True Colours

by

Karen A. Surtees

and

PruferBlue

 

But I see your true colors
Shining through
I see your true colors
And that's why I love you
So don't be afraid to let them show
Your true colors
True colors are beautiful,
Like a rainbow.

From "True Colors"
1986 Denise Barry Music and
Billy Steinberg Music (ASCAP)
All Rights Reserved

 

Disclaimer: This is an Uber story with characters resembling two of our favorite heroes, but since they have different names and live in a different time and place they belong to no one but the authors, and are copyrighted to Karen A. Surtees and PruferBlue (posted June 28, 1999). No aspect of this story may be used elsewhere without the express prior written consent of the authors. This story may not be altered in any way and this copyright information must appear with this work at all times.

Warning: This story contains scenes of intimacy between consenting adults of the same gender. If this offends you, or you are under 18 years of age, or if this type of story is illegal in the state/country where you live, please do not read it. There are many really good general fiction stories to read, instead.

Author's Notes:
Karen A. Surtees: Writing has become somewhat of a passion of mine over the last couple of years and I hadn’t thought that the experience could be improved upon. Needless to say that wasn’t entirely true. So when I challenged PruferBlue to write an Uber story with me, little did I know what I was letting myself in for. I’ve learnt an incredible amount in a very short time span and that is down to the hard work and commitment that PruferBlue has put into this story. Yes, we’ve had a few disagreements over what the story should be saying and the direction it should be taking, but I think that they have only made the story grow into what you see before you. It is hard to find friends to cherish; it is harder to work with them and only see that friendship grow rather than falter.

This story as always is dedicated to my best friend and mentor, PruferBlue, but also to two unbelievingly supportive friends, Phil and Jen.

PruferBlue: All my previous stories are canonical Xena and Gab in Ancient Greece, and let the reader decide their relationship. If anyone had told me a month ago that I would be co-writing an alt-fic Uber, I would have said, "Never"! Which goes to show two things: 1) Of course, you should never say never; and 2) No matter how flattered you are to be invited to write a story with Karen A. Surtees, get all the details before you agree! But kas has been absolutely super, even during our somewhat heated "discussions," and I hope you readers enjoy the story as much as I have enjoyed working with her. Thank you, kas, from your humble admirer.

 

Chapter 1

"Mary Theresa Gillespie, get up off your duff and get moving!" The veterinarian turned to look at the speaker. The wall mirror next to the desk reflected her own wry grin. "Okay, okay, I'm moving."

A week of 100-degree weather had been hard on a number of animals in the area and the doc had been scrambling to keep up with the mounting casualties. Most of them were suffering from heatstroke. The condition could be life threatening, so there wasn't the luxury of saying, "I'll be over later." When the call came, you hustled to get there.

And, of course, ailments didn't stop just because it was bedtime. Much of last night had been spent sitting up with a sick cow. Coming home and eating breakfast had probably been a mistake. I should have grabbed something from the fridge and kept going. That would have been easier than slowing down and having to start back up again.

She poured the last of her coffee down her throat, pushed her chair back and stood up, glancing again at the appointment pad lying next to the phone on the small desk. No new calls had come in, but she had a couple of recuperating patients who needed to be checked on.

As if on cue, the phone rang. Mare picked it up and leaned into the headpiece, catching it between her head and hunched-up shoulder. She picked up a pen and moved the appointment pad closer. "Dr. Gillespie," she said with a briskness she didn't feel.

There was a moment's pause. "This is Dr. Gillespie?"

"Yes, it is." Mare's booted toe started tapping on the floor.

"Dr. Gillespie, we need you out at the Meridian ranch, right away. One of our horses looks really sick. Can you come?"

"What seems to be wrong with the horse?" Mare scratched "Meridian ranch" on the appointment pad.

"She's breathing hard, her head is drooping and she's kind of listless." Sounds like another one with heatstroke, Mare considered. Wouldn't be surprised. Sure didn't cool down much last night.

"See if you can get her to take extra water. I'll be right out." Next to the ranch name, she wrote, "horse--heatstroke?"

"I'll meet you at the barn, Doctor. Do you know how to get here?"

"Sure do." Mare hung up the phone and stared for a second at her reflection in the mirror.

Who could be out at the Meridian ranch, she wondered? The ranch had been closed for ten years. The voice had been female; maybe someone bought it. Well, whoever it was, I gotta go see a sick horse. Mare picked up her ten-gallon hat, slapped it onto her head, grabbed her "little" black bag and strode out to the dusty, four-wheel-drive Dodge pickup parked next to her house. Dressed in her usual worn jeans, plaid shirt, and short-heeled work boots, she set her bag in the empty spot behind the driver's seat and climbed in.

The bag held only a sampling of what Mare called her "quick-fix stuff": gauze, tape, suturing needles, sutures, stethoscope, hemostats, peroxide, alcohol, thermometers, disposable hypodermic syringes and needles, rubber tubing, plastic gloves, scissors, ace bandages, painkillers and assorted other drugs, etc. The camper back of the pickup carried more of the same supplies. It also housed a wide array of additional medications, stored in a refrigerated compartment, plus the bulk of the equipment needed to care for large animals.

Mare and her mother had pooled nearly all their resources to outfit Mare's practice. The second-hand truck had been purchased three years ago, in her next-to-last year of studies, and the equipment had been added gradually as their earnings enabled them. Last year, when Mare graduated and started her own practice, everything had been ready to go.

Doctor Mare Gillespie, V.M.D., was the only vet within fifty miles of Meridianville, Texas. Actually, there wasn't much of anything within fifty miles of Meridianville. She sometimes wondered why she stayed. In the nine years she had been here, nothing had improved. Mother loved it here. And she's buried here. Maybe that's why I stay.

Today's heat was just as oppressive as the rest of the week's had been. Mare laid her hat on the truck seat and turned the air conditioner's deflector up into her face. As she drove the eight miles to the Meridian house, the results of the man's callous abandonment of the town ran through her head.

