Many Roads To Travel
by Karen A. Surtees and PruferBlue

Part 4

See Part 1 for disclaimers.


Chapter 11

The day after coming home, TJ had bullied Paula and Erin into taking her out to the barn to see Flag. As soon as TJ's chair came through the barn doors, the golden palomino whinnied and tossed her head about until TJ reached her stall. Flag dropped her head to TJ and long arms engulfed her neck in an eager hug as TJ whispered her affection through a throat tight with emotion.

When she had calmed herself, TJ's lips quirked as she recognized the blanket hanging along the side of Flag's stall. I have to admit that Mare's been paying proper attention to Flag, even if our relationship is in tatters. Satisfied with Flag's condition, but brooding over her own, TJ allowed her two friends to take her back into the ranch house. TJ wheeled into the office, barked that she didn't want to be disturbed and slammed the office door. Erin and Paula looked at each other and shrugged, then went about their business, happy to stay away from the boss during her moody periods.

A couple of mornings later, the sun hadn't yet risen to start the day and TJ lay in her bed, listening intently. Each morning since arriving home, she had heard a horse come to the barn and stop. After a short time, another horse rode away from the barn, then returned about an hour later. Then, after another short interval, a horse rode away again. At first, TJ's emotions were in such turmoil that she didn't take notice of the unusual activity. But today she noticed it and questioned it.

I could swear that second horse is Flag. If it is, then someone's riding her without my permission. What's going on? How could anyone dare to let that happen? Let me check out the window. TJ pulled her chair closer to the bed, pushed its nearer arm up and reached for the overhead handle. That's not going to work. Grimacing at the pain threatening to assail her when she raised her arms, she wiped her hand across the bead of sweat forming on her upper lip.

Frustration at her helplessness triggered her stubborn streak and made her determined to get into the chair. She waited for the pain to recede, then reached across the seat with her left hand and grabbed the armrest. As she pulled herself slowly forward over the seat, she put her right forearm and elbow on the seat and turned her moving body toward the right side. Then she raised her elbow and jockeyed her right hand under her, on the seat, pushing with it as she pulled with her left against the armrest. Her trunk came up and swung around as her rear end landed on the seat.

TJ sat for a moment, breathing heavily but smiling at this little victory. She wheeled her chair over to her bedroom window and tried to see what was going on. Apparently the rider took off in the opposite direction, because no one came past her side of the house. Damn! After all that trouble. I'll get to the bottom of this at breakfast, TJ vowed. She wheeled from the window and eyed the bed. At least there's one bright thing--getting outta the chair should be a lot easier than getting into it… I hope.


Because TJ would need assistance for a while with some of her activities, Erin or Paula came in each morning and helped with her morning rituals of bathing and dressing. Her exercises were scheduled for after breakfast and were overseen by Sacha, a firm taskmaster.

Erin helped TJ this morning, then accompanied her to the kitchen for breakfast. Mare and Sacha were already seated and Paula had just added places for her partner and TJ. With a minimum of conversation, the women ate quickly and quietly until breakfast was over. Then TJ pushed her dishes away and leaned forward, placing both arms on the table. She spoke very softly, bringing each pair of eyes swerving swiftly to her own. "Who's been riding Flag every morning?"

Uh oh, there's that soft, but dangerous, tone. Erin swallowed hard before throwing her voice into the dead silence. "He's a new fellow named Tom."

TJ asked even more softly, "And just why is one of the hands riding Flag?"

"Because I asked him to," answered Mare with a tilt of her chin. TJ's eyes bored into hers. The ferocious look on TJ's face made the vet's breath catch but she struggled on. "Flag wasn't eating properly even with the blankets near her. She had improved a little bit, but not enough, and she was still fitful and skittish. Tom asked if he could ride her to soothe her and try to rid her of some of that skittishness."

TJ started drumming her fingers on the table, as Mare persevered. "We all thought it would be a good idea and I told Tom to give it a try. Flag took a shine to him right away. She started to calm down and began eating right after the first time he rode her; and she's been eating well since," Mare stated flatly.

A sneer lifted one corner of TJ's upper lip. "And who gave you the right to make that decision?" she challenged.

Erin and Paula sat rigidly, transfixed, their eyes moving from TJ to Mare as each spoke. Sacha seemed less concerned, but she watched the wrangling with interest.

Mare knew that Erin had been involved in the decision, but she saw no reason to bring another person into TJ's range of fire. She did not back down one iota and her voice hardened. "I'm the vet for this ranch and Flag was sick. I took it on myself to make that decision."

TJ's words stung like a whip. "That could be subject to change."

Mare stood up so fast, her chair toppled over. The bang as it hit the floor made everyone jump. "We all know you are the one in charge here, TJ. You don't have to shove it down our throats by doing something so damned childish." So Dad didn't want TJ upset, huh? There's an impossible task. Mare stalked to the door and flung it open, then turned to face TJ's stone-hard countenance. "But if that's your choice, just leave it in writing--as the contract states--in my office." Mare turned back and went through the door, slamming it behind her.

Erin and Paula looked at each other in alarm, and then turned their heads toward TJ. Erin nervously cleared her throat and asked, "Do you want me to draw up a letter canceling Mare's contract, TJ?"

TJ slumped back in her chair. "No." Pain swept across TJ's face as she recalled that Mare herself might decide to leave her, but the cold look was back in place when she addressed Erin. "I want to meet this man."

Erin winced as she answered, "He's not a man, TJ, so please don't be too tough on him. He's just a boy."

"What?" TJ sputtered and leaned forward again. "You let a boy ride my Flag? My favorite? She's irreplaceable!"

"Take it easy, TJ," Paula interrupted. "The kid's a great rider. You can tell in two seconds that he was born to the saddle."

"I'll see if he was born to the saddle and whether he will continue to ride Flag." TJ's cold look was becoming stormy. "Have him come by the house and I'll check him out."

Sacha stood up, looked at her watch and calmly announced, "You can settle this later, TJ; it's time for your therapy." TJ's mind was so unsettled by the news about Flag's rider that she didn't even protest when Sacha walked behind the chair, grabbed the handles and pushed her toward the gym. As she left, TJ could be heard muttering, "I can't believe they let some kid ride Flag."

Erin looked at Paula and both of them blew a breath of relief from their mouths. "What do you think?" asked Erin. The two women rose and cleared the table as they spoke.

