Mountain Memories

By Kennedy Northcutt ©2011

For disclaimers, see Part 1.

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Part 13

Chapter 42

"I don't care what it takes, Franklin. I want this resolved quickly and with as little fuss as possible," Meredith said from the leather wingback across the cherry wood desk from him. "James is out there somewhere. Every second he's free brings him that much closer to harming my daughter. And you and I both know he will stop at nothing to get his hands on Lacey's trust. Those millions are just what he needs to pay off the right people and put him back into good graces with our circle of friends. I won't have that. Not while I'm still drawing breath."

"I understand completely, Meredith," the silver-haired man folded his hands on top of the desk. "We have a plan in place. It just needs to play itself out. Patience, my dear. James won't have a chance to do anything without my people knowing about it. And my people are very good at what they do."

"I'm aware of how competent your people are, Franklin," Meredith said. "I trust you, so I also trust them. I just don't trust James not to slip under their radar and do something drastic. He isn't known for his scruples these days, as you well know."

He nodded sagely. "I will have my people be on their guard. I assure you he won't slip under their radar. Not unless we want him to think so, at least."

"Thank you, Franklin," she reached across the desk and put a hand on his. "I really appreciate all you've done and all you're doing. This means more than you will ever know."

He glanced down at her hand and took it in his. "Whatever I can do to make this easier for you, Meredith, you only have to ask. I'm here for you." He then slipped his other hand out and rested it on top of hers. "We will take care of James and keep your daughters safe from harm. I promise."

"Oh, Franklin," tears sprang to her eyes. "I do so appreciate everything. Thank you."

"So," he pulled his hands from hers and clasped them in his lap, as he sat back in his desk chair. "What do you plan on doing next? You really can't stay in that enormous mansion all alone."

"I'm not," Meredith sat back in her own chair and gave him a wan smile. "Lily and William returned to Washington yesterday and the hotel was kind enough to let me use their suite for the week. I thought I would make the best of it while I decide what to do next."

"There are no offers, yet, on your daughter's condo," he continued. "Why not just stay there?"

"Lacey gave you authority to sell her condo?"

"Yes," he nodded. "She wasn't sure she would ever return here to Houston and didn't want to risk having your husband get his hands on it."

"That makes perfect sense," she added. "Lacey is nothing if not practical. Makes me proud to be her mother."

"And the fact that she is openly in love with another woman?" Franklin added with a sly grin.

She eyed him for a moment. "She is still my daughter, Franklin. I couldn't be prouder that she finally found a kindred soul to share her life with. They love each other and that's enough for me. Lacey is happy. It's what matters most."

The sly smile turned genuine. "I'm proud of you, Meredith. That is a very big step for you to take, considering your conservative views."

"I'm learning to adapt," Meredith nodded. "When life throws you lemons and all that."

"Make lemonade," he added with a sage nod of his silver head. "If only others shared the same views. The world would be a much better place."

"It certainly would," she agreed. "Unfortunately, there isn't much chance that things will change in our lifetime. Look at how long it's taken for Blacks to gain a foothold in this country. The next step will be for us to elect an African American President of the United States. And we both know it will take an act of God for that to happen."

"We'll probably have our first female president before that happens," he said. "And a woman president would just throw everything out of balance in this great country of ours."

A dark brow rose on her elegant features. "Oh, really?"

"Not that you wouldn't make an excellent candidate, Meredith," he added quickly with a sheepish grin. "This country needs strong leadership in these trying times."

"And women aren't strong? Is that it?" She frowned. "I'll have you know it takes a great deal of strength to carry a child for nine months and then give birth, Franklin. If we had to rely on men to reproduce, humanity would die out in a heartbeat."

"Point taken," he shifted uncomfortably in his chair.

Meredith lifted her Gucci purse into her lap and rummaged inside it until she lifted a piece of paper out and held it in triumph.

"Here," she handed the paper across the desk to him. "I want you to take a look at that and tell me what you think."

He took the paper, unfolded it and scanned through it. Then he reread it through more slowly and carefully a second time. When he was finished, he looked up at her in concern.

"When did you receive this?"

"Two days ago," she answered. "It came via Certified Mail and needed my signature."

He reread the letter yet again, then met her steady gaze.

"I don't understand," he continued, as he handed it back to her.

"I didn't, either," she took the letter back and tucked it back into her purse. "Then I made a few calls." She held up a staying hand when she saw that he was about to protest. "Don't worry, Franklin. I was careful and didn't say more than I had to."

"Go on," he waved a hand in her direction. "I'm all ears, Meredith."

"My contacts at the Pentagon had some interesting things to say about that letter," she motioned to her purse. "And also the letter that accompanied it."

She pulled another letter out of her purse and handed it to him. Then she waited for him to read it through, which he did. When he was finished he looked up at her again.

"This says she's receiving several commendations for outstanding service, among other things," he said. "Now I'm quite confused, Meredith. I thought Lacey had the military police trying to track her down. These letters, however, say that your daughter is a model soldier and a hero. There is no mention of court martial proceedings or an investigation into Conduct Unbecoming an Officer."

"Exactly," she gave him a smug smile. "There is definitely something going on. And my contacts at the Pentagon-actually, my son-in-law made the calls-they say Lacey is to receive the Silver Star for gallantry in action and the Army's Distinguished Service Medal."

"And that letter from her company commander states clearly that she was one of the finest soldiers he was ever fortunate enough to serve with," Franklin shook his head. "It makes no sense. Why are the MPs after her, then? I thought she was being investigated for conduct unbecoming an officer."

"That letter from Col. Farrell says that she was under investigation, but the investigation was dropped shortly after the helicopter crash," Meredith said.

"That still doesn't explain why the MPs were at your house the night Lacey left town."

"No," Meredith let the hint of a smug smile lift the corners of her mouth. "But I'm sure your people can find out why a certain Navy commander suddenly appeared out of nowhere while my daughter was in that God-awful place in Louisiana."

"You think Commander Willows is somehow involved in all this?" He leaned back and steepled his fingers beneath his chin thoughtfully. "Wasn't he there when she was rescued from the mental institution?"

"Yes, he was," Meredith nodded. "And he was also there when the military police showed up on my doorstep and on my daughter's doorstep."

"For what purpose?"

"To throw us off the trail of the real person behind Lacey's problems?" Meredith shrugged. "Maybe James put him up to it. I don't know."

"James?" A worried expression crossed his features. "If that's the case, then he knows you're alive."

"True," she nodded. "Which means that plan you set in motion just might be for naught."

"Or it could mean your life is in grave danger," he added, as he picked up his desk phone receiver and hit a speed-dial button. "Yes, get Figgins in here, immediately." He hung up the phone and returned his attention to her. "I'm appointing my best man as your personal bodyguard, Meredith. And I won't take no for an answer. So don't even attempt to protest."

She cocked her head at him and grinned. "Oh, Franklin, you really do care what happens to me. That is so very sweet. I don't know what to say."

"Just say you'll accept my more than generous offer," he sat up and folded his hands on the desk in front of him again. "I mean it, Mere. Figgins is one of the best bodyguards on my payroll. He'll keep you safe and do whatever it takes to make sure James doesn't get a second chance to try and kill you. I really couldn't live with myself if I allowed that to happen."

