Many Roads To Travel
by Karen A. Surtees and PruferBlue

Part 7

See Part 1 for disclaimers.



Chapter 22

Paula came downstairs the next day just a little ahead of Erin, searching for her keys. Last night, when their show was over, the wrestling matches came on and the two women started their own playful wrestling, which had ended in… well, it hadn't really ended, just been moved upstairs. Paula's lips curved, remembering.

This morning, Paula discovered her keys were missing and surmised they had been dropped somewhere in the living room. When she entered the room in search of them, she found Mare sitting in TJ's motorized chair. Not TJ, just Mare, studying the controls.

"What are you doing?" Paula asked, her brow wrinkling.

"Hi, Paula," Mare greeted her. "You know, TJ has mentioned several times that I had no idea what it was like being tied to a wheelchair… and she was right. So I figured I would spend a day in a chair, just as she does, and get a feel for how difficult it is. What do you think?"

Erin entered the room and came to Paula's side, her brows lifting as she saw Mare. Paula's arm went around her waist. "Mare's going to spend the day in the wheelchair, find out what it's like," she explained to her partner.

The prospect immediately piqued Erin's interest. "Cool! We never thought of doing that, but it seems like a great idea. What are you going to do about your work?"

"I talked to Barry about it and we were able to rearrange our calls so that he can handle them for today. So… unless an emergency arises, I'm good to go."

"Does TJ know about it?" Erin inquired.

"Does TJ know about what?" With a whisper and creak, TJ's chair entered the room, following right behind her question. She steered around Erin and Paula and came to a dead stop. The look on her face was strange but unreadable. Mare had absolutely no clue to her thoughts, but, being Mare, she jumped into the silence.

"I'm going to spend today in this chair, shadowing your movements, so I can get a better feel of what you have to put up with." She cocked her head at her lover, whose face had become totally unresponsive, which made Mare nervous. "Is that all right with you, TJ? I promise not to get in your way."

"And just what are you trying to prove, Mare?" TJ's tone was one Mare was beginning to think of as velvet ice--it sounded so quiet and smooth, but could freeze the skin right off of its target. "How easy it is to sit in a chair all day without letting it bother you?" She snorted. "For one day?"

For a moment, Mare was dumbstruck. My god, she looks at this as a threat. Like I'm trying to show her up, or something.

"No, TJ, you don't understand…"

TJ's eyes went out of focus and her voice continued, distantly, as though Mare hadn't spoken. "It's not one day that gets to you. I could do one day with my hands tied. It's the… 'forever' part… that really…" TJ's voice thickened and stopped.

Mare left the chair and knelt next to TJ. She stroked TJ's arm until her eyes recovered their focus and met Mare's. "I didn't mean to upset you, sweetheart. I thought it would help me be more understanding of the frustrations you deal with everyday. I'm not trying to make you look bad."

Mare raised her eyes to Erin and Paula, but they shook their heads, at a loss for helpful words.

Erin cleared her throat. "Hey, guys, how about we go get some breakfast before it's therapy time? Paula and I will get it started, okay?" Mare nodded and the partners hurried away. Unable to offer any suggestions, they were grateful for an excuse to leave the emotionally charged atmosphere. Paula could look for her keys later.

Mare moved the chair arm and settled unopposed on TJ's lap. Taking her lover's face between her hands, she kissed her cool lips lightly, and then drew back. "I swear, TJ, I had no idea this would upset you. I thought you would be enthused about it. At last, one of us would have some firsthand experience of what you go through everyday." She brushed TJ's lips again, and again pulled back. Dropping her hands to TJ's shoulders, she waited, not knowing what to expect.

Long arms lifted and wrapped loosely around Mare's waist, then TJ laid her raven head against Mare's golden one. "I had no idea it would upset me, either," TJ admitted with a sigh. "I appreciate that your intentions were good, Mare. Just… seeing you in that chair threw me for a loop. I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy, and seeing my love there…" TJ shook her head. "Maybe it's a good thing I'm the one in the chair." Her next words were a throaty whisper; "I couldn't bear the thought of your being in one."

Mare slipped her arms around her lover's neck and hugged her close. "You'd love me just the same, you know. Our love's too strong to be destroyed by any obstacle." Mare loosened her arms just enough to allow her to kiss TJ's forehead, eyes, cheeks and finally her lips. This time the full lips warmed under hers. They tightened their arms and pressed their bodies together, holding on until the contact had soothed them both.

Their lips parted and Mare sat back and slowly ran a hand over TJ's head, smoothing her hair with a caress. "How about if we go get some breakfast?"

Intense blue eyes softened as they moved from Mare's face, traveled admiringly down her body and returned, stirring with a hint of desire. "Do we have to?"

Mare intercepted the hand that was sliding up her hip, aimed at slipping beneath her shirt. "Yes, we do," she said with a pretended pout. "You have exercises to do yet, remember?"

"Yeah," TJ sighed. "Now there's something you could do in my place…"

"Come on, let's have breakfast and then I'll help you with them. After that, I'm free for the day. We can do anything you want to," Mare smirked.

"Mmmm, what an enticement. Let's go!" TJ swiveled the chair and ran it through the doorway with Mare still on her lap. "How fast can you eat?"


"Erin said Runny is spirited," Gloria informed Tom. "She may be a little too much for me." She saw how the horse danced around as Tom led her outside the stall, then put her back.

"Yeah, she always tugs against the lead, like she wants to be the boss," Tom laughed. "I think you'll like Ebonair; she's more of a lady." Gloria watched the smooth movements of her handsome son as he fetched the tack and began to saddle Flag and Ebonair.

"She's a beauty," his mother said, "and Flag is simply gorgeous. I can imagine TJ flying over jumps on Flag. What a picture that must have been."

"I try not to think about it," Tom admitted. "I feel too bad for her."

"I understand that you might, Tom, but I don't think TJ would want you to feel bad for her. She seems to be able to handle her disability pretty well. Look around this ranch, for instance. I know a lot of other people are doing the hands-on, physical parts of running it, but that would probably be the case no matter who the owner was. TJ's in charge of all this and apparently it's doing all right."

Tom slowly nodded. "I've been so involved with Flag that I kind of took everything else for granted, but that's true, Mother. Bill gets most of his instructions from Miss Scott, but everyone knows TJ is the boss. The men talk about her with a lot of respect, too. When she put them back to work, she gave them a chance to feel proud about themselves again."

"Exactly," Gloria said. "Don't forget, too, that she runs a major corporation. People use the expression 'big wheel' rather loosely sometimes, but even in the short time I've been here, I can tell that TJ is like a hub that everything else revolves around. Seeing the power of her personality, I would guess that the corporation is no exception," she pointed out.

Tom shot a contrite glance at his mother. "I've been looking at what TJ can't do instead of what she can do. One more dumb idea I've had."

Gloria patted her son's back and turned affectionate eyes on him. "Not dumb, Tom. You've just been looking at TJ's situation with too narrow a focus."

They walked the horses out into the soft light. The hidden sun nudged the top of its rim against the slowly yielding horizon, impatient to shine its face on a new day.

"Take a wider look, Tom. Being in a wheelchair might slow her down a little, but TJ will still be far ahead of most people. Don't feel sorry for your sister. She's well worth your admiration."

They mounted the horses and rode toward the emerging dawn as Tom reflected on the words his mother had spoken.


"Oh, TJ, this place is gorgeous," Mare said admiringly. A very slight breeze enhanced her awareness of the air's freshness and fragrance. Birds chirped their solos, while assorted insect sounds mingled with the chucking of squirrels to their playmates.

"Some small hideaways like this have springs and pools in them," the dark-haired woman said as her eyes drank in the beauty of the trees and late-blooming flowers, "but none of them are this close to the house."

They had decided to take advantage of Mare's being free for the day by spending some time outdoors, in a wooded area of the ranch. TJ had wanted to go to the lake, but bouncing that far across the range in a truck didn't sound like a good idea. Mare convinced her that, after the prior day's adventures, a closer locale made more practical sense. The weather was a little cool for swimming anyway, and the huge ranch offered many other delightful places yet to be visited.

Mare pulled the truck as close as she could to the trees that TJ indicated, then lifted the wheelchair from the back and helped her lover into it. She handed TJ a blanket, then followed her, laden with pillows and a six-pack of soda from the back of the cab. TJ wheeled through the scattered underbrush into a grassy dell, sprinkled with wildflowers.

Mare set the pillows and soda on the ground, then spread the blanket next to a tree and helped TJ out of the wheelchair. She tossed a couple of pillows at her laughing partner, who easily caught them and laid them beyond her.

The vet picked up the six-pack and faked a toss with it, but set it within reach, instead.

TJ pretended to flinch. "You throw those sodas at me and you won't get any," she warned.

Mare flopped on the ground next to TJ, leaned over her and batted sparkling green eyes full into laughing blue. "You keep threatening me, darling, and you might not get any either," she panted.

"Woman, you are shameless." TJ's low chuckle rumbled through the vet's body, warming every single fiber of her being.

"Only where you're concerned," Mare murmured and lowered her lips to taste her lover's. She felt the buildup of heat in TJ's torso, the acceleration of her breathing… and rolled away from her startled companion, who grabbed for her, but missed.

"But first… a soda," Mare announced. She knelt up, out of reach, and freed two cans from the pack.

TJ rolled onto her side, propped her head on her arm and narrowed her eyes. "You just love to tease me, Dr. Gillespie, don't you?"

"Yes, indeed, Miss Meridian, but as I keep telling you, it's just so much fun!" Mare popped a top on a soda and made the tactical error of handing it to TJ. A strong hand gripped her wrist and pulled, dumping her right back onto the spot she had just vacated, lying prone next to her aroused lover.

Grasping Mare's shirt with the arm she had propped against the ground, TJ grabbed the soda with her free hand. "So, you want soda first, do you? Then soda you'll get," TJ promised, with a wicked laugh.

