Many Roads To Travel
by Karen A. Surtees and PruferBlue

Part 2

See Part 1 for disclaimers.

Chapter 5

Mare was curled up on the couch, staring at the flames that flickered merrily in the fireplace. It wasn't really cold enough to merit the fire being lit but she enjoyed the cozy, homey atmosphere it produced

The phone had been fixed to her ear for the last hour. In the course of the conversation, Mare had told TJ about Flag's condition. After answering a few probing questions, Mare convinced TJ that the palomino was not in danger. "Okay, I'll sleep with an extra blanket to put in her stall. Wish I could bring it to you myself."

Although TJ was doing her best to sound cheerful, Mare could hear the frustration and tension in her voice. She was suffering much the same as Mare was and they had been apart only one day. And it will be a few more days before I can get back to see her. "Goodnight. I love you too, sweetheart. Now I want you to put Erin on the phone for me. You get some sleep and I'll phone you in the morning, okay?" She listened as TJ passed over the phone and quietly spoke to Erin. There was a pause, then her friend's voice finally came over the phone, accompanied by some background commotion.

"Mare? Let me call you right back from a hall phone. I'm moving out of the room; TJ's nurses have just come in to turn her." The sound of TJ complaining loudly could be heard as Erin talked. Then the phone clicked, cutting it off. Mare grinned, knowing that her lover wasn't going to be the easiest of patients over the next few months.

The phone rang and Mare quickly picked it up. "Hi, I'm back," came Erin's voice.

"Hi, Erin. How's she doing?"

"Oh, lord. I'd forgotten how hard this was," groaned Erin. "I think at the moment she's just testing the waters but she has been a little trying today. That nurse Nancy isn't taking any nonsense from her though. Your dad thinks they will be ready to start physical therapy on Monday. That is providing TJ hasn't escaped from the confines of her bed by then."

Mare chuckled. "Has she really been that bad?"

"Actually, no, she hasn't. She's still in a lot of pain and the medication tends to knock her out; so it's just when she wakes up that she's a bit of a handful."

"You okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. Been catching up on some reading for the ranch and I've got a few reports to go over. You moved in okay?"

"Yep. Lock, stock and barrel. Thanks for looking after her, Erin, we should be back in a few days."

"No problem, Mare. I'm just going to say goodnight to the 'terror' then I'm off to your dad's. Tell Paula I'll ring her from there."

"Goodnight, Erin. Drive carefully."


On Monday morning, Mare woke up in the large bed with a death grip on one of the pillows. She lay there with her eyes closed, pretending she was holding TJ's body up against hers, imagining the feel of her warmth and firmness. Her lips curved as she conjured up TJ's unique scent, her salty taste, the slick feel of...

Get up, you dope, you're just torturing yourself. Reluctantly, she rolled out of bed, took a badly needed cold shower, and dressed. She sat on the bed and placed a call to TJ on the off chance that she might be up, but was informed that she was still sleeping. Sighing, she set the phone down and went to the kitchen.

Already there, Paula had set two places at the island and was getting out the cereal, milk, sugar and bananas for breakfast. She looked up and smiled. "Good morning. All ready to start your new assistant on his duties?"

"Hey, I still have another hour, let's not rush things," the vet groused good-naturedly. Mare helped herself to the coffee. "First, right after breakfast, I want to check on Flag again, see if the blanket I got from TJ's room has had any effect yet. If not, when I phone TJ, I'll tell her that Flag is still homesick for her, and we'll need the one she's sleeping with. A fresh scent will be stronger and might help her baby out. What are you up to today?"

"You remember Fred Morales, the packing plant manager? He's coming out for a meeting with me." Paula counted off on her fingers: "I have to check on the packing plant's production, go over the figures, see how the hiring is working out, find out if they have any problems, that kind of stuff. Then report it all to TJ."

"Sounds like fun." Mare grimaced, wolfed her food and started for the door.

"Let me know how Flag is, will ya?" Paula wanted to make sure Mare didn't go off to Meridianville without letting her know whether the palomino was improving. The vet waved to acknowledge the request and went out.

Another beautiful day. Too bad TJ can't be here to enjoy this run of gorgeous weather we're having. Mare strode into the barn and heard the golden palomino nicker, but she didn't come to the end of the stall. Instead, she stood in the corner where Mare had hung the blanket that she'd brought from the bottom of TJ's bed. Mare was frustrated to see that a large portion of Flag's feed was untouched. At least, now that she had the blanket, she wasn't as droopy. Let's just hope her feeding picks up soon. Sure don't want TJ coming home to a sick horse.

She saw the stable hands were coming in to turn the horses out so she went back to the house, gave Paula a report, and headed to Meridianville.

Mare pulled up in front of her old home. With the curtains changed and a stroller sitting outside the door, it already looked different. Barry Cassel, his wife, and two-year-old son, Bobby, had moved in over the weekend and today would be Barry's first on the job.

For Barry's use, Mare had left her vet office just as it was. The office at Meridian ranch was being set up with new furniture and supplies. New place, new stuff, Mare thought, even as she felt a little tug about leaving all the familiar furnishings behind.

What's the matter with me? I guess there is always some trepidation about starting anything new, but without TJ, the prospect of living at the ranch is beginning to look downright uncomfortable to me. That thought spawned another. I'm a big girl, now. I've never needed someone else to hold my hand. Am I letting myself get too dependent on TJ? Is that what I'm leery of? Is this what love does to you?

Mare shook her head and got out of the truck. She was walking up the sidewalk when the door opened and a six-foot tall, well-muscled man appeared. "Hi, Mare!" Barry beckoned to her. "Come on in and meet my wife."

Crinkled hazel eyes and short, brown hair topped Barry's round, boyish face. His cheerful expression, enhanced by dimpled cheeks, lifted her spirits and brought an answering grin to her face. "Hi, Barry, I'd love to."

He held the door as she entered, then turned to introduce her. "Mare, this is my wife, Berta."

"Hi, Mare. I'm really happy to meet you. And I love your house." Small and sturdy, with medium-length, light-brown hair, Berta smiled attractively and held out her hand.