"I understand, Franklin," she nodded again. "I'll be careful."

"And Figgins will be with you until we get James squared away for good," he added. "I know it will be an inconvenience, but that's my final word on the subject."

"And my girls?"

"You said yourself that Lily safely arrived in Washington yesterday," he said. "The only one we really need to worry about is Lacey. Any word yet on where she is and how she's doing?"

"She's still with Mackenzie in Wyoming, as far as I know," Meredith answered. "Lily said she tried calling the house number twice, but there was no answer. She left a message again yesterday when she reached Washington, but so far no one has returned her calls."

"I'll have my people look into it," Franklin jotted a few notes on the desk pad in front of him. "I'm sure everything is fine and they're just very busy."

"I'm sure," she smiled wanly. "I know Lacey can take care of herself, but I still worry. She is my daughter, after all."

"And it's a mother's job to worry about her children," he added with a smile of his own. "Believe it or not, Meredith, you are a good mother. You're doing everything you can to protect your children, like any good mother would do."

"I just wish…" She sighed. "I should have been there more when they were young, Franklin. I failed them both by putting the well-being of others before that of my own children. What kind of mother does that?"

"The human kind," he replied. "Making mistakes is part of life. It's how we learn from those mistakes that defines who we are and adds to our character. You need to forgive yourself for things that you cannot change. Accept them and move forward, Meredith. You can still enjoy time with your children." His smile brightened. "And you'll have a grandchild to dote on in just a few months, as well."

"Yes," Meredith's expression brightened. "I'm going to be a grandmother."

"Yes, you are," he reached across the desk and took her hand in his. "And you'll make a very fine grandmother, Meredith. I'm sure of it."


Chapter 43

Lacey moved her little cartoon character as quickly as her thumbs could move on the controls in her hands. She turned him to the right and…

"Darn it!" Lacey exclaimed, as the boy next to her suddenly jumped up and whooped in triumph. "I can't believe I did that! I turned right into that…What is it called again?"

"Yes! I won, again!" DJ jumped off the bed and did a happy dance around it, much to the amusement of the two women in the room. "It's a light saber, Aunt Lacey. You turned right into my light saber. I won 'cause you turned your Darth into my light saber!"

"Not nice, Diggs," Mac chided from the chair she was sitting in next to the queen-sized bed. "Lacey won't keep playing with you if you do that every time you beat the pants off her." She shot the reclining woman a playful grin.

"Thanks," Lacey scowled at her dark-haired companion. "Was that supposed to make me feel better?"

Mac shrugged and smirked. "You lost…again."

"And he beat you six times at this stupid game before you finally threw the controller at me, Miss Video-Game-Whiz," Lacey replied with a smirk of her own. "What does that say about your gaming skills?"

"That we both suck?" A dark brow rose on her smug features as she crossed her arms over her chest and watched her nephew.

"I'm the champ! I'm the champ!" DJ continued his happy dance, as if he were completely ignorant of the interplay between the two women.

"That's enough, Dillon Jeremiah," Carrie suddenly appeared in the doorway. "Go on downstairs, now. Supper's on the table and your dad and brothers are waiting for you."

Carrie entered the room with a tray of food, which she set down on top of the dresser. She adjusted things and looked pointedly at Lacey.

"Mmm, that smells really fantastic," Lacey tried adjusting the disheveled covers over her legs and was glad when Mac got up to finish the job. "Thanks."

"Not a problem," Mac smiled warmly at her. "Need me to put another pillow underneath your knee?"

"No," Lacey shook her head. "I'm fine."

"Here you go," Carrie set the tray down over Lacey's lap and lifted the covers off the dishes. "We're having ribs, creamed corn, mashed potatoes and corn bread for supper tonight."

"Thanks, Carrie," Lacey could feel her mouth watering at the enticing aromas that drifted up to her. "It looks as good as it smells."

"Where's mine?" Mac glanced at the tray of food for one. "Don't I get any?"

"Yours is downstairs with the boys," Carrie sat down on the bed and motioned toward the door with her head. "I'll stay here with Lacey until you're finished. So, go on, now. Get."

"Yes, ma'am," Mac crossed the room, then stopped in the doorway and turned back to Lacey. "I'll be back in a jiffy. 'kay?"

"'kay," Lacey answered, as she dug into her food with gusto. Once Mac was gone, she looked at Carrie. "Wanna tell me why you chased her out of here?"

Instead of taking a seat in the vacant chair, Carrie stretched out on her side on the bed and propped her head up with one hand. She watched Lacey eat every bite off the large beef rib slathered in barbeque sauce. Then watched her lick her fingers one at a time in pure enjoyment. It put a smile on Carrie's face to see how much her cooking was appreciated by the blond.

"Good?" She asked.

"Delicious," Lacey finally wiped her fingers and mouth with the paper towel on the tray. "The best."

"Thanks," Carrie continued to watch as Lacey cleaned up the rest of the food on her plate in record time and then sopped up the juices with the remaining bite of cornbread. "I wanted to talk to you, Lacey."

"Oh?" Lacey looked up expectantly, as she wiped her mouth again. "About what?"

"There were a couple messages on the answering machine when I got in from Salt Lake this morning," Carrie continued. "They were from your sister."

"Lily called?"

"Yes," Carrie nodded.


"She wants you to call her as soon as possible," Carrie took the tray and set it on the dresser out of the way.

"I didn't even hear the phone ring," Lacey waited as Mac's sister-in-law returned to sprawl on her side at the end of the bed. "It's hard to hear much of anything up here. I feel kind of isolated, except when I have to go visit my sh-Heather. Or when Mac or DJ or both come up here to play video games."

Carrie smiled at the slip. They had discussed Heather on a number of occasions, and Carrie had finally put her foot down about Lacey referring to the woman as a shrink. She would put up with a lot of things, including having Lacey in Mac's old room until she was mobile again. But one thing she would not tolerate was the use of the derogatory term against one of her friends.

"Well," Carrie pulled a cell phone from her pocket and handed it to Lacey. "While I was in town, I put this on our plan and had them activate it. You can now call your sister anytime you want to. I already put the number in the contacts list."

Lacey took the phone and looked it over. "You got me one of the newer phones? Why? I don't actually need all the bells and whistles, Carrie."

"Oh, it's not just a phone," Carrie moved closer and pointed to the touch screen. "Apparently they don't make plain old cell phones anymore. Or, if they do, they weren't carrying them in that store. So, I got this one with the works. Internet access. Email. Games. A camera. A GPS navigation program, in case you get lost on the roads around here once you're able to drive yourself. This one has it all and probably a few things I have no clue about."

"Huh," Lacey activated the touch screen and watched the colors dance before her eyes. "Is there an intercom on this contraption? That way I can just page you all when I need something?"

"Oh," Carrie hit the screen and a folder opened. "Our numbers are all in here for you. Just touch the screen and hit send. We're all on the same plan, so it won't cost anything to call one of us. And Ben is the only one who doesn't keep his phone with him every moment of every day."

