By Kennedy Northcutt ©2011
For disclaimers, see Part 1.
Feedback is appreciated (email@example.com).
"Thanks for taking care of this for us, Chief," Justin turned around and shook the hand of the tall, gray-haired man with the bushy mustache and tan Stetson that made him look a lot like Sam Elliot. "Appreciate it."
"Not a problem, Stephens," Police Chief Dale McGrath said in his gravelly deep voice. "Want us to keep an eye on your prisoner until you take care of that personal business you were going on about earlier?"
"Naw, but thanks," Just stepped back and took in the tall man's dark-brown Western suit that fit his slim frame perfectly. "The man's my brother, even if he is a shit-and-a-half. I'm just glad your boys were there to pick him up and bring him here last night."
"Well," McGrath eyed Justin beneath bushy brows. "You and your partner weren't exactly in the right frame of mind to be taking care of a prisoner last night. And keeping him handcuffed to the bathroom sink wasn't exactly humane, either." He then smirked. "Even if he is a shit-and-a-half without a conscience.Don't pay none to be invitin' a lawsuit for police brutality. I'm just glad you and Willows saw fit to tell me you had the sonofabitch locked in your motel room. You two weren't exactly makin' a whole lot of sense when we brought you in with them other fellers last night."
Justin touched a purpling bruise on the side of his head. "No, we sure weren't. Had a little too much fire water and then got into it with a few of your local boys."
"Yeah, they were singin' a real sob tune this mornin', let me tell ya," McGrath chuckled. "Said you boys instigated the whole thing.Wanted to put the blame solely on your shoulders for it, too. Said they were just innocent bystanders minding their own business. But I know better. Tab and his boys are natural-born instigators. Ain't the first time we've had 'em in custody for starting brawls, either."
"So, what happens next?" Justin glanced at the men in question, who were still behind bars in the jail cell. "We don't really need to press charges, Chief. We'd rather just let the whole thing slide and move on. Take care of our business here and then head back to Texas with James."
"I figured as much," McGrath nodded and then shot a look at the men in the cell who were unusually quiet after all the ruckus they'd raised earlier in the morning. Now they were all just hanging their heads or sleeping off the alcohol from the night before. "We'll keep the boys here for another few hours, then let them go on their way. No sense in creating more paperwork than necessary."
"Absolutely," Justin smiled.
"I don't think they'll give you any more trouble, besides," McGrath continued. "Tab's had his share of brushes with the law. He ain't dumb enough to push this thing with two U.S. Marshals, no matter how much of an ass he is. So, no worries there."
"On another note," Justin rubbed his neck where a kink from the previous night was making itself known. "Do you have any additional information on this whole situation with James and the two idiots who tried to poison him?"
McGrath chuckled. "Captain Johnson was very forthcoming with the information she gleaned from those two. Seems they're quite the pair. Looks like the woman-"
"Callista St. Germaine?"
"Yeah," McGrath nodded. "She'll be headed down to Louisiana to give a deposition on her involvement in that whole Twelve Palms scam Benson was running. She claims she didn't know what he was really up to. But you and I both know that's a load of cow manure."
"I really didn't get a chance to talk to her, but I did have a few conversations with the detectives on the case," Willows piped in. "Mackenzie also caught a glimpse of her from a window. Speaking of which…" He pulled out his cell phone and tapped a few buttons, then held it out to McGrath. "We'll be showing this to Mackenzie to see if it's the same woman she saw."
"This St. Germaine has an eyes for trouble, that's for sure," McGrath commented.
"My thoughts exactly," Justin added. "There's just something about the woman that makes my skin crawl in a bad way."
"I've seen it before," McGrath nodded. "Lack of conscience and a criminal mind.some folks were just born to be bad, no doubt about it. And that one has it in spades. Like a rattlesnake that eats its own young and don't care a whit about doing so. She's just got that same sly look in her eyes."
"Yeah," Willows agreed. "I'm glad we weren't the ones assigned to escort her to Louisiana. I sure wouldn't turn my back on that one. She might just find a way to stab one of us, if given half a chance."
"Absolutely," McGrath said. "So, you boys headed over to the hospital after this?"
"Yes," Justin answered. "Time to get this show on the road."
"Well," McGrath continued. "Then I'll have two of my boys bring Stephens up from holding and turn him over to you. Good luck and God's speed."
A dark brow arced on Willows' features. "I thought this was holding."
"Naw," McGrath shook his head and smirked. "This is just temporary holding for the local saloon patrons and a few tourists who need to sleep off a night's drinking." He chuckled with mirth. "It's a drunk tank rather than an actual jail cell. We had several private cells and another holding cell built downstairs that we use for the actual criminal element. Keeps the riffraff separated from the drunks."
"Understood," Willows nodded curtly. "I've visited both in my dealings as a U.S. Marshall and as a Naval JAG attorney. The drunks are usually harmless. Can't say the same for the actual perps."
"JAG, eh?" McGrath's bushy brows rose in surprise. "You Naval Reserve?"
"One weekend a month and three weeks a year," Willows smiled charmingly. "Keeps me on my toes and out of trouble. I get into enough of that with this one." He slapped a hand on Justin's shoulder. "Jay needs me to make sure he doesn't go rogue."
"Yeah, right," Justin shrugged off the hand. "And you don't enjoy playing lawyer part-time and cowboy cop the rest. Right." He snorted.
"I didn't say that," Willows' smiled broadened. "I just enjoy yanking your chain a whole lot more than using my vast knowledge of the intricacies of United States legalese to put bad guys away."
Justin shot his partner a wry glare. "You just really enjoy arguing and wearing a gun strapped to your shoulders."
"Maybe," Willows smirked.
McGrath watched the interplay between the two men with a bemused half-grin. He then cleared his throat.
"Well, I'll leave you two to it, then," he said, as he turned away and headed toward the door. "Try not to get into any more trouble while you're here, will ya?" The last he said over his shoulder before he opened the door and left them.
"You ready, partner?" Justin asked.
"As I'll ever be," Willows replied with a last glance at the dejected men in the holding cell. "I kinda feel sorry leaving them in there like that."
"I don't," Justin headed toward the same door the chief of police had exited through. "Serves 'em right for trying to get up in my grill like that."
"Yeah," Willows followed his partner. "By the way, before I forget. There's something I think you should know."
"I've met your daughter," Willows said, as they wove their way through the scattered desks and headed toward the front door of the station. "She's a real spitfire. I like her."
They passed several plain-clothes police detectives and a few uniformed officers on their way, but neither man gave the onlookers a second glance. No one stopped them as they made it to the main entrance and pushed the double glass doors open.
"I knew that," Justin said, as he squinted in the bright sunlight of a cloudless morning and walked outside. "Damn, it's bright out here."
"Yeah," Willows put a hand up to shade his eyes, as they both stood there for a moment to get their bearings. "Is that our rental?" He pointed toward a charcoal-gray sedan parked in the visitor space of the lot.
"Looks like it," Justin pulled the keys from his pocket and hit the fob to unlock the doors. "Guess that answers that question."
"Yep," Willows yanked the passenger door open, then leaned casually on it with one booted foot propped against the bottom of the door frame. "So, where's our charge?"
"There," Justin indicated a side door with his chin.
The door opened and two uniformed officers escorted James Stephens out in handcuffs. The man was still dressed in the same rumpled clothes he'd worn for the last couple days. And his navy blazer was draped over his handcuffed hands.
"Doesn't look any worse for wear," Willows grinned wryly.
James just glowered at the two men waiting by the sedan. He didn't meet their expectant gazes as his escorts shoved him towards the car. Then the back passenger-side door was opened and his head was pushed down as he slid into the back seat.
"Welcome back, Jimmy," Justin grinned from ear to ear, as he slid into the driver's seat. "Hope you didn't suffer too terribly in that jail cell they had you in last night."
James remained impassively silent, as Willows slid into the passenger seat in front of him.
"Enjoy a good night's sleep?" Willows turned around to look at the silent man brooding in the backseat.
James remained silent, his lips sealed in a tight line.
"Yeah, he's a man of few words. Was always like that, even as a kid." Justin started the engine and pulled the car out of the parking lot. "I still don't see what Meredith saw in him when she agreed to marry him." He shook his head and glanced at his brother in the rearview mirror. "It just boggles the mind."
Meredith sat silently next to Lacey's hospital bed and just stared at her comatose daughter. Comatose.In a coma.Unresponsive.Little to no brain activity. Well, that wasn't really true. There was brain activity. After all, Lacey wasn't dead. She was just non-responsive. She was breathing on her own and the IV and urine bag showed that her body was ingesting enough sustenance to keep her from starving to death. But she was unresponsive, nonetheless.
Meredith let that question sink in for the nth time. Every time she thought about what James had done, a surge of anger assailed her and she wanted to hit something. It was quite unpleasant. She certainly didn't like it. But she liked seeing her daughter in a coma even less.
"Lacey," Meredith lifted the still pale hand closest to her and clasped it in both of hers. "I just want you to know that I'm here."
Hadn't that been what Mackenzie had told her to do? Just talk to Lacey as if she were conscious. Just talk. It was not easy for her to do. She never really just talked to anyone. Usually she discussed plans for parties or shared her insights about charity events. She rarely just talked. Except with those in her close social circle. Beth Ann, Marilyn, Naomi, and Sissy were the friends she confided in more often than not. And they didn't know everything about her. They didn't know about Justin. They didn't know that Lacey wasn't the biological child of her husband. She hadn't confided either of those details to them, even though they were supposed to be her closest friends.
Meredith let the hint of a wry grin touch her lips.
"I miss your real father," she said quietly. "He was such a wonderful man. So thoughtful.So loving. I never told you this, but he gave me a pair of diamond earrings as an engagement present. They're beautiful. But after he left, I put them away and haven't worn them once since. I just couldn't bring myself to look at them, much less wear them, after Justin died. I brought them with me, Lacey. I want to give them to you. You should wear them proudly. Justin would want me to give them to you." She then smiled wanly. "He would have been very proud to have you as his daughter. As they say, you're a chip off the old block." She reached up and gently brushed a lock of hair behind Lacey's ear. "You have his looks, you know. It was always one of the reasons James was so…" She let the words drift off. "I'm sorry for what he did to you, Lacey."
Meredith sighed when there was no response from the comatose woman. She even brushed the backs of her fingers against Lacey's cheek and watched intently for a response.
"Please, Lacey," Meredith brought the hand in hers to her cheek and held it there. "Please come back to me-to us. There are so many people here who cherish you, Lacey Justine. You have to know how much you've come to mean to them. I was talking to Carrie. Such a sweet woman." She then chuckled. "She rules that household with a firm, yet loving, hand, let me tell you. I really like her. I've never met anyone who is so open and honest before in all my life. It's such a breath of fresh air from the world I left in Houston. People in our circle are so…" She stopped to think of the right words. "Vapid? Is that the right word? Shallow, maybe? They only think of themselves and all the seemingly important things their money is doing for starving children in other countries. And how they love to gossip. But Carrie isn't like that at all. She is very kind and gentle. She also has a wonderful sense of humor. And those boys of hers. I can't even begin to imagine raising three boys on a ranch and running a bed and breakfast, besides."
She paused for a few moments and let her eyes wander to the window on the other side of the room. A few wispy clouds danced by the window in the clear blue sky. She knew it was nearly seventy degrees outside and summer was fast approaching.
"Lacey," Meredith returned her attention to her daughter. "Listen to me. I want you to know something." Her expression turned serious. "Mackenzie…" She started and then stopped with a catch in her voice. "She really does love you, Lacey. I've watched her here with you over the last few days and I can see how much this is hurting her. She wants you to come back to her. She needs you. I need you to come back, Lacey." She took a deep breath and let it out. "We all need you to come back to us, Lacey." Then her expression brightened. "Did I tell you that Lily arrived a few days ago? We're both staying with the Papadopoulos family. Imagine that. Such a treat to experience life on an actual ranch, I must say. And the noise is all so different. Those boys," she shook her head and smiled, "I've never heard such a clatter before. But I really enjoy it. I can't wait until…" Her expression turned thoughtful. "There is so much I need to tell you, Lacey. Not the least of which is that I am still very much alive."
Meredith stood up and leaned over to place a gentle kiss on Lacey's forehead. As she pulled back slightly, she watched for a reaction, any reaction, from the still woman.
"I really hope you are still in there somewhere, Lacey Justine," Meredith said, as she straightened up. "If not for my sake or your sister's sake, then for Mackenzie's sake. She misses you terribly." She took Lacey's hand in hers and gave it one last squeeze. "And so do I."
Mac pushed her food around her plate with little interest or enthusiasm. Her eggs were already cold and the bacon now had a thin layer of coagulated fat on it that didn't interest her in the least. The coffee in the cup next to her elbow was tepid at best.
"Another refill?" Ben stepped up to the table with a congenial grin. "There's enough for one more."
"No," Mac shook her head and let her fork drop back to her plate, as her brother joined her at the kitchen table.