"I think we might be okay," Paula replied. "I ran into Tom at the grocery store yesterday and I hardly recognized him. He's starting to grow a beard--actually a pretty heavy one for a kid--and wearing reflective wraparound sunglasses. I guess it must have dawned on him that his eyes might give him away. I can't say how TJ's going to treat him, but she sure as heck shouldn't suspect he's a relative."

Erin nodded. "Good. Tom will still be exercising Flag every morning unless TJ stops him, but I asked Bill to switch him away from stable duty for a while, just in case."

Paula put an arm around Erin's shoulders and squeezed. "That was good thinking, sweetheart. TJ has her counseling session this afternoon, so why don't you ask Bill to send Tom over sometime tomorrow? And we can try to be available, too. The kid might need some moral support."

Erin slipped an arm around her lover's waist and leaned into her. "I'll do that. Now I guess we better get to work." The women kissed good-bye and went about their duties.


"Hey, Tom!" Bill Jacobs hollered as he saw Tom walking toward the cookhouse, his assigned job for the day. The young man stopped and waited until the foreman caught up to him. "Miss Meridian wants to see you tomorrow right after lunch, around one o'clock."

A chance to meet TJ! Tom's heart began to pound so hard, he wondered if Bill could hear it. "Did she say what she wanted?"

"No, I just got a message for you to be there. Maybe she doesn't like your sunglasses." Bill grinned at the boy. He was the only hand who wore sunglasses and the others teased him about Easterners being wimps. But he took it in stride; he seemed like a pretty nice kid and he was a hard worker, often jumping in to help without being asked.

"Right!" Tom laughed. "I don't wear them when I'm riding Flag; it's still dark out." Even if she did see me, she wouldn't see my eyes clearly.

When Tom had applied for the job at Meridian ranch and sat in the living room, waiting to speak with Miss Tanner, he saw a striking photo of his sister adorning a wall shelf. From magazine pictures, he already knew that their eyes were very similar, but this photo told him that their eyes were practically identical. Thus he adopted the reflecting sunglasses.

Bill chuckled. "You just be sure to be there, okay?"

"No problem, Bill. I'll be there." Bill waved and walked away as Tom entered the cookhouse. Tom had trouble keeping his mind on his chores. All he could think about was his meeting with his sister. He remembered Doc Gillespie's warning: "Miss Meridian might be annoyed that someone else is riding Flag when she isn't able to. So you might run the risk of taking the brunt of her anger."

But even that possibility didn't dampen his joy. At last he would meet his sister face to face on even terms. She doesn't know who I am so there won't be any hard feelings messing us up. I'll get to meet the real TJ Meridian.


Hearing a car, Erin looked out the window and saw the psychologist, Peter Tauper, arriving for TJ's first counseling session since the accident. Because TJ's back wasn't healed enough yet for a ride in a car, arrangements had been made for her to continue her counseling sessions at home. Erin let the psychologist in. She quickly filled him in on the morning's happenings, and TJ's reluctance to have the session, then showed him to TJ's office.

TJ, sitting behind her desk, nodded to Peter as Erin announced him.

"Hello, TJ." He walked over and, reaching across the desk, shook her hand. Of medium height and weight, Peter wore a beard and mustache slightly darker than his light-brown hair. A little disconcertingly, eyes of two different colors--one blue, one brown--looked through small, wire-frame glasses.

"I expected you to be in bed. You just got home from the hospital, didn't you?" Peter sat in one of the chairs pulled up in front of the huge desk and laid his briefcase across his knees. He also had half-expected Mare to be here, though Erin's recounting of the morning's events explained her absence.

"They put me in a brace that supports my back." TJ knocked her knuckles against the turtle shell brace she wore under her clothing. "As long as I can sit up, that's what I'd rather do."

"Independent as ever, I see," Peter remarked, and got a small snort for an answer. He closely observed TJ, noticing her pale skin tone, stormy eyes and the pencil being flipped by her agitated fingers. I guess it's only natural that she should look pale, but I don't like the eyes or the agitation. When I consulted Dr. Gillis, he expressly wanted TJ to be kept calm.

He felt TJ's eyes on him as he snapped his briefcase open and withdrew a tape recorder, which he laid on the desk. Closing the briefcase, he set it on the floor then looked at her.

"Why don't you come around here and sit near me, TJ? I think it's easier to talk in a friendly atmosphere rather than a businesslike one." Peter remembered this advice from Mare. After their first meeting, she had phoned him and given him a few pointers about making TJ more comfortable at her sessions. Once he saw the influence the young woman had on his patient, Mare's input had been welcomed.

"I'd rather stay here," TJ answered abruptly.

"Okay, that's no problem." Peter got up, lifted the chair that was nearest to TJ and moved it behind the desk. He set it near the raven-haired woman, then reached across, turned on the tape recorder and sat down. His eyes met rather startled blue ones that slowly warmed and showed a flicker of respect.

"Would you like to talk about what is upsetting you right now?" Peter asked gently.

TJ fidgeted for a moment. She still found it difficult to talk about her emotions, and the first few minutes were the worst.

"Mare and I were… I kind of pushed her away. I… didn't want to have a session without her here but I… wasn't willing to ask her to stay with me." TJ shrugged. "So, I wanted to cancel this appointment."

It hadn't been quite that simple. Paula, Erin and Sacha had ganged up on her about how she shouldn't miss a counseling session. Usually they could prevail upon TJ to do what she knew was right, but this morning had been different. In spite of the fact that they were barely speaking, TJ had wanted Mare to be present at the session. But she wasn't sure how to broach the subject. She hoped to find a way to ask her at breakfast, then nothing had gone as planned. First TJ had discovered someone was riding Flag. Then, after TJ's angry remark about ending her contract as the ranch's vet, Mare had slammed out of the house.

Remorseful at having threatened Mare, yet angry at Mare's making the decision about someone riding Flag, TJ adamantly refused to have a counseling session. Silencing the women by screaming, "I am the boss here! I will not be pushed around!" she stormed into her office and hurled the door shut.

Moments later, Sacha opened the door without knocking and walked into the lion's den. At least that's what Erin and Paula had called it when they warned her that TJ might throw something at her that was more substantial than words. Sure enough, Sacha had to duck the pencil caddy that hit the door and splattered its contents on the floor. Without a word, the therapist bent down and methodically picked up every article, keeping an eye on TJ's movements, just in case.

