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 don’t you just drop the oxygen tank on the floor and have it explode," she berated herself.

Lucky’s 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.

"It’s 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 didn’t 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 TJ’s 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 boy’s body. "At least that’s 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.

"He’ll 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.

Lucky’s 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 Alex’s 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?"

"I’ll explain later. Come on. Let’s go."

"Alex, wait." Regina grabbed hold of Alex to steady her. "I found TJ."

Alex blinked and leaned back against the wall. "You what? He’s here?"

"He’s 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 man’s hulk filled the window.

"Go." Alex grabbed Regina’s 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 Regina’s pants and shirt for the first time and shook her head.

"I had to."

The slightest hint of a smile played around Alex’s mouth and she squeezed Regina’s shoulder affectionately. Alex knelt down with a groan and opened one of the boy’s eyelids. "He’s out cold."

"He had a seizure thirty minutes ago and hasn’t woke up yet."

"Let’s 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 Alex’s dinner jacket and tugged her back down. "Someone’s coming."

"Dr. Margulies," a familiar voice echoed through the warehouse. "I know you’re 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 they’re 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 you’re 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 you’re 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.

Alex’s adrenaline surged. She tackled Regina to the floor and rolled them behind a row of boxes.

"What’s 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 Regina’s 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. Don’t 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, we’re 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 Regina’s 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 girlfriend’s head."

Alex glanced overhead and slipped one of the cuffs around her wrist. "It’s too high for her."

Pierce glared at Alex and shrugged. "Then cuff yourselves to one of the pipes along the wall. It’s 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. "You’ve got a chance to make it to the door when he’s 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 Matthew’s head as the agent lay sprawled face down on the concrete floor.

"You just couldn’t 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 President’s 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.

"You’re in no position to accuse me of anything," Cassandra spat.

Keep their attention on you. Alex didn’t 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. "That’s 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.

Don’t 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."

"It’s too bad you picked the wrong team to play for," Cassandra sneered at her.

"I don’t 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 Alex’s nostrils and her throat constricted at the thought of burning alive.

"Dr. Jameson was sloppy. I needed to get rid of him." A self–satisfied smile lit up Cassandra’s features as comprehension dawned on Alex’s face. "That’s 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 couldn’t handle." Cassandra turned and walked away from the growing inferno.

"For god’s 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.

Matthew’s 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.

"Don’t 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," Regina’s voice cracked and she began to cough.

Alex tilted Regina’s 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. That’s 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 Regina’s mouth. "We have to get out of here."

She leapt of Regina’s 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 boy’s 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. That’s 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 Alex’s 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 Regina’s head.

It missed Regina’s head by inches and Pierce’s 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 Alex’s 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. Pierce’s 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 Pierce’s 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 Regina’s 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 Alex’s shoulder as the flood of tears came.

 

Chapter Twenty-Nine

 

 

Twenty seconds…ten minutes?

Alex couldn’t remember how long they huddled together, desperately holding onto each other as they knelt on the broken asphalt. It wasn’t 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 Alex’s 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 Regina’s 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.

"Where’s TJ?" Regina shouted over the deafening noise of heavy equipment.

"The kid? He’s 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 Alex’s face. Startled, she yanked it off as a flood of unbidden memories caught her off guard.

Regina’s gentle touch on her face settled her pounding heart. "Alex, it’s okay. Keep it on," Regina soothed her as she replaced the mask over her friend’s face.

Alex inhaled the oxygen greedily and met Regina’s 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 evening’s events sank into Alex’s consciousness. More than once she buried her head against Regina’s 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 Regina’s hand around her bicep and the shuddered breath as her companion choked back a sob.

"We’re going to be okay, Regina," Alex said quietly, as she wrapped her arms around her companion.

A short ten-minute ride later the ambulance’s sirens cut off as it rolled to a stop in front of Saint Xavier’s Emergency Department. Alex lifted her head when the double doors to the rig were pulled opened.

"What’ve we got?" She heard Jon’s voice from outside.

"A thirty-five year old female with smoke inhalation. She’s alert and her vitals are stable." He started to give Regina’s information when he turned around and held his hand out. "Ma’am, wait. You can’t get up."

