True Colours, Part 5
Mare got a phone call from TJ first thing in the morning. "Hi, Mare. When you come out this evening, could you bring the picture of your mother that's in the yearbook? The office wants me to scan it and send it."
"Sure, TJ. I have a couple of late calls so I'll be out around eight. Is that okay?"
TJ's voice dropped to a lower tone and Mare closed her eyes, enjoying it. "Fine. I don't care how late you come, just come, okay?"
"Wild horses couldn't keep me away." The laugh in Mare's voice lifted TJ's spirit.
"Good girl. Bye, Mare." I love you.
"Bye, TJ." I love you.
When the vet got to Meridian that evening, she spied TJ at her desk, poring over some figures on a printout and waving Mare to come in. TJ's head lifted for Mare's kiss then the dark-haired woman playfully pushed her away. "Hang in for a minute, okay? Just let me finish this bit."
"No problem." Mare laid her mother's yearbook on the desk then noticed that the door to the left of the office was open. Curious about where it led, she walked over and stuck her head through the doorway. The hall it opened into started at the living room, came toward Mare, then continued on to a dead-end wall. There were two doors to Mare's left and one to her right. These she knew went to the dining room, kitchen and porch. Three doors graced the opposite wall; two were open and one closed. There was one more door in the dead-end wall. "Where do all these other doors go?" Mare pulled her head back in from the doorway and aimed questioning eyes at TJ who was so engrossed in the paperwork on her desk that she didn't seem to hear her.
Mare repeated the question and TJ answered without raising her head from her work. "Those are mine. Exercise room, bedroom, bathroom."
Mare stuck her head back into the hallway and pointed toward the fourth door. "How about that one?"
TJ hadn't heard Mare clearly, but her eyes closed and she said rather impatiently. "Wait a minute." Her eyes reopened and fell to the papers. "Please," she added as an afterthought.
"Oops, sorry." Mare walked over, pulled one of the chairs around behind the desk, and sat down next to TJ. She put an elbow on the oak surface, leaned her chin on her hand, and gazed at TJ's beautiful profile with a tantalizing grin.
After a minute under this adoring scrutiny, TJ's lips twisted up, trying to suppress a smile. Finally, with a snort of laughter, she set her pencil down and turned toward the irrepressible vet. "What?"
"Oh, nothing that can't wait. Please, finish your work. I wouldn't dream of interrupting you." Mare batted innocent green eyes at TJ.
"Look woman." TJ snarled the words, reached out a long arm and grabbed the front of the startled vet's shirt. With a fierce look, she yanked Mare toward the edge of her seat until they were nose to nose. "You've already interrupted me and now you'll pay the consequences."
Omigosh, Erin did say she has a lightning temper! Mare opened her lips to apologize and TJ swung her other hand behind her head, pulled it nearer, and closed her mouth on Mare's. TJ's pouncing lips felt and savored every split second of Mare's change from surprise to surrender. Releasing Mare's head and shirt, TJ drew back with a grin and cocked an eyebrow. "What was that question, again?"
The vet's brows raised, too, and her voice stammered. "Ah er give me a minute, now. I'll remember." She rolled her shining eyes at TJ and laughed at her own stumbling. "Okay, okay, I remember! I asked you what the other door at the end of the hallway is for."
A rapid change overtook TJ's expression, puzzling the vet. Laughter deserted her face and she spoke between clamped teeth. "That's my father's office." Long fingers retrieved the pencil and started twirling it over and over between her hands.
Whoa! Problems about her father surfacing again? Would just his dominance cause this strong a reaction? "Why didn't you use his office?"
The pencil broke. "Bad memories." TJ got a faraway look in her eyes. She turned her right arm up and absently rubbed at the underside of it.
Mare's eyes dropped to the arm and saw three scars. The first, thready one, at TJ's wrist shouted suicide attempt, which Erin had referred to. But Mare's eyes were captured by the other two. Each an inch long and slightly curved, they were spaced about three inches apart, farther up TJ's arm.
A feeling of horror spread through Mare's being as she realized the probable significance of TJ's words. She moved her hand to TJ's arm, pulling the dark-haired woman's thoughts back to the present and generating tremors in her muscles. Distress closed Mare's throat but she forced the words out. "These scars your father did this to you?"
A carved-stone face jerked into a nod.
"But how? Why?" Mare lifted her eyes from the scars and searched TJ's frozen face. TJ's nostrils flared and her glacial eyes turned to raging flame.
"I hate him." She spit the words out of her mouth with such fury that Mare cringed. What can I say? What can I do? She is in such pain. Maybe I can at least hold her.
"Can I sit on your lap, TJ?"
TJ stared almost vacantly at Mare for a moment, but she pushed away from the desk and lifted the nearer chair arm. Mare moved onto her lap, sliding both arms around her and moving her body close. They sat there together for awhile in silence, then TJ's body began shuddering. Slowly, TJ lifted her arms to embrace Mare and started to cry. Mare cried with her, moving TJ's body slowly back and forth in a tiny rocking motion. After awhile, TJ quieted, then said with a trembling voice, "There's a box of tissues in the desk drawer."
Mare, tears still creeping down her cheeks, almost laughed out loud at the unexpected remark. She reached to the drawer, pulled it open and felt for the tissues. Her hand closed on the box and she brought it out and sat it on her lap. Pulling several tissues from it, she dried TJ's eyes and face, then her own. She tossed the damp tissues in the trash basket under the desk and wrapped her arms back around TJ, pulling the dark head against her and kissing her cheek. "Do you want to talk about it?"
"No!" The abruptness of the answer left no room for doubt. TJ's arms tightened around Mare.
