Many Roads To Travel
by Karen A. Surtees and PruferBlue

Part 3

See Part 1 for disclaimers.

Chapter 8

When Gloria Raphaele returned home from her volunteer work at the hospital in Ridgeton, Pennsylvania, she went upstairs to change her clothes, choosing brown slacks and a gold tunic. She had just completed that task when the phone rang and she picked it up.

The apologetic voice coming over the phone was not saying what she wanted to hear. "We're still trying, Mrs. Raphaele. Your son's having no car or credit cards makes it very difficult to trace him. We've checked buses, trains, planes and showed his picture all over town. No one has found anything yet."

In her mid forties, Gloria Raphaele presented a handsome picture. Short, thick, black hair combed straight back from her face set off her large, brown eyes and fine features. Of medium height and build, she projected the warmth of her personality with her quick smile and expressive hands.

One of those hands was now rubbing knuckles against the furrows forming between her eyebrows. Think, Gloria! Where might Tom go? What would make him run away? She had been asking herself the same question for weeks. The truth was, Tom had been growing farther away from her for a number of years--ever since his father's death. Part of that was her own "fault." Because she hadn't wanted Tom to grow up in a house with a lonely woman for company, she sent him to a private boarding school where he could get an excellent education, and have some male "father figures" to look up to.

When he graduated at the head of his class, she tried to convince herself that she had done the right thing in sending him away. But the look on his face when she had told him of her plans for his college education still tore at her heart.

"Away? You want to send me away to school, again?" Those marvelous blue eyes he had inherited from his father pinned her to her chair. "I'm not going, Mother. At least, not yet."

"Tom, this is for your own good. You'll get an education at Harvard that you can't get anywhere else in the world." She stood up and put her hand on his forearm. "Right now, Raphaele Consultants is just a name on a piece of paper, but you could bring the business to life, make it a reality. Your father always wanted that."

She saw Tom's jaw set and his eyes tighten. He stood taller and straightened his shoulders in a pose so reminiscent of his father that Gloria caught her breath. He already has his father's stubborn streak. He'll soon be a grown man and will need the education. I have to make him understand that I am only concerned for his future.

Tom's voice pitched lower and softly vibrated. "But Father's not here, now. It's time for me to start deciding some things for myself. I want to wait a year or two before starting college. I was the youngest in my class--two years younger than most of them. I won't lose a thing by waiting until I'm eighteen."

Gloria's eyebrows lowered as she eyed her son. "I suppose we could arrange for you to start in the January semester. But why do you want to wait, Tom? What do you want to do?" Tom's reluctance puzzled Gloria. He had always acquiesced to her suggestions in the past, even when not especially fond of them.

Walking over to one of the living room windows, Tom pulled the drape and gazed out. "I want to see what's going on out there in the world. I want to experience how other people live." His mother didn't know that he had his computer set up to forward any reference to the name Meridian found on the wire services. I have a sister out there, somewhere, who was in a terrible accident two years ago. She was almost killed then and she could have been killed in the accident she just had. I want to meet her, to see what she's like, to get to know her--before anything else happens and I lose her for good. Like I lost my brother, a brother I never met.

But he couldn't tell his mother that. She had signed some papers when his father was alive, agreeing not to ever interfere with his other family or Meridian Corporation. In return, his father had quietly set up Raphaele Consultants and funneled enough money and stock into the dummy company to set them up for life. But I'm not my Mother. I didn't sign anything. I want to meet my sister!

"I'm sorry you feel that way, Tom. I can't agree with your thinking and I would like to make an appointment for you to speak to Harold Benns. I think he might be able to give you some good advice about it."

"Sure, Mother, make an appointment with Mr. Benns." Lawyers always think they know what's best for everybody else. Especially a lawyer who's in love with your mother.

Gloria made the appointment for three days away. But when she went to get Tom, to take him to the meeting, she found a letter on his bed.

Dear Mother,

I know you feel that you have my best interests at heart, and I love you for it. But I've been shut away from the world for the last four years and I need a chance to be a part of it, to find my way in it. Please don't be too upset. I'm not running away forever. I'll contact you when I think the time is right.



Gloria stood a few moments in shock. Then she went to the phone and dialed a familiar number. "Harold, Tom has run away from home. Please get me a detective agency to find him. Yes, please come over. I'd like that. Good-bye." Then Gloria had dropped into a chair and cried until she couldn't cry anymore.

Well, the detective agency had been searching for weeks and didn't seem any nearer to finding Tom. Today's call was just an echo of the same one she had been receiving every day. Disappointed and dejected, she hung up the phone and sat thinking. But nothing new came to mind.

She rose to go downstairs. As she approached Tom's bedroom door, she turned and went in. She stood for a while, letting her eyes rove around the room, imagining Tom seated at his desk, speaking to her.

She wandered over to the flat-topped desk and sat down. Idly, her hands played with a letter opener and an empty CD holder; then a picture frame caught her eye. The picture was stuck facedown into one of the pigeonholes lined up on the back edge of the desk. Gloria's lips curved into a soft smile. Probably a girl friend. She reached for the picture, turned it over, and saw that it was a picture cut from a magazine.

The dark-haired woman sat up in surprise. She was looking into the face of another dark-haired woman leaning over the neck of a palomino horse as it jumped a water barrier. Her breath caught. My God, look at those eyes... Tom's eyes... my son's eyes. If she had any doubts about the person in the picture, the caption erased them: Taylor Jade Meridian and Faithful Flag on their way to another win.