"No, no!" Mare protested, in vain, wrapping her arms over her head and face.

TJ poured the whole soda over a squirming Mare, from her shoulders to her knees. When she realized the can was empty, Mare stopped squirming. "Now what, you nut?" she laughed. "I'm soaking wet!"

TJ first rubbed a teasing hand over Mare, watching with a heavy-lidded smile as her lover's body reacted. Then she leaned over top of her, unbuttoning her shirt. "I guess I better get you out of these wet clothes before you catch a cold," TJ smirked.

"Ooooh, yeah, good idea," Mare agreed, and helped by shrugging her shoulders out of the sodden garment. "But I'm still going to be awfully sticky," she moaned.

TJ dipped her head and licked at bare skin until Mare wriggled and gasped. Then her raven head lifted and met heated green eyes. "I think I can fix that," her sultry voice promised.

And she proceeded to do just that… most thoroughly.


Back at the house, Mare showered and changed, then took a bucket of water outside to wash the truck seat. When she returned to the kitchen, she made a face at her laughing lover. "Just remember paybacks, TJ," she threatened.

"Yes, ma'am," TJ answered, but her meek act was spoiled by a snort of laughter. "Okay, I'll be nice. I'll fix lunch," she offered.

"Oh, yeah, like that's being nice," Mare taunted. "I'd be afraid to eat it." She grinned at the innocent, raised-eyebrows-look that TJ fashioned. "I'll figure out something else you can do, later. I'll fix lunch. I saw Tom and Gloria coming across the fields. Maybe they'll join us."

Mare busied herself making soup and sandwiches and setting a pitcher of iced tea on the island.

A few minutes later Gloria knocked on the door and entered.

"Hi," Mare greeted her. "You're just in time for lunch. Is Tom staying?"

"Hi, and thanks for the invitation," Gloria answered. She walked to the sink and washed her hands. "Tom said he'll eat at the cookhouse. I'm flying home this afternoon and we said our good-byes just now. He's not one for public displays of affection," she smiled. She took a seat at one end of the island, diagonal to where Mare would sit.

"How was your ride? Did you get a good look at the ranch?" Mare asked. She set the food on the island and took her place next to TJ. The three women talked as they ate.

"Yes, I really enjoyed it. We rode for a couple of hours then Tom took me back to the office and introduced me to Bill Jacobs and his family. He showed me the bunkhouse and the barn and outbuildings." Gloria's eyes switched to TJ's with a smile. "This place is beautiful, and quite impressive."

"Thank you," TJ inclined her head in acknowledgement of the compliment. "We have a lot of people working hard to keep it that way." She took a drink of her iced tea. "Would you rather have a soda to drink, Gloria?" she asked politely, and swallowed a grin as Mare kicked her chair.

"No, thank you, tea is fine," Gloria replied. "I can see where teamwork would be vitally important in an undertaking this vast. Tom seems to be absorbing that knowledge from his work with the other men. I really appreciate that you're letting him continue here, TJ."

TJ took a deep breath and focused her mind on the subject at hand. "A ranch is a great place to learn about life. Sometimes the lessons are hard, but they are all worth discovering. When we grow up and have to choose a road to take us through life, there are hundreds of different ones to choose from… and some we get pushed onto whether we choose them or not. A strong belief in yourself and your friends sure can make the journey a lot easier, even when it's awfully hard."

Suddenly embarrassed by the realization that she had slipped into a revelation of her own personal experiences, TJ stopped talking. Her eyes slid to Mare who gave her a small smile of encouragement and patted her on the arm.

The three women finished their lunch in silence and Mare rose and began to clean up, waving Gloria back down into her seat.

Finally, Gloria spoke again. "TJ…" she waited until the intense blue eyes met hers, steeling herself to receive the powerful gaze. "I've agreed with Tom that he can stay here with my permission until spring semester starts at Harvard. I appreciate your telling him that I was the one who had to give him that permission, but you really are the one who has the last say. Is it all right for him to stay until then?"

"Yes, it is and I want you to know that I'll be keeping a close watch on him," TJ said seriously.

"Thank you. That eases my mind a lot. He's really happy here." Gloria debated her next words, then decided to say them. "He wants to get to know you better. Will you give him that chance? Please?"

Mare, standing by the sink, held her breath. She wasn't sure of how TJ felt about her "new" brother and thought it best to let the situation cool down before she asked her. She stilled, waiting for TJ's reply, but the calmness of her answer gave no clue to her true feelings.

"I'm not ready to make any promises," TJ frowned. "He can work here and I'll keep an eye on him. Beyond that, I won't say."

Gloria smiled sadly. "Very well." I guess I should be glad of that much. She's been emotionally battered and isn't sure of Tom yet.

Gloria rose from the table. "I have to get packed. My plane leaves in a couple of hours." Mare and TJ nodded to her and she headed upstairs.

Mare walked to TJ and brushed her cheek with her fingertips. "You okay, sweetheart?"

TJ smiled up at her, a lovely, bittersweet smile. "Yeah, I'm fine. Some things only time can take care of."

"I'm glad you're feeling all right. Wouldn't want this afternoon's fun all undone."

TJ's smile turned happier. "No danger of that." She turned her head as Erin and Paula entered, carrying bags of food.

Paula set hers on the counter while Erin put her bag on the island. "We got finished at the plant earlier than we expected, so we went shopping while we were out," Paula explained.

She turned her head toward Erin who was looking at Mare quizzically, then pointing at her. "Weren't you wearing something else this morning?" the curly-haired blonde asked.

A flush started to creep up Mare's cheeks. "Ah… yeah… I… er… got some soda spilled on… "

Paula had been looking from Mare's pink face to TJ's devilish smile and she interrupted with a droll voice, "At least you got your shirt buttoned right this time."

TJ laughed out loud while Mare turned from pink to red and all four women enjoyed a moment of shared hilarity.


TJ lay in the bed, watching Mare prepare to join her. The golden-haired vet had cast off her robe and picked up a T-shirt when she felt her lover's eyes upon her and glanced toward her with a gentle smile. "You always watch me. Don't you get tired of seeing me do the same old things over and over?"

TJ's silky drawl crawled right inside of Mare, warming her. "Every time you ask me, I will tell you over and over: you are so beautiful, Mare; it pleasures me to watch you. Do you ever get tired of seeing a sunrise? A waterfall? A rainbow?"

TJ's words evoked a small smile that widened as Mare lifted the T-shirt over her head and heard a softly in-drawn breath from her partner. "Careful, sweetheart, you're letting your sensitive side show," she teased as she slipped into the bed and entered TJ's embrace.

"Mmmm," the raven-haired woman hummed as her squeezing hand tested a few spots. "Seems like you are sensitive on all sides."

Mare giggled as TJ hit a ticklish area. She grabbed the offending hand and pulled it up between them. "TJ?"

TJ sighed, recognizing the beginning of a talk session. Settling herself more comfortably, she relaxed, knowing that Mare in a talkative mood was easier to give in to than to silence. Not that I've always let that stop me, she smirked. "Yeah?"

"Can we talk about Tom?" Mare felt her lover's body change abruptly from warm and yielding to cold and hard as TJ withdrew into herself. Mare had never known anyone whose emotions could change as rapidly as TJ's sometimes did. Like throwing a switch.

Mare pressed her lips against the bare skin above TJ's T-shirt collar then tilted her head back to look into detached blue eyes. "Are you angry about having a brother?" she questioned.

"NO!" TJ barked, startling her partner as the detached eyes came frighteningly alive. "I'm…" TJ's face twisted with the effort to get her words out, but Mare waited, knowing how difficult it was for TJ to express her innermost feelings. Experience had shown Mare that if she persisted in breaking through the dam, TJ would open the floodgates and pour her emotions out to her.

"I'm…" TJ sucked in a breath and clenched her jaw. "I'm… afraid."

Mare laid her palm against TJ's jaw, stroking tenderly with her thumb. "Why are you afraid?" she whispered.

"I'm afraid… to let myself… love him." A gust of air blew from TJ's mouth, emphasizing her distress.

"But why?"

TJ's breathing roughened and Mare rhythmically patted her cheek in an attempt to soothe her. "What if… What if he turns out to be a monster like our…" TJ gritted her teeth, "father? He does have the same blood in him."

That answer surprised Mare. She's afraid of more than that but let's address one part of her fear at a time. "Sweetheart, you have the same blood in you and you aren't a monster. I don't think Tom is one either. Surely there would have been signs of it by now. He seems to be a caring youngster who braved his mother's displeasure to find and meet his sister. That doesn't sound like a monster."

Mare riffled TJ's bangs with her fingers, smoothed her hand across the raven head, then returned her palm to the sculpted cheek. "You can keep an eye on how he acts here at the ranch. Check him out before you commit yourself," Mare suggested.

"But something else is bothering you, isn't it?" Mare watched as TJ briefly closed her eyes and nodded.

The haunted blue eyes were moist when they reopened. "What if I let myself love him and then I lose him?"

Mare slid up the bed, put her arms around TJ and pulled her face against her breasts, leaning down to kiss the top of her head. She felt long arms wrap around her waist. "Bad things don't always happen, TJ," she murmured against the raven hair.

She strained to hear the hoarse voice against her chest. "When Lance died, a voice inside of my head screamed for months and months. I don't think I could stand that again."

Mare could feel the dampness of TJ's tears soaking through her T-shirt and she held her lover tightly, struggling to find the words to help her. "Would you rather that you had never loved Lance? Or me?"

There was a hesitation, then long arms tightened around her. Mare could feel TJ's hard swallow and the shake of her head as she moaned, "O, god, no. You two are the best things that ever happened to me."