Mare patted her head. "That's okay, sweetheart, you don't have to. Just relax. I'll hold you for awhile. Just relax."
They sat together for so long that Mare was beginning to wonder if maybe her sitting on TJ's lap might tire her. Then TJ spoke into the base of Mare's throat. Her low, toneless voice began to pour like a river breaking through a dam. "The scars are from a belt buckle. He used to beat me all the time: sometimes because I antagonized him, sometimes because he didn't like how I acted, or what I said, or who my friends were he could always find some reason." Mare pressed her lips to TJ's forehead and slowly caressed her hair with her hand.
"He was a big man, that's where I get my size from. And he was strong. Mostly he beat me with the strap end of the belt, but one time he got insanely angry and beat me with the buckle end. I have some scars on my back, too." Oh, TJ, how could anyone be that cruel to you? Mare's tears started running again, even imagining this torture.
"My mother wouldn't stop him. She wanted the life of wealth and ease he provided her. She said he hated me because I was supposed to be a boy, an heir for his companies, and my father never forgave me, nor her, for my being a girl. I don't think he beat her, he just ignored her, other than insisting that she turn me into some kind of showpiece that his friends would admire. But she said she didn't love him anyway. Never had. She had the advantage over me, there. I started out loving him." TJ's monotone broke, and long-damped emotions crept into her voice.
"I longed for him to love me back. But he told me my birth was a mistake, that I was no use to anybody. He would scream that at me while he beat me. He was the grownup and I was only a child, so I thought he must be right; I was a mistake, a failure, not worth anybody's love. My father. My father was telling me this. And I believed it. All those years I hated myself for not being the son he wanted. I still hate myself, only now it's because I hate him so much! I wanted him dead and he is, but I'm still tied to that hatred. It eats my insides. I'm more crippled inside than I am outside."
The bitterness of these words dragged at Mare's heart. "Didn't Lance satisfy his desire for a son?" Mare asked quietly.
At mention of her brother's name, TJ's tone softened. "He loved Lance. We all did, even Mother. But knowing that he was loved gave Lance the courage to tell Father he had no interest in the business world. He wanted to be a doctor. Father was as furious as I've ever seen him, but he didn't strike Lance, he browbeat him with constant nagging. Lance got so depressed that Father had turned against him that he couldn't eat or sleep properly. He was in agony. So I went to Father and made him an offer. I convinced him that Lance would never be able to run the companies, his heart wasn't in it. I promised him I would concentrate my studies on business and economics and let him groom me to head Meridian Corporation, if he would give his permission for Lance to pursue a medical career.
"Well, Father finally admitted to himself that no matter how much he wanted Lance to take charge, it would never work. Whoever led the companies needed to be driven by a love of power or by greed and neither one motivated Lance. I, on the other hand, not only loved power, I thrived on it. So the deal was made. In order to keep the leadership of Meridian Corporation in the family, Father accepted a daughter as his heir. But he made me pay.
"He knew I loved this ranch, and horses were close to being an obsession with me. In my second year at Harvard, he became fanatically determined that nothing should interfere with my studies. So, he shut down everything in Meridianville, without a care for the people whose lives he was disrupting, and moved us to Connecticut."
TJ reached for another tissue and blew her nose. Mare gave her an extra squeeze and continued to caress her head.
"I got furious when I found he had sold the place. I had been manipulated all my life, by both my parents, until I didn't even have a life of my own anymore. The horses were my only solace and from pure meanness, he ripped that away from me." TJ's lips curled in distaste. "We got into a terrible screaming match and he went completely berserk. He grabbed the wrong end of the belt and beat and beat me with the buckle end. He stood in front of the door, so I couldn't get past him. I could feel my back was cut and bleeding in several places and I put my arm up to ward off some of his blows. So my arm got cut, too." TJ started rubbing her arm again.
"Erin and Paula had come home with me for spring break. Paula was out, but Erin heard the screaming all the way upstairs and she came running." TJ's face and voice turned ugly. "She dashed into his office and saw him beating me. She yelled at him but that had no effect, he just kept beating me. So she picked up a bronze statuette and hit him over the forearm with it. She broke his damn arm and still he tried again to hit me, but he couldn't." TJ smirked at this, then a touch of admiration entered her voice. "Paula showed up then. She didn't know what was happening, but she knew it was trouble. She shoved him away from blocking the door and she and Erin grabbed me and hauled me out of there." TJ shook her head. "Those women have some kind of guts."
Mare could feel the tension in TJ's body start to slack off at this point.
"They took me to the hospital emergency room and had my cuts sutured and the welts treated." A tiny smile crept into TJ's voice. "They also had the sense to have the injuries photographed and a hospital report sent to the police station. My father never beat me again. In fact, because of their quick thinking and support, I was able to 'persuade' him to give me one of his companies, lock, stock and barrel. And I built it into three times the company it was before... and finished at the head of my class... and got Lance into premed. You might say Erin and Paula were my guardian angels."
TJ lifted her head from Mare's shoulder, brought her arms back in front of her and sat up straight. Mare dropped her arms from around TJ, and smiled. "You could still say Erin and Paula are your guardian angels." The dark head nodded, but her eyes were cast down and her face wore a troubled, almost embarrassed look. I can't believe I told her all that. What's she going to think of Meridians now?
Mare lifted TJ's chin with her finger, and waited. Finally, guarded blue eyes swept up to confident green ones. Mare smiled endearingly into those lovely eyes and put her other hand on TJ's cheek. "That makes three of us who love you to pieces." She leaned forward and entered into a kiss of unconditional love. Both sets of arms came up and gathered each other into a warm, comforting embrace.
