For disclaimers, see Part 1 .
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Charlene Frost sat in her jail cell and stared up at a small dust mote drifting in the single shaft of sunlight filtering through a crack in the wall overhead. She wondered how the crack had gotten there. It was a jail cell, after all. Were the walls so thin that a crack could reveal sunlight from outside? And, if so, could she use that to escape?
She hit the solid concrete wall with a fist to test her theory. It didn't budge. She shook her fist and winced in pain.
“Didn't think so,” she said in low voice.
“What was that, honey?” A woman said from across the cell. “You say somethin'?”
“Not a thing, sugar,” Charlene gave the woman a saccharine sweet smile that didn't reach her dark eyes. “You just mind your own business and I'll mind mine.”
Gray eyes sparked with anger. “Maybe my business is your business and vice versa, bitch.”
Charlene glanced at the woman's attire with feigned interest. The woman, who wore a leather biker vest with “Little Mama” emblazoned across her shoulders above a gang emblem, was glaring at her with beady brown eyes. She wore a white t-shirt, tattered blue jeans with grease stains on the knees and a pair of silver-studded black boots reminiscent of something worn during the 70s. Her bleach-blond hair was short and spiked and there was a spiked dog collar around her thick neck.
Charlene wasn't impressed. Intrigued, but not impressed.
“You don't scare me, sugar,” Charlene said with that same saccharine sweet smile that tended to put people on their guard. There was also a gleam of mischief in her dark eyes. “Very little in this world scares me, darlin'.”
The woman shot to her feet, crossed the room in two strides, set her beefy hands on either side of Charlene's bench and went nose-to-nose with her.
“I could show you things that would make that wavy brunette beauty-queen hair of yours stand on end,” the woman growled in a voice gone gravelly from too many cigarettes.
“That breath of yours is making my hair stand on end all by itself, but for a completely different reason,” Charlene shot back with a smirk and then she raised a finger to poke the woman in the chest. “Now, back off, before I show you exactly why I don't scare easily.”
The menace in Charlene's eyes gave the woman pause. There was something very off in the way the seemingly innocent brunette was looking at her that had Little Mama's nape hairs twitching. She narrowed her eyes at Charlene, then backed away enough to be just out of arm's reach.
“Not many women I ain't been able to scare with these alone,” Little Mama flexed a bicep and had the naked woman tattoo on it dancing.
“I prefer penguins,” Charlene commented after a quick glance at the woman's tattoo. “They're much cuter than naked women. And so are you. Matter of fact, you kinda remind me of a penguin.”
“Yeah?” Little Mama sat down on the bench next to Charlene.
Charlene eyed her companion with renewed interest. “Yes. Most definitely.”
“So,” Little Mama leaned back against the concrete wall behind her. “What's your name?”
“Elise,” Charlene let the lie slip easily from her lips. “Elise Garrett. What's yours?”
“They call me Little Mama,” the woman said, as she crossed her tattooed arms over her large bosom. “My real name's Pam, though. Pam Christopher.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Pam,” Charlene held out a hand.
“Pleasure's mine, Elise,” Pam shook the smaller hand with a faint smile. “So, why are you in here? You don't seem like the type to garner incarceration. You're a little too refined, if you know what I mean.”
“Oh, I won't be here for very long,” Charlene said. “My lawyer should be on his way.”
“Yeah?” Pam eyed her companion with interest. “He some big shot from the city or somethin'?”
“He's flying up from Louisiana,” Charlene decided on a hint of the truth. “Baton Rouge, to be exact.”
“You from there? I can tell you have a slight Southern accent.”
“Only a slight one?” Charlene glanced away. “Huh. I guess I'll have to work harder on improving it. I do so love my little ole Southern accent, sugar.”
Pam cast a sidelong glance at her companion and raised a dark brow. “So?”
“You never did explain to me how you ended up in here,” Pam prodded. “I bashed in a guy's head with my bare fists.” She smacked her fist into her palm. “Put him in the hospital when he tried to hone in on a…er…friend.”
“I like a woman who stands up for others,” Charlene replied with a curt nod. “Says something about her character.”
“Yes,” Pam nodded. “He also called me a dyke cunt bitch in front of my friends. Pissed me off.”
“I see,” Charlene cocked her head and gave Pam the once-over. “And are you?”
Pam's head snapped around until she was glaring at her companion. “Excuse me?”
“I asked you a simple question, Pam,” Charlene ran a finger along the woman's cheek. “Are you a dyke cunt bitch? Or,” she gave Pam another quick once-over glance, “is this all just for show?”
Pam grabbed Charlene's wrist in an iron grip and leaned in until they were nose-to-nose again.
“Do you have a death wish, Elise?” She hissed.
A sadistic grin split Charlene's features. “I've been told I have a penchant for attracting a certain…” she lowered her chin and glared at Pam through hooded lids, “type.”
“Type of what?” Pam asked in bewilderment.
Charlene leaned in until their lips were mere inches apart and they were breathing the same air. She could see the pulse point just below Pam's ear beating erratically. She caught a whiff of the stale beer smell that clung to the woman and it was enough to make her gag. But she just continued her icy stare.
“Come to my hotel room later and find out, sugar,” Charlene said on a breathless whisper. “I'd love to continue this in private.”
A look of panic crossed Pam's features as she let go of Charlene's wrist and scooted away from her. Pam could see something in Charlene's eyes that set warning bells off in her head. It was the same look she'd gotten from the leader of a rival biker gang just before the guy slit the throat of one of her best friends.
“You're crazy,” Pam watched Charlene warily. “You are totally nuts, lady.”
“Not at all, sugar,” Charlene cocked her head again and grinned. “But it isn't the first time someone has pointed that out to me. So many people just don't understand all that is me.”
Pam got up from the bench and moved back to the other side of the cell. “Stay away from me. I don't want nothin' to do with you. You're psycho.”
“Oh, you've no idea,” Charlene watched a uniformed officer approach the cell and unlock it. “Hello, officer. Did my attorney finally arrive?”
“Afraid not, Ms. St. Germaine,” Detective Charles Buranski stepped into the cell doorway. “He's not coming.”
“Ah,” she eyed him from beneath hooded lids. “You called him, then?”
He pulled a pair of handcuffs from his belt and twirled them on a beefy finger. “I did. He then made a call to a member of your family, who proceeded to tell him his services were no longer needed. He was fired, Ms. St. Germaine. Apparently, you and your family had a little falling out and they aren't taking it well.”
Her expression remained impassive as she stood up to face him with a cocky grin. “My name is Charlene Frost, Detective.”
“Your name is Callista St. Germaine,” he grinned. “And you are formally under arrest for the attempted murder of one James Stephens. You have the right to remain silent…”
“Yes, I know the drill and my Miranda rights,” she waved a hand that he caught in a firm grip. “Hey…”
“Not taking any chances with you, lady,” he said, as he turned her around and put the cuffs on both wrists. “You're being arraigned today. Come with me, Ms. St. Germaine.”
He yanked her out of the cell and marched her down to one of the interrogation rooms. He then pushed her into a chair and left the room. As he entered the small room behind the two-way mirror, he nodded to his two companions.
“Well?” Captain Liliana Johnson glared through the window to the woman seated beyond the two-way glass.
“Didn't bat an eyelash when I called her by her real name,” he said, as he stepped up next to her.
“She's a cool cucumber, that's for sure,” Liliana crossed her arms over her ample bosom. “Been within the law's grasp more than once and has always slipped away with barely a slap on those lily-white wrists of hers.”
“We have word from down south that she's in on an illegal operation there,” Sonny Pritchard added. “Some guy named Benson is singing like a canary about the place she financed with her family's money. He posed as a psychiatrist and was supposedly treating an exclusive clientele. The place burned to the ground a few weeks ago and the arson investigator put the pieces together. Benson set the place on fire to cover up what they were really doing.”
“Which was?” Liliana inquired.
“Blackmail, extortion, you name it,” Pritchard replied. “They made millions by pretending to treat wealthy patients who had a myriad of real psychological and neurological disorders. The Louisiana State Police found traces of a whole slew of illegal substances, as well as an entire fireproof storage locker filled with prescription drugs. There was also a separate building with full medical resuscitation equipment, a padded cell and an old table that was once used for electroshock treatment. They said the place was creepier than Frankenstein's lab.”
Buranski shuddered. “I'd sure hate to have been one of the patients in that place. Poor sops.”
“No kidding,” Pritchard agreed. “Can you imagine having a real psychological disorder and being under the care of a complete quack with no medical degree to his name? Benson is a pathetic piece of work and will probably get a life sentence for his part in all the illegal crap he pulled down there.”
“And this Callista St. Germaine?” Liliana nodded towards the woman beyond the glass in front of them. “How does she fit into everything here? I thought we were arraigning her on a charge of attempted murder.”
“We are,” Pritchard replied. “Her family is one of the wealthiest old money families in Louisiana. She has a trust fund in the millions and is the black sheep of the family. She also has a rap sheet a mile long and no convictions. The family always steps up with legal counsel to get her out of the messes she gets herself into. Not this time, though. They said this was the last straw when I explained that her fingerprints were on the murder weapon.”
Liliana eyed the woman sitting in handcuffs with her hands folded on the tabletop in front of her. Callista St. Germaine seemed like a normal enough individual to Liliana. She had been cooperative and fairly congenial, despite being kept in a jail cell for more than a week while they awaited word from her lawyer. Someone else in the same position might have demanded to be released immediately. Not Callista St. Germaine, a.k.a. Charlene Frost, however.
“Why now?” Liliana shook her head as she continued to watch the woman on the other side of the glass.
“Criminal stupidity?” Buranski replied with a shrug of his shoulders. “They all slip up eventually. This one was just a little cagier than most.”
“It just doesn't make sense, though,” Liliana narrowed her eyes at the woman. “Why was she on that plane with James Stephens? Why try to poison him? Then why resuscitate the man?” She turned to Buranski. “Do we have anything on this James Stephens, yet? And is there anything on Marcus Abraham? Other than the dozen or so aliases he's used over the last thirty years or so.”
“We know that Marcus Abraham isn't his real name,” Buranski said. “Other than his known aliases, we also have a confirmed childhood residence in a suburb of Jackson, Mississippi. His former legal guardians are a foster family by the name of Buford. We think his real name is Reginald, but we can't get his juvenile records unsealed without a little help.”
“I'll take care of that,” Liliana said. “I'll make the calls and get back to you. Maybe we can lean on him and get him to tell us who hired him and why. I'm really not happy about all the twists and turns this case is taking, Chuck.”
“Me, either,” Buranski rubbed the back of his neck. “The whole thing has got my nape hairs up. And that's sayin' something.”
“Good work, you two,” Liliana walked to the door and paused in the doorway. “Keep me in the loop on anything you get out of our Ms. St. Germaine or Mr. Buford/Abraham.”
“Will do, Cap,” Buranski glanced at his partner. “You want the honors, Pritchard?”
“I think we'd have better luck with the good cop bad cop routine. Don't you?” Sonny replied.
“Then get in there and start your good cop bit,” Buranski ordered. “I'll wait here until I see that she's ready for the bad cop to give it a go.”
“Why don't we just go in there together?”
“Are you questioning my interrogation methods, Sonny?” Buranski shot the younger man a raised-browed glare.
“N-no, Chuck,” Pritchard replied. “Just trying to be helpful is all.”
“Be helpful and make suggestions when you've had thirty plus years on the force, Sonny,” Buranski said. “Otherwise, just do as I say. Okay?”
“Y-yes, sir,” Pritchard scrambled from the observation room in a hurry.
Buranski watched his young partner enter the room with Callista St. Germaine and then listened to her tear him apart like the seasoned professional he knew she was. That's when he decided to have mercy on the kid. He left the observation room, paused for a brief moment in the hallway, then entered the interrogation room with calm certainty.
“Hello, Ms. St. Germaine,” he said with his most charming smile. “How are we doing today?”
Pritchard turned surprised eyes on him, as Buranski crossed to the table and sat down across from their suspect. He folded his hands in front of him and then lifted his gaze to hers. The look she gave him sent a shiver down his spine and set his nape hairs standing on end. There was very little rationality in the gaze staring back at him. It was unnerving. But his expression remained impassive.
“I already told your little pimple-faced partner that I'm done talking,” she said with a sly grin. “If my lawyer is unavailable, then find me an attorney who is. Otherwise, I'm not saying a word.”
“You sure you want to do that?” Buranski locked gazes with her. “We know you're mixed up in that fake mental hospital scam down in Louisiana, Ms. St. Germaine. We also know the boys down there are quite antsy to get their mits on you. Something about the wheels of justice and a possible death penalty.”
“So?” She cocked her head and gave him a saucy grin. “I have nothing to hide, Detective.”
“And that would be why you were going by the name Charlene Frost?” He shot back with a knowing half-grin.
“What can I say? I'm a very complicated woman,” she replied. “Is that a crime?”
“No,” Buranski shook his head. “But attempted murder certainly is. We have your fingerprints on a certain bottle of Dom Perrignon, Ms. St. Germaine. We know you tried to poison James Stephens. Want to tell us why?”
“James Stephens?” She put a finger to her chin and innocently looked up at the ceiling. “I don't believe I know who that is.”
“The man on the plane with you and your partner in crime,” Buranski slapped a hand on the table and watched as she didn't react at all. “Why did you and Reggie try to poison him, Callista? Or should I call you Callie?”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “Only if you want me to fuck with you until your eyes pop out of that balding head of yours.”
He smiled. “Oh, hit a nerve, did I?”
“So,” she rested her elbows on the table and folded her fingers together, then rested her chin on her fingers. “What do I get in return for my cooperation, Detective?”
“We'll put a good word in with the DA here in Idaho Falls,” Pritchard replied. “Maybe get you a reduced sentence or possibly help get you into a medium security facility until your extradition to Louisiana. Red tape can be such a bitch.”
“Or maybe we just won't throw the book at that pretty little face of yours, Callie,” Buranski added with a wry grin.
“Go to hell, Detective,” she smirked. “I already told you I'm not talking.”
“Okay,” he nodded. “Then we'll just see what Reggie has to say about your lack of cooperation, Ms. St. Germaine.”
“Marcus won't say a word,” she replied with a sardonic grin. “His lips are sealed tighter than mine. And there isn't a thing you two bumbling idiots can do to get him to talk.”
Buranski glanced at his partner. “I have a feeling we need to have a serious discussion with our friend Reggie, Pritch. Sounds like he might actually be the brains of this misguided operation.”
