By Queenfor4




Disclaimers1: Xena and Gabrielle belong to Renpic. And, this being an Uberish tale, the main characters will bear a physical resemblance to them, but that’s as far as is goes. Oh, and two supporting characters will be named after them. But it’s meant strictly as a tribute; nothing more. J

Disclaimers 2: There will be a tiny bit of violence scattered through the story, including one piece dealing with domestic battering and attempted rape. Nothing really intense though. There will also be some swearing scattered throughout the story.

Disclaimers 3: This is an adult alternative romance, which means that there will be sex between two consenting adult females later on down the line. If this bothers you, or is illegal where you live, then please read no further. You have been warned!

Copyrights: All characters mentioned in this story belong to me. Please do not use them, or any portion of this story without talking to me first. The song "Like We Never Had a Broken Heart" belongs to MCA Nashville, Garth Fandis and Trisha Yearwood.

Thanks: I would like to offer sincere and heartfelt thanks to the bestest <g> beta reader a bard could ever ask for. Thank you, Maggie Sheridan. Without your skills, patience, gentle guidance

And boundless encouragement, this story would never have seen the light of day. J


Chapter Seventeen

Megan lay in bed, listening to the tinny ringing of the telephone, and feeling her annoyance level steadily rising. No answer. Big surprise there, the writer mentally snorted. He doesn't answer the phone, doesn't check the messages, doesn't return my calls. What the fuck is going on here?

Taking a deep breath in a vain attempt to dispel some of her aggravation, she picked up the phone again and dialed a familiar number.


"Has Eric Chalmers dropped off the face of the earth, or is it just me?" the writer snarled into the phone.

"Well, hello to you too, dear. I'm fine…thanks for asking."

Having been properly chastised, the young woman sighed and began again. "I'm sorry. Hi, Charly. How's my favorite publisher?"

"Your 'only' publisher is fine," the older woman chuckled at the long running tease between them. Then sobering, she added, "And as for your 'Mr. Wonderful,' I'm afraid I have no clue. Although, from the almost daily activity with your bank account, I'd venture to say that dear Mr. Chalmers hasn't wandered far."

Megan felt the hairs on the back of her neck begin to bristle. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means, honey, that Eric has been making good use of the ATM card that you provided him with - to the tune of about fifteen thousand dollars so far. He's been hitting the ATM machines just about every day. The only reason it's not more is because there's a limit on how much he can take out in a one day period." The silence on the other end was deafening. There was one thing that Charlotte Grayson never wanted to do; and that was hurt her young friend. But that, unfortunately, was just what was happening. There was no way around it though. Megan was not a child and, like it or not, she had to be made aware of these things.

Knowing that, however, did not make the older woman feel any better.

"Fine," the younger woman said, suddenly sounding very old. "Charly, can you please contact the bank for me and have them deactivate his ATM card? I think there are forms that have to be signed and, with you having power of attorney for me, you'll be able to do that. I know I'm asking a lot, but…"

"Don't worry about it, baby," the older woman interrupted. "That's one of the pitfalls…er…perks of being your 'unofficial' manager," she kidded. "It's also part of being a surrogate mom. Somebody's gotta look after your little blonde butt," she added warmly.

"And you do that very well," the blonde responded, with a thickness in her throat. "I'll never be able to thank you enough for what you've been for me over the years." The writer broke off quickly, needing a moment to regain her equilibrium.

"Pshh, don't worry about it. I'll just come and live with you when I get too old and crotchety to work anymore."

"And I'll be more than happy to have your cantankerous old butt staying with me," the blonde responded cheekily, silently appreciating the older woman's attempt to lighten her mood.

"Watch it, little girl, or I'll show you cantankerous when I see you."

"Oooh, I'm scared," the blonde mock-shuddered. "Anyway," the blonde huffed out a breath. "Thanks a bunch, Charly. I owe you one." She thought for a moment, then added, "oh, and while you're at it, can you have them suspend Eric's credit card too. If Mr. Chalmers wants to pretend I don't exist, he's going to have to do it without my money. There shouldn't be any problems with the bank. But if there is, just have them call me here at Randi's house."

"Oooh, it's not 'that woman' or 'the doctor' anymore. It's 'Randi' now," the older woman cheerfully noted. "Speaking of the good doctor, how are things going?"

The subtle change of subject didn't go unnoticed, but Megan let it slide. Nor could she help but notice the hopeful optimism behind the question.

Or the unexpectedly pleasant warmth that filled her when she thought of the tall doctor.

"Things are going great," she smiled. "As a matter of fact, she took the splint off my leg today. And then she took me out to the porch so I could get some fresh air. She's got a great view of the mountains from one side of the porch. After a while, my leg started to get tired, so she sat me down in the bench swing on her porch, and went in and made some tea for us. After that, we just sat there for a while and talked."

