. I used to smoke, but I try not to anymore."

"Lucky you. All this family stuff is making me crazy. You know?" He took a drag from the cigarette and puffed out two perfect rings. "I come home for the first time in seventeen years and they want to pretend like nothing happened."

Jeff held onto the railing as he made his way down the steps to the driveway.

"You think so? It seemed pretty awkward to me in there." Alex followed him and looked up at the dark expanse of sky.

Jeff swayed slightly as he stood, gazing out across the field. Alexís ears picked up the crunch of gravel as someone walked along the edge of the driveway, coming from the corner of the house.

"See, Regina still wants to be a part of this family and thatís great. Me -" he tossed his arm up and waved his hand dismissively. "I donít belong here. I havenít for a long time."

Alex raised her eyebrows as he turned and looked up at her with a sad expression on his face. "Do you want to?" She watched as he flicked ashes from his half burned cigarette onto the gravel.

Before Jeff could answer another voice spoke up. "Youíre right. You donít belong here, Jeff." His brother stepped out from the shadows and stood on the edge of the driveway, half-hidden in the shadows.

"Whereíd you come from?" Jeff frowned irritably at his brother.

Michael shrugged indifferently. "I didnít feel like listening to Caroline, so I went for a walk."

God, I like you less every time you open you open your mouth, Alex thought as she looked back and forth between the two brothers. "I imagine you want to talk. Iíll leave you guys alone."

"You do that," Michael sneered at the taller woman.

The doctor shot him a dangerous look before she turned and climbed back up the stairs.

Michael watched the door close and then walked over to Jeff. "So did coming home live up to your expectations, bro?"

"I didnít have any expectations, Michael." Jeff threw his cigarette on the ground and ground it out with the toe of his shoe.

"Sure you did. That was a nice touch with the pendant. I have to hand it to you, Jeff, you sure know how to manipulate Mom, even after all these years."

Jeff laughed caustically. "I knew youíd say that."

"Just go back to California. Nobody wants you here."

"No, youíre the one who doesnít want me here, Mike." Jeff drew himself up taller and glared down at his brother.

"Youíre right." Michael stepped closer and put his face inches from his brotherís. "I donít want some faggot around my son."

Jeff stepped back away from his brotherís intimidating glare. "Donít worry, we donít start recruiting that young."

The vicious punch came out of nowhere and doubled Jeff over. He coughed and clutched his side as he tried to catch his breath. "Ah, Jesus," he groaned. "What the hell ... did you do that for?"

His answer was another searing, blast of pain in his face and the metallic taste of blood that filled his mouth. Tears blurred his vision and he was aware of everything fading away as he stumbled onto his knees.

"Thatís for coming back home." His brotherís words rang in his ears until he slumped forward in a heap on the cold ground.


Chapter Seventeen

 

"There you are." Regina smiled up at Alex as the taller woman wandered into the living room and sat down on the floor beside her. She shivered, feeling the chill of the winter air on her partnerís clothes and gave her a disapproving look. "You were outside all that time without a coat."

Annoyed at being on the receiving end of an apparent scolding, Alex stared down at her hands and pressed her lips together as she reigned in her initial response. Anyone else would have been instantly treated to a verbal barrage of indignant outrage, but this was different.

No one else had gone to the lengths Regina had, sitting vigil by her side for countless hours in the hospital and then patiently caring for her after she was finally discharged. That knowledge made the words a simple reminder of the fact that someone else in this world cared about what happened to her.

It felt good: scary, but definitely good.

"I didnít think Iíd be out there that long." Alex raised an eyebrow and peered over at the blonde who simply shook her head and scooted farther away from her.

"Youíre making me cold," Regina complained, with a hint of a smile in her voice.

Out of the corner of her eyes, Alex caught the amused look on Carolineís face as she watched the two of them sitting on the floor with her son. Unable to resist the temptation, the brunette leaned closer and whispered in Reginaís ear. "I promise to keep you nice and warm later."

The blonde blushed to the tips of her ears while she fussed with Zacharyís pajama top and did her best to ignore Alexís teasing eyes. "Youíre toast," Regina growled back at her without looking up.

Alex chuckled happily. "Gotcha." She leaned closer to look at Zachary. "I guess heís pretty wiped out from the day," she commented, observing the young boy curled up contentedly in the Reginaís lap, fighting to keep his eyes open.

He was sporting a fresh pair of pajamas with a familiar-looking bear, sitting proudly on his shirtfront with one paw hidden inside a jar of honey. As Zachary pulled on his shirtfront the bearís eye stretched wide over the top of the honey jar.

"Heíll sleep the whole way home in the car and probably wonít wake up until tomorrow." Caroline folded a brown pair of corduroys and packed them into a small, duffel bag that held all of Zacharyís clothes.

Regina stroked the boyís curly blonde hair and smiled down at him as he drifted off to sleep. "He really looks like you, Caroline."

"Do you think so?" Caroline tilted her head and gazed down at her son from her vantage point on the couch.

"Yeah, he has your eyes and cheek bones. What do you think, Alex?" The blonde met Alexís curious gaze and gave her a quirky smile.

Regina watched intently as her partner glanced up at Caroline and then back down at the sleeping toddler, comparing their features.

"He definitely looks like you from the nose up," Alex concluded. Her attention was drawn to the hallway where she caught a glimpse of Michael walking past them, towards the kitchen.

A moment later, he walked into the room and joined his wife on the couch. Alex studied him, as he draped one arm over the back of the couch and tucked the other one in his pants pocket.

"I asked Mom to make a pot of coffee so I can get some caffeine before we leave."

"Wonít that keep you up all night? I can drive if you want," Caroline offered.

Michael shrugged. "Sheís already started brewing it. Iím not going to tell her to throw it out now."

"Fine, but I donít want to listen to you complain when you canít get to sleep tonight." Caroline continued packing Zacharyís belongings into the bag.

"I wonder where Jeff is." Regina interjected before her brother could utter a retort.

"Heís outside having a smoke," Michael replied, as he stretched both arms overhead and yawned loudly.

Alex lifted her head up and stared at Reginaís brother intently. He met her gaze momentarily, then, glanced away, before he stood up.

"Does anyone else want some coffee?" he asked, as he shoved both his hands back into his pockets. All three women shook their heads and Michael quickly disappeared from the living room.

"Iíll be right back." Alex curled her legs underneath her and stood up, bouncing on the balls of her feet lightly.

"Are you okay?"

Alex gazed back down at Regina and gave her a reassuring smile. "Iím fine." Before the blonde could ask her another question, she strode out of the room and into the foyer. I really hope Iím wrong about you, Michael, but Jeff was smoking his last cigarette when I was out there. Why would you lie about that? The hairs on the back of her neck started to prickle as she opened the front door and stepped outside.

After a few seconds, her eyes adjusted to the dark and she saw the huddled form sitting slumped on the bottom of the steps. Maybe you need to stop expecting the worst from people, Alex. What would Regina think if she knew what you were thinking about her brother? With a vexed sigh, she shook her head as her cynicism won out.

"Jeff? Are you doing okay?" Alex asked, as she descended the stairs. She thought he nodded his head but she wasnít sure in the darkness.

Jeff groaned and kept his head buried against his knees as he rocked back and forth.

"Too much to drink, Jeff?" she asked, wondering if heíd gotten sick and just decided to stay outside until he felt better, of course with the alcohol and the cold that wasnít a good combination either. Alex sat down on the steps and rested her forearms on her knees as she studied Reginaís brother.

"Nah." He shook his head.

Still not sure what the problem was, Alex wrapped an arm around his middle. "Come on, Jeff. Get up so you can move around. Youíre going to freeze out here."

He flinched and let out a muffled cry as she tightened her grip on his waist. "Donít touch me there. It hurts."

Confused by his reaction, Alex let go of him and rubbed her hand over his back. "What hurts?"

"I fell. It was stupid. I tripped over a rock and just landed on my side."

Alex glanced around the immediate area and frowned at the seemingly flat landscape of the driveway. What rock? "Did you hurt anything else?" she asked, turning her attention back to him.

"Just my face. Iím a klutz and it doesnít help that Iím stone, stinking drunk either."

"All right, well letís get you inside." She stood up and helped Reginaís brother to his feet.

Halfway up the steps, Jeff turned stopped and grabbed her arm. "Alex can we just go to the bathroom so I can wash up? I feel like a fool."

"Yeah ... sure," she replied hesitantly, as they climbed up the steps together. She opened the door and walked inside, keeping herself between Jeff and the view from the living room. He almost escaped unnoticed into the bathroom when Regina walked out of the kitchen and came to an abrupt halt, her eyes widening when she saw Jeffís face.

"Good grief! What did you do to yourself?" She reached out a hand and tilted his face towards her as she inspected the angry looking discoloration on his cheekbone.

In the bright light of the hallway, Alex stepped around in front and looked for the first time, at the ugly bruise that was forming beneath his eye.

"I just tripped over a rock," he muttered and jerked his head away, but not before Regina witnessed the mixture of hurt and confusion in his eyes. Jeff staggered into the bathroom and turned on the sink faucet.

That was no fall, Jeff. If it was, then that rock must have jumped up and smacked you in the face, Alex thought as she stared after him. She watched as he huddled over the sink and splashed the running water on his face. Her skeptical expression softened when she glanced down and saw the worried look on Reginaís face.

"Alex?" Regina touched her arm and stepped closer. "Somethingís bothering you. What is it?"

The taller woman gnawed on her bottom lip and looked away as she considered what to say to Regina. Now how do I deal with this without making more of a mess of this situation?

She pondered while quickly considering her options. At the moment, all she had to go on was her instincts and they were screaming that Michael was responsible for what happened.

"Donít you think that if he fell, he might have some cuts and scrapes on his face instead of just a nasty looking shiner?"

"You donít believe him do you?"

Damn, thereís not much I can keep hidden from you anymore. Is there? "No, I donít. Iím sorry, Regina." Alex shook her head and stepped into the small bathroom behind Reginaís brother.

He was leaning heavily against the white, porcelain sink, so she slipped her arm around him to help steady him on his feet. Water dripped from his face as he glanced up at Alex in surprise and then tried not to let the pain show on his face.

"Donít," he whispered, trying to push Alexís arm away from him.

"Let me look at your side."

"No." He twisted out of her arm and slumped down onto the toilet.

"Jeff, look at me." Alex held his gaze and leaned down closer to him as she whispered to him. "It doesnít matter to me how this happened, but this is your family. Donít you think you owe them the truth?"

"Itís not a big deal, Alex," Jeff protested. "Let it go."

Alex shook her head and planted her hands on her hips. "I canít. I grew up living with someone who thought they could get away with terrorizing his family. Donít lie to me about it. I know all the ways you can try and cover for someone."

"He was pissed off at me. What do you want me to do?"

Regina tugged Alex away from Jeff. "Let me talk to him."

She knelt down in front of her brother, pulled a towel from one of the holders on the wall, and gently dabbed his face dry. Regina inhaled sharply as she got a close look at the welt that was forming along his cheekbone. "Alex, can you get me some ice from the freezer?"

"Yeah," the taller woman whispered before she left the bathroom.

"You didnít fall, did you?" Regina rested her hands on her brotherís thighs as she peered up at him.

Hazel eyes blinked and he lowered his forehead onto her shoulder. "Iím sorry. I was stupid to think I could come home after all this time."

"Donít say that." Regina rocked him in her arms and closed her eyes. She didnít want to believe what her gut was telling her. The signs were there. All she had to do was open her eyes and see the truth. "Iím glad you came home. Weíve missed you."

She looked up as Alex reappeared in the doorway and held out a plastic bag filled with ice and a wet dishtowel.

"Thanks. Did my mother ask why you needed it?"

"No, your father was the only one in the kitchen and he didnít ask any questions."

"Good." Regina took the bag and wrapped it in the towel before she lifted Jeffís head off her shoulder. "Hold this for me." She placed the ice against his face and held his hand to it.

Without a word, Regina pulled his shirt out of his khaki pants and ran her hand up under her brotherís shirt, frowning as she felt the heat radiating from his skin. "Jeff! You could have cracked a rib!" A mottled-looking purple bruise covered a fist-sized area over his ribs and he flinched as she pressed the palm of her hand to it.

"Itís just a bruise," Jeff replied weakly as he stared down at the floor in acute embarrassment.

Alex stepped out of the doorway and leaned against the wall with her arms folded over her chest. It was an all too familiar scene that made her guts churn as she watched Regina tend to her older brother, except in her family it had been her father who had doled out the beatings.

She looked up as Michael walked out of the kitchen, carrying a travel mug in one hand, and a duffel bag slung over his shoulder. Her gaze settled on the angry looking bruise that was beginning to discolor the knuckles of his right hand.

His eyes narrowed as he realized what she was studying and he dropped his hand down to his side.

Gotcha! You bastard. Alex let a thin smile play on her lips as she watched him turn away from her.

Michael hesitated as he walked past the bathroom and glanced inside the room at his two siblings. "What happened to him?"

The concern in Reginaís eyes transformed to barely contained rage when she looked at her younger brother and then lunged up to face him. "Why donít you tell me, Michael?"

"Regina, donít!" Jeff pulled himself to his feet and laid a hand on her shoulder for support. "Itís not worth it."

"How should I know? Heís drunk." Michael readjusted the bag on his shoulder and glowered at his sister in apparent disinterest.

Regina stepped forward and grasped Michaelís wrist roughly, ignoring her older brotherís pleas. "Did you trip over the same rock he did and bruise your hand?"

"Youíre just as screwed up as he is," Michael sneered and pulled his arm from her grasp.

"Whatís going on?" Caroline asked her husband hesitantly, as she stepped from the kitchen, holding her son in her arms.

"Nothing," Michael snapped. "Jeffís drunk and weíre leaving."

Alexís eyes widened, as she watched her lover physically block her brotherís path. "Do you want to know why Derrick was a mistake, Michael? Besides the fact that I was living a lie, he was an abusive bastard."

"Whatís going on out there?" She heard her fatherís voice booming from the dining room before he appeared at the doorway, holding a drink in his hand.

"Regina Kingston! I donít need to hear that language in this house." Her mother stepped out of the kitchen, drying her hands on a dishtowel.

"Itís the truth, Mother."

"That son of a bitch hit you?" Jeff lowered the bag of ice from his face and stared at his sister in dismay.

Alice stepped over to the bathroom door and gasped as she looked in at her son. "Jeffrey, what happened to you?"

"Nothing, Mom," he whispered and quickly replaced the ice pack over his eye.

"Donít tell me, nothing! Look at your face," she cried in horror.

Caroline shifted Zachary in her arms and stepped over to Jeff. She covered his hand with hers and pulled the ice away, uncovering the damage. A gasp escaped her throat as she stared wide-eyed at his face.

Robert walked between his two youngest children to stand before his eldest son. "Do you want to tell me what happened to you?"

Jeff glared defiantly back at his father. "You didnít care what happened to me for the past seventeen years. What does it matter now?"

"Jeff!" Regina spun around and stared at her brother.

"I donít need to hear this," his father grumbled and promptly walked out of the room.

"Caroline, letís go!" Michael ordered, as he stepped around Regina and stormed towards the front door.

She jerked her head around and stared at her husband with a shocked expression on her face, then, snapped back at him. "Who do you think youíre talking to, Michael? Give me Zacharyís bag."

When he didnít answer, Caroline marched over to him and yanked the duffel bag off his shoulder. Instinctively, he tried to grab it as it dropped to the floor and winced as the weight of the bag dropped into his palm, jarring his injured hand.

"Whatís wrong with your hand?" Caroline frowned as she pulled the bag away from him and then unzipped it. She set her son on the floor and then pulled out his coat

"Well?"

"Nothing," he protested lamely, looking away as Jeffrey appeared next to Regina still holding the bag of ice to his face.

Carolineís hands shook as she worked to close the zipper on Zacharyís coat. The boy twisted around, whimpering softly for his fatherís attention but she lifted him up into her arms and walked back to Jeff and Regina.

"Regina can you hold Zachary for me?"

"Sure." Regina stepped forward and lifted the toddler from Carolineís arms and cradled him against her protectively.

Michael started to open his mouth to protest but promptly closed it as Caroline gazed at him through cold, gray eyes.

"Do you have a problem with your own sister holding him?"

"No, but ... "

"I donít want you around my son."

"Caroline!" Alice cried out in alarm. "Donít say that."

"Alice, he may be your son, but heís my husband. Stay out of it!"

"Caroline, how can you say that? Iím his father."

"No! Donít you even talk to me after what you did tonight! You hit your own brother because you have a problem with who he is. Didnít you?" she continued without letting Michael get a word in to defend himself. "Frankly, I donít quite think I know who you are right now, so just go. Go home ... alone." Caroline dismissed him with a wave of her hand.

His shoulders slouched in defeat, as he looked back at her in utter confusion. "You donít mean that, Caroline."

"Oh, yes I do." Caroline spread her arms out and leaned toward him as her voice rose an octave. "First, you donít have the decency to tell me your own brother and sister are coming home for your motherís birthday! Then I have to watch my husband act like a jackass the entire time theyíre here. If thatís not enough you insult them and assault your own brother! Do I sound like I want to go home with you?"

"But ... where are you going to go?" he asked timidly.

"Iíll be at my motherís."

An awkward silence followed, as Michael slowly turned away and trudged to the front door.

"Caroline." Michael turned back around and looked beseechingly at his wife. "Can I say goodnight to Zachary before I go?"

Caroline closed her eyes and sighed after taking a few deep breaths. "Yes," she finally whispered and turned away as he walked back toward Regina.

His sister stared impassively at him as he stepped up in front of her. Wordlessly, without making eye contact, he lifted his son from her arms and held him to his chest. He buried his face in the blonde curls and inhaled the sweet scent of his sonís skin.

"Daddy will see you later, Tiger." He walked over to Caroline and after a brief moment settled their son in her arms. Michael pressed his forehead to hers and whispered. "Iím sorry, baby. I didnít mean for this to happen."

"Apologize to your family, not me." Caroline whirled around and walked into the kitchen.

Alice glanced back at her son briefly before she quickly followed her daughter-in-law.

"Well, that was a pleasant evening," Jeff remarked, still holding the bag of ice to his face.

"Why donít you just shut up?" Michael shot back at him.

"Thatís quite enough." Reluctant to let Michael anywhere near his younger brother, Alex stepped in between the siblings and folded her arms over her chest. She spent the better part of the day watching her lover negotiate her way through the emotional turmoil that the two brothers were at the center of. Several times she had to physically bite her lip to stop from getting involved even though she knew Regina was more than capable of handling herself, but enough was enough.

"Youíre finished here, Michael. The best thing you can do right now is shut your mouth and leave," Alex warned him.

"You have no right to tell me what to do!"

Regina stepped up beside Alex and wrapped her arm around her waist. "Michael, stop. I think youíve said quite enough for one night. So take your homophobic attitude and get out of here! Now!"

Enraged, Michael spun on his heels and stormed out of the house, slamming the door behind him with enough force to rattle the window in their frames.

Regina groaned and rested her head against Alexís shoulder as the taller woman embraced her. "Oh my god, that sucked," she breathed into her loverís shoulder.

"You can say that again," Jeff echoed, wishing suddenly that he had allowed Darryl to make the trip with him.

Alex turned around, bringing Regina with her and draped her other an arm over Jeffís shoulder. "Howís your head?"

"Itís been better. I want to get the hell out of here and go home," Jeff complained.

"Youíre not going anywhere until you sober up," Regina told him. "Besides, you should give Dad a chance. Heís trying, Jeff. Youíve got to try and meet him halfway. Please?"

"Why should I? He never gave me a chance."

"Youíre right, but heís trying to now, Jeff. So donít throw it all away because of your stubborn pride."

Jeff stared angrily back at his sister and then dumped the bag of ice in the bathroom sink. "Great just what I need; a lecture from my sister."

Regina glanced after her brother as he walked away and then hugged both her arms around Alex tightly. "I donít think I would have survived today if you werenít here," she whispered as she tilted her head back to look up at her partner.

Alex shrugged and looked down into tired, green eyes. "Yeah, you would have."

"Maybe, but Iím still very glad you were here. Thanks." Regina rose up on her toes and kissed Alex soundly on the lips.

A moment later, the sound of someone clearing their throat from the kitchen doorway caught their attention and they both looked over to see Reginaís mother standing there holding the coffee pot, her eyes cast downward. She coughed and then looked back at the two women. "I wanted to know if you both wanted some coffee."

"Sure," Regina managed to croak out as she watched her motherís face flush in embarrassment.

"Good. Well, um, just come in and get it when youíre ready."

"Okay," Regina heard her voice crack and had to stifle a nervous giggle after her mother disappeared around the corner. She glanced up at Alex who was staring back at her with a shocked expression on her face. "She saw us kissing."

"Yes, she did," Alex affirmed, still getting over the shock of looking up and having Reginaís mother staring right at her as she was thoroughly engaged in kissing her daughter.

Regina nodded her head once and patted Alex on her stomach. "Oh boy."

"Well, at least we werenít skinny dipping in your parentís swimming pool," Alex offered with a deadpan expression on her face. She grunted softly as she found herself on the receiving end of a back handed smack into her gut.

"Why do I think you would have somehow enjoyed that?" Regina arched an eyebrow and glanced up at the taller woman expectantly.

"There is something to be said about the thrill of danger." Alexís eyes darkened as she looked deep into Reginaís eyes and let a seductive smile cross her lips.

"Is there now?" Regina smirked suggestively and tugged at Alexís shirt. Her smile turned genuine at the anxious look she received from the brunette. She reached for her partnerís hand and squeezed it, enjoying the brief episode of playfulness that had been missing from their lives for so many weeks. "Glad you think so."


Chapter Eighteen

 

 

"I canít believe Michael would do something like that to his brother." Robert rubbed his forehead in agitation and leaned against the kitchen counter. Nothing prepared him for Michaelís bitter resentment and violent outburst towards his brother, earlier in the evening. He wanted to bridge the gap between himself and Jeff but the evening only made the chasm seem wider.

"Whatís not to believe?" Alice shook her head in dismay and slumped into a chair at the kitchen table. She set her head in her hands and groaned. "Donít you understand I taught him it was okay to treat Jeff differently by throwing him out of the house?"

Robert gulped down a mouthful of scotch to calm his ragged nerves before he crossed the room to stand beside his wife. "If thatís the case, then weíre both to blame."

Caroline looked up from her seat on the other side of the wooden table. After shifting Zachary in her arms, she leaned forward and grasped the older womanís forearm with her hand, pulling Aliceís hand away from her face.

"I know you both and you did not teach him to be violent. Mikeís always had a temper. When he feels threatened he acts like a cornered animal and comes out with his claws bared."

"What was so threatening about asking our oldest son to come home?" Alice asked. "I donít understand."

Caroline released Aliceís arm and sat back in her chair. "Maybe itís all those memories heís stored up since he was a kid. I told Alex and Regina earlier, he felt like his relationship with you, would somehow change if Jeff came home and you accepted him back into the family."

They all looked up at once as they heard footsteps approaching on the hardwood floor from the hallway.

Realizing they were talking about him and Michael, Jeff stopped just inside the doorway, unsure of what to do. He looked hesitantly at both his parents and then at Caroline.

"I just wanted to get some coffee." He motioned awkwardly with his hand and walked over to where the pot was sitting on the counter.

"Thereís some ibuprofen in the medicine cabinet if you need it." Alice turned in her chair to look at her son. The entire evening it felt like her heart was breaking as she realized she hardly knew the man her son had grown into.

"Iím fine," he muttered, wishing he were anywhere but here at the moment.

Jeffís hands trembled slightly as he poured his drink into a mug and dumped a spoonful of sugar into the hot liquid. Acutely aware of the furtive glances cast in his direction, he retreated from the room and walked aimlessly into the foyer where he looked over at his fatherís study.

Desperately wanting quiet solitude, Jeff turned and tip toed up the stairs, careful to miss the third step from the top since he vaguely remembered that it always creaked loudly whenever it was stepped on. Itís funny, he thought, the weird things Iím remembering about this place.

Jeff turned around at the top of the stairs and looked sorrowfully at the wall where his pictures were missing. Wow, I guess you really did despise me that much, Mom.

He tried to convince himself that it really didnít mean that much to him, but it was useless. He trudged down the hallway. Halfway, he stopped and peaked into his sisterís old bedroom, where he saw the walls still decorated with her plaques and trophies from high school.

Stung, Jeff ducked back out and continued toward the room at the end of the hall. He reached inside and flicked the switch on the wall, bathing the white washed walls in a soft, luminescent, glow from the overhead light. With a brief hesitation, he stepped into what used to be his bedroom.

There was no helping the initial wave of jealousy and resentment that he felt as his room stood in stark contrast to his sisterís.

A stranger walking into the room would have never known it used to be a young boyís bedroom. The wild array of rock posters that adorned his ceiling and walls, the collection of fantasy novels and World War II tanks and aircraft models he spent hours assembling and painting were gone. He stood in the center of the room and regarded the old Captainís desk and chair with a cool, detached expression on his face.

Well, what did you expect after all this time, a welcome home party? Jeff laughed caustically at himself as he strode across the room. He lowered himself to the floor, and leaned back against the wall. He pulled his legs up to his chest, rested his forearms on his knees, and watched the tendrils of steam curl up out of the mug of coffee.

All he wanted was to feel like he belonged again. He exhausted himself over the years with the mental gymnastics of trying to make himself believe that none of this mattered and that he didnít need his family to feel whole.

After all, Darryl was his family.

Darryl was the only person besides Regina who had bothered to care enough to drag him out of the black depression he fell into after Tom died. When he was beyond hope and wishing he could just die himself, it was Darryl who encouraged him not to give up and hold on because heíd taken all the bad things that life had thrown at him and survived in spite of it all.

Still ... there was no denying the amount of pain he felt when he got the urge to pick up the phone and call his parents just to talk but didnít. The most important part of his life was Darryl and he couldnít share that part of him with his family.

Jeff tilted his head back against the wall and swallowed, fighting the lump he felt in his throat as his emotions roiled inside.

A moment later, he heard the telltale creak of the stair from outside in the hall, as someone climbed up the steps.

So much for being alone, he thought testily.

"Not like you remember it, I guess," his father remarked from the doorway.

Jeff shook his head, keeping his eyes averted from his fatherís gaze.

His father glanced around briefly and then stepped into the room. He held out a pint of milk. "Here, you forgot something."

Jeff reached up and took the carton from his father.

"See, I still remember some things about my son after all these years. Surprised?" Robert settled himself onto the floor beside him with a groan as his aging joints protested the strain.

"No," Jeff whispered ruefully, as he poured the milk into his coffee. He closed the container and set it on the floor beside him.

They sat in silence, the only sound was the hissing of the baseboard heaters as the heat cycled on again.

"What happened between you and Michael tonight?"

Jeff stared down at his hands. "What does it matter?"

Robert frowned as he looked over at his son. "Jeff, despite what you may think, I ... youíre still my son."

Jeff continued to stare down at his mug and shook his head as he listened to his father stumble awkwardly over his words. You canít say, ĎI love you.í Can you? "I guess Mike didnít approve of me being here." The slump of Jeffís shoulders and the deep sadness in his voice betrayed the heartbreak inside.

"So he decided it was okay to punch you. He didnít have any right to do that to you, Jeff."

Jeff had a biting, sarcastic remark on the tip of his tongue, but he bit it back as he recalled Reginaís words about not letting his stubborn pride in the way. "I was never very good at ducking and weaving," he offered quietly instead.

Robert cleared his throat before he finally spoke again. "There are some boxes of your stuff in the closet over there. You ought to look through them to see if thereís anything youíd like to keep."

Jeff looked sharply at his father and then glanced over at the sliding doors. After a moments hesitation, he slowly rose to his feet, walked over to the closet, and started to slide open one of the doors.

"Donít open the right door." There was aloud thud as the wooden door popped out of the track and hit the floor. "It always jumps off the track," his father finished half-heartedly.

"Sorry."

His father shrugged indifferently. "Try the other one."

Robert watched with cautious anticipation as his son knelt and pulled out one of the worn cardboard boxes.

Carefully, Jeff peeled the packing tape off the box and pulled it open. He sat back on his heels and pulled out a gunmetal, gray, fighter jet with the letters ĎUSAí emblazoned proudly on its wings.

"I remember making this. It took weeks to glue all the parts together and then paint them." He ran his fingers over the contours of the plane, his eyes widening in youthful excitement as he examined it. "Itís a P-40 Warhawk fighter."

"Ah, so you still remember." His father picked up the milk carton and climbed stiffly to his feet. "I think that B-25 transport model we worked on is in one of the other boxes, if youíre interested."

Jeff rubbed his hands over his face, wiping tears away in an irritated gesture. "I didnít think Mom kept any of my stuff."

Robert looked away, unable to bear the pained expression on Jeffís face. "I packed your stuff away after you left."

"I didnít leave," Jeff shot back.

There was a brief hesitation as Robert let the bitterness of his sonís words sink in. "Youíre right, you didnít leave. We threw you out of the house," he acknowledged quietly. "I know I canít change what happened and maybe it doesnít make much of a difference now, but Iím sorry." Iím sorry for all the time we wasted, for waiting so long to ask you to come home.

Jeff stared down at the model plane he was holding in his hands Ė a relic of his childhood and of a happier time with his family. He blinked back tears and furrowed his brow, trying to maintain some semblance of control while his father was still in the room.

Robert stood motionless a few feet away. He sensed the turmoil behind his sonís mask of indifference and stepped back. "Iíll um, Iíll give you some time alone to go through your things." Quietly, he stepped back toward the door and was gone.

Jeff stared at the spot where his father had been standing and shook his head. It almost hurt more, knowing that his father regretted his decision but had never said anything to him about it. Jeff doubled over and buried his head in his hands, as a wave of grief swept through him.

Hunched over the box, he cried alone for what seemed an eternity to him and then, exhausted, he slumped back against the wall and closed his eyes.

******

Caroline looked up as Regina walked into the brightly lit kitchen followed by Alex. Sheíd been shocked, to say the least, when she heard Alice talking about Regina dating a guy last year. Her shock turned to utter disbelief when the words engagement entered into the conversation about Michaelís older sister.

She met Regina when she first started dating Michael in their senior year of high school. At the time, Regina was a quiet, introspective woman who was totally absorbed in her studies. That abruptly changed one summer after Regina returned home from college with a different light shining in her eyes. It wasnít until one of Reginaís friends from school came to visit, that Caroline began to realize what had changed.

Sarah was the womanís name and Regina was in love with her.

Caroline wasnít the only one to notice the difference. Reginaís mother took an instant dislike to the woman and the house had turned into a battleground. Whenever Regina was going out with Sarah, her mother would find fault with everything about the woman and clearly vocalized her dislike about her daughterís choice of friends.

It was a different time and Regina wasnít prepared for having to defend herself or who she chose to love. Over time, the relationship between her and Sarah deteriorated and finally ended less than a year later.

Although, they never talked about it, Caroline could see how hurt Regina was and knew as any woman does what itís like to see the death of a first love.

That was over six years ago and as far as she knew Regina was never involved with anyone else until Derrick. She wondered at the time if Regina was being true to herself.

Today she had finally gotten an answer to her question.

It was only when Regina sat down across from her and raised a questioning eyebrow that Caroline realized she was staring at her and turned away blushing.

From across the table, Alice spoke to her daughter. "Did you eat enough at dinner, Regina?"

Regina turned her attention to her mother and sighed. "No, not really." She glanced over at Alex who settled quietly into the chair next to her. "How about you? Do you want a sandwich?"

"I could eat more." Alex replied and then gently clasped her hand around Reginaís arm, pulling her back when she started to get up. "Stay. Just tell me where everything is and Iíll make it."

The younger woman looked back at Alex in surprise. The pale blue eyes only revealed a genuine desire. "Sit with your family," Alex whispered in her ear as she stood up from the table.

Regina directed Alex to the appropriate drawers and cabinets for a knife and plates. She watched as her partner retrieved the roast from the refrigerator and then expertly carved several slices of meat onto a plate.

What I would give to be in Provincetown with you already. This hadnít been a pleasant experience for anyone today and she knew despite her own discomfort that Alex remained steadfast beside her throughout the entire ordeal

"Anybody else want some?" Alex asked over her shoulder before she wrapped up the meat and set it back on the shelf in the refrigerator.

"No, Iím fine," Caroline replied, a sly smile crossing her lips. What better way to get to the skeptical mother-in-law? You do take good care of her daughter. Donít you, Alex?

"Not for me." Alice waved her hand.

Alex crossed to the table and set the plates down in front of herself and Regina. Her partner wasted no time starting to consume the sandwich.

"You werenít hungry. Were you?" she teased Regina as she sat down.

Caroline chuckled. "I seem to remember you and Jeff practically eating your parents out of house and home when you were teenagers."

Regina made an indignant noise and swallowed a mouthful of food. "Hey, we were just very active kids."

"Mm, getting into trouble was more like what you two were usually up to," her mother chimed into the conversation.

"Gee, thanks, Mom."

Alex laughed at the comical expression on Reginaís face and then quickly ducked away from the playful swat directed at her.

"Alex, you can sit by me. It might be safer for you over here," Caroline offered and winked at Regina mischievously.

"Thatís all right, I know where she sleeps." The words were out of Reginaís mouth before she could stop to think about whom she was saying them in front of. Her eyes widened to the size of quarters and Regina blushed crimson to the roots of her blonde hair.

"Oh god," she groaned, wanting desperately to just slip beneath the table into oblivion.

Her mother sat back stiffly in her chair with a dismayed expression on her face.

Alex stared at Regina in disbelief, then, quickly bit into her sandwich, and chewed in silence. You sure do and now your mother does too, Reg.

"So, Alex," Caroline fumbled desperately to direct the attention away from Regina as the stricken woman tried to regain her composure at the table. "Robert said you had been sick the last time he saw you."

Alex groaned inwardly as the conversation suddenly went from bad to worse. She swallowed and glanced over at Regina who was starting to return to her normal skin tone. "Uh, yeah, there was an accident at work."

"What happened?" Reginaís mother leaned forward in her chair and rejoined the conversation, grateful for any change in the topic of conversation.

Alex pressed her lips together briefly and frowned, as she decided how she wanted to answer the question. "There was a car accident and a boy died in the emergency department. We tried everything, but there was nothing we could do to save him. It was pretty awful. His father was out of his mind with grief."

Regina had recovered enough from her embarrassment to wonder if Alex would actually tell them what happened. It was still incredibly difficult for her partner to talk about the subject, but she knew that talking about it was as important a part of the whole process of healing as Alexís physical recovery had been in those first, few days.

Alex gnawed on her bottom lip for a second before she continued. "We had the person who was responsible for the car accident in the other exam room." Her eyes took on a haunted, far away look as she stumbled awkwardly over her words. "This other patient had a gun ... things got crazy ... "

In her mind, she could hear the crash of the supply cart in the hallway and saw the father burst into the room brandishing the weapon in the air. "Somehow the father got a hold of the gun."

She felt the warmth of Reginaís hand as the younger woman wrapped it around her upper arm reassuringly. The gesture comforted her and calmed her racing heart. Alex swallowed a couple of times, forcing herself to gain control of her voice which was already starting to waver as she spoke.

"I remember him coming into the room. He demanded that we let the woman die. We tried to calm him down," Alex said, looking directly at Regina.

"You were in the room while this was going on?" Alice cried out in shock, as she looked at her daughter.

"Yeah, I was there. We all were," Regina replied evenly, without taking her eyes off of Alex.

"I told her to get out," Alex explained quickly. The whole time, sheíd been terrified the man would turn the gun on Regina if given the opportunity. "He was breaking down right there in front of us."

Alex grimaced and stared down at her hands, which were visibly trembling. The flashes of memory were so vivid it was like she back in the trauma room all over again. Her breathing went ragged and she shook her head. Her jaw muscles clenched as she tried to clamp down on the emotions that threatened to overflow.

She felt Reginaís hand slide down her arm and the smaller fingers intertwined with hers. It took a few moments and then she was able to finish. "I donít remember much after I heard the gunshot."

"Oh my God!" Alice stared at her daughter incredulous that she had been witness to such violence. "You saw her get shot?"

Regina nodded silently, not trusting her voice.

Caroline gasped and covered her mouth with her hands. "Jesus, I had no idea! Iím so sorry, Alex. I feel awful for asking."

Alex shook her head and pressed her lips together, still staring down at the table. "You didnít know," she answered with a voice that was still hoarse with emotion.

"This is the same place where you work now?" Caroline asked incredulously.

"Yeah, it hasnít been easy going back there, but at least Iím here and able to give it a try." Alex turned her head, and looked at Regina and then down at their linked hands. "I wouldnít be here right now if it werenít for Regina."

Speechless, Caroline sat back in her chair and stared at the two of them for a moment.

Regina glanced up as her father entered the kitchen from the hallway. "Dad was there." She nodded at him as she continued to speak. "In fact, he just met Alex before everything happened."

Robert looked startled as he gazed at his daughter and her companion who were sitting across from his wife, holding hands. A peculiar expression glinted in his eyes before he looked away.

Subtly, Regina squeezed Alexís hand and then slipped hers out of the warm embrace they had been sharing. It was all right, she reflected to herself. Her parents could think what they wanted. This was the person who captured her heart and ignited her soul with a passion that went far beyond any physical boundaries.

"Whereís Jeff?" Regina asked.

"Heís upstairs going through some of his things."

"Not anymore," Jeff stated, as he walked into the kitchen, carrying a box in his arms.

"Whatís in there?" His sister leaned forward and peaked into the container as he set it down on the table.

"Theyíre just some old, model airplanes I made when I was a kid." His voice downplayed the emotions he felt, knowing that his parents, or at least his father, saved some of the most cherished things from his childhood.

His motherís only reaction was to glance in the box and then she abruptly stood up. She retrieved the empty plates from the table and placed them in the sink.

Jeff ran his fingers over the edge of the box as he briefly pondered the decision he arrived at while he was sorting through the boxes filled with childhood memories. Memories that made him remember there was a time in his life when he believed his father was a hero, like most children believe of their parents.

He realized while he sat alone in his old bedroom that he didnít need these things to make him feel like he belonged here. What was important was whether he wanted to.

He slid the box across the table to his sister-in-law. "Caroline." Jeff cleared his throat. "I know Mike always liked these models when we were kids. Lord knows we fought over them enough. Iím sure he doesnít have any use for them now, but maybe heíd like Zachary to have them when heís older."

Caroline stared incredulously at him and then, without a word, she lifted Zachary into Alexís arms much to the taller womanís surprise and stood up. She wrapped her arms around Jeff and squeezed him tightly. "I want my son to have them," she whispered, as her lips brushed his cheek.

******

Regina all Iím saying is, think about it. A relationship with a man is difficult enough," her mother said as she walked out of the kitchen with her daughter by her side.

"Mom, I canít believe youíre going to start this all over again."

Alice stopped in the foyer and glanced over at the tall, dark-haired woman, standing by the front door. If her daughter could see the distrust she had in her expression, so be it, she didnít care. "I just canít imagine that she can make you happy. I donít understand. Why would you want this life?"

