Many Roads to Travel

by

Karen A. Surtees

and

PruferBlue


All of life you travel
On many a winding road,
Walking, wheeling, hobbling;
Or pushed or tripped or towed.
You learn to just keep moving
No matter what your load.

Some roads lead to soulmates
And some, you're all alone.
Good luck, bad luck, hard luck
Everywhere you roam;
With many roads to travel
Before you know you're home.

From "Many Roads"
2000 Nann Dunne
All Rights Reserved


2000 by Karen A. Surtees and PruferBlue

Disclaimer: This is an Uber story with characters resembling two of our favorite heroes, but since they have different names and live in a different time and place they belong to no one but the authors, and are copyrighted to Karen A. Surtees and Nann "PruferBlue" Dunne. No aspect of this story may be used elsewhere without the express prior written consent of the authors. This story may not be altered in any way and this copyright information must appear with this work at all times.

Warning: This story contains scenes of intimacy between consenting adults of the same gender. If this offends you, or you are under 18 years of age, or if this type of story is illegal in the state/country where you live, please do not read it. There are many really good general fiction stories to read, instead.

Author's Notes: Again, a big "Thank you" to our beta readers: Sue Cole, the horse and detail expert; and Phil and Jen, the Texas experts!

Karen A. Surtees: Well it has taken us rather longer than we expected to get to this stage; mainly I must admit to me being unable to spend time on the story due to work.  However Nann has stuck with me through thick and thin; and believe me when I tell you that at some points she has contemplated putting a contract out on me.  Still our friendship grows and in this day and age when people are so quick to take offense and to blame others for their mistakes; I find my friendship with Nann most comforting.

Neither Nann or myself are sure where this story is taking us and you may find yourself waiting for updates; especially when Nann tackles the tax returns at the end of this month and also when I move out of the UK and relocate for 12-18mnths in March.  Please bear with us, we are busy people with busy lives but we will endeavor to post roughly every other week.

To those of you who are screaming why are you writing this and not finishing  Dark Heritage, well that story is still being written and will be finished in the coming months.

PruferBlue: While collaborating on this sequel to True Colours, Kas and I have worked very hard and sometimes under very trying circumstances. Somehow we keep managing to give a little here, take a little there and compromise when we disagree. But our friendship has never wavered and to me that is the most satisfying part of the whole unbelievably complex adventure of our collaboration. Looking beyond the beginning of this new year, new century and new millennium, nothing looms larger to me than the steadfast heart of my most cherished friend. Thank you, Kas.



Chapter 1

"Why don't you sit down for a while? You've been pacing back and forth for hours now," said Paula.

"I feel better if I'm moving," Mare replied, tension clearly showing in her voice.

For a hospital office, the room was moderately comfortable; the thick plush carpets prevented Mare's incessant pacing from creating the repetitive sound of footsteps crossing the room. Not even the view from the window that covered one whole wall had stopped her trek for more than several seconds. Every now and then she would stop and stare at the muted television screen, then quickly look away. Unable to watch TJ's operation for any period of time, her anxious eyes lingered just long enough to reassure herself that everything was okay.

The three women had started out in the waiting room outside the operating theater. Mare’s dad had offered the use of his office but Mare wanted to be close by. Every five minutes, however, she had asked either Erin or Paula to go check the monitor in the office. In the end they had just all moved into the office so that they could keep an eye on proceedings.

Erin and Paula sat on the couch, finding it much more comfortable than the chairs in the waiting room. At least in here Paula could keep her broken leg elevated. Although a week had passed since the accident, the leg still pained her if she used it too much.

Erin sat behind her partner, arms wrapped closely around her body. Her blonde head rested on Paula's dark one, but her eyes were fixed to the screen in front of her while Paula's followed Mare.

The dark-haired woman had tried restraining herself, but she couldn't keep quiet any longer. "By the time the operation's over, you'll be exhausted and absolutely no good to TJ if she needs you. Now sit down." This came out a little more forcefully than she had intended, but it had the desired effect and Mare finally sat down.

Within a couple of seconds, however, Mare was tapping her foot on the floor and her fingers on the arm of the chair. Paula sighed and turned her head to Erin. "I'm going to take her out for a while or she's going to explode."

"Okay, love," whispered Erin. "Don't go too far; I'll come get you if anything happens." She kissed Paula on the forehead, helped her get to her feet and handed her the crutches.

With her balance now assured, Paula hobbled across to Mare. "Come on, let's get out of here for a few minutes. Erin will keep an eye on what's happening."

"Sorry, I know I’m being a pain," apologized Mare as she got to her feet.

"Hey, no problem. You're concerned; we all are. But things are going okay and there isn’t any point in getting wound up." Paula draped her arm around Mare’s shoulders. "Believe me, there are going to be more than enough occasions for that in the next few months. Come on, we can grab some coffee in the cafeteria." Paula led Mare to the door and pulled it open, casting a quick look in Erin’s direction before she closed it behind her.

As soon as the door closed, Erin grabbed the remote control and turned the volume back up. Originally, Mare had lowered it, unable to listen to her father’s calm voice talking about what type of incision he was going to use, and how he would resect the previous scar tissue in the area.

Dr. Gillis had a brilliant setup in the operating room. Cameras and microphones were located in strategic places; by choosing a different channel you could see a different view. More importantly to Erin, Michael kept up a running commentary throughout the procedure, fully explaining every decision and action. The resultant videotapes would be used for teaching, but it also enabled Erin to follow what was happening.

Erin could understand how unnerving Mare was finding the wait. It wasn’t every day your own father operated on your soulmate, and despite the fact that Michael had told them that the procedure wasn’t very complicated, a lot was riding on the outcome of this.

Already they had run into problems: TJ had more scar tissue around her old injury than they had anticipated. They spent longer than planned removing it, taking care not to transect any nerves buried within. And for some unknown reason, TJ’s blood pressure kept dropping. She was stable at the moment but Erin could tell from Michael’s voice that he was concerned.

With the volume turned up she was able to listen to what was going on. Michael’s voice was full of authority as he spoke. His words were precise, and anyone not associated with TJ’s case would be hard pressed to tell that he had a personal stake in the outcome of the operation.

"You're right, Dr. Morton, there is a substantial amount of damage in the area." Erin watched as Michael pointed to a section of TJ’s spine. "If you look closely, you can see that the bullet caused damage not only to the T-11 area but also to the T-10 and T-12 areas. Our patient was lucky in the sense that if the damage at T-10 had been more severe, the mobility and control she has now wouldn’t have been present. You can see here," Michael pointed with a probe, "where the bullet fragmented on impact. At the time of the original injury these fragments were inaccessible and over time they have calcified. The patient's recent Road Traffic Accident has shifted those fragments enough so that now we can attempt to remove them."

A nurse's hand came into view, slipping a retractor into the incision in TJ’s back; the nurse then pulled back giving a clearer view. Erin's stomach turned and her eyes skidded away. It was easy to watch this sort of thing on a TV program, but it was another matter when you knew the person it was being done to.

