Many Roads To Travel
by Karen A. Surtees and PruferBlue

Part 8, Conclusion.

See Part 1 for disclaimers.


Chapter 26

"Meridian," TJ barked as she answered the phone that was preventing her from winning her game of solitaire. She was supposed to be working but the proposals sent down from Meridian HQ hadn’t held her interest for longer than an hour. Mare was out working, Paula was at the plant and Erin was riding the range. TJ had been forced into playing mind numbingly simple games to keep amused, especially since Mare had twisted her arm into promising not to ride Flag again until Michael had given the okay.

"Sorry, TJ. I didn’t mean to disturb you," Gloria Raphaele greeted her.

TJ immediately lost interest in the card game and leaned back in her chair. "Mrs. Raphaele. What can I do for you?" TJ inquired formally.

She was still not entirely sure of how to take the woman her father had had an affair with for so long and whose family TJ couldn’t help but feel cheated her of the father she should have had. She had discussed this very thing with Peter at her last counseling session, less than a week ago. No matter how she tried she couldn’t shake the feeling that if her father hadn’t had another family that maybe, just maybe he would have been that much more paternal with her and Lance.

That little bit of resentment she managed to hide well from Tom and, more importantly, from Mare. She knew that, if her forgiving partner found out about it, she’d be in for several long chats about how it wasn’t Tom’s fault or even his mother's that her father had cheated her family. She loved talking with Mare but she knew that this was something she had to come to terms with by herself and Peter, strangely enough, agreed with her. Though he did point out that when she had worked through it and come to terms with her feelings that Mare was the first person she should talk to, with Tom and possibly even Gloria next.

"You know, TJ, I see no harm in your using my first name; you are looking after my son," Gloria replied.

"Sorry, Gloria, I was involved in something," TJ softened slightly.

"That’s perfectly all right. I was just phoning to see how Tom is."

Okay, go on tell her that you’ve only seen her son and your half-brother three times in the last month. "He’s doing fine. I haven’t had any complaints from the men and Erin seems happy with his work."

"That’s good to hear. Maybe he’s found his niche there. And what about you? How is the physical therapy going?"

TJ almost dropped the phone she was so confounded by the question. Why on earth should she care whether my therapy is going okay? It’s not as if I’m her concern. Then again I guess I am responsible for Tom. "Fine. I seem to be making some decent progress; my upper body strength is improving."

There was a silent pause. Oh hell, in for a penny, in for a pound. "Look, while I have you on the phone, what do you think about my arranging an internship with the Meridian Corporation for Tom? I'd like him to see some of the business dealings the corporation is involved in. Give him a chance to see if he would be interested in coming aboard when he graduates college."

TJ stopped speaking and waited for Gloria to answer. There was a long silence broken only by soft, slightly ragged breathing. Then Gloria's voice came, quietly at first then gathering strength. "TJ, that is more than generous of you. Tom has a good head on his shoulders and I think he would be thrilled with the prospect of joining his sister's company."

TJ closed her eyes and swallowed hard, trying to overcome the lump that suddenly formed in her throat. What am I getting so emotional about? I'm turning into a goddamned wimp.

She took a deep breath to steady herself and said, "If he is really serious about moving into this business then he’s going to need a good work background and I can give him that. Of course I’d tie the internship in with his gaining sufficient grades at college. The company offers several placements to different colleges and in order to qualify, he would have to maintain the same grades that they require."

"Have you spoken about this to Tom?"

"No, actually I haven’t. I figured it's best I have your approval for it before I go offering him something that you won’t allow." TJ heard a chuckle on the other end of the phone.

"I appreciate that, TJ, but believe me right now I’d settle for him just going to college. Still I’m sure with the incentive of the internship he’ll be wishing the new semester were here already. Talk to him about it; if he wants it then I’m all for it."

"In that case I will. Was there anything else you needed?" TJ inquired, her hand reaching out for the stack of pencils in her desk caddy.

"Not really. I just wanted to check on Tom and I didn’t think he’d appreciate his mother phoning the bunkhouse to do it."

"No problem. Feel free to call me at anytime and I’ll make sure he picks up the phone and calls you this week. I’ll probably have presented the offer to him by then; he can talk to you about it."

"Thank you, TJ. Give my best to Mare and the girls."


Mare shut the door to her truck and paused to take in the glorious sunset before her. She had had a long and tiring day and was looking forward to relaxing for the evening. With one last glance at the fading colors she made her way into the kitchen. "Hi, guys," she said as she hung her hat on the stand.

Erin and Paula who were seated at the island looked up and smiled. "Hi, yourself," replied Paula. "Busy day?"

"Yep, too busy. I thought that taking on an associate would lessen the load," she said, settling onto one of the stools.

"Ha!" barked Paula. "Didn’t anybody teach you the first rule of business? More staff equals more work."

"Tell me about it. What about you two? Managed to keep out of trouble today?"

Erin snorted. "Well, some of us did; didn’t we, sweetheart?" She grinned over at her partner.

"Oh, now this sounds interesting. Care to tell me what happened?" Mare leaned forward and shot her own grin at Paula who dropped her head and groaned.

"I’ll get you a coffee, Mare," Erin said, standing up. "Want a refill, honey?"

"I’ll give you 'honey'!" Paula mock threatened. "No, thanks, and really, Mare, there isn’t that much to tell. I just got into a shouting match with one of our suppliers at the plant. Seems they thought that they could get away with trying to overcharge on their delivery. Needless to say they had no idea whom they were trying to cheat, and when I pointed out that they had been caught they weren’t too happy. They were even less happy when I told them just what company they had tried to cheat. Still, I got us a great discount from them over it, so all is now well."

"Sounds like you enjoyed that little argument way too much, kinda like another person I know. Speaking of which, where is TJ?" Mare asked as she received her mug from Erin.

"Where do you think?" Erin remarked. "I tried to pull her out of there at four, but she was having none of it. Theresa was on the phone and it seemed to be getting a little heated in there so I got out quick."

"Hell, wonder what’s got her riled up now." She took a quick look at her watch and noticed it was just after seven. "Well she’s coming out now whether she likes it or not. Has she at least had something to eat?" Erin shook her head. "I’ll kill her."

Erin laughed. "Haven’t we heard that before? If you do decide to carry out those threats tonight do it quietly, will ya!" she yelled after the retreating form of the vet.

Mare rolled her eyes as she heard her two friends break out into gales of laughter. She knocked on TJ’s office door then pushed it open and leaned against the jamb, staring in. TJ was lying back in her chair looking out of the window. She had the phone wedged between her shoulder and ear, her hands were playing with her proverbial pencil and she was totally oblivious to Mare’s presence.

"No, Sebastian, I didn’t ask for that. Well change it. That’s what I pay you for, isn’t it?" The tapping of the pencil became harder. "Are you being obstinate for the sake of it or are you trying to piss me off?"

Maybe I ought to go calm things down, Mare thought, entering the room. Then her lover burst into laughter.

"Hmm, that’s what I thought. You’d never get away with that if I were in Atlanta, sonny boy. Just remember I can still getcha even from here. Now change that neon yellow back to my cool, calm pastels and aunty TJ will be happy. Good, I’ll talk to you later. Bye bye, Sebastian."

"Sounds like you had a stressful day," Mare said from behind TJ, making her jump.

"Christ, woman, are you trying to kill me?" TJ looked over her shoulder at her lover.

"Hmm, well I told Erin and Paula I was considering it, but nope I wasn’t actually going to do it," she answered, leaning forward and kissing TJ’s presented cheek. "What're you up to?"

"Apart from contemplating firing Sebastian and his whole network of cronies, not a lot. You?" she asked, returning the kiss.

"Let me see. I was hoping that by this time I’d be either snuggled up or eating a pizza, or something. But it seems that my partner decided to work late, even though she promised me she wouldn’t push it too hard." Mare walked around TJ’s chair and looked at her accusingly.

"I wasn’t pushing things too hard. Besides I played hooky most of the afternoon." TJ tried to stare back but couldn’t’ resist smirking. "Anyway now that I have a good excuse to stop and play some more, I will."

"Oh, you think you’re gonna play tonight, do you?"

TJ wheeled forward till her chair was touching Mare’s legs and reached up to take hold of Mare’s hand. "You don’t want to play with me anymore?" She put the most pathetic hangdog look on her face and looked up at Mare.

Mare paused, gazing down at her partner’s soulful face. "Ah hell, what am I gonna do with you?"

The hangdog look turned decidedly wicked. "Oh, I could suggest a few things," she said slyly.

Mare laughed and slapped her arm away. "Food, then we snuggle and watch some TV. And then, and only then, will I consider anything else." She turned and walked out of the office with a decided swagger.