Lacey touched Mac's speed-dial number and put the phone to her ear. "Hello, sweetheart. Yep. Just checking in to see if you're done eating…"

"Absolutely," Mac appeared in the doorway with a warm smile, as she closed her phone and stepped into the room. "I see you now have 24/7/365 access to all of us."

Lacey held her phone up for Mac to see. "It has internet access and I can set up an email account, too."

"Sweet," Mac glanced at the phone in her hand, as she carefully sat down on the edge of the bed. "Mine doesn't. Maybe I should upgrade to that one, instead. I could sure use internet when I'm flying."

"Oh," Carrie stood up and grabbed the tray. "I can probably do that tomorrow while I'm in town, Mackenzie. You want me to take it with me?"

"Sweet," Mac handed her phone over to the woman. "Can I get games, too? Poker would be really cool."

"I'll see what I can do," Carrie said, as she tucked the phone into a pocket and carried Lacey's dinner tray to the doorway. "I'll bring up your dessert in a few minutes. Give the two of you some time alone."

"Thanks, Car," Mac said, as Carrie ducked out the door.

"So?" Mac turned her attention back to the reclining woman in the bed. "How was your dinner?"

"Great," Lacey replied distractedly, as she looked at the phone in her hand. "Carrie never ceases to amaze me with her cooking skills."

"Yeah," Mac slid onto the bed and lay next to Lacey. "So, what's wrong?"

"What do you mean?" Lacey finally met Mac's expectant gaze. "Why do you ask?"

"You're too quiet," Mac took one of Lacey's hands in hers and held it. "Did I do something wrong? Is the phone okay? Did Carrie say something to upset you?"

"No, yes and no," Lacey looked away. "I'm just tired of being up here all by myself. And this just means you guys don't have to come up here to check on me as often." She held the phone up. "You can just call me to see if I'm sprawled on the floor or if I need someone to carry me to the toilet."

"You know that isn't going to happen," Mac kissed the hand in hers. "Digger loves playing video games with you and is looking forward to the day when you beat his pants off. And I love spending every free moment I have available with you. Neither of those two things is going to change anytime soon."

"I hate being cooped up like this," Lacey sighed heavily. "It sucks."

"It's only been a week, hon," Mac squeezed the hand in hers. "Doc Johnson says you can start using your crutches next week. He just wants you to give that knee a good head-start on healing. You're kinda like Humpty Dumpty right now. He really had a hard time piecing things back together again. You managed to tear the crap out of everything that healed after you did a number on it in the crash."

"Yeah, I know," Lacey removed her hand from Mac's and used it to stroke the dark head lying next to her. "I'm just really bored, Mackenzie. I want to do something, but I have no idea what."

"Want me to get my laptop?" Mac offered, as her eyes drifted shut. "I actually remembered to put it in the truck this morning when I went to my place to pick up more clothes for us."

"And what, pray tell, do you think I can do with your computer?"

"Surf the internet?" Mac rested her hand on Lacey's thigh and gently kneaded the muscles. "Write a novel? Create a blog? I don't know. At least you'll have something to occupy your time while you're lounging around up here by yourself during the day."

Lacey considered the suggestions thoughtfully for a moment.

"What's a blog?" She asked.

Blue eyes popped open wide and stared up at Lacey in disbelief.

"You don't know what a blog is?"

"Why would I?" Lacey shrugged. "I only just started using a computer to input patient information about a year or so ago. And I had no reason to use it for personal reasons. I wasn't in touch with my family, even by email. So, what's a blog?"

Mac jumped off the bed and headed for the door. "Be right back."

She was gone before Lacey could say more. So she just sat there and stared at the little Lego Luke Skywalker dancing across the TV screen. When he danced across the fifth time, she grabbed the remote off the nightstand and flipped the TV off. But then she was just staring at a black 32″ blank screen. And then she heard the pounding of feet up the hall and suddenly Mac reappeared.

"Okay," Mac was out of breath as she plopped down on the bed next to Lacey with her silver laptop in hand. "I think I can show you what a blog is a lot easier than try to explain it."

Mac opened the laptop and turned it on. She then waited for the computer to boot up.

"Sure takes a long time for the thing to start working," Lacey commented. She watched a picture of Mac in her flight suit with a pair of aviation sunglasses, standing next to a Black Hawk helicopter, appear on the screen. "Oh. That's really cool. I like that picture. Where was it taken?"

"Afghanistan," Mac replied with a slight frown. "Camp Douglas or FOB Dixon-not sure which. One of the guys took it about a week before I shipped out to Iraq. I forgot I had it on there as my desktop picture."

Lacey studied the screen. "It reminds me of when we first met," she said wistfully.

A dark brow rose. "Oh?"

"I thought you were the most gorgeous woman I had ever met," Lacey added. "Couldn't keep my eyes off you the entire time we were in Farrell's office. I thought he was going to catch me staring at you like a lovesick puppy."

"I didn't notice you looking at me," Mac glanced at Lacey.

"Oh, I was definitely looking. Just trying not to be too obvious about it in front of him," Lacey snorted. "That would have gone over like a lead brick."

Mac snickered. "Yeah, not like he didn't eventually know what was going on right under his nose."

Mac opened her browser and typed something into the address bar at the top. When the site came up, she turned the computer so Lacey could see it.

"What am I looking at?" Lacey glanced from the screen to Mac.

"A blog," Mac replied.

"Looks like…" Lacey looked more closely at the screen and read what was there. "Whose blog is this, anyway?"

"Mine," Mac grinned. "I named the blog Argo's High."

"After your horse?" Lacey snorted. "Then again, I guess it could have been worse. The Flying Big Mac comes to mind."

"Oh yeah, there ya go," Mac rolled her eyes. "Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun?"

"Sounds a little…um…cheesier when you put it that way," Lacey chuckled.

"I just tell it like it is, Doc," Mac grinned.

"And exactly what do you do on a blog?" Lacey returned her attention to the screen. "Did you write all this?"

"I did, actually," Mac scrolled through the posts. "I started it when I had nothing better to do during a supply run in Stan. Just happened to have my laptop with me at the time and thought I'd give it a go. I read a bunch of blogs before I started mine. Some people write the weirdest shit and post it for everyone to read."

"You've been doing this blog thing since 2003?" She glanced at Mac in surprise.

"Yep," Mac replied. "It's a kind of diary about some of my adventures. Just thoughts and ideas that I wanted to share."

"Share with whom?"

"No one, in particular," Mac clicked on one entry that popped several comments up with it. "But I do seem to have garnered a small following."

"Six comments on that entry alone," Lacey observed. "And three of them are from some person named"

"Yeah," Mac shrugged. "It's actually an email address. We emailed back and forth for a while, until she finally lost interest and the emails stopped."

"How do you know this Crazy Cow person is a she?"

"Her name is Mary Beth Abernathy," Mac replied. "She lives in St. Louis, Missouri and has horses. She liked the fact that I named both my helicopter and my horse after Jason's ship from Greek mythology. After several emails, we realized we had a lot in common. Only problem was I was still serving overseas and she was here in the States. Long-distance and all that. It never worked out."

"You two had a thing?" Lacey's brow rose, as she imagined Mac conversing via electronic mail with another woman.