“No!” She slapped a hand on the table in irritation. “He's nothing of the sort.”
“Oh?” Buranski returned his attention to her with a raised brow. “Maybe he has something to say. Don't you think that might be the case, Detective?”
“Sounds like it,” Pritchard replied. “He sure hasn't lawyered up or given us any reason to think that he's hiding anything—other than his identity. And we're still digging up dirt on that. Funny that the two of you are from the same area. You do know that he was raised only a few miles from where you grew up, right?”
“Leave Marcus out of this,” she warned, as she leaned over the table toward Buranski. “He…”
“He what?” Buranski leaned toward her. “Spill it, Callie. Is he the brains behind your little operation here?”
She sat back with a heavy sigh and merely smiled. “Not a chance, Detective. I'm still not talking.”
“Okay, then,” Buranski slapped his hands on the table and stood up. “I guess we're done here. Why don't you escort Ms. St. Germaine back to her cell? I'm sure she and Little Mama have ever so much to talk about. Maybe they'll come out of this as real pals.”
“Come on,” Pritchard lifted Callie to her feet. “Let's go.”
Reginald Hudson sat in an 8-by-8 jail cell in Idaho Falls, Idaho. He couldn't believe he was incarcerated. It just wasn't possible. Then again, he hadn't banked on Callie, either. She was his weak spot. She didn't deserve to go to prison for the attempted murder of a man who deserved to die a million deaths.
The mere thought of that name sent a shiver of rage racing down his spine. Yes. Reggie hated the man. He also hated the entire family. The Stephens name was a bane to his very existence. It was a name he would forever remember and one he wished he could just as soon forget.
It was the name of his biological father. James Stephens.
Reggie couldn't believe his luck when he happened upon the truth of his existence. It had been mere happenstance that had led him to his birth mother.
But that wasn't her name anymore.
She had married and remarried four times over the last twenty years. Every marriage had earned her a step closer to the status she had known at birth. Born into privilege, Delores had weathered boarding school and one year at an all-girl college. She had been top of her class at Vasser when she returned home on spring break.
That's when she bumped into James Stephens. The two apparently had instant chemistry. A week before Delores was to return to school, she found out she was pregnant with his child. Already engaged to a woman whose family had more money than God, James was not ready to give that up for Delores. He wanted it all and so much more.
James told Delores he wasn't interested in claiming the child. Delores insisted the child was his. The entire thing came to a head at a society benefit party only two days before the end of spring break, when Delores confronted James and he rebuffed her in front of their entire social circle.
Her family disowned her and she gave the child up for adoption. James was disinherited and his younger brother became the sole heir to the Stephens fortune. And Reggie knew the whole sorted story behind it all.
Parents could be such jerks. They often cared more about their own image than their children. The story of the scandal had been plastered all over the society pages for weeks that year. All Reggie had to do was do an internet search of the year he was born to learn the whole black truth behind his parentage and the days that followed.
That was when he decided to take his revenge on James Stephens. If it hadn't been for the man's greed, Reggie would have been born into privilege. Instead, he ended up in the foster care system after the parents he never knew were killed in a freak car accident before his adoption was finalized.
His foster parents were a different story. They were not the family type and cared more about the monthly check they received from the state than the kids they were supposed to be nurturing and raising as their own. Reggie learned to fend for himself at an early age. It was survival of the fittest and smartest in that house, and Reggie did what he had to do to survive.
Unfortunately, doing what he had to do meant getting caught up with the wrong crowd. He ended up in juvenile hall more times than he could count on both hands for petty larceny and auto theft. His foster family finally got fed up with his antics and kicked him out at the tender age of 17. That's when he hooked up with a couple of con artists who made their living by swindling the elderly.
But Reginald Hudson had a destiny that included much bigger plans. And he finally found someone who was his equal in ambition and social standing. Her name? Callista St. Germaine. And she was the closest thing to family he knew.
Not only was Callie smart and rich, but she was gorgeous, too. With a family fortune that allowed her the freedom to take risks that others didn't, Callie was a woman after Reggie's own heart. And together they made an unstoppable pair of anti-social grifters who weren't afraid to make a name for themselves in a world that didn't care about them.
Reggie glanced up at the ceiling of his small cell and sighed. What a name he'd made for himself, too. He hadn't even been able to follow through on his plan to make James Stephens pay for what he'd done. As far as he knew, James Stephens was still alive.
“Well done, you idiot,” Reggie scoffed. “Now they've got you under lock and key as an accessory to attempted murder. And they don't even know why you did it or who you are.”
“Reginald Hudson,” one of the detectives from his earlier interrogation stepped up to the bars of his cell.
Reggie looked up and met the man's steady gaze.
“Yeah, yeah,” the man interrupted him. “We know who you say you are, Reg. But the thing of it is Callie is singing like a canary in that interrogation room down the hall. So, it might behoove you to come clean with us and tell us who you work for.”
“I don't work for anyone,” Reggie stated emotionlessly.
Callie had turned on him? How was that possible?
“No?” Said Sgt. Strafford. “Then why were you on that plane, Reg? We know about Callie. We know the two of you have been hooking up to pull off odd jobs for the last ten years. You're a couple of petty con artists. So don't tell me you cooked up that whole thing on your own.”
Reggie glared at the man. “You don't know shit about me, Detective.”
“Oh, don't I?” Strafford slapped a file folder against the bars of the cell. “We just scored the mother lode from the boys down in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, Reginald.”
“I don't go by that name,” Reggie shot an icy gray glare at the man. “My foster mother used it in her high-pitched bitchy nasal voice when she was scolding me for doing something wrong. And the woman knew how to scold a kid, let me tell ya.”
“Yeah,” Strafford nodded. “I had one of those, myself. She loved inserting my name into a string of expletives that would make a bald sailor's hair curl.”
“Exactly,” Reggie chuckled mirthlessly.
“So, Reg,” Strafford continued, as he leaned casually against the bars. “Wanna tell me what you and Callie were doing on that plane? And why you suddenly developed a conscience at the last minute and saved the life of a man you were trying to poison?”
“We…” Reggie began and then shook his head. “I ain't talkin', Detective. I already told you that. Nothin's changed since the last time you tried to get me to say somethin'.”
“We just want the truth, Reg,” Strafford shrugged. “There isn't any shame in telling the truth. Maybe this whole thing was Callie's idea? And you were just an innocent bystander? She does seem to be more the mastermind type.”
“Callie is nothing of the sort,” Reggie spat. “She's…”
“Yes?” Strafford prodded and watched the man's expression shut down again. “Oh, I see. You're in love with her, aren't you? So, what is it? She doesn't give you the time of day? Is that it?”
A dark brow shot up on Reggie's features. “We've had plenty of sex, if that's what you're getting at, Detective. Callie is insatiable when it comes to sex.”
“Yeah, that's what I've read,” Strafford chuckled. “Seems to get her into trouble more often than not. According to her psychiatric record, she's a regular nymphomaniac with a penchant for screwing anything that walks on two legs.”
“She enjoys sex,” Reggie said in an even tone.
“Did she promise to screw your brains out if you'd help her with this job?” Strafford asked. “Is that why you were on that plane with her?”
“No,” Reggie answered without looking at the man. “It was me. It was my idea. All of it. The drugs, the champagne, the disguises. I cooked it all up.”
“You?” Strafford couldn't believe his ears. “Please tell me you aren't the mastermind behind this botched murder attempt. Then again, I guess it makes sense, in a twisted sort of way.”
“I asked Callie to help me,” Reggie turned his head to look at the man. “She just went along with it. It was all my idea, Detective. Callie had nothing to do with any of it.”
“Except that her fingerprints were all over the champagne bottle and the glass that contained the poison,” Strafford continued. “Your fingerprints weren't on any of it, Reg. Matter of fact, you might actually be the hero in all this. You did try to save the old man's life, after all. We even have the sworn testimony of the co-pilot that you tried to save the old man.”
“I ain't a hero,” Reggie replied. “If I had it to do all over again, I'd let James Stephens rot for what he did to me.”
“And what exactly did Stephens do to you, Reg?” Strafford glanced at the file in his hand in confusion. “There's no mention of him in your file. No record of him ever having anything to do with you at all. Far as I can tell, you're from two entirely different worlds.”
“The son of a bitch ruined my life,” Reggie replied in a tone devoid of emotion. “He deserves to rot in hell for not stepping up and taking responsibility for his actions.”
“What actions, Reg?” Strafford said. “What did James Stephens do to you?”
Reggie slowly turned his head until he was looking right at Strafford. “He didn't claim me as his son and left me to rot in the foster care system. That's what he did to me, Detective.”
Mac stared blankly across the room at nothing in particular. There was a painting on the wall of a small sailboat on a clear green-blue ocean. She was imagining herself on that boat with Lacey. Wispy clouds danced in the breeze that she could almost feel on her cheek. And there was a hint of salt…
“Mackenzie!” The tone was more forceful this time.
“Hm?” Mac slowly turned her gaze to the woman sitting in a comfortable stuffed chair across from her.
Heather watched Mac for a moment. “Would you like to share what you were thinking about, just now?”
Mac glanced at the painting again and then returned her attention to the redhead. “I was imagining what it would be like to take Lacey sailing in the Caribbean.”
Heather glanced at the painting and let the hint of a smile grace her features. “Do you enjoy sailing?”
“Never done it before in my life,” Mac replied. “But I'm up for trying most anything once. Maybe we could take a trip down to someplace tropical after this is all over. Catch some rays and enjoy some quiet time on the ocean or on a deserted beach—just the two of us.”
“I have a small villa on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands,” Heather said. “I could loan it to you for a few weeks if you'd like.”
Mac smiled faintly. “Do you make that offer to all your patients, Dr. Morris?”
“Only the really special ones,” Heather returned the smile. She waited for a reply that didn't come. “Tell me how things are going for you this week, Mackenzie.”
“It's been two weeks,” Mac said in a tired voice devoid of emotion. “There's really no change.”
“I know,” Heather nodded. “I'm kept apprised of Lacey's condition.”
“They moved her to a private room day before yesterday,” Mac glanced down at the hands clasped in her lap. “She's off the respirator now. They're still not sure if she'll come out of the coma or not.”
“Yes, I know,” Heather leaned forward and clasped her hands in front of her with her elbows resting on her thighs. “But we're not really here to discuss Lacey's condition, Mackenzie. We're here to talk about you. We're here to work through some of the issues you and I have been dealing with. Lacey and I will deal with her issues when she regains consciousness.”
“When…” Mac absently shook her head, as a single tear spilled down her cheek. “I sat with her all day yesterday and she didn't react at all to my presence. I talked to her for hours. I read a book aloud that I thought she would enjoy. I even watched two movies that we've watched together before. Nothing. It was like she wasn't there. It was like…” She lowered her eyes as more tears spilled from her eyes.
Mac quickly wiped the tears away and took a deep breath that she let out slowly. She grabbed a few tissues from the box on the table and blew her nose.
“Okay,” Heather sighed resolutely. “So, how did that make you feel?”
A dark brow arched, but Mac didn't meet the expectant gaze of the woman gazing expectantly back at her. “Really? You want to go there with that particular question, Heather?”
“You tell me, Mackenzie,” Heather replied with a knowing half-smile. “I'm just supposed to listen and offer suggestions. You're the one who controls these sessions.”
Mac ran a hand through her hair and sighed as she sank into the plush couch in Heather's therapy lounge. The woman refused to call it an office, despite the desk tucked in one corner. Mac couldn't think of it as anything else. It was an office. That was that.
She let her head rest against the back of the couch as she tried to get her emotions under control. It wasn't easy. She was working on very little sleep, which was bringing everything right to the surface. It had been two weeks since Lacey slipped into a coma and there was still no sign that she would awaken anytime soon. The doctors were still hopeful, but…
“I just want her to wake up,” Mac blew out an exasperated breath. “Is that asking too much?”
“No,” Heather admitted. “It isn't.”
“She's been through more shit than anyone should ever have to go through in a lifetime,” Mac continued after blowing her nose again. “What the hell did she do to deserve all this? Huh?”
Heather knew there were no easy answers to Mackenzie's questions. She also knew they weren't going to move forward with Mackenzie's treatment if they didn't tackle the current situation first.
“What makes you think she did anything or deserves any of this?” Heather posed the question and waited expectantly.
“I don't,” Mac shook her head. “It just seems like some higher power is trying really hard to push both of us over the edge.”
“And you think you and Lacey are special enough to garner that kind of attention from a higher power?” Heather prodded.
“We…” Mac's gaze locked with Heather's. “I suppose that does sound pretty egotistical, especially when you put it that way. What are you getting at?”
“Shit happens,” Heather stated rather bluntly. “Some people get dealt a hard hand and have to make the best of the challenges and hard choices that this world throws their way. Others just glide right on through life with very little trouble. There's no rhyme or reason to it most of the time. It just is what it is. But we're the ones who decide how we'll deal with what life throws our way. We can rise above the trouble and move forward—see the challenges as opportunities to better ourselves. Or we can be victims and bemoan our situation without learning anything from it. It's all in how you approach the situations that define your character. No one chooses for us. It's all up to us. It's what makes us human.”
“And Lacey's situation?”
“I admit Lacey's situation is rather unique,” Heather acknowledged. “It seems that she's either been blessed or cursed with more challenges than the average person. Now, whether she chooses to be a victim or she chooses to be someone who rises above it all to continue on with her life, it's up to her. I can't decide for her and neither can you. You, on the other hand, Mackenzie, face a choice of your own. You can stick with her and continue to love and support her through the challenges ahead. Or you can walk away right now. Cut your losses and go on with life without her.”
Mac looked away as Heather's words sank in. Could she walk away from Lacey and leave her to face everything on her own? Could she just stop loving the woman after all they'd been through together? It would be so easy just to walk away and never look back. Wouldn't it? She tried to imagine a future without Lacey and just couldn't. The woman had become such an integral part of her life that Mac just couldn't even begin to picture a future without Lacey's presence.
Yes, they had some pretty huge obstacles to tackle, not the least of which was Lacey's attempted suicide. Mac still wasn't completely convinced that the woman had actually tried to kill herself. It just wasn't in Lacey's nature to give up like that. But as long as Lacey was in a coma and couldn't explain what happened that night, the empty pill bottle was a smoking gun for her attempted suicide. Mac just wasn't convinced that there wasn't another more reasonable explanation for what happened. She just couldn't believe that Lacey would want to die after all they'd been through and all they could face together in the future.