TJ focused her gaze a little lower than Mare’s face and smiled with appreciative anticipation before following her.


Mare had finished her last call for the day at one of the farms on the other side of Meridianville. Heading home, she decided to stop at the post office on her way back through town. She was pleased to see a card from Jess.

Mare, we finally have a break in the action here. May be home before you read this. Will arrive Monday, about noon. Love, Jess.

That's today! Mare loped on outside, dropped the mail in the truck and hurried over to the grocery store. Maria Cidone, the young clerk, was behind the counter and her face lit when she saw Mare. "Hi, Doc. Did you hear that Jess is back?"

"Hi, Maria. I just got the news. Where is he?"

"He took his mom to Sharlesburg for dinner, said she wasn't going to work on his first night home. He said if I saw you I was to tell you that he will call when they get back."

Mare pulled out a business card and wrote the house's phone number on the back of it. "Leave this for him, will you please? Tell him to use this number."

"I'd be happy to," Maria agreed as she received the card.

"Thanks," Mare said. She gave the girl a quick smile and left.

When she got to the ranch, everyone was in the kitchen, nearly finished dinner. Mare gave TJ a quick kiss and set the mail on the counter. Erin jumped up to reheat the casserole while the vet went to wash up. Mare came back, loaded her plate with dinner and gulped it down without a word.

TJ eyed her with an incipient grin. "Hungry?" she asked.

"Lord, I was starved. No matter what time I eat lunch, four hours later my stomach thinks it's dinnertime. Thanks, Erin," she said belatedly, patting her midsection. "That hit the spot."

"No problem, Mare," the curly-haired blonde answered with a smile.

Mare looked around the table. "Guess what? Jess is coming home today!"

"Jess?" TJ inquired. Erin and Paula, who had risen to clear the table, looked at Mare blankly.

"You remember. I told you about him, the guy I grew up with. Jess Longwood. My best friend," Mare explained eagerly.

"Your best friend?" TJ repeated tentatively, eyebrows coming down instead of up. Mare's face had lit up with a special warmth and TJ wasn't sure what to make of it.

"My best male friend," Mare emphasized. Oh hell, I think she's jealous. As a matter of fact, Jess may be jealous of her. I never gave that possibility much thought. "I know I haven't told you a lot about him, but he's the one who's been out of town for months doing web design for some big clients. His mom owns the grocery store."

"Oh yeah, now I remember." TJ cleared her throat. "Will I get to meet him?"

"Don’t be silly, of course you will. I'm dying to have you two meet." At least I thought I was. Not too sure after hearing TJ's less-than-enthusiastic reaction. "I want him to meet all of you. You're my family."

That statement, issuing so matter-of-factly from Mare's mouth, thawed her partner's frosty attitude a little.

"Why don't you invite him to dinner tomorrow night?" TJ suggested. She even managed to quirk a half-grin. What the hell's the matter with me? Can't Mare have a friend? She didn't grow up here in a vacuum.

"I'd love to," Mare answered promptly. "Maybe you could ask Tom, too, and I'll give Dad a call. We could make it a whole family gathering. What do you think?" She swept her eyes around the table. "Everybody okay with that?"

Erin looked at Paula who nodded. TJ tapped her palm against the tabletop. "That's settled, then, providing Jess can make it. I'll line up Martha to cook again."

"Nothing fancy, though, okay? Jess is a real down-to-earth guy. I'll tell him to come in jeans and a sport shirt."

"That's good, I doubt if Tom brought anything dressy to wear, anyway. Make sure you let Michael know, too." TJ found herself looking forward to seeing Michael in a social setting. He always brought news of a totally different, but absorbing world.

Jess phoned later that evening, still out with his mother. When he had called the store to pass on a message to Maria, she had given him the number. Mare was thrilled to talk to him and ecstatic when he agreed to come to dinner the following evening. The chat was short; he had to get back with his mother, but he promised to fill Mare in on all his news the next day.

She hung up, her eyes aglow, and turned to see TJ watching her with an odd expression on her face. Mare walked over to her partner and picked up a hand, enclosing it with both of hers. "He's a very good friend, TJ. Nothing more, nothing less."

"Was he ever your lover?" TJ blurted out the words hoarsely, knowing she had no right to ask Mare that question, but unable to keep silent about it.

To her credit, Mare took no offense at the intrusive words, understanding it was TJ's insecurity speaking. "No. We love each other, but never that way." She raised TJ's hand to her lips and kissed it. "I've… been… with other women, TJ, but I've never been in love with anyone else. Only you."

TJ still seemed uncomfortable but Mare didn't know how to resolve that. Maybe she'll feel better when she meets Jess. Maybe.


Mare was excited. She and Jess hadn't talked for several months, not even a phone call. What's with me and the strong, silent types? she chided herself. Though Jess was plenty talkative person-to-person. He just wasn't the keep-in-touch type. These last few months have been hectic for both of us. Hope he's going to be home for a while now; we have a lot of catching up to do.

Everyone who had been invited to the dinner was coming. They had set dinnertime a little later, at 7 o'clock, to give Michael a chance to join them. Mare informed TJ and the girls that Jess was coming earlier so that the two of them would have a chance to visit with each other for a while before the dinner. Mare waited at her office window, watching for Jess' arrival. When his truck pulled into the parking area she went flying out the door to meet him.

TJ and Erin were in the kitchen, finalizing dinner plans with Martha, when they heard the sound of Jess' truck. TJ turned toward the window and looked out to see a new Dodge Ram come to a stop on the blacktop. A tall man with a blonde, curly mop of hair stepped out and opened his arms just in time to catch Mare as she flung herself at him and wrapped her arms around his neck. Picking her up, he swung her around twice before setting her back down with a laugh. They continued to hold each other for a minute, talking away.

TJ's voice sounded ragged. "Doesn't anyone in this county drive a car?"

Erin leaned down next to TJ to look out the window. When she happened to glance at the wheelchair to keep from bumping into it, she saw TJ's hand clenched around the armrest, her knuckles turning white. She reached her arm toward her friend and rubbed her palm lightly against her tense back. "Hey, honey, relax. He's just a friend, remember?"

"Would you be so calm if that were Paula out there wrapped around him?"

Erin looked back out. "Hmmmm, I see your point. But Paula doesn't go for guys and Mare doesn't either, does she? Look at the bright side… at least she hasn't kissed him on the mouth." The words were no sooner spoken than Mare reached up, pulled Jess' head down and gave him a quick kiss on his lips.

Erin felt TJ's body jerk then the raven-haired woman twirled the chair away to the other side of the kitchen, her face a stone mask.

Uh oh, Erin old girl, you said the wrong thing that time. She watched as Mare twined an arm in Jess' and led him toward the house. A moment later, they entered and Erin greeted them with a smile.

"Erin, this is Jess. We've known each other forever. Jess, this is Erin Scott. Besides being a great friend, Erin oversees the ranch."

Erin moved to shake his hand, looking up at a rectangular face with bluish-gray eyes, a high-bridged nose and a narrow mouth stretched into a friendly smile. "Hi, Jess. Glad you finally made it home so we could meet you."

"Thanks, Erin, I'm glad to be back." Jess heard a creak behind him and turned to see a vision that took his breath away. His eyes widened as he looked into an intense blue gaze.

He heard Mare's voice but for a split-second he couldn't move. "Jess, I'd like you to meet TJ Meridian… my soul mate." That TJ's face was tightly closed would not be obvious to someone who didn't know her, but Mare could see it and was concerned about what TJ's reaction to meeting Jess might be.

When TJ reached out a hand and said hello, Jess returned to earth, slightly embarrassed and flustered at having stared at Mare's lover. "Mare told me you were beautiful and I figured she was saying that because she's biased. But I was wrong." He took TJ's hand. "I mean, she was right, you're gorgeous. I mean…" An endearing blush appeared on his cheeks and he quickly dropped TJ's hand. "Sorry, I'm not noted for my smooth talking."

Jess' candor was disarming. A grin tweaked the corners of TJ's lips, then grew into a smile. "You're doing fine, so far," she said in her rich contralto. "Welcome to Meridian ranch." She heard Mare release a breath and glanced her way, raising an eyebrow.

"We're going to grab a couple of beers and go back to my office. I want Jess to see what I've done with it. Give me a buzz when Dad gets here, okay?"

"Sure, no problem," TJ agreed, doing a good job of hiding her disappointment.

Mare put her arm through Jess' and started for the office. On the way, she introduced him to Martha as the cook came into the kitchen from the dining room and busied herself at the counter.

TJ accepted that Mare wanted some private time with Jess. What was hard to accept was that he would be taken into the room that TJ would not enter. She pulled her mind away from that thought as Erin put a hand over hers. "He seems like a nice guy, TJ."