"We had email conversations that didn't really go anywhere," Mac shrugged. "I'm sure she eventually found someone special there in St. Louis. Maybe they even settled down."

"Weren't you a little concerned that the Army might find out?" Lacey asked.

"We didn't really say anything that would set off any red flags with the Brass. We mostly just talked about her job, my job-at least the parts I could share-her horses, my horses, what it's like flying helicopters, what it's like in the Army-that kind of thing. And then she just stopped writing and I didn't give it a second thought."

"But you missed talking to her or writing to her or whatever," Lacey said.

"Not really," Mac shook her head. "I still had the blog to keep me busy. And she never commented back again, either."

"Did you ever consider trying to look her up when you returned Stateside?" Lacey prodded.

"Not really," Mac shrugged again. "I guess I just wasn't really interested in her. She was fun to chat with, while it lasted."

"So, tell me how to set up a blog of my own," Lacey said to break the silence that stretched between them. "Is it hard to do? And what would I blog about?"

"Anything," Mac tapped a few keys on the laptop and then turned the screen toward Lacey. "Here is the sign up page. All you have to do is follow the prompts and type in the requested information."

Lacey looked down at the laptop with a bewildered frown. "Where's the mouse?"

"No mouse," Mac rubbed her finger on the touch pad. "Your finger controls the cursor and pointer. And these buttons are your right and left mouse buttons. Double-click the left one to open stuff. Single-click to open links in the browser."

"I'm not a complete moron, Ace," Lacey rolled her eyes at the woman. "Or should I call you the Flying Big Mac?"

The tickle attack was almost instantaneous, as Mac found Lacey's weakness and exploited it. Lacey tried to fend off the attack, but wasn't able to get her arms against her sides enough to stop Mac's assault.

"You're gonna make me pee my pants!" Lacey squealed and continued laughing hysterically, as the laptop slid to one side. "Mackenzie Bridget! Stop! I mean it! I really am gonna pee my pants."

"What was that about Big Macs?" Mac pulled her hands away, but held them up and wiggled her fingers at the still-laughing woman with an evil grin.

"Okay, I'm sorry I called you the Flying Big Mac," Lacey wiped the tears from her cheeks, as she tried to catch her breath and compose herself.

"Well," Mac lowered her hands and picked up the laptop again. "I suppose that's better. I guess I can forgive you-this time."

Before she could resume her place, however, Lacey took Mac's face in her hands and kissed her soundly on the lips. The kiss deepened until tongues danced and they were both panting with need. When their lips finally parted, they sat there staring into each other's eyes for a timeless moment-green and blue sparkling with desire.

"Wha…" Mac rested her forehead against Lacey's.

"Two can play at that game, Ace. Heh heh," Lacey grinned.

Mac took a deep breath and shook her head in an effort to clear it. She remembered what Heather had said about taking things slow between them. Lacey still wasn't quite on solid ground, as far as her mental break was concerned. According to Heather, Lacey still had a long way to go in those sessions of hers. So did Mac. And having sex would just add a measure of confusion that neither was quite ready to handle, yet. At least that was Heather's professional opinion.

Mac just didn't know if she should take that next step with Lacey in her present physical condition. Having her leg propped up on pillows and lying there in a pair of Mac's old sweats and an Army t-shirt wasn't exactly romantic bed wear. And then there was the fact that they were in her brother's house with three rambunctious boys who could make an unexpected appearance at any moment.

"You wanna learn how to blog or not?" Mac glanced at the computer in her lap.

"Um…sure," Lacey felt the rebuff like a gentle slap, as she settled back against the pile of pillows she was propped against.

"Hey," Mac reached over at the dejected tone in Lacey's voice and caressed her cheek. "I didn't mean that like it sounded. I love kissing you, sweetheart." She glanced at the dark window across the room. "But I also think you need this. Having something to do besides sit here and stare out that window will help pass the time while I go into town with Ben and the boys tomorrow. I realize how hard this is and just want you to have an outlet. So, can we set up your blog while I can still keep my eyes open?"

"Fine," Lacey turned her head and kissed Mac's palm. "I'll try to behave myself." She then grinned saucily.

"Ugh!" Mac rolled her eyes and ducked her head. "You are not making this easy on me, Doc."

"Easy might be fun," Lacey teased. "I can certainly be easy."


Mac watched as Lacey's hand snaked underneath her navy-blue t-shirt and sent tiny shivers of anticipation along her heated skin. Experienced fingers found her most vulnerable spots and gently caressed her.

"Is this easy enough for you?" Green eyes danced with mischief.

Mac swallowed, as her eyes drifted shut. "Can we…" She licked her lips, as the urge to taste those soft, moist lips only a few inches from her own nearly sent her over the edge.

"Did you have something to say, Ace?" Lacey continued her gentle stroking and then tried to shift positions. "Yeeeouch!"

"What?" Mac instantly forgot Lacey's attentions and sat bolt upright. "What is it? Did you hurt yourself? Is your knee…"

"I just moved it a little," Lacey reached to grab for Mac and missed. She then sucked in a pained breath as the pain in her knee migrated up her thigh. She grabbed for the bottle of Oxycontin 40 on the nightstand, downed two 40 mg pills and followed them up with half a glass of water. She then returned her attention to the woman next to her. "Come on, Mackenzie. Don't do this," she ground out through gritted teeth. "I really don't need you fawning over me, right now. It's irritating as hell."

Mac watched the pain slowly ebb from Lacey's features, as the pain medication took hold. The words stung and she hadn't had enough sleep in the last few days to put up with the woman's attitude. She was also concerned by the number of pills Lacey was taking. She scooted off the bed and stood there next to it with a frown. She then ran a hand through her dark hair and set the other on her hip.

"How many pills did you just take?" Mac asked. "The doctor told you not to take more than one at a time. You know that, Lac."

"What? Are you my mother, now?" Lacey snorted and shook her head. "Nope. You're not dead and she is." She then glared up at Mac from beneath hooded lashes. "Leave me alone, Mackenzie. My knee hurts. I took my meds. I don't need a lecture on how much or how little I should take. I'm a fucking doctor, after all. I know what the hell I'm doing."

"Fine," Mac said, as she grabbed her laptop and slammed it shut. "I'm really not in the mood to deal with your bitchiness, right now, anyway, Lacey. Get some rest and I'll see you later."

"All I've done for the past week is rest!" Lacey slammed the wall behind her with her fist. "I am so sick of resting! I don't want to rest anymore! I want to go downstairs or walk outside, maybe watch TV with your family and be around people, for Christ's sake! Sitting up here all by myself for hours on end is driving me crazy!!!"

Mac stared at Lacey in wide-eyed astonishment at the outburst. She held the laptop against her chest and took a deep breath, knowing she needed to calm Lacey down for both their sakes.

"I know this is hard…"

"You have no idea how fucking hard this is, Mackenzie!" Lacey screamed the words. "You can walk! You can go wherever you fucking please! You're not a goddamned invalid who can't even go to the motherfucking toilet without someone there to wipe her ass for her!" Tears rolled down Lacey's cheeks as the wind finally left her sails and she slumped back against the pillows dejectedly.

