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 hospital’s 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. “I’m 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 Officer’s 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, I’m 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. “Let’s go inside.” He closed the door behind them and indicated a captain’s 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, I’m 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 Alex’s 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 didn’t 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. “You’ve 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 you’ve 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 doctor’s head. “What kind of a proposition?”
“I’d 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. That’s 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 won’t 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 physician’s 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.”
“Why’s that?” He folded his arms and regarded her intently.
“Why don’t you just come out and say you want to buy my silence.” Alex watched as the CEO’s nostrils flared and his cheeks flushed ever so slightly. Bull’s 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 wasn’t someone he wanted as an enemy but as far as he was concerned he was holding all the cards. “That’s a noble sentiment, but misplaced. It’s in your best interest, Dr. Margulies.”
So I can be beholden to you? “I’m 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. “That’s 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 Louisa’s 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 Matthew’s attention and attorney walked over to her.
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 Alex’s and gave her a not so re-assuring smile. “He’s afraid of what you know.”
“That’s 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?”
“It’s taken care of.”
“Then you’ve done all you can. We’re 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. “Don’t let them keep you late again,” she whispered, her voice still rough with sleep.
In the darkness, she saw Alex’s lips twitch into an impish smile. “Not a chance. I have plans for us later today.”
“Plans? What plans?” That sparked Regina’s 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 Regina’s face. Without a word, she bent forward and kissed her lover.
Regina trailed her hand over Alex’s cheek and ran her finger’s through the silky black hair, getting lost in the sensual wave of their embrace as their kiss deepened. A groan escaped Alex’s lips as Regina slid her thigh up between her legs and rubbed against her.
“That’s…not…fair.” Alex bit her bottom lip and arched her back as she strained against Regina’s insistent pressure. “Oh…god.”
“You started it,” Regina exhaled as she ran her fingertips over Alex’s ribs and then angled her hands to caress her breasts through the fabric of her shirt.
Regina inhaled sharply as one of Alex’s hands worked its way under her nightshirt and traced a meandering pattern over her belly before wandering higher.
A rich, deep chuckle tickled Regina’s ear. “I do believe you’re trying to make me late, Regina Kingston.” Alex lowered her mouth and nibbled Regina’s earlobe.
Regina rubbed her palm over the outside of Alex’s pants, feeling the heat and dampness of her lover’s arousal. She tugged the belt buckle loose, undid the button, and then worked the zipper down on Alex’s trousers.
“Whatever gave you that impression?” she teased as she slid her hand inside the bikini briefs and cupped Alex’s hardened clitoris. “Besides, I can’t let you leave like this. It…wouldn’t…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 she’s got up her sleeve for this afternoon.
She whirled around, startled by the male voice. “Oh, Todd. I didn’t 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. “It’s weird seeing the warehouse look the way it does.”
“We’re cooking dinner at the firehouse and I thought maybe you’d like something to eat.”
Oh boy. “Thanks, but I’m waiting for Alex. We’re going to pack up all this stuff and bring it back to the emergency department.”
“Well, bring her over. She’s welcome too.”
Regina walked Todd to the door. “We’ll 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 partner’s 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.
Alex’s hawk like gaze settled immediately on Regina and a smile graced the taller woman’s lips.
“I couldn’t 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 Regina’s 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 we’re 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. We’ll leave this stuff ‘til later.”
“Okay, sure.” Regina gave Alex a curious look, surprised by her partner’s 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. “We’ll hope for the best.”
Alex nudged him as Regina re-appeared around the corner, tugging her jacket over her shoulder. “We’ll 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. “I’m really surprised you wanted to do this.”
“Why?” Alex slowed her steps so Regina could catch up with her.
“You weren’t 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 didn’t say a word.”
Alex fended off the flurry of Regina’s hands and turned her around. “Hey, Sandy where’s 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. It’s not ideal but at least he’s 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. “He’s going to make your dog fat.”
“That beast? You should see how much he eats in a day and still doesn’t put on one pound. Hey TJ, don’t 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. “Don’t 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 didn’t think you were going to make it,” Alex said as she sat down next to Sandy.
The nurse rested her forearms on the table. “Tina’s 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.
“We’re 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 woman’s 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 Derrick’s 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 TJ’s chin with her hand. “I don’t know, TJ. It wasn’t 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 didn’t 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 Todd’s boisterous laugh in the corner of the room. “I like it here better than the place I’m staying.”
“I know but you won’t be alone anymore, kiddo.” Regina blinked back tears and rose from the table. She stroked her hand over TJ’s hair, bent, and placed a kiss on the top of his head.
“I’ll be back to see you,” she whispered.
TJ held onto her arm. “Promise?”
“You bet. Now it’s 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 Alex’s plate. “Was this your surprise?”
Alex’s 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, I’m 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 I’ve 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 other’s eyes, the rest of the room seeming to fade away.
Alex cleared her throat. “I have to ask you something but I don’t 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. Don’t stay out too late.” Sandy tried to hide her self-satisfied smile bit failed miserably.
“You’ll see.” Alex rolled her eyes at Sandy and then clasped Regina’s hand. “Let’s 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 you’ll like.”
“You’re not going to tell me?” Regina turned in her seat and studied serious Alex’s profile as she directed the vehicle out of the parking space.
“No, just wait a few minutes
Regina couldn’t 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. “I’m pouting, not trying to look cute.”
It took ten-minutes to drive to Hawke’s 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 haven’t 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 sun’s 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 partner’s 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 Regina’s 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.
“You’re 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 Regina’s. 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 wasn’t 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 Regina’s hand and led her over to an old weathered cedar bench by the water’s edge. They sat and Alex’s arm automatically went around Regina’s shoulder as the younger woman nestled her head against Alex’s 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 Regina’s 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. “Isn’t that naïve?”
“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 didn’t 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 – 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. “I’m 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 – a giving, not taking.
“We’re a pair. Aren’t 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 partner’s face.
The past month had been an ordeal but it had brought them closer. Of that she was sure.
She’d fallen in love with Alex’s confident, strong, magnetic personality and in the last several weeks she’d 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 Regina’s mouth unplanned. “You know I can’t 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 Regina’s 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 Alex’s face. “Every day and every night of my life, Alex, forever.”
A relieved smile lit up Alex’s face. She reached into her pocket and withdrew the ring she’d 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, you’ve got my heart and soul.”
Regina linked their hands together and kissed the back of Alex’s hand. “You’ve had mine all this time.”
A sense of sweet peace invaded Alex’s heart replacing the empty ache she’d grown almost numb to. She’d spent too much time just existing the last few years. It was time for them to live. She took Regina’s 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 Alex’s chest, knowing this was home.
The end…for now. J
Thank you all for taking the journey with me.
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