"Is that supposed to make me feel better?" TJ forced a wry grin. "He does seem like a nice guy and I know I'm having an attack of stupid jealousy. It's just… " For the first time in a long while, TJ's constant pain showed in her expression. "I can't walk arm in arm with Mare. I can't hold her hand and stroll next to her. I can't pick her up and twirl her around. Hell, I can't even stand up and kiss her." TJ's voice had a raw edge to it.

Erin squatted down, leaned her arms on TJ's knees, and looked up into her eyes. "That's true, TJ, there are a lot of things you can't do and we can't change any of that. But there is one huge thing you have to keep in mind that should help you cope with this little attack of jealousy."

"I'm listening."

Erin's eyes grew more intense. "When Jess leaves here, Mare stays. And just about the time Jess goes to bed tonight, Mare will be crawling into your bed and snuggling up against you. I suspect you look at your relationship as Mare giving you the love you need and want but that works both ways. You give her the love that she needs and wants, too. If she had found that with Jess, she would be going home with him. But she's yours, TJ, just as sure as you are hers. You need to feel secure about it."

TJ frowned then nodded at the sense of what Erin said and a lopsided grin worked its way onto her face. "Why does everyone else see these things so much more clearly than I do?"

Erin grinned back at her. "Your brain was made to run huge corporations. We people with ordinary run-of-the-mill brains are more in tune with the emotional stuff. But we'll keep working on you. Maybe some day you'll catch up."

"Yeah, like you guys have run-of-the-mill brains," TJ laughed.

Erin stood up and gave her a hug. "Let's go find Paula. She was supposed to check on the supply of drinks."


Mare was proud of her office and Jess showed suitable appreciation of it, giving it a thorough inspection and remarking on how it suited Mare. He stopped in front of a shelf that held four pictures and picked one of them up.

"This is a great picture, Mare. What were we then--fourteen? That was freshman year when I was on the Junior Varsity football team and you were on the high school newspaper. Look, you even have your interview notebook with you."

Mare walked over beside him. "That was the day you were picked to move up to Varsity--the first boy in the history of Meridianville who had achieved that. And I was interviewing you for the school newspaper. Mom took that picture."

"I'll have to get a copy of it," Jess said as he put it back on the shelf and picked up the next picture. This was a formal one of Mare's mother. He reached with his other hand and took the next picture, holding them side by side. "Your mom was a beautiful woman." Then his eyes moved to the picture in his other hand. "But this just has to be your dad. You look just like him!" He looked down at Mare and raised questioning eyebrows. "I don't remember ever seeing a picture of him before. He died when you were little, right?"

"Boy, do you have a lot of news to catch up on!" Mare exclaimed. "He's not dead; in fact, you'll meet him tonight at dinner. Let's go sit on the couch and I'll start the explanations."

"Sure," Jess agreed, his curiosity piqued. He set the pictures back on the shelf then picked up the last one. It was a snapshot of Mare and TJ sitting on the living room floor, their legs stretched out in front of them and their backs against the couch. Their arms were wrapped around each other and TJ's head was lifted in a hearty laugh that made her eyes sparkle while Mare looked up at her with a loving smile.

A prickle of resentment surprised Jess. He had been the most important friend in Mare's life for a long time, and she in his. Okay, man, now she has someone who is more important to her. You knew it had to happen sooner or later. Get used to it.

Mare had been watching Jess' face. After seeing TJ's first reaction, she almost expected Jess'. He looked up at her and forced a little smile. "You really love her, huh?"

Mare nodded. "I do. And you'll see why when you get to know her. TJ's had a lot of emotional problems and she still has a lot of physical pain so sometimes she gets pretty edgy. But she has a huge heart… and she's given it to me." The amazement that Mare felt at this fact showed in her face. Jess saw the look and accepted that Mare had given her heart away, too.

He gave her a hug. "If she makes you happy, Mare, that makes me happy. Even if I don't like sharing you," he chuckled.

"Thanks, Jess. But don't worry, you'll always be my best male friend," Mare tugged on his arm and grinned at him.

"Guess I'll have to settle for that," he sighed melodramatically in an attempt to hide the foolish little hurt he felt. He knew he would get over it… eventually. He took Mare's arm and moved toward the couch. "Now let's hear that explanation about your dad."


When Michael arrived for the dinner, he strode right to TJ and gave her a hug and a kiss, which she returned with sincere appreciation. Even in jeans and a flannel shirt Mare's father projected an air of debonair sophistication. TJ took advantage of their few minutes alone to let him know that the project for a new hospital/wellness center for Meridianville had been put into motion. "I'd like to get your input for the spinal cord injury department we intend to incorporate into the plans. Would you consider sitting on our board of consultants?"

"I'd be honored to, TJ. Just have your people get in touch with me when they're ready for me."

TJ nodded. "I'd also like you to consider being in charge of the department once the hospital is completed. You could have the latest technology and the best brains we could get together. Money is no object."

Michael smiled and rubbed his hands together in a familiar gesture. "Now that is mighty tempting. I'll give it some thought and get back to you on it."

The mix of people at dinner turned out to be an unexpectedly convivial one. Jess held forth for a while about web site designing, entertaining them with some tales about the various unnamed companies he had worked for. Astute questions from TJ, Michael, Paula and even Tom impressed him with their grasp of his business. He promised TJ to call for an appointment to show her his portfolio.

Michael added a few stories of his own from both the medical and musical worlds. Tom's private schooling had provided him with an education in classical music that enabled him to take part in an animated conversation led by Michael and Mare. Erin, Paula and Jess were quick to champion current music trends while TJ sipped her wine and moderated the friendly discussion with an occasional remark accompanied by an uplifted eyebrow.

The emphasis on music led to a natural migration to the music room where Erin and Paula plugged in their guitars, Jess pulled a beat-up harmonica from his pocket, and Michael and Mare shared the piano while everyone sang. After two songs, it was evident that Tom shared his sister's singing talent and the two of them were persuaded to sing a few duets.

Finally, the evening ended, each guest said his good-byes and the house quieted down for the night.

Mare had helped TJ prepare for bed and was just pulling on a T-shirt, finishing her own preparations. As she approached the bed, she saw a smile curl across TJ's lips so she sat on the bed before turning out the light. "And what's that cat-that-swallowed-the-canary look for, if I may ask?"

"Just thinking about something Erin said to me earlier today. Did you enjoy yourself tonight?"

Realizing that the subject had been blatantly changed, Mare turned off the light and got under the sheet, snuggling against her lover. TJ's sigh of contentment melted right through her. "I had a super time. Jess seemed to fit in well with everybody and that really pleased me. Dad obviously liked him and even Tom was downright sociable."

"He was, wasn't he? I was impressed with Jess. And I had a good time, too."

"Glad you did. I was especially thankful that you and Jess didn't strike sparks off of each other," Mare admitted dryly.

"Now why would we do that?" TJ asked innocently, then grunted as a finger stuck her in the stomach.

"Because neither one of you sounded too friendly earlier today." TJ could feel Mare's grin against her breast. "Though I have to admit it's good for a girl's ego to have two people jealous over her."

This time it was Mare's turn to get a finger stuck in her stomach. "Well, I'm not jealous anymore," TJ declared. At least, not too jealous.

Mare's eyes had adjusted to the darkness and when she tilted her head back she could see the gleam of TJ's wide smile. "And what cured you so fast?"

"Something Erin told me."

Mare sighed in mock exasperation. "That's the second time you mentioned something Erin told you. What the heck was it?" She laid her head back against TJ's breast.

"She noticed that I wasn't being too sensible about Jess and she gave me a reminder." A quiet laugh rumbled softly through TJ's chest as she recalled the words, delighting in their truth. "She said Jess would leave tonight, but you would still be here in our home… snuggled up next to me." She gave Mare a squeeze and got one back. "And here you are."

"And here I'll always be," Mare promised. Oh, TJ, when will you truly believe that you'll never have to travel any road alone anymore? I'll never leave you.

They lay together quietly and were beginning to drift into sleep, when Mare murmured. "I love you, TJ."

Long arms tightened around her, TJ's head moved and warm lips lightly brushed her forehead. Then she felt the low rumble of the voice that caressed her soul. "Mmmm… love you, too… always."


Chapter 27

A couple of weeks had passed since Jess' return and he and Mare had managed to have a few short visits in town when Mare's calls took her through Meridianville. Each time, she had made a full report to TJ, hoping to make her partner more comfortable about her friendship with him. It seemed to be working as TJ gradually appeared to be accepting his presence in Mare's life.

