True Colours, Part 6

Chapter 15

Erin had her eyes closed and was lying back, snuggled in Paula’s loving embrace, up to her chin in warm water and bubbles. She couldn’t think of anything more heavenly than where she was now. Paula’s arms were wrapped around her, one hand caressing her inner thigh, the other cupping her breast, teasing her with tantalizingly gentle touches. She groaned as Paula’s hand once again shied away from the need she was stirring. "Tease," she whispered as her lover bent her head and kissed her lightly, before sucking her earlobe and sending a shiver down her spine. "God, you are so good at that," she sighed. The ringing of the phone went unnoticed.

God damn it! Where are you? TJ silently screamed as the phone continued to ring without answer. She broke the connection and rapidly punched in another number, hoping that one of them at least had their own cell phone switched on despite the weather.

Paula jerked from the languid place she was in as a shrill warble echoed from the bedroom. "Leave it," came Erin’s lazy voice.

"Can’t, might be important. Just because you can laze the rest of the day away doesn’t mean that I can, you know." Erin tightened her grip in protest as Paula began to climb out of the tub. Paula grinned and kissed her soundly on the lips and was about to give in to her love when a thought crossed her mind. What if it's TJ? "Sugar, Erin, move. It might be TJ." All sexual tension left the room as both women bolted from the tub.

TJ nearly cried with relief as the phone was answered. "Paula! Paula, I need help. Mare’s fallen, she’s unconscious and I can’t…"

"TJ, honey, calm down. Tell me where you are," came Paula’s disembodied voice.

TJ took a deep breath, struggling to calm herself. Frustration at not being able to help Mare tore at her, coupled with attacks of fear and guilt. "We decided to take a ride to the lake. We’re about a mile and a half away. Runny reared and Mare fell. I think she hit her head or something because I can’t wake her up."

Paula repeated TJ's message aloud and stared urgently over at Erin who was scrambling into her clothes. She had already picked up the house phone and started dialing. "Bill? It’s Erin. Get a couple of the men together and meet me in front of the bunkhouse, right away. TJ and Mare were out riding when the storm hit and Mare’s been thrown and is hurt." She paused for a second. "Great. See you in a minute." She put the phone down quickly, kissed Paula goodbye and was out the door.

"Honey, Erin and some of the men are on their way. Just stay by Mare and if she wakes up don’t let her do anything stupid like move. They’ll be with you in a few minutes, okay?"

TJ sat anxiously on Flag, already staring off into the distance, hoping to see the Land Rover even though they had only just set out. One hand nervously rubbed her wet jeans, the other clutched the phone she held to her ear. "She doesn’t look like she’s gonna come around."

"She will, TJ. Don’t you worry about that. She’s too tough to let a horse get the better of her." Paula walked over to the house phone that Erin had recently used and picked it up, trying to figure out whether she ought to call 911 or the doctor. She settled on phoning Jon Hunt who ran the local doctors' service. "TJ, I’m just going to get Doc Hunt to come out to the ranch to take a look at Mare when you guys get back. You hang in there; Erin isn’t far away."

Erin skidded to a watery stop outside the bunkhouse and waited as Bill and two of the men Paula had recently hired ran from the building and piled into the vehicle. "This is Mark and Burt." Erin nodded to them.

"Thanks, Bill." As soon as the doors were closed Erin floored the accelerator and they were off. With the windshield wipers on high she roared through the pools of water that had accumulated in the downpour. Going at a much faster speed than was safe, she fought to keep the Rover under control, fear pushing her onwards. Several minutes later a tall figure appeared in the distance. TJ had been right; they weren’t that far from the ranch.

TJ heard the deep rumble of Erin’s Rover before it came into sight. "Stay with me, Mare, Erin is nearly here." TJ had positioned Flag so that she sheltered Mare from the worst of the rain and when she hadn’t been searching for signs of Erin had concentrated on Mare, looking for signs of life. She could see her chest moving so she knew she was breathing.

TJ had never been so glad to hear such a painful groan as the one that rumbled from Mare at that second. The vet's arms lifted her hands towards her head and TJ could tell she was coming around. "Mare, you need to stay still. You fell when Runny shied." Emerald eyes cracked open and TJ sobbed with relief. "Stay still. Erin is nearly here. Are you okay?"

Mare nodded and immediately regretted it, closing her eyes again. "I feel like I’ve been thrown off a ten-story building." Both hands were now holding her head. "And TJ?"

"What?" TJ’s voice was full of fear.

"I’m lying in a puddle." Mare’s voice held the petulant tone of a two-year-old child.

"What?" TJ couldn’t quite believe her ears.

"I said I’m lying in a puddle. Couldn’t you have at least trained Runny to throw me somewhere dry?" Mare tried to smile, but the pounding of her head wouldn’t let her.

I can’t believe she’s joking about this. Doesn’t she have any idea how serious this could be? Hell, she only has to look at me to see what the consequences of a back injury could be. "This is serious, Mare. You could be badly hurt." TJ looked up from Mare. The roar of the engine was closer and she could see Erin’s Rover. She’d be here in a minute.

"Nope, I’m just a little banged up. I hurt way too much for it to be anything more serious." Mare draped one of her arms across her eyes to stop the rain from hitting them.

Erin slammed the brakes on and slid to a halt barely ten feet from where TJ had stationed Flag. Bill and his two hands jumped from the vehicle. Burt headed off to get Runny, Bill and Mark headed straight for Mare and TJ. Erin grabbed a blanket from the rear seat and jumped from the Rover, sloshing through the mud over to where Bill was now crouched.

"Hey, there, little Missy, what ya doing lying in a puddle?" Bill’s voice was deep and rough from the years spent bellowing at cowhands, but it also held a gentle lilt to it.

Mare giggled and smiled up at the ranch foreman. "Ask TJ. She’s the one who trained her horses to throw people in the wettest place possible."

