True Colours, Part 8


Chapter 21

Michael sat in his home office staring blankly at the computer screen. He had called up the financial worth file that enumerated all his assets and liabilities, with the intention of choosing how much of his estate to settle on his daughter. He had a problem keeping his mind on the figures in front of him, however; a picture of two women kissing insisted on intruding.

There are three women in that house and two obviously are gay. Doesn't that hint at maybe TJ's being gay, too? Then where does that leave Mare? Erin and Paula appear to be lovers, does that mean that Mare and TJ are? There does seem to be some kind of connection between them, but I assumed that was because of their friendship. Besides, TJ's in a wheelchair!

Come on, Michael, you're the SCI expert. You know that some people with SCI can still have a sexual relationship. Maybe TJ's one of them… But I don't want it to be with Mare!

Some niggling little aggravation behind this thought bothered Michael and he was straightforward enough to examine it honestly. Am I more worried that Mare might be gay…or that TJ might be? He turned this question over in his mind searching for the impetus behind it. The woman is stunningly beautiful, charming, intelligent, poised…and she definitely has an aura… of what? Power? Magnetism? There in the music room, when she swept those remarkable eyes up, she just about bowled me over. I took for granted that her passion was directed at me and I have to admit, it woke up something inside me. But maybe it was directed at Mare.

Michael had engaged in sporadic relationships through the years, none very long, nor worth pursuing. For the last few years, he had buried himself in his work and his obsession with it had enabled him to learn all the latest procedures in his field and also to make several small breakthroughs. Because of his hermit-like life, his reaction to TJ surprised him. But she is an extremely attractive woman. And face it, Michael, that question you asked a minute ago has an answer. Don't kid yourself. You are more upset about TJ's sexual preference than you are about Mare's, at least for the moment. And you find that a little embarrassing.

What if I won't give Mare this money unless she…? Does what? You're sitting here thinking she's the lover of TJ Meridian, an extremely wealthy woman, and you think you can turn her into something false by waving a paltry couple of million at her?

But what will my friends think about Mare? That's a pretty stupid question. What are you planning on doing, hanging a sign on her? How Mare spends her private time is of no concern to your friends or to anyone else. Including you.

But I'm her father. So, who put you in charge of her life? You're her father, not her owner.

What if you're totally wrong and you are making a mountain out of a molehill? This question cheered Michael and brought him out of his self-inquisition. Right, first things first. Mare's coming over tomorrow night. Let's find out if they are lovers, or not. Having made this decision, Michael tentatively chose which assets were to be transferred to Mare and sent the information to his attorney to start drawing up the papers.


Mare and her dad finished dinner and moved to the den for their coffee. They sat on a comfortable couch with a coffee table immediately in front of them. A grand piano sat at the far end of the room in an area set off by a large archway. Another archway, to the right of the piano, connected the area to the living room in an el-shaped configuration.

At Dorburton Lakes, Michael employed a married couple as housekeeper/cook and butler/chauffeur and they took excellent care of him and his guests. Once they had served the coffee, they retired to the kitchen.

"I had a wonderful time at TJ's the other night." Michael waited until Mare finished with the cream and sugar, then he added some to his coffee and stirred it. "She's a remarkable woman."

He watched as Mare's eyes lit up. "Yes, she is. From her office at the ranch, she directs enterprises that are strung all over the world."

"I'm not much of a businessman. I have a financial consultant who manages my affairs, but even I have heard of Meridian Corporation. The few times TJ mentioned it at dinner I was impressed with her grasp of what each subsidiary does and how she has meshed them all together into a smooth-running operation." Michael hesitated for a moment then, watching Mare closely, but unobtrusively, he continued. "Tell you the truth, I was more impressed with her as a woman. She's stunningly attractive."

Mare nodded sagely, "Yes, she is." We sure agree on that count, Dad.

"In fact, I've met a lot of glamorous women, but she's one of the most beautiful I've ever seen." I don't believe anybody can argue with that, Michael thought.

"I think so, too," Mare nodded again, wondering where this paean of praise to TJ was leading. She didn't have long to find out.

"I was thinking about calling her and asking her for a date. Would you have any objection to that?" Here's where we find out: Is it safe to pursue TJ Meridian, or should my interest remain platonic?

This had come at Mare unexpectedly and she was speechless. After a moment she found her voice. "No offense, Dad, but there is a difference in your ages."

"That's true, but it might make less difference to TJ than it does to you. I'd like to ask her that myself. As a matter of fact, I think I'll call her tomorrow evening."

"Dad, I…" Mare searched for the right words to say without hurting her dad's feelings. "TJ doesn't date." Dear God, how do I get around this one?

"Well, there's always the chance that someone will change her ways, Mare. It can't hurt to ask."

Should I just tell him right out that we're lovers? How will he react? Some parents have disowned their children for less. Do I want to risk that? Will this come down to a choice between my father and TJ? Mare's mind buzzed with all the ramifications of the situation. I just found him; I can't lose him already! She never even considered the option of leaving TJ.

I can't just gloss it over. TJ will turn him down and he'll be terribly embarrassed when he eventually discovers why. That could ruin his relationship with me before we've barely had a chance to know each other.

Mare finished the last sip of her coffee, set the cup in its saucer and picked up her father's hand. She took a deep breath and looked him straight in the eye.

"Dad, there's something I have to tell you. Something important. I know you had no way of knowing this and I would have told you at some point, when we got to know each other better…" Mare hesitated, swallowing, her throat suddenly dry. This was a thousand times harder than she had thought it would be.

Her stomach tensed, turning over as she felt a wave of fear run through her. He needs to know now before we take our relationship any further. I have to allow him the time to make his own decision on this. If he reacts badly, just accept it; you still have TJ. This situation had never arisen between her and her mother. Jane respected the privacy of others and expected the same from them. Besides, Mare had always thought her mother knew without asking pointed questions. Will this be the last I see of my dad? Will he hate me?

Mare gathered her courage. "You know how much you and I are alike, right? In the short time that we've known each other, we've been amazed at how many things we both enjoy, how similar our tastes are, right?"

Michael nodded. His eyes were locked on the ones that so perfectly mirrored his own. He suspected what was coming and braced himself for it.

Mare saw his lips set and her courage slipped, but she seized hold of it and set it upright again. "Well, it so happens that you and I are so much alike that…" Mare gave a quick little nervous smile. "we have both been attracted to the same woman. I'm gay, Dad, and I'm involved with TJ. We're in love with each other." Mare's eyes were pools of anxiety, pleading for understanding.

Michael's hand moved and Mare, her heart sinking, started to let go of it. But Michael surprised her. He turned his hand over so he could hold hers in both of his. The fear and anguish that had crossed Mare's expressive face, before struggling with and being supplanted by courage, had touched his heart. He looked at the daughter whose existence had been so recently revealed to him and he realized that now she was revealing her heart. I've been a fool to put her through this distress just because of my own lack of compassion.

"I have to confess, Mare, that I'm not totally shocked by this revelation. After dinner at TJ's, when I was in the powder room, I noticed a flickering light outside. I looked out the window and I saw Erin and Paula kissing each other. So I wondered about your situation, and TJ's."

A bit startled by this news, Mare raised her eyebrows. I thought it was a little early for his suspicions; we tried to be discreet.

He sighed. "I hoped I was wrong. At first I was angry at the possibility that you and TJ were in love. Partly because I didn't want you to be like that, and partly because I really was attracted to TJ and didn't want her to be like that. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

Mare nodded and swallowed, hoping to contain the tears that threatened to flood her eyes.

"Is it stupid to ask if you could ever change?"

Mare forced out a breathless and hoarse voice. "Dad, that would be like asking you to change your green eyes to brown." She tried a tentative smile.

Michael thought about that for a few moments, looking down at their entwined hands. Finally, he nodded a little and looked up. "I haven't been fair to you at all, Mare, and I deeply apologize. You're my daughter and I love you as you are, not as the person I think you should be, or wish you had been. It might take me awhile to adjust and there might be times when we accidentally embarrass each other, but please be patient with me. About the best face I can put on this whole situation is… " Here Michael offered his own tentative smile, "if I can't date TJ, at least you're keeping her in the family."