Afterwards, Mare sat back against TJ's long arms and gazed into a somewhat happier face. "TJ, I want you to do a big favor for me."
"Another kiss? I guess I can force myself." TJ leaned forward, with a small grin.
Mare pushed her back with one hand and gave a little laugh. "Not yet. First, you have to promise me something."
TJ stayed leaning against the hand and could feel its warmth spreading over her chest. "Anything."
Mare's eyes grew impish. "Hmmmm. I'll keep that in mind. But, really, I want you to promise me that you will talk about all this with your counselor."
"Mare!" TJ threw herself back against the chair, turned her head away and frowned.
Mare wrapped her hands around TJ's arms and shook her. "Listen to me a minute, TJ. Please?" She waited until the dark head turned back toward her. "I can listen to you, I can sympathize with you and I can love you. But I am not professionally trained to help you, and that's what you need. Professional help. You've carried this hurt and bitterness and hatred around for a long time and you need to deal with it."
Mare could see TJ was wavering, but unconvinced. "You say you thrive on power. Well, you have the power to change your life, to rid yourself of all the demons that are fighting to hold onto you. And the decision is completely yours... no one else's. Will you decide to fight for possible love and happiness for the future? Or will you surrender to the proven hatred and defeat from the past?" The golden head tilted and brows raised.
Mare was fascinated by the way TJ could signal a smile without actually smiling. The corners of her lips would quirk ever so slightly, just as they were doing now, and her eyes would grow warmer. "You do have a way with words, Mare."
The emerald green eyes sparkled. "Is that a promise, then? You'll tell your counselor?"
"Okay, okay, I'll tell him." TJ didn't sound convincing.
"Say you promise."
With a sigh, TJ put her hands halfway up in surrender and her voice was firm. "I promise. On one condition."
"That you come with me?" TJs voice was quiet, small.
That voice touched Mare to the depths of her soul. She smiled and hugged TJ, bringing her close again. "Of course, I will." Then Mare grinned mischievously. "Now, before we get to work, let's see if you can still force yourself into another kiss."
It really wasn't much of a struggle.
TJ and Mare were still waiting for a positive word about the search for Mare's father. TJ's team had finished contacting the men in the rest of the alphabet and when that was unsuccessful, they started back at the beginning, figuring some small clue might have been missed.
In the meantime, Mare had come over this evening to help TJ go over the mountains of paperwork involved with the contamination cleanup, including the legal paperwork required to prosecute the company that had been dumping the waste. The EPA had finally found the company responsible and was prosecuting. TJ was handling a private prosecution for the ranches that had lost livestock.
Finally, TJ put away the pen she had been holding and slapped her long hands down on the table. "We've been working hard all evening. Time to call a halt and have a little recreation."
Mare leaned her head on her fist and swung her twinkling green eyes toward the dark-haired woman. "Really? Like what did you have in mind?"
TJ didn't answer with words. She slid the side of the wheelchair up out of the way and opened her arms. Her ever-present desire to hold and kiss and caress Mare had been growing all evening and by now, she was bursting with it.
"Oh, yeah!" Mare laughed. Jumping up, she stepped over to TJ and sat on her lap, putting her arms around TJ's neck.
TJ slipped her arm around Mare's shoulders and gazed at the emerald eyes and delicate face. She is so beautiful and loving, she just takes my breath away. Laying her free hand against Mare's face, she kissed her forehead, eyes, cheeks and nose. Then their lips met: soft pillows of warm, moist flesh, sliding, slipping, opening, surrendering to two eager tongues. Mare's hand reached out to TJ's shoulder and started to lower the thin strap that held up her loose silk top; then she hesitated and moved the strap back to its original spot.
TJ pulled her lips away from Mare's and disappointment flooded her expression.
Mare's heart thumped. "What? What did I do? Was I wrong to think of doing that? I know you never seem to want " Oh, lord, forgive me, what did I do to put that look on her face? She stopped, unsure of how to finish the sentence. Unsure of herself.
For a long time, Mare had wanted desperately to make love to TJ, but she had been shy, especially since TJ made no move to explore beyond kissing and hugging. She didn't know what to expect from TJ or what TJ might expect from her. Now the look on that lovely face confused her. Is she disappointed that I tried, or disappointed that I didn't do it?
TJ's cheek twitched and her eyes looked stormy. "No, you weren't wrong. I wanted you to do it." How I have longed to take you in my arms and never let you go. The emotion vibrating in TJ's words struck an answering resonance in Mare. "But I want you to be sure of what you're getting into. I don't want us starting something you don't intend to someday complete." I dont want you to do this out of some misguided sense of pity.
"Don't intend to someday complete?" Mare smiled softly and shook her head. She's just as confused as I am. "I love you, TJ. I want you. I need you. Sometimes you are so sure of yourself and other times "
"I'm not exactly a whole woman, Mare," TJ interrupted hoarsely, tearing the admission from the depths of her being. "That could cause some problems with my satisfying your physical needs."
"Oh, but you are a whole woman to me, my love." The sincerity coming from Mare's eyes and voice couldn't be mistaken. "I know you can fill my every need, TJ. I just feel inadequate to fill yours. I want to, so badly, but I'm not sure what would feel really good to you." She lifted her hand and caressed the strong face before her that hid such a vulnerable heart.
TJ's lips twisted and her eyes filled as she finally came to believe. This woman she loved more than she had ever loved anyone else, really loved her in return. She took hold of Mare's hand, returning it to the strap of the silk top. Mare's eyes softened as she brushed the straps from her soon-to-be-lover's shoulders, barely breathing as the clinging material glided slowly downward, gradually revealing the sweet treasure it had concealed. TJ's desire flamed higher as she watched Mare drinking in the vision unfolding before her. Her mouth curved into a lopsided smile and her eyebrow shot up. "Suppose I give you a few lessons?" she suggested, her voice low and sultry.