Well, Erin thought, at least she sounds okay. "Hi Mare, you hurt anywhere?" she asked as she knelt down by Bill in the mud.

"You mean besides my pride?" Mare raised her eyebrow then remembered nobody could see it with her arm draped over her face. "No I don’t think so. Took a pretty good bang to the head but nothing else seems to be hurting me. Though I can’t say I will feel the same tomorrow."

Erin looked up into TJ’s stony face. Mare might not have lost her sense of humor over this but TJ obviously didn’t feel the same. Her whole body was rigid with tension and it was agitating even Flag. "Okay, let me just quickly check you out, then we’ll get you two adventurers home." Erin quickly ran her fingers through Mare's hair, finding a nasty bump on the back of her head but it hadn’t split and bled. Thank the lord for small mercies. Then she carefully felt down her neck, looking for any deformities or lumps that shouldn’t be there. "Any neck pain at all, Mare?"

"Nope, just a little stiff from where the rain and wind were attacking it."

"Okay." Erin continued with her inspection. "Any pain in your arms and shoulders?" Again Mare replied in the negative. "Wiggle your fingers for me?" Erin watched as Mare complied. "Okay, what about your legs? Any pain?"


"Can you wiggle your toes and bend your knees for me?" Erin watched closely and sighed in relief. It didn’t look as though Mare had done any major damage. "Well, it looks as though you survived. Come on, Bill, let's get her up." Bill and Erin both took hold of Mare’s arms and slowly lifted her into a sitting position. "Feel okay?" Mare nodded gently. "Bill and Mark here," she nodded at the ranch hand near Bill, "are going to get you into the Rover. I’m just going to make sure TJ’s okay." Erin passed Mare’s arm over to the ranch hand and stood back as Bill and Mark lifted Mare to her feet and slowly walked her over to the vehicle. Erin turned her back and faced TJ. "You okay?"

"Fine." TJ’s voice was strained, holding back barely controlled anger.

Erin walked over and ducked beneath Flag's neck, patting TJ’s faithful steed. "You sure?" TJ nodded this time. "Okay then, once Bill and Mark have Mare settled we’ll get you off Flag and back to the house. Burt can bring Flag in."

"I’ll ride."

Ah hell, TJ. Now is not the time for an argument. "TJ, be sensible. You are soaked through to the skin. If you ride, it will take you at least another twenty minutes or so to get back to the house. Besides, I’m sure Mare would rather have you with her."

TJ stared down at Erin whose blonde hair was now plastered to her head by the rain that showed no sign of letting up. And if TJ had been thinking rationally, she would have known that Erin only had her best interests at heart. But right now TJ wasn’t thinking rationally. All she could see was that once again she had been unable to help someone she cared about. Yeah, use emotional blackmail to get Lance to go to that stupid play with you, just so the damned magazines and newspapers would have somebody besides yourself to write about, and get him killed. Take Mare out on a simple horse ride and almost do the same. You could have gotten her killed or seriously injured and what could you have done about it? Well, you proved that you couldn’t do a damned thing. That’s what you get for thinking you can live a normal life, for forgetting you're not a whole person. You're inferior just like father kept telling you you were. "I said I’ll ride." TJ pulled on Flags reins and moved the horse off in the direction of the house.

Erin stood drenched, silently watching TJ’s rigid form ride slowly into the distance on her horse. She sighed and trudged back through the mud to the Rover. Getting in, she slammed the door and turned the heat on full blast to clear the steamed windows. Mare was sitting in the back wrapped in a blanket with Mark sitting by her side and Bill sitting in the front.

"Where is TJ?" Mare asked.

"She decided to ride Flag back."

"What!" yelled Mare. "Is she nuts?"

Bill cleared his throat and looked over at Erin, whom he was slowly coming to admire. She had a good business head and was prepared to get her hands dirty to get the job done, and better yet, she didn’t question him. He said he needed something then she trusted him and made sure he got it. "You sure it’s wise to let her ride back?"

Erin looked over at Bill. "No, it’s not wise to let her ride back, but are you gonna tell her she can’t?" Erin turned on the engine, put the vehicle into gear and started the journey home.

"Erin, is she okay?" Mare leaned forward so that she could see Erin’s face.

"Let's just say that I think she’s feeling a little inadequate right now. And my treating her like a two-year-old and telling her she couldn’t ride Flag home was only going to make it worse." Mare sighed and sat back, staring out of the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of TJ as they drove past.

TJ was miserable. She was wet, cold and angry. Not even the joy at being on Flag was going to shake her from this mood. It had been stupid and reckless to think that she and Mare could spend a normal day together. And her stupidity could have cost Mare her life. She should have asked Mare about her riding skills, instead of just assuming she was comfortable, and she shouldn’t have taken her so far away from help. If she had been thinking, instead of mooning over a day out with Mare, she would have realized that the gray skies only meant trouble.

If she had thought about it at all she would have known it was impossible to do anything on the spur of the moment. Everything she did had to be planned down to the last detail so that all eventualities were covered. She had to remember that she couldn’t simply do things anymore.

TJ urged Flag to a greater speed, needing to work out her frustration, trying to run from the desolation that was building inside her. She had thought that she had adjusted to her injuries but days like today just forced her to realize that she would never be able to forget them.

Paula stood anxiously waiting at the front door when Erin and Mare finally drove up in the Land Rover. Erin had dropped Bill and Mark back at the bunkhouse, knowing that Paula would be able to help if Mare became unsteady on her feet. Erin jumped out and ran around to open the door for Mare. Paula ran down the steps with an older gentleman by her side. Erin and Mare recognized him as Doctor Hunt from Meridianville. Paula and the doctor escorted Mare into the house while Erin parked the vehicle.

As soon as she had settled Mare on the couch in the living room in Dr. Hunt's care, Paula ran upstairs to find some of Erin’s clothes that would fit the vet. "Well, Doc, what’s the prognosis?" she asked as she came back down.