Mare shook it and smiled back into gray-blue eyes. "Thanks, Berta. Please think of it as your house. Your family will be a great addition to Meridianville. Speaking of family, where's Bobby?"

"I think the move must have worn him out. He's still sleeping." Berta laughed. She pushed soft curls off of her forehead. "Not that I'm complaining, mind you. I'm pretty worn out, too."

"Yeah, moving can be tough on everyone." Especially me, it seems.

Berta laughed again: a soft, mellow sound. "But if we never moved, we would all still live in caves."

Mare cocked her head and raised her eyebrows. "Hmmm. I never really thought of it that way. Good point." Very good point. I should stop being a stick-in-the-mud about moving to the ranch and get on with my life. TJ and I have a wonderful future ahead of us. What kind of future did I have in sight before we met and fell in love?

"I think maybe we better get moving." Barry gave Berta a kiss, picked up his bag and started for the door. "Shall we take your truck or mine, Mare?"

The two women smiled at each other. "A man of action, I see," Mare ventured. She took Berta's hand. "Glad to have you here, Berta. We'll probably see a lot of each other."

"I hope so. Good-bye, Mare."

Mare nodded and moved toward the door. "Let's take yours, Barry. Might as well get everyone familiar with it." She turned back toward Berta. "By the way, Berta, don't expect Barry back for lunch today. We'll eat at the Meridian ranch. They've become our biggest customer."

"Isn't that where your new office is?" Barry asked as they moved toward his truck. The capped Dodge, almost a twin to Mare's, was the same truck he used for calls at his last job and it was fully equipped with veterinary needs.

"Yes, it is. In fact, I live at the ranch now, but sometimes an extra vet might be needed there and I want you to be familiar with it."

Barry smiled down at her. "Okay, you're the boss." Dressed in jeans, light-blue shirt and work boots, Barry almost bounced with energy. His enthusiasm to start his new job cast a bright spell on the whole day.

Mare had collected her new calls and callbacks from the vet in Sharlesburg and she and Barry proceeded to make the rounds. At each place, Mare introduced him as her new assistant and stood back, lending a hand only when necessary, while he handled the animals' problems. After they finished the urgent calls and washed up at their last one, they stopped at Meridian ranch.

Mare unlocked the outside door to her office and led Barry in. The room bore no resemblance to the heavily curtained, dark and foreboding one it had been. Light peach walls and a nut-brown rug set off the walnut desk, file cabinets, bookcases, and credenzas that were placed in one end of the large room.

Two dark-green couches and several straight-backed chairs, randomly gathered near a fireplace, graced the other end. Yellow, green and peach throw pillows supplemented the casual, welcoming ambience.

Twin glass doors, newly covered with decorative ironwork, filled part of a wall and opened onto a closed-in porch. Two eight-foot tall windows, complete with muted-yellow, cushioned window seats, gave a wide view of open range and invited the brightness of the day to enter and paint its golden tones on the items inside.

As Mare came through the door, the light touched her hair and intensified its gold. She caught her reflection in a mirror and couldn't resist smiling. TJ wouldn't recognize this room. Someday, I'll get her to come in here and chase her nightmares away. The thought of nightmares sobered her. No one was with TJ at night to hold her while she suffered through the painful memories buried deep within her consciousness. Maybe she won't have the nightmares in the hospital. I sure hope she doesn't.

She suddenly realized her thoughts had taken her miles away and she pulled herself back to the present. "Uh... sorry, Barry. What did you say?" Can't keep my mind off that woman!

Barry was walking around, closely examining the various articles in the room. "I said this is a great office. I've heard the Meridian ranch is the largest in this area and Miss Meridian was bringing it to full capacity. Is it there yet?"

"Not quite, but it will be soon. There will be plenty for a vet to do here when it is. But it won't take up my full time; I'll still be helping with the other calls. We can probably work out a daily routine where I work here three days and help with the other calls on the other days. Except for emergencies, of course."

Mare opened the hall door. "Paula? You here?" No one answered her hail. "Come on into the kitchen and we can find something to eat."

After lunch, Mare took Barry to callbacks at some of the larger farms and ranches in the area where most of his work would come from, and introduced him to the owners. A few moments of "shop talk" at each stop satisfied them that the new vet knew his business.

About two o'clock, Mare directed that they return to town, planning to make an early start for the hospital. "I'll make sure that you get around to all the farms and ranches. I'd like all the owners to meet you and feel confident about calling you when they need a vet."

Barry agreed. "I like that idea. It will help me feel more confident, too."

Barry drove his truck home, parked in the driveway and they climbed out. As she was moving from his truck to her own, with Barry walking beside her, Mare said, "I'll work with you for the next couple of days, Barry, then you will be on your own. I'm going to have to ask you to take over as much of the work as possible for a while." A look of concern crossed her face. "TJ Meridian is still in the hospital in Springerly, which is a two-hour drive from here, and I'm spending as much time there as I can. When she gets home I'll be more involved in the practice. Will you have any problem with that?"

From the look on her face, Barry realized that TJ's situation was preying on Mare's mind. "Not a bit, Mare. You give Miss Meridian the attention she needs. I figure the more I do, the sooner I'll know everyone and they will know me. I want my family to become an important part of this town and working with people is one of the best ways to achieve that, I think."

Mare nodded and shook his hand. "You did nice work today. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Thanks. See you, Mare."

Mare drove back to Meridian ranch with a happier heart. Looks like Barry is going to be fine. He's competent, sociable, and has a good head on his shoulders. Things will be a lot easier for me with him around. TJ and I just might have time to make a life together. She frowned. If she ever gets back home, that is. The dull ache, that seemed to take over her heart when she wasn't near TJ, thrummed into an actual pain, and she unconsciously rubbed her chest.

She parked in the driveway, jumped out of the truck and loped to the house. Pushing open the door, she hurried through and almost ran smack dab into Paula. The dark-haired woman grabbed her shoulder. "Whoa, Mare. What's your hurry?"

"I'm dying for a cup of coffee."

"Oh, okay," Paula laughed and let go of her. "You've come to the right place. I just made some fresh." Paula poured a couple cups of coffee, set them on the island with the cream and sugar, then sat down

Mare sank gratefully into a chair and fixed her coffee. "Sorry I almost ran you down, Paula. I just seem to be jumpier than usual."

