Many Roads To Travel
by Karen A. Surtees and PruferBlue

Part 6

See Part 1 for disclaimers.


Chapter 18

Mare rubbed at her tired eyes as she put the last of her papers down. For the past two hours she had been working over her financial books. Although she had an accountant to balance the books, she liked to keep abreast of how her practice was doing. In the last few months, even with the addition of her associate Barry, the practice was making enough money that, for the first time, she didn’t need to worry about how the bills were going to be paid. That knowledge sent a pleasing warmth through her body, and brought a smile to her face.

Meridianville was on the upswing. The return of the packing plant and the ranch had done more than bring money into the economy; it had given the town back its self-esteem. Due to several federal grants that TJ’s advisers had helped them apply for, the town council now had the money to start renovating the town. They had set up an enterprise committee to encourage new industry to move into the area; again, all because of advisers TJ had brought in.

Mare leaned back, relaxing into her chair. Yep, TJ really has turned this town around and she didn’t have to do it with them kicking and screaming either. Heck, they actually were very cooperative. Once they had the opportunity to better themselves, they jumped at the chance. TJ said that she would provide the people to help the town but that she wasn’t going to force the town to use them. In the end it wasn't a problem, and the various advisors were rushed off their feet.

A muffled thump drew her attention to the wall her office shared with TJ’s, and a chuckle erupted from Mare as she heard the curses that followed. Pushing her chair back, she stood up and wandered out of the office and down the hall to her lover’s door. When TJ was annoyed, Mare knew that discretion really was the better part of valor, so she knocked on the door and waited for a reply.

"Hey TJ? You okay in there?" She smiled again as she heard her lover moving around.

"Yes, I’m fine, thanks."

"You sure?" Mare put her hand on the doorknob and turned it.

"Er, well, actually maybe I could use a hand."

Mare pushed open the door and stuck her head around it. "And how may I assist you, m’lady?" she asked, then frowned, not seeing TJ at her desk, though she could see the handles of her chair. "TJ?"

"Yes?" Her voice came from behind the desk.

"What are you doing?" Mare walked up to the desk and looked over.

"I dropped my pen and I couldn’t pick it up with my grabber." Mare glanced over at the long-handled stick that had a trigger action at one end and a three-pronged grasper at the other. Paula had presented it to TJ because she was fed up with having to pick up the various objects TJ threw when she got angry.

"Come on, wheel yourself out of there and I’ll get it for you."

"Thanks." TJ attempted to wheel herself out from under the desk but misjudged the distance and bashed her head on the lip as she tried to rise. "Ow!" Her hand came up and rubbed the sore spot.

"Here, let me," said Mare, gently pulling her chair the rest of the way from the desk, before she leaned down and kissed where TJ was rubbing. "Better?"

"Oh yeah," said TJ with a cheeky grin on her face.

Mare rolled her eyes at the implication in TJ’s voice. "Brat! Now move out of the way and I’ll get your pen."

"Yes, ma’am." TJ grinned as she got out of Mare’s way. She rolled a few feet back but didn’t move from behind the desk, wanting to appreciate the view as Mare got on her hands and knees and crawled beneath the desk to retrieve the elusive pen.

"Got it," Mare said. She held the pen out behind her so that TJ could see the evidence of her accomplishment, then she crawled back out and clambered to her feet. She turned to the grinning face of TJ. "Enjoy the view?"

TJ chuckled. "I always enjoy that view."

Mare stepped over to her and handed her the pen. As she did, she noticed the dark, growing stain on TJ’s jeans. Crap! Well I guess it had to happen sooner or later, and she’s been doing so well. "Hey, honey, I think we need to go get you changed."

Frowning, TJ looked down. "Ah, shi…" A finger rested on her lips.

"Don’t say it," Mare scolded, removing her finger. "You’ve done really well so far, but we had to have an accident at some point. So no beating up on yourself, or cursing to high heaven, okay? We just go get you cleaned up and go on from there. Got me?"

"Yeah, okay," TJ replied rather forlornly.

"I said no beating up on yourself," Mare scolded again.

TJ looked up, a grin tugging at her mouth. "God, you know I love it when you get authoritative."

"Well, I will just have to practice it with you more often."

TJ started wheeling toward the door. "How about a little extra practice now?"

Mare raised her eyebrow and quickly followed her lover out of the office.


"You are such a brat!"

TJ lay back on the bed and grinned as Mare’s voice echoed out of the bathroom.

"And don’t you dare lay there with that smug grin on your face either." Mare’s voice grew louder as she poked her head around the door. TJ forced a startled look onto her face and pointed to herself. "Yes, you!" Mare laughed.

"But what did I do?" TJ asked incredulously.

"TJ, the bathroom looks as though it went through the great flood, and I look like a drowned rat."

"Yeah, but you are a beautiful drowned rat," TJ replied, giggling. "Besides you started it… so don’t blame me that you couldn’t finish it."

Mare had to concede that point to TJ. They had slowly wheeled down the hall to the bathroom with Mare trying to keep the atmosphere as light as she could, knowing that TJ hated the fact that she had soiled herself. But as Sacha had told them it was to be expected, and at least it had happened while she was there to support her partner.

Mare got TJ into her bathroom and helped her out of her clothes. Rather than go for a quick wash they decided that TJ might as well take her bath. With the aid of the overhead hoist, Mare helped her lover into the warm water she had run. TJ had been quietly washing herself when Mare got the impression that the situation needed to be livened up just a little. Swiping her hand down into the water, she arched a large splatter smack into the center of TJ's chest.

It took only seconds for the startled woman to return the favor with relish. An all out water fight followed and the bathroom sank without a trace. In her zeal to make the biggest splash, Mare got too close to TJ and cringed as a large hand twined itself in her shirt. Uh-oh, I'm a goner.

Unable to escape, the squealing captive got her just desserts. TJ showed no mercy, pulling her forward and dunking her face in the tub, then pushing her back up. Sopping wet and out of breath from yells mixed with laughter, Mare finally called a truce. With a feral grin, TJ tugged against the shirt, threatening another immersion, but after a moment of nose-to-the-water teasing, she took pity on her and let go.

Mare dragged TJ out of the bathroom, helped her onto the bed, and tossed her a clean towel from the closet. Then she returned to clean up the flood. If nothing else, the zany deluge had brought TJ’s incredible smile back and the mess she was left to clear up was more than worth it if just for that.

Finally having cleaned up the worst of the water, Mare leaned against the doorjamb and wiped her hands on the only towel that retained a trace of dryness. God, that woman is gorgeous, she thought as she gloried in the still glowing body sprawled on the bed. "Hey," she called, then hesitated, trying to regain the breath that suddenly deserted her when TJ looked over to her. "Want some company?"

TJ looked into Mare’s eyes, the deep emerald green promising more than she could imagine, and evoking an immediate reaction. "Sure," she replied, her voice husky and barely above a whisper. Mare still heard her… she slowly walked over, her gaze drawn to the hand that TJ reached out to her.

As their hands met, Mare’s eyes reconnected with TJ’s blue chips of fire, and she felt their smoldering heat surge right down her spine. Her heart rate increased and a fine sheen of moisture coated her face as she felt the stirrings of desire. Her fingers lovingly traced the contours of TJ’s strong hand, each ripple deeply ingrained into her mind. While her eyes never left the depths of TJ’s, a gentle tug brought Mare to her knees by the side of the bed.

"Hi," TJ whispered, rolling onto her side to get closer to Mare, raising her other hand to caress the soft face before her.

"Hi, back," Mare said as she leaned in and tasted the sweetness of TJ’s lips.

Savoring the moment, TJ slowly moved her hand around through Mare’s hair to the delicate softness at the nape of her neck. The gentle massage brought a purr to Mare's lips and she fell closer toward her lover.

TJ brought the kiss to an end as her body demanded that she breathe again, though her mind felt bereft at the loss of Mare’s sensuous lips.

"I think you're overdressed for the occasion." TJ’s hands pulled on the still damp T-shirt Mare was wearing, until she took the hint and helped remove the offending article. TJ’s hand dropped inside her bra to the inviting mound of Mare’s breast, loving the fullness and weight in her palm, thrilling in the gasp her touch brought from her lover.

Her lips began to nibble their way down Mare's neck, as TJ fumbled left-handed with the catch of her bra. Mare reached behind her back and hastened to help her dark-haired lover, already tingling with the imagined feel of those lips on the flesh awakened by TJ's other hand.

The catch gave way beneath their combined efforts and TJ unceremoniously threw the bra across the room. Freed from imprisonment, Mare's breasts no sooner felt the joy of release than TJ's descending mouth latched onto an aroused nipple. Capturing it anew, her tongue played around and against its hardness.

Mare’s hands moved to pull TJ closer but the positioning was too awkward. Pushing up from her knees, Mare rolled TJ onto her back and followed her over until she was sprawled on top of her lover, TJ still firmly attached to her chest.

"Oh sweet… " gasped Mare as TJ continued the roll until Mare was pinned by her weight. She moved her lips from the left breast to the valley between and over to the right, while her hands moved to the top of Mare’s shorts. With a quick twist of her fingers she had the button undone, closely followed by the zipper.

Mare’s excitement grew at the proximity of TJ’s hands, but she knew that her lover wouldn’t be able to lift herself so that Mare could remove the clothing. With a nudge Mare pushed TJ over onto her back and supported herself while TJ infuriatingly slowly removed the shorts and panties.

Mare pulled herself away from TJ's suckling to slide downwards and greet her lover face to face. The feel of breast upon breast sent a hiss of desire through TJ. It still amazed her how Mare could elicit such sensations from her body: her touch, her smell, her taste encouraging the fantasy of sensation below. Their lips and tongues met with longing as Mare sank into the kiss.

TJ groaned as the feathery strokes of the smaller but just as arousing hands of her partner grew gradually deeper against her hungry breasts. Her eyes closed at the sensation and her hands ran down Mare’s back until they reached her shapely buttocks and pulled her closer.

"Oh, sweetheart," Mare whispered in desperation, "please…"

"Ask me, Mare," the husky voice answered. "I'll give you whatever you want."

And she did.


The morning sun drew golden patches on the kitchen floor as Mare picked up her bag and prepared to leave. TJ wheeled into one of the patches, her eyes glowing even brighter from the reflected rays.