"We’ve always known that Mare had a tough head on her shoulders; she has a mild concussion and should rest for the next couple of days." The doctor put his stethoscope away and turned his pen light off. "I’d like you to keep her awake for the next few hours, but there should be no complications. I’ll leave you a checklist of signs and symptoms to watch out for--any problems, give me a ring. And you, young lady," he turned to Mare, "should know better than to give an old man a fright like that."

Mare grinned at him. "Think I gave myself a bigger one, Doc."

"Lucky for you that you didn't break an arm or a finger. That sure would have played havoc with your piano playing! You just take it easy for the next couple of days. I’ll leave some painkillers for the headache you will no doubt develop in the next hour or so. Next time don’t make it an accident that brings you to see me, okay?"

"You got it, Doc. Thanks for coming all the way out here."

"No problem. I’ll see you soon. Take care of yourself." He picked up his bag and nodded to Paula who followed him out of the door.

Mare closed her eyes as Doctor Hunt left the room. Her head did hurt more than she had let on, but she knew that complaining about it too much would have provoked a trip to the hospital in Sharlesburg. She was worried, not about herself but about TJ. Erin had implied that TJ wouldn’t take this little incident well and thinking about it, Mare knew she was right. She had heard the barely restrained panic and frustration in her lover's voice as she had come around and knew that TJ had felt helpless in the situation. TJ was a proud woman and Mare knew that not being able to help her would have hit her pride pretty badly.

"Hey." Erin’s voice broke into her reverie. "Paula stole some of my clothes for you. Let's get you out of these wet things. You want to take a quick bath or something to warm up?"

"Thanks for the offer, Erin, but I’d rather get changed and wait for TJ to get back."

Erin nodded her understanding. "Okay. I’ll take you down to TJ’s bathroom and you can wash up and get changed. There is a buzzer in there if you need any help. I’ll start a fire and bring one of the spare quilts in here and you can snuggle on the couch."

Erin helped Mare down the hall to the bathroom and left her to change, walking back into the living room just as Paula closed the front door. They looked at each other with concern. "Mare okay?" asked Paula.

"Yeah, just getting herself changed," replied Erin as she strode over to the fireplace and began to build a fire.

"Where is TJ?" Paula moved over to her side and started to pass pieces of kindling and wood.

"Riding Flag home. She wouldn’t accept me bringing her back in the Rover even though the hands would have brought the horses back." Erin started to twist paper wicks to use to light the fire.

Paula sat back, watching her partner. "I take it she isn’t handling this as well as Mare is?"

Erin gave a sad chuckle. "Paula, she isn’t handling it at all. She’s putting one almighty guilt trip on herself. I could see it; she hardly said a word when we arrived. She sat up on that horse proud as you like and anybody looking at her could have told you it was a show."

"So, I take it we aren’t going to tell her that she should have told us where she was going?"

"No, we aren’t. Her self-confidence has just taken one hell of a thump and us pointing it out to her isn’t going to help one iota. Besides, she’s an adult and okay, she’s an adult with special needs, but we have to let her have a life of her own. We can’t control everything for her."

"Yeah, I know." Paula leaned her head on Erin’s shoulder. "But it’s hard not to be protective when things like this happen."

Erin turned and kissed the side of Paula’s head. "Come on, let's light this, get Mare settled then go over to the barn and wait for TJ to get back."

"I heard the doctor say something interesting to Mare. Something about her piano playing." Paula looked at Erin and smiled. "Bet TJ will like to hear that."

"Yeah," Erin agreed. "But let's wait till she's in better shape."

TJ saw Erin and Paula waiting for her when she rode into the barn. She hadn’t called ahead because she had the other ranch hand not far behind her on Runny. Still, she should have known better. Paula and Erin weren’t likely to leave her by herself after something like this; they knew her too well.

They didn’t speak as she pulled Flag to a stop near the ramp, and in silence they unbuckled TJ’s legs. TJ reached up for the T-bar and took her weight on her arms as Paula led Flag away to be walked and rubbed down. Burt had brought Runny in right behind TJ and he made a welcome offer to take care of the two horses. While TJ manipulated the lift controls, Erin steered her into her chair. She handed her a towel and wrapped a blanket around her shoulders then wheeled her out of the barn to the house.

Mare was wrapped up tightly in the quilt that Erin had provided. After calling her vet friend in Sharlesburg to cover for her for a few days, she had closed her eyes and lay back on the couch, listening to the crackle and hiss of the fire that the girls had lit before they left for the barn. The faint scent of hickory smoke battled with that of the hot chocolate that was on the table by her side. Her head was pounding and she felt slightly nauseous, the results of a mild concussion. The tension building in her shoulders from TJ's continued absence wasn't helping either.

She heard footsteps on the ramp outside and pushed herself into a seated position so that she could look over the top of the couch. The door creaked open and she could see the front wheels of TJ's chair progress through. Mare was unable to keep a grin of relief off of her face. Her grin slipped a bit when the bedraggled form of her lover was pushed into the room. "Hey!" she said with cheerfulness that she didn't really feel, instinctively knowing that TJ would need her reassurance. The lack of reply and the sullen look on TJ's face re-enforced that instinct.

Erin wheeled TJ into the living room and down the small ramp there so that she was near Mare and the now roaring fire. "I'll leave you here while I go run you a bath," said Erin as she pushed the brakes on. TJ nodded but didn't say anything. Erin looked over TJ's shoulder, catching Mare's attention. "Help?" she mouthed to the vet who gave a small nod. Erin left the two women to go draw TJ's bath.

There was silence for a few minutes and Mare was concerned that TJ didn't seem to be able to look at her. She swung her legs off of the couch and reached over, taking TJ's hand into her own. She didn't speak, just held tightly to the deeply chilled hand, her thumb unconsciously stroking along the back of it.