Regina ignored her motherís question, refusing to be baited into another argument. Instead she smiled as she watched Alex lean in and say something to Jeff that made her brother laugh. "Mom you donít have to understand Ė just know that Iím happy.

Alice looked back at her daughter and sighed in exasperation.

"We have to go, Mom," Regina said softly. She saw an anxious, almost fearful expression cross her motherís face before the older woman embraced her briefly.

As they separated, Robert walked past them, carrying his sleeping grandson in his arms. "Jeff, are you sure youíre okay to drive Caroline home?"

"Iím fine," Jeff assured him.

Regina walked over to Alex and slipped her arms inside the sleeves of the coat that the taller woman was holding out for her.

"Thanks," she whispered, glancing back over her shoulder into sparkling, blue eyes.

"My pleasure," Alex replied and ran her hand over Reginaís back affectionately. It had been an uncomfortable experience to say the least and she felt a weight lifting from her as they got ready to leave.

"Hey, Sis. I need my keys." Jeff held out his hand expectantly.

Regina dug into her pockets and then tossed them to him, smiling as he snatched them out of the air.

Caroline stepped forward and gently lifted Zachary out of her father-in-lawís arms. "Itís time to take my little man home."

"Youíre going home?" Alice asked hopefully. Sheíd been worried all night about what Mikeís behavior might do to her sonís relationship.

"Yeah, Mike and I need to talk and it wouldnít hurt him to apologize to his brother."

Jeff shrugged indifferently and opened the front door. He appreciated Carolineís sentiments but he didnít hold much hope out for any kind of reconciliation with his brother. "Letís go."

One by one, they all filed out of the house until it was Jeff and his parents left inside. He looked at both of them briefly and then held his hand out to his father.

"Come here," the older man growled and pulled his son into a hug. "Iím glad you came home."

Jeff pulled back from the embrace first and stared down at the hardwood floor. "Me too."

He winced and pulled away as his motherís hand lightly brushed over his bruised cheekbone. "Iím sorry Michael did this to you."

She looked up into his hazel eyes and smiled sadly. "I donít know that sorry mean that much after all these years."

Jeff leaned in and kissed her cheek. "It does," he said and quickly turned away so they wouldnít see his tears as he walked out the door.

******

Alex strolled to her Jeep with an arm draped over Reginaís shoulders. She squeezed her and cast a quick glance down at her loverís somber countenance. "Nickel for your thoughts."

Regina wrapped an arm around Alexís waist and leaned in against her taller frame. "I guess I just feel sad."

The older woman remained silent and let her fingers curl around Reginaís shoulder. At her truck, Alex turned around and leaned against the hood of the vehicle.

Regina pressed against her and nestled her head against the Alexís shoulder. She bit her lower lip and her eyes filled with tears as she felt the gentle pressure of Alexís hand as she stroked her hair.

"Anything I can do?" Alex watched the blonde head shake back and forth and heard the quiet sniffle.

"Just hold me."

"Always," Alex whispered. She suspected her partner prepared herself for a negative response from her parents towards the two of them and was blindsided by her brotherís hostility with Jeff. The taller woman pressed her lips to the top of Reginaís head and closed her eyes. When she opened them she looked across the driveway and watched as Jeff descended the steps and headed towards them.

Halfway, he stopped and trotted over to his rental car and unlocked it for Caroline. He took his nephew from her as she crawled into the back and secured the car seat in place.

Jeff looked over at Alex standing a few feet away with her arms wrapped securely around his sister and smiled shyly at her. He carried Zachary over towards the two women.

"Hey, say goodnight to your nephew."

Regina wiped her eyes and turned around as Alex released her. She smiled when Zachary scrunched his face up, rubbed a fist over his eyes, and then yawned. "Ah, heís exhausted."

She lifted him up and planted a kiss on a chubby cheek. "Say goodbye, Alex." Regina waved Zacharyís arm at Alex.

The taller woman arched an eyebrow and waved briefly at Zachary.

"Well, we had quite a night didnít we?" Caroline ambled over and joined them. She hunched her shoulders and stuffed her hands in her pockets.

Jeff scuffed the heel of his shoe on the gravel. "We should get going. I have an early flight out tomorrow." He handed Zachary to Caroline and then wrapped an arm around Reginaís shoulder. Gently he guided her away from Alex. "Youíve got someone special there, Reg."

A sweet smile crossed the younger womanís lips in response. "I know." She looked over at Alex and then back up at Jeff. "You know you have an open invitation at my place."

"Thanks." He leaned closer and gathered her into his arms. "I may just take you up on that sooner than you think."

"Good. Iím going to hold you to it." Regina stepped back as Jeff let her go. There was a part of her deep inside that ached at the sadness that emanated from her brotherís eyes.

After, they all said goodbye and were in there cars, Regina leaned back in her seat and looked at Alexís profile silhouetted by Jeffís headlights as he backed his car up.

"What are you thinking?"

Alex turned in her seat, draped an arm over Reginaís shoulder, and brought her face close to the blondeís. "I was just wondering how you would feel about waking up in Provincetown tomorrow morning, instead of our hotel room."

"Ooh, Iíd love to." Regina raised a hand and let her fingertips graze the soft flesh of Alexís lips. Her brow creased in concern. "Do you want to sleep for a while before we leave?"

A low growl rumbled from the brunetteís chest and she captured one of Reginaís fingers between her lips. She shook her head as she slowly released it. "No, Iím fine, and Iíll be even better when we get there."


Chapter Nineteen

 

 

Jeff felt a quiet melancholy settle over him as he pulled into his sister-in-lawís driveway. Michaelís taunting words echoed in his mind. Did coming home fulfill your expectations? He wished heíd had the guts to wipe the sneer off his brotherís face when he uttered the bitter remark.

He shifted the car into park and let the engine idle. The headlights illuminated the garage at the end of the driveway and their glare reflected back off the windows, forcing Jeff to blink and look away.

He watched Caroline turn and look over the seat at her sonís sleeping form. Her eyebrows knitted together in concern as Zachary shifted in the car seat and whimpered in his sleep. After a moment, she glanced back at Jeff and met his steady gaze.

"Iím glad Zachary is too young to remember what happened tonight." Caroline rested an elbow on the lip of the window. She settled her head in her hand as she studied her husbandís older brother, wondering briefly what the eveningís events would do to Jeffís already jaded view of his family. In her mind, she couldnít reconcile that it was her Michaelís hand that put the ugly, discolored mark there in the first place.

Caroline turned her gaze out the window. "When Mike walks into the room, Zachary just lights up; to him his father walks on water."

Jeff lowered his head and ran a hand over his face. "I think we all felt that way at some point about our parents. I learned a long time ago that theyíre just human, suffering from the same frailty and weaknesses as everyone else. The sooner he learns that, the less heíll be hurt in the end."

"Donít say that." Carolineís voice broke and she covered her mouth with a trembling hand.

"Why? Itís true." He flipped his hand in growing irritation.

"I want him to look up at his father and see the man that I know he is," Caroline pleaded.

Jeff exhaled and shook his head. "Iím sorry, Caroline. I just donít know that side of my brother. If thatís what Michael wants him to see, then he will." He managed to get the curt response out, firmly setting the responsibility of Zacharyís opinion of his father on Michaelís shoulders.

"Jeff, I know thereís no love lost between you two, but it would mean so much to me if you would just talk to him."

"How can you ask me that, Caroline?"

"Heís your brother."

Jeff snorted and shook his head. "As if that should mean anything at this point. What the hell do you want me to say to him?"

Caroline leaned over in the seat and wrapped her hand around Jeffís arm. "Jeff youíre the same man who gave me that box of airplane models to give to your nephew. So donít try and convince me you donít care, because I know you do."

Jeff closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Why donít you go inside, Caroline. Itís cold and Iím sure you want to get Zachary to bed."

"Youíre going to give up just like that?"

"Hey, itís late, and frankly Iíve been through enough crap for one day."

A light flicked on inside the garage and then they heard the rumble of the door as the automatic opener was engaged. A familiar figure walked toward them, stopping just inside the door.

Jeff turned off the headlights when he saw his brother bring a hand up to shield his eyes from their brilliant glare. Impatiently, he reached across the front seat and opened the door for Caroline.

"Look, itís not going to work. He had seventeen years to think about it and the first thing he does when he sees me again is take a cheap shot at me."

Jeff watched as Carolineís expression sobered and she huddled deeper into the heavy, wool coat she was wearing.

"If you go back to California tomorrow, do you think youíll ever talk to your brother again?"

No, Jeff thought to himself as he stared back at her. He realized his silence was an admission and looked away.

"Thatís what I thought," Caroline replied sadly.

He remained silent the entire time while she stepped out of the car and then retrieved her son from the back seat.

Why the hell should I care? Jeff flinched when Caroline slammed the door and walked away from the car. He threw the gearshift into reverse, looked over his shoulder out the rear window, and then stepped on the gas. As he backed out of the driveway, he caught sight of the cardboard box sitting on the back seat.

"Ah, shit!" He hit the brakes hard, causing the car to lurch to an abrupt halt. After he fumbled for the handle in the dark, he finally got the door open.

"Caroline! Wait!"

He watched her stop halfway, turn around, and look back at him. She made no move to return to the car.

With an exasperated sigh, Jeff grabbed the box from the rear of the car and then stepped out of the front seat. He could see Michael studying him from inside the garage and he wished he could read what was going on behind the enigmatic expression on his brotherís face.

"I ... um," he hesitated. Jesus, what the hell am I doing? "You forgot the box." Brilliant. Youíre a lawyer and thatís the best you can come up with?

"I guess I did," Caroline stated offhandedly.

"I called your parentís house and they said you werenít there." Michael stepped forward and took the car seat from his wifeís hands.

"I changed my mind and Jeff gave me something to give to you."

Michael stared through his brother. "I canít imagine anything he could have that I would want."

Jeff gnawed on the inside of his lip, wondering briefly if he should just chuck the whole box at his bull-headed brotherís head and leave now, with what little dignity he had left. He exhaled forcefully and shook his head, wondering why this seemed so important now, after all these years that he try and rebuild a relationship with his brother.

"Look, I really donít care what you do with this stuff." Jeff stalked past Caroline and set the box on the top of the garbage can that was sitting next to the garage door. "Theyíre some old models that I made when I was a kid. Dad gave them to me today."

Michael turned his head and scowled at his older brother. "Why would I want those things?"

"Michael, just listen to him," Caroline insisted.

Jeffís eyes met Michaelís and he returned the hardened look with one of his own "Like I said, you can throw them out or maybe, youíd like your son to have then one day. There was a time when you couldnít keep your hands off them."

He ran his fingers over the top of the box, searching for something to say, then, stepped away from his brother and headed back to his car. As he opened the door, he stopped and looked back.

"Carolineís right, Michael." He offered her a gentle, knowing smile. "I do care, and whether you like it or not, Iím still a part of this family. The question is whether you want to be a part of mine."

He hesitated uncertainly before he got back in the car. Without another glance at his brother, he backed out of the driveway, wondering briefly if he would ever hear from Michael again.

******

Alex entered their hotel room and shed her black leather jacket, dumping it unceremoniously over the back of a chair. She tossed her keys onto the nightstand next to her pager.

Her younger companion strode in behind her and slumped onto the king size bed with a loud groan. "I canít begin to tell you how glad I am thatís over," Regina stated and dropped her head into her hands.

"It was pretty rough," Alex admitted, judiciously keeping her opinions of Michael to herself. She could see the tension settle in her partnerís shoulders and scooted back on the bed so she was sitting behind Regina with her legs straddling the smaller womanís hips. "Come here."

She pulled Regina closer and started massaging the taught muscles at the base of her neck. "Youíre really tight up here," Alex tilted her head and peered around to look at Reginaís face. "Are you okay?"

"I think so." Regina leaned back into the strong body behind her and sighed. "I donít know why I feel the way I do. Jeffís the one who got treated like shit today."

"You love him. Why wouldnít you be upset?" Alex kept up the kneading motion with her hands, wishing she could take away some of the hurt Regina was feeling.

"God, I canít believe what a prick Michael was. I guess I know how he really felt about Jeff and me all those years."

Alex pulled Regina back and rolled onto her side so they were curled up next to each other.

"Are you still up for driving out to Provincetown tonight?" Regina inquired. She nestled closer and rested her head on Alexís outstretched arm. Inhaling deeply, a contented smile formed on her face as she savored the clean scent that lingered on her loverís body.

"Absolutely," the brunette responded and then nuzzled the back of Reginaís neck with her lips. She smiled at the soft purring noise her partner made and felt a stirring sensation in her groin as Regina pushed her hips back against her body. In response, Alex stretched the fingers of her hand out and teasingly slipped them beneath the waistband of the blondeís jeans.

"I thought you wanted to leave." Regina arched her back and rotated her hips into Alexís belly.

"I do," Alex chuckled seductively and kissed her cheek, knowing full well that if she stayed right here, there was no way they were going to make it to Provincetown tonight. "Let me go throw some cold water on my face and then we can go."

"Youíre such a tease," Regina pouted at the sudden loss of contact that left her feeling empty and wanting. She rolled onto her stomach when she heard the water running in the bathroom and settled her chin on her forearms. Several tendrils of hair fell forward and Regina brushed them back behind her ear.

Her thoughts turned inward as her motherís parting words to her replayed in her mind from earlier in the evening. Of course any relationship can be difficult. Weíve certainly had our share of obstacles, but weíve made it so far. I wonder if any of that would matter to you, Mom.

She propped her chin on her hands and stared at the wall with a thoughtful expression on her face. I wonder where we are going.

Regina picked up Alexís beeper, turned it over in her hands, and looked at the time displayed on the screen. Just after ten. If we leave now and donít hit any traffic weíll be in Provincetown by one in the morning at the latest. Not too bad.

Out of habit, she checked for any pages and unexpectedly found one. Oh boy.

"Alex?"

"What?" Came the muffled response as the taller woman walked out of the bathroom while she wiped her face dry with a terry cloth towel.

"You got a page from the emergency department."

"What?" She reached for the beeper. "Let me see. I know Jon is covering for me while Iím away." Alex strode over to her jacket and pulled out her cellular phone. She hardly looked at the keypad as she quickly punched in the numbers.

The doctor tapped her foot impatiently, waiting for the connection to be made and then spoke after the voice on the other end told her she reached Saint Xavierís Emergency Department. "This is Dr. Margulies. Somebody paged me."

She waited again as she was put on hold. A moment later a wry grin broke out on her face as a familiar voice came over the line.

"Hi Sandy. Whatís up?" Alex rolled her eyes as the nurse recounted the chaos of the last couple of hours.

"What are you doing calling here while youíre off?" Sandy asked.

"I got a page earlier," Alex replied.

"I donít know who paged you. At least, nobody is owning up to it and anyway. Jon is here manning the zoo."

The doctor chuckled at the image her mind conjured up. "Anything going on that I need to know about?" Alex inquired, as she ran a hand through her thick mane of hair.

"Some guy in a suit, was here looking for you earlier, but he wouldnít leave a name or tell me what it was about."

Alex could hear the irritation in Sandyís voice. "Was it someone from the hospital?"

"I didnít recognize him, but that doesnít mean anything. Youíve seen on suit, youíve seen them all," Sandy drawled. "Oh I almost forgot. Pediatrics called a code six, twice tonight. I havenít heard anything official, but security has been crawling all over the place."

"So no one knows if a patient is actually missing or if itís just a drill." Alex glanced over at Regina and shrugged.

"No, not yet," Sandy replied.

Alex heard loud voices in the background and then Sandyís voice came back through the line. "Iíve got to go Alex. Weíve got two gun shot victims on the way."

"Talk to you later. Bye." Alex turned her phone off and tucked it back into the pocket of her jacket.

Regina sat up on the bed and leaned forward. "What happened?"

Alex shrugged. "Pediatrics may have a missing patient on their hands."

"Youíre kidding me! Maybe I should call the unit and find out whatís going on."

Alex frowned. "No, donít do that. We donít even know if itís for real and thereís nothing you can do about it from here anyway." She turned away and tucked a few items back into her duffel bag. "Besides, if they did have a kid run off itís going to end up being a police matter," she added offhandedly.

There was a hesitation before Regina spoke quietly. "I guess youíre right."

Alex heard the catch in Reginaís voice and turned around. Her eyes widened slightly when she saw the hurt expression on her partnerís face. "Iím sorry, Reg. That sounded pretty callous." She sat down on the bed, rested her elbows on her knees, and looked over at Regina.

"Itís all right." Regina averted her eyes from Alex gaze and then looked intently at the floor.

"No, itís not. You have patients up there, so you have every right to be concerned. I shouldnít be telling what you what to do." Alex slipped her arm over the blondeís shoulder and sighed. "You always think about everyone else before yourself. My motives were purely selfish."

"What are you talking about?"

Alex snorted, feeling rather ashamed that she so easily discounted Reginaís concern. "I just donít want anything to happen that would ruin this time we have together."

Regina considered this while she regarded Alexís stern profile. "I think I can understand why you would feel that way."

"Do you?" Alex asked, afraid to voice what she was feeling.

Regina leaned back, supporting her weight on her hands. "Maybe I donít, but I know how I felt when you first went back to work. I resented it." She met the wary blue eyes and continued. "I resented it for all the times you sacrificed yourself to do what was right and no one bothered to even acknowledge what youíd done."

Alex blinked, surprised at the anger she heard in Reginaís voice.

"So, I decided that it was all right to be selfish about the time we spend with each other. After what weíve been through I think we deserve to be for a little while."

Alex studied Regina serious expression for a moment. "I wasnít sure what you would think of me if I told you that very thing. Itís not wrong to feel that way is it?"

"No, itís not wrong and Iím not even sure it is being selfish," Regina reaffirmed tenderly, as she gazed fondly at the proud and stoic woman. She ran her fingers through Alexís long hair, lifting it back off her shoulder. "Itís human," she admonished gently and pulled her lover closer, affectionately kissing her cheeks and forehead before lightly touching her lips.

Relieved, Alex let out a sigh and a slightest hint of a smile played around her mouth. She started to say something else when Regina leaned closer and kissed her again. She lost track of her thoughts instead, reveling in the sensations of Reginaís lips on hers and the warm hand lazily caressing her neck.

Regina slowly pulled away and smiled at Alexís slightly unfocused gaze. "You donít need to worry about what I would think of you. I love you." With a smile, she tugged the taller woman to her feet. "Now I believe we have someplace to go."

******

"Terry do you know where TJ is?" The nurse glanced at her watch, as she stepped into her patientís room. The last time she checked, which had been over an hour ago, her patient had been curled up on his bed, staring at the television. Now, not only couldnít they find him, but the plastic bag filled with his clothes was gone as well.

The young girl slowly pulled her eyes away from the television program she was watching to look at her. She shrugged. "Sometimes he goes down to the cafeteria to get something to eat."

"What? He has no money!" the nurse exclaimed and then shook her head. "Oh never mind." She ducked back out of the room and Terry heard her call out to the nurseís station. "Tell security to check the cafeteria!"

Are they gone yet?" TJ craned his neck to peer up at Terry from beneath the bed.

"Shush. Just a minute." Terry crawled off the bed and shuffled out into the hallway with her IV pole to look. She returned after a brief inspection. "Thereís still one security guard hanging out at the nurseís station."

"The one that likes that nurse with the blonde hair?" He made a face and unrolled the towel where he hid the small stuffed animal he stole from the gift shop earlier that day.

It was easy since they were heaped up in bin by the door. All he did was wait until the woman behind the counter was distracted and then he stuffed the orange and black striped tiger underneath his shirt and slipped away unnoticed.

"Yeah," Terry responded.

TJ scooted out and sat cross-legged on the floor. "Thanks for not ratting me out." He tied the shoelace on one of his sneakers. He scraped at an old, brown bloodstain on the worn canvas.

"Youíre not welcome." Terry pouted from her perch on the hospital bed.

"Iím not going to another foster home," TJ replied.

"Isnít that better than living on the street?"

TJ stared up at her. "You wouldnít understand." How could she? Terry had two parents and a house to go home to. Nobody had ever gone into her room in the middle of the night, woken her up, and told her to pack up her things because she couldnít stay there anymore.

The first time that happened it was because the cops found out his father was selling drugs out of the house. "Weíre going to take you someplace where someone can look after you," the man in the uniform told him.

He believed them, but it turned out to be a lie. Nobody told him how the foster parentís real kids would resent him and make his life a living hell.

The last foster home heíd been in was no better. He suffered a beating at the hands of the womanís drunken boyfriend one night. When it was over, he curled up in his bed and lay awake, afraid to go to sleep.

Without any real conscious thought as to where he would go, he had shoved his few possessions into a backpack and silently crept out of the house while everyone else was asleep. He couldnít quite remember how long ago it was but he did know he was never going back.

TJ stood up and looked down at Terry. Her back was to him as she sat with her knees pulled up to her chin. He saw the shudder as she breathed and realized she was crying.

He looked nervously at the door, knowing he couldnít stay long. They were looking for him. "Here." He unceremoniously shoved the stuffed animal into her hands and stepped back.

Her eyes widened in surprise and she wiped her nose, sniffing loudly. "Youíre the only friend I have here," she whispered. It was true. TJ was the only kid on the floor who regularly came to visit her. He even brought her a bag of potato chips or an ice cream bar from his occasional late night jaunts to the cafeteria.

TJ looked down at the floor and frowned. "Youíre my only friend too," he said, when he looked back up at her.

Terry knelt on the mattress and crawled over to where he was standing and hugged him. "Where are you going?"

He shrugged as he stepped back self-consciously. "I donít know."

Terry wiped her eyes and reached into the nightstand by her bed. "Here." She shoved her gray sweatshirt into his hands. "Take this. Itís cold."

With a grateful smile he tugged it over his head. "Thanks." His eyes darted up to her face and then he kissed her quite awkwardly on the cheek before he walked to the door.

He peered out into the corridor, waited until the coast was clear and then sprinted down the hall to the doors that led off the pediatric unit. He yanked the door open and bolted across the tiled floor to the open stairwell. With his heart pounding in his chest, he waited, listening for any voices. Hearing none, he scampered down the three flights of metal steps to the ground floor.

He noticed a couple of people dressed in scrubs and lab coats walking towards him but they were completely engrossed in their own conversation and ignored him. He saw the exit sign up ahead and walked quickly towards the revolving door.

"Hey!"

His whole body jerked, when he heard the sharp voice. He glanced up and saw the gray-haired man, dressed in green scrubs, mopping the floor off to his right.

"Watch your step there, son. The floor is still wet."

TJ nodded and then stepped into the doorway. The cold air was a shock after the heat that was being pumped through the overhead vents in the doorway.

He pulled the sweatshirt sleeves down over his hands when he stepped outside. Without a backward glance he walked along the sidewalk and disappeared into the dark.

******

Alex rolled over in the queen-sized bed, folded her hands behind her head. The ride across the narrow peninsula the night before had been relatively uneventful. After stopping at a roadside diner for two large cups of coffee they were quickly on their way and arrived at Alexís apartment on the Cape, early in the morning.

The bright light from the sun was just starting to peak through the glass doors that led out onto the small balcony. Through the windows, Alex could see the late winter sky. It was the off-season in Provincetown, and the town stood in stark contrast to summer season when its streets teamed with people.

She reached a hand out and stroked her fingers through the silky, flaxen hair that surrounded her loverís head in a disheveled halo on the pillow. Her expression softened as she studied the fair-skinned womanís youthful features.

Who would have guessed that this ornery, cynical, and untrusting soul would have found someone who believed enough in her to remain steadfast by her side? Certainly, not me, the doctor thought to herself.

Alex lifted a lock of Reginaís hair and curled it around her fingers while she continued to sift through her emotions. Theyíd known each other for almost a eight months now. It was hard to believe that it passed as quickly as it did.

The gray emptiness she drifted in before she met the Regina had been transformed and in its place was a landscape of vibrant colors. There were times when Alex looked at Regina and she wondered, what in her life sheíd done right to deserve such a wonderful gift as her love.

Whatever it was, she vowed silently to god, that sheíd spend the rest of her days trying to make sure she didnít do anything to lose what had become as essential to her as the air that she breathed.

Alex exhaled softly as she acknowledged the powerful emotions stirring inside.

A tender smile crossed her lips as sleepy, green eyes fluttered open. Beneath the warm down covers, Regina shifted in the bed to curl her body into Alexís and wrap an arm firmly around her waist.

"Morning," Alex whispered, with an amused expression on her face.

Regina stretched and rubbed up against Alexís naked body. "I donít think I remember falling asleep last night."

"You mean this morning," the taller woman replied in an uneven voice as her body responded to the contact.

Regina blinked and lazily let a hand drift up and graze Alexís breast before it settled on her shoulder. "Iím so glad you suggested we come out here instead of staying at the hotel. It makes yesterday seem like it happened a long time ago."

"I wanted us to have more time together." Alexís eyes twinkled gently as she looked at Reginaís wistful smile.

"So, what do you have in mind now that you have me all to yourself?" Regina squirmed closer and playfully nibbled the skin along her jaw. Her fingers caressed her neck and she teased Alex with her fingernails.

Alex flashed a smile and let a hand stray over the silken skin of her loverís belly. "Oh, there are a few things I could think of," she replied, deepening the pitch of her voice, the one she knew drove Regina to distraction.

"Really? Mm, tell me," Regina coaxed in a huskily, as she abruptly scooted up and straddled Alex. She nipped lightly at Alexís earlobe, sending a shiver down the taller womanís spine.

"Thereís a little café where we could eat." Alex caught her breath as a sensual wave of heat shot straight to her groin and ignited her desire. "Breakfast," she gasped, as Regina trailed her lips along her collarbone and then captured a nipple and tugged on it gently.

"Then what?" Regina ran her tongue along the underside of Alexís breast and then moved up to suck the hardened nipple between her lips again. Slowly, she relinquished the swollen bud and focused her attention on the other one. "Mm, still thinking?" she asked, as she lay kisses across Alexís shoulder and then down her arm to taste the tender flesh along the inside of her elbow.

Regina trailed her fingers over Alexís belly, skirted the dark tangle of hair, and then caressed the skin of her inner thigh.

Alex attempted to lift her head up and let it fall back onto the pillow with a groan. "You talk about me being a tease." Regina smiled wickedly, before she tossed the bedcovers back and continued her slow, exquisite torture.

Nothing escaped her attention as she traced the contours of Alexís calf with her tongue. Her exploration took her back the inside of Alexís thighs where she rubbed her cheek over the quivering muscles.

"Oh," Alex arched her back and dug her heels into the bed as Reginaís fingertips traced a meandering path over the fine, pale-colored hairs running down the center of her taut belly.

"Oh, what?" Regina teased, as her hand stroked over the coarse, dark hairs covering Alexís mound.

Alex shuddered as Regina parted her moist lips. "Oh god." She moaned and her hand covered Reginaís guiding it to where she needed her to be. Her body shuddered and she was sure she was going to explode long before Regina released her.

"Not yet," Regina told her. She straddled Alexís hips again, leaned forward, and touched her lips to the sweet mouth below her. She increased the pressure, her tongue slipping between those lips, teasing the softness of her loverís mouth. Slowly she pulled away and smiled into the blue eyes before she left a searing trail of heated kisses along Alexís long frame.

"Youíre going to kill me," Alex rasped, as she watched Regina slide down her body and settle leisurely between her legs. The only response she got was a knowing, seductive smile.

Regina teased Alex, blowing softly on the coarse hairs before she nuzzled the silky wetness of her swollen lips with her tongue. A moment later, Alexís breathing went ragged and she pressed her head back into the pillow. Her hands clutched the sheets and she arched her hips, encouraging Regina to go deeper.

As Regina matched the rhythm of her loverís hips with her thrusts, Alex reached overhead and grabbed the headboard. Their movements rocked the bed.

"Look at me, Alex." Regina lifted herself up, still working her fingers in and out of the warm, wet, suppleness of Alexís sex. She watched the blue eyes darken with unrestrained passion as they fixed on her.

Alex whispered Reginaís name, chanting the words, "Donít stop, please, donít stop," she cried out, and her body arched and her hips bucked as the first waves of her orgasm raced out from her center. Bright lights danced in her vision and she clutched at Reginaís shoulders in an iron-like grip.

As the last shudders coursed through her, Regina wrapped herself around Alex and let the quiet afterglow consume them.

Sometime later, Regina smiled at the sight in front of her as she sauntered out of the bathroom. Alex was stretched out asleep on her stomach, head resting on her arms, with the bed sheet tangled around her waist. Her long dark hair, splayed out over the muscular expanse of her back.

Unable to resist, Regina straddled the firm buttocks and began massaging the strong shoulders. She pressed against the firm body and laid gentle kisses over the smooth skin until Alex stirred and lifted her head up.

"I guess we missed breakfast," she commented in a sleepy voice.

"We sure did." Regina rested the palms of her hands on Alexís back, enjoying the warmth and the strength she felt beneath them.

Alex twisted beneath her, struggling to look up into those green eyes, which had held her captive during their lovemaking earlier. Up until now, sheíd always been the one to initiate anything between them. "You, um, were more-" Alex frowned searching for words. "Aggressive today."

She watched the blush creep up Reginaís neck and highlight the blonde eyebrows. Regina ducked her head and started to roll off of Alex to hide her embarrassment.

"Hey." Alex shifted and caught Reginaís arm, stopping her. "Come back here," she whispered and struggled to sit up beneath her lover. She lifted the Reginaís chin with her fingertips and kissed the soft, full lips. Alexís tongue grazed the edges of her teeth before gliding over Reginaís tongue in a playful caress. She pulled away and looked into uncertain green eyes. "I liked it very much."

Enough said, she flopped back down onto the bed and tucked her hands behind her head to watch Regina. A smile played at the corner of the blondeís mouth and her blush continued. Instead of trying to slip away, Regina snuggled down on top of Alex and buried her head in her neck.

"I um ... bought some books the last time I was here," she confessed.

Alex arched an eyebrow and tilted her head to look at Regina, thinking back to last summer and wondering when she read them. "Really. That was quite a while ago."

Regina giggled and nodded her head. "Youíre telling me."

Alex laughed at her remark and tickled Reginaís side with her fingertips, causing her to squirm. "So, I guess you liked them."

"Very much," Regina whispered, still keeping her head buried in Alexís shoulder.

"Maybe we should get some more." Alex rolled over and pinned Regina down, a predatory smile crossing her features.

"Weíll miss lunch," Regina gasped at the sudden change in her position.

"Iíll make it up to you later," Alex replied, as she ducked her head and kissed Regina again.


 

Chapter Twenty

 

 

Alex strolled down the quiet sidewalk with her arm draped affectionately over Reginaís shoulders. Both of them were bundled up in layers of clothes and heavy coats. It was almost comfortable in the sun but the shady overhangs of the storefronts brought an instant reminder that winter was reluctant to let go of its hold on the region.

Alex hugged the shorter woman to her, then, turned as Regina slowed and peered into another store window. She felt her shiver slightly and brought her lips close to her ear. "Are you warm enough?"

"Perfect," Regina replied, smiling up into sparkling blue eyes. She snuggled closer within the embrace of Alexís arm and sighed contentedly.

They had lounged in bed together until late that morning after they spent a leisurely time in loving exploration. It felt wonderful and the rest of the world with all its incessant problems seemed to fade farther away, unable to intrude on their special time together.

"Anything particular youíd like to do?" Alex asked, as they resumed their walk.

The narrow street opened up as they neared a wharf. The sweet smell of chocolate and fudge filled the air around them. "Oh boy. I hear my sweet tooth calling me." Regina flashed a gleeful smile at her companion as she lifted her head and inhaled the fragrant aroma of the confections.

"I canít believe theyíre actually open," Alex replied as she trotted up the concrete steps and pulled the door open for Regina. "After you." She waved her arm in front of her and gave a half bow.

Regina winked playfully at her as she slipped into the warm, sweet smelling environment. "Wow! Look at all this candy."

Alex walked up beside Regina and rested her elbow on the glass counter top, as she eyed the trays of fudge that were arrayed in the case below. A playful smirk tugged at the corner of her mouth and she cocked an eyebrow up when Regina tilted her neck and smiled up at her. Unable to resist the opportunity she leaned closer and whispered in Reginaís ear. "Isnít chocolate an aphrodisiac?"

A blush immediately crept up Reginaís face and the blonde covered her face with a hand. "Youíre incorrigible, Alex. You know that, right?"

A middle-aged woman with her hair pinned up in a bun, turned around, leaving the taffy she was working with and smiled at the two women across from her. "What would you ladies like?"

Alex cast a quick glance at Regina and answered first. "I didnít realize you did such a big business that you stayed open all year."

A smile broke out on the womanís face. "Youíd be surprised how many people buy this stuff and have it shipped all over the states. Do you know what youíd like yet?"

Regina cleared her throat and nodded. "Iíd like a quarter pound of the dark chocolate fudge with nuts please."

"Actually, make that a half pound," Alex added.

"Oh, you have a sweet tooth. Do you?" Brown eyes regarded Alex from across the counter. "Coming right up. Do you want me to put it in a box?"

"Can you put half of it in a box and the other half just wrap up in a bag?"

"Sure." Came the reply and the woman turned away to retrieve a medium sized, white cardboard box from a cabinet.

Regina reached out and ran her hand down the front of Alexís off-white, ribbed sweater, shaking her head as she regarded the taller woman. "A half-pound? Sandy would have a heart attack if she saw the hunk of chocolate you just bought."

"Well, I thought I might give her a small bit of it when we get back." Alex brought her thumb and index finger together, indicating a very small hunk of fudge.

"I think you can spare more than that little bit," Regina teased and grabbed hold of Alexís hand playfully. She quickly found herself turned around and wrapped up in a tight hug.

A deep throaty, chuckle escaped Alexís throat as she picked up Regina and set her down, facing the doorway. The younger woman fell into a fit of giggles and walked over to the counter to pay for their purchase. She turned and wagged a finger at Alex. "You do not need anymore chocolate."

In response, Alex pushed out her lower lip in a pout and sauntered over to the door.

Regina paid the woman behind the counter for her purchase, and then followed Alex down the concrete steps. Standing on the sidewalk, she opened one of the packages and broke off a piece of fudge, which she immediately started to nibble on. "Alex, do you want a piece?" She watched as the taller woman came to an abrupt halt at the edge of the sidewalk. "Alex?"

"Huh? What?" A stricken expression crossed Alexís face and she swallowed nervously. Her breaths came in short gasps and her stomach tied up in knots. She swallowed and clenched her jaw as a tide of guilt, remorse, and a deep sense of loss filled her soul.

She wasnít prepared for the visceral response at seeing Lanaís store a mere fifty feet away in the distance and could barely contain the tears that unexpectedly brimmed in her eyes.

A hand touched her side and she closed her eyes before she looked into the green ones that she knew were watching her.

"Alex, whatís wrong?" Regina asked, as she looked into the tormented blue eyes.

Alex raised her arm and then let it drop limply back to her side and shook her head. What a blubbering idiot I am. Come on get it together here. "Nothing. Itís okay."

Sheíd been so engrossed in their walk a few minutes before she hadnít even realized how close to the store they were. Irritated with herself, for letting her emotions get the better of her, Alex turned away from Regina to collect her thoughts.

Regina could tell by the clipped response and the rapid darting of Alexís eyes that she wasnít telling her everything. She reigned in her initial response to pepper her with questions, knowing that if she gave the woman some space she would eventually get around to telling her what was wrong.

Instead, Regina slipped an arm through Alexís and turned her so they were facing the bay. "You asked me what I wanted to do earlier. I want to take a walk by the water."

"Thatís easy enough," Alex replied in an oddly subdued voice as she stepped down off the curb.

Regina glanced back over her shoulder as she fell into step beside her partner. There was no one in the street behind them and she wondered briefly what Alex saw that caused such an intense reaction.

She glanced off to her left and spied a small wharf with its boat slips and something came to her in a flash of memory. Regina tightened her grip on Alexís arm and snuggled closer as they walked. You were so worried about how I would feel coming back here that you didnít stop to think about how it would affect you. Did you, Alex?

The wind blew at their backs as they walked along the sidewalk and approached the jetty.

Regina tilted her head and closed her eyes for a moment while the wind to lift her hair from her face. She soaked in the rhythmic rumble of the waves as one after the other, they swept in from the depths, gathering strength, and speed only to crash into the sand and resume their journey back out to see again.

"I love to listen to the sound of the ocean," Regina remarked, breaking the silence between them. "Itís soothing."

"Soothing," Alex repeated, shaking her head in wry amusement.

"You donít think it is." Regina blinked as the sun peaked out from behind a dark cloud.

"I guess. I donít think of one of the most powerful forces on earth as being soothing." Alex shrugged indifferently.

Regina regarded the sad expression on Alexís face for a moment and then straightened her shoulders before letting go of her arm. "Come on. Letís walk out on the jetty." She held her hand out to Alex and then hesitantly let it drop as her companion made no move to take her hand. With an exasperated sigh, Regina turned and stepped up onto the rocks and began carefully picking her way across them.

After walking for several minutes, Regina finally turned around and scanned the distant shoreline for Alex. She was surprised not to see her anywhere. She ran a hand through her hair; a mixture of disbelief and anger running through her. "Dammit, Alex. Where the hell did you go?"

She toyed with the idea of walking back in to find Alex, but her stubborn nature won out. With a grim expression on her face she turned and continued to walk farther out on the jetty.

She tried to think about everything that they had done today and pick out what it was that caused Alex to be so upset. The only place that managed to get her was mad at herself for not asking the woman what was upsetting her when she saw the change in the expression on her face.

Had she done something to upset her? Regina didnít think so but, at this point she wasnít sure anymore. She cupped her hands together and blew on them before she jammed them back into her coat pockets and resumed her lonely walk away from shore.

******

Alex watched Regina for a moment and then looked over at the small diner. She frowned not quite understanding why she was feeling this way now, after all this time. I have no right to this, not after everything Iíve done. Frustrated, Alex bent down, picked up a medium sized stone off the ground, and tossed it in her hand before she threw it out into the waves. A plume of water shot up as it plunged into the water.

After a few minutes, she gazed back out across the rocks and was surprised at how far out Regina had already walked. Great, now Iíve gone and pissed her off.

This was not how she envisioned their day and Alex sank deeper into her sullen mood. She ducked her head and walked over to the diner. Inside, she walked up to the counter and ordered two hot chocolates. Disgusted with herself, she leaned on the counter, waiting for the waitress to finish filling the two Styrofoam cups with the hot beverage.

Ten minutes later, carrying a cup of hot chocolate in each hand, Alex walked back out to the jetty. She stepped up onto the mile long outcropping of rocks and frowned when she spotted the dark silhouette of her partner standing off in the distance.

She called her name out but the wind carried the sound back towards the shore and she knew unless Regina turned around she wouldnít know she was there.

******

Regina was cold, angry, and upset as she hunkered deeper into her wool jacket. She walked out as far as she felt comfortable going and now was trying to decide if she wanted to start the equally long walk back in towards the shore. The wind had kicked up again and the dark waves sent a cold, salty spray up over some of the rocks below her.

She scuffed the toe of her shoe against the rock and turned around. She let out a startled gasp when she saw Alex walking towards her across the rocks.