Charly was both amused and heartened by her friend's happy rambling. "She hasn't sounded this lighthearted in a long time." "It sounds like Dr. Oakes has taken good care of you, my friend."

"She has," the writer admitted, guiltily. "She's been kind and gentle and patient. Even when I was acting like an ass, she was caring for me." The writer paused thoughtfully, then continued. " I owe her a great deal, Charly. More than I think I can ever repay."

"I don't think she ever cared about repayment," the older woman answered softly. "I think that's just the way she is. I made those 'discreet inquiries' we talked about some weeks back, and everyone I was able to talk to said the same thing - that Randi was an outstanding physician. The key words I kept hearing were dedicated, hard working, gentle, caring. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. In other words," the publisher smiled, "you lucked out, little one."

Megan lay her head back on the pillow as an indulgent smile crawled across her lips. "I believe you're right, Charly. As much as I hate to admit it, you were right from the beginning."

"In light of that admission, I'll refrain from saying 'I told you so' " the publisher returned, with smug playfulness. "So, how much longer before you're able to come home? Is the road up there going to be clear any time soon?"

Megan's head jerked up off the pillow as she remembered why she was trying to call Eric in the first place. "Yes, the road leading up here is just about finished. I was going to call you after I talked to Eric and let you know. My car is history, so Randi's checking with a company in Knox to see if they can provide a car and driver to bring me back home."

"You'll do no such thing, young lady," the publisher proclaimed. "I'll send one of our cars for you. You just name the time and place."

"You don't have to do that, Charly," the writer admonished. "I don't want to put anyone to any trouble."

"You're not. These are company cars and company drivers, Meg. This is what they get paid to do. You're one of our most prolific and best selling authors. I would be remiss in my duties if I left you to find your own way back home. So, stop arguing with this 'cantankerous' old lady, and tell me when and where."

"Well, um, I suppose Sunday will be good. I can have Randi take me into Cutter's Gap, and the car can pick me up there. I can call you back with a definite time frame," the writer finished in a much more subdued tone.

The change in the younger woman's voice did not go unnoticed by the older woman, but she decided not to question it. "That sounds wonderful, dear. It will be wonderful to have you back."

"It'll be wonderful to be back," the writer answered, hoping she sounded more enthusiastic than she felt. "Charly, I'm gonna let you go for now. I'm having the damnedest time keeping my eyes open."

"You go ahead and get your sleep, honey. I'll contact the bank first thing in the morning and start making the arrangements to come get you." The publisher paused briefly as another thought forced its way to the forefront. "Um, what should I tell him if he calls and wants to know why he's been cut off?"

"Just tell him it was my decision, and I'll discuss it with him when I return and not before."

"It will be my pleasure," the publisher purred. "You get some rest now, and I'll see you in a few days. Sweet dreams, honey."


You go, girl! The older woman mentally chortled as she hung up the phone. You're growing up, opening your eyes, and gaining a backbone. It's beginning to look like that accident was the best thing that could have happened to you. I can't wait to meet your Dr. Oakes. She seems to be a most remarkable woman. The publisher looked at the phone for a long moment, weighing, once again, professional ethics against maternal instincts. With a weary sigh, she reached for the receiver, as maternal instinct raised its fist in victory.

While, many miles away, a young woman tossed and turned fitfully in her bed, completely at a loss to explain why her long-awaited return to 'civilization' wasn't making her feel as good as it should. That's not so hard to figure out," little Charly helpfully supplied, "you don't want to leave her. Face it, Meggie, you've grown quite attached to the good doctor. You know that when you leave here, the chances of seeing Randi again are slim, and that's tearing you apart. "But why does it hurt like this?" the young woman whispered plaintively. "I've had friends before that I've had to leave behind, and it never felt like this." Because she has become so much more than a friend, little one. And someday soon, when you're ready, you'll understand. "I don't want 'someday,' Goddammit," the blonde growled as she turned on her side and punched the pillow into submission. "I want to understand 'now' why I can't stand the thought of leaving her. I want to understand why I care so much for someone who represents everything I hate. I want to understand why I feel so warm and safe in her arms. And I really wanna understand why I get a warm tingling in my stomach when I watch her work out. I'm not like that…am I? Damn you, mother! Where are you when I need answers? Where are you when I need you?" Frustrated and confused, the young woman buried her face in the pillow and let silent tears fall.

And down the hall, another young woman lay prone in her bed, staring at the ceiling. Torn between happiness and heartache, the tall woman paid no heed to the abundant tears that made lazy trails down her cheeks. She was profoundly happy for Megan's recovery and glad that the young woman would soon be able to return to her home and her friends. She was happy for Megan, true. But a very large part of her grieved for the fact that, when the young woman left, she would be taking Randi's heart with her.