Ever since Tom Meridian, great-grandson of the town's founder, had departed, the town had been slowly dying. Meridian sold off his huge herd of cattle, closed down the meatpacking plant he owned, took his family and left. Nobody seemed to know why he left, but everyone was bitter about it. Meridian was not a name you heard without s-o-b in front of it.

Most of the people in Meridianville had worked at the meatpacking plant, just like their parents before them. With the town's biggest industry shut down, the residents were hard-pressed to provide for themselves. Many had gone back into farming, living off land rented from someone else and trying desperately to survive; hoping that someday things would get better.

Even children learned to make do, wearing already worn out hand-me-downs, eating only twice a day and finding simple ways to play. They rolled up discarded newspapers, tied them with string begged from the butcher shop and used them as balls; then sawed the handles off worn-out mops and brooms to use as bats. Other children fashioned little playmates from corncobs and husks garnered from the patches of land their parents worked.

The surrounding ranches and large farms weren't as hard hit, but the town's depressed economy had some effect on all of them.

Mare's mother, Jane, had been a free-lance writer. A major newspaper chain had engaged her to come to Meridianville to write an ongoing series about the town's difficulties in adjusting to the loss of its main source of income. She and Mare had arrived about six months after the closing of the plant, and had spent six more months gathering material for the articles. They both had fallen in love with the beauty of the area and the strength of the people. They decided to stay, and Jane bought a small home on the edge of the town proper.

During the summer, and on weekends, Mare had traveled throughout the area with her mother, assisting with interviews of those people most severely affected. From meeting so many desperate people and hearing their stories of hardship firsthand, Mare developed a deep-seated loathing for the Meridians.

All the land, as far as you could see, on the right-hand side of the road that Mare drove along, had been part of the cattle baron's holdings. Mare turned into the lane that ran a good half-mile up to the Meridian ranch house. Looking around as she reached the house, she could see that it and the other buildings were clean and fresh looking.

Gigantic in proportion even for Texas, the white stucco house sprawled from an attached, four-car garage to another building attached to it by a covered walkway. At a right angle beyond that building sat the barn, with a good-sized corral to the far side of it, containing two horses. No cars sat in the blacktop parking area, which formed a huge oval that started in front of the garage and sent a finger over in front of the house before completing its oval shape at the barn.

Looks like someone's done a lot of fixing up here, thought Mare. She pulled in front of the barn and stepped out of the pickup, her booted feet meeting the springy surface of macadam. A woman dressed in a short-sleeved, tailored cotton shirt, jeans and high-heeled boots came through the open door and hurried over to Mare.

"Dr. Gillespie? I'm Erin Scott." The woman was several inches taller than Mare. The blonde, curly head tilted and cool brown eyes skimmed across Mare's face and form as the two women shook hands. "Follow me. I'll take you to the horse."

Well, hello, how are you, too, Mare snorted to herself. Not too much southern hospitality being wasted here. She nodded once, got her bag from the truck and followed the woman into the barn, noting her smooth, athletic walk. Nice even, rich-girl tan, too. Wonder if she's the owner?

Mare welcomed the cooler interior of the barn, even knowing that it soon would seem just as hot as the outside. She looked at once for the ailing horse but her peripheral vision caught nameplates hanging at three of the six stalls and a large tack room just to the left of the barn entrance. Through the open tack room door, she could see part of a worktable with cupboards above it and a deep sink standing next to it.

Erin stopped in front of a large palomino mare whose nameplate said Faithful Flag.

A cursory look indicated that the horse was in obvious distress. Her head hung low, she seemed listless and her breathing was rapid, with her nostrils flaring. Classic symptoms of heatstroke. The vet set her bag down, opened it and took out the stethoscope, which she hung around her neck. Slowly walking into the stall, Mare reached up to the high shoulder and patted it. "Good girl, just let me take a look at you." There was no sweat on the animal's body; though, in this heat there should have been.

Mare lifted the stethoscope's ear pieces to their resting place and listened to an elevated heart-rate of 70 beats per minute instead of the usual 40. As a final confirmation of the diagnosis, Mare took the rectal thermometer from its plastic case, dipped it into a nearby water bucket, shook it down, then inserted it into the barely responsive animal's rectum.

"How long has she been this way?" Mare inquired of Erin.

"When I came into the barn this morning was the first I noticed how she looked, and I called you right away." Erin chewed at the inside of her lip.

"Has she been drinking a lot of water?"

"I gave her extra when you told me to and she drank most of it. Is Flag in danger?"

When Mare withdrew the thermometer and saw a reading of 103, the diagnosis was confirmed. "She's suffering from heatstroke. Heatstroke can kill but it looks as though you caught it quickly so there shouldn't be any problem with treating it." She saw the woman visibly relax at her statement and realized the woman's brusque attitude was most probably due to worry over the magnificent horse before her.

"Not used to dealing with horses?" she asked. Mare used Flag's tail to wipe the thermometer, put it back in its plastic case and set it back into the bag. She strode out to the truck to secure medication from the built-in refrigerator.

"Actually, more like not used to dealing with them in these conditions," replied Erin, following the vet. "Take me up north, give me several feet of snow and I'm okay. Present me with heat and humidity like this and I'm sort of out of my depth. And I can see already that this is going to be a steep learning curve."

"You got that right. Still, at least you were quick to notice that something was wrong." The doctor continued her explanation when they returned to the barn. "I'm going to give Flag a tranquilizer to bring her heart rate down and another injection to bring down her temperature. You want to come around here and hold her still for me? Better snap a lead rope onto her first."

Erin walked around the other side of Flag, snapped the lead rope onto the halter enclosing the palomino's head, and hung onto it.

Mare chose a 21-gauge disposable needle, attached it to a disposable syringe and pulled 3cc from the bottle of Acepromezine. She injected it directly into Flag's jugular vein, then went through the same motions with 10cc of Dipyrone. She dropped the syringes into a plastic trash bottle she kept in her bag for their disposal.