With trembling hands, she reached for the desk phone and called the detective agency. "This is Gloria Raphaele. I think I may know where my son is. Find out for me where Taylor Jade Meridian is living. That's right, the head of Meridian Corporation. Just get me her current address. If he's anywhere near there, just let me know." If he's with Taylor Meridian, I'll take care of it myself.


TJ sat quietly, fingers impatiently drumming out a beat on the arms of her chair. Blues eyes repeatedly strayed to the clock on the wall. Mare was late, only by a few minutes but enough to make the raven-haired woman nervous and enough to reinforce her commitment to not trying on those braces until her own blonde-haired, green-eyed, bundle of optimism walked through the door.

TJ had already caught the looks of annoyance and pointed glares at the clock from the therapist and her assistant. For the past couple of weeks she’d been poked, prodded and measured everywhere possible, at her partner's insistence that she at least give the braces and therapy a go. Today was supposed to be the first time that she would wear the braces and the start of some very intensive physical therapy sessions. Mare had promised her faithfully that she would be here for the session. TJ had made it abundantly clear to everybody who cared to listen that the braces were going nowhere near her legs unless her hand was being held by her lover. And as far as TJ was concerned the therapists could mumble and mutter all they wanted that her relationship with Mare, and therefore her father, meant she was getting special treatment.

The fact of the matter was the therapists were the ones getting the special treatment. Compared to the first time she had been in this position in a hospital, TJ was being a positive angel. They wouldn’t have a clue what hit them if she decided she really wanted to be awkward about this. She took another quick look at the clock. Fifteen minutes late. Where the hell is she? Mare had been late before on several occasions but had always managed to phone ahead to let her know if that was the case. She had better be okay. If she’s crashed or hurt herself in any way I’ll, I’ll... I don’t know what I’ll do. TJ's heart lurched at the very thought of anything bad happening to Mare.

"Miss Meridian?" TJ looked up at the petite, ginger-haired therapist who had been giving her the evil eye for the last twenty minutes. "We really need to get started with this."

"Not until Mare gets here," TJ replied stubbornly.

The therapist bit back a sigh and tapped her foot. "Miss, we don’t know when she’ll get here and we all have other patients besides you who need our attention. Now, please, stop being childish and let us get on with this," the therapist implored, failing to see the hardening of TJ’s eyes.

"Obviously," TJ leaned forward and peered at the small woman’s name badge, "Jackie, you don’t hear too well. I said I’m waiting for Mare to get here. If you have other patients to see, please go ahead and see them. But those..." she jabbed her finger toward the waiting braces, "don’t come anywhere near me till my partner gets here. Was that clear enough? Or would you like me to write it down for you?"

Jackie blanched at TJ’s tone and was about to reply when the door opened behind her. She turned, hoping to see Dr. Gillis’ daughter who seemed to be the only person capable of keeping this obnoxious, awkward and spoiled patient under control. But she was disappointed to see a large, black woman, wearing therapist's whites, walk in. "Can I help you?" she asked, taking out some of her frustration on the newcomer, not having heard the groan from TJ behind her.

The woman smiled. "I doubt it, but I might be able to help you," she replied. She leaned around the woman and looked at TJ who was concentrating on trying not to be noticed. "Morning, TJ."

Blue eyes looked up from beneath lowered eyebrows. "Sacha."

Jackie looked back at TJ then to the new arrival TJ had called Sacha, confusion written all over her face.

Sacha stepped around the smaller therapist, not ignoring her as such but knowing that she needed to get TJ busy with something before she killed Jackie and totally ruined the day. Judging by what she had heard from outside the door, that action wasn’t far off. "So why aren’t we doing our exercises?" She placed herself in front of TJ, blocking her view of the other therapist.

"I’m waiting for Mare to arrive," TJ said quietly.

Ah, the boss' daughter. "Does that stop you from working on your upper body strength?"


Sacha bent down so her eyes were level with TJ. "Then you just wheel yourself over there and get on with them. We’ll give Mare another twenty minutes or so and then decide what to do, okay?" TJ nodded then turned her chair and wheeled over to the free weights. Sacha watched her go, a smile creasing her face. Some people never change.

She turned to face Jackie and her assistant who were standing there stunned. "Didn’t think that was possible, did ya?" The two shook their heads. Sacha held out her hand. "Hi, I’m Sacha Courtney. Dr. Gillis just hired me. I have a lot of experience with paraplegics and with this one in particular," she said as she shook each woman's hand.

"Jackie Fletcher," said the therapist. "This is my assistant, Max."

"Nice to meet you both. How long have you been working with TJ?"

"This is our first session. Harry, one of the other therapists, has been working with her. But he went on compassionate leave a couple of days ago."

Sacha glanced at her watch before replying, "Well, you lasted thirty minutes. That’s pretty good with TJ. Most don’t get past ten."

"Excuse me?" asked a puzzled Jackie.

"TJ is rather renowned for having people flee in terror extremely quickly. You were just about to be the recipient of the world famous Meridian temper."

"She’s a spoiled brat is what she is. All this special treatment because she’s seeing the boss' daughter…"

Sacha couldn’t fail to hear the sarcasm in Jackie’s voice and she indicated that they should move to the desk at the back of the gym. "TJ’s not spoilt… far from it in fact, my dear. She just knows what she wants. You have to remember she’s been through this before, she knows the script and the last time she remained in the wheelchair. The more you try to force the issue, the more she’ll buck your authority."