Mare smiled inwardly at the lovely picture, even as her brow furrowed with concern. "You sure you're going to be all right?" she asked again.

"I'll be fine. Will you get outta here?" TJ demanded. Paula and Erin had gone to the packing plant for the day and Mare had been called to fill in for the vet in Sharlesburg. This would be the first day they had left TJ completely alone and Mare had misgivings about it.

Recognizing the impatience edging into TJ's voice, Mare sighed. I guess I am being overprotective. "Okay, okay," she grinned. Leaning down until she felt TJ's lips against her own, she lightly brushed the tip of her tongue between them, kissed her quickly and pulled away.

"Wait!" TJ laughed and grabbed the tail of her shirt. "Come back!"

"Nuh uh, " Mare smirked. "That's just something to remind you of me while I'm gone." She yanked on her shirt, pulling the tail from TJ's grasp.

"Spoil sport." TJ made a face as Mare opened the door to leave.

The vet took one step out then turned back. "Remember, Martha will come over from the cookhouse and fix you some lunch. Erin or Paula should be back in time to fix supper and I'll be back from Sharlesburg as soon as I can."

TJ raised her hands, turned the backs of them toward Mare and made brushing motions, sweeping her out. Mare grinned, put her fingers to her lips and blew a kiss, then left.

After lunch, TJ returned to her office while Martha cleaned up the kitchen. When the front door bell chimed, Martha hollered that she would answer it and a few minutes later, she came to the office.

"Miss Meridian," she said, "there's a Mrs. Raphaele at the door. She says she needs to talk to you about something that concerns your father."

My father? Just the reference to her abusive parent made TJ chill to the bone. Suck it up, TJ. You're head of Meridian Corporation. Now act like it! TJ urged herself. Then her thoughts turned to the visitor. Who is she? What could she want? "Just a minute, Martha."

TJ called up the name Raphaele on the computer's Meridian database. The only reference was to Raphaele Consultants with a notation that they had been hired for some consulting work quite a few years ago. There was no specific information available. Why didn't she go to the Meridian office? Why come to me?

Martha waited patiently while these questions skittered through TJ's mind. The raven head turned back to Martha. Well I'm not gonna know what she wants until she tells me. "You can show her in now."

Martha left and returned with Gloria Raphaele, introducing her to TJ before she returned to the kitchen. "Miss Meridian, this is Mrs. Raphaele." Gloria walked to the desk and extended her hand. TJ leaned over the desk and shook the woman’s hand noticing her firm, yet controlled, grip. There was no flash of recognition on TJ's face, only a touch of curiosity. "Please sit down, Mrs. Raphaele."

"Does the name Raphaele mean anything to you, Miss Meridian?" She looks like her father. But where he was handsome, she's absolutely stunning! And they all three have those glorious eyes! Though I see something in their depths… maybe tension? Or is it wariness? Does she already know who I am?

"We have a Raphaele Consultants listed in Meridian Corporation's records, back before I took over the company. Are you that Raphaele?" TJ shifted in her chair. The pain she usually managed to push out of her consciousness suddenly seemed concentrated into a new, burning spot in her back and she was having trouble suppressing it. Gods, let me get this woman out of here in a hurry. I need to lie down.

"Yes, I am. But I'm not here on business. Well not exactly, I'm looking for my son." TJ raised her eyebrows at that. "He ran away from home and I thought he might be here."

TJ picked a pencil out of the caddy and started twirling it between her fingers. "And he’d be here because…?"

"I found your picture in his desk," Gloria explained as she put her bag on the floor next to the chair.

"Mrs. Raphaele, teenagers don't usually go running off to meet someone just because they have a picture of that person." TJ started tapping the pencil against the desktop. "I thought you said this concerned… my father." The pain sent fingers of flame out from the central fire, torching her shoulders.

"It does." Gloria sat up straighter and lifted her chin. "Your father and I lived together for fourteen years. Up until his death."

"Excuse me?" Eyes like blue steel glared at Gloria, daring her to speak those words again.

But Gloria sat silent, watching as the jaw clenched and the lip curled, knowing that to feed that fury would mean its unleashing. Silence worked with your father's anger; let's see if it works with yours.

TJ trembled with the double struggle to control her temper and her pain. Anger tore the words from lips pulled tight against locked teeth. "Are you telling me you were his mistress?" She snorted in ridicule. "You and what ten other women?"

"That's not true. Your father was a powerful man with strong appetites. He needed love and companionship and he found them with me. He wasn't promiscuous."

Sarcasm dripped from TJ's voice. "I’ll bet my mother would have found that comforting. Is this where you tell me that the bastard really loved you?"

Gloria blinked and her face paled at the hatred burning in TJ's eyes. She reached into her pocketbook and brought out an envelope full of photos. She pulled several out and spread them across the desk. Each was a picture of TJ's father in a pose with Gloria, taken at various times through the years. In a couple of scenes they were hugging or kissing and others showed them beaming and obviously happy together.

"Very pretty," grated TJ, roughly pushing the photos back across the desk. Undaunted, Gloria laid out several more pictures with three people in them: Tom, Gloria and their son Tommy.

"This is my son Tom, your half brother." Then she put down one that showed father and son with their arms across each other's shoulders. The look of pride and love on big Tom's face was unmistakable.

The pain in TJ's back had worked up to her neck and into her head but now she was overcome with a different pain. This pain, formed from lost opportunities, shattered love and yearning, clutched her heart. She reached out with her arm and violently swept the pictures off of the desk. You pig! Why him and not me?

Gloria had seen big Tom's anger, but she had never seen hatred with it. TJ's vehemence made Gloria's hands shake but she had too much mettle to back off. The woman hadn't hit her… yet. She took out one last picture--Tommy's graduation picture. Next to it, Gloria laid Tommy's birth certificate.

TJ's chest was heaving, but almost against her will her eyes fell on the picture and halted there, mesmerized. It showed a handsome youth, full face, smiling, his gleaming blue eyes full of hope and promise.

TJ's breathing gradually eased. She would have investigators check out every bit of Mrs. Raphaele's story, but after seeing the picture there was no question in her mind about Tom. He was her brother… without a doubt.

She couldn’t bring herself to hate the boy, though she did resent his presence in her father’s life. For years she had craved one tiny gesture of love from her father, a gesture that never came. That still hurt, even though she hated him. And here was this boy receiving the love she had been so viciously denied. That hurt, too. She laid her fingers at the base of the picture and leaned forward, looking into his eyes. "I'll bet he never laid a hand on you," she rasped quietly, her hand stroking the picture of the boy in front of her, oblivious to Gloria's presence.

Gloria's eyes widened as TJ's meaning sank in. "Did your father beat you?" she whispered incredulously.

Haunted blue eyes lifted from the photo and tore at Gloria's soul. An ugly twist marred the sculpted lips. Let's let her see what a wonderful man dear old Dad was. TJ laid her arm down in front of Gloria and pulled up her sleeve, revealing the scars.

Gloria gasped and touched them with her fingers, making TJ's arm jump. The woman kept her fingers where they were, outlining one of the crescent-shaped scars. "What did he hit you with?" she inquired as if in a dream.

"His belt buckle," TJ responded. She might as well hear it all. "He left seven of these marks down my back. Your perfect gentleman and partner was anything but that, to his family here."

Gloria shook her head in puzzlement. "But why?" Her eyes fell further down TJ's arm to her wrist. She had seen several such scars from suicide attempts in her work at the hospital. Her fingers stroked across the familiar scar and she looked up, meeting the tortured blue expression. They gazed at each other silently for a long moment. Then TJ opened Gloria's heart by lifting an eyebrow and quirking a sad smile at her.

"But why?" TJ finally echoed and shrugged. "Because I wasn’t the son he had always wanted."

"But he had a son. He had Lance, and he had Tom," Gloria disputed.

"But I was the first, and even you must understand how important it was for my father to be first." TJ pushed herself back from the table, taking the photos with her. She wheeled around the table and handed the photos back to Gloria. "Your son's not here."

TJ fled the office, not even considering she’d left almost a total stranger sitting there. Wheeling through the house to the kitchen, she picked up the phone and tapped in the ranch manager's number. "Bill, send one of the hands to the barn to saddle Flag." She listened to the foreman for a few seconds before interrupting him. "I don’t care what you think is wise, Bill, just get Flag saddled." She slammed the phone down on the kitchen island and pushed her way though the outside door.

Gloria was a little stunned to see TJ leave so abruptly. She was also a little shocked to see TJ in a wheelchair. She’d heard about the mugging, the death of Lance and TJ’s injury, but she hadn’t fully appreciated what that meant for the beautiful young woman who had been sitting before her.

She was at a loss now. She had known that coming to see TJ wasn’t the most sensible thing she had ever done; that telling the powerful woman that her father had a mistress and son for sixteen-plus years wasn’t exactly going to be welcome news. She hadn’t reckoned on finding out that Thomas Meridian, the man she had loved, thought nothing of beating his daughter with his belt buckle. Gloria sighed, picked up her bag and put the photos inside. Rising, she took a quick look around the office then walked out, closing the door behind her.

TJ wheeled herself into the barn just as Mark, the ranch hand Bill had sent, guided Flag out of her stall. Mark glanced over and smiled at TJ, not noticing her troubled mood.

"'Afternoon, Miss Meridian. Flag is looking good today. I thought that Tom had taken her out earlier," he remarked as he lifted the saddle onto the palomino's back.

"He did. Now I’m taking Flag out," replied TJ.

Mark paused, his hands stilling as he tightened the cinch. "Er… do you think that's a good idea? The doc said that you weren’t going to be able to ride for a few more months yet."

"I don’t care what anybody else has said. I said that I’m taking Flag out for a ride." TJ wheeled herself over to the mounting ramp that had been installed for her.


"Mark, please don’t question me. That isn’t what I pay you for. Just finish saddling Flag and then give me a hand."

Mark hung his head. Ah crap, the doc is going to kill me for letting her go out. "Okay, Miss Meridian."