Mare raised her eyes to the blue pools that she wanted to drown in forever. "You are so beautiful," she breathed.
"So are you, my love." The dark-haired woman pulled her again into an embrace and she and Mare melded their mouths together.
Mare felt her shirt lift. Her body jerked as a strong, hot hand moved sinuously against her quivering skin, then clutched her bare stomach. Like a pebble dropped into a pond, TJ's touch sent circles of desire rippling into every crevice of Mare's being. Her breathing deepened and quickened, and her whole body became incredibly attuned to every touch, every caress.
Mare's hands glided over TJ's muscular stomach sketching every ridge and valley, then proceeded to mimic, on TJ's body, every move TJ made on hers. The hands of the two women stroked slowly, sensuously upward, coming to, and cupping against, the softness of a breast. Searching fingers found their swollen targets, twisting them back and forth in agonizing slowness.
In perfect timing with this movement, a tantalizing tongue ran its curved tip against the tender roof of Mare's succulent mouth, alternately probing and retreating. In a battle of love, Mare's tongue challenged TJ's, making her push hard for every tiny taste of hotly-defended territory.
Waves of sensation thrummed across Mare's skin from mouth to breast. Elsewhere, an indescribably sweet ache suddenly expanded into a hungry, throbbing demand. Mare, groaning into TJ's mouth, couldn't stand it anymore. Reluctantly disengaging her fingers from their teasing task, she twined both hands in the raven hair, pulling TJ's head away from hers and gasping for breath as their lips separated.
TJ's chest heaved and questioning blue eyes, deepened by passion, opened upon yearning green ones. "Take me to your room," Mare requested in a shaky voice.
TJ sucked in a hissing breath as incredible delight expanded within her. Sprouting a small, almost reverent smile, she watched the play of emotions crossing Mare's expressive face, as she slowly withdrew her stroking fingers down the burning skin of her ribs and stomach.
Finally, she moved her hand out onto the top edge of one wheel. Releasing her other arm from its hold on Mare's shoulders, she dropped it to the opposite wheel. Her low, passion-laden voice vaulted Mare's hunger a notch higher. "Hold on tight."
Mare drew both arms closer around her love's neck. She leaned her golden head against TJ's dark one, and murmured a warm breath into her ear, "I'm never letting go."
The two wheeled down the hallway and into TJ's room, eager to explore the intoxicating joys of their love's fulfillment.
Erin's head rested in Paula's lap as they sat in the living room watching TV. Paula reached for another chip from the bowl balanced on Erin's stomach and crunched it between her teeth. "Hey, watch the crumbs, will you?" Erin smacked her partner on the thigh.
"Hmmmm. Sorry, I was just thinking about this show. You think those two really are lovers?"
"I think the producers very wisely leave that up to the viewer. We can think of them any way we want."
"I guess. But I know if I traveled through the forest with you all day, our nights would be times to remember." Paula leered at Erin and grabbed a handful of a strategic body part.
"Whoa, woman!" Erin laughed and caught the bowl of chips that had bounced off her stomach and was about to dump on the floor. "Is that all you think of?"
"Only with you, honey." Paula slipped her arm beneath the curly head and lifted it up into her kiss.
"Ummm. Is it bedtime yet?" Erin set the bowl on the floor and put her arms around her lover.
They kissed again, then Paula answered. "Not till you help TJ get ready for bed." She lifted Erin's shoulders all the way up and the blonde swung her legs around onto the floor.
Erin picked up the chips then stood up and patted Paula on the cheek. "Keep those warm thoughts, baby."
"Yeah? It's not just my thoughts that are warm."
Erin chuckled and started toward the kitchen. Paula's voice brought her to a halt. "Hey, Erin, did you see Mare leave?" Erin raised her eyebrows, shook her head and bypassed the kitchen to look in TJ's office. It was empty.
Paula had gotten up, too, and she headed into the kitchen and looked out the window. Mare's truck was still sitting in the well-lit parking lot.
Erin set the bowl by the sink and walked over behind Paula. She smiled when her eyes fell on the truck. "What do you think?"
"If it means what we think it means, I'm really happy for both of them, but especially TJ."
"Yeah, she was really broken up when she thought Mare had been playing with her. I'm so glad she has someone to love her. Have you ever noticed the wistful expression she gets sometimes when she looks at us?"
"Yeah, I have." Paula nodded. "Always made me feel bad that we couldn't help her find someone."
"So what would you suggest I do about helping her tonight?" Erin lifted Paula's hair and nuzzled the back of her neck with her lips and tongue.
Paula shivered from the tickling lips, turned around and grinned. "I think you should wait till TJ buzzes you, if she ever does." Paula reached down and picked a surprised Erin up in her arms. "I'm the one who needs your help tonight." Paula strode out of the kitchen, into the living room and over to the bottom of the staircase, where she stopped and eyed the steps.
Erin started giggling. "Put me down, honey. You'll hurt yourself."
Paula began to giggle, too. "You're probably right." She set Erin onto her feet. "Okay race you to bed!" Laughing, the two dashed up the steps, shoving against each other. Still jostling, they ran down the hall to their room and dove onto the bed. Where they had a great time arguing about who won and who lost the race and what penalty the loser had to pay.
TJ never did buzz them.