Mare dotted her lover's head with kisses. "Well, sweetheart, the only 'safe' way to protect your heart from being wounded is to build a wall around it and never let anyone in. But then you're only half alive. Love is best when it's shared and that means breaking down the wall and trusting that your family and friends will help protect you."

Mare's hand caressed the raven head for a long time as they lay clasped together. She had just begun to drift off to sleep when TJ's velvet voice stirred her one more time. "Mare?"


"Thank you."

Mare fell asleep with a smile on her face as her body welcomed TJ's goodnight kiss against her breast.


Chapter 23

"Atlantic City? You could go anywhere in the world and you want to go to Atlantic City, New Jersey? In the off season, no less?" TJ frowned at the women sitting in her office. "I thought you were kidding when you said that last week. I still don't get it."

Paula and Erin sat in front of TJ's desk, having just completed the weekly report on the ranch and packing plant.

"TJ, Atlantic City is perfect for us. Besides, it's our vacation, we can go anywhere the hell we want," Paula replied, her stubborn streak leaping to the fore. Erin patted her arm and shook her head, her eyes pleading with her partner to keep calm.

Erin jumped in with an explanation, forestalling any possible retort. "We've talked it over for a month, now, TJ, and that's what we settled on. We've been to a lot of plush resorts in a dozen cities and they were fine, but this time we just want to go relax and enjoy ourselves. I like beachcombing and museums and Paula likes to gamble and hit the night spots, so we figure Atlantic City makes a nice compromise. The ocean and the gambling are right there and three big cities are within driving distance for almost anything else you would want to do."

"Some things I want to do you don't even have to drive for," Paula ventured. TJ and Paula traded lecherous grins, complete with waggling eyebrows, and Erin annoyed herself by blushing.

"You don't have to go to Atlantic City for that," she said primly. "Might as well save some money and just stay home, if that's all you're interested in."

"Yeah," TJ agreed. "You could put one bucket of water and one of sand right next to the bed and just dip your hand in one once in a while. And you could use a fan for the sea breeze. Close your eyes and you'd think you were at the ocean. You wouldn't even have to get out of bed," she enthused, grinning wickedly.

Erin made a face at TJ as her partner nodded and laughed. Then Paula leaned from her chair and took hold of a lock of Erin's curls. Pulling it to her nose, she sniffed. "Ah, Erin, but I want to smell the ocean on your hair, and trace the tan line around your swim suit," she moved teasing fingers across Erin's breast and got her hand smacked by her red-faced partner.

TJ covered her mouth, trying to stifle a laugh, but her jiggling body gave her away.

"Mare!" Erin hollered. "Come here, I need help!"

Mare came running in so fast, she almost fell when she tried to stop. "What? What's wrong?" she demanded.

"Oh hell, Mare, I didn't know you were actually here," Erin apologized. "Nothing's wrong, just these two are feeling oh-so-cutesy-sexy and they're ganging up on me."

"I just got in. What have you two been doing?" Mare looked from TJ to Paula and neither one would meet her eye. They cast totally innocent looks at each other and sucked in their lips to keep from laughing. "Okay," Mare scolded, "you can stay in here and torment each other. Erin and I are going to have some ice cream."

Erin jumped up and put her arm through Mare's. "Sounds good to me, honey, let's go."

"And these two inconsiderate oafs can't have any until they apologize," Mare declared as she and Erin left the room. Mare stuck her head back in the door. "Chocolate mint ice cream." She licked her lips and vanished.

"What do you think?" TJ muttered.

"That's my all-time favorite," whined Paula melodramatically, placing her hands over her heart.

"Mine, too." TJ whirled her chair around and headed for the door, but Paula got there first and blocked her way.

"Not so fast, TJ. You've got to promise something first. No more cutting us up about going to Atlantic City," Paula insisted.

TJ's lips twisted and she frowned in concentration. "You just want to spoil all my fun." Then her face slowly creased into an ornery smile. "Okay, at least I'll promise not to be too nasty."

Paula unexpectedly leaned down and kissed her cheek. "It's great to see you in such a good mood, boss," she remarked softly.

"Thanks, Paula." TJ sobered for a moment. "Sometimes I actually feel pretty good." Then her eyes twinkled again. "But we have some apologizing to do, and some ice cream to eat, so get outta my way," she warned and went flying past a grinning Paula who barely had time to jump away from the door.


The girls did have to take some more friendly teasing about going to Atlantic City, but sure enough, a week later, off they went for two weeks of fun and frolic.

TJ picked up the bare necessities of their responsibilities with the ranch and the packing plant; Mare and Sacha took over their obligations concerning TJ's personal needs; and the two bunkhouse cooks planned to fix dinner on alternating weeks.

Once Mare and Sacha were added to the household, TJ had hired a weekly cleaning service to keep the premises in good order, so even the cleaning chores were taken care of. These arrangements enabled Paula and Erin to enjoy their time together without any guilt about leaving.

And enjoy themselves they did. Overnight trips were made to New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore to visit museums, catch some plays and hit the nightspots. Before coming on vacation, they had planned a routine for Atlantic City that worked well in practice. They spent each morning at a different casino, ate lunch there, then proceeded to walk the boardwalk or the beach in the afternoon. Then they showered and changed and went out to dinner. Afterward, they stayed for a casino show, or went back to their room and relaxed.

Today was their next to last one at the resort; they would be leaving first thing in the morning. After breakfast, Erin and Paula picked out a "lucky" casino they had won at the week before. Erin, not really a gambler at heart, plopped herself down in front of a slot machine and started feeding it coins.

Paula went from one game to another, winning steadily. Since blackjack was her favorite, she saved it for last. Focusing her full attention on the game, she kept winning more often than losing and the pile of chips in front of her continued to grow. Finally, she looked down at her watch and saw it was almost time to meet Erin at the dining room entrance. Figures, just when I start to really win, I have to leave! But at least I'll go home a winner.

Cashing in her chips, Paula was surprised that she had amassed over $2000. She stuffed the bills in her pocket as she started toward the exit. Walking down the aisle past the roulette tables, she mused at the number of players who sat or stood around the green perimeter, mesmerized by the movement of a tiny ball. Suddenly she was seized with an irresistible urge to try her luck with it. On the spur of the moment, she traded an even $2000 of her new winnings for one-hundred-dollar chips.

She stood at the end of one of the tables and watched the action for a few minutes, then stacked the chips in front of her and counted them into four piles of $500 each. What the hell am I doing here? I should take my winnings and leave. Paula tried to reason with herself but something was pushing her beyond reason, and she knew it. Guess this is what they mean by gambling fever, she laughed to herself. There are a number of things I could do with an extra $2000.

The money would more than pay back what she had lost over the two weeks. She could go home a winner--not a bad deal, considering most people went home as losers. Twice she picked the chips back up to leave, and twice she changed her mind. Hell's bells, Paula, play the damn game or leave. She picked up one stack and looked at the various ways bets could be made. Debating whether to make several different plays on one wheel spin or to make a single play on several spins, she stood there tossing the chips from one hand to the other.

I think I'll play Erin's birthdate, number 26. She's probably going to bend my ear for keeping her waiting. This way, I can tell her it was her fault I lost, Paula grinned, then immediately felt remorseful. That's not fair to Erin. She's been great this whole time. I gotta play some for her. Paula grabbed another stack of chips and set it on top of the first. What the hell, she's been perfect! A crazy urge grabbed Paula and she plucked up the remaining two stacks and added them to the others. Might as well be in for a pound as in for a penny! Paula's breath caught as the dealer spun the wheel. Now I know what Granny meant when she used to say that to us.

As if in a dream, she watched the wheel turn. It slowed and the ball kept spinning and bouncing around and around. Why did I do such a stupid thing? Paula's head went around and around with the wheel. I can't believe I just threw $2000 away! Erin won't hear about this little escapade; I'll be in enough hot water as it is. Finally, her torture was ended. The wheel stopped. The ball bounded and ricocheted erratically around then bounced into the number… 12.

Damn! I shoulda known better. Paula swung swiftly away, chiding herself for her lack of control. Snick. She froze for a split second as she heard the ball move one more time. Get real, Paula. You know the odds against it being Erin's number? She took one more step.

"Hey, lady, you won!" A pudgy young man grabbed her arm and stopped her forward progress. "You won; your number hit!" he smiled and patted her shoulder. Everything seemed to go into slow motion. Paula's feet weighed a hundred pounds each as the happy spectator slowly turned her around. She floated back to the table with him, bewitched by her good fortune.

Suddenly, she was back in real time and the dealer was shoving her winnings toward her. Number 26! Heart pounding, she let out a shout, threw a fist in the air, then pulled in her winnings. Laughing, she handed five chips to the man who had grabbed her arm. "That's for hauling me back here."

"Hey, thanks!" he smiled and nodded. "Hope some of your luck rubs off on me!"

She cashed her chips in and an attendant accompanied her to the office where she had to sign papers and have the income tax deducted from her winnings. When she was handed a check, she couldn't stop grinning. Instead of heading for the dining room, she took the check to the front desk and had it put in the safe.

She could picture how surprised Erin would be. Keeping it a secret for a while made it seem even more delicious. I'll tell her after lunch when we're on the beach. Paula walked back and forth several times in one of the hallways to calm herself down. She had a hard time stopping the grin that kept popping up on her face. Finally attaining some semblance of normalcy, she went to meet her lover.

"Sorry I'm late, honey," Paula said, expecting the impatient look that had settled on her partner's face. "I got carried away with the gambling and forgot the time. Forgive me?"

Erin snorted and glanced sideways at her. "We'll see about that. I guess I'll have to keep you closer to me if I want you to be on time." She walked toward the entrance to the dining room and Paula purposely walked so closely behind her that she kept bumping into her.

"Now cut that out!" Erin growled and turned around with a frown. It changed to a half grin when she saw Paula giving her one of her sweetest smiles. "You know I can't resist that smile… at least not while we're on vacation." She lightly punched Paula's muscular arm. "C'mon, let's go eat and get changed. This is our last chance at beachcombing."