Chapter 19

Mare swung her truck into the long driveway of the Meridian ranch; she had been hard at work all morning in Sharlesburg. Just after lunch the elderly Dr. DiNicola had returned to the clinic, his afternoon meeting having been cancelled. Mare offered to stay and work out the afternoon but the smiling doc had shooed her away, telling her to get back to TJ. Mare grinned and gave him a big hug, then bolted from the office. Unfortunately, traffic on the way back from Sharlesburg was horrendous and it took her over an hour to get back. Still, if she could sweet-talk TJ out of her office they would have the better half of the afternoon to goof off.

She frowned at the unfamiliar car coming down the drive toward her. Funny, TJ didn’t mention she was expecting anybody today. As the car approached, she slowed the truck to a stop and leaned out of the window. The car pulled up alongside and stopped. "Hi," said Mare cheerily as she looked down into the car. "Can I help..." she began, then stopped as she registered who was in the car. Uh oh, what is she doing here? "Mrs. Raphaele?"

Gloria pulled up when the truck coming toward her stopped. She was surprised that the young blonde in the truck addressed her by name. "Yes, I’m Mrs. Raphaele." As she replied, she was intrigued by the changing looks on the woman’s face. At first there had been shock, then consternation and now fear.

"You haven’t been up to the house, have you?" Stupid question, Mare. Where else would she have been driving along this road? It isn’t as if it leads anywhere else, now, is it? I guess I could hope that she wasn't here to see Tom.

"As a matter of fact I have. I’ve just been to see Miss Meridian." The young woman’s face shifted again. Her eyes closed and her head fell forward onto the steering wheel.

"I don’t suppose…" Mare took a deep breath then lifted her head toward Gloria, "you didn’t tell her who you are, did you?"

"May I ask who you are? And what this information has to do with you?" Gloria responded.

"I’m Mare Gillespie, a friend of Miss Meridian's, and I live up at the ranch." Mare thought for a few seconds. "Look, I know this is kind of a weird request but I need to talk to you. Would you mind coming back up to the house with me?"

"Miss Gillespie, I came here looking for my son. Miss Meridian has already told me that he isn’t here. Now unless you can tell me differently, I don’t think that my presence here is wanted by Miss Meridian."

"Please, I know this is hard for you." And for TJ. "But I can help you find your son. Please come talk with me."

She knows something about Tommy? I have no choice but to hear what she has to say. "Ok, I’ll come back up to the house."

"Thank you, Mrs. Raphaele; I’ll wait until you turn around."

Once Mrs. Raphaele had turned around, Mare started the drive up to the house. With her right hand she rummaged in her bag and pulled out her phone. Hitting one of her quick-dial buttons, she waited until the ringing on the other end stopped and Paula’s voice came online.

"Paula, it's Mare. We have a problem. Think of your worst possible nightmare coming true and this will beat it. Guess who turned up at the ranch and saw TJ?"

Paula put down the file she was holding and sat heavily in the desk chair that was behind her, listening intently to Mare on the other end of the phone. Her eyes closed and her spare hand lifted to rub her forehead, forewarning of the headache that was sure to be brewing. "Yes, I understand, Mare. Yes, not right this minute, but I’ll get her and we’ll head back right now." She looked up as a noise at the door caught her attention.

Erin stood at the door with two mugs in her hands and frowned at her partner. Why do I not like the look on Paula’s face? And why do I get the feeling something really bad is about to happen? Paula put the phone down and waved her partner in. "We have a big problem. Mrs. Raphaele turned up at the ranch looking for Tom."

The mugs slipped from Erin’s hands, crashing to the floor. "Shit."


Mare opened the kitchen door and let Gloria in before her. She discarded her bag on the side and walked into the living room with Gloria close behind her. "TJ! TJ! Where are you?"

"She left," stated Gloria, catching Mare’s attention. "She left the house before I did. Gave me back the pictures I’d shown her of Tom, saying he wasn’t here, then left."

Mare felt the rising panic in her stomach. News like this wasn’t something that TJ would react well to. And when she doesn’t react well she tends to do something stupid. "Hell, where would she have gone?" she said abstractedly, trying to get her brain thinking the way TJ's would be at this moment, forgetting that Gloria was still with her. "The barn; she will have gone to the barn." Mare turned around and nearly walked into Gloria.

"Sorry," Mare said, awakening to Gloria's presence. "I’m a little worried about TJ, she’s had a pretty rough time over the last couple of months." Mare returned to the kitchen, with Gloria still following.

"I appreciate your concern for your friend, Miss Gillespie, but could you please tell me what this has to do with my son?"

"Please, take a seat. I will explain what is going on as soon as Erin and Paula get here. They are TJ’s associates and they run the ranch and the packing plant that the Meridian Corporation owns here. I phoned them from the truck on the way up the drive. It will take them about twenty minutes to get here from the plant. In the meantime, I really need to find out where TJ has disappeared to."

Gloria could see that the woman standing before her was genuine, not only in her desire to help her, but also in worry for her friend. I've come a long way for information about Tom; a few more minutes won't hurt. "Okay, I’ll wait." she replied taking a seat by the island.

"Thank you. I do appreciate your patience." Mare smiled at the woman, then walked across to the phone. She tapped out the number for Bill’s office and waited for a reply. "Hi, Bill, it’s Mare. I just got back to the ranch and TJ isn’t around. Have you or any of the hands seen her today?" She was quiet as she listened to Bill on the other end of the phone. "Has Mark come back up yet? No, no, that’s okay. I’ll call the barn. Thanks, Bill."

Cutting the phone off, she hit the number for the barn. She was waiting none too patiently for an answer when the new pickup truck pulled up outside. Two familiar figures came rushing through the door. Mare’s eyebrow lifted. "That was a quick twenty minutes."

"So I broke a few speed limits," confessed Erin. "That truck can move!" Paula stood next to her lover, looking at the attractive woman sitting in the kitchen.

Mare followed Paula’s gaze. "Paula, Erin, this is Gloria Raphaele, Tom’s mother. Mrs. Raphaele, Paula and Erin. TJ’s friends." Her attention turned as the phone was answered. "Mark? It’s Mare up at the house. Have you seen Miss Meridian today?"

Paula took a further step into the kitchen and held her hand out to Gloria. "Mrs. Raphaele, good to meet you." The older woman took the offered hand. "Sorry we have to meet under such circumstances."

Erin walked up to her partner, her attention still on Mare and her phone conversation. "Hi," she said absently to Gloria.

Gloria studied the two women before speaking. From their body language it was obvious that the women were together. "Can you tell me about my son?"

"We do have some information…" Paula stopped as she heard Mare shout.

"She did what!?" Mare’s face looked thunderous. Erin left Paula’s side and walked over, resting her hand on Mare's arm to calm the agitation she could see building in the small frame. Erin winced as the vet slammed the phone down.

Mare looked at Erin, then Paula. "You will never guess what that pig-headed, stubborn woman has gone and done." She didn’t give anybody time to reply. "She has only gone and taken Flag out for a ride. That woman is going to drive me crazy! Doesn’t she listen to anybody? The way she’s going she’ll end up back in the hospital. I’m going to take the pickup truck and go find her." Mare picked up the cell phone and strode toward the door, her hand out for the truck keys.

Erin looked over to Paula who nodded her head. "I’ll come with you. Someone will need to ride Flag back." Digging the keys out of her pocket, she followed Mare out.

The kitchen was quiet for several seconds after the girls had left. Paula sighed and looked over at Gloria. "Can I get you something to drink? Then I’ll fill you in on what’s been happening here."


Mare slammed the truck door and jammed the keys into the ignition. She ground the gears until she’d selected first, released the emergency brake and started to move off, barely giving Erin a chance to jump into the passenger seat.

"Pigheaded idiot. I swear I’m gonna..." Mare pressed the accelerator down and sped out of the back of the ranch parking lot, up toward the open plains. "I don’t know what I’m going to do but I’m sure I’ll think of something," Mare continued her tirade.

Erin watched Mare as she drove up the track and shoved the stick into second gear. She reached over and placed her hand on Mare’s, which rested on the gear stick. "Mare, we need to be careful what we say to TJ. She’s had a big shock today."

Mare glanced over at Erin, taking her eyes off the bouncing track for a few seconds. "I know. Why do you think I’m ranting now? I’m hoping that by time we find her I’ll have worked out the urge to yell at her, and be able to help her."

Erin squeezed her hand tightly. "I’m sure that just your presence will help, Mare. I have a question though."

"What’s that?" Mare asked, thrusting the gearshift into high.

"Are you going to tell her that we knew she had a brother? That we knew her father had been cheating on her mother for all those years?"

"I’m not sure. I’ll see how bad she is first, but we will have to tell her at some point. And she isn’t going to be happy that we kept it from her."

Erin looked out of the window, staring at the passing trees and the last of the ranch outbuildings. Before them stretched the wide-open grass plains that made up the majority of the ranch holdings. "No, she isn’t going to be happy with us at all, is she? Oh, god. Why isn’t anything simple anymore? Every time we get ourselves onto an even keel, something comes along to rock us."

"Yep, we sure haven’t had an easy time of it this year, have we. But think of it this way: we still have many roads to travel along, and at least one of them has to be better than this."

Mare's eyes swept the horizon and she shook her head. "Now where would TJ have gone? I think the lake is a little too far; I doubt she’d make it there."

"I wouldn’t put it past her to get anywhere; but I think you’re right. I don’t think she’ll have gone there," replied Erin. "Try going up to the small ridge line, the one over toward the main road. There are a few trees up there where she could get out of the sun and it's a pretty good view. She rode up there occasionally when we first moved back to the ranch."

"Okay." Mare swung the truck off the track and went cross-country, heading toward the main road.


Paula felt awkward as she placed the glass of iced tea in front of Tom’s mother. Considering the upheaval going on around her, the woman had been entirely too accommodating and accepting. Paula had the uncomfortable feeling that the hammer would be falling on her. "So, what makes you think Tom is here at the ranch?"

Gloria took hold of the chilled drink and looked up at Paula. "Because I found TJ’s picture in his room and he’d been asking about her a lot. He is here, isn’t he?"

Paula sat on the stool opposite. "Yes, he is here, he turned up at the door six or seven weeks ago, looking for a job. Mare recognized him right away. Since then, he’s been working around the ranch, but TJ doesn’t know who he is. I’m not sure that you're aware of it, but we were all involved in an accident several months ago. TJ has been out of the hospital for only a few weeks. We decided not to tell her about Tom."