The taller woman stopped a few feet away and just looked at Regina. After a momentís hesitation, she set the two cups down on a flat rock and stepped closer, her gaze settling on her partnerís face.

"Iím sorry." She glanced down at her sneakers and sighed.

"You should be ... sorry," Regina answered shortly, still confused, and hurt about what happened.

Alex darted a quick surprised look over at the fiery, green eyes. "I donít know what happened back there." She shook her head and stuffed her hands in her coat pocket to keep from fidgeting. "I mean I do, but ... damn, this isnít coming out right."

A gull squawked as it flew in for a landing a few feet away from Alex and hopped around, searching for the odd scrap of food and any shells that might have lodged between the rocks.

Regina looked away from her. "I stood out here trying to figure out what I did wrong."

A gust of wind whipped the hem of Alexís coat whipped around her legs and she turned her head against the chill. "You didnít do anything wrong, Regina. It was me."

When she got no response from the blonde, Alex stepped closer. "Please look at me." She expected to see tears brimming in her eyes when Regina finally turned her head and looked at her.

There were none.

"I ... I," she coughed and cleared her throat, then tried again to put into words the private, inner feelings she seldom acknowledged to herself, let alone to another human being.

Patient green eyes met hers when she hazarded a glance over at Regina.

Alex ducked her head and frowned as she stared down at the rocks beneath her feet. "I donít know why it happened, but I felt it when we came out of the candy store. We were down the street from where Lanaís store used to be." She took a step and turned, putting her back to the wind.

Now, facing Regina she continued haltingly. "I felt guilty about being here ... with you." Alex saw the look of bewilderment and hurt in Reginaís eyes and cringed, wondering if she was making things worse by telling her the truth. "I donít know if I can explain this."

"Try," Regina answered over the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks.

Alex shook her head and looked out at the dark clouds gathering on the horizon. "You know what happened the last time you were here."

"Yeah," Regina drew the word out slowly, trying to figure out where Alex was going with this.

"Before you called me that night, I came out here and spread Lanaís ashes out over the water." Alex pressed her lips together, remembering the moonlit night and the quiet sense of finality sheíd felt standing out here alone. "At that moment, I never planned to come back here. I told myself I didnít deserve to have that kind of happiness ever again after everything that happened." Alex let her voice trail off and stared down at the water lapping up onto the rocks. "Now, here I am with you." Alex spread her hands in defeat and hung her head.

Regina stared in disbelief at the bowed head. She had no words to answer what Alex just told her. Not knowing what else to do, she walked the short distance to where Alex had set the Styrofoam cups down and retrieved them.

"Here." She pressed the now lukewarm cup into Alexís hands and stood next to her. A shiver passed through her as another cloud passed in front of the sun, blocking the warmth of its rays again.

Her initial response to Alexís words was to be angry and then resentful. How could she compete with Alexís feelings of guilt and remorse for what happened in the past?

Then she had another thought that tempered her raw emotions. Six months ago, you would have never told me that, Alex. Regina sighed to herself as she pulled open the lid on the cup and inhaled the pleasant aroma of the hot chocolate before she sipped it.

Her eyes roamed cautiously over the grim countenance of her lover. I guess this is something weíre going to have to work on together, because I donít think either one of us can do it alone.

"I donít want you to believe that." Regina reached out and touched one of Alexís arms.

"Believe what?" Alex blinked and turned her attention back to Regina.

"That you donít deserve to be happy." Regina reached up and ran the back of her knuckles against the soft skin of Alexís cheek. "I donít choose to believe that."

The taller woman closed her eyes and exhaled softly. "Your hands are freezing," she commented gruffly, as her larger hand covered Reginaís. "Iím sorry." Alex turned her head and pressed her lips into Reginaís hand before she pulled the smaller woman closer, and tucked her hand into the pocket of her coat.

Regina tilted her head to look up at Alex. "Letís walk back so we can find someplace where we warm up and get something to eat."

******

They were both cold and hungry by the time they reached the center of town. The sun had begun its descent towards the horizon and the sky was painted in brilliant shades of burnt orange and reds.

Alex felt the smaller woman shiver against her and she pulled her underneath an awning out of the wind. "Do you have any preferences where we go?"

Regina shook her head and pressed her hands up between their bodies, warming them between the layers of Alexís coat. "No," she replied, fighting not to let her teeth chatter. She looked across the street at the restaurant on the corner. Through the windows she could see dim lights and the outlines of tables and a bar. "What about over there?"

Alex looked across the street and shrugged. "Okay." It wasnít what she had in mind, but then again she had no one to blame but herself for ruining her own plans for a romantic dinner and evening.

She let the door shut behind her, shutting out the wet, damp wind that was beginning to blow in off the bay. Alex blinked as her eyes adjusted to the dim light. She looked around the rustic looking establishment. Fishnets, spears, and other whaling implements adorned the planked walls and ceilings above.

A haggard looking man with his hair pulled back into a ponytail, sat by the jukebox, staring intently at his drink. Behind the bar, stood a young man with curly, black hair and a nose ring, looking expectantly at Regina. Except for the four of them the establishment was otherwise empty.

Regina looked over from her perch on the stool. "What do you want to drink?"

"Whatever youíre having is fine." Alex walked over, pulled a twenty-dollar bill out of her wallet, and set it on the bar. "Itís quiet in here," she commented to the bartender.

"Itíll fill up later. Weíve got a band coming over to play tonight," he replied and then retrieved two frosty mugs from inside a freezer and poured their drinks. He set them down on the counter and looked over at Alex. "You want to just keep a tab running?"

She shrugged a shoulder indifferently and pocketed the bill. "Sure." She glanced outside where large, fat raindrops were starting to spatter on the windows and then looked back at Regina who stared at her over the brim of her frothy mug. "We might be here a while." Alex sipped her beer and rested an elbow on the edge of the bar.

"Letís go over there." Regina tugged Alexís arm and pulled her off the stool. She directed her companion to a dimly lit corner of the room and settled comfortably into a chair.

Alex draped her coat over the back of a chair and reached for Reginaís as the blonde shrugged out of it. Quietly, she settled into the chair opposite her friend and focused on her drink.

They were both quiet for a few moments until Regina cleared her throat and leaned forward, resting her elbows on the wooden table. "What was Lana like?"

The question caught her completely off guard and she missed the edge of the mug with her lips and sloshed the amber liquid on the table. Alex muttered a curse and quickly grabbed for some napkins to clean up the spill. Her eyes flicked over at Regina who was watching her intently.

"Sorry about that." Alex set her mug down and took a breath.

Regina shook her head and looked away, her fingers fidgeting nervously on the tabletop. "I just ... obviously youíve been thinking about her and ... well, I was curious."

Alex stared at Regina from across the table. She saw the blush color Reginaís fair-skinned features and reached across the table to clasp her hands inside her larger one. "Itís okay. I just wasnít expecting that particular question," she assured Regina with a squeeze of her hand.

So, what was Lana like? She felt a pang inside as she recalled the pictures she kept in her nightstand and realized they were the only two she had of the woman.

"Lana was a brilliant doctor." Alex trailed her fingertip down the side of the mug. "She was compassionate and dedicated." She looked over at Regina and tilted her head, knowing that wasnít what Regina really wanted to hear. "What do you want to know?"

"How did you meet her?"

A wry grin crossed Alexís face and she sat back in her chair. "We were in medical school together. We ended up being lab partners in gross anatomy."

Regina wrinkled her nose at the memory of that particular class and the stench of formaldehyde that clung to their lab clothes for an entire year.

"Actually, it was pretty funny," Alex continued. "It was one of the first days in lab and we were all standing around waiting for the professor to unzip the body bag. He was an egomaniac and loved making a big production of it." Alex shook her head in disgust. "You remember Richard?"

"The doctor who treated me up in Boston?" Reginaís face brightened for an instant.

Alex nodded. "He brought a bag of Granny Smith apples with him each day. I guess he thought it was a good way to get everyone to loosen up," she chuckled at the memory of loudly munching on an apple and the looks the two of them were getting from their colleagues. "Anyway, this blonde-haired woman is standing in front of me during one of the lab sessions. I remember the professor unzipping the black bag in front of us and all of a sudden she leans back against me."

Regina raised an eyebrow and leaned forward again. "What do you mean?"

"I mean her whole upper body." Alex patted her chest and smirked. "I look over at David and heís laughing. So, I nudge her and the next thing I know sheís on the floor out cold."

Regina covered her face with her hand. "Oh no. She passed out."

"Cold." Alex grimaced. "David never let either one of us live it down. He said it gave new meaning to having someone throw themselves at my feet."

"So, did you two start seeing each other after that?" Regina tilted her head and gazed over into Alexís face.

A flicker of emotion showed in the blue eyes and Alex cleared her throat. "I guess you could say that."

"Whatís that supposed to mean?" Regina cracked a smile at the older womanís evasive response.

Alex sat back in her chair and folded her hands on the table. "I donít know that youíd call it dating, Regina. Things were always ... intense between us. It was either good or it was bad. There wasnít much room for anything in between."

"Oh." It was Reginaís turn to sit back. She studied the grain of the wood, her fingers idly tracing the whorls as she considered what Alex told her and how it made her feel. It felt weird and she was a little surprised at the unmistakable sense of jealousy that reared its ugly head. Stop it. Regina chastised herself. You asked her, so deal with it.

Alex finished drinking her beer and set it back down on the table. She nodded when the bartender walked over and asked if she wanted another drink. "Do you want another one, Reg?"

Regina jerked her head up at the sound of her name. "Uh, yeah. Thatís fine and can we get some menus too?"

The curly headed man nodded and strolled back to the bar to refill their mugs.

"This time Iíll try not to spill half of it on the table," Alex offered jokingly as she watched Regina warily from across the table. "You okay?"

"Yeah, Iím fine." Regina tucked a few strands of hair back behind an ear.

Alex leaned forward and she slid her hand underneath Reginaís to still the nervous tracing. "You know, for all the things we were to each other, Regina." Alex focused on the startled green eyes and continued. "Lana and I were never best friends."

"You loved her though," Regina replied, looking down at the thumb that was massaging her hand.

"As best as I was able to back then." Alex sat back as the bartender returned with their drinks and menus. She waited to continue until after he left. "I was a different person when I met Lana, and you know what medical school was like. Weeks at a time would go by and we would hardly see each other."

Regina offered a knowing smile as she recalled the endless hours spent researching and studying. It all seemed like a blur with classes, labs, and examinations that left little time for the normal things in life like eating and sleeping.

"We were two ambitious people and there was little room inside our egos for each other. Looking back now, I think I knew then, that our relationship wasnít going to last."

"Why do you say that?" Regina asked and then sipped her beer, peeing over the rim at Alex cautiously. "You took care of her right up until the very end."

Blue eyes met hers and then looked away, staring out the window at the pelting rain. "Guilt is a strong motivator." With that last remark, Alex slid a menu across the table and opened hers, signaling that the conversation was over.

******

Regina skipped along every few steps to keep up with Alexís brisk pace. "Youíd think the devil was hot on your tail the way youíre walking."

Alex snorted and pulled her keys from her pocket as she rounded the corner from the street and walked over to the door to her apartment. It wouldnít surprise me if he was, she brooded silently. She unlocked it and held it open for her companion to pass through.

Regina started to say something but stopped and simply trudged up the stairs when she saw the grim expression on Alexís face. Over the past few months, sheíd gotten better at reading her companionís moods, knowing when to push and when to back off and give her time to herself.

Alex followed Regina up the stairs and stopped short when she realized she was about to plow right into her.

"What are you doing?" She tried to step around Regina.

Regina stepped sideways and blocked her path. "Iím waiting for you to stop your self-flagellation."

Despite her bad mood, Alex had to bite the inside of her cheek to fight a smile from forming. "Is that what Iím doing?" she asked, her eyes level with Reginaís as she stood a step below her.

"Ha, ha." Regina took the keys from her partnerís hands and walked toward the apartment door. She unlocked it and waited for Alex to join her inside before she spoke again. "Iím not sure whatís going on in that head of yours, but you need to stop and listen to me," Regina said, as she shut the door and then faced her lover.

Alex folded her arms across her chest and pursed her lips together as she met Reginaís defiant gaze.

"Iím glad I talked to you about Lana."

Wordlessly, Alex dropped her arms to her side and turned away. She shed her coat and walked over to couch where she sat down and tucked a leg up underneath her. She wasnít ... talking about that time of her life dredged up all kinds of bad memories.

"Why?" Alex asked quietly, without looking up at her.

Regina joined her on the cushions and leaned back. She could see the strain on Alexís face as the dark-haired woman stared down at her hands that she had linked together in front of her. She willed her stomach to stop churning before she reached out and touched Alexís hands with her own.

"I needed to know if there was still room enough inside your heart for me."

Alex stared at Regina in wide-eyed disbelief. "Y ... youíre kidding, right?" she managed to get out around the lump that suddenly formed in her throat.

Regina lowered her gaze and shook her head. "After what you said earlier, I ... I wasnít sure," her voice trailed off and it was her turn to stare down at her hands, clutched together so tightly the skin over her knuckles turned white. Self-consciously, Regina loosened her grasp and flexed her hands.

Alex looked away sharply and clenched her jaw, fighting the sudden wave of heart-breaking pain in her chest. It was another lesson about how very fragile everything was for them still.

Very slowly, Alex raised an arm and rested her wrist on Reginaís shoulder. She curled her fingers around the smaller womanís neck, and lightly grazed her thumb against Reginaís cheek. "I guess what I said didnít leave you much reason to believe otherwise."

A tear splashed down on the back of one of Reginaís hands. "Oh, Reg," Alex whispered, as she inched closer. She wrapped an arm around the younger womanís shoulders and pulled Regina to her. Alex pressed her lips against the top of the blondeís head and held her close. "When Iím with you ... the rest of the world could fall apart around us and it wouldnít matter as long as weíre together."

Regina let out a strangled cry and snuggled her body up against her partnerís sturdy frame. She gazed up at the chagrined expression on her face. "I ... itís just you donít say what you feel and sometimes ... I just need to hear you say that."

Alex tilted her head back and exhaled, feeling very far out of her element. "Iím sorry. I ... um ... Iíll try to be better at telling you from now on." Her heart slowed its wild beating and she rubbed her hands over Reginaís back. "Iíd be lost without you, Reg."

The stark look in the blue eyes when they focused on her, said it all. Regna leaned in and touched her lips to Alexís mouth in a reassuring gesture of tenderness. "I would be too."

Regina closed her eyes and the last thing she felt before she finally drifted off to sleep was the pressure of Alexís strong arms as they wrapped around her and the whispered endearments that made her want to believe that everything would be all right.

******

Alex woke first and blinked her eyes in confusion as she looked around at her surroundings. Guess all that talking wiped us both out. Regina was still asleep with an arm wrapped tightly around Alexís waist. She watched the tiny muscles twitch as the younger woman smiled peacefully in her sleep.

Cautiously, Alex ran her fingers over Reginaís cheek and brushed her hair back behind her ear. She had never been very good at verbalizing her emotions and it grieved her to know that what she shared with her yesterday caused Regina to doubt her love.

Alex shifted on the couch and gazed down at her still sleeping lover, then, whispered softly. "Donít give up on me, Regina. I promise I wonít ever make you doubt my love for you again. You mean too much to me."

Alex lay quietly for as long as her body would bear and then gave into her bodyís need to stretch. She grunted softly as a vertebrae popped in her back. Thatíll teach me to fall asleep on the couch, Alex chided herself.

Across the room, a shrill beeping broke the silence and she muttered a curse as she glared at the two duffel bags that were lying on the floor at the foot of the bed.

Regina grimaced in her sleep and reached up with an arm in a feeble attempt to stop the noise. Alex caught her arm before it collided with her nose.

"Reg, wake up." She massaged the younger womanís back and shoulders with her hands as she whispered to her.

The only response she got was a low groan and then Regina burrowed her face into Alexís sweater before she stretched and lifted her head.

"Morning," Alex said, as one green eye stared up at her and then closed.

"What is that god awful beeping?" Regina mumbled.

"Itís one of our pagers." Alex shifted and struggled to push herself up as she extracted herself from Reginaís grasp. She stumbled across the floor and then cocked her head as she knelt beside their bags.

She unzipped Reginaís bag, pulled out the offending item, and switched it off. "Damn thing," she muttered. She studied the backlit display and turned back to the couch. "Reg, itís your beeper."

"Throw it out." Came the grumbled response.

Alex rolled her eyes, walked back to the couch, and stood beside her with a sympathetic expression on her face. "I donít think I can do that, love. Here." She held the black pager out to Regina.

"Ugh, I canít even open my eyes yet," the blonde complained as she took it from Alex and attempted to read the number.

"Need the phone?" Alex held out her cell phone to Regina.

"Thanks." Regina rested her head against Alexís thigh as she typed in the numbers and waited for the connection to be made. She tilted her head up to gaze at Alex and smiled at her rumpled appearance. "You look cute ... hello? This is Dr. Kingston. Someone paged me."

Alex reached down and offered a friendly scratch between Reginaís shoulder blades while she spoke.

"Uh, Iím sorry," a meek voice replied on the other end. "I didnít mean to bother you."

"Wait, who is this?" Regina frowned, not recognizing the young voice.

"Itís Terry."

Terry? Who do I know named Terry? Then, Regina recalled the young girl who she had given her pager number to before she left for the weekend. "Terry, whatís wrong?" she asked, her voice tinged with concern.

"I wasnít sure I should call you."

"Itís okay. I told you to call me if you needed to. Tell me whatís wrong." She glanced up at Alex and smiled apologetically.

"Itís TJ. He left the hospital."

Regina ran a hand through her hair and suddenly sat up straighter. "What do you mean he left?" Her voice rose an octave.

"He ran away the other night. The nurse told him they found another foster home for him to go to."

Regina rubbed her face, wondering what she should say to the girl. "Terry, Iím sure the hospital has people looking out looking for him. He couldnít have gone far."

There was silence on the other end of the phone and then Terry quiet voice came through the line. "I know. Iím just scared for him. Iím sorry to bother you, Dr. Kingston."

The line went dead and Regina groaned, as a feeling of helplessness overwhelmed her.

"What was that about?" Alex draped an arm over Reginaís shoulder and sat down beside her, studying the anguished expression the blondeís face.

"Do you remember the code six from the other night? It was one of my patients."

"Ah, Iím sorry, Reg." Alex squeezed her shoulder. "Who was that?"

"One of the kids I was treating on the pediatric floor. You must think Iím really stupid for giving the serviceís number out to one of my patients."

"No, itís just not something I would do. So whoís this missing kid?"

"A teenage boy who came in with a head trauma a couple of weeks ago. I guess he didnít like the idea of going to another foster home." Regina stared down at the phone and shook her head. "How can a kid just walk out of the hospital without anyone seeing him?"

"Probably not as hard as you think, with the way staffing is on the floors at nights."

"I feel awful. Terryís upset and I think she expected me to be able to do something." Regina frowned and stood up suddenly. She pressed a hand to her temple and closed her eyes in concentration. "Wait, oh, whatís radiologyís number?"

Alex rattled the number off and watched uneasily as Regina paced.

"I need to speak to Dr. Summers, please. This is Dr. Kingston." Regina stopped and stood in front of Alex as she waited. "I ordered a CT scan of his head. His white blood cell count was slightly elevated and psych was trying to delay his discharge. I thought that if there was something that could justify keeping him it might help."

Alex raised an eyebrow but kept silent, knowing full well that Regina was taking a risk ordering a test under these circumstances. She watched as Regina turned away from her as she started talking into the phone.

"Hi, Dr. Summers," Regina answered as the doctors voice came over the line. "I ordered a CT scan on a sixteen year old boy who was a John Doe."

Regina frowned and shook her head. "No I donít know his hospital number but he was on pediatrics. Sure Iíll hold."

While Regina waited, Alex took the opportunity to dig her toiletries out of her bag and headed into the bathroom.

"Dr. Kingston?"

"Yes, Iím here," Regina answered, smiling briefly, as she watched Alexís shirt fly out onto the bed followed by her jeans and then undergarments.

"I have the results of the CT scan. Everything is fine."

"So thereís no evidence of any new bleeding from the original injury to the brain?"

"No, he just needs to be kept on his anti-seizure medications for the time being."

She knew this, but the doctorís re-affirmation brought the seriousness of the information home to her. "Unfortunately, our patient happens to be the one they called the code six for the other night," Regina replied. "Iím away and just found out today."

"Oh, yes, I remember hearing the code called. Well, letís hope they find the boy soon. I know I donít need to tell you, but without them heís at serious risk for complications."

"Yes, I know. Thank you, Dr. Summers." Regina shut the cell phone and tossed it down onto the couch with a sigh. "Now what do I do?" She had a sudden vision flash in her mindís eye TJ, standing on a street corner lost and afraid.

It was a few minutes before Alex emerged from the shower with a towel wrapped around her lithe body. Her skin was tinged a healthy pink from the hot water. "Hey, whatís the long face for?" She strode over to where Regina was sitting on the couch and cocked her head.

Regina dropped her head into her hands. "The CT scan was negative, but I know heís not taking his seizure medication. Heís at risk, anything could happen."

Alex stared down at Regina and considered what they could reasonably do. "Why donít you call Dr. Timmonís office or the Pediatric department and see if theyíve heard anything about this kidís whereabouts."

She turned to walk away when she saw the doubtful expression on Reginaís face. "Hey, Iím sure theyíre doing everything they can to find him."

Alex crouched down in front of her, tilted Reginaís chin up and pressed her lips to Reginaís mouth in a soft, reassuring kiss. Her eyes twinkled softly after she pulled away and spent a moment just looking into the green eyes before her. "You know something. That kid is very lucky heís got you to worry about him."


Chapter Twenty-One

 

Some time later, the two women left Alexís apartment and walked down Commercial Street to a small street side café that faced the bay. There was an eclectic air to the interior, with pastel colored murals painted on all the walls and old-fashioned ice cream parlor stools along the counter that gave the place an eccentric retro design.

Regina rubbed her nose and looked up at her companion. "Kind of bright, huh?"

Alex arched an eyebrow as she watched a waitress grab two menus from the counter and head in their direction. "It looks like the Easter Bunny nibbled on the wrong patch of grass and then came here to paint the eggs."

Regina stopped laughing just long enough to hear the waitress introduce herself as Allison. They had their pick of where to sit and the waitress guided them to a booth in the back corner that overlooked the water at Alexís request.

"Would you like anything to drink?"

"Two coffees, please," Alex replied, as she settled into the booth.

"Certainly." She flashed them a bright smile and sauntered back behind the counter.

"Alex wouldnít you love to have a room painted like this with all these wild and crazy colors?" Regina leaned across the table and smiled up at her.

Two blue eyes peered back at her from over the menu. "Youíre kidding, right?"

Regina held the smile as long as she could and then dissolved into a fit of giggles again. "Sorry, I think this place is making me feel goofy."

"Well, if you really like these colors, Iím sure we could find some edible body paint in one of the stores and play connect the dots later," Alex deadpanned, enjoying the wide-eyed expression on Reginaís face for a few seconds. "Breathe, Reg."

"Hmm, maybe we should go check one of those stores out. That could be interesting." Regina arched an eyebrow and blew a kiss across the table at Alex.

The taller woman leaned back against her booth and groaned. "God, I walked right into that."

They carried on for a few more minutes, totally absorbed in each other, until they both ended up laughing so hard that tears rolled down their cheeks. Alex held her hands up in surrender.

"No more. Please, youíre going to kill me if we keep laughing like this."

Regina inhaled and regained some of her composure before she opened the menu and quickly read it over.

Their waitress appeared, having taken the silence at the table, as they were ready to order. "So what would you ladies like to eat?"

Alex coughed and cleared her throat as she glanced across the table at Regina. The blonde was blushing badly and trying desperately not to burst out laughing again. "Fried eggs over easy and pancakes, for both of us," she answered quickly.

"Great, thanks." Allison gathered up the menus and graced them both with a bright smile.

Regina tried desperately to keep a straight face as the waitress left to place their order and then sunk very low in her booth and started to laugh again. "Teach us to have conversations like this in public," she finally managed to get out.

"Mm and who started it?"

"Okay, okay truce. I canít handle any more laughing right now," Regina replied, still holding her stomach. She decided it felt good to laugh and carry on like two kids.

Regina glanced out the window at the water. She was glad to be out of the apartment. After placing telephone calls to Dr. Timmons office, security, and the pediatric floor she knew no more now than she had after her brief conversation with Terry. She still couldnít shake the haunting image her mind conjured up of TJ all alone possibly sick or hurt.

"Hey. Where did you go off to?" Alex waved her hand in front of Reginaís eyes, smiling as the blonde blinked her eyes and refocused on her.

"Sorry. I just canít get him out of my head." Regina toyed with her fork and shook her head as she let out an exasperated sigh. "Itís like he just disappeared into thin air and nobody seems to know anything, let alone, care very much that heís gone."

"Security filed a missing personís report with the police department and theyíve probably checked every inch of the hospital to make sure he isnít hiding out somewhere," Alex told her. "Itís been forty-eight hours so the police are officially involved."

Regina set her fork down and took a sip of her water. "I just hope they find him and that heís okay. The longer he goes without his medication the more at risk he is for having a seizure."

Alex pressed her lips together and tilted her head, feeling the worry, and genuine concern Regina expressed. "I know youíre worried about him. Letís eat and try to enjoy the rest of today." She stopped and leaned forward as Regina turned her head and looked out the window with a forlorn expression on her face.

"I just wish there was something I could do," she whispered, her voice trembling slightly.

Glancing down at her watch, Alex considered if there was any benefit in returning a day earlier than they planned. It wasnít what she wanted to do, but if it made Regina feel better she decided it would be worth it. "Itís eleven oíclock now. If you wanted to, we could drive back after we eat. Maybe there is something we can do to help."

"You would do that?" Regina regarded the serious expression on Alexís face as the older woman steadily met her gaze.

"Yes," Alex replied and leaned back as the waitress arrived with their plates of food. She let an easy, graceful smile cross her lips, while she was swept in by the look of quiet admiration and love she was getting from across the table.

******

Alex draped an arm over Reginaís shoulder as they walked down the street after they finished and paid for their meal. She felt better having food in her stomach, the dull headache she had earlier was receding and Regina seemed to be in better spirits as well.

"Ooh, how pretty."

Alex turned her head and looked over to see what had caught her partnerís attention. A wooden box supported on a sturdy pedestal, its locked glass lid, protecting a small array of sparkling jewelry. Alex glanced up at the store and saw the lights on inside. "Itís open. Do you want to go in?"

"Do you mind?" A curiously shy look crossed Reginaís features when she looked at her partner.

"I wouldnít have offered if I did."

Regina laughed, not quite understanding the nervousness she felt in her gut as she tugged Alexís hand and started up the brick steps.

A red-haired woman looked up from behind the counter. "Hi," she greeted them with a friendly smile and went back to her work.

After returning the greeting, Reginaís attention was immediately drawn to a glass case to the right of the door. It was filled with ear rings, specifically a beautiful set of sparkling sapphire stones that winked at her from underneath the lights.

Regina looked back at Alex and raised an inquiring eyebrow. "Iíd like to see that pair, please." She pointed down at the gleaming azure jewels inside the case.

Alexís heart skipped a beat and her throat went dry as she looked on. While the woman retrieved them from the case, she discreetly slipped over to the other side of the store and took great interest in the necklaces laid out on the white background. Her eyes strayed over to the rings and she briefly studied several of them as she took a few deep breaths, wondering why she felt so out of control.

Soft footfalls, muffled by the carpeted floor approached and then she felt a warm presence at her back. Alex shifted and turned around, her eyebrows creeping up beneath her bangs when Regina held the sapphire-blue, gemstone earrings up next to her face.

"I think theyíd look beautiful on you," Regina commented softly.

Alex swallowed and ducked her head, feeling a completely unexpected surge of adolescent awkwardness. "With this long hair? Youíd never see them," she replied, feigning a casual offhandedness she didnít feel.

Regina made a clucking noise with her tongue and lowered her hands. She slipped one into Alexís hand and laced their fingers together. "You would if you pulled it up, just like you did when you had to give that presentation at the hospital last summer."

She waited for Alex reaction, knowing she remembered exactly what she was talking about. Regina certainly did. Alex had managed to turn an incredibly hostile environment to her distinct advantage that day. "You looked really hot, um ... " A blush colored her face and she shook her head. "You looked really nice in that blue pant suit you were wearing."

"You," Alex cleared her throat and looked down at the floor before she tried again. "You remember that?"

Their eyes met and Regina simply nodded her head. "So, listen ... just donít say anything right now."

"Bu ... Reg, you donít ... I." Alex stammered and didnít get to finish as two fingers pressed against her lips, quieting her strangled protests.

"Shush," she gently chided her and felt a tremor run through the hand she was still holding. Regina smiled up at the bewildered blue eyes that stared back at her, knowing sheíd caught Alex completely off guard. "Maybe when we get back home, we can go out someplace nice one night and you can wear them, because Iíd really be honored to get them for you."

Sheíd be honored? Alex met her gaze and got lost in the quiet regard, as she thought about that.

After a moment, Regina turned, but before she could walk away, felt the warm weight of Alexís hands on both her shoulders and was pulled gently back against the taller woman, and heard these whispered words.

"Thank you." Alex squeezed her shoulders and leaned around to place a soft kiss on her cheek.

"Youíre welcome." Regina closed her eyes briefly and smiled as a warm, wonderful feeling flowed through her as she walked back to the counter.

Subtle things were changing between them, Regina acknowledged; like the fact that Alex had shared some of her insecurities about their relationship with her the day before.

Even though it had been painful to hear the words, she knew it meant that some unseen barriers were finally sliding away.

The woman behind the counter, gladly wrapped up Reginaí purchase, smiling as she handed it back across to the blonde. "You picked out a beautiful pair of sapphires."

"Thanks," Regina replied, thinking they were almost as captivating as the Alexís blue eyes. She chuckled at the thought. No way do they even hold a candle to your baby blues, Alex.

When she was finished, Regina joined Alex over by one of the glass cases and stood beside her. She bit her bottom lip and arched her eyebrows as she looked up at the serious expression on Alexís face. I hope she doesnít think I got her these because she offered to go home early. Regina tossed the thought away and nudged Alex with her hip.

"You ready?"

"Yeah." Alex nodded her head and gave her a crooked half smile before she walked over and opened the door for Regina.

After walking along the street for a few minutes, Alex guided Regina down through a half-filled parking lot to a small patch of beach. There was an old sun-beaten, turquoise colored row- boat that looked like it had seen better days lying upside down, half-buried in the sand.

Their shoes crunched softly through the sand as they trudged over and took a seat on the end of the boat. Regina snuggled closer to Alex and wrapped an arm around the taller womanís waist to ward off the chill of the damp sea air. A stiff breeze lifted Alexís hair, blowing it back off her face while she soaked in the blissful feeling of her loverís embrace.

Alex cleared her throat and gave Regina a nudge with her shoulder. " So, do you think your Mom is over the shock of your declaration the other night?"

"What? Oh, geez." Regina rubbed her face sheepishly. "That just slipped out of nowhere. I wanted to die."

"Mm, I think that made three of us at the time," Alex deadpanned.

"Sorry, I didnít mean to embarrass you."

Alex let out a soft chuckle and rubbed her temple. "You didnít, well not too badly. Just caught me by surprise. Iím pretty sure we answered any lingering questions she had when she walked in on us kissing."

Regina ducked her head and groaned. "Iím sure Iíll hear about that the next time I talk to her. My parentís are not big on public displays of affection."

Alex felt the slump in Reginaís posture and sensed the quiet depression settle over her partner. "Hey. Whatís up?" She ran her fingers through the pale hair and sucked in a breath at the forlorn expression on Reginaís face.

The blonde shook her head. "Right when we were leaving my mother was questioning why I would want to be with you. I donít know if sheís ever going to accept our relationship or you."

Alex drew the collar up on her coat and stared down at the sand. She didnít worry so much about herself and what Reginaís mother thought. If the woman chose not to like or accept her, then, so be it, but she knew it was important to Regina and at the moment she wasnít quite sure what she could do about it. She offered up the only thing she knew to be true. "Sometimes the only thing that brings people around is time."

They were both silent for a while, lured in by the rhythmic sound of the surf. There was less of a breeze today and the warmth of the sun could be felt when it poked through the high clouds.

Regina glanced up at the intense profile and caught Alex staring out at the horizon, a faraway expression on her face. "What are you thinking?"

Alex looked down at Regina and then refocused her attention out at the water. "Do you remember the fire fighter we met over at the clinic?"

"Yeah, his name was Todd, I think," Regina answered tentatively, wondering what had brought this subject up. She had a suspicion that at the time Alex had been more than a little annoyed at the innocent attentions that the young man had shown her.

It wasnít until they finally broke past the hurt and confusion did Regina realize the extent of the emotional turmoil and stark vulnerability that haunted her partner. Little pieces fell into place and some of pain receded that night they talked, leaving them a chance to start to heal the wounds that were keeping them apart.

Alexís voice interrupted her thoughts. "Didnít he mention that there was a kid that got attacked right by there?"

Regina leaned back in Alexís arms and regarded the sober expression on her partnerís face. "Yeah, he did. The night he came over with Danaís ... um ... the German Shepard he rescued. Sorry, I didnít mean to bring that up." Regina smacked the side of her head. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Just what she needs is a reminder of who shot her.

Alex pulled Reginaís hand down. "Hey, donít do that." She cupped Reginaís face with her hand and regarded her seriously. "I donít want you to feel like you have tiptoe around that subject. It didnít do us much good when we did before. Did it?" Her voice lowered and gentled as she rubbed a thumb over Reginaís cheek.

Regina blinked and stared up at Alex. "No, it didnít," she admitted quietly and leaned into the caress, glad that they regained the quiet intimacy that had become a wonderful part of their relationship. "Alex, you didnít really think I was interested in Todd, did you."

Alex darted a sideways glance at Regina and exhaled forcefully. "Blunt and to the point as usual, eh?"

Regina let her hands fall down between her knees and studied the faded and peeling paint on the boat. "Sorry, I just remember ... and I wanted you to know, that was never the case."

"I know that." Came the soft, rumbling reply as Alex wrapped an arm around Reginaís shoulder and pulled her close. "I just ... wasnít feeling really very good about who I was or what had happened." Alex hesitated and then looked right into Reginaís eyes. "I couldnít help but think that it would be a hell of a lot easier for you to be with someone who didnít have a whole lot of baggage they were carrying around."

"It wouldnít have been easier," Regina sighed, remembering the long, interminable seconds in the emergency department when she could feel that force, that life giving bond that was her partnerís soul slipping away. "I almost lost you once. I donít for any reason ever want to know that feeling again. It would kill me."

Alex blinked and let the fiercely spoken words sink inside her soul. "Thatís not going to happen. Iím not going to leave you, ever."

Regina studied her and then tilted her head, as she let herself drown in the depths of those blue eyes. "You mean that."

She looked at Regina and smiled. Yes. There were so many things sheíd come to look forward to in their relationship and she realized that she didnít want to have to live without them.

She loved to hear her infectious laughter and watch Regina toss her head back with a radiant smile on her face. What she had grown to like the most, was how Regina would touch her when she was telling her something, just reach out and put a hand on her arm or shoulder. They were simple gestures but they had woven themselves into the tapestry of her soul and awakened a desire deep inside that she long ago shut the doors on.

A tiny smile formed on Alexís lips and faintly uncertain, pale, blue eyes peered out underneath wind-rumpled bangs. She could feel a moment unfolding between them, one that would forever be etched in her memory as she looked deep into those green eyes and saw reflected back a look that gave her the courage to speak what she already knew was etched forever in her soul. They were she realized, the truest words sheíd ever spoken and they came from somewhere deep inside her heart in a rush of emotion.

"Weíve kind of done this sickness and in health thing already and if ... youíll have me ... Iíd like a chance to find out about the good times and bad times too." Alex waited, watching the stunned expression blossom over Reginaís face.

A second later, she found herself enveloped in a passionate hug that rocked her backwards over the keel of the upended boat and dumped them both unceremoniously in the sand.

Regina picked her head up and brushed her hair back off her face. "Oh, I ... that was bad. Iím sorry."

"So thatís what they mean about being knocked off your feet." A low, rumbling chuckle trickled up from deep inside Alexís chest as she peered up into the mist green eyes.

"Um, I know itís not the most traditional way ... " She glanced around her immediate surroundings with a rueful eye and moved her arm in a wide arc, enjoying the feel of the course grains on her fingers. "No ring and not exactly the romantic setting you deserve, but I promise when we get back Iíll make it up to you."

Regina shook her head and kissed the tip of Alexís nose. "I donít need you to make anything up to me." A serious expression took over her face and Regina sat up, straddling Alexís hips. "In fact, if you told me you wanted to be one of those doctors who travel around the world from place to the next, setting up clinics and the like, Iíd be right there with you."

"Really?" An excited fire glinted in Alexís eyes.

"Absolutely." Regina sat back and smiled, tracing her fingers over the strong, angular planes of Alexís face. "Do I detect a bit of wanderlust in you?"

Alexís lips curved into a grin and she reached up lacing their fingers together. "You know what Iíve always dreamed of doing. Travel to some of these countries that donít have a good medical system in place, teach them what we know and help them set up clinics."

"That sounds like it would be exciting."

Alex wrapped her hand around Reginaís neck and pulled her down for a kiss. It was several moments before they broke off.

Just then, Regina lifted her head and frowned. "Alex, get up." Regina leaned back and stumbled to her feet as the leading edge of the first wave washed up onto the sand.

She winced at the assortment of curse words that spouted out of Alexís mouth as she hopped to her feet and danced away from the oncoming surf.

Regina glanced up at Alex, watching as sand and droplets of water exploded from her hair as she shook her head vigorously. Her quick reflexes allowed her to avoid most of the water but her sneakers and upper half of her coat were soaked.

Casting an annoyed glance at the incoming tide, Alex muttered under her breath and then turned to look at Regina. "Oh, so you think itís funny. Huh?" A rakish grin spread over her face.

Regina shook her head and stepped back, doing her best to stifle a giggle. "No, no ... but you have to admit it was ... Alex," her voice lowered and she started to backtrack up the sand toward the pavement. "Alex donít you dare, that water is freezing."

"It is, is it?" A diabolical grin crept over Alexís face and Regina shrieked as the taller woman darted after her.

She managed to duck under the outstretched arms once and then realized as she whirled away that Alex was chasing her right back to the waterís edge. Regina closed her eyes and huddled down waiting for the inevitable ... that never came. Carefully, she peaked out from one eye and sucked in a breath when she saw blue eyes peering at her from very close range. Oh damn, she cringed.

"Gotcha." Alex winked and hopped back a step when Regina swatted her arm at her in mock annoyance.

"Youíre a brat."

Alex arched an eyebrow and pulled Regina closer to her as another wave swept up over the sand, leaving a sweeping arc of foam only inches from where they were standing. "I am no such thing, but I will be an ice cube pretty soon if I donít get out of these wet clothes."

Regina fell into step alongside Alex and sighed as she eyed the water dripping from her coat and the puddles forming around her sneakers with each step. "Sorry about that. I looked up and the wave was right there."