Mare started to cry in relief and he took her into his arms, patting her back and soothing her with small shushing sounds.

Finally, Mare calmed down and with the help of some tissues handed to her by Michael she dried her tears. He, too, had to use a few. "I knew Mom would pick a winner," she smiled up at him.

"I am a winner, Mare, since you came into my life." Michael smiled back and gave her an extra squeeze before releasing her. "I just want you to promise me one thing..."

"What's that?"

"Not to tell TJ that I was developing a crush on her, okay?" Michael grinned like a shy schoolboy.

Mare reached up and patted his cheek as she returned his smile. "Never, Dad. But crushes are okay, just as long as that's all they are. I think anyone who really knows TJ has a mild crush on her. How could you help it? She's wonderful." Mare's smile twinkled. "Of course, I am prejudiced."

Michael laughed. "No, she is wonderful and I probably always will have a mild crush on her. Beyond that, though, I'd like to see if I could do anything to help her. Do you think she would let me look at her case history, x-rays, MRI's, and so forth? I'd like to keep up on her condition, in case we come across anything that could improve it. That is my field, you know."

"I know, and I thank you for wanting to help. I'll ask TJ. She's kinda close sometimes about her privacy, but in this case I think I can talk my way around her. Like you said, we'll be keeping it in the family."

"Perfect. Now how about if we cap off this evening with my duet that we played for her?" Michael's voice caught for just a moment, remembering TJ's emotional reaction to his original composition. "The one she danced to?"

"Perfect." Mare echoed her father and they rose and walked arm-in-arm to the piano.


Chapter 22

"Hey, TJ, here comes Mare!" Paula stuck her head into the hall and hollered then ducked back into the kitchen and put another glass, plate and setting on the island.

Erin turned from the fridge where she was getting the iced tea and frowned at her partner. "You could have used the intercom."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know you were raised in polite society." Paula gave Erin a light pinch as she passed by her.

The curly headed blonde swatted at Paula's hand and laughed. "And so were you, though no one would ever suspect it."

The storm door burst open as Mare came through. "Hi, folks! Believe it or not, I have some extra time today; time for a real visit for a change." She hugged each of the women, then her smile broadened as TJ came wheeling into the kitchen, right up to Mare's legs.

Mare leaned forward to kiss her love, but TJ pulled back. "Something wrong?" Mare's eyebrows just about disappeared.

TJ flung up the arm of her chair and patted her thighs. "Yeah! I haven't seen you for days and you are going to sit down and let me give you a proper kiss." Long arms reached out and Mare slipped into them and onto the volunteered lap at the same time, wrapping her arms around TJ and melting into a kiss of fire.

When their lips finally parted, Mare laid her head down in the V between TJ's neck and shoulder, kissing her neck, then snuggling her body into a more comfortable position. "I want to stay here forever. Can I do that, please?"

Erin grinned. "Might be a little messy. Lunch is soup and sandwiches and TJ has to eat; she already skipped breakfast." As she spoke, Erin ladled soup into a bowl and set one at each place.

"Oh, darn." Mare slowly slid her tongue up the side of TJ's neck, across her cheek and into her mouth, sealing its entrance with her lips against her lover's.

"Ummm." TJ's arms tightened around Mare and they held the kiss until Paula dropped some ice cubes down Mare's back.

"Yiiiiii!" she yelled and leaped up, jumping up and down and pulling at her shirttail until the cubes fell out onto the floor. Mare threw a mock glare at Paula who was laughing at the impromptu dance.

"Sorry. I know if you get too hot, you can cool down with some ice cubes and you looked like you were sizzling." Not looking at all contrite, Paula picked the cubes up from the floor and threatened TJ who shook a fist at her. Grinning, Paula tossed the cubes in the sink and washed her hands. "Come on, let's eat. I'm starving." She helped Erin set the sandwiches out and they all sat down to lunch.

The food disappeared quickly and the group sat around talking for awhile. "By the way," TJ's eyes swept between Erin and Paula, "did Mare tell you that you two outted her to her father?"

"What?" Two surprised voices asked together. Two pairs of eyes looked first at each other, frowning, then toward Mare.

"That's right." Mare gazed at them very seriously, nodding her head.

"How did we do that?" Erin queried, slightly flustered.

"You remember the night he had dinner with us?" Both heads nodded.

"You remember being in the courtyard?" Both heads nodded again.

"You remember what you were doing?" The two looked at each other, then back to Mare. Erin had a slight blush on her cheeks but Paula looked cocky.

"Damn right I do! It's a courtyard. We were courting."

Mare sucked in her lips to keep a straight face. TJ twisted her mouth and covered it with a hand.

Mare cleared her throat. "Well, Dad used the powder room next to the music room, and guess what he saw?"

Now even Paula blushed. "Aw, hell, Mare. We didn't know he was there. We're sorry."

"What did he say about you, Mare?" Erin's face was filled with concern.

Mare gave a big sigh and looked really sad. "Well, he put two and two together and figured if you two fooled around with each other, maybe I fooled around with TJ, too."

"And what did you say to that?"

"I said, 'Damn right I do!'" Mare's face cleared and a huge smile split her face. TJ laughed out loud as Erin and Paula frowned at each other then realized a joke was being played on them.

"Funny, funny, funny." Actually, Erin did think it was funny, but Paula took a moment longer to laugh and Erin pulled on her arm. "Come on, Polly, that was paybacks for the ice cubes."

"Right," she said gruffly. "But what did your dad say? Was he upset?" Paula remembered the trouble some of her friends had had when their families first learned they were gay.

"He was not especially happy about it, but he is determined to love me as I am. And I can live with that." Mare looked toward TJ and smiled just for her. She turned back toward the other two women. "That's enough talk about me. How are things coming along out here?"

Erin smiled. "Things are looking pretty good with the cattle. We culled the sick ones you pointed out and turned the others onto the range and they are doing fine. Bill says the men are all shaping into good, solid hands and at the rate we are getting cattle shipped in we should be up to full capacity in a couple more months."

Paula chimed in. "The plant is being brought on line, the foremen and a skeleton crew are in place and we should have our first shipment of cattle to be processed by next week. TJ told them we will get scattered shipments so the plant can be brought up to capacity slowly, giving us time to hire and train more and more workers. In the meantime, of the ones already hired, some are being trained to handle the beef and others taught how to take care of the production areas."

Mare clapped her hands together in appreciation. "And I have to tell you there is a noticeable lifting of spirits in town. People are walking with their heads up, nodding to and chatting with each other with looks of hope on their faces. They are starting to believe that the town is really turning around." She looked at TJ. "And I'm starting to hear Meridian said once in awhile without s-o-b accompanying it."

"That is an improvement," TJ chuckled.

"TJ, did you get in touch with your doctor to send your records to Dad?"

The dark-haired woman shifted in her seat and rubbed a hand over her mouth. "Not yet."

Mare looked at her quizzically. She and TJ had discussed this on the phone and she thought TJ was amenable to it, but her body language said otherwise. "Is there a problem?" She frowned. "I mean, this is my father, sweetheart. He's an expert in the field and he wants to keep your records on file in case there is a breakthrough, some treatment that might help you."

"Maybe it's because he's your father, Mare. I feel kinda… exposed."

"Sorry, I don't follow that thinking. It's your insides he's going to see, not your outsides." Mare's eyes twinkled mischievously.

TJ had to grin. "I didn't mean that kind of exposed."

When Mare saw TJ's grin, she knew she had won the argument. "You're going to make me tell my dad that you don't want him to look at your records?" Mare batted her eyes coyly. "Because you're shy?"

TJ closed her eyes, shook her head and flipped her hands in the air and back again in surrender. "All right! I'll send him the records." Blue eyes opened and fastened on green. "You know, you oughtta work for the government or something. No one would ever get away with anything."