Erin forced her eyes back again as Michael continued speaking. "Dr. Morton, from the MRI scan we have been able to determine that the spinal cord wasn’t actually transected, but compressed. What type of complications can we expect?" Erin leaned forward, fascinated despite her unease.

"Well, classically, compression injuries don’t recover well after a period of time. With the amount of time that has passed since the original injury, it is unlikely that this patient will ever be able to walk again; however, with advancement in steroidal treatments, we may expect a degree of sensation to return. We also run the risk of actually severing the cord ourselves. The fragments causing the compression may have calcified around the cord and by attempting to remove the fragments we may cause further damage."

"Is there anything else that might cause us concern?" asked Michael. His hands carefully lifted pieces of bone away or moved tissue from the area he was attending to. There was a deafening silence as his co-surgeon pondered his question. "What about post-op recovery?" Michael prompted.

"Er… well, there may be some problems with return of sensation," replied the unseen Dr. Morton.

"Such as?"

"Usually, return of sensation is accompanied by pain. Pain control is essential for good recovery."

"Excellent, Jack. What type of analgesia would you use?" inquired Michael, relaxing his manner now that Dr. Morton had passed muster on his inquiries.

"A morphine derivative is indicated, though we would have to monitor the patient's condition closely. It is easy to push a physically disabled person into respiratory arrest. I’d also be inclined to give medication through a Patient-Controlled Analgesia pump… at least initially."

"Okay, people, let's get some extra light in here and try to get the bigger fragments now that we’ve cleared the smaller debris." The scene became brighter as more lights were directed at the operation site. Then Michael’s head entered the picture and blocked Erin’s view. With a quick flick through the various channels, she found a clearer picture, allowing her a better angle.

Mare and Paula were quiet as they slowly plodded down the well-lit, carpeted hallway. Not that their footsteps would have been that loud; both were wearing sneakers. The dress of the day was casual, jeans and shirt. In the temperature-controlled environment, anything heavier would have been too hot.

"I didn’t realize this would be so hard," said Mare quietly.

Paula looked over at her. "It’s always this hard when it’s someone you love, sweetheart. And I hate to say this to you yet again, but this is only the beginning."

Mare shrugged and stopped walking. "I know. I think my major problem at the moment is not being able to be with her. If I could reach out and touch her hand, or give her a hug, I’d be okay. Sounds stupid, doesn’t it?"

Paula laughed and tugged Mare back into a slow walk. "Anything but, in fact. Over the last few months you and TJ have become extremely close. I never thought I’d see anyone closer than Erin and I are, but you and TJ are made for each other. And if you think you're bad, you should have seen TJ if she knew you were coming to the house."

They reached the end of the hall where it turned and ran along the outer edge of the building, the windowed walls providing patients and visitors with a view of the manicured lawns just outside. "She was impossible," explained Paula as she slid onto one of the couches provided. "Erin or I would walk into her office to find her mooning; getting any work out of her was like pulling teeth. Then about an hour before you would be due, she’d be in a total panic, trying to get everything ready and perfect for you."

Mare sat down next to Paula, looking at her incredulously. "You’ve got to be kidding me, right?"

"Yeah, like I’d make this up. She was like a kid waiting to open her presents on Christmas day. And let me tell you something, if it was you in there and her out here she’d be ten times worse."

Mare laughed. "I guess we’re lucky it’s her then, huh? I can just see her tearing up and down the hallways in that chair of hers… god, it would be bedlam."

"You said it. Your dad would be lucky if his unit was still standing by the end of it." That set both of them off laughing again.

"Oh, lord," said Mare sometime later as the laughter subsided, " Thanks, Paula, I think I needed that."

"You're welcome… I needed it, too."

Mare raised her hand and brushed a lock of Paula’s brown hair from her face. "Are you and Erin holding up okay?"

Paula ducked her head and her hands began to fiddle with a thread on her jeans. "I’d be lying if I said we were great; this has hit us both pretty hard. We thought that we had got through the worst of it but now that this has happened, seems as though we are back at square one." Paula looked up and Mare, seeing the tears glistening in her eyes, quickly pulled her into a hug.

"Hey, hey," whispered Mare. She rocked Paula, her hand slowly rubbing up and down her back in a soothing motion. She felt Paula’s tears trickle onto her shirt and soak through. "Everything is going to be all right. TJ’s going to make it through this and so will we." Mare's voice held conviction and determination. She told TJ from the start that she would be there no matter what and she wasn’t about to let a little hardship come between her and that promise. And if that meant having to get Paula and Erin through it, too, then that was what she would do.

"I’m sorry," said Paula, wiping at her face. "I didn’t mean to land all that on you. I was supposed to be trying to keep your mind off the operation."

"Hey, you did a good job. Besides we’re friends, aren’t we? And that's what friends are for."

Paula smiled at her. "Yeah, you're right. You want to go get that coffee, or go back?"

"I’d like to get back. I’m sure if we ask Dad’s secretary Martha, nicely, she’ll get us coffee if we want it."

"Come on, then." Paula got to her feet and pulled Mare up behind her and the pair walked back the way they had come.

Paula pushed open the door and walked in. She saw her lover leaning forward, arms resting on her legs, her face a picture of concentration. "How’s it going?"

Erin looked up, her expression grim. "They’ve had to stop. Her blood pressure fell again."

"Shit!" exclaimed Mare as she walked in. "They have any idea why it keeps happening?"

"Your dad and the anesthetist think she’s having a reaction to the anesthetic."

"What are they going to do?" Mare dropped into the seat next to her.

"Lighten the anesthetic, see if that makes a difference."

"Has Dad said anything about the time?" Originally her dad had told her he expected the operation to last about four hours, but, with all the problems, minor as they were, that they had run into, they were reaching that time now.

"Another couple of hours maybe. He was just about to go in for the bigger fragments. He said something about just getting the one that was compressing the cord the most and getting out if they couldn’t stabilize her pressure." All eyes turned back to the monitor as her dad’s voice came over the speakers and the operation resumed.

Time ticked by slowly, as they watched the operation progress. TJ’s pressure dropped on two more occasions and Michael decided to call it quits after he removed the larger fragment. Due to the precarious nature of the operation site, it took almost as much time closing up as it had opening. Each layer of muscle had to be perfectly replaced and sutured in such a way as to prevent over-buildup of scar tissue. Michael had wanted to insert metal rods to stabilize the damaged vertebrae now that the fragments had been removed but that had to be put aside until they could put TJ under without the concerning drop in blood pressure. At the end of the operation they knew that the hardest part had been completed, but they also knew that another operation would be needed in the future.

As soon as the cameras were turned off the girls scrambled to their feet and left the office, heading for the recovery area. Mare knew her father would stay with TJ until he was satisfied that she would be okay. Then he’d come out and tell her what was happening and, with any luck, she’d be able to go in to see TJ.

Mare hurried through the hallways, leaving Erin and Paula to get to the waiting room at their own pace. Wanting to be there as soon as her father left the operating theater, she rushed into the tan-colored room, avoiding the potted rubber plants by inches. Brown leather couches were placed around the room and there was even an entertainment system installed; but Mare ignored all of it to pace before the green door with the portal window that led into the recovery area.