TJ stared down at the entwined hands, then looked up into Mare's green eyes and took a deep breath. "You okay?" she asked quietly

A smile lit up Mare's face. "I'm fine. A small knock on the head but the Doc has given me a clean bill of health."

"Really?" TJ's voice brightened a bit.

"Really. So what's the long face for? Huh?"

TJ looked away again, before answering. "I should never have taken you out today."

"Nonsense. Why not?"

"Oh, please!" TJ slammed the brakes off, pushed herself backward and turned away. "You could have been killed today."

Mare stood up and walked to her side. "I could be killed walking down the street." She ran her fingers through the dark hair on the bowed head. "What was different about today?"

"I was different today, Mare. You walk down a street at least someone could help you. What could I do today? Nothing, that's what. I shouldn't have taken you out, at least not before making sure you were happy on the horse and then I should only have taken you out into the corral where I couldn't put you in any danger."

"TJ, honey," Mare moved to where TJ could see her. "You didn't put me in any danger." TJ opened her mouth to speak but Mare put her finger across it. "No! Now listen to me. Am I an adult?" TJ nodded her head. "Okay, that's good. Do you consider me an intelligent adult?"

TJ looked up sharply. "Of course."

Mare smiled at her indignation. "Well, that's nice to hear." She lifted her hand and caressed TJ's face. "So considering all this do you not think I'm capable of making a decision all by myself?"

"I guess," TJ said begrudgingly, a pout appearing on her face.

God, she's cute when she's like this. "Then, if anything, it wasn't you putting me in a dangerous position, I put myself in one. But honestly, TJ, all we did was go for a ride. So I fell off the dumb horse. You were prepared, you had the phone, you'd left a note so the girls knew where we were. What more could you have done?"

"I could have got down off my horse and helped, that’s what," she huffed.

"Oh, sweetie." Mare leaned forward and kissed her brow. "No, you couldn't, and I knew that before I went out with you. You did everything you could. You got Erin and the boys out to me; you even had Flag keep the rain off me. Nobody could have done better whether they could walk or not." She stood up and walked behind TJ's chair. "Now I love that cute look on your face but you can stop pouting. You're cold, wet and we need to get you into a bath."

This at least got a grin from TJ. "You gonna come with me?" she asked as Mare pushed her up the ramp.

"Oh, I might be persuaded to get a little wet." Mare looked up. Seeing Erin in the shadows of the hallway, she grinned and gave her a wink.


Chapter 16

It was still dark when Mare opened her eyes. A soft breeze gently ruffled the drapes through TJ’s open window before entering the warmth of the bedroom. Yesterday had been a demanding day for both of the women, but they had come through it together. It had surprised Mare how insecure TJ had been. She thought that they had come further in their relationship, that her disability wasn’t an issue.

It also brought home a frightening reality that TJ wasn’t as strong and tough as she appeared to the outside world; her emotional state was incredibly fragile. Hopefully, last night had been a big step in allaying her fears and insecurities.

Erin had done a great job in drawing the bath. The bathroom, which had been specially modified for TJ, had been hot and steamy. The bath was scented with exotic oils; the tub filled to the brim with bubbles. Mare had been looking forward to a long, sensuous soak, reassuring her lover of their growing bond in her warm embrace. It would be a chance to ease Mare’s bruised and battered body at the same time as healing TJ’s bruised emotions.

Mare had assisted TJ in the use of her hoist and then climbed in behind her, pulling her backward until she rested comfortably in her arms. But Mare hadn’t been able to resist the close proximity of TJ’s bare skin. Her gentle caress had been maddening to her love and what started out as a seductive tease rapidly disintegrated into an all-out tickle fest and water fight.

Somehow TJ had managed to turn herself around in the water so that they were face-to-face, and at the first possible chance had claimed Mare’s lips for her own. For what seemed like hours they reacquainted themselves with each other's body, touching, tasting, holding. They then left the steamy warmth of the bathroom for TJ’s bed. Mare delighted in TJ’s attentions; for someone who was disabled from the waist down she was surprisingly agile.


Although Mare loved TJ’s caresses and cries of passion, she enjoyed these quiet times in the middle of the night more. TJ’s head rested on her stomach, her left arm wrapped possessively around Mare’s waist, her other splayed up by her head. The worries of yesterday had been driven away, she was at peace. Mare would never tire of seeing her like this.

She dropped her hand and softly ran her fingers through the somewhat bedraggled hair, frowning slightly at the heat coming off of her companion. She tried to move without disturbing the slumbering TJ, but TJ only tightened her grip and fussed. Mare returned to her gentling caress and let her hand drop to TJ’s forehead, once she had settled again.

Yep, sweetie, you have a fever. With all that wind and rain yesterday, you must have caught a chill. Her temperature wasn’t that high, just enough to cause a sheen of perspiration across the brow and make her hot to the touch. Hmm. I guess that will give me a good excuse to pamper you in the morning. She grinned as TJ seemed to sense her thoughts and snuggled in closer. Mare tightened her embrace and settled back down, closing her eyes and basking in the sensation of affection and love emanating from her sleeping lover.

The next time Mare opened her eyes bright sunshine was pouring in through the windows. She groaned as every muscle and bruise on her body made itself known, despite the bath and loving touch of TJ the night before. She lifted her head and searched around for her lover. TJ had migrated during the night and was now sprawled on her back by Mare’s side. Mare ran her hand over TJ’s head checking for signs of the fever that she had noticed when she woke up during the night. Still warmer than I’d like, love.

Mare checked her watch, surprised to find that it was after ten in the morning. Unusual for you, love, considering Erin and Paula were complaining about how early you get up. Is this because I wore you out last night or is this fever of yours to blame? Huh? Now that she was free of TJ’s nocturnal octopus-like grasp, she decided to get up. Her stomach was demanding to be fed. After yesterday’s ordeal and last night’s strenuous activities they hadn’t gotten the chance to eat. She left the bed, managing not to disturb TJ, grabbed hold of one of TJ’s T-shirts which fell almost to her knees and went in search of food and coffee.