And right along with that, the only happiness that the doctor had known in such a long time.

It'll all be over in a few days, Uncle Jake. Come the weekend, she'll be able to kiss this town, and me, goodbye. She can get back to her life and her friends and forget we ever existed. I should be happy for her, Uncle Jake. Hell, I am happy for her, but it's gonna hurt so damn much. Is this the way it's always gonna be? Am I always going to lose the people I love? Have I been so bad that I don't deserve to be happy? Ever? I don't think I can take it much more, Uncle Jake. " I can't," she whispered brokenly as she turned her face into the pillow and gave way to heartwrenching sobs.

Two silent figures sat in the doorway, watching the tall body on the bed convulse in quiet sobs. Both animals shivered in empathic response to the profound sadness that radiated from this woman and the one down the hall. They looked at each other for a long moment, communicating on their own level, before the small, fair-haired one rose and ambled down the hall.

With an audible sigh, the black Shepherd quietly padded across the room and eased herself up on the bed. With a gentleness that belied her size, she settled her large frame against the body of her friend.

There would be no 'tough' approach this time. Nor any attempt to 'cuddle' the human out of her funk. No, the woman didn't need that this time. She just needed to know that she was not alone. And the beautiful black was there to provide that assurance. No matter how long it took.

Chapter Eighteen

Saturday came entirely too fast, and both women spent the entire day trying to prepare, mentally and physically, for the writer's imminent departure. As a result, conversation was strained, and physical interaction was awkward at best. There was so much to say, but neither woman had the courage to say it.

Dinner was a quiet affair, with both women doing little more than pushing the food around on their plates. Randi looked across the table at her petite patient. She looks so sad. But why? She's finally getting out of here. That's what she's been wanting for months, so why isn't she kicking up her heels? Probably because of you, idiot! You're walking around here looking like a five year old that lost her puppy, and she doesn't want to make you feel any worse, so she's keeping a tight lid on any happiness she's feeling.

Well, that's gonna stop, Randi decided, as she pulled her napkin off her lap and threw it on her plate. "Hey there," she addressed the blonde, startling her out of her depressed reverie. "It doesn't look like either one of us is very hungry, so why don't we just leave it. It's a pretty warm night, so why don't we go sit out on the porch? We can throw a few CD's on the player, and I can crack open a bottle of Merlot and we can celebrate your recovery and return to 'the World.'" This last part said with a mischievous wagging of her eyebrows.

Megan saw the invitation for what it was; a sweetly subtle attempt to brighten her mood. Still taking care of me, aren't you, doctor? "That sounds wonderful," the blonde agreed.

"So, what are your plans when you get back to the city?" Randi finally broached the subject that both women had been subtly avoiding. They had spent the evening sipping wine and discussing the weather, the history of Cutters Gap, the stars, everything but what the next day would bring. Now, the pregnant silence fairly screamed for one of them to step forward. And Randi complied.

Megan gazed into the inky blackness of the surrounding forest, gathering thoughts that had become slightly muzzy from the three glasses of flavorful wine she had imbibed. Finally succeeding, she heaved a sigh. "I dunno, I guess I'll take a week to get things back in order. Do some editing on my current story, go through my mail, settle a couple of personal issues, things like that. Then, after that, let Charly re-schedule my book signings, and…go on from there, I guess." She turned and studied the graceful profile of the woman sitting next to her. "What about you. What'll you do?"

Randi shrugged noncommittally. "Same as what I've been doing, I guess. Putter around the house, finish cleaning the attic, rescue another cute blonde," she concluded with a lopsided grin.

"Funny girl," the writer shot back with an answering grin, then sobering, she said, "Can I ask you a personal question?"

Warning bells sounded in Randi's head. "You can ask. No guarantees on an answer, though."

"Fair enough," the blonde responded. "Randi, I know from first hand experience that you're an outstanding doctor. You have a God given talent for healing. And I'm not just talking about mending bodies. "The blonde paused in brief reflection before smiling gently. "You do wonders for troubled spirits, too. But I think you already know this. My question is, why are you hiding this wondrous gift away in a lonely house on a hill? Why aren't you actively practicing, either here or at the hospital in Knox?"

The brunette closed her eyes against the pain that washed over her, threatening to pull her under. I knew this was coming. "I did work at Knox for a while. I completed my residency there," she responded listlessly.

"So, why aren't you still there?"

"Because I don't deserve to be there," she spit out with a vehemence that startled the writer.

"Can you tell me why you feel that way?" the writer inquired gently.

Megan watched silently as a flurry of emotions flitted across the chiseled features of the taller woman, mute testimony to the struggle within. Finally, "I can't, Megan," she whispered hoarsely, dropping her head. "I'm sorry…I just can't."