When the doorbell rang Mare and Paula exchanged inquisitive looks. Mare raised a hand to keep Paula seated, swallowed a quick gulp of her coffee, then got up to answer the summons.

Through the window she could see a tall, slim shape, wearing jeans and a blue T-shirt, facing away from her. As she opened the door, a man turned toward her and dipped his head for a moment, then lifted it and looked right at her. "Hello, ma'am. Is Miss Scott here? Or Miss Tanner?"

He wasn't a man at all, just a boy. A tall, dark and handsome boy with a face she recognized from a photo... and blue eyes that astonished her. My god, it's TJ's brother! Mare was flabbergasted.

"I... er... hello. No... I..." Mare gave a short laugh. "Sorry, my mind was out of gear for a minute. I'm Dr. Gillespie. Come on in and have a seat. I'll get Miss Tanner for you, Mr....?" She held the door wider and he entered.

"Russell. Tom Russell." Mare noticed his broad shoulders and smooth walk as he moved to a chair in the living room and sat down. She hurried into the kitchen and found Paula on the phone.

Making a "T" with agitated hands, she demanded Paula's attention. "Paula, time out! Hang on a minute!"

Paula looked up, surprised at the urgency in Mare's tone. "Hold just a minute, please." She pushed the hold button and her eyebrows rose. "What is it, Mare?"

"He's here!"

"Who's here?" Everyone's nerves were on edge and Paula got a little exasperated at the guessing game.

"TJ's brother. He just knocked on the kitchen door and asked for you. Said his name is Tom Russell." Paula's eyes widened and she and Mare just stared at each other for a minute.

Paula jabbed the phone button. "Sorry, I'll have to get back to you later. Good-bye." She cradled the phone and addressed Mare.

"What the hell is going on, Mare?"

Mare shrugged. "He's using a false name. Maybe he thinks TJ is here and he wants to see her-find out who she is. He's probably just as curious about her as we are about him, maybe more so. After all, they are related."

"Why not just say, 'I'm TJ's brother'?"

"Come on, Paula. We were concerned what that might do to TJ. Maybe he's got sense enough to worry about that, too. He doesn't know anything about her or how she would react." Mare grimaced. "We know her pretty well but even we don't know the answer to that one."

She walked over and put her hand on Paula's shoulder. "He's in the living room, waiting for you. Why don't you go see what he wants?"

Paula leaned her dark head onto her own hand and rubbed her forehead. She stood up, took a deep breath and blew it out audibly through pushed-out lips. "Right. You coming with me?"

"You bet. Wild horses couldn't keep me away."

Paula reached for her crutches then threw an arm around Mare's shoulders. Giving her a quick hug, she grinned. "I'm glad you're here, Mare. With TJ hurting and my not getting much chance to be with Erin, I need all the support I can get."

Mare slipped an arm around her waist and hugged her back. "Well, you've got my support, for sure." I keep forgetting how hard this is on Erin and Paula. They have more than just TJ to worry about. Besides being concerned about each other, they have a ranch and a plant to look after.

They walked out of the kitchen into the living room. Tom stood up as they entered, pleasantly surprising them both. Mare introduced them and they shook hands. "Please, call me Tom."

Paula and Mare sat, and indicated that Tom should, too. "What can I do for you, Tom?"

Tom's weight hadn't yet caught up to his height but it was already apparent that he would be a powerful man. Although reminiscent of TJ's, his features were slightly different: narrower jaw, longer nose, and thinner lips. But if you covered the lower part of his face, there was no denying the relationship. The raven brows and black hair were identical to hers, and though his eyes weren't as compelling as TJ's, they were the same unique shade of blue and had an intensity of their own. He wasn't yet mature enough to realize his eyes could be potent weapons.

"I stopped at Bill Jacobs' office looking for work and he told me I would have to speak to you."

Paula's brow furrowed. "Why did he tell you that?"

"He said you had to give the okay for anyone under 18 and I'm just 16."

"Why aren't you in school?" Mare asked.

"I graduated this year. I skipped a grade, so I graduated earlier than most kids."

Paula's frown deepened. "Where's your family?"

"My father's dead and my mother and I just don't seem to get along anymore. I've been going to boarding schools all my life and now she wants me to board at college. I want to work a year or two, first. I need a change and I wanted to learn ranch work so I came here. I'm not afraid of hard work."

Mare reached over, took hold of Tom's hand and turned it over, exposing its smooth surface. She touched the palm gently. "Lots of calluses, huh?"

A lopsided grin and a brow that quirked above amused eyes won Mare over. "I didn't say I had done hard work, Dr. Gillespie, only that I'm not afraid of it. I'm ready to start building calluses if Miss Tanner will give me a chance."

"You're going to have to get permission from your mother to work. You're still a minor," Paula reminded him.

"I can't get in touch with her just yet, she's on vacation," Tom explained, hoping his lie wouldn't be discovered. "I can write her a letter and the post office will forward it to her. But I need work now. Couldn't you bend the rules just a little bit? I'll get the permission as soon as I can get in touch with her." Tom turned his eyes full on Paula and pleaded, "Please."

Paula pursed her lips and hesitated. Then, her mind made up, she pulled her notebook out of her pocket and unclipped the pen. "You any good with horses?" She started writing.

"Haven't done much except ride them for my whole life, but I'd sure like to learn to take care of them."

"Okay, give this note to Bill. I'll have him start you on some stable work. You get good at that, then we'll talk some more. In the meantime, make sure you call your mother."

"Tom, where are you staying?" It occurred to Mare that he probably didn't have a place to stay.

"I was hoping there would be an extra bunk here I could use."

Paula and Mare exchanged glances. Paula wrote some more on the note. "Usually, those bunks are for the cowhands, but I'm sure Bill can find something for you." She stood up, sliding the crutches into place, and handed him the note.

Tom stood, too, and they shook hands. "Welcome to Meridian ranch, Tom. I hope your stay here is a happy and productive one."

"Thanks, Miss Tanner, Dr. Gillespie. You'll see; I'll work hard. You won't be disappointed."