This morning, Mare was home, standing in the barn, watching Tom come across the field. "Hi, Tom," she greeted the youngster as he entered the barn. "I asked Bill to send you over to help me give Flag a bath. You two get along so well, I figured you would both enjoy it." And maybe make a few more points in your sister's good graces. Mare had a bucket of warm water with shampoo already mixed in. Next to it lay a couple of sponges for washing, and a scraper for drying. "I'd like her to look special for TJ."

"Sure, Doc, I'd be happy to help." Tom fetched a coil of rope hanging against the wall. "Better than being outside right now, anyway. Looks like a storm might be brewing. I saw a bunch of lightning bolts zigzagging through the air." Tom's hand soared through the air, jumping jaggedly to imitate the bolts. "Then ka-boom!" He slapped his hand against the plywood side of an empty stall with a thunderous noise. Everybody jumped--the horses and Mare, too.

"Whoops, sorry," he grinned, not looking at all penitent.

Mare chuckled as she glanced outside through the back entrance of the barn. A little less stoic than his sister. "Yeah, I've been hearing it for a while, too. Occasionally we get some weird weather. One time you might just see lightning and no rain and next time there will be a downpour with it." She stood for a moment watching the irregular path of several bolts. I'm not too fond of lightning, she thought, recalling the episode when Runny shied and threw her. Even the sky looks strange.

"Awesome, huh?" Tom remarked as he followed her gaze. "It's not raining yet, but we could probably use it." Tom slipped a rope onto Flag's halter, noticing that she was a little fidgety this morning, in spite of her earlier run. He led the palomino out of her stall to a post next to the hallway, and tied her to a ring. Paula's horse, Runny, started neighing and kicking the sides of her stall. "How is TJ today?"

"Welllll, she was a little grouchy today, so I thought I'd better steer clear of her for a while," Mare admitted sheepishly. A little grouchy? Her moodiness has vastly improved but she was a bear at breakfast and none of us knew why. At least she didn't single out any one person to pick on.

Attentive for a moment to Runny's unusual behavior, Mare watched the animal acting up. You don't like this weather either, do you, girl? Lightning's not one of our favorites. Erin's placid black mount, Ebonair, shifted restlessly in her stall, but otherwise seemed to pay no attention to the ruckus.

Tom walked over toward Mare and grinned. "Does TJ have a bad temper?" Tom relished every tidbit he heard about his sister, eager to learn as much about her as he could.

"Bad?" Mare snorted a laugh. "Scary is more like it. Let's just say we all try to keep her nice and calm for a good reason." She stuck her hand in the bucket to test its temperature. Satisfied, she reached for the bucket to take it nearer Flag.

Suddenly, there was a bright lightning flash, accompanied by booming thunder, almost directly overhead. Mare stopped and cringed, then tried to make light of her nervous reaction. "Tom, will you stop hitting that plywood?"

Tom turned his twitch into a shrug, and slapped the wood again in weak imitation of the real thing. "Wasn't me. I can't compete with that."

Another flash glared and a cracking thunderclap, even louder, made them both jump. The whole barn shook, causing a strange rumble in the loft above Mare and Tom. "What the heck was that?" Tom asked, startled. He looked up toward the loft and his jaw dropped.

Alarmed at the look on his face, Mare's eyes swerved up, then widened. They both froze in disbelief as they saw badly stacked bales of hay sliding straight toward them. Neither moved quickly enough to evade the cascading avalanche. Dropping from the top of a stack 15 feet above the ground, two of the 60-pound bales tossed Tom toward the floor, slammed his head into the wall of Runny's stall and knocked him out.

The end of the first bale to hit Mare struck against her shoulder at an angle. As she went down, her head smashed into a post, plunging her into oblivion. The rest of the dislodged bales piled on top of her, their weight pinning her to the hallway floor.

The lightning had demolished the electrical box and charged through the barn's wiring. As it short-circuited wires throughout the building, the overload knocked out the smoke alarm system. Wires began to smolder, then burn, extending tentacles of fire toward anything nearby. Flames quickly ran up a wall, hungrily devouring the loose hay in the loft. A tongue of fire pounced on the bales still remaining, then slathered to the roof like a ravenous predator, ignoring… for the moment… the helpless bodies sprawled below it.


TJ slumped uneasily in her chair, frowning at the figures on the computer screen. The corporation is running relatively smoothly, the ranch is up to capacity and the packing plant is chugging along at full steam--everything is moving along really well. Wonder when the bad news is coming? The dark-haired woman grimaced at her own macabre attempt at humor. C'mon, TJ, stop looking for trouble. You've been antsy all morning. With exaggerated care, she put down the pencil she had unconsciously picked up to twirl. Time for a coffee break.

As she wheeled across the hall, she heard a great clap of thunder. Wow! That sounded right on top of us. Funny it's not raining. As TJ approached the kitchen, a bright flash of lightning surged outside the window, and thunder boomed simultaneously, seeming to fill the house. Brrrr. A little nerve-wracking when it's that close!

She ate a doughnut, then fixed herself a mug of coffee and carried it to the window. Wonder what Mare is up to in the barn? She's been out there for a while. Probably keeping out of my sight since I growled at everyone this morning, TJ thought with a pang of guilt. She sipped her coffee and watched a tendril of smoke lazily emerge from the roof of the barn.

Smoke? she thought, then the word burst from her throat. "Smoke!" She pushed the button on the arm of her chair and her heart sank as she remembered that Paula and Erin had gone into Meridianville. No help available there. Wheeling to the island, she thrust down her mug and grabbed for the cell phone. Quickly pushing 911, she shouted to an inquiring voice, "Fire at Meridian ranch. In the barn." Next she punched in the number for Bill's office. While waiting for him to answer, she tightened her seat strap and hurried over to the door. It took precious, frustrating moments for her to get the door open and maneuver outside. She smelled smoke as soon as she hit the outside air. "Bill!" she yelled as he picked up the phone. "Fire in the barn! Send some men!"

"There's only me and Carlos, but we're on our way!"

"Shit!" TJ tossed the phone into the carrier pocket on the side of her chair and rushed toward the barn, noting with alarm that the smoke was growing heavier each moment. Flames did a devil dance along the roof peak as wild neighing and kicking warned of horses in distress. Where the hell is Mare?

Hurrying through the entrance, TJ paused to reconnoiter the situation. Bales of hay, some smoldering, lay jumbled every which way in the hallway. Flames shot from the roof and loft, generating thick smoke, and in several places the walls were rapidly becoming involved. Heat steadily built, already drawing sweat from TJ's body. It trickled down her face and chest, dampened her underarms and made her hands slippery against the wheels.

A few bales moved, and TJ's heart leaped. "Mare?" Before she could maneuver around other bales to get to them, they toppled out of the way and Tom scrambled to his feet, coughing heavily. Tom's here? "Tom! Where's Mare?" TJ shouted at him, but he seemed dazed. "Tom! Wait! Where's Mare?" Still coughing, he stumbled through the bales to the entrance, just beyond TJ's reaching hand.

Flag, knowing TJ was near, pawed uneasily at the floor and neighed for her attention. Frightened by the billowing smoke, searing heat and roaring fire, Runny and Ebonair screamed and thrashed about in their stalls. A blaze spread through the tack room and exploding bottles and cans lent their sounds of destruction to the clamor. The fire burned off odors as they formed, leaving acrid remnants to add their stench to the almost overpowering foulness of the smoke.

Fire raged up the walls, bouncing red reflections from every shiny surface in the building, including TJ's agonized eyes. "Mare! Mare! Where are you?" TJ yelled in vain, knowing that the noise level overran her voice. The discordant uproar clanged inside her head, heightening her soul-searing frustration.

Heat surged against and through her as she searched the area frantically, her heart threatening to burst. Blood surged and pulsed through her brain, shrieking urgency. For god's sake, Mare, where ARE you?

She gasped when her frenzied gaze at last spied a black boot, barely visible beneath the fallen bales. Just as her desperately questing eyes found her beloved vet, a burning chunk of loft flooring dropped onto several of the bales that partially covered her, setting them alight. TJ stared in helpless horror as it tumbled further, landing on the floor near Mare, its flames reaching toward her face.

"God Almighty, Mare! Hang on! I'm coming!" Her chest heaving for air and eyes running with tears, TJ grabbed a pitchfork from the wall. She rubbed sweat-slicked hands on her pants, vaguely aware that her clothing felt super hot. But nothing else mattered; Mare needed her. Fear for her endangered lover increased her strength to superhuman proportions. Straining mightily, she forked up each of the burning bales and, fighting to keep her balance, pitched them away. Unable to push the flaming floorboard aside without endangering Mare even more, TJ's mind went into overdrive, racing for a solution.