"You want me to call Heather and have her pay a visit?" Mac offered. "She said she would."

"No," Lacey picked up the phone next to her and opened the contacts folder on the screen. She then held the phone up for Mac to see. "I have the damned number in my new phone. Your sister thought of everything, including putting all my pertinent contacts at the touch of a button." She dropped the phone onto the bed and crossed her arms over her chest. "Just go downstairs and be with your family, Mackenzie. I want to be alone. I'm really not in the mood to fight with you."

"Okay," Mac hesitated in the doorway. "Are you sure?"

"Go," Lacey said dejectedly and then turned an icy glare on Mac. "I said go."

"Fine," Mac turned toward the door then paused in the doorway and glanced over her shoulder at Lacey one last time. "I'll come back up in a little while to make sure you're okay, Lac."

"Don't bother," Lacey didn't meet Mac's gaze. "I don't need a babysitter."

Tears sprang to Mac's eyes, as she slipped silently down the hall.

Lacey just sat there staring sightlessly at the dark TV screen across the room in front of her. She couldn't figure out why she had gotten so upset at Mackenzie, but really didn't care. The meds had kicked in and were making her feel a better already. She considered taking another pill just to make sure, then thought better of it.

Lacey sighed heavily and put all thoughts of Mackenzie from her mind. She needed to concentrate on the call she had to make to Lily and really wasn't looking forward to a conversation with her sister. After a few moments of silence, she finally picked up the phone and hit a number on the screen.

"Hello, Lil?" She said, as fresh tears sprang to her eyes. "No, I'm fine. Just kinda laid up for a couple more weeks with this lousy knee." She paused to listen to her sister's reply. "Oh, you didn't know? I'm sorry. I didn't know how much the Papadopouloses told you about what happened." Another brief pause. "Oh, they didn't tell you anything, huh? Well, I had a little accident last week and had to have emergency surgery on my knee."

Lacey held the phone away from her ear and winced, as her sister's voice rose several octaves. She glared angrily at the phone in her hand.

"Really, Lil? I don't need you yelling at me, on top of all the other bullshit I've had to deal with today!" She waited a moment for the ranting to subside, then put the phone back to her ear. "Things aren't exactly rosy around here, right now. Actually, they're downright crappy. I had a breakdown and tried to kill someone. Okay? So, just back off, will ya?" She listened to her sister's reply. "Yes, I'm now under a psychiatrist's care. Her name is Heather. She's helping me work through the crap that is my life."

There was another long pause as Lacey listened to her sister's questions and tried to process everything that Lily said through the haze and euphoria of the meds that were washing over her. The drugs were making everything really fuzzy and she briefly regretted taking two of them.

The thought was fleeting, as she focused in on what Lily was saying at that point.

"Mackenzie and I are doing fine," Lacey sighed and then thought about that a moment. "Actually, I'm not so sure about that. I…" She pinched the bridge of her nose, as fresh tears sprang to her eyes. "I yelled at her right before I decided to call you. Took my frustrations out on her. I am such an ass. But I can't seem to help myself. I'm stuck in this damned bed and can only get out for doctor appointments or when someone takes me to the toilet. It really sucks and…"

Her words were cut off and she sniffed back her tears.

"I am not feeling sorry for myself, Lil. I'm just…" Another interruption had her anger flaring again. "What the fucking hell do you know about it? Hm? You're probably sitting in Washington with Bill, right now, enjoying tea with a diplomat's wife or dancing around a fucking ballroom in the White House."

Lacey held the phone out again, as her sister went off on another rant.

"You haven't the first clue what the hell is going on around here, Lacey Justine! Who gives you the right to judge me, when all I've ever been is completely supportive? Huh? And don't you dare try to use me as your own personal sounding board, when that's exactly what you've been doing to Mackenzie! Go to HELL!!!"

The phone went completely silent and Lacey stared at it in disbelief for a moment, before putting it back to her ear.

"Lil? Lily? Are you still there?" Nothing but complete silence greeted her. "Hello?"

Lacey looked at the display and saw that the call was disconnected. But her mind couldn't quite wrap itself around the fact that her sister had hung up on her. Lily never did that. The woman was the modicum of proper behavior and manners. She didn't yell. She rarely raised her voice. And she certainly never lost her temper. Lily was just so…

"Can I have a word with you?"

Lacey looked up to find Carrie in the doorway with a look of irritation on her usually-cheery features.

"It's your house," Lacey absently set the phone aside. "Come on in. I hope you're not here to…"

"What the hell is wrong with you?" Carrie laid into Lacey the instant she sat down on the edge of the bed. "Are you out of your freakin' mind? Or did that experience on the mountains make you lose all sense of reason?"

Lacey looked at the hands in her lap and couldn't meet the woman's intense gaze. Tears sprang to her eyes and she tried to blink them back, but they fell anyway. She didn't want to cry. She didn't. Crying didn't help. Nothing helped. And now she had to deal with another person yelling at her.


"Because Mackenzie does not deserve to be treated the way you just treated her," Carrie went on, completely ignoring Lacey's attempt at an explanation. "She has been nothing but supportive of you this entire time. She flew down to Houston to find you. Then she drove with that Navy man all the way to Louisiana, just to spring you from that loony bin you got yourself into. She stood up for you when your own family didn't. She brought you home with her…"

"Can I say something?" Lacey's temper flared.

"Excuses are like assholes, Lacey Stephens," Carrie shot back through gritted teeth. "Everyone's got one. So, please, don't waste your breath telling me some cockamamie story about how you're sorry about treating Mackenzie like a doormat, just because you're as mentally screwed up as a whore in a Texas brothel. I am not listening to any of it. Do you hear me?"

"Fine," Lacey nodded, as the anger instantly subsided and a heavy lethargy took its place. "I won't. But I do want to say that I have no excuse for what I did to Mackenzie. I love her. I really do. And I really am screwed up." She tapped her temple. "Things haven't been right in here for a really long time and I don't know if they ever will be. But I never meant to treat her like a doormat. You have to believe me, Carrie."

"Then tell her that yourself," Carrie's expression softened, ever so slightly. "You might have to wait until tomorrow, though. She went back to her place for the night. Said she needed some space to think some things through and get her head cleared. You really did a number on her, by the way."

"I know," Lacey looked back down at her hands, as she fidgeted with the sheet draped over her lap. "Apparently, I'm really good at that." She glanced at her phone. "Lily hung up on me just before you came in."

"Your sister?" Carrie watched Lacey nod. "You two have a fight?"

"We argued," Lacey replied. "I said stuff. She said stuff. I got pissed and let my temper get the best of me. She yelled and hung up. That's never happened before. Ever."

"Well, I guess there's a first time for everything," Carrie chuckled.

"Lily has always been supportive," Lacey finally met Carrie's amused gaze. "What's so funny?"

"You kinda sound like one of my boys when they get caught doing something they know they shouldn't be doing," Carrie continued to grin. "Welcome back to the world, Lacey."

"I've been out in the world," Lacey frowned. "It's a cold, cruel place and doesn't offer much solace to the weary traveler."