Alex snorted and nudged Regina with her hip.

******

They enjoyed a long hot shower that culminated with Regina pushing Alex onto the queen size bed and settling against her warm, naked body. It was nice, she mused, just to lie there afterwards in a contented haze, her fingers idly tracing the contours of her loverís body.

Later, after Reginaís stomach had made itself known she had run out to the store to gather a short list of supplies that Regina wrote down while she was still lounging in their bed.

Alex purchased everything that Regina requested and even managed to find a kit of multi-colored threads that she used to make bracelets with when she was younger. Alex snorted and shook her head at her childish indulgence as she tromped up the stairs to their apartment.

What would Regina think? Sorry excuse for anything after what I said earlier. With a disconcerted grunt she opened the door to the apartment and stopped, her jaw slackening a little as she took in the sight of the flickering candlelight that was illuminating most of the apartment in a soft yellow glow.

"Bu ... wh ... Regina?"

"Hey." The smaller woman stepped up beside her and smiled shyly. "I hope you donít mind, I rummaged through the storage closets and found all these." Regina waved her arm around the room. "Guess you like candles, huh?"

Alex felt one of the bags lifted out of her arms and she blinked as she looked around the apartment that had been transformed in her absence. "I forgot I had all these candles."

"Is it okay?" Regina asked quietly, trying to judge her partnerís muted reaction.

"Okay? Regina, itís more than okay." Alex set the bag she was holding down on the table and took the younger woman in her arms. "Itís beautiful."

"Iím glad you like it," Regina whispered, against the leather coat.

"I love it." Came the quiet reply. Alex closed her eyes and hugged the smaller woman to her.

They held each other for a few more moments and then Regina peered over into the bag. "Ooh, you got wine."

"Well, I thought it was appropriate for the occasion." Alex let her arms drop to her side and she regarded the contents of the bag with a suspicious eye. "You want some help with the cooking?"

Regina shook her head, pulled the still damp coat off her partnerís shoulders, and set it on a hook behind the door. "No. Go sit over there and relax."

Alex eyed her for a moment and then sauntered over to the leather couch and flopped down. She drew the small kit out of her pocket and peeled the plastic off with her fingers. Her eyes darted over to where Regina was busily chopping something up by the sink. Satisfied that she was engrossed in her task, Alex selected the colors she wanted and started to work on her project.

It was a comforting feeling to sit here in Reginaís presence Alex mused, as she stole occasional glances at the younger woman while she worked on the bracelet. She suspected that all the talking they did over the past few days had brought them closer and the possibilities of where there relationship was going intrigued her.

"Alex?"

Reginaís voice caught her attention and she looked up. "What?"

"What made you think of that kid getting attacked by the clinic?" Regina glanced over and then went back to chopping up the vegetables for the stew she was making.

Alex stopped the motion of her fingers and sighed. "I donít know. I guess you got me thinking about your patient." Alex regarded the green eyes thoughtfully for a moment and gnawed on her lower lip before she spoke again. "Do you still want to drive back? We could leave tonight after we eat."

Regina stopped what she was doing and looked over at Alex. "No, but thanks for asking. I appreciate it. Iíll call security later on and see if theyíve heard anything. Maybe theyíll have some good news."

Alex watched as Regina dumped several handfuls of vegetables into the pot and then opened a package of meat and started chopping it up into neat cubes. The sound of sizzling reached her ears and the sharp tang of garlic and onions tickled her nose. She glanced down at her handiwork and tied a final knot to secure the bracelet together.

After stretching, Alex tucked the bracelet into her pocket and stood up. Her nose twitched as she inhaled the smells of vegetables sautéing in the pot.

"Wow, that smells great," she offered, as she walked up behind Regina and peered into the bubbling mixture.

"Good. I hope you like it." Regina glanced back over her shoulder. She added the cubes of meat and stirred them around in the mixture.

"Iím sure I will." Alex leaned closer and dropped a soft kiss on the side of Reginaís neck. She smiled when she saw the smaller woman shiver and nibbled her earlobe.

"Hey, no fair. Youíre distracting the cook."

Alex chuckled, and stepped back a little and continued watching the younger woman with interest. "How about I pour us some wine?"

"Mm, good idea." Regina wiped her hands off on a dishtowel and turned to face her taller companion. There was something sheíd been meaning to do for quite a while now and an opportunity never seemed to present itself at just the right moment, but tonight things were falling into place nicely.

She accepted the glass of wine Alex handed her and sipped it, her eyes twinkling gently as she looked back at her lover over the edge of the glass. "Come with me." Regina reached out and took Alexís hand, leading her over to the sliding glass door.

Alex reached out, and unlocked the small latch and slid the door open. "Itís a little cold out, donít you think?"

Regina, not to be dissuaded, handed Alex her glass of wine and stripped the blanket off the bed.

Alex raised an eyebrow. "Are you planning on being out here for a while?"

"Well, the stew does need to cook and I thought it might be nice ... " Regina draped the blanket over Alexís shoulders and then set the glasses of wine out on the rail of the deck. " ... If we stargazed for a bit." With a smile, she slipped herself underneath the warm folds of the blanket and wrapped her arms around her lover.

Alex stared at her for a moment before she closed her eyes, tilting her head, as a memory jogged bits and pieces of a simple request made through a haze of pain all those months ago.

Regina waited for Alex to refocus on her and tugged her out the door onto the small deck. "So, I was telling you about Orionís Belt the last time we did this."

Alex grinned and wrapped her arms around Reginaís middle, pulling her close in front of her. "I remember." You were standing so close to me, my insides were all tied up in knots I was so nervous. I should have known then what was happening to me then.

"Did you know that in Greece, Orion was the son of Neptune?" Regina tilted her head and looked up at the shadowed face behind her.

"He was a hunter and Dianaís lover, right?"

A delighted smile broke out on Reginaís face. "Ah, you remember a bit of Greek mythology, too!"

"I used to read some books about it when I was a kid, yeah," Alex admitted quietly, enjoying the warmth of her loverís body pressed up against her in contrast to the chill of the night air around them.

Regina reclaimed one of the glasses and took a sip of wine, then offered it up to Alex who willingly obliged her. The taller woman leaned over, cupped Reginaís cheek with her hand, and pressed their lips together, sharing the berry tasting liquid with her.

Alex lifted the glass from Reginaís hand and set it back down on the railing before she reclaimed her loverís lips in a long, leisurely exploration. Her hands wandered over the soft curves and firm muscles, building a fire in her belly that extended outwards until her breathing became ragged.

She felt the smaller woman tremble against her and eased off, resting her forehead against Reginaís. "Weíd better stop that or I know we wonít be eating any dinner. Do you need to check on it?"

"Nah, itís on a low flame, so we have plenty of time to snuggle," Regina replied, running her hands over Alexís back. That was another thing that was different between them now she realized. After her injury, Alex had quietly rebuffed Reginaís tentative advances at intimacy, but now that they gotten past that rough spot, it was like they both craved the security of each otherís touch.

Alex hugged Regina against her, nestling the blonde head beneath her chin. There was a contented, peacefulness about standing under the stars like this, something sheíd never felt before, but yet somehow familiar and comforting at the same time.

"Give me your hand."

Regina frowned but lifted her right hand and Alex grasped it gently in her larger one. She watched with shy interest as Alex drew something from her pocket and wrapped the finger wide band around her wrist.

"You made this." Reginaís voice faltered, as gentle fingers brushed against her wrist, tying the ends into a secure knot.

"Yeah, I wanted to give you ... something today. I mean ... " Alex exhaled, but didnít let go of Reginaís wrist. She stepped around, drawing Regina into the light that filtered through the sliding glass door from inside the apartment. Her heart was pounding so hard in her chest she was surprised that Regina couldnít hear it.

Regina wasnít sure but she thought she could see a faint blush covering Alexís features as she stumbled over her words. Why are you so nervous?

"See, I used to read these books about the Middle Ages, too. My brother and I would pretend we were knights, and plan elaborate battles and rescue people from the evil warlords."

"Who were you rescuing?"

Alex sucked in her lower lip and closed her eyes. "My mother." It was an admission she never made to anyone before and had only recently allowed herself to open those doors to the painful childhood memories she kept tightly locked away. "We werenít very good at it and most times we just pissed my old man off with all our running around and hollering."

Regina rested her head against Alexís chest. "I wish I knew you when I was younger. We would have made great friends."

Alex snorted and wiped her eyes, grateful that Regina wasnít looking up at her. "Regina, I was bad news back then and everyone knew it. Your mother would have taken one look at me when I was a kid and chased me off with whatever she could get her hands on."

"I would have found a way to be with you."

This brought a smile to Alexís face, knowing that when Regina decided she wanted something she usually got it.

"The um ... knights," Alex continued. "They used to paint designs on their shields so they could identify their allies in a battle."

"Like a coat of arms," Regina offered, staring up into Alexís face with a look of wonder in her eyes.

"Yeah, something like that." Alexís finger traced the braided lengths of the bracelet. "The colors all meant something. The red symbolizes someone who is brave and strong, the blue is for loyalty," she hesitated, swallowing nervously before she continued. "The gold symbolizes generosity and the green is for hope, joy and love."

Regina started to say something and Alex shook her head, covering her lips with two fingers.

"Let me finish or I wonít get this out. Remember when you asked me why I got into Emergency Medicine last year?"

"Yeah, you said that way you didnít have to get involved with the patients. Just sew them up and ship them out." Regina recalled the stilted conversation clearly.

"I didnít give you the whole answer." Alex inhaled, fighting back the hoarseness in her voice. "It was a way for me to try rescue people in trouble. Growing up, I could never do that for my brother or my mother. The funny thing is, after all this time I never realized that I needed somebody to save me too."

"Thatís not true."

Alex shook her head. "You were brave enough to stand beside me regardless of the consequences last year. You stood up for me when I couldnít do it for myself and despite everything you found out about me, you still loved me. Nobody has ever done that before." She hooked a finger under the bracelet and looked into Reginaís eyes. "I just want you to know how much I love you."

"I love you, too." Came the quiet, sure reply. Regina laid her head against Alexís chest and closed her eyes. Warm tears trickled down her cheeks as she soaked in the meaning of everything that Alex told her.

They stood beneath the starlit sky and watched as it filled with the evening stars. Alex hugged Regina one last time before she reclaimed their wine glasses and guided her back inside.

She refilled their glasses and set them on the table, all the while thinking about how much each of them had changed since they first met. Alex straightened and regarded Regina as the smaller woman walked over to her.

Regina clasped Alexís hand in hers and kissed it. Her eyes twinkled as she pressed her body against Alex, enjoying the tingle of anticipation that ran up her spine.

Alex chuckled softly and wrapped her arms around Regina. "I guess youíd like to eat later." She gasped softly on the last word, as her belt buckle was unclasped.

"Much later," Regina purred, as she tugged the belt from Alexís waist and walked slowly backwards towards their bed.


Chapter Twenty-Two

 

It was a couple of hours before sunrise but Alex was lying in bed awake, thinking. The past couple of days had been a welcome respite from the troubles of the outside world. Alex turned her head and gazed down at the peaceful smile that graced Reginaís face as she slept.

Reginaís question about there being room in Alexís heart for her, had shocked the older woman into recognizing how much she was still keeping Regina at armís length. She wasnít doing it intentionally, but the fear of being that open and vulnerable to anyone, was getting in the way of showing Regina how much she truly needed and wanted their relationship as a part of her life.

She made a very conscious decision to set aside her fears and let Regina past those final defenses. After all her experiences, she didnít expect to feel this way or to fall so deeply into something that made her willing to risk her heart again, but despite everything, she had.

So much had changed between them over the past couple of days. Their conversations, at times, were poignantly uncomfortable but in the end, Alex realized that they both gained an insight into each otherís closely guarded fears and insecurities. Last night, sheíd fallen in love all over again as she held Regina in her arms. There were moments where she felt like their two bodies had been one person, sharing the same soul.

Alex reached out and stroked Reginaís hair, brushing a few strands off her face. A rush of emotion, made her heart clench and she closed her eyes to fight back the tears that welled up and brimmed her eyelids. I donít know why or how you came into my life, but whoever might be up there looking over us, thank you.

Beside her, Regina stirred and opened her eyes, blinking as she focused on Alexís face. "What are you doing up?" Her voice was a bit gravelly and she cleared her throat. "Itís early."

"Watching you sleep." Alex gave her an appreciative smile.

Regina exhaled softly while she curled her hand around Alexís upper arm and settled her face against the warm shoulder. "Thank you." Regina kissed Alexís collarbone and smiled, closing her eyes.

"For what?" Alex covered Reginaís hand with hers.

"For making last night so special."

Alex slipped her hand beneath Reginaís and intertwined their fingers. The rest of the world could wait she decided, as she closed her eyes and let Reginaís quiet breathing lull her back to sleep.

******

Later while she finished with her own packing, Regina regarded Alex curiously out of the corner of her eye, as the taller woman stuffed her clothes into her canvas duffel bag. She could see the rigid set of her partnerís shoulders and the subtle tensing of the muscles along her jaw line, her suspicions about the unsettled feeling she sensed growing in Alex confirmed.

She guessed at a couple of things that might be causing Alexís upset but, Regina knew her partnerís stubbornness would keep her from initiating the conversation so she decided to find a tactful way to open a door for her.

Regina closed her suitcase and then walked over to the small kitchen to retrieve the leftovers from the refrigerator. She filled a bowl with the stew, then, set it inside the microwave and turned it on. Wiping her hands on a paper towel she pulled off a roll, she turned around and watched as Alex walked around the corner.

Anxious, blue eyes met Reginaís and Alex slowed to a halt a few feet away from her. She tucked one hand into her pantís pocket, hooking her thumb through her belt loop. "Good idea." She motioned with her other hand indicating the leftover food. "We can eat something now and not have to stop on the way home."

"I thought so," Regina replied as she glanced at the microwave, waiting for the timer to go off. When it did she pulled the bowl out and carefully set it on the table with a fork. "You donít mind sharing, do you? Itíll be less to clean up." Regina smiled and patted Alexís side affectionately.

The motion became a caress and she moved closer, wrapping both arms around Alexís waist. She looked up and met Alexís gaze, matching the taller womanís smile with one of her own as strong arms enveloped her in a hug.

"Are you okay? You seem kind of quiet." Regina slipped out of the embrace, asking the question in a casual voice.

Alex simply nodded and claimed the chair beside Regina, smiling as a thigh pressed against hers and remained there.

Obediently, she accepted the spoonful of food from Regina and chewed absently. She rested her elbows on the table while her gaze wandered outside the window to the trees that were still several weeks off from setting their buds.

Admittedly, sheíd been restless since sheíd woken up, an uneasy, edgy feeling filled her gut. Knowing she was going back to work tomorrow had set her mind into overdrive about all the unfinished business waiting for her at the hospital.

Alexís eyes narrowed as she thought about the upcoming deposition. When she first discovered what was happening, the whole thing seemed like it was a simple case of greed; one doctorís own ambitions gone awry. Since her return, sheíd come to realize her first impression was most likely wrong.

"Here eat some of this." Regina pushed the bowl in front of Alex, interrupting her thoughts.

Alex pulled her eyes away from the window and glanced at Regina. "Thanks." She took the fork and speared a hunk of meat. There are too many unanswered questions and nothing seems to be making sense. Why would someone pull all of those charts out of medical records ... unless theyíre trying to hide something? There must be information in those charts that they donít want legal to see. Why take the risk, now? Desperation?

"Whatís going on inside that head of yours today?" Intense green eyes regarded her solemnly from close range.

Alex stopped mid-chew and stared at Regina, caught awkwardly between deflecting her concern and allowing the younger woman in on a hunch that she hoped to hell she was wrong about. A chagrined expression crossed her features when she acknowledged to herself that she couldnít just pretend that everything was okay anymore and expect Regina not to question her.

It wasnít fair to either of them. They knew each other too well and had come too far, to go down that road again.

Alex wasnít sure exactly what Regina was thinking, but she didnít have to. The expression on Reginaís face said it all. There could be no more half-truths between them, not if she wanted what they had built together to work.

It was a simple decision once she took a few seconds to look at her priorities. The tension eased in her shoulders as she gazed back into Reginaís eyes. "How did you know something was wrong?"

Green eyes twinkled back at her in what looked like amusement and Regina ducked her head before she answered. "Mm, letís see, you furrow your brow and wonít make eye contact when youíre hurting. When youíre nervous you fidget more and when youíre deep in thought you stare out the window for long periods of time. Take your pick."

Regina reached out and laid her hand over Alexís forearm, squeezing it gently. "You forget, I got plenty of practice reading all those little signs when you were hurt. Lord knows you didnít verbalize it to me."

Alex pressed her lips together and averted her eyes. "Sorry I gave you such a hard time through all that. You didnít deserve it." She snorted derisively and shook her head. "Itís a wonder you just didnít kick me out on my butt some days."

"I wouldnít have done that to you." Regina edged closer and tucked dark strands of hair back behind Alexís ear. "I knew some of what you were feeling would get better with time, the rest ... " her voice trailed off as Alex met her concerned gaze, "you have a hard time letting people take care of you. Just remember, I want to be able to do that for you if I can."

Regina studied Alex for a moment longer as her thoughts revolved around one of their earlier conversations. She smiled when Alex tilted her head and leaned into her touch. Regina pressed her lips against Alexís head and sighed, deciding not to bring up the topic of Alex talking to a psychologist just yet. Later, weíve had such a good time. I donít want to mess it up. "So, what were you going to tell me?"

Alex exhaled, collecting her thoughts before she answered Reginaís question. Truth time. "Someone at the hospital is covering up whatís really going on with the drug trials. I think Dr. Jameson is just the tip of the iceberg."

Regina straightened in her chair, releasing Alex from her embrace. "Why do you think someoneís covering up?"

Alex watched the limbs outside the window sway in the breeze for a second before she turned her serious gaze to Regina and took in the startled expression. At that moment, she cursed herself for admitting her suspicions and hoped she wouldnít regret her decision later.

Alex toyed with the fork in her bowl, as her appetite suddenly vanished, replaced with an annoying sense of nausea. "All the patientsí charts that we found who were involved in this supposed study were taken from medical records."

"W ... well, maybe the hospitalís attorneys requested them for the deposition?" Regina offered hopefully.

"I donít think so." Alex shook her head. "I got paged before we left on Friday. The attorney doesnít have them and wanted to know if I knew where they were."

"Do you think it might the case of the right hand not knowing what the left is doing? I mean weíve seen that happen before."

"No. I keep thinking there has to be a reason why these patients were picked to be in the study." Alex pressed her lips together and stared down at her hands. "You read those charts, tell me what you remember."

Regina frowned and spread her hands out on the table, trying to pull together fragmented memories during what had been an incredibly stressful time in her life. "They were all cardiac patients."

"Right, I remember that, but there was something else. Let me think for a minute." She stopped and closed her eyes, pulling up details she hadnít thought about since sheíd been shot. The answers were there if she could just remember. After several minutes, Alex slammed her hand down on the table as she got a clear picture in her mind of the admission sheets. That was it! "Not one of those patients had insurance."

"What?" Regina eyebrows rose in surprise as she digested this new information. "I guess thirty patients with no insurance is outside the realm of coincidence."

"I think whoever was running this scam was specifically targeted indigent patients. They knew they couldnít afford the medical care they needed and would jump at the chance of trying a new medication depending on their individual situation."

"Why would they do that?"

"Normally, the hospital would eat the cost of treating indigent patients. Itís how we maintain our tax-exempt status." She formulated her thoughts as she answered Reginaís question. "If what Iím thinking is right, then, the hospital has stepped up its drug research program because theyíve found a way to offset the financial losses by entering patients into the drug studies instead of treating them with what would normally be the standard of care."

"I just donít understand why someone would do that."

Alex shrugged. "Maybe whoever decided to do this, wanted the financial gains so badly that they donít care about the consequences anymore. They had a good thing going for them. No one would have ever found out what was happening if Dr. Jameson hadnít gotten sick."

"Youíre pretty sure someone else higher up knows whatís going on."

Alex nodded her head. "Dr. Jameson was never very organized and he could barely put together a budget without help. Thereís no way he devised this whole thing himself. Someone else was calling the shots."

"Any idea about who that might have been?"

Alex tilted her head and pressed her lips together. "I donít know."

Regina leaned forward and rested her forearms on the table. "I hate to even ask this, but what about Dr. Mitchard."

Alex pressed the bridge of her nose with her thumb and index finger. "Anything is possible at this point." One thing is for sure. I have to find out whoís involved and make sure theyíre stopped before this gets any worse than it already is. She smiled half-heartedly at Regina and stood up. "Letís head out."

******

The taller woman looked up at the façade of the large medical center after she stepped out of the Jeep in the Emergency Department parking lot. She stretched her arms over her shoulders and shook her head, grateful that after the six-hour drive home the evening before, Regina insisted that she stay the night. I think she was surprised that I agreed so easily, Alex mused.

A moment later, she heard the passenger door shut and watched as Regina walked around the vehicle to stand beside her.

"Are you going to talk to her today?" Regina looked up at Alex and shielded her eyes from the early morning sun.

"Yes. Thatís the first thing Iím want to do today," Alex replied as she started to walk towards the entrance of the medical center.

Regina took a breath, forcing her voice to remain calm, despite the nervousness in her gut. "Please be careful."

Alex turned her head and smiled at Regina. "I will be, donít worry. Iíll page you after I finish talking with her." She slowed to a halt and pulled the glass door open, waiting for Regina to precede her into the building.

"Good, because I donít want to worry about what youíre up to all day." Regina reached out and touched Alexís arm as she walked through the open door into the lobby. "Good luck."

Regina stepped out of the way of a woman being wheeled toward the door in a wheelchair. A smile crept over her face when she saw the newborn baby, swaddled in blankets, being cradled in its motherís arms. The baby reminded her of what her nephew might have looked like at that tender age. That has to be the most incredible thing a woman can do in her life. Regina shook her head and looked at Alex.

"Well, I better go or Iíll be late for rounds on the unit."

"See you later." Alex winked at her and enjoyed the warm smile she received in return.

With a wave, Regina trotted down the hallway and disappeared around a corner.

Alex turned and strode down the corridor, weaving her way through the steady stream of staff members and visitors who were walking in the corridor.

At the end of the hallway, Alex bypassed the elevators and took the stairs, climbing them two at a time until her legs began to burn. The fatigue irritated her and she pushed herself up another flight to the third floor where her office was located. She came to the decision over the weekend that her body was healed enough to start returning to her normal routine of working out on a daily basis. This, she thought, would have to do for now.

At the top of the stairs, she stopped for a moment to catch her breath and collect her thoughts about her impending discussion with Cassandra Mitchard. She needed information and hoped that the Vice President would be a good place to start.

After entering her office, Alex cast a cursory glance at her desk, noting with a combination of irritation and disappointment that no charts from medical records were there. She picked up the phone on her desk and punched in five numbers. She sifted through several pieces of mail while the phone rang several times.

"Medical Records, this is Robin DeSimone."

"Robin, itís Alex. Where are those charts I requested last Friday?" Alex pulled out her chair and settled into it as she waited for the womanís response.

"Not even a good morning or how was your weekend?" Robin asked, her voice taking on a hurt note.

Alex opened an envelope and glanced at a memo before she set it down. "Good morning Robin, now where are the charts?" She heard a sigh on the other end of the phone before the director finally answered her question.

"I have a faxed response from the company that converts our charts to microfilm format. It says that those charts were picked up three weeks ago."

"Youíre kidding me? Why would they be microfilmed if we need the originals for a deposition now?"

"I donít know but, I can have them recalled if you need them," Robin offered.

"No. Fax that letter over to me now. I want to read it myself," Alex ordered and then rattled off the number to the fax machine in her office.

"Hold on." A minute later, she heard Robinís voice again. "Itís on the way. Does this have to do with Dr. Jameson?"

 

"Why do you ask?"

"No reason. I just like to know whatís going on. Thatís all."

"Thanks for your help, Robin." Alex hung up before she could hear the womanís response. No sense in feeding the grapevine. She swiveled her chair around and plucked the paper out of the fax machine. Her eyes quickly scanned the document and then she picked up the phone again and dialed another number.

The phone was picked up after two rings. "Microdoc, this is Melanie. Can I help you?"

"Yes, this is Doctor Margulies from Saint Xavierís Medical Center. I need to know if you have some medical records of ours and how quickly I can have them recalled for a deposition."

"Give me a second to bring that screen up on my computer," the woman told her on the other end of the phone. "Okay, read me the medical record numbers."

One by one, Alex read the numbers off to the woman. She heard the tapping of fingers on a keyboard as the numbers were inputted into a computer.

The tapping stopped and then Alex heard the sound of the person clearing their throat. "Are you sure those are the right numbers?"

Alex double-checked the numbers. "Yes, theyíre the right ones. Whatís the problem?"

"None of those charts appear in our system."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, as far as I can tell, they were never picked up from the hospital."

In response, Alex closed her eyes and pressed her fingers against her temples. "I have a copy of a letter on your companyís letterhead, stating that these charts were picked up three weeks ago by your company."

"Yes, itís a form letter the computer generates when the charts are processed. We scan the numbers into our system at the pick up site so we can track them from start to finish. I donít know how a letter got sent out without the charts being processed in the first place."

"Is there a supervisor there I can speak to?" Alex pulled a pad of paper over to her.

"Not at the moment, but I can have him call you later."

"All right, but I want his name and number now." Alex reached for a pen.

"His name is Edward and this is his direct line."

Alex quickly scribbled the information down on a piece of paper as it was given to her.

"Thanks," she replied and hung up the phone.

Alex stood up and stared out the window as she tried to make sense of what she had just learned in the last few moments. Someone was lying, that was clear enough. What she needed to find out was, who and why. With a growing sense of concern, she left her office, locked her door, and walked up three flights of stairs to the fifth floor.

She stepped out from the stairwell and walked down the hallway towards Cassandra Mitchardís office. Her steps carried her past a secretaryís desk that was, for the moment unoccupied. Good, she thought to herself, relieved that she didnít have to talk her way past the woman.

Alex hesitated at the door and glanced in to see Cassandra sitting behind her desk talking on the phone. What she heard sent a chill up her spine.

"No, tell them everything is under control. Thereís no need to get cold feet. Weíre ready to go ahead with the next to studies as planned." Cassandra looked up and her eyes widened when she saw the doctor standing in the doorway. She immediately lowered her voice and abruptly ended her conversation.

As she hung up the phone, Alex stepped into the office and shut the door firmly behind her. "Morning, Cassandra." The dark-haired woman lowered herself into a leather chair opposite the Vice Presidentís and graced her with a cool smile.

"I have a meeting. Youíll need to talk with my secretary to set up a meeting." Cassandra started to collect a few folders on her desk, pointedly avoiding Alexís gaze.

"This wonít take long," Alex assured her. The doctor sat back and folded her arms across her chest. "I want the truth about the drug trial that Dr. Jameson was conducting and I want to know where the medical records are for all those patients."

Cassandra leaned back in her seat and gazed at the far wall. "Iím not discussing this with you."

"Robin DeSimone in Medical Records told me the charts were sent out to be microfilmed. I called the company to recall them and found out that they have no record of them ever being picked up. Whatís going on?"

Cassandra paled slightly and moistened her lips with her tongue. "Alex, this is something our legal counsel will deal with. Thatís why we have them - to protect the hospital."

Alex shook her head in disbelief. "Theyíll make sure the hospital is protected! What about the patients? Who the hell protects them?"

The sharp sound of the Vice Presidentís hands slamming down on the desk punctuated the silence that followed. "This has nothing to do with you. Stay out of it!"

"Donít give me that line. Iím already involved in the deposition for this whole mess. Why do you think Iím trying to find the charts?"

"Donít worry about the deposition. Itís simply to tie up any loose ends with Dr. Jameson. Your predecessor didnít play by the rules and for that he was terminated. With any luck itíll be a distant memory for us all soon."

Alex crossed her legs and glowered at Cassandra. "Arenít you worried about the kickbacks he got, putting the hospital in jeopardy?"

Cassandra snorted, picked up a pile of charts, and walked around her desk. "No, the hospital wonít let that happen. Besides all weíve done is offer patients an alternate treatment regimen."

Thatís why the charts are missing, Alex thought. All right, time for a little damage control before I really get myself in over my head. "Well, thatís comforting to hear."

Cassandra studied the doctor, weighing the truthfulness of her words. "So, I take it youíre still on the team then."

"Thatís why I came up here." Alex met her steady gaze and held it until the Vice President looked away and cleared her throat.

"Well, Iím glad we finally came to an understanding on this. Iíd hate to lose you, Alex. Youíre a good doctor," Cassandra replied, pulling herself up straighter. "Thereís a black tie affair on Friday night. Itís to kick off the fundraising campaign for the new cardiac wing." She pulled out a square envelope from her desk drawer and handed it to Alex. "As the new medical director of the Emergency Department, you should be there to demonstrate your support."

This is a command performance, no doubt. "I wouldnít want to miss it," Alex replied.

"Good, Iím glad we got things cleared up between us. I was beginning to worry that we might lose you as well." Cassandra walked to the door and opened it.

Alex smiled. "You wonít lose me."

"Let me know if thereís anything that you need for the clinic downtown. We all want it to be a big success."

I bet you do. Alex fought the urge to shiver in revulsion as she listened to the drivel. "Iíll be sure to let you know," she replied over her shoulder as she walked towards the stairwell. Suddenly feeling like she put in a ten-hour shift already, Alex rubbed her eyes and stifled a yawn before she headed down the stairs to the Emergency Department. She wondered briefly Reginaís day was going any better and hoped that it was.


Chapter Twenty-Three

Regina walked into the suite of Pediatric offices located on the third floor of the medical center and signed in at the front desk. The walls were painted a clear blue, summer sky filled with billowy, white clouds.

She noted in the sign in log that Dr. Timmons had arrived only minutes ahead of her and was still probably in the office. Since the office staff wasnít in yet Regina walked unchallenged down the hallway towards the Pediatric Directorís open door.

The older doctor with salt and pepper hair was just shrugging out of his overcoat when Regina tapped on his door.

"Hi, Dr. Timmons."

"Hello, Regina." His face brightened and he tossed his coat over one of the chairs in the cluttered room. "I trust you had a good weekend off."

"Yes, it was the first time that my whole family was together in a while." She looked at the walls of the office and glanced at the vast array of diplomas and certificates the doctor had earned over the years.

"Good to hear." He picked up a pile of charts and set them down on windowsill behind him.

Regina cleared her throat and gripped the back of the chair in front of her. "Dr. Timmons has there been any word on the boy who disappeared from pediatrics Saturday night?"

The pediatrician frowned as he turned back and sifted through some papers on his desk. "Iím afraid not. The whole thing is just a mess." He stopped and placed his hands on his hips, a distressed look on his face. "It seems our young patient simply walked off the floor unnoticed."

"Iím really worried about him. He was on anti-seizure medication."

"I know. Iím concerned about him too. Listen, Iím glad you stopped by. I had my secretary call a list of patients we saw in the Emergency Department last week that need follow-up. I planned on seeing them in the clinic downtown today. Unfortunately, because of this boy disappearing Iím going to be tied up in meetings all day. I want you to go down there and cover for me."

"Youíre talking about the clinic across from the fire department? I didnít think it was open yet."

"We got a certificate of Occupancy from the town on Friday and most of the equipment is there now. Itís still a little unorganized but, itís functional." Dr. Timmons picked a folder and handed across the desk to Regina. "Hereís the list of patients."

Regina opened the folder and looked at the list of patients. An eyebrow lifted in surprise. "Thatís quite an ambitious list."

Dr. Timmons waved his hand. "Donít worry. Half of them probably wonít show up for some reason or another. I recruited one of the nurses from the ER to be there, so you wonít be working there alone."

"Oh, good." It would be kind of creepy being there all by myself. "Do you know if the police are looking for TJ?"

"TJ?" Dr. Timmons furrowed his brow and then recognition flashed across his features. "Oh, the boy, right. We filed a missing personís report. One of the detectives was here on Sunday asking question, so I imagine they are."

Regina nodded her head somberly, wondering where the boy was right now and if he was safe. "Do you want me to stay for rounds, then?"

Her director studied her for a moment and then shook his head. "No. Youíve got youíre work cut out for you." He went back to searching through his desk and then stopped. "Oh, before I forget. Here are the keys to the front door and the small one is for the medicine room."

"Well, I guess Iím all set then." Regina jiggled the keys in her hand and looked at the folder with the list of patients in it. "Iíll see you tomorrow."

Dr. Timmons walked over to the door, reached up, and pulled a white lab coat off a hook from behind the door. He looked over at blonde haired woman sensing the nervousness there and smiled reassuringly at her. "Youíll do fine. Help is just a phone call away if you need it."

Regina nodded, feeling a bit foolish for the nervous jitters that beset her. Why do I feel like this? I know what Iím doing. What difference does it make if itís in a hospital or a clinic? Maybe my cycle is getting close? She turned and walked out of the office, still chastising herself mentally.

Regina was still lost in thought as she walked onto the pediatric ward. She stopped at the desk, unsure of why sheíd come here when her responsibilities took her elsewhere today. A unit clerk glanced up at her, offering a wan smile before she returned to her task at the computer.

Her green eyes glanced up and down the hallway. Regina smelled the distinct odor of hospital food before she saw a small-framed woman step around the corner, pushing a large, metal, food cart.

Terry. Regina sighed, wondering what the girl thought after their conversation on the phone the other day. Somehow she felt like she had let her down, although she wasnít sure what there was she could do to make the situation any better.

With a determined set to her shoulders, she walked down the hallway towards Terryís room. At the door, she stopped as she listened to the muted sounds of the television. She tapped on the door and waited a second before she entered the room.

Regina pulled the curtain back and peered down at the young girl, curled up in a tight ball on her side. "Terry? Itís Dr. Kingston." The girl shifted under the covers but didnít respond. The gentle hiss and click of the IV pump drew Reginaís attention and she glanced at the bag of fluid, noting the dosage of the chemotherapy. I guess theyíre bringing out the big guns now, she thought soberly.

She lowered the rail and sat on the edge of the bed. "Terry, Iím sorry about TJ."

A sniffle confirmed her suspicions that Terry was indeed awake and Regina waited for the girl to speak.

"Do you think heíll be all right?" Came the whispered voice.

"I hope so," Regina replied honestly.

"I miss him." Terry shifted in the bed and looked up at Regina from beneath her tousled bangs.

"You two were getting to be friends."

Terry nodded her head as she plucked at the white sheets with her fingers. "He brought me snacks from the cafeteria because the food sucks."

As if on cue, the woman Regina saw in the hallway entered the room, carrying a tray of food. Regina shrugged her shoulders in apology and noted the sympathetic look the woman gave Terry.

"Itís better today. French toast and oatmeal," the woman said as she set the tray down on the table.

"I hate oatmeal," Terry complained.

Regina screwed up her nose. "Itís not one of my favorites either. Maybe I can find a way to make it taste better," Regina offered. "Iíll be right back." She disappeared out of the room and located the pantry on the floor.

She rummaged through some drawers and found where the nursing staff hid their stash of snacks and condiments from the cafeteria. Pleased with what she found, Regina sauntered out of the pantry.

"Okay, letís see if this helps," Regina announced when she re-entered Terryís room a few minutes later. She set the packets of raisins and brown sugar on the bedside table and folded her arms across her chest to wait.

Terry wrinkled her nose and peered at the offerings suspiciously. "Maybe if I make it really sweet, I wonít notice the lumps."

"My thoughts precisely."

Terry mixed the condiments into the oatmeal. Tentatively, she poked her spoon into the mixture and tasted it. "I guess itís okay," she admitted grudgingly. She took another bite and leaned back against the pillows. Brown eyes stared up at Regina. "The doctor says my hair is going to fall out."

Regina returned Terryís gaze and nodded her head. "Itís one of the side-effects of the chemotherapy."

Terry frowned and squirmed against the pillows. She reached behind her and pulled out a stuffed tiger. "Thatís where you went!" she scolded the stuffed toy and then looked up at Regina. "Will it grow back?"

"It takes awhile but it usually does." Regina leaned closer and fingered the tigerís black, velvet ear. "Did your parents give you this?" she asked, trying to figure out what to say to Terry next.

Terry shook her head, absently stroking her thumb over the sleek fur. "No, TJ gave it to me."

"Really?" She wondered how he had the means for such a gift and then discarded the thought with a shrug of her shoulders. "That was sweet of him." Regina smiled down at her affectionately. "Terry do you want to ask me any other questions about the chemotherapy?"

Terry stopped petting the stuffed animal and then shook her head. "No. I want to cut my hair off before it falls out."

Regina pressed her lips together and inhaled deeply. She chose her words carefully, not wanting to influence Terryís decision. "You could do that."

"My mother wants me to wear a wig."

"What do you want to do?"

Terry shrugged her shoulders. "I donít know."

"I donít think you have to make a decision about the wig right now."

"You donít understand. It wonít be my decision. Sheíll just go out and buy it." Terry wiped her eyes in irritation and sank lower in the bed.

Ah, there in lies the problem. "Have you talked to your mom about what you just told me?"

"She wonít listen."

The conversation brought back memories of her own teenage years and the sometimes, volatile relationship she had with her mother. "Terry, donít assume she wonít listen. You owe it to both of you to talk about it."

"Okay." Terry swirled the spoon in the oatmeal and looked up at Regina. "Are you going to look for TJ?"

A half-dozen different answers flashed in her mind but only one came to Reginaís lips as she stood there. "Iím going to try and find him."

******

An hour later, after an uneventful bus ride downtown, Regina unlocked the clinic doors and walked through the front entrance. A rueful smile crossed her lips as she looked around the clinic, recalling Dr. Timmons earlier words about the condition of the place, unorganized but functional.

With the remaining time she had left before the first patients that were scheduled to come in for appointments started to show up, Regina began to move some chairs to the waiting area for patients and family to sit in.

She unpacked some essential supplies and found the boxes containing the necessary forms for the charts. Regina looked up when she heard the front door open.

"Hello?" a female voice called from the waiting area.

Regina straightened up and wiped her hands off on her scrub bottoms. She walked around the corner and smiled when she saw her friend. "Hi, Sandy!"

"Oh thank god." The nurse set the box she was carrying down and then gave Regina a hug. "I wasnít sure who was going to be here, but I sure am glad itís you." Sandy slipped out of her jacket and tossed it over the desk. "I didnít see your car outside. How did you get here?"

"I took the bus."

"Oh." Sandy frowned in confusion. "What happened to your car?"

"Nothing. I rode into work with Alex."

Sandy nodded her head, hoping that things were working out between her two friends. She looked around the open room with raised eyebrows. "Dr. Timmons has an interesting definition of functional."

Regina laughed and nodded in agreement. "My thoughts exactly." She pointed to the desk. "I left the list of patients there."

Sandy raised her eyebrows as she read through the names. "Here, I had the unit clerk make copies of all the intake notes from the patientís emergency room visits." The nurse rummaged through the box she brought with her and handed Regina a stack of files.

"Good. At least Iíll have some idea of what their follow-up visits are for," Regina commented, as she started to read over the notes.