Two agonizing seconds ticked past, seeming to take forever. Then she jerked into action, using the pitchfork's tines to snag the blanket still hanging from the side of Flag's stall. Tossing it over the piece of board, she smothered the hungry flames, then swiped at her streaming eyes with her arm.

The raging blaze in the roof sucked at the oxygen in the barn and pulled hot air across TJ's body, painting painful stripes on her exposed skin. Her sweat-soaked hair and clothing clung to her, providing temporary protection, while draughts drawn in through the open-ended hallway brought brief respite from the oppressive heat.

Nearly crazed by the thought that the loft could drop another piece of burning floorboard at any moment, TJ attacked the remaining bales with the fork, fighting like a maniac to move them, heedless of where they landed. Coughing hard, she had to stop every few moments to catch her breath, frighteningly aware with each lost second that the loft could totally collapse at any moment and drop flaming bales onto both of them. On grit alone, grunting with each painful exertion, TJ hoisted the bales, one by one, and furiously flung them out of the way… until finally her lover was free.

TJ screamed in frustrated anger as another huge section of loft broke off and dropped behind her chair, blocking a clear way to the door. I got her free, now what? She looked at the maze of burning bales. No way I can take Mare through that. We'd burn trying to weave the chair through and there's not enough time left to crawl out.

TJ's tearing eyes swiftly scoured the smoke-filled barn, searching for an answer. Flag can do it! Recklessly she wheeled between two of the blazing bales to an unburned coil of rope hanging on a nearby post, and snatched it down. Dropping it into her lap, she propelled her chair rapidly to Flag. "C'mon, my faithful girl, you have to help me with this. Mare needs us," she spoke urgently but as soothingly as possible to the palomino, as coughing racked her body. The burgeoning heat beat against her, evaporating her sweat and tears, and warning that time was running out. Quickly tying the rope around Flag's neck, she unfastened her from the post ring.

Pieces of the barn roof crashed toward the floor, igniting everything flammable that they touched. Runny and Ebonair pounded against their stalls, stung by hot embers. The animals' terrified screaming and crazed kicking, the fire's frightful roaring and the ominous explosions of bottles and cans created a hellish symphony of demented dissonance.

Clamping the rope between her teeth, TJ dashed furiously back through the bales to Mare, pulling a nervous Flag with her. Unbuckling the seat strap and thrusting herself out of the chair, she dropped onto the concrete. Every pounding beat of her heart prayed that she could save her lover. Gods, Mare, I gotta drag you outta here, sweetheart. Just hope I don't make any injury inside of you worse. That thought paralyzed her motion for a split-second. Suck it up, TJ, you've got no choice; you've gotta just keep moving, no matter what. Hastily, she looped the rope around Mare and tied it tightly. She placed a loop around herself and her heart leaped with gratitude as Tom came charging back in. "Tom, get the horses," TJ shouted, pointing toward the panicked animals.

Tom saw TJ taking care of Mare. He couldn't hear over the noise, but, without breaking stride, he followed her finger and hurried to Runny. He struggled to put a lead rope on her and move her from the stall, but he had a fight on his hands. The terrified horse tried to run deeper into the barn, away from the burning loft. Tom dug in his heels and used all of his strength to turn her. Feeling like his arms might pull from their sockets, he finally got Runny headed out the back door into the corral.

Bill Jacobs and Carlos pulled in and hit the ground running. Dashing into the barn, they made their way through the thick smoke toward the figures they could barely see on the floor, lying among the blazing bales. Before they reached them, the figures moved.

"Okay, Flag, get us outta here, baby." TJ clucked a command and the golden mare stepped quickly through the maze, dragging the two women toward the entrance. Mare and TJ swerved against the sides of some of the bales, but the flames shot upwards, never touching them. Bill and Carlos were astounded. "Get the other horses!" rasped TJ, as she and Mare went past them, unaware that Tom had freed Runny.

The two men grappled with Ebonair to get a lead rope on her, then wrestled her toward the back door. Just as they exited, the main roof caved in with a loud whoosh, showering sparks high into the sky. Still hot, the glowing embers rained back to earth. Both horses were outside and the falling sparks unsettled them even more. At first trying to help out, then realizing that Bill and Carlos could deal with the spooked horses, Tom raced around the fully engulfed building to check on TJ and Mare.

"Whoa, Flag," TJ called when they had been pulled across the driveway onto the grass, a safe distance from the inferno. Giving the palomino's leg a grateful pat, she untied herself and Mare. TJ's throat, eyes and skin hurt but she feverishly began to examine the still unconscious woman, scrutinizing her for injury. "Mare, my god, Mare, speak to me, please, speak to me," she implored over and over in a raspy voice.

The flaming floorboard had singed Mare's eyelashes and eyebrows and lightly burned her face and ears. TJ shuddered at how near Mare had come to having her beautiful face scarred by the fire. A bump protruded from the side of her head, but when TJ carefully lifted her eyelids, her eyes looked fine.

When the roof caved in and sparks fell from the sky, TJ pulled Mare close to protect her from the burning shower. Reaction to the heart-wrenching tension of fighting to save her lover set in, and TJ started to cry. "I love you, Mare. I love you. Please be all right. I'll do anything you want me to, if you'll just be all right. Anything." TJ caressed Mare's golden hair and brushed gentle kisses on her unresponsive lips and face. "I can't bear the thought of something bad happening to you," TJ continued her impassioned plea, with tears streaming down her cheeks.

The wailing sirens of the fire engines and ambulance aroused her from her absorption. She needed to call Erin and Paula, but she remembered that the cell phone was in the pocket of the doomed wheelchair. Dashing the tears from her eyes, she lay there with her arms around her love, protectively hugging her warm body close, willing their nearness to convey a silent message of love.

When the fire engines and ambulance pulled up at the barn, TJ insisted that the paramedics take care of Mare before checking on her. They gently removed her from TJ's arms and laid her on a stretcher. TJ accepted a pillow to prop herself up with, but refused to be put in the ambulance. "No way. I'm fine. You take care of my partner first." TJ scowled up at the paramedic. "And let me know how she is," she barked in a scratchy voice.

TJ's name and reputation had earned a lot of respect in these parts. The paramedic's practiced eye could see that, although she obviously could use some attention, she didn't appear to be seriously injured. Giving in to her demands, he reluctantly left her and joined the other attendant at Mare's side.

Tom ran into the driveway area and saw TJ and Mare in the yard with the medics. Flag was standing quietly off to the side. The palomino, rope still twined around her neck, nibbled the grass, totally disregarding the commotion of the firefighters. Right, girl, you take it easy, you did your job.

Tom took a moment to speak to the fire chief, letting him know that there were no people and animals still in the barn. The chief was astonished when Tom told him that TJ had entered the burning barn in her wheelchair and used her horse to pull out the vet. Tom assured him it was true, then trotted over to where TJ lay in the grass.

Tom squatted next to his sister. "Are you okay, TJ? How's Mare?" His sister's red-rimmed, bloodshot eyes swept up to him and he felt the jolt of their power. She's got to be beat and she still radiates strength, he thought admiringly.

"I'm fine, Tom. I'm waiting to find out about Mare." Tom reached out a hand and TJ, attempting a tired smile, grasped it. "What happened in there, Tom?"

"I'm not too clear on that, TJ. All I remember is hearing a loud crack that shook the barn, then a rumble. And looking up and seeing a truckload of hay coming at us. Then, boom! I was knocked for a loop. I must have gotten up somehow, 'cause the next thing I remember was coming to, out here, and realizing that Mare must still be inside. That's when I came running in."

The medic left Mare's side and loped over. "Looks like the doc's lungs are clear, Miss Meridian. We're giving her oxygen, just in case. She's got a nasty bump on her head, maybe a concussion, and her face is a little singed. We'll know better what shape she's in after we get her to the hospital. But her vital signs are good, so she's probably not in any danger."

"Thanks," TJ replied, relief flooding through her. "And thanks for helping out." The medic trotted back to Mare, and TJ's attention swerved to the approaching fire chief.

"It's gonna take a while to put the fire out, Miss Meridian. But your barn's a total loss. The lightning rod must not have been grounded. Looks like lightning struck the outside electric box. From there it would have traveled right along the wiring, spreading fire everywhere the wires went. That's why it burned so fast." He turned and looked at the men working the hoses, then swung back to TJ. "The roof had collapsed before we got here… there wasn't much that anyone could do. We'll just spray it down until there aren't any more hot spots." He took his helmet off and scratched at his damp head. "And your wheelchair got ruined, too. Sorry about that."

"Don't worry about it," TJ said softly. "We can replace a wheelchair. And you've kept the fire from spreading to the other buildings. Thank you, and thank your men, too." The fireman nodded and walked away and TJ's eyes came back to the ambulance that was just going down the driveway. Tears welled and she sniffled.