Paula reached behind the wheelchair and gave Mare a thumbs-up sign. Erin smiled to herself. Sometimes she acts like a little kid, but I sure do love that little tyke. I hope that part of her never grows up. "Mare, TJ said you were planning on hiring an assistant. Any luck with that yet?"

"Yeah, Erin. I had an applicant almost right away who looks promising. Young man with a wife and baby. I have another interview set up with him and if we can get together on a few incidentals, looks like he's the one."

"That'll be great, Mare." Paula sounded sincerely enthused. "It will give you some free time. You keep running around like you have been and you'll soon be nothing but skin and bones."

Mare was touched that the sometimes gruff Paula was concerned about her workload.

TJ looked at Erin and Paula. "I've asked Mare to come here to live if she can. Having an assistant would be a big step in that direction."

TJ and Mare were happy to see the faces of both women light up. "Wonderful!" they said together.

"Well, nothing's definite yet. I can't be certain until I see how things work out. But I have high hopes."

"Where do you think her office would be, TJ?"

"This is a big place and there are plenty of empty rooms. Mare could have any one she wants."

"Any one?" Mare echoed. She cocked her head at TJ. "Is that a promise?"

"Yeah," TJ smiled, "that's a promise."

"Then I'll take the one that used to be your father's."

TJ's face blanched, then hardened. "No! That's the only one you can't have."

"You just promised me I could have any I wanted. Are you going to go back on your word?" I've got to get in that office and change it. Even if the counseling helps her, as long as that office is a reminder of her hate, TJ will never be free of her father.

"If I had any idea that you would choose that one, I would have told you right off that you couldn't have it. But no, you had to trick me and I don't appreciate that, Mare." TJ crossed her arms, held her elbows and seemed to shrink in on herself. I don't want you in that room! her thoughts screamed inside her brain.

"I wasn't trying to trick you, TJ. You should know me better than that. If you had told me right out I couldn't have that room, I would have argued for it anyway. It's at the end of the house with an outside entrance. People could come in and out to see me without disturbing the rest of the house. It has a screened porch adjacent to it that would be ideal for me to work on when the weather is right. It's the perfect room for an office."

What Mare said made sense to Erin. "Mare's right. It sounds like the ideal spot."

TJ threw Erin a nasty glance, then slowly shook her head. Lowered eyes, clamped jaw and lips pressed firmly together left no doubt as to her mood. Keep out of this, Erin. None of you understands how I feel about this.

Mare was becoming agitated at TJ's hardheaded attitude. And when Mare got agitated, her mouth shifted into another gear. " I didn't think I was coming here as a rental prospect; I expected to have some say in where my office would be. It's also the closest room to your office. And pardon me for thinking this, but I supposed that you and I would like to see each other occasionally during the day."

Mare hadn't taken her eyes off of TJ. She saw the blue eyes narrow when she made the rental remark but TJ didn't respond. "Have you been in the room since you came back here?"

"No one's been in the room," Paula answered when TJ kept silent. "It's never been unlocked."

"Who has the key?" Mare glanced at Paula, who tilted her head toward TJ.

"May I have the key, TJ?" Mare knew she was treading on dangerous ground. She felt the anxiety coming from Paula and Erin, and TJ's tension almost crackled around her. TJ hadn't said anything and that put her two friends on edge; they had seen some monumental temper outbursts in the past, most of them preceded by a period of speechless anger.

TJ huddled in her chair, not moving, not saying anything. Mare, I love you but I don't want you in that room. That place is full of hate. The stillness in the room pressed against them all, seeming almost to have a life of its own.

Mare's hushed voice nudged the silence, gently edging it away. "TJ, if we can't even talk about a difference of opinion, maybe I need to re-think my coming here to live. It could be a big mistake."

The dark head jerked up and Erin and Paula flinched. Paula, uneasy, got up and moved to lean against the counter behind TJ and Mare. Blue eyes, deepened by the passions of anger and pain, met and grabbed at Mare's emerald green. As she stared wretchedly at Mare, a cheek twitched then the beautiful features contorted. TJ opened her mouth but wasn't able to force the words out. Can't you see? I don't want the woman I love to be using the room of a man I hate! Why can't you understand that? TJ tore her eyes away, lowered her head and covered her face with both of her hands. Breathing rasped from her throat.

Mare raised a hand to soothe TJ, but Paula stepped forward, grabbed her hand and shook her head. Mare's heart went out to TJ, but she sat still as Paula had signaled, feeling that she probably was right. No one could predict TJ's reaction.

After a few minutes TJ's breathing evened out and a minute later she dropped her hands and raised her head, eyes still lowered. She rocked back and forth and interlaced her fingers but her hands moved anyway, thumbs rolling over each other, over and over. When she finally felt composed, she turned and lifted her eyes to Mare's. A miniscule squiggle of satisfaction soothed a spot in her soul when she saw Mare's reaction to the impact.

Mare felt like her heart had backed up and restarted. She knows those eyes are her most formidable weapon and even when I know she's going to use them on me, I'm helpless to defend myself. I just want to throw myself at her feet.

"I don't like to be manipulated, and I don't like emotional blackmail. That was my father's most powerful tool." Mare flinched at the hurt in TJ's voice and was dismayed to be compared to the monster that TJ's father obviously was. TJ cleared her throat. Her low voice sounded subdued and hesitant. She looked Mare straight in the eye. "But for you I'll compromise."

Paula squealed and threw her hands over her heart. "My God, I'm going to have a heart attack! TJ said the 'C' word!"

Erin blinked and waited for an outburst and she wasn't disappointed. TJ turned her head slowly and pinned Paula with cold, ice blue eyes. "You think this is funny?"

The grin slipped from Paula's face. "I'm sorry, TJ." TJ stared a moment longer before turning back to Mare.

Mare watched in fascination as TJ's look drained the blood from Paula's face. She'd heard TJ use that tone before but not to either of the girls. She needed to take the focus off of Paula before TJ said or did anything that she'd regret later. "What do you propose?"

"You know I hate that room."

"I know you've turned it into a shrine that embodies your hate for your father, TJ, and I don't think that's a healthy situation. I could go in there and redo it and you would never recognize it. Whenever you came in, it would seem like a different room. There'd be nothing left to remind you of the bad times." Mare suddenly realized she was bulldozing her way over TJ's objections before she had heard them. "Er… I'm sorry, what are you proposing?"

After grappling with the terrible threat that Mare might not move to the ranch unless the office battle could be resolved, TJ had capitulated--to a degree. She decided that she could handle Mare taking over the office as long as she didn't have to see her in there. I can force myself to imagine that door opening into an entirely different room.

"You can have the room with four conditions. One, everything in the room must go. Throw it out, give it to some charity, I don't care. Just get rid of it so I will never see it again. Two, the door to the hall has to be kept closed at all times; and I mean at all times, unless someone is going in or out. Three, no one will use it as a place to hide from me. Four, I will never step foot in the room and I will not be pestered to…" TJ looked around to all three women, "by anybody. Is that clear?"

All three women nodded. "I want to hear each of you say you promise to abide by these conditions." TJ waited expectantly.

"I promise," Mare agreed and the other two added their promise, too.

"Paula, the key's in my bedroom in the bottom drawer of the jewelry chest. Would you get it, please?" Paula was halfway to the bedroom by the time TJ finished. She came back quickly with the key and handed it to her.

TJ reached for Mare's hand, turned it over and watched her own hand lay the key in Mare's palm. Mare closed her hand around it and smiled at her lover. She slipped the key into a pocket in her jeans.

An errant twitch tugged at TJ's cheek and Mare cupped her hand against it. "I know this has been hard for you, TJ. But someday I think you will feel better for it. Thank you for not letting this turn into a wedge between us."

The anger and pain in TJ's magnificent eyes slowly dissolved as love's passion replaced them. Seeing the change, the other three women began to relax. "I'd give you everything I have if that was the only way to get you here." TJ lifted the chair arm and Mare moved onto her lap. Erin and Paula quietly left the room.