“I love her,” Mac finally met Heather's expectant gaze. “I can't walk away from what we have together. She's…We're…” She shook her head and cleared her throat of the tears that suddenly threatened. “I'm not giving up on her, Dr. Morris,” Mac said with finality. “I won't give up on what we have together. Lacey is a special person and is everything I've ever wanted in a partner. She's strong, courageous, honorable, loving and a little pig-headed and stubborn. She's also adorable when she smiles and crinkles her nose at me. Her laugh makes me want to hold her and never let go. I want to give her a reason to laugh at least once a day. I want to show her just how much I love her each and every day for the rest of our lives together. That's how much I love her.”
“And if she doesn't recover from this?” Heather put in. “There's a chance that she won't be the same person she was, if and when she comes out of this coma. It is possible that she could suffer irreparable brain damage as a result of what happened. Are you prepared to deal with that possibility, if it becomes reality? Are you prepared for the possibility that she won't know you and won't share the same love and affection you shared before she took those pills?”
Mac sighed heavily. “I have to believe that she'll wake up from this and be the same Lacey that I knew before all this happened. Her spirit will still be there, even if she doesn't remember me. It was there after the helicopter crash. She was still the same person, even though she didn't remember her time in the military and she didn't know who I was. I won't lie and say that it wasn't disheartening. It was hard and frustrating to look her in the eye and know she didn't know me. But we got through it and she eventually remembered everything, even the bad stuff. I believe in her spirit, Dr. Morris. I believe that Lacey has survived all the shit that's been thrown at her because she has an indomitable will that just doesn't quit. It's one of the most endearing qualities about her that I admire most.”
“You don't believe she tried to commit suicide,” Heather stated.
“I don't,” Mac replied confidently. “I think there's an explanation for what happened. And Lacey has a piece of the puzzle that's missing. Those pills were gone, yes. But I don't think she meant to kill herself by taking them all. I think she was hurting and the pills were a way to make the hurt go away.”
Heather nodded. “I think you're right, Mackenzie.”
Mac's gaze shot to Heather's in surprise. “You do?”
“Yes,” Heather conceded with a smile. “Carrie and I talked about it. She said the prescription was for Vicodin. She took the prescription in herself. And when she asked why the label on the bottle said Oxycontin 40, the pharmacist explained that the dosage was essentially the same as Vicodin.”
“Is it the same?”
“No,” Heather shook her head. “On a scale of one to ten? Vicodin is about a five. Forty milligrams of Oxycontin, however, rates as an eight and a half on the same scale. It is definitely more powerful and is also more addictive than Vicodin. The two are not interchangeable and the pharmacist should have known better. I have a call in to the Jackson Police Department to look into the situation. I'm hoping they get back to me on it soon or I'll be calling it in again. I also called over to the pharmacy and got the runaround from them. They said something about their regular pharmacist not being on duty during the time in question or some such nonsense.”
“Wait,” Mac sat forward, her interest peaked by this latest revelation. “Are you saying there was another pharmacist on duty when Lacey's prescription was filled?”
“Apparently,” Heather nodded. “It sounds pretty far-fetched, I know.”
“You need to contact the Houston PD,” Mac said. “They need to know about this. It's possible that Lacey's father—or at least the man she knew as her father for all those years—had something to do with the switch. Either he hired someone or somehow found a way to get out of jail and do it himself. It sure sounds like something he might have a hand in. The man is a real snake and I wouldn't put it past him to try something like that.”
Heather looked skeptical. “How would he even know about her condition?”
“I don't know,” Mac leaned forward and pressed her fingers against her temples. “But he has some pretty powerful connections. Maybe someone tipped him off to where she is and what happened to her. I just don't trust the man as far as I can throw him. He got her committed to a mental institution that pumped her full of drugs until she couldn't do anything more than sit there like a zombie. She mentioned that they had her on Thorazine, among other things.”
“Yes, I know,” Heather said. “Thorazine is supposed to work in combination with anti-psychotics and anti-depressants. Most psychiatrists hesitate to prescribe it, unless a case is severe enough to justify its use. The side effects alone are enough to deter its use. I certainly wouldn't prescribe it unless a patient was truly uncontrollable and was experiencing psychotic or schizophrenic episodes that justified putting them into a semi-cathartic state.”
“Yeah,” Mac agreed. “The guy down there was a real quack. I'm really surprised the place still exists. Gave me the creeps just walking in there when we rescued Lacey. There was just something off about the place that made me antsy to get the hell out as fast as I could.”
“Do you remember the name of it?” Heather inquired. “Maybe I can make a few calls and find out something about it. If what you say about James Stephens is true, then maybe, just maybe, there is some way for the authorities to tie him to the place and have it shut down until an investigation can be launched into their activities.”
“Twelve…something,” Mac wracked her brain for the name. “I think it was Twelve Palms or Twelve Oaks. The brochure actually made it look like a resort for the rich and famous, rather than a mental institution. When Willows and I got there it was as well-manicured as a country club. But there was definitely no cabana view of the ocean. Like I said, the place gave me the creeps. Walking those halls was unsettling, to say the least.”
“I'll look into it,” Heather said, as she filed the information away for later. “Now, getting back to my initial question. Is there anything else you wish to share? You haven't mentioned anything about your brother in our last few sessions together.”
“Derek?” Mac shook her head. “There isn't anything to discuss where he's concerned.”
“So you've made peace with his death?” Heather folded her hands in her lap and watched Mac closely. “I know you mentioned the two of you were very close when he was alive.”
“We were,” Mac shifted uncomfortably. “But he's been dead for nearly a decade, now.”
“Do you ever think about him?” Heather prodded.
“Sometimes,” Mac nodded. “We used to tell each other everything. He was the first one to know I liked girls rather than boys. He used to tease me about dating twins. He would get one and I'd get the other. It was a running joke between us.”
“I'm sure it was,” Heather said. “And you miss the relationship you had with him, don't you?”
“Yeah,” Mac smiled sadly. “I never had quite the same relationship with Ben as I had with Derek. Ben was always more like a dad than a brother. Still is. He watches out for me. So does Carrie. But Derek was my best friend. I still miss having him around.”
“And your real father?” Heather asked. “Where does he fit into all this?”
“He died when I was about eight,” Mac replied sadly. “It was really hard on all of us, especially Ben. He looked up to the old man and wanted nothing more than to please him. When Dad died of lung cancer, Ben took it the hardest. He left Derek and me with an older aunt in Louisiana until he could find work. Then he came down and got us. Brought us up here to the ranch where he was working. We lived in one of the smaller one-room cabins for a while. Then he started dating Carrie—her father owned the ranch until he willed it over to Ben—and we moved into the main house. When Ben and Carrie married, we were actually almost a real family. But Derek and Ben never got along. I think Derek resented Ben for always trying to be a father figure to him. Those two were always at each other's throats over stupid stuff.”
“And you were stuck in the middle?”
“Sometimes,” Mac shrugged. “By then, I was trying to reconcile my feelings for girls. I was really confused about who I was and why I wanted to be with girls rather than with any of the boys in town. I talked to Derek about it and he clued me in. Go figure. He was only about eight or nine at the time and already knew more about gays and lesbians than I did. Said one of his best friends made a pass at him and then denied that's what actually happened. He decked Derek for even suggesting that he was gay. The kid later moved to Minneapolis with his parents and came out openly. He was in high school when he finally accepted who he was. He now organizes a yearly pride festival in one of the parks in a suburb of Minneapolis. I guess it's a big deal, with a parade, live music and other activities that promote acceptance of LGBT folks in the community. Who knew Minneapolis would be the new San Francisco? Right?”
“And how do you feel about the lack of acceptance here in Jackson?” Heather asked. “Would you consider moving to someplace like Minneapolis or San Francisco in order to fit in?”
“I don't put much stock in acceptance or fitting in,” Mac shrugged. “I didn't flaunt my sexuality in the military, but I never denied who I was. I was a pilot. I flew missions and followed orders. I didn't march around with a rainbow stamped on my forehead. Besides, the DADT kept anyone from pointing fingers or asking questions. That was about all it was good for.”
“What about your relationship with Lacey?” Heather added with a tilt of her head. “Did that cause trouble for you?”
“We didn't flaunt our relationship,” Mac closed her eyes at the memories that surfaced. “But…”
“But things didn't go as you hoped they would,” Heather said.
“She was raped,” Mac said. “Three of our own guys jumped her and raped her. She said one of them said he was doing it to teach her a lesson.”
“And Lacey's reaction?”
“She…” Mac shook her head, as tears sprang to her eyes. “She has walls that she puts up when stuff like that happens. I think she compartmentalizes it or shuts it away in her mind,” she shrugged. “I'm not sure how she does it though.”
“And you?” Heather watched Mac closely and wasn't surprised when teary blue eyes met her steady gaze. “How did Lacey's rape make you feel, Mackenzie?”
“Like shit,” Mac replied on a heavy sigh. “I felt guilty as hell for putting her through that just so we could be together. But she wouldn't hear of it. She just said it was another obstacle to jump over and put behind us both. She said she didn't want it coming between us. Because if it did, then those guys won and she wasn't letting that happen.”
“She didn't want to think about it or deal with it,” Heather said.
“No,” Mac couldn't help the anger that surfaced. “She wanted to forget it and move on. But…” She glanced up at the ceiling and shook her head.
“You didn't want to forget it,” Heather added. “You wanted to deal with it. You wanted her to know how much it affected you to know she was raped because of your relationship.”
“It wasn't about me,” Mac said flatly.
“Yes, it was. It was about both of you. There are two people in a relationship, Mackenzie. One person's thoughts and feelings aren't more important than the other's.”
“She's the one who was raped,” Mac felt tears spring to her eyes again, so she impatiently swiped them away. “She was the one who went through that crap. I wasn't with her when it happened.”
“And you still feel guilty about that and you have every right to feel the way you do.”
Mac clamped her lips shut, as a well-spring of emotion suddenly surfaced. She didn't want to cry, but the tears came anyway and spilled down her cheeks unheeded.
“I should have been there for her,” Mac sobbed. “Sometimes…” She sniffed loudly and grabbed several tissues from the box on the table, then blew her nose. “Would it kill her to open up to me and tell me how she's feeling about some of this stuff? She says she loves me, but then she goes and shuts stuff up inside that head of hers…” She blew her nose again. “I want to be there for her, but…”
“But she doesn't know how to open up and share her feelings with you,” Heather finished for her when Mac didn't immediately continue.
“Exactly,” Mac agreed. “She shuts it all away and…and…”
“Builds walls to keep the world out and to keep from feeling the pain of those experiences,” Heather finished again.
“Yeah,” Mac nodded with a heavy sigh.
“And how does that make you feel?”
“Frustrated as hell,” Mac reluctantly met Heather's steady gaze. “Angry. Guilty, sometimes, because I can't be there for her when she refuses to open up to me. Pissed at the no-good snake who was supposed to be a father to her, even though I'm sure he knew the truth—that he wasn't her real father. The things he did to her when she was young and the things he continues to do to this day are inexcusable. The man deserves a taste of his own medicine.”
“And if he were in this room, right now?”
“I'd…” Mac's fists balled in her lap and she felt her temper flare. But then reason instantly returned and her temper deflated. “I don't actually know what I'd do. It would certainly be satisfying to wring his neck.” She smiled at the image that popped into her mind. “But then I'd probably feel guilty for doing it. Not to mention what it would do to Lacey if I went to jail for assault and battery against the no-good son of a bitch.”
“What do you think it would do to her?” Heather asked.
“I don't know,” Mac shrugged. “Probably make her feel like she was somehow to blame for my actions. She would try to take the onus upon herself for me losing my temper with the man. Then she would feel the need to somehow get the blame turned her way, instead of mine.”
“You don't sound very sure of that,” Heather's brow arched.
“If there is one thing I've learned over these last few months, it's that there is really nothing predictable about Lacey Stephens,” Mac grinned wryly. “She tends to take the path of highest resistance and least predictability.”
“And Mackenzie Papadopoulos?”
“Can't help loving the woman with all her heart,” Mac answered easily. “Of that I have no doubt in my mind—even when she does something that exasperates and frustrates me to no end.”
“Hm,” Heather tucked Mac's words away for future pondering. “Well, I guess that's enough for this session. I'll see you again, same time next week?”
“Okay,” Mac nodded. “I'll be here.”
They both got up and headed for the door. Mac's long strides took her to the door first. She was just about to open it, when she felt a hand on her shoulder that made her turn to face the psychiatrist.
“Get some sleep, Mackenzie,” Heather patted Mac's shoulder.
“Is that your professional opinion, Dr. Morris?” Mac smiled wanly.
“Yes, it is,” Heather replied. “But Carrie also mentioned that you haven't been sleeping well. Is there anything I can do? A prescription, perhaps?”
“No,” Mac shook her head. “I don't need drugs. I just need Lacey to wake up and get better.”
“I understand,” Heather said. “Maybe I can put a bug in the ear of one of my colleagues there at the hospital. Help them understand how important it is for my patients to have some time together.”
“You would do that?” Mac was skeptical.
Heather crossed her arms over her chest. “I have to watch out for the health and well-being of those in my care, Mackenzie. Of course I would do that.”
“Don't thank me, yet,” Heather said. “I still have to get it past the hospital administrator. And word has it the guy is a real ass with a penchant for enforcing asinine rules.”
“Yeah,” Mac smiled. “I've heard the same thing.”
“I'll see what I can do,” Heather added. “Just don't get your hopes up too high.”
“I won't,” Mac opened the door and stepped into the hallway. “Then again…” She shrugged. “Lacey could suddenly wake up and be completely normal.”
Heather chuckled. “Don't give up on her, Mackenzie. She still might surprise you.”
“I sure hope so, Heather,” Mac smiled a genuine smile of hope and expectation. “I really don't want to contemplate the alternative.”
“See you next week, Mackenzie,” Heather then waved to the dark-haired woman as Mac made her way toward the exit.
A week later, Mac stepped up to Lacey's hospital bed with Dani next to her. She hesitated and looked at the curly-haired blond woman in green scrubs standing next to her. Dani returned the look with a raised-browed look of her own.
It was ten at night and the hospital was quiet, except for the few nurses who were making rounds and the occasional announcement over the PA. Lacey was in a private room, so there was very little noise. The walls were painted a muted rose with pale green trim to match the flower painting on the wall opposite Lacey's bed. As far as hospital rooms went, it was fairly nice and looked more like a hotel room than a hospital room.