"Yes, ma'am!" Paula's smile grew even wider as she pictured Erin on the beach, hearing her good news. A wisp of heat puffed through her body as she imagined the warmth of the hug she would get.


Erin rubbed her arms and shivered. "It's kind of cool out here with this breeze. How come I'm wearing my swimsuit and you aren't?" Her eyes roamed the nearly empty beach, seeking treasures to collect. Stooping, she freed a tiny, intricately shaped shell from its sandy prison. Carefully brushing it off, she stood and held it in the palm of her hand, admiring its exquisite contours.

I was wondering when she would notice the swimsuit bit. Took her the whole two weeks! Captivated by her lover's bemused expression, Paula put an arm around her and gave her a quick hug. "I'm wearing shorts and a tank top, so I don't have much more on than you do and I'm not cold. Has Texas turned you into a wimp?"

"Better not let any Texans hear you say that," Erin chuckled. "I'll be fine once we move around more. It just occurred to me that every day we've come here you've asked me to wear a suit, but you haven't worn one yet." She placed the shell into a bag Paula wore belted at her side.

"There you go," Paula pointed to her action. "Someone has to carry the bag."

Erin rolled her eyes and Paula grinned. "Okay, so I've been roaming the beach with you practically every afternoon and I haven't complained once. Least you can do is let me enjoy a little eye candy."

Erin stepped away and, cocking her head, looked Paula up and down. The light breeze swirled tiny feathers of short, dark-brown hair around the edges of an attractive face set atop a long, graceful neck. Her straight nose and high cheekbones, spattered with faint freckles, created a nesting place for dark, almost black eyes crested by heavy brows. A broad jaw supported a wide mouth whose narrow lips were so perfectly formed that Erin loved just to look at them.

Suddenly growing warmer, she quickly shifted her look to her partner's extremities, admiring the muscle tone of her well-shaped arms and legs.

Two inches taller than Erin's five-foot-seven-inch height, Paula carried her wiry, but shapely frame with casual ease… unless provoked. Erin smiled as the thought came to mind. Which I try very hard not to do. She's such a softy most of the time, although she gets embarrassed when I say that. And, oh god, how I love her.

"Well?" Paula prompted, knowing she was getting checked out. Her mouth curved when she saw the heat growing in her lover's warm brown eyes.

"Hrrmmph," Erin cleared her throat, "you aren't the only one who enjoys eye candy, you know?" She stepped nearer Paula and murmured, "You want to cut this beachcombing short?"

"No, no, no," laughed Paula, taking Erin's hand and pulling her along beside her as she started walking. "This is your last day and I don't want to hear afterward that I seduced you out of it." Still moving, she pulled Erin in closer and kissed her cheek. "But keep that thought for later."

They continued on hand-in-hand until Erin found another shell that struck her fancy. After she cleaned it and put it in the bag, Paula asked her, "What are you going to do with all the shells you've collected?"

"You might have noticed, I've concentrated on small ones. I'm going to polish them and put them in a decorative jar and put them in our bathroom. I think they'll look great in there, don't you?"

"Whatever you want, sweetheart, is okay with me," Paula ruffled Erin's curls.

"Okay, how about if I fill it with maggots?"

"What?" Paula's eyebrows flew up.

"Or maybe, cow flop."

"Horse shit!" Paula exploded.

"Okay, I can work with that. Heaven knows we've got plenty of it."

"No way, Erin. Are you playing some kind of game?" Paula looked at her partner and shook her head.

"Well," Erin said with twinkling eyes, "you said anything I want is okay with you. I just was testing to see if there were limits on that statement."

Paula looked at her in mock disgust. "I think I'll go back to the casino and feed them some more of my money."

Not trusting that she was kidding, Erin grabbed her hand. "Did you lose much today? I know you were a little ahead, but did you play it all back?"

"No," Paula answered with a broad smile. "I have something really great to tell you. I won. As a matter of fact, I won big."

"Wow! Where is it?" Erin searched in the nearer pocket of Paula's shorts but found nothing.

Paula turned so she could reach into the other pocket. "Try this one."

Erin did, but again she came up empty. "Why are you telling me to look in your pockets when there's nothing there?" she asked, stomping her foot on the sand.

"Because that felt soooo good, love." Paula laughed as Erin poked her with a finger.

"So you were just kidding about winning big?"

"No," Paula said, crossing her heart, "I won really big."

Erin grabbed her arm and shook it. "Stop teasing! How big?"

Paula purposely dragged the answer out. "I… won… seventy… thousand… dollars."

Erin's jaw dropped. "How did you…" Her voice failed her.

Paula just stood there grinning until Erin shook her again. "Well, I kept winning all morning long, then when it was time for lunch, I cashed in my chips. On my way out, I walked past a roulette table and I just got this urge to play your birthday number. I changed the money back into chips, put it all on number 26, and it won!"

Erin grabbed Paula's other arm and danced her around in a circle, ignoring the inquisitive looks of the few people on the beach. "That is so great! I'm so happy for you!"

"You mean happy for us, sweetheart. This belongs to both of us." Paula's voice lowered. "It was your number I played. I always knew you were lucky for me; now I have material evidence."

Erin's eyes filled and she gave her partner a huge hug.


"This is our last night," Erin sighed, snuggling closer to Paula in their bed. "I wish it didn't have to end. Spending these two weeks alone with you has been heavenly."

Paula put her arms around her curly-headed lover and pulled Erin's upper body over her own. They smiled at each other, then Erin nuzzled her lips into Paula's neck, savoring her taste and scent.

"You think we'll always stay with TJ?" Paula startled herself with her own question. Although it had passed through her mind at odd moments, she had never asked it of Erin. She knew that her partner had a special love for their friend, dating back to their first meeting. Paula also admitted that whatever Erin decided to do, she would go along with. She loved and respected both women and would never purposely drive a wedge between them.

Erin's lips and tongue stilled and she lay in silence for a few moments. Wonder why she's bringing that up now? Think that $70,000 has anything to do with it? "I don't know, Paula. I really haven't given it much thought. Do you have a problem with our living there?"

"Nothing major. But you said it yourself, these two weeks alone together have been great. Maybe it's time to think of getting out from under TJ's wing and having our own home."

Erin rolled back off of Paula and lay facing her sideways with her head propped on one arm. "You know I can't leave TJ as long as she needs us. I love her more than anyone in the whole world except you, Polly. And you love her, too."

"Yeah, I love her," Paula admitted with a wry grin. "But I don't always like her."

"That's because you're too much alike!" Erin exclaimed. "Both of you are contrary, cantankerous mule-heads when you get cross. You need to work on being able to disagree with each other without fireworks."

Paula snorted a laugh. "Too true, my love. But I'm not talking about moving away or anything like that. I don't want to leave TJ while she needs us. I was thinking more on the lines of buying a home of our own in the same area. That way, TJ and Mare would have their home and you and I would have ours."

Erin chewed her bottom lip and thought about that for a minute. "I'll give that some serious thought, Polly."

"You do that, sweetheart." She raised up and kissed Erin's tempting lips. "But let's forget about that for now," she said. "If you remember, before we came on this vacation, I spoke of pursuing a tan line." She lightly pushed against Erin, pressing her back down on the bed.

"So that's why you insisted I wear my swimsuit while we combed the beach. You are a devious woman, my sweet."

"Heh heh," Paula leered. "Well, it's too cool to go swimming. I had to think of some way for you to get that tan line. For two weeks I've been looking forward to tracing it. Like this one across your chest." Paula lowered her head and began playing her mouth along the demarcation above and below Erin's breasts. Her lover breathed sighs of pleasure, which turned into little gasps when Paula detoured for a while into more susceptible areas.

"And this one your bikini left across your stomach." Paula pushed her body further down the bed and started nibbling the next tan line while her fingers visited the sensitized areas that she had just traveled.

Clutching a handful of Paula's hair, Erin ran the other hand in an ever-increasing tempo up and down her partner's back. Her legs drew up as mouth, tongue and teeth crept tantalizingly along her stomach, and Paula's free hand touched against her inner thigh. When she reached Erin's hip, Paula paused and laid her head against her lover's abdomen, slowly working her cheek and chin back and forth against the smooth, heated skin.

"Polly," Erin whispered thickly, "you missed a couple… of lower… tan lines."

"Oh, no, honey," Paula murmured, "I'm just building up my energy." With that, she turned back to her pursuit with renewed vigor, urged on even more by the cries and pushing arms of her writhing lover.


Chapter 24

TJ and Mare were in the midst of eating breakfast when Paula straggled in, grabbed a mug of coffee and sat catercorner from TJ at the island.

"Tough to get up the morning after returning from vacation, huh?" Mare grinned at the sleepy-eyed woman.

Paula nodded. "Glad we allowed for an extra day at home before having to report to work." She glanced at TJ who merely returned the look, her tight lips evidencing that she was in some discomfort. Damn pain. Wish it would give her a break more often.

"Yeah, thank goodness we don't have to worry about anything until tomorrow," Erin added as she entered and plopped next to her partner. She leaned into Paula's shoulder then blazed a dazzling smile at her as Paula pushed her untouched mug over toward Erin and rose to get another one. "Thanks, honey. My brain isn't back in gear yet."

This prompted a chuckle from Mare. Even TJ showed a small smile as she cut a piece of sausage and popped it into her mouth, chewing mechanically.

Mare looked from Paula to Erin. "Have you guys been giving any thought about how to spend your winnings?" What was that flicker in Erin's eyes for? Mare lifted her eyebrows and followed Erin's puzzlingly fearful gaze toward Paula who shifted in her chair. The dark-haired woman's eyes glanced quickly at TJ, then at Mare, then at the island's surface and back to Mare.

