By Kennedy Northcutt ©2011
For disclaimers, see Part 1.
"You can't leave," Delores Pressman stood next to the bed with her arms crossed over her chest. "They'll find you, James. If you run, they'll just hunt you down, convict you and throw away the keys to your jail cell. You'll spend the rest of your miserable life in prison. Is that what you want?"
He shoved several folded shirts into one of the open designer suitcases and then grabbed his suits from the closet. He tossed the suits into a garment bag and continued packing.
"What I want is for you to leave, Delores," he snapped. "Why are you still here?"
"Because you still need me, James," she replied with a sardonic grin. "How else will you afford the plane fare for your escape from the country?"
"I don't need you. I don't need anyone!"
"Like you didn't need your wife?" Delores crossed to the other side of the bed and watched him. "Like you don't need your daughters?"
"Daughter," he snapped, as he slammed the lid shut on one of the suitcases. "I only have one daughter."
"And when she finds out you murdered her mother in cold blood?" Delores continued.
"Shut UP!" He stopped and ran a shaking hand through his sweaty hair. "I didn't mean for that to happen. She walked away and I waved the gun. I didn't mean for it to go off. I didn't mean to shoot her. It was an accident."
"She's dead, James," she splayed her hands on top of the expensive comforter and glared at him. "Go to the police and tell them what happened. Maybe they'll go easy on you."
"I can't!" He turned away from her. "I can't go to the police. They'll lock me away for good. You don't know what kind of influence her family had here-still has here. They'll swoop in here and pay off every judge and court official just to get me put away or sent to the executioner. Money buys you anything in this godforsaken city. The only thing it won't buy is my freedom. That's why I have to leave." He then turned back around to face her. "That's why I need this one last favor from you, Delores. This is it. Then you're free to go on without me."
"I'm afraid I can't do that, James," Delores stood back up and shook her head sadly. "I made a few calls myself." She then walked over to the double doors and opened them wide. Several police officers stood there with two plain-clothes detectives, as Delores pulled a wire from her cleavage. "Did you get everything you needed, Detectives?"
The taller of the two detectives held up a small tape machine. "We did, Mrs. Pressman." He then motioned to the officers behind him. "Take him into custody, gentlemen." The blond detective then moved to stand in front of James Stephens as he was being handcuffed. "James Stephens, you have the right to remain silent. Everything…"
"Go to hell," James growled and then turned an icy glare on Delores. "You sadistic bitch. Why?"
"Because," Delores handed over the surveillance equipment to the shorter brunette detective. "These fine people convinced me that they needed my help, James. And when Houston's finest personally asks Delores Pressman for help, I am obligated to step up and do my civic duty." She then walked over to him and ran a red finger nail along his jaw line. "It was fun while it lasted, though. We did have some good times together, didn't we, sugar? But Meredith was my friend and I couldn't stomach going along with your twisted schemes anymore." She then looked at the female detective. "You might also track down a Dr. Elias Benson in a psychiatric hospital in southern Louisiana. Ask him what part he played in the drugging of Lacey Stephens, Detective. And you might ask the judge on her case how much James paid him to lock his daughter up, so he could get his hands on her money. Then you might want to find Lacey Stephens herself and talk to her about the abuse she experienced at his hand when she was a child. I'm sure she'll be more than happy to tell you all about what this man did to her in the privacy of his office."
"Oh, really?" The tall detective glanced up from his notebook, as he made notes on everything Delores said. "Is there anything else we should know, Mrs. Pressman?"
"I believe there's a certain JAG attorney, by the name of Commander Jason Willows, who might also be of assistance," Delores continued to watch James' expression with a satisfied grin. "He helped rescue Lacey Stephens from that psychiatric hospital in Louisiana. He might be able to help you track her down."
"Thank you, Mrs. Pressman," the detective nodded. "You've been a really big help." He nodded to the two officers holding James. "Take him downtown and book him, gentlemen. Detective Summers and I will be there to do the interview once you have him booked for the murder of Meredith Stephens and Travis Wilson." He then caught the look of surprise in James' eyes. "That's right, Mr. Stephens. We found the limousine with Travis' body in it. We know you drove into the bay off Morgan's Point in La Porte. Someone saw you leave the scene and identified you to our sketch artist."
"That's impossible," James looked to Delores. "I was with Delores last night. Tell him, Delores!"
"They know I was alone, James," Delores gave him a sorry shake of her head. "They know you didn't show up to my penthouse suite until early yesterday morning. They came to me just after lunch and asked me to do them this little favor. I agreed, sugar. I did it for Meredith. Someone had to."
"Bitch!" James tried unsuccessfully to jerk free from the grip of the two men holding him. "I'll see you in hell, Delores! You mark my words!"
The two detectives stood by with smug grins, as James was taken from the room.
"Thank you both, detectives," Delores turned to them. "I should have realized years ago what he was capable of. Poor Meredith. She was such a dear. She didn't deserve what he did to her."
The brunette put her hand on Delores' shoulder. "You did the right thing, Mrs. Pressman. Your friend would be proud of you for doing the right thing."
Tears sprang to Delores' eyes and she reached into her designer handbag and pulled out a silk handkerchief to dab at her eyes, before the tears could fall and ruin her makeup. She then sniffed and put on a brave face.
"I'm just glad I could help," she said with more confidence than she felt. "What are the chances of a conviction? Do you have any idea?"
"Very good," Detective Andrea Summers said, as she held up the recording device. "You did a great job getting him to talk. Now we just have to get this over to the DA's office and let them do the rest."
"Thank you again," Delores said, as the two detectives left and closed the double doors behind them on their way out. "You owe me one, Meredith. I just hope you know that-wherever you are, dear."
Lacey stood in the medical tent of the Teton County Search and Rescue (TCSAR) that had been set up at the base of the mountains closest to the storm. She tried not to think about why she was there or what was to come in the next few hours. They had all been briefed on the situation and knew that there were more than twenty hikers, climbers and skiers who were missing in the storm's fury. They had all been caught unawares by the storm that hit immediately following the one the night before. And there was a third, even more powerful, storm on the way.
It was cold in the tent but not unbearable. The parka Carrie loaned her was warm and cozy, with a fur-lined hood that she could pull up to cover her entire head. Carrie also loaned her a pair of thick, lined gloves that were stuffed in the pockets of the coat. Tanner's gray snow boots graced her feet and she even wore a pair of snowmobile pants that cut down on the wind when she went outside. She was definitely warm and toasty.
But she was also more than a little anxious.
Mac had gone to the SAR air base at the airport with several people and would probably be gone until this particular operation was finished. Lacey wasn't pleased to be separated from the woman. They hadn't really been apart since Mac had rescued her from the hospital in Louisiana. It was a little disconcerting. Not to mention, Lacey really didn't have an assignment, yet.
Mac had introduced her to most of the volunteers who were on sight for this particular search and rescue operation. There were three doctors, five nurses, a dozen EMTs and various mountain guides and others with special climbing, skiing and hiking skills standing by to offer their expertise. Lacey found out she was the only doctor there who had field surgery skills, which were invaluable in this particular setting. The other two doctors were general practitioners and could handle severe breaks and triage, but they wouldn't be able to open a patient up onsite and perform surgery.
"Are you nervous?" A male voice next to Lacey had her turning to see who it was.
"Hello, Dr. Lyons," she greeted the handsome man with piercing hazel eyes and jet-black hair. He already had stubble on his jaw and his short hair was slightly ruffled from the wind howling outside the tent. "No, I'm not really nervous. Just anxious to get things going. I'm not fond of the hurry-up-and-wait scenario."
"And yet you served in the military," he gave her a charming smile and noticed the look of confusion she gave him. "Mac told me a little about you before she took off with the guys."
"Oh," Lacey nodded. "That makes sense."
"She also told me to keep an eye on you, Dr. Stephens," he said, as he gave her a quick once over. "She said you're not used to cold weather and conditions like this."
"I'm from Texas and served in the desert during both Iraqi wars," Lacey replied. "Not a big fan of bone-chilling cold."
"I hear that," he grinned. "The cold isn't for everyone. So what are you doing here of all places, might I ask?"
"Staying with friends for a while," Lacey answered elusively. "You?"
"I'm a native, born and raised."
"You like it here?"
"Can't seem to find anywhere else to live," he replied with a shrug. "I tried. Lived in Arizona for a time. Too darned hot there. Lived in New York. Too crowded. Los Angeles. Too tan and everyone was incredibly shallow. San Francisco. Too foggy. Seattle. Too rainy. Detroit. Way too much crime. My apartment got broken into twice and there was a drive-by right out front one night. Scared the crap out of me." He shuddered. "So, I came home and have lived here ever since. Can't beat it for picturesque views and gorgeous sunsets and sunrises. Not to mention the weather is constantly changing and you can do a variety of recreational activities that you can't do in other places. And it doesn't get terribly hot here in the summer."