The house was quiet as Mare walked through its rooms. As it was a weekday morning she assumed the girls were out working. The kitchen was empty when she entered but either Paula or Erin had left coffee in the percolator. She opened the fridge and took out the milk, diving back in to grab a grapefruit. While she was busy pottering around she heard a phone ring several times before it was picked up. She faintly heard Paula’s voice deal with the inquiry. Several seconds later footsteps could be heard approaching the kitchen. Mare grabbed another mug and poured a second coffee.

Paula smiled as she saw Mare standing by the counter dressed in one of TJ’s T-shirts. "Hey, there. How’s the wounded soldier today?" She reached out and took the mug that Mare offered her.

"Sore. I feel like I’ve been run over by a truck," Mare replied ruefully. "On the plus side, my head feels better."

"I’m glad you're feeling better. You look better, too. You were a little pale yesterday. TJ getting up?"

"No, she’s still asleep." Mare took a sip from her mug.

Paula grinned evilly. "You wear her out last night, Doc?"

Mare grinned back. "Maybe, but I think yesterday took a lot out of her, and she’s running a slight fever. I think maybe she caught a chill or something."

Paula frowned. "That doesn’t sound good. I’ll give her doc a ring and see whether we need to take her in to see him."

"Well, I plan on keeping her right where she is for the rest of the day."

"Did I hear Doc Hunt say something to you about playing the piano?"

"Yeah, I've been playing since I was knee high to a grasshopper. Calms me down when nothing else will."

"I'd like to hear you sometime."

"Stop by my house anytime I'm home. I love an audience."

After another half an hour of chatting with Paula, Mare was ready to return to TJ. Paula told her to yell out if they needed anything since she was working from TJ’s office just across the hall.

TJ was still deeply asleep. She was in the same position as when Mare had left except she was now hugging a pillow. Smiling at the childlike scene before her, Mare crept quietly onto the bed, trying not to disturb the slumbering woman. She was leaning over to place a kiss on TJ’s cheek when two blue eyes popped open. TJ turned her head, capturing Mare’s lips on her own. She released her hold on the pillow, wrapped her arms around Mare and pulled her down on top of her.

"Morning," whispered TJ as they broke.

"Good morning, sweetheart," replied Mare, lifting her hand to TJ’s face. "How are you feeling?"

"Great, now that you're here. I woke up earlier; where were you?"

"Kitchen. Food and coffee were required. You're running a temperature."

"I know. My throat hurts and I have a headache," she said, pulling Mare down for another kiss. "But I’ll be fine. Will you give me a hand to do my exercises?"

"And what exercises would you like to do?" asked Mare as she ran her finger down TJ’s bare chest, delighting in the instant reaction her caress provoked.

TJ took a deep, shuddering breath as the sensation caused by Mare’s inquisitive fingers raced through her. Her body woke with a vengeance, craving more than a simple caress from the beauty who lay with her on the bed.

Mare let her fingers wander lower, pulling the sheet from TJ’s body as she went. She could see the goosebumps ripple along her lover's body, the downy hairs on her arms stand to attention. She sent a smoldering gaze into TJ’s eyes as her hand found its destination.

TJ stopped breathing altogether, her whole body taut with sensual tension. She couldn’t feel it exactly, but she knew where Mare’s hand rested, and knew that her body was reacting to it. After her accident she had never believed that she would ever feel this way again. Now that she knew that she could, she couldn’t get enough of it, especially with the blonde who had brought her body back from the dead and was invoking the response right this second.

"Don’t tease," gasped TJ, her voice low and urgent with desire.

Mare leaned closer and ran her tongue along the valley between TJ’s breasts. "Who said anything about teasing?"


TJ lay with her arm around Mare’s sweat-slicked skin, her hand stroking the waist it rested on. Her breathing had now returned to normal after her early morning "exercises." I sure liked those better than the regular ones. Mare had curled her panting body into TJ’s side and sleep had found her as her breathing calmed.

TJ was listening to the sounds of the house; it was past lunchtime. She had heard Erin return from her morning activities and greet Paula with a loud yell until she had been shushed. She hadn’t heard the phone ring, so Paula either had turned the ringer off or had calls diverted to her cell phone. The silence was heaven and she was enjoying the relaxation far too much for it to last.

How long had she known Mare now? Six? Eight weeks? Never before had she moved so fast into a relationship and never had she felt so comfortable in one. Mare fit perfectly. All of TJ’s bad moods and tantrums just bounced right off of her; she was stubborn and refused to take anything sitting down. She was a challenge and TJ knew already that she loved her from the bottom of her soul. Just being around the green-eyed blonde gave TJ hope and enthusiasm for life. Would it feel like this if I could walk? Is the reason she likes to be around me because I’m no threat to her? She can up and walk out at anytime and there would be no way for me to stop her.

She took a deep, steadying breath and let it out slowly, letting it release the tension that had been building with her thoughts. She turned her head and nuzzled the blonde locks, inhaling the heady aroma of her lover, and smiled. No, stop thinking she would act like the others who thought having a relationship with you would be easy money. So far, she has put up with all the crap you have thrown at her and still come back for more. And admit it, you love that no-nonsense look she gets on her face when she’s about to tell you off. And, boy, do you love the way she cheers you up. How many people in this world have you known, besides Lance, who have ever been able to make you smile like she does? Hmm? Yeah, that’s right, none. So it is time to stop feeling sorry for yourself and to show this woman exactly what she means to you. Time for you to show her a little romance, I think. Oh yeah, she grinned, I love a little romance.


Erin stood and stared at Paula who had her hand clamped over her mouth. "Shhhhh," whispered her partner. "TJ and Mare are still in bed. And Mare said TJ had a bit of a fever." Paula pulled her hand away.