TJ put her arms around Mare who put both hands up to hold the face she loved. She kissed TJ lightly then leaned back against her arms. "I didn't mean that to sound like a threat. I just know we are both pretty hardheaded. If we can't learn to compromise when we disagree then we have a tough road ahead of us." Green eyes smiled into the serious blue ones. "If I lived someplace else, I could always walk out in a huff."

TJ's solemn demeanor began to lighten. "If you get in a huff when you live here, I'll just have to hunt you down and 'unhuff' you."

"Ummm, that sounds pretty intriguing. I'll try to remember that." Mare put her arms around TJ's neck and snuggled closer against her. "Just think, when I move out here we will have lots more time together."

"I'm counting on it." TJ leaned her dark head against the golden one and sat there, peacefully enjoying the feel of Mare's arms around her neck and the warmth of the body pressed against her own. Long-fingered hands, rarely still, contented themselves in gently moving up and down against her beloved's back, sending quiet messages of love.

Mare moaned softly, her heart brimming with the beauty of their companionship.

TJ kissed the golden hair then laid her head back down against it. Mare could feel the soft, velvety voice coming through TJ's chest. "I can't believe how much I love you. You are so much a part of me, it's like we really are just one person."

"I feel the same way," Mare whispered.

They held each other for awhile then Mare stirred. "I wish I really could stay here forever. Unfortunately, I have to go back to work." She sat up, treated her senses to one more close-up of her lover's face then leaned into a kiss.

TJ ended the kiss by pulling away with a spurt of laughter. "Don't give me one of those 'light-TJ-up' kind of kisses then walk out the door. Save it for when you're going to stay and cool me off."

"Sorry. You're just soooo much fun to kiss."

"I thought the line was, 'You're just soooo much fun to torment'?"

Mare's eyes twinkled. "Well, sometimes one's the same as the other."

"Humph! You got that right." TJ pushed the button on the chair arm as Mare stood up.

Paula came in to answer the button's summons. "Mare, give Paula the key to the room. She can get started on clearing it out."

Mare retrieved the key from her pocket and handed it to the irrepressible woman. Paula winked and stuck it in her own pocket. "I'll come and help as soon as I can, Paula. Maybe even tonight."

TJ's heart skipped. "Hey, don't go tormenting me with words, now."

Mare grinned and patted her cheek. "You know I can't promise, but I will try."

"Hey, TJ, why not ask Mare to come with us to the plant next week? She might be interested in seeing how it works."

"Good idea, Paula. You might get back in my good graces, yet." Paula splayed her hand against her chest and her brows went up in a supposedly innocent look as Mare and TJ grinned. "How about it, Mare? Think you can make it?"

"You'll have to let me know exactly what day, then I'll have to see what's on my agenda, maybe rearrange a few things, get someone to cover for me. But, yeah, I can probably make it. With a new assistant on the horizon, I can move some things to a later date. Now, I better be going."

"Okay, we'll let you know the exact day as soon as we decide." TJ raised her arms and they kissed once more, then Mare left.

"Wait here, Paula." TJ wheeled over to the window and watched Mare walk to her truck and climb in. Mare felt TJ's eyes on her and she waved before backing up and rolling away.

TJ turned back around with a smile on her face that slowly died as her eyes came back to Paula and an eyebrow cocked up.

"Am I in trouble?"

"You and Erin both. Ganging up on me like that."

"What? We hardly said anything."

"You didn't have to. Mare and I both knew you were on her side."

"Well, she's a lot smaller than you. We think she should be protected." Paula was getting the idea that TJ wasn't really angry, just kidding around. She was sure of it when TJ's expression changed with her next words.

"Oh, that's what you think, huh?" TJ raised both brows and half grinned.

Paula looked at her a bit sheepishly. "Actually when Mare gets her mouth going, I kinda think you're the one who needs protected."

TJ laughed out loud. "Yeah, I think you're right about that."

Then her expression sobered. "Listen, I want you to get started on that office, but I don't want to have anything at all to do with it, you understand?"

"I understand. And TJ…"


"Thanks. About the office, and for bringing Mare out here. She brightens up the whole place. Erin and I both think she's the greatest."

"Thanks, Paula. I think you two guys are the greatest, too. Where is Erin?"

"She went out to see about the horses being brought into the barn and hosed down. It's getting pretty hot out there."

"Yeah, those early morning rides you thought of were a great idea, for the horses and for us. The afternoons have been pretty nasty. Speaking of nasty, we better get back to work."

TJ and Paula started across the kitchen. Paula looked down at TJ with a wicked look on her face. "I guess when Mare gets here the early morning rides will be out, huh? On the horses, I mean."

TJ's laugh burst from her throat and she slapped Paula in the side. "Erin's right, you are outrageous. We'll worry about that when she gets here." The two left the kitchen, both grinning widely.


Chapter 23

"Aaaaa-Chooo!" Mare's sneeze rocked the house as Erin and Paula looked at her in surprise, then laughed. Mare had made it back that afternoon to give Paula a hand clearing the office and Erin had joined them shortly afterward. Paula, while working alone, had managed to sift through part of one of the two filing cabinets and had rescued the deeds and plats of the Meridian ranch holdings. She had her fill of paperwork and expressed an opinion that the rest of the files could wait until later, with which the others concurred.

They settled on a system that seemed to be working well. Erin attacked the bookcases, stacking the multicolored, leather-bound tomes in cartons. Paula collected the knick-knacks, trophies, mementos, pictures, wall hangings and other assorted furnishings into other cartons, while Mare investigated the contents of the desk.

The curly-headed blonde, pulling books from one of the bookcases that lined one wall, stopped for a second. "Where the heck did a sneeze that size come from?"

Mare made a face at her. "From all the darn dust you two are stirring up, that's where." The vet rubbed her nose and yanked another drawer from the huge black desk, quickly examining its contents.

"Hey, look at this." Paula pointed to a set of pictures standing on a shelf. Others hung against the wall behind them. She waited until Mare and Erin had come over to join her. "That must be TJ's father when he was a young man. He's not as heavyset there as he was later. Who does he remind you of?"

"He looks something like Peter!" Mare exclaimed.

"Yeah." Erin agreed. "He's taller and slimmer and darker, but give him a beard to go with that moustache and he and Peter could be brothers. That's amazing."

"That might be part of the reason Peter could never get TJ to talk about her father. It would be natural for her to withdraw from someone who reminded her of him. And neither one of them knew why." Mare shook her head at the irony of it. "I think I'll pass this information on to him; he can probably use it."

"Sounds good," Paula said, "but let's get moving with this stuff or we'll never get finished." The women returned to their efforts and worked silently for the next few minutes, each lost in her own thoughts.

Mare, never one to sit quietly, broke the silence. "You know, some of the stuff that was in this desk is valuable. You sure we should throw it all out?" Mare had already emptied three drawers and they were sitting atop the desk. She laid the fourth on the floor and was squatted down, poking through its contents. A carton next to her held what she had emptied from the other drawers.

Erin came over and looked in the carton. She saw several gold pen and pencil sets, sterling silver cups and flasks, old fashioned cut glass inkwells and paper weights, and assorted other expensive items. "Why don't you put them in a separate carton and we'll donate them to one of the churches. TJ said we could give it away; she didn't insist we throw it out."

Mare nodded her head in agreement. "She sure was determined about not keeping anything from this room. But it's understandable that those beatings really affected her." Mare's face and eyes grew sad. She stopped and sank cross-legged to the floor next to the drawer, depressed by the very idea of the beatings TJ endured. "It's hard to imagine anyone treating her like that."

Erin's expression turned hard, a drastic change from her usual tranquility. "Paula and I don't have to imagine it, we saw him in action. He was beating TJ like a maniac. She was a grown woman and he was half again her size." Erin's agitation sounded in her voice. "We took her to the hospital and all the way there she shook so hard I couldn't even keep hold of her. At first I thought she was shaking from fear, but then she started talking in a low, nasty voice. I've never heard that tone or those words since. She was shaking from hatred. He'd been beating her like that since she was… " Erin's voice turned hoarse. "It hurts like hell to think of her being abused like that, even as a young kid."

Paula came over, put an arm around Erin's shoulders and gave her a quick squeeze. "Nobody will ever hurt her again, if we have anything to say about it."