Saddened and frustrated as she was, the young woman let the issue drop. Both women sat in contemplative silence for long moments as Trisha Yearwood crooned in the background, until Megan could take no more. She knew what song was coming next, and decided What the hell, why not? The young woman stood up, pausing for a moment to gather her equilibrium. Whoa, good wine.

She then reached her hand out to the still seated doctor. "Dance with me?"

Randi's head shot up, her face reflecting her surprise. "Here? Now?"

"Why not?" the blonde smiled.

Randi took the proffered hand and stood. Feeling awkward and unsure, she kept hold of the hand and placed her other hand tentatively on the blonde's shoulder as the opening music of the next song began.

Megan was hard pressed not to giggle at the endearing shyness of the normally confident doctor. Deciding to take the bull by the horns, she looked up into impossibly blue eyes and sang along with the opening words of the song.

"Don't be afraid to hold me tight, you know I won't break in two. What we're doing here tonight, sure beats what we're going through."

The young blonde smiled as the words had their intended effect, as the tall woman moved in closer, sliding her hand from Megan's shoulder to the small of her back. Satisfied, Megan sighed and placed her head on the warm, familiar shoulder.

We both loved and lost before

Know the sadness it can bring

Tonight let's close the door

And hold on to the nearest thing.

Let's keep hanging on

So we won't fall apart

Let's make love tonight

Like we never had a broken heart

Warning bells rang madly in the tall woman's head as she held the smaller body close to her own. I shouldn't be doing this. She's young, she's lonely, and she's feeling the effects of the wine. Hell, we both are. But this feels so good…so perfect…as if we've done this in countless other lifetimes. Just a few more minutes…that's all…then we'll stop. With that, Randi's heart closed the door on those warning bells as the tall woman sighed and rested her cheek on a silky blonde head.

Don't be afraid to close your eyes

Pretend I'm someone that you love

And I won't have to tell you lies

'Cause it's not you I'm thinking of

Let's keep hanging on

So we won't fall apart

Let's make love tonight

Like we never had a broken heart.

Megan was lost somewhere between ecstasy and awe. She had slow danced with Eric before, but it never felt as good…as perfect, as it did right now. The arms that held her close made her feel so cherished that it almost hurt. The long, lean body pressed so close to hers provoked responses from certain areas on her body so intense that it did hurt. And the heart beat, oh, that wonderfully intense rhythm that bounded against her ear somehow seemed to keep time with her own. There was only one small problem. She's a woman! It's not supposed to feel this good. I'm not supposed to feel this good! As the music chorus swelled, Megan made the mistake of looking up…and falling into twin pools of ocean blue.

Oh! I like that color. Is that what they look like when… Her thoughts trailed off as the magic of the moment and the feel of the body moving against her effectively silenced them.

Tonight we'll just pretend

We've been in love right from the start

Let's make love tonight

Like we never had a broken heart.

Almost as if they had a mind of their own, Megan's hands began to move. One of them pressed against the small of the taller woman's back and pressed firmly, melding both bodies tight, while the other hand tangled itself in silky, midnight hair. Gentle pressure brought the unresisting head closer as the blonde whispered the songs final line against full red lips.

"Don't be afraid to close your eyes."

Megan's lips were sweet. Sweeter than Randi could ever have imagined. And she imagined quite a bit. And so it was no surprise that the tall woman drank greedily of the sweetness she had found there.

No surprise that the fingers running through her hair sent electric tingles running through her body-tingles that ran from her head to her toes before finally settling in her belly.

And started a fire there.

No surprise that her thigh instinctually pressed against two smaller ones - that her tongue slid against soft lips, begging entrance.

And thighs and lips parted for her.

And certainly no surprise when her forays into those two places produced a very needy whimper.

From a very lonely, very horny, very drunk homophobic young woman.

Dear lord, what am I doing? Randi's eyes flew open and she jerked away as if burned. Her withdrawal so abrupt that the blonde limpet attached to her nearly fell.

"Randi, what…?"

"We can't do this."

"Yes we can," the blonde protested as she stood on tiptoes, desperately trying to reach those delicious, full, wet lips.

"No, we can't," the brunette reiterated hoarsely as she gently held the blonde at bay.

"Why," the smaller woman whined pitifully. She was more than a little aroused, and her level of intoxication only added to the feeling that she would perish if she didn't get relief…and soon.

"Because you're drunk."

"I am not," the blonde insisted, silently wishing it was not so damned hard to focus on the woman in front of her.

"Yes, you are," Randi retorted, gentling her tone. "Megan, right now you're lonely, you're aroused, and more than a little tipsy. You may think you want this right now, but in the morning you'll feel very differently."