"Paula, it is nearly one o’clock in the afternoon. Even if they are still in bed, I doubt they are sleeping." Erin had a wicked grin on her face and looked down the hallway to TJ’s bedroom door. Paula slapped her soundly on the shoulder and pulled her toward the kitchen.

"What was that for?" she asked, rubbing her shoulder.

"That, Miss Scott, was for the obvious look of jealousy on your face. Besides, I know they are asleep because ten minutes beforehand they were making enough noise to make a saint blush."

"Eavesdropping, were you?"

"Hard not to. I have never heard that tone of voice from TJ before. Whatever Mare was up to sure sounded good."

"Hmm." Erin smiled slyly. "Maybe I’ll ask for a few pointers."

"Oh, hush up, and don’t you tease them when you see them next." Paula began pottering about, grabbing the makings of a sandwich and pulling a couple of cans of soda out of the fridge. "How is it going out there? They nearly finished?"

"Just reoxygenating the streams now." Erin reached over, snagging a piece of celery from the salad Paula had put on the table. "Couple more days at the most and they’ll be finished."

"Is everything set for the arrival of the cattle tomorrow?"

"Yep. Bill and the boys are just getting the holding area in order. Then all we need is for Mare to check them out before we let them loose. That is, if I can pry her away from TJ." The women smiled at each other, hoping that TJ had finally found someone to pour her love into.

It was after three when Paula decided enough was enough and caved in to her desire to make sure the two lovers were all right. Mare had seemed fine that morning but the doctor had told her to take it easy. And although TJ’s doctor had said that a slight fever wouldn’t be too much of a problem, Paula still needed to see for herself.

Besides, TJ hadn’t eaten at all today and both of them could probably do with a drink. So she made up a tray of iced tea and some fruit and knocked quietly on the door to TJ’s room. She got no reply but cautiously opened the door and entered. Wide-awake blue eyes greeted her and she smiled, holding up the tray. TJ nodded and Paula walked into the room, placing the tray within TJ’s reach. Mare was snuggled tight underneath TJ’s right arm, her own clasped possessively around TJ.

Paula reached over and placed her hand on TJ’s glowing face and frowned slightly. "You feeling okay?" she whispered.

"Yeah, just a little achy."

"You still have a fever so you need to drink lots of fluids to bring your temperature down." Paula crouched down so that she was near TJ’s head and wouldn’t disturb Mare with her questions. "When did you last catheterize yourself?"

TJ sighed. "Last night."

"You’ll need to get up and see to yourself soon, love. You don’t need a kidney infection on top of everything else."

"You sure know how to spoil the mood, don’t you?"

Paula grinned cheekily. "That’s what you hired me for. But seriously, Dr Hammond said you needed to drink plenty of fluids and you can’t do that for any period of time unless you…"

"I know, I know. But jeez, Paula, it sorta gets in the way."

"What does?" Mare mumbled.

"Nothing. Go back to sleep," replied TJ, a little embarrassed.

Mare’s head poked up from where it was nestled on TJ’s breast, blushing slightly as she saw Paula in the room. "Hi."

"I was just reminding TJ she has to look after a few personal issues." Paula was conscious that TJ didn’t really like to talk about this aspect of her disability, but it was unlikely that Mare knew what the consequences would be if TJ neglected them.

"Oh," said Mare uncertainly, watching TJ who was now shooting daggers at Paula.

"And I thought you might like a snack and something to drink."

"Oh, yeah. I could do with a drink. However, first things first; I need to get cleaned up. My bed warmer here did too good a job last night. Paula, could you grab me the robe from the bathroom?"

"Sure, be right back." Paula stood and walked into the bathroom.

Mare gazed up at TJ’s face, a small smile appearing on her lips. "I’d suggest we take a bath but I don’t think we’d get very clean, do you?"

TJ grinned back at her. "No, I doubt we would. Besides, I really need to do my exercises. Sacha gets really pissed at me if I miss out on too many sessions. Bearing in mind that I only have to see her once a month now, I like to keep on her good side."

"Here you go, Mare. I dug a load of TJ’s shampoo and stuff out of the cabinet for you to use." Paula handed over the terrycloth robe.

"Thanks." Mare leaned up and kissed TJ on the cheek. "See you soon." She slipped the robe on and made a dash for the bathroom.

"All right, boss-lady, you want to get your exercises done?" TJ nodded and pushed herself flat in the bed. "Here’s a towel to cover your modesty, though after this morning’s racket I don’t know how you can profess to having any."

"Well, that’ll teach you to work in my office, won’t it?" TJ laid the towel over her middle so that her breasts and pelvic area were both covered before Paula started her lower leg exercises.

Paula took hold of TJ’s right foot and slowly started to rotate the ankle to limber it up and help stop the joints from freezing due to disuse. Her skillful hands massaged TJ's foot before moving up to her calf. "I found out something interesting yesterday."

"Hmm?" inquired TJ who had her hands behind her head and was staring at the ceiling.

"Yeah, apparently Mare plays the piano." That got TJ's attention.

"Really?" TJ pushed herself upward so that she was resting on her elbows.


TJ grinned. "I guess she might like the music room then." She let herself fall back to the bed, as Paula started to bend her knee to stretch the hamstrings.

"I guess she might at that." Paula could already see TJ's mind ticking over the possibilities.


Chapter 17

Wham! An arm came down across the side of Mare's face and bumped her nose, sending jolts of pain to her brain and waking her from a sound sleep. It took a couple of seconds for her to remember where she was as she threw her own arm over her head defensively. Then she remembered and jumped out of the bed that was vibrating from movement.

Moonlight shone through the double window, painting silver patches on everything it touched, and illuminating the body thrashing about on the bed. As Mare watched, aghast, TJ flopped over onto her side and raised her arms alongside her head, crossing her forearms toward the back of her head, cowering in a protective mode. "No, stop, stop!" TJ's pleading voice activated Mare and she ran around the bed and knelt at TJ's head, in front of the window.

