Many Roads To Travel
by Karen A. Surtees and PruferBlue

Part 5

See Part 1 for disclaimers.


Chapter 14

Mare returned to the Meredith farm immediately after the therapy session, feeling good about the progress she and TJ were making toward resolution of their frayed relationship. TJ could have been really nasty about my being late, but she actually worked at being in a good mood. I think that's a pretty hopeful sign.

All afternoon, TJ had an ear cocked for the vet's return, to no avail. Finally, Mare telephoned around suppertime and said they had finally managed to get the injured bull tranquilized and tended to, but she wanted to stay for a while and keep checking his condition. She would eat with the Meredith family. She sounded tired and distracted, so their phone conversation was short.

That night, TJ lay in her bed in the dark, trying to relax. But yearning for the company of a green-eyed, golden-headed woman prevented release of the tension that was tying her stomach in knots. I know we patched a few holes in our relationship last night and today, but I had hoped we could meet with each other this evening to continue what barely got started. Of all times for Mare to be called away! Although she knew it wasn't fair, TJ had a hard time keeping resentment at bay.

After these disappointed thoughts had tumbled through her mind for about an hour, TJ's sharp hearing recognized the arrival of Mare's truck. She pushed herself up onto her pillows, reached to the wall just past the headboard and flipped the three-way switch that lit the lamp next to her bed. Maybe she'll see the light is on and stop by. Another thought caused a pang of apprehension. Or maybe she's not ready to come back here yet.

In spite of their strong physical attraction for each other, TJ still felt insecure about Mare's intentions. Will she stay or will she go? That question was more than she wanted to wrestle with at the moment, so she thrust it away.

A knock came at the door and TJ's heart leaped. "Come in," she called.

The door opened and Mare stepped in, keeping her hand on the knob. She was exhausted and planned to just say hi, go back to her rooms, take a shower and hit the bed. Her eyes met TJ's and a tired smile crossed her face. "Sorry, I didn't know you were already in bed. I'll see you in the morning. I just wanted to…" She stopped and quickly reconsidered as a shadow of disappointment crossed TJ's face. We made some progress last night and today. I'm not going to let that fall by the wayside, no matter how exhausted I am.

Mare let go of the doorknob and walked up to the side of the huge bed. TJ's disappointment ebbed as her intense gaze followed each step. The warm glow of the lamplight daubed gold highlights on TJ's countenance and touched her eyes with burnished specks, enhancing their blueness. Reaching toward her, Mare trailed her fingertips down a golden cheek and lightly touched the sculpted lips, teasing them into a tiny smile. "I just wanted to see you… beautiful," she murmured. Her green eyes crinkled and her lips curved up sweetly.

"You're the beautiful one," TJ said as her tiny smile spread into a wider one. Strong fingers enclosed Mare's hand and tugged. "C'mere."

Mare wrinkled her nose and resisted TJ's pull. "I washed my hands and face, but I still smell like a barn. I desperately need a shower."

The pulling stopped and TJ's expression froze. I desperately need you, Mare. But the dark-haired woman was too used to subduing her feelings, rather than expressing them. Although Mare's influence had been helping her to change that, she still had a long way to go. She released Mare's hand.

Tired as she was, Mare recognized TJ's reluctance to let her go. Her own desire to be near TJ began to build, energizing her. "Tell you what. If you'll let me have a spare T-shirt to wear, I'll shower here."

Dull blue eyes slowly stirred to life. Not trusting her voice, TJ sucked her bottom lip in between her teeth and nodded.

Mare turned to leave and TJ grabbed her arm. The golden head swung back, and her eyebrows elevated. Green eyes sparkled as she watched TJ quirk her raven eyebrows in mirrored mimicry and release her bottom lip into a pout. Chuckling, Mare leaned down and dropped a kiss on the pouting lip, then pulled away.

TJ's hand tightened on her arm and Mare's laugh bubbled through her voice. "I'll be right back; I promise." She patted TJ's hand, hurried to the closet and selected a shirt and towel, then dashed into the bathroom. Ten minutes later Mare came back, toweling her hair as she walked toward the bed.

TJ's husky voice tingled through her body. "That shirt looks damn good on you, Mare."

Mare looked down at herself and blushed. She had thrown on the shirt while she was still half wet and the T-shirt was plastered to her body, leaving very little to the imagination. She reached for the bottom edge to pull the shirt loose, but heard, "Don't you dare touch that!" in a mock-threatening voice. TJ lifted the covers next to her. "C'mon, get in the bed before you catch cold," she growled, "and I'll take care of the shirt."

TJ's voice oozed through her like warm syrup, filling all the nooks and crannies, and Mare grinned in anticipation. She tossed the towel onto a chair, ran her fingers through her damp hair and crawled into TJ's arms. She settled against her with a sigh, then snickered as TJ jumped when the wet T-shirt touched her warm body.

Mare glanced up at the heavy-lidded blue eyes. "What's wrong, sport? Don't like wet T-shirts?" she teased.

One of the long arms that were wrapped around Mare grasped her upper arm and eased her onto her back. "On the contrary," TJ's silky voice answered, "I love this particular wet T-shirt." Her fingertips slowly rubbed back and forth across the damp cloth, pausing here and there to bestow extra attention.

Mare's eyes widened when the erotic stimulation of this new sensation caught her by surprise. Then green fire smoldered as her squirming body answered the summons of the ever-lowering touch. TJ maneuvered herself off the pillows and followed her fingertips with her tongue and teeth.

Moaning, Mare tangled one hand in the black mane and dug against her lover's muscular shoulders with the other. Unconsciously, her nails bit into back tissue when her body began to jerk in response to the contact of a persistent TJ against passion-filled flesh longing for fulfillment.

Mare willingly surrendered.


TJ woke just after sunrise, immediately comforted by the blonde head resting just below her chin and the soft firmness of the body spread over hers. This just feels so right. Her thoughts about the night before brought a contented smile to her face. No one who makes love like that could be thinking of leaving… could she?

Mare stirred and TJ's arms tightened about her. The blonde head tilted back into the hollow of TJ's shoulder and grinned lazily up at her lover. "Good morning."

One of TJ's rare wide smiles answered her. "That it is. Best morning I've had in months." She kissed the end of Mare's nose. "The kind of morning I'd like to have forever."

Mare blinked. "It's been a long time since you've said anything about forever, sweetheart."

TJ's eyes filled and she looked away. "I've never really changed my mind about it, Mare. I know I've said some nasty things to you when I was in pain. I probably will again. I don't mean to, but the agony drives me into frustration, anger, depression--you name it, I've got it." She drew a ragged breath. "I can't blame you if you want to leave."

Mare watched the profile of this beautiful, tormented woman she loved. "You left out fear, TJ. You really are afraid that I won't stick by you, aren't you? Even after last night and the night before, you really are afraid that I might leave you."

TJ's jaw clenched but she didn't say a word. Mare could feel the heaving of the chest that she lay against. She lifted a hand along that strong jaw and brought TJ's face around to confront hers. TJ's gaze darted all around and finally met and stayed on Mare's. "What do I have to do to convince you that I will never leave?" Mare asked, her eyes exploring those glorious blue depths. "Do you want me to leave?"

Her face contorting with emotion, TJ swung her head from side to side, her eyes locked on Mare's. She forced a single word from her constricted throat. "Never."

"Then why is it so hard for you to understand that I feel the same way about you?" Mare moved her hand down TJ's neck and clasped it on her shoulder, using it to pull herself up higher along TJ's body so they were eye to eye. "I love you, TJ. I never knew the depths love could reach until I met you. I can't believe my luck when you say you love me, too. But when you don't trust my love and you tell me to leave, that hurts, way more than anything else has ever hurt me."

Usually lively green eyes had turned solemn and with an aching heart TJ sank into their earnest pools. Sadness flooded her face. "It's not you I don't trust, Mare, it's me. I don't trust myself to be the kind of person you can love forever. The kind who won't ever hurt you."

"TJ, we can work through anything either one of us does that hurts the other as long as we are together. It's your rejection of me that would break my heart. Please don't push me away. I'm not immune to fear either, you know? I don't pretend to understand why you love me, or why I love you. I only know I need you. The thought of life without you shrivels my soul."

"Mare… Mare… Gods, Mare, I don't want to live without you, either." TJ closed her mind and her eyes against the terrible pictures of desolation conjured by that possibility.

Mare kissed her closed eyes. "If I have any control at all over what happens in the future, I promise you'll never have to." She waited until the eyes opened and looked into hers, then she and TJ promised their undying love to each other with a deep, tender kiss.

For the moment, harmony reigned.


Mare struggled to help push TJ up the ill-conceived ramp at the redbrick building that housed Peter's office. She stopped for a rest at the top, puffing. "Next time you have to come to a counseling session, Paula brings you," she threatened a grinning TJ.

Happy this morning that her usual pain was only a dull ache so far, TJ was in a good mood. "That's what you say now, sweetie, but you insisted on bringing me," she taunted the vet. "Maybe you need some aerobic exercises."

Mare made a face. "If you mean the ones that make you breathe harder, I think I just got some of those."

"You talking about now… or last night?" TJ chuckled and ducked as Mare swiped at her head, playfully grazing the raven locks.

"Behave yourself." Mare held the door open for TJ and they proceeded to Peter's office. I'm really happy that TJ doesn't cringe from these sessions as much as she used to. Peter finally seems to be helping her.