"She did what you told her to."

"Yeah, but TJ knows me and respects my abilities. She hasn’t a clue about your abilities, or who you are, except for the fact that you obviously don’t like her. Your attitude stinks, quite frankly." Sacha’s forthright and blunt comment shocked Jackie into silence. "TJ is an intelligent woman and this isn’t the first time she’s been offered the hope of walking. Today is an important step in seeing whether she is ever going to get out of that chair. It's understandable that she wants her support system with her. We’ll wait and let TJ make the decision. If her partner doesn’t arrive and TJ doesn’t want to go ahead, then we’ll reschedule for another day. On the other hand, TJ may decide to go ahead and try them out. But it has to be her decision; you can’t force her into it."

Sacha’s words proved to be prophetic. TJ wheeled over twenty minutes later.

"Come on. Let's get this over with."



TJ sat in her bed listening. She could hear Mare outside of her room; she was late by over an hour. At first TJ had been worried and even tried calling her on her cell phone, but it had been switched off. As she sat watching the minute hand of the clock progress nearly twice around its route, that worry had turned to anger.

Now she was still waiting as Mare chatted and laughed with Nancy at the nurse's station. No doubt Nancy is telling her I wouldn’t eat breakfast and that I upset the nurse last night. Then after they’ve finished giggling over what they did last night, she’ll come in and tell me off. TJ picked at the blanket covering her, listening to the laughter. She looked up at the door as the laughter stopped and Mare walked in.

"Nancy tells me you upset the nurse last night and that you also didn’t eat breakfast." Mare leaned over and kissed TJ on the head. "Wanna tell me about it?"

"Did she also tell you how many times I sneezed?"

"I see we’re in one of those moods, are we?" Mare sat down in the chair by the bed, catching hold of TJ’s hand as she did. "So, what’s up?"

TJ looked over at her incredulously. "What’s up? You want to know what’s up?

Mare could tell by TJ’s expression that she was upset. Okay, let's see what I’ve done wrong this time. Mare sighed. "Yes, that’s what I want to know."

"You were supposed to be here two hours ago, Mare," said TJ, pulling her hand away from Mare.

"I know, I know. I’m late and I’m sorry. I got caught up at work." Mare took TJ’s hand again and squeezed.

"You're sorry? That’s just great--you’re sorry. I get poked and prodded, fitted with the leg braces you insisted I try out, and you're sorry?"

Mare felt a sinking feeling in her stomach. Oh, hell. "That was this morning?"

"Yeah, but please don’t let it interfere with your social life."

"TJ, honey, come on, that’s not fair. I was working."

"Not fair? I’ll tell you what’s not fair, Mare. Not fair is being stuck in here while everybody else is out there enjoying themselves. Not fair is sitting in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. Not fair is going through all this crap and knowing that it isn’t going to make the slightest bit of difference."

Mare closed her eyes, feeling the pain at TJ’s comments slice through her. She’s upset, she’s just lashing out. Stay calm. "I know you're frustrated but..."

"How could you possibly know? You're not stuck here, are you?" yelled TJ.

"No, I’m not, TJ. Do you want me to be? Is that it? You expect me to be at your beck and call all the time?" So much for staying calm, but hell, what does she want from me? "I have a life and a business to run outside of us, you know, and unlike you I can’t sit behind a desk to run it or have my lackeys do it for me." Mare stood up and started pacing the room.

"I’m not forcing you to be here. If you don’t want to be, you don’t have to be," replied TJ, watching Mare as she paced back and forth.

"What? I can’t believe you said that. Is this relationship getting a little too hard for you and you want to throw it out?" Mare had stopped at the foot of the bed, staring daggers at TJ.

"No, but it seems you might want that." TJ didn’t back down from Mare’s challenging gaze.

"Oh really? Do you have any idea what I’ve given up for this relationship? I stood up to a town that hated you and took all the crap that they threw. I moved out of my home and brought a partner into my practice so I could be with you. What have you done? What have you sacrificed?"

My heart? thought TJ, but she remained silent. Mare is right. She has given up a lot to be with me. So why are you pushing this? Why are you pushing her away? TJ looked up at Mare and saw pain in her face. Because, if she stays, that will be the look on her face all the time. She’s already told Paula that she thought she’d got in over her head, that she couldn’t handle this. So let her out of it now. It will be less painful for us both. "Nothing, apparently. And I think that is how it should stay. We should bring this sham of a relationship to an end."

Mare was stunned at TJ’s quiet comment. Did she say what I think she said? Mare took a shuddering breath. "Sham? You think what we have is a sham?" Mare could feel her heart pounding in her chest, the ache it was causing bringing tears to her eyes. Unconsciously, her hand flattened against her chest, trying to push the pain away.

"I think it's pretty obvious that neither of us is happy. It's only going to get worse if we carry on pretending that we are."

"Fine. If that's the way you feel, I’ll start looking for somewhere to live. I’ll be out of the ranch before you get home." Mare walked around the chair and picked up her bag.

"Don’t worry about it; you can stay there. I’m going to ask your dad to have me transferred to Atlanta. I’ll be going back to my town house when I’m released."

Mare paused, a horrified thought invading her mind. "You’re going to close the ranch? And the plant?"

TJ barked a sarcastic laugh. "I’m not my father. I’ll appoint a general manager, or Erin and Paula can run them if they want. They do it already so it wouldn’t be that much of a change."