Erin gave her a grateful smile. "That's for sure."

Mare's eyes were wet with unshed tears. "Maybe clearing out everything in here that would remind her of him will help. But she's got a long way to go to rid herself of his horrible legacy."

"Well, this is a start." Erin patted the top of Mare's head. "And it's thanks to you. TJ wouldn't have done this for anyone else. Paula and I tried, but never could persuade her."

A silence fell for a minute, then they continued with the cleaning.

Erin's eyes had fallen for a second time on the drawer Mare was unloading. Something snicked at the back of her mind, and she hesitated before returning to her task, but nothing surfaced. She went again to the bookcase and began putting books in a carton. Trying to fit a book into an opening between two others, she discovered it was too long, so she searched for and found one that was shorter and fit perfectly. As the book was sliding into place, she shouted. "It's too short!"

Mare and Paula both turned toward her and Paula spoke. "What are you talking about, Airy? Looks to me like it fit perfectly."

Erin raised her eyebrows and pointed her forefinger at her partner. "You better stop calling me that. You know I don't like it."

Paula shook her arms and hands. "Oooooohhh, I'm scared." She laughed at the expression on Erin's face. "Well, it's better than Air-head. Or Mare's initials." She turned to Mare with a grin. "Anybody ever call you MT?"

"No one who ever lived to tell about it." Mare said with such sincerity that all three of them laughed. "What were you talking about, anyway, Erin? What's too short?"

Erin had walked over to where Mare had just finished sorting through the drawer. The curly-headed blonde reached down and picked the drawer up. "This drawer is too short. Look." She laid it on top of one of the other three that were lying on top of the desk. Sure enough, it was about six inches too short. "Look in the opening, Mare. See if there's anything in there."

Mare knelt up and bent over to look in the opening. "Yeah! There is something in there!" She reached in, found an inlaid ring, and pulled it out. It was another, smaller drawer. There were some papers and pictures in the small container and she stood up and dumped them on an open spot on the desk.

Erin stacked the other drawers at the far end of the desk and she and Paula joined Mare in inspecting the contents. Mare spread the pictures out. Most of them seemed to be all of the same person at different ages: a baby, an infant, a boy, a pre-teen. The earlier pictures also had a young woman in them, holding the child. The boy had the same black hair and blue eyes that TJ, her father and Lance had.

Mare looked from Erin to Paula. "Do you think this is TJ's father when he was a child? Or maybe Lance?"

Erin had picked up one of the pieces of paper and was reading it. She shook her head. "No, I don't think the answer is that easy. This is a birth certificate. The boy's name is Thomas Joseph Meridian Raphaele. His mother's name is Gloria Raphaele." She looked up at Mare and Paula, then back down at the paper. "His father's name is Thomas Joseph Meridian."

The three stood there, speechless, just staring at each other.

"How old is he now?" Mare managed to ask.

Erin looked at the certificate. "He's sixteen."

"TJ has a half-brother. Wow. Wonder how this is going to hit her?" Paula frowned and put her hands on her hips. "Maybe we shouldn't even tell her. She has this strong, powerful side, but we all know she's still pretty fragile about anything concerning her father."

Mare pondered this for a moment. "I don't see how we can keep it from her. Obviously, these people must know something about her. They could pop up at any time. It would be better for her to be prepared. Besides, she has a right to know she has a brother."

"Yeah, I agree." Erin's face vacillated between anguish and frustration. "Every time something good happens to TJ," Erin squeezed Mare's shoulder, "something else happens to kick her in the gut." She stood a minute, thinking, while the other two waited. "But I don't think we should tell her just yet. I'd like time to investigate this first. That way we can give her the whole story instead of just part of it."

"Sounds good to me. TJ has enough to contend with without someone causing her more problems," Paula growled and Mare nodded in agreement.

Erin put the certificate down and pawed through the remaining papers. "Some of these are copies of letters from Tom Meridian to the boy and his mother. She handed some to Mare and Paula.

The women read through the letters. Mare looked up. "These are pretty sentimental. Sounds like Tom Meridian really loved this boy and his mother."

"Yeah." Erin sounded disgruntled. "Shame he couldn’t spare some of that for his daughter." She gathered together the papers, letters and pictures, looked for a rubber band and encircled them with one. "I’ll put these in our bedroom. TJ never goes in there." She addressed Mare. "I’ll keep you posted on the investigation. You know who’s going to be the one to tell TJ about this, don’t you?"

Mare swallowed and agreed. "That’s not going to be an easy task. I might need backup. We’ll talk about this when you’ve gotten the information, okay?" Erin and Paula nodded.

Erin stuck the package under her arm. "Time to call a break anyway, it’s almost supper time. We can work on this again another day. I’ll run this stuff upstairs and be right down. If you two want to wash up and start putting the food out, I’ll join you in a few minutes."

"Okay," Paula answered. "Don’t forget, we’re having our music night tonight. And no excuses from TJ; she is going to sing." That thought lightened everyone’s mood and they all went off to their chosen tasks.


TJ, lying face down on the bed, sighed with pleasure. She could feel Mare's knees bent alongside her waist and although she had no sensation of Mare, unclothed, sitting across her thighs, she could picture her there with her mind. She grinned. I always did have a pretty good imagination. Fingers slathered with perfumed oil massaged the juncture of her neck and shoulders then worked outward and downward, covering every inch of skin.

Each time Mare came to one of the scars on the otherwise unblemished skin, she leaned forward and switched the massage from her fingers to her tongue and lips before resuming her downward journey. After a prolonged trip, Mare reached the point where TJ's feeling stopped.

Mare leaned her upper body against TJ's back and made a request into her ear. " Do you mind if I continue this little expedition? I know you can't feel my hands, but I can feel you."

"Hmmm. You can do anything your little heart desires." TJ had been lying there dreamily luxuriating in every rub and stroke. A soft warmth danced through her when Mare leaned down against her back. When Mare changed position and faced the other way, TJ's body suddenly came to full alert. Now Mare was sitting on TJ's back, her knees bent alongside. Moving back and forth in a rocking motion, she stroked her way down the long-legged half of the prone body.

TJ believed that when she lost feeling in the lower half of her body, the upper half had become more sensitive. Although she had no real basis for this belief, the reaction she was experiencing from Mare's rocking against her back seemed to reinforce it. Twisting her neck to look behind her, the slight glimpse she could manage made her groan and flop her face down again. Exerting enormous will power she waited at least three minutes before licking dry lips and saying hoarsely, "I'll promise you anything if you'll turn me over and do that rocking on my front." Erotic fantasies of sight, touch and taste blazed through TJ's imagination, deepening her breathing and covering her with a fine sheen of perspiration.

The passionate voice of her lover, accompanied by a low chuckle, pumped her adrenaline up even higher. "Your every wish is my command."

The next hour outdid her wildest dreams.

Satiated, the two clung together, damp skin slowly cooling. Mare lay in her favorite spot, turned toward TJ, her head in the hollow of her lover's shoulder, one arm spread across her waist. One of TJ's arms wrapped around her while the other moved a softly caressing hand up and down her side and back.

"I am so glad I had only that one appointment this afternoon. I miss you so much when we don't have a chance to get together."

The wandering hand stopped and came to Mare's chin. Long fingers tipped Mare's face up. The dark head, sending a message of love from affectionate eyes, bent down for a sweet kiss. "Me, too."

"Paula and Erin and I got a lot done toward cleaning out the office, too." Mare felt a slight tensing of muscles in the body lying against her. Oops, that was dumb, Mare. You know she doesn't want to even think about that room. With what we discovered, I don't either, at the moment.

Okay, time to get her relaxed again. Glad we had that gathering in the music room before bedtime.

Mare put an elbow down against the bed and lifted a little to look into TJ's face. "You know, when Paula said you had a beautiful voice, she wasn't kidding."

TJ had closed her eyes. A tiny smile tugged at her lips. "Right."

"You do!" Mare's hand slapped down against the firm belly bringing the blue eyes open. "How about singing me to sleep? Nobody's done that since I was a little girl."