"Hi, Mrs. Haddon," Mare greeted the white-haired secretary. "How are you, today?" She noticed that TJ at least waved to the woman, which was a huge improvement. She used to wheel right past her to the large windows and stare morosely out at the town's park. This time she stopped her chair near the woman's desk and glanced around at the pleasant room with its walls decorated with bright scenes, noting the sailboat that Mare claimed was her favorite. Two people were leaving as they arrived, but no other patients were waiting.

"Hi, Dr. Gillespie, Miss Meridian," the woman smiled. She turned to her console and announced them to Peter, who immediately came striding from his office to greet them.

He walked right to TJ and shook her hand. "Hi, TJ. Come on in and we'll get started right away." Turning to Mare, he shook her hand, too, and invited her to accompany them. "Unless TJ would rather see me alone," he offered.

"No," TJ answered. "Where I go, Mare goes."

And vice versa, Mare thought, except for my office. Still haven't been able to get her to come in there.

She patted TJ's shoulder and the three entered the room. Peter picked a chair at a right angle to TJ's, with Mare on her other side. They chatted for a few moments to put everyone at ease then Peter brought them back to business.

"Would you like to continue with what we've touched on in your last few sessions?" Peter glanced at Mare, then returned a questioning gaze to TJ. They had spoken several times of TJ's fear that Mare would leave her. In spite of TJ's former declaration that nothing should be kept from Mare, Peter was reluctant to divulge that information without his patient's specific permission.

TJ's happy demeanor sobered so radically that Peter wondered if he should have rephrased the question. She shifted in her chair and started to rock back and forth, then caught herself and spoke guardedly, "I guess my not having enough trust in our relationship has been behind most of the problems between Mare and me." She looked contritely at her lover. Mare pushed her lips together to prevent their quivering, and patted TJ's arm. Love and understanding flowed from her expressive countenance.

Turning back to Peter, TJ took a deep breath then exhaled. "But we're working on that."

Peter waited with an expectant air, feeling that something else was bothering this beautiful, but troubled, woman. He watched TJ clasp her hands in front of her, effectively forcing Mare to remove her hand from TJ's forearm. The raven-haired woman sat looking at her thumbs, which rubbed back and forth against each other.

Silence held until Peter decided to prompt her. "Anything else on your mind that you'd like to talk about?"

TJ brought her eyes up to Peter's, unclasped her hands and rubbed her jaw. "Yeah… I… ah… Remember when I said I got upset that somebody else was riding my horse?"

"Yes, I remember."

TJ hesitated, then made the plunge. "I kept thinking, 'Why should someone else be able to ride Flag when I can't? It's not fair.' Then I talked to the youngster who was riding her and he made me realize I was just being jealous. After some soul searching," TJ's lips curved in self-deprecation, "I also figured I wasn't being very realistic. Just as you suggested, Flag is much better off having someone exercising her. No reason for her to suffer just because I won't be able to take her out for a while yet."

TJ returned to clasping her hands and studying them, so Peter prompted again, "And something else about it bothered you?"

A movement of TJ's position alerted both Peter and Mare as she shifted ever-so-slightly toward the counselor. Mare's eyebrows lifted and her heart dropped. Why is she turning away from me?

Obviously nervous, TJ mumbled until Peter asked her to speak up. "Yeah, something else happened then that bothered me--a lot--and I've been kicking it around in my mind ever since." She stopped and took a couple of deep, audible breaths before continuing. "You know, Peter, being in a wheelchair isn't easy. It puts a lot of constraints on your life, in ways that most people don't even realize." Frowning, TJ twisted her mouth and fidgeted with her fingers. "I've had to give up control of a lot of things, and that's been very hard for me." She glanced up at Peter who nodded at her to continue.

"A couple of times, my friends have taken it upon themselves to make decisions that are mine to make… and I am finding that very hard to accept." TJ hesitated and hunched her shoulders. "I know they think they are doing what's best for me, and I don't hate them for it, but they don't seem to understand that they make me feel…" TJ's voice lowered again and Peter had to strain to hear her, "helpless and inadequate."

Peter saw that TJ was getting agitated and he paused to give her a chance to cope with it. Then he inquired, "Why do you think it makes you feel helpless and inadequate?"

TJ closed her eyes tightly for a brief moment, squeezing tears from their corners. Peter handed her a tissue that she used to catch the tears, then mangled in her twisting hands.

"Because my father did the same thing to me," TJ answered hoarsely. Then pent-up words, finally finding release, rushed from her mouth in labored spurts. "He tried to dominate my life… never being pleased with anything I did… always undermining my decisions… forcing me to do things his way." Her grinding teeth severed the room's silence, testifying to her torment. In spite of a valiant effort not to cry, tears began to slip silently down her cheeks.

At these agonized revelations, Mare sucked in her breath and fought to hold it, but failed. She finally had to breathe and every spasmodic intake of air hammered painfully against her chest. I'm the one who hurt her like that and I didn't even have the common sense to see it. The person I love most in the whole world has been badly wounded by my insensitivity. My god, how could I be so ignorant?

Her stricken eyes met Peter's and he inclined his head toward TJ. Mare rose and placed a kiss on top of the bowed head, then she put a hand on TJ's face and kissed her wet cheek. TJ reached blindly for her armrest, moved it away and opened her arms for her lover. Mare moved onto her lap and into her embrace, murmuring, "I'm so sorry, TJ. Can you forgive me?" Pulling TJ's head against her breast she kissed and stroked the dark hair, crooning soothing sounds.

TJ broke down completely, crying so hard it hurt to hear it. Battered by the strength of TJ's sobs, Mare's body shook, too. TJ clung to her, instinctively trying to absorb the love that would help calm her soul.

At last, TJ began to quiet down. An occasional gasp soughed past her lips, jerking her body. Peter handed Mare a box of tissues and she dried TJ's face, laying soft kisses on it as she did. TJ continued to cling to her lover for a while, loath to let go.

When TJ could speak, she lifted her head and touched Mare's lips with her own before turning to Peter. "I'm going home now," she told him.

Peter would rather have had TJ stay and talk over the feelings that had caused these reactions, but he believed that TJ's greatest need from him at this moment was a confirmation of her control over her life.

He rose and Mare did, too. "Fine, TJ. I'd like you to think about having a discussion of today's session when you come back for your next visit. Okay?" I think we're nearing the end of one of the bad roads you've had to travel.

"Sure," TJ agreed quietly. "Right now, I just want to go home." And be with Mare. She patted the hand that had just squeezed her shoulder, and looked back at her lover. "What do you say, Mare?"

"Anything you want, sweetheart," Mare answered fervently. All the while her mind was racing. What bearing does this have on the Tom situation? I better talk to Erin and Paula, see what they think. TJ seems to like him, so we probably should tell her about him soon or she'll accuse us of trying to run her life again. Be honest, Mare, we are guilty, guilty, guilty. We keep trying to protect her and she gets hurt anyway.

She followed TJ to the outer office, waited as she made arrangements for her next visit and walked beside her out into the sunshine. Her eyes slid down to TJ's face, still slightly swollen from her weeping, and saw how much today's session had affected her. O lord, I hope I never hurt her again.

Mare acknowledged her own fault, but understood that TJ's traumatic childhood had created the bitterness that eroded her lover's self-esteem. How could someone as courageous and noble as TJ have come from such a father? Physical abuse heals but mental abuse warps the soul. No wonder she doesn't want to have anything to do with any reminders of him, like my office--the scene of some of his worst abuse of her. These were not new thoughts, but in light of the current situation, they staggered Mare anew. Never mind the office, her mind screamed, what about Tom?

Cobalt-blue eyes looked up and grabbed the vet's heart, then a slow smile followed. "Hey, Mare, I just had a deep thought about this lousy ramp. Related to something Sacha said to me. You want to hear it?"

"Sure." Mare lifted her brows. She took hold of the chair's handles to keep it from rolling too quickly, and they started down the incline.

TJ's soft voice floated back to her. "This ramp is sort of like life. It's pretty easy to get down, but it's a darn hard struggle to get back up."

Before Mare could answer, she had to swallow the lump in her throat. "Right you are, sweetheart." Right you are.


Chapter 15

Berta put Bobby into the child's car seat in the back, then admired her husband Barry as he packed the portable highchair in the trunk. "You look right handsome in that outfit, podner," she remarked, exaggerating her normal drawl.

Barry looked down at his khaki jeans, rust-colored cotton shirt with the sleeves partly rolled up, and tooled boots. "A lot better than those worn out jeans I work in, huh?" His eyes roved over his wife. "You look pretty charming yourself, ma'am. Is that a new pantsuit?"

"Sure is. I know Mare said to just wear casual clothes, but most of my casual clothes are pretty tired looking." She twirled around, showing off her burnt-orange pantsuit, emerald-green ribbed sweater and high-heeled boots. "Think this is all right to wear?"

Barry encircled her waist and gave her a quick kiss. "You look super, honey. You'll be the best looking woman out there."

"Just as long as you think so, that's all that matters to me." Berta patted his chest. "I'm kind of excited to be going to dinner at the Meridian ranch," she observed.

"I'm kind of excited to be driving somewhere in a car instead of the vet truck," Barry laughed. He got in the driver's side and started the car while Berta hopped into the passenger seat.