As Paula hobbled into the room, Erin walked slowly by her side and guided her to the couch nearest where Mare was pacing. It had been a long day and the strain was beginning to tell on her partner. The dark smudges beneath Paula's eyes were more pronounced and she looked paler than she had that morning. I doubt I look any better than either of them, Erin mused as she took Paula’s crutches and propped them against the wall. Sighing, she ran a hand through her curly locks.

Mare hadn’t acknowledged their arrival and Erin was convinced that she didn’t even know they were there. Off in her own world, worrying about TJ. She ought to spend some of that time on herself. If she’s not careful she isn’t going to be well enough to help TJ. Think we’ll have to try to find some way to get her out of the hospital to relax one night this week.

Chapter 2

Michael Gillis pulled off the green surgeon's cap and removed the blue facemask he’d worn in the theater. He was disappointed and his face showed it. The surgery should have been pretty straightforward despite the potential risks involved and he was at a loss to explain why TJ’s blood pressure had persisted in falling. They had done everything that the protocols demanded they do: given fluids, administered vasoconstrictors, even reduced the depth of the anesthesia, and still her pressure remained unstable. Nothing in her old notes suggested that there would be a problem; in fact, all her previous operations had gone without incident.

The laceration in TJ's side and her dislocated shoulder shouldn't have any bearing on her blood pressure. Michael was beginning to wonder whether he’d missed some other injury from the accident, but nothing had showed up on the blood tests, EKG’s or the scans they had performed. It was quite possible that TJ’s body was just letting them know that it had had enough.

His green eyes wandered over the room where a myriad of green-clothed nurses was administering to his daughter’s partner. He’d ordered more blood tests and another EKG, just to be on the safe side, and TJ also was being measured for a turtle shell brace to be used later. Now he had to go and explain to his daughter what went wrong. He took a deep breath and looked through the portal window in the door. He could already see her pacing about. Ah well, better go see her before she wears a hole in my carpet. He swiped at the moisture on his forehead and pushed through the door, letting it swing closed behind him.

Mare heard the door open and redirected her pacing to take her straight into her father’s embrace. She clasped hold of him tightly and his arms wrapped around her in a comforting hug. Then she slowly released her hold and looked him straight in the face.

"She’s fine. It will be a while before she comes around, but all things considered she’s done well." He put as much conviction as possible into his words, wanting to ease the worry he saw in his daughter's face.

The tension that had taken over Mare's body relaxed its hold somewhat. "Her blood pressure?" she asked, wanting all the facts.

"Come on, let’s sit down and I can tell all of you what’s going on." He took hold of Mare’s elbow and guided her to a seat near Erin and Paula. Michael smiled at the two women. He still found it hard to accept the type of relationship that Erin and Paula had, found it even harder to accept Mare's relationship with TJ. But he had seen the love between the two couples and the joy that shone on their faces when their partners were spoken of or entered the room. And he couldn’t begrudge either couple the love he still sought.

"Okay then, first things first. TJ is stable; her blood pressure is still a little low but nowhere near as low as it was during the operation. The operation itself was pretty successful. We managed to remove several smaller bullet fragments and one of the larger ones that had us concerned. There are still several fragments at the injury site, but they are unlikely to cause any trouble even if they do shift slightly. Because of the problems with TJ’s blood pressure, I wasn’t able to insert the metal rods along her spine that I wanted to, so she's being measured for a turtle shell brace for when she is able to sit up and start her physical therapy."

"A what?" Mare leaned forward, frowning.

"It’s a plastic brace that will be fitted around her torso, from pelvis to sternum," replied Michael, taking hold of Mare’s hand. "She'll wear it during the day to support her spine until she has healed enough and built up enough strength to do without it."

Mare took a deep breath and released it. "How long will she be in it?"

"That is hard to judge, sweetheart. She was in one after the initial injury and recovered very well. But it may be up to three months, or even more if there are complications."

He looked over to Paula and Erin who were listening intently. "We’ll start physical therapy in the next few days. I want to make sure that her legs are kept flexible. We’ll also concentrate on building up the shoulder she dislocated and helping her regain her upper body strength. Then, hopefully, we’ll get her standing and possibly walking with braces and crutches."

His eyes came back to his daughter's and softened sympathetically. "But this isn’t going to happen in the next few weeks, Mare; we are talking months of rehab."

Mare's lips pressed together in a tight grin. "Okay, I understand that, Dad." She nodded slowly and looked down at her hands to give herself time to get her emotions under control. After a moment, she looked up. "What about the rods you wanted to insert?" she inquired, wondering how TJ would react to months of physical therapy and hospitalization.

"If her spine hasn’t stabilized by the time the brace comes off, we’ll consider another operation to insert them. That's providing she has recovered enough to undergo further surgery." He let his gaze linger on his daughter, making sure she understood before letting his eyes drift to TJ’s two friends.

"What was the problem with her blood pressure?" asked Erin when Michael's gaze reached her.

"I’m not too sure. This didn’t happen in any of TJ's previous operations and there is no clinical reason I can find for it to have happened today." Michael slowly shook his head. "The chances are it was her body's way of telling us that enough was enough, for now at least. I know that she has been through a lot of emotional upheaval in the last few months and that the last two days since she woke up have been pretty hard on her. I think she’s just tired and this is her way of letting us know."

He squeezed Mare’s hand and stood up. "Now I have a few other patients I need to see. Nancy, TJ’s nurse, is in recovery with her and she’ll let you in to see her; just go through the door. I’ll be back in a few hours but Nancy will call me if I’m needed, okay?"

Mare caught hold of his hand again, stood up and pulled him into a hug. "Thanks, Dad."

"That’s okay, honey. You know I was glad to do it. Now go see your girl, but..." He looked intently at Mare, then Erin and Paula, "and this goes for all three of you… as soon as she is moved back to her room I want all of you to go to my place at Dorburton Lakes and get some rest." Smiling gently, he put a finger on Mare’s lips. "No arguing. She’ll be asleep for most of the day; the pain medication we’re going to put her on is pretty strong."

"Don’t worry, Doc, we’ll make sure she gets some rest," said Paula. "And thank you. We really appreciate everything you're doing."

"Only the best for my family, young lady. Now go in and see her, then go home. I’ll see you all later." He smiled again at Mare then walked out of the room.

With no need for further urging, Mare went straight through the recovery room door. Nancy was already waiting for her, green gown in hand. With a smile the nurse handed it over to her and grabbed a cap to cover Mare’s blonde, shoulder-length hair.

"Thanks, Nancy, I appreciate your help." Mare quickly pulled on the gown and slipped the cap over her hair. The recovery room was large and airy; there were no walls between patient bays. Each of the bays had the same set-up of monitors, suction and oxygen equipment. TJ was currently the only occupant in the room. The other operating theaters were either not in use or still had procedures ongoing in them.

It always amazed Mare that no matter how large a person may be, when they were in a hospital bed they always seemed half their size. The bed TJ lay in swamped her. Her raven locks were flared out across the top of the bed and her head was wedged between two blocks of thick foam. Heavy straps held her head securely in place. Earlier, Mare had brought in some soft padding and now was pleased to see that Nancy had remembered to put it under the straps to prevent chafing.