Paula hitched a shoulder in studied nonchalance. "I… we… thought we might start looking for a home of our own. Or maybe building one."

TJ's forkful of pancake stopped short of her open mouth, hesitated for a long moment, then continued its journey. She laid the fork down next to her plate as though she had lost interest in eating and her lips grew tighter even as she chewed. Picking up her coffee mug, she washed the food down with a swallow.

Mare jumped into the moment of silence before it grew noticeably long. "Really? I didn't know you were thinking of moving out."

Erin, overly conscious of TJ's lack of reaction, became a bit flustered. "We don't know for sure that we are. It's just something that occurred to us when we won the money. We're just tossing the idea around."

TJ dabbed her mouth with a napkin then folded it and placed it next to her plate, smoothing it down several times with her long fingers. She spoke in a low voice, without looking up. "I guess I should be glad you've stayed here as long as you have." She shrugged and her eyes came up and locked on Erin's. "It can't be much fun having to take care of me every day."

Erin reached out a hand and pleaded, "TJ…"

"Jesus H. Christ, TJ!" Paula interrupted. She stood up and started pacing as everyone's attention switched to her. "I'm not talking about running out on you. I couldn't even if I wanted to--Erin would never leave you." Paula stopped and rubbed the back of her neck then grinned wryly. "Actually, I never would either. What kind of friends do you think we are? We both…" Paula's lips twisted as she struggled to get the words out. "Aw, shoot, TJ, we both love you." A red flush of embarrassment moved slowly up Paula's tanned cheeks as TJ's eyes softened then grew moist.

Paula hurriedly sat back down, put a hand on TJ's arm and gazed pointedly at her. "We'll be honored to take care of you as long as you want us to, and that's a promise." She patted TJ's arm, then clasped her hands together. "I'm talking about buying, or maybe building, a home close by where we can still be available whenever you want us."

TJ twisted her lips back and forth. "You're not happy here, in this house? You can have the whole second floor if it's privacy you're looking for."

Erin spoke up, in support of her partner. "Of course, we're happy here, TJ. Who wouldn't be? And it's not really a privacy issue. It's just that this is your house and we would like to have one of our own."

"A man's home is his castle," Mare quoted.

"Exactly," Paula nodded strongly. "I think we're ready to have our own castle. This one is TJ's."

"You say you'll still be available?" TJ asked, as she tugged an earlobe. That question lightened the heavy atmosphere considerably. A flicker of amusement crossed TJ's face when sighs of relief issued from three throats. "What?" she demanded. "I'm not really the ogre you try to make me out to be."

Mare slipped an arm around her lover's shoulders and kissed her cheek. "We know you aren't, sweetheart," she agreed. Then as she pulled away she added, with a twinkle in her eye, "At least not today."

TJ narrowed her eyes and waggled a finger, pretending to threaten Mare. "You are going to get…" She hesitated, knowing the comeback that was waiting on Mare's lips. "Maybe I should say you are NOT going to get it," she finished, grinning at the cutely crestfallen look on her lover's face.

Paula spoke through her laughter. "Of course we would always be available. We sure wouldn't want to miss too many moments like this one." She winked at Mare who made a face at her. "We figured we could eat breakfast together, then be here early in the morning of each weekday to help with your exercises. We can still help with lunch and supper if we're here, and go home in the evenings. And we'd have our weekends free unless you particularly needed us."

"And we'd be conveniently close," Erin restated.

"Sounds like a plan. Keep me posted, okay?" TJ conceded. "Now… you gals might not have to work today, but I sure do. Will you be here for lunch?"

"Yeah, we will, TJ," Erin answered. "We plan to just laze around today, maybe ride the horses, maybe not." She looked up at Mare who had risen from her seat. "We'll take care of lunch today, Mare. You go ahead about your business."

"Great, Erin. Thanks."

TJ backed away from the island, turned around and started for her office, with Mare following. Mare trailed her into the room and waited for TJ to place herself behind her desk. She walked over to her lover and kissed the top of her head.

TJ looked up, smiling. "What was that for?"

"For keeping your temper with Paula and Erin when I know you're in pain. I was afraid you might lose it, but you didn't, and I'm proud of you for it."

"Paula kind of blindsided me with that idea. I had a bit of a struggle there for a few moments."

Her partner's wry admission broadened the vet's grin. "I know, but you controlled it." Mare moved behind TJ, put her hands on her neck and started a gentle massage.

"Ummmmmm, that feels good," TJ murmured. She leaned back into the warmth of Mare's hands and closed her eyes, relishing the tingling that Mare's touch transmitted through her body. "Then I figured that our having this place to ourselves in the evenings sounded pretty enticing, so why should I stand in their way?"

"You rascal, you," Mare teased. She lifted TJ's raven hair and kissed the back of her neck.

"Yes!" TJ encouraged. "That's the kind of massage I want. All over my body!"

"Sorry, darling," Mare laughed as she walked back to TJ's side. "I have to get to work soon and so do you."

TJ lifted a hand and Mare slid hers into it. "Mare, what do you think of my giving Erin and Paula a piece of ground to build a house on? I want to do something nice for them. I owe them a lot."

Mare leaned against the edge of the desk and clasped TJ's hand in both of hers. "Honey, I'm not sure that's such a great idea, not at the moment, anyway. I think it would be more satisfying for the girls to make their own way with this plan."

"But if they want to build, and to stay nearby, what could be better than to build here on the ranch?" TJ asked. "Besides, this place is so big, they won't be able to find any spot near enough, that doesn't belong to the ranch. Nearest other place would be the farm across the road, and nothing is for sale there."

Mare considered how she could help TJ understand the point she was trying to make. "Look, you have control of a huge corporation. You can pick up the phone and make a decision that has an impact on some part of the world. The rest of us don't have that kind of power. We only have power over some of the decisions that impact our own lives. Can you see that?"

Mare waited for TJ's nod, then continued. "Building their own home is a decision that should belong just to Paula and Erin. The rest of us need to keep out of it unless they ask for our opinions or our help. If you offer the ground now, TJ, it will look like you are trying to take over "management" of the idea. Sort of turning it into a Meridian project, instead of letting it be a simple home building. They deserve a chance to do this for themselves."

"But I only want to give them a piece of ground. Why would they feel like I was trying to manage it?"

Mare smiled at TJ's honest puzzlement. She lifted a hand and combed her fingers through the raven bangs that always tempted her touch. "You just have no idea of your power of intimidation, have you?"

TJ's lips twisted into her usual lop-sided grin. "Well, yeah, I do. But I use that in the boardroom and sometimes at the hospital. I don't intend to be using that here at home. I don't try to intimidate my friends."

Mare tilted her head and elevated an eyebrow, skepticism painted on her face in bold strokes. "Really?"

TJ fidgeted for a moment, then barked a short laugh. "Okay, so I do sometimes. But not this time. I'm not planning on intimidating Paula and Erin into doing anything."

"Good," Mare grinned. "What do you say, you let them call the shots? Just kind of hang back in reserve and if they need reinforcement, let them ask for it. Okay?"

TJ sighed. "Okay, I can do that. It's just that I want to help…"

Mare silenced her with a finger against her lips, then removed the finger and waggled it in time with her shaking head.

"Okay, okay, I surrender!" TJ declared, releasing Mare's hand and thrusting her bent arms halfway into the air.

Mare chuckled and pushed her lover's arms down. "No, don't surrender. You're the reserves, remember?"

"Right," TJ answered, smiling and crossing her heart. "Silent, until called upon."

"Exactly." Mare nodded and looked at her watch. "Whoops, I have to get moving; I have a couple of calls this morning. I don't know if I'll be home at lunchtime or not, but at least with the girls here you can eat on time today."

"No problem, except I'll miss you." TJ lifted her lips for Mare's kiss and they hugged. "Hurry home."

"You know I will," Mare promised.


Tom sat in Bill Jacobs' empty office, leaning forward, with his elbows propped on the desk and the phone pressed against his ear. He had been happy to hear from his mother and they had a long and cheerful conversation. Now Tom had a favor to ask. Picking up a discarded pencil, he began to tap it on the desktop.

"Mother, can I ask you something?" Receiving an affirmative answer, he sucked in a breath and continued, "I'm really happy working here on the ranch. The men have accepted me and I'm beginning to feel more confident about myself and my decisions--something I needed, after making such a mess of things with you and TJ. I wondered if I could talk you into letting me stay awhile longer, maybe start college in the fall semester next year? I'd still be younger than most of my classmates."

He closed his eyes and grimaced as his mother reminded him of their earlier agreement. "Wait, Mother, wait, please," he implored. "You know how important TJ is to me. I wanted to meet her and Lance for years and I've missed out on getting to know Lance. I don't want to miss out on TJ. I'm never going to have a better chance to get to know her, to get her to care about me. I want to work on that, to have her accept me as her brother, and then spend awhile just being around each other. It's been weeks since she learned that I'm her brother and we've barely spoken. I need more time."

His expression smoothed and his eyes opened as his Mother didn't commit herself, but agreed to think about it. "Thanks, Mother. Please… just remember how long I've waited for this chance to know TJ. It may never come again." Tom's knuckles whitened from his grip on the phone but he spoke softly, "Harvard just doesn't seem quite as important to me right now as my sister does. Love you, too. Bye."

Tom hung up the phone and sat in deep thought, his fingers twisting the pencil around and around. I have to find some way to get to talk to TJ. Can't make up with her if I never see her. Maybe I can find a way to get her out to the barn when I bring the horses in this afternoon.

The snapping of the pencil woke him to his current surroundings. He grinned wryly as he looked at the broken pieces and realized his twisting fingers were the culprits. In his mind's eye, he recalled TJ at her desk, speaking with him, her fingers also tangling with a pencil.

Think maybe that's hereditary? He laughed at himself, knowing he was grasping at straws to show their connection, but his yearning couldn't be denied.