"No I won't," the blonde growled, her temper rising to the fore.

"Yes you will. You'll look at me in the morning and see a woman who took advantage of you in a weak moment. In your eyes I'll be that vicious, immoral sexual predator you think all gay women are…and you'll hate me for it." Worse than that, my love, you'll hate yourself…for letting it happen.

Megan ceased her amorous advances, becoming completely still; she hung her head in defeat. Noting the seeming surrender, Randi removed her hands from the smaller woman. "Megan, I…"

Randi's head rocked back from the force of the stinging slap that connected with her face.

"You're wrong," the blonde spat hotly. "I already hate you. Damn you, Randi Oakes! Damn you!"

The next sound Randi heard was the slamming of the screen door as she watched the blonde race down the hall to her room.

And then there was only silence.

Randi stood on the empty porch rubbing her stinging cheek. Her pleasant buzz had fled into the night. Her raging libido had tucked it's tail and followed.

Now there was only emptiness.

And pain.

And Megan's words ringing in her head.

"I hate you. Damn you, Randi Oakes! Damn you!"

Randi's legs lost their battle as the heartsick woman sank to her knees and broke into wrenching sobs.

Chapter Nineteen

Saturday morning came and went, with both women maintaining a not so subtle distance between them. Conversation was minimal, at best. Reduced to short questions, and even shorter answers. Both women showed signs of the prior sleepless night. As evidenced by their haggard expressions and the listlessness of their movements.

But neither was willing to talk about it.

It still hurt too much.

"Are you ready?" Randi was standing by the open passenger door, watching the blonde bid a tender farewell to the two canines that, by their subdued behavior, weren't happy this morning either.

"You have no idea how ready," the blonde sniped as she climbed into her seat and yanked the door closed.

Randi sighed as she walked around the jeep and got in.


Megan was pleasantly surprised as she walked into Toby's Gas and Grocery. It seemed the big man had made some changes in the past couple of months. Shelves and racks had been rearranged and moved back, to create a large open space in the front half of the store. A space that was now occupied by three small, cozy round tables with chairs. Each table wore a tablecloth decorated with a homey, checkerboard design. A small vase filled with an assortment of wildflowers completed each table.

I like it, the young woman mused as a small smile, her first of the day, creased her face.

"From the smile on your face, I'd say it meets with your approval, Ms. Megan."

Megan turned to face the owner of the deep, rumbling voice, a deeper smile etching her face. "Very much so." She held out her hand in greeting and it was immediately enclosed by two big, warm, callused ones and held for a long moment as kindly gray eyes examined her. "It's good to see you again, little one. I was sorry about your accident, but I'm glad that Randi found you and took care of you. Are you all right now?"

"I'm fine," the blonde reassured. "Dr. Oakes did take good care of me and, now that the roads are clear, I'm headed home."

"Yes, Randi told me that you had a car coming for you." The older man was slightly surprised at Megan's use of Randi's title, instead of her given name. It was his understanding, from conversations with the raven-haired doctor, that they were getting along well. Now, he wasn't so sure. And, noticing the weary, pained look the young woman was trying to hide, he decided not to ask questions. "Why don't you have a seat and let me get you something to eat while you're waiting?"

The mere thought of food made the writer's stomach turn. "I'm, uh, I'm really not hungry right now, Toby. Something to drink would be nice though," she offered as she sat down.

"That's fine, Ms. Megan, I'll…"

Both heads turned at the tinkling of the doorbell announcing Randi's entrance.

The older man was hard pressed to stifle a gasp at the pale, haggard appearance of the woman he had come to think of as a daughter. Dear lord, she hasn't looked like that since…What the devil's going on here? Wisely choosing to save his questions for later, Toby broke into a big smile and boomed, "there's my girl. Please excuse me for a moment, Ms. Megan. Terry," he called to a petite, tow-headed girl who was sitting at another table, talking with a red headed woman. "Please get Ms. Megan a hot chocolate." With that, he walked away.

Megan watched the beautiful brunette walk in the door and pause, her crystal blue gaze seeking, and immediately locating, her old friend and former patient. In spite of the brunette's haggard appearance, the writer's reaction was as immediate as it was unstoppable. God, she's beautiful. Megan's face screwed up in disgust at the unbidden thought, and she cursed her rebellious heart for its suddenly rapid beat. Stop it! You don't want her. You don't need her. You don't even like her. She's just like all the rest. Remember that! She scolded, tearing her eyes from the tall beauty, and finding the tablecloth pattern extremely interesting.

So intense was Megan's perusal of the tabletop, that she never noticed Toby's departure, nor the arrival of her chocolate until it was placed in front of her. Startled, she looked up into friendly brown eyes. "Sorry about that," the writer offered. "Woolgathering."