Mare let out a silent sigh of relief and then hesitated, unsure of what to do now. "In that case, I’ll stay at the ranch till I can find something in town. I guess I won’t be seeing you around. Take care of yourself." Mare turned and hurried from the room, not wanting TJ to see the tears pouring down her face.

TJ let her head fall back onto the pillows behind her, not watching as Mare rushed from the room. Tears rolled slowly from her eyes.

Mare rested her back against the door, silent sobs racking her body. I can’t believe that it’s over… I thought we were stronger than that. She felt an arm wrap around her shoulder and opened her eyes to see Nancy standing by her.

"You okay, honey?" inquired the nurse. Mare cried harder at the sympathetic tone and Nancy pulled her into a hug. "Hey, hey, come on, it will be okay," soothed the nurse as she pulled Mare to a nearby seat. "Now tell me what’s wrong. You two had a fight, huh?"

Mare nodded, brushing the tears from her face as she sat down. "Yeah."

"A bad one?" Mare nodded again. Nancy smiled to herself. She had been a nurse for over ten years, and with Mare’s dad for the last six. She’d seen this sort of thing many times before. "Don’t take it to heart, Mare. You’ve both been under a lot of pressure. You had to let it loose sometime." Nancy dug an unused tissue from her pocket and handed it to Mare.

"I think this one went a little too far, Nancy. We broke up." Mare blew her nose and sniffed, getting her breathing back under control.

"Nonsense," scolded the nurse. "TJ’s had a rotten day and from the look of it so have you. Let everything calm down. Come back tomorrow and sort it out."

Mare sniffed again and looked at Nancy. "What do you mean TJ’s had a rotten day? You didn’t say anything when I came in."

"I know," replied Nancy. "But I didn’t think that you’d be having an argument as soon as you walked in the door either. TJ was really upset that you weren’t here this morning. I tried ringing your cell phone but there was no reply. And the fitting didn’t go exactly as planned because, without you there, she wasn’t in a cooperative mood."

Nancy's face showed compassion. "I think TJ finally realized that, even with the braces, there isn’t any chance of her walking. I know your dad has spoken to you about this and that at first they had high hopes of some return of function. But, as you know from the tests, there has been very little change. She's a fighter, Mare. She wanted to lash out at somebody and you were the one who took it." Nancy patted Mare’s knee. "Now go home and come back tomorrow, and you can sort this out when you are both thinking more clearly."

Mare nodded and waited till Nancy brought her coat. "Thanks, Nancy. I’ll see you tomorrow."

"Drive carefully, Mare."

"I will." Mare gave the nurse a hug and walked down the corridor to the elevator.

Nancy waited until Mare had disappeared, before opening the door to TJ’s room. She walked up to the bed, taking hold of TJ’s chart and ignoring the woman silently crying. She walked around the bed, checking the readouts on the one monitor still attached to TJ and the P.C.A. pump that still administered analgesia as required.

"Feel better now?" she asked as she put TJ’s chart down. TJ continued to stare up at the ceiling. "No? Well neither does Mare. I sent her home after I got her to stop crying. What am I going to do with you, huh?" She still got no reply. "Look, TJ, I’ve seen this a hundred times. I can’t say I understand what you are going through because I've never been in your situation. I do know that we all say things, in the heat of the moment, that we regret. Mare will be back in the morning and I expect you both to work this out." Nancy squeezed TJ’s hand before leaving her.


Chapter 9

Paula was sprawled in T-shirt and shorts on the couch, cast outstretched, while she idly flicked through the TV channels with the remote. With all the channels available via cable and satellite she still couldn’t find anything that would garner her attention for more than a few minutes. Normally when she was in one of these moods she’d pester Erin or go into the kitchen to cook or bake. Today she could do neither. The kitchen was out of the question due to her still-cast leg. Not for much longer… just another two weeks. Yippee! And Erin, finally released from her wrist cast, was out riding Flag.

The horse had calmed down remarkably with the constant scented blankets that Mare brought back from the hospital--and since Tom had started to care for her. Paula knew they would have to be careful when TJ returned from the hospital. TJ had already been told it would be months before she would be able to ride again, which hadn’t gone down too well; she’d be even more annoyed when she found out that Tom had been taking the horse out.

Never mind what she’ll think when she finds out that he’s her brother. Oh yeah, I can see a happy family reunion around the corner. Now why can’t I actually believe it’s going to be happy? Maybe because nothing is ever that easy around TJ? Yeah, that’s got to be it. Still, she could surprise me, I guess. Even with the constant riding, Flag was still finicky and was demanding a lot of attention, rather like her owner.

Paula sighed and switched off the TV. Tossing that remote to one side, she picked up another and turned the stereo on, hoping that she’d be able to find some music that would satisfy her. She found a sultry rendition of an old country tune and decided to stay on that station. Since she’d moved to Texas she’d attained a liking for the modern country music scene.

Flopping back onto the couch, Paula relaxed into a light doze. She didn’t know how long she had napped when she cocked her head, hearing the rumble of an engine swing by the front of the house. A frown creased her forehead. I wonder who that can be? We’re not expecting any visitors as far as I know. Mare is with TJ and Erin’s riding. Bill and the ranch hands use the back road. Guess that means I have a guest. Groaning, she pushed herself upright and grabbed her crutches, hesitating as she heard the back door open. Okay, I guess it isn’t a guest, she thought as she resumed the struggle to her feet.