The magnificent eyes slanted down and the smile grew larger. "You still are a little girl."

Mare snorted and nudged TJ with an elbow. "How tall are you, anyway?"

"Just about six foot."

"Wow, no wonder it took me so long to oil your whole body."

Mare's smile grew impish. "Why don't you sing me… 'Rock-a-bye Baby'?"

Newly experienced erotic images suffused TJ's mind this time and she pulled Mare over on top of her, one hand already searching for sweet spots. "Woman, you just don't know when to quit, do you?"


Chapter 24

Mare climbed the ladder out of the pool and accepted the towel Michael handed to her. She dried her face and arms and gave her head a brisk rub, just enough to keep the excess water from running off her hair and down her body. "This is really great, so refreshing. I wonder why Meridian Ranch doesn't have a pool? It would be terrific for TJ." She chuckled. "And I don't think Paula or Erin would object, either. I think I'll ask her about that." She walked over and sat at an umbrella table across from Michael.

Her father looked at her and smiled. There's no doubt she loves the woman. All you have to do is watch her face light up when she mentions her. "Mare, I finally have finished my examination of TJ's records."

Hope brightened Mare's face even more. "And?"

Michael reached over and patted her hand. "I wish I could be more optimistic, but I'm no miracle worker, Mare. That bullet fragment in TJ's back is wedged against her spinal cord. If it could be removed, there are some treatments that might return some feeling and limited use to her legs. But it's in such a precarious position, it is inoperable. There's just no way to get to it without damaging her spinal cord further. I'm sorry."

Mare's face fell. She had harbored some unrealistic hope that her father could help TJ. To find out he couldn't was hard to accept.

"I know you're terribly disappointed and so am I. I'd love to be able to help her--for your sake, too."

"No, Dad, I'm not disappointed for me. I love TJ no matter what. I'm disappointed for her. For all the obvious reasons of course. But also for one that might sound a little crazy. TJ loves horses. I know everything I read about horseback riding mentions the wonderful sensation of wrapping your legs around such a powerful animal. I see her on Faithful Flag and I could cry that she can't feel that sensation anymore."

Mare sighed. "TJ pats her and hugs her and strokes her, but it's not a true substitute. She can't feel her seat. It hurts to see these two magnificent animals who belong together and know that TJ can't experience the full pleasure of that."

Michael nodded in sympathy. "I keep abreast of everything having to do with SCI. If anything shows up, I'll jump right on it."

"Thanks, Dad. Just knowing that you are concerned helps a lot." Mare picked her watch up from the table. "Looks like it's about time to get ready to leave."

"Your visit was a little shorter this time. Too bad your latest prospect for an assistant could only be interviewed today."

"Yeah, that is a shame. But he seems like the perfect candidate. I don't want to let him slip through my fingers. If I had my way, he'd start tomorrow." Mare stood up. "Stay out here, Dad. There's no need for you to shepherd me around now. I think I've finally got the house plan down pat."

She leaned down and kissed his cheek, and he kissed hers. "Okay, Mare, if that makes you happy then I'm happy to do it." Michael grinned and waved as she entered the house to prepare to go home. Her mind was already on the logistics of remodeling the office and moving her belongings to the Meridian ranch in time for her about-to-be-hired assistant to move his wife and baby into her house. And making plans for some of the extra time she would free up to spend with her love.


"Dr. Gillespie, I had my lawyer look over the contract and the rental agreement and he said everything was in order." Barry Cassel pulled the papers from his briefcase and handed them to Mare. "Here they are, all properly signed." Close to her own age, Barry was tall and muscular with straight, dark brown hair and hazel eyes. He had a friendly, outgoing manner, and he and Mare had liked each other at once.

Although Barry was a native Texan, after graduation from veterinary school he had worked in Idaho with a fellow graduate. He had married his childhood sweetheart and he and his wife, Berta, had a two-year-old son, Bobby. The parents decided that they wanted their son, and any future children, to grow up in Texas, so they made plans to move.

He and Mare were in her office seated at the desk. "That's great, Barry. Welcome to the practice." Mare offered her hand and they shook. "From now on, please call me Mare. I know most of the people in this town and they are a pretty good sort. I think you'll be happy you came here."

"I think so, too, Mare. Berta and I have already met a few and we were impressed by their friendliness. When would you like me to start?"

Mare's smile dimpled her cheeks. "Just as soon as you can. My vet friend in Sharlesburg will be glad to have another person thrown into the mix, too. We've been covering for each other on alternate Sundays and your being here will give us some welcome breathing room. Darn animals don't know what Sunday is." Mare shook her head. Her Sharlesburg friend had been doing extra duty on Saturdays, too, to give Mare a break in getting to know her father. But paybacks would come, sooner or later.

"I assume you will be giving two weeks notice to your current associate?" Barry nodded and Mare continued. "That will give me more than enough time to get moved out. As soon as I am, you can start moving in and I will expect you in the office two weeks from Monday. How's that?"

"That would be fine. The rental agreement doesn't start for two weeks after that, though. Should we prorate the rent for that extra time?"

"No, consider that part of your welcome here." Mare rose and Barry followed her up. They shook hands and Mare walked him to the door. "I'm looking forward to meeting Berta. Anyone married to a vet has to be a very understanding person!"

"She is that. We'll be seeing you soon." Barry left and Mare leaned against the closed door. "Thank whatever gods that be. An assistant!" Smiling, she put the agreements in her safe, picked up her already packed belongings and went out the door, heading for Meridian Ranch. Heading for TJ, her heart sang. I wonder if I'll always have this feeling of being only half a person when I'm not with her? And feeling so perfectly complete when I am? I hope it never stops.


Mare, trying to do too many things in too little time, was exhausted. She crawled into bed and snuggled up to TJ. She lay quietly in her lover's arms, feeling TJ's gentle caress against her back. Gradually, the hand stilled as TJ heard Mare's breathing slow and deepen. Son of a gun, she fell asleep! Poor kid must be dead tired. Disappointed, she nevertheless realized that Mare was off the next day and they would have other opportunities. Smiling in anticipation of a whole day together, TJ drifted off to sleep, too.

Mare awoke in the middle of the night. At first, embarrassed that she had fallen asleep after looking forward to lovemaking, she soon realized that she must have been exhausted and the sleep would do her good. She hesitated to move, lest she wake TJ, but she smiled, picturing in her mind the repose that came to her lover's gorgeous face only in sleep.

As often happens when waking during the night, Mare's mind started to think more than she wanted it to, and she fought against it, wanting only to go back to sleep.

I'm so glad Paula and Erin were able to finish clearing the office. Paula said movers will come Monday to haul everything away and she will start painting right after that. Looks like I might be out here within the week! Everything seemed to be falling beautifully into place--a "new" father, a new assistant, a new home, and TJ.

Her smile grew as she recalled the surprise she and Paula had cooked up for TJ for tomorrow. Erin, delighted when they told her, had even offered a few suggestions. Yeah, my love, tomorrow will be your day.

Mare kissed TJ's body where her head lay and snuggled closer as TJ's arm reflexively tightened around her. Then the golden-haired vet's mind finally quieted and her breathing slowed to match TJ's as she fell asleep once more.


Mare slipped out of TJ's embrace in the morning, and got out of bed, still pleading fatigue. The night before, she really had been too tired, but this morning she was pretending, believing that restraint now would add enjoyment to their planned time together later in the day.

TJ frowned and pouted. "You aren't sick or something are you?"

"No." Mare bent over and planted a swift kiss on the pushed out lip, ducking to avoid TJ's encircling arm. "But don't look so sad. We have a surprise for you."

TJ's face brightened. "What?"

"You'll find out later." Mare laughed at TJ's snort of frustration and dashed into the bathroom. She showered and dressed, fending off any further questions about the surprise other than to tell TJ she could dispense with her tubes and bags for awhile.

Mare went in search of Paula, finding her in the kitchen stacking a few items in the dishwasher. "Erin gave me a hand and everything's ready and packed," the dark-haired woman informed her.