"No problem," the girl smiled, offering her hand. "I'm Terry."

"Nice to meet you," the writer smiled back, taking the proffered hand. "I'm Megan."

"I know. You write the Samantha Steele mysteries." The girl beamed, then paused before adding shyly," um, could you, um, if you don't mind, would you sign my book?

"I'd be delighted," the writer smiled.

"Great! I'll be right back." With that, she sprinted toward the back of the store. Megan heaved an amused sigh and sipped her chocolate. Mmmm, delicious. This can't be instant. I'll have to see if I can get Toby to tell me how he makes it. Megan's eyes automatically shifted to the front of the store where the big man stood in earnest conversation with the younger woman. She couldn't hear what was being said but from their body language, he with one big hand clasping her arm and the other gently cupping her face, and she leaning into the caress while nodding agreeably, Megan could pretty much guess what was being said. He's comforting her. She looks like I feel and he's trying to comfort her.

Megan couldn't suppress the surge of envy that washed through her as she watched the tender interaction between the two. Is that what it's supposed to be like with a father and daughter?

"Must be nice," she mumbled with some bitterness as she took another sip of her chocolate and resumed her study of the tablecloth.


Randi stepped gingerly into the cheerful warmth of the little store. She had put it off as long as she could, filling the jeep with gas, checking the fluids, washing the windows, and any other little thing she could do that would keep her away from the two people that could very easily bring her to tears right now. Toby, with his loving concern, and Megan with her biting words. Not that she could blame the young woman. Megan needed something from Randi last night. Something that the raven-haired woman was unwilling to give. The reasons seemed clear enough last night. But now, in the cold, clear light of day, the doctor had to wonder if they were reasons…or excuses. A way to keep the blonde at arms distance, prevent her from knowing all of Randi. And, upon that knowing, finding her wanting…and then she would leave…just like everyone else Randi loved. Not that it matters. She's leaving today, anyway. So, maybe everything worked out exactly like it should. Randi stood for a moment, taking in the changes to the interior. Nice, she thought briefly before setting sight on the big man and the small blonde. She winced internally as she noted the shock that flashed across the big man's face before he concealed it with a big smile and a loud proclamation of "There's my girl."

I must look like shit, she mused as her eyes flicked briefly to the seated blonde, whose expression was one of schooled indifference. She doesn't look much better. Even so, she's still beautiful.

Any further musing was cut short, as she was engulfed in the warm and loving embrace of her 'uncle.'

An embrace that, contrary to her intentions, she melted into with a desperate abandon that she hadn't felt since she was a young girl.

Finally, the long, massive arms released their willing captive just enough for the big man to study the younger woman. Callused hands kept a gentle but firm grip on her shoulders as he studied her face.

"You're not looking good, Princess," the big man rumbled softly. "You sounded better than this on the phone the other day. What happened, honey?"

Randi dropped her head, and watery blue eyes squeezed shut in an effort to bind the tears that threatened to fall. "I can't go into it right now, Uncle Toby," she whispered hoarsely. "Let's just say that I failed somebody again."

A large hand cupped her chin and lifted her head until liquid blue eyes were confronted with stormy gray ones.

"Now you listen to me, Randi Christine Oakes," the old man growled. "You didn't fail anybody the first time. You can't take responsibility for someone else's actions. You can't blame yourself for not being there if you don't get the call. And you most certainly can't prevent the inevitable. You're a doctor, Randi, and you know it's the truth." The stormy gray eyes gentled as the storekeeper placed a soft kiss on an ebony eyebrow. "And someday soon, your heart's going to accept it too. I have faith in that…in you." The large hand moved from her chin, to cup her cheek. "We'll talk more about this new problem later," he promised, getting a small nod in agreement. "But right now you need a good cup of old Toby's coffee. Now go find you seat. I'll be right back."

Randi looked toward the table area, or, more specifically, at one table in particular, and hesitated. Maybe I should stay outside for a while longer. Then, remembering something that she carried in her back pocket, decided. What the hell. Not much she can say that hasn't already been said. With a resigned sigh, the tall woman approached the blonde's table.

Cool green eyes lifted and studied her briefly. "What?"

Randi reached into her back pocket for the diskettes and placed them on the table. "You left these on the nightstand. If you've got any of your writing on them, you'll want to keep them…to make sure you have a backup."

Megan had left them there intentionally. She wanted to take as little as possible away from this encounter, but the tall woman made a good point. "Thank you," she replied coolly. I'll be sure to add these to the reimbursement check. Along with the clothes I'm wearing."'

Randi shook her head. "That isn't necessary. I've got tons of empty discs that I don't need. And, as for the clothes, hell, I haven't worn them since I was a teenager. They're just old jeans and sweats that I left here when I went away to college. I figured Jake would toss them out, but, being the packrat he is, he put them up in the attic instead."