The door slammed shut as Paula hobbled toward the kitchen. When she finally reached it, she saw Mare leaning against the island. "Hi! You're back early, aren’t you?" she asked cheerfully, her voice sounding loud in the relative quiet of the kitchen. Mare looked over at her and shrugged. Paula recognized the red puffiness around her eyes and the slump of her shoulders. Uh oh, this doesn’t look good. A worried shiver rippled through her body. What the hell has happened now?

Quickly she hobbled the rest of the way over to her friend, rested one of her crutches against the island and put her hand on Mare’s shoulder. "You okay?" Mare shook her head and Paula slipped an arm around her shoulder and pulled her into a hug.

Mare wrapped her arms around Paula and squeezed back. The overload of emotion caused the tears that had dried on the journey back to reappear.

Paula’s worry was growing by the second. Mare was sobbing inconsolably in her arms and the only reason Paula could think of for that happening was that something was terribly wrong with TJ. "Mare, I need you to calm down and tell me what’s happened." Mare took some deep heaving breaths to calm her breathing. "Is it TJ?" Paula persisted. Mare nodded her head. Paula shuffled back, holding Mare at arm's length so she could see her face properly. "Mare, listen to me carefully. Is TJ okay?" Paula’s heart was pounding in her chest, waiting for the answer, but Mare nodded and she sighed in relief. Okay, TJ hasn’t taken a turn for the worse. Let's find out what has happened and get it cleared up. And where the hell is Erin? Why is it I’m always the one who has to clear up the emotional turmoil in this place? "So tell me what’s wrong?"

Mare took a deep breath and looked at Paula with wounded eyes. "We… we had an argument," she stuttered.

Paula felt her heart stop for one painful beat, then restart double time. This is absurd. Mare’s a wreck because they’ve had an argument? Here I was, thinking that TJ’s condition had deteriorated, or something, and they’ve only had an argument! Jesus. Okay, calm down. Obviously it is a bad one, otherwise she wouldn’t be like this. Erin! I’ll kill you, I honestly will. Next time I’m saving the hard stuff for you. "You had an argument?" Paula said softly, checking that she’d heard Mare correctly the first time. Mare nodded to her again. Well, on the plus side, at least I can handle arguments. "You want to tell me what it was about and maybe we can sort it out?"

Wearily, Mare sat on one of the stools cluttered around one side of the island as Paula maneuvered herself onto another. She swiped at the tears that still fell down her face and looked over at Paula. "TJ was in a really bad mood this morning. Nancy told me that she’d upset Janice on the night shift again. Why she has to antagonize the woman I’ll never know. Anyway, I walked into her room and remarked on it and she blew up on me, big time." Mare dropped her eyes studying the marbled effect of the floor.

"Was there any other reason for her outburst?" Paula asked gently. TJ could be bad but she normally had a reason that sent her off the deep-end and that just didn’t seem like a good enough one to her.

Mare looked up with a grimace. "Yeah, there was. I was late getting to the hospital this morning; I got tied up in surgery. I missed her brace fitting and physical therapy."

Ouch! Paula winced, TJ had been reluctant to try the leg braces but Mare had sweet-talked her into at least giving it a try. "How late were you?" If she was that busy, I bet she didn’t get round to giving TJ a ring to let her know either. I’ll bet TJ was worried silly. Not that she’d just say that to Mare of course… no, she'd hide her fear with anger.

"I totally forgot about the fitting. I got caught up with a collie that had been hit by a car. I didn’t even think to phone and say I wouldn’t get there till mid-morning." Mare glanced at Paula seeing her raised eyebrows. "Two hours. I was two hours late."

Ah hell, thought Paula as a sinking feeling flooded her body. She could just imagine TJ’s reaction to Mare’s absence. "What did she say?"

"Basically, she said..." She stopped and turned as the kitchen door opened.

"Hi guys, what a great day," came Erin’s bubbly voice, which trailed off as she saw Mare’s face. "Or not, as the case may be. What’s up?"

"TJ and Mare have had a bit of a bust up. Mare was just telling me what happened," replied Paula, smiling sweetly at her lover as she came over and kissed her on the cheek.

Uh oh, I can tell from that smile I’ll be in trouble later if I don’t help sort this out. "Guess I’ll get us all a drink, then," Erin said as she went over to the fridge and got out the perpetually filled jug of iced tea. She grabbed some mugs and returned to take a seat at the island. Handing Mare a mug of the tea, she prompted, "So what happened?"

"TJ was in her usual rotten mood this morning," Paula began. "More so, though, because Mare missed her brace fitting and therapy due to getting tied up with some surgery. That’s as far as we’ve got," explained Paula. "Go on, Mare, tell us what happened next."

"Basically she said if I didn’t care enough to be there, then I shouldn’t have pushed her into trying the braces. I told her she was being unfair and she lit into me, shouting that unfair was being stuck in the hospital and being in a wheelchair for the rest of her life." Mare stopped. Her hands absently pushed the mug around the island top, as she looked up at Paula and Erin’s concerned expressions. Yeah, I know. I should have phoned her. I know she would have been worried, when I wasn’t there, that something had happened. I shouldn’t have let her get to me.

"We were both being nasty but, for some reason, today her attitude got to me." Mare sighed again. And now because I snapped I’ve most probably destroyed our relationship. "So I pointed out to her that I had a life and responsibilities outside our relationship." And that didn’t cut her deeply at all, did it? she thought scathingly to herself. Her glance went back to her two friends, wondering whether she’d just lost them as well.