"Not hungry?" He glanced at the half-eaten food on her plate, as she pushed it away. "Or don't you like my cooking? I know it isn't quite up to par with Carrie's, but…"
"No, it's fine," Mac let her head rest against an upraised fist. "I'm just not hungry." She gave him a wan smile. "Been a long week."
"A long couple of weeks," he agreed. "How's the visit with the soon-to-be in-laws going?"
"Fine," Mac glanced out the window at the green landscape beyond. She still couldn't believe that summer was just around the corner. Hadn't spring just arrived? And where was all the snow? "Meredith and Lily seem to be getting along just fine with everyone here. That's something, at least."
"Despite Meredith's sometimes haughty demeanor, she and Lily are good people," he sipped his own coffee. "I think they're both a little out of their element up here. It sure isn't high society. People around here don't do teas or go in for dressing to the nines."
"Yeah," Mac agreed. "No charity functions or garden parties or balls out here in the sticks."
"Speaking of," Ben set his cup on the table. "Where are they? I haven't seen either of them this morning."
"Lily's upstairs resting," Mac replied. "Said she was tired after that tour of the ranch your boys gave her yesterday. She was impressed, by the way."
"She told you that?"
"Yeah," Mac nodded. "Said she'd never seen anything like it before."
"She's from Texas," Ben countered. "You can't tell me she hasn't seen at least one cattle ranch in all those years."
"Guess not," Mac took the coffee pot and poured the last of it into her cup, then sipped. "Ugh. That's nasty, bro." She set the cup aside and pushed her plate across the table. "I think I'll go to the hospital and get some real coffee, maybe sit with Lacey for a while. Meredith was going to sit with her for a while. That's where she is, by the way." She stood up to leave. "Time to go relieve my future mother-in-law of the chore of entertaining my future wife." She shot him a wry grin. "I swear. Between you and Carrie. You two are gonna have me hitched before spring turns to summer. And said wife hasn't even awakened from her long slumber, yet."
"She will," he grinned back at her. "Just wait. She's just waiting for the right moment. Speaking of which, have you tried kissing her? That always works in fairy tales."
Mac crossed the room in a few long strides, then stopped and turned back to glare at her brother.
"Life is no fairy tale, big bro," she said. "Didn't anyone ever tell you that? And there are no happily-ever-afters in the real world."
"No, but that doesn't mean you can't find your own happily-ever-after, li'l bit," Ben replied. "It's a journey, not a destination. And it's worth it when you find someone to share it with, bumps, bruises and all."
"If you say so," came the somewhat dejected response, as she walked out of the kitchen without a backward glance.
"I know you'll get your happily-ever-after, li'l bit," he said softly, after she'd left the room. "Just you wait and see."
Lily gingerly made her way downstairs to the living room of the Papadopoulos home. She was still a little tired, but not in a bad way. Just in a baby way. She knew her body was adjusting to the little one growing inside her. She also knew that little one was safe. Her visit to the doctor the day before had confirmed that. The child was growing nicely. And her placenta previa had corrected itself as the baby grew. Everything was progressing on schedule.
She reached the lower landing and was greeted by a startling shout that pulled her up short and made her breath catch.
"KILLED YA!!!" A youngster's voice shouted. "YES!!!"
"Not fair, Deej!" Another voice rose in pitch. "You cheated!"
The third voice was female and very authoritative and brought a smile of wonder to Lily's features. Carrie.
"Outside.NOW!" Carrie said in no uncertain terms. "You know we have guests, you two. That means you keep it down and don't shout inside this house."
"Yes, ma'am," the two boys said in unison, as they darted past Lily, who was still standing on the last stair.
"Oh," Carrie came up behind them and stopped at the stairs when she spotted Lily standing there. "Lily. I'm so sorry. Did the boys wake you up from your nap?"
"Not at all," Lily stepped off the last step and smiled warmly. "I was just listening to their rather heated exchange. Very enlightening."
Carrie rolled her eyes in consternation. "Sometimes it's just a zoo around here."
"It's a nice zoo, though," Lily continued to smile. "I like it. And I love your boys. They're so full of energy and enthusiasm. I hope to have a dozen just like them." She then touched the slight bulge at her belly. "I hope this one is as rambunctious as that little guy of yours."
"Yeah, until you actually have to chase after him every day," Carrie snickered. "Dillon can be a real handful, sometimes."
"And a real charmer, too," Lily added with a wink. "He kinda reminds me a little bit of Mackenzie."
"He does, actually," Carrie agreed with a nod. "Doesn't look like her at all, but he sure acts like her sometimes." Her expression turned thoughtful. "I am not looking forward to puberty, let me tell ya."
Lily chuckled. "That bad?"
"Worse," Carrie moved on toward the kitchen, where the aroma of herb chicken was wafting. "That girl had more mood swings than a damned pregnant woman." She then glanced back over her shoulder with an apologetic half-smile. "No offense."
"Oh, not a problem," Lily shrugged. "I know I have them. Bill knows it, too. He just stands clear until I'm done ranting like a crazy woman."
"Good man," Carrie chuckled. "Ben used to try to sooth the beast. Never worked. I just got more pissed at him and then sent everyone running for the hills. I think the ranch hands voluntarily went out to be with the herds when I was in my last trimester. They couldn't stand all the yelling."
"They don't normally do that?"
"When they can get a home cooked meal in the bunk house every night?" Carrie stopped in front of the double refrigerator and motioned for Lily to sit at the table. "Not likely. The meal of choice on the range is canned beans and trail biscuits. I'm pretty sure they prefer the home cooked meal over that."
"I suppose," Lily sat down at the table and flicked an imaginary piece of something off it with her hand. "I really like it here," she said wistfully. "It's a nice place to raise a family."
"I do, too," Carrie said, as she quickly put together a sandwich for her guest. She already knew what Lily liked and didn't hesitate to load up a hoagie with all the fixings. "Can't imagine living anywhere else and don't think I would want to, anyway." She poured a tall glass of milk and then carried the sandwich and milk over to the table. "There ya go."
"Thanks," Lily eyed the sandwich hungrily before digging in. "Mm, dewishish, as a'ways."
"You're welcome and thank you," Carrie took a seat across from her guest. "So, what's it like living in Washington D.C.? I hear it is very hectic and crowded. Is there a lot of crime?"
"Yes," Lily pulled a napkin from the dispenser on the table, wiped her mouth and sipped her milk. "The traffic alone is enough to make me glad I'm the wife of a senator. Our limo driver is quite adept at finding the shortest and least congested routes through the city. He also avoids the slums, too. Good man."
"Limo driver?" Carrie was impressed. "I've never ridden in a limousine before."
"It's nice, sometimes," Lily glanced out the window at the little red sports with a wistful smile. "But it is also nice to have the freedom to go wherever you want to. I enjoy driving when I'm in Houston, even though Bill prefers that I don't. He thinks the wife of a U.S. Senator should take the limo all the time. It's an image thing."
"Image thing?" Carrie's brow hiked in confusion.
"Status and image are everything when you're the wife of a Senator," Lily rolled her eyes, as she continued to devour her sandwich with relish. She finished chewing and swallowing before continuing. "Looks, too. Photographers are always taking pictures for the society page and it just wouldn't do to be caught out with no makeup on. We're expected to be and act a certain way at all times. Not to mention having to attend all those fundraisers, societal functions and charity events. I was just at a charity event a few weeks ago to raise money for some cause or another and practically had to bite my tongue to keep from laughing when one of the diplomat's wives had a little too much champagne and nearly toppled the table that held this immense ice sculpture. It was such a scandal that it ended up plastered all over the society pages. The poor woman will probably never live it down, either. Although, her husband has enough prestige with the State Department to have the incident swept under the rug, so to speak. But the damage was already done, I'm afraid."
Carrie was listening with rapt attention and still couldn't quite understand the need for such behavior. She didn't care about her image as much as she cared about the food she prepared and raising her sons to be kind and considerate human beings. She also cared enough about her guests to see that they had freshly-laundered bedding and were well taken care of during their stay at her Bed and Breakfast. Image had nothing to do with it.
"I suppose it's difficult to live up to such high standards all the time," Carrie commented. "It must be nice to get away from it for a while."
"It is," Lily smiled tiredly. "I would like nothing better than for Bill to retire from the Senate, so we can move to a quiet country home somewhere away from the city and raise our children out of the limelight."
"Do you really want that?" Carrie looked skeptical. "I mean, this isn't exactly an easy life we live here. I'm up at the crack of dawn to get fresh bakery ready for my guests. Then I get the boys up and ready for school and have them out the door in time to catch the bus. Then I oversee the cleaning of the rooms occupied by our guests. Not to mention making sure there's food on the table for dinner when the boys get home. It's exhausting sometimes."
"And yet you seem very happy," Lily said.
"I am," Carrie smiled. "I love my home and I adore my family. I wouldn't have it any other way. But sometimes, just sometimes, I wish I had a glamorous life with limousines and a staff to take care of all the mundane tasks. Maids or a housekeeper to do the laundry and clean up after my family.A chef to prepare meals. It would be nice to just put my feet up and be waited on for a change."
Lily's brow lifted and she grinned wryly. "It is nice. I grew up with the proverbial silver spoon in my mouth and never had to think about laundry or meals or cleaning up after myself. We had a full staff of servants who took care of all that for us. Mother didn't have to do more than tell our cook what to prepare for dinner. She did, however, do a lot of planning for parties and events that she was in charge of. I don't ever remember her lifting a finger to do dishes, though. That would have been something."
"That's why I had Ben install a dishwasher last winter," Carrie chuckled. "But I still do dishes by hand, occasionally. It's nice to get your hands soapy and then have someone dry them and put them away. Some of our best conversations have happened while we were doing dishes together."
Lily glanced at the sink and saw a pile of plates, silverware and pans stacked neatly next to it.
"I would love to help you with the dishes," she said to Carrie. "You wash and I'll dry? Then we can head into town and see how things are going at the hospital with my sister?"
"That sounds good, but you don't really have to…"
"Oh, don't be silly," Lily waved a dismissive hand. "I wouldn't offer if I didn't want to. Besides, you've opened your home to us. The least I can do is help you with a few dishes. There certainly doesn't seem to be enough for a full load in the dishwasher."
Carrie smiled warmly. "You know something, Lily?"
"Hm?" Lily said, as she grabbed her empty plate and glass and carried them over to the sink.
"Please don't take this the wrong way, but I'm a little grateful to your sister for what happened," Carrie said as she started the water running in the sink. "Because I never would have gotten to know you and your mother, otherwise. Not that I'm glad your sister ended up in the hospital, mind you."
"I understand," Lily grabbed the dishtowel next to the sink and waited for Carrie to start washing and rinsing the dishes she was plopping into the soapy water. "I just wish she would come out of that stupid coma. Leave it to my sister to inadvertently bring two families together. She used to do that sometimes-before she went off to war. She had a way about her that just attracted all sorts of people. The servants loved her because she had such an easy manner with them. She never treated them like servants and they respected her for it. It irritated my mother and father to no end, because Lace never conformed to their ideal."
"Is that why you did?" Carrie tilted her head a little and glanced at the woman next to her.
"I…" Lily gazed out the window in front of her for a moment, lost in thought. "You know, I never thought about it much before now," she finally said. And then she shrugged. "I guess maybe I did. I wanted them to be proud of me-to at least notice me. I didn't want to be the mousy younger sister who always got overlooked."
"Did it work?"
"Not really," Lily replied on a heavy sigh, as Carrie handed her a plate and she absently dried it. "Mother and Father were always in their own worlds and Lace was always in hers. The only time our worlds collided was when Lacey did something that garnered their attention. And then…" She set the plate down and leaned against the countertop while shaking her head. "I knew what he was doing to her in that office of his and never tried to stop him."
Carrie watched the sadness and pain enter Lily's eyes. She stopped what she was doing and dried her hands on another towel. Then she put a comforting hand on Lily's arm.
"It wasn't your fault, Lily," Carrie said quietly.
"Wasn't it?" Lily turned her sorrowful eyes on the shorter woman. "If I had just tried to stop him…"
"He probably would have turned his anger on you," Carrie finished for her. "The abuse your sister received at his hand was never meant for you, Lily. Your father was taking out his frustrations and anger on her because he knew the truth. Now, as wrong as that is-and it is inexcusable-he justified it in his own mind by telling himself Lacey wasn't his. There was nothing you could do, especially as the younger child, to stop him from doing what he did. She was never his and he knew it."
"And I was," Lily glanced down at her belly with tears swimming in her eyes. "What if…" She couldn't speak the words. To say them would make them real.
"You aren't like him, Lily," Carrie said with a warm smile, as she gently rubbed Lily's back. "You're not angry and frustrated or driven by greed. You may carry his genes, but you're nothing like him. You have a good heart and you care. And this little one will be blessed to have you for a mother."
Lily turned those sorrowful, tear-filled eyes on Carrie and sniffed as a hesitant smile touched her features.
"How can you be so sure?" Lily sniffed again.