"I've heard some people in town mention Miss Meridian with something close to awe in their voices," Berta said. "Apparently she saved the town from some dangerous water pollution."

"Yeah," Barry answered, "and people on the ranches and farms tell me that she brought this whole area back to life by opening the ranch and the packing plant and putting people back to work. They owe a lot to her generosity."

"She sounds like a real mover and shaker. Have you met her at all?" Berta glanced back to check on Bobby. Dressed in a bright blue Cowboys sweat suit, he had already begun to nod. Just put him in a moving vehicle and off he goes to sleep!

Turning her gaze to the passing scenery and the huge sky, she rejoiced that they were out of the town. Homes in Meridianville weren't sitting on top of each other, but she loved the sense of freedom and boundless space that the open range provided.

"No, I haven't had a chance to meet her," Barry replied. "I heard about how she rolled into the Town Meeting and just took over the pollution problem, though. She must be quite a force." He smiled, remembering the amazement still showing on the faces of the ones who told him the tale.

"One reason I haven't met her is because of the accident she was in. Remember when we first moved here and Mare was running back and forth to the hospital? Miss Meridian had an operation on her back. It's just been recently that she's returned to the ranch."

"She and Mare must be pretty close friends if Mare pulled up stakes and moved out there to live," Berta said. She glanced back and smiled as she saw that Bobby had fallen asleep.

As she brought her eyes back to Barry, she sensed his discomfort. What on earth?… Is he blushing?

"Berta… uh… maybe I should have said something sooner, but some people say that Mare and Miss Meridian are… a lot more than just friends." You should have told her earlier, you idiot. You haven't the slightest idea how your own wife feels about gay and lesbian lifestyles. How's she going to take this news? Not knowing that answer was what had made Barry procrastinate about telling Berta in the first place. If she had hard feelings about Mare's situation, it could have serious repercussions on their lives.

"More than just friends?" Berta's brow knit. "You mean they're lovers?"

Barry, staring straight ahead at the road, nodded.

"Well, that's a relief," Berta said, with feeling.

Barry's face swung around so rapidly, he ran one wheel off the road. Quickly realizing his mistake, he averted disaster by slowly and carefully steering back onto the paved surface. "What do you mean, a relief?" he asked when his heart had gone from his throat back into his chest. "That doesn't bother you?"

"Barry, I've known a few gay people. Some I've been pretty close to, but I figure how they lead their lives is their own business. I'm not so perfect that I can go around telling other people how to live or expecting that they should live according to my rules. Besides, I've been kind of worrying about you traipsing around the countryside with Mare. She's a darn good-looking woman. Now I don't have to worry about it," she smiled. "That's what I meant when I said it's a relief. I'm more concerned about women who might chase my man, than I am about women who love women."

Barry let that thought sink in for a few minutes as he pulled into the parking area of the Meridian ranch house. "Are you saying you don't trust me?" he asked cautiously, seeing a whole new side to his wife.

Berta unbuckled her seat belt, leaned over and kissed his questioning lips. "I'm still with you, aren't I?" she laughed, then poked him in the ribs. "Come on, let's go meet the savior of Meridianville. I'm looking forward to meeting the powerful, important TJ Meridian. Can anyone be the paragon she's supposed to be? Grab the high chair and I'll bring Bobby and the kiddie bag."

Holding the folded chair flat against his side, Barry pushed the bell. Then he stepped aside to let Berta, holding the still sleeping Bobby, precede him through the opening door.

Mare gave them her biggest smile. "Hi," she said quietly, in deference to the sleeping tot, "come on in." Mare had on charcoal slacks and a silver-gray tunic top that shimmered with olive highlights when she moved, sparking green embers from her eyes.

Oh, wow, thought Berta. She looks beautiful. Glad Barry put my mind at ease.

Paula got up and relieved Barry of the high chair. She shook hands with him and Berta as Mare introduced her. "This is Paula Tanner, CEO of the packing plant, and," she turned to indicate Erin, "Erin Scott, CEO of the ranch. Ladies, meet Barry and Berta Cassel and their sleeping son, Bobby."

Everyone shook hands and Paula took the high chair to the dining room, then returned. Mare ushered the Cassels to a seat on one of the couches, directly across from the one occupied by Erin. While the other two women and Barry engaged in subdued chitchat, Mare helped Berta set her bag on the floor, then lower Bobby onto the couch. Berta pulled a light cover from the bag and placed it over him. "Might as well let him sleep until dinner is ready," she murmured. Wonder where Miss Meridian is? Wonder if she's the prima donna type who likes to make a grand entrance?

"Martha assures me that dinner will be served in about 20 minutes," Mare informed her. "Can I get you a drink?"

"Already taken care of," Paula waved as she made her way to the kitchen, having learned the proper drinks from Barry.

"Mare, where's your office from here?" Barry asked, his eyes roving around trying to place where he was in relation to the room he had already visited.

A soft buzzer sounded from Mare and Erin who promptly pushed a button on their respective pagers. "I'll get it," Erin said. She stood up and strode from the room while Mare began to answer Barry's question. They continued to chat as Paula returned with drinks for everyone.

Erin came back in, grinning. "TJ will be right in." When she had answered the summoning buzzer, Erin found an aggravated TJ, sitting in slacks and bra. In her hurry to dress, she had tossed her shirt onto the couch in her room and it had slipped and fallen behind it. Not even the pants puller was long enough for TJ to reach it and the couch was too unwieldy for her to move by herself, hence the call to Erin. Erin moved the couch out and retrieved the shirt then pretended to torment TJ by waving it in front of her and giving her a pseudo lecture on taking proper care of her clothes. TJ trapped Erin in a corner, grabbed the shirt from her and tried to snap it against the blonde's rear as she dashed out and returned to the living room.

Several minutes later, Berta heard a creak from the hallway and turned to see its cause. Her breath caught at the sight of a raven-haired woman of stunning beauty, clothed in pale-blue slacks, a navy-blue turtleneck and matching cardigan. Pearls circled her long neck, and compelling blue eyes gazed from a gorgeous face. Any entrance by this woman would be a grand entrance. She doesn't need to manufacture one. And in a wheelchair yet. Must need one because of the operation.

Mare had just completed the introductions when Bobby awoke screaming. Berta picked him up and bounced him in her arms trying to calm him down, but she wasn't having much success. TJ rooted in the pocket hanging from her chair and pulled out a peppermint stick. Unwrapping it, she wheeled over in line with Bobby's vision and, with a wide smile, held it up to him. After a short moment of suspicion, he reached for it, jammed it into his mouth and effectively squelched the screaming.

TJ held an arm out to him and patted one wheel with the other hand before extending that arm, also. "Hey, Bobby, I have a big wagon here. You want to take a ride?"

The youngster looked at his smiling, nodding mother, then moved into TJ's reach. She picked him up and put him on her lap. "I'll be right back." She wheeled out into the hallway and rumbled down toward Mare's office door. As she got near it, she unconsciously slowed. Her heart started pounding and perspiration glistened on her upper lip, leaving her taken aback for a moment. Shit, TJ, which one of you is the baby? You don't have to go in the damn office!

Twisting the chair around, she hurried back to the top of the hallway, continuing to sneer at herself for her ridiculous reaction. In defiance of it, she gave Bobby a ride up and down the hallway two more times, coming as close to the closed door as she dared. This small rebellion managed to overcome her fear, for the moment, and she cheered back up.

When she brought the happy youngster back, he kept saying, "Go, go," but TJ laughed and said, "Maybe after you eat." She set the boy on the floor and he ran back to his mother who thanked TJ profusely. Bobby turned his attention to playing with the toys that Berta had taken out of the kiddie bag and placed on the carpet at her feet.

Soon, Martha announced that dinner was ready and they moved to the dining room where TJ sat at the head of the table and Mare at the foot. The Cassels sat to TJ's right. Bobby made it known that he wanted to sit near TJ, so, with her consent, his high chair was set up between TJ and Berta, with Barry next.

Erin and Paula sat to TJ's left. The convivial group enjoyed roast tenderloin, with all the trimmings. Lively conversation included everyone and even Bobby enjoyed himself, eating most of his abbreviated meal. Understandably, to him the highlight of the dinner was the dessert: cherry pie topped with vanilla ice cream. As he was absorbed in eating it, the conversation flowed over and around him, oblivious to his actions.

With dessert and coffee, talk had turned to the types of celebrations held in small Texas towns in the past as witnessed by TJ, Mare, Barry and Berta. Mentioned, among other things, were horse races, food-tasting contests, dunking for apples, and shooting ranges. Erin and Paula added tales of tug-of-war and archery contests from their childhood memories in their native states.

"I'd like to see something like that happen here, in Meridianville," TJ said. "Maybe you and Barry could mention it around, Berta, see if folks would be interested."

"Sure, TJ. I like the idea. And Barry meets a lot of people he can ask," Berta agreed.

"Right," Barry seconded. "If enough folks are interested, maybe we could get the Town Council to set up a committee and get something started on it. I'll be happy to ask around. I'll get back to you on that."

"Paula and I can chip in as soon as we get back from vacation," Erin offered.

"Super," Mare added. "I'll spread the word, too, and we can… oh my god!" All eyes had been on Mare but when they saw her mouth drop open, they quickly switched their eyes to where she was looking--at TJ. The dinner's hostess had pushed her chair away from the table, clasped her arms to her body and doubled over.