Mac had been sitting with Lacey during visiting hours for two of the last three weeks. The chair the hospital provided for visitors was far from comfortable. And Mac hadn't been allowed to stay in the room past visiting hours, which ended at six.
But here she was in this new room Lacey had been moved to just that morning. It was a little unsettling and she was sure the hospital administrator—Terence Motley—would make an appearance and kick her out at any moment.
“You asked for it, Sport,” Dani grinned wryly. “Don't look at me like you don't have a clue what to do next.”
“What?” Dani returned her gaze to the still-comatose woman lying in the extra-wide hospital bed. “You didn't think my friend Heather would come through for you?” She then turned and slapped Mac's shoulder affectionately. “Don't ever bet against Heather, my friend. She's a one-woman steam roller. There is nothing that she can't accomplish when she sets her mind to it. And don't get in her path when she's on a roll. She'll just bowl you over or run right over the top of you.”
“Kinda like my sister-in-law, Carrie,” Mac said with a wry grin. “She doesn't take no for an answer and tends to boss us all around like she runs the place.”
“Doesn't she?” Dani's grin widened. “I hear she makes a mean fried chicken dinner.”
“She does,” Mac agreed. “You should come out to the house on a night when she's making it. I'm sure she wouldn't mind it if you also brought Brenda with you.”
“I might just take you up on that offer, Sport,” Dani nodded. “I haven't had decent fried chicken in…Well, I don't know when I've ever had decent fried chicken, actually. It's been that long. And I'm sure Brenda would love to come along. She really likes your family, especially those boys. I think she has a crush on the youngest and would love the chance to beat him at Lego Star Wars.”
“Brenda plays Lego Star Wars?” Mac shot her a skeptical look.
“Oh, she beats my Darth Vader pants off every time we play, let me tell ya,” Dani chuckled. “She has amazing hand-eye coordination for a general practitioner.”
“Huh,” Mac returned her attention to the still woman in the bed and her expression sobered.
“You okay, Sport?” Dani put a hand on Mac's back and gave her a friendly pat.
“Are you sure this is okay?” Mac said in a tone barely above a whisper. “I'm not gonna have Motley in here yelling at me to get out of his hospital and never return, am I?”
“Nope,” Dani gave Mac a gentle push toward the bed. “Heather cleared it with him yesterday afternoon. I think she mentioned something about a prescription involving holistic psychiatric treatment and a lawsuit for discrimination that could cost the hospital millions. Anyway, I don't know all the particulars. All I know is I was told to bring you in here and get you settled in for the night. The rest is up to you, Mac. I guess Heather thinks your presence might just bring Doc Stephens out of this coma of hers. If nothing else, maybe it'll help you sleep.” She then shrugged. “But don't quote me on that.”
“Okay,” Mac sat down on the edge of bed and waited for a response from the still woman next to her. She then glanced at Dani. “You're not going to stay here…”
“Oh, hell no,” Dani made a beeline for the door. She opened it and then turned back to Mac. “I'll check in on you during the night. Otherwise,” she said as she stepped through the doorway, “push the nurse call button if you need anything. Good night, Sport.”
“Night,” Mac replied as she lifted the covers and slid into bed next to Lacey.
Mac settled back reluctantly and put an arm behind her head. She then glanced at the still woman next to her. Lacey was even more pale than she had been in the desert and afterward. Her bangs were feathered down over her eyes and needed a trim. Mac gently brushed them aside and then turned onto her side with her head propped in one upraised hand.
She spent several long moments silently studying Lacey's features. The woman didn't move, except to breathe. It was a little unnerving for Mac to be there with Lacey, but then she shook off her misgivings.
“Come here, Doc,” Mac pulled Lacey into her arms and held her with her blond head pillowed against her shoulder. “Just like old times, eh? Sure feels familiar to me.”
Mac wasn't expecting a response from the woman. Lacey hadn't responded to any outside stimuli in three weeks. But that didn't mean that Mac was giving up hope. She wrapped her arms around Lacey's shoulders and held onto her, as she settled into a comfortable position.
“I'm here, Lac,” Mac whispered against the strawberry blond head pillowed against her. “I'm not going anywhere for as long as it takes to bring you back to me. You hear me? I want you back, Lacey Justine. And I'm not leaving until you open those beautiful green eyes of yours. That's a promise I intend to keep, too.”
She let her head rest against the pillow as her eyes drifted shut. It wasn't long before her breathing evened out and Mac was fast asleep with Lacey in her arms. Neither woman moved. Silence reigned. And three hours later when Dani peeked in on the couple, a smile graced her features when she saw Lacey in Mac's arms.
“Sweet dreams, you two,” she said, as she slipped silently out of the room.
Carrie glanced up from the bread dough she was kneading and caught a glint of sunlight reflected off the windshield of a black limousine that was slowly making its way up the road outside the window she was standing in front of. She stopped her kneading and wiped an arm across her forehead, leaving a trail of flour behind.
“What the…” She muttered as she grabbed a dish towel from the counter and used it to wipe the flour from her hands.
“Are we expecting more guests?” Ben stepped up next to her, as Carrie stood at the window and watched the black limo stop in front of the house. “I thought we were already booked for the weekend, hon.”
“We are,” Carrie said, as she walked to the kitchen door and stepped outside.
It was springtime in Jackson and the weather was actually unseasonably warm for that time of year. The snow had melted weeks prior and the new cattle had all been branded. The spring roundup had gone without a hitch, despite Mackenzie's absence from the festivities. It had been a long three weeks and Carrie was glad to have it behind her.
She was also glad to step outside without having to wear three layers of clothes to keep warm. And that's exactly what she did as the limo driver emerged from the vehicle, moved to the passenger door closest to the house and opened it with a polite nod to an older brunette who emerged.
“Thank you, Albert,” the woman said, as she donned a pair of designer sunglasses and wrapped a scarf around her hair in deference to the slight breeze that was blowing out of the west.
Carrie waited for the well-dressed woman to approach, as Ben stepped up beside her and wrapped a protective arm around her shoulders.
“Can we help you, ma'am?” Ben asked the woman. “Are you lost? Do you need directions to town?”
“Are you Benjamin Papadopoulos?” The woman eyed him from behind her sunglasses, as she held a designer handbag on one upraised arm.
“Yes, ma'am,” he nodded. “And who might you be?”
“I'm Meredith Stephens,” she replied. “My daughter is Lacey Stephens.”
Ben and Carrie both knew Meredith was still alive, despite the report of her untimely demise. Mac had filled them in on the phone conversation she had had with Lily. They were both just a little surprised to have the woman standing there before them in the flesh.
“Mrs. Stephens,” Carrie stepped forward with an outstretched hand. “I'm Carrie Papadopoulos. Welcome to our home.”
Meredith looked at the outstretched hand with flour on it, before she gingerly took it in hers and gave it a firm shake.
“It's a pleasure, Mrs. Papadopoulos,” Meredith said with a hesitant half-smile, as she took in the flour that graced the woman's cheery features. “Did I catch you at a bad time? I am terribly sorry to intrude on you like this.”
“No, ma'am,” Carrie glanced down at her flour-encrusted attire and shook her head. “I was just doing some baking for our guests. I run a bed and breakfast out of our home. The guests appreciate fresh baked goods for breakfast before they head out in the morning.”
“Ah, I see,” Meredith glanced from Carrie to the man towering next to her. “Is Mackenzie here, by chance? I just arrived by private jet and thought I would greet her before I check into the hotel.”
“Um,” Ben glanced from Meredith to Carrie. “Actually, Mac's not here. She stayed the night at the hospital and should still be there this morning.”
“And how is my daughter doing?” Meredith asked. “Has she regained consciousness?”
“Would you care to come inside and have a cup of coffee, Mrs. Stephens?” Carrie motioned toward the kitchen door. “I'm sure you're tired after your flight. We also have fresh bakery, if you're hungry.”
“I…” Meredith glanced at the two-story ranch house and then at the two people standing there with expectant grins. “Yes, that would be wonderful. Thank you.” She smiled warmly. “And, please, call me Meredith, won't you? After all, we're almost family.”
Carrie took Meredith's arm in hers, as Ben opened the door for the two women with a gallant flurry.
“Ladies,” he said, as he did a chivalrous bow with a slight tilt of his head and his blue eyes shining with mischief in his wife's direction.
“Call me Carrie, Meredith,” she ignored her husband's antics as she climbed the steps from the mud room to the kitchen. “And don't pay any attention to him. He's a little touched in the head, if you know what I mean.”
“I resemble that remark,” he teased with a chuckle, as he grabbed three coffee cups from the cupboard next to the sink.
Meredith watched the interplay with interest as she took a seat at the kitchen table. She admired the easy way they had with each other and could tell that they enjoyed each other's company.
“If I might ask, how long have you two been married?” Meredith asked, as Carrie set a carafe of steaming coffee and a basket of fresh muffins on the table.
Ben set cups down for them and then took a seat across the table from Meredith.
“Too long,” Ben rolled his eyes. “But what do I know? I'm just a simple rancher and veterinarian.”
“Our oldest is thirteen,” Carrie responded with a slap to her husband's arm. “And you be quiet, Benjamin Anthony. That's enough out of you. You're going to give poor Meredith the wrong impression.”
“We've been together since '91, hon,” he shot her a raised-browed glare.
“And we've been married since '92,” Carrie added. “We'll celebrate our 14 th anniversary next month, sweetheart.” She then poured coffee into Meredith's smiley-face cup. “Don't mind him, Meredith. He's all male and can't remember anything without my help. Muffin?” She lifted the basket toward their guest. “I just baked this batch an hour ago, so they're still warm.”
“I resemble that remark, too, hon,” Ben grinned at Carrie. “At least I don't stick my keys on the hook and then forget where I put ‘em when I need to go out again.”
Meredith silently selected a cranberry-nut muffin and set it on a cloth napkin in front of her. She then gingerly spread some butter from a stick on a butter plate that Carrie set in front of her.
“Who forgot he had to be at a veterinarian's convention in Salt Lake City to give a talk on animal husbandry just last week? Hm?” Carrie shot back with a smirk. “I thought Barry was going to blow a gasket over that little mental slip of yours.”
“Fine, you win,” he conceded. “Now, can we get back to our guest?”
“Yes,” Carrie returned her attention to Meredith. “So, Meredith, what brings you all the way out here to the ranch? Why aren't you at the hospital with Lacey?”
“I thought she would be out of the hospital, by now,” Meredith said, as she nibbled her muffin and lifted a brown brow in surprise at the wonderful taste. “Are you telling me she isn't? This is delicious, by the way.”
“She's still in a coma, Meredith,” Carrie put a comforting hand over Meredith's. “I thought you knew. And thank you.”
“No,” Meredith shook her head, as she sipped her coffee. “Lily needed me in Washington for an emergency involving her pregnancy, so I had to go to her, instead. I just assumed Lacey would recover from her accident while I was in Washington.”
“Accident?” Carrie exchanged a confused look with Ben. “You do know she overdosed on pain medication, right?”
“So I was told,” Meredith shrugged. “I just don't believe a word of it. I think there's more to it than meets the eye.”
“Well, the police are currently looking into it,” Ben added with a glance to his wife before he returned his attention to Meredith. “They think your husband might have had a hand in what happened to Lacey.”
“I had a feeling,” Meredith responded. “There is no end to what that man will do in his quest to regain a fortune that was never his in the first place. He's insatiable where money is concerned.”
“Is he really that heartless?” Carrie added. “I can't believe a father would act that callously toward his own flesh and blood, even if she isn't his biological child.”
“You don't know James,” Meredith absently sipped her coffee, as she stared out the windows with unfocused eyes. “He was never one to buy into the whole blood is thicker than water idea. His first love is James Stephens. And money is a close runner-up to his self-serving ambitions. He thinks money will buy him prestige, friendship, power and anything else that will make him happy.”
“Was he always like that?” Carrie asked.
“Mostly,” Meredith glanced up with a wan smile. “I didn't believe it when I agreed to marry him. He seemed to genuinely have my interests at heart when Lacey was born and Justin wasn't there for me. He took care of both of us and acted like a loving husband and doting father. But…” She finished with a sad shake of her head. “After finding out that he beat my daughter in the privacy of his office for all those years…”
A single tear slipped down Meredith's cheek and she impatiently swiped it away. She then pushed her half-eaten muffin away.
Carrie placed a hand over Meredith's. “It's okay, Meredith. You're not to blame for what he did to your daughter.”
“I should have paid more attention to what was happening in my own home rather than to those people in our social circle,” Meredith chastised herself. “A mother should know what's happening with her own children. It was my job to protect her from him.”
“Sometimes it isn't easy to see what's happening right beneath our noses,” Carrie said. “We want to believe the best in those closest to us, even when the truth is far different.”
“I thought James actually cared about Lacey,” Meredith continued sadly. “I believed he pushed her to excel and succeed because he wanted the very best for her and saw some of his own drive and ambition in her. I just had no idea that his ‘private sessions' included beatings. It makes me sick to think that's what he was doing to her behind that door.”
Carrie squeezed Meredith's hand. “You're here for her and that's what matters most right now, Meredith. You have to believe that. Okay?”
“Yes,” Meredith nodded. “Would it be a terrible bother if one of you could accompany me to the hospital to visit my daughter? I know it's asking a great deal…”
Ben exchanged a quick glance with Carrie.
“I'll go with you, Meredith,” he said, as he stood up from the table and carried his empty cup to the sink. “Can you pack up a muffin or two for the road? I'm sure Mackenzie would appreciate your muffins over the bakery they have there in the hospital cafeteria.”
“Most definitely,” Carrie quickly found a paper bag and packed several muffins up. She then grabbed a thermos from atop the refrigerator. “I'll also send the rest of the coffee with you. It's not half as strong as the stuff in the cafeteria or in that dispenser they have on the floor Lacey was moved to yesterday.”
“Great,” Ben grabbed both from her outstretched hands and then gave her a quick kiss on the lips. “I'll see you later, hon.”
“Not if I see you first, sweetheart,” Carrie smirked. She then winked at Meredith. “Take care of my man for me, Meredith. We'll be having roast beef and red potatoes for supper, if you're up for it. You're more than welcome to join us. And try to bring that wayward sister of yours home for supper, Ben. She needs to eat something besides hospital food.”
“If I can tear her away, Car,” Ben opened the mudroom door and held it for Meredith. “Shall we?”