"Great." Mare gave her a quick squeeze. "By the time TJ does her exercises and we finish breakfast, we can leave." She grinned wickedly. "I told her we have a surprise for her, so she'll probably try to pump it out of you."

Paula laughed and dried her hands. "She won't get any news from me. I'll go start her on her exercises, now. There's coffee made if you want some."

Mare took a mug from the cupboard and poured a cup. "How do you think TJ's going to react to this? Do you foresee any problems?"

"I hope not. Can't think of a reason for any. I think this is a super idea. That last episode you two went through really shook her up. She needs a good experience to replace that." Paula made a thumb's up sign and went to take care of TJ.

All through breakfast, TJ forced herself not to ask Mare anything about the surprise. She just kept throwing daggered looks at her and Paula and Erin, recognizing that the three were in cahoots and were determined to torment her. And she was just as determined not to let them.

When breakfast was over, Erin went out the door and Mare and Paula, chatting away, cleared the island. After about 10 minutes, Mare took charge of TJ's wheelchair and pushed her out to the barn and up the ramp as Erin brought the saddled Flag toward her. "Mare, what is going on? Where am I supposed to be riding Flag to?"

Mare didn't answer and TJ saw Paula come bounding into the barn, grab a saddle from the tack room and take it over to Runny's stall. "Wait a minute." TJ's jaw set and she frowned at Erin who still held Flag. "Who's supposed to ride Runny?"

"I'm going to." Mare moved to the side of the chair so TJ could see her. "We're going for a ride somewhere to find out the surprise."

TJ's eyes swept up to Mare. "Mare." Her eyebrow hiked up and she looked stern. "Do you really want to ride that horse?"

Mare started to get red and looked away. "Er… I don't… Look, TJ, I want to go riding with you."

"Is riding Runny part of the surprise? Or you just need to go wherever it is on horseback?"

Mare looked at Erin, then at Paula who was still holding Runny's saddle and shrugging. "We just need to go on horseback."

"Okay. Erin, strap me toward the back of the saddle and Mare can ride with me." She glanced from Erin back to Mare and saw her love's beautiful face clear. TJ grinned as she realized the idea appealed to Mare. Erin and Paula were grinning, too.

Erin nodded. "That's a great idea, TJ. Paula and I both are a little leery of Mare riding any more without taking some runs close to home for awhile."

Paula, a big grin still on her face, took Runny's saddle back to the tack room while Erin and Mare helped TJ use the hoist to mount Flag. Erin did as TJ asked and strapped her toward the back of the saddle.

Then Mare managed to mount by swinging her leg forward past the saddle horn and settling in front of TJ. Clasping one arm around her, TJ clucked to Flag and they started off.

"You mind telling me which way I should direct Flag to go?"

"We're going to the lake, okay? Just aim her that way."

"The surprise is at the lake?"

"Yep." Mare pushed her lips tight together.

"And you're not telling me until we get there, right?"

"Right." She pushed her lips even tighter together.

TJ reached under Mare's shirt and laid her long hand flat against her lover's bare stomach. Just before her lips locked on the side of Mare's neck, she uttered a throaty laugh. "We might not get to the lake."

Mare grabbed the wandering hand and brought it back outside her shirt. "Uh-uh. No hanky-panky until we get to the lake." Good grief, the woman's voice turns me on. It's no wonder her touch drives me crazy.

"Hanky-panky?" TJ raised her eyebrows, mocking the expression. "Okay, no hanky-panky. What do you think about a little necking?" TJ moved Mare's hair from the back of her neck and planted a kiss there.

Mare sighed, closed her eyes and leaned back against the firm body. "I think we better hurry and get to the lake."


At last, they reached their destination and TJ's eyes widened when she saw a blanket spread on the ground with a tablecloth, picnic basket, cooler and several large pillows sitting on it. She gave Mare an extra hug. "So, this is the surprise. A picnic!" She looked around. The spot chosen was a grassy clearing that abutted the lake, just beyond the ring of trees. One solitary old sentinel stood in the clearing, spreading its boughs over the blanket, its branches reaching to the edge of the water. The pebble beach began right next to one side of the clearing.

"This is a perfect spot, Mare. I have just one question."

Mare swung her leg over the saddle horn and slid down to the earth. "What's that?"

"Just how am I supposed to get off of Flag?" Mare looked up for the quirked eyebrow and wasn't disappointed.

"Just hand me your cell phone, baby." Mare smirked as TJ raised both eyebrows and mouthed "Baby?" But she pulled the phone from her belt holder and passed it to Mare. The vet punched in some numbers and spoke to the one answering. "We're here."

She handed the phone back to TJ. "Now we have a short wait."

About two minutes later, Erin and Paula showed up in the Rover. They pulled next to Flag and piled out with big grins on their faces. Paula looked up at TJ. "Here we are, boss, ready to bring you back to earth."

Erin poked Paula with an elbow and rolled her eyes. Paula snorted. "Well, it sure as hell doesn't take an hour and a half to ride out here from the ranch, even on a slow horse, and Flag isn't slow."

Mare tried for the innocent approach. "Well, we were checking out the scenery."

"Sure," Paula chortled. "Guess that's why your blouse is buttoned crooked, right?"

Mare looked quickly down at her shirt front and saw that it was, indeed, buttoned wrong. A cute little blush started up her cheeks. It turned into a full-fledged red face when she heard TJ's dry response. "She didn't say what scenery."

Everyone laughed, including Mare, and Erin and Paula helped TJ down from Flag. Supporting TJ by draping her arms over their shoulders, they settled her on the blanket with her back against the tree. While Erin held her steady, Paula moved the cooler against her one side so she would have something to balance against and put a pillow on her other side. Paula tied Flag's reins to a bush, allowing the palomino room to graze the sweet grass, then loosened the saddle girth.

"How's that, TJ? You comfy?" Erin was squatted next to her, not letting go until she made sure TJ could sit without help. When TJ nodded, Erin kissed her on the cheek and stood up. "Okay, you guys, enjoy. Paula has fixed a feast for you and there's beer, soda and a bottle of wine in the cooler. Give us a call when you need us and we'll be back to help get TJ onto Flag."

"Thanks, both of you. We'll probably be a few hours." Mare gave them each a hug.

"You know what?" They turned to TJ and waited. "If someone would loop a wide rope around this limb above me and tie it off every foot or so, I could probably get on and off Flag by myself."

The other three looked at each other in chagrin. Then Mare pointed out something that saved face for them. "We needed to have the picnic basket and cooler brought out anyway." Erin and Paula looked a little happier at this explanation. "But let's get a rope out here for the visits when we aren't picnicking, okay?"

"Sure thing," Erin pulled a notebook with pencil from her pocket and added that suggestion. She and Paula climbed in the Rover, waved and left.

"Mare." TJ's seductive voice climbed across the vet's heart. "C'mere and let me fix those buttons."

Mare grinned and her eyes twinkled. "Uh… how about if we eat first?" She walked to the blanket and sat down next to the basket, opening the lid.

TJ grumbled, but it was a good-natured one. "You and that stomach! Are you always hungry?"

Mare stopped a moment, seeming to give the question serious consideration. "Yeah, I think I am always hungry. But it's not always food that I'm hungry for." She looked straight into TJ's eyes. "Most of the time it's something… someone… else." She squealed as TJ rolled onto her side, then her stomach, got her arms under her and "walked" to Mare. She reached for her, but Mare was just a little too quick. The laughing vet jumped to her feet and stepped over the picnic basket, settling on the far side of it.. "No, you don't, TJ. Food first! I don't know what you run on, but this body needs some fuel!"

Joining Mare's laughter, TJ rolled onto her back. "Okay, I give up. I've waited this long, I guess a little longer won't kill me. Food first. Wouldn't want you wasting away to nothing from burnout." She finished laughing and propped herself on one elbow. "This is a great surprise, Mare. Thanks."

"You've been working so hard, trying to keep things moving for the ranch and the packing plant, I figured it was time for you to relax a little." Mare dished out the food onto the china plates Paula had provided and handed one to TJ who rolled up onto her side. "You're the most important person in this mix, sweetheart. We don't want you burning out, either."