Erin jumped up and hurried to her side with Paula right behind her and Mare coming up the other side of the table. Erin laid a hand on TJ's heaving back and asked in a scared tone, "TJ, are you okay? What's wrong? Are you crying?"

Just then Mare reached TJ's other side. She grabbed TJ's shoulder and hauled up on it. "No," she giggled, "she's laughing!"

Straightening up when Mare pulled on her, TJ had shining eyes and a smile that threatened to split her cheeks. The laugh she was holding in burst forth. When the others got a look at her, they laughed, too. When she lowered her arms, there was a dish in them. The front of her shirt was covered with a cherry pie-vanilla ice cream mixture. Still giggling, Mare lifted the dish from her arms and set it back on the table.

TJ pointed at the toddler who was sitting in his high chair with an empty spoon in his hand, banging it on the tray and grinning. "Bobby threw his plate at me," TJ barely managed to explain, "when I wasn't looking. By the time I got my arms up, it was too late." She looked down at the front of her, "Guess he didn't like dinner," she comically complained, then glanced up to meet Berta's stricken face, "and I wasn't even the cook." Her ludicrous expression drew laughter from them all, smoothing over the embarrassing moment.

Mare grabbed a napkin from the table and wiped TJ's hands then cleaned some of the solid gunk off of her shirt. "I think you're going to need some clean clothes," she chuckled.

"This reminds me of what that bull did to you, Mare, when he pulled you on your belly through that pile of…"

"Barry! Don't you dare squeal on me!" Mare threatened him.

"Okay," he laughed, "but TJ sure looks better than you did." Mare threw the balled-up napkin at him that he caught easily and brought to his nose. "Smells a lot better, too," he laughed, joined by the others.

"Can't argue that point," Mare chuckled.

"I'll help you get cleaned up, TJ," Erin offered. "And Mare can stay here with our guests." They went off to TJ's bedroom, with Erin's voice trailing behind them explaining that she thought TJ was having some kind of attack.

"TJ was a really good sport about that," Barry remarked to Mare as Berta got Bobby down from the high chair. Paula showed them to the bathroom so Berta could wash her son's face and hands.

Mare smiled winsomely. "Yeah, she was, wasn't she? I saw it happen and she was really startled. But obviously the humor of the situation won out." She is full of surprises. I thought she would be upset; instead, she thoroughly enjoyed herself. Apparently I've got a lot to learn about my complex lover.

When the cleanup had been completed and everyone had gathered in the living room, TJ suggested that they top off the evening with a songfest. Everyone moved to the music room and spent the next two hours singing or just listening as Mare played both popular and classical music, while Erin and Paula joined in the popular songs with their guitars. They even cajoled TJ into singing a couple of ballads and her low, vibrant voice warmed them all.

Finally, reluctantly, the Cassels had to leave. "We had a wonderful time, TJ." Barry and Berta shook her hand, then turned and Mare gave them each a hug. When they turned back around, Bobby was standing on TJ's lap with his little arms wrapped around her neck, and her arms encircling him.

"You get Mommy and Daddy to bring you back, soon, you hear?" TJ smiled at him.

"Go… go," he said.

"Okay," TJ laughed. "one more time. Hold on!" She turned the chair and took him one quick ride down the hallway and back. Just before Berta reached for him, Bobby hugged TJ's neck and kissed her cheek, bringing a tender look to her face.

"Thanks, TJ," Berta smiled as she hitched Bobby up on her shoulder. "You've been great. Especially about the ice cream fiasco."

"We loved having you, Berta," TJ answered. "And don't worry about the ice cream. Next time we'll try to have a dinner Bobby likes," she said with a twinkle, drawing chuckles from everyone.

Good-byes were finished and the Cassels left. Paula and Erin closed everything up for the night, waved goodnight and climbed the stairs.

"That was a lot of fun, TJ," Mare remarked as she turned off the lights. She dimmed the hall light, but left it on as usual. "Thanks for letting me invite them."

"Hey, sweetheart, this is your home, too, remember? Your guests are my guests and vice versa."

Mare walked to the chair, lifted the handle away and sat on TJ's lap. "Go… go," she said and leaned into her lover's body, wrapping her arms around her neck.

"You betcha… hang on!" TJ directed. She wheeled out into the hall, then quickly into the bedroom and laughed as Mare stuck out a hand and pushed the door closed.


Chapter 16

Pulling his car up to the front steps of the Meridian ranch house, Dr. Michael Gillis turned off the motor and took a moment to stretch his back and neck muscles. An early morning rain had assaulted his car for most of the two-hour drive from Springerly and he felt stiff from the extra attention he had been forced to pay to the driving conditions. Fortunately, the storm had finally let up.

Thoughts of his patient were on his mind as he picked up his medical bag, exited the car and climbed the two steps to the porch. He knew that TJ was a strong woman who, nevertheless, had a few chinks in her emotional armor. Aware that her attitude could play an important part in her recovery, Michael was anxious to see her in person.

Before he could lift his finger to the bell, the front door opened. Entering, he set his bag on the floor, enveloped Mare in a big hug and kissed her cheek. "Hi, sweetheart, how are you?" As he released her, she returned his kiss and their mirrored green eyes twinkled at each other.

"I'm fine, thanks, Dad. Seems like ages since I've seen you."

"It's been awhile, that's for sure. You and Sacha have done a good job with the phone calls, keeping me pretty well informed on TJ's condition." He shook off his windbreaker and handed it to Mare.

"We're all here, as you requested, Dad." Mare waved her free arm toward the other women. Sacha, in her white pantsuit, nodded to Michael from a flowered armchair and Paula and Erin, seated side-by-side on the matching couch, nodded also

A coffee table sat in front of the couch with a carafe, cups and saucers, mugs, sugar, cream, spoons and napkins gracing its surface. "Would you care for a cup of coffee, Michael?" Erin asked.

Michael rubbed his hands together briskly. "Nothing I'd like better right now, Erin. The weather was nasty on the drive over." Erin reached for a cup, but Michael's voice changed her hand's direction. "A mug will be fine. Black, please." Erin filled and handed him a mug and he sat in one of the armchairs, sipping at the hot brew.

Returning from hanging her dad's jacket in the hall closet, Mare took another chair. "You want to talk to us for a few minutes, or examine TJ first?"

Michael turned to his daughter. "TJ's in her bedroom?"

Mare nodded and grinned. "She probably heard you come up the driveway and wonders why you aren't in there yet."

"Surely she won't mind waiting while we have a brief chat?" Michael asked, then chuckled as Mare rolled her eyes. "A little impatient, hmmm?"

"TJ doesn't do 'impatient' in a little way," offered Paula, with wry grins from the other women reinforcing her statement.

"Then maybe we better get right to the purpose I had in asking to see all of you for a moment," Michael suggested. He took a long swallow from the mug and set it on the edge of the coffee table.

"I'd like a very brief rundown on how my patient is adjusting, physically and emotionally, to life here at the ranch. Would you like to start, Erin?"

The curly-haired blonde hesitated for a moment. She looked at the floor then back up to Michael, concern painting a frown on her face. "I know TJ has a lot of pain..." Erin stopped and wrung her hands together, a sad expression crossing her face, "maybe even more than the first time she was injured. And I see her getting tired sooner than usual. She always had a tendency to push herself to the limit and she still does that, so we all try to make things easier for her." Erin glanced toward the other women.

"When she first came home, she seemed really confused and depressed. But as soon as she and Mare made up," Erin shot a hint of a grin toward the vet, "TJ calmed down a bit. I think she's really trying hard to keep her temper in check, but she's not always successful."

"And that makes her mad at herself," Paula added. Erin turned her head and nodded at her partner to continue. "Which sets up a vicious circle, cycle, whatever you want to call it. She gets mad at us, then mad at herself which makes her madder at us, and so forth and so on. I know you said to keep her calm, but that's a tough order, especially for me. I've got kind of a quick temper and sometimes we butt heads against each other. But I'll keep trying." Paula looked toward Sacha, but Michael interrupted by standing up.

"Thanks for your input, ladies, you've given me some idea of TJ's state of mind. If she's having trouble with her temper, I better not keep her waiting any longer." Michael shook his head and grinned at the relieved expressions his words elicited. "Sacha, how about if you hold your thoughts until after I examine TJ? We'll need to go over the next phase of her physical therapy and we can talk then."

"No problem, Dr. Gillis," Sacha agreed.

Lifting his coffee mug, Michael drained it and set it back onto the table, then looked at Mare. "Shall we?" He walked to the front entrance and retrieved his bag.

Mare jumped up and led her father down the hallway to TJ's door. Tapping lightly, she pushed the door open and they walked into the room. TJ sat in buttery sheets, propped up by several pillows bedecked with yellow and cream stripes. A slate-blue, silken bed jacket lost the battle for supremacy to her stormy eyes.

Uh-oh, Mare thought. She looks absolutely gorgeous and absolutely ticked.

Undaunted by TJ's severe expression, Michael set his bag on a chair and greeted her with zest. "TJ, how wonderful to see you," he said as he walked over to her. Not waiting for it to be offered, he picked up TJ's hand and shook it, then leaned over and kissed her cheek.