But nothing more was forthcoming. Throwing the caddy seemed to relieve some of her frustration, though her eyes remained turbulent.

Sacha walked to the desk with the rescued caddy and, rather than set it back down, she offered it to TJ, patiently waiting to see if she would reach for it. A reluctant hand finally grabbed the caddy and slapped it onto the desktop. "Put the damn thing down," TJ growled, already berating herself for having thrown it.

Sacha kept eye contact with TJ as she placed her hands on the desk and assumed a no-nonsense attitude. "If you want to have sensible control of your life, TJ, then you have to learn to handle your emotions--and sometimes you have to make some difficult decisions." she leaned in a little more toward TJ and frowned. "Do you want to go up the hard road that leads forward? Or do you want to go down the easy one that goes backward?"

TJ's struggle showed in her face. She knew that Sacha spoke the truth and she fought to calm herself. Leaning her elbows on the desk, she covered her face with her hands. Her muffled voice answered wearily, "You know which one I want."

Sacha walked behind the desk and put her hand on TJ's shoulder. "Don't you think your counseling session will help you go forward?" Sacha knew her patient well enough to let her make the decision. When TJ felt she had some control over what she needed to do, she was a lot easier to persuade.

"But I wanted Mare to be here with me for it," TJ muttered. She pushed her head further into her hands, splaying her fingers into her hair. Instead, I've pushed her further away. I'm too damn confused to know what I want.

Sacha moved behind TJ and began to massage the tightness in her neck and shoulders. "That's not going to happen, today, but you're a big girl now, you can handle it. And maybe Peter can help you resolve some of your anger and give you and Mare a better chance of getting back together."

"Maybe." Sacha felt TJ's muscles start to relax as this idea sank in.

She ended her massage and TJ straightened back up, winding her head into a circle. "Thanks, Sacha, that feels a lot better."

As Sacha moved back alongside the chair, TJ met the therapist's inquiring gaze. Knowing Sacha wouldn't give up until she got the answer she wanted, TJ threw up her hands. "Okay, I'll see Peter this afternoon. You win." Darn woman's as relentless as I am.

"Right decision, TJ," Sacha encouraged her. Then she patted TJ's cheek. "You're the one who wins."

Peter leaned back in his chair and relaxed. "I'm glad you didn't cancel our appointment."

"You can thank Sacha for that. She talked me out of it." Talked me out of it? She barely said 50 words. How does she do that?

"Maybe we can talk about what happened between you and Mare this morning?"

TJ rubbed her neck. "I… ah… I guess this sounds pretty dumb, but I got upset when I found out somebody else was riding my horse."

"Why do you suppose that you got upset?"

TJ hesitated, then continued. "Why should someone else be allowed to ride Flag. She's my horse."

"Why is someone else riding her?"

"Because Mare said he could. He's just a kid, too. How do I know he'll take good care of her?" TJ started to feel angry all over again. "And Paula and Erin thought it was okay, too." She tapped the pencil against the desktop.

"Why did Mare let him ride Flag?"

"Because Flag was homesick for me and wasn't eating right. Seems like when this kid rode her she began to eat better." Now the pencil was being twisted in her hands.

"Wasn't that good for Flag?"

TJ snorted a breath of frustration. "Of course it was. I'm mostly angry that they said he could ride her without asking me first. What do you want me to say?" she demanded, fixing Peter with a stare. She suddenly felt exhausted.

Peter's expression never changed. "It doesn't matter what I want you to say, TJ. I'm just trying to help you learn to cope with how you feel about different things in your life. Since you say you are angry about it, how do you think you can handle that?"

"It doesn't really matter, does it? I already yelled at everyone and threatened to fire Mare. I can't take back what I said." TJ shook her head. Just handing out my usual dose of daily misery.

Suddenly she yawned, simultaneously realizing that her back pain was returning with a vengeance. "I'll try to sort my mind out about this, Peter, but right now I'm too tired and sore to even care." She unconsciously emphasized the point by placing the pencil back in the caddy.

Peter looked guiltily at his watch. He chided himself for not remembering that TJ didn't have her usual stamina yet. "TJ, we'll address this again in our next session. I'll have Mrs. Haddon call you to set up an appointment." He had the uncomfortable feeling that he hadn't helped TJ much this time. But maybe she will think more deeply about what happened, which is good.

TJ pushed a button beneath her chair arm and Erin came in to show Peter out. Noticing that TJ looked very tired, she let Peter out then returned to the office. "Are you feeling okay, TJ?"

Erin's heart sagged at the forlorn look in TJ's eyes. ""I'm going to take a nap, Erin. Come help me out of the chair, okay?" TJ wheeled toward the hall doorway.

"Sure, TJ," Erin said as she walked next to the chair and put her hand on TJ's shoulder. "You know I'll help you anytime you want me to."

TJ patted Erin's hand. "You're too good to me, kiddo," she sighed.


The next morning, Tom arose as usual and rode to the barn. After saddling Flag, he rode out, left the corral and turned to the right-hand trail. A sharp whistle sounded and Flag reared, whinnied and tried to change direction. Tom fought for control until another whistle came and Flag reared again. This time Tom let the palomino have her head and she raced across the back of the ranch house and trotted up to a window that was lit from within. A form silhouetted against the open window came into focus as Flag neared.

The palomino stopped just beyond some shrubbery. "Bring her closer," a woman's low voice commanded.

"There are shrubs here, ma'am," Tom explained. It's TJ!

"The hell with the shrubs, I said bring her closer!" TJ demanded in a voice that brooked no argument.

Tom clucked and Flag's hooves flattened the shrubs as she poked her head into the window and bumped her nose against TJ. The dark-haired woman chuckled and kissed the golden head while her fingers scratched Flag's forelock. "Good girl, Flag," she murmured.

Tom's heart was so full he thought it would burst. He wished he could get a clearer view of TJ, but the light behind her kept her face shadowed.

TJ couldn't see him clearly, either. As Flag had approached, she could tell the rider was tall, but that was the extent of what she could see. She pulled her head back away from Flag and her voice hardened. "What are you doing on my horse?"