The vet went out to the truck and brought back four bags of Ringer's solution and IV equipment. She went over and picked up a pitchfork she had spied on her way in, brought it back to the horse's side and leaned it against the side of the stall. "That's good, hold her nice and steady, now. I'm going to put a catheter in the jugular vein."

When the catheter had been inserted, Mare connected a bag of Ringer's to the IV tubing, opened the drip regulator hooked to the tubing and let some Ringer's run through, pushing out the air. She then attached the tubing to the catheter. She reached for the pitchfork and hung the Ringer's on it, lifted it enough to keep the bag high, then adjusted the drip regulator. "I'll have to give her three or four of these to combat the dehydration."

As she ran the Ringer's in, one after the other, Mare explained some of the aftercare that would be needed: temperature taking, more injections, hosing down, adding electrolytes to the water...

Erin looked a little skeptical. "Think I can handle that. Will you need to come out to check her again?"

"Yeah I'll be out day after tomorrow. In the meantime, Flag's going to need the care I've explained to you. I've had so many cases of heatstroke this past week that I've printed out the directions. I'll just fill in the figures and you can follow it right along. And you need to keep an eye on the other horses, too. Keep them out of the hot sun. Spray them down once in awhile. Bring some fans in here and move them in here before midday. Until this heat breaks, all the animals are in danger."

Mare had finished with the Ringer's IV and she unhooked everything, walked out of the stall, and laid the apparatus on top of her bag. Reaching in her breast pocket, she extracted and unfolded a sheet of directions. She pulled a pen from a pocket in her jeans, clicked it open and filled in figures based on Flag's condition. She grinned to herself as she realized that Erin was still holding Flag's lead rope. "You can come out now."

Mare clicked the pen closed and replaced it in her pocket. As she handed the directions to the curly-headed blonde, she said, "Come here and I'll show you where you need to make the muscle injections." The extra-wide stalls made it easy for two people to walk side by side next to the horse. Mare pointed out the muscle area and looked to make sure Erin understood. The woman's earnest look reassured her somewhat.

"You're sure someone will do this? It's absolutely necessary."

Erin bit her lip again and nodded. "Don't worry, Doc. I might not be too keen on the idea, but we'll do whatever we have to do."

"Do you have a thermometer? If not, I can leave you one." Mare picked up the IV tubing and her bag and went to the tack room sink to rinse the tubing off. Erin followed her in and opened the cupboards on the wall above the worktable.

"I think we most likely have one; there's a lot of stuff in these cupboards that's probably still useful."

Curious, Mare strolled over next to Erin and looked for herself. The cupboards were filled with a hundred items that could be used in the care of animals. And they left it all here. That's odd. Mare reached over and pointed, "Here's the thermometer you need. I'll leave you some disposable syringes, needles, the medications and some bags of electrolytes, and you have the water and hoses and fans. You're all set."

Erin grinned and raised her eyebrows. "I sure hope so. When will Flag be better?"

"Once she starts sweating and stops the rapid breathing, she'll be pretty well over it. That might take several days, especially in this heat."

"Okay, that's great." Erin looked over at the vet and smiled, glad that the young woman had been able to help Flag. The atmosphere was bad enough at the ranch without the death of TJ's beloved mare adding to their worries.

Erin frowned as she thought of her friend up in the house. Her mood this week had been mercurial, swinging from a joyous high to deep depression in a matter of hours; but neither she nor Paula had been able to figure out why. Still, Flag would be all right, according to the doctor, so that was one thing less she had to worry about.

She turned her attention back to the vet who was just finishing laying out the syringes, needles, and electrolytes on the worktable. Mare removed the proper medications from her bag, held them up and lifted an eyebrow. "Got somewhere cold I can put these? They usually don't need refrigerated, but in this heat I'd rather play it safe."

Erin took the bottles from the vet and opened one of the lower cabinets on the far wall to reveal a small refrigerator. She pushed some sodas out of the way then set the bottles inside.

Mare watched as Erin closed the fridge and swung back around. "Flag should be okay, but you will need to keep an eye on her for awhile. I'll come back day after tomorrow to give her some more Ringer's and to check on her progress."

Erin smiled and picked up the vet's bag, turning to walk slowly out of the barn. "Thanks. We appreciate your coming out so quickly. Believe me, it would have been disastrous if anything had happened to that horse."

Mare followed the woman out. She removed the drip tubing from under her arm where she had stashed it, and placed it back in the camper. "It wasn't a problem. So, how long have you been up here? Nobody in town even knew the place had been sold."

"Oh, we've been planning this for a while. Seemed such a waste not to use the land since it was just sitting here. And the land hasn't been sold. Well, not as far as I know."

Mare looked at the blonde who was a couple of paces in front of her. Must be renting or leasing then. "This must be costing you a fortune to rent." Mare's curiosity was piqued now.

"Nope, we don't rent."

Mare laughed, her voice sarcastic. "Please don't tell me that the Meridian Corporation is letting you stay here for free."

Erin was truly puzzled by the vet's attitude. She knew that the town had suffered because TJ's father had closed the cattle ranch down, but she hadn't realized that the family was held in such disdain by the people around here. "Well, it's like this..."

Mare finally caught on and held up her hand. "Hold on a minute. Are you trying to tell me that you are the Meridian Corporation?"

"Well, not me, personally; but yes, I work for Meridian."

Mare's eyes hardened as she stared at the woman. "I can't believe they had the gall to set foot in this town again... but at least they had the sense to send a flunky." Mare realized how that sounded. It wasn't this woman's fault she'd been sent down here. She let her eyes soften. "Sorry. That wasn't meant as a personal attack. You have to understand that the Meridians are neither liked nor welcome in this town. They all but destroyed it when they pulled out."

Erin stopped her walk and looked at the vet again. "That's okay, no offense taken. I didn't realize they were so disliked down here."

"Well they are; and I'm sorry to say it, but even though work is hard to find around here, as soon as they know it's your corporation... I doubt you will find many willing hands who will work for you."

Erin smiled. She liked this vet despite her attitude; she had spunk and wasn't afraid to speak her mind. "Thankfully, I don't have to worry about that side of the running of this place. That is my partner's domain."