Tom left and the women returned to the kitchen. Watching through the window, Mare and Paula saw him leave the parking area and start to jog across the fields that led to Bill Jacobs' office, about a half-mile away.

"What do you think, Mare?"

"I think you've done as much as you can for right now. But at some point, I suppose we will have to make sure he has contacted his mother. She may not know where he is." Mare walked over to the island and tapped her fingernails on its surface, thinking. She glanced at Paula with a roguish grin. "Of course, there's no reason why we have to know who he is, is there? At least not until he has a chance to meet TJ."

Paula barked a laugh. "Ooooh, you surprise me, Mare. I would never suspect you of being so devious."

"I have hidden talents," Mare chuckled. Then her brows climbed behind her bangs. "Do you think TJ will recognize him? Does he look much like Lance?"

Paula perched on one of the chairs and Mare settled on another. "Recognize him? Remember, she doesn't know she has a brother, so she would probably think the resemblance to her was coincidental, if she noticed it at all. And, no, except for his eyes, he doesn't look like Lance." Paula's hands accompanied her voice descriptions. "Lance was a little shorter than TJ and built squarer. This kid is built like a male version of TJ: tall, broad shoulders, slim waist, moves like a cat."

"And," she continued with an admiring nod, "Tom seems to have TJ's assertiveness. Lance always deferred to TJ's judgment. Always. I get the feeling that, even at 16, Tom has a mind very much his own. I think it will be quite interesting to see him and TJ together."

The roguish grin hadn't left Mare's face. "Sooo, you think maybe we should let fate take its own course? Not interfere at all?"

Paula looked Mare in the eye and her grin grew until the two matched. "And we won't tell anyone but Erin." The women clasped hands. "Deal?" Paula questioned.

"Deal." Mare promised. "Now... let's go see our girls."


Chapter 6

The co-conspirators had a two-hour drive in which to cover all the ups and downs, ins and outs, and pros and cons of the situation and of their decision not to reveal Tom's identity. They arrived at the hospital with their resolve intact.

Exiting the elevator at the sixth floor, they hurried toward TJ's room. Near a section of mirrored wall, Paula grabbed Mare's arm and pulled her to a stop. Mare's head flew in her direction. "What's wrong?"

Paula turned her toward the mirrored wall. "Take a look at your face. One of your hidden talents better be to wipe that grin off it. One glance at you, and TJ will know you're up to something."

Mare looked. "Ummm. You're right. Sometimes an expressive face is not an asset. If she notices, I'll say I'm excited because Barry has turned out so well."

"Good thinking; that should work."

Mare and Paula stepped into TJ's hospital room. Paula gave TJ a quick kiss and greeting, then turned to meet Erin who rose from her chair and pulled her partner into a hug and kiss. Mare moved to the bed while Erin ushered Paula from the room.

"Hi, sweetheart." Mare placed her hands on both sides of TJ's face and their lips met. Each time they kissed, Mare warned herself to refrain from what TJ called a "wake-up-TJ" kiss, figuring that it would only make their situation more difficult for them both. But today, as she started to move away, TJ twined her fingers in Mare's golden hair and pulled her back.

"Will you give me a real, gods-be-damned kiss?" her lover growled. Mare didn't need a second invitation; she melted against the heat of TJ's body and lost herself. One strong hand slowly moved her head back and forth, up and down, in a wild battle of tongues, while the other hand, hampered by a healing shoulder, pressed firmly against her back, pulling Mare even closer. At last, they parted, panting.

"Now that," TJ breathed, "is a kiss."

"Wow," Mare agreed. "I've never had 'kiss guidance' before. At least, not mouth-to-mouth."

A rumble of laughter started in TJ's chest and Mare soon joined it.

"It's great to hear you laugh, you know?" Mare drew a finger across TJ's bottom lip.

TJ still bubbled with the remnants of her laughter. "I wish I could take full credit for being in a good mood, but the truth is that I had to give myself some extra 'happy juice' a little while ago."

"The pain was so bad you had to take more medicine than usual?" Mare wasn't letting the greater drug usage slip by.

"The therapy this morning kind of set it off. It's been pretty nasty all day." A plaintive note replaced the laughter. "You know I hate to take much of the medicine when I know you're going to be here. I want to be awake for you. But today I just... I just had to. I'll probably fall asleep in a few minutes and miss your whole damn visit."

TJ frowned in frustration, then her expression lightened a little. "Before I do, though, tell me--did the blanket help Flag at all? I have the extra one that I slept with last night, like you asked me to. It's there at the foot of the bed."

"Good, I'm glad you remembered. We might have better luck with a fresher scent. The first one soothed her a little, but she still isn't eating right. I don't think there's anything to worry about though. She just wants you home, same as I do." Mare ran her fingers down TJ's jaw line. "We're lonesome."

They kissed again then Mare crawled up into the bed and lay as close as she could. She knew the nurses might not like her climbing on the bed, but if it helped soothe TJ, she didn't give a damn. Soothes me, too, she admitted to herself as TJ's arms twined loosely around her.

She curled one arm across the top of the black hair and teased the far ear with her fingertips while she nuzzled the ear nearest to her and slowly rubbed her hand against firm stomach muscles.

"You keep that up, sweetheart, and I may not fall asleep," murmured TJ in a lazy, throaty voice that vibrated through Mare's being.

"I just want to make sure you have sweet dreams."

TJ was starting to drift. "Mmmm. Where were you last night? Coulda... used... sweet..."

"You had a nightmare? TJ?" Mare pulled her head away and looked down. TJ had already fallen asleep. Tears pricked Mare's eyes. She knew how terrible TJ's nightmares were and for her to go through one without Mare to soothe her must have been traumatic. No wonder she was in such pain today; she probably didn't sleep at all last night and was too tense during the therapy.

Even in sleep, TJ's face was not as relaxed as usual. Mare could see that her jaw was tight, with tension pulling at her muscles. She stroked the beloved face and placed random kisses on it before climbing down from the bed.

Picking up the blanket from the foot of the bed, she hugged it to her and buried her face in it, inhaling her lover's scent. Lucky Flag. I think I could use one of these myself. She smoothed TJ's sheet and covered her with the top sheet, then walked out into the hall, carrying the blanket over her arm.