"TJ, sweetheart, what's wrong?" Mare reached a tentative hand to caress her lover's head, but TJ shrank back from the touch. "No! Stop! Please, stop!"

The light lay full on TJ's face and Mare could see that she still slept. She reached her hand to a shoulder and gently shook it. Suddenly, TJ's face changed from fear to anger and her voice from pleading to venomous. "Stop it, you rotten bastard, stop it or I'll kill you. I wish you were dead!" TJ started gasping and Mare ducked barely in time to avoid the fist that punched out at her.

She quickly took a stronger grasp of TJ's shoulder and shook her much harder, laying her hand along her beloved's face. "TJ, wake up. It's Mare. Wake up."

Blue eyes seething with hatred snapped open. Mare flinched and pulled her hand back, then, hesitating, she returned it to TJ's cheek. The eyes passed from hatred to confusion, to anguish. TJ saw a tiny trickle of blood coming from Mare's nose. "My God, I've hurt you," she whispered.

"No, no, I'm fine. Don't worry. Can you roll over and let me get back in bed?" TJ nodded and moved to make room. Mare climbed back in and scooted just a little higher than TJ so she could hold the raven head against her chest. She pulled TJ to her, kissed her hair and forehead and caressed her cheek and TJ put her arm across Mare's hip and up the side of her body.

"Do you have these nightmares very often?" Mare's soft voice conveyed so much concern that TJ felt an ache start in her chest as she barely nodded.

"Mare, your nose is bleeding. What did I do to you?"

The vet lifted a hand and wiped at her nose. She saw there was hardly any blood. "I'm perfectly all right, TJ. I just kinda got smacked by a wayward arm. But I'm okay. Now tell me about these nightmares. You were pleading for someone to stop. Then you were yelling and hollering. At your father?"

"Yeah." TJ's dry word puffed warm air against Mare's skin. "That was the only place I would plead with him… in my dreams. I wouldn't give him the satisfaction in real life. For a long time, I didn't yell, either. When I was about 14 I started yelling at him and threatening him. He only beat me harder and longer, but at least I had that small moment of satisfaction."

TJ could hear Mare's breathing getting ragged and the ache in her chest hurt even more. "Mare?"

"Yes, TJ?"

TJ took several deep breaths, then spoke in what Mare thought of as her "small" voice… a proud woman, TJ obviously found it uncomfortable to ask even minor favors. "I don't want to talk about my father. Can't we just go back to sleep? I'll be all right, now."

"We can do that. But tomorrow, you are going to call your counselor and set up an appointment for us to go see him. Right?"

TJ knew that Mare had promised to go with her but she was touched to hear how readily she said "us."

"Right." The dark head moved just enough to touch full lips to deep pink flesh. "Goodnight," she murmured against it. "I love you."

The soft contact sent a warmly pleasant flush through Mare and she tightened her arms and rested her chin against TJ's head. "Goodnight, my love."


Dawn's rays stole quietly in through the window, spread silently across the floor and crept upwards to raven-lashed eyes that opened to greet them. Meeting a blue unmatched in the early morning sky, they moved on to brighten golden threads in the head just above, before completing their task of bringing light to the entire room.

TJ lay without moving, her head still resting where she had pillowed it during the night's interrupted sleep, her lips a hairsbreadth away from a tempting morsel. She forced herself to ignore temptation, relishing the simple act of waking with her love beside her. How many times have I wakened in the middle of the night, stressed out and sweating from that nightmare, only to lie here until morning without rest? Last night, Mare changed all that. Her presence soothed me and allowed me to beat it back from my conscious mind. How wonderful it would be if she could be here always. I wish I had the guts to ask her to live here with me. Don't know if I could handle her saying no. Maybe I better wait.

"What's that serious look for?" Mare's still sleepy voice rumbled against TJ's ear. The dark head tilted back and smiling blue eyes sought the half-lidded green ones.

"Aha, you're awake!"

Mare reached her arms above her head and stretched putting the object of TJ's temptation in motion. TJ's will power evaporated and her mouth swooped down, accomplishing its aim.

"TJ!" Mare gasped, then laughed and grabbed the raven head, shaking it. "Let go!" By the second shake, she realized she was helping TJ, not dissuading her, and she dropped her arms in surrender.

TJ put her hands to good use and Mare's voice sounded breathless. "Don't you think we're being a little decadent, here?" Without releasing the hold her mouth had, TJ nodded up and down vigorously and Mare got the giggles. Starting to giggle, too, TJ let go and the two women collapsed beside each other, laughing out loud until they couldn't laugh any more.

"Aahhh," TJ breathed, wiping her eyes then grabbing her sides. "I haven't laughed that hard in years."

"Neither have I, not since college." Mare reached for a tissue from the bedside table and wiped TJ's eyes, then her own.

"Let's get up. I have a surprise to show you after breakfast."

Mare cocked her head and grimaced. "You know I don't like to be teased."

"Oh, yeah? That's not how you acted yesterday," TJ grinned.

"Well… that was different." Mare got up off the bed and walked toward the bathroom. "There's a time and place for that kind of teasing. I'll run us a bath." She turned around and grinned. "Now there's a perfect pairing of sentences if I ever heard one."

TJ, thoroughly enjoying watching Mare's progress to the bathroom, shook her head. "And you called me decadent."


TJ and Mare got to the kitchen in time to have breakfast with Erin and Paula. They took a little kidding about hibernating out of season then TJ brought up a few stories from Erin and Paula's past and breakfast was a lively time. Everyone was smiling by the time the two partners went off to their duties.

At one point during the meal, TJ had whispered something to Erin and she had nodded. Mare's curiosity was at fever pitch and her patience was being sorely tried. As soon as the other two had departed, she asked TJ what the surprise was.

TJ rubbed her chin and furrowed her brow as if in deep thought. "I don't know if it's time to show you, yet."