"Ah, so you'll be seeing to the practical side of things, then."

"Yeah, Paula will do the hiring and I have to tell you, Doc, that she has a way of getting what she wants even from the most resistant of people." Well, she got me down here and convinced TJ to carry on with her plans for this place, so I really can't see failing to get the people we need.

Erin handed Mare's bag to her. "How much do we owe you?" Mare named a figure and Erin pulled a checkbook and pen from a pocket and wrote her a check. When she handed it to Mare, the doctor noticed it had been pre-stamped with T. J. Meridian's signature.

"Will you have any problems looking after the livestock? We are expecting to turn this back into a working ranch and we were hoping to sign you on a retainer. Or would you prefer we get someone from out of town?"

Mare considered this for the moment. Looking after the ranch livestock would be profitable and would enable her to do a few more things for those who weren't able to pay for their animals to be looked after properly. Still, wasn't agreeing to work for Meridian almost like selling out to them?

"Why don't you think about it and then let me know when you have made a decision?" Erin offered her hand to the vet. "Thanks again for your prompt help. As I said, it would have been hell on earth here if anything had happened to that horse."

Mare took the proffered hand and shook it. "Okay. I'll let you know my decision when I come back to do the followup on Flag." Mare noticed a delivery van, pulling up beside her truck. "Looks like you have something to take care of. I'll see you day after tomorrow."

Erin let go of the doc's hand and looked over her shoulder. "Yep, you're right. Thanks." She turned, leaving the vet, and walked over to the delivery van.

Mare slung her bag into the truck, her mind still mulling over the opportunity that had been presented to her. She absently listened as the driver of the van shouted over to the blonde approaching him. "You have a Miss T. J. Meridian here? I have a personal package that needs to be signed for!"

"I can sign for it," replied Erin as she reached the man. "She's not available right now."

Mare felt a chill roll down her spine. One of the Meridians is here? Well, well, well. Maybe I ought to drop in and say hello? Welcome them back after all this time?

Erin was just signing for the package as the vet breezed past her with an air of determination on her face. "Dr. Gillespie?" she yelled as the woman rapidly climbed the three steps to the porch and entered through the open doorway. Ah hell, this is not going to be pretty. She quickly unclipped the portable radio on her belt and spoke into the mike. "Paula, honey, we have trouble at the house."

 

Chapter 2

TJ sat behind the office desk, staring at the screensaver on her computer, but not really noticing the black panthers and other various big cats that prowled their way across the screen. She knew that she ought to be working right now. She should be on the damned machine in front of her, looking at the proposals for upcoming business developments. But the inclination just wasn't there and hadn't been for a long time.

She pushed a strand of her long, dark hair back behind her ear. She didn't want to be in here. She would much rather have been in her room. But Erin and Paula had insisted she get out of bed today, and she hadn't been capable of resisting when they had forcibly got her up. All her screaming and cursing, all her threats had done nothing to dissuade them from their task and make them leave her alone. She thought she might have actually hit Paula, and in some place she felt sorry for inflicting that on her friend. But, as with everything else these days, the feeling meant little to her.

She had only agreed to come down here to the ranch because they had gone on about it so much while she had been in the hospital. The only way she knew how to shut them up was to agree and then, for seven blissful days, they had left her alone.

She had nearly succeeded in getting away from everybody then, but the night nurse had come in on her rounds and found her bleeding. A quick call to the doctor, and several stitches later, and she was tucked back in a clean bed--under observation this time. Of course, Erin and Paula had been furious with her, and from that moment on had insured that someone was with her at all times.

She hadn't realized that her failed attempt to kill herself would result in more doctors and more tests. Still, she had eventually escaped the clutches of the medics after they had instilled in her enough skills to cope with her disability; but the proviso was that she still have counseling sessions and that she still go to physical therapy sessions twice a week. She had hoped that, by returning to the ranch and giving Erin and Paula so much to do, they would forget about that. But her friends were hard taskmasters and always ensured that one of them was free to drive her to her appointments.

She picked up a pencil and started twirling it through her fingers. She had another session with her counselor scheduled for this afternoon and that was what had put her in this foul mood. Her last session hadn't gone so well. Peter had wanted to talk about her father and TJ had adamantly refused. He had nothing to do with her current situation; in fact, it was about the only thing in her life that she couldn't blame him for. She didn't see how talking about him could help her now. Peter had said that she had demons to lay and that they might as well tackle them all, but TJ had pulled her silent, I'm-not-in-the-room act on him.

He'd left the room then and had a long talk with Erin, who was in the waiting room. She knew she was being stubborn, but why couldn't anybody understand that the mere thought of her father was repulsive to her? He ruled her life while he was alive and she wanted nothing to do with him now that he was dead.

Of course, Erin had lectured her all the way back to the ranch, wanting to know why she refused to cooperate with her treatment and why bother going if she was going to be obstructive. TJ had pointed out that she had no choice in the matter since she and Paula wouldn't allow her not to go. She hadn't wanted to see Peter in the first place and would rather all of them would get on with their own lives and stop fussing with hers.

The last hour of the drive had been completed in silence. TJ asked to be taken out to see Flag on their return but Erin told her coolly that she and Paula would be tied up for the rest of the afternoon and it wouldn't be possible. Which, of course, had sent her mood spiraling downward even further. She would be glad when the alterations on the house were completed; she would be able to get about without assistance then.

Then last night they had had a big argument. Erin and Paula wanted to get someone in full time to help TJ. What they meant was that they wanted to get a nurse in. TJ was vehemently opposed to the idea. It had taken her long enough to allow Paula and Erin to help her; there was no way she would allow a total stranger to see her in this manner.

The pencil she was playing with snapped. She looked at it, stunned, not realizing she had been holding it that hard, then threw the pieces across the room in frustration. This afternoon she would make Erin take her out to see Flag, or she wasn't going to the counseling session.