"Trust me," Carrie smiled and turned Lily slightly, so they were face-to-face. "People walk in and out of here all the time. I watch families interact with each other and I've seen enough to get a pretty basic understanding of family dynamics. I also studied psychology in college. So I know enough to be dangerous."
Lily grabbed a paper towel from the dispenser next to her and blew her nose. She then turned a watery smile on Carry.
"Okay," she nodded. "I guess you're right."
"I'm always right," Carrie replied with a twinkle in her eye. "Just ask my husband."
Lily couldn't help but laugh at the serious way in which the shorter woman said those words. She then wrapped her arms around Carrie and gave her a heartfelt hug.
"Thank you, Carrie," Lily said.
"You're welcome, Lily," Carrie returned the hug. "Anytime."
"Lacey was totally right about you," Lily said, as she returned to her task of drying the dishes that Carrie set on the rack in front of her. "She said you're good people and she was right."
Carrie just smiled, as she continued washing and rinsing the dishes in the sink.
Mac drove silently toward town. She wasn't in a good mood. Truth be told, she was in a real downer of a mood, which hadn't really improved during her conversation with her brother earlier.
Happily ever after. Huh.
Lacey was still in a coma with less and less of hope of a recovery with each passing day. The doctors had already met with Meredith and Lily-her family. They explained the situation and painted a dire picture of the inevitable possibilities.
Lacey couldn't stay in the hospital indefinitely. Eventually, she would have to be moved to a nursing home that provided round-the-clock care. There were two such places in the area. One was run by the state and the other was a private facility with a picturesque view of the mountains.
Mac didn't want to even think about that eventuality. It all seemed so cold and dispassionate to her. To have Lacey receive round-the-clock care from complete strangers? Then again, Mac mused, was it any different from the care she was receiving in the hospital?
There was only one nurse in the place who took a personal stake in Lacey's care enough to treat her like more than just another patient. That was Dani. But she didn't always work the same floor that Lacey was on. More often than not she was in the ER or working as a floater in other parts of the hospital.
Mac turned her pickup from the ranch road onto Highway 22 with little thought to where she was headed. She knew the way to the hospital by heart and really didn't need to pay much attention to where she was going. And there wasn't a lot of traffic on the road into town, even during mid-morning.
Her thoughts wandered aimlessly, as she headed toward Jackson. Her time with Meredith and Lily had been enlightening, to say the least. They had already shared a few meals together, with Meredith and Lily regaling her family with tales of Lacey's youth. Mac smiled wistfully when she remembered Lily's story about following Lacey to the local bar on the other side of the tracks.
It was so like Lacey to accept people for who they were, instead of judging them for what they were supposed to be. Mac remembered how Lacey had behaved toward others while they were serving together in the Desert. She just didn't care what other people thought of her and didn't stand on ceremony with subordinates. She called them by their first names and didn't mind when they let their hair down, so to speak, in her presence. Jimenez and Jessie both accepted Lacey as just another member of the crew, rather than as a ranking officer.
Mac smiled again when she thought back to the time she transported Lacey to the rendezvous with a convoy headed into Baghdad. The woman hadn't responded to her questions. Then Jimenez had chimed in that the Captain was fast asleep. A moment later, a snore sounded in her headset and Mac knew he was telling the truth.
Mac let those happy memories wash over her as she turned from 22 onto US-89, also called West Broadway. It would take her straight to the main entrance and parking lot of St. John's. She didn't even think about the light traffic that surrounded her, as she pulled into the parking lot and automatically steered the pickup into the first available stall, shut the engine off and got out. She'd done the same thing so many times that it was practically second nature to her.
"Nice day," someone commented.
"Yep," Mac turned to find a familiar figure approaching from the other side of her pickup.
"Summer's just around the corner," Jason Willows got into step with her. "I can feel the temps changing. Feels good."
"Better than winter," Mac's expression relaxed. "What are you doing here, Commander? And why are you out of uniform? On vacation or something?"
"Or something," he grinned. "I'm only Navy JAG part-time. Right now I'm on-duty with my regular gig."
"The Navy lets you moonlight?" Mac said, as they casually made their way toward the main entrance to the hospital.
"Naval Reserve," he replied. "I do the 9-to-5 as a U.S. Marshal." He opened his dark-brown blazer to show off the shiny silver badge clipped to his belt.
"Oo, impressive," she eyed the badge, then returned her attention to his smiling eyes. "I woulda never pegged you for Navy and law enforcement, Commander. You're a pretty good lawyer. Didn't think lawyers liked being on the enforcement side of the law."
"I went to law school, passed by the skin of my teeth and then made it past the Bar by the narrowest of margins," he grinned. "Did all that for my old man. He wanted a lawyer in the family and I was the only one available. My sister got married and had three kids, instead. I, however, wanted to join the Marshal Service and hunt down bad guys. It was my dream. So, we compromised."
"Interesting compromise," Mac replied, as she ducked through the automatic doors. "My old man wanted my brother to become a coal miner, like him. Follow in the old man's footsteps. Problem was Ben didn't want to die of lung cancer like the old man. There was no compromise in that. Ben moved here and found a job as a ranch hand. The old man died. End of story."
They made their way to a bank of elevators and Mac hit the up button. Then they both watched the digital displays above each set of elevators.
"And you?" Willows asked absently.
"I wanted to be a pilot. Didn't matter what I was flying," Mac answered with a small grin. "Ever since I went up with one of the guys to be a spotter during a wildfire. That's all I ever wanted to do after that. I was ten and it just stuck."
"Interesting," he repeated her earlier reply with his charming grin and a wink.
"Works for me," Mac said, as one of the elevators opened and they stepped inside. "I can't get enough of flying. It's the one thing I do really well. And no one needs to tell me how to do it. I just do it on instinct."
"That why you joined the Army?" Willows glanced at her. "To fly?"
"No," Mac shook her head sadly. "I joined the Army to honor my younger brother's memory. He died during Desert Storm."
"I'm sorry to hear that," he said. "Sucks to lose a loved one like that."
"Yeah," Mac shrugged. "He died a hero and no one knew it. Found out recently that he actually saved someone's life, too. I never knew that. The Army didn't give us any details when the uniforms showed up on our doorstep."
"They just told you he was a hero," Willows said, matter-of-factly. "Probably a result of friendly fire, if they didn't tell you anything."
"I really don't know," Mac said. "All I know is Lacey tried to save him. He was taken to the hospital where she was stationed at the time. And no matter what she did, she couldn't do anything for him."
His eyes met hers. "Col. Stephens was the surgeon assigned to your brother's case? How is that for coincidence?"
"I don't believe in coincidences, Commander," Mac crossed her arms over her chest and kept her eyes on the display. "Too much has happened for me to give credence to any of that B.S."
"Hoo-ah," he raised a fist slightly as the doors slid open.
She glanced at him in confusion. "Thought you were Navy, Commander."
He watched her alight from the elevator with that look of confusion on her tanned features and he couldn't help but smile.
"Would you rather I gave you a Navy hoo-yah?" He asked with an arched brow.
"Not really," she said, as they both turned down the hallway toward Lacey's room. "And I won't call you a squid if you don't call me a fly boy, okay?"
"Not a chance, Chief," he patted her shoulder companionably.
"Now," Mac said as they continued on their way. "Why don't you tell me what the hell you're doing here? And why you're following me to Lacey's room."
"I…um…" he was suddenly at a loss for words. "Long story short, I'm here with my partner. We're escorting a prisoner back to Texas. The guy jumped bail and we were assigned to track him down and apprehend him."
Mac stopped dead and waited for him to do the same. He moved on for several paces before he realized she was no longer walking next to him. He then stopped and turned to face her.
"Who's your prisoner?" Mac set her hands on her hips and glared at him.
"First," he said, as he returned to her and pulled his cell phone from his pocket. "Do you know this woman?"
She glanced at the picture on his screen, then moved in to get a closer look. A frown marred her brow as she studied the woman's features.
"She looks vaguely familiar," Mac said absently. "Why do I know that face?"
"Maybe because you caught a quick glimpse of her?" He prodded. "Does Twelve Palms ring a bell?"
Mac looked up and met his intense gaze. "Her hair was different."
"Blond," he supplied with a knowing grin.
"Yes," she looked back at the picture of the brunette who had been a blond when Mac had seen her in the window of the mental institution where Lacey was being held. "Where did you get that?"
"Funny story behind it," Willows shifted uncomfortably. "She tried to kill someone you happen to be acquainted with. Although, I have no idea if it's at all related to her involvement in Twelve Palms."
"Who?" Mac's gaze shot to his.
"James Stephens," he replied and watched for her reaction.
"And?" Mac returned drolly.
"She didn't succeed," he said. "The authorities caught her, along with another guy in Idaho Falls, Idaho. She tried to poison Stephens and only succeeded in giving him a mild heart attack. Her partner revived old James and he's very much alive, I'm afraid. I guess Reggie had a stroke of last-minute conscience or something. He claims James is his biological father. Crazy and twisted story, I know."
Mac's mouth went slightly agape.
"So?" Mac prodded when she recovered from her bewilderment. "What does that have to do with you being…" Her eyes widened, as she shot a quick glance down the corridor. "Tell me you did not bring that son of a bitch here, Jason."
"I didn't," he replied. "My partner did."
Mac bolted down the hall at a dead run. He tried to grab her, but she was too fast for him.
"You son of a…" she shot into the room and stopped dead at the sight that greeted her. "What the…"
"Hello, Mackenzie," Meredith was standing on the other side of Lacey's bed facing her. "Welcome to our little party."
Two men had their backs to her as Mac stood in the open doorway. She felt Jason Willows come up behind her, as both men turned toward her. They were handcuffed to each other. Mac knew James Stephens, who glared back at her with open hostility. The other man, however, though vaguely familiar, was a complete stranger to her.
"Mac…" Jason put a hand on her shoulder, which she immediately shrugged off, as she strode purposely into the room.
"What the hell is he doing here?" Mac approached James with rage flashing in her blue eyes. "Son of a bitch! You tried to kill her!"
"Now, just hold on a second," the blond man stepped in front of her and effectively blocked her path. "Think about what you're doing before you go off half-cocked, there. This man is in my custody."
"And who the hell are you?" Mac stuck an accusing finger in his face and then stepped back when she noticed his familiar sea-green eyes watching her intently. "What the…"
"Mackenzie," Meredith's voice on the other side of the bed had Mac's gaze shooting to her. "This is Justin. Justin Stephens. James is Justin's brother."
Mac stopped dead again and glanced from one brother to the other. There was a slight resemblance between the two. Around the eyes. But the scars that etched Justin's features and the difference in their height were enough to give Mac pause. James was also nearly completely gray. And the eyes.
Justin's eyes were so similar in color to Lacey's that Mac felt like she was looking right into her lover's eyes. James' weren't the same and didn't have the same warmth, either. They were grayer and harder-colder. No, the eyes definitely weren't the same between the brothers.
"Lacey's real father?" Mac glanced at Meredith over Justin's shoulder and received a nod from the woman.
"Apparently so," Justin smiled and his eyes crinkled with easy humor. "I just found out about it myself, actually. Nice to meet you, by the way, Mackenzie."
"You've been dead for thirty-some years," James put in. "Shoulda stayed dead, too. And that freak of nature…" Justin slapped a hand over his mouth and shut him up, instantly. James' gray-green eyes flashed with anger, as he mumbled something behind the hand over his mouth.
Meredith came around the bed and stood next to Justin, then glanced over at James with an angry glare.
"Is it really necessary for him to be here, Justin?" Meredith then glanced at Jason Willows. "Would you mind taking him out of here, Commander? This is very upsetting."
Justin snickered, as he pulled a key from his pocket and undid the handcuff on his wrist. "Maybe you should go find the cafeteria, Jason. Take Jimmy with you. Get him outta our hair and give us a few minutes peace."
"Will do, Jay," Willows stepped forward with a congenial smile, then sobered at the look on the shorter Stephens features. "Don't give me any trouble, Stephens. I could care less if you're related to any of these fine people. You're lower than the lowest in my book. Do anything stupid and I might just haul you over to Chief McGrath and have him put you in one of those lower-level cells of his for the duration." He then put the handcuff around his own wrist and left it slightly looser than the one around James' wrist. "Come on, Stephens. Let's go find some coffee."
Silence reigned until the two were gone. Then Meredith turned to Justin.
"I can't…" She shook her head as tears sprang to her eyes. "How?"
"Long story," he replied with a tilt of his head, as he took in her features with those curious sea-green eyes of his. "God, you look fantastic, Mere." He reached up and gently brushed the brown hair away from her forehead. "I didn't realize it until just now, but you haven't really changed a bit in all these years."
"You two want to be alone?" Mac scowled.
Justin turned to Mac and ducked his head slightly.
"Sorry. Where are my manners? I'm Justin Stephens," he held out a hand to Mac. "I guess this'll have to do for a proper introduction. Although, my partner told me a bit about you and that trip y'all took down to Louisiana to free my kid from that place James sent her to."