Paula and Erin were stunned at the severity of the argument. TJ, they both knew, was particularly volatile and had the ability to cut those around her when she was depressed or hurting. Now they learned that Mare's tongue could be just as sharp. "Is that all that was said?" asked Erin.

"No, we said a lot more than that. Now that I’m sitting here telling you guys, it all seems so petty. Yes, I have outside responsibilities and so does TJ. Before the accident she accepted that without question. But something has happened to change that, to make her doubt what we had together." Mare shook her head. "I should have called her and let her know what was going on, and I should have kept my temper. Instead I made it a lot worse when I told her I’d given up a lot for her--my home, part of my practice--and that essentially she’d given up nothing. That seemed to really set her off."

She glanced over to Erin and Paula again. Paula had gone pale; her eyes had taken on a stricken look. "Hey, are you okay?" Mare leaned forward and took hold of her arm.

"Yeah, yeah, I’m fine, but I think that I might have caused a part of this problem," she said worriedly.

Mare frowned.

"How?" asked Erin, raising an eyebrow.

"When I went to see TJ a few days ago she was in a horrendous mood. And I sort of told her that her attitude was driving Mare away and that she was already having second thoughts about moving in. That if she wasn’t careful, Mare would leave."

"You said what!" Mare yelled, jumping to her feet.

Paula closed her eyes, flinching from the harsh tone of Mare’s voice. "I didn’t mean to cause a problem. I thought it would just make TJ think a little before she spoke, that’s all," replied Paula, in a desperate plea for understanding from the visibly upset and angry vet.

Erin reached over, took hold of her hand and squeezed. "It’s okay, love. You only did what you thought was right."

"Okay? Okay?" shouted Mare as she paced across the kitchen floor. "It wasn’t okay and it didn’t help. TJ has decided to transfer back to the hospital in Atlanta and live in the town house."

Paula dropped her head guiltily. "I’m sorry, really I am."

Erin patted her hand, her eyes shooting daggers at the still pacing Mare. "That’s okay, sweetheart, you did nothing wrong." Mare snorted in derision at the comment, not noticing the change in Erin's expression. With one more reassuring pat, Erin stood up and faced Mare. "Mare, why don’t you sit down and we’ll try to figure out a way to sort this out."

Mare’s eyes bored holes into her and she opened her mouth to speak, but she and Paula both jumped when Erin's palm smacked down on the island's surface. Her voice hardened. "Dammit! I said… sit… down. You want to get this straightened out, or not?" Mare’s objections shattered under Erin’s intense glare and she sat back down, avoiding looking at Paula.

"That's better." Erin sat down, too, took a moment to calm herself and spoke firmly. "Over the past few weeks I’ve been with TJ more than either of you and I can tell you, Mare, that, once she has business matters out of the way, all she talks about is you. How wonderful you are, how your presence brightens her day... how much you’ve changed her life and how much she loves you."

Mare hung her head, refusing to look at Erin and shifting uncomfortably in her seat. "And I’ve been around you too, Mare. I know this has been hard for you and that you’ve had some concerns but, frankly, you gush about TJ in the same way. So it seems to me we have a solid foundation to work this out from."

She looked at both of the women. "We all know that TJ has been depressed the last few weeks. We expected it and we tried to prepare ourselves for it. And we all know that we’ve been under a lot of pressure, too. We knew it was going to be hard, so let's quit moaning about it and fix it." Erin took a breath. "Mare, what exactly did TJ say about moving back to the city?"

Mare was still angry, but her common sense told her that she was angrier at the situation than she was at Paula's interference. She knew Paula had only been trying to help. "She said that our relationship wasn’t working and we should call it quits." Mare stopped for a moment, wrestling for control of her voice. "I told her to give me a week to find a place to stay and I’d move my stuff. She said not to bother because she wasn’t coming back here… she would be transferring out to the hospital that treated her originally, then moving to the town house."

"Well, that isn’t as bad as it could have been, I suppose," remarked Erin.

"What do you mean?" inquired Mare.

"She didn’t throw you out, for one thing; it shows that she still cares for you. Our problem will be convincing our stubborn, pig-headed friend to cooperate with us." Erin considered her next words very carefully before she spoke. "I’m assuming here, Mare, that you want to work this out."

Mare didn’t hesitate with her answer. "Of course I do."

"In that case we have to convince TJ that you’re not about to walk out on her and that she can trust you. And you are going to have to be stronger than ever, Mare."

"And how do we do that?" said Paula.

"Today never happened." She looked at both of them.

"What?" came two very confused voices.

"Easy. Mare walks in there tomorrow and acts like today never happened. She’ll ignore any remarks TJ makes about it. We’ll deal with what happened today when things aren’t as heated."

"I’m not sure that will work, love. You know how stubborn she can be," warned Paula.

"It wouldn’t be as if she were here at the ranch," Mare stated, "where she can’t hide from us."

Paula nodded in agreement. "She’s right, Erin. You know as well as I do that if she goes back to Atlanta she’ll lock herself away in that fortress of hers. Not even we can get in there if she doesn’t want us to."

"In that case, we need to find out how soon we can get her home," said Erin.

"I’ll phone Dad and see what he says," Mare replied, finally feeling a little more optimistic about the day.


Chapter 10

Mare walked briskly down the beige-carpeted hallway, projecting an air of determination. She had spent three hours on the phone with her father last night, figuring out some way to get TJ out of the hospital. The end result had been that TJ would be leaving the hospital today.