Relief flooded through Gloria that at least her son was safe. "I need to see my son," she insisted.

"Not a problem. I think he’s out with a couple of the ranch hands seeing to the cattle up by the lake. They are due back this evening. You are welcome to wait here until he gets back."

"How did Miss Gillespie know who Tom was when he turned up?" Gloria was curious. TJ had known nothing about what Gloria was telling her earlier in her office, yet her friend knew who Tom was when he appeared at the door.

Paula sat for a few moments considering her answer. How is this woman going to react when I tell her we had her and her son investigated? "We were clearing out TJ’s father's desk. Mare found a hidden drawer. Inside were photos of you and Tom, a copy of his birth certificate and papers dealing with transfers of money and shares to you. We had you investigated; in fact we received the report from the investigators just before Tom arrived."

"That still doesn’t tell me why you allowed a boy who is still considered a minor to remain here, without informing someone of his whereabouts." It was the first trace of anger that Gloria had shown but she felt justified. After all for the past month she had been worried sick about her son. She couldn’t hold TJ responsible for the silence, but these three women who considered themselves her friends could be held responsible.

That rocked Paula slightly. They hadn’t fully considered the legal implications of allowing Tom to remain here, or the fact that his mother would be frantic about him. Rather selfishly, all they really thought about was the impact his presence would have on TJ. Paula remained silent as Gloria continued.

"I could report you all to the authorities. I’m sure they’d frown upon such irresponsible behavior."

"Are you going to?"

Gloria sighed again, putting her hands flat on the island top. "No, I’m not. You seem like nice people and, from what I’ve seen of the ranch so far, Tom will be having the time of his life. I don’t know what Tom has told you about our relationship, but, like his father, he decides something and rarely considers the people involved."

Paula nodded and took a sip of her tea. "Tom said that you wanted him to go away to college, that he had been at boarding schools all his life and that he wanted to get out of that and into the real world for once."

Gloria smiled. That sounded like Tom, always putting a sympathetic slant on a situation. "Did he tell you that I said it would be okay, if he would promise to start at Harvard in the spring semester?

"No, he neglected to mention that."

"I’m not surprised. He wouldn’t have wanted to risk your sending him home. You have to remember, Paula, that Tom is only sixteen. Although he acts like an adult he is still only a child; sometimes a spoiled one at that. He has always wanted to meet his sister and before Lance died he wanted to meet him as well. He has always known that his father and I weren’t married and that meant that he wouldn’t be able to have a normal relationship with his siblings. But he is headstrong, and once he had decided that he wanted to see TJ there was nothing I, or anyone, could have done to stop him."

And who does that sound like? Paula smiled at Gloria. "He is a great young man. You should be proud of him. He has fit in very well at the ranch, and he is well liked by all of the men. Although TJ doesn’t know who he is, she likes him. She's even allowed him to ride her horse, Flag, while she’s been unable to. And she's really particular about who rides Flag."

They sat in a comfortable silence, each immersed in her own thoughts, the ticking of the kitchen clock the only sound disturbing the peace. Gloria studied her surroundings; the kitchen was big and airy with an island set into the center of one end and a large, solid oak table and chairs at the other end, with the outside door between them. Its bright décor enhanced the spacious feeling. Personal touches were scattered around: character mugs hanging from the mug tree, magnets attached to the fridge, even the post-its were of the cartoon variety.

Obviously the kitchen was a popular and well-loved area of the ranch house. The house itself wasn't the cold, loveless shell that Thomas Meridian had frequently described. It had a warm, caring feeling to it, and Gloria wondered how much of that was due to the woman seated before her, and the other two who were out searching for TJ.


The sun was warm, a delicate breeze ruffled her hair and TJ was in heaven. She was out of her room, her office, the house; for the first time since their accident she was free and by herself. The anger that had begun to boil while facing her father's mistress drained away quickly once she left the confines of the barn.

She’d been as sensible as she knew how to be on Flag. She hadn’t gone galloping hell for leather over the fields, but settled to a canter. Her back caused her some distress as she started out, but the joy of not being confined to the house outweighed it. She wanted to go out towards the lake, where she and Mare had shared some wonderful moments, but it was a long ride. Knowing that she already would be in deep trouble with everybody, she settled for a ride through the fields nearer to the house. She had her phone with her. It wasn’t turned on, but she could call for help if she needed it.

Her ride had done her good. Not only did it give her time to calm down and get rid of the aggression that had built up, but also it gave her time to think. So my father had another family that he actually cared for and loved. Does that change my opinion of him? Not in the least; because if he had really cared for them he would have divorced my mother and left. The only reason not to have left us was money, so that still means he was just as much of a bastard as I thought he was, if not more.

I have a brother I didn’t know about. I can’t even begin to describe what I feel about that. He probably isn’t anything like Lance, but it might be good to get to know him. And despite the fact that she loved my father Gloria seems to be a nice enough person. I shouldn’t have left like I did. I bet she’s wondering what type of madwoman I am.

With a tug on the reins, TJ turned Flag up a small path to the top of a rise that would give her a better view of her holdings. She liked this area and when she had first returned to the ranch she came riding out this way on most days. Before the accident, though, most of her longer rides had been with Mare up to the lake, or out to see Mare when she was tending to the cattle.

The place wasn’t as isolated as it felt; the main road into town was just a few minutes away and there were several tracks that led into and out of this part. Still, it was beautiful. Even when her father had worked the ranch, this section hadn’t been used extensively. Most of it was prairie, with streams and stands of trees scattered sparsely throughout the area.

She had been out for nearly an hour now and really ought to be getting back to the house. The girls would be home shortly and Mare would be back not long after, but she was enjoying herself too much. Smiling, she leaned forward and slapped Flag's neck, feeling the well-groomed hair beneath her fingers. With a quick flick of the reins, TJ moved Flag back toward the ranch house.


Mare gunned the engine of the truck up the hill in front of her with Erin holding on tightly as they crested the top.

"There she is." Erin pointed across Mare and out of her window.

Mare glanced out and then altered the direction of the truck toward TJ and Flag. I’m not going to yell at her. I’m going to be calm about it. Yes, I know she hasn’t shown the best judgment, but she has had a major shock. And don’t forget that when she finds out that we already knew about the Raphaeles, she is going to be more than a little upset. Mare slowed the truck as she drew nearer her lover. "Will you wait here, please, Erin? I think I might get further if I’m alone with her."

"No problem, Mare. Just give me a call when you want me."

TJ pulled Flag up, as the truck appeared over the hill. I guess it's finally time to face the music over this little excursion. Wonder who Bill found to come looking for me? At least Mare is in Sharlesburg today; don’t know whether I could handle her being mad at me now that we are back on good terms.

She waited, unconsciously pulling herself taller and settling her face into a mask as the truck got nearer. She could make out two people sitting in the vehicle and slowly recognized the features of Mare and Erin. The confidence she had felt moments before, at not having to face her partner, fled rapidly, curling her stomach into a tight knot. She closed her eyes, not wanting to see the disappointment on Mare's face or the anger that she knew would be there with it.

Mare stopped the truck, opened her door and slammed it closed, noticing the visible flinch it elicited in TJ. Christ, she looks like a two-year-old kid waiting for the sky to come falling down on her. But we are going to be sensible about this, aren’t we, Mare? No yelling, no screaming, just lots and lots of support.

"Hi there… good ride?" asked Mare without a hint of condescension, or anger.

TJ sat stock still, then slowly opened her eyes at Mare’s loving tones. "Aren’t you mad at me?" she asked, ignoring Mare’s question--totally puzzled at her lover's reaction.

Mare relaxed at TJ’s question. Well, at least I’m not going to get the silent treatment. "Hmm, am I mad at you? I could be, but then I wouldn’t be very understanding of your reasons for going against all the rules Dad told you about riding, would I?" she gently chided, a smile growing on her face. Mare walked up to Flag and slung her arm under her neck so that she could pat the loyal steed. "Hi, girl. Did you enjoy having your mom take you out?" she queried the horse, who nudged at her shoulder lovingly in reply.

"That doesn’t really answer my question," said TJ, not actually wanting to know the answer. But if Mare were angry at her, it would be better to face it now rather than later.

Mare turned her attention from Flag and smiled again at TJ. "I’m a little upset, but, no, I’m not mad at you. I met Mrs. Raphaele as I drove up the drive to the house."

TJ frowned then asked, "Did she tell you who she was?" Mare nodded. "Did she tell you I have a brother? That my father had another family? A family that by all accounts he loved?"

Mare lifted her hand and squeezed TJ’s leg even though she knew her lover couldn’t feel it. "Yes, she told me all of that," said Mare, quickly coming to a decision, "but she didn’t have to… I already knew it."

"What?" TJ felt a sudden thudding in her chest. Now she was totally confused. First at Mare’s rather benign attitude to her riding Flag, then to the statement that Mare already knew what Gloria Raphaele was going to say to her.

Mare sighed. "Why don’t you let Erin and me get you off of Flag? Then we can drive back to the ranch and I can explain everything to you on the way. Erin will ride Flag back for you."

TJ didn’t want to wait for an explanation, but she knew she couldn’t make an issue of it since Mare was being so reasonable about her riding Flag. "Sure, I can do that."

Mare took hold of Flag's bridle and led the horse over to the truck. Jumping out of the passenger side, Erin lowered the tailgate and climbed into the open back. While Mare tied Flag off and began to undo the straps that secured TJ’s legs, Erin tackled the others. Once they were loose, Erin carefully pulled TJ’s far leg over Flag's withers and lifted her friend from the horse's back.

"Cat got your tongue, Erin?" TJ asked dryly.

How did I know she wouldn't ignore my part in this? Erin grimaced. "Can't lift you and talk, too," she grunted. A slight quirk of TJ's mouth surprised Erin. Looks like she's happy that I'm straining my gut. Erin held her friend steady as Mare quickly moved around to help her.

For all the strain and shock that TJ had experienced today, she looked remarkably calm. Erin attributed that to the presence of the vet. Previously, had something like this happened, TJ would have been in a rage, abusing anybody who came within firing range. She and Paula would have stayed on the sidelines, waiting for exhaustion to overcome their friend, before attempting to deal with whatever had upset her.