"How was your weekend?" Sandy asked.

Regina brushed her hair back behind her ears. "Alex and I drove up to my parentís house. It was the first time my oldest brother had been home in over ten years."

"How did it go with your family?"

Regina rolled her eyes. "It was very difficult for Jeff. I think by the end he was wondering if he made a mistake coming home."

"Iím sorry to hear that," Sandy offered, as she unlocked the cart the held the clinicís supply of medication.

Regina folded her arms and looked down at her feet. "Iím going to give him a call this week and see how heís doing."

Sandyís eyes fixed on the multi-colored bracelet tied around Reginaís wrist as she walked over to the doctor. "Thatís new." She reached out and slid the woven bracelet around Reginaís wrist so she could see the intricate pattern. "I love the colors in it."

Regina fingered the bracelet, a warm feeling igniting in her chest as she remembered what Alex said to her that night out on the deck. "Thanks. Alex made it for me while we were in Provincetown."

"Wow. She made it?" Sandyís eyes widened with surprise. "Who knew she could do that."

"It surprised me, too," Regina admitted quietly.

"So, I guess things are going better for you two." Sandy glanced briefly at her friend, probing gently with Regina where she dared not tread with Alex. She rechecked her count and wrote the quantity of the drugs on the inventory sheet.

"Weíre just taking it a day at a time, but yeah, I think things are better."

"Nothing wrong with that."

Regina looked down at her watch. It was ten minutes to nine in the morning and they would be at the clinic until at least six that evening. "I better call Alex and let her know where I am. She thought I was going to be at the hospital all day."

Sandy looked up as the front door opened and a middle-aged woman bundled in a purple down jacket, walked in carrying a young child. "Go ahead. Iíll get her settled in a room."

Regina walked behind the desk and picked up the phone. After keying in the numbers she waited as the phone rang several times.

"ER." An agitated voice answered.

"This is Dr. Kingston. I need to speak to Dr. Margulies."

"Hang on."

Regina looked up as Sandy appeared and handed her a file.

"Weíve got a two year old girl with a kidney infection. She was seen in the ER last week, hospitalized and then discharged over the weekend."

Regina opened the file and read through it while she waited on hold. "Okay. I want to get a new set of labs before we prescribe anything. The antibiotics she was on should have taken care of the infection."

"Iíll get the blood drawn." Sandy winked at Regina before she turned around, and stopped at one of the carts where she selected the rubber-stopped glass vials she needed.

Regina glanced at the list of patients and exhaled.

"Dr. Margulies here."

She smiled, hearing the deep timbre of Alex voice through the phone. "Hi, itís Regina."

"I know your voice," Alex chuckled, pleasantly surprised to hear Regina on the other end of the line.

In the background, Regina could hear the overhead paging system announcing an all clear on a fire drill. "It sounds kind of crazy there."

"What makes you say that?"

Regina snickered, hearing the tinge of sarcasm in her loverís voice. "I can just tell. I called to tell you Iím downtown at the clinic all day."

"What? I didnít know they approved it being open yet." Alex hesitated and then asked. "Youíre not there by yourself are you?"

"No, Sandy is here with me. Dr Timmons scheduled the pediatric follow up visits down here. Listen, Iíve got a patient waiting to see me," Regina explained quickly. "Can you pick me up when youíre done?"

"Sure," Alex replied. "If you get done early, ask Sandy if sheíll give you a ride back to the hospital. That way you wonít have to wait there alone."

"Okay. Iíll talk to you later," Regina replied. She hung up the phone and then realized she didnít ask Alex if she got to talk to the Vice President yet. She tucked the thought away in the back of her mind as she opened the patientís file and focused on the task at hand.

******

Alex set the phone down in the cradle and looked over at unit clerk. "Donna, where are the charts I need to sign?"

The brunette pointed down the hallway. "Theyíre in the nurse administratorís office. It should be unlocked."

"Thanks. If anyoneís looking for me thatís where Iíll be." Several minutes later, the attending was settled behind the desk.

She frowned as she flipped through the pages of order sheets, which were followed by the hand written history and physicals taken by the Emergency Departmentís residents. She read over several consent forms signed by the patientís that allowed the physicians to perform invasive procedures. Satisfied with what she read, she co-signed the order for narcotics and then closed the chart.

Over the course of the next several hours, she worked her way through the stack of charts. As she read over the notes, her mind continued to run through all the questions no one seemed to have answers for regarding the missing charts.

If the charts arenít at the company that does the microfilming, then where the hell are they? "Jesus." Frustrated at the lack of answers, Alex picked up another chart and opened it. She shook her head and signed off on discharge orders for three patients.

"You donít sound happy."

Alex looked up and saw Jon leaning against the doorframe, with a newspaper tucked beneath his arm. "No, Iím fine."

"Well, Iíve got some news that might cheer you up."

"Yeah, whatís that?" Alex leaned back in her chair and tilted her head, regarding her colleague.

"Here." He dropped the newspaper on the desk and pointed to a small article at the bottom right corner of the page. "Read that."

Alex glanced up at Jon and then started to read the small print. "Dana Romano ... " she glanced up at him and then continued, "was convicted of manslaughter in the second-degree, driving while under the influence, and criminally negligent homicide. Is this todayís paper?" She opened the paper to look for the date.

"Yes." He smiled and sat on the edge of the desk. "You know thatís a maximum prison term of seven and a half years."

Alex shook her head in disbelief. "I didnít think Danaís court case was coming up that soon."

Jon looked down at his hands. "The mother of that kid has a good attorney and he really pushed things along for her."

"Sounds like you kept in touch with the family." Alex stared down at the paper and frowned as a myriad of conflicting emotions warred inside her.

Jon shrugged. "She lost a son and her husband is in jail. It was the least I could do."

"You donít have to justify yourself to me." Alex rubbed her face as a wave of exhaustion hit her.

"I know it was just a bad situation all around. I thought this might help you put closure on some of what happened."

Alex looked at Jon and scowled at him. "Since when did you start to dabble in counseling?"

He held his hand up, warding off the angry look he was getting. "I donít. Itís just from one friend to another. Thatís all."

Alex closed her eyes and took a breath to calm her racing heart. "Thanks."

Jon tapped his knuckles on the desk and looked at Alex. "Those files you told me about never showed up."

"I know." She motioned him closer with her hand. "Close the door."

"Shit." Jon kicked the door with his foot and folded his arms. "Why do I get the feeling Iím not going to like what you have to say?"

"Those files were apparently picked up by the company who does the microfilming for the hospital." Alex folded her arms. "When I called to get them sent back, I was told they have no record of them being picked up."

"Where are they?"

"Your guess is as good as mine." Alex met his bewildered gaze and sighed.

Jon hung his head and sighed heavily. "I donít like this."

"Neither do I." Alex leaned forward. "Jon, not a word to anyone on the staff. As far as Iím concerned, any drug trials in the emergency department that are ongoing or proposed at this time are suspended until this whole mess with Dr. Jameson is over. No one talks to anyone unless they come to me first."

"You got it." Jon stood up from the desk and opened the door. Half way out he stopped and turned back around to face Alex. "Hey." He ran a hand over his mouth, stepped back in the office, and shut the door behind him. "I may need to take some time off on short notice."

"Everything okay?" Alex tilted her head and studied Jon, aware of his discomfort.

"Yes and no. Chris is pregnant."

"Thatís great! Congratulations." Alex moved from her seat and sat on the corner of the desk. "You two will make great parents."

Jon pressed his lips together and ran his hand through his hair. "Itís not the first time. Sheís miscarried two times before and the docs are considering this a high-risk pregnancy."

"Is she still working?"

"Yeah, as long as she doesnít start to have any cramping or bleeding sheíll stay on. I told her she doesnít have to but she wants to stay busy so sheís not thinking about it constantly." Jonís shoulders slumped and he shook his head. "I just want to be there for her more this time. She wonít admit it, but I know sheís scared."

"Do what you need to do. Weíll be fine here." Alex laid a hand on Jonís shoulder. "I hope everything works out all right."

"Thanks, Alex." Jon stood up and gave Alex a nervous smile. "Iíll let everyone know that weíre suspending any ongoing projects for the time being."

"Good." Alex watched Jon leave. Her eyes scanned the shelves of medical texts, binders and nursing books and then found what she was looking for.

Alex pulled the phone book down and found the section for county and government listings. After flipping through several pages, she wrote a number down. She drummed her fingers on the desk while she considered what to do. Cassandra, you have another thing coming if you think that Iím going to be a pawn for you.

With a grim expression on her face, she walked out of the cramped office. Alex walked down the corridor and passed several stretchers and wheelchairs that lined the hallway. About half the rooms in the emergency department were filled with patients and the staff was enjoying the brief lull in the usually steady flow of cases.

Alex nodded a hello to one of the nurses as she walked past the desk. She continued on, pushed the glass door open and walked down the concrete steps to her Jeep.

After unlocking the door, she settled in behind the wheel. Alex pulled out her cell phone and dialed the number she had written on the piece of paper.

The phone rang several times and she was about to hang up when a male voice came over the line. "Office of the Inspector General."

"I wasnít sure there was anyone who would still be there this late," Alex replied.

"Weíre always here," the man said. "What can I help you with?"

"I need to speak to someone about possible fraudulent drug trials that are being conducted."

"Can I get your name?"

Alex hesitated, knowing there was no return when she crossed this particular line. "Alex Margulies. Iím a doctor."

"Doctor Margulies my name is Matthew Weber. I have two questions for you. Where do you work and where are you calling from?"

"I work at Saint Xavierís Medical Center and Iím calling from my cell phone in my car."

"Stop, thatís enough. Give me your pager number." After Alex recited it to him he continued. "Iíll page you to a number this evening and weíll set up a time and a place where we can talk."

"Thatís it?"

"For now."


Chapter Twenty-Four

 

"Do you want me to wait with you until Alex gets here?" Sandy placed the last of the patient files into the five-drawer file cabinet.

"No, Alex said she would call if she was going to be late." Regina looked up from washing her hands and shook her head.

Sandy slipped her jacket on and regarded Regina dubiously. "I donít like leaving you here alone."

"Donít worry." Regina dried her hands off on a paper towel and then tossed it into a waste container. "Iím going across the street to talk with Todd."

"Whoís Todd?"

"Heís the fireman we met here a few weeks ago," Regina explained.

"All right." Sandy locked the door to the file cabinet and then walked to the door. "Iíll see you tomorrow then."

"Well, hold up. Iíll walk out with you." Regina grabbed her coat and followed Sandy out of the clinic.

They parted at the sidewalk. Regina looked up and down the street for Alexís Jeep. When she didnít see her she trotted across the road. She shivered in the damp air. Her thoughts wandered to TJ and she hoped he was safe.

The lights from inside the firehouse cast the misshapen shadows from the trucks outward onto the pavement. She could hear raucous laughter and voices from inside and she called out. "Hello."

"Hi there." A tall, burly looking man with a goatee and moustache walked towards the front of the garage.

"Iím looking for Todd. Is he around?"

"Yeah, heís upstairs." He tilted his head and let out a piercing whistle. "Yo, Todd. Youíve got a visitor."

A few moments later, a door towards the rear of the garage opened and claws scrabbled across the concrete floor. "Lucky, heel." The large German Shepard stopped lunging ahead against his leash and fell into step along side his master. Toddís face brightened when he saw Regina standing beside his friend. "I havenít seen you in a while. What brings you here?"

Regina reached down and scratched between Luckyís pointed ears. "I worked at the clinic today and figured Iíd stop by to say hi and ask you a question." She glanced down as the dog grumbled and pressed against her. "Heís a pleasure hound."

"Always. You have a friend for life there. Why donít you come inside?" Todd motioned with his hand.

"Iím waiting for Alex to pick me up."

"No problem. This is Moose by the way." Todd jabbed his thumb at the taller man.

Regina smiled up at him. "Why Moose?"

Todd chuckled. "Besides being incredibly hard-headed, heís the strongest guy on the unit."

Moose puffed his chest out proudly at the compliment.

"Regina is a doctor at the Medical Center." Todd continued his introductions.

"Oh. What department do you work in?"

"Pediatrics," Regina replied.

Moose nodded tersely. "Well, Iíve got to get back and finish cleaning our gear. Nice talking with you."

Todd watched him leave and then looked back at Regina. "His ex-girlfriend works at the hospital. Itís still a pretty sore subject for him. So what do you want to ask me?"

Regina laughed as Lucky nudged her hand and leaned against her. "Thereís a patient that disappeared out of the medical center on Saturday and no one can find him. He has a traumatic brain injury. I just wanted to know if you can keep an eye out for him in your travels."

"What does he look like?" Toddís brow creased in concern.

"Heís approximately fifteen years old. His head was shaved about ten days ago and he has a half-moon scar on the left side of his head," Regina said.

"Whatís the kidís name?"

"Iím not even sure itís his real one. He told me it was TJ."

"Iíll let the guys know." Todd looked over Reginaís shoulder. "Any idea why he ran off?"

"I think he was trying to avoid going into another foster home."

"Thatís tough." His eyes followed a pair of headlights as they grew closer and came to a stop in front of the clinic across the street. "Is that your ride?"

Regina turned just as Alex stepped out of the Jeep and shut the door. "Alex. Iím over here." She waved at the taller woman.

The doctor glanced at the darkened windows of the clinic and then walked across the street. "Hey. What are you doing over here?" Alex asked as she walked up beside Regina.

"I was just telling Todd about that pediatric patient. I thought maybe it would help since heís downtown and we have absolutely no idea where this kid ran off to."

"It couldnít hurt. Alex nodded and gave Todd a reserved smile. "Heís gotten big since the last time we saw him." Alex stooped down and ruffled the coarse hair around the dogís neck.

Todd laughed. "Tell me about it. I pay his food bills."

"Speaking of food," Alex jumped in, grateful for the excuse to end the conversation. "You ready to go home?"

"Yeah, Iím starving." Regina replied. She turned to the fireman and smiled. "Thanks, Todd. Let me know if you hear or see anything about our friend."

"I will." He nodded and waved his hand as the two women turned and walked back across the street.

******

"Youíre awfully quiet." Alex cast a glance at her companion, wondering why she was being so quiet on the ride home. She slowed the Jeep and turned into the driveway of her condo.

Regina rubbed her face and stifled a yawn. "Iím just tired. Sandy and I treated thirty patients today."

Alex regarded her thoughtfully and then caressed Reginaís face with her hand. "Letís go inside and get something to eat."

"Sounds good to me," Regina said, as she stepped out of the vehicle. She followed Alex up to the door and leaned against the taller woman as she unlocked the door.

"Hey. What are you doing back there?" Alex asked, over her shoulder.

"Mmph. Nothing, you feel good thatís all," Regina replied in a sleepy voice.

Alex smiled and stepped inside. She closed the door and turned to Regina. "Come here." She wrapped her arms around the smaller woman and hugged her tightly. Alex closed her eyes and pressed the full length of her body into Regina, marveling at how well they fit together. "Wait here," she guided Regina to the leather couch and nudged her back onto the cushions. "Iíll see what I can scrounge up for us in the kitchen."

One green eye opened and regarded her skeptically.

"Tch. Have more faith." Alex swiped her hand across Reginaís knee and walked away.

She opened the refrigerator and cringed at its meager contents. Alex made a mental note to stop at the grocery store before she invited Regina over again. "Okay." She rubbed her hands together and then reached for the eggs. "Looks like weíre having breakfast for dinner."

"Are you talking to yourself?"

Alex turned around to see Regina leaning against the doorframe with her arms folded across her chest. "I thought you were tired."

Regina shrugged and pushed off the wall. "Not anymore. Do you want some help?"

Alex gave her a sheepish look and held up the carton of eggs. "Itís not like weíre having anything lavish."

"Letís see what else you have hidden away in here." Regina rummaged through the refrigerator, pulling out several items, while Alex set a pan on the stove.

"I talked to Cassandra today," Alex offered, as she cut off a pat of butter and dropped it into the frying pan.

"How did it go?" Regina looked at her and then pulled a knife out of a drawer.

"Not good." Alex shook her head. "Do you want four or six eggs in the omelet?"

"Four," Regina said, as she cut up a pepper. "What did she say?"

Alex cracked the eggs and drained them into a bowl. "I walked in on a phone call that she obviously didnít want anyone hearing. From what I overheard, she and whoever else is involved has no intention of stopping any of the drug trials that might questionable."

"What did you say to her?" Regina turned the burner on and scraped the chopped pepper into the frying pan.

Alex didnít answer and her brow furrowed as she stirred the eggs with a fork. "I played along with her.

Reginaís eyes widened and she grasped Alexís forearm. "What do you mean, Ďyou played along with herí?"

Alex leaned on the counter. "She wanted to know if I was still on the team. I told her I was."

"Have you lost your mind?" Reginaís eyes widened in disbelief.

"Maybe." Alex cringed before she told her the rest. "I also called the Office of the Inspector General today."

Regina pulled a spatula out of a drawer and fussed with the mixture of egg and green pepper. "Is there anything else I need to know about?" She closed her eyes and shook her head. "If there is, Iím going to need a Valium, right now."

"The guy I talked to is going to page me tonight so we can set up a time and a place to meet."

"Sweet Jesus. Youíve already made up your mind to do this." Regina turned off the burner and pulled two plates out of a cabinet.

"Yes I have."

"Why didnít you tell me you were going to do this?" Regina stared down at the counter, trying not to get angry with Alex. Her heart fluttered in her chest and she forced down a wave of nausea.

"Reg, I didnít know what I was going to do right up until I was talking to Cassandra. She told me I would be expected at a black tie affair to kick off the fundraising for the new cardiac wing."

"Wait a minute. I thought that idea got canned when they were six million in the hole at the end of last year."

"It was, but apparently they found a way to fund it."

"Alex, donít be the one to do this." Regina stepped in, wrapped her arms around her waist and rested her head on Alexís shoulder.

Alex linked her arms around the smaller womanís waist. "Reg, my gut tells me Iím too close to whatís going on, not to get involved. I donít want to be on the wrong side of this battle when the game is finally up."

"Iím scared for you." Regina tilted her head up and looked at Alex.

Alex kissed her forehead and hugged her. "Letís eat before the eggs get cold."

*******

It was ten oíclock and Alex was stretched out on the leather couch with Regina tucked in against her side. They spent the last couple of hours debating what Alex was about to do and they were both exhausted.

Regina sighed and rubbed her hand over Alexís shirt. Her fist clenched and she grabbed a fistful of fabric and tugged it several times. "I hate it when youíre right," she grumbled.

Alex ran her hand over Reginaís face, stroking her gently. "Itís not about me being right. Itís about doing the right thing. I canít in good conscience let them continue to do these drug tests. At best theyíre not getting consent from the patients and at worst theyíre falsifying the data to get the drugs out on the market sooner."

Regina jumped as Alexís pager went off. "Son of a bitch," she muttered as her heart raced nervously.

Alex lifted it from her belt and squinted as she read the numbers. She reached behind her and picked up the portable phone that she had set on the table earlier. Silently, she punched in the numbers and waited for a voice.

"Weber."

"Hello, Matthew."

"Good, Iím glad you called me back. Do you know where Hawkeís Nest Reservation is?"

"Yeah, I used to run there all the time."

"Weíll meet at the south entrance in the parking lot at six tomorrow night."

"Iíll be there," Alex replied. Click, the connection cut off and she set the phone down on her stomach and sighed. I might as well get this over with now. "Regina ... " She studied the blonde who was looking back at her with a wary, resignation on her face and realized she couldnít expect her not to come with her. "Do you want to be to come with me tomorrow?"

"What?"

Alex chuckled at the perplexed expression on her partnerís face. Not what you were expecting was it? "Do you want to come with me tomorrow?"

Regina studied her for a second and then nodded her head. "Someoneís got to look after your butt. Might as well be me." She settled her head back down on Alexís chest and nuzzled the softness of her breast through her shirt. "So what happens now?"

"I suppose he wants to find out what I know so far and then make a decision to go forward with an investigation or not."

"Can I ask you a question?"

"You just did." Alexís body shook as she stifled her laughter.

"Brat." Regina smacked her on her hip, then, propped up on her elbow to look at Alex. "Do you remember the girl with the tumor in her leg?"

"The same one who called you over the weekend?"

"Yes."

Alex nodded her head slightly. "I know who youíre talking about."

"She wants to shave her head before all her hair falls out."

"Mm. Thatís what Lana did." Alex shifted on the couch so she was lying on her side with Regina pressed up against her. "What did you say to her?"

"I told her to talk to her mom and see if they could agree on something." Regina draped an arm over Alexís hip and slid one of her legs in between the taller womanís thighs.

"Sounds reasonable," Alex replied softly, waiting for Regina to get back to what she really wanted to ask.

"Alex, what happens if the investigation proves there is something illegal going on?"

"I guess itíll go before a grand jury." Alex rubbed her hand over Reginaís back in a reassuring motion.

"No, I mean what will happen to you."

Alex heard the concern in Reginaís voice and looked at the worry-filled green eyes. The realities were there, staring her in the face. Legally, the hospital couldnít do anything, but the fact remained, her decisions were sure to set off a chain of events that once started could never be pulled back. "I donít know, Regina."

The blonde cupped her hand around Alexís cheek and rubbed her thumb across her lips. "Well, whatever happens, weíll get through it together."

Alex smiled and closed her eyes. She leaned her forehead against Reginaís in quiet relief. "Iím glad I have you with me."

"You are. Are you?" Regina worked the top two buttons loose on Alexís shirt and nuzzled the warm skin, inhaling the subtle fragrance of her perfume.

Alex inhaled sharply as Regina nibbled at the base of her neck and felt her shirt being tugged from her pants. She watched as Regina undid another button and moved her lips lower and brushed over her cleavage. She shifted and rolled over, pinning the smaller woman beneath her. Their eyes met and a mischievous smile spread over Alexís face as she leaned closer and then ducked her head to nibble at Reginaís earlobe.

She moved lower and began a slow, leisurely exploration of Reginaís neck, teasing her with soft nips of her teeth. Beneath her, Regina squirmed and moaned softly, her hands urging Alex on as they moved across her back and shoulders.

Slowly, Alex pulled back and smiled down at Regina as she sat back on her heels, straddling her hips. Her body was tingling with a pure animal arousal of their contact and she ran her hands over the front of Reginaís shirt, caressing her breasts through the cotton fabric.

She stared down into unfocused green eyes, tugged playfully at Reginaís belt, and then kissed her chastely on the corner of her mouth. She pushed herself off the couch and stood up.

Alex took Reginaís hand and led her up the stairs into her bedroom. She turned the light on and turned to Regina. "Come here." A wistful smile crossed her lips and she brushed her fingers through Reginaís hair. She trailed them down over her shoulders and then unbuttoned Reginaís shirt the rest of the way.

Reginaís eyes closed and she inhaled sharply as Alexís lips brushed along her neck, down over the swell of her breasts. Her hands clutched at Alexís hips and tilted her head back.

Alex ran her lips along her up turned chin and then captured her lips in a slow, tender kiss. Her hands slid up over Reginaís back and unhooked her bra, which she let fall to the floor between them. "I love to touch you," Alex growled, closing her eyes and rubbing her cheek against Reginaís.

After a time of touching and caressing Reginaís body, Alex sat her down on the bed. She tugged off her shoes and socks and gently pushed the younger woman onto her back.

She kicked off her own shoes and stepped out of her pants. Alex joined Regina on the bed and kissed her again. Her fingertips traced a lazy pattern across her eyebrows, down her nose and around her mouth, which she punctuated with a kiss before she renewed her tracing around her ears and down her shoulders.

Alex maintained eye contact with Regina the entire time watching her face flush with excitement as her fingers circled around her breasts. She trailed her lips down between her breasts, smiling as she heard Reginaís breath catch in her throat.

Reginaís hands grasped Alexís shoulders and pulled her back up. Ignoring the buttons on her shirt, she pulled Alexís shirt over her head. A mischievous smile touched her lips as she pulled the cloth down over her wrists and left the cuffs buttoned. Her hands roamed unchecked over Alexís naked body.

Alex chuckled and shook her head. "Oh no you donít," she said, deftly undoing the buttons and tossing her shirt to the floor. She leaned over Regina, planting her hands over her head and staring down at her.

Unable to resist the sight of her raised brown nipples surrounded by slightly darker areola Regina lifted her head and pressed her mouth over one breast, breathing warm air over the sensitive flesh. She caressed the other breast with a free hand, enjoying the sensual chemistry between them.

Alexís head fell forward and she moaned softly. She reached down, and worked Reginaís belt loose and undid the button.

Their mouths met in a passionate kiss and Regina arched against Alexís body, seeking more contact. Alex tugged the zipper down and broke off the kiss to pull Reginaís pants off.

Alex reached an arm down and caressed one of Reginaís calves while she rubbed her face over her belly and inhaled the heady scent of her arousal. She ran her hand up the inside of Reginaís leg, intermittently massaging the muscles and teasing with her nails.

Regina lifted her leg over Alexís thigh, pushing her hips up as Alexís fingers finally caressed and glided ever so softly over her swollen lips. "Please," Regina breathed arching her back to push herself onto Alexís fingers. Her hands brushed through Alexís hair and grasped the back of her head, guiding her mouth lower.

Reginaís hips rocked, matching the rhythm of Alexís fingers as they filled her and then her body trembled anew as soft lips enveloped her clitoris. The trembling started in her center and spiraled outwards. Her hands clutched at Alexís shoulders, her fingers clamping and unclamping until she arched her back in orgasm.

Afterwards, Regina lay half on her side with Alex curled up and resting her head on her belly. She ran her fingers through the dark hair, lifting it up and letting fall over Alexís shoulders.

Alex caught her hand and planted a kiss on the soft skin of her palm. "You doing okay?"

Regina smiled and squirmed closer, still feeling tiny aftershocks of pleasure down below. "Wonderful." Her eyes twinkled and she laughed softly at herself.

"What?" Alex lifted her head and studied the changing emotions on Reginaís face.

"I was just thinking."

"Mm. About?" Alex propped her head on her hand in anticipation.

"Wouldnít it be incredible if we could make a baby?"

Alexís eyes widened. "Well, unless I missed a class in medical school I donít think weíre going to have much luck with that."

"Tch." Regina rolled her eyes. "I know that," she replied and ducked her head to hide a blush. "I just think it would really be beautiful if we could, thatís all."

Alex stared at her and swallowed as her heart pounded in her chest. "Did you want to have a baby?"

"I donít know. I think at some point I reconciled myself to never having that be a part of my life, but after seeing Zachary I started thinking about it again." Regina looked up at Alex. "Donít worry itís not like Iím going to go find a donor and get pregnant or anything. I just was thinking about it. Thatís all."

Alex sat up and scooted up to the head of the bed. Okay, breathe, Alex. Sheís just thinking about it. Agh! If sheís thinking about it that means ... what? Does she want to have a baby and sheís afraid to say anything? Crap! A kid! I donít even like them. She stared down at her hands and exhaled. "I never knew you felt that way."

Regina shrugged and curled up on her side. "Will you hold me?"

"Sure." Alex curled around her with her belly pressed up against Reginaís backside and her arm draped over her middle. She rested her head on the pillow and stared at the wall while she listened to Reginaís breathing as it slowed and became deeper as she relaxed and finally fell asleep. Alex rubbed her eyes and snuggled closer realizing that she never considered the possibility that Regina might want to have a baby. It certainly put a different perspective on things.


Chapter Twenty-Five

 

Alex opened her eyes and blinked in the darkness of the bedroom. She stretched and arched her back away from the mattress. Beside her, Regina stirred under the covers and mumbled sleepily.

"Itís early. What are you doing up?" Her grip tightened momentarily around Alexís waist as she snuggled closer.

"I couldnít sleep," Alex grumbled. Abruptly she rolled over, dislodging Reginaís grasp and sat up over the edge of the bed.

"Hey, whatís wrong?" Regina reached up and rubbed her back affectionately.

"Nothing." Alex stood up and searched around the dark room for her duffel bag. The illumination from a single street lamp silhouetted her body as she moved about the room until she located it in the corner where sheíd placed it before she went to bed. Alex fumbled through her duffel bag for her sweats and running shoes.

Regina sat up and pulled the covers over her chest, as she watched Alex pull her sweats on. "Where are you going?"

"Running," Alex replied curtly, pulling a running shirt over her head.

Concerned, Regina sat up and took her hand. "Are you sure youíre ready to do that?"

"Itís been too long. I need to run." Dammit, I need some time alone to think, too.

"Okay," Regina replied hesitantly.

For a moment, they both stared at each other in the gray light of the room and then Alex lightly squeezed Reginaís hand before letting go.

"Iíll see you later at the hospital," Alex said and then stepped out of the room, carrying her sneakers.

What happened between last night and this morning? She was fine when we went to sleep. Regina stared at the space where Alex had just been standing in utter confusion and then flopped down onto the bed. She wrapped her arms around Alexís pillow and closed her eyes as tears welled up in her eyes.

Outside the condo, Alex tied her hair back in a loose braid and slowly stretched her legs. She forced herself not to think about Regina, knowing she ran out leaving the younger woman confused and upset. Her thoughts turned to last nightís conversation as she jogged in place on the macadam. A baby? I wonder how serious she is about doing this. My God our whole lives would change.

With a grim determination, Alex started to run. The only sound aside from the occasional car in the distance was the rhythmic pounding of her feet on the road. Her body responded sluggishly at first as it protested the increased demand she placed on it.

Angry at the fatigue and the memories, Alex ran up the steady incline of the hill. Itís been one crisis after another since weíve been together. I love her, but I want some time just for us. Is that so selfish?

She crested the top of the hill and felt her body settle into a more comfortable rhythm as the initial shock to her system eased. She didnít say she wanted to do this right away. A baby? What the hell do I know about being a parent?

Alex adjusted her stride as she reached a grassy stretch of land that led into a small park at the end of the cul-de-sac. She ran until she doubled over coughing, as the cold air burned her lungs. "Shit. Iím out of shape."

Alex dropped to the ground on the dew-covered grass and pumped out a flurry of push-ups. She gritted her teeth, hating the weakness she felt in her arms and chest. She pushed herself past the trembling and burning sensation until all she focused on was the rushing of her pulse between her ears.

Exhausted she sat back on her heels, tilted her head up to the sky, and closed her eyes. Reginaís words echoed in her memory. Wouldnít it be wonderful if we could make a baby? Alex dropped her head forward and staggered to her feet. With her hands on her hips, she stared down the hill at the dark outline of the Saint Xavierís before she started a slow jog back down the hill.

An hour later, Alex walked into the Emergency Department and headed into the locker room. Alex grabbed a pair of scrubs from the linen cart and tossed them onto the bench. The run made her feel a little better, but she was still unsettled by Reginaís comments.

The locker room door opened and Sandy walked into the room and slumped unceremoniously onto the bench. With a groan, she opened her locker and stared bleakly into the narrow space. "Do you think anyone would notice if I shoved myself in there and just hid for the rest of my life?"

"Thatís a little extreme. What the hell would you do that for?" Alex snapped her scrub pants at the back of Sandyís head.

"Hey!" She rubbed her neck and then did a double take when she looked at Alex. "What the hell are you doing down here?"

"What do you think Iím doing?" Alex opened her locker and hung her keys on a hook inside.

Sandy shrugged and started changing her clothes. "I figured you were getting assimilated by the suits."

Alex snorted and pulled her scrub pants on. "Sorry to disappoint, but Iíd rather be treating patients. So tell me why do you want to hide in the locker?"

Sandy tied her sneakers. "Long story. It involves blue paint, a new carpet, and my ass being grass when I get home. Do you think I could work a string of double shifts?"

Alex rolled her eyes. "It sounds like it was an accident."

"I wish. If it hadnít been preceded by a fight about painting the room a neutral color for ... Alex she wants a baby!"

Alex stopped pulling the scrub top over her head and stared at Sandy. "She what?" Great what is it? A god damn epidemic? "Tina?"

"Who the hell do you think Iím talking about?" Sandy slammed her locker and banged her head against it. "Weíve been together for ten years and not once has she ever brought up having a baby. Now all of a sudden her biological clock is ticking."

Alex exhaled slowly trying to slow down the rapid beating of her heart. "Sandy ... "

"I donít want a baby, Alex." Sandy closed her eyes and leaned against her locker.

"What did you tell her?"

"Before or after I spilled the paint?"

"Does it matter?"

Sandy slid to the floor and buried her head in her hands. "I told her if I wanted to have a baby in my life I would have married a guy and had two point four kids, a dog and a white picket fence."

Alex continued to stare at the nurse, resisting the urge to cover her mouth in a sympathetic reaction. Thank god I went running this morning and kept my mouth shut. "You could work double shifts if you want but I donít think itís going to help."

"No shit."

A moment later, the locker room door burst open and one of the nurses poked her head inside. "Weíve got multiple traumas on the way. A school bus ran a stop light and plowed into a van."

Alex finished changing and slammed her locker shut. "How many?"

"Three major and ten minor traumas."

"Who else is on?"

"Dr. Washington, yourself and Dr. Torres."

"Sandy call the pediatric intensive care unit and tell them we may need beds." Alex hurried past her into the hallway. The doors to the ambulance bay burst open and two paramedics rushed a stretcher through the door.

"Maggie, I need your help," Alex said, as the nurse walked out from behind the nurseís station. Out of the corner of her eye, Alex saw the tall, blonde-haired Vice President bearing down on her. Damn, now what does she want?

"Dr. Margulies."

Alex turned her head. "What Cassandra? She grabbed a yellow, isolation gown from one of the linen bins and shoved her arms into it.

"I need you to be at the dinner on Friday night by six." The Vice President trotted alongside the doctor.

"Thatís important enough for you to tell me now?" Alex upper lip curled into a snarl and she fought to hold back the blunt accusation that formed in her mind. Oh yes, this is important enough for you to be down here right now, so the whole staff can see youíve got me involved in your little game.

"Thereís a new cardiac study weíre about to start and I want you to meet our lead investigator since the Emergency Department will be involved in the patient selection process."

Alex waved her hand in irritation and turned her attention to the paramedics. "What have we got?"

"Eight year old boy with a fractured tibia. Heís complaining of shortness of breath. His pressure is one hundred over sixty."

"Alex."

"I heard you," Alex snapped. "Iíll be there, when I get there." Alex grabbed hold of the stretcher and guided it into the open trauma room.

She grabbed a fluid shield mask from one of the boxes on the wall and tied it behind her head as she entered the room. Outside in the hallway, she heard Jon barking orders out in the hall as another patient was brought in. Okay, one thing at a time. Letís do this. Alex grabbed hold of the backboard and looked briefly at the brown-haired boy. "On my count, one, two, and three." Four pairs of hands easily lifted the boy onto the treatment table.

"Whereís my brother?" the boy wailed as Alex started to examine him.

"Whatís his name?" Maggie asked, as she cut the boyís shirt off with a pair of blunt nosed scissors.

"Joey," the boy gasped out in between sobs.

Maggie looked at one of the technicians as he set a tray of instruments onto a metal stand. "James, go see if you can find anything out about his brother.

"Gotcha." He ducked out of the room.

Alex positioned the stethoscope in her ears and listened to the boyís chest. "Good breath sounds bilaterally." She moved the stethoscope to listen to his heartbeat and then flipped the instrument around her neck. "Letís get a trauma panel, type and cross match for two units of blood. I need two more IV lines with normal saline and get a catheter in him, now." She quickly examined his abdomen and chest, probing for any tenderness with her hands. "Does this hurt?"

The boy shook his head, fighting back a fresh wave of tears.

"Whatís your name?" Alex asked, as she continued to examine him for any other injuries.

"Robert."

"Youíre going to need surgery to fix your leg." She glanced up at Maggie as the nurse finished inserting an IV into the boyís arm. "Find out where the parents are. Weíre going to need their consent for the surgery."

Alex peeled off her gloves and stepped away from the table. "Get x-rays of the lower leg, anterior, posterior and oblique views. Call orthopedics and let me know if there are any changes in his condition." The door to the adjacent trauma room swung open and Sandy stuck her head into the room.

"Alex, Jon needs your help, now."

Alex nodded her head as she stripped off her gown. She grabbed a clean one on her way into the room and quickly shoved her arms into it. "What have you got?" Alex asked over the din of the alarms that sounded incessantly from the wall monitor. She pulled gloves from a box and slipped them onto her hands.

"The kidís got a crushed pelvis and internal bleeding," Jon answered as he sutured a chest tube into place.

The boy grabbed the oxygen mask from his face and writhed on the table. Alex grabbed the plastic mask and replaced it over his nose and mouth. "Easy. Keep this on."

"Itís hard to breathe," he cried.

"Hang on. Itís going to be okay," Alex re-assured him.

Meanwhile, Sandy ducked around a resident who was inserting an intravenous line into the boyís arm. She grabbed a package of Vaseline gauze from an instrument tray and packed it around the tube exiting from the boyís chest.

The nurse glanced up at the monitor and rattled off the vitals. "His blood pressure is one-twenty over eighty. His pulse is sixty. Jon his oxygen sats are dropping."

Alex pulled the stethoscope from her neck, adjusted the earpieces, and bent over the boyís chest. "Open an intubation tray," she ordered as she listened to the breath sounds. "Heís got scattered rails bilaterally."

One of the technicians tore open a sterile package and set it on a metal stand by the head of the stretcher.

The door to the trauma room banged open and Alex felt a chill run up her spine as the sound brought back a flood of memories. One of the nurses stood in the doorway. "Dr. Washington weíve got a fourth critical coming in."

"Get Dr. Ortiz. Heís finishing up in trauma two." He looked up at Alex whose face had gone pale. "Alex, you okay?"

She shook her head and blinked trying to refocus her concentration as the noise reverberated inside her head. "Yeah, I need a laryngoscope."

"Itís coming," Sandy called from the across the room.

"No, I need it now." Alex picked up the endotracheal tube from the tray and held her other hand out. "He needs Versaid."

Beneath her on the table the boy looked up at her through the oxygen mask. "Am I going to die?"

Alex stared down at him and her mind flashed another image, and for a horrifying instant she was back on that table staring up at Regina. Still haunted by the intrusive and fragmented memories she rasped, "No, we need to put a tube in your mouth to help you breathe."

Her hand closed reflexively around the laryngoscope as Sandy placed it in her palm. Alex watched as the resident drew up the dosage and injected it into the IV line. Almost immediately the boyís eyes rolled back in his head as the drug took hold.

"Whereís the hematocrit?" Jon asked, watching intently as Alex bent over, tilted the boyís head back and started to insert the endotracheal tube.

"Itís low at thirty-one," Sandy called out.

"Iím in," Alex said, as she finished the procedure and inflated the balloon to keep the tube in place.

"Letís move him now!" Jon grabbed the stretcher and kicked the brakes off the wheels of the stretcher.

Sandy attached the bag-valve mask and started to ventilate the boyís lungs.

"Letís go." Alex grabbed the drug box and pushed the stretcher ahead of her.

The hallway was an obstacle course of visitors and gurneys as the injured from the accident scene flooded the emergency department. Somehow the three of them managed to dodge through the crowded hallway and turn a corner into a corridor that led to the operating suites without incident.