"Mackenzie Papadopoulos," Mac replied with an easy half-smile, as she shook his hand. "Most people just call me Mac. And I would do anything for Lacey. It was my pleasure to spring her from the loony bin."
"Well, it's a pleasure to finally meet you officially, Mac," Justin smiled and Mac saw Lacey reflected back at her.
"Pleasure's mine," Mac said, as she released his hand.
"Well, now that the two of you are properly acquainted," Meredith shot Mac a quick glance before she returned her attention to Lacey. "This is all so very strange." She looked at Justin and tears sprang to her eyes. "I'm so…"
"Hey," Justin wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "It's okay, Mere. Things will be okay, you just wait and see. It won't be long before that kid of ours opens those eyes of hers."
"This is all so overwhelming," she gave him a wan smile. "We thought…I thought you were…" She swallowed hard on the last word.
"I'm a little curious, Justin," Mac caught his eye. "When did you arrive? And, why now?"
"I came to see my kid-and Mere…" he shrugged and turned to look at Meredith. "I really didn't know you'd be here, Mere. I thought you were in Houston. They told me you were dead, but then Jason said you weren't. My ass of a brother really gets around, doesn't he?"
"You can say that again," Mac crossed her arms over her chest. "The man's slipperier than a damned eel."
"Yeah," Justin agreed. "Had an interesting talk with the people in Idaho Falls.Then with the chief of police here in Jackson. James apparently impersonated a pharmacist or some such nonsense?"
"Not sure," Mac shrugged. "My sister-in-law hasn't seen his face, yet. She's the one who picked up the prescription. Maybe she can positively ID him and put the confusion to rest."
"I hope so," Justin ran a hand through his sandy-blond hair.
Mac noticed it wasn't the same color as Lacey's. Hers had a touch of red highlights in it that gave it a burnished look when she was out in the sun. Justin's was just a very light shade of blondish-brown. Mac figured the red probably came from Meredith's side of the family, since her hair had a touch of amber highlights in it.
"He tried to kill me," Meredith said. "And he would have succeeded if I hadn't been wearing that vest your partner and Franklin insisted I wear." She shuddered slightly. "I can still feel that bullet as it hit me in the back. It was very painful, despite the protective vest."
"Yes, I know," he nodded.
"Me, too," Mac grinned wryly.
"Oh," Meredith glanced from one to the other, her expression slightly abashed. "I suppose I'm preaching to the choir on that particular subject."
"You are," Justin agreed. "But that's okay, Mere. It's one thing to have a vest on and another to actually feel the bullet penetrate your body. Be glad you didn't have to experience the latter. Not something I'd recommend for anyone's bucket list."
"Me, either," Mac nodded sternly. "Hurts like a son of a…er…It hurts like crazy."
"I can only imagine," Meredith let a small smile touch her features, before she returned her attention to her daughter. "I just wish Lacey could meet you right now, Justin."
"Yeah, me, too," he replied. "Poor kid." He stepped up next to Lacey's head and brushed a lock of hair away from her cheek. "She been like this for a long time?"
"A couple weeks," Mac said and then a glimmer of anger came into her eyes. "Want to leave me alone with James for about twenty minutes? I'd love to have a little…er…chat with him. I could probably get him to confess to everything." She slammed a fist into her palm with a gleam in her eye.
Justin chuckled mirthlessly. "No can do, Mac. Sorry. Gotta get him back to Houston in one piece so he can stand trial for murder and attempted murder. Don't know what else they'll charge him with after that. There's quite an ongoing investigation into his activities. I think the DA is very interested in this latest little stunt of his. They really weren't expecting him to rabbit like that, much less end up all the way up here in Wyoming."
"It turns out I never really knew the man," Meredith said.
"And yet you married him," Justin's expression hardened. "I still don't understand why you didn't wait for me, Mere. I thought you would. I actually banked on it when I was being tortured by the Viet-Con in that POW camp hell-hole they dumped me in."
"The Army told us you were dead," Meredith said. "I was so upset and so confused that I didn't know what else to do. Then Lacey was born early and she was so small…" She shook away the tears that threatened. "James was very kind to me and treated us both so well. I told him I didn't wish to marry him, but he persisted until I finally said yes. I just didn't know what else to do."
Justin put an arm around her shoulders and held her close. "Okay. I guess I didn't know how hard it was on you and I sure didn't bank on the Army telling you I was dead. I know why they did it, though."
"Why?" Meredith turned her face up to his.
"James," he said simply.
"Your brother got you declared dead?" Mac asked.
"Yeah," Justin shrugged. "I guess he thought the family fortune would be his if he did."
"Except your father lived just long enough to see that it didn't," Meredith added. "He knew Lacey was your daughter and put a stipulation into his will that made her your only living heir."
"Which was why James took out his frustrations on her?" Justin looked at her in surprise.
"Probably one of many reasons," Meredith nodded. "She also looks a great deal like you-in the eyes."
"Poor kid," Justin returned his attention to Lacey. "She's a beautiful woman."
"Yes, she is," Mac agreed with a quirky half-smile.
Justin eyed Mac for a moment and saw the sadness and love reflected in the blue depths that watched the woman he was finally coming to accept as his daughter. He'd seen the look a few times in some of the men he'd served with and a few others over the years. He didn't understand it, but that didn't mean he couldn't accept it. He did. If there was one thing he'd learned over the years, it was that love was the one thing in the world that transcended the barriers of race, ethnicity, culture and gender. People fell in love with who they fell in love with. It was a simple thing.
Unfortunately, Justin also knew that it was far from simple. While people fell in love, they also were judgmental and based most of their attitudes and beliefs on fear.
And what could be more fearful than two women who loved each other the way Mackenzie and Lacey did? Justin almost snickered at that. Yeah, that was definitely something to be afraid of. Right.
"Wanna share what's so funny?"
Justin looked up to find Mac eying him with a raised-browed questioning look.
"Just thinking," he replied with an easy smile.
"About?" Mac prodded.
"Life, love and the pursuit of happiness," he replied with a shrug. "The stuff dreams are made of."
"Speaking of dreams," Meredith slipped her arm through his and leaned her head on his shoulder. "I still can't quite believe this isn't a dream. It is just so very hard to comprehend that I have you back, Justin."
"Yeah," he said. "Now, if that kid of ours would just wake up, this would all be like one of those Disney fairy tales, with a happily-ever-after ending."
"Yeah," Mac sighed heavily. "A real Lifetime moment."
Silence settled over the small group as they stood there watching Lacey expectantly. There wasn't a sound in the room except for the quiet hiss of the air conditioning system. It was almost peaceful-serene.
"Now that you're back," Meredith was the first to break the silence. "Where does that leave Lacey?"
"What do you mean?" Justin replied.
"Well, your father named her as your heir when it was apparent you wouldn't be returning from Vietnam," she continued matter-of-factly. "Since you're still alive, you should resume your place as the heir to the Stephens family fortunes."
"I…" he began, then clamped his lips firmly shut.
"Wait, how much are we actually talking here?" Mac looked skeptical. "A few million?"
Meredith bristled momentarily, then relaxed at the squeeze of her shoulders she received from Justin.
"Last I heard," he explained, "it was more in the multi-millions. But that was more than thirty years ago."
"Forty-three-point-eight billion was the last figure I had from the accountant while Lacey was overseas," Meredith said quietly. "He had to do an audit of the financials for some legal matter or another. That figure is merely her net worth from the Stephens fortune. It doesn't include any stocks and bonds she acquired in her own name over the years. He said that figure was confidential and couldn't be shared with anyone. But you're her father, so..."
Mac felt her knees go weak and found the chair behind her just in the nick of time. She sat down heavily with a bewildered expression on her features.
"Billion?" Justin added in awe. "How is that possible, Mere? When I left, the family fortune wasn't anywhere near that sum."
Meredith glanced from Justin to Mac and saw nothing but open confusion on both faces. She wasn't quite expecting that. No. Awe? Yes. Surprise?A little. But open shock and bewilderment? Not at all.
"Your father invested in three rather lucrative companies before he passed away," she explained. "Those companies are now Fortune 500 corporations worth billions. Lacey owns controlling shares in all three and sits on the boards of each one. Although, she hasn't actually exercised her right to make any decisions for quite some time. Her duties in the Army and her service overseas were more important to her than running three corporations. So, she essentially bowed out of the decision making and left it in the hands of the corporate officers. Now, I suppose the responsibility reverts back to you, Justin."
"Uh…" He backed up a step and ran a hand through his hair. "Yeah, about that, Mere."
"What?" She eyed him speculatively. "Please don't tell me you're not interested. This is your legacy, Justin. Your father wanted this for you. He wanted the family's legacy to continue through you."
"Exactly," Justin's expression hardened. "Why do you think I went to West Point and did everything in my power to get out from under his boot heel? Although, it was James who managed to get me shipped to Vietnam. That wasn't exactly in my plans, let me tell ya."
"You're not serious!" Meredith exclaimed shrilly. "Why, Justin…"
"Now, Mere," he reached for her and was a little surprised when she backed away from him. "What the hell, Meredith? What has gotten into you?"
"I just…" she stopped and shook her head in open consternation. "We had so many plans, Justin. And then you went off to that God-forsaken war and…"
"Being a multi-billionaire was never in my plans, Mere. I thought you knew that," he closed the distance between them and placed his hands on her upper arms. "I told the old man that right before I left. Told him he could give it all to James and be done with it, far as I was concerned. But he wouldn't listen. Said he would sooner give it all to charity than put it in the hands of my good-for-nothing, greedy brother. He even said something about James refusing to take responsibility for his actions, or some such nonsense like that. The truth of the matter is, Mere, I enjoy simply being Justin Stephens, U.S. Marshal. I don't make a boatload of money at it, but I love what I do and I'm pretty damned good at it. Just ask Jason. We've been partners for years and we work well together. Wouldn't have it any other way."
Meredith said something in response, but Mac was no longer listening to the conversation. Instead, she was trying to sort through what she had just heard. Billions? She looked at Lacey and swallowed over the sudden lump in her throat.
Lacey Stephens wasn't a millionaire. She was heiress to a multi-billion dollar fortune and sat on the boards of three major Fortune-500 corporations. What the hell?
"You never told me that, hon," Mac leaned forward and rested her arms on the railing of the bed. "You never said anything about having more money than God."
Mac felt her world tilt a little sideways as the conversation at the foot of the bed continued. She wasn't listening anymore, but couldn't help catching bits and pieces. Meredith was obviously incensed by the notion that Justin had absolutely no desire to claim an inheritance he simply wanted no part of. She was flabbergasted by the very idea that Justin was content to live the life of a law enforcement officer and nothing more.
Mac's thoughts turned to Lacey as she gazed intently at the comatose woman. Was that why Lacey had run away to join the Army? Was she just like her biological father and didn't want anything to do with the family fortune?
But Mac also knew that Lacey enjoyed being a surgeon. She thrived on it, as a matter of fact. It was as much a part of Lacey as the air she breathed and the clothing she wore. Yes, even the flannel she liked so much.
The conversation at the foot of the bed turned heated, as Meredith argued vehemently with Justin over his refusal to bow to her wishes and reclaim his inheritance. Meredith was livid and her voice lifted several octaves as her temper flared.
"I don't care about any of that, Justin!" She shot back in response to something Mac hadn't caught. "You are the Stephens heir!"
"Lacey is the Stephens heiress, Meredith!" Justin countered. "I don't want it! I never did! I guess I never knew how much you did, though! Man, was I stupid enough to think that you loved me for me and not for my goddamned money? And all these years that I kept my distance, because I thought you really did love James and the children the two of you had together. I really was fooling myself. Wasn't I?"
Meredith pushed Justin away from her with enough force that he had to take a step back to steady himself.
All eyes turned to find Lily flanked by Carrie standing in the doorway.
"Lillian," Meredith skirted Justin and walked over to greet her daughter with a beaming faux smile. "I'm so glad to see you."
"What in the world is going on here, Mother?" Lily wasn't fooled, as she glanced from her mother to the man standing a few paces behind Meredith. "And who is this?" She took a second, closer look at Justin. "He looks vaguely familiar."
"This," Meredith did a half-turn and waved a hand toward Justin, "is Justin Stephens."
A dark brow rose on Lily's features, as she eyed the still-seething man behind her mother.
"James is my brother," Justin composed his features and held out a hand to Lily. "I take it you're Lacey's sister?"
"Lily Trent," she said, as stepped forward to shake his hand. As soon as she released his hand, she returned her attention to her mother. "Again, what is going on, Mother? Wait. Did you say this is…" Her eyes shot to Justin. "You have her eyes."
"Well," Justin glanced over his shoulder with a hesitant half-smile, "she is my daughter."
Lily's eyes snapped to her mother's. "This is him? The Justin Stephens?"
"In the flesh," Meredith was suddenly uncomfortable. "He's not dead, after all."
"No, I'm not," Justin put in with a satisfied grin. "I am very much alive and have been for quite some time."