"I like it hot," Lacey shrugged, as she made her way toward the tent opening and watched the snow fall outside. "This stuff is just…brrrrrr!"
"It takes some getting used to," he said from right beside her. "I'll admit that. But you can't beat the skiing, hiking, mountain climbing, off-roading, rodeos and other stuff. The Rockies can't hold a candle to what we have here."
"Aren't the Tetons part of the Rockies?" Lacey couldn't help but ask. "I thought they are."
"Oh, are they?" He rubbed his stubbled chin. "I guess I'll have to look that up, sometime. When I think of the Rockies, I always think of the Colorado Rockies. You know, the baseball team?"
"I've heard of them," Lacey shot him an annoyed glare. "I don't really follow sports all that much. I played tennis when I was younger and used to watch Wimbledon. That's about it." A gust of wind hit her in the face and blew her hair back. "Brrrr! I think it's actually getting colder."
"Supposed to drop down into the single digits before nightfall, with negative wind chills," he said. "I hope some of those poor people know how to make shelter up there until this storm passes. Or they'll be bringing dead bodies to us, rather than live ones."
Lacey stepped back inside the tent and walked over to the portable heater. "You sound like you've done this before."
"Many times," he replied with an easy smile. "Things can get a little hairy when the casualties start rolling in."
"Not much different than working in a field hospital, I'm guessing," Lacey sat down in a folding chair and held her hands out to the heater. "Except for the weather conditions."
"We'll mostly be dealing with extreme hypothermia and frostbite," he sat down in the chair next to her. "We don't usually get gunshot and shrapnel wounds or IED victims."
"Sometimes," he nodded. "Depends on the experience of the hikers and mountain climbers. I'm not sure what Sully knows about these guys. He didn't give us much to go on during the briefing."
"He said there were two skiers," Lacey added.
"Probably got caught with their pants down when the storm hit," he smirked. "Literally. There's a few idiots who like to joy ski on some of the more remote slopes. They find a secluded spot and go at it right under Mother Nature's nose. Not a big fan of dropping my drawers in the great outdoors, even if I have to pee. That's just one thing I will not do. No, ma'am."
"Good to know."
Lacey couldn't shake the feeling there was more to Dr. Timothy Lyons than met the eye. She also felt like he was sizing her up in order to ask her out. He kept eyeing her and smiling that charming smile of his that she figured worked well on the ladies.
"So, Dr. Stephens," he slapped his thighs and sat forward with his hands resting on his knees. "Is there anything else I should know about you before we start working together?"
"I enjoy a good cup of strong coffee," Lacey shot him a wry half-grin. "And I am currently seeing someone."
"Ah," he didn't hide his disappointment. "Do I know him? Is he from around here?"
Warning bells went off in Lacey's head at the man's words. "I don't think so," she evaded. She then got up and looked around with feigned interest. "So, tell me the set up here. What kind of equipment do we have to work with?"
He got up and walked over to stand next to her, as she continued eyeing the various medical instruments and machines available.
"It's your usual triage set up," he said with a shrug. "We have a decent generator that keeps the lights on and will run one or two other pieces of equipment for as long as we need them. Otherwise, we hope the helicopters can get in here or the EMS vehicles can get out for immediate emergency transport. We're not really set up for surgery or anything too complicated."
"Sounds primitive," Lacey commented. "Kinda like the battalion aid stations we had on the front lines in the Desert."
"Pretty much," he nodded. "We count on quick first aid and fast transport more than anything else." He walked over to the tent opening again and stared outside. "You want to take a trip over to the command tent and find out what we're in for? Sully should know more, by now. He'll be briefing the rest of the team so they know what to expect."
"Sounds good," Lacey pulled her hood up around her head, as she left the tent behind him. "Is it always this…um…dark when there's a storm like this?"
"Sometimes it looks more like night than day," he replied loudly to be heard over the howl of the wind.
They reached the fluttering red command tent. Tim held the flap aside while Lacey ducked quickly inside and threw back her hood. The howl of the wind dropped to a dull roar inside, as they joined a small crowd of people in red parkas gathered around a table.
"Ah, Dr. Lyons, Dr. Stephens, good of you to join us," Frank Sully greeted them with a stern expression on his gruff face when they stepped up to the table.
Deputy Frank Sullivan, who went simply by Sully, was a member of Teton County Sheriff's Department and appointed as commander of the TCSAR operations by the Sheriff. He coordinated between all of the different search and rescue services and the Sheriff's department. He was appointed by Sheriff David Spencer and had been head of the TCSAR for nearly five years.
Sully glanced around the tent at the expectant faces and then leaned over the makeshift table and the map in front of him.
"We're looking at three separate search vectors, people," he said in a voice raspy from smoking, as he puffed a cigar. "Search radius is about 4,000 acres, so we're looking at a longer operation than expected."
"How much longer, Sully?" A curly-haired blond woman to Lacey's right asked. "I left my dogs with a sitter and need to know if I need to pay for an entire night."
"Might be longer, Dani," Sully answered in a puff of acrid smoke. "Weather reports coming in from the west say we're in for two or three big storms in a row. This might be bigger than we initially predicted. We can't get to those hikers near Shovel Slide and the skiers were last seen over on Northeast Ridge, but they weren't carrying any communication equipment with them. There's no word on where they are. They might be holed up in one of the clearings, but we have no way of knowing until we get some people up there."
"You said there are three vectors," a twenty-something guy with a shock of bleach-blond hair, a nice tan and at least a day's worth of stubble on his face said. "What's the third?"
"Climbers are trapped on Calvert's Ridge," Sully answered. "They managed to call in via radio before the storm hit last night. But we lost contact with them after that. Apparently they ran into some trouble when one of them fell down a crevasse on the ridge. The climbing partner said he was going to try to get him out on his own, but wasn't really sure he could manage it. We lost communication shortly after that."
"Can we get up there?" Lacey asked and watched all eyes turn in her direction. "I know I'm new here, but…"
"Dr. Stephens, everyone," Sully introduced her to the group. "She came in with Mac Papadopoulos."
Heads nodded and muttered greetings followed his introduction. A few offered a hand to shake. One woman to Lacey's right caught her attention. She had curly blond hair pulled back from her face and deep hazel eyes. Something in those eyes made Lacey feel an instant sense of ease with the woman.
"So, what's your specialty, Dr. Stephens?" She asked with a raised brow.
"I'm a surgeon," Lacey answered. "You?"
"Nurse," Danielle Ellison replied with a gleam in those hazel eyes of hers. "I'm also a trained rock climber and a hiking guide during the summer months-when I'm not working at St. John's Clinic in the Village."
"Dani Ellison, Dr. Lacey Stephens," Tim stepped up belatedly to make the introductions.
"Yeah, I got that, Tim," Dani shot back sarcastically. She then returned her attention to Lacey and sized her up. "So, what's your story? And where's the accent from? Sounds southern."
"Texas," Lacey answered easily, as she did her own sizing up of the woman who wasn't much taller than she was. "And I don't have a story. I'm just visiting and thought I'd help out while I'm here."
"She served in Iraq," Tim put in helpfully and got an annoyed glare from Dani. "Field surgeon."
"Military, eh?" Dani met Lacey's gaze. "Which branch?"
"Army," Lacey answered.
"Navy," Dani gave Lacey a smirk. "I was on a carrier for six years. Talk about testosterone overload. I'm glad I'm out."
"Impressive," Lacey replied.
"Can we get back to this op, ladies?" Sully's voice carried over the din, as he blew another stream of cigar into the air above his head. "I know we're all very interested in this little home week moment you two have going on back there, but we have a situation that needs our full attention."
Both women returned their attention to the Deputy, who was once again pointing to the map in front of him.
"You ladies want to take this back to the medical tent?" Tim lowered his voice, as he put a hand on each of their shoulders.
Both women slowly turned their heads in unison to look at him. They gave him twin glares of annoyance and then glanced at each other out of the corners of their eyes with small half-grins.
"Do you value that appendage of yours, Tim?" Dani said in a hushed tone that held more than a slight hint of warning, as she glanced meaningfully at the hand on her shoulder.
"Uh…" He quickly removed his hand from Dani's shoulder and then caught the look Lacey was giving him and removed that hand, as well.
The women returned their attention to Sully, but exchanged quick meaningful looks that said they were in agreement on at least one subject-Timothy Lyons was a complete ass.
"…and so," Sully ignored the conversation and just continued. "We'll send out our first rescue team as soon as we have a status report from the spotters near Calvert's Ridge. Then we should know what we're dealing with and how critical the situation is."