Leaning over the bed, Mare kissed her lover softly on the forehead, her hand gently caressing the side of TJ's head. A pressure behind her knees let her know that Nancy had brought a chair over and she sat down, her other hand automatically taking hold of TJ’s hand. She was happy to note that her lover's arms were no longer strapped to her sides as they had been for the last five days. She glanced over at Nancy, sending her an inquiring look. "No arm straps?"

"Your dad didn’t see any reason to restrict arm movement anymore, but you’ll still have to watch she doesn’t try to twist too much."

Mare grinned in delight. "Cool, I get to have a hug when she wakes up!" It had been one thing that had bothered her beyond belief. With TJ strapped into her spinal bed, movement totally restricted, it had been virtually impossible to have any type of physical contact. Mare was able to crawl next to her partner and hold her in a rough manner but TJ hadn’t been able to respond in any way. It had upset them both, but Mare more than she had imagined it would.

"I’m sure you won’t be the only one who thinks it’s cool. She’s been chafing at the bit to get her arms undone since she woke up. Maybe now she’ll give us a moment's peace."

"Ha! No such luck till she gets out of here," rejoined Mare.

Nancy smiled at her and turned back to the monitors. "You want to try talking to her for me? She should be coming around soon. When she wakes up, ask her what her name is and where she is--things like that--just so we can tell how oriented she is. Okay?"

"Yep, no problem." Mare returned her attention to TJ, the fingers of her hand constantly rubbing TJ’s slightly cooler ones. "Come on, honey," she whispered into TJ’s ear. "I want to see those baby blues of yours and I want my hug. Can’t have either till you wake up now, can I?"

Mare got no response but she wasn’t disheartened. The three days after the accident, when TJ had been unconscious, she had spent talking nonsense to her just so that TJ had the constant reassurance of her voice. Today was no different and she launched into telling TJ what was going on in the world. "I think we need to send Erin and Paula on vacation. This last week has taken a lot out of them. Paula’s leg is still giving her a lot of pain and though Erin is putting a brave face on it, I can tell she’s worried about her. We were going to drive back to the ranch tonight after they take you back to your room, but Dad has given us the run of his place at Dorburton Lakes and I think the shorter the drive the better."

Mare sat next to the slumbering TJ for the better part of thirty minutes before she started to come round.

"She’s just beginning to stir," signaled Nancy, looking at the monitors. "Remember, she might be a little disoriented and will probably have a lot of discomfort. Until she comes around, we won’t be able to figure out the correct level of pain relief she’ll need. If she indicates to you that she’s in pain, let me know and I can up her meds."

Mare looked up as the beep of the heart monitor increased. When she looked back down at TJ’s face she could see her eyelids fluttering. "Come on, sweetie, open those eyes for me." Blue eyes blinked several more times before they finally stayed open. Mare stood up and bent over so that TJ would be able to see her without straining. "Hi there, precious," she said before she noticed TJ’s face grimace in pain. TJ took a deep, gasping breath and a shudder passed through her. "Nancy, I think she needs that pain medication you were talking about."

The plumpish nurse picked up a nearby syringe and waved over to another nurse whom Mare hadn’t noticed. The two of them checked the prescription chart her father had left. Then Nancy moved around to TJ’s side and administered the medication through an IV line.

Within seconds the tension and pain that had clouded TJ’s features lessened and eventually disappeared. Mare leaned closer again and smiled as TJ's remarkable eyes finally focused on her. "Hi, there." Her smile broadened as TJ’s face lit. "I’m going to ask you a really dumb question but you have to answer. Okay?"

"Sure. Go 'head." TJ’s voice was quiet and slightly slurred.

"Good. What’s your name?"

"Taylor Jade Meridian," TJ whispered so quietly that Mare could hardly hear it.

"I’m sorry, Nancy couldn’t quite hear that. What did you say?" Mare bent closer, her lips tantalizingly near TJ’s. Noticing her lover's scowl, she laughed.

"Taylor Jade Meridian. Okay? Do I get my kiss now?" she grumbled, eyebrow raised.

"Sure do, but I want my hug as well." Mare leaned down and gently placed her lips upon TJ's, feeling her lover's powerful arms wrap around her shoulders. "Now that's what I call a 'hello.' How are you feeling?"

TJ kept her arms around Mare, holding her as close as she could. "Tired and sore."

Mare barely heard the mumbled response. "Dad said he's put you on a pretty strong pain reliever and that the anesthetic would make you a little drowsy. They're going to keep an eye on you in here for a while, then move you back to your room. The girls and I are going to head off to Dad's when they have you settled. We'll come back tomorrow, okay?" Mare could already feel the loosening of TJ's arms around her shoulders as her lover's eyes began to close once more.

"Hmm sure. Say hi to the girls for me."

"You can tell them yourself; they're over by the door. Stay awake a minute for them; they'd like to see for themselves that you're okay." Mare turned her head and smiled at Erin and Paula who stood silently over by the door, gowns already on. She waved them over and then carefully pried TJ's arms from around her. Mare moved out of Paula's way as she and Erin went to either side of TJ's bed.

Paula leaned against the bed taking the weight off her leg. She grasped TJ's hand and squeezed. "Hey, boss, how are you doing?" Her voice was barely above a whisper, emotion taking the strength from it.

"Much better now that I've seen you two. You better take it easy for a while. Let the corporate office handle everything for a while, okay?"

"Don't worry about the company," said Erin, brushing an errant lock of hair from TJ's face. "We've got a handle on that. I want you to concentrate on getting yourself out of here."

"Yeah, that goes for me, too," whispered Paula as she leaned down and kissed TJ on the cheek. "Get some rest; we'll see you later."

Mare kissed TJ again and caressed her face as the intense blue eyes softened and closed. The women waited another hour until TJ was moved to her own room, then, with little prospect of the patient awakening soon, they decided to head on out.

 

Chapter 3

The ride to Mare’s father’s house was a quiet affair, everyone pleased that TJ had come through the operation so well, yet pensive at what the repercussions would be.

Michael’s house, set on several acres, was surrounded by trees and hedges which prevented straying eyes from seeing the activities within. The doctor had reminded Mare that Mr. and Mrs. Escher, employed as his butler/chauffeur and housekeeper/cook, would be available for whatever they needed. Mare assured him that the women were used to doing for themselves and wouldn't be expecting any special treatment. Calling ahead to let the Eschers know that Mare and her friends were coming, Michael informed them that any extra services were not required.

Mare pulled the new van into the drive just to the side of the house and went on to unlock the door while Erin helped Paula from the vehicle and up the few steps to the doorway. From there they all went into the living room and collapsed onto the couch.

"At least we’ve got the worst of it out of the way." Mare sighed and relaxed back; she closed her eyes, feeling the warm comfort of the couch wrap around her.

Erin and Paula looked at each other sadly. Paula nodded at Erin and her partner stood up.

"I’m going to get us all a drink and make something to eat. I’ll be back shortly."

Paula gave Erin a wan smile. They’d discussed this earlier and upsetting as it was, Mare needed to be prepared properly for what was to come. As Erin walked out of the room, Paula ran her hand through her hair and sat forward as well as she was able to with her leg elevated.