As they reached the OR doors, Alex stepped back from the stretcher. "Iím going back." She turned and trotted back to the emergency department, keenly aware of the bitter taste of adrenaline remaining in her mouth. Alex detoured into the locker room and stumbled to the sink where she gagged and coughed. Her hands trembled as she turned on the cold water and splashed it on her face. Come on. Get a grip. You need to get back out there and take of the rest of the patients.

By sheer will alone, Alex walked back out into the hallway several minutes later. She stopped at a stretcher and bent over its young occupant. "Whatís your name?" Alex asked, as she slipped the stethoscope from around her neck.

"Joey."

"Do you have a brother?"

The boy nodded. "He was sitting in front of me in the bus."

"Whatís his name?"

"Robert."

"Is he all right?"

Alex listened to the boyís chest before she answered. "He broke his leg and he needs surgery."

"Can I see him?" He sat up on the stretcher and peered around the hallway.

Alex pressed up against the stretcher as on of the technicians wheeled a stretcher past her. "After we finish checking you out first. Does anything hurt?"

"I have a headache. Can I get up?"

"Not yet." Alex placed a hand on his shoulder to steady him.

"Whereíd you go?" Sandy asked, as she hung an IV on the pole of the stretcher.

"Locker room," Alex answered curtly, as she flicked a penlight at the boyís eyes and watched his pupils react. "His brother is in room four. He can stay with him but he needs to have another neuro check done in an hour," Alex told her and then moved on to the next patient.

It was several hours later before all the patients were treated and the emergency department had returned to its normal level of chaos. Back in one of the empty trauma rooms, Jon and Alex sat opposite each other at a treatment table, finishing the last vestiges of paperwork before their shift ended.

Alex signed her last note and flipped the chart closed with a relieved sigh.

"Congratulations," Jon said, a smirk crossing his face.

"On what?" Alexís head jerked up and she stared at him with a blank expression on her face.

"Surviving your first marathon since youíve been back."

Alex rolled her eyes. "Is that all? No wonder I feel exhausted.

"How about we head down to the diner and get something to eat," Jon offered.

Alex shook her head. "Sorry, Iíve got something I have to do."

They both looked up as the door to the room opened. Regina stepped into the room and hesitated before she walked over to the stretcher. "Hi. I was looking for you."

Alex rubbed her neck and forced a smile. "Iím here."

Regina glanced at Jon. "You both look beat."

He yawned and rubbed his unshaven face. "We got hammered today."

"I know. We got three admissions in the Pediatric Intensive Care unit and two on the step down unit."

Regina touched Alexís shoulder. "You ready to go?"

Alex nodded her head, grateful for the warmth of Reginaís hand on her shoulder. "Yeah, let me go change my clothes and Iíll be right back."

Regina slid into Alexís chair as the taller woman left the room.

Jon continued to write in several charts before she he finally sat back and tossed his pen on the table. "Finished." He studied Regina for a moment before he spoke. "How do you think sheís doing?"

"Alex?" Regina raised her eyebrows. "What do you mean? Here?"

Jon rested his forearms on the table. "She looked like she was really struggling to stay focused during the trauma today."

Regina glanced at the door and then looked back at Jon. "Did she make any mistakes?"

"Well, no."

"Then cut her some slack, Jon. Sheís under a lot of stress, but sheís working though it."

Jon regarded Regina seriously. "Are you being objective or are you just protecting her?"

The door to the trauma room opened and Alex walked in. She stopped as Regina and Jon squared off at each other, neither aware of her presence for the moment.

Regina bristled at the comment. "Of course Iím protecting her. I also know her well enough to be sure that she wouldnít do anything to compromise a patientís life."

"I know Alex would never hurt anyone intentionally-"

"Hey, what the hell is going on?" Alex walked over to the table and looked back and forth between the two doctors.

Regina stared openmouthed at Alex. "I-I."

"Donít." Alex held her hand out to Regina and turned to Jon. "If youíre concerned about my performance then you come to me, not Regina. Are we clear?"

Jon leaned back, his eyes widening. "Alex, Iím just concerned."

Alex leaned over the table and glared at her colleague. "I donít want your concern. Save it for your patients.

"Iím done here. Letís go, Reg. We have an appointment we need to keep."

*******

They were both quiet as they waited in the parking lot of Hawkeís Nest Reservation. Alex stared grimly out the window, keeping her thoughts on a tight rein. She could sense Reginaís upset as the smaller woman sat quietly beside her. Alex seesawed between being angry with Jon for voicing his concerns to Regina and upset at herself for jumping on the defensive so quickly.

"Alex," Regina started.

"Do you really want a baby?" Alex blurted out. She glanced nervously at Regina and then puffed her cheeks out before she rubbed her eyes.

"I knew thatís why you were upset this morning." Regina turned in her seat and faced Alex. "Why didnít you say anything?"

Alex rested her elbow against the window and rested her head on her hand. "Honestly, you blew me away last night. The thought never really crossed my mind that you would want something like that."

Regina was quiet as she looked down at her hands. "Alex, I donít want to get pregnant right now."

"But someday." Alex leaned against the door and stared out the window.

"Someday, Iíd like to get pregnant and bring a child into the world." Regina reached out and rubbed the back of her fingers against Alexís cheek. "Talk to me. Tell me what youíre thinking."

Alex closed her eyes and shook her head. "I donít know if I want that."

A heaviness settled on Reginaís chest as she studied Alexís angular profile. "Ever or just now?" she asked, feeling like the wind got knocked out of her.

"I donít know. Right now, I just want us to be together."

"We are and we always will be." Regina leaned forward and pressed her lips against Alexís temple.

Alex sat, quietly absorbing Reginaís words. She watched a blue colored sedan pull slowly into the parking spot next to them. "I think heís here."

Regina peered around her, and observed a lanky, brown haired man with a boyish face step out of the car and looked expectantly at Alex from across the roof of his car.

Alex opened the window partway and raised a questioning eyebrow as she looked at him.

"Dr. Margulies?" His voice carried easily in the crisp, cool air.

"Yes."

"Iím Matthew Weber."

"Show me some identification first." Alex stared at him impassively.

He walked around his car to Alexís vehicle while he fumbled inside a pocket of his gray over coat. He pulled out his wallet and flipped it open.

Alex peered at the laminated card and then nodded at the investigator. "All right Mr. Weber, now what?"

He peered in the driverís side window and frowned when he saw her passenger. "I thought you were coming alone."

"This is Dr. Kingston," Alex replied with an icy stare.

Regina mustered a smile as she leaned forward in her seat to acknowledge the man standing outside Alexís door.

Matthew simply nodded and backed away from Alex. "Letís talk out here."

Alex opened her mouth to speak, but Regina cut her off. "Donít say it. Iím going with you."

A slow, side-ways smile crept over Alexís face. "I was just going to ask if youíre ready for this."

"Oh, I thought ... "

"I was going to ask you to stay," Alex finished for her.

Regina ducked her head. "Sorry, I should have let you finish."

Alex squeezed her hand, then, stepped out of the vehicle, and followed Matthew to a picnic table several yards away from where their cars were parked. She rubbed her hands together and pulled the collar up on her coat as wind swirled around them, lifting and twirling the dead leaves into the air.

"I donít want to chance talking in the car."

Alex shrugged indifferently, although she wondered if he wasnít being a tad paranoid as she sat on the bench across from him. A smile briefly warmed her eyes when she glanced up as Regina sat down beside her.

Matthew looked at both women, his face hardening into an expression of intense scrutiny. "I appreciate your cooperation doctors but I will warn you, this is not a game."

"Weíre both well aware of that." Alex leveled an irritated gaze at the investigator. "Get on with it."

"Fine." Matthew pulled out a small notebook and pen. "We already know that the hospital is involved in some questionable relationships with drug companies. Up until now, their legal department has been able to take advantage of every possible loophole available to them. We need someone on the inside. Iím hoping youíre willing to do the right thing."

Regina leaned forward. "Do the right thing? Wait a minute. Alex hasnít done anything wrong."

Matthew ignored Regina and spoke to her taller companion. "Alex you have knowledge of fraudulent drug trials being conducted at the hospital. If you choose not to assist the investigation you can be prosecuted for obstructing justice."

"Thatís bullshit. She called you." Regina slammed her fist on the table.

"Reg, itís okay." Alex pressed her leg against Reginaís as she glared at the man across from her. She was surprised when her lover leaned across the table and got to within inches of the investigatorís face.

"Do you want our help or are you just trying to intimidate us? We can very easily call my attorney and you can deal with him and not us. Itís your choice." Regina finished her short speech and slowly sat back down on the bench.

Matthew bowed his head and sighed before he looked at Alex again. "Fair enough. I just want you to know that once the hospital finds out your assisting in the investigation, they will use anything they can to rattle you."

"Iím well aware of that," Alex said.

"First, I need to know exactly everything that youíve found out or have first hand knowledge of."

"Most of what I have just leaves more unanswered questions," Alex replied.

"It doesnít matter. If itís enough to justify getting a warrant itíll be worth it."

"I can put something together for you."

"Good. Now thereís a dinner taking place on Friday night that weíre very interested in. Do you know about it?"

"Iíve been invited." Alex assumed a bored expression on her face while inside her guts stirred as she anticipated what his next remark would be.

"Would you be willing to wear a wire?"

Alex squeezed Reginaís thigh before the younger woman could lend voice to the concerns that were evident in the tensing of her whole body. "Why me?"

"Youíve done what it would take us another six months to do. We donít have time to plant someone in their midst so we can find out the extent of what theyíre up to."

"Why canít you just get a warrant to get the information that you need?" Regina asked.

"Like I said before we have no just cause to do that. At the moment, our suspicions are not enough."

Matthew stopped and studied Alex before he continued. Heíd done his homework and hoped the knowledge he gained would pay off. One name in particular had popped up on many occasions as he checked out Alexís past and then suddenly the trail of credit card reports and other electronic data that was kept stored in large databases at the bureau just stopped. His search brought him to a jail cell and one bitter and angry Dana Romano. "Can I talk to you privately for a minute?"

Alex darted a glance at Regina and then back at the dark-haired man sitting across from them. "What ever you need to say you can say right here."

Matthew nodded, a little surprised by that. "Your choice, Dr. Margulies."

Uh oh. Alex tensed as she sensed the change in the manís tone. Beside her Regina fidgeted and she knew her partner was aware of the shift in the tone of the conversation as well.

"The statute of limitations on the possession of drugs and selling them is six years. There are two years left on that statute in your case. If you agree to wear the wire on Friday, I can make those two years go away and you wonít face any charges now or in the future."

Alex swallowed, her ears burned hot and her stomach roiled in reaction to what she heard. She braced her elbows on the table to stave off the uncontrollable trembling that started in her gut. Even after all this time it still comes down to this.

With a resigned sigh, Alex lowered her head and then looked over at Regina, not sure what she would find in her eyes. What she saw was a look of quiet acknowledgement without a hint of recrimination.

"Iím sorry." She didnít know what else to say.

They held each otherís gaze, conveying more in that one unspoken moment than a handful of hurried words would have accomplished. Alex looked back at Matthew and nodded her head. "Iíll do it."

For the next two hours, Matthew reviewed what information the government wanted to collect for their investigation. Both Regina and Alex were exhausted by the time they finally returned home.

Alex leaned against the wall, with her arms folded over her chest, quietly gazing out the window of Reginaís condo. She closed her eyes and tried to slow her racing mind. On the ride home she came to the conclusion that maybe this was justice being played out, since she did everything she was being accused of. Alex yawned and cracked her neck to relieve some of the tension she felt in the muscles.

"Alex come and sit down." Regina looked up from opening her mail and patted the chair next to her.

Blue eyes rolled in her direction and the taller woman walked to the table and slumped into the chair.

"Tired?" Regina ran her fingers through Alexís dark hair.

The older woman nodded and rested her face in her hands. "Why arenít you angry or yelling at me?"

Regina stared at Alex. "Youíre doing a good enough job of beating yourself up. You donít need me to add to the pile." This got her a tiny smile and Alex lifted her head up to look at her. Regina rested her head on Alexís shoulder and inhaled the subtle, spicy scent of her perfume.

"This could get ugly in the next few days."

Regina nodded her head soberly and pressed her face into the curve of Alexís neck. "I know."

Alex wrapped an arm around Reginaís shoulder and kissed the top of her head. Her thumb grazed Reginaís cheek and wiped away a tear. "You know thereís no guarantee the district attorney will agree to throw out the charges against me."

Regina lifted her head and wiped the tears from her eyes. "I choose to believe that he will, Alex. I have to."

Alex was silent as she stared down at the table. She exhaled and then looked into the pair of stricken, green eyes. "I guess I always felt that I was living free on borrowed time." Alex glanced up at the ceiling and took a nervous breath. "Maybe this is, it ... the proverbial other shoe falling."

"No." Regina scooted forward in her chair and squeezed Alexís hand. "Itís been four years and youíve turned your life around. Youíre not that person anymore. I wouldnít be with you if you were."

Alex nodded her head in quiet acknowledgement. "I know. Listen, I wasnít mad at you before in the car. I was upset at Jon for putting you in the middle of everything."

"I wasnít sure," Regina acknowledged quietly.

Alex reached out and turned one of the envelopes around to read it. "Whatís this?"

Regina squinted her eyes and read the address. "My lease is up in a month."

Alex bit back the question that was on the tip of her tongue, prudently deciding that at the moment it wasnít the right time for her to ask Regina if she wanted to take that step with her. She wants a baby. I donít. Why would she want a commitment if we donít want the same things? "I think we should hit the sack. Itís going to be a long couple of days." With a sigh the taller woman, stood up and stretched. "You coming?"

"Yeah. Iíll be there in a couple minutes." Regina watched as Alex walked over to the bedroom and disappeared inside.

What if she decides she never wants to have a baby in her life? Then what? Well, weíve come this far together, Regina thought to herself. Itís not the time to have a crisis of faith. She propped her elbows on the table and rested her head in her hands.

After a quiet moment of reflection, Regina picked up her cell phone and dialed a number to the police station. She listened as the phone rang several times and then a gruff voice answered on the other end. Officer Briggs."

"Hi, this is Dr. Kingston from Saint Xavierís. Iím calling to get an update on the boy whoís been missing since Saturday."

There was a monosyllabic grunt on the other end. "Hold on." A few seconds later the officer came back on the phone and spoke. "Sorry, maíam but we donít have any new information on him yet."

"Nothing?"

"No maíam."

"Are you even looking for him?" The words leapt from her mouth before she could thing about what she was saying.

"Maíam, we get hundreds of reports of missing children every year. We go through the same procedures for each of them."

Regina sighed. "Iím sorry. I just canít believe heís disappeared and no one has seen him."

"Itís tough. Sometimes these kids donít want to be found and they just slip into the shadows of street life."

Regina shuddered at the images that conjured up. "Let me give you my cell phone number. If you hear anything please call me."

The officer took down the number as she recited it. Thanks," Regina replied when she was done and flipped the phone closed.

She walked into the bedroom, stripped off her clothes, and tossed them into the hamper. "You asleep?" she whispered, as she crawled into bed beside Alex.

One blue eye opened and peered back at her. "No, I was just thinking." Alex reached out with her arm in an invitation to Regina.

With a smile, the blonde snuggled down beside her and rested her head against Alexís shoulder. "Iím going to be covering down at the clinic for the rest of the week."

Alex nodded her head and continued to stare up at the ceiling.

Regina traced a fingertip over Alexís collarbone. "I want you to come down there before you go to that dinner on Friday."

Alex looked at Regina and gave her a nervous smile. "Why? So you can make sure I look presentable," she joked in a feeble attempt at humor.

Regina shook her head and kissed Alexís neck. "No, silly. I want to be able to wish you luck before you go."

Alex slid an arm around Regina and pulled her close. "Are you upset about what I said earlier?"

"You mean about you wearing a wire for Matthew. Heís using you and that pisses me off."

"I know. I meant about the baby."

Regina rose up on her elbow and peered down at Alex. "Iím not upset, disappointed that you donít feel the same way, but weíve never talked about it before this. Things have to be different than they are right now and we both have to want that." She leaned down and kissed Alexís collarbone. "Tomorrowís another day. Go to sleep."


Chapter Twenty-Six

 

Sandy pushed the privacy curtain aside and stepped into the exam booth. "Alex, when youíre done here, thereís a fifty year old in room two with bronchitis."

Alex finished stitching the laceration on her patientís forehead and then looked over at the nurse. "Have Jon take it. Iím already late."

Sandy held the chart out to Alex. "Heís tied up with a trauma in room three."

"Then page a resident," Alex replied curtly.

Sandy raised her eyebrows. "You got a hot date or something?"

Alex gave her a dour look and flicked her gloves into the trashcan beside the stretcher. "Or something."

"Ooh, youíre touchy today. Whatís up?"

Alex ignored the comment and walked past the blonde haired nurse. "Did you work a double shift last night or did you actually go home and talk with Tina?"

Sandy kicked the toe of her sneaker against the floor and wrinkled her nose. "I went home, late. She was already asleep."

Alex stopped at the sink and stepped on the floor pedal. Tepid water ran over her hands and she washed them under the stream. "Sandy, you two have been together too long to long not to be able to work this out."

The nurse leaned against the wall and folded her arms over her chest. "Alex, we want different things."

"People want different things all the time. Do you still love her?" Alex glanced at Sandy as she dried her hands.

Sandy leaned closer, as a patient was wheeled past them. "What kind of a question is that? Of course I love her."

"Then isnít it worth staying together?" Alex turned and walked toward the locker room.

"Alex, itís not that simple." Sandy stormed after her. "Who are you to ask me anyway?"

"A friend." Alex opened the door and walked inside.

Sandy followed and waited for the door to shut behind her. "Like you youíve got some great track record with relationships."

"Youíre right. I donít." Alex removed the lock from her locker door and then leaned against it. "I know Iíve got a long way to go to learn about loving another person. Regina and I donít always see eye to eye but you know what? She challenges the hell out of me. Sheís forced me to change and grow and not to run away because thatís the easy thing to do."

Sandy folded her arms and glared at the doctor. "Since when did you turn into a damn philosopher?"

"Because a month ago I had a choice to make about my relationship with Regina." Alex stripped off her clothes and changed into her pants and sweater while she talked. "It was a pretty simple decision when I thought about it. Work it out and stay together or give up the best thing I have in my life and for what?"

Sandy threw up her hands. "Youíre right she is rubbing off on you."

Alex smiled as Sandy turned and opened the door. "Go home and talk to Tina. Donít throw it all away."

Ten minutes later Alex slipped unseen out of the Emergency Department and walked to her Jeep. While she pulled out of the parking lot, she started to review the information she needed to get for Matthewís investigation. Alex guided her Jeep through the early rush hour traffic. She uttered a curse and hit the brake pedal as an oversized sport utility vehicle abruptly changed lanes nearly clipping her front bumper.

She rolled to a stop at a red light, watching the offending vehicle speed off down the road. So tonight I get a chance to trade information for my freedom. Ironic, what I found out may put someone else away. I wonder how Regina feels about that.

Her expression changed to one of pensiveness as she saw the jewelry store she had been to with Regina. She recalled the promise she made to Regina not to long ago while they were up on the Cape and a wistful smile crept over her face.

As the light turned green, Alex flicked her blinker on and pulled into an open parking space across from the storefront. She folded her arms over the steering wheel and rested her head on them. I must be crazy. I donít even know whatís going to happen tonight.

She snorted derisively and shook her head, knowing full well that she should have been going to the clinic to meet Matthew Weber. Alex lifted her head and blinked to refocus her vision. She watched as a group of teenagers jostled and shoved each other as they sauntered across the intersection.

She rubbed her face with her hands and finally got up the nerve to step out of the Jeep.

Alex waited beside the Jeep as a small, compact Toyota sped by her and raced through the yellow light in the intersection barely missing one of the kids. Must be a full moon. Several angry shouts erupted and the closest teen graced the driver with a universal hand signal.

Alex watched the group congregate on the corner, still angry at the recklessness of the driver. First there are diapers, then, they go through the terrible-twoís and then the dreaded teenage years. She shuddered at the thought.

She cast a cursory glance in either direction of the street, stuffed her hands into her coat pockets, and trotted across the street. Alex shook her head in mild disbelief at herself when she finally stepped into the store. My god, am I really going to do this? Alex almost spun on her heel and left in that instant.

"Hello there." A warm cheerful voice called out from behind the counter.

Alex recognized the older gentleman who sold Regina the necklace for her motherís birthday the last time they were in the store. "Hi." She stepped closer and glanced down at the glass cases.

"Can I help you find something?" the jeweler asked, as he moved closer to her.

Unused to feeling so unbalanced, Alex stammered as she fumbled with her words. "The last time I was here, there was a ring, downstairs."

The older manís blue eyes twinkled as he watched the dark-haired woman. "I remember you and your fair haired friend. It was a Celtic design the young lady fancied."

Alex stared at him as her heart bounded in her chest. "Iíd like to see the ring if you still have it."

A gentle smile touched the manís lips and he moved from behind the counter. "Certainly. Come, Iíll show you."

Alex followed him down the carpeted steps as her mind raced in half a dozen different directions. I must be half crazy out of mind. She wants to have a baby.

The jeweler looked over his shoulder as he swept back the heavy velvet curtain and stepped into his small back workroom filled with the tools of his trade. "Every now and then thereís a piece that comes into the store that is just waiting for the right person to come along."

Slowly, he knelt in front of a safe, and spun the dial several times and then opened the door. "Now, it may look a bit different from the last time you saw it."

Alex frowned as she watched him pull out a black box and slowly straighten up. "I donít understand."

He set the box on the table and turned to her. "The vines that form the bands of the ring signify the never ending circle of our lives and the ones we love." He opened the box and slipped the gold ring from its velvet nest.

Alexís eyes widened as she studied it. Perfectly imbedded into the smooth intertwining bands were three, sparkling diamond chips nestled into the spaces where the vines curved around each other. "Itís stunning."

The jeweler beamed as he turned the band around for her to see.

Alex brushed her palms on her coat. "Can I?" she asked, reaching for the ring.

He nodded and placed it in the palm of her hand. "Whatís your name? If you donít mind me asking."

Alex glanced at him from beneath her bangs. "Alex Margulies."

"Iím Vincent Falco."

"How long have you owned the store?"

"Itís been in the family for fifty years. Iíve worked here for the last thirty."

"So why did you hold onto this ring?"

Joseph chuckled at the quizzical look on Alexís face. "After working in the business this long, I can see when two people are in love with each other."

A shiver ran up Alexís spine and she stared down at the ring. She swallowed nervously, feeling suddenly like all the air had gone out of the room. "It does make everything else seem pretty insignificant."

"Itís the reason why weíre here on the planet."

Alex laughed and looked back down at the ring. "Can you clean it up so I can take it with me tonight?"

"I certainly can."

******

It was five oíclock by the time Alex arrived at the clinic. Alex opened the door and stepped out of the Jeep. She pulled her dry cleaned suit out of the back and walked up the concrete steps. Alex stopped on the landing and looked up at the sky. Iím not very good at this God. Iím not even sure I know how to do this or if youíre listening up there. If you are, please let this work out tonight.

She entered the front entrance and smiled when a door opened to her right and Regina stepped into the hallway. When their eyes met, a feeling she couldnít even describe settled deep inside her and she stood where she was until Regina walked up to her.

"Hey. Where have you been?" Regina clasped her hand over Alexís arm and pulled her closer as they walked over to the reception desk.

Alexís eyes darted nervously over Reginaís face as she leaned against the counter top.

"I had a couple of errands to run."

Regina frowned and rubbed her arm. "You okay?"

"Yeah, Iím fine." She moistened her lips and forced a smile, despite the nervous flutter she felt in her guts. "Is Matthew here yet?"

The younger woman nodded and pointed toward the back of the clinic. "Heís in the back room with all his high-tech gear. You better go back because Iím going to have to cause bodily harm to him the next time he comes out and asks me if youíre here yet."

An evil smile appeared on Alexís lips and she leaned closer to the Regina. "Now that Iíd like to see."

"I bet you would."

"There you are. You were supposed to be here a half hour ago," Matthew called out and flung his arms up in agitation as he walked towards the pair.

Alex met Reginaís gaze and rolled her eyes. "Come back when youíre done out here."

"You bet I will." Regina reached out with her hand and touched a wisp of Alexís hair before she walked away.

Halfway down the hallway, Alex turned back around and held Reginaís gaze for a moment. She pointed to herself, then placed a hand over her heart and pointed at Regina.

Regina hugged her arms around herself as a warm tingle ran up her spine and mouthed the words ĎI love youí back to Alex.

Behind her, a door opened and her patient, six-year old girl with straight brown hair and gentle brown eyes walked out, clutching a teddy bear in one hand. An older, grizzled looking man shuffled along next to her, holding the girlís hand.

"Thank you," he rasped and nodded at Regina as he walked past her.

Regina grabbed a prescription pad from the counter. "Here let me get the door for you." She jogged across the room and pushed the door open. "Donít forget this." Regina tore a page from the stack of bound paper.

The man reached out and took the piece of paper. "Thank you, doctor. Say goodbye, Becky."

Regina waved as the girl forced a smile and then ducked her head against her grandfatherís leg. "Remember to have her take the pills with food." She stood on the landing and watched as the pair walked down the steps.

The man hunched forward against the breeze that stirred up around them. He directed the young girl ahead of him as he walked along the sidewalk. Regina watched them disappear into the dark before she stepped back into the clinic and shut the door.

After filing her charts away and locking the cabinet she walked to the back of the clinic. She knocked lightly on the closed door, waiting until she heard the sharp acknowledgement from inside to open the door.

Regina stepped into the stark white room and stood off to the side, watching quietly as Matthew went about his work.

Inside, Alex sat on a treatment table half dressed in her black linen pants and bra. Next to her on the table was an open briefcase with several small devices sitting inside, which looked similar to the pagers they used for work. The doctorís face was set in a stern and somber expression as she allowed Matthew to tape the wire to her skin.

"Um, I ... " He motioned with his hand where he needed to tape the final length and Alex rolled her eyes.

"Here," she grumbled and grabbed the wire from him. She slid it up underneath her bra and affixed it between her cleavage with a piece of tape. "Good enough?" She glared at him from beneath furrowed brows.

"Yeah." Matthew averted his eyes and fiddled with two of the devices in his briefcase. "You, um, have quite a scar there."

"Gee, thanks." Alex leaned toward him. "Would you like one too?"

Matthew startled at the ominous tone her voice and his body stiffened. "Iím sorry. I just meant ... " his voice trailed off as he met Alexís stony gaze. He decided it was better not to pursue his present course and instead went back to studying the receivers in the briefcase.

He selected one and inserted the lead hanging at Alexís side. "You donít need to do anything special when you talk. This little microphone can magnify your voice to ten times its normal volume so Iíll be able to hear you from the car." He cleared his throat and stuffed his hands into his pocket. "You know what information I need you to get."

Alex picked up the small, black instrument, looked at it for a second, and then clipped it to her belt. "Did you talk to the District Attorney?" She boosted herself off the table with her arms, flexing well-toned muscles that despite the two and a half months of little exercise still maintained some of their sleek definition.

"I spoke to him yesterday and theyíre willing to make a deal based on the information you get for the investigation."

"Whatís the deal?"

"They would agree not to bring any charges against you."

Regina tilted her head and watched as Alex slipped her high-collared shirt on and started to button it. She pushed off the wall and approached her. "Can we have a few minutes together?"

Matthew glanced at his watch and started to protest.

"Alone," Alex growled as she pinned Matthew with her eyes.

"Uh, sure. Iíll meet you outside." He grabbed his briefcase and closed it, then, ducked out of the room and shut the door behind him.

"You didnít tell me you were wearing a tux to this thing." Regina ran her fingers over the black three-quarter-length coat and smiled up at Alex.

"Well, it is a formal affair." Alex finished working on her cuff links and glanced at Regina. "You didnít honestly think Iíd be wearing an evening gown."

The younger doctor wrinkled her nose and pretended to think about that. "Uh, no, but then again youíd look incredible no matter what you had on."

Alex raised both her eyebrows and pointed at the tiny microphone. "Iím quite sure the heís already listening."

Regina rolled her eyes and stepped closer. "I donít give a crap. I hate that he manipulated you into doing this." She tugged on the tails of Alexís shirt and kissed her lightly on the lips.

 

 

Alex sighed and rested her chin on the top of Reginaís head. "I got myself into this, Regina." She stared at a crack in the floor, thinking about how one moment in a personís life could change it all forever. "Itís just ... I have a chance to change something that can ruin the rest of my life and everything I care about." Alex lifted her eyes and looked at Regina. "I donít want my past ruining what we could have together."

Regina tilted her head up and smiled sadly. "Come here. I want to give you a hug, but I donít want to get your shirt all wrinkled. Youíll get to this stupid cocktail party and everyone will be wondering what you were doing and with who."

Alex snorted and stifled a laugh. "Or I could just bring you and thereíd be no question."

"Youíre bad." Regina undid several buttons and slipped her arms inside. "Mm, thatís better." She nestled her head against Alexís shoulder and hugged her tightly.

Alex closed her eyes and slowly wrapped her arms around Regina. "You okay?"

"Iíll be better when youíre back home safe, with me tonight." Regina lifted her head when she heard a muffled cough from the other side of the door. Her lip curled and she pinched the top of the microphone with her fingers. "Do you think heíll hear this?" She flicked her middle finger hard against the tip.

"Ow! Shit, dammit! What did you do that for?" Matthewís aggrieved voice filtered through the closed door.

Alex tilted her head back and her body shook as she laughed. "Excuse me, one second." She slipped from Reginaís grasp and opened the door.

Matthew was leaning against the wall, still rubbing one ear as she descended upon him. He shrank away from her as she invaded his space and towered over him. "Listen you little shit. You pull another stunt like that and Iíll shove this receiver so far up your ass youíll be able to pull it out your throat. Turn it off and get lost."

He fumbled with the device for a few seconds. "Okay, itís off," he whined and then slunk past her along the wall towards the front door.

"Stupid piece of ... " Reginaís hand clamped over Alexís mouth as the taller woman turned around.

"I think you just scared the crap out of him."

Alex stared at Regina and then nibbled at the palm of her hand.

"Brat." Regina poked her in the stomach and then backed up as the taller womanís eyes glinted with a predatory gleam.

"Come here."

Regina yelped and half-heartedly skipped back a couple of steps as Alex playfully advanced on her. The next step brought her back up against a wall and she found herself pinned against it with Alexís outstretched arms on either side of her head.

She stared into eyes that seemed more gray than blue in the fluorescent light. Regina watched the corners of Alexís lips twitch into a smile and then felt the soft touch of strong fingers running through her hair.

"What are you going to do while Iím gone?"

"Mm." Regina pressed into the caress that enveloped her senses. "I um," she cleared her throat and continued. "Iíve got some paperwork to finish up here." She heard Alex exhale.

"Donít stay here too long by yourself. Okay?"

"I wonít." Regina wrapped her arms around Alexís waist and pulled her close. "Please be careful tonight."

"I will be." Alex ducked her head and pressed her lips against Reginaís in a slow, gentle kiss. When she pulled away she kept her eyes closed while she savored the gentle strength of Reginaís arms and the warmth of their bodies where they touched. "Regina," she whispered and opened her eyes.

"What?" Regina started to re-button Alexís shirt from the bottom up.

"I love you."

She stopped what she was doing, rose up on her toes, and kissed Alexís lips. "I love you, too."


Chapter Twenty-Seven

 

After Alex left the clinic, Regina locked the front door and walked back to her desk. She settled down into a chair, dragged the top chart off the pile in front of her, and opened it. She scanned over the hastily scrawled notes and then rubbed a hand over her weary eyes.

"I wish I could do something to help Alex. I feel so useless sitting here, just waiting."

With a pensive sigh, she started to write the remainder of her notes for the patients she treated throughout the day.

An hour later, after working her way through half the pile, Regina leaned back in her chair, yawned and stretched her arms over her head. A sound from outside startled her and she twisted in her chair.

"What in the hell was that?"

At first, she attributed it to a loose shutter being rattled by the wind. Then, it came again, and this time, she realized the short, staccato like, high-pitched noise was a dogís frantic barking. The young doctor looked briefly at the pile of paperwork and stood up. She grabbed a flashlight from behind the counter and then lifted her coat off from behind the door.

Regina slipped her jacket on as she unlocked the front door. At the top of the steps, she zipped up her coat while soft gusts of air crystallized into a misty cloud in front of her with each breath.

Across the street, at the firehouse she made out the silhouette of the German Shepard, dancing around in a circle as he barked.

Regina trotted down the steps, glanced up and down the street, and waited for a break in the traffic. When the line of cars finally broke she darted across the road.

"Hey, Lucky. Whatís wrong?" She called out as she approached the distressed animal. "Did the guys leave you here all alone?" Both rigs were gone and her voice echoed off the concrete walls of the firehouse.

Regina ruffled the coarse hair on the German Shepardís neck and the dog whined softly as he strained against the length of rope that was tied to a bolt in the concrete wall. "Itís okay, boy. Theyíll be back."

A burst of deep guttural barks startled Regina and her eyes darted around looking for the source of the dogís agitation. "Whatís got you so upset tonight?" Before she could react, the dog lunged furiously against the leash that restrained him.

"Lucky, stop." She tried to mimic Toddís stern tone with the dog. A frustrated whine and high-pitched bark answered her.

The powerful dog lunged repeatedly toward the open door. Suddenly, the rope pulled taught and snapped. Lucky bolted into the street, darting in front of an oncoming car and just barely avoided being struck.

Regina took her hand away from her mouth and shook her head in relief. "That was too close."

Across the street, Lucky lowered his head to the ground and sniffed frantically all along the sidewalk in front of the warehouse. He barked several times and then trotted into the alleyway on the side of the clinic.

Regina ran across the street and called the dogís name. "Oh this is just stupid," she chastised herself as she halted in front of the dark opening that led between the two buildings. "What am I chasing after him for? Heís not my dog."

She heard another bark and the sound of scamper of large paws running on the concrete grew louder. Regina yelped as the dogís form took shape as he emerged from the shadows.

"This is a fine time for you to decide to play games. Come here." She reached out to grab his collar but the dog ducked and pranced away from her. Regina glanced back up at the clinic, briefly giving a thought to the paperwork she had left on her desk. "Maybe I can coax you inside."

She backed away several steps. Lucky tilted his head and cocked his ears at her. He whined and shook his large head obstinately, then barked several times as he backed away.

"What are you trying to tell me?" Regina turned on the flashlight and swept the beam over the alleyway before she tentatively stepped forward. She felt something gooey squish beneath her shoe and she shivered involuntarily. "Yuck. I donít even want to know what that was."

As she approached the dog, he wagged his tail and danced closer to a stairwell that took shape as her eyes adjusted to the dark. "What is it, Lucky?" She grasped the cold, metal rail and felt a shiver run up her spine as she looked down the dark, forbidding steps.

Lucky turned and trotted to the end of the alley and disappeared around the corner.

Regina shook her head and cautiously followed after the dog. She turned the corner and flashed the beam of light on Lucky in time to see him worming his way underneath the partially opened garage door.

Regina shivered and looked around her. A large garbage dumpster stood in a far corner of the empty lot and garbage littered the ground.

She walked over to the loading dock and boosted herself up onto the concrete ledge. Regina peered under the door and shined the beam of light inside. Two eerie golden orbs reflected back at her from several feet away and she heard the dog whine. She shifted the beam of light and a startled cry escaped from her lips.

Two dirty bare feet stuck out from behind a crate.

"Hello, can you hear me?" She called out but got no reaction.

Regina struggled to lift the door up. It budged several inches and then stuck solidly in its track. Next, she sat back on her heels, pulled out her cell phone, and flipped it open. She dialed several times and then ran her hand nervously through her hair. "Damn, it figures I canít get a connection from here."

She peered back under the narrow opening and then lowered herself onto her stomach. It took several minutes but Regina finally managed to squirm her way under narrow opening.

A dank, musty odor assaulted her senses and she wrinkled her nose in revulsion. "Gross."

She pushed herself up onto her hands in knees and was immediately welcomed by Luckyís warm, wet tongue. "I know, I know. Youíre a good boy." She pushed him away and then shined the beam of the flashlight around her. After a few minutes of searching, found a row of light switches on one of the walls.

She flipped the switches and was relieved when several rows of fluorescent lights flickered on overhead. Regina exhaled nervously and walked back to where she saw the pair of feet sticking out from between several crates.

Regina looked down and let out a startled cry. "Jesus, how did you get here?" She dropped to her knees, reached down, and felt for a pulse. "Thank god, youíre still alive." Regina cradled the boyís face in her hands. "TJ wake up. Come on sweetheart open your eyes for me."

The boy stirred and mumbled incoherently for a moment. Suddenly, his limbs thrashed and his eyes rolled back in their sockets. Regina stripped out of her coat and bundled it beneath TJís head. She leaned against one of the boxes and pushed it several inches away, then, did the same with several others.

Lucky whined and lowered his head as he hunkered down next to the boy.

Regina rolled TJ onto his side and waited for what seemed an eternity until the seizure passed and the boy lay quietly on the ground.

*******

Alex walked around to the back of her Jeep and dropped her keys into the hands of the young valet attendant. A low rumble caught her attention and she quickly jumped back onto the sidewalk just as a candy, red Porsche rolled to a stop right where she had been standing a second before. The driver side door opened and a tall, lithe man with wavy, salt and pepper hair stepped out.

"Whereíd you learn how to drive?" Alex glared at him in contempt.

"What are you worrying about, I didnít hit your old relic," he replied with a sneer. With negligent grace, he tossed his keys at the same valet and walked away with his coat tails flourishing out behind him.

Alex forced a smile as she looked up at the sky and then over at the attendant. "Thereís a nice piece of open road over on Valley Drive. You should be able to open it up all the way."

Dark eyes met hers and laughter rung in the air as the valet tossed the Porsche keys in his hand. "Indeed it is, maíam."

Alex clapped him on the shoulder and then walked across the circular drive. "Could they have picked anyplace more ostentatious?" Her eyes roamed over the dramatically lit main entrance that was flanked on either side by two life-size, marble statues carved in the likenesses of Greek water bearers. Water bubbled over from their fluted openings and flowed into the pools that were their bases.

Alex opened the door and was immediately blasted with a gust of hot, dry air from the overhead vents as she walked through the entryway.

She slipped out of her long, black leather coat and draped it over the wooden half door of the coatroom where an attendant handed her a ticket in exchange for her coat.

Around her, the noise level rose as a number of medical staff continued to arrive in small groups. Alex walked through the growing crowd toward the large ballroom that was reserved for the eveningís function. Strains of dinner music filtered from over-sized speakers at the other end of the hall.

The thought of eating, smiling and fraternizing with Cassandra and her cronies all night nauseated her. What Iíd give to be with Regina right now.

Seeking some reassurance, Alexís hand drifted to the inside pocket of her coat where she felt the small ring box that was tucked securely away. She stopped and looked around her for a second, pushing away the dark thoughts that crept into her consciousness. I hope I get that chance after tonight.