"You want to join the rescue team and bring those climbers back?" Dani leaned close to Lacey and whispered.
"I can put in a good word, if you're up for a trek in some pretty deep snow," Dani grinned.
"I'm not sure that's a good idea," Lacey replied. "I had an accident last year and my leg isn't quite what it used to be."
They both looked up to find Sully glaring at them.
"Come on," Dani motioned with her head. "Let's get out of here before he gives us the heave-ho for interrupting his briefing again."
Lacey pushed aside the tent flap and walked outside into the snowy gray of the storm. Low clouds hung over the SAR command base, as she trudged through the snow toward the medical tent. Once inside, she threw back her hood, shook out her hair and waited for Dani to join her.
"Damn, it's really coming down out there!" Dani shook the snow from her head. "Can't believe we're in for two more of these babies."
"Yeah," Lacey agreed, as she took a seat in a nearby folding chair. "I'm surprised Dr. Lyons didn't follow us over here. He seems a little…" She shrugged.
"Tim's harmless, mostly," Dani grabbed a paper cup and filled it with steaming coffee from the coffeemaker in the back of the tent. "You want some?"
"Yes, please," Lacey answered, as she rubbed her leg.
"So," Dani handed over a steaming cup to Lacey, as she sipped her own and took a seat in the vacant chair next to her. "Tell me your story, Dr. Stephens."
"Please, just call me Lacey," she said after a sip from her steaming cup. "I don't stand on ceremony."
"And yet you were in the Army," Dani shot her a wry grin.
"I served my country," Lacey nodded. "So did you."
"I did," Dani sized Lacey up again over the rim of her cup. "But you still haven't told me your story, Lacey Stephens. How did you injure your leg?"
"Helicopter crash," Lacey answered with a sad half-smile. "We were shot down over the desert."
"Oh?" Dani's interest perked. "Damn, girl. That sucks."
"It did," Lacey agreed. "Sucked royally."
"And?" Dani cocked her head and gave Lacey a raised browed look. "What's the rest of the story?"
"Are people around here always this nosey?" Lacey couldn't quite keep the defensiveness out of her tone.
Dani chuckled. "We don't get many outsiders who volunteer to join a search and rescue op on their first visit with us. So, you're probably going to have to endure people asking questions. Might as well get used to it."
"Mackenzie didn't mention that when she left me here," Lacey continued sipping her coffee.
"You know Mac?"
"She's kinda the reason I'm here."
"Wait," Dani shook her head. "Did you and Mac serve together? I think I remember hearing someone mention something about a helicopter crash she was in during her last tour in Iraq."
"We were on a search and rescue mission together when it happened," Lacey confirmed. "Our helicopter went down before we completed the mission. The assholes who took us out came looking for survivors. We blew up the wreckage so they wouldn't know we were still alive. They eventually found us anyway. And then they shot down another one of our own while we were waiting to be rescued." Her expression turned thoughtful. "God, how the hell did I remember that?"
"You don't remember what happened?" Dani prodded.
"Bits and pieces, mostly," Lacey shuddered. "It's been a pretty crappy year for me. My mother was recently killed-murdered." She blew out an exasperated breath. "I can't really talk about that right now." Tears sprang to her eyes and she shook her head to keep them from falling. "I just found out about it."
"I understand," Dani gave her a sympathetic look. "I just broke off a relationship that I've been in for six years. Now she's suing for custody of our dogs. Bitch. I know it's not the same, but-" She finished with a shrug.
"Yep," Dani nodded. "I hope that doesn't make you uncomfortable."
"Why would it?" Lacey smiled. "I'm actually in a relationship myself."
"With Mac?" Dani guessed.
The curly-haired blond waved Lacey off. "I've known Mac since we were in high school together. She was never one to hide her sexuality and it got her into trouble more often than not."
"Yep," Dani nodded sagely. "She didn't believe in the proverbial closet. Strutted around town like a damned lesbian peacock. Got the shit kicked out of her a few times for it, too."
"I don't flaunt my sexuality," Dani shook her head sadly. "Redneck assholes around here like to target those who don't fit into their cowboy rodeo gun-wielding mentality."
"That's awful," Lacey couldn't help but feel uncomfortable.
"Don't worry, Lacey Stephens," Dani patted her knee. "Your secret's safe with me. But I'm still curious to know about you and Mac. How'd you two meet? I didn't think pilots and doctors mixed all that often in the Army."
"Most don't," Lacey was grateful for the change of subject. "Pilots usually only see a doctor for their annual physical and flight check."
"So how did you end up in Mac's helicopter during a SAR mission?"
"I'm a certified flight surgeon, as well as a field surgeon," Lacey replied. "The cash-er, Combat Support Hospital-I was stationed at had a rather progressive CO who gave me the go-ahead to fly with Mackenzie. He wanted to increase the chances of our guys returning home alive. Col. Farrell was one hell of a CO."
"You flew and performed surgery in the field?"
"I wasn't a pilot, if that's what you mean," Lacey corrected. "I was one of the crew aboard Mac's helicopter. We also had a medic who flew with us. She wasn't on our last flight, though. I'm grateful she wasn't. Too many of our guys died that day…er…during those days."
"Sorry to hear that," Dani shook her head. "I guess I've never met a doctor who is willing to get down and dirty in the field or anywhere else, for that matter. That is simply amazing!"
"It wasn't all that amazing. Believe me," Lacey said. "And I am not a big fan of sand. It gets in places sand was never meant to go."
Dani chuckled. "That's a good one. Almost as good as our jokes about the salty sea air. It's good for the pores, you know."
"No," Dani sobered, then let the hint of a teasing gleam enter her eyes. "Have you ever seen people who make their living at sea? They tend to look like grisly old sea dogs with deep wrinkles and leather for skin."
Lacey cocked her head and looked at Dani. "You don't look old or grisly."
"Thanks," Dani smiled genuinely. "That's good to know. Now, tell me about you and Mac. How were you able to get by the whole DADT policy?"
"We didn't," Lacey frowned. "I'm actually in a little trouble because of it."
"No kidding," Lacey shot back.
"And your mother was recently murdered?" Dani couldn't keep the shock from her tone.
"And I spent some time in a mental institution under the care of a quack who drugged me with Thorazine, among other things," Lacey rolled her eyes. "God almighty! My life is fucking shit! Just shoot me, will you?"
"Not until after we find those idiots who decided storm warnings weren't for them," Dani deadpanned. "We need all the help we can get."
"So," the hint of a smile touched Lacey's lips, "tell me about your ex."
"Elaine," Dani sighed. "She's a waitress at one of the local cafes and she also works in the outdoorsman depot across town. She sells guns, knives, archery equipment-weapons of mass destruction. You know."
"Funny," Lacey chuckled. "At least you still have your sense of humor. That's good."
"And the dogs," Dani added. "Two Siberian huskies."
"Do they have names?"
"Bubba and Gump," Dani replied with a playful grin. "What can I say? We were really into Forrest Gump when we got them."
"Didn't that movie come out back in the early 90s?"
"It did," Dani nodded. "We got the DVD for Christmas and couldn't stop watching it. It was a real hoot. Elaine does a pretty good impression of Bubba Blue. You know, the guy who was in the shrimpin' business?"
"I have to admit I didn't really pay all that much attention to the movie when I was watching it this last time," Lacey grinned. "Mackenzie and I were a little…um…preoccupied."
"Ah, I see," Dani snickered. "You wanna know something?"
"If you weren't with Mac, right now," Dani leaned in conspiratorially, "I just might hit on you myself. You are one amazing woman, Lacey Stephens."
"Er," Lacey shifted uncomfortably and feigned renewed interest in her coffee. "Okay."
Dani chuckled. "Don't worry, though. I'm not a person who hones in on someone else's territory. Mac is one lucky dog to have found you."
"I'm the lucky one," Lacey said with a shake of her head. "She's been there through some incredible crap and didn't bat an eyelash when the chips were down."
"Oh, come on, how bad could things get?" Dani teased. "Helicopter crashes happen all the time."
"You haven't met my father," Lacey snorted over the rim of her cup. "And most helicopter crashes end badly for everyone onboard."
Dani was about to respond, when the tent flap was pushed aside and Tim Lyons entered. Snow blew in with him and collected in a corner near the opening. He shook himself like a dog and stamped his feet, making more noise than the actual storm itself.
"Hey, ladies," he greeted them with his most charming smile. "You missed the rest of Sully's briefing. We're really in for some challenges. Want me to tell you about it?"
Without being asked to do so, he pulled up a chair and sat down with them. Dani shot him an annoyed glare, while Lacey merely gave him a tolerate half-smile.
"Sure, Dr. Lyons," Lacey replied with little enthusiasm.