Now, though, since TJ had seen Mare handle her disobedience of doctor’s orders in a calm and understanding manner, she seemed to sense that anything less from herself would have been childish in the extreme. Had Mare plowed in with all guns blazing, TJ probably would have done the same. Erin let a small smile play on her lips as Mare clambered up next to her and helped her rest TJ on the floor of the truck. "Thanks, Mare," she said as she jumped back to the ground. "You ready?" she asked, looking at TJ.

"Yep," replied TJ. Erin once again scooped her friend into her arms and carried her around to the side door. "Are you Mare's right-hand girl now, Erin? In cahoots with my big, bad rescuer?" TJ put her lips up to Erin's ear and whispered.

"We're only trying to help you, TJ," Erin muttered with a little asperity. She stopped for a moment and swung her head to lock her gaze onto intense blue eyes just inches from her own. Her heart faltered at the betrayed look meeting hers, then wrenched as betrayal turned to resignation.

Pulling her eyes away, she placed TJ into the passenger seat and closed the door gently after her. She walked to the back of the truck where Mare had just finished untying the palomino. "Okay, Mare, I’ll see to Flag and meet you guys back at the ranch."

"I told her that I knew about the Raphaeles before Gloria appeared," Mare responded quietly. "I’m going to tell her the rest on the way back. If you cut cross-country you can make it back before us. You had better warn Paula and Mrs. Raphaele before I bring her back; she might be in a bit of a mood."

Erin looked at the woman before her, who had not so long ago walked into all their lives and changed it for the better. Impulsively Erin pulled Mare into a hug. "I think she's working on one, now. You sure you're going to be okay with her?"

"Yeah, I’ll be fine. She might blow her temper but she won’t do anything I can’t handle. We’ll be home soon."

Erin released the hug and held Mare at arm's length. "You know, you really have made a change in TJ. Had this happened before you came, I’m not sure how she would have reacted but it wouldn’t have been pretty. Now she knows she has you to lean on, and no matter how nasty she gets, or how loud she shouts, you’ll still be by her side. I think that's making a big difference now."

"I hope so, because she is taking this way too calmly right now."

"I think she is just taking a leaf out of your book. She sees you all nice and calm and figures she had better act like a grown-up as well. At least I hope that's the case. You had better get on your way. I’ll meet you at the house."

Erin mounted Flag and turned to head out across the fields, while Mare jumped back into the truck next to TJ. She started the vehicle and pushed it into gear, slowly turning it and driving back toward the track.

"So," said TJ, looking at her hands while her fingers nervously flicked at her cuticles, wishing she had her usual pencil to tap.

Mare glanced over at her. "So?"

"Yeah, so. As in, so are you going to tell me how you knew I had a brother? Or how you found out about the Raphaeles?"

Mare paused for a second, wondering where to start, her eyes back on the track. "We found out about the Raphaeles when we started cleaning out your father’s office."

"We? Paula and Erin knew about this and didn’t tell me either?" TJ’s voice had taken on a harder tone.

Ah, now she’s going to get riled. Maybe telling her wasn’t such a good idea. "We were all together when the papers were found, yeah," replied Mare.

"And you were planning on telling me… when?"

"We would have given you the report as soon as it arrived, had it not been for the accident."

"What report would that be?"

"Look. I know you want all the information right away, but why not let me start at the beginning and tell you what happened?" Mare looked over, waiting for TJ’s consent. "Okay, then," she said, seeing her nod. "As we were sorting through your father's desk that first day, Erin noticed that one of the drawers was too short for the space it occupied. When I checked I discovered another drawer, a secret one, behind it. We found pictures, a birth certificate, and paperwork relating to funds and stock that your father had transferred to Raphaele Consultants. That's how we learned that the family existed. We knew you were pretty upset at the time, and we wanted to get all the facts before we told you what we found. So Erin got in contact with one of the agencies your corporation uses and asked them to do a background check on the Raphaeles for us."

TJ had lifted her eyes from her hands to gaze out of the window at the passing trees and fields. Her right hand rose and rubbed at her temple; she could feel the first stirrings of a headache. "When did the report arrive?"

"A few days after your operation…"

"Mare, my operation was nearly three months ago," interrupted TJ. "I could maybe understand your not telling me right away after the operation, but after three months you still hadn’t told me?"

"I know it looks bad, TJ, but you didn’t need another blow to your system at the time." Mare slowed the truck to a stop and looked at her partner's angry face.

"Then, maybe, but now? You think it was better for me to find out from my father's mistress that I had a brother? You think that was easy for me?"


"Don’t you think I might have appreciated finding out about him from my friends? Rather than have his mother accusing me of hiding him at the ranch? Hell, he can’t be more than a teenager…"

"He’s sixteen," interjected Mare.

"Fine, sixteen. If he were at the ranch do you have any idea how much trouble I could be in for harboring a runaway minor? We already have one kid working for us and Paula still hasn’t had confirmation of permission from his parents."

TJ looked over at Mare, catching a quickly hidden, guilty look. "What?" she said, barely below a yell, her temper getting to the boiling point. She looked harder at Mare who was wishing she were anywhere but in the truck right that minute.

Oh, hell, she is really going to blow when she works this out. "Promise me you won’t do anything…"

"About what?" Agitation showed in her face as her mind tried to work out what Mare was trying to avoid telling her. "For crying out loud, Mare, what the hell is going on?"

Mare closed her eyes and pulled on the parking brake. "We didn’t know what to do when he turned up on the…"

TJ was staring anxiously at Mare, studying her lover's face. As soon as she started talking, TJ knew where her words were leading; her face said it all. "Oh no, Mare, please don’t say what I think you’re going to say."

"We couldn’t turn him away, TJ. He had obviously come looking for you." Mare sent a pleading look for understanding across the cab of the truck. "At least, if he was with us, we knew he wasn’t in any danger."

"Didn’t it occur to you that his mother might come looking for him? I could be looking at a lawsuit. Better yet, she might decide to report this to the police and I could be looking at charges of kidnap," yelled TJ.

"TJ, please…" Mare reached out a hand to TJ but the irate woman flinched away from her touch. Please, love, just calm down, her thoughts begged.

"Don’t 'please, TJ,' me!" roared the dark-haired woman, purposely slamming her arm into the side window.

Mare jumped at the impact of TJ’s arm against the glass. The vet had seen TJ angry before, but had never really been in this type of situation without Erin or Paula nearby. Talking to her didn’t seem to be an option; she was way beyond being calmed down. Mare was reluctant to approach her physically, for fear that TJ would hit out in her anger. Deciding that silence was the best option, Mare took the brake off and started toward the ranch again.


Chapter 20

Erin headed out at a canter, then spurred Flag on to a gallop in her desire to get back to the ranch before Mare and TJ returned. Even though Mare's presence had calmed the brewing storm, Erin had learned from past experience that TJ's mood could deteriorate quickly, sending the dark-haired woman into raging anger. She hoped that Mare's influence would continue to circumvent that, but who knew for sure how long the peace would last?

Erin breathed a sigh of relief when the ranch house came into view with no sign of the truck. She guided Flag into the barn and asked Mark to take care of the palomino. Sprinting to the house, she rushed inside.

Paula and Mrs. Raphaele looked up from their places at the table as Erin closed the door and briefly leaned against it.

Paula rose, her expression worried. "Is TJ all right?" She got a glass from the cupboard, set it on the table, and poured more iced tea for all three of them. Then she sank back into her seat.

"She seems to be fine, Paula. She was pretty calm… and, frankly, that has me a little worried."

Gloria's eyebrows lifted. Erin walked toward her with her hand extended. "Mrs. Raphaele, I apologize for practically ignoring you earlier. My mind was more on TJ's well-being than on your search for your son." She shook Gloria's hand. "I assume that Paula has been explaining Tom's situation here, and I will add what I can to the explanation. First, though, we have to get TJ settled."

Gloria nodded as Erin released her grip. "Please, call me Gloria. I understand that you need to see to Miss Meridian's needs first. Besides, Paula told me that Tom won't be in until later today."

"And I invited Gloria to wait here with us," Paula added.

Erin chose a seat at the end of the table with Paula to her left and Gloria to her right, facing each other. She took a long drink of tea, then rubbed her palm across her face. Paula recognized her partner's tension and patted her forearm. "You say you're worried about TJ's calmness. Did Mare confront her about disobeying Michael's orders?"

"We found TJ out on that low ridge where she likes to ride Flag. All the way out there in the truck, Mare ranted and raved. I'll tell you that little vet has a temper when she lets it fly. But by the time we got there, she had reined it in and she talked to TJ as sweet as you please." Erin grinned. "TJ didn't stand a chance. You know what effect Mare has on her."

Then the grin faded. "What I'm worried about is what will happen as they drive here, and when they arrive. Who knows if they both will be able to keep their cool? TJ's like a coiled spring: the tighter she holds something in, the higher it bounces when she lets loose. Not that I could blame her. She's had a real shock and a lot of that is our fault… all three of us."

"Yeah," Paula agreed flatly. "We deserve to be yelled at."

Gloria pursed her lips and couldn't refrain from nodding. At Erin's surprised look, Paula interjected, "I've filled Gloria in on what has happened from square one. Right from our discovery of the secret drawer up to the present, including the investigation."

Paula squirmed in her seat. "I explained how we have been trying to protect TJ from any emotional upsets, but looking at this particular situation through another person's eyes, our actions seem pretty unjustified." She clasped her glass of tea in overlapping hands, swirled it around and stared into it, as though a solution could be found in its eddying brown depths. For a prolonged moment, only the clink of ice marred the silence.

Erin lightly touched a fist against Paula's biceps. "Hey, we'll be okay."

Paula kept her eyes on her glass and smiled grimly. "It's not us I'm worried about; it's TJ."

Erin frowned and nodded her agreement. "We'll just have to count on Mare for damage control."

Gloria watched the byplay between the two, touched by the sincerity of their concern. "Please tell me more about TJ. She's my son's sister. I've read everything the newspapers have had to say over the years, but I would like to hear about her from her friends."

Paula sighed and looked at Erin. "You start, okay?"