Erin was seated on a couch at the end of the hallway. Stretched out comfortably, Paula had her head in Erin's lap and her cast leg propped against the top of the couch's back.

Mare walked up to them with a smile, leaned down and kissed Erin's forehead. "You look nice and comfy. How was TJ today? Any nicer to you?" Although TJ seemed to be all right today, Mare knew that wasn't always the case.

"They started her therapy this morning, but had to cut it short. She was a witch, but mostly because she had a bad night and was tired. I try to ignore the acid remarks when she's like that."

Mare squeezed her shoulder then dropped into a chair. "Good girl. Did Paula tell you our news?"

"She sure did. Unbelievable, isn't it? Maybe I can meet him tomorrow." Paula had insisted that she and Erin alternate times at home. In her mind, whoever stayed with TJ earned the right to a day or two away when it could be managed.

"Maybe so. I know we were both sure surprised. If all you could see were his eyes and hair, you would swear he was TJ." Mare grinned at the recollection, then remembered her other news. "Did Paula tell you about Flag?"

"Yeah, she did. Have you told TJ?"

"Actually I told her over the phone. She was a little upset but not too bad. I asked her to sleep with an extra blanket to put in Flag's stall and I want to take it with me when I leave. You coming back to the ranch with me tonight?"

"Yeah, it's Paula's turn to get dissed." Erin threw her hand up as Paula smacked at her. "Ouch!" Erin pretended to be hurt.

"Whoops. Sorry, honey, I'll kiss it and make it better." Paula stretched up and kissed Erin's lips.

"Yum, nice. But it was my hand you hit," Erin pointed out.

"Yeah, but I was aiming at your mouth."

"Then I'm glad your lips have better aim than your hand did." she grinned impudently.

"They've had more practice... so far." Erin greeted this with a chuckle and a pinch of her partner's cheek.

"You guys might as well get on your way; TJ probably won't wake up again this evening." suggested Paula. "Mare, you have to be getting tired. Why don't you go home and get some extra rest?"

"I think I have to agree with you, Paula, but I wish TJ had been awake a little longer so we could visit more. I really miss her." Mare stood up and gave Paula a kiss on the cheek. "What do you say, Erin? Just about ready to go?" She wanted to give the couple a few minutes to say good-bye to each other. "I'll wait for you in the car."

She went out and Erin joined her a few minutes later, a look of mild frustration on her face. "I'll sure be glad when we don't have to leave our women behind."

"Yeah, me too." Driving back to Meridian ranch without TJ there is making me a nervous wreck. "Let's change the subject. What are you doing tomorrow?"

"Bill Jacobs is meeting with me at the office and we're going over the books. Payroll, upkeep, how stocking the ranch is progressing, that sort of thing. Two more shipments of cattle and we should be up to capacity." Erin pulled a packet of mints from her pocket and offered them to Mare, then popped one into her own mouth.

"You know, Bill really knows the cattle business. I've learned to trust his judgment, so all I really have to do, unless something goes wrong, is keep an eye on things. I'm learning a lot from him."

Mare nodded as she pulled from Springerly's main street onto the highway. "When I was helping him cull the herd, I saw that he knew what he was doing. He's been a great find."

Erin glanced over at Mare and grinned. "Now that we have that out of the way, tell me your impressions of young Tom."

The rest of the drive home was lively with speculation.


Mare did plan on going to bed early. After putting the blanket in Flag's stall, she showered, put on one of TJ's T-shirts and climbed into TJ's bed. It was a large bed, specially built, but tonight it seemed too large and too lonely. Mare tossed and turned and finally gave up. She got up, slipped her feet into her sneakers and walked to the music room. Sitting at the piano, she began playing quietly, then became totally immersed in the music, investing it with her spirit, letting it soften the ache within her.

She played for more than an hour, then, calmed and soothed, rose to leave and was surprised to see Erin lying on one of the couches. The blonde woman sat up and smiled slowly. "You can really talk with your music, Mare. Thanks a lot; I feel better, now."

"Glad I could help. I tried to go to bed early, but I couldn't sleep. I thought at first it would be good to use TJ's bedroom, that it would keep me closer to her. But I'm finding that it just makes it harder to be separated from her. I think I'll use a bedroom in my suite," Mare sighed.

Erin's eyes softened, taking some of the sting from her words. "Cheer up, Mare, the worst is yet to come."

"You really think so?"

"I can see the frustration building in TJ. She's trying to contain it, which is admirable, but will probably be bad in the long run. She's been sniping at me and will be at Paula too, but she hasn't dragged out the heavy ammunition, yet. When she lets loose, I figure we might all get blasted away. TJ never does things halfway."

Erin stood up. "But we have lots of time to worry about that. Let's get to bed." She started to walk away then turned back. "By the way, the other blanket you brought from the hospital for Flag? Did it help?

Mare smiled at the recollection. "Yeah, I took it out to Flag's stall and replaced the other one. TJ used this one for several nights and her scent was stronger. Flag snuffled at it right away and stayed right next to it. I'm going to check in the morning and hope that this one helps to improve her appetite. I'm not sure what else to try."

"Right. Maybe we'll get lucky." Erin stifled a yawn. "Goodnight."

"Goodnight, Erin. Sweet dreams."

Erin grinned wryly and waved.


In the suite bedroom, since she wasn't constantly assailed with reminders of her missing lover, Mare did manage to get a little more rest than usual.

The next morning, after sharing breakfast time with Erin, she walked on out to the barn to check on Flag before heading to Meridianville. Sure enough, the golden palomino was standing next to the blanket Mare had attached to one side of the stall wall. The large head swung around to see who was there, then swung back, seemingly disappointed. At least she seems a little less skittish today.

"Hey, Flag, how you doing this morning?" Opening the stall gate and entering, the vet stroked a hand against the large body and moved to the horse's head. Concerned that Flag's ribs were more prominent than they should be, she checked the feed bin and saw that quite a bit still remained uneaten.

"What are we gonna do with you, girl?" She hugged the long neck and was rewarded with a nicker. "If you don't start eating properly soon, we're both going to be in trouble with your mommy."