"Yes, I can see that ," Lily said, as she watched Mac stand up and walk around the bed toward them. "Hey, Mac."
"Hey, Lily," Mac gave Lily a quick hug before greeting the quiet woman behind her. "Hey, sis. Long time no see."
"Hey, li'l bit," Carrie greeted Mac with a quick questioning look before she lowered her voice with her next words. "Everything okay?"
"Mostly," Mac leaned toward Carrie with a shrug. "Family.Gotta love 'em."
"I don't believe we've met," Justin stepped forward with an outstretched hand toward Carrie. "I'm…"
"Justin Stephens. Yes, I kinda got that," Carrie quickly shook his hand and released it. "Welcome to the other side of crazy, Justin."
"It has definitely been interesting," he smiled.
Lily turned impatiently toward her mother.
"Mother," Lily began, then caught Justin watching her.
"Oh, Lillian," Meredith impatiently huffed. "Please don't start again." She put a hand to her head. "I think I feel a headache coming on."
"Well, you're in the right place for it," Carrie put in with a
chuckle and a quick wink in Mac's direction.
"Would someone please explain why he's here?" Lily motioned toward Justin, then she looked right at him. "I'm sorry, but we really thought you were dead."
"As I said before," he held his arms out to his sides with his palms up, "I'm not dead."
"Oh, for the love of…" Meredith rolled her eyes in exasperation.
"He came to see your sister," Mac said. "And he brought…"
"Hello, everyone," the door opened and Jason Willows entered with James in tow. "Miss us?"
"Him," Mac finished with a scowl at James. "The no-good…"
"Father?" Lily exclaimed. "What in the world…"
"You didn't think to keep him away from here?" Justin gave Jason an equally-intimidating glare.
"Now, just a damned minute…" James shoved past Willows and jerked on the handcuffs that were attached to both of them.
"Hey!" Willows yanked on the handcuff attached to his wrist.
"That's him!" Carrie exclaimed. "He's the pharmacist! He's the one who gave me the wrong medication for Lacey and fed me that cockamamie story about Vicodin and OxyCodin being the same medication."
"You, son of a bitch!" Lily launched herself at James before anyone knew what was happening. "You tried to kill my sister again!"
Someone reached for Lily a bit too late, as she took James to the ground in a tangle of his arms and legs-hers and also the arms and legs of Jason Willows. Lily's fists pounded James in the face several times before Justin managed to grab a hold of her and haul her to her feet.
"Lillian!" Meredith exclaimed. "You're pregnant!"
"What the hell is going on here?!?"Dani's voice intruded but did not penetrate the chaos that ensued. "This is a hospital, people!"
"Shut up," a raspy voice said.
No one heard the quiet words.
"Would someone please help me with her?" Justin tried to control the flailing woman in his arms. "Control yourself, woman! Damn it! Ow! That hurt!"
Mac moved to help Jason Willows and, instead, got punched in the face by James.
"Mother fucker!" Mac turned around and punched him in the jaw with a resounding and very satisfying crack. She shook her hand and winced in pain. "Ow! Damn! That really hurt!"
"Thanks," Willows smiled up at her, right before James collapsed in an unconscious heap on top of him and knocked the air right out of him. "I really didn't need that. Son of a bitch!" He said, as he tried to catch his breath.
"Let. Me. GO!" Lily struggled in Justin's arms.
"Not until you calm down, woman!" Justin held her from behind and tried to keep her flailing arms from hitting him in all the wrong places. "Seriously!"
"Lillian!" Meredith shouted. "That is very unladylike behavior-especially for someone who is with child!"
"I'd let her go ape on him," Carrie chuckled. "The man is a first-class jackass for doing what he did."
"I don't give a crap, Mother," Lily shouted. "Father tried to kill my sister! Let me at him! I'm gonna kill him! Or at least just let me tear his eyes out of his head."
"A little help down here!" Willows said, as he tried to push the unconscious James off him.
"I'm a little busy with this one, partner," Justin grunted, as Lily got an arm loose and nailed him in the side of the head. "Ow!"
"Would you people SHUT THE HELL UP!!!"
Everything and everyone stopped. No one moved for several heartbeats. Then all eyes turned in unison to the occupant of the bed.
"What is wrong with you people?" Lacey rasped in a gravelly voice, as she sat up half-propped and glared back at them. "This is a hospital, for Christ's sake." She then looked around her. "Or am I somewhere else?"
Mac was at Lacey's side in an instant.
"Yeah," Lacey gave her a half-hearted, tired smile. "Sleeping Beauty is finally awake. Not that anyone could sleep with all this crazy bullshit going on." She glared at the others. "What crazy bullshit IS going on, here, anyway? Did I miss something? And what the hell is…"
Her face paled and went ashen as she caught sight of James lying on top of Jason Willows.
"OUT!"Dani's voice rose above the din that ensued, as she pressed the call button on the bed. "Everybody OUT!" She then thought about what she was saying. "Everyone, except Mackenzie. She stays. The rest of you can wait in the waiting room down the hall or leave or fall down a damned hole, as far as I'm concerned. If you go to the waiting room, then I'll be there as soon as I can to give you an update. Now, in the illustrious words of Sleeping Beauty, here, GET THE HELL OUT!"
"I'm her mother!" Meredith countered.
"And I'm her sister!" Lily stamped a foot in frustration.
"And I don't give a good goddamned if you're Mother Theresa and Sister Sledge!" Dani glared at them both. "Loving partner trumps annoying parent and pregnant sibling today. Now, OUT! Or I will have security remove all of you from this hospital and keep you out for the duration. Do I make myself clear?"
"Crystal," Justin released Lily and escorted both her and a furious Meredith out of the room.
"You can see her after the doctor checks her over," Justin's voice could be heard, as he left the room with a pointed glance back at his partner.
"I'll be right there, Jay," Willows nodded, as he shoved James off of him and then scrambled to his own feet. He quickly lifted the unconscious man fireman-style onto his shoulders and carried him toward the door. "You think I should…"
"Take him down to the ER," Dani said. "They'll check him over and make sure nothing's broken."
"Thanks," he gave her a charming grin before exiting the room with his burden.
"I'll just go get some coffee and call home," Carrie said, as she followed Willows to the door. She stopped and turned back with a bright smile. "Welcome back, Lacey." She then pointed at Mac. "I'll have Ben bring some dinner in later, li'l bit."
"Thanks," Mac replied, then turned her attention back to Lacey. "Hey."
"Hey," Lacey sighed heavily and tried to clear her throat. "What was that all about?"
"Nothing for you to worry about, right now, Lace," Dani quickly took Lacey's vitals. "We're just really glad you're awake."
"Absolutely," Mac beamed from ear to ear, as she gingerly took one of Lacey's hands in hers. "I am so glad you're awake. You have no idea. I really really missed seeing those beautiful eyes of yours."
"How do you feel?" Dani moved to the other side of the bed and wrapped her stethoscope around her neck. "Anything feel off? Dizzy at all? How does your head feel?"
"My throat is as dry as old parchment," Lacey rasped. "Other than that," she finished with a shrug. "What the hell were all those people doing here? Was that my ass of a father I saw? And did I see my sister and mother? Or was that just my imagination?"
Dani grabbed a cup and the pitcher of water from a side table. She poured water into the cup and handed it Lacey who drank it down in several gulps. Dani refilled the cup and Lacey downed it in a few swallows.
"Not your imagination," Mac kissed Lacey's forehead. "God, I am so glad to see those gorgeous green eyes of yours. You do not know how often I've wanted you to open them for me in the last few weeks."
"Weeks?" Lacey's voice was slightly stronger and less raspy.
"Three to be exact," Dani said, as she set the empty cup on the table. "You had us really worried, Stephens. Thought you were gonna check out permanently."
The door opened and Brenda Shubert poked her head in. When she saw that Lacey was awake, a smile split her features and she entered the room with a spring in her step.
"Well, lookey what we have here," she crossed to the bed and put her hands in the pockets of her white lab coat. "I thought I heard a ruckus. And who were all those people I passed in the hallway on my way here?"
"Family, for the most part," Mac supplied with a lopsided half-grin.
"The dark-haired guy with the old guy slung over his shoulder sure has his hands full," Brenda did a quick check of Lacey's reflexes with a small rubber hammer. "Any stiffness or numbness?" She looked pointedly at Lacey who shook her head. She then turned to Dani. "Vitals?"
"Normal," Dani answered with a slight smile. "Did the old guy come to?"
"In the worst way," Brenda snickered. "It took the dark-haired guy cuffed to him and another blond guy to subdue him. He was bellowing at the top of his lungs that he was going to sue someone for malpractice or claim police brutality or some such nonsense. He was pissed, let me tell ya. I would not want to be in the ER, right now."
"Poor Brian," Brenda shook her head. "He's the doc on call down there tonight."
"Brian Philips?" Mac shot Brenda a questioning look.
"You know him?" Brenda glanced up from her examination.
"We went to school together," Mac nodded.
"Of course you did," Brenda snorted. "Is there anyone in this town that you don't know, Mackenzie Papadopoulos?"
"The tourists?" Mac shot back with a playful grin.
"Your sister probably knows most of them," Dani added with a grin of her own.
"Do you three want to be alone together?" Lacey scowled at each of them in turn. "Catch up on old times? I can probably…" She moved to push the covers away.
"NO!!!" Three voices said in unison.
"I'm sorry, Lace," Mac rested her forehead against Lacey's again. "It's just so good to have you back with us. I kinda feel like celebrating or dancing around the room or just acting like a crazy fool."
"Yeah," Dani grinned at Lacey. "Haven't seen Stretch this lively in weeks. It's kinda nice to see a smile on that face of hers again."
"Grinning like a damned kid," Brenda added wryly. "And you are not going anywhere, Dr. Stephens. You are still my patient and will follow my orders to the letter. Understand?"
"Yes, ma'am," Lacey said contritely, then heard a snicker from the woman leaning against her forehead. "What was that for?"
"I am just really happy to have you back, Doc," Mac felt tears prick her eyes.
"Do you two need a moment alone?" Dani eyed them. "'Cause we can probably step outside and give you a moment or two." She then looked pointedly at Brenda. "Can't we?"
"Works for me," Brenda shrugged, as she put her hands back in the pockets of her coat. "We can make plans for the weekend. Besides, I think Dr. Becker needs to be notified that his neuro patient is finally awake."
Mac didn't even realize that they were alone together, as she continued to struggle to keep the tears at bay. Her eyes slipped closed and she just reveled in having Lacey conscious again.
"Hey," Lacey said. "You okay?"
"I am now," Mac's eyes fluttered open with tears on her dark lashes. "I…"
"Shh," Lacey took Mac's face in her hands and let her lips do the talking.
The kiss was gentle and chaste but held all the love that both women were feeling. It only lasted for a moment, but the entire world stopped for them.
"Okay," Mac ignored the tears that slipped down her cheeks. "You're really here. That's good."
"I'm here," Lacey repeated with a small smile. "And I'm starving."
That brought a chuckle to both of them that quickly turned into full-fledged laughter.
"Carrie said something about having Ben bring dinner," Mac said after her laughter finally subsided. "Maybe he can bring enough for both of us."
"Pot roast okay?"
"I think I can manage to eat some of your sister's pot roast," Lacey cocked her head slightly and let her nose wrinkle ever so slightly. "But the fried chicken is my favorite."
Mac quickly dug into her pocket and pulled out her cell phone. She hit a speed dial button and waited.
"Hello, Car," she said after a moment. "Yeah, we're fine and this connection sucks. Lacey's fine." She winked at Lacey. "She says 'hi'. Oh, and as much as she wouldn't mind having some of that pot roast you made for dinner…" She paused and a grin broke out on her features. "I will be sure to tell her. Thanks, Carrie. I really appreciate this. And please give Mindy a good scratch behind the ears for me." She listened for a moment. "Yeah, I'm sure the boys have spoiled her rotten and she will have completely forgotten who I am. Tell them I'm grateful they're taking such good care of her." She chuckled at the response. "Okay. I'll be sure to tell her. Thanks again, Carrie. Bye."
"Well?" Lacey waited impatiently, as Mac hit the end button and stuffed the phone back into her jeans. "What'd she say?"
Mac kept her expression serious for a moment. "You'll be having fried chicken for dinner, Dr. Stephens," she grinned from ear to ear. "She's on her way home right now to make some. Said it was the least she could do after you put the…er…sparkle back in my eyes." A blush sprang to her cheeks.
"Your family is the best, Ace," Lacey reached up, grabbed the front of Mac's shirt and pulled her down for another kiss.
Their second kiss was a searing one, as Lacey moved over enough to allow Mac to climb into the bed next to her.
"You sure about this?" Mac paused and looked at Lacey in concern. "You just woke up, Doc."
"I was in a coma, Mackenzie. I wasn't dead."
Mac's brow arched. "You know you were in a coma?"