After walking through the ballroom, Alexís gaze settled briefly on Cassandra who was dressed in a low cut, black evening gown. At the moment, she was engaged in a conversation with the driver of the Porsche. Oh how lovely, he must be her latest prize. Weíll see how long it takes him to fall from grace.

The manís dark eyes locked with Alexís momentarily as he continued to talk with the Vice President. A second later Cassandra turned and glanced her as well.

Alex simply returned the Cassandraís incendiary look with an impassive expression, then, casually turned and walked away. Yeah, thatís right Iím here Cassandra, but weíre going to play this little charade by my rules not yours.

Across the hall, Dr. Timmons emerged from the fringes of a crowd of people and walked up to Alex. "Evening, Dr. Margulies. Howíd you get wrangled into attending this lovely affair?"

"I believe the words command performance are appropriate for this occasion," she answered shortly.

"Donít I know it. I feel sorry for the poor bastards who donít realize yet that their budgets for next year hinge on the amount of their departmentís contributions." He gestured at the long buffet tables that were meticulously decorated with ice sculptures. "How much do you think theyíre shelling out for this affair anyway?"

Alex shrugged and leaned closer so he could hear her over the rising din. "Too much, Iím sure."


The pediatrician laughed and gestured across the room with his hand. "Itís an open bar. We might as well recoup some of our donation. Do you want anything?"

"Just a tonic with lime." Alex declined the offer.

"Are you on call tonight?" He glanced at Alex as they walked through the crowd of people toward the bar.

"No. I just want my wits about me tonight."

"Not me. I need a stiff one to make it through this nonsense." He turned to the bar tender. "Give me a scotch straight up and a tonic with lime."

Alex took her drink from Dr. Timmons and sipped it while she studied the occupants of the room around her.

"Letís check out the spread at the buffet before we get dragged into a night of talking about hospital politics."

"Sounds good," Alex answered, realizing it had been hours since sheíd last eaten.

Twenty minutes later after sampling their way through the buffet, Alex and Dr. Timmons stood at the far end of the room and talked briefly amongst themselves.

"So, shall we go rub elbows?" Alex scanned the room again and found Cassandra standing with a cluster of doctors and administrators.

The pediatrician shook his head. "You mingle. Iíll refresh my drink."

A smirk crossed Alexís features and she acknowledged him with a wave of her hand, then, focused her attention on her quarry standing ten feet away from her.

Okay, this is game time. Get your head on straight, Alex reminded herself as she slipped up behind Cassandra and flashed a smile at the two colleagues the Vice President was engaged in a conversation with.

"Weíd truly appreciate any support you can contribute to our endeavor," Cassandra stated sweetly as she laid a hand on one of the doctorís forearms.

"Hello, Dr. Margulies." One of the radiologists acknowledged her with a nod of his head.

"Hello, Gordon." Alex lifted her glass in mock salute and then smiled disarmingly at Cassandra when the Vice President turned toward her.

"Alex itís so nice of you to be here. Gentleman." Cassandra dismissed the two men with a brief nod of her head. Once they were alone, her eyes roamed appraisingly over Alexís figure. "Youíre looking rather butch tonight."

Alex ignored Cassandraís comment and lifted the doctorís empty glass from her hand. "Whatís youíre poison?" she asked, trying valiantly to appear and sound normal and not like she was plotting a strategy to entrap her boss.

"Vodka Gimlet." Cassandra eyed the taller woman warily and hesitated. "Maybe I shouldnít."

Alex rolled her eyes and forced a chuckle. "Come on, Cassandra. Whatís one drink to take the edge off? You deserve it, after all."

"I suppose one more wouldnít hurt," she conceded.

Alex nodded her head and strode to the bar. She glanced back at Cassandra as she waited for the bartender to mix the drink she requested.

Cassandra appeared by her side seconds later. "Why thank you, doctor," she demurred as she took the proffered drink from Alex and sipped it. Her lips left a ruby-colored outline of their shape on the rim of the glass. "I think thatís the nicest thing any oneís done for me this week."

"Thatís not saying much, Cassandra," Alex replied evenly.

The blonde shrugged. "Itís a lonely place at the top, Alex."

"As lonely as you choose to make it, I suppose."

"Itís a trade off for having to make unpopular decisions."

Thatís an interesting spin on things, Alex thought.

Several boisterous residents crowded around the bar where the two women were talking. Alex discreetly guided Cassandra away from the ruckus. "You have a lot on your plate with the new Cardiac program coming on board. Whenís the ground breaking date?" Alex probed cautiously.

"That depends."

"On what?"

"How much we draw in from tonightís proceeds." Cassandra tipped the glass to her lips again and waved exuberantly to a doctor standing several feet away from them.

"How much are you expecting to raise?"

"We have a million dollars in pledges so far, but whatís more important is that we have a party who is willing to match us dollar for dollar."

"Must be one hell of a plaque thatís going up on the wall of the new unit for that price," Alex half joked. Come on Cassandra, give me something I can use.

"Weíre way beyond plaques at this point," the Vice President scoffed.

Alex nodded at one of her colleagues as he walked past them on his way to the buffet table. She leaned in closer to Cassandra. "Whatís the prize? A position on the Board of Trustees?"

Cassandraís eyes widened and she gulped down a swallow of her drink. "Oh, look thereís Doctor Pierce. Heís the doctor I was telling you about the other day. I must introduce you to him," Cassandra gushed. "Roger, come here. Thereís someone I want you to meet."

Oh lucky me, Alex groaned inwardly as she watched the doctor scrutinize her as he walked towards them.

"Hello, Cassandra." He nodded graciously.

"Roger, this is Doctor Margulies, the director of our Emergency Department." Cassandra laid a hand on his arm and turned him towards Alex.

"Ah, the doctor who has nine lives. Iíve heard so much about you."

Alex extended her hand, expecting a hand shake and then steeled herself when Dr. Pierce abruptly turned her hand over and kissed the back of it. "Funny, I havenít heard a thing about you," she replied through gritted teeth.

"No one told me you were so beautiful," he replied as he raised his head and smiled at her.

Alex extracted her hand from his grasp, resisting the urge to wipe it off on her pants leg.

"So where did you practice before joining the medical staff here?"

"Iíve been at several facilities out west," Dr. Pierce shrugged his shoulders.

"Really, where?"

"This is supposed to be a fun evening, Alex. There will be plenty of time to talk about business later," Cassandra jumped in.

"Iím sure we will," replied evenly, hoping her voice didnít betray the nervousness she felt. Movement from across the room caught Alexís attention and she watched as two men dressed in white shirts, blue coats, and gray wool pants walked briskly toward them.

"Dr. Mitchard, we have a problem," the huskier of the two guards reported nervously.

Alex turned and watched Cassandraís reaction closely.

Cassandraís eyes bored into the security guard and a vein bulged in her neck. "What do you mean we have a problem?" Cassandra demanded.

"I think you should come see for yourself." The guard shifted on his feet and looked around the room before he returned his gaze to the Vice President.

Dr. Pierce turned to Cassandra, his eyes narrowing as he stepped into her space. "I thought you said everything was tied up and there would be no loose ends."

"Roger, I assure you everything is fine." With an exasperated sigh, Cassandra waved her hand ahead of herself. "This better be important," she warned the security guards.

Alex followed the small entourage out of the crowded ballroom and down a side corridor that led away from the boisterous noise of the party. The taller security guard opened a locked door and led them into a small room.

"I thought you should see this." He pointed at one of the monitors on the wall.

Dr. Pierce walked up behind Cassandra and squinted as he tried to make out the grainy images that were displayed on the screen of one of the wall monitors. "Who in the hell is that?"

Alexís eyes darted to the monitor as she stepped closer. Her mouth went dry and she felt nauseas as she made out Reginaís unmistakable image on one of the screens. Oh sweet Jesus, Reg what are you doing there?

"Should we call the police?" Dr. Pierce asked.

"No, absolutely not. Weíll take care of it internally," Cassandra said coldly.

"Is that a good decision?"

"Itís not yours to make. Besides, the police canít be involved. Thereís too much at stake now."

A chill ran up Alexís spine. She backpedaled to the door while Cassandra argued with Dr. Pierce.

Cassandra leaned closer and then tilted her head. "Thatís one of our doctors. What is she doing in the warehouse?" She whirled around and let out a frustrated shriek when she realized Alex was standing behind her. "You, youíre responsible for this. Do not let her leave the building," she yelled at the security guards.

Alex yanked the door shut and sprinted down the hallway. She bypassed the coatroom and flung the exit door open as she ran through. Outside, she raced to the small valet shack and leaned in the door, startling the attendant.

"I need my Jeep now. I have an emergency."

"Sure lady so does everyone." The young man slowly uncrossed his legs and stood up from his chair.

Alex pulled out her wallet and slipped a bill into his hand. "Iím serious. Now move!"

The boyís eyes widened as he looked at the bill in his hand. "You got it." He grabbed the keys from a hook, raced out of the booth.

Alex glanced behind her and saw the two security guards bearing down on her. "Iíve got to go. Just donít give up on me yet." She flipped her cell phone shut.

She turned to follow the valet but a meaty hand grabbed her by an arm and twisted her around. "Maíam you have to come with me."

"Like hell I do." Desperation fueled her actions and she wrenched her arm out of his grasp. She ducked under his outstretched arm and slammed an elbow into his solar plexus.

As he grunted and doubled over, Alex grabbed his shoulders and shoved him back into the other security guard. There was a strangled shout as they both stumbled and collapsed to the ground in a heap.

Breathing heavily, Alex turned and saw the illumination from the Jeepís headlights swing out of a parking spot. She ran out into the road and flagged the attendant down as he sped up the hill. "Thanks."

She jumped in behind the wheel and slammed the door shut. Her heart pounded in her chest and the bitter taste of adrenaline soured her mouth. She glanced into the rearview mirror in time to see Cassandra and Dr. Pierce hail down the same valet attendant. Alex hit the gas pedal and sped out of the driveway. She offered a silent prayer that she would make it to the warehouse before they did.

She gripped the steering wheel tightly as she weaved in and out of traffic down the four-lane divider highway. Alex punched in the number for Reginaís cell phone and waited.

User unavailable? "Dammit!" She threw the phone on the passenger seat and focused on the road ahead.

Minutes later, she cut across two lanes of traffic and raced up the exit ramp, unaware that behind her, a pair of headlights winked on from the shoulder and a car accelerated out of the shadows.


Chapter Twenty-Eight

 

Regina yanked the blue plastic cover from the metal cart. "Finally," she exclaimed and pulled the green oxygen cylinder from the shelf. She grabbed the regulator lying beside it and lost her balance as she stepped back into a stack of boxes. She teetered precariously for a moment and then fell backwards into them. Her weight sent the box at the top of the stack crashing to the floor. A pile of papers bound in folders slid out from the broken lid.

She shook her head at her clumsiness and gingerly got to her feet still holding the tank tightly in her grasp. "Nice Reg, why donít you just drop the oxygen tank on the floor and have it explode," she berated herself.

Luckyís ears twitched and the German Shepard leapt to his feet, and stared at the stairwell. A low growl resonated deep from within his barrel chest.

"Itís all right, Lucky. It was just me," Regina re-assured him.

Regina knelt and connected the regulator to the oxygen tank. She glanced down at the boy and pressed her lips together. His seizure lasted several minutes and she had no way of knowing if he had suffered more before she discovered him. She didnít want to leave TJ alone, afraid that if she did he would have another seizure while she was gone.

She finished hooking up the oxygen tubing, and slipped it over TJís ears, then, adjusted the cannula inside his nose. She adjusted the flow and checked the gauge relieved to see that the tank was still full. Next, she pulled a blanket from another box she opened earlier and draped it over the boyís body. "At least thatís something for now."

The young doctor stood up and wiped her hands on her pants, leaving dusty handprints on the fabric. The sound of water dripping onto the concrete floor from a pipe somewhere in the cavernous warehouse was the only thing she heard besides her own breathing.

Lucky growled again and his hackles rose on his neck as he stood at attention next to TJ.

"What is it, Lucky? What do you hear?" She ran a hand through his fur, more for her own re-assurance. The dog jerked his head around and whined softly.

"Heíll be okay," Regina said, hoping to herself that she was right.

She moved several boxes aside and found one that was marked medical supplies. "Ah, maybe this has something I can use." Regina ripped the tape off the lid of the box and tossed it on the floor.

Luckyís sudden ferocious barking startled Regina and she fumbled around on a shelf for something to protect herself with. She grabbed a metal pole and gripped it tightly in her hands.

Regina knelt down beside TJ and checked him as she tried to figure out what to do next.

Her heart lurched in her chest when she peaked over the box and saw a shadow looming along the wall of the stairwell.

Lucky launched himself forward and disappeared around the corner. She heard a startled shout and the sound of a body tumbling down the steps, then, more excited barking.

Mustering her courage, she hefted the pole in her hands and crept from her hiding spot. Regina stopped at the top of the stairs and furrowed her brow as she looked at the crumpled body, lying in a heap at the bottom of the stairs.

Lucky sniffed curiously around the body. He backed up as the person stirred and sat up with a groan.

"Well, that was one hell of a greeting you stupid dog."

"Alex!" Regina dropped the pole and darted down to the bottom of the stairs. She knelt beside the taller woman and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "Are you okay? Regina cupped Alexís face in her hand and kissed her temple. "How did you get in here?"

"I still have the keys from when we were here before." Alex rubbed her head and winced as she tentatively moved her shoulder around. "What is he your personal guard dog?"

Regina glanced at Lucky and watched as he caught a scent of something and darted down the dark hallway. "H ... how did you know I was here?"

"Long story." Alex struggled to her feet. "We need to get out of here. Cassandra saw you on a video monitor that was hooked up in the security office of the hotel."

"W ... what?"

"Iíll explain later. Come on. Letís go."

"Alex, wait." Regina grabbed hold of Alex to steady her. "I found TJ."

Alex blinked and leaned back against the wall. "You what? Heís here?"

"Heís up in the storage area."

A car door slammed shut out in the alleyway. A moment later the doorknob jiggled and a shadowy silhouette of a manís hulk filled the window.

"Go." Alex grabbed Reginaís hand and together they raced up the stairs.

"This way." Regina led the way to the cramped space where TJ was tucked securely beneath a blanket. "I think he got in through the loading docks.

Alex glanced back at the narrow space at the bottom of partially closed door "You fit under that?" She observed the muddy streaks across Reginaís pants and shirt for the first time and shook her head.

"I had to."

The slightest hint of a smile played around Alexís mouth and she squeezed Reginaís shoulder affectionately. Alex knelt down with a groan and opened one of the boyís eyelids. "Heís out cold."

"He had a seizure thirty minutes ago and hasnít woke up yet."

"Letís get him out of here." Alex grabbed the boy underneath the arms and started to drag him towards the garage door.

The sound of footsteps running up the stairs alerted Regina. She grabbed a handful of Alexís dinner jacket and tugged her back down. "Someoneís coming."

"Dr. Margulies," a familiar voice echoed through the warehouse. "I know youíre in here, Alex."

"Matthew, go to hell," Alex growled as she gingerly lowered TJ back down to the ground. "I had two security guards try to stop me from leaving the hotel after Cassandra saw Regina on the tape." She stood up and swept her hand out in front of her. "Figure it out. Whatever theyíre hiding is right here under our noses."

The investigator stood under the feeble glow of the flickering fluorescent lights and stared at her. "That means they know youíre here."

"Brilliant deduction, Sherlock." Alex looked at Regina and shook her head before she looked back at Matthew in disgust.

Regina knelt beside TJ and adjusted the blanket around his shoulders. "Alex we need to get him to the hospital."

Alex turned back to Matthew. "Now might be a good time to call for back up and while youíre at it, call EMS so we can get this kid transported."

Suddenly, on the far side of the warehouse, the front door banged open and Cassandra and Dr. Pierce rushed into the storeroom as Matthew reached for his cell phone.

"Put that phone down," Pierce ordered as he pulled a gun from the inside pocket of his jacket and aimed the muzzle at Matthew.

Alexís adrenaline surged. She tackled Regina to the floor and rolled them behind a row of boxes.

"Whatís wrong Alex? Bring back memories?" Pierce cackled from across the warehouse.

Regina pressed her body against Alex. "Alex, what the hell his going on?"

On trembling arms, Alex crouched behind the stack of boxes and watched as Matthew held his phone up and closed it. "It was Cassandra all the time, Reg."

She reached back and wrapped her arm around Reginaís shoulder as the younger woman pressed against her.

Dr. Pierce stepped closer to Matthew and kept the gun trained at his chest. "Take your gun out and turn it around. Donít try anything, smart. Cassandra hurry up and find the charts."

"Just take it easy. Nobody wants to get hurt here." Matthew slowly pulled his jacket back, and removed the nine-millimeter Glock from his side holster,.

"Shut up! Set it on the floor and slide it over there." The doctor pointed to an open spot on the floor between them.

Matthew did as he was told and slid the gun across the concrete floor.

Dr. Pierce scooped it up. "Now lay face down on the floor where I can see you." He pulled a pair of handcuffs from his coat pocket and tossed them across the room where they landed a few feet away from where Alex was crouched. "Those are for you Dr. Margulies. Take those handcuffs and get over to that row of pipes with your girlfriend. Now!"

Oh god, weíre dead. Alex shuddered as she stooped and picked the manacles off the floor. She looked at Regina who was staring back at her with a grim look of desperation in her eyes. Slowly, she held her hand out and waited for Regina to come to her.

A moment later, with the warmth of the Reginaís smaller hand tucked in hers, they walked to the back of the warehouse where a myriad of pipes ran along the wall.

"Now, toss the handcuffs over the pipe and lock yourselves together before I put a bullet in your girlfriendís head."

Alex glanced overhead and slipped one of the cuffs around her wrist. "Itís too high for her."

Pierce glared at Alex and shrugged. "Then cuff yourselves to one of the pipes along the wall. Itís of no consequence."

Alex stared down at the rust-stained floor around several of the pipes and stepped back several paces before she motioned Regina to follow her. Her hand shook as she gingerly squeezed her forearm behind the pipe and held the manacle out to Regina. "Youíve got a chance to make it to the door when heís not looking," she whispered to Regina.

"Not without you," Regina replied, while she slipped her wrist into the manacle and locked it around her wrist.

"Shut up over there!" Pierce charged across the floor, lunged at Alex and backhanded her across the face.

Alex raised her head and leveled a hateful stare at him. Beside her, Regina growled and very deliberately spit in his face. "I hope you rot in hell!"

"Robert, enough! We have work to do," Cassandra reminded him.

Dr. Pierce wiped the spittle off his face and stepped back. "Did you find them?"

"Right here, where we left them."

"Good. Torch them so we can get the hell out of here. We have a plane to catch." He kept his gun aimed at Matthewís head as the agent lay sprawled face down on the concrete floor.

"You just couldnít play by the rules, could you, Alex?" Cassandra asked.

"Rules? You mean the rules you made up as you went along." Alex raised her head and glared at Cassandra with penetrating eyes.

A tingle of dread that ran up her spine when she saw the gas can in the Vice Presidentís hand. She spared a glance at Matthew and frowned in confusion as he turned his head and tried to mouth something to her.

"It was such a simple plan really," Cassandra continued. "T&M approached us two years ago to perform drug trials on their number one and two experimental drugs. They offered twenty thousand dollars per patient that we enrolled in the study."

"So at some point it went from conducting medical research to embezzling money from the drug company," Alex stated, as she continued to watch Matthew.

A subtle movement of his fingers pointing toward his feet alerted her to the irregular bulge outlined by his pants. A glint of metal flashed beneath the overhead fluorescent lights and she realized it was another holster. Alex quickly jerked her attention back to Cassandra.

"Youíre in no position to accuse me of anything," Cassandra spat.

Keep their attention on you. Alex didnít dare look back at him. "How many of the patients that you enrolled were real?"

"Enough to make it look legitimate."

Alex forced a laugh. "Thatís why all those charts were missing from medical records. You enrolled dummy subjects into the drug trials and needed to forge the consent forms so the drug company would pay you for more subjects."

"Precisely," Cassandra laughed.

Donít let them focus on Matthew. Alex racked her brain for a way to keep the conversation going. "You ran two sets of books, one for the hospital and one for the drug company to see."

"Itís too bad you picked the wrong team to play for," Cassandra sneered at her.

"I donít think I did."

Cassandra unscrewed the cap from the can and doused the boxes in front of her.

Oh sweet Jesus. The thick, oily, bitter scent of gasoline filled Alexís nostrils and her throat constricted at the thought of burning alive.

"Dr. Jameson was sloppy. I needed to get rid of him." A selfĖsatisfied smile lit up Cassandraís features as comprehension dawned on Alexís face. "Thatís right, all it took was a slight adjustment in his normal dose of medication and oops ... " She pulled a lighter from her coat pocket, flipped it open, and held the flame against the corner of one of the boxes. "He had a heart attack." The boxes ignited with a whoosh.

Alex watched the flames follow the trail of fuel in search of more to feed its deadly appetite. The warehouse was crammed with boxes, old mattresses and god knows what else.

"You conniving bitch. You planned this all out from the beginning," Regina shouted at her as she lunged forward against the pipe.

"Not everything. You being here tonight was unexpected, but not something we couldnít handle." Cassandra turned and walked away from the growing inferno.

"For godís sake, take the boy. He has nothing to do with this," Alex shouted over the growing roar of the flames.

Pierce glanced over at the limp form huddled on the floor and shrugged with callous indifference. "Wrong place, wrong time."

Several feet away, Mathew lunged to his knees and desperately grabbed for the gun that was holstered around his ankle. Dr. Pierce reacted instantly and gunfire erupted, echoing throughout the warehouse.

Matthewís body jerked like a marionette and spun around from the impact of the bullets. His arms flailed helplessly overhead.

As the gun jarred loose from his grasp and arced into the air, Alex pulled Regina to the ground and threw her body over hers.

"Oh god, no." Regina covered her mouth as tears flooded her eyes.

"Donít look." Alex hugged Regina to her and battled the overwhelming sense of futility as flames engulfed the stack of boxes in the middle of the room and erupted towards the ceiling.

The smoke detectors on the ceiling finally blared and the sprinklers spit out a pathetic stream of water.

"I think you used up your nine lives last year, Dr. Margulies," Pierce laughed as he walked backwards and tossed the keys to the handcuffs into the flames.

Alex stared after them until she lost sight of Cassandra and her accomplice in the smoke. It would be easy enough to close her eyes and let the smoke overtake her before her body ever felt the searing heat from the flames but one look at Regina and she knew giving up was not an option. Not if I have anything to say about it, you bastard.

"Alex," Reginaís voice cracked and she began to cough.

Alex tilted Reginaís face up to hers. "Slide your arm behind the pipe."

Despite the paralyzing fear, Regina twisted around and slid her handcuffed wrist between the pipe and the wall, wincing as she pushed her arm through as far as she could.

Alex grasped the handcuffs with her free hand and tugged them. She stretched out to her full length and extended her leg until the toe of her shoe touched the handle of the gun. "Just a little more, Reg. Come on. Thatís it." She nudged the gun forward until she was able to cup it with the top of her shoe. She gritted her teeth as she pulled it toward her.

She grabbed hold of the gun and pushed the safety off. "Close your eyes." Alex pulled the links between their hands taught and aimed the muzzle of the gun down at the metal chain.

Regina ducked her head between her arms and turned away.

Without a second thought, Alex squeezed the trigger and two shots thundered through the warehouse. The metal links shattered between them and she felt the sharp bite of metal as a link flew past her face.

Alex ripped off her jacket, balled it up, and shoved it over Reginaís mouth. "We have to get out of here."

She leapt of Reginaís body and frantically scrambled across the floor to TJ. Alex grabbed the oxygen tank lying beside his body and ripped the tubing off of the regulator. With all her strength, she hurled the pressurized canister into the air away from her and Regina.

A loud reverberating explosion shook the warehouse and a wall of flames erupted toward the ceiling twenty feet away from where Alex was crouched.

"Alex!" Regina cried out and started toward her.

"Down! Stay down!" Alex screamed at Regina as she flattened her body over the boyís to protect him.

Heavy acrid smoke and filled the air. Light bulbs exploded overhead from the intensity of the heat as the flames consumed everything in their path.

Alex scrambled over to Regina and grabbed her by the arm. "Get TJ out of here. Can you do that for me?"

They both flinched as a shower of sparks cascaded down from several light fixtures up on the ceiling.

Regina nodded and crawled beneath the cloud of smoke.

Alex watched as Regina grabbed his wrists and dragged his body over to the garage door.

As Regina disappeared through the opening, Alex turned and raced back towards Matthew. Overhead, flames flared again and flashed across the high ceiling. Please, just give me one more minute. Thatís all I need.

Alex crouched beside Matthew and rolled him over. He lifted his head and tried to push himself up but collapsed to the floor.

"Just stay still." Alex grabbed his wrists and dragged him over to the door. Smoke burned her lungs and her eyes filled with tears, blurring her vision.

A loud metallic noise echoed in the distance and then drew closer. Alex redoubled her efforts. Suddenly out of nowhere, something slammed into her back and knocked her flat.

With enormous effort, Alex lifted her head and saw Dr. Pierce staggering to his feet with a metal pole clutched in his hand

Blood trickled down the side of his face. "You fucking crazy bitch, you trapped us in here."

"You trapped yourself." Alex glanced at the garage door, knowing every second she stayed the slimmer her chances were of surviving.

She squinted as the dim light filtering through the narrow opening changed shape and then was blocked out. Her blood ran cold when she saw Regina pull herself back through the opening and crouch on her hands and knees.

"Regina, no!"

Pierce whirled around and cocked the pole back. It took all of Alexís strength to stagger to her feet. Desperation fueled her oxygen starved muscles and she lunged at his knees, driving her shoulder into his body as the metal pipe descended in a sickening blurred arc toward Reginaís head.

It missed Reginaís head by inches and Pierceís knees buckled as he collapsed to the ground with a grunt.

Flames erupted from an overhead vent and fiery debris rained down on them. Regina screamed a warning at Alex as Dr. Pierce rolled to his feet and swung the bar wildly at Alexís head.

Instinctively, Alex threw her arms up and took the force of the blow on her ribs. As her body absorbed the impact, Alex drove her arms down and wrapped her hands around the metal shaft. Desperately, she used Dr. Pierceís momentum to shove him off balance. He struggled to yank the bar from her hands.

Alex leveraged her body weight against his body and slammed her knee into his stomach. His grip loosened and she viciously shoved the end of the pole into his gut.

"Get Matthew out of here," Alex yelled at Regina over the roar of the flames.

Regina darted around Alex and grabbed Matthew who was slowly crawling on all fours. She struggled to pull him towards the door and collapsed under his weight.

Alex broke free from Pierceís grasp and kicked him viciously in the head. She lifted Regina to her feet and shoved her toward the door. "Get out of here!"

Regina squirmed through the opening first. Alex shoved Matthew after Regina and then squeezed her body through. She crawled to the edge of the concrete loading dock and lowered herself to the ground. Her lungs violently protested the smoke she inhaled and she doubled over in a bout of coughing.

Around her, sirens and horns blared as emergency vehicles converged on the warehouse. With Regina leaning against her, Alex dragged TJ off the loading dock and carried him several feet away.

Firemen and paramedics rushed towards them.

Alex let them take TJ from her and held onto Regina. "Are you okay?" she asked staring into Reginaís eyes.

Regina looked up at the warehouse as an explosion sounded from inside and windows shattered. They fell to their knees and held onto each other.

"No," Regina buried her head in Alexís shoulder as the flood of tears came.


Chapter Twenty-Nine

Twenty seconds ... ten minutes?

Alex couldnít remember how long they huddled together, desperately holding onto each other as they knelt on the broken asphalt. It wasnít until the wind changed direction and doused them in a cloud of cold water vapor from the fire hoses that Alex loosened her grip on Regina and looked inferno still raging in the building. Sweet Jesus. She closed her eyes to block out the images.

A pair of strong hands lifted Alex and Regina to their feet.

"Come on, we have to get you out of here," the gruff voice rumbled in Alexís ear.

Alex stared numbly at the firefighter. It took a moment for her to recognize that the person hidden behind the bulky turnout gear and soot stained face was Reginaís friend, Todd.

"You both need to get checked out." He splashed through water-filled potholes and guided them carefully through the rubble filled alley.

As they turned the corner onto the street, Alex shielded her eyes from the bright strobes flashing atop the emergency vehicles that lined both sides of the street.< She watched two firemen work feverishly to drag a serpentine length of hose towards the front entrance of the warehouse.

"Whereís TJ?" Regina shouted over the deafening noise of heavy equipment.

"The kid?< Heís being flown out by the chopper," Todd replied, as the staccato noise of a helicopter engine worked into a crescendo as it lifted off the street. He directed them to one of the waiting ambulances.

They all turned and stared at the building as another loud rumble shook the structure and thick black smoke billowed from one of the second floor windows.

"We need you inside," one of the firefighters shouted from the front steps.

< "Go on." He nudged Alex toward the paramedics.

Alex boosted Regina up into the ambulance and hoisted herself up behind her. She slumped down on the stretcher next to Regina and gathered the smaller woman into her arms.

Todd gave Alex a thumbs-up sign and shut the door after the paramedic climbed into the rig.

Behind her, the paramedic reached over and slipped an oxygen mask over Alexís face.< Startled, she yanked it off as a flood of unbidden memories caught her off guard.

Reginaís gentle touch on her face settled her pounding heart. "Alex, itís okay. Keep it on," Regina soothed her as she replaced the mask over her friendís face.

Alex inhaled the oxygen greedily and met Reginaís anxious gaze. "Thanks," she managed to rasp and buried her head in her hands.

Regina accepted an oxygen mask from the man and held it up to her mouth. Overhead, the wail of the sirens blared as the rig pulled away from the curb.

Slowly, the shock and horror of the eveningís events sank into Alexís consciousness. More than once she buried her head against Reginaís neck and battled the waves of raw emotion that threatened to overwhelm her. If I feel this way, god ... we need to time together to talk. Later.

She felt the tremulous clutch of Reginaís hand around her bicep and the shuddered breath as her companion choked back a sob.

"Weíre going to be okay, Regina," Alex said quietly, as she wrapped her arms around her companion.

A short ten-minute ride later the ambulanceís sirens cut off as it rolled to a stop in front of Saint Xavierís Emergency Department. Alex lifted her head when the double doors to the rig were pulled opened.

"Whatíve we got?" She heard Jonís voice from outside.

"A thirty-five year old female with smoke inhalation. Sheís alert and her vitals are stable." He started to give Reginaís information when he turned around and held his hand out. "Maíam, wait. You canít get up."

"The hell I canít. I work here." Alex pulled off her oxygen mask and climbed out of the rig despite the paramedics protest.

"Alex!< Jesus Christ, what the hell happened to you?" Jonís eyes widened as he stared at her soot smudged face and tattered clothes.

She ignored him as she reached up and helped Regina out of the rig. "Long story, Jon. Did they bring anybody else in yet?"

"We already got a young kid with smoke inhalation and two more on the way."

Alex slipped her arm around Reginaís waist and guided her to the double doors. She punched the keypad and the glass doors slid open.

Jon spotted one of the nurses coming out of a storage room as he entered the Emergency Department and called out to her. "Maggie, get me two blood gas kits and tell Sandy to get over here." He led Alex and Regina down the hallway and into an empty exam room.

"Jon, youíve got patients in worse shape than us," Alex protested as she helped Regina onto the stretcher.

He pulled a stethoscope from his lab coat pocket as he whipped the curtain closed.< "Theyíre in route and the kid is awake and stabilized, so my concern is you two at the moment. Now sit down and let me take a look at the two of you."

Alex complied and curled an around Reginaís shoulder as the younger woman shivered.< "Youíre cold."

"Freezing," Regina responded as her teeth chattered.

"Jon, get me a couple of blankets." Alex held out her hand as Jon pulled two out of a linen cart in the corner of the room.

He handed them to her and then listened to Reginaís lungs. He looked up as Maggie entered the room. "Run a trauma panel and blood gas on both of them."

"What happened to you two?" Maggie asked as she slid up Reginaís sleeve and swabbed the doctorís arm with an alcohol wipe. After probing once for the vessel, she slipped a needle into an artery.

Regina flinched and tightened her grip around Alex while the nurse drew her blood for the test.

"Do you think Cassandra made it out?" Regina asked and buried her face against Alexís neck.<

"I donít know, Reg." She met Jonís probing eyes and shook her head when he opened his mouth to voice a question.

******

An hour later, after she endured being examined, Alex leaned back against the semi-reclined stretcher in the trauma room. Regina was medically cleared and took the opportunity to escape to the locker room for a well-deserved shower.

Alex frowned at Sandy while the nurse took her blood pressure again. "Are you trying to purposely cut off the circulation in my arm?"

Sandy glared at her from beneath furrowed eyebrows and adjusted the earpieces of the stethoscope. "Shh.< I canít hear a damn thing with you talking."

"Iím fine."

"Bullshit.< Youíre covered in soot. Have you looked at yourself?"

"Sandy," Alex growled.

"What?"< She ripped the blood pressure cuff off of Alexís upper arm.

Alex ran a hand through her hair and grimaced when she looked at the oily soot that stained her hand. "All I want to do is go wash this crap off me."

"Well, hereís the Ventolin. Make sure you do the whole respiratory treatment before you move one foot off that table."

Alex sighed and flopped back against the hard mattress. "Give me that. The sooner I start the faster weíre getting out of here tonight."

The door to the room opened and Regina walked in towel drying her hair. "Here, I thought you might want these." She set a pair of scrubs and several hospital towels down on the stretcher. She glanced back and forth at Sandy and Alex.

"You two okay?"

The nurse stepped back and nodded. "Just making sure the good doctor here does what sheís supposed to do."

Regina eyed the plastic oxygen mask that Alex was holding over her face. "Donít worry she will."

That got a grin from Sandy. She turned and started washing her hands in the sink. "Iíll be back in a little while. Youíd better be resting, Alex." She turned around and felt a warm blush creep up her neck.

Regina was sitting on the stretcher tenderly wiping the away the streaks of soot and dirt from Alexís face with her damp towel. When she was done she leaned in and stroked the angular sweep of Alexís jaw line with gentle fingers.

Alex tilted her head and a smile played at the corners of her lips. They both moved toward each other and Alex brushed her lips against her partnerís mouth, enjoying the sweet softness that welcomed her.<

Sandy swallowed and tiptoed out the door, wishing fervently that neither of them realized she was still in the room.

Reginaís eyes twinkled as she pulled away from Alex. "Poor Sandy."

"Sheíll live. Besides youíre the only one allowed to mother me like this." Alex brushed her thumb over Reginaís lips. "God, youíre a beautiful sight."

Regina blushed. "Just freshly scrubbed and clean, except I canít get the smell of the smoke out of my nose."

Alex stopped her hand, and tangled her fingers in Reginaís hair. She leaned closer and inhaled the scent left behind by the herbal shampoo she used in the shower. "I kept thinking about all the things I would miss if we didnít make it out of there."

"What like sniffing my hair?" Regina quipped and felt some of the tension between them drain away.

Alex snorted indignantly and wrapped Regina in her arms. She was quiet for a moment, acknowledging the nervous energy that still ran through her core from the affects of the adrenaline. She spoke softly into Reginaís ear. "No, Iíd miss our life together and all the things we still have yet to experience."

Regina pulled back and stared at Alex. A wistful smile touched her lips and she tilted her head. "Are you getting all sentimental on me?"

"Never."< Alex rubbed her nose against Reginaís and then smiled. "Only with you."

Regina clasped one of Alexís hands and lifted it to her lips. She eyed the handcuff still locked around Alexís wrist and shuddered. "Theyíre going to find someone to take these off."

Alex glanced down at the angry bruise that discolored her wrist. "Not much of a fashion statement I guess."

"Hardly."< Regina met Alexís watchful eyes and looked away to hide the tears that welled up in her eyes.

It was Alexís hand that drew her back.

She cupped Reginaís face and wiped away tears as they rolled down her fair-skinned cheeks. "Come here."

"I was so scared." Reginaís lower lip quivered. "I thought we werenít going to make it."

"I know." Alex pressed her lips to Reginaís head and held her close. Sheíd felt death closing in for one brief moment as the heat of the fire threatened to melt the soles of her shoes as she desperately struggled to reach the gun.

Regina took a calming breath and hugged Alex fiercely. "I knew youíd get us out of there."

Alex kissed the top of her head. "I think you believed enough for both of us, love."

Reginaís face flushed and she lifted the oxygen mask up to Alexís mouth. "Here, you need to finish this. Youíll feel a thousand times better."

Alex nodded, inhaled the humidified air, and pulled it away again as another more urgent thought pressed to the forefront of her mind. "Have you seen Matthew around?"

Regina folded her arms and cleared her throat only relaxing after Alex replaced the instrument in her mouth. "Heís got a nasty bruise on his chest and a flesh wound in his shoulder. Thank god he had a vest on."

"Which room is he in?"

"Six."< Regina rested her head on Alexís shoulder and closed her eyes. A weary exhaustion seeped through her and it only took a few minutes before the blonde-haired woman was snoring lightly.

Alex closed her eyes, enjoying the warm pressure of Reginaís body where it pressed against her length. She pressed her lips against Reginaís head. I donít know who was looking out for us tonight ... whoever it was, thank you.

After she finished the treatment, Alex gently lowered Regina down to the stretcher and covered her with one of the blankets. She leaned over, nuzzled Reginaís neck, and inhaled the warm, clean scent of her skin. "Weíll get out of here as soon as we can. I promise."

Alex walked out of the room and squeezed past two orderlies who were pushing a stretcher through the crowded hallway. On her right, an elderly woman argued with one of the nurses about her husband having to wait so long for a bed on one of the medical floors.

Halfway to the locker room, she heard her name and turned around to see Todd walking toward her. "You okay?"

He shrugged. "Too much smoke. After, I got you guys to the ambulance they found two more people inside. We got them out just as the roof started to come down."

"Are you getting checked out?"

"Yeah," he replied sheepishly. "Iím waiting for ... " His voice trailed off as a medical student suddenly ran past him with an oxygen tank and darted into one of the storage closets.

Alex watched the door swing shut. A frown crossed her face and she glanced at Todd. Her eyes narrowed as he ducked his head and coughed into his hand.< "Why do I know Iím not going to like this?"

Todd trotted alongside her. "You wonít, I mean ... donít go in there."

Alex skirted around him and opened the door despite his feeble protests.

Two pairs of eyes stared up at her and one tail thumped enthusiastically on the floor.< The Shepard whined and twitched his ears as Alex groaned. After she recovered from seeing one of the medical students holding the oxygen mask over the German Shepardís snout, she quietly shut the door and pressed her forehead against the door. "Why am I not surprised?"

"He wasnít breathing when the guys found him. I had to do something," Todd stammered helplessly.

"I would have done the same thing," Alex replied honestly. "Just donít let anyone see him when you take him out."

"I wonít," he promised. "Here, this is why I was looking for you." Todd held out what was left of her jacket. "I found this outside the warehouse. It had your wallet it in it and this." He handed her the black ring box.

Alex stared at the partially burned remains of her wallet. She blinked back tears as a wave of emotion she didnít have the strength to deal with hit her square in the chest. She reached out and took them from Todd. "Thanks," she managed to get out.