"The hell I can’t. 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?" Jon’s 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 Regina’s 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, you’ve 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. "They’re 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 Regina’s shoulder as the younger woman shivered. "You’re 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 Regina’s 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 Regina’s sleeve and swabbed the doctor’s 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 Alex’s neck.

"I don’t know, Reg." She met Jon’s 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 can’t hear a damn thing with you talking."

"I’m fine."

"Bullshit. You’re covered in soot. Have you looked at yourself?"

"Sandy," Alex growled.

"What?" She ripped the blood pressure cuff off of Alex’s 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, here’s 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 we’re 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 she’s supposed to do."

Regina eyed the plastic oxygen mask that Alex was holding over her face. "Don’t worry she will."

That got a grin from Sandy. She turned and started washing her hands in the sink. "I’ll be back in a little while. You’d 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 Alex’s face with her damp towel. When she was done she leaned in and stroked the angular sweep of Alex’s 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 partner’s 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.

Regina’s eyes twinkled as she pulled away from Alex. "Poor Sandy."

"She’ll live. Besides you’re the only one allowed to mother me like this." Alex brushed her thumb over Regina’s lips. "God, you’re a beautiful sight."

Regina blushed. "Just freshly scrubbed and clean, except I can’t get the smell of the smoke out of my nose."

Alex stopped her hand, and tangled her fingers in Regina’s 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 didn’t 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 Regina’s ear. "No, I’d 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 Regina’s and then smiled. "Only with you."

Regina clasped one of Alex’s hands and lifted it to her lips. She eyed the handcuff still locked around Alex’s wrist and shuddered. "They’re 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 Alex’s watchful eyes and looked away to hide the tears that welled up in her eyes.

It was Alex’s hand that drew her back.

She cupped Regina’s face and wiped away tears as they rolled down her fair-skinned cheeks. "Come here."

"I was so scared." Regina’s lower lip quivered. "I thought we weren’t going to make it."

"I know." Alex pressed her lips to Regina’s head and held her close. She’d 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 you’d get us out of there."

Alex kissed the top of her head. "I think you believed enough for both of us, love."

Regina’s face flushed and she lifted the oxygen mask up to Alex’s mouth. "Here, you need to finish this. You’ll 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. "He’s 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 Alex’s 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 Regina’s body where it pressed against her length. She pressed her lips against Regina’s head. I don’t 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 Regina’s neck, and inhaled the warm, clean scent of her skin. "We’ll 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. "I’m 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 I’m not going to like this?"

Todd trotted alongside her. "You won’t, I mean…don’t 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 Shepard’s snout, she quietly shut the door and pressed her forehead against the door. "Why am I not surprised?"

"He wasn’t 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 don’t let anyone see him when you take him out."

"I won’t," 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 didn’t 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.

"Don’t mention it." He waved his hand and let it drop back down to his side. "I’ll get him out of here as soon as they’re 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. You’re 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 boy’s 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 boy’s 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 Regina’s still damp hair and then wrapped an arm around her shoulder. She closed her eyes as a wave of lethargy swept over her.

"It’s not over, yet," Regina fumed, as she broke away from Alex’s embrace and washed her hands in the sink.

"Whoa…what’s 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 Alex’s concerned gaze. "He remembers what happened when he got attacked at the warehouse the first time."

"And." Alex’s eyes darted anxiously over Regina’s 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."

"That’s 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 wouldn’t 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. She’s 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 didn’t look particularly good for a patient. "It’ll 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 Alex’s 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 couldn’t 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 Alex’s chest and eyed Derrick warily. "They couldn’t send anybody else or you couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Which was it?" she snapped, as she held her arm out.

Derrick glared at her as he undid Regina’s handcuff. "Neither. I heard the call go out over the radio and I was the closest. They didn’t 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. "It’s 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 she’d been engrossed in.

Alex shook her head and smirked. "We’re 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 couldn’t pass up the opportunity to harass me," Regina stated boldly in front of everyone.

"What about it?" Derrick’s 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 wasn’t looking for something?"

"How should I know?" Derrick’s eyes darted back and forth between them.

"I’m not asking you." Regina rolled her eyes. "Do you still have the backpack in your cruiser?"

"Nobody claimed it after we filed a missing person’s report. It might still there."

"Can you go check?"

Derrick stared at her incredulously. "You’re kidding right?"