"Mare, we need to talk. I know you’re probably fed up with Erin and me saying this to you, but we have a long, long road to travel here. TJ doesn’t take well to being restrained. She has always been an active person. Four weeks confined to that bed is going to be hell for her and believe me when I tell you that she’ll make it hell for everybody else as well."

Mare’s eyes widened sharply and she opened her mouth to protest at Paula’s words. "No," Paula held up her hand to prevent Mare from speaking, "I’m not being nasty. She doesn’t do it on purpose. Last time she got depressed enough to try to kill herself. That’s unlikely to happen again but you have to be prepared for the possibility that things are going to get a lot worse before they get better."

"Is it really going to get that bad?" asked Mare.

"No, it is probably going to get worse than that. We’ll bring her laptop in and make sure she has work to keep her occupied, but that room, no matter how big it is, is going to seem like a prison to her. She’s going to resent the fact that you can leave it whenever you like, and she can’t. One day she’ll be fine; the next you’ll walk in with a smile on your face and she’ll rip you to shreds for being happy while she’s held prisoner. The next she probably won’t even acknowledge your existence. For some time, it's going to be like living with a child."

"Don’t worry, Paula. I’m not going to go anywhere, no matter how bad it gets." Mare reached out a hand and patted Paula on the leg.

"I’m glad to hear that, Mare, I really am. TJ has a lot better chance of getting through this with you by her side. But you’re going to react to the situation as well."

Erin chose that time to enter the room with a tray of hot coffee and sandwiches. To her pleasant surprise, coffee had already been brewed and a platter of sandwich fixings, covered with plastic wrap, sat in the refrigerator. She had dawdled over putting the sandwiches together, leaving Paula time to talk one-on-one with Mare, before she reentered the living room.

Taking her place beside Paula, she picked up on that thought. "You're going to resent her attitude, you’ll get frustrated and depressed at the lack of progress. You’ll take it out on everyone around you just like she will."

They could see the protest rising in Mare's eyes. "I’m not kidding, Mare. Paula and I nearly split up the last time we had to go through this. It's going to be worse for you. You just need to remember she does love you. Even when she’s hurting you, she does love you. Paula and I will be here to support you, but we will all have some times when we need to let off steam."

Erin's smile broke the tension that had begun to build. "Now that we've told you the gloomy side of things to come, let’s eat and then get some rest. You never know; it might not happen." Yeah, as if any of us could be that lucky.

********************

TJ knew every blotch, every mark on the ceiling. After arguing for what seemed like hours, she had persuaded first Nancy, and then Michael, to release her head from the strapping that had kept it immobile for the last week.

The lights had been dimmed and one of the nurses was sitting just outside the door at the nurse’s station. TJ was hooked up to a myriad of new IV's: a prednisolone drip was connected to her right arm and a morphine pump was connected to her left. Michael had also spoken about putting up a dopamine drip to bring her blood pressure back up if the fluids didn’t do it. But that hadn’t happened, and she was connected just to Ringer’s and a million beeping machines that were slowly driving her crazy.

She was in pain, too, but every time she hit the button that provided her with pain medication, it put her to sleep. Sleep wasn’t a bad thing; she just didn’t want to spend all of her time doing it. And this was only the start of it.

It was still relatively early in the evening, not yet ten o’clock. TJ could have had the television turned on, a video or music playing, but that wasn’t what she needed. Mare's most probably in bed asleep; she’s exhausted and she needs her rest.

Temptation trailed a teasing finger through her lonesomeness. I could phone her. I know that if I say I need her she’ll be here in a flash. TJ reached for the phone but her hand stopped in mid air. No. Mare needs a break from this hospital as much as I wish I could leave it. I’m going to lay here staring at the ceiling, wishing I were tucked up next to her. She’ll be here in the morning; I'm just going to have to wait. TJ let out a long sigh and felt tears prickling in her eyes. Just a few more hours; she’ll be here.

********************

The morning was dismal. A cold front had drifted in overnight and brought rain with it. Mare wasn't able to park close to the entrance and had to run as soon as she stepped from the rental car. She ran through the door and stopped to brush the worst of the rain off her coat before she trailed it through the hospital. Nodding a hello to the receptionist on duty, she made her way toward TJ’s room. Erin and Paula would be along later, after they had called back to the ranch and packing plant to make sure everything was okay.

At her father's house last night they talked over the necessity of returning to Meridianville. Mare had to be there while her new assistant moved into the practice. Erin and Paula felt they could alternate the times, but at least one of them should be at the ranch seeing to business affairs. Deciding for herself that TJ would be on her better behavior for the first few days, Paula persuaded Erin to stay at the hospital while she went back with Mare.

Mare didn’t want to leave. She knew that TJ was going to be upset that she was going, still there wasn’t an awful lot that could be done about it. She had been in Springerly since the accident and had neglected her practice as long as she dared; now she had to get back.

"'Morning, Nancy." She smiled as she approached the nurse’s station. "How’s my favorite patient this morning?"

"She’ll be all the better for seeing you, I’m sure," said the nurse, smiling up at Mare as she shuffled some paperwork around on the desk.

Mare put her bag on the desk and undid her coat. "Why? What’s she been up to?"

"Jane, who's working the night shift this week, said she’d been awake most of the night. Seemed to be in some pain but refused to use the Patient-Controlled Analgesia, so in the end Jane gave her a jab to relieve it and put her to sleep. She’s a little grouchy this morning."

"Did she say why she won’t use the PCA?" Mare asked as she pulled off her wet coat.

"Here, I’ll take that." Nancy reached over the desk and took hold of the coat. "No, she hasn’t said why she won’t use it, but she hasn’t been that communicative. Wouldn’t eat her breakfast this morning, either. But, as I said, now that you’re here she’s bound to cheer up."

Mare winced. "Yeah, until I tell her I have to go back for a few days."

Nancy smiled and patted Mare on the hand. "You’ll be fine. She loves you too much to get too angry at you."

"I guess I’ll just have to promise to make it up to her."

The door to TJ’s room was ajar and Mare poked her head around it. TJ lay there staring up at the ceiling. God, she looks miserable. Deep breath, remember what Erin and Paula said. She loves you even when she’s in a bad mood. Okay, here goes. "'Morning, love." Mare pushed the door open and bustled in. She walked straight up to the bed, leaned over and kissed TJ on the lips, barely getting a response. "I can see you’re in a good mood this morning. Didn’t sleep well?"

"Nancy’s been telling on me, hasn’t she?" TJ said sullenly.

"She mentioned you’d had a bad night," replied Mare, pulling up a chair. "She said you were in pain but wouldn’t use the Patient-Controlled pump they’d set up for you, and that you wouldn’t have breakfast this morning. Care to tell me why?"

TJ lifted her hands and ran them through her hair. "The medication makes me feel sick and puts me to sleep all the time. Then, when I wake up, I always have a headache. And I didn’t want breakfast."

"Okay. I’ll tell Nancy about the side effects of the medication; they might be able to do something about that. But you could have used it last night, honey. At least you would have gotten some sleep."