"Donít mention it." He waved his hand and let it drop back down to his side. "Iíll get him out of here as soon as theyíre done."

Alex walked backward a couple of steps and then quickly turned to escape into the quiet solitude of the locker room. She straddled one of the benches, sat down, and rested her elbows on her knees.

The hinges of the ring box creaked as she opened the lid. Inside, the diamonds gently twinkled back at her and the overwhelming certainty of how close she had come to losing everything swamped her.< Alex hung her head as tears brimmed in her eyes. Her shoulders shook and she broke down crying.

Get up and take a shower. Youíre going to scare the crap out of Regina if she comes in here and sees you blubbering like a baby. She wiped her eyes in irritation.

Alex placed her wallet and the ring into her locker and closed the door. She turned the water on in the shower and let it run as she stripped out of her filthy clothes. Steam filled the locker room as Alex pulled the curtain aside and stepped into the tiled shower.

Turning the hot water up as much as she could stand it, Alex stood beneath the pounding stream, letting it soothe some of the bone deep ache she felt.

After she showered and scrubbed the soot and grime from her body, Alex dried off and changed into a pair of light green scrubs. She shifted her shoulders settling the fabric over her scraped and bruised skin.

Alex gathered her belongings and walked out into the hallway. She checked the admission board and found which room TJ was in. She walked over and stopped outside the door when she saw Regina sitting beside the boyís bed.

The doctor leaned against the door and smiled at Regina when their eyes met. She really does have some incredible instincts with kids, Alex mused as Regina leaned in and pulled the covers up around the boyís shoulders.

A moment later, Regina walked out of the room, balled up her isolation gown and threw it into the hamper outside the room.

"Hell of a night, huh?" Alex ran her hand through Reginaís still damp hair and then wrapped an arm around her shoulder. She closed her eyes as a wave of lethargy swept over her.

"Itís not over, yet," Regina fumed, as she broke away from Alexís embrace and washed her hands in the sink.

"Whoa ... whatís wrong?" Alex followed Regina, her gut suddenly churning as she caught the waves of anger rolling off the younger woman.

Regina spun around, her eyes flashing intensely as she met Alexís concerned gaze.< "He remembers what happened when he got attacked at the warehouse the first time."

"And."< Alexís eyes darted anxiously over Reginaís angry countenance as she waited for an answer.

"Someone chased him down and handcuffed him in the alleyway. After that he just remembers waking up in the hospital."

"Thatís one lucky kid." They both turned as Jon walked up behind them. He threw a paper towel into the wastebasket by the sink when he finished drying his hands. "What the hell happened in that warehouse?"

"You wouldnít believe me if I told you." Alex rubbed the bridge of her nose and took a breath before she looked back at him. "Any word on Cassandra?"

"They found her collapsed by the front door of the warehouse. Sheís got serious burns on her hands and arms, probably trying to get the door open. She took in a lot of smoke."

"There was a man with her," Alex added dispassionately.

"They flew him in on the chopper." Jon furrowed his brow and waggled his hand, a sign he tended to use when things didnít look particularly good for a patient. "Itíll be a miracle if he makes it through the next seventy-two hours."<

"We got out just in time." Regina closed her eyes and shuddered, remembering the ground-shaking explosion that rocked them to their knees. She met Alexís sober gaze and then leaned in against her.

Alex looked down the hallway and sighed as she saw Matthew walking toward them. On his left was a police officer and Alex cursed vehemently when she recognized him. Just when I thought tonight couldnít get any worse.

"Alex, Regina." Matthew looked at both of the women. "This is officer will get you out of those things."

Regina lifted her head from Alexís chest and eyed Derrick warily. "They couldnít send anybody else or you couldnít pass up the opportunity. Which was it?" she snapped, as she held her arm out.

Derrick glared at her as he undid Reginaís handcuff. "Neither. I heard the call go out over the radio and I was the closest. They didnít say it was you," he sniped testily.

"Listen, just shut up, and do what you need to do." Alex looked in at TJ as she held out her arm, pointedly ignoring Derrick.< "Itís weird that he ended up at the warehouse again. Why there of all places?"

Regina furrowed her brow and looked up at Alex. "I wonder ... do you remember that backpack you picked up from the warehouse several weeks ago?"

Alex nodded. "Sure, Sandy found it beneath a stretcher."

"What about me?" The curly-headed nurse popped her head up and stopped writing notes in the medical chart sheíd been engrossed in.

Alex shook her head and smirked. "Weíre talking about the backpack you found in the warehouse a few weeks back."

"Oh."< Sandy shrugged and went back to writing.

"What backpack?" Derrick scowled at Alex as he unlocked her handcuff.

"Oh come on, you and your partner came in because we called the police. You couldnít pass up the opportunity to harass me," Regina stated boldly in front of everyone.

"What about it?" Derrickís face flushed as he clipped his keys back on his belt.

"Do you still have it?"

"Why?"

"Because I think it belongs to this kid," Regina explained.

"How the hell do you arrive at that conclusion?"

"This is the same kid who got admitted to the hospital because he was beat up so badly in the alley. Why would he go back to a place he got attacked by if he wasnít looking for something?"

"How should I know?" Derrickís eyes darted back and forth between them.

"Iím not asking you." Regina rolled her eyes. "Do you still have the backpack in your cruiser?"

"Nobody claimed it after we filed a missing personís report. It might still there."

"Can you go check?"

Derrick stared at her incredulously. "Youíre kidding right?"

"Come on if itís his, think about how itíll make him feel to have it back. The poor kid doesnít have anything else," Regina insisted.

Derrick stood with hands on his hips for a moment and then left them all standing in the hallway as he pivoted on his heel and stormed away.

"Is he always that way?" Matthew asked.

"Heís probably wishing he was putting the cuffs on me and not taking them off," Alex replied, as she stared after Derrickís retreating form.

Regina made a clucking noise with her tongue and swatted Alex in the stomach.< "Donít you say that."

"Hey."< Matthew stepped in front of Alex.< "I want to thank you for saving my life back there. I wouldnít have made it out if you didnít haul my ass out of there."

"We werenít going to leave you lying there." Alex rubbed the bruised skin from where the metal had dug into her wrist.< "So, what happens now Matthew?"

"Theyíll be a grand jury investigation. Iíll need you to be available for a deposition." He walked away from the group and motioned Alex to follow. "You should get a lawyer to look out for your interests."

Alex demeanor immediately hardened and she set her hands on her hips. I knew it was too good to be true. "Are you charging me with anything?"

Matthew shook his head. "No, I talked to the District Attorney. Weíre not bringing any charges against you. This case the government is developing against the hospital exists only because you brought it to my attention. The hospital will consider you a hostile witness. Thatís the only reason Iím suggesting it."

Alex exhaled and let go of the sudden tension that built up inside her. < "Are we done here tonight?"

"Youíre free to go. Iíll call you tomorrow and let you know when Iíll need you."

"Fair enough." Alex tilted her head back and squeezed her eyes shut. Fiery images morphed and crystallized in her memory. She hated the feeling that she had no control and never had it been so clear to her as when she stood shackled to pipe and watched the flames raging toward the ceiling.

She tucked it away in the far recesses of her memory and tried not to think about it.< Alex looked at Regina who was standing alone, leaning against the wall outside TJís room. Iíll deal with that later, right now I need to get her home.< Sheís operating on pure adrenaline and nothing else.

The double doors at the end of the hallway swung open and Derrick walked toward them.

Damn, Alex walked over, making it to Reginaís side several seconds before Derrick arrived.

He dumped the backpack on the floor at Reginaís feet. A well-worn stuffed tiger tumbled out on to the floor.< "Satisfied?"

Regina ignored him as she picked up the stuffed animal and then snatched a gown from the linen cart next to the room. She shoved her arms into the sleeves and entered the room.

Alex watched as Regina raised the head of the hospital bed and then she reached in and yanked the curtain closed, blocking Derrickís view of the boy. "He doesnít need an audience." She turned and stared him.

Derrick hooked his thumbs in his belt loops and assumed a bored looking stance as he looked around the bustling department. "Hey, I didnít know you all treated animals in here," he announced loudly enough for everyone in the immediate area to hear.

Alex whirled around to see Todd, carrying an odd shaped lump draped in a sheet out of the supply closet. Four brindle colored paws poked out from underneath the white cloth and a pair of pointed ears flicked curiously beneath it, taking in all the strange noises.

"Oh, look.< Heís so cute," one of the nurses exclaimed. Two other medical staff realized it was a dog and immediately left the nursing station to fawn over him.<

Todd looked at Alex from over the dogís hulk and his face colored with embarrassment.< "I tried."

"What is that dog doing in here? Jon waved his arms excitedly. "Do you know how many infection control policies youíve just broken? Get him out of here!"

"Do you have to make a grand announcement?" Alex clamped a hand over her eyes. "I told Todd not let anyone see him sneak that damn dog out of here."

Jon turned and gaped at his colleague. "You knew about this?"

"Yes," Alex admitted.

"Hey, doc."Todd squeezed between the two nurses to stand beside Jon. "I brought him in because he wasnít breathing when we found him."

Lucky poked his head out from underneath the sheet and stretched his neck out to sniff Jonís ear.

Jon scratched his ear and tried to keep a smile from crossing his lips as he stepped back from the curious animal. "Just get him out of here," he grumbled.

Alex folded her arms over her chest and stared accusingly at Jon. "You wouldnít have turned him away either, you old softie."

"I think you inhaled too much smoke."

"Quite possibly," she remarked with a shrug.

"Whatís all the commotion about?" Regina pulled the curtain back and walked out of TJís room, coming face to face with Derrick. "Arenít you finished here?"

Derrick looked over Reginaís shoulder and made eye contact with the boy for one brief arrogant second. "Must be the kidís lucky day."

Luckyís ears twitched and he struggled violently, fighting his way out of Toddís arms.

At the same time, the monitor in TJís room shrilled and the boy cried out in fear.< "No, no, no!"

Regina darted back inside the room as he scrambled higher in the hospital bed, putting as much distance between him and the police officer. "TJ, whatís wrong?"††

He curled up against the mattress and trembled violently despite Reginaís reassuring touch. "Itís him. I remember his voice!" TJ wailed.

"What did he say?" Alex whirled around and stared at the boy.

"Lucky, no!" Todd cried out as the dog kicked him in the chest and sprang to the ground. With his hackles raised and a low ominous growl, rumbling deep in his chest, he stalked toward Derrick.

Everyone scattered out of the dogís way. Matthew hopped up onto a counter and drew his legs up, while Jon plastered himself against a wall and yanked a code cart in front of him.

With a wide-eyed look of fear, Derrick scrambled backwards and tripped over his feet in his haste to get away. Lucky launched his body airborne and slammed into Derrick, pinning him to the floor with his bulk.

Derrick flung an arm up to fend off the gleaming fangs that snapped close enough to his face that he felt the dogís hot breath. Lucky clamped down on his arm and held tight. "Get him off me!" Derrick shrieked.

Todd ran forward and grabbed hold of the dogís collar. "Lucky, stop!" He grabbed the dogís snout and tried to pry his mouth open.

"Todd, get me a syringe." Alex broke open a lock on one of the code carts. She quickly rummaged through one of the drawers and pulled out an ampoule of Valium.

"Do you know how much to give him?" Jon ripped open the plastic packaging and handed the syringe to Alex.

"How much do you think he weighs?" Alex flipped the plastic cap off the bottle and slipped the needle inside.

"Ninety pounds?"

"Good enough." Alex drew the dose into the syringe and then knelt down beside the dogís hindquarters. "Todd, hold him tight."

"Jesus Christ just shoot the damn dog," Derrick cried out as he frantically tried to take his gun out of his holster with his other hand.

Todd released Lucky, lunged over the dogís body, and pinned Derrickís arm to the floor.< "Donít even think about it," he snarled, as he clamped his hands around the officerís wrist.

With one last look at the tangle of bodies on the floor, Alex pinched a handful of skin and jabbed the needle into the furry haunch. "Sorry, boy." She eased back and waited for the drug to take effect, hoping she hadnít given him too much.

Seconds later, Lucky relaxed his grip on Derrickís arm and settled down at Toddís feet.< He rolled onto his side and pawed at Toddís arm as he panted nervously.

The fireman looked helplessly at Alex and ran his hands over the dogís massive shoulders. "Is he going to be all right?"

"I think so," Alex replied and patted the dogís shoulder. "Shouldíve used it on him." She nodded at Derrick who rolled to his knees and clutched his arm.

"That dogís being put down," Derrick sputtered as he climbed slowly to his feet.< "He tried to kill me."

"If he wanted to kill you he would have ripped your throat open and not just held onto your arm." Alex discarded the needle and whirled around. "Donít you even think of laying a finger on him."

Regina stepped from the room and stood beside Alex in the hallway. "Derrick, he says he remembers you."

"That kid?< He was knocked out." He waved his hand in the air. "What the hell can he remember?"

"You handcuffing him in the alley," Regina shot back.

"Thatís bullshit!" Derrickís voice cracked. "He ... " his voice trailed off and he hobbled over to a linen cart and grabbed a towel from a shelf.

Alex stormed after Derrick, her eyes glinting dangerously as she pointed an accusing finger at him. "He was what, Derrick Ė running from you just like Regina was the night you attacked her? Was that it? Did you beat the crap out of him just like you tried to do to Regina?"

Derrickís pupils dilated until all that she could see was a sliver of his brown irises around the inky black circles.

Alex advanced on him her lip curling into a feral snarl. "Go ahead, say it! He was what?"

Everyone around them was silent, riveted on Alex as she gathered her fury and bore down on the police officer.

Derrickís nostrils flared and his eyes darted around as he looked hopelessly for a sympathetic party. "H ... he ran."

"He ran, so you chased him. You son of a bitch, you ran him down like some common criminal and beat him to within an inch of his life. Didnít you?"

Derrick flinched and cowered back against the counter.

Alex curled her hand into a fist and cocked her arm back, her whole body vibrating with the intensity of her anger. "Say it."

Derrick swallowed audibly and nodded his head as the words slipped out in a hoarse whisper. "Yes."

"You donít know how much I want to do this right now," she growled.

A hand touched her arm and she glanced down to see mist green eyes peering back up at her.< "Alex, please donít."

"Donít worry, I wonít," she snapped and immediately regretted the harshness of her voice when she saw the confused and hurt look in Reginaís eyes. "Next time pick on someone your own size," Alex snarled at Derrick.

Matthew lowered himself off the counter top and walked a wide path around the panting dog.< He looked Derrick up and down, reached for his holster, and relieved him of his gun. "It seems to me you wonít be needing this anymore, officer."

"Youíre going to take her word over mine?" Derrick backed away from Alex. "What about the dog, it attacked me!"

Jon walked over, folded his arms, and brought his face close to Derrickís.< "What dog? I didnít see any dog. Did you, Alex?

"Nope.< How about you Matthew?"

"Itís a hospital. There are no animals here.< Sit down, officer," Matthew ordered.

Alex yanked a chair out from behind the nurseís station. She spun it around and presented it to Derrick. "Sit."

When he made no move to do so, Alex grabbed his jacket, spun him around, and then roughly shoved him into the chair.

Sandy walked out from behind the nurseís station and pulled a pair of latex gloves from her lab coat pocket. She shoved her hands into them. "Let me see that." She unwrapped the towel from around his arm and yanked up his shirtsleeve. "You wonít even need stitches. Too bad."

"That hurts." Derrick yanked his arm away from Sandy.

"Looks like youíre going to have fun tonight," Alex said to Sandy.

The nurse rolled her eyes and shook her head in exasperation. "What the hell are you still doing here?"

"Havenít a clue," Alex remarked. She looked around the department and saw Regina enter the locker room. With a sigh, she followed her partner.

She pushed the door to the locker room open. Regina was leaning against her locker, her head resting against the door as she undid the lock.

Their eyes met and Regina glanced away first as she opened the narrow door.

"Hey."< Alex dropped her arms down to her side and walked up behind her. "Iím sorry I snapped at you out there."

Regina glanced up at her and gave her a sad smile. "You were angry at Derrick."

"Donít make an excuse for me, Regina. I took it out on you."

Regina nodded her head in silent acknowledgement. "I feel bad leaving TJ here."

Alex rested a hand on Reginaís shoulder and massaged her thumb over the tense muscles in her neck. "Heís safe for now."

Regina closed her eyes and tilted her head back against Alexís chest. "I wish there was something more we could do for him."

"You saved his life," Alex stated quietly.

"So why doesnít that feel good enough?" Regina turned to Alex with a completely forlorn expression on her face.

Alex scuffed her sneaker against the floor and chewed on her lip. "I think I know why."

Regina studied the thoughtful look on Alexís face. "I think maybe itís because we get to go home tonight and he doesnít."

Alex nodded in agreement as she gently traced a finger over Reginaís eyebrow. "Well, maybe this time when heís better, there will be a family he can finally call his own." She offered her hand to Regina. "Come on, Iíll take you home."

Regina gladly accepted the warm embrace of Alexís hand. < "I canít think of any other place Iíd like to be right now."


Chapter Thirty

Alex crossed her legs at her ankles and sat back in one of the burgundy colored leather chairs that were arrayed in a loose semi-circle in the executive suite waiting room. She massaged her temples, trying to stave off the headache that started earlier in the day, from blossoming into a full-blown migraine.

The hospitalís attorneys were relentless. They spent most of the time meticulously rephrasing questions in an attempt to confuse and muddle the facts as they were presented during the lengthy deposition.

A blonde-haired woman with horn-rimmed spectacles looked over the top of her mahogany desk at Alex. "Iím sorry, Dr. Margulies, Mr. Stedman will be out in just another minute. Can I get you anything?"

Alex swallowed down a wave of nausea and shook her head. "No thanks, Louisa."

The Chief Executive Officerís assistant gave a curt nod her head and returned to her typing.

Several minutes later, the door to the executive suite swung open and a tall, meticulously dressed man stepped out into the hall. Astute brown eyes focused on Alex and he extended his hand as he walked toward the doctor.

"Dr. Margulies, Iím so glad you could meet with me on such short notice."

As if there was another choice. Alex rose and returned his firm grasp, meeting his steely-eyed gaze. "It was good timing. We just finished with the deposition when Louisa paged me, Mr. Stedman."

There was a subtle tensing of his shoulders at the mention of the legal proceedings and he immediately released her hand. "Letís go inside." He closed the door behind them and indicated a captainís chair at a round coffee table. "Have a seat doctor. Can I get you anything to drink?" He opened a small refrigerator and removed a bottle of water.

"No, Iím fine." Just get to the point. Alex walked to the table and sat in the chair across from John Stedman.

"Very well." He sat and folded his neatly manicured hands on the cluttered table. "May I call you Alex?" The velvety smooth quality of his voice seared through Alexís consciousness.††

The doctor inclined her head, and relaxed back in her chair and waited in silence for Mr. Stedman to continue.

They just stared at each other. Her silence unnerved him and for a moment he didnít seem to know what to do.

After clearing his throat and opening his water he finally spoke again. "Very well, Alex." He pulled a file off the top of one of the piles on the table and flipped it open. "Youíve been with us for quite a number of years, most of them rather outstanding I would say."

Seeing her personnel file from human resources before him, Alex lifted her chin and looked him squarely in the eye. "Ten, to be exact."

Mr. Stedman studied the top sheet for a moment and then closed the file. "I trust youíve fully recovered from the gunshot wound you suffered last fall."

"I have," Alex replied, wondering where her CEO was going with this conversation.

Mr. Stedman waved his hand dismissively over her file. "All this aside, Dr. Margulies, I have a proposition for you."

Known for his acumen in cunning business practices, alarm bells sounded in the doctorís head. "What kind of a proposition?"

"Iíd like to offer you a compensation package."

Alex forced her expression to remain neutral, while her heart leapt up into her chest. "For what?" My resignation?

Mr. Stedman chuckled and took a swallow from his water bottle. "Your troubles."

"Really, and what would that be?" She kept an even tone to her voice despite the trepidation that she felt in her gut.

"Five hundred thousand dollars. Thatís more than double your annual salary," he pointed out triumphantly.

Alex mouth suddenly went dry and she ran her tongue over her lower lip. "What do you want?"

"Very simple. I need your signature on a piece of paper that says you wonít hold the hospital liable for any injuries you suffered at the warehouse. That should more than cover your medical expenses. It also relieves you of any further responsibility to testify in the upcoming grand jury investigation. I find it intolerable that we waste one of our top physicianís energy and time being tied up in countless hours of tedious depositions." He slid the paper across to the doctor.

Alex took her time reading the document. "Interesting choice of words, Mr. Stedman."

"Whyís that?" He folded his arms and regarded her intently.

"Why donít you just come out and say you want to buy my silence." Alex watched as the CEOís nostrils flared and his cheeks flushed ever so slightly. Bullís eye.

"You are just as blunt and painfully honest as your colleagues make you out to be." He tapped his fingers on the table while he studied the doctor. He wagered she wasnít someone he wanted as an enemy but as far as he was concerned he was holding all the cards. "Thatís a noble sentiment, but misplaced. Itís in your best interest, Dr. Margulies."

So I can be beholden to you? "Iím sure you think it is."

His eyes narrowed as he sensed his prey slipping away. "These proceedings have a tendency to drag mundane details into the limelight."

"I have nothing to hide."

"The offer will only be on the table this one time, Dr. Margulies. I suggest you consider it carefully."

Alex pushed her chair back and snatched the document from the table. "I have. My answer is no."

Mr. Stedman stood up from the chair and leaned on across the table. "Thatís an unfortunate decision, Dr. Margulies. You have your career to consider."

"As do you, Mr. Stedman." Alex refused to back down, knowing she was inviting the wrath of a powerful man. She walked out of the office without a backward glance.

Alex closed the door behind her and let out a sigh of relief. Her legs trembled and it took all her concentration to walk past Louisaís desk without stumbling on the plush carpet.

"Good bye, Dr. Margulies," Louisa called out.

Alex managed a polite smile and quickly strode out of the office. Once in the elevator, she leaned back against the wall and closed her eyes. Suddenly, nervous laughter bubbled up from inside and she covered her face. I probably just black listed myself but damn that felt good.

The doors slid open and Alex strode out into the ground floor lobby. Several of the attorneys from the deposition were still milling about talking amongst themselves. She caught Matthewís attention and attorney walked over to her.

"You okay?"

Alex shrugged and handed him the unsigned paper. "Here, you might find this interesting."

Matthew set down his briefcase and studied the document. "I figured he would try something like this." He lifted his eyes to Alexís and gave her a not so re-assuring smile. "Heís afraid of what you know."

"Thatís supposed to make me feel better?"

"Not really. Just do your job, keep a low profile here, and let me know if he tries anything else. In the meantime, did you speak to a lawyer?"

"Itís taken care of."

"Then youíve done all you can. Weíre going out for drinks. Do you want to come?" He jerked his thumb back at his cohorts.

† "No thanks. I have some unfinished business to attend to." Alex smiled and shook her head.

******

Regina closed another carton of charts and labeled it with a black marker. She sat back on her heels and looked around clinic. The walls and floor nearest the warehouse were blackened from smoke damage and water had buckled the wallboard and warped the tiled floor. Structurally it was sound but would be closed for weeks until the repairs were completed.

She ran her fingers through her hair and then lifted the last box up onto the table. Her mind wandered back to earlier that morning. She smiled to herself, cherishing the brief, intimate interlude they shared before the responsibilities of the new day would intrude on their peaceful respite.

Regina rolled over and watched as Alex pulled on a pair of black linen pants. "Donít let them keep you late again," she whispered, her voice still rough with sleep.

In the darkness, she saw Alexís lips twitch into an impish smile. "Not a chance. I have plans for us later today."

"Plans? What plans?" That sparked Reginaís curiosity and she sat up in bed.

Alex winked as she cinched the leather belt around her waist. "Well, if I tell you now it will spoil the surprise."

Regina groaned and flopped back down onto her pillow. "No fair," she sulked and folded her arms over her chest.

The mattress dipped as Alex knelt over her and stroked the side of Reginaís face. Without a word, she bent forward and kissed her lover.

Regina trailed her hand over Alexís cheek and ran her fingerís through the silky black hair, getting lost in the sensual wave of their embrace as their kiss deepened. A groan escaped Alexís lips as Regina slid her thigh up between her legs and rubbed against her.

"Thatís ... not ... fair." Alex bit her bottom lip and arched her back as she strained against Reginaís insistent pressure. "Oh ... god."

"You started it," Regina exhaled as she ran her fingertips over Alexís ribs and then angled her hands to caress her breasts through the fabric of her shirt.

Regina inhaled sharply as one of Alexís hands worked its way under her nightshirt and traced a meandering pattern over her belly before wandering higher.

A rich, deep chuckle tickled Reginaís ear. "I do believe youíre trying to make me late, Regina Kingston." Alex lowered her mouth and nibbled Reginaís earlobe.

Regina rubbed her palm over the outside of Alexís pants, feeling the heat and dampness of her loverís arousal. She tugged the belt buckle loose, undid the button, and then worked the zipper down on Alexís trousers.

"Whatever gave you that impression?" she teased as she slid her hand inside the bikini briefs and cupped Alexís hardened clitoris. "Besides, I canít let you leave like this. It ... wouldnít ... be ... fair."

Regina shook her head, still a little surprised at her emboldened advance. A smile played at her lips and heated blush crept up her neck, as her breathing grew ragged at the vivid memory of their lovemaking.

I wonder what sheís got up her sleeve for this afternoon.

"Regina?"

She whirled around, startled by the male voice. "Oh, Todd. I didnít hear you come in."

He scratched his head. "I know. You were really out there for a minute."

Regina looked away from him and fiddled needlessly with the lid of the box. "Itís weird seeing the warehouse look the way it does."

"Weíre cooking dinner at the firehouse and I thought maybe youíd like something to eat."

Oh boy. "Thanks, but Iím waiting for Alex. Weíre going to pack up all this stuff and bring it back to the emergency department."

"Well, bring her over. Sheís welcome too."

Regina walked Todd to the door. "Weíll see." A car door slammed out in the street and Regina looked out the window to see Alex walking from her Jeep.

Instantly, her heart rate lifted as she watched her partnerís confident stride and the frown on her face, as she looked around her surroundings unaware that Regina was watching her.

"Alex." Regina stepped out of the building and waved to her.

Alexís hawk like gaze settled immediately on Regina and a smile graced the taller womanís lips.

"I couldnít wait to see you." Regina laughed as Alex slipped her arm around her waist and kissed the top of her head.

"Me either. I thought about you all day." Alex tilted her head and smiled down at her partner as she ruffled Reginaís hair. She looked over at Todd and smiled at him. "You look a hell of a lot better than the last time I saw you."

He snorted. "Ditto. I told Regina weíre cooking dinner at the firehouse if you two want a bite to eat."

Alex shrugged. "Why not."

"Excellent." Todd rubbed his hands together.

"Go get your jacket, Reg. Weíll leave this stuff Ďtil later."

"Okay, sure." Regina gave Alex a curious look, surprised by her partnerís acceptance and then disappeared back inside.

"Do you think she has any idea?" Todd waited until she was out of earshot.

"Not a clue. Matthew had a friend of his run a search on the kid and came up with nothing as far as family is concerned. It may just work."

Todd ran his fingers through his hair. "Weíll hope for the best."

Alex nudged him as Regina re-appeared around the corner, tugging her jacket over her shoulder. "Weíll meet you over there."

"Gotcha." The fireman trotted down the steps and jogged across the street.

"You ready?" Alex flashed a smiled at her partner.

"Yeah." Regina locked the door and followed Alex down the steps. "Iím really surprised you wanted to do this."

"Why?" Alex slowed her steps so Regina could catch up with her.

"You werenít too fond of Todd when we first met him."

"He grew on me." The slightest hint of a smile played around her mouth. Alex ushered Regina ahead of her as they entered the firehouse.

They climbed the stairs, listening to loud, raucous voices emanating from the kitchen. Barking followed by a high-pitched squeal reached their ears.

Regina reached the landing first and walked around the corner. She stopped and stared at the familiar faces and then turned to Alex and poked her several times in the ribs. "You rat. You knew all along and you didnít say a word."

Alex fended off the flurry of Reginaís hands and turned her around. "Hey, Sandy whereís the guest of honor?"

"Feeding Lucky table scraps."

The end of the large wooden table rocked slightly as the Shepard stood up and backed out from underneath it. His ears twitched and he licked his chops as he rested his snout on the table.

"I am not," came the protest from the back of the kitchen. TJ poked his head out from behind one of the firemen and stuck his tongue out at Sandy.

"What is he doing here?" Regina stared up at Alex with an incredulous expression on her face.

"The state Welfare system placed TJ in a group home until they find something more permanent for him," Alex explained.

Todd walked up to them and held out two sodas.

"Thanks." Alex took them both and handed one to Regina. "Todd talked to social services and worked it out so TJ can come here after school everyday if he wants. Itís not ideal but at least heís with people who care about him." Alex glanced across the room and watched as TJ shoved a roll into his mouth and then offered one to the dog. "Heís going to make your dog fat."

"That beast? You should see how much he eats in a day and still doesnít put on one pound. Hey TJ, donít feed him pizza."

"But he likes it." The teenager grinned back.

"Good, then you get to walk him tonight."

The boy thought about it for a moment and then shook his head vehemently. "No way."

"Get over here and say hello to the docs." Todd waved his arm at Alex and Regina. "I think at least one thank you would be proper."

"Go ahead and embarrass the kid," Alex grumbled in his ear as she squeezed past him.

Todd gave her a knowing sidelong glance and snorted. "Donít like the sensitive stuff, huh."

Alex ignored his jibe while she grabbed a paper plate from the table and filled it with a pile of pasta and sauce. "I didnít think you were going to make it," Alex said as she sat down next to Sandy.

The nurse rested her forearms on the table. "Tinaís working late so I figured I would stop by."

Alex nodded soberly, recalling the conversation she had earlier in the week with Sandy. It unnerved her that after ten years of being together Tina and Sandy might give up on what they had and call it quits with their relationship. "Did you guys work things out?" Alex asked in between forkfuls of pasta.

"Weíre talking, which is more than we were doing a few days ago."

Alex started to reply but one of the firefighters sat down next to Sandy and started talking to her so she focused her attention on her food.

******

Regina sat down at the long table, watching as TJ straddled the chair next to her. He covered his mouth and coughed, still suffering the side effects of the smoke inhalation.

"Todd said you pulled me out of the warehouse."

"I had some help." Regina looked across the table to where Alex was sitting next to Sandy. Something fluttered inside when she caught Alex studying her and she found herself completely distracted by the thoughtful expression on the womanís face.

"That man who beat me up is going to jail." TJ rubbed his hand over the stubble that was his hair growing back on his head.

Regina turned her attention back to TJ. "Yes, he is." Five days had passed since Derrickís confession and she still had trouble acknowledging that someone she had let get so close to her was capable of such hateful actions.

"Todd said he thought I was someone else, but I told him he was wrong. Why did he beat me up?"

Regina pressed her lips together and tilted her head as she cupped the TJís chin with her hand. "I donít know, TJ. It wasnít your fault." Regina lowered her hand and sighed. "I was worried about you being out there all by yourself."

TJ stared at Regina and he fiddled with a loose button on his shirt. "I didnít think anyone would miss me."

Regina shook her head. "You were wrong about that. People do care about you."

TJ brightened momentarily as he heard Toddís boisterous laugh in the corner of the room. "I like it here better than the place Iím staying."

"I know but you wonít be alone anymore, kiddo." Regina blinked back tears and rose from the table. She stroked her hand over TJís hair, bent, and placed a kiss on the top of his head.

"Iíll be back to see you," she whispered.

TJ held onto her arm. "Promise?"

"You bet. Now itís my turn to go thank someone." Regina collected herself and walked over to where Alex was sitting. She sat down and helped herself to a forkful of the pasta on Alexís plate. "Was this your surprise?"

Alexís lips twitched as she tilted the soda up to her mouth. "Part of it."

"Are you in on this too, Sandy?" She leaned on the table and peered at the nurse curiously.

"Nope, Iím just sitting here minding my own business," the nurse replied with a wicked smile.

"As if ... " Alex flinched as Sandy nudged her with an elbow. "You could do that."

Regina leaned forward, her hands pressing on the edge of the chair and she whispered so only Alex could hear her. "I know Iíve told you that I love you before, but I want you to know that tonight, I fell in love with you all over again."

Alex said nothing. Regina was aware of the seconds slipping by as they sat inches apart staring quietly into each otherís eyes, the rest of the room seeming to fade away.

Alex cleared her throat. "I have to ask you something but I donít want do it here." She stood up from the table. "Come on."

"Where are we going?" Regina asked, wondering what all the secrecy was about.

"Bye kids. Donít stay out too late." Sandy tried to hide her self-satisfied smile bit failed miserably.

"Youíll see." Alex rolled her eyes at Sandy and then clasped Reginaís hand. "Letís get of here." Without another word, Alex led the way out of the fire station with Regina walking along beside her.

Her hands shook as she unlocked the Jeep and climbed in beside Regina.

"Are you okay, Alex?" Regina peered at her in the darkness.

Alex coughed and nodded at the burnt out warehouse. "Guess it just gives me the creeps knowing what happened in there." Her mind conjured up an image of the Phoenix rising from the ashes and she thought of all the things that brought them to this point in time. She knew this was their chance for a new beginning.

"So what do you have to ask me?"

"I found something I think youíll like."

"Youíre not going to tell me?" Regina turned in her seat and studied serious Alexís profile as she directed the vehicle out of the parking space.

"No, just wait a few minutes

Regina couldnít hold back the smile she felt pulling at the corners of her mouth when she looked into those ice blue eyes. "I guess I can wait," she grumbled and pushed out her lower lip in a pout while Alex turned the engine on.

Alex leaned across the center console and kissed Regina on the cheek. "You look cute when you do that."

Regina slumped lower into her seat as Alex tuned the key in the ignition. "Iím pouting, not trying to look cute."

It took ten-minutes to drive to Hawkeís Nest Reservation. Alex turned on her blinker and fifty feet later turned right into the park. She guided the Jeep up the gravel drive and parked by a row of tall Maples that were just beginning to show a slight hew of red along their branches, signaling the approaching spring bloom.

"We havenít been here in a long time," Regina remarked quietly as she stepped out of the Jeep and looked around at the landscape.

"I thought you might enjoy this." Alex turned the engine off and hopped out. She retrieved the woolen blanket from the back seat and turned around, suddenly struck with a strong sense of deja vu.

Emotion stung her eyes as she watched Regina walk in front of the Jeep, stopping for a moment and lifting her face to soak in the warmth of the setting sunís rays. Alex brought a hand to her face and wiped away a tear sliding down her cheek.

A moment later, after she regained her composure, she joined Regina and slid an arm around her partnerís shoulder. "Standing here with you makes everything else seem pretty insignificant."

Regina shaded her eyes from the sun to look up at Alex. "It does."

Not long after, they were walking hand in hand away from the parking lot, heading up a gently sloping hillside that led to a winter beaten dirt path.

As they crested the top and started down the other side, Regina let out a small gasp. Below them, unhidden by the sparse late winter foliage was the shimmering surface of the lake. A trail of deep, gold light from the sunset reflected off its surface, leading off to some potentially magical place beyond the horizon.

Regina leaned against her taller companion savoring the colorful hues of the sunset. "Thank you."

"For what?" Alex draped the blanket over Reginaís shoulders and wrapped her arms around her neck.

"For making the end of a really horrible week into something that feels peaceful and right."

"I just thought you might want to come out here instead of staying at the firehouse," Alex replied matter-of-fact.

"Youíre right, but it feels so good because you cared enough to do this."

Alex studied the blonde for a long moment and then rested her head against Reginaís. She felt the younger woman snuggle closer and wrap a hand around her arm with a contented sigh.

Alex closed her eyes allowing herself a moment to bask in the warm, comforting feeling emanating between them. After the week they experienced, it caught her totally off guard to feel this calm and grounded.

"We were lucky," Alex murmured.

"It wasnít luck," Regina assured her. "I knew deep down that no matter what happened in that warehouse as long as we were together we would make it out."

Alex took Reginaís hand and led her over to an old weathered cedar bench by the waterís edge. They sat and Alexís arm automatically went around Reginaís shoulder as the younger woman nestled her head against Alexís shoulder.

"I smell fish." Regina wrinkled her nose.

"No you smell a dead fish," Alex replied cheerfully and motioned to one floating in the shallow water.

"Gross. Thanks for pointing it out." Regina playfully poked her in the ribs.

"Your welcome," Alex said, deadpan. "Kiss me?"

"Not after that, you fink."

Alex laughed and brushed a kiss against Reginaís temple. They sat in silence for another few minutes, watching the sky turn brilliant shades of pink and burnt oranges.

"I used to think I could control what life threw at me," Regina whispered softly, breaking the silence. "Isnít that naÔve?"

"No." Alex shook her head. "I thought if I buried myself in my work I could keep all the demons away. After I got shot I tried to convince myself I didnít need anyone. The problem was that meant not having you in my life." She spared a glance at Regina and looked down at the water, her voice taking on a far away tone. "I got so lost Ė I thought it would just be easier to let go." The fear, the pride, and the hurt had all wedged between them at the time. "Iím sorry I hurt you."

Regina kissed her cheek. Alex turned her face and their lips touched, warm, and soft, a perfect fit as they explored each other. The kiss was tender and gentle Ė a giving, not taking.

"Weíre a pair. Arenít we?" Regina murmured, breaking the kiss of first. She looked up into the pale blue eyes and swallowed nervously at the raw emotions she saw flash across her partnerís face.

The past month had been an ordeal but it had brought them closer. Of that she was sure.

Sheíd fallen in love with Alexís confident, strong, magnetic personality and in the last several weeks sheíd come to love her as much for her vulnerability. It was only the trust built between them that allowed those particular walls to finally come down.

When Alex raised her head, a question was there in her eyes, shining dark and intense.

The words tumbled out of Reginaís mouth unplanned. "You know I canít imagine my life without you."

Alex lowered her head and took a long breath. She turned to Regina on the bench and took the smaller hands in hers. "I want us to make this official, Regina." She looked at the shocked expression on Reginaís face and plowed ahead before she lost her nerve. "I need you. I need us to be a family. Do you want that?"

Regina looked at her and raised a trembling hand to Alexís face. "Every day and every night of my life, Alex, forever."

A relieved smile lit up Alexís face. She reached into her pocket and withdrew the ring sheíd tucked safely away before she left the house hours earlier. It sparkled now as she turned it in her fingers. She swallowed and closed her eyes before she continued. "Reg, youíve got my heart and soul."

Regina linked their hands together and kissed the back of Alexís hand. "Youíve had mine all this time."

A sense of sweet peace invaded Alexís heart replacing the empty ache sheíd grown almost numb to. Sheíd spent too much time just existing the last few years. It was time for them to live. She took Reginaís hand and slid the ring on her finger.

Regina wrapped her arms around Alex and held her close. She imagined she could hear her heart beating through the thickness of her coat and smiled against Alexís chest, knowing this was home.

The end ... for now.

Thank you all for taking the journey with me.