Tom tugged on the brim of his hat. "Miss Meridian, I'm Tom Russell. Your horse missed you and she wasn't eating. I thought maybe if I could ride her for a while, it would help take her mind off of you and she would start to eat again."

TJ snorted, but Tom continued. "You're right to snort, ma'am. The only way I could get Flag to leave the barn was to bring one of your blankets with me." Tom showed her by lifting the edge of a blanket he had laid across the top of the saddle. "The combination of the blankets and my riding her has worked." He patted Flag's shoulder. "She's been eating well ever since and is in great shape."

TJ's head cocked and she asked sharply, "Who are you?"

Tom took a deep breath and answered firmly, "Miss Meridian, I'm just a guy who loves Flag, same as you do. And I sure wish you were the one riding her instead of me."

TJ's head lowered for a few seconds and she took in a breath that sounded almost like a gasp. Who would think that a 16-year-old kid would be intuitive enough to recognize that I'm jealous of him? Hell, he just made me recognize it myself.

Then her head snapped back up. "Haven't we met before? You seem familiar to me."

He paused, then responded in a lower voice, "No, ma'am, we've never met. I wouldn't have forgotten you."

Something in the timbre of Tom's voice intensified the feeling of familiarity, muddling TJ's thoughts. I know we must have met before. Is he lying to me? "Finish your ride," she ordered impatiently, shooing him away with her hand. "I'll see you this afternoon."

Tom touched the brim of his hat again. "Ma'am," he answered, then pulled Flag away and rode off.

TJ's eyes followed Flag's retreat while she could still see them. He does ride like he's born to it. Then another pang of jealousy struck her. But that doesn't mean he should be riding my Flag. We'll get this straightened out this afternoon.


Chapter 12

Throughout that morning, thoughts of Tom and Flag alternated through TJ's mind with thoughts of Mare's part in the arrangement. Now she was in the kitchen awaiting Tom's arrival and the thoughts still occupied her. She tried to divorce herself from her constant pain and face the situation honestly. I am concerned about some kid riding Flag. Even if he did a good job, I don't like that someone else rode Flag while I couldn't. But, let's face it, part of that is jealousy.

But what about Mare? She did have Flag's best interests at heart, but why did she make the decision herself without consulting me? Am I jealous about this, too? No, she made a decision that I was capable of making but she never asked me. That seems too much like trying to take over my life and I had enough of that with my father. We're going to have to get this straightened out. Then TJ felt a tugging on her heart and she grimaced. If we ever talk again.

A movement outside caught her eye and she watched as Tom rode up and dismounted, tying his mount to a corral post. He pulled off his hat, dropped it over the saddle horn and ran long fingers through his heavy hair. After settling his sunglasses firmly on his face, he straightened his shoulders and proceeded to the house.

TJ wheeled to the door and let him in then led him to the kitchen table and invited him to sit. The table legs had been fitted with lifts so that TJ's chair slipped beneath the tabletop and she jockeyed it into place across from Tom. A pad and pencil lay in front of her and a pitcher of iced tea, two tumblers and some napkins sat nearby.

Neither spoke as TJ filled both tumblers and slid one across to Tom, who nodded his thanks and took a long drink. TJ sipped at hers while training her eyes on Tom. Tom examined her just as intently and finally couldn't discourage the beginnings of a tiny smile from whispering around the edges of his lips. Wow! She sure is gorgeous. She looks a lot like Dad; even has that same 'don't mess with me' edge he always had when he felt he needed it. And those eyes… even more powerful than Dad's. They just reach out and take you prisoner.

TJ studied the youngster across from her. Hard to think of him as a kid; with that beard he looks pretty mature. And seems to have plenty of poise; I'll give him that. Or else he's not much of a talker.

She picked up the pencil and started twirling it through her fingers. "So… Tom. I looked you up in our personnel files and there isn't much there. Says you come from Pennsylvania, you've completed high school and you've been riding horses since you were two years old. There's not even a Social Security number for you. Care to explain?"

She even has a gorgeous voice. Actually, TJ could have had three eyes and a voice like a banshee and Tom would still have been enthralled. He had spent years imagining what it would be like to know his sister and here he was in her presence. He could hardly absorb his good fortune.

"I forgot my Social Security number and have to write to my mother to get it. I haven't gotten around to doing that yet."

"Your mother doesn't have a phone?" TJ asked incredulously.

Tom started to drum his fingers then caught himself and clasped his hands together, intertwining his fingers. "Actually, she does, but… " He cleared his throat, "She's on vacation right now and I haven't been able to get in touch with her." Please accept this excuse, TJ. I really don't want to tell you more lies.

TJ stuck the pencil's eraser between her teeth, nibbled it for a moment then pulled it away. "Does your mother know you're here?"

The dark head lowered. "No."

"And you don't want her to know?"

"No." The head came back up. "I mean yes, I don't want her to know. She wants to send me away to college and I'm not ready for that yet. I want to live a little first." Tom scooted his chair in tight against the table as his voice deepened and became impassioned. "I've been in boarding schools all my life. I don't even know what the real world is like and I want a chance to find out before I get cooped up again. I've never had a chance to decide anything for myself. I figure I need to learn to make little decisions before I'm faced with making big ones that will determine the course of my life. Mother didn't agree with that, so as soon as she left for her vacation, I left home… and wound up here... and fell in love with your horse."

He took a deep breath and unconsciously clasped his hands more tightly. "I'm hoping you will let me stay."

Tom tensed and his breathing became very shallow. He stared at TJ as she considered what he had told her. Her face was an unreadable mask as she dropped her eyes to her hands, seeming to watch closely as her fingers played with the pencil she held.

Well, Tom, you said two things I find very compelling. First, you've never had a chance to make decisions for yourself. Boy, when I think of how I grew up, can I relate to that! And second, you said you fell in love with my horse. You didn't say Flag… somehow your intuition told you exactly the right way to let me know that you are not making an emotional claim on my favorite. And I needed to know that. Now I know who you remind me of.

TJ's head lifted, then her eyes came up and Tom stopped breathing altogether. She pursed her lips, nodded several times, and then said softly, "I want you to get in touch with your mother as soon as you can, but… you can stay."

A long hiss sounded as Tom sucked in oxygen to fill his starved lungs. Then he let it out with a quick rush of air. "Thanks, Miss Meridian. I'll work hard for you. And I'll take great care of Flag." He hesitated for a moment, realizing that the riding issue hadn't been settled, and then ventured, "If you'll let me, that is."