“Yes,” Meredith grabbed her purse and handed over her empty cup to Carrie. “Thank you both.”
“Come to supper, Meredith,” Carrie smiled warmly. “You can meet the rest of my brood and tell us some stories about Lacey's childhood. Maybe it will help Mackenzie deal with everything that's happened. Who knows? Maybe it will help you both.”
Meredith hesitated in the doorway. “She really does love my daughter, doesn't she?”
“More than you will ever know,” Carrie replied. “Those two were meant to be together, but fate or something else keeps tearing them apart. I just pray Lacey comes out of the coma soon. I don't know what Mackenzie will do if she doesn't.”
“You make it sound so dire,” Meredith frowned in concern.
“Go see her for yourself, Meredith,” Carrie replied soberly. “Supper will be ready when you all return from town.”
“Thank you again, Carrie,” Meredith smiled sadly, as she descended the steps to the outside door.
“See you in a bit, hon,” Ben said as he followed Meredith down the steps.
Carrie stood at the window and watched her husband tuck his six-foot-five frame into the back of the limo behind Meredith Stephens. Carrie marveled at his ability squeeze into most any vehicle. Then the limo driver shut the door and obscured him from view.
Carrie's heart was heavy as she watched the limo pull away from the house in a cloud of dust. Moments later it disappeared down the road and out of sight. She sent a silent prayer to the heavens that Lacey Stephens would awaken soon from her long slumber and bring a sense of peace to her household, once again.
“I demand a lawyer!”
“Sit down and shut the hell up!”
“I will not sit down! I will not be treated like a common criminal!”
“You are a criminal, Stephens! Now sit down before I call a uniform in here and have you handcuffed to that chair or worse!”
James Stephens reluctantly complied with the woman's order. He then crossed his arms over his chest and glared at the diminutive Colombian across the table from him. She merely glared back and was not intimidated in the least by his gruff demeanor.
It had been a week since he'd been released from the hospital there in Idaho Falls. He hadn't been allowed to go on his merry way. Apparently, the police department there had done their research and discovered an outstanding warrant for his arrest in Houston. He hadn't really meant to jump bail. He had merely wanted to follow a lead in Jackson, Wyoming, and find out where Meredith's daughter was.
He could no longer think of that woman as his own.
Posing as a pharmacist in Jackson had been entirely too easy. He knew medications. After all, he was a doctor. Upon his arrival in Jackson and after speaking to several people at a small coffee shop in town, James had learned that the pharmacist had been called away unexpectedly. James knew it wasn't really true. He'd actually hired a person to pose as a member of the pharmacist's family on the phone in order to get the man to leave town.
James showed up at the pharmacy and had them make one telephone call to a contact he gave them in order to verify his credentials. No, he wasn't a pharmacist. But apparently that didn't mean anything in a backwoods tourist town like Jackson, Wyoming. They were more than happy to have him fill in for the permanent pharmacist.
Discovering that Meredith's daughter was, indeed, staying somewhere near Jackson and was having a prescription filled was a stroke of luck. And it was a stroke of genius that he switched the prescription. Lacey didn't get the Vicodin that was on the actual prescription that the blond woman brought in. James actually swapped it with a much stronger and more addictive drug—oxycodone in a 40mg dosage.
James couldn't predict what the end result would be. It was possible that Lacey might become addicted to the pills and order more. Or it was possible she would end up in a rehab facility. Then he could swoop in as her savior and be her legal guardian—again.
He hadn't counted on an overdose.
When the call came in over the police ban that he'd picked up at an outdoorsman's store in town, James couldn't believe his ears. They never mentioned her by name. But he knew. And he knew he had to use what limited resources he had left to get the hell out of town and attempt to leave the country, as well.
Things hadn't worked out at all like he'd hoped they would.
Now he was being glared at across a steel table by a woman who was more suited to growing cocoa beans on the side of a mountain in South America than being a police detective in Idaho Falls, Idaho.
“Now, Detective…” James folded his hands on the table in front of him.
“I'm not a detective, Stephens,” Captain Liliana Milena Johnson folded her own hands on top of the table. “I'm the captain and am in charge here. And you are in serious trouble.”
“Well, then, Captain,” he gave her his most charming smile. “We seem to have gotten off on the wrong foot. My apologies. I hope we can…”
“Cut the crap, Stephens,” Liliana interrupted with an impatient slap of her hand on the table. “Far as I'm concerned, you're no longer my problem. There are two U.S. Marshalls waiting outside to take your sorry ass back to Houston on the next available flight.”
“So, why am I here, then?” James sat back and eyed her suspiciously.
“I want the truth, Stephens,” Liliana said. “Why were you in Jackson, Wyoming, and why were those two yahoos trying to kill you? According to the Houston PD, you're out on bail for the murder of your wife and your family's limo driver. So, why violate the terms of your release by coming all the way up here?”
“It's personal,” he replied with a guarded expression. “I have nothing further to say on the subject without an attorney present.”
“Oh?”A dark brow rose on her features. “Now why would you need an attorney present to discuss your trip to Jackson? Could it be that you were doing something illegal? Hm?”
“Why?” James' expression remained guarded.
“Because I had a nice little talk with the police chief in Jackson,” Liliana cocked her head and gave him a shrewd glare. “He had some interesting things to say about that little excursion you took to his fine town, Stephens. Apparently, you've been making the rounds.”
“I…” He clamped his lips shut tight.
“Yeah, thought so,” Liliana leaned over the table and stared into his gray-green eyes. “Police Chief Baker has launched his own investigation into your activities, Stephens. Something about impersonating a pharmacist and attempted murder. I sure hope that attorney of yours is a good one. Sounds like you're in for a long ride up the river.” She then smirked as she got up and tapped on the door to the interview room they were in. “He's all yours, boys,” she said to the two men in suit coats and jeans who entered the room.
James glanced from one man to the other and then took a double-take of the blond with green eyes grinning right at him.
“Hello, James,” the blond said. “Long time no see—brother.”
“Wha—” James took in the satisfied grin on the face of a man he thought he would never have to see again.
He then looked at the man's belt and saw a silver star clipped to it. The star was engraved with the words United States Marshall. James looked up and caught the smile on the man's face.
“Yeah,” Justin Stephens, United States Marshall, stepped forward and placed a pair of handcuffs on his brother's wrists with satisfaction. “How's Meredith, these days?”
“She's…” James glanced down at the handcuffs and then up into a pair of eyes the color of emeralds. “You mean you don't know?”
“Come on, Jimmy,” Justin slapped James on the shoulder. “What's the matter? Cat got your tongue? Spit it out, man. How is she? Is she still going to all those stuffy society engagements and organizing all sorts of fundraisers for orphans in Africa or South America or some such?”
“She's dead,” James replied in a flat tone.
“Dead?” Justin stopped dead and stared in shock at James. “How?”
“I…er…She was shot.”
“Shot? How?” Justin couldn't believe his ears. “Who the hell would shoot Meredith? And why?”
James glanced at the other two people in the room, one of which was eyeing him with a knowing smirk.
“Yes, Stephens,” Liliana added. “Why don't you tell the man what the hell you were thinking when you shot your wife in the back on a public street in downtown Houston? And then decided to kill your limo driver and dump his body and your limo in a swamp? Whatever were you thinking, Stephens?”
No one was quite prepared for the violence that erupted in the very next instant. Justin launched himself at James in a blind rage, punched him in the jaw with enough force to knock his head back and took him to the floor. James tried to fend off the attack, but wasn't having much success with his hands cuffed. And the other two didn't seem inclined to interrupt the two men.
“What the hell is she talking about, James?” Justin grabbed James by the collar and glared into his eyes. “Did you kill Meredith?”
“It…It was an a-accident,” James managed, as a trickle of blood slid down his chin. “I s-swear…”
Tears sprang to Justin's eyes as he tried to rein in his rage. “You son of a bitch!”
“Hey, Jay,” the other U.S. Marshall stepped forward at that point. He was tall with dark hair and wore a pair of aviator sunglasses. He removed his glasses as he knelt beside the two men and put a hand on Justin's shoulder. “We have to take him back in one piece, Jay. Rules are rules, man. Can't kill a prisoner in our custody, especially if he isn't armed.” He then shot a charming smile at Liliana. “And I don't think the captain wants to clean blood up off her nice clean floor.”
Justin hissed and blew out an exasperated breath, as he shoved James away from him and stood up. He walked across the room to put some distance between himself and the man he had once called brother.
“Just tell me,” Justin said with his back to James, who was being lifted to his feet by Justin's partner. “Did you ever love Meredith, James?”
James was silent as he wiped the blood from his lip and tried to straighten his clothing the best he could with his hands cuffed. He then shrugged off the hold of the taller man next to him.
“You left,” James finally replied. “We thought you were dead.”
Silence reigned for several moments, as Justin gathered his thoughts. He then slowly turned around to face his brother.
“Tell me you're not still pretending that you didn't have a hand in getting the Army to declare me as Killed in Action,” Justin said. “Because it took me ten years to dig through all the red tape that your little weasel of a lawyer friend in Washington tossed at the DOD. And when I finally dug down deep enough, guess what I came up with?” He crossed his arms over his chest and grinned slyly. “The whole tangled mess had your stink all over it, Jimmy. And your little weasel in Washington got flushed in a sewer like so much disgusting garbage.”
“Nope,” Justin continued with a sparkle in his green eyes. “Didn't have to. Apparently, you weren't his only client, Jimmy. He had ties to the Russian mafia and a drug lord in South America. The man was dirtier than a pig wallowing in mud on a hot summer day. Pathetic, really. But I did manage to sift through a few boxes of evidence. One of those boxes had your name on it, too. Very interesting reading, I might add.”
“Doesn't matter, bro,” Justin stepped forward and watched with a satisfied grin as James flinched when he slapped a hand on his shoulder. “I guess the fates have a way of dealing with those who don't play by the rules. I hope you enjoy prison, Jimmy. ‘Cause you're gonna be spending quite a while behind bars.” He then gave James a quick once-over. “And they don't allow suits where you're headed. Ties, either.” He shot his partner a grin over James' head. “You ready to go, partner? I think it's about time we got this asshole back to Houston.”
“Damned straight, Jay,” Jason Willows smiled that charming smile of his. “Can't wait to get him permanently behind bars. He's slipperier than a damned rattlesnake.” He then sobered as he looked James in the eye. “I've met your daughter and your wife, by the way. Both are alive and well, in case you were wondering.”
“Wait,” Justin stopped suddenly. “You know Meredith? And she's alive?”
“Very much so,” Jason replied with a shrug. “I really wanted to tell you, Jay, but there never seemed to be a right time for it. And I thought you knew about Meredith, anyway. Didn't realize you were in the dark on that particular detail.”
“You let me hit him,” Justin accused.
Jason's smiled widened. “And I'll bet it felt really good, didn't it?”
“Er, yeah,” Justin was still confused. “Wait. You said his daughter and his wife.” He rounded on Justin. “What did you do to your daughter?”
“Huh, what didn't he do?” Jason put in. “What father hires a drug dealer to spike his kid's meds so he can have her committed to a mental institution just so he can get his hands on her money? And the military is quite interested to know why her mail has been sent back as ‘undeliverable' for the last six months. This slime is the lowest of the low. I can't believe the two of you are related, Jay. And it completely baffles me that he's your brother, let me tell you.”
“Oh, so this wasn't his first offense with the whole drug thing?” Liliana added. “He was in Jackson, Wyoming, impersonating a pharmacist and did practically the same thing to her, according to the police chief there. She overdosed on painkillers and had to be hospitalized.”
“She isn't mine!” James suddenly shouted.
“What?” Three voices responded in unison.
“Lacey Stephens isn't my child,” James looked pointedly at Justin. “Meredith was pregnant when you left for Vietnam.”
Justin grabbed James by the collar again. “What are you saying?”
“That vile deviant is yours, not mine,” James hissed with an evil grin. “Your child is a freak of nature and doesn't deserve to live among decent people.”
Justin released James suddenly and took a step back from the man. “She's mine, isn't she? The cute blond with the green eyes is my child. She's my kid, isn't she?”
“She's no offspring of mine, I tell you,” James spat. “My biological daughter married a U.S. Senator and associates with the upper crust of Washington society. She's a chip off my side of the family.”
“And mine is a surgeon who saves lives,” Justin added with a grin. “Go figure.”
“Are you two done with the family reunion?” Willows put in. “I'm getting hungry and our flight doesn't leave for another two hours. Maybe we can grab a burger at the airport, if we can get there early enough.”
“You and that bottomless pit, partner,” Justin replied. “I swear you have a tape worm in there somewhere. I suppose we should get this show on the road, though.” He then turned to Liliana. “It was a pleasure, Captain. If you're ever in our neck of the woods, stop in and we'll treat you to a few beers at our favorite watering hole, the Rusty Shillelagh. It's the place where all us charming U.S. Marshalls go after a long day chasing down bad guys.”
“If I'm ever in Texas, I'll just have to do that,” Liliana gave him a warm smile. “Good luck with him.”
“Let's go, Stephens,” Willows grabbed James by the arm and yanked him toward the door. “And behave yourself or I'll let Jay take you behind the woodshed, so to speak.”
Justin followed the two men out the door, then stopped and turned back to the woman still standing in the interview room. “Will you let me know what you find out from the police chief in Jackson, Lil?”
“You got it, Jay,” Liliana winked at him. “Always a pleasure to lend a helping hand to a fellow law enforcement officer.”
“We live to serve and protect,” he shot back with grin, then turned and left.
Liliana just shook her head in exasperation as she let the peace and quiet descend on her like a welcome friend. But peace and quiet was overrated when one was a public servant.
“Ah, well,” Liliana walked out of the room and closed the door behind her. “Time to get back to work.”
“I'm flying to Jackson, Wyoming within the hour,” Lily said, as she tossed several blouses and slacks into the open suitcase on the bed. “And there isn't anything you can say to change my mind, honey.”
“What about the baby?” Bill moved up behind her and held her close. “That episode last week wasn't just a little nose bleed. You have a condition, Lil.”
“I have partial placenta previa, Bill,” she replied. “The doctor did an ultrasound and it isn't as dire as he first thought it was.”
“You were bleeding, Lil,” he said.
“Spotting,” she countered. “He said it happens occasionally during the early stages of pregnancy. I'll check in with an OB/GYN when I get to Jackson. I promise.”
“Fine,” he reluctantly released his hold on her. “And your mother?”