"Sorry to keep you waiting, but I wanted to steal a few minutes to chat with Mare. We haven't seen each other for a long while. Too long a while." Michael still held TJ's hand, patting it as he spoke. His gleaming eyes challenged TJ, and he determined that he would hold her hand until she acknowledged him.

Recognizing the challenge, TJ clenched her jaw, looked past him into the distance and refused to give in.

Uncomfortable with the silence, Mare looked from one to the other, then moved closer and wrapped their clasped hands in both of hers. "I guess you know you are the two people I love most in all the world, don't you?" she inquired softly. Her eyes sought TJ's and after a long moment, the blue eyes refocused and swiveled to her. "Please?"

Mare said just the one word and Michael watched as TJ's eyes gradually calmed and one corner of her lips twitched. He felt her hand squeeze his, even as her eyes came to meet him. "Hello, Michael," her throaty voice greeted him.

Mare felt TJ's hand squeeze and Michael's squeeze back, so she let go of them. Michael held TJ's hand just a little longer, then released it. "Thank you for coming back from wherever you went just now," he said, with a glint of humor. "I'd hate to think I drove all the way from Springerly just to see you, and you weren't going to be here."

A chagrined smile spread slowly across TJ's features. "Now I see where your daughter gets her blarney from."

Michael and Mare looked at each other and chuckled. "That's my Dad!" Mare praised and patted him on the back, while Michael beamed at her.

"Looks like I'm outnumbered," TJ muttered, but she smiled as she said it.

"How about we get started on this examination?" Michael opened his bag, took out his stethoscope and hung it around his neck. Then he pulled out the sphygmomanometer and took TJ's blood pressure. Next he listened to her heart, then put his equipment back in the bag. "Everything looks good so far," he assured her.

"Will you move onto your stomach, so I can take a look at your back?" Michael asked.

Mare helped to remove the pillows while TJ scrunched down and turned over. Smoothing the sheet that covered the lower part of TJ's body, Mare raised the bed jacket so that Michael was able to examine the incision without difficulty. Gently but firmly, his fingers felt the area around the incision, then pushed and probed until he was satisfied that the surface healing was completed.

He finished his examination and motioned to Mare to help prop TJ up again in a sitting position.

"You've been wearing the turtle shell brace when you sit?" he asked.

"Yes, always," TJ answered, "but my back still gets tired."

"It will for a while, yet, TJ," Michael answered. "Some of those muscles have had a pretty bad shock. It takes time for them to get as strong as they were before. The therapy will help with that. Meanwhile, keep using the brace."

He chuckled at the "oh, no" look on TJ's face. "Not happy about that?"

"Thing's damned uncomfortable," TJ groused.

"Well, it's that… or stay flat," Michael informed her lightly. Then his voice grew more serious. "How's the pain?"

TJ's jaw clenched again, but not from stubbornness this time. She glanced down at her fingers, which had been constantly playing with one of the ribbon ties of her bed jacket.

Michael's eyes softened. "Pretty bad, huh?"

TJ nodded. Mare swallowed hard and put a hand on TJ's forearm, rubbing up and down it soothingly.

"I can't give you anything stronger, TJ. I wish I could. Hopefully, as your back heals, the pain will lessen. I can't even promise that it will go away; that's something we will just have to wait and find out about."

TJ's eyes lifted and he could see the pain in their depths. "We knew that going in, Michael. It's just something I'm trying to learn to live with." She corrected herself with a wry twist of her lips, "Something we all are trying to learn to live with."

Michael stood and patted her shoulder. "You're a strong woman, TJ, and you have some great people here who are all pulling for you. I'm going to have a word with Sacha, now. We need to get you started on your bladder training--see if we can do away with the bags and tubes."

Some of the light that had left TJ's eyes returned. "Now there's a thought to warm my heart. Tell Sacha I'm ready to start right away… today!"

Michael grinned and took TJ's hand. "I'll do that. I'm always happy to leave a patient with some good news. I'll stop back in a few weeks. You try to take it easy on your caregivers, okay?"

TJ shook the doctor's hand and quirked an eyebrow at him. "Someone been telling tales about me?"

Her eyes swung to Mare, who stammered, "Uh… I… uh… plead the Fifth Amendment."

"And I," Michael hurried to say, "need to go find Sacha. I'll be seeing you." He picked up his bag and fled.

TJ grabbed Mare's arm as she started to follow her father. "I think you need to stay here while we have a little discussion. About self-incrimination," TJ remarked wickedly.


It took Michael several minutes to find Sacha; she was outside, sitting on the fence, watching one of the ranch hands in the corral with the horses.

"Hi there," he said as he leaned against the fence, eyes squinting in the bright sunlight.

Sacha looked to her side and glanced down. "Hi, Doc, have you been to see the ladies?"

"Yes, I have. TJ is doing better than I expected. The operation site is healing well and you have managed to get most of her upper body strength back." Michael turned his back to the corral and leaned again on the fence. "Mare and the girls seem to be happy with her progress. They haven’t mentioned any problems. Neither did TJ, for that matter. I’d have to say I was pleased with her progress on the whole but…"

"But now you’d like to know the truth, because you know that none of them would say anything that would mean TJ has to go back to the hospital?"

Michael laughed. "You know us doctors too well, Sacha. So, what is your opinion of the situation?"

Sacha climbed down from the fence. "Walk with me." She started to walk down the driveway, heading for the shade of the trees that lined the road. Michael settled into a slow walk by her side. "Physically, TJ is making excellent progress. She can spend longer periods out of the brace than we had predicted she’d be able to; in a couple of weeks she won’t need it at all. As you said, her upper body strength has come back remarkably quickly."

She swiped lazily at an insect that was buzzing around her head. "On the pain front, well, we are still in the mire there. It is not as intense as it was in the hospital, or at least that's what she says. It may be that she has just gotten used to it. I still occasionally give her a shot of pethadine at night, especially after a hard day. She is still taking her dihydrocodeine on a regular basis. You might want to think about reviewing that at some point, it makes her dehydrated and that causes a wracking headache. Which leads us to the main problem."

They had reached the shade of the trees, and Sacha wandered over to the trunk of a large oak and sat down on a perfectly dry spot at its base.

"And which problem would that be?" Michael said as he leaned a hand against the tree and stuck the other in a pants pocket.

"They are all having problems adjusting mentally to what has happened. TJ especially, though Mare and the girls are having their own fair share. TJ reacts badly when she is in pain, lashes out without thinking, then beats up on herself for it. For a while there I seriously thought about bringing her back in to the hospital. But Peter seems to be doing his job and she’s talking to him."

Sacha stopped for a moment and gazed at her surroundings. "Peaceful out here, isn't it?" she said with a touch of wonder.

Michael looked around at the quiet scene and took a deep breath. Fresh air, cleansed by the rain, was lightly touched with the earthy smell of horses and barn. "Yes, it is. Too bad we can't order up a sunny day to rest under an oak tree whenever we feel like it." He glanced down at Sacha and they shared a smile.

"How about the girls? How are they doing?"

"They don’t know whether they are coming or going with TJ. One minute she’s fine; the next she is withdrawn or screaming at them. Obviously walking on eggshells all the time isn’t good for them." The therapist picked up a twig, studied it for a moment, then her strong fingers worked to peel off its bark.

"They also have a problem remembering sometimes that TJ is an adult and can make her own decisions; they are a little overprotective of her. Saying all that, however, they are coping, and they are slowly getting better. TJ’s getting better at recognizing when she is overreacting and the girls are getting better at not letting her get to them."

Michael frowned for a second then asked, "Do you think TJ will be okay here when you leave?"

"Yeah, I think they will all be fine. They might need a reminder every now and then, but they will be fine." Sacha discarded the bared twig with a slight sigh. Too bad I can't peel problems away from people as easily as I peeled that bark.

"Good," said Michael, offering Sacha a hand up. "I think it's time that TJ gets started on the finer things. I think she has enough return of tone to attempt retraining her bladder. It would be good to get rid of all the tubes and stuff."

"I agree," Sacha said, and she started the walk back. "A little more independence will do wonders for her. And I think that it is about time I got back to the city. TJ knows what she has to do and she is capable of making the trip to see me now."

"If you think it's time for TJ to take over for herself, that’s okay with me."

"Yes, I do, and although I've really enjoyed being here, I’m looking forward to getting back home." They continued up the drive, talking about nothing in particular.


"So how is my favorite patient today?" asked Sacha as she bustled into the room.

TJ, who had just maneuvered herself from the bed into her wheelchair, looked up. "Sacha, I’m your only patient."

"In that case, it isn’t too hard for you to be my favorite, is it? Hmm?"

"Guess not," smiled TJ. "What does my personal torturer have in store for me today? More weights?"

"Nope, today I thought we would start on getting you independent of wearing your tubes and bags. The doc reckons you have recovered enough tone down there to be able to do without having to wear a catheter constantly, and I concur with him. Before the accident, you had managed to train yourself to go without the bag for a period of several hours. We just need to retrain you somewhat," replied the therapist.

"Sounds cool to me; let's get started," TJ said eagerly.

"Hey, slow down there, champ, you’ve been through some of this before, remember? You didn’t exactly have a lot of fun with it, did you?" In fact, TJ had been through several embarrassing episodes at the hospital before they decided that she would most likely have to use a catheter bag on a permanent basis.