"I'll pass, Timmy," Dani stood up and headed for the tent opening. "I'll see you around, Texas!" She said, as she left Lacey alone with a grinning Tim.
"She likes me," he said. "She just doesn't know how to express her feelings."
"Yeah, I'm sure that's it," Lacey held back from rolling her eyes at the man.
Her thoughts quickly turned to Mac, as Tim rambled on and on about the rescue operations that were currently underway. She just couldn't stay focused on what he was saying when all she wanted to do was find someone with a four-wheel drive pickup who would take her to where Mac was. She didn't even care if she missed all the action. It didn't matter as much as being with Mac did.
"Hey, Chief," Big Al sat down at the table Mac occupied. "How're you doing?"
"Terrible," Mac sniffed and coughed, as she sipped the steaming coffee she held in both hands. "Fucking cold is worse."
"Yeah, about that," he folded his arms on the table in front of him. "Why don't you go home and get some rest. You're no good to us like this. And you're just gonna spread that crud to others."
"I promised you guys I'd help out with the…" She finished with a loud and unexpected sneeze, then quickly blew her nose.
"Bless you," he sat back in his chair to put some distance between them. "I know you are a woman of your word, Mac. The thing is the guys are really starting to get ants in their pants about you climbing into a cockpit with them. They don't like it one bit."
"I'm your best pilot, Big Al," Mac's red-rimmed and watery gaze met his. "You need me up there when the weather breaks."
"We need healthy pilots in those choppers, Mackenzie," he crossed his arms over his chest and glared at her. "Even McGinty is concerned. He thinks you're coming down with that flu that's been going around. It laid two of our guys low just last week. You should really go home and take it easy, Mac."
"Can't," Mac shook her head and blew her nose, again. "I promised…"
"You're off the hook with the damned promise, Mac," Big Al interrupted. "Go home!"
She slammed a fist on the table. "I can't, dammit! I left Lacey over at base camp with the Tim Lyons and the rest of the team!"
A hacking cough followed her words and it took her a moment to recover from the fit.
"You left her over there with Lyons?" Big Al shot her a skeptical look. "You are a brave woman, Mac. He's one of the biggest lady chasers in the county."
"Lacey can handle herself just fine, Big Al," Mac gingerly sipped her coffee. "You should have seen her in Iraq. She kicked ass."
"This is Tim Lyons we're talking about, Mac," he added with a concerned frown. "He doesn't take 'no' for an answer."
"Did I tell you what happened after we crashed in the desert?" Mac sniffed through her congestion. "A bunch of insurgents tried to kill us. They came after us in trucks and ambushed us with AK-47s." She coughed into the wad of tissues she had in one hand. "Lacey fought them, even with a broken collar bone, a dislocated elbow, two broken ribs and torn ligaments in her knee."
"Where were you during all this?"
"I got shot," Mac replied sourly. "I think I passed out on her. I really don't remember. All I remember is waking up the next day in a pit with her. Lacey's condition quickly deteriorated after that. They had to resuscitate her twice on the flight out. She was dead both times. I was never so scared in all my life. I thought I was going to lose her, for sure."
"Sounds like you finally found the one, Mac," Big Al gave her a knowing grin. "It's about time, too."
Another hacking cough wracked her, as she huddled in her coat in misery. Mac knew she had a fever. She could feel the chills racing up and down her back. She also ached everywhere and had a headache that could fell an ox. Did that mean she had the flu? Probably. Her cell phone rang and she glanced at the display.
"I need to take this call, Big Al," she said and then opened her phone. "Hey, Ben. What's…What do you mean where am I? Didn't you get the call from Sully?" She listened to her brother for a moment. "Yes, I do sound like shit. I think I'm coming down with something…What? DJ has the flu? Well, that certainly explains where I got this crap from." She listened again. "Lacey is over at base camp waiting for the weather to clear. We have twenty missing people out there."
Mac watched Big Al get up and walk away. She was grateful to him, but didn't get the chance to tell him that. Her brother was too busy chewing her out for leaving him in the lurch with a sick little boy on his hands.
"I don't give a damn, right now, Ben," Mac said and held the phone away from her ear when he yelled at her. "Okay, let me rephrase that. I care a lot about Digger, Ben. I just can't do anything for him, right now." She listened to his tirade again. "I'm stuck here at the airport, Ben. What the hell do you want me to do? Lacey isn't here with me. Call Sully and tell him you need someone to drive her back to the ranch. I really don't think it'll do any good, though. He said they need all hands on deck for this one." She listened to him again and tried not to give in to another coughing fit. She wasn't successful at stifling it, though, and just let it out. "No, I don't feel all that great, Ben. I think I have the same thing your son has, actually." She tried to focus on what he was saying and was really having a hard time doing so. "Yes, I realize that. You should take him to see Doc Hanson. Lacey probably won't be available until after we get this situation taken care of. And I'm sorry for being short with you, Ben, but I really need to go. I'll talk to you later, bro." She then flipped the phone closed before he could say any more.
"You want me to drive you back to base camp?" Big Al handed her another steaming mug.
"I don't know," Mac laid her head on the table in front of her and tried to relax. "I really should go home and climb back into bed."
"Tell ya what," he said, as he sat back down across the table from her. "I'll have one of the boys go fetch that cute doctor of yours. She'll know exactly what to do for you, for sure."
"I just need to sleep for a little bit," Mac mumbled against the table. "Then I'll be good to go."
Big Al silently watched Mac until she was lightly snoring with her head resting on the table. He was tempted to pick her up and move her himself, but thought better of it. She wasn't a small woman and his back wasn't what it used to be. So he just let her sleep where she sat and kept his eye on her.
Lacey was just finishing bandaging a cut she had stitched, as a break in the weather suddenly had the place hopping. She had finally met the elusive third doctor who was purported to be there at the base camp. Her name was Brenda Shubert and she was a small spitfire with attitude. Lacey liked her, especially since she didn't take any of Tim Lyons' crap and gave as good as she got. She also had a sarcastic wit that put Lacey right at ease.
"There," Lacey looked up into a pair of gray-green eyes flecked with gold in the rugged face of an experienced mountain guide. "Keep it wrapped, dry and clean. If you have antibiotic ointment, use it when you change the dressing."
"How often, Doc?" He said with a gentle smile on his stubbly features. "I use my hands a lot. They get dirty all the time."
"Wear gloves, whenever possible, Jerry," Lacey replied. "And change the dressing in two days, unless it gets really dirty before then. Okay?"
"Will do," he hopped easily down from the table and towered over her. "Thanks, Doc."
"You're welcome," Lacey tossed it knit cap to him. "Just be careful next time you decide to stick your hand where it doesn't belong."
He blushed to his roots. "I will."
Lacey watched him leave and breathed a sigh of relief. He was the fourth patient she had seen in the last couple of hours. All of them had been minor injuries, including one case of frostbite and one case of early-onset hypothermia. Dani had helped with the frostbite and Brenda had been there to assist with the stubborn EMT who had hypothermia.
Lacey was beginning to realize that the people who volunteered for TCSAR were a hearty group who were under the impression they were invincible. Getting them to seek treatment was tantamount to pulling teeth. Lacey was just glad she hadn't had to use that particular treatment on anyone.
"Hey, you comin', Stephens?" Brenda popped her head inside the medical tent. "We have a bead on those climbers up on the ridge. Spotters say they think at least one of them is badly injured. We could sure use your expertise."
"I…" Lacey rubbed her leg and then tested its mobility.
She hadn't really given the damned leg much thought over the last few weeks and it really wasn't bothering her at all. It just got stiff occasionally. She was a little surprised that it hadn't bothered her after her trek through the snow the previous night. It was a little sore and stiff that morning, but not as bad as it had been a few months prior. That was certainly a plus. But, what if…
"You coming, Dr. Stephens?" It was Dani's turn to step inside the medical tent with an expectant look. "We have a pair of snow shoes for you. They should help to keep you stable as you walk on top of the snow."
"Sure," Lacey replied. "Is there anything we'll need to bring with us?"
"We have a cache of supplies on the ridge," Brenda answered. "It should have everything we might need, just in case we run into the usual. For the more serious stuff, we just try to stabilize and transport immediately. It's better to get them back here for treatment than it is to try and do it out there. Our EMTs all know the drill."
"Understood," Lacey grabbed the knit cap Carrie had loaned her and put it on her head.
She then pulled her hood up and pulled the draw strings taught to keep it in place. As she stepped out into the howling wind and driving snow, she briefly had second thoughts about her decision.
"You'll need these!" Dani shouted above the wind, as she handed Lacey a pair of ski goggles and pulled her hiker's sunglasses into place. "Otherwise, you won't be able to see a thing out here!"