"I didn't mean it like that," Carrie explained. "I meant that you're finally starting to rejoin the world and find out that there are people here who care a great deal about you."

Tears sprang to Lacey's eyes again and she blinked them back. "I really don't know how to do this," she admitted in a small voice. "Me and Mac…" She shook her head. "Sometimes this is so hard for me. I don't know what I'm doing half the time. And I always seem to hurt her when I don't mean to."

She looked away and glanced at the pill bottle on the nightstand. She noticed it was already half-empty, then dismissed the urge she had to take another. The doctor had said to take the pain meds as needed. But he had also warned her not to take more than the prescribed dosage.

Carrie placed a comforting hand on Lacey's arm. "You're both stumbling around like a couple of kids. You need to talk things through. Share your feelings with each other. Tell her that you're scared, Lacey. She can take it, just as long as you're honest with her and don't get pissed when she's honest with you."

"I…" Lacey's gaze snapped to Carrie's. "I'm not scared."

"Oh, really?" Carrie gave Lacey her best skeptical glare, as she crossed her arms over her chest. "Is that really what you're telling yourself these days? Lying to yourself is only going to make things worse, Lacey Stephens. Believe me. You can't hide from the truth for long. Eventually, the truth comes right out and smacks you upside the head."

"God, Carrie. Are you always this straightforward with people?" Lacey absently rubbed the back of her neck. "I'm beginning to think you missed your calling. You should have become a therapist."

"Who says I'm not?" Carrie shot back with a sly grin, as she stood up and walked toward the door. She then stopped and turned back to Lacey, as she casually leaned against the door frame. "Mackenzie is a grown woman who does pretty well at taking care of herself. Lord knows, she did a lot of that while serving her country and watching over a crew of helicopter jockeys. But that doesn't mean she's immune to getting her feelings hurt-especially when the person doing the hurting professes to love her. I know you've been through a lot, Lacey. But remember that she went through a lot, too. You were both in that crash. You both came home with scars from the experience. Remember that the next time you decide to use her as your own personal emotional punching bag. Will you?"

Lacey stared at the empty doorway long after Carrie was gone. Her bleary mind tried to wrap itself around everything Carrie had said. But Lacey couldn't quite put it all together through the pain meds playing havoc with her confused thoughts.

She glanced at the pain meds again. Just one more couldn't hurt, could it? It would certainly make all the bullshit disappear long enough for her to sleep away the crap rolling around in her head. Just one more…

She reached for the bottle and held onto it with her hand in her lap for a long moment. She then filled the half-empty glass of water from the pitcher on the nightstand and held the glass in her other hand. Staring at the pill bottle in her hand for several moments, Lacey made a decision with tears streaming down her cheeks.


Mac paced from one end of her living room to the other. The pine floor beneath her feet creaked every time she hit a certain spot near the couch, bringing Mindy's head up each time. The puppy's head lowered to the argyle pad, yet again and pale blue eyes watched Mac as she continued pacing.

Then Mac stopped and ran a hand through her dark hair. She glanced up at the clock over the fireplace mantle. It was fast approaching midnight and she still couldn't rid herself of the restlessness. She was bone tired from the long day, but her mind was racing with thoughts of Lacey.

"I need to go back there," she said to no one in particular. "She doesn't sleep well when I'm not there."

Mindy whined, as she kept her chin propped on the red argyle pad and watched her owner beneath heavy lids.

"I know, Minders," Mac answered the puppy. "I know she doesn't want me there with her. I know I was a complete ass to her. But I also know she'll probably have another nightmare if I don't go back there and at least try to make things right between us."

Mac heard her muffled cell phone give off a familiar ringtone. She walked over to her coat and dug the phone out, answering it on the second chorus of a familiar Boston tune.

"Hey, Ben," Mac listened to the frantic voice on the other end of the call. "Yeah, I'll be right there." Panic hit her like a lead brick, as she quickly shrugged into her coat. "Come, Mindy," she ordered in a voice that belied the terror she was experiencing at her brother's words.

Nononononono…Her mind repeated the mantra over and over again, as she flew through the front door with Mindy on her heels and raced to her truck. She pulled her keys from her coat pocket, as she opened the driver's side door and let Mindy jump in. She then hopped up into the seat and shoved the key into the ignition, then sat there for a moment with her hands gripping the steering wheel so tightly that her knuckles turned white.

Mindy's whine next to her snapped Mac out of the panicked state she was in.

"Okay, girl. I know," Mac said as she put the truck into gear and skidded out of her driveway, sending a spray of ice and gravel in her wake.


"Where's that ambulance?" Carrie stared out the window toward the darkness beyond. "What the hell is taking them so long to get here?"

"They'll get here as soon as they get here, Babe," Ben said from the floor where he was performing CPR on the unresponsive prostrate figure.

Carrie moved away from the window and knelt next to her husband. "What can I do?"

"Pull the blanket from the bed and elevate her knee," he said, as he continued the chest compressions.

"How the hell did this happen, anyway?" Carrie grabbed two pillows, instead, and elevated Lacey's knee. "I feel terrible…"

Pounding footsteps up the stairs and running feet in the hallway had Carrie looking up in time to see Mackenzie standing there in breathless confusion. Mac wore her coat over her sweats and still had her hair pulled back in a ponytail. Her bangs were windblown and she leaned heavily against the door frame for support.

"What the hell?" The dark-haired woman glanced at the empty bed and then at the two people on the floor. She moved away from the door frame, rounded the bed and stopped dead at the scene that greeted her. "What the hell?" She repeated in shock.

"Mama?" Dillon suddenly appeared in the doorway, rubbing his eyes sleepily. "What's going on? Why are there lights and sirens outside?"

Tanner suddenly appeared next to his brother and then Jimmy came up to stand between the two. All three boys stared in wide-eyed shock at the scene that greeted them.

"Jimmy," Carrie stood up and headed for her sons, trying to block their view. "Take the boys downstairs and tell the paramedics where we are. Go!" She shooed them all out of the room.

Mac knelt next to her brother with tears streaming down her cheeks. "What happened?"

"Heard a scream and came running," Ben said, as sweat from his excursions trickled down the sides of his face. "She was sitting straight up in bed when I came in. Then she collapsed into convulsions. That's when I called 911. When I got off the phone, she stopped breathing and her heart stopped. That's when I had Carrie call you."

"Oh…God," Mac put a hand to her mouth, as she watched her brother performing CPR on Lacey.

A moment later, two paramedics, an EMT and several firemen suddenly appeared in the doorway. They quickly set up their equipment and went to work on Lacey, as Ben lifted Mac to her feet and ushered her out of the room.

"Tell us what happened?" One of the paramedics followed Ben into the hallway.

"I think she overdosed on her pain medication," Ben answered absently, as he wrapped a comforting arm around his distraught sister's shoulders. "There's an empty pill bottle on the nightstand next to the bed."

"Okay," the paramedic nodded and returned to the room.

"Why don't you folks come downstairs with me," a fireman in a white helmet guided them toward the stairs. "You'll be more comfortable there."

Ben held Mac close, as he silently followed the man downstairs. They joined the boys and Carrie in the living room and sat down to wait.