The enthusiasm on TJ’s face dulled slightly at the reminder. She recalled that the bladder was retrained over a period of time. The catheter would be removed and left out for a few hours, then reinserted to drain the buildup of fluid. This was easy enough to do if you could feel when your bladder was full or you had any control over when you opened the bladder. It was a lot harder when those normal senses and reflexes were impaired.

TJ had been mortified in the hospital when she hadn’t been able to control herself and ended up wet. The indignity of having the nurses come in to change her and replace the diaper-like pads she had to wear was not an experience she particularly wanted to repeat. "Yeah, I remember. Do you think we will have more success now?" asked TJ in a more somber voice.

Sacha chuckled. "Sure do. For a start you’re not under the same pressure as you were at the hospital. You're in the comfort of your own home. And let's not forget that, although you haven’t recovered as much as the doc hoped you might, the removal of the bullet fragments has allowed you that little bit of extra control. I know it isn’t a feeling as such, more an awareness, but it should be enough for us to succeed in this and give you a smidgen more independence."

"Okay, then, let's get started. What do you want me to do first?"

"First, we have to limit your fluid intake today, so that we don’t overload you too quickly, and you need to let Mare and the girls know what is going on. That way they'll know that when you ask for assistance you need it immediately and not in five minutes… and it means they can be prepared for any accidents that happen."

Telling Mare and the girls that for the next couple of weeks they might have to clean her up on a personal level didn’t appeal to her at all. But her previous experience had taught her a valuable lesson, and if losing that little bit of dignity for the next few weeks was the price she needed to pay to get rid of the tubes and bags, then she would.

"I'll do that," TJ agreed. "Let's get on with the training."


Chapter 17

It was Saturday, a day off, and Paula sat in the lounge chair in the living room, reading. She and Erin planned on riding their horses today and she was waiting for her partner to join her. On Saturdays, since Sacha had gone home, Mare usually helped TJ with her exercises, but she had been called away during the night on an emergency and Erin was taking her place.

Paula had offered to help. They both knew that TJ could be moody when her routine was interrupted. And disappointment at Mare's absence would offer her another possible excuse to unleash her volatile temper. But Erin insisted that it was her turn to fill in for Mare, so Paula didn't bother arguing about it.

After a long wait, Erin entered the living room and plopped down in a corner of the couch. Paula glanced up at her partner with a smile, soon stifled by the look on Erin's face. Flapping the dust cover into the page she had been reading, she closed the book and laid it on the end table beneath the reading lamp.

Looking again toward Erin's closed face, she hesitated. Wonder what happened this time? Oh, what the hell. Won't know until I ask, will I?

"Erin?" The hurt and stormy expression in the brown eyes that met hers roused Paula's protective instincts. "What's wrong?

"Nothing," Erin answered curtly.

"If nothing's wrong, then you sure are wasting a nasty look," Paula noted. Her nearly black eyes locked on Erin's, observing the angry flush that suffused her blonde partner's cheeks.

"Did something happen between you and TJ?" Paula's lip curled. "Or should I say did something happen to you, by TJ?" Erin pursed her mouth but still didn't answer. "C'mon, honey, tell me about it."

"Don't 'honey' me, Paula. I'm not feeling very sweet right now," retorted Erin, shifting her eyes away.

Silence hung between them like a heavy curtain that resisted easy parting. Paula longed to walk over and push away the loosened curls that straggled onto Erin's face, but she held back, perturbed by her lover's testy mood. I know TJ had a hand in this and damn! that pisses me off. As often happens with anger, a frustrated Paula shifted her irritation from the absent TJ to the present Erin. Unable to contain her impatience, she attacked, her voice rising.

"Why the hell don't you stand up to her, Erin? She only pushes you around because you let her. I know we're trying to keep her emotions on an even keel, but walking all over you isn't part of the deal. She yells 'roll over' and you lay down like a damn puppy dog."

Erin's flush deepened and she responded in annoyance, "That's easy for you to say, Paula. You don't owe her like I do."

"Owe her? For what? We carry our own weight here." Paula's eyebrows lifted in surprise. Then the surprise turned to a scowl. "Surely you can't still believe you owe her for saving you from those creeps in college? That was years ago. You've paid her back a hundred times by now."

"I'm not talking about any of that; I mean because of the accident."

"The accident?" Paula echoed. I knew that was bothering her. We should have talked it out before this. She got up and moved onto the couch next to her partner, her voice softening. "You think you owe TJ because of the accident? None of that was your fault, honey."

She reached up to put her arm around the tense shoulders, but Erin, submerged in her feelings of guilt, jerked away.

"Leave me alone, Paula. I'm in no mood for your sympathy." And I don't really deserve it. "Besides, it was my fault," Erin muttered. "I was driving. I should have been able to outsmart those drunks. Instead, I let us get run off the road. You get a broken leg, and TJ gets close to two years of progress wiped out in a couple of seconds."

Erin placed her elbows on her knees and bent her curly head into her hands. "She's going through this god-awful, unbearable, never-ending pain because of me." Tears dampened her cheeks and she barely whispered as she repeated agonizingly, "Because of me."

Again, Paula attempted to put an arm around her, but it was shrugged off. The dark-haired woman jumped up, jammed her hands in her jeans pockets and strode agitatedly back and forth in front of the couch. "It was NOT your fault! The only ones at fault were the stupid jerks who attacked us. Nobody could have handled it any better than you did. You tried your damnedest to keep us on that road, and it just didn't work. It was an accident; you sure didn't plan it that way. Can't you see that?"

Erin's head swiveled back and forth through the whole speech, negating every word. Paula ceased her traipsing and stood in front of Erin, putting her hands on her hips. "Look, Erin, it was only bad luck for you that you were driving. It might have been me. Do you think I could have done anything that you didn't try?"

"How would you know? You were drunk."

The words scorched Paula like a flame-thrower, rocking her on her heels. Soooo, I get to claim a little part of this guilt, too, huh? The thought added fuel to her anger. "Where is TJ?" the dark-haired woman growled.

"In her office." Erin's head turned up between her hands. "Stay away from her, Paula. Don't rile her up any worse than she already is. She's in a lot of pain right now."

"Riiggghhht!" Paula snorted and turned away, marching toward TJ's office. Erin started to rise to stop her, but gave up when she saw the futility of it. She lowered her head further and beat herself some more with her guilt.

TJ was sitting at a right angle to her desk, working at the computer. She heard Paula come stomping in, but didn't bother to turn around, which further antagonized the incensed woman. Paula came up behind TJ's wheelchair, grabbed one of the push handles and yanked it, thinking to spin the chair around so she could confront TJ face to face. She hadn't considered that TJ had locked the wheels.

Instead of spinning around, the chair tipped precipitously. Acting purely on reflex, TJ threw an arm toward the desk next to her, stopping the chair's descent just long enough for Paula to get hold of it and straighten it up.

TJ's features twisted as a blast of pain shot up her arm, burst through her bruised shoulder and forcibly merged with the nexus of agony in her back. "What the goddamn, frigging hell are you and Erin trying to do to me? Put me back in the hospital?" she shouted, the agonizing wave of pain making her react without thinking. "First Erin tries to brain me with a damned weight, then you try to knock me over! I know you guys aren’t exactly thrilled with having the hindrance of me being here, but for Christ's sake, if you want me back in the hospital just tell me."

Hmph. Now that she and Mare are on speaking terms, I thought that little insecurity had been put to rest. Paula stood her ground, waiting for TJ to shut up. Her anger at Erin's distress more than blotted out any trepidation that might arise from mere words aimed at her. I don’t care what she’s feeling at the moment, I’m not having her jumping on Erin. TJ finally ran down, throwing out her last sentence, "You almost dumped me onto the floor, you stupid idiot! "

"Oh, don’t talk such complete and utter trash," Paula scoffed. "I wouldn’t have let you go over and you know it. Just because you happen to be having a bad day, don’t take it out on Erin and me." Paula paused, hands on her hips. "Erin and I have been with you a long time, TJ, and we've put up with some real garbage from you. But, I swear, if you don’t stop hounding and yelling at Erin, I’m taking her and we are getting out of here. You hear me?"

The two glared at each other for a long moment. Pain rebounded up TJ's back and surged across her shoulder blades. Digging into the spaces between her shoulders and neck, it gouged deeply into her neck muscles and exploded into her head. She gritted her teeth and closed her eyes, then Paula's words sank into her embattled consciousness and her eyes and mouth flew back open. "And just what the hell did I do to Erin to get you in here all riled up?" she yelled.

"You tell me; you're the one who just had her so upset she was crying!" Paula screamed back, stabbing her finger at TJ. "I'm sick and tired of you using her for a verbal punching bag and expecting her to take it. You think that just because she works for you, you have the right to stomp all over her?" Paula's hands curled into fists and she restrained them rigidly at her sides. She wanted to hit TJ so badly she could taste it.

The pain had settled down a bit, but TJ still felt as though a huge tiger had dug its claws into her back. The struggle to ignore it, and curiosity over Paula’s fury, combined to help mitigate her wrath. She had never seen her friend so enraged at her and it gave her pause. She fought for a moment to harness her own anger, then tried to speak calmly, "Paula, you know that anything I say or do has nothing to do with you and Erin working for me. You're my friends, not my employees."

"Well, maybe you need to be reminded of that 'friend' part again, TJ. I've told you before I can take any shit you want to hand out, but Erin can't. You said something to her this morning that got her really upset and it's not going to happen again, understand?" Paula stuck out her chin belligerently.