"I didn’t want to sleep," TJ grumbled, almost whining.

"Why not?" asked Mare although she had a pretty good idea what the answer was going to be.

"I missed you."

Mare smiled and stood up. "Well, I’m here now," she said, clambering onto the bed. "So you close those baby blues and go to sleep. I’ll wake you for dinner." TJ snuggled as much as she was able to while Mare soothed her brow with gentle caresses. It's going to be a long day. Mare settled down next to her lover and watched as her breathing slowed and became deeper.

 

The evening was almost over and Mare couldn't put it off any longer. Even though she knew it would be upsetting for both of them, she had to break the bad news to TJ. She was resting on the bed, wrapped in long arms, her head just beneath TJ's chin, when the end-of-visiting-hours warning sounded gently but firmly from the speaker next to the bed.

Mare raised her head to kiss TJ's cheek, then pushed herself up and sat on the bed, gazing down into the blue depths of her lover's eyes. "TJ, Paula and I are going back to the ranch tonight. Erin's going to stay here with you."

Those marvelous eyes flooded with disappointment, momentarily pushing away the clutching pain that seemed to have found a permanent perch within them. "Do you have to go?" Even restrained to a half-whisper, the resonant voice fanned the embers of desire that Mare, so far, had kept carefully banked.

She pulled in a quick breath and her hand brushed the raven bangs. "You know we do. Barry's moving his family into my house on this coming weekend so I have to have it ready for him. Paula's arranged for the movers to bring my furnishings from the house to the ranch, but I have to be there tomorrow to let them in the house and make sure everything goes all right."

"Is everything ready at the ranch?"

"The painting was all finished a couple of days ago. Paula ordered the furniture I wanted for the office and got your foreman, Bill, to send someone to oversee its arrival yesterday, so that's all done." The hand moved to caress TJ's cheek. "Plus, she hired a cleaning outfit to do the whole house, including the suite of rooms I picked for my personal use." Mare grinned. "She's bound and determined not to let anything slow this move down."

"That's our Paula." A lift at one corner of TJ's lips showed that she was trying to accept Mare's inevitable departure with good grace. "You haven't told me what suite you picked."

"I chose the one on the first floor, next to the back stairway, just beyond the music room. I couldn't believe it: two bedrooms, bath, living room and kitchenette." Mare's eyes gleamed. "I don't think I have enough belongings to fill those huge rooms."

"First floor, huh? That's good. At least I won't have to struggle upstairs to chase after you." The lop-sided smile and quirked eyebrow reached out and grabbed Mare's heart.

She leaned over, bracing one arm on the bed on either side of TJ. Her voice was thickened by sudden emotion. "You won't ever have to chase me, my love. Just crook your finger and I'll come running." She lowered her lips to meet her lover's and let her body sink gently against the firm one beneath her, barely touching. TJ's arms encircled her as heat seeped through clothing and sheet, sizzling between them while the kiss grew deeper and deeper.

Reluctantly, Mare removed her lips, kissing TJ's cheek and throat before raising back up and leaving the warmth of the embrace. The women gazed at each other silently, eyes glistening with unshed tears. Mare slipped off the bed, took TJ's nearer hand and raised it to her lips. Turning it over, she kissed the palm and watched TJ curl the hand and place it against her heart. "Goodnight," Mare whispered and walked to the door. She looked back and her soul ached to see her lover's forlorn expression. They exchanged small waves and Mare left.

Come back! Don't leave me… A heavy pall dropped over TJ's spirit. Her mind told her it was an unreasonable reaction; Mare would be back as soon as possible. But her emotions weren't up to the fight and she lay there staring at the ceiling, not even attempting to stem the tide of tears running down the sides of her face onto the pillow. At last, exhausted, she fell asleep.

********************

After slowly brushing the sky with velvet black, dusk slipped away. The rental car's headlights lightened the line down the middle of the road into a yellow ribbon, constantly unraveling into a dark hole... an illusion that merged perfectly with Mare's feelings.

With Paula seated next to her, she drove toward the ranch, TJ's face thundering through her thoughts. She couldn't free her mind from the terrible look of abandonment that crossed those beloved features as she left the room. Blinking rapidly to clear her vision, she swiped at the moisture on her cheeks. Ah hell, why fight it? You know you feel lousy. Your lover's in constant pain, tied to a bed in a hospital, while you're going back to an empty house instead of being with her. You've got every reason in the world to cry, so go ahead--wallow in it. Surprisingly, giving herself permission to cry gradually halted her need to, and she snickered softly at the irony of it.

Paula had been uncharacteristically morose, dejected by her own thoughts. Not only was she leaving TJ behind, but Erin as well. Paula was worried about her partner. Erin's sense of self was somehow intertwined with TJ's well-being and the fact that she was the driver when the accident occurred was tearing her up. Paula was unsure of how to handle that.

Mare's snicker startled her. "What the hell's funny?"

Mare glanced quickly at Paula who had her arms hugged tightly against her lean body. Engrossed in her thoughts, Mare had almost forgotten that Paula was with her. The dark-haired woman's abrupt question was a dash of cold water, waking Mare from her self-absorption.

"I just gave myself permission to cry all I wanted to, and all of a sudden I didn't want to. Just struck me funny, I guess." Mare reached a hand to Paula's forearm and shook it. "Hey, you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine." Paula unfolded her arms and patted Mare's hand before it returned to the steering wheel. "We all will be if we can just stick together."

"You're worried about Erin."

"Uh huh. I know TJ's gonna be a bear tomorrow and Erin will catch the brunt of it. She's got a really soft heart, you know?"

"And you haven't?" Mare grinned. "I remember when I first met you in TJ's office, I thought she was a spoiled brat and you were an arrogant bitch."

Paula slid an amused glance at the vet. "I know you've changed your mind about TJ."

Mare laughed out loud. "Paula, I've seen how hard you try to keep things on an even keel at the ranch. TJ's definitely the boss, but you're kinda like the Mistress of Ceremonies, pointing everyone in the right direction. How do you keep so calm?"

It was Paula's turn to laugh. "Calm? Me? I churn inside all the time. Erin's the bellwether in the calm department. I can be boiling inside and one look or one word from her can cool me right down. Most of the time," she added wryly.

"How do you cope with TJ's temper tantrums? I feel like our minds lock together and there's a battle that she lets me win, but not before I feel a bit battered."

"Yeah, it's funny, isn't it? Even when she loses, she's still in control."

Mare turned this idea over in her mind and decided that Paula was right. The statement gave a new perspective to TJ's acquiescence to anything. "You're a pretty strong-minded person, Paula. How do you keep your equilibrium?"

Paula sucked in her lips against her teeth, then loosened them with a soft swishing sound. "With studied ignorance."

"Studied ignorance?"

"Yeah. When TJ gets wild with her hands or her mouth, I make an effort to ignore all the hurtful parts. I know that's not the real TJ, just her frustration. So I try not to let it affect me. Erin can't seem to do that. And that's my Achilles heel. When TJ gets mad at Erin, I get ticked at TJ. Usually I can step between them and deflect TJ's anger in my direction, but I can't always manage to do that."