A couple of doors slammed. Sounds like the stable hands are here early. As the two hands came through the door, Mare looked up to greet them. She recognized the first man as one of the hands who had helped her when she had been thrown from Paula's horse, Runny, during a thunderstorm. "Hi, Mark. How are things going?"

"Hi, Doc. Not quite as exciting as last time I saw ya, but pretty good." He tossed his head toward the fellow beside him. "This here's one of our new hands, Tom Russell."

Mare came out of the stall with a big smile when she saw intense blue eyes in a tanned face. "Tom and I met the other day." She nodded to the youngster who smiled back.

"Hi, Dr. Gillespie."

"Just call me Doc, Tom. Everyone else does."

"You got it, Doc." His eyes slewed to Flag. "Wow, what a beauty!" He checked the name on the post, careful not to give away that he had recognized Faithful Flag. Then he walked into the stall, laying a hand on Flag's flank. Mare and Mark watched as he patted the palomino's shoulder and murmured to her. Flag nickered and bumped him with her head. Laughing, he swung his long arms around her neck and squeezed.

His head lay up against the strong neck, muffling the sound of his voice. "Is this Miss Meridian's horse, or is that a dumb question? I guess they're all Miss Meridian's horses, right?"

Mare chuckled. "Yes, no and no. Flag is Miss Meridian's pride and joy. The other two horses belong to Miss Scott and Miss Tanner."

Tom lifted his head and began stroking Flag's face. "She's magnificent. Is there any chance that I would be allowed to ride her?"

Mark shook his head and opened his mouth to speak, but Mare grabbed his arm and he stopped. Her brow furrowed in thought. Why not? Maybe it would be good for Flag. Might get rid of some of that nervous energy she's had. Might even take her mind off TJ for awhile.

"You said you've ridden horses for a long time, right?"

"Ever since I was two years old." Tom's eyes lit up when he realized the answer might be yes.

"I'll have to check with Miss Scott, but I think it might be all right. You go ahead with your work. I'll go ask her and let you know in a few minutes."


Mare went back to the house and looked for Erin. She caught up to her in TJ's office, looking over the supplies file on the computer, and explained about Tom's request.

"So, what do you think? Shall I tell him it's okay to ride Flag? Or should you ask TJ first?"

Erin hesitated for a moment. "No, I don't think I'll ask TJ. That will just frustrate her more, thinking that she can't ride Flag but some stranger can. Give him an okay. I think it might be good for Flag to have someone take her out. In fact, why don't you have him take her out now for a short ride? That way you can check and see how Flag reacts."

"Good idea. Thanks, Erin. If Paula calls, say hi to TJ for me. Tell her I'll call her around lunchtime, if possible. On second thought, don't tell her that; I'm not sure where I might be." And if she expects me to call and I don't, Paula will have to listen to her bitching. Mare made a quick call to Barry to let him know she would be a little late and would meet him at his first stop. She hung up the phone and walked back to the barn.

"Tom, Miss Scott said to give it a try. I think I should warn you, though, that Miss Meridian might be annoyed that someone else is riding Flag when she isn't able to. So you might run the risk of taking the brunt of her anger."

Tom walked over next to Flag again, reached up and caressed her neck. "Getting a chance to ride this beauty would be worth risking anyone's anger." He turned and grinned so engagingly at Mare that she just had to grin back.

"Just remember I warned you," Mare chuckled. "Flag's been off her feed and a bit skittish--homesick for Miss Meridian, I think. Take her for a short ride right now and we'll see how it goes." Mare tilted her head toward the tack room door. "You'll find everything you need in there."

Mark turned the other two horses out while Tom saddled Flag. Mare leaned against the outside of the stall and watched his sure movements. When he had finished, he held the reins and turned to lead Flag out of the stall, but she shook her head and didn't want to come. He looked perplexed and kept a steady pressure on the reins, but Flag didn't budge, so he grabbed the halter to try to bring her head forward. "What's the matter, girl?" he asked.

"Wait a minute, Tom. That blanket hanging there has T... Miss Meridian's scent on it. I think Flag doesn't want to leave it."

Tom grinned. "Heck, that's no problem." He unhooked the blanket, tied it over his shoulders and tried again to lead Flag out. This time the palomino followed right after him.

Mare chuckled at the picture he made as he swung into the saddle, blanket flying behind him. "Hey, Superman, there's a trail over to the right that eventually goes into the foothills. Just take her about 10 minutes out for right now."

Tom saluted and clucked to Flag. His eyebrows rose and he jerked as the horse broke into a trot before his feet touched her flanks. Mark had halted his work to watch and he laughed out loud. "Guess we shoulda warned him that Flag reacts to sound signals."

"Yeah." Mare grinned, then marveled at how Tom seemed to become one with the horse, just as TJ did. Must be in the genes.

While she waited for Tom to return, she cleaned out the back of her truck. About twenty minutes later, she saw him bringing Flag back at a walk and went into the barn to meet him. His cheeks were flushed and his eyes shining as he slid off the palomino, patted her shoulder and unsaddled her. "What a terrific horse!"

He put everything away, then was about to turn Flag out into the corral. "Hey, Doc, she's eating!" Sure enough, Flag ate a good portion of the meal left from her first feeding.

Relief washed over Mare. She grasped Tom's shoulder and gave it a shake. "That is super! Looks like you just got yourself another job. Can you be here an hour earlier and take Flag out each morning?"

"Sure." Tom didn't have to say much, his wide smile spoke for him.

"Not that early in my truck," Mark protested. He was mucking out Ebonair's stall and stopped to listen when he heard Mare mention a new job for Tom.

"No problem. I'll run over here on foot."

"Wonderful." One less thing to worry about! "Make sure you put the extra time on your time card. I'll leave Flag in your capable hands." Mare took her leave, jumped in her truck and headed out to meet Barry.

Chapter 7

Thursday came and went. Mare and Erin had made the two-hour drive back to the hospital to be with TJ and Paula on TJ's first day out of the bed, and in the turtle brace Michael had told them about. TJ was grouchy and in no mood to be poked and prodded but the bonus of being able to sit in a chair for part of the day was enough to make her cooperate.