Lacey quickly donned the goggles and then zipped her coat all the way up and snapped the face protection into place. She felt like an Eskimo, as she slipped her booted feet into the snow shoes that Dani pointed to and secured them. She was wearing the heavy gloves Carrie had also loaned her and it was really hard to secure the latches on the snowshoes with them on. But she finally managed, then stood up and gave her two companions a thumbs up signal.
The three women were joined by two EMTs carrying backboards and a mountain guide. The group silently trudged along a well-worn path that Lacey wasn't sure was actually a path. The snow fell heavily and made it difficult to see more than a few feet ahead. But the guide seemed to know exactly where he was going. They all followed in a single-file line until the path widened enough for them to walk two-by-two.
"How're you doing?" Brenda asked above the howl of wind, after they'd been walking for half an hour.
"Fine!" Lacey answered, as she glanced over at the short woman in her oversized red parka.
Snow and ice hung from the edges of Brenda's hood and each exhalation added more tiny ice crystals to the area around her neoprene face warmer.
"Just tell us if you need to take a break, Stephens!" Brenda shouted. "There's no reason to push yourself beyond your limits. This is no place for heroics, if you know what I mean."
Lacey nodded and returned her attention to the path and the two people ahead of her. She wasn't used to wearing snow shoes and had tripped herself up more than once. She hadn't yet fallen, but had come close. She was just glad her leg was holding up.
"Looks like things are finally moving forward," Big Al commented from the driver's seat of his beat up old Ford Explorer. "Want me to go find your friend?"
Mac was huddled against the door and wrapped in a heavy Pendleton blanket on the passenger's side. Her fever had spiked and she was beyond miserable. Her brow was damp with perspiration and her entire body ached unmercifully. That's why she had asked Big Al to get her to Lacey, even when he argued that she needed to go to a hospital, instead.
"Yes," Mac answered in a raspy voice that was followed by a hacking cough that left her feeling lightheaded.
"I really think you need to go to the hospital, Mac," Big Al said with concern. "You look like shit."
She didn't move her head as she glared at him from the corner of her eye. "Thanks, loads."
"I'll be right back," he said and then climbed out into the driving snow.
Mac just sat there huddled in her warm cocoon of misery. She tried not to think about the aches and pain her body was experiencing, but it wasn't easy. Her joints hurt. Her head throbbed. Her throat was raw and scratchy. Her chest felt like a thousand pound weight was sitting on it, even though she was sitting up. It hurt to breathe. It just plain hurt to sit there with her head resting against the cold glass of the passenger side door. And the cool glass did little to relieve the fever burning her forehead.
"God, just kill me now," she groaned into the silence that surrounded her, as her eyes drifted shut.
She had no idea how much time passed as she sat there dozing in an out. But eventually Big Al returned and shook the whole pickup as he climbed back into the cab with her.
"She's not here," he said breathlessly, as he wiped snow from his brow.
"What?" Mac managed to turn her head enough to look at him, but the movement left her dizzy. "Where is she?"
"On her way to Calvert's Ridge with a SAR team," he replied, as she turned the key in the ignition and started the vehicle. "They got word from the spotters about an hour ago and headed out shortly after that. It'll probably take them another hour or two to get up there in this weather. Snow's coming down pretty heavy out there. Not real pleasant, let me tell ya. And they are out of radio contact. Only the spotters have radios at this point. Weather is too crazy for anyone else to use them."
Mac groaned. "Damned crazy woman."
He shot her a confused look. "Why do you say that?"
"She's a glutton for punishment," Mac said. "Remember that helicopter crash I told you about?"
"She tore ligaments in her leg," Mac continued. "Shredded them, according to her sister."
"She had to use a cane to help her walk before Thanksgiving," Mac just shook her head. "Her father had her committed to a mental institution just after the New Year. Her mother was recently murdered by a lunatic with a gun. Last night she was caught outside in the storm and now she's out there traipsing around in the snow like nothing out of the ordinary has ever happened to her."
"She's a doctor, Mackenzie," he gave her a stern look. "I'm sure she knows what she's doing."
"Ever heard the phrase, 'Physician, heal thyself?'" She shot back with a scowl. "Lacey sucks at knowing when to say when. She always puts the needs of others before her own, especially when she's in doctor mode. Which means she'll either come back with a severe case of hypothermia or pneumonia. Or, she'll be laid up for a week or more because of that damned bum leg of hers. She'll ignore it until the pain gets so bad that it just gives out on her."
"Sully said she looked just fine when she headed out with the others," Big Al watched Mac closely, as a coughing fit took hold of her and left her slumped in exhaustion. "I think you're the one we should worry about, Mac. It's high time we took you to the hospital to have them look at you."
"Don't wanna," Mac rasped weakly and let her head fall back against the cool glass.
"And what would your Lacey say about it?" He shot back with a stern glare.
She stared straight ahead. "She's not here."
"No, but I am," he put the truck in drive and drove back the way they had come. "And you're going to the hospital. No more arguing."
"Ugh!" Mac exclaimed before another coughing fit silenced any further protest.
"Just sit back and enjoy the ride, Mac," he said as struggled to keep the pickup on the makeshift road in the near white-out conditions. "We'll get there in no time."
Lacey was moving on instinct. The cold had finally penetrated her protective outerwear and was working its way beneath the layers of clothing to the skin beneath. When her fingers got cold she pulled them into fists in her gloves and waited for them to warm back up. And it was getting colder. And her leg was aching from the strain of trying to walk in the snow shoes, which wasn't easy. She had also managed to twist it twice while maneuvering in the awkward footwear.
They had taken a quick break to eat trail bars and drink water from the canteens they carried in their backpacks. Lacey had a backpack of her own that Brenda had handed over when they were still in the base camp. There were several high-energy trail bars and two canteens of water inside. There was also a length of rope, a harness, belays, an ice pick, a pair of crampons and several carabiners.
Lacey didn't know how to use any of it. She had never climbed a mountain in her life and was hoping she wouldn't have to. The gear was heavier than she had anticipated and was probably adding to the ache in her leg. But she wasn't one to complain.
Her thoughts turned to Mackenzie and she hoped the stubborn woman was still safe and sound at the airport. Lacey glanced up at the sky above. The snow was still falling heavily and the sky was dark with thick cloud cover. There was no way someone could see anything from the air.
"You okay, Texas?" Dani's voice penetrated Lacey's musings.
"Jim Dandy," Lacey replied with a less-than-enthusiastic half-smile that was hidden behind her hood.
"You're limping," Dani moved in close and said. "Is your leg bothering you?"
"It's not too bad," Lacey glanced at the woman and couldn't see the hazel eyes behind the reflective mountain sunglasses Dani wore. But the tone of the woman's voice was enough to tell Lacey all she needed to know. "Just not used to walking this much."
"You're sounding winded," Dani made a quick signal and the group pulled off the trail immediately.
"What's up?" Brad Miller, the mountain guide and leader of their expedition, pulled his own pair of mountain sunglasses down as he approached the two women. "Why are we stopping, Ellison? Did you break a nail or something?'
"Dr. Stephens needs a break, Brad," Dani pulled Lacey's backpack off for her. "She's not used to the pace you've set."
Lacey sat down on a small boulder and rubbed the ache in her leg with her gloved hands. She didn't bother to look at the mountain guide, who didn't hesitate to vent his frustrations on them whenever possible. She just let Dani handle him. She wasn't really in the mood for a confrontation and would probably end up decking the guy, if given half the chance. He was just that irritating.
He looked at Lacey with annoyance and then met Dani's gaze. "You said she was good to go, Ellison."
"Anything I can do?" Brenda came up at that moment and knelt next to Lacey. "You okay, Stephens?"
"Just not used to the pace," Lacey slowed her breathing, as she continued to rub her leg.
"Yeah, we could slow it up a bit, Brad," Dani put in. "Those climbers aren't going anywhere."
"I didn't ask to have two doctors on this fucking expedition, Ellison," he barked his irritation. "You were the one who insisted it would be a good idea."
"And it is," Brenda added. "Stephens is a field surgeon, Brad. She has experience with trauma cases that I don't have. Besides, she's a soldier from what Dani told me. I'm sure she'll be able to get her second wind in no time." She then looked at Lacey. "Right, Stephens?"
Lacey merely nodded.
"See?" Dani stood there with her arms crossed. "Just give her a few minutes to catch her breath, Brad."
He blew out a frustrated breath, ran a hand down the dark stubble on his face and walked back to the two EMTs who were leaning against large boulders on either side of the path.
"How did we get stuck with the ice prick?" Dani shook her head as he walked away.
"He's the best guide and climber around," Brenda replied with a shrug. "Unfortunately, he knows it. Sully thought we could use all the help we could get." She pulled one of the canteens out of Lacey's pack and handed it to her. "Here, drink. You need to stay hydrated."