Erin nodded. "I'll have to give you an abbreviated version. They should be here any minute. We all met in college…"


Mare kept a surreptitious eye on TJ as they bounced along the track, but there had been no more violent outbursts. She was still nervous, though; TJ had never been violent toward her before. She now knew why Paula and Erin were so insistent she keep her distance when their friend was in such a mood.

TJ gazed moodily out of the window. Her hands, lying in her lap, were in constant motion as her mind replayed the conversation she just had with Mare. Not only do they not tell me that my father was an adulterer, and that I have a brother who is alive and well, they don’t even tell me that he is on the ranch. I try very hard to follow Peter’s advice on anger management and dealing with volatile emotions, but as much progress as I make they still don’t trust me to be able to decide for myself in these matters. TJ sighed and looked over at Mare who, she could tell, was as upset as she was.

They wonder why I lose my temper and hit out when they treat me like this. Don’t they understand that, in real terms, that is the only absolute control I have over my life now? "You know what I hate most about being in a wheelchair, Mare?" TJ's grating voice made Mare's heart thump. "It’s that, no matter how good a recovery I make, everybody will still treat me as though I’m incapable of deciding for myself on personal matters that count… never mind that I run a multinational corporation. When you came into my life I was glad for the first time that the night nurse found me when I tried to kill myself. I thought you understood how I needed to have some control over the direction my life should take. But in the end you are just like everyone else: you have no idea what it is like to be me."

Mare struggled to focus as tears fell from her eyes. No, honey, I don’t have any idea what it is like. And I would give anything for you not to know, either.


Paula and Erin looked up as they heard the squeal of the truck's brakes when it pulled in.

"I’ll get it," said Paula before Erin could stand to collect TJ’s wheelchair and take it out to her. She smiled at Gloria as she stood. "I won't be a minute, but please understand that TJ might not be in the best of moods."

"Don’t worry, Paula," Gloria said as the young woman walked over to the wheelchair that Erin had asked Mark to bring over from the stable. "I’m old enough to look after myself."

Yeah, but you’ve never dealt with TJ in a bad mood, have you? Erin took a sip of her drink, not saying anything.

Mare slammed the door shut, after parking the car. TJ’s comment about control had sent her thoughts straight back to Peter’s counseling session when TJ had broken down so completely. It was true then, and it was true now, that none of them really understood what it was like to be TJ. When she thought about it seriously, they were all guilty of not allowing TJ to make her own decisions on anything that could bring about emotional turmoil.

Their short trip back hadn’t settled into silence. Mare had continued to talk to TJ and, surprisingly, TJ had responded even if it was in only two-syllable words.

Mare managed a half smile as Paula appeared through the door with TJ’s wheelchair. Paula raised her eyebrow and Mare shook her head, letting her know that things were just as Erin had thought they might be. Paula wheeled the chair toward the truck while Mare opened TJ’s door. "Hi ya, boss. Enjoy your ride?" she asked as though nothing untoward was occurring.

TJ scowled at Paula as she swung herself from the truck into the chair. "Get Tom to the house," she directed, as she wheeled away from the two women. "I’ll be in my office. Call me when he gets here."

Paula glanced over at Mare. "Guess things aren’t going so well, huh?"

"Better than I expected them to," Mare replied quietly. She and Paula trailed behind TJ, toward the house. "Let's ask Erin to get Tom; she knows the ranch better than we do."

TJ wheeled through the door into the kitchen, barely sparing a glance at Erin. "Mrs. Raphaele, I think we have some things to discuss if you wouldn’t mind following me to my office."

"Would you like some tea or coffee brought in?" asked Erin before TJ could disappear out of the kitchen.

"Mrs. Raphaele?" TJ inclined her head toward the woman.

Gloria leant across to Erin who was on the receiving end of TJ’s glare. "Not for me, thank you," she said. She patted Erin’s hand reassuringly and followed TJ out.

TJ rolled herself behind her desk and waited for Gloria to settle into one of the chairs in front of it. "Mrs. Raphaele, I owe you an apology. It seems that I have very little idea about what is going on in my own home."

"Please, TJ, call me Gloria," interjected the attractive woman.

TJ recognized her own tactic of disarming your opponent with the kindness of offering your first name, but refused to be brought into the game. "I’ve had your son sent for. He should be with us soon. All I can do, I’m afraid, is offer my apologies for what has happened. If you think that this needs to go any further and you plan to bring legal charges, then I can supply you with the names of my lawyers and we can go from there."

Gloria was a little stunned at TJ’s words, not really expecting the reaction she was getting. "I’m not really sure that is necessary. Paula has explained to me what happened and I’m satisfied that you weren’t keeping Tom's presence at the ranch from me for any malicious reason."

"I wasn’t keeping his presence here from you at all; I didn’t know he was here." The bitterness in TJ’s voice made Gloria uncomfortable.

"Well, I’m sure no harm has been done intentionally," Gloria said quietly, not wanting the three women she had been speaking to earlier to be blamed too harshly for what they had done.

"It surprises me you feel that way, Mrs. Raphaele. I’d think all the worry you’ve been put through was harmful enough."

TJ turned her head toward the window and gazed out implacably, her fingers beginning to torture a rawhide decoration on the vest she was wearing.

Gloria sat silently, content that the conversation, or lack of it, be directed by the woman opposite her. For many years, portrait painting had been an avocation of Gloria's and she welcomed the diversion of scrutinizing TJ's profile. What a fascinating face, even under such trying circumstances. Or maybe, she smiled wryly, even more fascinating because of such trying circumstances.

Gloria believed that a person's character manifested itself through words and movements, but mostly through the expressions on the person's face--if one made the effort to read past superficialities. She studied the strong chin, wide cheekbones, full lips and straight nose. The clenched jaw, flared nostrils and tense body language spoke of restrained anger.

But the eyes, those magnificent Meridian eyes, conveyed a different message. Even the lowering of the perfectly arched, raven brows couldn't hide the hint of vulnerability they displayed. She's angry, yes. But she's also hurt, and something else…I think she feels betrayed. Of course she does. No matter how well meaning they were, she feels betrayed by her friends. And I walk in and dump her father's betrayal on her, too.

Gloria's face grew somber and her heart felt bruised for the woman seated across from her. She struggled to think of something positive to say to TJ… something to lighten the heavy atmosphere in the room. "I think you and Tom will like each other," she ventured tentatively.

TJ's head came slowly around and rewarded Gloria with a fleeting twitch of the lips. "We already do," came a soft murmur. "But liking someone doesn't seem to preclude…" she didn't finish the sentence aloud. Hurting them, both women completed the thought as TJ returned to her desultory gaze.

With no further conversation forthcoming, Gloria assumed that nothing more would be heard from TJ until Tom arrived. I can't wait to see him and know that he is all right!

She tried to relax, sitting back in her chair and centering her thoughts on her imminent reunion with her son.


Erin lost no time in going after Tom, once Paula relayed TJ's order. Mare tossed her the truck keys as she strode out the door, her ear already against the cell phone. "Bill, TJ wants Tom right away so I'm going after him in the truck. Can you tell me the shortest route to get to him?" As Bill answered, she got the truck moving in the direction he specified.

Before hanging up, she asked Bill to call to the site and have Tom ready to leave. Grinding through the gears, she drove as quickly as conditions would allow, gathering from the expression on Mare's face that TJ would brook no delays.

As soon as the truck pulled into the work site, Tom hopped in. "Hi, Miss Scott. What's happening?" he asked breezily.

Erin backed the truck to turn around and before she changed gears to start forward, she hesitated. A half-smile stole onto her face as she looked over at Tom's jaunty grin glowing through his beard. Then the impending confrontation with TJ wiped it off of her lips.

"Your mom happened."

Tom froze for a moment, then turned his body toward Erin and leaned back against the door, his left arm reaching up to lie along the seat back. "My mom?" he asked, frowning. "Did she call back about my social security number?"

"Tom," Erin said flatly, "lay off the acting, okay? Your mom showed up at the ranch today with the whole story…" she shifted gears and floored the gas pedal, "and she told it all to TJ."

"All of it?" Tom asked.

"All of it," Erin echoed.

"How mad is my mom?" Tom inquired, his eyebrow quirking up.

He didn't seem too disturbed at being unmasked and Erin shook her head in disbelief. "Probably not as mad as she has a right to be. She's upset that you ran away, but grateful to have found you. The better question would be how mad is TJ."

This time Erin's gaze caught a questioning frown on Tom's face. "You can take off your wraparound sunglasses now. TJ knows you're her brother."

He startled Erin with a wide smile. "Hey, that's okay. I was going to tell everyone sooner or later, anyhow," he enthused, removing the glasses and sticking them in his shirt pocket.

"Tom!" Erin's stern tone shrunk his smile to a tentative one. "Aren't you even the least bit sorry?"

"I… er…" Tom shrugged and seemed genuinely puzzled. "Sorry for what?"

Erin blew out a gust of air in exasperation. "Sorry for worrying your mother half to death… sorry for lying to all of us… sorry for putting TJ is such a precarious position…"

"Precarious position?" Tom interrupted.

"You're a minor, Tom. Your mother could sue TJ to hell and back for letting you work here under false pretenses."

"But she didn't know who I was," he argued.

"No, but the rest of us did," Erin sighed heavily.

"You knew I was her brother?" Tom's voice rose to a higher register. "Why didn't you tell her?"

"I wish now that we had," Erin muttered. She threw a guilty look at Tom. "TJ just had a serious operation and she's been in a lot of severe pain. Her nerves are stretched thin as it is; we didn't want to slam her with any unpleasant news."

"You think finding out she has a brother is unpleasant news?" Tom couldn't see the sense of this. He was thrilled that he had a sibling. Why would TJ feel differently?

Erin reached over and patted Tom's knee. "Only TJ can answer that, Tom. What I would guess isn't pleasant, is finding out her father had another family."

Tom hung his head. "I never thought of that."

"Seems like there are a lot of things you never thought of, Tom," Erin upbraided him. Not that we are so innocent either. We've all hurt TJ, the one person none of us wanted to see suffer.

"But I can explain…" Tom started to say when Erin cut him off.

"We're here. Save your explanations for TJ."