Paula shifted in her seat, leaned over to grasp her cast leg, and moved it to a more comfortable position. She sat back up, looked toward Mare with a wicked grin and poked her in the side with an elbow. "Fortunately, I'm usually the one TJ gets mad at."

Mare grinned, then sobered. "Erin's going to be on her own tomorrow."

Paula nodded. "I've asked her to call me a couple of times, tell us how TJ's holding up."

"Will she tell you if there's a problem?"

"She won't have to; I can tell by her voice. We've been through this before, remember? Just speaking to each other will be supportive for both of us."

Mare nodded in understanding. They have the same connection TJ and I have.

The women rode the rest of the way home in companionable silence.

 

Chapter 4

The next morning, at breakfast, Mare and Paula agreed to meet in the afternoon to put Mare's office and suite in order when the movers brought her belongings. Then they separated, Paula going to TJ's office to work at catching up on some business and Mare driving to her home in Meridianville.

Mare saw the green and yellow moving van from Bodley and Sons coming behind her, so she parked in front of her house, allowing the van to pull into her driveway. She sat in the car for a moment, unexpectedly rocked by a wave of nostalgia. Mother and I lived in this home for a lot of years. I'm going to miss it. The enormity of the step she was taking hit her for the first time. I'm giving up my home and moving into someone else's, taking on what could prove to be an entirely different life-style. Is this really what I want? Am I ready for it? Vowing to examine that thought more thoroughly later, Mare exited the car and went to open the house for the movers.

She inhaled the fragrance of the red roses her mother had planted, years ago, along the edge of the front yard. In the small flower garden in front of the house, splashes of chrysanthemums brightened the early autumn morning, poking their yellow and russet heads up behind the late-blooming petunias and impatiens. Why are good-byes always so hard? Even when it's not a person? Again, Mare turned her thoughts away.

"Hi, Lee," Mare greeted the young black man who tipped the corner of his hat and flashed her a bright smile. "How's your dad?" Lee's father owned the moving business and had put his twin sons, Lee and Linc, in charge of it when he hurt his hip in a bad fall. Both young men were tall and strong, with rippling muscles, a legacy of growing up in the business.

"He's coming along pretty well, Doc. He's already graduated from crutches to a cane, but I don't think he'll be moving any heavy stuff ever again. That hip took a real beating and Doc Hunt told him to consider retiring."

Lee lifted his hat off and laid it on the truck seat as Mare turned the key in the lock. "How are your friends doing?" Lee asked. "Miss Meridian was hurt pretty bad, wasn't she?"

Mare tried to suppress the quick grimace of pain this question brought to her face. "Yeah, her back was just operated on. We'll have to wait and see what happens there. The other two are doing well. One has a broken leg and one a broken wrist."

"I saw Miss Meridian at that town meeting when she first got here." Lee's eyes lit up. "She was something else." He stuck his hand out in a grabbing pose. "She sure had those people by the… Er… I mean…"

Mare grinned at his obvious embarrassment. "Let's just say she was in full control, huh?"

Lee rubbed his wayward hand across the back of his neck and showed a rueful smile. "Yeah, that too." They walked into the house together as Linc and another man pulled up in a smaller truck to help with the move. "And you know what, Doc? Me and my brother live upriver and our kids were getting sick and no one could figure out why until Miss Meridian discovered the pollution. Our houses were the first to get filtration units connected to our water supply. She saved the lives of our kids. Tell her thanks for me when you see her, will you?"

"I'll be happy to, Lee, and I know Miss Meridian will appreciate hearing it." Mare looked around the room. "Now how about we figure out what goes and what stays?"

Mare had agreed to leave her piano for Barry's family rather than put it in storage. But he and Berta had insisted that it was just a loan. If she ever wanted it back, it was hers. With that understanding, Mare left a few other pieces of furniture and the whole kitchen--tables, chairs, plates, utensils, pots and pans. The only thing Mare kept was her mother's set of recipe books.

Shortly before noon the house was emptied and the men headed to the diner to eat lunch. Mare went on out to the Meridian ranch.

Paula was just sitting down to soup and a sandwich. She got up when she saw Mare pull in and began to put lunch together for her. The vet came through the door and took a quick glance at the situation. "Hey, woman," Mare admonished her, "you sit down and let me fix my own lunch. I'm not a guest anymore." She sidled up to Paula and playfully bumped her with her hip.

Paula dropped the sandwich makings and grabbed the counter, teetering off balance. "Whoa!" she yelped.

Mare threw an arm around her to steady her and started laughing. "Sorry, I forgot you can't move as well as usual. You okay now?"

"Yeah," Paula grinned back, "but next time, warn me first." The cast on her leg had been exchanged for a walking one, giving her a lot more freedom of movement. It allowed her to manage without crutches for short spurts, but she still wasn’t as mobile as she would like to be.

"As far as your being a guest, Erin and I do take turns with the meals, but we all wait on each other. Figure it doesn't matter who does what, as long as it gets done. Grab yourself a cup of coffee and let me finish the food."

"Right." Mare pulled a mug from the cupboard and filled it. The sugar and milk were sitting on the counter where Paula had used them and she stirred them into the coffee with a spoon plucked from the silverware drawer.

"Have you heard from Erin?" Pulling a chair out from the island, Mare sat down, took a few sips of coffee and suddenly realized she felt a little dispirited. The last few weeks had been a real roller coaster ride. First, the decision to move to the ranch, then the accident, then TJ’s operation… and she still had the actual move to contend with, and a new assistant to get oriented, and running back and forth to the hospital, and the constant worry about TJ…

"Yeah, she called right before I came out to fix lunch. TJ’s not a happy camper, of course, but Erin said she’s at least making some effort not to be too miserable with her…yet." Paula handed the plate holding the finished sandwich to Mare and poured the remaining chicken noodle soup from the pot into a bowl. Carrying the bowl and a box of crackers, she joined Mare at the island.

"That’s good news. I know how rotten I felt having to leave. I can imagine how TJ must feel."

"Yeah," Paula grunted.

The two ate quietly, a circumstance that was not lost on Paula. "You wanna talk about it, Mare?" she asked when they were finished. When the golden brows lifted in inquiry, Paula elaborated. "Whatever’s bothering you. Is it TJ?"

Pushing her dishes away, Mare put her elbow on the table and rested her head in her hand. She splayed her fingers into her hair and turned emerald eyes toward her friend. "More like… lack of TJ." Mare sighed and her eyes filled with uncertainty. "When TJ was here, it seemed the most natural thing in the world for me to come here to live with her. But she’s not here, now, and I think I’m having a touch of ‘cold feet’ about moving in. I’m just a small town vet and here I am pulling up all my roots and moving into the home of the owner of a multi-national corporation. Now that it’s actually happening, I’m not sure I’m doing the right thing."

Paula sat back in her chair and a shadow slipped down over her eyes. "You change your mind about TJ?" she asked in a quiet, flat voice.

Mare’s brow furrowed as she realized that Paula misunderstood her. "No." She grasped Paula’s hand and gave it a quick squeeze. "Never. This is not a Mare-TJ issue at all. It’s..." Mare sat up, fluttered her hands back and forth and shrugged her shoulders. "I feel sorta uncomfortable moving in here. My body’s making the move, but my emotions aren’t going along so quietly. I’m not really sure what it is. Maybe I feel like I’m giving up my independence… or submerging my identity."