Mac couldn't stop seeing Lacey's prostrate figure on the floor with Ben performing CPR on her. The image played over and over in her mind and brought fresh tears to her eyes.

"Are you okay, Auntie Mac?" Dillon sat down next to her on the loveseat. "Is Aunt Lacey gonna be okay?"

"Why don't you come sit over here next to me, Dillon," Ben suggested, when Mac didn't immediately respond.

"What happened to Aunt Lacey? Why are the firemen upstairs with her?" The six-year-old responded with tears of his own. "Is she gonna be okay, Daddy?"

"I don't know, Dillon," Ben lifted his son in to his lap and hugged him tight.

"Is she gonna die?" Tanner put in with a worried frown.

"I need to be with her," Mac suddenly jumped to her feet and found her way blocked by her five-foot-four inch sister-in-law. "Move, Carrie. I'm gonna go see what's taking them so long."

"Sit down, Mackenzie," Carrie ordered in her best no-nonsense tone. "Let them do what they need to do. You can't do anything for her right now. All you can do is stay out of their way and let them take care of her."

Mac hesitated for a moment, then did as she was bidden. She slumped onto the loveseat dejectedly with her head in her hands and just let the tears fall.

"It's my damned fault," Mac finally said in a hoarse whisper. "I should have been here with her."

"It's not your fault and you know it, Mackenzie," Carrie said, as she moved to sit next to the sobbing woman. "This has been a long time coming and no one could have predicted when or how it would happen."

The sound of the doorbell had Carrie on her feet and darting for the front door in an instant. All eyes followed her expectantly, as she returned a few moments later with Heather Morrison in tow. The woman looked slightly rumpled in a pair of sweats, a loose sweatshirt and a heavy coat. Her usually-coiffed red hair was pulled back into a ponytail and she wore no makeup. It was a far cry from the normally-elegant look she had during the day.

"Hello, everyone," Heather greeted them with a sober nod. She then walked over to Mac and sat down next to her. "How are you holding up, Mackenzie?"

Mac raised her tear-streaked face and looked at the woman through red-rimmed eyes still filled with unshed tears.

"Not so good," Mac shook her head. "She can't die. She just can't."

"I understand," Heather put an arm around Mac's shoulders and held her for a moment. "Why don't I go find out how things are going, okay?"

Mac merely nodded, as she let her head fall back into her hands.

"We'll stay with her," Carrie offered Heather a reassuring half-smile.

"I'll be right back," Heather said, as she left the room and Carrie took her place next to Mac.

They could all hear the sounds of booted feet moving around upstairs in the heavy silence that followed. Muffled voices and the sound of scraping came just before Heather reappeared in the living room doorway.

"They have her stable enough for transport to the hospital," she said, as all eyes turned to her.

"Can I ride in the ambulance with her?" Mac stood up expectantly. "I want to be with her, Dr. Morrison. I have to be there for her."

"I'm afraid not, Mackenzie," Heather replied, as she moved to the woman's side and placed a comforting hand on her arm. "There just isn't room. But you're more than welcome to follow the ambulance to the hospital in your own vehicle."

"Okay," Mac nodded.

"I'll drive you, li'l bit," Ben volunteered. "Just let me put on a pair of pants. Not sure the ER is ready to see me in my pjs." He then raced out of the room.

"Can we go, too?" Tanner looked to his mother expectantly. "Please?"

"Yeah, Mom," Jimmy piped in. "We should be there for Aunt Mackenzie. She needs all the moral support she can get."

"We'll follow in one of the Jeeps, boys," Carrie replied. "We just need to wait for the firemen and paramedics to finish up, first. That way we're not in the way. Understand?"

"Yes, Mama," Dillon nodded soberly. "Is Aunt Lacey gonna be okay?"

"I hope so," Carrie lifted her youngest into her arms and held him close.

"Let's go," Ben returned to the living room in a pair of jeans, a Boston tour t-shirt and tennis shoes.

Mac followed her brother out of the living room just as the gurney with Lacey on it was carried downstairs. Mac stepped right up next to the gurney and took one of Lacey's hands in hers. An oxygen mask covered Lacey's mouth and nose and her eyes were shut. She was pale and breathing shallowly, but she was still alive.

"Can I have a quick word?" Mac looked pointedly at one of the paramedics, as he set the gurney down and released the catch that raised it up to hip height.

"We really need to get her to hospital…"

"Don't you dare die on me, Doc," Mac moved in and dropped her forehead against Lacey's, as she whispered the words to the unconscious woman. "I will never forgive you if you do. You hear me?" She then gave Lacey's hand one last firm squeeze and stepped away from the gurney.

Ben stepped up next to Mac and hugged her close. "She's gonna make it, li'l bit."

"She better," Mac swiped at a lone tear that trailed down her cheek. "Or so help me, I'll kill her myself."

They silently followed the gurney out the front door and watched briefly as Lacey was loaded into the back of the ambulance. Flashing red and amber lights cast an eerie alternating glow around the yard, as Mac and Ben headed for Mac's pickup. The paramedics and EMT secured their patient, while the firemen jumped into their fire truck and waited for the procession to begin.

Mac stared sightlessly at the flashing lights through the windshield of her pickup, as Ben settled into the driver's seat next to her and started the ignition.

"You okay, li'l bit?" He glanced at her with concern and placed a hand on her shoulder.

"She can't die, Ben," she said in a voice gone husky with unshed tears. "She just can't."

"I know, li'l bit," he squeezed her shoulder. "She won't."

Mac turned her teary gaze toward him. "If she does, I don't think I can go on without her."

"Please, don't talk like that, Mackenzie," his expression sobered. "Lacey isn't going to die."

"I can't help it," she sniffed and returned her gaze to the ambulance. "Lacey is the other half of my soul, now. I can't live without her. If she dies, a part of me dies with her."

"Now, you look here, Mackenzie Bridget," Ben said in a stern tone, as he waited for her to do so. He gave her a reassuring smile when she finally did as she was told. "I know you love her. We do, too. She isn't going to die. She won't. And she needs you to be strong for her right now. Be strong and show her that she has something to keep on living for. Okay?"

"Okay," she sniffed again. "Okay."

"That's the sister I know and love." He waited for the emergency vehicles to move a safe distance away, then put the truck into drive and followed them. "Now, let's go make sure that crazy woman of yours stays with us long enough for you to kick her ass for the idiotic stunt she just pulled. I have half a mind to kick her ass, myself, for what she just put this family through tonight."

"I have first dibs," Mac said with a heavy sigh, as she let her head rest against the window next to her and kept her eyes on the flashing lights ahead of them.

"I'm just glad Heather will be there to get us through tonight," Ben said, as he turned the truck onto the main road into town. "I think we're all gonna need therapy when all this is over."

"Amen, brother," Mac muttered.


Chapter 44

James Stephens sat in the plush interior of the chartered jet and sipped from a glass of chilled Dom Perignon from the bottle in a champagne bucket next to him. He savored the pricey beverage with a satisfied grin.

"Can I get you anything else, Mr. Stephens?" A young man in a white dress shirt, red tie and navy dress pants and vest asked.

"Not at the moment," James shook his head, as he glanced out the window at the dark sky beyond. "When does the captain expect to touch down?"