A slight change in TJ's posture heralded the approach of the pickup truck, which soon pulled into the parking area and disgorged its occupants.

They entered the house and could be heard coming down the hallway from the kitchen to TJ's office. Erin led Tom in and watched as mother and son embraced, then she turned to TJ who was also watching them. "You want me for anything, TJ?"

TJ dragged her eyes from them to Erin and the blonde flinched as she saw them change from wistful to hard. "Not yet," she answered flatly. Erin sucked in her lips and left the room, her heart aching for the totally unforeseen pain TJ was experiencing. We love her so much, how easy it is to forget that her parents didn't love her. Erin recalled her own childhood… her intellectual dad teaching her to ride a bike, and coming to all her games, no matter what sport it was; and practical mom allowing her to learn to do household carpentry, electrical work and plumbing, as well as cooking and sewing. Her parents constantly hugged their children and each other, showering everyone with bounteous love.

While TJ studied, studied, studied and knew that no matter what she did, she would never measure up. No wonder she loves Flag more than she did her parents. She didn't even have real parents. She only had Lance to love her and she lost him.

Erin walked into the kitchen where Paula and Mare were seated at the table. Paula took one look at her face and just barely stood up when Erin walked right into her body and grabbed her in a fierce hug. "Hey, what's wrong, honey?" Paula asked softly in her ear as her arms twined around her partner.

"Just hug me for a minute, okay?" Erin's voice was muffled by her nearness to her partner. Paula's arms tightened and she clasped Erin to her for a long moment.

Finally, Erin loosened her hold a little and turned her head toward Mare. "First thing you do, the first chance you get, make sure you give TJ the biggest damn hug she's ever had."

Mare pulled a chair out and patted the seat. "Please, sit down and tell me about it."


Chapter 21

In the midst of welcoming her son, Gloria, too, had glimpsed the wistful look on TJ's face and filed it in her memory.

Mother and son ended their embrace and Gloria frowned at the tall young man she barely recognized. Even in the short time he had been missing, Tom had begun to fill out and his muscles were enlarging from the physical nature of ranching. His tan skin and bearded face would have fooled her, had it not been for his eyes. Gloria could see why TJ hadn't realized that the pictures she showed her were of this young man.

"Mother, I'm sorry I upset you. I was determined to meet my sister, and I just couldn't see any other way." He nodded toward TJ, but she made no acknowledgement of him.

Gloria sat back down and motioned for Tom to sit in the chair beside hers. "You could have told me you wanted to meet Miss Meridian. We could have discussed it. Instead, you dash off with no notice, no explanation and worry me to death."

"Mother, you know you wouldn't have given me permission to come here. You and Dad had an arrangement about that," Tom insisted.

"That arrangement bound me, Tom. It never was intended to bind you," his mother answered.

Tom looked startled. "You mean you would have let me come?" Then a grin lit his face. "So what's the big problem, then?"

TJ's low, throaty voice responded. "The problem is the way you went about it. You should have contacted me first and received my permission, as well as your mother's."

Tom bristled defensively and mistakenly challenged TJ. "I don't understand. I was thrilled to know that somewhere in the world I had a sister. Aren't you happy to have a brother?"

TJ set her elbows on the table, put her palms together and propped her chin on top of her fingertips. Her voice hardened. "You have pleasant memories of your father, and I wouldn't attempt to take them away from you. But the father who loved you didn't provide a loving home for me; he was a monster. So sharing your blood with his is no recommendation in my book. In fact, it could be just the opposite, and that remains to be seen."

A guarded arrogance stole over Tom's young face. "I'm no monster. Ask the men I work with, if you don't believe me."

TJ pinned him with her eyes for a long minute. "The men your father worked with knew he was a shark, but they had no idea he was a monster. He saved that for the… sanctity… of his home."

Gloria winced, knowing that the depth of the sarcasm dripping from these words testified to TJ's horrible memories. And she doesn't say 'our' father, just 'your' father.

Although Tom didn't know about the abusive history, he picked up on the emotional undercurrents, and his arrogance diminished.

"Can I stay? I'll prove to you that I'm no monster."

TJ pinned him again, until he squirmed. "You're not fired, if that's what you're asking. Whether you can stay is up to your mother, not me."

Tom turned pleading eyes on his mother. "Can I stay? Please?"

Gloria felt TJ was being more than generous, keeping the employment option open, but she didn't want Tom to get his way too easily. He needed to grasp just how his selfish conduct had affected everyone concerned. "We can speak about that privately, Tom. We've taken up enough of Miss Meridian's time. But before we leave, you owe her an apology."

"Sure… I … I'll apologize." He lifted his eyebrows, looking perplexed. "But what am I apologizing for?"

Gloria rolled her eyes in disbelief. "You lied to her, Tom. You forced her to face a situation that could be emotionally damaging and which she had no preparation for. You endangered her financial situation and her reputation by working for her as a minor without parental consent. I think those reasons will do for a start, don't you?"

Tom stood up, a flush rising slowly over his countenance, and walked to the desk. Unable to meet TJ's eyes, he stared at the desk's surface. "I've been pretty stupid. I didn't consider your side of this whole thing. I'm sorry."

He waited for an answer, but heard none. Finally, he lifted his eyes to his sister's and was jolted to see no expression in them. They looked empty and cold, sending a shiver down his spine.

TJ's voice was empty and cold, too, her words dismissive. "If your mother lets you stay, give your social security number to Miss Scott before you start back to work."

She looked at Gloria. "You are welcome to stay here until you're ready to return home, if you wish. We have plenty of room."

"Thank you, I'm grateful to accept your offer. I just arrived today and hadn't checked in anywhere," Gloria said. What a generous woman. We knock her for an emotional loop, and she offers us hospitality.

TJ buzzed and soon Erin appeared. "Erin, show Mrs. Raphaele to one of the suites upstairs and let Paula know we have a guest for supper."

Tom stood unmoving, staring toward TJ, until Gloria took his arm and, following Erin, led him from the room. He was confused. This sure isn't what I expected our meeting to be like. I thought TJ would be warm and caring. Instead, she's cold and hard. I wonder if she'll ever learn to love me like a brother?

Soon, Mare entered. Her heart dropped when she saw TJ's head bent down, resting on the heels of her hands, with her fingers threaded through her hair. She went to her lover and put an arm across her shoulders, which TJ attempted to shrug off.

But Mare wouldn't let go. "No, TJ, don't push me away. Please. I need you." She squeezed the tense shoulders. "I'm really sorry. I know it's easy to say that we never meant for you to get hurt. I wish I could go back and change how stupidly insensitive we were, but I can't." The vet moved her hand onto TJ's back, rubbing circles on it with her flat palm. "We talked it over and we all admit that we had no right making your decisions for you. We're just sorry that you had to get hurt before we learned that lesson."

TJ dropped her hands to the table and pushed her torso upright. She turned wounded eyes to Mare's and her mouth twitched down.

Mare lifted the chair arm, slid onto TJ's lap and took her in her arms, giving her the biggest hug she ever had, just as Erin had suggested. TJ held on with a death grip until Mare could feel the thudding of her lover's heart slow to an even beat. "You okay?" she murmured.

"Not really," TJ rasped, her turmoil taking a toll on her voice, "but I'll survive. I even suspect I'm getting a bit stronger at coping. Maybe all the crap that's being thrown at me is toughening me up."

They sat and held each other for a long time, then Mare realized that TJ was starting to nod off. She leaned back and lifted a hand to replace a fallen strand of black hair as blue eyes struggled to focus. "You've had a rough day, sweetheart. How about if I help you into bed then bring you some supper? We can have a nice, quiet meal together, then you can rest." She patted a tan cheek. "I might even be persuaded to feed you."

That prompted a small, tired grin. "Sounds good to me."

Mare stood and replaced the armrest, then pushed her lover to the bedroom. After a stop in the bathroom, TJ transferred to the bed and Mare helped her out of her clothes, removed the turtle shell brace and slipped a pajama T-shirt over her head.

"Mare, do you remember when I talked about life's up ramps being so steep?" TJ asked quietly.


"Today I think I ran into a couple of potholes."

Mare lay down beside her and gave her another giant hug.


Erin showed Gloria and Tom to one of the upstairs suites. "You have a bedroom, bath and sitting room with a small kitchenette and you'll find milk, soda and bottled water in the fridge. Please make yourself at home. Supper will be at 5 o'clock, in the kitchen. We're having ham and yams tonight, one of my favorites."

"This is lovely," Gloria remarked. The rooms were decorated in an Old West motif with brown-dyed burlap furniture coverings, natural burlap curtains and woven, multicolored cotton throw rugs on hardwood floors. Even the bedspread was burlap, hand-embroidered with a western landscape in hues to match the throw rugs. Colorful oil paintings of cowboys, Indians and western scenery hung on the beige walls. "Please thank Miss Meridian, again, for us," she said to Erin as the curly-haired blonde nodded and left.

Gloria sat on the couch and Tom picked the easy chair next to it.

"Tom…" Gloria sighed. "I hardly know where to start." She raised her hands then let them fall helplessly into her lap.

Tom tilted his chin up, a pose that hinted at arrogance, but Gloria knew that he used it to hide his insecurity. "I don't understand what I did that is so terrible. I know I shouldn't have run away from home; I realize now that I really worried you and I'm sorry. But when I got here, I went to work. I didn't just show up and dump myself on TJ. I've been making my own way."

"That's not the point, Tom. TJ had no inkling of your existence. Nor of mine. Your father had no intention of his first family ever learning about us. I don't know all his reasons, but it made great sense to me. We are living proof of your father's infidelity to them. Surely you aren't too young to see that it would be extremely painful to discover that?"

Tom looked off at a distance and tightened his lips. His loose fist scuffed at his chin whiskers then his eyes returned to his mother and gleamed as though he were about to win a point. "Yeah, I guess it would. But she didn't find that out from me."

Gloria shot up straighter and jerked her chin indignantly. "Tom Raphaele, don't you dare try passing the blame to me. I would never have come here if I weren't following you. And if you had given any thought to anyone besides yourself, you wouldn't have come here either."