The sound of voices in the hallway drew her attention. Erin was trying to stop someone from doing something, but the voice she didn't recognize wasn't having any of it and quite vocally stated that she was going to give "Miss Meridian" a piece of her mind. The door to her office was flung open, and in stormed the unknown voice. TJ watched as the intruder came quickly toward her, pulling up short several feet from the desk.

A small, long-haired blonde stood before her, her face flushed from her march through the house to find her target, her breath coming in uneven gasps. Erin rushed in through the door not a second later, a pleading look on her face. TJ sighed and felt her mood darken further. Today was not turning out to be a good day.

Mare had entered the big ranch house with ease. Finding the person she was after was a little harder; but she had scoured the ground floor, with Erin following her. From the look of her, the woman chasing her could have physically removed her from the house; could even have called the sheriff on her. Though, Mare smugly thought to herself, Jackson would only have made a show of reprimanding her, especially when she told him who was in the house.

But for some reason the blonde hadn't done either one, trying to get her to leave the premises through argument. Eventually, Mare had turned around to her and told her she wasn't leaving until she had given Miss Meridian a piece of her mind to her face. Then she had flung open a closed door, stormed through and found herself staring into crystal-blue eyes.

She took a deep breath, trying to calm her breathing. "You T. J. Meridian?" she inquired eventually. After all, it could have been Erin's partner, but the dark-haired woman sitting behind the desk gave a short nod. Mare put her hands on her hips and stared hard, trying to calm her anger, so that what she was about to say would come out coherently.

"You know, you and your family have some nerve coming back here. Don't you think that you've done enough damage to this town?" Mare strode forward till she was leaning her hands down on the desk. "Ten years ago, your father destroyed this town, destroyed the livelihood of everyone in it. They made your father and his company a fortune, then he upped and left. Hell, he wouldn't even sell the land to them so that they could work it themselves, and now you have the nerve to return. Just what do you hope to achieve here, Miss Meridian?"

At any other time Mare would have noticed the paleness of the woman before her, would have recognized the lifelessness behind the ice-blue eyes. But her anger was so high that these things were beyond her today. She waited silently, staring at the woman, refusing to let her hide from her emerald gaze.

TJ listened as the blonde vented her tirade against her and her family. How was she meant to respond? What she had said was all true. If the woman had known that the reason her father had pulled out from the ranch was to prevent TJ, herself, becoming obsessed with it, no doubt she would have had more choice words to say.

She had known that coming back here to put things right would be difficult. That was why she had planned to appoint a manager to oversee the project, but the injury had changed all that. She had hoped to keep her presence here quiet but that would, for obvious reasons, not work.

Still, the young woman's words had hurt. She wasn't her father. But nobody seemed to be able to remember that; they always tarred her with the same brush. Even in death, he still ruled her life it seemed, and it looked like she would spend what was left of her life repaying his considerable debts.

She felt her anger build: anger at her situation, anger that Erin and Paula were being stubborn about her seeing Flag, anger at the world in general for not letting her lie down and die like she wanted to. "Have you finished?" she asked quietly.

Mare was startled when she heard the woman's voice; she had thought it would be stronger. She nodded in reply to the question.

"Good. And you are?"

"Dr. Gillespie," she said tersely. TJ raised her eyebrow. "I'm the local vet."

Erin wanted to hide. They had kept Flag's illness from TJ, knowing that it would upset her. Now that the vet had decided to take things into her own hands, that was going to backfire terribly. She wished that Paula would hurry up and get here. She hadn't been that far from the ranch when Erin had radioed.

"Ah I see, Dr. Gillespie, and do you make a habit of bursting into people's houses?" TJ's voice was more than a trifle condescending. "Doesn't seem like that would be a good way to attract business, if you asked me. As for your opinions on my family, they are neither wanted nor appreciated. I suggest you leave quietly, before I have you thrown out."

Mare had seen the change developing in the crystal-blue eyes as listlessness gradually gave way to the stirring embers of anger. Mare's lip curled. "I come here to treat a sick horse and discover the return of a sick family." The fire in the blue eyes flamed and TJ opened her mouth to respond, but just then Paula came charging into the office.

Instead of speaking, TJ's glance went from Paula to Mare, then back to Paula, and she tossed her head to the side, signaling dismissal. Paula didn't know what was going on, but she recognized TJ's signal. Without question, her hand reached around Mare's arm and tightened as the vet scowled at her. Erin spoke up with an urgent tone in her voice, "Dr. Gillespie, Miss Meridian has asked you to leave and I think it might be wise for you to do so."

Mare's gaze had been locked on TJ's during this whole exchange. "I'll be back day after tomorrow to check on your sick horse." The vet's voice flattened, giving a false sense of spent anger. Her eyes switched to Paula's.

"I would like to suggest that you take your hand off of me. I'm leaving." Paula hesitated and looked at TJ. TJ's eyes were narrowed and her jaw set, but she nodded and Paula released Mare's arm.

"I'll show you out, Doctor." Erin started to exit, then looked back to make sure Mare was following her. The vet hadn't moved. She stood where she was until the blue eyes swept back to her. With one last challenging look, Mare turned away and followed Erin out.

********************

Paula nervously watched TJ. She could see the anger building in the blue eyes and knew if she didn't say anything soon that it was going to be hell on earth around the ranch for the next few days. Maybe Erin should have told her Flag was ill. At least, then, that would only be one thing she was mad about. In fact, knowing TJ, that was most probably the only thing she was mad at; she was used to fending off insults aimed at her family. But her horse was another matter. These days the animal was the only thing that kept her going. She took a deep breath as she saw that TJ was about to start her tirade.

"Why did we require a vet for one of the horses?" Paula frowned. This was much worse than she had thought. If TJ wasn't shouting, she was furious.

"Erin went to the barn early this morning and thought one of them looked a little distressed. She thought it would be wise to err on the side of caution and have the vet check it out." It was unlikely that TJ would let her get away with not naming the horse involved but it was worth a try.

"Was it Flag?" TJ's voice was still calm and soft.