Mare's thoughts were floating up through a filmy cloud, halfway between sleep and waking. The sudden realization that she was in a skin-to-skin encounter jolted her completely awake. I'm lying on top of a naked body! Her eyes flew open and her head jerked up and she looked into the most beautiful face she had ever seen. TJ.
The peaceful features were relaxed, eyes closed; the calmness of sleep suited her. In slumber all her worries disappeared from her face, the emotional pain that was her constant companion was soothed.
Mare lowered her head back down into the sweet valley where she had awakened, basking in the movement of TJ's slow, gentle breathing.
She sighed in contentment and with a feather-light touch caressed the strong arm that lay just to the side of her face, a long-fingered hand resting on her back. She had been worried last night when they reached TJ's room, unsure of how to proceed, or even if they should. It wasn't as if she hadn't been with a woman before, or that she wasn't overwhelmingly attracted to TJ. But from what she had been told about her injuries she wasn't sure how much TJ was capable of feeling, or if she could feel at all.
She found out that TJ also had fears. The woman became almost shy when they entered the room and Mare soon realized that jumping into bed with TJ on the spur of the moment wasn't quite possible. TJ had been so self-conscious as she explained to Mare that intimate details had to be taken care of before they could proceed beneath the covers. Mare was touched at the gentle explanations TJ gave and her heart melted further as she saw the proud woman reveal all the limitations of her injury. But contrary to TJ's worries, Mare had taken the tubes and bags in her stride.
What bothered Mare more was that she wasn't comfortable with the thought that their lovemaking would be an entirely one-sided affair. TJ had tried to reassure her that she would be happy giving everything she had to Mare and that her love and affection were enough in return. Mare hadn't been satisfied with that and had come up with some inventive ways to ensure that TJ enjoyed the experience as much as she did.
And, in the process of their mutual explorations, something unbelievably wondrous happened. They discovered that TJ's response, once awakened by Mare's imaginative touch, left nothing to be desired. Both women found complete satisfaction. When it first happened, after they had lifted into the stratosphere of consummated passion, TJ cried. Their tears blended and Mare kissed every available surface of TJ's face as the awed woman struggled to speak.
"They told me I might be able to have some sexual response, other women had reported it. But I didn't believe them; I felt dead inside. As much as I wanted to make love to you, I had lost hope that I would ever even come close to feeling the way you just made me feel. My God, Mare, you've given me a new life."
They had cried together for awhile, then eager hands and mouths renewed their quest to revisit the delights they had just become acquainted with. Again and again they soared above the mundane world until a glorious exhaustion finally quieted their loving frenzy and they slept in each other's arms.
Remembering each delicious moment, Mare sighed once more, pressing her lips to the warm body beneath her, savoring the still-salty taste of her lover, before her lips languidly made their way up her torso. She looked up and stilled as crystal-blue eyes connected with emerald green.
A slow smile curved TJ's lips as she watched the changes of expression flicker across her lover's beautiful face.
Mare, filled with a need to kiss that seductive mouth, slithered her body up along TJ's without considering the fire it would rekindle in both of them. The skin around TJ's eyes tightened and her mouth opened, hungry for the kiss that Mare offered her. Wrapping her arms around the awakened body, TJ pulled her up, dragging skin against skin, until the golden head was even with the raven one. While their mouths tasted each other, TJ's hands started a journey of love down Mare's tantalized flesh. Mare slipped her mouth sideways and began her own voyage, fingers finding and mouth sampling. Time had no meaning as, borne on the wings of tongue and touch, they ascended once more through the realm of passion.
Mare and TJ finally made it into the kitchen to join Erin and Paula for breakfast. Erin set a steaming mug of coffee in front of the vet and a glass of iced tea in front of TJ. Everyone sat eating bagels and cream cheese for a moment without a sound. But everyone was smiling, and the new lovers absolutely glowed. Finally, Erin got up, came over to Mare and kissed her on the cheek. "Welcome to our family, Mare. We're really glad to have you. Really glad." The blonde's warm brown eyes twinkled. "Now maybe Paula and I will get an occasional rest from trying to keep TJ entertained."
TJ gave her a shove and laughed. "Keep your day job, Erin. You gals will never make it as entertainers." Then TJ waggled her eyebrows and grinned wickedly. "Except maybe for each other. What the heck was that racket on the stairs last night?"
Paula and Erin both blushed as TJ kept her grin on them. "Uh we had a race to the bedroom," Erin admitted.
"Oh, yeah? Who won?"
Now Paula waggled her eyebrows and grinned wickedly. "Neither one of us. We both had to pay up."
Mare and TJ both chuckled at the look on Erin's face when she tried to shush Paula, then realizing the futility of it, just rolled her eyes.
Erin helped Paula with the dishes before they both disappeared to work and left TJ and Mare sitting at the island. Mare looked over at TJ, seeing that she was a little subdued.
"So, Abner tells me that they are moving all the cattle back to their own ranches today. The ranch is gonna be a little quiet without them here, isn't it?"
"Yeah, they go back today, but Bill and the boys will have their hands full. Our cattle will start arriving the day after tomorrow. And Paula has a few more hands for Bill to break in." Just ask her. The worst she can do is say no. You can't expect her to play hooky just because you can.
"Are you okay? You seem a little quiet." Mare leaned closer, trying to see TJ's face.
"I'm fine." TJ lifted her head and decided to go for it. "You busy today?" she inquired.
"Not especially, why?"
TJ grinned. "Want to go for a ride? We could go up to the lake. It's only about an hour or so on horseback."
"Sure, but shouldn't we have told Erin or Paula we were going?"
Yesssss. "Nah, I'll take the cell phone with me and we can leave a note. Besides, if they see Flag and Runny aren't in the stable they'll know we're out riding."