Tom brought his gaze back from the ambulance and looked at his sister. He squeezed the hand he still held. "She'll be okay. They'll take good care of her. Let's get you back into the house," he said as he released her hand and stood. He took Flag's rope, patted her on the neck, and tied her to the corral fence. "I'll come back for you soon, girl," he promised, then looked back at TJ as she spoke.

"My other chair is in the garage, if you'll get it for me," TJ requested through a tight throat. "You can go through the house if the doors are locked."

Tom grinned and squatted down next to her again. He slipped an arm under TJ's shoulders and one under her knees. "Whoa! Wait a minute, Tom," TJ rasped. "I'm as big as you are."

"No kidding?" Tom answered. "Guess I better be careful, then." He pulled TJ's body against his and stood straight up with little effort. With a huge grin on his face, he carried her to the house and, after she helped by opening the door, took her to the living room. He laid her gently on the couch, then looked down at her with concern. "Your eyes are puffy and bloodshot, your face is as red as a beet and your arms are red, too. You really should have gone to the hospital."

"Yes, Mom," TJ said dryly. "Will you bring me the phone, please?" TJ looked around the room. "There's one on the reading table." She grinned as Tom shook his head and fetched the phone for her. "Don't worry, Tom, I am going to the hospital… as soon as I get Paula and Erin home."

Tom rolled his eyes as he handed her the phone. TJ chuckled. "I just got out of the hospital, Tom. I'd have to be hurting a lot worse than this before I'd go back as a patient."

"You saved the doc's life."

TJ looked up into her brother's hero-worshipping eyes. "Let's just be grateful that we didn't lose anything but the barn. It could have been worse. A lot worse." She grasped Tom's hand and gave it a squeeze. "You were a big help, too. Thanks." TJ laughed when Tom blushed with embarrassment. "Look who's red now!"

"You're family, TJ. I was glad to help," Tom said shyly. TJ's eyes filled and she squeezed his hand again. Tom got even redder. "Guess I'll go get the chair now," he muttered, then escaped to the garage.

TJ followed him with her eyes, and the affection that she had held back for so long came flooding into her heart. Good man, my brother. Better than I've been giving him credit for.

TJ picked up the phone and closed her eyes for a moment before calling. Wonder which one of them would like to hear this pleasant news first? She opened her eyes and sighed as she pushed in the number. "Paula? I want you guys to come home right away. You're on your way? Great." That means I can get right to the hospital! "We've had a little excitement here while you were gone…"

While waiting for the girls to arrive, TJ made several other calls. One to Barry, one to Michael, one to a business in Meridianville and one to the contractors who would need to tear down the ruined barn before starting to rebuild.

Erin and Paula came hurrying home, anxious to make sure TJ was as calm as she seemed on the phone. "She sounded like it was just another day, Erin. I can't believe she's really that cool about it," Paula said after explaining TJ's call.

"We'll find out when we get there, Polly, so hang on tight." Erin was squeezing as much speed out of the Land Rover as she could and still stay on the road.

Paula noticed Erin's use of her nickname and grabbed onto the seat. She only calls me Polly when her emotions are in high gear. I better keep an eye on her, as well as TJ. "That ambulance that passed us must have been carrying Mare. Too bad we didn't know sooner, you could have dropped me at the hospital."

"Yeah," Erin agreed as they pulled in and parked, "but we'll hurry back."

Dashing into the house, they found TJ at the kitchen table, her head buried in her arms, with her shoulders shaking. When she saw the women pull up, the tight rein she had been holding on her emotions let go. Horror at almost losing her lover flooded over her and she began crying.

Erin rushed to her side, her face screwed up in distress. She put an arm around TJ's shoulders. "We're here, honey, we're here. Please don't cry. Come on, we'll take you to see Mare."

TJ raised a tear-streaked face. "I almost lost her, Erin. Just like Lance. I… I couldn't stand that, again."

Erin pulled TJ's chair out, leaned down to put her arms around her friend and pulled her close. She's reliving Lance's death. That has to be upsetting her even more. "Mare's not lost, TJ. You saved her."

TJ buried her face in Erin's shoulder. "But I couldn't save Lance."

Erin bit her lip and tears came to her eyes. She began to pat TJ's back. "Aw, TJ, we were going to forgive ourselves, remember? No one could have saved Lance, sweetheart, it was his time. But you haven't lost Mare." The hand moved to caress the raven hair. "Come on, let's get you ready to go see her, okay? Maybe you can be there when she wakes up. You'd like that wouldn't you?"

Gradually TJ's tears stopped and she nodded against Erin's shoulder, then raised her head. Paula handed TJ some tissues, evoking a tear-stained smile. Erin took the tissues from TJ's hand and tenderly wiped her face and eyes for her. "Blow," she commanded, holding the tissues against TJ's nose. TJ did as she was commanded, then she and Erin traded smiles.

"Better?" the curly-haired blonde asked.

"Better," TJ answered.

Erin patted TJ's shoulder, then promised, "We'll have you to the hospital in about 15 minutes." Paula had fetched a washcloth from the bathroom and Erin used it to freshen TJ's face, then kissed her cheek. "Ready to go?"

"I really have to bathe first," TJ said. "I was too shaky to do it when I was here alone." She indicated her body with a flip of her hand. "I'm a mess."

"Do you want me to help you? It might be faster," Erin offered.

"If you would, please. At least with the undressing and dressing; that would speed things up a lot."

"Okay, let's go. And your skin could use some ointment, too, TJ. You look like you have quite a sunburn." Erin followed TJ out of the kitchen as she engaged the chair's motor and headed for her rooms.

Paula straightened the kitchen, then went outside to look at the barn. Firemen were still hosing it down as a refilled pumper came up the driveway.

She sadly surveyed the damage. Damn! The barn really is totaled. I can't picture anyone having the guts to go into a burning building in a wheelchair. She shook her head. I always have admired TJ's gumption but that just jumped up a couple of notches. What a remarkable friend. And I threatened that Erin and I would leave her. Paula snorted. Not that Erin ever would… and I'm finally starting to understand why. Loyalty like that can't be bought. TJ shoulda kicked my butt.

She walked over and spoke to a couple of the men, getting a better idea of just what had happened. She was even more awed with TJ's courage when she saw the amazed and respectful way the men spoke of her rescue of Mare.

A catering truck pulled up and started handing out sandwiches and steaming coffee, bringing smiles to the faces of the tired men. "Compliments of Miss Meridian," one of the women with the truck announced.

The fireman next to Paula turned and gestured to her with his full hands. "Miss Meridian sure knows how to take care of people," he remarked.

"She sure does," Paula agreed. She sure does, echoed in her heart, and we are going to take good care of her, too.

Paula jogged back to the house as the door opened and TJ and Erin came out. The firemen hollered their thanks to TJ, who waved back and thanked them in return, flashing a brilliant smile that lifted everybody's spirits.

The women piled into the Rover. As soon as Erin returned TJ's motorized chair to the porch, they took off. Paula called ahead to the hospital to have a chair ready for TJ to use. When they got there, Erin ran on ahead while Paula helped TJ into the chair brought out for her and pushed her on in. In a few minutes, Erin came back to meet them. "Mare's still in emergency. They're waiting for x-rays. Let's see if we can get in."

"We'll get in, all right," TJ muttered. Her hands were white where they gripped the armrests. When they reached the emergency room area, they were surprised to see Michael hurrying toward them.

"Just getting here? Me, too. I hopped a ride on a helicopter coming back here from Springerly Hospital. Perfect timing." Michael took TJ's hand and gave it a squeeze. "Let's go see Mare," he said, then left for a moment to speak to a clerk at the emergency entrance. He showed his credentials then waved to the women to join him. He walked beside TJ's chair, directing her to the proper cubicle.

A nurse turned as they entered and raised inquiring brows. "I'm Dr. Gillis," Michael explained, "and the patient is my daughter. How is she?"

"She's still unconscious, Doctor. She has some contusions on her body and mild burns on her face and arms, but, unless the x-rays show anything, nothing else is evident." She stepped nearer Michael and lowered her voice. "We don't like that she's still unconscious. We're hoping she revives soon."

TJ had rolled right up to the bed. She lifted Mare's hand to her lips then held it against her cheek, before lowering it to remain clasped between hers.

"Thank you," said Michael to the nurse. He turned toward the bed and marveled at TJ's expression. If someone wanted a picture to describe love, TJ's face would do perfectly. Michael walked to the other side of the bed, leaned down and kissed Mare's forehead.

Erin and Paula patted their unconscious friend's shoulder, then everyone took a seat. TJ never left Mare's side, but stayed there, holding her hand and murmuring to her.