Ah hell, Erin, how do you always manage to weasel out of these situations and leave me to deal with them? "Yeah, it was."

"What was wrong? Is she going to be okay?" Paula noticed that TJ had picked up a pencil and was twirling it through her fingers, another bad sign.

"I don't know. I haven't spoken to Erin yet."

"Fine. We'll wait for her to come back then." The motion of the pencil quickened in her hand.

Oh yeah. Hell is about to materialize on a little-known ranch in Nowheresville, Texas.

********************

Mare stalked out of the ranch house, muttering and cursing under her breath. I can't believe Miss High-and-Mighty just brushed me off like that. At least I told her what I thought, let her know that her kind weren't welcome here. No way on earth I'm working for them. I'll treat the horse but they can find someone else to use their retainer. I don't care how much it would help to have that money.

Erin walked a pace or two behind the vet as she made her exit from the house and stormed over to her vehicle. She liked the vet and she would still like to have her looking after the animals for them, especially if the passion she had just shown transferred to her work. What she didn't like, however, was her attitude toward TJ.

Erin had first met TJ at Harvard and over the years had developed a strong friendship with her. But in the beginning, it had taken her months to break through her icy reserve; TJ was distant with everybody and rarely socialized. If provoked, she was openly hostile; even violent if pushed too far. It had taken a long time to be able to see past that, but when Erin had been cornered one evening by one of the more aggressive homophobic groups from the campus, it had been TJ who had come to her rescue.

Silence had descended on the jeering group. They stopped shoving her around when TJ's voice had been heard. They just stood there and looked up at the tall figure, assessing her, trying to figure out whether she was actually a threat. The first mistake the group's leader had made was to smile, because when he did, so did TJ. It was chilling to see and Erin couldn't understand why none of the group could see the danger they were in.

Their second mistake was not believing that the woman standing before them would be able to use the strength her tall, muscular body held. If there had been a weapon among them it would have been a bloodbath. As it was, a few broken bones later, it was all over.

Erin had immediately changed her opinion of TJ Meridian and had spent the next few months breaking down barriers and generally pestering the woman until she had gained acceptance and friendship from her. And in that time she had learned a lot about her: her contempt for her father and his practices; her mother's constant badgering over what was right, and what wasn't, for her daughter; her lack of free time; the way she constantly studied, trying to appease the demands of her family.

The only thing that seemed to make the woman happy was when her younger brother visited. The look on her face when Lance had told her he'd got into Harvard Medical School was priceless.

When the women's time together at Harvard had come to an end, they had kept in touch via the Internet, snail mail, and the occasional phone call. And Erin's admiration for the woman had only grown. After TJ's parents died, she had taken over the company and had begun to make changes. Market analysts had said she was mad, that her changes were economic disasters. They were wrong. The shareholders loved her; their holdings rose and everyone was happy. Except TJ.

For some reason, everybody thought she was her father. The press said she was ruthless, more interested in profit than the repercussions her decisions had on those involved. The day TJ hired Erin and her partner, Paula Tanner, as consultants on the ranch project, there were protesters outside the building. Not protesting about the company, but about the person running it. The woman she had seen that day was a shadow of who she had been. The pressures were already taking their toll.

Yes, TJ had restructured the company and yes, people had lost their jobs, but it was nothing like what her father had done. Severance packages had been more than adequate, and where possible, people were moved to other positions within the company. In some cases, TJ had given financial incentives and help to other companies, to encourage them to relocate to areas where she had pulled her company out. But unlike others, who would have paraded their generosity for all to see, TJ refused to take credit for, or publicize, anything she was doing.

Erin's listening to the vet vent her anger on her friend hurt, and it had hurt TJ, too, though she would never admit it.

"You know, that was kind of nasty," Erin commented to the vet's back.

Mare swung round and stared angrily at Erin. "You have no idea what this town has suffered because of her. You have no idea what she's like." Mare turned back to the pickup only to feel a hand grab tightly to her arm and swing her back.

"No!" Erin said forcefully. "You have no idea what she's like. You haven't been through the hell we've been through with her the past year; you haven't been through the pain she has. What happened here happened ten years ago. At a guess, I'd say you were fifteen, sixteen years old? Well, she was eighteen. Do you think an eighteen-year-old girl had anything to do with making decisions about closing manufacturing plants and factories? TJ isn't her father, and it's about time people started realizing that."

"Look around you, Erin." Mare made a wide sweep with her arm. "Where did all this come from? Where did those prize horses come from? That one I treated today is worth more than my house is worth. The Meridian ranch is probably worth more than the whole town."

The vet's lip curled. "You're asking me to feel sorry for her because she's being blamed for the things her father did? Well, maybe she didn't make the decisions, but she sure as hell laid back and let the money drop into her lap, didn't she? Where would she be today without her father? Would she be a part of Meridian Corporation? Sure, tell me you believe in the Easter Bunny, too."

Mare took a ragged breath. She was exhausted and this argument was emotionally draining. "While she was living like a princess, people in Meridianville were wondering where their next meal was coming from, worried not for themselves but for their children. I don't think I was nasty. I just told her the truth."

"You dislike her because she's rich?"

"No, I dislike her because her father produced that money by climbing over the lives of people from places like Meridianville. You want me to believe she cares about them? Tell her I'll believe in the goodness of her motives when I see her turn that money over to them."

Erin's anger had died away to plain frustration. "Have you ever heard the expression, 'Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day; teach him how to fish and he'll eat forever?' Well, that's what TJ is trying to do. She wants to rebuild the economy here and bring people's lives back to them."

"Right." The doctor was suddenly too tired to argue any more. She climbed into the pickup truck and started the motor. "I'll be back to see Flag. Make sure you follow those directions." Stifling a yawn, she put the truck in gear and left.

Erin walked slowly back to the house, her eyes cast down. If I can't even convince one person that TJ's motives are good, how are we going to convince a whole town?