"Let's get going, then. Do you need to take anything with you?"
"Nothing special, but we can take a rucksack with a few drinks and snacks with us." TJ pushed herself over to the fridge and began grabbing soda and snacks. "You'll find a bag on the hook over there."
Mare watched in frank admiration as TJ instructed her on how to assist with Flag and the lift they had installed so that TJ could mount her horse. Within thirty minutes they were on their way, Mare trailing behind TJ and Flag as she became used to the gait of Paula's horse, Runny. They made their way at a steady pace and eventually left the buildings of the homestead behind. Once in the open fields, Mare pulled abreast of TJ.
TJ smiled as Mare pulled alongside, savoring her presence. Ever since she was a child and her father gave her her first horse, she had loved to ride. Her first horse had also been her first love. She had spent every minute of the day with it that she had been able to. She had named it Artemis, after the Greek Goddess of the Hunt, and they had been thoroughly devoted to each other.
Around then TJ had begun to realize that her parents' attitude toward her wasn't like that of other families. She had thought it normal for her father to hit her; after all it was her fault, wasn't it? Hadn't she been late? Hadn't she upset her mother? Weren't her school grades lower than they expected? She had done everything within her power to please them, and still it wasn't enough.
Her saving grace was Lance. He excelled at school and achieved 'A's across the board. His success sometimes managed to deflect their father's anger away from her, though not all the time. And, like Artemis, his love of his sister had been unconditional.
There was something liberating about being on top of such a powerful creature, even more so now that it gave her a sense of freedom that was denied to her by her wheelchair. "Come on, Mare, let's pick up the pace and let these two run off a bit of their energy."
Mare had been observing TJ closely. Her whole body language changed when she was on a horse. She hadn't noticed it when she'd seen her before, but she was much more relaxed, the constant tension that could be found in her shoulders was gone. She was free and it was a sight to behold. "You go on ahead, I'm not so hot on a horse." She leaned down and patted Runny on the neck. "Let me get used to the big guy before I start running him ragged."
TJ smiled indulgently down at her friend and lover. "And there was me, thinking you were a vet. Runny is a girl."
Mare laughed. "I know that; it was just a figure of speech. Now you go play on that horse of yours and I'll be right behind you."
"Okay. I won't go too far, just enough to settle Flag down some. I haven't been able to take her out much recently." With that she turned Flag and with a flick of the reins and a quick yell urged her golden steed forward. Mare brought Runny to a halt so that she could concentrate on watching TJ and Flag rather than staying on Runny. She wasn't kidding when she told TJ that she didn't have much experience on horses. She knew TJ had, though. You could tell that without having any knowledge of horses or riding. Watching her as she charged away on Flag was electrifying. Lord, she must have been something else before her injury.
TJ was in heaven. There was no other way of describing what she was feeling. She was on her horse for the first time in days, riding like the wind, feeling its fingers lifting her hair. Not only that, but she was in the company of a woman who she now believed could love her like no other ever had. She let out a whoop of joy as she crested the small rise she had urged Flag up.
The view from the rise was unhindered and though it wasn't a mountain she could see for miles. On the whole, the Meridian Ranch was rolling prairie that was crisscrossed by streams and the river. Up to the north the land became hilly and a whole section was wooded as it stretched to the mountains which were some miles distant.
She brought Flag to a stop and looked out over her domain. As a child she had never really considered how precious this land was. Only when her father denied it to her had she truly understood what was being lost all over the world to development and urban sprawl. That was one of the reasons she had fought so hard to deny her father the land he had wanted in Colorado. It was also the reason she had funded the national park taking over the management of it.
As a businessperson she had been taught figures and numbers, geographical thresholds, what people would put up with and what they wouldn't. The business world had thought she was mad when she bought that land and handed it over. But TJ had learned from her father's mistakes. Tom Meridian didn't think anything of alienating whole communities and sections of the public. TJ, on the other hand, courted them. She went to the area and listened to what the people were saying, heard their worries and concerns.
They didn't want a major industrial development sitting on their back porch. Unemployment was low in the area, so they weren't so concerned about jobs. What they did worry about, however, was the area they were bringing their children up in, the crime that a new development would attract, the pollution it would create. After spending a week in the area, TJ went back to the board of her company and told them she was buying the land and wouldn't take "no" for an answer.
TJ's company bought the land and public awareness of the company grew. It became known as a company that considered the environment and heeded public concern. The company began to specialize in low-impact industries. Communities that hadn't been too welcoming to other big businesses opened their arms to them. TJ's company grew to three times its former size. The profit margin had risen, the stockholders were happy and so was the public. The only person who had been furious was TJ's father, and that had made the venture even more worthwhile.
TJ inhaled the clean air and relaxed, enjoying the scenery in front of her. She twisted in her saddle as she heard Mare and Runny approach. "Beautiful, isn't it?" she asked, waving across the land.
Mare nodded as she pulled up alongside. "Yeah, it is. You enjoy your run?" It amused Mare to see how much pleasure the ride invoked in TJ; the woman was positively glowing.
"Yep!" grinned TJ. "I haven't been able to get out much in the last week or so. Been too busy or there hasn't been anyone to spare to give me a hand. But it's great to be out here now, even if it is a little cloudy." Her grin widened. "Thanks for coming with me. Come on, it's about another hour or so."
They started off again at a more leisurely pace now that TJ had rid herself of her excess energy. The ride was pleasant. TJ knew a lot about the land she owned and took great delight in showing Mare where she had played as a child. Her favorite places recalled fond memories of the time before she had known her father's hate and punishment; a time when she had believed she had a loving relationship with her parents.