Still fighting to ignore her pain, TJ nevertheless managed to cool down. She began to fully appreciate just how distraught Paula was about some supposed confrontation with Erin. Propping her chin on her hand, she gazed into space and frowned in thought. Hell, I always yell when I'm in pain. They know that. What was so different about today? She stirred her memory as to what had happened...

The exercise session was almost over and Erin had been nagging TJ through the various moves. TJ was moping that Mare had been called away--Saturday was the only day the vet could help out with TJ's morning exercises--and she didn't hesitate to let Erin know that she missed her lover.

"You know, Erin, Mare doesn't pester me the way you do," the dark-haired woman continued her complaints.

"Well, maybe you behave better for Mare than you've been doing for me today," the curly-headed blonde responded tartly. Erin was losing her patience. She and Paula had planned on riding together this morning and the exercise session had slowed those plans down. Doesn't she realize that I'm being inconvenienced, too? I could be out riding right now instead of in here listening to her grumbling.

Lying on the weight bench, TJ was nearly finished her last reps of presses. Her aggravation must have increased her adrenaline; the weights felt like feathers. "You didn't make these heavy enough," she griped. "Take those 5-pound weights off and put another ten on each side."

A 'please' once in a while wouldn't hurt, thought Erin. The extra weights were in a locker in the next room and fetching them just wasted more time. "Paula is waiting for me to ride with her. At this rate, it will be noon before we get outta here," she grouched.

TJ just rolled her eyes. She settled the bar in its rests and waited for Erin to remove the weights. Erin yanked them off and set them on the floor at her feet then dashed off to get the ten-pounders. She came hurrying back, carrying one in each hand with two fingers stuck through each hole for support.

In her haste to get to the bar, she forgot about the weights she had left on the floor and she tripped over them. As she threw her hands forward to stop her fall, her brain shifted everything into slow motion. Watching in horror, she saw her hands bringing the weights down toward TJ's body and she did her best to slow their descent.

TJ saw the danger and tried to move, but she could avoid only one weight. The other one came down on her shoulder with a thump, not hard enough to seriously injure her, but hard enough to seriously hurt.

TJ's sharp movement had awakened the pain that constantly lurked in her body. The added agony of the weight hitting her shoulder brought a scream to her throat that she transformed into a torrent of words aimed at Erin's clumsiness.

"Son of a bitch, what the hell are you doing? Can't you do one simple thing without tripping over your own damn feet?"

Erin had scrambled to recover her balance. Alarmed at what had happened, she laid down the weights and reached to administer to TJ's shoulder. "I tripped over the weights, TJ," she muttered.

TJ grabbed Erin's wrist and squeezed. "Oh, for god's sake don't bother," she growled. "You've done enough damage."

Erin winced as TJ's powerful hand closed around her wrist. "I'm sorry, TJ. It was an accident..."

"An accident?" TJ interrupted harshly as she flung Erin's arm away from her. "You put the goddamned weights on the floor, which was pretty stupid in the first place."

Erin had been berating herself with the same accusation, but hearing TJ throw it in her face raised her ire. "So, I'm not perfect," she declared, raising her voice, "but at least I stayed here to help you this morning. I could have just gone ahead and ridden out with Paula. I know you're ticked that Mare isn't here, but that's not my fault."

TJ rasped sarcastically, "See if you can push my chair over here without hurting anything. Then you can get the hell out of here. You’re obviously not interested in helping, and right now you're just a hindrance."

Seething, Erin pushed the chair close to TJ and tried again to touch the injured shoulder. TJ pushed her away and climbed into her chair by herself, refusing any assistance. She toweled off, adding a few more choice words about Erin's clumsiness. Erin, infuriated by the abusive language, stormed out and TJ wheeled herself to her office.

"I did yell at her," she finally admitted. If I'd stop letting the goddamn pain control my anger, we'd all be better off. But just how do I manage that? Even now, waves of pain thrummed through her, setting her teeth on edge. It was a battle to speak civilly to Paula. "She tripped and hit my shoulder with one of the weights. It hurt like hell and I screamed at her. I don't remember my exact words," she shrugged and her lips twisted, "but I do remember ending up by saying she was more of a hindrance than a help."

"That's just great, TJ," Paula said disgustedly. "You take a woman who's been feeling guilty for months about being responsible for our accident and you reinforce that guilt by telling her she's practically useless. Why didn't you just hit her with a club? That would have been less damaging."

TJ frowned and her questioning eyes sought Paula's. "She feels responsible for our accident? That's absurd."

"Yeah? Well, try telling her that. I'm not having any success in convincing her. She's letting you walk all over her because she feels guilty about all the pain she's caused you."

TJ lowered her head. I have been walking all over her and evidently she's been hurting just as much as I have. "I had no idea…" I should have, though. I'm an expert on guilt trips. Right, Lance? If I hadn't talked you into going with me that night we were attacked, you would still be alive.

Paula rubbed both hands down her face, massaging the tense muscles. Her rage had burned intensely, but swiftly. Now it had burned itself out and she was feeling the letdown. "Neither did I, TJ. At least I didn't know just how much it was bothering her. We're both at fault here, I guess." She pondered that a moment, then when TJ looked up at her, she asked, "Do you think you could talk to her? She needs to hear you say that she's not to blame."

"Sure, Paula. Ask her to come on in--if she will. I was pretty nasty to her."

"Thanks, TJ. I'll talk her into it. And I apologize for jumping on you like I did. When Erin gets upset, I get upset, too, and I don't have the greatest tact in the world, you know."

"Tact isn't even in my dictionary, Paula," TJ said with a wry grin. "But as long as we can stay friends I hope we can get over most of the hurdles." She reached out and when Paula grasped her hand, she pulled her into a hug and kissed her cheek.

Paula swiped at her eyes and sniffed as she straightened up. "I'll send Erin right in."

She left and went back into the living room where Erin still sat fuming. Now she was angry not only at TJ but also at Paula for ignoring her request to leave TJ alone.

"TJ wants to see you."

"Like I give a damn," Erin answered bluntly.

"Come on, Erin. She wants to talk to you about our accident." Paula sat next to her again, but didn't attempt to put an arm around her. Two rebuffs in one day were about all she could handle.

"What did you do, go in there and suck up to her about 'poor Erin' blaming herself for the accident?" the curly-haired blonde demanded.

"Get real. Did you ever see me suck up to anyone?" Paula charged. Erin's personal attacks were getting to Paula; she could feel her anger building again. Rather than screaming at her partner, retreat seemed to be her best course of action at the moment. She jumped up and headed for the stairs. "I'll be upstairs. You'd best go in and listen to what TJ has to say to you." Taking the steps two at a time, Paula hastened away.

"It'll be a cold day in hell when I go running after her!" Erin sat up straight and hollered after her.

A creak sounded from the doorway followed by a vibrant voice, "How about if she comes running after you?" TJ wheeled into the room, coming to a stop several feet from Erin who was momentarily dumbstruck.

The blonde's bruised brown eyes rested uneasily on TJ, touching the dark-haired woman's heart. "Come on over here… please?" TJ asked with one eyebrow elevated.

Erin's brows lifted. "Are my ears working all right? Did I hear you say 'please'?"

"Yeah," TJ answered softly, "please." She lifted up an arm of the wheelchair and patted her lap. "Come on over and sit here."

The request startled Erin, diverting her anger. "Uh… TJ, I can't sit on your lap, that's Mare's place."

A small gust of laughter burst from TJ. "I'm not going to kiss you, Erin. I just want to have a heart-to-heart talk with you, like a mother and a daughter." TJ pointed a thumb at her own chest. "With me being the mother."

Erin hesitated, her anger at TJ not entirely gone, but when TJ really wanted something, Erin found it hard to resist pleasing her. Her generous nature won out and she sat down on TJ's lap. A long arm wrapped around her waist, holding her firmly in place. Sitting so close to that glorious gaze was a bit disconcerting and Erin cleared her throat to give herself a moment to adjust to it. By this time her anger had dissipated entirely. After all, getting hit with that weight had to hurt--and it really was my clumsiness that caused it.

TJ cocked her head and grinned slightly as she saw the hardness of Erin's expression dissolve and the natural warmth of her personality return. "Paula tells me you're trying to take all the credit for our accident."

"Credit?" Erin drew back her head and looked askance at TJ. "You mean blame, don't you?"

"Well, all of us have some claim to the blame and you seem to insist that it's all yours. I figure you must think it's something valuable, so it must be credit you're looking for."

"TJ, you're being ridiculous," Erin scoffed.

"Am I the one being ridiculous? Actually, it was Paula's turn to drive, but I told her it was her party and she could choose not to drive. When she chose not to, that moved you into the designated driver's spot. So, Paula could take the credit for the whole thing."

Something in the depths of Erin's eyes shifted a tiny bit. "It wasn't Paula's responsibility, it was mine," Erin argued.

"Then again… " TJ continued, ignoring the interruption, "Mare should get some of the credit. She's the one those idiots were chasing after when they showed up at our table. If she hadn't 'lured' them over, nothing would have happened, right?"

The "something" shifted a bit more. "But I was the one driving. I was the one who lost control of the van."