"TJ, you are going to be in big, big trouble if you don't tell me what it is." Mare tried to look fierce, but it wasn't working. After a day and a half of a wall-to-wall love-in, every time she looked at TJ she saw her gorgeous unclothed body. Which was absolutely marvelous, but also absolutely disconcerting. Wonder if she's having the same problem? The thought made a blush move up Mare's cheeks. TJ ran her tongue from one side of her lips to the other and back again, a glint of pleasure showing in the depths of her eyes. Oh, you betcha, thought Mare and rolled her eyes.

Laughter spurted from TJ's throat. "Come on, I can't tell you the surprise; I'll have to show you. Follow me." She took off toward the living room with Mare behind her.

On the far side of the living room was a double set of French doors, heavily curtained. TJ opened them and pushed them forward, then wheeled into the exposed room, stopped and turned the chair toward Mare so she could watch her face.

Mare's whole face lit up as she walked to the grand piano sitting near the center of a room 30 feet long and 30 feet wide. The keyboard cover receded into the piano as she lifted it. The top of the piano had already been raised and she ran her fingers reverently along the keys, filled with a sensual pleasure by their melodious tones. She turned her awed gaze to a smiling TJ. "May I?"

TJ found she couldn't talk past the lump that suddenly formed in her throat. She looks like a kid in a candy factory. She twisted her lips into a smile and nodded.

Mare sat at the piano and as was her usual custom, ran through some light pieces and exercises to limber her fingers. Then she played in earnest. This was the finest piano she had ever played and she lost herself in enjoyment of it.

TJ closed her eyes and let herself float with the music. They sat for hours, transported together to an area of the mind that resonated with beautiful sounds, one leading with nimble fingers, the other following with sensual delight. Finally, coming back to earth, Mare halted.

TJ wheeled over next to her and engaged her eyes with intense blue. "How come you never told me you played the piano? That was magnificent." I can see we're going to have fun getting to know each other, Mare, in more ways than one.

Mare smiled, her face suffused with peaceful energy. "Thank you, TJ. What a pleasure it is to perform on such a fine instrument. How did you find out I played?"

"Paula had to hear it from Doc Hunt. Remember he said something to you about a broken arm or finger hurting your piano playing?"

"Yeah, now I remember. And Paula picked right up on that, huh?"

"She and Erin play guitar. Guess that struck a chord with her."

Mare wrinkled her nose. "Bad, TJ. Really bad."

"Sorry, I couldn't resist."

"Do you play an instrument?"

"Uh… no, I don't."

Mare never missed a trick. "What's the "Uh" for?"

Paula had come back from her journey to town. She walked into the room from the doorway where she had been standing for a minute. "TJ sings. And don't let her tell you she doesn't. She has a gorgeous voice."

Mare's eyes widened and she inclined her head toward TJ with a smile. "So, Miss Meridian, what would you like to sing for us? Hum a few bars and I'll pick it up."

"C'mon, ladies, give me a break. I'm just getting over a sore throat."

Mare looked at Paula and raised her eyebrows. Paula shrugged. "She's right, I guess we have to hear her another time."

"But she called us ladies. Are we gonna let her get away with that?"

Paula shook her head. "How about when she does sing, she has to sing at least 8 songs?"

"Sounds good to me. Think her throat should be more than okay in about a week?"

"Yeah, that sounds good. Same day next week, in the evening."

TJ's head was swinging back and forth from Paula to Mare as this conversation progressed. "You two are worse than a hanging judge. At least he makes a show of being fair before he condemns the prisoner."

Paula smiled wickedly. "Yeah, but we aren't gonna hang you."

Mare snorted. "I'm not making that promise. I haven't heard her sing, yet."

"On that note, I think we better break for lunch." TJ laughed as the other two groaned.


After a spirited lunch, Mare insisted that TJ call the counselor for an appointment. The dark-haired woman sighed, but she followed through on her promise and an appointment was made for four days away.

That evening, Paula and Erin had propped TJ in the corner of the couch before going to their own quarters and Mare was lying there with her head in TJ's lap, luxuriating in her nearness. TJ played with her love's golden hair, wrapping and unwrapping it around her fingers, as she gazed into Mare's face, appreciating her beauty.

"I'll have to be going home, soon." Mare's disappointment sounded in her words.

"Mare, how hard would it be to run your practice from somewhere besides your home?"

Mare was totally relaxed and missed the significance of the question. "Why would I want to do that? Everything I need is there."

"I was… sort of… that is…"

TJ's stumbling caused the light to dawn. "Are you suggesting that I operate my practice from here?"

"Uh… well… only if you wanted to." TJ, you were going to wait to ask her, remember?

Mare saw that TJ was embarrassed and she certainly didn't want to hurt her feelings, but she couldn't see how that could be done without a lot of problems.

Mare sat up and edged as close to her love as she could get, putting her shoulder against TJ's and taking hold of her near hand. "TJ, if I didn't have any other responsibilities, I wouldn't hesitate to take you up on that offer." She raised the strong hand and kissed it. "But I don't see how I can right now. Maybe when everything gets going and the economy improves, I can afford to get an assistant. Until that happens, I have to stay home."

She held TJ's hand against her face and looked into those blue, blue eyes. "No one's any sorrier about that than I am."

"I could lend you the money to hire someone."

"Thanks, but you know I can't do that. I want to pay my own way. You know what pride is. My pride won't let me do it." That was the perfect choice of words to explain her decision without hurting TJ. The head of Meridian Corporation did know what pride is, and she accepted that as a valid reason.

TJ reached her other hand up to Mare's cheek. "I want to kiss you, but you are going to have to come to me. If I lean over, I will fall for you, literally."

Mare laughed at the little joke, knowing that TJ used it to hide her disappointment. The vet moved so that her body pinned TJ against the corner and made it possible for them to kiss. The push of one body against the other was like kicking embers into flame, a flame that was fed by the meeting of their mouths and the movements of their hands. Time ceased to exist.

To be continued in Part 7

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