Paula and Erin were at this moment in the physical therapy department arranging for the delivery of a multitude of equipment that would be needed at the ranch. Sacha would be returning to the ranch with them, which Mare was eternally grateful for since she was the only physical therapist that TJ took any notice of. Sacha would be living at the ranch with them until TJ’s therapy requirements didn’t need the full time attention of a therapist.

Michael had made several strict conditions for TJ’s early release from the spinal unit. Most of what had remained of yesterday and this morning had been spent sorting out the details. This morning she had arranged for a special mattress for TJ’s bed, then had contacted the contractors who had made the previous alterations to the ranch about getting plans for a pool brought forward so that construction would begin next week.

The list of rules and regulations was a mile long. TJ was to have as strict a regime at home as she would have had at the hospital. Michael would conduct regular checkups and if TJ’s condition deteriorated in any way she would be readmitted immediately.

The tough part, Mare admitted to herself, would be getting TJ to cooperate without too much fuss. The other major condition her father had insisted on was that TJ be happy with the arrangement. Mare was hoping that the shock of what she was about to do would at least keep TJ quiet until they had got her into the private ambulance that was waiting downstairs.

Striding round the corner, Mare walked straight up to Nancy at the desk. "Hello, Mare." The nurse smiled as she noticed the less tense posture and the smile on the woman’s face as she appeared at the desk. "You’re looking much better today."

"Thanks, Nancy, I feel much better, too. How is TJ today?"

"About the same. Didn’t have such a good day yesterday--as you might expect."

"She didn’t give you any trouble, did she?" It was one of the things that had been worrying Mare yesterday evening; that TJ might take out her frustrations on the staff.

"Nope, she hardly said a word to anyone. Didn’t even give Janice a problem last night either."

And that had been another of Mare’s worries. That TJ would spiral even deeper into the depression that already had her in its grip. "She was checked on at regular intervals, right? And you’ve been to see her this morning?"

"Yes, we’ve checked on her hourly. We know her history, so we kept a close eye on her."

Mare felt a wave of relief pass through her. "Thanks. I take it that Dad has spoken to you and told you what is going on?"

"He did indeed. Spoke to me this morning, in fact. Told me all about the rules he’d set you. TJ was a little anxious this morning so I gave her a sedative to calm her down. She’ll be a little dopey when you see her." The nurse looked at Mare and winked. "I hope it all works out for you."

"So do I, Nancy, so do I," replied Mare with a rueful smile. "Well, once more unto the breach…" Mare smiled and turned toward TJ’s door, taking a deep breath before advancing.


The room was chilly and it wasn’t from the air conditioning. TJ didn’t even look over as Mare stepped through the door. "Good morning," Mare said in the most cheerful voice she could muster. Stony silence was her reply. Like I expected any different? I’m amazed she hasn’t thrown anything at me. Then again it looks as though Nancy and her colleagues have moved pretty much everything out of reach. Bet that made my friend a bundle of joy to look after last night--nothing she loves more than being treated like a child.

Come on then, let's get to it before that sedative Nancy gave her starts to wear off. "Not in a talkative mood today? Well, don’t worry. You already know I can talk enough for both of us." Mare took her coat off and draped it over the chair by TJ’s bed. TJ wasn’t even looking toward her. This is going to be harder than I thought. How am I going to get her to agree to let me take her out of here, especially in front of my dad, if she’s going to pull the infamous ‘Meridian silent treatment.’ Wish I’d thought of a plan ‘B.’

"Look, I know you’re not entirely happy at the moment, but the girls and I hashed out a plan with Dad last night, to get you home today." TJ shifted on the bed and, though she was still ignoring her, Mare was pretty sure she was listening. "We have to meet certain conditions at the ranch, of course, but we’ve already started on them. The only thing standing in the way is you." Mare saw the eyebrow lift and knew she had TJ’s full attention.

"Dad has insisted that you agree to all his conditions and follow his rules to the letter. That means physical therapy at the ranch, and Sacha has agreed to stay with us until you no longer require her full-time services. When that happens, you’ll come to the hospital on a part-time basis. You’ll have to resume your sessions with Peter, and Dad, or one of his associates, will make spot checks at the ranch to make sure we are following the protocols he’s set down." Mare sat down in the chair and waited. Come on, TJ, it's up to you now.

TJ stared at the same spot on the ceiling that she had been staring at since the day she had awoken in this room. She had spent many hours trying to figure out how a perfect, circular hole could have found its way to being precisely above her bed, though it was a little fuzzy today after the pills that Nancy had given her. She heard every word that Mare said, had even felt a thrill of excitement go through her at the prospect of going home. It would have been perfect--except for one small matter. Mare wants her space; she’s already told Paula that. We moved too fast, and after the accident she knows she has gotten in over her head. She is here out of pity and a sense of duty. I’ll not let her sacrifice her happiness to stay with me. "I said I was going back to the townhouse and that’s where I’m going," mumbled TJ around the effects of the drugs.

Well, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Time to hit back hard, I guess. "Not for a few months, you're not. The girls gave Dad a plan of the setup you have there, and it is a 'no go.' Too many stairs, not enough space to set up for therapy, and…" she took a deep breath, knowing this was going to hurt her lover, "no one to look after you. The girls are staying at the ranch to run it."

I saw that one coming, didn’t I? I’ve been such a bitch about everything lately, it isn’t surprising that they are leaving, too. I’ve always known I’d end up by myself, anyway. "So I’ll buy somewhere else, hire a nurse or something," replied TJ.