 

Chapter 3

TJ's office was ominously quiet as Erin approached the room. She gently pushed open the door and stepped in. Paula stood over by the window, gazing out at the horses in the corral. TJ was still seated behind her desk, hands angrily twirling one of the many pencils that she kept in her desk caddy. Paula turned around, grimaced and indicated she should close the door. Erin already knew from the silence that they were in for one of TJ's infamous outbursts of anger. Oh, this could be very painful indeed.

"Has she left?" TJ's voice was precisely controlled.

"Yes." Erin didn't elaborate, knowing that it would only annoy TJ further and that when the woman wanted to know anything she'd ask.

TJ flung the pencil to the desk, leaned forward and stared pointedly at Erin. "Just when were you going to tell me that Flag was ill?"

Uh-oh, she's not yelling; this is definitely worse than I had imagined. "I only noticed this morning that she was distressed. I got the vet out right away and I would have told you once I found out the prognosis."

"And just what is the prognosis?"

"Flag has heatstroke. We'll have to watch the other horses as well, at least until the temperatures drop. With the proper treatment she'll be fine." Erin felt Paula come up behind her and rest hands on her shoulder, silently giving her support.

"Fine. You can leave now." TJ turned her head back to the computer screen.

Ouch! We're gonna get the silent treatment. She is more than just a little mad about this. "TJ, look, we weren't trying to..."

"Get out." TJ's voice was growing colder. Erin winced as she heard the change in her voice.

"But, TJ..."

The plaintive plea in Erin's voice broke what little restraint TJ had over her anger. "Last time I looked I was just a cripple, not a child, though for some reason you insist on treating me like one. Now, get out and leave me alone."

Erin opened her mouth to try again, but Paula tugged her away toward the door. "Not now." She turned her gaze back to TJ, who was still staring at her computer screen. "TJ, I'll pick you up in two hours to take you to your session."

"I'm not going," she replied without looking up. Paula sighed and led Erin out of the room with her, then closed the door.

Erin pulled her arm out of Paula's grip and looked at her. "Are you going to let her get away with that?"

"She's upset. It won't do us any good to antagonize her. Let's go check on Flag and let her cool down. In an hour or so, I'll go get her and take her for a visit to Flag, then I'll kidnap her and take her for her session."

"She isn't going to be happy about that. She'll tell you again that you're treating her like a child."

"Yep, she will; and when she stops having temper tantrums like this, we'll stop treating her like one."

Erin turned and started to walk down the corridor. "Problem is, this time we gave her a reason. I should have told her about Flag."

"Yes, but I don't think that is really what she is upset about. It is just her excuse, since she'll never admit that what the good doctor said hurt her." They entered the kitchen and Paula walked over to the coffeemaker and poured two mugs of coffee. She added creamer and sugar to Erin's, then sat down at the breakfast bar.

"I tried talking to the doctor, tried to tell her that TJ wasn't her father, but she wasn't very receptive," said Erin, taking her mug.

"Maybe bringing TJ here wasn't such a good idea. The atmosphere isn't going to be great around here and that might not help toward her recovery."

"Maybe not, but we can't exactly go back to the city. You never know, maybe the attitude of folks around here will be the incentive she needs to pick herself up again."

"Yeah. Either that or it will kill her."

The two friends stared at each other as that thought whirled around in their minds. "We can't let that happen." Erin's face conveyed her determination even as a note of uncertainty sounded in her words.

Paula sat up straighter and a note of resolve filled her voice. "We won't let it happen. But at this point, we can only play it by ear, see how things go. Which reminds me, what's the story with Flag?"

"The vet is coming back here day after tomorrow for some more treatment. In the meantime, there are some things we need to do." Erin reached into her pocket for the directions Mare had given her and she cleared her throat. "Here's a list of the care Flag is going to need for the next several days." She put it into Paula's outstretched hand.

The dark-haired woman's deep brown eyes skimmed down the list. She looked up at Erin and her eyebrows came together in a frown. "You're going to do all this?

Erin's short laugh burst from her throat. "Nuh-uh, my friend. We are going to do all this. It will be a learning situation for both of us."

Paula whistled and her eyes took on a gleam. "When do we start?"

Erin shook her head. It never ceased to amaze her that Paula was always eager to try something new, no matter how much work was involved. "Right now would be good. We need to get some fans set out in the barn with one of them fixed on Flag and we need to give her a bath every few hours. You can see there are a couple other things on the list that we can do right now, and some to do later."

Paula handed the list back to Erin, put the coffee mugs in the dishwasher and grabbed a handful of cookies from the cookie jar. Chocolate chip cookies were her downfall and Erin always made sure to pick up some when she went food shopping. "Okay, let's get to it." She handed a couple of cookies to her partner as they left the kitchen in search of fans.

********************

The door closed behind her two friends and TJ let out a ragged breath. She slumped back into her chair, eyes staring sightlessly at the computer screen. God! Those two are as bad as my mother used to be. She couldn't let me make a decision, either, that she didn't agree with. Anybody would think I was a two year old instead of the CEO of a major corporation.

She pushed herself further from the desk, maneuvered her chair from behind it, and wheeled herself to the window. The office was on the first floor, just like her bedroom and all the other amenities she needed. The sunken living room had caused a problem but it hadn't been too hard to rig a ramp to allow her access. The stair lift wasn't being installed till next week, and neither was the concrete ramp that would allow her to get off the front porch by herself.

At the moment she was totally dependent on her two friends, which she hated because it only made her feel more like a child. All she wanted was to be left alone, but they hadn't allowed her that since the hospital. Even now, although she had promised them she wouldn't do anything stupid, they still didn't trust her fully. Flag's illness was a classic example of that.

What did they think I was going to do, kill myself? Yes, they most probably did, the more logical part of her mind reminded her. They should have told me about Flag. Yep, they should have, but Erin was right: you would have only worried yourself sick until the vet arrived. She did the right thing in not telling you till she knew what was going on. Let's be honest. If it hadn't been for the vet bursting in like that you wouldn't have known until Erin told you, and you wouldn't have had a problem, would you? TJ grudgingly admitted it to herself. So now you're going to have to apologize for being such an idiot and for losing your temper.