The veil lifted and Paula’s eyes warmed again as she gave a little laugh. "Anyone who’s around TJ for five minutes is in danger of submerging her identity. Her presence is almost overwhelming. We all feel that. It would be really easy to get lost in her shadow."

Paula's arm made an all-encompassing move through the air. "This is a huge house and no matter who else is in it, it seems empty without TJ. But when she is here, it doesn’t seem empty at all. That tells us something about the power of her personality."

Mare nodded. "And that's probably causing part of my uncertainty. I’m not really sure whether I’m moving here because I want to, or because TJ wants me to. Once she put the idea in my head, I accepted it without giving it a whole lot of thought. Now I have a chance to think about it and I’m not convinced that it was the best thing for me to do."

She shook her head in confusion. "I’m giving up my home, hiring an assistant, splitting up my practice, just so I can be here with TJ, but I don’t know if I can handle being responsible for her happiness twenty-four hours a day. I keep wondering… what happens if I fail her?"

Mare got up and cleaned the remnants of lunch from the island. The movement helped her mood and her face cleared a bit. "Then again, everything seems to be touched with a brighter light when TJ’s around. I’ll probably be okay when she’s back here with us."

Paula’s voice took on a serious tone. "You know, Mare, nothing you are doing here is burning any bridges. If you decide there are things you can’t handle, you can always ask your new assistant to find another house to rent and move back into yours. But we all hope you stay, Mare; TJ's not the only one who would like to have you here. Why don’t you give her a call and talk to her? It might make you feel better."

"I tried first thing this morning, but she was still sleeping. I'll try again after I’ve got this moving sorted out." Mare patted her friend's shoulder. "Thanks, Paula, you and Erin have both made me feel very welcome."

"You are welcome. Besides," Paula grinned, "nothing like having a vet handy on a ranch. Oh, that reminds me. We have a small problem…"

Mare heard the moving van arriving. "Can it wait till later? Here come the movers." She put a restraining hand on Paula’s shoulder. "Don’t get up, Paula, we can take care of this."

"Okay, I have some more office work, anyway. I’ll tell you all about it when you’re finished."

Mare went out to meet Lee and Linc, and left a thoughtful Paula making her way to TJ’s office.

********************

The transfer of furniture was completed, and the movers had gone.

Mare stood in the center of the suite’s living room, surveying their work. At least I have a small piece of my "identity" here with me… and a piano available in the next room. What more could a girl want? Her heart thudded at that question. TJ. I want TJ. Her eyes misted and she turned quickly and half-ran from the room.

She walked down the hallway, past her office and made the right-angle turn toward TJ’s office. Reaching the door, she tapped on it and walked in. The dark head at the desk conjured up a split-second memory of enticing blue eyes and a glorious smile that was so vivid, Mare’s breath caught for a magical moment. Then reality returned.

Paula’s lively brown eyes looked up from some papers she was perusing. She checked her watch. "All done?"

"Yep. I am now a bona fide resident of Meridian ranch, ‘cold feet’ and all." Mare’s lips twisted and she clasped her arms across her body for just a moment as a quick shiver went through her.

"You’ll be okay when TJ gets back." Paula’s eyes gleamed. "She’ll warm those cold feet for you in more ways than one. You try phoning her again?"

I’m here and my lover’s not. What a mess. "Keep it up, Paula, you may convince me." Mare snorted and gave Paula a playful shove. "And no, I haven’t phoned her again. I’ll do it later when I can sit down and relax and devote all my attention to her."

Paula picked up the papers she was reading and waved them at Mare. "One of the hands brought the mail and we got the report on the investigation of Mrs. Gloria Raphaele and her son, Thomas Joseph Meridian Raphaele."

"Great! What does it say?" Mare was suddenly fully alert.

"It looks like they lead a pretty uneventful life. Wealthier than most people. The mother does volunteer work with a couple of charities, they live in an exclusive section of their city and the son just graduated from a private prep school. Other than that, there’s nothing particularly unusual. You want to read the report?"

"Yeah. I’ll put it in my office and take a look at it later." Paula put the papers into a large envelope and handed it to her. "What was that little problem you spoke of earlier?"

"Oh yeah!" Paula stood and reached for her crutches. "Come out to the barn with me. I want you to take a look at Flag."

"Be right with you." Mare hurried to her office and placed the file in her desktop drawer away from wandering eyes. Then she rejoined the waiting Paula.

The dark-haired woman swung out through the kitchen, with a curious Mare following, and went out the door into bright sunshine. Though the air was still warm, a slight coolness and a woody scent hinted at the change of season.

"I can’t figure out what’s wrong with her. She’s not eating right and is acting really skittish. Bill's been sending some of the hands over each day to take care of the horses and they noticed it first. They wondered if maybe she was getting sick with something."

Mare enjoyed the barn’s warmth and even its pungent smells: horses, hay, oiled leather, earth, manure. A vet spent many hours in barns and whenever she entered one a finger of familiarity touched and welcomed her. She walked quickly to Flag’s stall. Flag nickered and came to the front of the stall, as though looking for someone. Not finding what she was looking for, she dropped her head and moved back, seeming to droop. Yeah, Flag, we both miss TJ, don’t we?

"Hey, girl," Mare called and reached out to her, but Flag just backed away some more, then tossed her head and pawed the ground nervously. Mare could see that the palomino had lost some weight and looked skittish.

Paula watched the action, then asked, "What do you think is wrong with her?"

"I’ll get my bag and check her out, but I would guess she is homesick for TJ. It’s been a while since she’s seen her and Flag’s used to TJ riding her every morning." Mare gave a wry grin. "Just what we need, a homesick horse."

"How come the other horses aren’t affected? Erin and I haven’t been around them that much, either."

"Probably because Flag’s been with TJ for so long. And you said yourself there seems to be a special bond between them."

"That’s true." Paula nodded. "What can we do? Is it dangerous?"

"She’s lost some weight, so she’s probably not eating properly. If she stops eating altogether, that can be dangerous. At the moment, it will just affect her overall health." Mare hesitated for a moment, considering her options. "Look, I’ll go in the house and get a blanket that TJ has handled then bring it back here and put it in the stall. Just TJ’s scent may help calm her down."

"Great!" Relief flooded Paula's face. Then her expression turned uncertain. "Do you think it’s okay to say anything to TJ about this? You know how particular she is about Flag."

"I also seem to remember that the last time you and Erin tried to keep Flag’s condition from her, she found out anyway and told you guys off about it. So far, this isn't as worrisome as the heat stroke was. I'll explain it to TJ when I phone her." Mare frowned in thought. "Only other thing I know to do is keep an eye on Flag, ask the men to give her a lot of attention, maybe take her mind off TJ for a while."

"Will that work?"

"Darned if I know, but at least it will help us think we are doing something."

"Right!" Paula snorted and both women grinned.





Continued in Part 2.

Please comment to: Karen A. Surtees and PruferBlue


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