"Well, Flag does seem to be used to you," TJ said. Now that the final decision was up to her, the idea of Tom riding Flag didn't bother her as much. Guess I mostly resented someone else making that decision for me.

"That might be because of the blankets," Tom admitted.

"Whatever… it seems to be working. I'll let you keep riding her… until I'm able to." Tom heard the wistful note that crept into TJ's voice.

"I know you have to be missing her just like she's been missing you, Miss Meridian. I know I would. I sure hope you can ride her soon." Even if I can't ride Flag then, just being near you will be enough for me. And someday, when we know each other better, I'll tell you I'm your brother.

TJ's lips twisted as the sincerity of the young man's words threatened to overwhelm her. "Yeah," she whispered, then swallowed and tried again. "Let's go outside and see her," she suggested in a stronger voice.

"Right!" Tom agreed enthusiastically. He jumped up and held the door open as TJ wheeled through. As he followed his sister outside to the barn, he felt like he would burst with joy. What a great day!


Driving slowly through the cemetery entrance, Mare regretted that the truck's motor diminished the tranquility. A wrought iron fence enclosed twenty manicured acres, about half-occupied by burial plots. Several of the low, rolling hills displayed neatly aligned monoliths, memorials to the soul's emergence from life's incarnate cocoon. Picturesquely speckling the landscape, ancient, vine-covered trees lent an air of stability and peace.

Mare parked in her usual spot along the road, at the base of the slight rise on which her mother's grave rested. Before climbing out, the vet reached across to the passenger seat and picked up her tote bag and a spray of wildflowers. She would lay the bouquet on the grave, complementing the multicolored petunias that still bloomed at the base of the granite monument.

Ascending the slight rise, Mare took a deep breath, inhaling the light scent of flowers, mown grass and turned earth. Cemeteries have a look and feel, and even a smell, all their own. The hump of the rise leveled out and Mare crossed beneath the hovering limbs of the guardian tree. She stopped and sank to the ground next to her mother's grave, placing the flowers on it in a neat fan.

Pulling her tote bag closer, she removed the grass shears, a knife and a whiskbroom and proceeded to clean around the edges of the granite monument, brushing the stone off, too, when she finished. Then she evened out the spots missed by the mowers, until the grave was clean and neat.

When she was done, she sat quietly for a moment, bringing her mother to the forefront of her mind. In life, Mare's mother had often shared her shrewd insights into human nature and Mare frequently used her visits to the gravesite to dredge up her mother's teachings from her memory.

Recognizing that the strength of TJ's personality colored almost her whole world, Mare wanted to share that with her mother. She looked forward to receiving some guidance in her quest to provide support for TJ. She knew they both needed to learn to deal with her partner's physical and emotional challenges, or they could be overwhelmed by them.

As usual, Mare brushed her fingers in greeting across the chiseled letters of the polished, gray monument. Jane Arnold Gillespie. Hi, Mom.

Sorry I missed some visits with you, Mom, but I'm sure you understand. I felt like I was in a rat race there for a while: changing my residence, trying to get Barry started on his part of the practice, taking care of my end of it, and traveling to Springerly to see TJ. If you could hear my thoughts then, they must have been pretty jumbled!

Barry's doing really well, which is a blessing. Everyone is crazy about him. I wish you could see his little boy. He's a roly-poly whirlwind and Berta is the perfect mother for him. She never bats an eye, just keeps doing whatever needs doing.

Jess is still away. Seems he picked up some extra new business in the same area, so he decided to stay awhile and get that off the ground. I'll get the full report when he gets back and fill you in on it.

But here's the tough part, Mom, where I really need your help. We've brought TJ home. She's having a pretty rough time with pain, which we all pretty well expected. When she feels good, she is a loving, caring woman with a proud, but generous, nature. But when she feels miserable, she seems to want everyone to feel miserable with her--the old misery loves company syndrome, I guess. It's tough to see TJ giving Erin and Paula such a hard time but it's kinda sweet to watch them stick up for each other. I'm hoping it pulls them closer together instead of pushing them apart.

The problem is, I'm not sure how to handle it when TJ gets that miserable. She's really upset with me right now. She said she wanted to leave me, but I really think she's afraid I'll leave her. I know, Erin says it's not her talking, it's the pain. But what can I do to help her deal with the pain and stop making everybody else miserable, too?

Mare looked within and waited for an answer.

Talk to her? I have talked to her, a hundred times; we all have and it hasn't done much good. What's that? You're saying talk with her, not at her? Mare considered that suggestion as it floated into her mind. You're right, we have talked at her, mostly in angry voices, too. I tell myself that I'm trying to understand her, but I've never experienced what she's going through. Another suggestion entered Mare's thoughts and she smiled gently. Yeah, that might help. I'll give it a try, a little further down the road.

The good news, Mom, is that TJ's continuing with her counseling, trying to clean up the garbage left from her past. She's making a hard effort to overcome it and I hope to help her. If love can do it, we'll get it done. Maybe, someday, I'll even get her to come into my office. Remember, I chose the room where her father used to beat her? But I don't expect her to come into it anytime soon.

Mare paused as her mother's guidance seemed very near again. I didn't choose her father's office to weaken her control, but it probably still looks that way to her. Especially when I half threatened her in order to get to use it. Mare sighed. Yeah, that gives her double reason to avoid the place. What a nitwit I can be! But I'll work on it.

Well, Mom, TJ and I have gotten pretty angry with each other a few times, but our love has never quit. How I wish you two could have known each other! TJ's the best thing that ever happened to me, and I will always be grateful that she came into my life, and loves me, too. Mare closed her eyes and hugged herself while a soft smile played around her lips. And if I have anything to say about it, we'll be back together again soon. Where we both belong.

Yearning for TJ engulfed her and Mare stood and brushed pieces of grass from her jeans. Say a prayer for her once in awhile, will you, Mom? And for me. We can both use the help. Thanks, Mom.

Mare kissed her fingers and touched them to the stone. Walking back down the rise, she headed home, both comforted and enlightened.


Mare looked longingly out of the window to the bright sunshine of the day, then back down at the mountains of paperwork that had built and been neglected over the last few days. She sighed and pulled the next stack toward her.