He looked at his watch and saw that it was time to round up Flag and the other two horses and put them back in the barn. With a heavy sigh he rose, tossed the pencil pieces in the wastebasket, and left to tend to that duty.

By the time he had brought the horses into the barn and fed and watered them, he had invented a plausible reason for TJ to come to the barn. He went into the tack room and phoned the house, automatically asking for Miss Meridian, as an employee would. He waited while Erin got TJ on the phone. "Miss Meridian, this is Tom. I'm in the barn and Flag has a bruise on her foreleg that I think you should look at. Could you…"

"I'll be right out," TJ interrupted and hung up. Moments later, she wheeled into the barn, coming right to Flag's stall. The palomino had moved to the edge of the stall as soon as TJ entered the barn. She whinnied and bumped her head against TJ's chest, bringing a broad smile to the previously taciturn features. "Hey, girl, what have you done," she asked, circling Flag's neck with her arms. "Let's take a look at your leg."

"You don't have to… do… do that, Miss Meridian," Tom stammered. He rested his arms on the top of the stall's side and looked at her with trepidation. Even in his anxiety, he admired the picture before him of a beautiful woman greeting a beautiful horse. "There's nothing wrong with her leg."

TJ dropped her arms and stroked Flag's nose as her lips pursed. "More lies, Tom?" she asked softly, not yet looking at him.

"I'm sorry. I wanted to talk to you and I didn't know how else to get you out here," he explained. He ran a hand through his hair and licked his lips, nervous tension suddenly drying his mouth. I thought I was prepared for this, but she scares the heck out of me. One word from her and I'm gone off this ranch without even one chance in a million of ever getting to know her.

He struggled not to flinch as TJ swung her powerful gaze onto him. "You could have just asked to see me."

"I was afraid you'd say no, since you're kinda mad at me right now." Tom's nerves jangled so strongly, he felt like his insides were being flogged.

TJ stared at him for a moment, her face expressionless. "Well, I'm here. Talk." Just then Flag bumped her again and she turned back to the palomino with a small spurt of laughter. Looping one arm around Flag's neck and ears in another hug, she rubbed her head against the golden cheek.

Stung by the difference in demeanor TJ showed Flag as opposed to the way she was treating him, her own brother, Tom blurted, "People are more important than horses, you know."

Tom's strangled words struck her eardrums, stirring a resonance in her heart. She turned her eyes back up to his, and pain arced between them. TJ laid her dark head against Flag's and continued to caress her as she spoke in an emotionally vibrant voice, her gaze still fastened to Tom's. "Flag has never hit me, kicked me, or beat me with a belt. She has never belittled me as a person, disapproved my thoughts or actions, or condemned my lifestyle… and she has never, ever lied to me."

The veiled accusation hurt all the more because of its truth. Tears oozed from Tom's eyes and he swallowed with difficulty. "I want to make that up to you, if you'll let me. I know I've made some mistakes, but I promise to learn. I've followed everything I ever heard or read about you and Lance, ever since I was old enough to know I had a brother and sister. I've fantasized a thousand times about meeting you." He sniffed and wiped his sleeve across his face, but he immediately restored eye contact. "I'm not your father, I'm your brother. I missed out on knowing Lance, but I don't want to miss out on knowing you. I want us to be a family."

The turmoil twisting TJ's thoughts didn't show on her face, but Tom glimpsed a tiny breach in the pain in her eyes. The kernel of hope that he had stubbornly nurtured in his heart slowly began to grow.

He walked to the end of the stall and knelt next to TJ, bringing his head nearly even with hers. "All I ask is a chance to let you get to know me… and learn to believe that I don't ever want to hurt you. Please."

TJ's eyes had followed him around and he felt like she was looking into his soul. A long moment passed before she spoke. "I'll give you a chance," she granted softly, "but I won't promise anything more than that."

"That's all I'm asking," he breathed. "Thank you."

Someone was approaching and he stood up, dusting off his knees, as Mare came through the barn door. "Hi," she smiled at TJ and gave Tom a wave. "Supper's ready. I tried to call you but you must not have your phone turned on."

She saw Tom's red-rimmed eyes and felt the emotional tension in the air. TJ seemed subdued, rather than rankled, so she turned to Tom with an invitation. "Why don't you come and eat with us, Tom? You've probably missed supper at the cookhouse."

Tom lifted his eyebrows and looked at TJ, who nodded and said quietly, "Sure, come join us."

Mare and TJ started toward the house with Tom behind them. "Tom?" the velvet voice reached back to him.

"Yeah?" he responded.

"You can call me TJ."

"Thank you… TJ." Tom's mood lifted and a small smile kept pulling at his lips as he followed his sister into the house.


Chapter 25

"I don't know, Paula. We've looked at everything on the list, but I honestly don't care for any of them." Bringing her gaze back from the run-down property they were parked next to, Erin turned toward her disappointed partner. The real estate office had given them a list of the few houses for sale in the Meridianville area and they had quickly worked their way through them.

Neither one of them wanted something right in town, but with farms and ranches making up most of the outskirts, the number of small places for sale was limited.

Paula began to slowly thump the side of her fist against the Land Rover's steering wheel. Erin watched in silence as several expressions played their way across her partner's face. Paula blew air out through her lips, shrugged, then turned to Erin with a bleak smile. "What do you think? Looks like we might have to stay at Meridian."

Erin turned full face to Paula and laid a stroking hand on her thigh. "Not necessarily. We can keep checking; maybe something will come on the market soon. I do have an idea, but you might not like it."

Paula raised her eyebrows and glanced down at Erin's moving hand. "I like your idea so far," she said, getting an impish grin and a pinch in return. "Ow!" she yelped with a laugh and smacked Erin's hand away. "I get pinched for saying something nice?"

"Do you want to hear my idea, or do you want to play around?"

"Do I have a choice? Ow!" Paula's leer changed to a look of mock-pain as Erin pinched harder. "You are bruising me, woman."

"If you behave yourself, I might kiss it for you later," Erin suggested.

"Oooooh, you have convinced me," Paula said, laughing, her mood lightened. "Okay. What's your idea?"

"Suppose we check out empty lots for sale? If we find one we like, we can hire a builder. It would take some time, but we could have the house we really wanted."

Paula sank back against the Rover's door, propped an elbow on the steering wheel, and put her fist against her chin. She sat there silently, gazing at Erin, her dark eyes narrowed and a small twist pulling at her lips.

Not sure what the look meant, Erin fidgeted and finally broke the silence. "Well?"

Paula nodded as though in deep thought. "I forget sometimes that you do have a brain under that curly mop."

Erin made a goofy grin and crossed her eyes. "I was smart enough to pick you, wasn't I?"

That earned her a snort of laughter. "Too bad you weren't smart enough to get a list of empty lots."

Erin pulled a sheet of paper from her breast pocket, unfolded it and waved it in front of her partner's shining eyes.

"Good job, girl! Point the way. Who knows, maybe we'll get lucky." Paula sat up and moved back behind the steering wheel while Erin sidled over next to her.

The curly-headed blonde slid an arm around her partner's waist and kissed her cheek. "I'm already lucky, Polly."

Paula glanced at her and smiled. "I'd say we're both pretty damn lucky."

She started the Rover and pulled onto the road as Erin, with a smile of her own, rested her head against her partner's shoulder.


Exiting the kitchen, TJ wheeled through the hall and into her office. Sliding the chair in behind her desk, she activated the computer and called up the daily reports for Meridian Corporation. Within minutes she had settled down to her daily routine of running a multinational company. In truth, since the accident, TJ had been doing very little with the company: signing off on a few proposals, rubber stamping certain real estate purchases, reading the interim reports and just generally keeping herself up-to-date with what was happening. A quick tap to a button on her telephone got her straight through to her secretary Theresa.

"Good morning, Miss Meridian."

"Morning, Theresa. Can you tell Sebastian that I want a conference call with him and his department tomorrow? I want a little research done on medical centers and resources."

"No problem, ma’am. What time would you like it for?"

"Around eleven o'clock should be okay. Oh, and ask Richard to contact me sometime before that."

"Would you like me to get Richard for you now?"

"No, it isn’t anything urgent. Just ask him to give me a ring when he has a spare minute, between now and eleven tomorrow morning. Thank you, Theresa." Another tap to the phone and the connection was cut. TJ settled down to writing the proposal she had been considering since her return from the hospital.

Around lunchtime, TJ had no sooner gone into the kitchen, than she heard the girls coming in. It was a gorgeous day and they had asked for the day off to go house hunting. Glad to have a chance to make up for some of the occasions when her needs had usurped their free time, TJ willingly agreed.

She smiled as she looked out the window and saw Mare's truck come in right behind them. TJ headed to the counter, picked out four glasses, and was just removing the iced tea from the fridge when the three came pouring through the door, chatting. Erin and Paula greeted TJ then left for a moment to wash up before preparing lunch.

"Oh, boy, just what I need!" Mare sighed when she saw TJ filling the tumblers. "I would crawl across the floor for a glass of iced tea."

TJ held one up and crooked an eyebrow at her. Mare slinked across, making a show of swaying her hips, and kissed her. "Will that do?" she asked, laughing.

"One more walk like that and you can have the whole pitcher," TJ promised, handing Mare the glass of tea while a broad smile curved her full lips

Mare hesitated a moment, giving her eyes the pleasure of paying homage to her lover's beauty, then she gulped the tea and went to the sink to rinse her hands and splash her face. She grabbed a paper towel to dry with, opened a bottom cupboard door to throw it in the trash bin, then moved over as Erin and Paula returned.

"Mare, you and TJ go sit at the island, Paula and I will take care of lunch," Erin urged. Mare shook her head in vain protest, but joined TJ at the island.

"So, sweetheart, what have you been up to today?" Mare tugged on a lock of TJ's hair as she sat down.