Some time passed and still the x-rays apparently hadn't returned. "She's waking!" TJ announced as Mare's eyes fluttered. They came open and Mare blinked to clear them.

Lordy, do I have a headache! In fact, my whole body hurts. What the heck happened? Finally her vision focused and she smiled at TJ through a frown. "Hi there, beautiful. Is something wrong?"

"Not now." TJ pushed the words through quivering lips. In spite of her pain, Mare struggled up and reached for her lover as TJ's tears began to flow.


Chapter 28

Mare had a slight concussion and a badly bruised body but no serious damage had been done. Her position on the floor had saved her from the worst of the smoke. She was released from the hospital the next day but not before a steady stream of visitors had come to see her, including Jess. As soon as he heard that Mare was hurt, he rushed to her side to assure himself that she was in no danger.

Of course, the most important person in her life had been there when her eyes first opened, but she was gratified to see that so many people cared what happened to her. Everyone's treating me like a hero because I got caught in the fire, but TJ's the real hero. She risked her life to save me. Mare was somewhat awed by that, and the knowledge filled her heart until she thought it might burst.

TJ had told her what happened to her and Tom after the bales hit them. And she'd given Mare the bare bones story of the fire and rescue. The vet learned that, after phoning Paula and Erin, TJ had called Barry to come check out the horses. Bill, Carlos and Tom had taken them to the working barn near the bunkhouse where Barry had treated them for superficial burns. Next she had called Michael to inform him of Mare's rescue. Then she had called the caterer to feed the firemen and lastly, TJ had called the contractor to start at once on building a new barn.

TJ's bloodshot eyes and reddened skin told Mare more about the rescue effort than her words did... and the fact that her raven-haired lover released her clasped hand only when she had to… then today she held it until Mare needed to dress to go home. And once they got settled in the van TJ immediately pulled her into an embrace… and hadn't let go of her since.

They came up the driveway toward the house and Mare was saddened to see the blackened skeleton of the barn, pieces of its stucco shell spread across the ground. Men were already at work, tearing it down. She shivered, thinking that she would have died in there, had it not been for the courageous woman sitting against her in the van. TJ could have died, too. But that didn't stop her.

TJ had Mare clasped tightly against her side, but she squeezed even tighter when she felt Mare shiver. "Scary, huh?" TJ murmured and kissed the top of her head.

Mare nodded and sucked hard on her lips, trying to quell the tears that tried to spring forth, but the tears won. She turned toward TJ, her flooding green eyes meeting fabulous blue ones that mirrored the surge of love that hit her heart. The quirked eyebrow and lopsided grin unseated the last vestiges of her composure and she buried her head against her lover's neck, sobbing.

Long arms wrapped completely around her shoulders as she slipped hers around TJ's waist. The warmth and security of being in TJ's arms worked its magic and Mare's sobbing subsided. Their embrace felt so wonderful to both of them that neither woman moved when the van stopped.

Paula got out to retrieve the new wheelchair from the van as Erin turned to Mare and TJ. "Hey, guys, we're home," she said. Ecstatic that they had both survived what could have been a double tragedy, she was reluctant to part them.

TJ's arms tightened and the slight hoarseness in her velvet voice tugged at Mare's heart. "I've been home ever since we picked Mare up."

"Gods, TJ, that is so beautiful," Mare managed to blurt out before the tears came again.


Mare crawled gingerly into bed and sighed as she snuggled her aching body up against her lover's firm form. They lay quietly for a few moments, enjoying each other's warmth.



"Tell me what really happened in the barn."

"I did tell you. You were knocked over by some bales of hay. I went in and found you and brought you out…"

"Wait! Those are the parts I want to hear... in detail. The 'went in and found you and brought you out,' parts. Paula told me some of the stories she heard from the firemen about the inside of the barn, and when Tom came by this afternoon, he told me about bales of hay thrown to hell and back all over the hallway. So, please, tell me about it."

"All of it?" TJ asked and made a face.

"All of it." Mare echoed, smiling. She just never wants to talk about herself. But I know she did something pretty fantastic and I want to hear about it. "I'm disappointed that I was unconscious through the whole rescue. I want to hear about it. I think it's pretty exciting."

"Hmmm." TJ pulled her head away and looked at the lover she had almost lost. Exciting? More like heart-stopping! But I did promise to do anything she asked. Just didn't expect to be called on it so soon. TJ's self-deprecating smile told Mare she would be rewarded. "Okay, I'll tell you."

TJ leaned her head against Mare's again, and began her tale. Her descriptions were plain and unadulterated, but that made the situation even more terrifying to listen to. Terrifying to listen to? My god, TJ was living through it! Mare sucked in her breath several times during TJ's narration, but didn't interrupt until she felt TJ's tension increase as she told of freeing Mare, then being trapped by the same bales she had flung away. "It was my own stupid fault we were trapped."

Mare patted her side. "TJ, you were frantic to get them off of me. It's amazing you could even move them; it would be impossible to aim them."

"I was trying so hard not to fail you… like I failed Lance."

Mare pushed away from TJ and sat up outside the covers, tucking her legs under her. TJ looked up at her, startled. "You did not fail Lance, TJ. All of us keep telling you that. When are you going to believe it?"

TJ looked away and twisted her lips. Mare put her fingertips against TJ's jaw and turned her head back until TJ's eyes met hers. "Answer me this, TJ. What happened at the time you and Lance were attacked that you could have changed?"

"I should never have talked him into coming with me," TJ said thickly.

Mare waggled a finger at her. "That doesn't count. People are always talking each other into doing things. It wasn't the first time, was it?"

"No," TJ admitted, saying it slowly.

"But this time something bad happened. And you didn't foresee that. Who could have? Can you see into the future?"

"No," came another drawl.

Mare was distracted for a moment by the shape of TJ's lovely lips when she drew out the word, "no." She shook her head and blinked to resume her focus.

"TJ, let me ask you again, did you have any real opportunity to save Lance? You've been telling me of your superhuman effort to save my life. If you had a chance, I'm sure you would have made a superhuman effort to save Lance, too. Did you have that chance?"

TJ thought about it for several long moments. "No."

Mare licked her lips. "Then you can't honestly keep blaming yourself. It isn't fair to you. Do you think you can ever admit that, and forgive yourself?"

TJ hesitated. Her eyes moved away for a full minute then came back. "I think maybe I can. Yes."

"Oh, TJ, that's wonderful!" Mare's whole face was alight.

TJ smiled up at the vision of beauty sitting next to her. I'd save you a hundred times a day if I had to, Mare. And she knew, at last, the same was true of Lance. I would have saved you if I could, my brother. I just never had the chance. And it wasn't my fault. Finally willing to accept that truth, TJ's whole body relaxed as she took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

"TJ, will you do me a favor?" A dark eyebrow quirked up in question. "Would you say, 'No,' for me just one more time?" TJ frowned comically and Mare grinned. "Just do it, okay?"

"No," TJ started the drawl, and soft lips found hers as she completed the word, then she entered into the spirit of things and returned the kiss.

"Ummmmmm," Mare hummed as she slipped back under the covers and into TJ's arms. "Now, let's hear the rest of this rescue."

"First time saying 'no' ever got me a reward," TJ grinned, then she finished the tale, describing Flag's part in pulling them out between the burning bales. "And she didn't even get burned, just singed a little." TJ touched Mare's nose with a forefinger. "Kinda like you did."

"Yeah, and you, too," Mare agreed soberly. What a magnificent woman you are, TJ Meridian, and how everlastingly grateful I am that we found each other. Mare moved up and lifted her body over TJ's until she could put one bent arm against the mattress on either side of TJ's head. Blue eyes looked lovingly up into green.

Mare smiled down at her, returning the look of love. "TJ, you are one fantastic woman, you know that? You risked life and limb to go into a burning building after me. You saved my life."

"You are my life," TJ whispered. "I would risk anything for you." TJ's arms closed around her lover as Mare uttered a small cry and sank against her. Their bodies connected and their lips met, confirming the union of their souls.


A number of days had passed since almost losing Mare, and TJ found that she still hated to let her out of her sight. She sat at her desk this morning pondering this strange feeling. I know she's just down the hallway, in her office. What could hurt her there? TJ might argue that her fears were unfounded, but her emotions defied any attempt to quell them.

Sighing, she dragged her mind away from the battle and willed her thoughts to concentrate on the list in front of her.

We have several items in progress here at the moment. She ran down the list, going over each project. First, the more imminent ones: new barn being built; barbecue at the ranch being organized by Barry and Berta; Paula and Erin's new home still in the planning stages. Then, the longer term ones: new medical center, including a spinal cord injury wing. And maybe, just maybe we could manage a swimming pool a little later. TJ pencilled it in as her lips twisted. It's my own fault we don't have one yet; when they had to redo the gym, I couldn't stand coming back to all that disruption at one time.