Bringing TJ back to the ranch was supposed to have made life easier and solved all their problems, but that had not been the case. There had been the initial problem with the organization of the therapy equipment. As a result, the contractors had been brought back to reorganize the gym to Sacha’s standards, disrupting the entire household until they were finished. Tired of the turmoil, TJ had insisted that building the pool be postponed until a later date.

And after just over two months away from home, TJ had problems adjusting to life back at the ranch. Although she was to some extent able to fend for herself, she still needed help to get in and out of her chair and assistance with several other everyday activities that she had been able to do for herself previously. She was still in some pain and her therapy was going slowly. The depression that had settled on her in the hospital hadn’t lifted with her return to the ranch. And of course she was still hardly talking to Mare. Which meant a very lonely vet spent her nights in her own suite.

Mare could understand TJ’s reaction to her missing the therapy session at the hospital, especially after hearing Paula's admission of what she had said to TJ several days before. Still, enough time had passed since then that TJ should be realizing that she wasn’t about to up and leave her. Yes, she knew that she would have to work to regain the trust she had lost, but how could she do that if they weren’t talking to each other? A light tapping on the door roused her from her morbid thoughts.

"Come in!" she called, pushing the paperwork away from her.

Sacha’s head poked around the door. "You busy?"

"Yes," groaned Mare. "But, please, interrupt me."

"That bad, huh?" Sacha closed the door behind her and sat across from Mare.

"Worse," said Mare as she relaxed back into her high-backed, leather chair. "I hate paperwork and that’s all I’m doing at the moment. Is TJ okay?"

"Actually, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about." Sacha pushed on despite the lowering of Mare’s head. "I know that you two aren’t exactly hitting it off at the moment. But I want you to know that she still needs you, despite the problems you guys have."

"Really? I was beginning to wonder whether she even knew I still existed."

"Oh, she does, believe me. She is always looking for you when we’re in session, and she is always disappointed when you don’t appear."

"She told me she didn’t want me there!" exclaimed Mare.

Sacha laughed. "I know she did, but that was pride and bravado speaking. You know TJ well enough now to know that when it comes to emotional issues she does the exact opposite of what she needs."

"You mean she’s pushing me away on purpose?"

"Essentially, yes. Ask Erin and Paula; she’s done it before. She needs to know you still love her and need her."

"But I’ve told her that, I don’t know how many times."

"I know that, Mare, and so does she. But she’s extremely insecure at the moment. Telling her and showing her are two different matters. You're both depressed. Everybody is on tenterhooks and the only way to get the atmosphere compatible with living here is to get you two back together, or at least on speaking terms. So TJ’s therapy is at ten o'clock tomorrow morning. I expect you to be there to give me a hand. Okay?"

"Yeah, okay," agreed Mare. "But TJ might not like it."

"TJ will be ecstatic. She just won’t let you know about it. Besides I’m going to have the same little chat with her shortly." Sacha smiled as she stood up.

"Well, when I hear your death throes, I’ll know you’ve done your best," replied Mare.

"Ah, TJ’s a pussycat... a large and potentially lethal one, naturally, but I have her wrapped around my little finger. See you later."

"Yeah, I’ll see you later."


Chapter 13

That evening, Sacha, Erin and Paula went into town. TJ and Mare had been invited, but both, buried under mountains of paperwork, had declined. Sacha was secretly pleased by the absence of the two women. Hopefully, their being left to their own devices would mean they’d have to communicate; especially TJ, who’d been a little more resistant than Mare to Sacha’s plan of therapy interaction. And the girls could do with a break from all the tension that muddled the air at the ranch. Erin and Paula were the ones taking the brunt of the hostilities between Mare and TJ.

It was around eight o’clock when Mare finally finished going over the last invoice of the day. She shut up her office and wandered toward the kitchen, seeing the glow of light beneath the door of TJ’s office. Looks like TJ’s burning the midnight oil as well. Entering the kitchen, she immediately noticed the two covered plates on the island and the note that lay with them. The note was from Paula, telling her to ‘nuke’ the plates for 10 minutes before eating.

Mare smiled at the thought behind the gesture. No matter how many times she told them not to, the girls insisted on looking after her in much the same way as they did TJ. Occasionally, when she put her foot down, she was allowed to cook and even clean. But as the economic revival of the area took hold, the workload from the practice built and made those instances few and far between. The vet would have been overwhelmed had Barry not been on the scene.

Mare switched on the coffee maker, knowing that the girls had been gone for a while and that it was unlikely that TJ had had a hot drink since they left. For the past couple of nights there had been a chill in the air and whereas she would settle for a hot chocolate with cream and marshmallows, TJ, who had been shut in her office all afternoon, would want the comforting fragrance and stimulating kick that coffee would provide.

Another glance at her watch confirmed that it was way past the time that TJ normally ate, and she knew it was pretty important that TJ stick to her routine. A wry grin crossed Mare’s face. She could see Sacha’s devious workings in this little night out. When the coffee barely finished dripping, she carried a mug of the brew out of the kitchen and down the hall to TJ’s office. Mare knocked gently on the door and entered at TJ’s beckoning call.

"Hey," said Mare as she entered, "thought you might like some coffee." She put the mug down on the desk.

TJ looked up, nervousness making her hesitate. "Thank you." She was unable to stop the smile that crept to her face.

"You're welcome. You about finished up? Paula has left us food to be nuked. I’ll put it in to be warmed if you’re ready for it."

"That sounds like a plan." TJ sat back with her coffee, taking a sip. "And this is good. Thanks again."

Mare smiled back. "You’ve got five minutes to wrap up. Would you like to eat in the living room or the kitchen?"

"Living room, if you don’t mind," was TJ’s immediate response. "I’ve been in this chair all day. I’d like to get out of it for a while."

"No problem. Five minutes." Mare smiled then left the office, a warm glow of joy heating her chest. That had been the most civil talk they had had in days.

The meal had been eaten quietly. Mare had helped TJ onto the couch and they had switched the television onto the Discovery Channel. Shark week was on. Mare thought she felt TJ's eyes on her but whenever she glanced over at her, TJ was concentrating on the show.

When they had finished their food, Mare took the plates into the kitchen and washed them out by hand. Well we sure aren't making much progress yet. Mare sighed, set the dishes in the drainer and returned to sit on the couch.