Now you know why she was running a multi-million dollar company at age 20; she thinks so quickly on her feet. Hadn’t thought of that one, had you? She didn’t flinch at that last barb, almost as if she were expecting it. Let's see if this one hits the mark. Just remember you are doing this for her own good and any pain you cause now will only prevent more later. "You think it will be easy to find someone you can get on with or, more importantly, someone who can put up with you?" Mare looked away, not wanting to see the flinch, or the pain, she knew that caused. "Besides, that would still take time to set up."

"I suppose you’d get your dad to veto anything I wanted anyway," snapped TJ bitterly, finally turning her head to look at Mare.

"I could try, but I doubt it would make much of a difference. You’re his patient; your needs come before anything or anybody else’s. All it really comes down to is whether you want out of here, or not. Your choice--stay or go back to the ranch? Dad will be in to see you on his ward rounds. Think it over and let him know what you decide. There's an ambulance waiting downstairs, if you decide to go." Mare stood up and collected her coat from the back of the chair. With one last glance at her lover she walked out.

TJ squeezed her eyes shut, trying to prevent the tears she knew were forming from falling. The attempt was in vain, and water leaked from between the tightly closed lids. There was pain set deep in her chest that didn’t come from the injuries she had sustained, or from the surgery. It came from the understanding that she had lost the woman she loved most. And that if she pursued the course of action she had planned to, by returning to the townhouse, then she would also lose the friendship of Erin and Paula.

TJ wasn’t a selfish person; she didn’t hurt those around her on purpose. She knew she said things that hurt, but most times she couldn’t help herself. It seemed as though she stood back watching someone else say all the hurtful things and could do nothing to stop her.

Another nagging doubt lurked at the back of her mind as well. Mare seemed to be ignoring what happened yesterday, but TJ couldn’t. Mare had come to see her today out of some sense of duty or pity. TJ could understand that, after the accident that had landed her back in the hospital, Mare would be having second thoughts. Who wouldn’t? But she wasn’t going to let Mare sacrifice her happiness because she thought it was her duty to look after her now. She wouldn’t let the girls do that either, for that matter. Going back to the ranch would only create more work for them, when they already had enough on their plates. So what was she going to do?

Mare was sitting in the small waiting area outside TJ’s room when Erin and Paula approached with her father.

"Look who we found prowling the corridors," said Erin as she pulled a chair out for Paula.

"Hello, sweetheart," her father greeted her and bent to kiss her cheek. "These two have been causing havoc in my physical therapy department. What is it about your friends that has that department running in terror?"

"Hi, Dad. I have no idea; maybe they thought that TJ was following behind them."

"Nah, Sacha has her well and truly under control, and, speaking of TJ, have you talked with her?"

"Yeah, I have, but I don’t know what she is going to do." Or what I can do, either.


"Take a seat," offered Michael, walking behind his desk and sitting down. He waited quietly while the women settled themselves and then let the silence continue for a few more ticks of the clock, tension building with each movement of the second hand.

"I have no idea what has been going on, what has been said or hasn’t been. But I will tell you this; it hasn’t helped TJ at all."

Mare cringed at her father’s angry tone. "She said no?" she asked in dismay.

Michael looked over to his daughter. "She didn’t know what she wanted. I can’t stress to you, enough, not only what this accident has done physically to TJ but also what it has done mentally. She cannot, and I mean cannot, take anymore. If I allow you to take her back to the ranch--and I’m seriously rethinking my position on that--there can be no repeat of yesterday. And I’ll also want her counselling session to recommence right away."

"You mean that you are letting us take her?" Erin leaned forward.

Michael thought for a second and then spoke. "I’m going to let you take her home, for a trial period at least. I’ve come to the opinion that staying in the hospital any longer is probably going to do more harm than good."

"Thank you, Michael. We appreciate your help," said Paula.

Mare sat quietly, relief at her father’s decision releasing the tension from her shoulders. Erin and Paula stood and prepared to leave the office.

"You coming, Mare?" Erin asked as she pulled the door open.

"I just need a few minutes with Dad. Why don’t you let Nancy know that TJ is coming with us and she can get the ambulance crew notified?"

"Okay, we’ll meet you at TJ’s room when you've finished."

"Sure." Mare smiled as the two women left the room. "So..." Mare turned back to her Dad, "are you angry with me?"

"Not in the least, honey." Michael stood and walked around his desk. "In a situation like this I have to put TJ’s well-being first. But I do understand that this isn’t easy for you either. You didn’t actually expect to have to go through this type of thing when you signed on with TJ, did you?"

Mare sat back in her chair, eyes downcast. "No, but it shouldn’t make a difference if I love her, should it, Dad?"

"I’m not questioning your love for her, darling. I’m just saying that this puts pressure on you as well and, unlike the girls, you haven’t been through this or seen TJ like this before. It was bound to stretch you somewhat. However, I have to protect TJ, and I really need you to hold back from putting any more pressure on her. That doesn’t mean you let her get away with blue murder, it just means you have to be careful in what you discuss with her. Okay?"

"Yeah, okay, Dad, I hear you."

"Good. Remember, you can always pick up the phone and yell at me, instead of TJ, if you need to. I suspect, though, that when she starts her counseling sessions again most of the anger she feels will be worked through or redirected. Come on, I’ll walk you back to her room."

To Be Continued in Part 4.

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