"Be that as it may," the blonde replied crisply. "I still intend to pay for them. I don't want to owe you for anything, Dr. Oakes. Not a blessed thing."

Randi ran her fingers through her hair and blew out a frustrated breath. "You don't owe me anything! At first, I took care of you because it was the right thing to do. And later on, it was because I wanted to…because I cared. Just like I cared last night. I couldn't let you do something you'd be sorry for later on. If I was wrong…I'm sorry. If I offended you…I'm sorry."

Somewhere down deep, the writer knew the truth of Randi's words. The tall woman only ever acted in her patient's best interest. But that truth was buried deep beneath the anger and pain of being rejected yet again by someone she…loved? "Tell me, doctor; do you often make decisions for others, and have to apologize for it later? Is that what you did to your beloved Casey? Is that why she left you?"

Randi rocked back as if it were a physical blow. Her face became a pale, expressionless mask. But the eyes that stared into Megan's revealed a depth of pain that took the younger woman's breath away.

Without a word, the tall woman turned and walked away.

Megan watched the retreating figure in stunned silence, completely unaware of her equally stunned audience. Until the thump of a coffee mug being set on the table got her attention. She looked up into gray eyes that reflected both anger and deep disappointment.

"That was wrong, Ms. Megan. That was just plain wrong," the old man rumbled before striding briskly out the door in search of the distraught doctor.

"And this day just keeps getting better," the blonde mumbled into her cup, trying desperately to ignore the guilt that was creeping up her spine.

She couldn't ignore, however, the slim, silent woman that seemed to simply appear, and who now stood eyeing her critically.

"You're Megan Galagher, the writer." It was more a statement than a question.

"Yes, I am," the blonde responded warily. The woman didn't appear threatening, but she didn't seem all that friendly either.

"You tell good stories, Ms. Galagher. If you don't mind, I'd like a few moments of your time. I'd like to tell you a story."

You've got to be kidding me! I don't need this. "I'm not sure," she made a point of checking her watch. "Someone's supposed to be picking me up any time now."

A small, knowing smile curved pink lips. "It won't take long, Ms. Galagher. I really think you need to hear this story."

"Fine," the blonde acquiesced. "Please, have a seat."

"Thank you," the willowy redhead smiled as she sat down. Clasping her hands in front of her, the redhead took a deep breath and began.

"Once upon a time," she began, quirking a wry grin at the fairy tale beginning she was using. "There was this beautiful little princess who became very ill one night. So ill in fact, that she had to be brought to the emergency room of a hospital. And the little princess was very scared. She couldn't understand why she was having such trouble breathing, and to make matters worse, all these big people were wearing masks and doing all kinds of uncomfortable things to her without telling her why. So the princess began to cry and squirm, trying to make these masked people leave her alone, but they wouldn't. And then, someone else walked into her room. Someone very tall, with long, dark hair and very blue eyes. This tall person spoke very briefly with the other people in the room, and then walked over to the princess' bed. Then she did something that none of the other big people did; she took the princess' hand in hers, and then she pulled the mask down from her face. She smiled at the princess and said, 'hi, I'm Randi, and I'd like to try and make you feel better. Will you help me do that?' The princess liked the doctor's pretty smile and the fact that the doctor was actually talking to her, so she let doctor Randi and the other big people help her. Unfortunately, it was discovered that she had AIDS. It was a 'gift' from her daddy that mommy never knew about. Because of that, the princess had occasion to visit the hospital more often than she would have liked. And she became very good friends with the pretty doctor." Here, the redhead paused thoughtfully as a bittersweet smile creased her lips. "No, they became so much more than friends. The princess worshipped the ground that doctor Randi walked on. And everyone knew that the doctor felt the same way. For she doted on the princess as no one else ever had, except for her mommy."

The redhead paused in her tale long enough to take a sip of her coffee and gather the courage she would need to finish the story. Megan was, by now thoroughly engrossed in the other woman's story, even though she had a sinking feeling she knew how it would end. But what the hell does this have to do with me, and why did she think I needed to hear it? Nevertheless, the writer listened intently as the redhead began again.