"I'm a doctor, Ace. Give me a little credit, will ya?" It was Lacey's turn to lift a brow at Mac. "Besides, the three weeks comment from Danikinda gave it away. People don't usually stay unconscious for three weeks. And I have no memory of what happened." Then her expression turned thoughtful. "What did happen, anyway?"
Mac shifted positions until she had Lacey in her arms and they were both stretched out on the larger hospital bed. Once they were situated, she rested her cheek against Lacey's hair.
"Can't we talk about something else?" Mac finally replied.
"That bad, huh?" Lacey turned so her arm was draped over Mac's middle and her head rested in the crook of Mac's arm. "Mm, I really love this."
"Me, too," Mac sighed in contentment. "Do you think Dani and Brenda will mind if we just stay like this when they come back in?"
"They better not," Lacey smiled. "'Cause I'm not moving." Her expression sobered. "What was up with the family invasion, anyway? The noise was enough to wake the dead."
"Well, it woke you up, Sleeping Beauty," Mac hugged Lacey to her. "I'm not complaining about it, either." She flexed her hand and winced. "Ooch, that's gonna be stiff and sore tomorrow."
"What?" Lacey lifted her head enough to look Mac in the eye.
"My hand," Mac held the appendage in question up and tried to make a fist. She managed it, for the most part. "Bruised it on your old man's face."
"You hit James?"
"Knocked him out cold," Mac grinned. "I really hope I broke his jaw or his cheek while I was at it. You should have seen your sister, too. She was all over him like flies on shit. It was fantastic, especially considering her present condition."
"Lily hit him, too?" Lacey lifted her head and turned it enough to look Mac in the eye. "Wait. Did you just say something about her present condition? What condition?"
"Oh, that's right. You don't know about that, yet," Mac replied. "Not sure if I should be the one to tell you that you're…"
"Going to be an aunt?" Lacey finished for her with an innocent look.
"Something my mother said," Lacey said. "I caught bits and pieces as I was waking up. Did I also hear something about my real father being here?"
"Yeah," Mac said. "He came north from Texas to escort James back. His partner is Jason Willows, the guy who helped rescue you from that place in Louisiana."
"The Navy guy?"
"One and the same," Mac nodded. "Apparently the two are U.S. Marshals. Crazy, huh?"
"Any crazier than your sister's accusation that my fa-er, James switched my prescription?"
Mac sighed as the conversation once again came around full circle. She didn't really want to talk about the overdose, even if it was accidental. But it seemed that Lacey wasn't going to let it go.
"He did," Mac said. "Gave you a stronger medication than what was originally prescribed. Told Carrie it was the same thing."
"So I wasn't taking Vicodin?" Lacey ducked her head, so Mac couldn't see the expression on her face.
"No, you weren't," Mac replied flatly.
"What was I taking, then?"
"Oxy-something-or-other in a 40 milligram dose."
"I'm not a doctor, Lace," Mac shrugged. "I really don't know the exact name."
Lacey sighed and let her eyes drift shut. "OxyContin 40 is usually prescribed for chronic back pain. Vicodin isn't as strong. My fa-James would know the difference, too."
A long silence followed Lacey's last words, as both women became lost in thought.
"Tell me one thing," Mac was the first to speak up again.
"What?" Lacey glanced up at the seriousness in Mac's tone and swallowed over a sudden lump in her throat.
"Did you take those pills on purpose?"
Silence reigned, as Lacey shifted positions and Mac anxiously awaited a reply. But the silence was short-lived, when a quick knock on the door sounded. The door opened and several doctors in white lab coats entered the room.
"Well," the lead doctor's brow rose when he saw the two women in the bed together. "This is definitely an improvement over the last time I was here." He stepped up next to the bed, smiled and held out a hand to Lacey. "I'm Dr. Aaron Becker, Dr. Stephens. I'm the neuro-specialist here at St. John's."
"Nice to meet you," Lacey shook his hand, as she glanced beyond him to see Brenda standing there with another doctor.
"And this is my colleague, Dr. Angela Rice," Becker motioned to the stout, mousy woman in glasses next to Brenda, who hesitantly stepped forward to shake Lacey's hand. "I asked her to join me on this consult."
"Hello," Lacey watched the woman's hazel eyes widen as she glanced from Lacey to Mac. "This is Mackenzie Papadopoulos."
"Hey," Mac reached over and shook the woman's hand. "Relax, Doc. We don't bite-much." A playful grin split her features.
"O-okay," Dr. Rice shyly shook Mac's hand and then returned to Brenda's side.
"Way to scare the neurosurgeon, Papadopoulos," Brenda crossed her arms over her chest and gave Mac a wry grin. "Why don't you give us some time alone with Lacey, so we can give her the once-over and make sure everything is in working order?"
There was another knock at the door and Heather Morris entered with a cheery spring in her step.
"Sorry I'm late, everyone," she apologized. Then she caught sight of Lacey and crossed over to her. "There she is! A little birdie told me my favorite patient was awake. I just had to come see for myself."
Mac used the distraction to extricate herself from Lacey's embrace and climb out of the bed. She leaned over and gave Lacey a quick peck on the lips.
"I'll be back later," she said in a low voice, then saw Lacey's expression fall. "No worries, love. Gonna go meet up with my brother, before someone else catches a whiff of that chicken and tries to convince him to share."
"Hurry back," Lacey glanced at the people watching them. "I really don't want to be left alone for long."
Mac straightened up and gave them all her most intimidating glare as she set her hands on her hips. She then looked directly at Heather Morris.
"I'll be back in a few minutes," Mac said pointedly.
"This won't take very long," Heather nodded soberly. "Don't worry, Mackenzie. We'll take good care of her and make sure everything is okay."
"Yeah, that's what she said," Mac shot Brenda a glaring glance. "I expect her to still be awake when I get back. Understand?"
"She will be fine," Dr. Becker hid a grin behind a fist. "Please don't worry, Ms. Papadopoulos."
Mac glared at him.
"Go, Mac," Brenda stepped forward with a grin of her own. "She'll be fine."
"I'll be fine," Lacey shot them all a glare, before softening her expression for Mac. "Go ahead and bring back that chicken. I'm starving." She glanced at the IV needle taped to her hand. "And that thing isn't quite cutting it."
Mac gave Lacey another quick peck on the lips. She hesitated before rounding the bed and crossing the room to the door. Mac paused at the door for a moment and turned back. She caught a glimpse of green eyes watching her intently through a sea of white coats. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw a small smile on Lacey's lips.
"I'll be back!" She called over her shoulder as she left the room.
"I want my lawyer!"
"Man, that guy is so annoying," Sgt. Rory Davis glanced up at the woman sitting across the desk from him. "When is going to shut the hell up?"
"Hasn't shut up in three freakin' hours," Officer Amber Pitts replied without looking up from the Sudoku puzzle she was absently working on. "I'm about to go find some duct tape and use it on the son of a bitch."
He chuckled at her matter-of-fact response. If there was one thing about his partner that he enjoyed most, it was her no-nonsense attitude. And Amber had it in spades. He studied her covertly beneath his dark lashes. She was attractive, when she wasn't trying to be all tough-as-nails cop.
With dark-brown hair pulled back into a neat bun and light-brown eyes the color of fine whiskey, Amber had a look that any man could appreciate. She just had way too much attitude to go with it. And she wasn't the easiest partner to get along with sometimes. Rory knew that one, first hand.
"Get my goddamned lawyer on the phone-NOW!"
Amber was on her feet and standing in front of the jail cell in an instant. She seethed with anger as she glared at the man on the other side of the steel bars.
"Shut the FUCK UP!" She slammed her palm against the light blue steel bar hard enough to rattle the door. "I am so SICK of listening to you go on and on about your rights, jackass! Now, if you don't want me to come in there and beat the shit out of you myself, then SHUT THE FUCK UP!"
She glared at the older man beyond the bars of the cell. He was seated on the bare mattress in a rumpled suit that looked as if he'd been wearing it for days. His gray hair was mussed and his face was bruised. He looked like he'd already been in a fight or two over the course of the last few days.
But Amber didn't care. Her orders were to keep him locked up until the two U.S. Marshals returned to escort him back to wherever he was from. He was a prisoner. That's all she cared about. He just didn't look all that dangerous to her. Mouthy.Obnoxious.Annoying as hell.But not dangerous.
"Now, you listen to me, young lady…" He was on his feet and at the bars of the cell in an instant.
"No!" Amber stood her ground. "You listen to me, buster. I have my orders. I'm to keep you here until those guys return to take you into custody. But that doesn't mean I have to put up with your bullshit. Now, sit back down and shut the hell up or so help me..." She poked a finger through the bars at him, then returned to her desk and slumped into the squeaky desk chair.
"Feel better?" Rory grinned wryly.
"How long do you think the silence will last?" She glared at the cell.
"I give it five minutes, tops," Rory replied with a wry grin. "Guy can't help himself. Thinks he's God's gift to the shithouse."
"I thought that was your role," she gave him a teasing smirk and watched a dark brow arch on his chiseled features.
He had been her training officer when she was a rookie. Now, they were full-fledged partners. All of the officers in the precinct had to take a turn once a week at "the desk" and it just happened to be their turn that evening. Amber couldn't believe she and Rory were stuck guarding the most annoying prisoner in the universe. The guy was a real pain in the ass and just wouldn't shut up.
She caught the teasing gleam in Rory's eyes as she returned her attention to the half-finished puzzle in front of her.
"Don't even say it," she grumbled before he could open his mouth to speak. "I don't want to hear it."
"What?" He asked in all innocence, as he leaned back in his chair and folded his hands on his flat stomach. "I wasn't going to say a word, Pitts."
"You were going to say how lucky we are to have the opportunity to land this duty tonight," she snorted. "You should have pulled rank on Chappy and Reynolds, Sarg. I can't believe you didn't get us out of this."
"And miss all the fun?" He shot her his most charming grin.
She rolled her eyes at him. "I'd rather be out there rounding up drunks from the local saloons than in here listening to Stephens and his incessant…"
"Get my attorney on the phone-NOW!"
She shot her partner an I-told-you-so glare.
"Yeah, yeah," he held up his hands in surrender. "Shift'll be over soon enough, Pitts." He then glanced at his watch and frowned. "Only two hours until bar close. Then your wish will be granted."
"Oh, goodie," she frowned. "Guarding Mr. Obnoxious and rounding up all the drunk-and-disorderlies all in one night. I am so blessed."
The sarcasm dripping from her every word put an even bigger smile on her partner's face.
"You want to do the honors of fetching his meal from upstairs or shall I?" He studied her as she tried valiantly to ignore their prisoner's continued rants with her nose practically buried in her Sudoku book.
She glanced up from her puzzle with an exasperated eye roll. "Are you pulling rank, Sarg?"
"Oh, most definitely," he grinned from ear-to-ear. "It pays to have stripes on one's collar." He then put his feet up on the desk and grinned wryly. "Don't drop the man's food, Rookie."
"As if," she stood up, adjusted her gun belt and felt a little out of uniform without her service revolver in its holster. "I really hate having to pull this duty."
"You just don't like having to leave your gun upstairs," he hid a smile behind his hand. "Makes you feel naked without it, doesn't it?"
"What can I say? I like my weapon on my hip where it belongs," she said as she rounded the desk and headed for the stairwell. On her way past him, she stopped and leaned close to his ear. "Don't miss me too much while I'm gone, Rory."
He blushed to his roots, as she continued on her way.
"Call my damned lawyer!"
"Shut the hell up, old man!" Rory quickly recovered his composure, as he grabbed the Sudoku book from the desk across from him and concentrated on it with a lopsided grin.
He was definitely looking forward to the end of their shift, when he and Amber would go back to his place and have a little post-bar-closing drunken round-up celebration of their own. They weren't just partners on the job. Nope. And he was so very glad he'd learned to see past that tough-as-nails façade she used on the job. He knew the real Amber Pitts-knew her better than she knew herself sometimes. And that was just fine with him.
A grin split his features as he tuned out the incessant rantings of the old man in the cell beyond and thought of the many ways that he could show his partner just how much he appreciated her mushy marshmallow center. Oh, yeah. He was really looking forward to the end of their shift.
"How're you doing, li'l bit?" Ben sat down in the chair across from his sister.
She grinned at him. "Much better, thanks."
"I brought…" he held up a large paper bag in one hand.
"Oh, yeah," she took the bag from his hand. "Took you long enough to get here."
He glanced around the small room and noticed Meredith and Lily on the other side with their heads bent toward each other.
"Carrie's fried chicken can't be rushed," he replied. "Why aren't you sitting with the almost-in-laws?"
"Didn't want to interrupt the mother-daughter moment they're sharing," Mac answered with a wry grin. "Baby plans aren't really in my repertoire, bro."
"Ah," he nodded sagely. "Speaking of which, I think your dog really misses you. She's been sitting at our front door and whining, lately."
"What? She get tired of playing with your boys already?" Mac chuckled.
"I think she just misses her moms," Ben replied. "And, yes, I said moms."