"Thanks," Lacey took several sips of the cold water. "Sorry to be such a bother for you guys."
"You're not," Dani knelt down to be on a level with them. "This kinda thing isn't for everyone. I'm the one who should apologize to you for getting you into this without really thinking it through first."
Brenda took over massaging Lacey's leg for her. "How bad is it?"
"Just aches, mostly," Lacey replied with a heavy sigh. "And I think I twisted it a couple times because of the snow shoes. I've never used them before."
"Not easy, is it?" Dani smiled wryly. "I took a noser the first time I tried using them. Split my lip and it bled like crazy. Good thing there was lots of snow within reach. You're actually doing a great job, Stephens. I only saw you stumble once and you didn't go down. That's something."
"I did practically the same thing on skis a few years ago," Brenda added with an embarrassed half-smile. "I tore my ACL and was laid up for weeks. It took forever to heal and still aches from time to time. I have to wear a brace when I go downhill skiing now. Don't trust it not to give out on me."
"Maybe you guys should just go on ahead without me," Lacey sat back and let Brenda continue to massage her leg. It actually felt a little better. "I don't want to slow you down."
"We're almost there," Dani glanced at the three men and frowned when she saw Brad glaring at her. "Besides, I'm kinda enjoying giving the royal jackass, there, a little taste of his own medicine." She snickered. "He has the patience of a gerbil on steroids and is always getting his dander up over shit like this. Everyone complains about the pace he sets when he is assigned as the guide on these expeditions."
"Yeah," Brenda nodded. "Remember that SAR last year?"
"The one last summer where the two Boy Scouts got lost in the woods over by Cache Creek?"
"Oh yeah. I totally remember that." Dani grinned. "Brad took off ahead of his team and managed to find the boys. Unfortunately, he left his radio with another member of the team. Couldn't let them know where he was and it took them over four hours to finally track him down. He was livid. Chewed them out for not keeping up with him."
"Peters got the last word in on that one, though," Brenda snickered.
"Yeah," Dani chuckled. "He held up Brad's radio and told him he should have kept the damned thing with him. Then he could have radioed his position to them."
"Brad was pissed," Brenda finished with Lacey's leg. "There. How's that? Any better?"
"Much," Lacey gave her a grateful smile. "Where'd you learn to do that?"
"I took some deep-tissue massage courses a few years back," Brenda stood up and offered Lacey a hand. "It's all part of my holistic approach to medicine. I don't just treat the symptoms anymore. I treat the entire mind, body and spirit of my patients. The practice is expanding, if you're interested. We could sure use a surgeon on staff."
"How big a practice are we talking?" Lacey took the offered hand and stood up. She stood fully on her leg and tested its mobility. "Much better. Thanks."
"We have about 200 steady patients a year," Brenda replied. "I'm a general practitioner and we have several specialists. We even have a woman who uses acupuncture and herbs in conjunction with regular medicine to treat a variety of ailments. It's kinda New Age, if you know what I mean."
"Do you have a psychotherapist on staff?" Lacey inquired.
"Heather Morris," Brenda nodded. "She's really good. Treats all kinds of neuroses and psychoses. She even has six schizophrenic patient success stories and wrote a book about using the holistic approach to treat them. We call her the miracle worker. Her schedule is always booked solid."
"Does that mean she isn't taking on new patients?" Lacey continued in a disappointed tone.
Brenda met Lacey's gaze and then put a hand on her shoulder. "You want me to put in a good word for you?"
"Is she really that good?"
"The best," Dani answered with a grin.
"She runs circles around Dr. Phil every damned day," Brenda replied with a nod. "I'll get you in to see her, if that's what you want."
Lacey nodded. "I'm not a big fan of therapy, but…"
"Hey," Brenda squeezed Lacey's shoulder. "We all need to talk to someone about the crap that happens in our lives. Heather is a great listener. And she only prescribes medication when it's absolutely necessary. She's not one of those shrinks who just writes a prescription and sends you on your merry way."
"You make her sound like a real saint," Lacey replied.
"Oh, she's no saint, Stephens," Dani put in with a wry smirk. "She kicks my ass at handball every chance she gets."
"Yeah," Brenda nodded. "Heather kinda has a competitive streak a mile wide."
"No shit," Dani put in.
"Are you three ladies done yapping, yet?" Brad shouted with a sarcastic emphasis on the word ladies. "I'd like to get to those climbers before the sun sets. It's gonna be pitch black out here soon."
"Coming, Bradley!" Dani picked up Lacey's backpack and helped her with it. "Here, lets' take a few things out of here and lighten it up a bit for you."
Lacey felt the backpack lighten considerably.
"Stick them in mine," Brenda turned her own backpack toward Dani, who shoved the ice pick, rope and crampons into the red pack with the TCSAR logo emblazoned on it.
"Thanks, guys," Lacey adjusted her pack higher on her back. "You really didn't have to do that."
Brenda moved to Lacey's right, while Dani took up a position on Lacey's left. They then linked their arms with her.
"We're a team and we stick together," Dani shot Lacey a wry grin. "Besides, we girls gotta watch out for each other out here. It's the law of nature."
"Right," Brenda nodded. "Let's go, girls."
They set out arm-in-arm, much to Brad's chagrin. He rolled his eyes, as he motioned for the other two to follow him. The three women brought up the rear and started singing show tunes to set a brisk pace. Their first song was Wicked's For Good and they sang it loud enough to reach the ears of their male counterparts.
"I hate hospitals," Mac groused at Big Al, who sat next to her in the waiting area of the emergency room.
"Me, too," he didn't bother looking up from the Field & Stream magazine his nose was buried in. "They stink."
"Yeah," Mac agreed, as she sneezed and coughed into the wad of tissues in her hand and received uncomfortable looks from several others around her. "In more ways than one." She shot him a glare and wrinkled her nose at him.
"Heh heh," he chuckled, as he flipped through the magazine and tossed it down on the table next to him. "You're just sore 'cause I brought you here, instead of taking you home, like you wanted."
Mac got up and glared at Big Al, as she followed the nurse back. The woman motioned for Mac to enter a room off the small hallway.
"What are you here for?" The small woman with the name badge that read Nurse Francine asked, as she grabbed a blood pressure cuff and motioned for Mac to sit on the exam table and roll her sleeve up.
"Sick," Mac answered, as she took her coat off and rolled the sleeve up. "My friend thought I should come here rather than go home. I'll kill him later for it."
The woman quickly took Mac's blood pressure, made a few notes on a clipboard and then grabbed a digital thermometer.
"Open," she ordered.
Mac did as she was told and nearly winced when the forty-something woman shoved the thermometer under her tongue. The machine beeped a couple minutes later and the woman read the display.
"You have a fever of 101.2," Nurse Francine said, as she made more notes on the clipboard. "Have you taken anything for it, Ms. Papadopoulos?"
"No," Mac shook her head. "And you can call me Mac, Francine. It's not like we don't know each other."
The woman raised her dark brown eyes and the hint of a smile touched her features. "I was wondering if you'd remember me, Mackenzie."
"I do," Mac relaxed noticeably. "It's been a while, though."
"It has," the woman replied easily. "I wondered if the rumors were true that you were back from Iraq. Now I know they are."
"How'er Burt and the boys?" Mac asked, as she rolled her sleeve back down.
"They're good," Francine replied with an easy smile. "Burt just got promoted to foreman and is now heading up a few projects on his own."
"That's good," Mac coughed into her wad of tissues. "And the boys?"
"Sam graduated high school last year and went off to college in the fall," Francine replied. "He's majoring in Vet Science and is planning on becoming a veterinarian. He really enjoyed working with your brother for all those years."
"Ben really enjoyed having Sam there," Mac nodded. "He was a good kid who worked really hard."
"Yes, and Billy is much like his older brother," Francine continued. "But he is more athletic and will probably get a basketball scholarship from one of the top universities in the country. His daddy is so proud and doesn't miss a game."
"I'm good," Francine glanced at Mac from beneath hooded lashes. "I'm actually very grateful to a certain dark-haired, blue-eyed young woman for setting me straight-literally."
A dark brow rose on Mac's features. "Oh?"
"Yeah," Francine nodded, as she set the clipboard on the counter. "Believe it or not, you were a pretty good sport about what happened, Mackenzie. I was afraid I'd hurt you enough that you'd still hold a grudge over our breakup. When I saw you, though, I actually hoped you wouldn't remember me."
"I could never forget you, Fran," Mac said. "How could I? You were my first."
Francine blushed. "I was so confused back then. I'm just glad I met Burt and got it all figured out. He's been my rock, even when I questioned my sexuality again after Sam was born. Burt helped me see that things aren't always black and white. We went to counseling and it really helped to talk things through."