TJ shifted uncomfortably several times. "You okay?" Mare inquired.

"I’m a little sore. Think I’ve been sitting for too long today," replied TJ, twisting her lips.

"You want to go to bed?"

"Nah, it’s a little early for that. I’d just lie awake for hours." Thinking about you.

"What about if you lay on the couch, would that help?"

"Maybe. I’d need something to support my back though," said TJ, looking over to Mare.

"I’m sure that could be arranged." Mare swung her legs onto the couch. "Come on, you can use me as a back rest." She patted the space between her legs. The raw yearning suddenly visible in the blue eyes that were locked on hers destroyed any doubts Mare may have harbored. She opened her arms and beckoned. "Please."

"You sure?" TJ asked hesitantly.

"I've never been surer of anything in my life, TJ. This time away from you has been hell on earth." The emotionally charged words lit an ember of hope in the blue depths. Mare's face lit up in response and when her warm smile burst forth, TJ felt a chunk of ice melt from around her heart.

She used her powerful arms to pull herself along the couch to Mare and the vet helped her pull her legs up to make herself comfortable. TJ leaned back against Mare's body and as the vet's arms enclosed her, they sighed simultaneously, loosening chuckles from them both.

Mare's eyes drank in the strong profile resting next to her. "I'm really sorry for the dumb things I've said and done that have hurt you, TJ. I want us to go back to where we were."

"Me, too, Mare," TJ murmured. Her raven head turned and she looked deeply into Mare's green gaze for several breathtaking moments. The tip of her tongue darted out, moistening her parting lips and her eyes dropped to the mouth so temptingly near hers. Mare readily accepted the invitation and they joined in a kiss, letting the warmth of their love seep through them. They then settled down to their first night of snuggling since TJ returned from the hospital, not eliminating all the rough spots, but smoothing them for a while.


Sacha at first thought the evening out would be a failure. In spite of welcoming a change from the stress at the ranch, Paula and Erin were having difficulty unwinding. The bar they picked to visit had a three-piece combo providing good, but loud, music for the patrons' enjoyment. Erin had started walking toward the band when Paula grabbed her arm. "Where are you going?" she lifted her voice above the music.

"I want to sit at that table over there," Erin answered, nodding her head at the table she had her eye on.

"Let's sit at the bar," Paula retorted, frowning. "I'm ready for some serious drinking." She tugged on Erin's arm with little success.

"I've been sitting in a saddle most of the day," Erin responded tartly, "and I need a chair with a back. You want to sit at the bar, you'll do it without me."

Paula stopped dead in her tracks. Just as her mouth opened to argue, Sacha wrapped a hand around each woman's upper arm and steered them to a table halfway between the bar and the band. "Haven't you two had enough contention to handle at the ranch? You need more?"

The women looked at her, at first angrily, then guiltily. "No," they answered in unison.

"Then sit." Sacha pulled out a chair and sat down. Erin and Paula fidgeted for a minute, then joined her.

After a waitress took their order for a pitcher of beer and hot wings, Sacha leaned forward with her elbows on the table and looked from one tight face to another. "Okay, girls," she raised her voice above the song issuing from the combo, "let's clear the air. You two aren't mad at each other, you're just letting our boss, and her situation with Mare, get under your skin. Am I right?"

Erin and Paula looked at her, then their glances gravitated toward each other. After a moment, a smile played around Erin's mouth and she gave Paula's hand a quick squeeze. "She's right, Paula. I didn't mean to…"

"Forget it," Paula shouted, then blushed as she realized she had spoken into a lull in the music. The other two women laughed and she soon joined them.

"At least you weren't cussing," Erin kidded.

"I sure feel like cussing at TJ sometimes," Paula blurted. "I know she's having a tough time, but she keeps taking her anger out on us, and that's not fair."

Sacha noticed a shadow cross Erin's face, but the curly-headed woman kept her silence as the arrival of the beer and wings intervened. She picked up the pitcher and poured a mug full for each of them.

Curious about her reaction, Sacha pursued it by asking, "How about you, Erin? How do you feel."

Erin took a sip of beer, then put her finger on the wet ring on the table, first tracing it then pushing it out of symmetry. Her eyes followed the movement of her finger. "She does get testy with us, just like last time." Her finger halted and her eyes flicked up to Sacha's then back down again as her finger resumed its tracing. "I guess I would too, if I had the pain she has."

Something Erin's not telling. I wonder what? "She not only has the physical pain, this time, but also the pain from being out of sorts with Mare," Sacha remarked. She picked a wing from the basket and started gnawing on it, blowing out air when the hot spices hit her lips.

Paula nodded. "Yeah, she wasn't as bad this time while she and Mare were getting along. Now…" Paula just shrugged and grabbed a wing for herself.

"But that wasn't all TJ's fault," Erin hastened to TJ's defense. "Mare did promise to be at that therapy session… and she did say the things that Paula tried to warn TJ about."

"Yeah," Paula responded, wiping her fingers on a napkin. "But let's be fair to Mare, too. She has a practice to keep up with or she would have been there. And I should have kept my mouth shut."

Sacha broke in before the situation deteriorated into another argument. "Looks like there's plenty of blame to be shared, but finger-pointing doesn't solve anything, does it? Sounds like TJ and Mare have to make up." She winked. "Maybe being together by themselves tonight will have some good results. What do you say we assume that it will, and relax and enjoy ourselves?"

"Fine with me," Paula acquiesced readily. She picked up her beer and gulped a long draught.

Erin took a deep breath, shook her head, then looked at her partner with a soft smile. "Me, too," she agreed. "Pass the wings, will ya?"

The three women had a good evening and Sacha ended up driving home a very relaxed and mellowed out Erin and Paula. It wasn’t that Erin and Paula had too much to drink, more along the lines that they’d had an exhausting couple of weeks that were now beginning to catch up to them. The few drinks they’d had only served to put them both to sleep on the trip back. Still they’d all had a very pleasant evening. Sacha was hoping that, when they got back to the ranch, TJ and Mare wouldn’t undo all her hard work in getting the two women to relax.

The therapist nudged Erin awake as they pulled up to the house. "Come on, rouse sleeping beauty by your side and let’s get to bed."