Balancing the pencil between her index and middle fingers, the dark-haired woman drummed its eraser against the desktop. And Tom. Gloria has pretty much agreed to whatever I might decide about his contact with the corporation. I want to get him introduced to some of the people at Meridian; see if we can find something for him to do to learn about the company, fit it around his ranch work. And I like the idea of working up an internship that would mesh with his studies when he enters Harvard. I'll need to talk to him about that first--don't want him to think I'm pressuring him into anything.

She added Tom's name to the list, then a tap on the door broke her concentration and Mare came in, bearing two mugs. "Is this a good time for a coffee break?" she asked, raising her eyebrows.

"Perfect," TJ answered, noticing that the tinge of uneasiness that had been bothering her departed as soon as she spied Mare. She watched her lover's graceful movements as she set the mugs on the desk and pulled a chair up next to her.

"Working hard?" Mare asked, then as her eyes met TJ's admiring look, she continued with a saucy grin, "Or hardly working?"

TJ grinned ruefully. "Thinking, mostly, and that's damn hard work." She laid the pencil down, leaned an arm on the table and used it to turn more fully toward Mare. She quieted for a moment, tilted her head a bit and let her eyes feast on Mare's face.

Responding to TJ's pensive mood, Mare quieted, too. She lifted a hand and softly ran her fingertips across a sculpted cheekbone. "What?" she asked in a hushed voice.

"You really are beautiful, you know. Your face, your eyes, your hair, the way you move…" TJ kissed the fingertips that had stroked their way down her jawline, then to her lips. She smiled as Mare brought the fingers to her own lips. "You're beautiful inside, too. I don't ever want to take you for granted. I always want to be aware of how beautiful you are and how much I love you."

An understanding smile spread from Mare's slightly turned lips to her shining eyes. "You know I feel the same way about you, sweetheart. Almost losing each other sure wakes up your awareness, doesn't it?"

"Yeah, it does," TJ agreed huskily.

Mare squeezed her lover's hand. "Hey, we both have stuff to do today, so c'mon, let's drink our coffee before we get carried away, okay?"

TJ squeezed back then released the smaller hand. She grinned and nodded. "Right," she agreed as she reached for the coffee and took a drink of it.

"What are you working on?" Mare asked, tipping her head toward the tablet lying in front of TJ. She picked up her mug and drained most of it in one gulp.

TJ pushed the tablet over so Mare could read it. The blonde head bent down, read it, then came back up with green eyes widened. "Boy, when you put it all in one spot, it looks kind of formidable."

TJ laughed and shrugged. "We'll be pretty busy for a while, that's for sure. But we have lots of help. What are you up to, today? I could hear some movement going on…" She hesitated at the words, "in your office," then chose not to say them.

Mare flexed an arm, showing the muscle. "I've been moving furniture around. I got a new bookcase the other day and Paula put it together for me. Now I'm trying to figure out where I want to…" she stopped at the frown she saw growing on TJ's face. "What's wrong?"

"I'm the one who should be putting bookcases together for you and helping you move furniture around," TJ asserted, more sharply than she intended. For some reason, her inability to help with that homey activity disturbed her. She grabbed at the coffee mug and practically threw the brew down her throat.

"TJ!" Mare returned the frown. "You know we all help where we can and when we can. Paula was there when the bookcase was delivered and she put it together for me. Besides…" she hesitated.

"Besides, I'm not physically able to do something like that," TJ growled, finishing the sentence for her. She sat up rigidly in her chair, turned back toward the table and picked up the pencil, mangling it in her grasp.

Mare shook her head at her suddenly rebellious partner. "Actually, that hadn't occurred to me. I was going to say that you won't come into the office anyway, so how could you help?" Her mouth twisted and she suggested dryly, "Unless you want to come help me decide how to rearrange it."

TJ's continued rigidity answered for her. Mare sighed and stood up, curling her fingers through the handles of the nearly empty mugs. "I didn't come in here to start a fight, TJ. I just wanted to be with you. If you need me, you know where I am." She waited a moment, but when there was no response, she left.

Mare rinsed the mugs and stuck them in the dishwasher, then went back down the long hallway to her office, carefully closing the door behind her. She walked to the nearest chair and plopped into it, letting her eyes roam through the entire room. There is no way in hell this room would ever remind TJ of her father's office. But that hardheaded lover of mine will never know that because she's too damn stubborn to even come through the door.

Now she's upset because I told her Paula helped me with the bookcase. How was I supposed to know that would bother her? Good grief! Then Mare's fair-minded self stepped forward. You know she's upset because she wants to be the one you look to for help, yet she knows she won't always be able to give you that help. Well, kiddo, Mare sighed, I can't always help you, either. There are some things only you can handle.

Now where was I? Oh yeah, trying to find a good place for this darn bookcase.

TJ was more hurt than angry. Mare's words tumbled through her head: Paula was there… you won't come into the office… how could you help? The fact that Mare was right--TJ couldn't help with anything in the office as long as she refused to enter it--only served to deepen her pain.

Tears of frustration moistened her eyes and she brushed brusquely at her cheeks as a few overflowed. Suddenly she realized that she was on the brink of allowing herself to wallow in self-pity. Grabbing a tissue from the box on the desk, she dried her eyes and spoke sternly to herself.

Taylor Jade Meridian, stop acting like a damn emotional basket case. You've been seeing a counselor for close to two years and you're still allowing your father to dictate your actions. You're letting your hatred of him disappoint the woman you love--the woman who loves you--the woman you very nearly lost. Is that hatred stronger than the love you and Mare share?

Never! TJ told herself. Nothing is stronger than that. What did Mare say before? 'Our love's too strong to be destroyed by any obstacle.' Well, it's also too strong to let any obstacle come between us. I've waited too long to push this one out of the way. Mare's words echoed again. 'If you need me, you know where I am. If you need me… If you need me…

Wheeling out of her office, TJ rolled partway down the hallway and stopped, looking at the door that stood between her and the woman she knew she would love for eternity. She set her jaw in determination and pushed hard against the wheels, going forward again. I'll always need you, Mare. Taking a deep breath, she reached for the knob.

Mare stood in her office, hands on her hips, seeking a possible spot for the bookcase. Automatically, her head swiveled to the office door as she thought she heard a creak. Yeah, right, Mare. TJ's coming down the hall to see you. The impossibility of the thought saddened her and she winced at her momentary lapse of memory. She started to move her gaze back to the room when, out of the corner of her eye, she saw the doorknob turn.

As if in slow motion, she turned her whole body to face the door, her breath frozen in her lungs. She watched speechlessly as the door slowly pushed open and TJ wheeled into the room. Mare could only stare.

TJ's breath caught, also, as her eyes darted around the room. Nothing in here looks the same. Nothing. It could be a totally different room… and it is. It's Mare's office. No one else's. She breathed again as her eyes finished their circuit and came to rest on an astonished Mare. TJ's mouth tilted in her lopsided grin as she forced words through her tight throat. "I guess I should have knocked."

The words unfroze Mare and she hurried to her lover. She dropped to her knees, burying her head in TJ's lap. Long fingers stroked the golden head. "I needed you," TJ choked out, "and, like you said, I knew where to find you."

Half-crying and half-laughing, Mare lifted her head and flung her arms around TJ and both women wept together. After several moments, Mare stood and grabbed some tissues and wiped TJ's face and then her own. She took TJ's hand, pulling her chair toward the couch as TJ quirked an eyebrow. "Every time I fantasized about you coming into my office, I pictured you sitting on my couch." She helped a cooperative TJ maneuver into the corner of the couch then sat next to her, laying her head against the firm shoulder.

TJ bent her head and sought Mare's lips, kissing her gently at first, then with rising passion. She pulled away and took a deep breath as her always restless hand commenced moving along the softness of her lover's body. "I guess you didn't fantasize much work getting done, huh?"

"I'm too happy to even think about work," Mare confessed with a slow smile. She pushed her body higher against TJ's, leaned in and kissed TJ's eyes and cheeks. "Welcome to my office," she said softly. Then they shared a deep, lingering kiss.

They paused and TJ looked into the sweetest face she had ever seen. Mare gazed into the depths of her lover's blue eyes and lifted a palm to caress her cheek. "Welcome home," she whispered.

TJ turned Mare and pulled her even closer, her body eagerly responding to the touch of Mare's as it slid perfectly against her. "Now it really is my home," she said. "No more ghosts."

"No more ghosts," Mare agreed and lifted her lips, willingly answering her lover's need.


The End.

We hope you enjoyed our story!
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