“Hopefully she arrived there this afternoon,” she continued packing. “Her flight was scheduled to touch down at two. I haven't heard from her since she left here yesterday.”
“And what about me?” He sat down on the edge of the bed. “You're just going to leave me here to fend for myself with the mucky mucks? I have that big speech before the House Committee on Military Affairs tomorrow.”
“I know,” she turned and gave him a peck on the lips. “And you'll do a fantastic job. Just try to stick to your speech and don't embellish. There's plenty of time for embellishment after the elections in the fall.”
“I know,” he pulled her close and kissed her soundly. “I just wish you weren't leaving me again. I miss you when you're gone.”
“I miss you, too,” she pressed her body against his. “But I'll be back before you know it. I still have to show Senator Parker's wife that a pregnant woman is still able to dance a waltz.”
“True,” he grinned. “Hurry back and please take care of yourself.” He then pressed a hand to her flat stomach. “And take care of Junior for me.”
“Oh?” She shot him a raised-browed glare. “Are we naming our daughter Junior?”
“Our son,” Bill replied with a grin. “William Davis Trent III.”
“Allison Davis Trent,” Lily countered with a sly grin.
“Grrrrr,” he growled close to her ear as he took her in his arms again.
“She will be the apple of her father's eye,” Lily gave him a sly grin.
“And as gorgeous as her mother, I'm sure,” he conceded with a warm smile.
“Absolutely,” she wrapped her arms around his neck and welcomed the heated kiss that followed. “I will definitely miss you, Senator.”
“Not as much as I'll miss you, wife,” he replied with a lopsided grin. “Please be careful.”
“I will,” she replied.
After one last kiss, Lily rested her dark head against Bill's starched white dress shirt and the red silk power tie she had recently purchased. She inhaled deeply and took in his distinctive cologne and the shower gel he used. Then she returned to her packing and made quick work of putting the final touches to the three suitcases she would take with her to Jackson, Wyoming.
Mac sat next to Lacey's bed—the same bed they had shared the previous night—and rambled on about nothing in particular. She had already talked about the latest news on TV, the latest celebrity gossip and what her nephews were doing that day.
She was freshly showered and dressed in a pair of jeans and a plain white t-shirt with a navy-blue zipped hoodie over it to keep the chill of the A/C at bay. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail and her damp bangs hung just below her brows. She knew she needed to get out and at least get a trim, but didn't want to bother. She just kept brushing it back from her forehead every so often.
“…and Jimmy was a little put out when Blackie told him he couldn't take the Jeep back to the house to let Ben know that six of the cows had dropped their calves right at the edge of the creek that was swollen and nearly overflowing its banks,” Mac said with a chuckle as she brushed her bangs back, yet again. “He really wants to drive, but I think Blackie is terrified that he'll end up crashing and Ben will send him packing for letting Jimmy get behind the wheel.”
A knock at the door drew Mac's attention and she watched Ben poke his head in.
“Hey, li'l bit,” he said with a smile. “Mind if we come in?”
He didn't wait for a reply and merely opened the door to allow Meredith Stephens to enter with him. Mac sat up a bit straighter in her chair but didn't bother to get up.
“Hello, Mackenzie,” Meredith crossed the room and stood next to the bed.
“Meredith,” Mac nodded to the woman across the bed from her. “Carrie mentioned you were coming. She just wasn't sure when.”
“Yes, well, I had to take a little side trip to Washington to see Lily, first,” Meredith glanced at the still woman in the bed. “How is she?”
“The same,” Mac reached over and feathered Lacey's bangs. “Hey, hon, your mom's here to see you. She came all the way from Houston by way of Washington D.C. to be here with you.” She clasped her hand in the limp one closest to her. “Come on, Lac. Open those green eyes and see for yourself that she's not dead.”
Meredith watched Mac with her daughter and was a little jealous of the easy way the dark-haired woman had with Lacey. She then caught the look Mac gave her.
“What?” Meredith asked in confusion.
“The doctors say she can probably hear and feel what's happening around her,” Mac said. “She'll know you're really here if you talk to her.”
“I…” Meredith hesitated for a moment, unsure of what to do or say. She then took Lacey's other hand in her own and held it. “Hello, Lacey dear. Mackenzie is right. I'm very much alive and I'm here now. Won't you please wake up and see for yourself?”
All three waited with baited breath for a response from the comatose woman. But Lacey remained completely still, with no response whatsoever.
“I brought you some muffins from Carrie, li'l bit,” Ben held up the plain brown paper bag he'd been carrying. “She said you might enjoy them more than the bakery in the cafeteria. Oh, and she also had me bring the rest of the coffee.” He held up the thermos as an afterthought, as he rounded the bed and moved to Mac's side. “So, how'd you sleep last night?” He said, as he pulled over the rolling tray, set the thermos and bag down, then proceeded to pour Mac a cup of coffee and hand over a muffin.
“Better,” Mac replied, as she took the steaming cup and muffin from him. “Thanks, bro.”
“Not a problem, li'l bit,” he pulled up another chair and sat down next to her. “Carrie wanted to make sure you were well taken care of.”
“Always looking out for me,” she smiled wanly.
“Always,” he replied, as her head dropped against his shoulder. “So, you really got sleep last night? You're not just pulling my leg, li'l bit?”
“I actually slept for nearly eight hours straight,” she said. “Best sleep I've had in a really long time, too. I didn't wake up once. Not even when Dani came in to check on us. She came back at six-thirty and let me know I was completely out like a light.” She blushed and ducked her head to hide her embarrassment. “I guess I kinda had Lacey in my arms the entire night. It was nice.”
He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and gave her a squeeze. “Good for you, li'l bit. I'm really glad Heather came through for you. I'll let Carrie know. Except then I'll never hear the end of it.”
“You never do, bro,” Mac teased with a wry grin. “Carrie doesn't let you get away with anything in that house.”
“Nope,” he agreed with a cheery grin. “I am definitely whipped.”
“And you love it,” she playfully slapped his midsection. “Oo, gettin' a little pudge gut, there, bro.”
“It's all Carrie's fault,” he kept his arm around her shoulders. “She keeps making those fritters in the afternoon and I can't eat just one.”
“And you didn't bring me any?” Mac sat up with a pout.
“She doesn't start making them until noon, li'l bit,” he replied. “I tell ya what. I'll come back later and bring you a batch. Okay?”
“Yeah,” Mac returned to leaning against his shoulder. “And make sure there's powdered sugar and that sweet apple stuff, too.”
“Picky, picky,” he chastised.
“I just know what I like,” she returned.
Mac then looked up to find Meredith watching them with interest. The woman actually had tears swimming in her eyes.
“Are you okay, Meredith?” Mac stood up and walked around the bed to stand next to the woman.
“I was just…” She shook her head and looked at Lacey's still features. “I wish my daughters could have had the same kind of easy way with each other that the two of you have. They never teased each other or interacted like you do with your brother.”
Mac glanced at her brother. “Heh. Ben and I weren't always on the easiest of terms. Took us a long time to get this comfortable with each other.”
“Yeah,” Ben added with a wry grin. “She gave me fits when she was in high school, let me tell ya. Thought she would end up in jail or worse.”
“I almost did on more than one occasion,” Mac said with a grin of her own. “It helped to know the local sheriff and his deputies. They were all really good guys who let me off the hook more often than not. I owe them for driving me home, instead of putting me behind bars. Those were some really difficult years.”
“Gave me most of the gray hairs on my head,” Ben ran a hand through his hair.
“And the rest are from those three sons of yours,” Mac teased.
“Yep,” he smiled proudly. “Earned every single gray hair on my head, that's for sure.”
“Lacey was a lot like that growing up,” Meredith added with a sad half-smile. “She was always running off and getting into trouble with her fa—with James. Lily told me she used to go to one of the local drinking establishments to listen to stories that the patrons shared. I wish I had known why at the time. I just couldn't see what was happening right in front of me.”
“Hey,” Mac put a comforting arm around Meredith's shoulders. “Don't blame yourself for what your husband did to her. If I've learned one thing about Lacey—and I've learned a lot about her, let me tell you—it's that she is terrible at sharing things, especially the bad stuff. She internalizes and compartmentalizes a lot.” Mac glanced at Lacey affectionately. “But that's going to change as soon as she wakes up. Her new shrink won't put up with that sh—er crap, anymore. We talked about it just last week.”
“She's seeing another psychiatrist?” Meredith glanced up into a pair of warm blue eyes.
“Yes,” Mac nodded. “Her name is Heather and she's one of the best in the business.” She decided to leave out the part about seeing Heather herself. “She and Carrie went to school together. Carrie married Ben and became a rancher's wife. Heather went on to get her MD in psychiatry and is one of the practitioners in a clinic here in Jackson.”
“I see,” Meredith said. “And how long has Lacey been having sessions with this Heather?”
“About a month now,” Mac replied. “Lacey likes the fact that Heather doesn't take notes, yet remembers everything she hears. She also doesn't take crap from either of us.” She smiled wistfully.
“You are seeing her, too.”
“Yes,” Mac nodded.
“Mackenzie started seeing Heather mainly for PTSD,” Ben piped in, as he stepped up and put an arm around Mac's shoulders. “It's been helping, hasn't it, li'l bit?”
“Yeah,” Mac smiled up at him. “It also helped that Lacey got moved to this room and is out of the ICU.”
Meredith watched the interplay between the two with interest. Then she realized what Mac had said.
“PTSD?” Meredith glanced at Lacey. “Isn't that…”
“We both suffer from it,” Mac caught the look Meredith gave Lacey. “Just in different ways. Hers manifests itself as terrible nightmares and flashbacks. Mine is more subtle.”
“She has bouts of depression and won't eat or take care of herself for days,” Ben added.
“Thanks, bro,” Mac rolled her eyes at him and sighed.
“Not a problem, li'l bit,” he smiled. “Just being honest with your future mother-in-law.”
An unexpected and uncharacteristic snort from Meredith had two dark heads turning toward her and two sets of blue eyes gazing at her in disbelief.
“I…” Meredith started then shook her head, as she put a hand to her chest. She recovered quickly and sobered instantly. “That really wasn't supposed to be funny, was it?”
“No, it wasn't,” Ben replied before his sister could say anything.
“I'm sorry,” Meredith locked gazes with Mac. “I know you love her, Mackenzie.”
“Yes, I do,” Mac's expression hardened, as Ben squeezed her shoulders.
“I think she realizes that, li'l bit,” Ben said.
“Do you?” Mac kept her eyes on Meredith.
“I…” Meredith took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Yes, I do, Mackenzie.” She glanced at Lacey. “I'm just…It isn't easy for a mother—for me.” She finished by placing a hand on Lacey's arm, as she looked up at Mac. “But I'm doing the best I can to accept my daughter for who she is and for who she chooses to spend her life with.”
“I love her, Mrs. Stephens,” Mac's tone turned formal as tears sprang to her eyes. “And she loves me.”
“Yes,” Meredith nodded. “I know.”
“And I won't stop loving her, even if she never wakes up from this lousy coma,” Mac continued, as she moved to the other side of the bed and took Lacey's hand in hers. She then looked at Meredith. “I'll ask her to marry me if she ever does wake up. I want to spend the rest of my life with her.”
Meredith glanced from Ben to Mac to Lacey and back at Mac.
“Are you sure you want to become part of my rather dysfunctional family?” Meredith asked with a lopsided grin. “After all, your family seems so very…er…normal compared to mine.”
Ben stifled a snicker behind a closed fist, as Mac's gaze snapped to Meredith's.
“Excuse me?” Mac couldn't believe Meredith had actually cracked a joke.
“You heard me, Mackenzie,” Meredith let the hint of a smile touch her lips.
“I did,” Mac shook her head. “I just can't believe you actually meant to be funny.”
“Contrary to popular belief,” Meredith's demeanor turned haughty. “I am not as stuffy and stiff as I appear. I do actually have a sense of humor.”
“Are you going to eat that muffin, li'l bit?” Ben eyed the muffin with interest.
“You are not eating my muffin,” Mac snatched up the pastry and took a quick bite. “Mmm. Goo' sfuff.”
“They are quite delicious,” Meredith put in.
“The best,” Ben pouted at his sister. “Maybe you should put a little taste between Lacey's lips. She might just wake up and eat one on her own.”
“Yeah, not gonna happen,” Mac took another huge bite of the muffin in her hand. “This muffin is mine. Lace is just gonna have to wake up and request her own.”
They all waited for a reaction from the comatose woman. But Lacey remained still and quiet.
“Damn,” Mac's shoulders sagged slightly, as she sank into the chair dejectedly and propped her head on a closed fist.
“Hang in there, li'l bit,” Ben walked over and placed a comforting hand on Mac's shoulder. “She'll come out of it soon.”
“Do the doctors know why she's been like this for so long?” Meredith asked.
“No,” Mac shrugged.
“That's not exactly true,” Ben corrected. “Heather thought it had something to do with her state of mind before she took those pills.”
“Heather just threw that out there, Ben,” Mac added. “She isn't really sure, either.”
“You mean Lacey was agitated when she took the pills?” Meredith tried to clarify.
“Lily and Carrie both scolded her earlier in the evening,” Mac said. “And it didn't help that we had an argument and I left her by herself.”
“You know this isn't your fault, Mackenzie,” Ben squeezed her shoulder and watched for her obvious response. “And I don't want to hear any arguments to the contrary, li'l bit.” He cut her off before she could reply. “Lacey made the choice. That's all we know at the moment.”
“I still think James had something to do with it,” Meredith put in with a frown. “If I ever…” She blew out an exasperated breath. “I just hope the court puts him away for a very long time for everything he's done to my family.”
“Speaking of which,” Mac looked up at Meredith. “You're not dead.”
“Yes, I know,” Meredith rolled her eyes at the obvious statement.
“No, I think she meant to say…”
“You don't have to speak for me, Ben,” Mac chided, then she returned her attention to Meredith. “How does this affect the case against him?”
“He still killed out limousine driver and dumped his body along with our limo,” Meredith replied matter of factly. “James isn't going to get off scott-free for what he did.”
“Are you sure about that?” Mac eyed the woman skeptically. “I mean, it's possible he might be able to twist your sudden miraculous resurrection to his advantage. Maybe get off on a technicality just because you're not actually dead.”
“I won't let that happen,” Meredith said. “I have a very good attorney working on a way to seal the case up tighter than a drum in a marching band. Franklin is very good, too. And I trust him to do what it takes to put James away for good.”