The days dragged on, and the women reluctantly decided that their presence was needed at the ranch to a greater degree.

Another shipment of cattle had arrived and Mare found that, even with Barry on the scene in town, she had her hands full at the ranch and was bone tired by evening. Driving two hours to and from the hospital on an almost daily basis was out of the question. Lack of daily physical contact with TJ made the tired vet's burden even heavier. Phone calls just weren't the same.

On the days when Erin was at the hospital, the curly-headed blonde had tried to keep her hand in on the ranch activities by phone, but found that was not working well. A "walk-around" style of manager, she needed to see things with her own eyes in order to feel confident that her judgments were sound. Spending more time at the ranch was the only answer.

Paula's presence became urgently needed at the packing plant when Fred Morales came down with double pneumonia and she had to take his place. She broke down and commandeered a Meridian car and driver to ferry her between the ranch and the packing plant and, at TJ's urging, had him take her back and forth to the hospital on the days when she was able to visit.

As a result of the increased activity, the hospital visits were cut back to the point where each woman visited TJ on alternating days, arriving around 10:00 in the morning, then driving back that evening. Although she understood the reasoning behind the change in visitations, the additional solitary time weighed heavily on TJ's moods and the visits by Erin and Paula had become times of apprehension for the two women. She had even begun an occasional sniping at Mare.

Paula returned from one of those frustrating sessions to find a dismally darkened house. As she collected her crutches and left the chauffeured car, she remembered that Mare was staying overnight in Sharlesburg; it was her turn to take over her vet friend's practice the next day.

Paula was surprised that Erin wasn't home; it was way past dinnertime. She hobbled upstairs, showered and changed into a pair of beige lounging pajamas. Partially towel-drying her hair, she ran her fingers through it to smooth it out, then carefully descended the stairs.

Paula went into the kitchen and made some fresh coffee then prepared Salisbury steak and a tossed salad for dinner. After eating, she put the leftover steak and salad in the fridge for Erin, then took her coffee into the living room and plopped on the couch to watch a couple of sitcoms. Instead of relaxing, she worried about what was taking Erin so long to get home. She knew her partner had planned to ride the range with Bill, checking for an area on which to graze the current cattle shipment. That it was taking so long was unexpected.

Finally, Erin arrived home--tired, dirty, hungry, sore and irritable.

When Paula heard the door slam shut, she grabbed one crutch and hurried to the kitchen, calling out, "Erin, where on earth have you been?" She stopped just inside the kitchen doorway when she saw the look on Erin's face.

Erin threw her hat down on a chair and yanked off her jacket. A fine film of dirt covered her from head to foot. "Where the hell do you think I've been? I've been busting my ass on a horse all day, trying to keep this ranch going. What have you been doing?"

The nastiness in Erin's tone caught Paula by surprise and she reacted defensively. "Hey, I do my share around here. Spending all day today putting up with TJ's load of baloney wasn't any fun... or running around that packing plant all week on a broken leg."

Erin's lip curled as she hung her jacket on the back of a chair and started toward the living room. "You'd think you were the first person to ever have a broken leg." She looked at the empty range. "I guess it's too much to expect that there's any dinner saved for me."

Paula's jaw set and she restrained her temper with difficulty. "Don't leave your dirty hat and jacket there, Erin."

Erin's frazzled nerves snapped. "Who the hell put you in charge?" She went barreling out of the kitchen. As she passed Paula, she swung her shoulders to clear the doorway and her inner shoulder clipped the edge of Paula's. Erin stomped on out of the kitchen, unaware that Paula, in spite of the walking cast, had tripped over her crutch and lost her balance.

As Paula went down, she dropped the cumbersome crutch and grabbed hold of a chair. It went over with a clatter, bringing Erin charging back into the kitchen. "Polly! Polly, are you all right?" Erin dropped to her knees next to her partner.

"Yeah, I'll be okay as soon as I can get out from under this damn chair," Paula growled. "Fat lot of good that stupid crutch is."

Erin helped her up then grasped her shoulders and waited until Paula's downcast eyes raised to meet hers. "I'm really sorry, Paula. You know I didn't mean to do that." Erin saw sadness and pain flicker across Paula's face. She pulled her close, put her arms around her and started a soothing pat on her lover's back. "Look, we promised ourselves that we wouldn't let the pressures we're under hurt us this time, right?"

"Right," Paula murmured against the side of Erin's neck. Her arms moved up and closed around her partner's back.

Erin mentally kicked herself as she felt Paula trembling. She blinked rapidly against the dampness that entered her eyes. "Then let's keep that promise. I'm really sorry I took my bad temper out on you. I'll try not to let it happen again, okay?" Paula's head nodded against the side of Erin's face. "I love you, Paula."

"I love you, too, sweetheart." They hugged for a moment more, relaxing in the welcome closeness. Then Paula pulled back and looked into Erin's moist, hazel eyes. "I did save you some dinner. Come on upstairs and I'll draw you a hot bath while you get outta those dirty duds. Then you can eat."

Erin bit her bottom lip as a wave of gratitude swept through her. She gave her partner another hard squeeze then bent to retrieve the crutch. When she straightened, their eyes met and after she handed Paula the crutch, she patted her cheek with her fingertips. "You are always so thoughtful."

Paula leaned forward and placed a soft kiss against Erin's lips. "I learned it from you, kiddo."

The two women climbed the stairs with an arm around each other. Paula ran a hot bath for Erin then warmed up her supper. After the bath, she wrapped Erin in a double-thick terry cloth robe and made sure she ate, then led her to their bedroom. They both disrobed and Paula sat next to her lover's waist, her cast barely resting on the floor. She was just completing a relaxing massage of Erin's back and shoulders.

"What do you mean, you can't do it? I can go there instead of you." Paula frowned at her partner who lay facedown on the bed.

Erin's arms were crossed under her face, partially muffling her voice, but it still sounded weary. "It's my turn to go see TJ. She's expecting a report from me about the ranch. You know she doesn't like to have her plans changed."