"I'm glad, Fran," Mac sneezed unexpectedly.
"Now," Francine put on her best stern nurse's demeanor. "Let's get Dr. Edwards in here to take a look at you. I'm a little concerned that you might be coming down with the flu that's been going around. Did you get a flu shot and booster this year?"
"No," Mac shook her head and regretted it instantly. "Ugh!"
"I'll go get the doctor," Francine said and ducked out the door.
Mac sat there and tried not to think about where she was. The room was painted stark white with no pictures on the walls. And that disinfectant smell permeated everything. It was nauseating.
Then her thoughts turned to a certain blond and she smiled wanly. She wished Lacey was there with her. That would certainly brighten her day. Then again, maybe they wouldn't be there at all. They would be curled up in Mac's bed…
"Hello," a tall, gray-haired man knocked once and stepped into the room. He wore blue scrubs and a white lab coat as he greeted Mac with a warm smile. "Ms. Papadopoulos?"
"Yep," Mac answered on a cough. "That's me."
"Nasty cough you've got there," he consulted the clipboard, set it on the counter and turned back to her. "Okay, let's have a look."
Mac let him poke and prod her. He looked in her ears and down her throat. He listened to her chest and made her cough several times. Then he silently made some notes on the clipboard.
"Well?" Mac glared at him in annoyance. "What's the verdict, Doc?"
"Do you have someone to drive you home?" He stepped up next to her and held onto the stethoscope around his neck.
"Yes," Mac nodded. "A buddy brought me in."
"Do you live alone?"
"Yes…well, not exactly," Mac corrected. "I have someone staying with me."
"Will this someone be there when you get home?"
"No," Mac replied sadly. "She's one of the doctors helping out with the current SAR situation. I dropped her off at base camp and headed over to the airport to wait for the weather to clear. I'm a pilot and fly as a spotter. Big Al was concerned that I would infect everyone with what I have, so he brought me here."
"Ah, I see," Dr. Mike Edwards said. "So Big Al is taking you home?"
"Yeah," Mac sighed. "I take it I'm grounded?"
"Most definitely," Edwards gave her a stern look. "You'll probably be laid up with this bug for a week or so. And I do mean laid up, Mackenzie. This particular strain of influenza is known to develop quickly into acute bronchitis and even pneumonia. We've had some severe cases that required patients to be hospitalized. So I don't want you taking this lightly. Understand?"
"Crap," Mac pouted.
"You need to push the fluids, get lots of rest and stay indoors," he wrote something on a pad of paper, peeled off the sheet and handed it to her. "Get this filled and take one tablet every six hours. You might also pick up an OTC cough and cold medication and extra-strength pain relievers. Something that has both antihistamine and decongestant would be ideal."
"Okay, Doc," Mac replied.
"And call us if your symptoms get worse or if that prescription doesn't give you some relief in a day or two," he added. "Is there someone who can stay with you until your friend returns? I really don't want you at home by yourself."
"I'll stay at my brother's place," Mac conceded. "My sister in-law will just love that I'm down for the count. She's always on me to take better care of myself."
He chuckled. "Carrie Papadopoulos?"
"You know her?"
"We went to high school together," he replied. "I would have asked her to prom, but I was way too cool to date the daughter of one of the local ranchers."
"Your loss is my brother's gain, apparently," Mac said. "They have three boys now. And Carrie runs a B&B out of their house, while Ben works the ranch and does veterinary work on the side."
"I know," he said with a sad smile. "I catch up on the local gossip at Charlie's on Friday nights. All the guys from your brother's ranch go there for drinks and darts. A few are even willing to share the latest on what's happening out at the ranch."
"Ah," Mac nodded sagely. "I see. Still got a thing for my sister in-law, eh?"
He held up a hand and wiggled his fingers, including the one with a wedding ring on it. "I'm married now, so…"
"And you still have a thing for Carrie," Mac gave him a knowing look. "I get it, Dr. Edwards."
"So," he cleared his throat, "I hear you served in Iraq and just recently returned."
"Army," Mac replied with a wistful half-smile. "I flew a Black Hawk medevac helicopter."
"Crashed and decided I'd had enough," Mac said. "I served my time and didn't want to go back. Besides, I found what I was looking for."
"Miss the Army?"
"Not at all," she shook her head and winced. "Ugh. I really need to stop doing that."
He chuckled. "Go home, Mackenzie. Rest and drink plenty of fluids. Take your meds. You'll be fine in a few days, as long as you follow doctor's orders."
"Will do, Doc," Mac said.
He then walked out of the room, leaving Mac alone. She looked longingly at the pillow next to her, but decided she would rather go to Ben and Carrie's to lie down. Carrie would probably enjoy having her there to dote over. Mac's thoughts then turned to Lacey and she wondered what the woman was doing. Was she still out in one of the storms? Or had she returned to base camp with a patient?
Lacey glanced up at the dismal sky for the nth time and tried to see through the gloom. All she saw was snow, snow and more snow. She couldn't make out any noticeable landmarks. She couldn't even see the mountains. She had no idea where they were. She figured she could run right into one and still not see it. She had no concept of time and didn't have a clue if they were remotely close to their destination. All she knew was that it was well below freezing and so was she.
Her entire leg felt like it was on fire. The muscles screamed with every step she took, but she made sure not to limp. She didn't need Brad Miller glaring at her over his shoulder-again. She'd gotten quite enough of that over the last few hours. And complaining didn't do a thing. He just complained right back in that simpering tone of his that irritated her to no end.
"We're almost there," Dani said next to Lacey. "A few hundred yards and we'll be able to use the gear to climb up to where they are."
"How do you know?" Lacey glanced around and still didn't see any landmarks.
"Experience," Dani replied. "I've lived here all my life. You just get a feel for your surroundings, even when you can't see shit out here." She then glanced at Lacey's leg. "How's it holding up?"
"Fine," Lacey grimaced when she stepped wrong, yet again, and felt a painful twinge shoot through her knee that she knew didn't bode well. "Crap."
"Nothing," Lacey gritted her teeth and just continued on, despite the sharp pain in the joint and the throbbing ache that ran down her entire leg.
"I know that look," Dani prodded. "It's not nothing."
"I'm fine," Lacey lied. "Just not used to so much strenuous walking."
"You need a break?" Dani leaned in conspiratorially. "You still have that climb to deal with, Lacey. And believe me when I say it isn't going to be easier than walking. You'll need both legs to support you up there. One wrong move and-splat!"
Lacey sighed. "I don't think I can go up with the rest of you, then. My knee is really bothering me. It's not going to hold my weight up there. I just know it."
"Not a problem," Dani patted Lacey's shoulder. "And don't worry about Uncle Fester, there. I'll take care of him."
Lacey chuckled. "Uncle Fester?"
"I love giving people nicknames," Dani grinned. "Makes life ever so much more interesting, don't you think?"
"So, what's mine?"
"Ah, yes," Lacey nodded. "Because of the accent?"
"Because you have a heart as big as-" Dani corrected. "And you're kind of a lone star, too." She then shrugged. "The fact that you're from Texas really had nothing to do with it."
Lacey shook her head. "And Brenda?"
"Sherbet?" Dani grinned. "Hers was easy. Didn't take much to come up with it."
"Apparently not," Lacey chuckled. "But Uncle Fester? How did you come up with that for Brad?"
"It just fits him," Dani shrugged. "He's just such a stick in the mud all the time. And he tends to let things fester. I could call him pusshole, but that would just be gross."
"I suppose," Lacey said. "You could call him Mr. Sunshine and hope he gets the hint."
Dani burst out laughing. "Oh, that's rich, Texas!"
"What's so funny?" Brenda joined them at that point. "We're almost to the ridge, by the way. It's only a few hundred yards farther. Then you can rest that leg of yours." She glanced pointedly at Lacey's leg. "I don't think you'll be climbing up there with us, Stephens."
"Me, either," Lacey conceded. "I'll be lucky if you guys don't have to carry me back on one of those damned stretchers."
Brenda glanced at Dani, who shrugged.
"That bad?" Brenda returned her attention to Lacey. "Why didn't you say something sooner?"
"To what end?" Lacey replied with a scowl. "It's not like you can just leave me on the side of the path and pick me up on your way back. I'd freeze to death before then."
"She has a point, Shube," Dani responded with a wry grin. "Texas is a pretty smart cookie, for an Army grunt."
"Squid," Lacey tossed back at the woman.
"Children, children," Brenda scowled at each in turn. "Do not make me separate you two."
Dani glanced around. "And send us where? To separate corners?"
Brenda rolled her eyes. "You are such a brat, Ellison."
"Okay, we get the point," Lacey cut them off before they could go any further.
And then the group stopped in front of a massive wall of solid rock. They all looked up at the wall, but could see only about twenty feet up.