"Well, now that one mom is finally awake," Mac grinned. "Maybe the other mom can take some time out to pay a visit to our little angel."
"Yeah, let's go with that," Ben snickered. "Your little angel went out with the hands yesterday and came home smelling like the entire damned herd. I think she rolled in manure just to get back at us for keeping her locked up in one of the tack rooms in the barn the other night."
"And why did you lock her in the barn?" Mac shot him a raised-browed glare.
"Because she escaped from DJ's room the night before that, found a pair of my favorite boots in the mud room and proceeded to tear the living crap out of them," he replied with a frown. "Carrie thought it best to teach her a lesson and had the boys put her in the tack room. We got complaints from our boarders that there was a wolf howling somewhere close by all night. I don't think Mindy was happy about being in the barn."
"Now you know why I don't keep my shoes and boots where she can't get to them," Mac replied with a satisfied grin. "I had those shelves in the front closet built for a reason, bro. Mindy loves chewing up shoes and boots. Mostly boots."
"Probably teething," Ben said with a nod. "It's about the right time for it. Probably wouldn't be a bad idea to go to that new pet store near the mall and pick up a few chew toys for her."
"Better than locking her in the musty old tack room all night," Mac said. "You can tell Carrie I'm not real thrilled about that."
"It was three in the morning, li'l bit. Cut her some slack, will ya?"
Mac sniffed the contents of the bag in her lap. "Okay, I guess I can do that, considering she sent this with you. It smells wonderful, by the way."
"She also included a few treats for you to share," Ben smiled. "Not sure what they are, though. We weren't allowed in the kitchen when she got home."
"I think it might be fresh apple turnovers," Mac sniffed again. "I can smell apples and cinnamon, along with the fried chicken. It's making me drool just thinking about it-and smelling it."
"Then maybe you should get along and go see how Lacey's doing," Ben urged. "Take that food to her before it gets any colder."
"I wish I could," Mac sat back with a heavy sigh. "Heather's been in there with her now for over an hour. Dani said she would come get me when the shrink is finished with her. It's been three damned hours since I saw her last. What if…"
"They just want to be thorough, li'l bit," he patted her thigh. "She was in that coma for three weeks, you know."
"And I just want to be with her right now," Mac pouted. "It's not fair."
Ben glanced at the two women across the room. "At least you got some time with her after she woke up. Carrie told me your friend Dani chased everyone else out right away."
"Yeah," Mac let the hint of a tired grin show, as she lowered her voice with her next words. "Meredith certainly wasn't happy about it. I'm just glad Lily was here to calm her down."
"And I understand Lily had some excitement of her own," Ben added. "Did she really go after her own father?"
Mac glanced at her bruised knuckles and winced. "She got a piece of him and so did I."
"Carrie mentioned that, too," he grinned proudly at her. "I woulda paid good money to see you deck him."
"The bastard deserves more than just a sore jaw for what he did to Lacey," Mac scowled. "I wish Justin and Jason would take him somewhere and kick the living shit out of him. Or let me do it for them."
Ben glanced around the room. "Speaking of which, where are they, anyway?"
"They took James over to the jail and decided to go to a steakhouse for dinner," Mac replied. "The two wanted one more night of freedom before they're stuck escorting the jackass back to Texas." She chuckled. "I hear he's been giving 'em hell over at the jail. Keeps hollering for his damned lawyer. Amber Pitts, Charley Pitts' daughter, is one of the officers on duty down there tonight. She's already threatened him a couple times."
"Charley Pitts' daughter?" He grinned. "Man, I can't believe she grew up and followed in the old man's footsteps. Hard as shoe leather, that girl. Never took shit from any of the kids who tried to pick on her for being the daughter of one of Maggie's girls."
"April wasn't exactly Mother of the Year," Mac added. "And working at Maggie McGill's wasn't exactly the stuff dreams are made of. I still can't believe they finally got the county to shut the place down. It was my understanding that there were more than a few local officials who frequented the establishment over the years. I actually managed to sneak in a time or two and learned some things from the girls there."
That got a surprised look from her brother.
"You went to a brothel?"
"I did a lot of stupid things during my wayward youth, bro," she shrugged. "You just didn't know the half of what I got myself into."
"And I really don't want to know," Ben shook his head and looked away. "We were just glad when you finally graduated from high school and went off to college. It was nice to have some peace and quiet in the house for a change."
"Managed to sow my wild oats," Mac shrugged again. "And found out it wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Then Derek went off and joined the Army and everything changed."
"But you still graduated with honors," Ben smiled sadly. "He was so proud of you for what you accomplished. You were our first college graduate in the family and it was so great to see you accept that degree. I just wish he could have been there to see you walk across that stage in your cap and gown."
"It just wasn't meant to be," she said. "A month later those uniforms showed up to tell us he'd been killed in action over in Iraq. That put a real damper on everything."
"Yeah, it did," Ben was a little surprised that she was actually talking to him about it and opening up. Mac hadn't done that-ever. "Those sessions with Heather must be going pretty well. I haven't heard you talk about what happened with Derek since he died."
"She's helping me deal with some of the crappier stuff in my past," Mac shrugged. "It's nice to finally get some of it off my chest."
"Yeah," he added. "It was really hard losing him like that."
"It was," Mac said with a sad smile. "But I'm learning to remember all the great times we had together. He was a good brother and my best friend." She glanced at him. "And you're not so bad yourself, big bro. Thanks for not giving up on me."
He put an arm around her shoulders and squeezed. "Never, li'l bit. I love you too much to ever give up on you. And I can't wait to give you away at your wedding."
She groaned and moved out from under his arm with a dark scowl.
"Man, you people just aren't going to let that go, are you? I haven't even had a chance to discuss the future with Lacey, much less ask her to marry me. What if she doesn't want to spend the rest of her life with me? Huh? And let's not even go there on the whole topic of same-sex marriage here in Wyoming."
"You're gonna have a tough time slipping it past the red-neck conservatives here in Jackson, Mackenzie," Ben agreed. "I wish it were a different story, but it's not. Truth is, most of America just isn't ready to grant the same marriage rights to gay couples as heterosexual couples enjoy. We're still just a little too puritanical for our own good sometimes."
"You can say that again," Mac crossed her arms over her chest and pouted. "Damned conservatives can't come up with anything better to do than piss all over the happiness of others."
Ben chuckled. "Makes 'emfeel better about themselves, unfortunately."
"We'll come up with a way around it," Mac resolved. "You just wait and see."
"First things first, you have to ask her," Ben added with a wry grin.
"First I have to get back in there and talk to her about how I feel," Mac groaned again. "I hate talking about my feelings. I'd rather fly into a hot zone with bullets flying everywhere."
"And how do you think Lacey feels about sharing her feelings with you?" He gave her a raised-browed look.
Mac actually thought about that for a moment before responding.
"Huh, you're right," she said. "The woman is worse than I am when it comes to those god-awful sensitive chats. She's always trying to change the subject on me."
"There ya go," he nodded with a satisfied grin. "You are two peas in a pod."
"I'm still going to ask her to marry me," Mac returned. "I want to spend the rest of my life waking up next to her or with her in my arms or making breakfast for her or…"
"Yeah, yeah. I get the idea," he interrupted with a soft chuckle. "I hope it works out for you, li'l bit." He finished by patting her leg again. "You could always fly up to Canada and get hitched. I hear they are legalizing same-sex marriage in some of the provinces up there these days."
"We'll figure something out," Mac said. "Where there's a will there's a way, bro."
"Hey, Mackenzie," Lily was suddenly standing there in front of her. "Is that fried chicken I smell?"
Mac glanced at the bag she'd set down at her feet and then returned her attention to the woman standing there.
"It is," Mac replied. "But it's for Lacey."
Lily's expression fell. "Oh, darn. I was hoping you would share. Especially with the pregnant woman who hasn't eaten anything since lunch."
Mac reached down, picked up the bag and held it in her lap possessively. "Go back to the ranch and get your own, Lil. I'm sure Carrie made enough for an army. She usually does."
"Okay," Lily brightened and turned to her mother. "We're going to the ranch, Mother. Carrie made fried chicken for dinner."
"So?" Meredith stubbornly remained seated and waved a negligent hand. "We can probably find a place here in town that serves fried chicken, Lillian."
Lily marched over to her mother and took her arm. "Oh, no you don't, Mother. Carrie's fried chicken is to die for. You've never tasted fried chicken until you've had Carrie's."
"Really, Lillian," Meredith huffed and tried to extricate her arm from her daughter's insistent grip. "Your behavior of late has been quite unbecoming."
"I'm pregnant, Mother," Lily scowled at the woman. "No one cares about my behavior. They can just chalk it up to raging hormones. And please stop calling me Lillian. I thought we agreed you wouldn't do that anymore."
"I…" Meredith sighed. "Okay, fine. I will ride with you back to the ranch so you can have your fried chicken. Just please don't ask me to sleep there tonight. I am not the rustic outdoorsy type, Lily. I will not sleep in anything but the finest hotel money can buy."
"Right," Mac added with a wry grin. "You'll probably be staying at the Amangani on West Pearl, then. They have five-star accommodations befitting your social status, Mrs. Stephens. I don't know what their prices are, though. You'll have to just go over there and check it out for yourself."
"Why, thank you, Mackenzie," Meredith gave Mac a hesitant smile. "The name itself sounds very chic and luxurious."
"If there are no rooms available at the Amangani, then you might try the Four Seasons," Ben added. "But that one's a bit of a hike from here. You're better off getting a suite at the Amangani, if there's one available. That one's right here in town."
"I'll use my pull as the wife of a U.S. Senator," Lily added with a grin. "Not a problem."
"Well, let's go, then," Meredith's expression brightened. "Dinner first and then we'll call and make a reservation at the Aman-What was that name again?"
"Amangani," Ben supplied. "It means 'peaceful home.' Don't ask me which language it's from, though. I have no idea. I just know we've had some nice golf outings there and it has some gorgeous suites. Very luxurious and exorbitantly expensive."
"Perfect," Meredith beamed. "Let's go, Lily."
Mac and Ben watched as the two women left the waiting room arm-in arm.
"Thai, maybe?" Mac finally breached the silence that followed.
"I think it's Thai or Japanese, maybe," Mac explained. "There's a bunch of those resorts all over the world. I remember seeing one in Morocco when I was there for training. It was really swank and ritzy. Exotic, even for Morocco."
"Like I said, I've played golf there," Ben said. "The course was one of the best I've ever played. Put my limited skills to the test, let me tell ya."
"I'm sure it did," Mac glanced sidelong at him. "Since when did you take up golf, bro? I thought you didn't have time for stuff like that."
"Oh, Carrie lets me get away for at least one weekend during the summer," he grinned. "She says it's nice to not have me underfoot when the Fourth of July guests come stampeding in. Some friends and I decided a few years ago that it was a great time to have a guys' weekend out. So, we started booking retreats and golf outings during that weekend. It's tough to get on that particular course without booking a suite. Do you know how much one of those suites goes for?"
"More than I make in a month," he continued. "And that's just for one night. Luckily I have a buddy who gets a corporate discount. Actually, he's a client-or, rather, his daughter is a client. She owns a championship show horse and travels the national show circuit. The horse came down with colic during a recent show and needed treatment."
"And Dr. Ben swooped in to save the day," Mac added with a grin.
"Hey," he shrugged. "I did my best to get the horse back on its feet in time for the show."
"Let's just say, Daddy was very appreciative when I saved his little girl's prize stallion," Ben gave her a smug grin. "She won her category, by the way."
"Good for you," she playfully punched his arm.
"Saving that horse was definitely one of my finest moments as a vet," he beamed with pride. "Not that I enjoyed using a common garden hose on an expensive show horse to clear out the blockage, mind you. The horse wasn't too thrilled, either. Tried to kick me twice and managed to put a hole in the stall wall the size of a man's head."
Mac chuckled. "They know how you saved their prized stallion?"
"No," Ben replied with a shake of his head. "I made one of the grooms clear the place out before I treated the animal. What the owners don't know won't hurt anyone, I always say. Besides, it's not good for business to have them around if the treatment goes south and the animal doesn't make it. Sometimes it's even necessary to put the poor suffering beast down. That definitely doesn't sit well with some owners-especially young kids. They tend to get a little too attached to their pets."
"I know how they feel," Mac nodded. "I don't know how I'd react if Mindy got sick and had to be treated by a vet."
"I would take good care of her for you. No worries, li'l bit," he patted her shoulder. "Besides, I think the boys would be more prone to getting hysterical than you would. You've had a little more experience in that department than they have."
"More than my share," Mac sighed. "And this whole thing with Lacey…"
"Yeah, I know," he put his arm around her shoulders again. "She's gonna be okay now that she's awake. You know that. Right?"
"Yeah," she said, as she let her head rest against his shoulder. "I'm really glad she's awake, too. I just wish someone would come get me, so I can go make sure it wasn't all a damned dream."
He chuckled. "It wasn't a dream, li'l bit. It was as real as that chicken that's making my mouth water."