TJ put her hand over Mare's and briefly rubbed the smaller one, just for the enjoyment of the touch. "I thought I would get plans started for the hospital I promised to build in Meridianville. A couple of my people are supposed to call me by tomorrow morning and I'm going to get something moving on it."

"Great! Thanks to you this place is growing quickly, and they'll really need a hospital soon." Mare's whole face showed the pride she felt for her partner's generosity. In a moment, her face turned pensive. "Maybe you could talk to Dad about ideas for a spinal cord injury wing. He might be willing to oversee setting one up."

"That's a good thought, Mare. Maybe I will."

Erin and Paula finished putting lunch on the table and sat down. Noticing that they were quieter than usual, TJ turned to Paula. "How did the house hunting go?"

"Didn't like 'em," Paula growled and tore a bite out of her sandwich.

Erin looked from her laconic partner to TJ and shrugged. "We checked everything on the market and nothing suited us. They were mostly big, older homes, not really what we want."

"Not even a decent building lot," Paula mumbled around her food.

TJ's brows went up and Erin explained. "We thought we might be able to find a lot and build a house to our own plans, but nothing attractive was available there, either."

Paula's tone gave in to the disappointment that was really fueling her rancor. "Too many farms and ranches, not much land left to build on," she muttered.

TJ looked at Mare, touched her thumb against her chest and lifted her brows even further until they almost disappeared into her bangs. Time for the reserve troops to come marching in?

Pursing her lips into a cute smile, Mare nodded imperceptibly.

TJ cleared her throat. "If you want, I could sell you a piece of ground."

Paula looked at Erin and saw her face light up as the idea struck a welcome chord. But the blonde, with a nod, deferred to her partner whose gaze then swung to TJ.

"You're talking about a real, honest-to-goodness sale, right?" Paula asked, her tone leaving no doubt that she wanted to pay her own way.

"Yep. You pick out any areas you are interested in and we'll have an appraiser come in and tell us what they're worth. When we're all satisfied on the one you want, I'll give you a ten percent discount and that's what you'll pay. How's that sound?"

Paula looked again at her partner, who nodded. The dark-haired woman reached across to TJ. "Sounds great to us, TJ. Thanks," she answered and they shook hands. "I bet Erin will have me running all over the ranch picking a spot," Paula teased her mate.

Erin made a face at her. "Thanks from me, too, TJ. And you forget, Paula, I have been running all over this ranch for months. I already can think of a couple of likely spots to show you as soon as we clear off the table."

"Guess I better get moving then, before you run off without me," Paula grinned.

"You guys go ahead," Mare insisted. "I have a little time before my next call. I'll clean up."

The words weren't completely out of her mouth before Erin was at the door. "See what I mean?" Paula laughed and followed her out.

Mare quickly cleared the table and stacked the dishes in the dishwasher. She turned around and saw a smile on TJ's lips. Walking next to her, she bent down and gave her a quick kiss. "Pretty pleased with yourself, huh?" she teased.

TJ took one of Mare's hands and brought it to her lips. "Pretty pleased with you, as a matter of fact. You were right about waiting to make them an offer. I think Paula, in particular, might have resented it if I had mentioned it earlier." TJ grinned wryly. "Like me, she kinda likes to be the boss."

"Really? I never would have guessed that," Mare said, then squeezed her lips together, trying to keep a straight face.

TJ pulled on the hand she held, bringing Mare closer. She reached up and slid her hand under Mare's hair, to the back of her neck, and spread her fingers up against her scalp. "That doesn't mean I always get to be the boss. Sometimes a certain green-eyed girl heads me off at the pass," she whispered huskily, pulling Mare's head down into a tender kiss of such sweetness that both hearts were soon thudding.

"Lordy," Mare panted when they parted. "You kiss me like that… and I have to go on a call." She glanced at her watch. "Like… now," she groaned. "Hold that thought, okay?" she begged. With a smile, she gave a speechless TJ another kiss, only this one was a quick good-bye, and she hurried out the door.

That evening after supper, Erin pulled a map of the ranch from the office files and brought it into the kitchen, spreading it across the table. She and Paula searched for the three spots they had decided on as possible home sites and pointed them out to TJ who marked them with a pencil.

"Three good choices," TJ said as she nodded. "All of those spots have a few trees to give you some privacy but at the same time are within reasonable walking distance of here." She looked at Paula with a grin. "If walking is ever reasonable."

The teasing was well deserved. Paula had two opinions about movement: why walk when you can ride and why ride when you can fly?

Paula's brown eyes snapped. "Well, that makes them within driving distance, too," she pointed out, bringing a chuckle from the rest.

TJ folded the map back up and reached across to lay it on the counter. "When I speak to Theresa tomorrow I'll have her get hold of an appraiser and we can go from there, okay?"

Erin got up and gave TJ a hug. "Thanks a million, TJ."

The raven-haired woman took the hand that lay against her shoulder and brought it down to clasp it in both of hers. "You and Paula are moving toward a new home together and Mare and I are moving toward a new life together. We've come a long way from Harvard, haven't we?"

"Yeah, we have," Erin agreed as a lump began to form in her throat.

TJ eyes softened as she looked up at her long-time friend. "The damn road's been pretty rocky sometimes but it looks like we finally have reached smoother going." TJ smiled and squeezed Erin's hand. "And look at the great neighbors I'm going to have! Who would have thought it?" she asked, laughing to ease the mood. "Do you think maybe you neighbors could join us in the living room for some popcorn and beer? That is, of course, if you make the popcorn. I think I can handle the beer."

"I get the remote!" Paula shouted, bringing a disparaging glance from Erin and Mare who then looked at each other.

"How come we never think to yell first?" Mare asked as she reached in the cupboard for the microwave popcorn.

"Maybe because we have better manners," Erin laughed, earning her a goofy face from her partner. She shooed Paula and TJ out of the kitchen. "You guys go fight over the remote; we'll bring the popcorn and beer."


TJ paused in her typing when the phone next to her rang. "Meridian," she answered as she pulled the handset, wedged it against her ear, and continued typing.

"Hi, Miss Meridian. I have Richard on the line for you," Theresa's voice said.

"Great, Theresa. But before I talk to him, make a note that I will need an appraiser here at the ranch. Try to find me someone who knows land values in this area well."

"I'll find someone today and have him call you."

"Good. Put Richard through now and remind Sebastian that I want the conference call with him and his department before lunch."

"Yes, ma’am. I’ll get it arranged for you right now," Theresa's voice clicked off at the other end and Richard came on.

"Hi, Richard, how’s the family?" TJ started the conversation. Richard had been with her since the start. Just barely out of management training when they had first met, TJ recognized his potential and took him on as her assistant, showing him how she wanted things run and making sure that their vision for her company was the same. Within a few months they had been working like a well-oiled machine and she had given over running of several sections of the company to him, making him Vice President of Operations. It had really ticked off a few of the older generation in the company but TJ knew the results that Richard would produce would soon have them eating out of his hand, and she hadn’t been wrong. Richard now ran the company in TJ's absence, only passing on the things that he knew she’d be interested in or those that he wanted her input on.

"TJ, great to hear your voice. Margaret and the kids are good, except that Cindy wants to know why she hasn’t heard from her internet penpal for a while."

TJ winced. Note one to myself: write an e-mail to Cindy. "Tell her I’m sorry, Richard, and I’ll write to her this evening. I’ve sort of been caught up in things here."

"Ah, don’t worry, TJ. She knows you’ve had a lot of things on your plate recently. How’s the therapy going?"

"Yuck. It’s going, which is all I’m prepared to say on the matter," TJ chuckled into the phone. "Which brings me nicely into why I wanted to speak to you today. I want to start moving on the medical center I promised these people. I’m conferencing with Sebastian after this call. I'm going to give him the go ahead to contact our usual medical consultants and work up a plan, incorporating some suggestions I faxed over to him. He'll provide you with copies of everything once we've settled on which we'll use."

"Well our other projects are moving along well, and we definitely have the growth potential in that market. What exactly are you after?"

TJ relaxed back in her chair and stopped typing. "Everything."

Richard paused; this hadn’t been quite what he’d expected. When TJ had mentioned that she wanted a medical center he thought she meant a small local center. "When you say everything, what exactly do you mean?"

"Exactly that, Richard. I want a complete wellness center, a hospital complex that will knock the stuffing out of that one we just finished building for Springfield General."

"That’s one hell of an undertaking for such a small town TJ," Richard responded.

"Maybe, but that is what I want," TJ replied.

And what TJ wants, TJ gets, Richard thought, trying to rub away the headache that TJ had just handed him. "Okay, I’ll work out the budgeting after you’ve spoken to Sebastian. You do realize we aren’t going to see a return on this for quite sometime, don’t you? The shareholders might not be so pleased."

Sighing, TJ picked a pencil from her nearby caddy and started tapping her new victim against the desk. "I’m not particularly worried about getting a substantial return at this point. I just don’t want to have to make a two-hour drive or forty-minute flight to a hospital every time I need to see someone and I’m not overly thrilled that anybody else who works for me has to either. And right this second I don’t really care what the shareholders think."

TJ freed the phone from between her ear and shoulder and eased her bent neck straight again as she explained her intentions to Richard. "Meridianville is in the early stages of a growth spurt and has new investments coming into the area. The town council has already decided to limit the environmental consequences by setting strict guidelines."

Richard's thoughtful tone agreed, "Preserving the cleanliness of the resources will be a big plus for companies looking for uncontaminated places to build."

"Right," responded TJ. "Too many suburban enclaves are already overdeveloped and borderline polluted. A fresh, clean area like this is perfect for a large medical center. I want us to start as soon as possible so that we are well on our way here before another company decides to jump in."

"Okay, TJ, I’ll get on it."