“If you say so,” Mac wasn't convinced. “I just don't trust your husband any farther than I can throw him. I'm not sure how, but he seems to find unexpected ways around the law. He's just that slippery. After all, he found a way to get himself declared Lacey's legal guardian after he put her in that hellhole in Louisiana.”
“I have Franklin looking into that, too,” Meredith added. “I even have him investigating our business investments during the years that we were married. He has a team of accountants digging through our finances with a fine-toothed comb. They will come up with something. I just know James didn't cover his tracks as thoroughly as he appeared to for all those years.”
“Okay,” Mac finally conceded. “I just don't want him showing up here is all. That would just be the icing on a cake that I really couldn't deal with.”
“Don't worry, Mackenzie,” Meredith said with confidence. “If I know James, he won't step foot in Wyoming again, much less in this hospital.”
“What the hell are we doing here?” James glared at the two men in the front seat of the plain sedan that he was sitting in the back seat of. The handcuffs were digging into his wrists, as he sat against them. “You said we were headed to Houston.”
Justin put an arm on the seat next to him and smirked at the man in the seat behind him. “What's wrong, Jimmy? Afraid to pay a little visit to the folks in Jackson?”
“I am not stepping foot outside this car,” James winced as he sat back in the seat and felt the handcuffs dig further into his wrists.
“I'm sure the people of Jackson won't hold it against you that you impersonated their pharmacist,” Jason Willows added with a charming grin. “What do you think, Jay? Do you think the good people of Jackson know that James set it up so that their pharmacist was called away on a family emergency and then filled in for the man while he was away?”
“I hear that's a hangin' offense here in cattle country,” Justin added with a grin of his own. “Kinda like impersonating a police officer or performing surgery without a license to practice medicine.”
“Eh, maybe the police chief and judge will go easy on him,” Jason added with a shrug. “After all, it's his first offense here in Wyoming. Then again, I don't think they take kindly to having Texans in their midst.”
“We're Texans,” Justin added.
“But we're fellow law enforcement,” Jason grinned. “That's different.”
“True,” Justin nodded. “Maybe we should just take him with us, instead of dropping him off with the local police. There's no telling what they might do to him before we could come back and pick him up. And I don't want to have to explain to the judge in Houston why we didn't bring old James here back in one piece.”
“I'm still not leaving this vehicle,” James groused. “And there's no damned way you can make me.”
“Don't you want to introduce me to my daughter, Jimmy?” Justin smirked. “I hear the family resemblance is uncanny.”
“Go to hell, you sadistic bastard,” James hissed.
“Now, is that any way to talk to your long-lost brother?” Justine teased. “After all, a family reunion just might be the thing to put everything right with Lacey and me. Then we can go on down to Houston and you can explain to Meredith just how entertaining it was for you to introduce her daughter to me. Who knows? Maybe she'll even forgive you for being a first-class prick to the kid for all those years.”
“You know about…”
“I know a hell of a lot about you, James,” Justin's expression hardened. “I told you I did my own digging. It is truly amazing what you can come up with when you hire a few private investigators to look into things for you.”
“It also helps to have a Naval Reserve JAG attorney as a partner,” Jason added with a wry grin. “By the way, we found the certified letters from the DOD you tried to destroy, Stephens. Did you know that tampering with the United States Mail is a Federal offense? Add that to the other charges against you and I don't think a judge in his or her right mind will let you see the light of day for a good long time. Maybe you'll even get one of those hard-nosed judges who love throwing the book at seemingly upstanding citizens like yourself.”
“One can only hope, partner,” Justin added, as he turned back around to face forward. “Why don't we get a room and do some sleuthing before we pay a visit to my daughter? We can cuff him to the plumbing and leave him for a few hours while we take a tour around town. I don't think old Jimmy will mind a bit. Will you, Jimmy?” He glanced at James in the rearview mirror.
“Go to hell,” James didn't meet his brother's expectant gaze in the rearview mirror.
“Oh, I've already been there, Jimmy,” Justin put the car into drive and pulled out of the police station parking lot. “And, believe me, that POW camp in Vietnam was as close to hell as one gets here on earth. An 8-by-8 cell in a prison in Texas can't even hold a candle to what I went through over there. I just wish there was a way to let you share in the experience. I don't think you would last a day in that place. The mosquitos, rats and crocodiles alone would eat you alive.”
Justin glared at James in the rearview mirror for a moment, before returning his eyes to the road ahead. His expression remained hard, as he turned down a side street and searched for a cheap motel somewhere away from the main drag of downtown Jackson.
It was dusk when Carrie glanced out the living room window and saw a small red sports car approaching. She squinted to see in the dimming light and noticed the top was down on the car. A pink scarf covered the driver's head. Carrie still didn't recognize the car.
“Are you expecting company, Jimmy?” She turned to her thirteen-year-old son.
“Nope,” he replied, as he continued watching TV with his brothers. “Why?”
“Because there's a car I don't recognize coming up the drive,” Carrie said, as she stood up and walked over to the window.
“Maybe it's one of the guests coming back early,” Tanner added, as he joined his mother at the window. “Although, I don't remember any of them driving out of here in a car like that one. Sweet.”
Carrie glanced at her son in surprise. “Sweet?”
“Yeah,” Tanner grinned. “That is one sweet ride, Mom.”
“Oh, totally awesome!” DJ climbed up onto the back of the couch to look out the window. “It's a convertible.”
“I wouldn't mind getting one of those for my sixteenth birthday,” Jimmy added. “What kind of car is it, Tan?”
“I think it's an MG,” Tanner replied.
“Don't they have one at Benny's Used Cars in town?” Jimmy glanced at his younger brother. “I saw one just like it there the other day. Dad saw it, too. He said he wished he could afford to buy one for Mom.”
“Yeah,” Tanner glanced at Carrie with a shy grin. “Dad thought it was sweet, too.”
They all chuckled, as Carrie ruffled Tanner's hair and for once he didn't try to pull away.
“Well, let's go see who the lucky lady is who is driving my car,” Carrie suggested.
The boys raced for the front door, while Carrie took her time and stepped out onto the front porch just as the car pulled up in front of the house. She silently watched a woman remove the pink scarf to reveal shoulder-length wavy brown hair. She then removed designer sunglasses similar to the ones Meredith had worn earlier that day. As the woman emerged from the small sports car, Carrie took in her elegant attire right down to a pair of Gucci sandals and manicured toenails.
“Hello!” The woman shut the car door and waved to Carrie. “I hope I'm in the right place.”
“Boys!” Carrie called to the three who were gathered near the small red car in awe.
“We didn't do nothin'!” DJ called back with an innocent grin.
The woman made her way around the car to stand before the three boys. She then removed her sunglasses and smiled at each in turn.
“Don't tell me. Let me guess,” she said. “You must be Jimmy, Tanner and Dillon Jeremiah?” She said to each of them and watched their eyes widen in surprise.
Carrie walked down the steps and approached her sons. “And you are?” She asked warily.
“Lily Trent,” she held out a hand to the wary woman who was several inches shorter than she was. “Lacey's sister.”
“Oh,” Carrie's expression turned to relieved welcome, as she took Lily's hand in hers and shook it. “Carrie Papadopoulos.”
“Yes, I know,” Lily smiled in greeting. “Lacey has told me so much about you and your family that I feel like I already know you.”
Carrie glanced at her sons. “Well, I guess you pretty much do.” She then noticed the luggage stuffed into the back seat of the car. “Boys, grab Mrs. Trent's luggage and take it upstairs to the second-floor guest room next to your aunt's room, please.”
“Oh, that's not necessary. I'm sure I can check into a hotel in town. I don't wish to impose,” Lily said. “And please call me Lily. Only strangers, diplomats and politicians call me Mrs. Trent.”
“Lily,” Carrie smiled warmly. “I insist that you stay here with us during your visit. The hotels in town are full of tourists and the accommodations aren't nearly as…er…fine as I'm sure you're used to. I didn't get a chance to make the same offer to your mother when she arrived this morning, but…”
“I knew she was coming. I'm glad she made it safely,” Lily perked up. “When did she get here? Where is she?”
“My husband, Ben, took her to the hospital to see your sister,” Carrie replied. “They should be returning soon. Ben called earlier to let me know they were leaving the hospital,” she glanced at her watch, “about forty minutes ago, now. We were just waiting for them to get here to put supper on the table.”
“And how is my sister?”
“The same, I'm afraid,” came Carrie's sober reply. “She's still in a coma and hasn't responded to anything or anyone in weeks. The doctors are still hopeful, but…” She finished with a sad shake of her head. “She's in my prayers every morning and every night. Mackenzie, too. Ben said she finally got a decent night's sleep last night and that's certainly a positive sign.”
“Let's go into the house and I'll fill you in on what's been happening,” Carrie took Lily's arm in hers, then shot a knowing look to her three sons over her shoulder. “Don't forget the luggage, boys.”
“Yes'm,” Jimmy nodded, as the two women climbed the stairs to the house. “Come on, you two. You heard her. Grab the smaller bags and I'll get the big one.”
“This looks like as good a place as any to get a few drinks and wind down after a long day,” Justin said, as he stepped inside the dim interior of one of the local saloons. “The guy in that shop on the corner said it wasn't one of the tourist saloons, at least. He said they serve decent drinks for a reasonable price here.”
The juke box in the corner was belting out an old Alabama hit, as a few heads turned their way. The place was packed with locals in worn cowboy hats, jeans, and boots. Many wore flannel shirts over worn t-shirts, while a few had on nicer Western shirts. There was a good mix of both men and women in the place and the noise level let Justin know the locals weren't leery of strangers in their midst.
He and Jason navigated through the crowded room towards the bar in the back. Finding an open space, they both leaned on the worn wooden surface and Justin waved to the burly bartender.
“Two whiskeys,” he said to the bearded man who stepped silently up to the bar in front of them. “Actually, just bring us the bottle and two shot glasses.” He then slapped a twenty onto the bar in front of him.
The bartender took the money and returned with a bottle and the two shot glasses. He left Justin's change on the bar next to the drinks and silently walked away to help other customers.
“Cheery fellow,” Jason commented, as he turned to survey their surroundings, while Justin poured their drinks. He then took up his full shot glass. “Cheers, Jay!” He downed his.
“Cheers, partner!” Justin also downed his shot in one gulp and waited for the whiskey to burn a path down to his stomach. “Wow! That's some good stuff.” He poured them both another shot and held his up in toast again. “To another successful venture!”
“Absolutely!” Jason clinked his glass against Justin's and then downed its contents. “I hope your brother is enjoying being cuffed to the bathroom sink.” He snickered. “That look on his face right before we left was definitely priceless.”
“No doubt,” Justin wiped a drop of whiskey from the stubble on his lower lip. “He's just lucky I didn't leave him cuffed to the damned radiator in the bedroom with the heat turned on for good measure. Woulda served him right for all the lousy shit he's put my family through for all these years.”
“I still can't believe the two of you are related, much less brothers,” Jason leaned back with his arms propped against the bar and surveyed the room. “That guy is something else.”
“I'm still not convinced my mother was faithful to Daddy for all those years,” Justin downed another shot and slammed his glass onto the bar in front of him. “It's possible one or the other of us is a bastard. Although, James always was a lot more like the old man than I was. Mama always said I took after her side of the family in looks and in actions. Daddy's side of the family were all a bunch of ornery cusses who cared more about their precious millions than anything else. Did I ever tell you how the Stephens family came into all that money?”
“Oil?” Jason shrugged.
“Exactly,” Justin nodded. “One of the great-greats bought up a bunch of shitty land that was supposed to be good farming land and wasn't. Turned out they were sitting on a big oil deposit for two generations. Wasn't until the turn of the century that another of the great-greats discovered the damned oil. They were drilling for water during a bad drought and the oil just shot right up out of the ground. They capped the well and drilled others all over the property. Daddy's granddad was a millionaire practically overnight. Didn't know the first thing about dealing with money, either. Almost blew the family fortune on booze and whores within the first year. But then he got smart and started investing it in other companies. I have absolutely no idea how much money our family is worth these days. But I think one of the companies that we have original shares in is IBM.”
“Damn,” Jason pulled two cigars from a pocket and handed one to Justin. “So, does that mean you have more money than God himself?”
“My family does,” Justin took the cigar and clamped it between his teeth. “Daddy got pissed when James got one of the Debs—that's short for debutante—pregnant and wouldn't marry her. Old Jimmy was setting his sights a little higher up the food chain, you see. Anyway, James refused to marry her and she had to give the baby up for adoption. I never did hear what happened to the poor kid. I sure hope they found a good home for it. Anyway, Daddy told James he was disinherited and that he was making me his sole heir.”
“You're shittin' me,” Jason nearly choked on the whiskey he was slowly sipping.
“Not a bit,” Justin smiled. “James was livid over the whole thing. Said he was gonna strangle the old man with his bare hands or put a pillow over his face while he slept. He didn't think the old man would really follow through on his threat, though. Daddy passed away from a heart attack not a month later. I still think James had something to do with it. I just couldn't prove it. He was a medical resident at the time and had access to prescription drugs. Daddy had been taking a whole slew of meds for high blood pressure, diabetes and a few other conditions that all those years of drinking and hard living resulted in. When the lawyer read Daddy's Last Will and Testament, James knew the truth. He really had been disinherited. Daddy had cut him off completely and didn't leave him a dime. The only thing he got out of the whole thing was an old car that sat in the garage for years. The thing didn't even run.”
“So, what did James do?” Jason was intrigued by the story.
“He stormed out of the lawyer's office and drove straight to Dallas,” Justin shrugged. “I really didn't want all that money or responsibility at the time. And things were starting to heat up with the war in Vietnam. I was already in my fourth year at West Point and wanted nothing more than to finish school and graduate. I have no idea what happened or how it happened, but suddenly I found myself on a transport bound for Da Nang. It was surreal and I couldn't figure out why I was no longer doing drills and sitting in a classroom. One day I was marching the parade grounds with my classmates and the next I was on my way to Vietnam with about a hundred recruits fresh out of basic training. And I was in charge of a company of them. It was totally screwed up, I tell ya.”
“How did it happen? Did you ever find out?” Jason watched two women enter the bar and head toward the bar where they were standing.
“My brother,” Justin glanced at the two women who stepped up to the bar next to him. “Hello, ladies.”
The curly-haired blond glanced at him with a wary frown, before returning her attention to the bartender.
“Two whiskey sours,” she said to the burly man behind the bar.