"Mine, too," Mac glared at the paper bag as she sat up. "What the hell is taking them so…"
"Hey, Mac!"Dani poked her head into the room with a bright smile. "You ready to go back in there, now?"
Mac didn't hesitate. She grabbed the bag and stood up. Then she remembered her manners.
"Thanks, Ben," she hugged the bag to her. "I really appreciate you coming all the way down here to play delivery driver."
He got up and gave her a brotherly bear hug. Mac just managed to get the bag out of the way before he hugged her.
"Not a problem, li'l bit. Now, get in there and say hi to Lacey for us." He pulled away enough to give her a bright smile. "And make sure you finish every bit of that food. Or you'll hear it from a certain wife o' mine if you don't."
"No worries, there," she pulled him in for another quick hug. "Tell everyone thanks," she added in a soft tone full of emotion.
"Not a problem, li'l bit," he let her go and watched her go.
Mac was just finishing up the last bite of chicken on the bone she was gnawing, when she looked up to find Lacey watching her curiously.
"Nothing," Lacey ducked her head to hide a small smile, then glanced at Mac beneath hooded lids. "Just wondering where you're putting all that food. I'm usually the one with the hollow leg and never-ending appetite."
Mac dropped the denuded chicken leg onto her plate next to several other bones that had been summarily stripped clean.
"I haven't really eaten very well in a while," Mac said, as she used her napkin to wipe the chicken grease from her lips. "And Carrie's chicken, coleslaw and fried potato wedges taste even better now than I remember."
"It doesn't have anything to do with the company you're keeping, does it?" Lacey raised her chin with a teasing gleam in her eyes and the hint of a smile on her lips.
"Oh, that is most definitely it, Doc," Mac returned with a beaming smile. "I am just so incredibly happy to have you back."
She placed a hand on Lacey's and her smile widened when Lacey turned her hand to take Mac's.
"Me, too," Lacey smiled shyly. "I didn't think I was going to make it out of that dark place ever again. It was scary."
"Scarier than being shot down over the desert?" Mac's expression sobered.
Lacey nodded and then her eyes met Mac's. "You weren't there with me in the darkness and I had no idea where you were. It was way scarier than crashing in the desert." She then considered that. "No, I take that back. It was as scary as being trapped under that wreckage and not knowing if you were alive or dead."
"Aww," Mac tilted her head slightly and smiled fondly. "I can't believe you actually said that out loud."
"Had a little talk with Heather earlier," Lacey shrugged, as she ducked her head again and pushed the remaining food around on her plate with her fork. "She let me in on a few things."
"Oh," Mac instantly went on high alert. "What'd she say?"
"Just…stuff," Lacey shrugged without looking up.
"Lace, hey," Mac reached over and put a finger under Lacey's chin, tilting it up until their eyes met. "I really want to know. Did it have anything to do with what she and I talked about?"
"You mean, the stuff about me not opening up and sharing my feelings with you?" Lacey watched Mac's face closely and caught the slight eye roll before Mac closed her eyes. "She didn't tell me, Mackenzie. I guessed. It was…It's something I've been kinda thinking about for a while now."
Mac let her eyes drift open. "You have?"
"Yeah," Lacey nodded. "I've been a real jackass, lately. And you have every right to be upset with me for the way I've treated you. Especially after…" She finished with a shrug. "I really don't know what I was thinking that night. It was all just…I was upset…and my leg was bothering me. I was bored." She looked away, unable to meet Mac's gaze any longer. "Lily called and chewed me out. Then Carrie came in after you left and asked what I did to piss you off. I wasn't really thinking. I took a pill. Then another. I just felt so alone and…" She swallowed with difficulty. "After three more pills the pain was gone and I was feeling really good. Then…"
Mac reached over and put a hand on Lacey's upper arm, as tears slid down the blond woman's cheek.
"Before I knew it, the bottle was empty," Lacey sniffed and looked up into blue eyes shining with unshed tears and…love? "The pain was gone. I didn't feel anything. I was just numb. And then it all went dark." The tears slipped down her cheeks. "I am so sorry for what I put you through," she finished on a soft whisper. "I'm so sorry. It was so stupid."
"Me, too," Mackenzie smiled wanly, as a few tears slipped down her own cheeks. "I'm sorry for leaving you like I did. I should have stayed, so we could talk through what was going on. Instead, I left. I was such a coward. And I felt really guilty when Ben called to say I needed to get there quick. When I got there and saw you on the floor…"
Mac sniffed loudly, as she pushed the tray with their meal on it away and scooted closer. She grabbed a tissue and blew her nose, as she tried to compose herself.
"We were both acting like idiots," Lacey lay back and smiled wanly. "I get it."
"Yeah," Mac finished wiping her nose and tossed the tissue onto the tray. "We really were a couple of idiots." She gave Lacey a lopsided grin, as she took her hands. "Will you forgive me for being such a dunderhead?"
"A dunderhead?" Lacey snickered. "What the hell is that?"
"Not sure," Mac shrugged, as she planted a kiss on each of Lacey's knuckles. "But I'm going to try not to be one anymore. Which means, I'm going to try harder to tell you how I feel when I'm feeling stuff."
"Honesty, eh?" Lacey scrunched her nose in an expression that took years off her features. "I take it I'll need to reciprocate?"
Mac cocked her head and narrowed her eyes. "If you know what's good for you, Lacey Justine." She then smiled. "And I intend to spend the rest of my life being completely honest about my feelings for and with you." She rose up out of her chair, leaned over the railing and planted a searing kiss on Lacey's lips that left them both breathless.
"Er," Lacey said when their lips parted. "Might not be so bad, after all. I think I could get used to having you around all the time, hon."
"Oh, you think so?" Mac's dark brow rose in question. "Does that mean you wouldn't mind getting hitched to this old war horse?"
Lacey lifted her hands to Mac's face and held on as she stared into those blue eyes shining openly with love.
"Only if you're willing to get hitched to this tired old nag," Lacey scrunched her nose again. "Ugh! Are we really that old?"
"Nope," Mac gave Lacey a quick peck on the lips and then pressed her forehead against Lacey's. "We're just getting started, Doc. And I intend to stick around for a very long time. No more running away and hiding when things get tough."
"Can I at least get angry every once in a while?" Lacey gave Mac a lopsided grin of her own.
"At me?Or at your no-good excuse for a former father?" Mac returned seriously.
"Oh, I just want to kill him," Lacey returned in all seriousness. "Shoot him point-blank right between those beady gray-green eyes of his." She held up a finger. "Bang!"
"Good thing you're not armed," Mac sat back in her chair with a skeptical half-grin. "You're a little scary."
"According to my-our-shrink, I'm perfectly sane," Lacey replied. "She said I just have to work on opening up and sharing my feelings with the people closest to me." She grinned. "Like you."
"Oh, boy," Mac rolled her eyes in mock exasperation. "I can see where this is headed."
"I love you, Mackenzie Bridget."
"And I love you, too, Lacey Justine," Mac replied with a bemused smile.
"Enough to forgive me for putting you through hell over the last few weeks?"
"Enough to forgive you for most anything."
"For murdering the man who was supposed to be my father for all those years?" Lacey added.
"I'd like to murder the man," Mac returned seriously. "The jackass needs to be locked up in a deep, dark dungeon with no doors or windows. He doesn't deserve to walk the same ground as decent, law-abiding folk."
"I still think a bullet between…"
"Yeah, I got that," Mac smirked. "Why don't you leave that up to a judge and jury, hon? I really don't want to be visiting you in prison. Especially not after all we've been through lately."
"Okay, fine," Lacey pouted and thrust her lip out a little more than necessary. "I'll do it your way."
"Not my way," Mac leaned forward and took Lacey's hand in hers. "I just don't want to lose you so soon after getting you back. I really don't know what I would do if that happened, Lace. I just…" Tears sprang to her eyes again and she turned away.
"Hey," Lacey sat forward and pushed the bangs out of Mac's eyes. "Look at me, Mackenzie." She then softened her tone. "Please?"
Mac looked up with watery eyes.
"I'm not going anywhere," Lacey said as she gazed into those eyes. "And James Stephens can go to hell for all I care. Taking his life and losing what I have with you is the farthest thing from my mind. Okay?"
Mac nodded and grabbed another tissue. She blew her nose loudly and wiped the tears away.
"Don't be sorry," Lacey said. "You have nothing to be sorry about, especially when it comes to shedding tears on my behalf. No one has ever done that before and it's really sweet that you trust me enough to show your feelings."
"Yeah," Lacey nodded with a small smile. "Most definitely."
"Okay," Mac conceded with a watery half-smile.
Lacey lay back again with a tired sigh that brought concern to Mac's features.
"I'm fine," Lacey said when she caught the look. "Just tired. All this emotional goopy stuff is wearing on a body, ya know? Especially when the body in question just woke up from a coma only a few hours ago."
"Said body should get some rest," Mac stood up and started clearing away the remains of their dinner. "And I should head back to the ranch to see how Mindy is doing. Haven't been there in so long that she probably thinks I abandoned her for good." Mac finished her task and turned to find Lacey pouting again. "What?"
"You're leaving? I thought…" She glanced at the empty space next to her in the queen-sized bed and then returned her gaze to Mac's.
"Hey," Mac returned to the Lacey's bedside. "I won't leave if you don't want me to. I just figured you'd get a better night's sleep if you didn't have me wiggling around in bed next to you."
"Want to know the truth?" Lacey dipped her chin and looked up at Mac with what she hoped was her best puppy-dog look.
"Always," Mac replied with a grin.
"I don't sleep nearly as well when you're not here next to me," Lacey said.
A huge grin broke out on Mac's features, as she glanced up at the clock.
"Can you give me a second to step out into the hall and call my brother, tell him that I won't be home tonight?" Mac continued to grin, as she pulled her cell phone from her pocket. "No offense, but this room gets lousy reception."
"I'll give you ten minutes, tops," Lacey grinned back. "Then I'm locking the door and sleeping alone."
Mac glanced at the door and saw the metal handle and no lock.
"Ha ha, very funny, Doc," Mac returned her attention to Lacey with a lazy smile. "I'll be right back."
"Where have I heard that before?" Lacey shot Mac a wry smirk, as the dark-haired woman slipped from the room. "And there goes the love of my life." She grinned and settled against her pillow with a tired sigh. "I could really get used to expressing my feelings to her. Who knew?"
"So," Jason reached for the front door to the precinct and was a bit surprised to find it locked. "What in the world?"
"What?" Justin tried the door himself and found it locked. "Oh. I guess they don't like visitors after midnight."
"Apparently," Jason walked around the building until he reached another door. He tried that one and found it locked, too. "Great. Just great. This one is locked, too. Didn't you tell them we were coming back to get your idiot brother?"
"Yeah," Justin replied. "Maybe they forgot to let the night shift in on it, though." He tried to see in the darkened window next to the door. "I don't see anyone in there. Do you think there's another door around back?"
Jason was already headed in that direction. "There's definitely another door back here," he called. "And a light over it, too."
"Yeah?" Justin followed his partner and reached the door a few steps behind him. "Is it open?"
"Nope," Jason threw his hands up in exasperation. "Don't these guys think that crime happens after hours? What the hell?"
"Or maybe they had to close up shop in order to send all their patrols out for the night," Justin shrugged. "I'm sure James will be fine here until morning. After all, he's locked up safe and sound in that cell. What could be better than to not have him cuffed to the bathroom sink in our motel room? We'll pick him up in the morning and be on our way. Not a problem."
"But we came all the way over here," Jason countered. "You said you wanted to make sure we kept him safe and sound."
"And what could be more safe and sound than having him locked up in a cell all night?" Justin added. "Come on, partner, he's not going anywhere. Let's go see my kid."
"You think that's a good idea?" Jason glanced at his watch. "It's well past midnight, Jay. She's probably fast asleep by now. Besides, it's well past visiting hours."
"She's my kid," Justin lightly backhanded Jason in the chest. "I didn't say I needed to talk to her. I just want to see her and make sure she's okay."
"Okay, fine," Jason conceded. "We'll drop by the hospital on our way to the motel. But I'm staying in the car. I don't think it's a good idea to go traipsing through a hospital after midnight. They don't really like it when you disturb the patients like that."
"Fine," Justin shrugged, as they made their way back toward their waiting sedan. He then glanced back at the darkened precinct as a feeling of foreboding washed over him unexpectedly.
"You okay, Jay?" Jason noticed his partner's hesitation, as Justin leaned on the open driver's-side door and looked at the police station.
"Yeah," Justin shook himself to dispel the strange feeling. "Just a little creeped out is all. I guess I've never been to a police station that was completely dark before. It's a little weird."
"You're telling me," Jason slipped into the passenger side of the car and settled back against the seat.
They both glanced at the police station one last time before Justin started the car, put it into gear and pulled away. As the car slowly moved away, neither man saw the silent figure hunched in the bushes just outside the building. The figure kept to the shadows until the car was gone and then slipped silently away into the night.