It was nearly midday when they eventually reached the lake that TJ had wanted to show her, though you couldn't have told that from the sky. They had started out under a cloudy sky and the clouds had built as they neared the lake. The air was warm and dry but the clouds were now dark and ominous. Still, Mare was enjoying herself and TJ certainly was, too.
The lake was larger than Mare had realized and curved away to the right of where they stopped. On the far side, trees grew down to the water's edge, but here a pebble beach stretched before them.
"It's gorgeous. Did you spend much time here when you were a kid?" Mare handed a soda and candy bar over to the raven-haired woman and took some for herself.
"As much as I could. If things got too tense at home, I'd sneak out on Artemis and come here." TJ pointed. "I had a hideout in the trees over there. Nobody ever found it."
"You want to go over, see if we can find it now?"
TJ shook her head. "Nah, another time maybe. If we go up this way we can circle back and head for home. How are you holding up? Ride not too much for you, is it?"
"I'll no doubt suffer for it tomorrow, but right now I'm fine. You mind if I get down and stretch for a while?" TJ shook her head and Mare slowly dismounted from Runny. She clutched hold of the bridle, letting her feet become readjusted to the ground. Then she took the reins over Runny's head and began a slow walk along the lakeside. "Are there fish in here?"
"I would imagine there still are. My father liked to bring his associates out here. An invitation to the ranch for the weekend was an indication that you were on your way up in the company." TJ leaned on her saddlehorn. "Of course, he never brought Lance or me out here. I do remember him taking Lance to a ball game once or twice."
"Did Lance get on with your father?"
"You mean did Lance know what a bastard he was?" Mare nodded, pleased that she was getting TJ to talk to her. She remembered that she had promised to go to her counseling session with her, but so far TJ hadn't mentioned it.
"Not at first, no. I never told him that Father beat me and I didnt even try to make him see what a cruel person he could be. For a long time Lance believed he was a good person. Even if it was an illusion, I couldn't take that away from him."
Mare brushed her hair from her face and bent down, picking up a brightly colored and perfectly rounded pebble. "What changed that for him?"
"A number of things. Lance wasn't an in-your-face type of person, but when it came to what he wanted he had a will of steel. If he wanted something, he put his mind to it and didn't waver until he got it. Father thought it was a particularly brilliant facet of his personality until it was turned on him. Lance wanted medical school; Father wanted him to go into business. Lance took all the sciences in school; Father wanted him to take mathematics and business ethics. When Father realized that he wouldn't win with persuasion, he tried browbeating him into it. All it did was make Lance hate being at home or around him, but eventually it got bad enough that he was getting depressed about it. He didn't really understand why Father turned on him, but I put a stop to that as soon as I could."
Yeah, you did, didn't you. Didn't think twice about sacrificing your own happiness to ensure him of his. "Did he ever find out about what your father did to you?" Mare picked up another pebble, this time a flat one. She sent it skimming and bouncing across the water, keeping her back to TJ, allowing her to sort through her emotions without the pressure of her watching. Behind her, Mare heard the sigh and the sadness in TJ's voice.
"I never told him but, yeah, I think he did. He was smart and he saw the bruises occasionally when they were too prominent to hide."
A forbidding rumble echoed overhead and both women looked up. While they had been talking the sky had turned a threatening shade of dark gray. Mare readjusted Runny's reins and bridle before she remounted. "Guess we ought to head home before the skies decide to open on us."
TJ assessed the sky. "We better go back the way we came, its the quicker route. Will you be okay if we go a little faster? We might be able to make it back to the house before the rain starts."
"No problem. I think I've gotten used to Runny here."
"Come on, then. We can come back here another time." TJ turned Flag, urged Mare to take the lead and they started home at a canter.
Big, fat, wet drops of rain started falling as soon as they had made their decision to return to the house. Mare clenched her legs around the barreled belly of her horse, concentrating on staying in her seat. She was comforted that TJ was close by her side; the constant rumble of thunder was starting to unnerve both her and the horse.
The rain began to fall more heavily, rapidly soaking her cotton shirt and jeans. She wished she had brought her hat with her, at least that would have kept the rain from her face. The wind had picked up and now had a decided chill to it. With the water and all, shed be surprised if she got out of this without catching a cold. It suddenly occurred to her that catching a cold might not be in TJs best interests either. She had no idea how illness might affect her.
While Mare was worrying over TJ, TJ was worrying over Mare. With each rumble of thunder the vet's form tensed even more and TJ was questioning her wisdom in bringing the inexperienced vet on such a ride. A trickle of cool water was now a permanent feature running down her back and she already knew that Erin and Paula were going to throw a fit over this little excursion. If she got ill from it, as well, it would only be worse.
She was a little concerned about the storm, too. It was raining hard enough that it was difficult to see the ground and TJ was loath to push the horses any faster when she couldnt see where they were going. The wind was picking up at a steady pace and lightning was striking over to the west of them. TJ urged Flag a little bit faster so that she was alongside Mare. She made a signal with her hand, asking if the vet were okay and got an affirmative answer. TJ thought hard, trying to remember if there were anywhere nearby they could find shelter until the storm passed, but nothing sprang to mind. They were still thirty minutes away from the ranch and TJ decided they should carry on and hope that it didnt get any worse.
Paula bounded into the house with a soaked Erin hot on her trail. "Whew, where did that spring up from?" She went into the laundry room, grabbed two towels from the clean pile and threw one across to her partner.
"I have no idea, but it looks as though it has set in for the afternoon. Did you notice that Mares van is still outside?" she asked as she towel dried her hair, leaving the blond locks in frizzy disarray.
"I did. Wonder what they are up to? You'd think they could at least have had the coffee on for us, considering the weather."