Erin stretched and yawned as she opened her eyes, then gave Paula a shake. "You mean let’s see if they’ve left each other alive," replied Erin.

"I didn’t say that."

Erin grinned. "No, but that’s what you meant."

They got tiredly out of the truck, locking it securely behind them and entering the ranch through the kitchen. The room was dark, as was most of the rest of the house. Just the flickering of the TV came from the living room. They kept the noise down to a minimum, believing that TJ and Mare had probably retired for the evening.

"Well if they did kill each other, they did it after they ate," commented Paula, spying the clean dishes in the drainer.

They must have left the TV on," said Erin, nodding toward the living room. "I’ll just go switch it off. You go on up, I’ll be there in a second."

Sacha and Paula had just reached the bottom of the stairs when Erin backed out of the living room, waving at them and pointing into the living room. Paula and Sacha hurried back across to Erin and peered in.

"Is that precious or what?" remarked Erin as they all looked in to see TJ and Mare fast asleep on the couch. TJ had her head pillowed on Mare’s abdomen, her arms wrapped securely around Mare’s thighs. Mare had an arm across TJ’s shoulders and the other hand buried in her hair.

"Yep," sighed Sacha. "That is too cute for words, but we’ll have to wake them up. TJ can’t sleep in that position and she still has her brace on."

"Damned shame, if you ask me," Paula muttered as she walked around the couch, seeing the contented look on the women’s faces.

"You said it, honey," replied Erin, walking to her lover’s side.

Waking the pair was easier said than done, and in Mare’s case proved impossible. The first shake got no response from Mare and TJ just tightened her grip. The second got a rambling response from Mare and the opening of blue, piercing eyes from TJ.

"Hello there, sleepyhead," said Erin as she gazed at TJ. TJ slowly lifted her head and yawned. "Don’t you think we ought to put you in the correct bed?"

"Don’t wanna," mumbled TJ, putting her head back in the comfortable position it had been in. "I’m comfy here." The blue eyes closed.

Erin rolled her eyes at Paula and Sacha. "Well you might be now, but you won’t be in the morning if you stay there. Come on." Erin patted her arm.

TJ sleepily complied as Erin, Paula and Sacha unwrapped her arms from Mare’s body, got her back into her chair and wheeled her to her bed. Mare slept on, oblivious to TJ’s absence, stirring only as she noticed the lack of TJ’s warmth. Coming back into the living room, Paula grabbed one of the afghans from the back of the couch and draped it over Mare. She switched off the TV and rotated the hall dimmer switch down, then turned and made her way upstairs to bed.


Though disappointed that she had been herded off to bed without the chance to even say goodnight, TJ was relaxed enough that she fell right back to sleep. The next morning, waking to remembrance of their tentative reconciliation, she became excited at the prospect of seeing Mare.

Erin came in and gave her a hand getting out of bed and getting ready for the new day. TJ wheeled into the kitchen ahead of the curly-headed blonde only to learn from Paula that Mare had made an early start. She promised to be back at 10 o'clock in time for TJ's physical therapy session with Sacha.

Ten o'clock came, then 10:15 and still no Mare. TJ was in the gym, building up a real snit, and Sacha was getting concerned. Her plans to get the two women back together had started so promisingly last night. But today looked like a duplicate of the previously missed therapy session that had split them up in the first place. Mare's dereliction was holding the session up, too, because TJ was being obstinate.

"TJ, obviously, something has held Mare up, but we need to get started," Sacha urged.

TJ screwed up her face. "Let's just skip this session. I'm not in the mood."

"Skipping a session is like taking two steps backward. Do you really want to do that?"

TJ made a sound between a sigh and a snort. "No, I don't." She looked at her watch for the umpteenth time and shrugged. "Let's go."

As she wheeled over to the first apparatus on her daily regimen, Erin came though the door with a huge smile on her face. "Mare just called. She's on her way; should be here in 15 minutes."

TJ's face became perceptibly pleasanter but she only nodded.

"Wonderful!" gushed Sacha. "Thanks for letting us know." Erin winked at her effusiveness, knowing the feeling of relief Sacha was experiencing, then left.

Soon, Mare arrived as promised and hurried into the gym. "Sorry I'm late, folks. Barry ran into some problems with an injured bull over at the Mitchell farm and I had to give him a hand. He's waiting for me to return, so I've gotta run back over there as soon as we finish here."

"Too bad my therapy session had to interrupt your important work," TJ muttered without looking up.

Mare had approached TJ to greet her with a kiss, but TJ's attitude stopped her. Standing in front of the dark-haired woman, she put her hands on her hips, shook her head and grinned wryly. "My work is important to me, TJ. And so are you. This time the work seemed a bit more urgent since there is no other vet in the immediate area who could help Barry." She tipped her head sideways and sarcasm slipped into her tone. "He's my associate, remember? We help each other. That's the name of the game."

TJ's knuckles whitened on the bar she grasped. Sacha threw a warning look at Mare who sighed heavily as a guilty look flashed across her features. Try not to upset her, remember? She removed her hands from her hips and laid one on TJ's forearm, rubbing it softly with her thumb. "I'm sorry I upset you, sweetheart. I thought you would understand. I would much rather have been here than there."

TJ looked at the hand and saw a raw, red mark across it. Her eyes flew up and met Mare's, causing a tingle down the vet's backbone. "What happened to your hand?" she demanded, frowning, her pique forgotten.

"It's just a rope burn. The bull didn't care that we wanted to help him; he only knew he was in pain. His instincts told him to fight us." Mare couldn't contain her snort of laughter. "Sort of like some people I know."

Sacha held her breath, but twinkling green eyes sent a message to sober blue ones and little-by-little the corners of TJ's lips curved. "Haven't the slightest idea who you could mean," she drawled.

"Me either," Mare answered blithely, "I was just generalizing." Her hand transferred to TJ's cheek as she leaned into a kiss. Cool lips quickly warmed and TJ put a hand around the back of Mare's neck, holding her for an extended moment.

Sacha breathed a sigh of relief, then clapped her hands. "Okay, you two. Let's save the pleasure for later, and start concentrating on business."

Mare and TJ ended the kiss and swung their eyes to the therapist. "We're ready," they chimed together, then swung their eyes back and grinned wickedly at each other.

To Be Continued in Part 5.

Please send comments to Karen A. Surtees and PruferBlue



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