Again, TJ ignored the interruption. "Then, of course, there's me. Not only was I the hated 'Meridian bitch' who really set them off, but also I was the one who grabbed the guy's thumb and took him to his knees in front of the whole bar. So I probably should be allowed to claim the greatest portion of the credit. Lord knows I worked hard enough for it." One side of her mouth quirked up.

"Look, TJ, try as hard as you might to whitewash it, the van crashed because of my stupidity. Paula and I got hurt and I can handle that." Erin's eyes brimmed with tears. "What I can't handle is what happened to you. You were making really good progress and in a split second you got knocked right back to the beginning--right where you were the first time. You have to go through all that pain again--because of me."

TJ's magnificent eyes warmed with concern for her friend. "I don't blame you for that, Erin, and I hope you can stop blaming yourself. You're no more to blame for what happened to me than I am for what happened to Lance. Let's both try to forgive ourselves, okay?" TJ felt a huge weight begin to lift from her soul. That makes so much sense. Maybe, after all these years, I can start down the road of forgiving myself. Maybe.

Erin laid her head on TJ's shoulder and cried. TJ moved her arm up across Erin's back and clasped her upper arm, pulling her closer. The other hand smoothed the curly locks, over and over. "Go ahead and cry, kiddo," she murmured, "you'll feel better." She waited for a while, making soothing noises and giving Erin time to cry some of her bad feelings away.

At last the tears stopped. "I've been such a fool," Erin sniffled. "I couldn't see far enough past my own guilt to realize that no one of us was to blame. Paula tried to tell me, but I wouldn't listen." She stayed there, resting in the security of TJ's arms, and allowed herself to release her guilt.

After a while, at peace, she raised her head and gazed into TJ's eyes. "She also told me to stop letting you push me around."

TJ chuckled. "You should listen to that partner of yours. She's one smart cookie."

Erin sighed, then managed a tiny grin. "I have to warn you, though, TJ, from now on when you yell at me, I'm liable to be screaming right back at you."

TJ's smile lit her face. "I'll look forward to it, Erin. You know how I like a good fight."

Throwing her arms around TJ's neck, Erin moved her blonde, curly head next to TJ's raven one and hugged her tightly. "God, TJ, even when I hate you, I love you," she declared.

TJ turned her head and kissed Erin's cheek. "I love you, too, Erin. And I always will, no matter what."

When Mare had finished the emergency call, she stopped at the post office and picked up some veterinary supplies that had just arrived. Riffling through the mail, she pulled out a card addressed to her old address and a warm feeling suffused her when she saw its author. "Hi Mare, gonna be here longer than expected, more business contacts! I'll keep in touch. Love ya, Jess."

Mare grinned, happy to hear from the friend she grew up with. Glad he talks more than he writes or phones. Guess I have to wait till he gets home to hear all his news. And for him to hear mine! And meet TJ! She slipped the card in her back pocket and walked out to the truck.

She drove to the ranch and entered her office through the back door. She loved her office except for one nagging disappointment. TJ had never entered it and probably never would. Mare had hoped her troubled lover would change her mind, now that it no longer held the slightest resemblance to its former appearance. In her determination to erase all vestiges of the room where TJ's father had beat her so violently, not one square inch had been left unchanged.

All the other rooms on the first floor carried some imprint of TJ's presence: equestrian magazines, a horse-head mug, business charts, candy dishes containing her favorite fudge, and pencils everywhere. There was a feeling of completeness that had returned to the house when TJ came back from the hospital. None of that was evident here, and Mare missed it terribly.

But she had not been able to entice TJ into the office, no matter what she said. The last time the vet had made a subtle suggestion, the dark-haired woman had gotten agitated, forcefully reminding Mare of the agreement not to pester her about it.

"I'm not trying to pester you, TJ. It's just that the office is so much a part of me, a big part of my life, and I want to share that with you. I want to share everything with you. I guess I kinda hoped you felt that way, too."

"Mare, you knew how I felt when you moved in there. Don't be trying to lay some guilt trip on me; I won't go down that road." The blue eyes narrowed and Mare saw a storm brewing in their depths.

Ah, well, one can always hope. Mare sighed and changed the subject.

After she put the new supplies in a closet, she sauntered toward the living room where she heard voices, especially the velvety one that always thrilled her.

She reached the doorway just in time to see a tableau that startled her for a minute. Then she heard Erin say, "God, TJ, even when I hate you, I love you." Mare had to grin. There's some of that feeling in all of us, isn't there? She heard TJ answer, "I love you, too, Erin. And I always will, no matter what happens."

"So!" Mare interrupted the scene and walked into the room. "Just what did happen, if I may ask?"

Erin jumped about a foot in the air and scrambled to get off of TJ's lap. "Nothing, Mare," she quickly answered. "This isn't what it looks like." The curly-haired blonde wrung her hands in agitation.

Mare glanced at TJ who smiled wickedly behind Erin's back and winked. Mare's eyes twinkled back. Oh, so it's tease Erin time, huh? "Looks to me like you and TJ were hugging and kissing. Am I wrong?"

A blush rushed quickly up Erin's cheeks, turning them bright red. "Yeah… I mean… no… I mean… nothing was going on between us… I… TJ, help me out here, will ya?" She turned back toward the dark-haired woman who raised her hands, shrugged and looked apologetic. "Well, we were hugging and kissing…"

Erin's mouth dropped and she stared at TJ, disbelieving her failure to explain the situation. She swung her head quickly to Mare and caught her trying to wipe a smile off of her face. Then the light dawned and Erin's eyes narrowed. "You guys are teasing me," she accused.

Mare and TJ laughed out loud as Erin folded her arms, pursed her lips and shook her head at them.

"I'm sorry," Mare spluttered, while a big grin belied the words. "You and TJ have been friends for ages. If anything were going to go on between you, it would have happened before now. Besides, Paula would have decked you both."

A begrudging grin crept onto Erin's mouth. "You're right, there." Then her expression changed as she said, "Yikes! Paula might still be mad at me. I better go see." She started to leave, then rushed back and kissed TJ's cheek. "Thanks, Mom," she whispered and dashed out of the room.

Mare dropped into the vacated lap, threw her arms around TJ's neck and pulled her into a lingering kiss. As their lips parted, she murmured, "Good morning," then proceeded to nibble an irresistible ear.

"A very good morning… now," TJ chuckled and squeezed her tightly.

"Soooo, tell me about it. I want to hear every word," Mare urged, then jumped as she felt a warm hand meet the skin beneath her shirt.

TJ bent her head for another kiss. "First things first, I always say…"


Erin went busting up the stairs and into their bedroom where she came to a screeching halt. There were clothes all over the room--on the bed, on the chairs and even on the small table in front of the sliding glass doors that opened onto a balcony.

"Paula? What's going on?"

Her partner strode out of the walk-in closet with an armload of clothes that she added to those on the bed. "What's it look like? I'm rearranging my clothes." Paula's face was tight and her whole body tense.

Oh boy, this doesn't look too promising. "I thought we were going riding," Erin remarked. She laid her hand on Paula's arm, but Paula yanked it away.

"My partner never showed up," Paula said sarcastically, "so I decided to sort my clothes."

"Well, I'm here now. We can still go riding."

Paula shrugged and started to sort some of the clothes on the bed into different piles. "I'm busy now."

"This can wait, Paula. Come on, let's go riding while it's still nice out. I'll help you with this when we get back," Erin wheedled, but Paula wasn't giving in. She hadn't even looked at Erin yet.

Paula picked up two piles of clothes and walked back into the closet. As she came out, Erin startled her by grabbing her shoulders and shoving her against the closet door, pinning her there. "Polly, I'm sorry. I'm sorry we had the spat, I'm sorry I hurt your feelings, and I'm sorry I acted so nasty. Now, I'm not letting you away from this door until you agree to forgive me and to go riding with me."

The black eyes, conveying the hurt Paula felt, lifted to meet and probe Erin's. "You know, don't you, that I could knock you on your ass with one arm tied behind my back?"

Erin's eyes gleamed and she murmured, "But you won't, will you?"

The two gazes mingled and spoke to each other. Paula's cheek twitched. "You know I won't," she whispered.

Erin leaned into Paula's body, lifted one hand from its hold on her arm and laid it against her partner's jaw. Tenderly, she drew her thumb back and forth across the unyielding lips until they began to soften. "I am really, really sorry I hurt your feelings, Polly. TJ and I had a long talk and she convinced me that you were right, I shouldn't blame myself for the accident. But I do blame myself for being so mean to you. Please forgive me?"

Paula's arms lifted slowly to embrace her lover and she leaned her head down on Erin's shoulder. Gently moving Paula away from the door, Erin wrapped her arms around Paula's tense back. Softly, she smoothed her hands over familiar muscles, feeling them gradually relax.

The two stood in silence for several minutes, then Erin murmured, "What do you say we forget about what happened this morning? Let's go riding and have the great day we had planned to have, okay?"

She felt Paula's head nod in agreement, then rise off of her shoulder. Erin put both hands up to enfold Paula's face and touched her lips with a kiss. "Hi there, beautiful."

A slow, endearing smile and a squeeze answered her. "Hi there." Paula tilted her head and looked deeply into Erin's eyes. "Think you might like to go for a ride?"

Erin laughed and reached for Paula's hand. "I'd love to," she replied as she led her partner out of the room. They danced hand-in-hand down the steps, on their way to the barn.


To be continued in Part 6.

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