"Ready, ladies?" Brad was already hooking up his climbing gear and harness.
"Oh, boy," Lacey squinted up into the gloom overhead, as the snow fell in earnest. "How high up are those climbers, anyway?"
"Higher than you're going," Brenda stepped up next to Lacey and gave her a pointed look. "You're staying down here while we go up and get them, Stephens."
"We need all hands for this, Shubert," Brad countered. "Stephens, get your harness on. We'll talk you through what to do."
"You don't get it, Brad," Dani said. "Lacey isn't up for a climb, right now. She has a bad leg."
"And you don't get it, Danielle," Brad walked up and stood nose to nose with her. "She came with us voluntarily, but now she's my responsibility. I'm not leaving her alone down here while we all go up that mountain. Ain't gonna happen. No, sir."
"And you listen to me, ball buster," Brenda stepped in between the two, who towered over her five-foot-one inches. She then poked Brad in the chest. "Lacey Stephens is perfectly capable of making an informed decision about her capabilities. If she says she can't climb, then she can't. Simple as that. One of us will just have to stay down here with her until the rest return."
"I'll stay," Dani volunteered immediately. "You four go up and bring those climbers down. We'll wait for you and help out down here."
"I don't need a babysitter," Lacey put in and got three glares in return. "Okay, so I won't argue."
"Fine," Brad threw up his hands in exasperation. "We'll go up and get those climbers. You two stay here and get a fire going. We'll probably have to camp here for the night, anyway, since it took us so damned long to get here. We'll hike out first thing in the morning. You'll have to go to the cache and get everything we'll need."
He then walked back over and joined the EMTs, as they finished getting their rigging set for the climb.
"Asshole," Dani said under her breath.
"I don't think he has one," Brenda smirked. "Probably why he's always acting like one."
All three of them burst out laughing, until tears sprang to their eyes. Lacey was the first to wipe her tears away and look at the other two soberly.
"I think I can get a fire going, by myself," she said to Dani. "Why don't you go ahead with the others? I'll be fine here until you come back down."
"Not gonna happen, Texas," Dani replied. "We have a strict policy against leaving anyone alone up here. Besides, you'll need someone to keep you company. It's gonna get awfully boring sitting all by yourself. Don't need you falling asleep and dying on us."
"Are you coming, Shubert?" Brad called. "Come on! We're burning daylight!"
"Bite me, Brad!" Brenda shot over her shoulder. "I'll be there in a minute." She then turned her attention to Lacey. "Ice the knee, Stephens. I mean it. Once you have a fire going, ice your knee. And don't let it stiffen up or we will be carrying you back out on one of those stretchers. And try to keep it elevated as much as possible."
Dani slapped a hand onto Lacey's shoulder. "No worries, Shube, I'll see that she takes it easy. But you'd better get going before Brad gets it into his head to leave you behind with us."
"Yeah," Lacey added with a quick glance to the three men standing near the wall. "He doesn't seem like the type to wait for anyone."
"Okay," Brenda gave both women a quick hug. "Wish us luck."
"Ditto," Dani added. "And be careful up there. Don't want anyone dropping in on us by accident."
"If Brad doesn't stop being an asshole, he just might," Brenda added with a smirk. "See you in a little while, girls."
Dani and Lacey watched Brenda join the guys and get into her harness. Once she was secured, all four of them started their ascent up the rock wall.
"That does not look easy," Lacey commented after a few minutes of watching the group slowly disappear into the cloud cover overhead.
"It's not," Dani went to work finding sticks for a fire. "That's why we're down here and they're on their way up there."
"You can still join them, you know," Lacey removed her snow shoes, tossed them aside and joined Dani in her search. "You don't have to stay with me, Dani. Honestly. I'll be fine."
"Are you kidding?" Dani stopped with her hand on a small log. "And miss sitting beside a nice, roaring fire with my new best bud? Not a chance, Texas."
Lacey stood there with her head cocked to one side and a stupid smile on her face. "New best bud?"
"Bet your ass, Tex," Dani continued gathering wood. "You're now one of us. It's official. Sherbet and I agree that we can't let you slip away that easily."
Lacey felt herself warm at the thought that she had just been "officially" inducted into whatever girl club Brenda and Dani were a part of. It was a first for her and she couldn't help the smile that split her features.
"So, what does that mean, exactly?"
"That you'll be joining us for drinks after this is all said and done," Dani replied. "A bunch of us girls meet at our favorite watering hole after these SAR ops. We get drunk and rowdy, then verbally bash all the redneck assholes and others who think gays and lesbians shouldn't exist."
"Sounds…" Lacey stopped and shook her head. "Interesting?"
"That's not all we talk about, though," Dani added, as she dumped an armful of kindling on the snow in a clear space. She then pulled her climbing ax from her backpack and started digging down into the snow.
"What are you doing?"
"Can't build a fire on top of the snow or it will just melt and put the fire out," Dani explained, as she continued to dig.
"Need help?" Lacey got down next to Dani and shoveled snow with her gloved hands.
"You don't have to do that," Dani glanced at Lacey. "You should be icing your knee."
"I'll just…" Lacey pulled her pant leg up and rested her knee directly on the snow. "See?"
Dani smiled and shook her head. "Lacey Stephens. What a hoot you are, girl."
"You need a sense of humor in my line of work, Dani," Lacey said soberly. "There's too much shit that goes on in a war zone. And going insane is not an option when you're up to your armpits every day in blood and guts. It's better just to laugh at life and move on. You can't think about it or you'll definitely go crazy."
"And the rest of your trials and tribulations?" Dani added. "How do you cope with those?"
"I don't," Lacey dug harder. "Probably why I have nightmares and haven't slept well in years. PTSD sucks."
"Brenda will get you in to see Heather, my friend," Dani put a hand on Lacey's shoulder and squeezed. "The woman is a miracle worker, just like Brenda said."
"I hope so," Lacey continued digging. "I'd rather not saddle Mackenzie with a babbling idiot who can't distinguish fantasy from reality."
"Not gonna happen," Dani reassured. "When all this is done, Brenda and I will make sure you get good and drunk. Then she'll get you that appointment with Heather and you'll be well on your way to a bigger and brighter future."
"I hope you're right," Lacey said with a heavy sigh. "Now, about that cache Brad mentioned? Where is it?"
"First things first, Tex," Dani said, as she reached the ground and cleared away the rest of the snow. "Let's get this fire going, nice and hot. It will melt the snow around us while we go find the cache."
"What's in this cache, anyway?" Lacey helped Dani stack the wood.
"Two weather-proof tents, a tarp, sleeping bags and a few other essentials," Dani answered. "There should also be some first-aid items in it. We try to cover our bases, but can't account for every possibility. That's what base camp is for."
"Ah," Lacey nodded. "Did you ever find out what happened to the climbers?"
"A fall," Dani said as she got a small fire going. "One of them had a radio, which was a good thing. He managed to find a break in the weather and call for help before the next storm hit. We didn't get details, other than one of them fell down a fissure. The guys will immobilize and bring him back down. No worries."
Lacey winced as she stood up and put pressure on her leg. "Yeouch!"
And then her leg gave out on her and she was sprawled in the snow.
"Hey," Dani moved to Lacey's side. "You okay?"
"Not really," Lacey looked down at her knee and winced again. "Hurts like a damned son of a bitch."
"Okay," Dani pushed Lacey's pant leg up higher until her knee was exposed. "Yeah, that's not good."
"It's black and blue and really swollen," Dani met Lacey's intent gaze. "How the hell were you able to walk on it, Lacey? This so does not look good."
"I tried not to think about it," Lacey sucked in a pained breath when Dani gently probed the knee with her fingers. "God almighty…"
"Yeah, I don't think he had anything to do with this," Dani grabbed a handful of snow and packed it around Lacey's knee. "And I think you just became a patient, instead of a doctor."
"Not going to happen," Lacey answered emphatically. "I am, first and foremost, a doctor. And you're going to need my expertise when they bring that climber down off the mountain. I'm sure of it."
"Then you'll just have to stand by as a consultant, Dr. Stephens," Dani returned stubbornly. "Because there's no way you're walking out of here on that leg of yours. And I don't think you'll be doing much more than elevating and icing that knee until we head back tomorrow." She added a dead log to the fire and watched it catch, then got to her feet. "I'll go get the cache supplies and bring them back here. You stay there and keep snow on your knee."
"And if I say otherwise?" Lacey challenged.
"I will have no choice but to use your own rope to tie you up so you can't go anywhere," Dani answered matter-of-factly, right before she took off and disappeared in the driving snow.
"I guess that answers that," Lacey muttered, as she absently poked the fire. "Jeez, Mac. What the hell did you get me into this time?"
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