TJ looked out the window as she heard laughter. Paula and Erin were walking over to the barn, arms loaded up with equipment. Looks as though my outburst really upset them, didn't it? Great, now you're going to pout all day because they can see Flag and you can't. No wonder they treat you like a two year old, when you act like this.

********************

Paula hooked the last fan to the rafter, making sure it pointed toward Flag's stall. "Okay, that takes care of the fans. Each horse will have one. What's next on the list?" Paula put aside the stepladder, brushed her hands together and cocked an eyebrow at Erin who read from the doctor's instructions.

"Some of these things--shots, temperature taking--don't have to be done till about 4 o'clock. We're not to give her as much grain and we need to add some salt to her feed to make her drink more. And put a bag of electrolytes in her water. The doc left the stuff for the shots and a couple bags of electrolytes. They're over there on the worktable. The medications are in the fridge."

Paula was taking care of these as Erin read them off, one by one. "Now," Erin continued, "we need to give Flag a bath. Well, not actually a bath, we need to spray her down, especially her head and up inside her legs, to keep her cooled off."

She looked up at Paula who was waiting for the next direction. "Put a lead rope on Flag and take her out of the barn. I'll get the hose."

Paula clipped the lead rope on Flag and led her out, noticing how listless she still seemed. "She still doesn't look all that great."

Outside, Erin turned on the faucet and unrolled the hose from its carrier, pulling it toward the palomino. "The doc said it might take awhile. Best thing we can do for her is to follow the instructions." Erin flipped the nozzle to the spray setting and lifted the hose toward Flag's head, showering her thoroughly. Erin stifled a grin as Paula, still holding the lead rope, jumped out of the way.

"Yo! Watch it will ya? Flag's supposed to get the bath, not me."

"Sorry," Erin sniggered.

She sprayed down Flag's back, then leaned down and sprayed the undersides of the horse's hind legs. She made sure to get plenty of water on the large veins as the vet's instructions said. Spraying the underside of Flag's whole body, she worked her way to the forelegs and sprayed the large veins there, too.

She could see Paula's jeans showing between Flag's forelegs and somehow the hose slipped and sprayed her, too.

"Yeow, Erin! You know how cold that well water is? Cut it out!"

Erin stood up and looked at Paula with raised eyebrows, the picture of innocence. "I'm so sorry. You don't think I did that on purpose, do you?" She walked up past Flag's shoulder until she was about four feet from Paula and grinned wickedly. "Now, this is on purpose." She flipped the nozzle adjustment to the stream setting and doused her fuming friend. "You know, you really look like you need to be cooled down."

Paula led Flag quickly back into her stall and unhooked the lead rope on the move. Even before Flag was in place, the soaked woman was squishing after Erin. As she rounded Flag's hindquarters and shut the stall gate, Erin had followed her in and got her again with the stream of water. The blonde put her finger on the nozzle to narrow and strengthen the stream and caught Paula full in the face.

What Erin hadn't noticed was the extra bucket of water sitting outside and next to the stall gate. She also hadn't noticed the kink in the hose. As she pulled the hose forward, the kink closed, cutting off the supply of water to the nozzle. Erin turned her laughing face back to see what had happened to the hose and when she turned forward, Paula let loose with the bucket of water, right toward her laugh.

"Yaaaaaaahhh!" Erin dropped the hose, threw crossed arms over her head and ducked, too late. While she hid her head, Paula grabbed the hose, flipped out the kink, and doused her with the stream of water until there was not a dry spot left on her body.

"I give up, I give up," Erin gurgled, trying to run away.

"You'll give up when I say so," Paula growled, chasing her but keeping herself between Erin and the doors. She finally took pity on her after a full minute of the water treatment and turned the faucet off.

The two of them, dripping wet, looked at each other and got a fit of laughing. Erin pointed at Paula and gasped. "You looked so funny, trying to hold onto Flag and get out of the way of the water at the same time."

Paula's laugh mingled with a snort. "You should have seen your face when the kink stopped the water and you turned back around to see a bucket of water coming at you! Thought you had the upper hand, huh?"

"I should have known better. You always seem to come out on top."

Paula waved her eyebrows and made a lecherous grin and the two went off again into gales of laughter.

They took a breath and had almost stopped laughing until Paula reached into her breast pocket and scooped out a couple of dissolved chocolate chip cookies. Her chagrined look re-ignited the hilarity.

The two finally got themselves under control. "I know one thing for sure." Paula waved a finger at Erin.

"What's that?" Erin's laughter still bubbled in sporadic bursts.

"Next time, you get to hold the horse and I get to hold the hose."

********************

TJ had continued sitting at the window. It was a pleasant distraction from having her head in a computer all day. In a short while, she saw Erin and Paula bring Flag out for her bath. It was apparent that the golden palomino wasn't up to par. Her head, that usually lifted so proudly, hung down and her walk was sluggish.

TJ's eyes shifted to the distance as she remembered the first time she had seen Faithful Flag. Her father had squelched TJ's near-obsession with horses when he had closed the ranch. After his death, she determined to make up for lost time and promptly hunted for a jumper to start training for competitions. As soon as she saw the glorious part-thoroughbred, the two fell in love with each other. TJ hired the best teacher money could buy and had him train her and Flag together.

Picture after picture ran through her mind of times past when she and Faithful Flag moved as one, soaring gracefully over jumps, striding perfectly between them and winning over all comers. Twin, solid-oak display cabinets with mirrored backs sat in adjoining corners of the office filled with trophies and ribbons won by the tall, blue-eyed rider as she put her beloved horse to the test. And always, Flag came through.

With these reminiscences, TJ's eyes started to mist but squeals from near the barn drew her attention back to the present. As Paula ran Flag back into the barn, Erin was chasing her with a streaming hose. Several shouts were heard and presently, the two women exited the barn, dripping with water and laughing.

At that moment, the wealthy, beautiful, supposedly arrogant TJ Meridian felt very much alone.

 

To be continued in Part 2.

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Karen A. Surtees or PruferBlue