"Two years passed. Two years in which the princess and her mommy had many fun times with the good doctor. Unfortunately, the fun would not last. For the princess came down with a cold that, very quickly turned into pneumonia. Once again, she was brought to the hospital, and once again the good doctor was there for her. The princess would spend many days in the hospital, struggling very valiantly to fight her sickness, and doctor Randi would spend every possible moment watching over her. But doctor Randi was also working double shifts in the emergency room because of a staff shortage. By the end of the week, doctor Randi was near collapse and her supervisor ordered her to leave the hospital for at least twenty-four hours so that she could rest. Randi didn't want to leave the princess, but she had no choice. So she went home. Now, at the time, doctor Randi was seeing a young lady named Jenna. Jenna was very nice, and she cared a great deal for the doctor. But she was also of a mind that the doctor worked entirely too hard. So when doctor Randi was sent home to rest, Jenna took it upon herself to make sure that the doctor did just that. For when the doctor fell asleep, Jenna unplugged the phone and turned off her pager and cell phone. As fate would have it, the princess' health took a dramatic turn for the worst. The nurses tried many times to contact the doctor, to no avail. No one knows what woke the doctor out of a sound sleep, but awaken she did, and she automatically checked her pager, only to find it had been turned off. When she turned it on and saw the messages, she set out for the hospital immediately, knowing without question that her princess needed her. Alas, by the time she got there, it was too late. The princess was in full cardiac arrest, and nothing doctor Randi did, not medicine, not electric shock, nor pleading, would bring her back. And when she died, Doctor Randi Oakes died too. She left her job, her career, her friends, Jenna. She left them all. She came back here and exiled herself to that damn house on the hill, refusing all contact from those that loved her and would offer comfort she felt she didn't deserve. For she loved the princess so; and blamed herself for the princess' death; believing with all her poor heart that if she had gotten there sooner, she could have saved her. But she's wrong. Nothing she could have done would have saved the princess. The little one was simply too tired to keep fighting, and so the Angels took her home. We all know that; and someday, with our help, Randi will know it too." Piercing amber eyes caught and held solemn green ones. "Little Casey Tucker would want it that way."

Green eyes widened in comprehension and a guilty flush stole over pale cheeks as the writer lowered her head. "I didn't know," she whispered.

"No, you didn't," the redhead agreed. "You didn't know the first thing about it, but you slapped her across the face with it anyway. That's a pretty lousy thing to do to a woman who saved your life, took you into her home, and cared for you for two months."

Megan bristled at the condemnation in the woman's tone, as defensiveness overcame guilt. "Look, you don't know me, and you don't know what happened. I had my reasons." She hissed.

The redhead cocked an eyebrow. "Did you, now?" Rising out of her chair, the redhead leaned over, placing both palms flat on the table and stared directly into defiant green eyes. "You're right, I don't know you. But I do know Randi. She is the sweetest, kindest, gentlest and most caring individual I've ever known, and I can't think of a single thing she could have done to deserve what I've seen today."

The woman straightened to full height and shook her head. "You may be a fine writer, Ms. Galagher, but you're not a nice person." With that, she walked away.

Too flustered to offer any retort, the writer simply sat and stared as the redhead walked out the door. Finally, regaining some composure, she picked up her lukewarm drink. "Who in the hell does she think she is, anyway," she grumbled.

"That was Amy Tucker…Casey's' mother," the tow-headed waitress responded, placing a paperback book on the table. "You can keep this. I don't think I want it anymore," she added before she too walked away, leaving the writer with only her misery for company.

Before long, a cream-colored luxury sedan pulled up in front of the store. Catching sight of it, the blonde bolted up from the table and was out the door before the vehicle had a chance to park. Whipping open the back door, Megan let out a happy cry as she clambered into the car and into the surprised arms of her publisher friend.

"Well, I've certainly missed you too," the publisher drawled with amusement to the trembling body clinging to her. "Trembling? " The publisher gently disengaged the clinging blonde and leaned back a little, trying to do a visual inspection. "Honey, are you…is everything okay?"

"Everything's fine, Charly. Can we just go?"

"Well…of course we can," the older woman offered hesitantly. "I was hoping to meet the delightful doctor Oakes, though. I wanted to offer my personal thanks for her taking such good care of you. Is she not here?" the older woman inquired, looking around.

"No," the blonde responded, a little too quickly for the publisher's liking. "Dr. Oakes something to do. She had to leave. You can thank her with a check when we get back home," she finished coolly.

"Ouch" "All right, my young friend," gentle fingers grasped the younger woman's chin. "What's going on here?" she inquired sternly.

Liquid green eyes searched warm brown ones, pleading. "Not here, Charly…not now. Please. I just want to go home."

The publisher heaved a frustrated sigh. "Fine. But we're going to have a long talk when we get home, Megan." With that, she addressed the driver. "Let's go, Jim."

The car began moving and the blonde sank wearily into the plush leather seat. Turning her head to the window as they moved away, she took a last look at the quaint little store she would likely never see again.

And emitted a quiet gasp at the sight of the big man who stood next to the building.

Holding on tightly to the familiar, tall body that convulsed with sobs she could not hear.

It was a sight that would haunt her for a very long time.

Part 8

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