“On me,” Justin tried to hand the bartender a ten-dollar bill.
“No, thank you,” the curly-haired blond shot Justin a glare. “We're more than capable of buying our own drinks.”
“But where's the fun in that?” Justin insisted, as he continued holding out the money towards the bartender. “Two fine ladies, such as yourselves…”
“Just stop right there,” Dani put up a staying hand. “We're not interested and that's final. Keep your money and buy your own drinks.” She then glanced around. “Better yet, spend it on a couple bimbos in this place who might be interested in spending time with a couple of out-of-towners who don't take no for an answer.”
“Oh, ho,” Jason smiled widely and punched Justin in the arm. “She got you, there, Jay.”
“I'm Jay, by the way,” he held a hand out to Dani, who merely looked at it with a scowl. “And this is my partner, Jason. Can we, maybe, just start over and be friendly to each other? No strings. I'll even rescind my offer to buy your drinks.” He shoved his money into the front pocket of his jeans.
“I'm Brenda,” she reached around Dani to offer her hand. “And this is Dani. Don't mind her. She's just a little touchy about being propositioned in a bar while we're out on a date.”
“Oh?” Jason's eyes widened a bit. “You ladies are together, then?”
“Yes,” Dani's expression turned challenging. “You got a problem with that?”
Jason held his hands up in surrender. “Not a bit. I think it's really great, actually.” He then glanced around the room at the other patrons. “Kind of a tough crowd, though, isn't it? I mean…”
“Most of them just ignore us,” Dani put in with a touch less bravado. “As long as we don't start making out in front of them, they don't really care. Besides,” she held up an arm and flexed her bicep, “a few have already had a taste of what these babies can do and aren't really interested in an encore performance.”
Justin chuckled. “I can well imagine.”
The drinks arrived and each woman took hers. Brenda sipped hers, while Dani downed her entire drink in one shot.
Justin grabbed the half-empty bottle and held it up in front of her. “Interested in a friendly refill?”
“As long as…”
“Yeah, yeah, no strings,” Justin poured the whiskey into her glass. “So, you two live here?”
“Yep,” Dani slowly sipped her whiskey.
“Dani works at the hospital and I work at one of the private clinics in town,” Brenda added.
“Are you both doctors?” Jason shot them a raised-browed look that enhanced his charm.
“I'm a nurse,” Dani just shook her head at his failed attempt to charm them. “Are you boys here on business?”
“Kinda,” Justin snorted. “We're escorting a known fugitive from Idaho Falls back to Texas, by way of your fine town.”
“Jay, here, thought it would be a good idea to make this little side trip,” Jason slapped a hand on Justin's shoulder. “He wanted to meet someone who is staying here.”
“I wanted to meet my daughter,” Justin added. “I've seen her a time or two, but never had the chance to meet her in person. Didn't actually know she was my daughter until just recently.”
“How old is your daughter?” Brenda asked.
“I'm not really sure,” Justin replied. “I think she's probably in her late thirties. She was born after I went off to Vietnam and that was in the late 60s, early 70s.”
“You said you're from Texas?” Dani eyed the man curiously.
“Yes,” Justin nodded. “Born and raised. My family hails from Houston. Why?”
“Because we know someone who just recently moved here from Texas,” Dani gave Brenda a knowing look. “That certainly can't be a coincidence.”
“Your daughter isn't Lacey Stephens, by chance, is she?” Brenda watched the twin expressions of surprise register on the two men's faces. “Yeah, that's not totally weird.”
“You know Lacey Stephens?” Justin's interest grew exponentially.
“She's a patient in the hospital where I work,” Dani said. “We were also with her during a recent search and rescue operation that went a little south.”
“She's in the hospital?” Justin then shook his head. “Wait. Did she overdose on pain medication?”
Justin pulled his badge from the inside pocket of his suit coat. “I'm a U.S. Marshall. The fugitive I'm escorting just happens to be James Stephens. My name is Justin Stephens. James is my older brother. I just found out that Lacey is my biological daughter, not his.”
“Holy shit,” Dani hissed. “I think you better take him over to the local police station. The chief has been asking a bunch of questions about the medication Lacey OD'd on. I even think he received a tip from the police in Idaho Falls…Wait. Didn't you just say you were escorting him from Idaho Falls to Texas?”
Justin and Jason exchanged a knowing look.
“I knew the son of a bitch was here in Jackson,” Justin said. “Now we just need to find witnesses who can place him at the pharmacy when Lacey's medication was dispensed.”
“You know about that?” Dani glanced from Jason to Justin.
“Oh, we know a lot more than that,” Jason added with a Cheshire grin. “We know that James Stephens was on a charter flight from Jackson to New York, when a couple of bumbling idiots tried to poison him. That's how the flight ended up being diverted to Idaho Falls, of all places. The pilot thought it was a good idea to return to Jackson. Unfortunately, he miscalculated and ended up landing in Idaho Falls, instead.”
“Wait, someone tried to poison him?” Brenda piped in. “What the hell?”
“No kidding, huh?” Justin chuckled. “And then one of the idiots resuscitated him before the heart attack could kill good old James. Go figure. I still can't believe it myself. I don't know whether to shake the man's hand or strangle him for bringing my lousy, no-good sibling back to life.”
“Who tried to kill him?” Dani asked in confusion. “And why resuscitate him? That doesn't make any sense.”
“I don't really know,” Justin just shook his head. “Apparently, the guy's name is Reggie Somethingorother. He's a conman with a juvenile rap sheet a mile long, who has never been convicted of anything more serious than joy riding and petty theft. Far as I could tell, he just hooked up with the wrong woman and ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Poor sot.”
“Now he's facing an attempted murder charge,” Jason added with a shake of his head. “And he copped to masterminding the whole thing. Dumbass couldn't keep his mouth shut and even claimed that James Stephens is his biological father.”
“Yeah, there's the real kicker,” Justin downed another shot of whiskey. “Can you imagine? I find out my brother's supposed daughter is really my kid, while some petty crook-turned-attempted-murderer claims that he's my brother's actual biological offspring. And he hooked up with a woman who is mixed up in a con that involves a fake mental institution somewhere in Louisiana. That one just takes the cake, let me tell ya. It's almost like some weird-ass soap opera or something.”
“Mac mentioned something about Lacey's father having her committed to a mental institution down south somewhere,” Dani added with a quick glance at Brenda. “Remember?”
“I think Lacey actually mentioned something about that, too, come to think of it,” Brenda added. “What if it's the same place?”
Jason pulled his cell phone from his pocket and hit a speed-dial number. “Yeah, Captain Johnson, please. Tell her U.S. Marshall Jason Willows is calling.” He waited a moment, then, “Hello, Captain. Say, what was the name of that place you mentioned while we were there? The one that Callista St. Germaine…It wasn't Twelve Palms, was it?” He waited for her reply. “Yes, that is most definitely the place. I was there. I helped Mackenzie Papadopoulos rescue Lacey Stephens from that place after her father, James Stephens, had a judge send her there.” He listened as the other three waited expectantly for him to finish his conversation. “Yes, I think Mackenzie caught a glimpse of a blond woman who was watching us from one of the windows. Send me a picture of this Callista St. Germaine and I'll see if Mackenzie can identify her as the same woman.” He nodded. “Yeah, we decided to take a little side trip over here to Jackson before we head back to Texas. We will most certainly get in touch with the authorities in Louisiana and let them know that you're holding their suspect for them. And we'll relay this latest information to them, too. I think they'll want to know that your murder suspect might just be the same woman they are looking for in connection with the Benson case.” He listened again and smiled at something she said. “I'll tell him, Captain. You take care and tell the guys we say hello. Bye, now.” He flipped the phone closed and looked up to find three faces looking at him expectantly. “What?”
“You were down in Louisiana rescuing my daughter and you didn't tell me?” Justin was the first to speak.
“Hey, cut me a break, Jay. I didn't know she was your daughter or that James Stephens was your brother, okay? Then again, I did know that Meredith is alive and well and you never said a word about that.”
“This is just…” Justin swiped a hand down his face and sighed heavily.
“Too weird?” Dani supplied with a lopsided half-grin. “Like a crazy soap opera gone wrong?”
“Completely off the wall?” Brenda added with a grin at Dani. “I've never heard of so many twists and coincidences.” She held up a hand and started ticking them off. “James Stephens is your brother. His daughter is actually your biological daughter. His real kid might be trying to kill him. He put your daughter into a mental institution that is bogus. Your partner rescued your daughter from said nut house. Your brother might have caused your daughter to overdose. You are one of the U.S. Marshalls assigned to escort your brother back to Texas…Did I forget anything?”
Justin poured himself another shot and downed it, then poured another and downed that one, too.
“Nope,” he winced slightly. “I think that about covers it. Oh, wait, you forgot that I was in love with Meredith—Lacey's mother. And then ended up in Vietnam before my child was born. Not to mention I didn't know she was my child until yesterday. I also didn't know Meredith was supposed to be dead or that she was still very much alive.”
Jason put a steadying hand on Justin's shoulder when he swayed slightly. He then took the shot glass and bottle from his hand and set them on the bar.
“I think you've had enough, there, partner,” Jason said. “Maybe we should head back to the motel and make sure our charge is still where we left him.”
“You left James Stephens in a motel room by himself?” Dani asked incredulously. “Isn't that asking for trouble?”
“He's cuffed to the sink in the bathroom,” Justin chuckled. “Figured it would do him good to think about his…actions. Although, now I'm seriously considering beating the shit out of him to teach him a damned lesson.”
“You know we have to take him back in one piece, Jay,” Jason eyed his swaying partner warily. “Maybe we should stay here and get you sobered up before I take you back to the motel. I really don't want to have to explain to the brass why I let you kill a fugitive in our custody. They would definitely take issue with that.”
“Not to mention charge him with murder,” Dani added with a slight grin and a shrug. “But they'd have to catch him first.”
“Hey,” Brenda nudged Dani with a shoulder. “Don't give him any ideas.”
“What?” Dani looked at Brenda innocently. “The asshole locked Lacey up in a loony bin, then came up here, impersonated a pharmacist and put her in a damned coma, for Christ's sake. Not to mention what he probably did to her while she was a kid. Were you not there when she went all ape at Brad on that mountain? Lacey Stephens has some serious PTSD and it ain't all because she served in a war zone, Bren. I had a heart-to-heart with Mac. She told me old James used to beat Lacey in his office when she was a kid. I think the son of a bitch deserves to have the shit kicked out of him for that alone.”
Justin's bleary green eyes widened at this latest revelation and Jason caught the expression that crossed his partner's features.
“Oh, no, you don't,” Jason grabbed Justin from behind and held him in an iron grip.
“Let me go, Jason!” Justin struggled to break free of the hold. “I'm gonna kill the son of a bitch for what he did!”
“And where will that get you? Huh?” Jason held firm. “Lacey will never know her real father if you're incarcerated, Jay. And what about Meredith?”
“He tried to kill her, too!” Justin continued to struggle and managed to push Jason back into several patrons.
“Hey! Watch it!” One burly rancher in a stained straw cowboy hat roughly shoved the two men away from him.
“Sorry, buddy,” Jason tried to apologize over his shoulder and found the rancher's face right there in his. “My friend is a little…”
“I don't give a shit if he's falling down drunk,” the man shoved Jason again. “You spilled my beer down my damned shirt, asshole.”
“Look, man,” Jason managed to turn around to face the man with Justin still held in front of him. “I'm sorry.”
“You know what?” Justin smirked at the man. “You're a real dipshit. Do you have any idea who we are?”
“A couple of dumbasses?” The man shot back, as two of his buddies stepped up beside him and pounded their fists into their palms. “We don't take kindly to strangers here, asshole.”
“Did he just call me an asshole?” Justin glanced over his shoulder at Jason.
“I think he called both of us assholes,” Jason let go of the man and prepared for the fight he knew was coming. “I guess you're gonna get your chance to kick the shit out of someone, Jay.”
“Bring it on,” Justin grinned from ear to ear right before the guy in front of him raised a fist to strike.
Justin ducked to one side and Jason ducked to the other just as the entire place erupted in chaos. They both came up swinging, as the three ranchers did the same. All hell broke loose and suddenly both men were caught up in a bar brawl that had chairs and fists flying.
“You really wanna stick around for this?” Dani shot Brenda a raised-browed look, as they managed to dodge out of the way of a guy who was tossed over the bar in front of them.
Brenda downed the rest of her whiskey sour and slammed the glass down on the bar. “Nope.”
“Then let's get outta here while the gettin's good,” Dani snaked her way toward the exit with Brenda close on her heels. “Let these boys work out their differences on their own.”
“Most definitely,” Brenda replied with a last glance behind her. “Oo, that's gonna hurt like hell tomorrow,” she said, as she ducked out the door in Dani's wake. “I can see a broken nose in his future.”
“You think I'll be seeing any of these boys in the ER later tonight?” Dani said, as they made their way to Brenda's little Mazda sports coup and climbed in.
“I don't doubt it,” Brenda grinned as she slipped behind the wheel. “I don't envy you the paperwork this will generate, either. Especially since two law enforcement officers are involved.”
“Maybe we should go back in there and…”
“Not a chance Ellison,” Brenda started the engine and backed out of the parking space with little fanfare. “I am not spending what little time we have together in the drunk tank with a bunch of idiots who can't hold their liquor. Especially when I'd much rather go back to my place, get naked and screw until we're both walking like a couple of saddle-sore cowboys. Whatdya say?”
“Oo, I like,” Dani grinned. “I guess those boys will just have to fend for themselves. Sucks to be them.”
“Absolutely,” Brenda grinned in return, as she pulled out of the saloon's parking lot and turned her little car onto the main drag of Jackson. “And I'm not explaining to Mac why Lacey's real father came to Jackson and ended up in jail.”
“Absolutely,” Dani nodded, as she opened her window and stuck her feet outside the car. “It's too nice a night to spend in a jail cell, anyway! Woohoo!!!”
Brenda hit a button on the dashboard and the top automatically retracted behind the back seat. They both raised a fist into the air and cheered, as the small car continued down the main street of Jackson. A few tourists briefly turned to look at the two women in the convertible sports car, then returned to what they were doing before the car passed by.
Music blared from several saloons and nightclubs along the main street. Most of the music had a Country and Western flavor. Neither woman paid the nightlife in Jackson much attention as they made their way out of town and toward a clump of lights in the distance. Their thoughts were on other things and each other.
Continued in Part 16
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