Gloria's indignation finally got through to Tom, triggering a taste of remorse. "You're right, Mother." He flopped back against the chair cushions, and slouched despondently. "I could tell from the look on TJ's face that she doesn't care much about me. I thought she would be happy to find out she has a brother, but she didn't sound happy. She treated me better when she didn't know who I was." His lips twisted and, fighting back tears, he blurted, "I liked her and I thought she liked me."

But liking someone doesn't seem to preclude…TJ's words ran through Gloria's mind, with the same unspoken ending following right along behind it, …hurting them.

"Has it occurred to you that TJ probably does like you and that makes your deception even more painful to her?" Gloria asked softly. Her heart went out to her son when she saw the tears welling in his eyes. Maybe, though, it's good for him to feel some pain. Perhaps it will help him better understand how he has hurt TJ.

Tom's lips pressed together as he swiped away the lone tear rolling down into his beard. "I didn't mean to hurt her, Mother. I only wanted to love her."

Rising from the couch, Gloria settled on the edge of Tom's chair, put her arms around his shoulders and pulled him to her, soothing him as he broke down and cried. You are still a boy, my son, but with your good heart, you will be a much better man than your father was.

When Tom had softened his pain with his tears, he dried his eyes and sat up as Gloria released him. "Maybe I shouldn't stay here, Mother. I would just be a constant reminder to TJ of Dad's betrayal."

"On the contrary, Tom. She could have fired you, you know, but she didn't. I'd like to see you stay here at least until spring semester is due to begin. I think TJ wants you here and is willing to give you a chance to redeem yourself in her eyes."

Tom perked up a little at that assessment. "I'd do anything to redeem myself. She only has to name what she wants."

"I don't think it's going to be that easy, Tom. Right now, TJ's probably leery of you, not sure of whether it's safe to let herself care for you. I would guess that you'll just have to go about your work and try to regain her respect. Then she might let you get closer to her."

Looking at his mother as though she had turned into the font of all wisdom, Tom nodded and his lopsided grin moved slowly up his cheek. "I'll sure give it one heck of a try." He slipped an arm around Gloria's waist, pulled her close and kissed her cheek. "Thanks, Mother. First, for not yanking me home by my ear, like I deserve, and second, for helping me to see where I went wrong and what bad effects my actions had."

His grin became wry. "I might lose my teenager badge for admitting all that, but I am grateful."

Gloria hugged him back. "You keep on working on understanding the results of your actions, and I'll become even more proud of you than I am right this minute. And that's saying something."

Tom blushed, took a deep breath and looked at his watch. "I guess I better get on down to the cookhouse if I want any grub." They stood up and he squeezed his mother's arm. "I'll be by really early in the morning to exercise Flag, just about dawn. Will you be up then?"

"I'll make it a point to be," Gloria answered and watched with a sweet smile as her son left. Grub? He's even talking like a ranch hand, she chuckled.

The phone on the end table rang and Gloria looked at it curiously, then picked it up. "Mrs. Raphaele, this is Erin. Supper will be ready in fifteen minutes," she informed her. "Will that be all right with you?"

"That's fine, thank you. I'll be right down," Gloria answered and cradled the phone.


Paula fixed two dinners, complete with dessert, for Mare to take upstairs. She set them on a tray with silverware and napkins while Mare fixed two mugs of coffee to add to it. Gloria came in as they finished and Erin, already seated at the table, indicated that she should sit across from her.

Gloria sat and nodded to Erin then smiled at Mare who was just about to pick up the tray. "You aren't joining us?" she asked.

"No," Mare smiled back, "TJ is pretty wrung out. I'm going to eat with her in her room and spend a quiet evening with her. If you need anything, Paula and Erin will see to it."

"Don't worry about me. I always bring a book or two when I travel. I'll just go back to that beautiful suite of rooms and relax with a juicy murder mystery. Please tell TJ I said goodnight."

"I'll do that," Mare promised. "Goodnight."

Picking up the tray, she tapped Paula's side with an elbow as she passed her. "Thanks for the help, Paula."

Paula took her seat next to Erin and initiated the passing of the food around the table. "It has been a tiring day," Gloria said. "I'm not surprised that TJ wants to rest. She went through a lot of emotional upheaval today." She got to work on the pineapple-covered ham, which was tender enough to be cut with a fork.

"Yeah," Paula's wry expression spoke volumes, "and her doctor told us to keep her calm. We didn't do much toward keeping her calm today." She pushed her yams around on her plate several times, then shrugged and began eating.

"I apologize for my part in this," Gloria said with a frown, "and Tom's. I didn't know that TJ was recuperating from an operation or I would have used more discretion. Until you filled me in on her earlier injury, I didn't even know she had to use a wheelchair. When we had our talk and she moved from behind her desk, I was startled to see that she was in a wheelchair." She took a sip of water. "My news was a terrible blow to her," she admitted, then slowly continued her meal.

"Don't blame yourself too much, Gloria. If we had told her about you and Tom when we first learned about it, none of this would have jolted her the way it has," Erin volunteered, "so we made mistakes, too."

Paula cleaned off her plate, then got up to get the dessert. "Well, that's all water over the dam at this point," she remarked. "We just need to make sure that we don't hide anything from her any more because of what we consider her best interests. We'll let her be the judge of that…"

"And keep ourselves out of trouble," Erin finished with a grimace. She nodded for emphasis, then polished off the remnants of her food.

Erin rose and cleared off the table while Paula finished serving the cake and fetching the whipped topping. Gloria stepped around them and poured more coffee for everyone, then they resettled themselves at the table.

"TJ told Tom he wasn't fired, so I'm allowing him to stay. I'd like to see the two of them get to know each other better," Gloria informed Paula and Erin. "At the moment, and I can understand why, TJ seems a little ambivalent about her feelings toward him. I'm afraid it might be awhile before she thinks of him as family."

Erin and Paula nodded. "TJ was crazy about her brother Lance, but, except for him, she didn't have much use for her family," Erin said. "Would be nice to see her get a second chance at one."

Gloria's expression turned sad. "She told me about how Thomas abused her. I still find that hard to understand. He had a terrible temper, but he never struck either of us. How horrible that must have been for her." Her sadness deepened as she recalled TJ's wistful expression when she saw Gloria hug her son.

Paula's voice rasped, "She never knew love from her father or her mother. Erin and I were at her home and saw that for a fact." She shook her head. "TJ has a heart as big as Texas, but she sure didn't inherit it from either one of them."

Gloria ventured a small smile. "She seems to be surrounded by love now. You women obviously care about her and look out for her."

"Yes, we do, and she does the same for us," Erin grinned. "We have a mutual admiration society."

Gloria looked from one to the other. "I can't help but see that you two are very close to each other and…"

"We're partners," Paula interrupted, her weariness stirring a touch of belligerence. "Lovers. Lesbians."

"And TJ and Mare?" Gloria asked.

"Yep, they are too. Does that matter to you?" Paula demanded. Erin cocked her head at Paula, wondering at her irritability. Gloria hadn't seemed aggressive in her questioning.

Gloria's eyes narrowed as she sat forward and pointed at Paula with her fork. Erin held her breath, afraid she was in the middle of a confrontation. Just what we need to end this rotten day! I'm too damned tired for this. She laid a soothing hand on Paula's arm.

Punctuating each strongly enunciated word with a movement of her fork, Gloria attacked. "Does… it… matter… to… you… that… I… am… straight?" Gloria's glare rapidly disappeared and she sat back with a grin. "I sure hope not, because I can't change any more than you can… though I do think you're pretty cute."

Erin clapped her hand over her mouth as she saw her partner's comical expression. In a fighting mood, Paula had been prepared to counterstrike against an expected blow. Instead, she looked completely surprised. Quickly recovering from her consternation, she rubbed her jaw. "Hell, no," she retorted. "It doesn't matter to me." Then she retaliated with a wry grin, "Some of my best friends are straight."

Gloria chuckled and set the fork down. "I'm sorry, I know a lot of discrimination still exists, but not in my family. I would guess that some of your mood tonight comes from being tired, but you looked like you were just itching for a fight and I couldn't resist egging you on a little." A puff of laughter blew past her lips. "I must be tired, too." Without warning, the laughter turned into an infectious giggle and wouldn't stop.

Soon, Erin joined her and finally, Paula was engulfed, too. Paula kept trying to ask another question, but each time she started to speak, another wave of giggles hit them.

Finally, they were all giggled out. "What were you trying to ask me, Paula?" Gloria inquired, her face red and eyes still wet from laughing.

Paula scratched her head. "Damned if I remember." Too worn out to giggle any more, they all laughed softly, the first building blocks of friendship having been cemented by their joint acceptance of each other.

"I think I'll head on upstairs," Gloria said, wiping her eyes. "Tom's coming by early to ride Flag and I want to be up to see him."

Paula's mind kicked into gear. "You know how to ride, don't you?"

"Yes, I've been riding since I was a child," Gloria answered.

"Well, heck, why don't you ride out with Tom? You can use my horse, Runny," Paula offered. "Tom can saddle her for you."

"Or my Ebonair, if you want a quieter one. Like her owner, Runny is a little spirited," Erin explained, casting a lighthearted look at her lover. "And tell Tom he can have the rest of the morning off. It will give you some time to spend together. I'll let the foreman know."

"That sounds like a great idea," Gloria agreed. "I'll see you ladies tomorrow."

"Okay. We're going to watch TV for a while in the living room, so you might hear us coming upstairs later," Paula said. "Goodnight."

Gloria walked around the table and impulsively hugged Paula, then Erin. "Thank you for making me feel so welcome," she said, then headed upstairs.

Erin made the call to Bill Jacobs, then the lovers talked about their upcoming vacation while they straightened up the kitchen.

"Gloria seems pretty nice," Erin remarked as they moved into the living room. She handed the remote to Paula, who put on the channel they wanted and sat back to wait for their show.

"Yes, she does," Paula assented. She reached around Erin's shoulders and pulled her in close to her side. "But no matter how cute she thinks I am, she doesn't stand a chance. My heart belongs to another nice woman."

Erin wrinkled her nose at her partner, then patted her cheek. With a satisfied sigh, she leaned into Paula's kiss, then settled down against her. They talked a few minutes more, putting the finishing touches on their vacation plans, then relaxed and enjoyed their show.


To be continued in Part 7.

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