"Thanks, Richard. Give my love to Margaret and the girls and tell Cindy to keep an eye out for that e-mail."

"Will do, TJ. Take care. I'll get back to you as soon as we get something on the move here."

TJ held onto the line as Theresa came back on and channeled her into the conference she had set up with her Medical Division VP. "Sebastian, I have a little project for you and your wunderkinder..."

Finished with Meridian for the day, TJ pulled her To-do list from the left-hand corner of the desk and perused it. Running a pencil mark through the items she had just completed, she sat there thinking for a few moments. Her restive fingers tapped the pencil against her pursed lips before jotting a few more notes onto the list. Finally she set the pencil down and stretched, reaching high into the air, then dropping her fists to shoulder height and reaching out to either side, then back again.

A growling stomach prompted her to check the mahogany clock on the wall. As her eyes lifted to it, she heard Mare's truck swing around the parking area. Great! Mare's going to be here for lunch.

Pushing away from the desk, TJ hurried to the kitchen, but Mare didn't enter. After a vainly expectant wait, TJ wheeled to the window and looked out. There was no sign of Mare. She must have gone around to her office. Now why did she do that? Wonder if she has to go right back out? TJ snorted in frustration but decided to go ahead and start fixing lunch.

As she mixed a can of chicken-rice soup in a pot, she heard voices coming from the vicinity of the hallway. Setting the pot on the range, she turned it to low and wheeled over to the hall. Mare was standing in her office doorway, holding the door wide open, and talking to a person behind her. As TJ came into view, Mare looked up the corridor and spied her. "Hey, TJ, guess who's joining us for lunch?" she called.

As soon as TJ realized Mare's office door was open, she glanced away, though Mare's body had prevented her from seeing into the room. She backed up quickly, returning at once to the kitchen, her emotions in turmoil. She couldn't work up any justifiable anger at Mare, but she was so disturbed that she had nearly been exposed to sight of the hated room that her hands were shaking. She clasped them together in her lap, trying to hold them still.

Oh, shit! Mare saw the expression on TJ's face and came running up the hall into the kitchen. Slowing to a walk, she moved toward her agitated partner. "TJ, I'm sorry," she said.

"You promised to keep that door closed," the dark-haired woman declared.

"Yes, I did, and I always have. I didn’t realize you would come out into the hall." I keep hoping you'll get over this… fat chance, from the looks of it. "Be fair about it, okay?" She put her hands over TJ's, pulled them apart and held one in each hand. Their shaking stilled and Mare lifted them to her lips for a kiss. "I've brought someone to share lunch with us," she gazed sweetly into TJ's cobalt eyes, and then tipped her head toward the doorway.

TJ turned slowly, and then forced a smile. "Hi, Barry, come on in."

Mare's assistant had hurried up the hallway behind her, stopping at the doorway when he saw Mare slow down. Now he was leaning against the doorjamb, his muscular arms crossed, puzzled about the conversation between the two women. He wondered why TJ seemed so upset about the office door being open.

"Hi TJ," he grinned. "My fault, Mare was holding the door open for me. We wanted to surprise you but I guess we should have been quieter." He straightened up and entered the room. "Sorry if we upset you."

Mare released TJ's hands and the raven-haired woman reached one out to Barry. "Glad you could join us, Barry. Have a seat at the table. You'll be more comfortable there." They shook hands and Barry sat down. Replaced in the lunch preparations by Mare, TJ wheeled her chair to the head of the table and slid it into place.

Barry turned his chair around to view both women and leaned an elbow on the table. A grin brought dimples to his round cheeks as he looked toward TJ. She sure does pleasure the eyes. "So," he said, "what's the big deal about the office door?"

TJ's head jerked back very slightly and she just looked at him for a moment. Then a grudging smile played at her lip corners. "You certainly are direct," she remarked dryly.

Mare stopped putting the sandwiches together and glanced over at TJ. Her breath caught, not knowing what reaction TJ might have to Barry's candid question. She noticed that her partner had stiffened at his first words, unbending only slightly in her reply. Swinging toward Barry, Mare surreptitiously shook her head, trying to discourage his questioning. Oh lord, Barry, please don’t set her off.

Undaunted, Barry's grin turned into a full smile, crinkling his hazel eyes. "Yep, I am. I learned a long time ago that most problems succumb to some kind of direct action, even if it's only a promise to yourself to take care of them. You let them hang around without a fight and they can take up permanent residence in you."

Mare could see the sense in what Barry was saying but she wasn’t sure TJ would be as receptive. She wasn’t too happy with him for bringing it up, either. He wouldn’t be the one who would have to deal with TJ if she blew up about this.

Struggling to control her mood, TJ looked down at her hands, clasped tightly together on the tabletop, and mulled Barry's rejoinder for a moment. She swept her powerful gaze up and smothered his smile as she pinned him with her eyes. "That room holds some extremely unpleasant memories for me. I don't want to enter it, see it or be reminded of it. Mare and I have an agreement about that."

Frowning, TJ pulled her gaze away for a moment. She didn't have to explain herself, but for some reason she felt a need to. Slowly she brought her eyes back to meet Barry's. "Surely there are some things in your life that you would rather not have to face. I’ve already had my share of them and had to face them down, but this is one I can do something about. Mare wanted that office and she got it but I don’t have to be a part of it. The choice is mine and I choose to turn my back on it."

Ouch! Guess I should have kept my nose out if I didn’t want it to get burned. Barry shook his head and grinned apologetically. "Hey, whatever. It's your call." He gave a little shrug and said wistfully, "I just can't imagine having a house as beautiful as this without calling every single part of it my home."

Exactly, Mare thought, her heart saddened. TJ needs to get over her hate of that office or her father still owns a part of the house. It will never be completely hers.

After Barry's last statement there was an awkward silence. Mare scrounged her brain for something, anything, to say and had just opened her mouth when Barry spoke again, with a nearly perfect diversion.

"You sure made a big impression on Bobby, TJ. We took him to the store to get a new red wagon, but he picked a black one with big, rubber-tired wheels… and named it 'TJ.'" His eyes twinkled as he saw a smile sneaking its way past TJ's reserve, and he answered with a wide one of his own. "Every time he gets in it I keep expecting him to yell, 'Go, go!'"

A laugh puffed from TJ's throat. "I had fun giving him a ride. I'm glad to hear he remembers it."

Thankful that TJ's mood had lightened, Mare set sandwiches and bowls of soup in front of each place, then added drinks, napkins and utensils. She settled across from Barry who turned in toward the table and followed her lead as she dug in.

They ate in silence for a few minutes, then TJ and Barry got into a discussion about the town fair that had been mentioned at their dinner party. Barry finished his last bite of sandwich and nodded his head when TJ asked about the Town Meeting. "I've been talking up the idea of an annual fair and people sounded pretty interested. At the meeting, I brought it up on the floor and it was discussed for about half an hour. The consensus was that people would like to have one, but the council decided that the first one would need a lot of preparation and should be postponed until next fall."

Mare had gotten up to clear the table and as she walked behind TJ's chair, she trailed her fingers across TJ's back. Her partner quirked a quick smile at her before turning back to Barry. "I'm really glad that they're going forward with the fair, but kind of disappointed that they want to wait so long."

Barry nodded. "Me, too. I got everyone excited about it and now they have almost a year to wait. Darn shame we couldn't do something ourselves instead of having to go through the town council."

"Why can't we?" TJ elevated an eyebrow.

Barry gave a little snort. "Do it ourselves? I don't think the council would be too thrilled about us taking over the town without their say-so."

TJ started cracking her knuckles, then grinned when Mare handed her a pencil. She sat for a moment in deep thought, twirling the wooden cylinder around and around. She stopped and fastened her eyes on Barry, who had been waiting for her response. "Meridian ranch is a lot larger than the town… and we have loads more free space."

Barry's eyes lit up and he nodded enthusiastically. "Have a fair here? That's a great idea!"

TJ smiled at his eagerness. "Well, maybe not a fair, that's a pretty large undertaking and the council is right, it would need a lot of time to plan. But how about a barbecue that everyone's invited to? Meridian would provide the beef and the people could bring covered dishes to share. That way everyone would be a part of it."

"Super, TJ. We could have games for the kids and the adults, too. Maybe even some of the local musicians would add their talents to it," Barry suggested.

TJ looked toward Mare who was leaning back against the counter, her arms folded, listening to the exchange "What do you think, Mare? You up for this?" TJ challenged her.

"Oh, yeah, I love the idea," Mare agreed, her green eyes dancing. "I'm sure everyone would like a chance to get a closer look at the ranch." And you.

"Okay, then." TJ turned back to Barry. "How about you and Berta heading up the planning committee for it? Maybe get some long-time residents on it, too, and get things moving?"

"Sure, TJ. Berta and I would love to help. Especially Berta; she's a born organizer."

"How soon do you think you could get it set up?"

"Mmmmm. Maybe six or eight weeks. That sound all right?"


Mare pushed away from the counter. "I hate to be the party pooper, Barry, but we have to get back to work."

"Right," Barry said. He stood up and clasped TJ's shoulder before moving toward the door. "I'll get back to you about this."

"Fine, Barry." She looked up at Mare who had walked over to kiss her good-bye. "Will you be here for supper?"

"As far as I know, I will be. Bye-bye." Mare leaned down for the kiss, then followed Barry out the door.

TJ went to the window and watched them leave, then wheeled out into the hall and turned toward her office. She hesitated as her eyes fell on the door at the end of the hall and Barry's words jangled through her mind. 'I just can't imagine having a house as beautiful as this without calling every single part of it my home.'

TJ shook her head, but couldn't let the thought go. Why did I ever let Mare pick the one room in this whole place that I can't bring myself to enter? It's my lover's office, the heart of her work life and I can't share that with her. With a heavy sigh, TJ continued into her office.


To be Concluded in Part 8

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