"Hmm. Well, they may be a little involved and didn't notice the rain. Why dont you go on up and run us a hot bath? Ill make us a couple of hot chocolates and join you in a few minutes."
Paula leaned over and placed a kiss firmly on Erins slightly parted lips, while her hand blazed a trail of pure flame across a damp and sensitive breast. "You got it, babe." She smirked at her lover, knowing she had just ignited a fire of desire within her
and how much fun it was going to be to put it out.
Erin sighed and wet her lips as Paula turned and slowly made her way from the kitchen with a pronounced sway to her hips. The day was a washout and she hoped there would be many more of them if it put Paula in this type of mood. She heard the door close upstairs and quickly moved to prepare the hot drink she had promised.
In her haste to get upstairs to the now hopefully naked form of her lover, she almost missed the folded piece of paper that had been left on the counter. She was tempted to ignore it, but she knew TJ wouldnt have left it lying around for no reason. It then occurred to her that TJ wouldnt have left it at all, if she were in the house. She unfolded it and read the short note.
Taking Mare out to show her some of the sights on the ranch.
Should be back early afternoon. Ive got the phone if you want me.
See ya later.
"Hell!" Erin looked out of the window again, staring into the rain. The only way she could have taken her out is on one of the horses. Flag is okay in this sort of weather. I doubt she would have let Mare ride Ebonair, shes too big; but Runny is about Mares size. She put the note down and forgot about the hot drink she was supposed to be making. She dashed out of the kitchen and up the stairs.
Erin flung the bedroom door open, barely registering the fact that Paula was sprawled on the bed buck-naked. "Paula, whats Runny like in this sort of weather?"
Paula frowned and looked pointedly down at herself then at Erin. "Im here in my birthday suit and you want to talk about horses?"
"TJ took Mare out to see the sights of the ranch. I know Flag wont have a problem with this weather and TJ is too good on a horse to worry about. But I dont know how good Mare is. Chances are shes on Runny, since shes smaller than Ebonair."
Paula sat up. "Runnys okay as long as you keep a firm hand on her. Otherwise, she can be a little skittish. I cant believe TJ would go out without letting one of us know."
"She left us a note and shes got the phone. Mares with her so why would she let us know? I know we act like her mother sometimes, but she is an adult."
"You think they are okay out there? Maybe you ought to give her a ring and make sure." Paula had gone to stand by the window, gazing out into the sky. "This storm is in for the rest of the day."
"Yeah, I know, but its lightning out there and ringing the cell phone might be a mistake. The last thing she needs is to be struck by lightning just because we wanted to check up on her. Besides, Im sure shell ring if she needs us." Erin walked over and curled her arms around Paulas waist, cuddling her close to her body and absorbing her warmth. "Theyll be fine. TJ knows what shes doing."
"Yeah," replied Paula, patting Erins hand.
The lightning was getting awfully close and TJ wasnt too happy about being on top of Flag, or Mare being on Runny at this moment, but she didnt see what choice they had. Mare was keeping up well and Runny was behaving herself. Neither of the two horses was showing a great strain at the pace TJ demanded they keep. They werent that far away now from the safety of the barn. She looked over to Mares bedraggled form and smiled. Even soaked through and looking like a drowned rat, she was beautiful.
Mare knew immediately that something was wrong and tried to shift her seat to compensate for the horse's movement. Runny was having none of it as she pulled back on the reins to slow the horse down. Another flash of lightning and Runny again shied, this time over to the left almost unseating Mare.
She looked frantically across to TJ, seeing that the woman had already noticed Runnys panicked movements and brought Flag alongside to help calm the horse down. She relaxed as she saw TJ lean across the small gap between them and give Runny a slap on her shoulder. The horse shook her head in the direction of the slap, seemed to take reassurance from Flag's presence and calmed down.
Mare smiled through the rain at TJ and nodded when she saw her indicate that they should slow down. After all, it wasnt as if they could get any wetter. She pulled back firmly on the reins and Runny obeyed the command, slowing her speed. They would have been perfectly all right if lightning hadnt struck a small outcropping of rock about twenty feet away from them. Runny immediately reared as she was showered with fragments of rock that had been blasted by the lightning.
Mare held on for all she was worth but could feel herself slipping as Runny rose into the air. She felt her balance being thrown backward and clenched hold of the reins but they slipped through her hand and she was in flight, heading for the ground.
Flag charged past Runny as the horse brought herself to a complete stop and reared in fright from the lightning. TJ pulled the reins tight against the left side of Flag's neck, turning her into a tight circle so that she was heading back towards Mare and Runny.
She watched in horror as Mare fell from the back of Paulas chestnut. TJs heart was in her throat as she rode up to the still form. "Mare? Mare!" she got no response. TJ looked around and saw that Runny had come to a halt not too far away, scared it seemed, to leave the presence of Flag. TJ guided Flag to walk in a small circle around the prone Mare. She leaned down, looking for any sign of injury. She couldnt see any blood or anything that looked as though it was broken.
"Mare, can you hear me?" she yelled again. Instinctively she went to get off of Flag but remembered the straps holding her to the saddle. She almost yelled out in frustration. The trip out, and the time spent on her beloved horse, had for those few precious hours made her forget her limitations. They were in trouble and she knew it. She looked anxiously around, again trying to gauge the distance from the house. Even if she rode at the fastest speed she and Flag could manage it would take at least another fifteen minutes, which would mean at least thirty before help would arrive.
She pulled the phone from its carrying case and although she knew it was stupid to use it in this weather she called the ranch, praying that Paula or Erin were home.
To be continued in Part 6
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