"It won't be for another hour or so, sir," the young, dark-haired man replied with a polite smile. "You have plenty of time to stretch out and enjoy the rest of your champagne."

"A fine year it is, too," James glanced at the bottle submerged in ice in the bucket next to him.

"I'm glad you think so," the young man gave him a quick nod, before he returned to the galley at the front of the plane.

"How's our…er…guest?"

"Enjoying his champagne," the young attendant replied to the woman seated in the jump seat just inside the galley. "How are you doing? Is there anything I can get for you, ma'am?"

"I'm fine," the woman said with a dismissive wave of her hand. "I'll be even better when we're on the ground."

"We have another hour or so before we touch down," he replied absently, as he puttered around the small space like a true professional flight attendant. "Are you sure I can't offer you some coffee or juice-an alcoholic beverage, perhaps?"

"Nothing, thank you," the woman replied with a shake of her head. "I'll get something when we reach our destination."

"Okay," he shrugged, as he continued his puttering. "Just let me know if you change your mind."

"I will," she said, as she cautiously peeked around the partition to the man in the cabin beyond. "I trust that you will be sure to dispose of both the glass and the bottle, once we reach our destination?"

"Absolutely," he nodded with a reassuring smile. He then glanced around the partition to the cabin beyond. "It shouldn't be long, now."

"And the flight crew knows nothing?" The woman cast him a nervous glance.

"No one knows a thing," he patted her shoulder and then leaned casually against the partition with a polite smile for the man in the cabin. "Let me know if you need anything, Mr. Stephens."

James held his glass up in a mock salute, then downed the rest of its contents and poured himself another glass.

"Everything is going right as planned," the young attendant said in a hushed voice to the woman seated next to him.

"I hope so," she replied, as she crossed her arms over her chest and sat there with a worried frown. "Or we'll be sharing a cell together when this blows up in both our faces."

"Not to worry," he returned to his puttering and turned around with a china cup of hot tea that he handed towards her. "Now, I think you might need this."

"I…" She stared at the cup in trepidation.

"Don't worry. I didn't spike it with anything stronger than honey and lemon," he smiled reassuringly at her. "Trust me."

She took the cup from his hand and lifted it to her lips. After a quick sip, she looked up expectantly and met his gaze.

"It's very good," she said. "Did they teach you that at the Academy?"

"I was an attaché for an admiral for six months," he replied with his boyish grin and a quick shrug. "The man loved his afternoon tea. Let me tell you. He couldn't get enough of it and was always giving me suggestions on how to improve the taste."

"Anyone I know?" She shot him a raised-browed look of interest.

"Probably not," he replied with another shrug. "He didn't run with the social crowd in D.C. He worked a lot and kept to his office at the Pentagon."

"Ah, one of those," she nodded, as she continued sipping her tea. "All work and no play."

"Exactly," he replied, as he glanced into the cabin to check on their passenger again. "Bottle is almost empty. He sure does enjoy his Dom Perignon, doesn't he?"

"He always was one for expensive tastes," she finished her tea and handed the cup back to him. "Thank you. I guess I did need that."

"All part of the service, ma'am," he winked at her with his boyish grin. "All part of our executive service." He glanced into the cabin again and his smile widened. "Well, here we go."

She turned around and covertly glanced around the partition. The sight that greeted her made her gasp and slap a hand over her rouged lips.

"Oh…my…" she quietly exclaimed. "Is he…"

"Painful, I know," he watched James Stephens grab for his throat with sweat pouring off his forehead. "It will be over with soon. I assure you."

He then rushed into the cabin, as James Stephens slid onto the plush carpeting and convulsed violently.

"Mr. Stephens!" The young man feigned shock, as he knelt at the man's side. "Are you okay? Sir? Do you need medical attention?" He then raised his voice. "Help! We need help in here!"

His companion rushed in and knelt down next to him. "Oh!" She exclaimed. "He needs a doctor! What's happening?"

The cabin door suddenly opened and the co-pilot rushed into the cabin.

"What's happened?" He watched the flight attendants try to revive their passenger to no avail. "What's going on, here?"

"I think he's having a heart attack," the young man replied, as he did chest compressions on the unconscious man lying on the floor next to him. "We need to land this plane immediately and get him to a hospital."

"Right!" The co-pilot immediately returned to the flight deck and notified the captain.

"I'll just get these out of the way," the young flight attendant's companion said, as she quickly grabbed the champagne bottle and glass, then headed back toward the galley.

"What's she doing?" The co-pilot returned to the cabin and knelt next to the man still giving CPR to their passenger.

"Giving me room to work," the young man answered.

"What can I do to help?" The co-pilot asked.

"Get me the portable oxygen tank from the overhead storage bin," the young man answered. "Although, I'm not sure if it isn't already too late." He stopped the chest compressions long enough to check for a pulse and then resumed them again. "I don't think he's going to make it."

"Damn," the copilot returned with the oxygen tank and mask. He put the mask over the passenger's face and started the oxygen flowing with practiced ease. "I really don't want to have to fill out all the paperwork that this guy's death will generate. Just keep doing what you're doing, there, Marcus. We gotta keep him with us long enough to touch down at the nearest airport."

"Doin' my best, Mr. Evans," Marcus replied, as he continued his steady rhythm against the chest of James Stephens. He then glanced up with his boyish grin. "I'm just not sure that it's doing much good." He stopped again and felt for a pulse. "Damn," he hissed, as he resumed CPR.

"Got a pulse yet?" Evans asked hopefully.

"Nope," Marcus replied.

"Okay, well," Evans looked at the face of the man lying on the floor. "Just keep going. I can hear the engines winding up. The captain's started his decent. We should be on the ground shortly."

"It isn't going to do us any good, Mr. Evans," Marcus shot the man a skeptical glance. "You and I both know this man is dead, already. There's nothing we can do about it now."

Evans ran a hand through his sandy-blond hair. "Yeah, I know. I just don't want him declared dead on this plane. We'll be grounded by the FAA and NTSB until they complete an investigation."

"Really?" Marcus' eyes met the hazel eyes of the other man. "Why? He died of a heart attack. There's no reason for an investigation."

"There's always an investigation when someone dies unexpectedly on a domestic flight," Evans replied matter-of-factly. "It's the law."

"Then I just won't let him die," Marcus resumed CPR on the man. "Dammit, Mr. Stephens, stay with me!"

"Good luck with that, Marcus," the copilot patted the young attendant's shoulder.

Neither man saw the female dressed as a flight attendant standing just inside the galley with wide eyes. She glanced at the trash chute with trepidation and quickly pulled the champagne bottle and glass out. She thoroughly washed the bottle and glass in the sink with soapy hot water, then returned the glass to its place in the secure cupboard. She then threw the bottle back into the trash chute and wiped down the countertop with a towel.

When the galley was clean, she leaned back against the counter with a heavy sigh and sent a silent prayer to the heavens that James Stephens wouldn't die before the plane touched down. If he did, she hoped and prayed the investigators wouldn't find anything that would incriminate her in the man's untimely death. Prison orange just wasn't her color.


Continued in Part 14

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