Paula moved her mending leg up onto the bed, turned over, then slowly lay down against Erin's back. Sliding her arms under Erin as she moved, she luxuriated in the feel of her lover's warm skin as it came into gradual contact with her descending body. Relishing the moment, she caught her breath as she felt and heard the low moan summoned by her moving palms. She almost didn't continue the conversation; there were a lot of other things she would rather be murmuring into Erin's perfectly shaped ear. She sighed. But first things first.

"You've had a terribly long, tiring day on horseback, sweetheart, and I know you are in no shape for a two-hour drive first thing in the morning. You can phone in your report. I say you should stay here and I'll go in your place." She bent her head and nibbled Erin's neck. "Not to mention that TJ will probably welcome you with her usual acid comments. Are you really looking forward to that?"

"Not especially, but if you go in my place, you're liable to hear a lot worse from her." Another nibble and Erin moaned again, wishing this conversation were over. "She is the boss, you know, and she won't like someone else making that decision."

"And who do you think is in the best position to be making decisions about what you do?" Paula's voice held a sultry chuckle as she pressed against Erin's back and her hands squeezed softly against silky skin.

Erin shifted and squirmed delightfully against Paula's body and hands until she was on her back, face to face with her dark-haired lover's gleaming eyes. She wrapped her arms around Paula's neck and breathed, "I'd have to say your position beats hers, hands down. Or up... or... anywhere you want them. You win."

"I win the argument?"

"Yessssss. And me." Erin tightened her arms, pulling Paula's lips into the embrace of hers.


Paula swung on her crutches into the hospital room with her guard up. TJ's eyes were closed, affording Paula the opportunity to walk closer and examine her face. Her expression softened as she saw the signs of fatigue showing there and the dark smudges under her magnetic eyes that went unnoticed when TJ was awake.

"Today is Erin's day." The voice startled Paula and she moved back a step as TJ's eyes popped open. "Why isn't she here?"

"And hello to you, too, TJ." Paula swiftly changed from startled to irked. "I know you're not up to par, but is it too tough to be civil?" The blue eyes widened a bit, and focused a stare on Paula who waited, not sure what reaction was coming. Damn, it's hard to look into those eyes and stay mad.

"Hello, Paula." The voice was flat, not friendly. "Is something wrong with Erin?"

"She was riding all over the ranch yesterday from dawn to dark. She was tired and sore, so I offered to switch places with her."

"That's part of her job. I was expecting a report from her today, and she knew that." TJ sounded accusatory and Paula winced.

"She can give it to you over the phone. I didn't see any need for her to push herself to show up here today. No sense in her getting sick over it. Nothing is that urgent." Sarcasm crept into Paula's tone, in spite of her intention to avoid it.

TJ glowered. "As long as I run Meridian Corporation, those decisions are mine to make. You should have called me about it."

"Look, TJ..." Paula's hold on her temper was slipping.

"No, you look!" TJ's voice hardened. "When I tell Erin to be here, she damn well better be here! If you two don't understand that, then maybe you better..." TJ stopped, grimacing as another wave of pain hit her. She closed her eyes then opened them to see the anger on Paula's face turn into solicitude.

The blue eyes dulled and TJ's voice lowered wearily. "Don't go looking at me like that, Paula. I don't want your damn sympathy--I count on you to give as good as you get. Erin's an appeaser. Every time I yell at her, she backs off." TJ frowned, then followed it with a small snort. "At least Mare still puts her two-cents-worth in."

Paula set her crutches against the foot of the bed, skidded a chair closer to it and sat down. "There's something I have to tell you, TJ... sort of a warning."

TJ's head swung sideways to focus her gaze on dark-brown eyes glittering with concern.

"A warning?" A spark of interest glowed in the depths of the pain. "About what?"

"I think you ought to be a little more careful about what you say to Mare and how you say it. You don't want to drive her away, do you?"

"What's that supposed to mean?" TJ scowled, then her eyes narrowed from another jolt of pain.

Paula hesitated, not sure of how much to say or if she should be saying anything. But she was worried about Mare and TJ and how TJ's injury was affecting their relationship. I know these two love each other, but sometimes that makes spats worse--the cuts go deeper and the acid remarks burn even more. Mare is definitely on edge about moving to the ranch. I'm wondering if she can handle TJ's irritability...or will it push her away?

TJ frowned in exasperation. "Spit it out, Paula! Has Mare been complaining?"

Paula shifted uncomfortably in the chair and looked away from TJ's compelling glare. Making up her mind, she turned back and looked TJ straight in the eye. "Mare seems to be having some second thoughts about a few things. After all, she's had a lot of emotional upheaval: falling for you, finding her dad, seeing all three of us hurt in the accident..."

"Yeah, yeah, I know all that," TJ interrupted impatiently. "What are the second thoughts about?" Another kind of pain fought to come to the fore in TJ's remarkable eyes. Paula thought she saw a hint of fear mingling with it.

"Hiring a new assistant has been a big step for her, and so has opening a second office at the ranch. But her biggest concern has to do with moving to the ranch to live there. I think that has been a bigger change for her than she anticipated it would be, and she's really bothered by it."

TJ's jaw set and she suddenly seemed to shut down all her feelings. Paula grabbed her hand. "TJ, I'm only telling you this because I want you to go a little easier on her. We all recognize that you're pulling a heavy load, but Mare is, too. Give her a break, will ya?"

"Sure, sure, Paula. Thanks for letting me know." Another surge of pain made TJ pull away from Paula's hand and reach for the anesthesia pump. "I need to take some more pain-killer and that always puts me to sleep. Why don't you go to the cafeteria and grab yourself some coffee or lunch or something?"

Paula was surprised that TJ had taken her news so calmly but she reached for her crutches and stood up. "Okay, I'll do that. I'll come back and keep you company when I'm finished."

"Right." TJ watched Paula hobble out the door. Then the doubts hit her full force and tears welled in her eyes. Don't leave me, Mare. You can't leave me. What would my life be like without you? But the cold, hard fact was that Mare could walk away anytime she took a notion to, and she would be tearing out TJ's heart when she did it. TJ's thinking began to falter as the anesthesia took hold. I can't let her do that to me...I'll... leave her first... if I have to...Fiery, frightening images stalked through TJ's brain, reaching out and dragging her down into their blood-red realm.


To Be Continued in Part 3.

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