"That 'most important person' part is a matter of opinion." TJ's hooded eyes left no doubt as to whom she considered the most important. In answer, Mare tossed a wrapped chicken leg at her, which TJ easily caught and set on her plate.

"Eat!" Mare laughed.

"Yeah, and hurry up about it!" TJ added, eating quickly like she was going to wolf her food.

Mare came back to the other side of the picnic basket to sit cross-legged next to TJ. Reaching for one of the pillows, she handed it to TJ to lean on. "No, slow down and enjoy it. Or… " Mare's face got the impish look that always captivated TJ. "you won't get any dessert."

"Okay, okay, I'm eating slowly. Please notice how well behaved I've been all day, in spite of being mercilessly tormented by a green-eyed vixen." Mare glanced down at the crooked buttoning on her shirt and looked back up with a questioning tilt of her head. TJ grinned and shrugged. "Well, I behaved almost all day. Can't blame a girl for trying."

"Right. So don't go pretending you were the only one being tormented."

TJ's smile burst across her cheeks. "Hehehehe. You loved every minute of it."

A wee smile fought its way onto Mare's lips and her eyes gleamed. "Yeah, I guess I did." She reached for TJ's empty plate, stacked it with hers, and put it into the basket. Then she picked up both sides of the tablecloth, folded them over whatever was left on it and set it in, too.

Mare reached into the basket with one hand and encircled the stems of two wineglasses. She froze in that position as TJ's arm encircled her waist. Using the hold for leverage, TJ used her other hand to unbutton Mare's shirt. "That was just an appetizer," she murmured, capturing a mound's peak between her teeth and teasing with her tongue. She dropped her hand onto Mare's jeans and began stroking deeply.

Mare let go of the glass stems and entangled one hand in the dark hair to pull it tighter against her. Her other hand loosened her jeans top as she squirmed to straighten her legs to face TJ's body. "Okay, we'll have the wine later," she breathed.


They lay together on the blanket, a gentle breeze from the lake serving to cool the vestiges of their lovemaking. Dampness still lingered where their skin touched. Mare lay on her back, fingers lost in raven hair, one hand cupping her lover's cheek. TJ's head rested against Mare's stomach, one long arm wrapped underneath her thighs while the other hand stroked up and down Mare's side and hip.

"Does that hand ever stay still?" Mare's lazy question hung in the air.

The hand stopped. "Do you want it to?"

"No, never."

There was a deep chuckle and the hand returned to its gentle stroking.

"TJ, do you know how to swim?"


"You want to give the lake a try?"

"You planning on carrying me over there?"

"Come on, it's only about 20 feet. We're practically in it already. You can roll over there. Let go of me and I'll show you." TJ loosened her grasp on Mare's legs and raised her head. Mare scooted out from under her and laid out flat on the ground. She started rolling, traveling right up to the water's edge.

"See?" She waved to TJ. "It's easy. Come on."

TJ turned the upper half of her body and lined it up with the shoreline. She rolled along the ground just as Mare had, a little surprised at how easily her body rolled across the grass. She stopped at the edge of the water and looked up at Mare who was now standing. "Not a bad idea, Mare. But I'm not too sure I can stay afloat. My legs will probably weigh me down."

"In the water you won't weigh anywhere near what you weigh out of the water, so I can help hold you up. I'll support your legs. Come on, give me your hands." Mare took hold of TJ's hands and dragged her the last couple of feet into the water. She kept pulling her until the water was up to her chest, then moved TJ's hands to her shoulders and smiled into her eyes. "You okay so far?"

"Yeah, as long as I hold onto you. This feels pretty good. They kept taking me into the pool at the hospital for therapy but I was too depressed to give a damn, then. I don't feel that way now, thanks to you." She pulled herself closer to Mare, encircled her neck with her arms and kissed her soundly.

Hugging TJ's body tightly and holding the kiss, Mare sank below the surface of the water, then rose again to the air. Their lips broke apart and Mare laughed. "You look like a different person with your hair plastered back like that."

"Different? How?" Mare shivered with delight as TJ's velvet voice skittered through her.

"I'm not sure. Younger? More… rakish? Not quite your usual sober self."

"Sober am I?" TJ tickled Mare's ribs.

"Look out, now. Tickling me out in the middle of the water is not a good idea unless you are sure you can swim."

"Mmmm. You have a point. Maybe I should try this instead."

"TJ, stop! I'm warning you, you better stop. You better… ohhhh, don't stop. Don't ever stop." TJ's mouth closed on Mare's as her lover's knees buckled and she and TJ went below the surface again. Mare's hands and body joined TJ's as they locked together in the throes of passion. Mare finally remembered they needed air to live and managed to find enough strength in her legs to straighten up. Their mouths stayed fastened together until their bodies quieted then they pulled their lips apart, panting.

"You could have killed us, woman," Mare gasped.

TJ put her head on Mare's shoulder and clung to her. "I thought we did die. Wasn't that heaven we just visited?"

Mare started to giggle. "Yes, yes, yes! Sure felt like heaven to me! What is it about water that is so sexy?"

TJ snorted a small laugh. "Moments like this, maybe? You know what, Mare? I think we're ready for that wine now. We have a few things to celebrate today."

Mare pulled TJ back to the shore and she helped her to roll back to the blanket. She went to Flag and pulled several towels from the saddlebag. Back at TJ's side, she began to dry her off.

"I can do that, you know."

Mare's hands froze. "You want me to stop?"

TJ's gorgeous smile spread across her face. "No, never."

Mare grinned and continued, kissing each part as she dried it. When she finished, she helped TJ get dressed, then dried herself and got dressed while TJ, her eyes filled with love, observed her.

"I love to watch you, Mare. Every movement you make is so smooth and graceful. Just like you. What did I ever do to deserve you?"

Mare finished buttoning her shirt--straight, this time--and smiled at her lover as she lifted the wineglasses from the picnic basket and TJ pulled the wine from the cooler. "I asked myself almost that same question the other day. I guess the two of us just got very, very lucky."

TJ had pulled herself up against the tree beside the cooler. Mare sat next to her and held the glasses while TJ filled them, then set the bottle back in the cooler. The dark-haired woman held her glass out to her golden-haired lover. "To us."

Mare clinked her glass against TJ's. "To us."

They sat side by side, shoulders touching, and drank their wine as the mid-afternoon sun reflected from the glassy surface of the lake.

"We'll have more time to spend a day together like this when you get your new assistant and can move to the ranch." TJ glanced down at Mare and smiled.

"Boy, am I looking forward to that. Barry has a great resume, a terrific personality and talks like a dedicated worker. I know he'll be an asset to the practice and the additional free time that will give me seems almost too good to be true. Running two offices should be a real boost for everybody, too."

"Mare, we have several suites of rooms in the ranch house. I want you to pick out a suite for your own."

Mare sat forward, frowning, and turned to look into TJ's face. "Why, TJ?"

"I want you to stay with me every second, of every minute, of every hour, of every day, forever. But I don't want you ever to stay with me just because you feel obligated to. Or…" TJ grinned wryly. "if you're ever in a huff and need someplace to be alone for awhile." She looked down and picked up Mare's hand that had been resting on her thigh. "Are you all right with that?"

The blue eyes swept up to Mare's and her heart flip-flopped once again. Mare saw the tiny glint of satisfaction that flickered through them and she punched a slightly startled TJ in the arm. "Yes, I'm all right with that but you know what your eyes do to me and still you pin me with them. Have you no mercy at all?"

The lips started to part in a grin. "Well, I…"

Both the grin and the voice were interrupted by Mare's mouth sealing the lips then forcing them back apart with a tasting tongue.

At last the kiss ended and Mare kept her body against TJ's where it seemed to belong.

"Time to call the girls, I guess." Mare sighed and nodded, and TJ made the call.

Touching their heads together, they held hands like young lovers and murmured endearments as they waited for their friends to arrive.


To be concluded in Part 9

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Karen A. Surtees or PruferBlue

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