"Come on if it’s his, think about how it’ll make him feel to have it back. The poor kid doesn’t 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.

"He’s probably wishing he was putting the cuffs on me and not taking them off," Alex replied, as she stared after Derrick’s retreating form.

Regina made a clucking noise with her tongue and swatted Alex in the stomach. "Don’t you say that."

"Hey." Matthew stepped in front of Alex. "I want to thank you for saving my life back there. I wouldn’t have made it out if you didn’t haul my ass out of there."

"We weren’t 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?"

"They’ll be a grand jury investigation. I’ll 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. We’re 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. That’s the only reason I’m suggesting it."

Alex exhaled and let go of the sudden tension that built up inside her. "Are we done here tonight?"

"You’re free to go. I’ll call you tomorrow and let you know when I’ll 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 TJ’s room. I’ll deal with that later, right now I need to get her home. She’s 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 Regina’s side several seconds before Derrick arrived.

He dumped the backpack on the floor at Regina’s 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 Derrick’s view of the boy. "He doesn’t 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 didn’t 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. He’s 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 dog’s 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 you’ve 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 wasn’t breathing when we found him."

Lucky poked his head out from underneath the sheet and stretched his neck out to sniff Jon’s 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 wouldn’t have turned him away either, you old softie."

"I think you inhaled too much smoke."

"Quite possibly," she remarked with a shrug.

"What’s all the commotion about?" Regina pulled the curtain back and walked out of TJ’s room, coming face to face with Derrick. "Aren’t you finished here?"

Derrick looked over Regina’s shoulder and made eye contact with the boy for one brief arrogant second. "Must be the kid’s lucky day."

Lucky’s ears twitched and he struggled violently, fighting his way out of Todd’s arms.

At the same time, the monitor in TJ’s 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, what’s wrong?"

He curled up against the mattress and trembled violently despite Regina’s reassuring touch. "It’s 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 dog’s 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 dog’s 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 dog’s collar. "Lucky, stop!" He grabbed the dog’s 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 dog’s 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 dog’s body, and pinned Derrick’s arm to the floor. "Don’t even think about it," he snarled, as he clamped his hands around the officer’s 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 hadn’t given him too much.

Seconds later, Lucky relaxed his grip on Derrick’s arm and settled down at Todd’s feet. He rolled onto his side and pawed at Todd’s arm as he panted nervously.

The fireman looked helplessly at Alex and ran his hands over the dog’s massive shoulders. "Is he going to be all right?"

"I think so," Alex replied and patted the dog’s shoulder. "Should’ve used it on him." She nodded at Derrick who rolled to his knees and clutched his arm.

"That dog’s 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. "Don’t 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.

"That’s bullshit!" Derrick’s 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 – 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?"

Derrick’s 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.

Derrick’s 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. Didn’t 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 don’t 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 don’t."

"Don’t worry, I won’t," she snapped and immediately regretted the harshness of her voice when she saw the confused and hurt look in Regina’s 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 won’t be needing this anymore, officer."

"You’re 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 Derrick’s. "What dog? I didn’t see any dog. Did you, Alex?

"Nope. How about you Matthew?"

"It’s a hospital. There are no animals here. Sit down, officer," Matthew ordered.

Alex yanked a chair out from behind the nurse’s 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 nurse’s 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 won’t even need stitches. Too bad."

"That hurts." Derrick yanked his arm away from Sandy.

"Looks like you’re 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?"

"Haven’t 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. "I’m sorry I snapped at you out there."

Regina glanced up at her and gave her a sad smile. "You were angry at Derrick."

"Don’t 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 Regina’s shoulder and massaged her thumb over the tense muscles in her neck. "He’s safe for now."

Regina closed her eyes and tilted her head back against Alex’s chest. "I wish there was something more we could do for him."

"You saved his life," Alex stated quietly.

"So why doesn’t 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 Alex’s face. "I think maybe it’s because we get to go home tonight and he doesn’t."

Alex nodded in agreement as she gently traced a finger over Regina’s eyebrow. "Well, maybe this time when he’s better, there will be a family he can finally call his own." She offered her hand to Regina. "Come on, I’ll take you home."

Regina gladly accepted the warm embrace of Alex’s hand. "I can’t think of any other place I’d 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 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.

"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 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.

"Regina?"

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 na´ve?"

"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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