Mountain Memories

By Kennedy Northcutt ©2011

For disclaimers, see Part 1 .

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Part 17


Chapter 57

Jackson Police Station - 12:58 a.m.

“Why is it so dark in there?”

“I told you to leave the lights on, Pitts,” Sgt. Davis parked and shut off the engine to their cruiser.

“I did, Sarg,” she shot him a worried look. “I know procedure.” She then glanced over her shoulder at the three men in the backseat. “How're we doing back there, boys?”

Three drunken murmurs followed.

“I think they're ready to sleep off all that whiskey they were drinking before the brawl started,” Rory Davis replied with a grin, as he climbed out of the car. “Where's Mavis, anyway? She always keeps the lights on. Can't really run late-night dispatch when you can't see the radio switches.”

“I don't think she was scheduled for tonight,” Amber Pitts climbed out of the car and adjusted her gun belt, before shutting the door. “I think Bobby was on. Mavis asked off to be with her fiancé tonight.”

“It isn't even the weekend,” Rory grumbled, as he stepped up to the back door and pulled his keys from his pants. “What the heck is she doing taking the night off? Mavis never takes off for any reason.”

“People in love do crazy things, Sarg,” Amber gave him a bright smile. “What can I say?”

“Don't start,” he shot her a pointed look. “This thing between us is strictly against regulations, Pitts. No one can know what's going on.”

“Yes, sir,” she gave him a mock salute as he opened the door for her. “What about them?”

“They aren't going anywhere,” he replied, as he flipped the switches on the wall closest to him. “Hey! Anyone home?” He walked through the deserted room with a frown. “What the hell? Where is Bobby?” He glanced into the dispatch room and saw that the switchboard had several frantically blinking lights on it. “Did you hear a call over the radio that would pull him away from his post?”

“Nope,” Amber casually stepped up behind him. “Unless it came in when we were breaking up that brawl at the Twin Peaks Saloon, earlier.”

“We should check the prisoner downstairs,” he said. “Make sure he isn't afraid of the dark and freaking out down there.”

“Would serve the bastard right,” Amber returned with a scowl. “Maybe Bobby got tired of listening to him scream and yell for his damned lawyer—decided to take a call, instead. I sure wouldn't blame him for wanting to get away from the jackass.”

They made their way downstairs and found it completely dark. Rory flipped on the overhead fluorescent lights when he reached the bottom landing.

“Hey! Everything okay down here?” He called as soon as he stepped through the door.

Silence greeted them.

“That's not creepy,” Amber commented, as she pulled her service revolver from its holster and held it down and at the ready. “Hey! Stephens!” She banged her fist against the steel bars of a cell.

“Here,” Rory inserted the key into the lock and opened the door. “Maybe he decided to sleep off his ranting. Tired himself out.”

Amber holstered her weapon and waited by the open door, as Rory gingerly stepped inside the cell. There was definitely someone in the bed with a blanket pulled up over them.

“Hey,” Rory pulled the blanket back to reveal a duct-taped and unconscious Officer Bobby Flynn lying there in nothing but his underwear. “What the…”

“What is it?” Amber tried to see what Rory had found. “Is he still alive?”

“It's Bobby,” Rory stepped aside to reveal the unconscious and bound police dispatcher. “Yeah, he's still alive. Just unconscious.”

“Where the hell is James Stephens, then?” Amber quickly checked the other cells and found them empty. “He's not in any of these.”

“No shit, Sherlock,” Rory moved to the desk and quickly dialed a number on the phone. “Yeah, this is Sgt. Davis over at JPD. We need an ambulance here, ASAP. Officer down.” He listened to the voice on the other end. “No, I think he's just been knocked unconscious.” He listened again. “Not sure how long. Just send someone over, ASAP. Thanks.”

“I think he was choked before he got hit or before he hit his head. Not sure what happened to him.” Amber was kneeling at Bobby's side, as Rory walked back inside the cell. “You think Stephens did this?”

“Probably,” Rory nodded, as he stood there with his hands on his hips and a dark frown on his face. “I'll go up and put out an APB on him, then wait for the EMTs to show up. You stay here with him and let me know if he wakes up.”

“Will do, Sarg,” Amber replied, as she gingerly removed the duct tape from Bobby's mouth and then proceeded to remove it from around his wrists. “Where the hell did that jackass find duct tape, anyway?”

“Upstairs, maybe?” Rory shrugged, as he left the cell. “This night just keeps getting weirder and weirder, let me tell ya. Must be a full moon.”

“I certainly didn't see any moon tonight,” Amber winced in sympathy as she watched the tape remove some of the blond hair from Bobby's wrists. “That's gonna leave a mark. Sorry, Bobby, but it can't be helped. Stuff is stickier than super glue.”


“Knock! Knock!” Justin poked his head inside the hospital room after quietly making his presence known. “Hey.”

“Hey,” Mac was wide awake with a sleeping Lacey tucked into the crook of her arm.

“Can I come in?” Justin remained in the doorway and waited for the go-ahead to enter.

“Sure,” Mac nodded with a tired smile. “I wasn't sleeping, anyway.”

“No, but it sure looks like she's out like a light,” Justin grinned, as he made his way over to the side of the bed and pulled up a chair.

“Eventful day for her,” Mac replied. “I guess being in a coma for three weeks takes a lot out of a person.”

“Apparently,” he glanced from one woman to the other with a fatherly half-smile. “How're you holding up, Mac?”

“Tired but happy,” she said. “Just couldn't sleep. Kinda afraid I'll wake up and this will all just be a damned dream.”

“It's not you know,” he said.

“She still hasn't formally met you,” Mac quickly changed the subject. “Dani kinda booted you out before you had the chance, earlier.”

“It's okay,” he couldn't help studying the woman he was coming to accept as his daughter. “She looks so peaceful.”

Mac glanced down at the blond head beneath her chin. “She actually admitted she sleeps better when I'm with her.”

“And that surprises you, why?”

“Because Lacey doesn't admit to any weakness,” Mac replied. “It's been one of the sticking points in our relationship.” She met his gaze. “You don't seem terribly uncomfortable seeing the two of us together in bed like this.”

“Should I be?” He gave her a teasing grin, then waved a negligible hand. “Had a couple buddies once who finally admitted their feelings for each other. Things got pretty tough in the POW camp we were interred in and I guess they figured there was no need to keep up pretenses anymore. The Army sure wasn't rushing to our rescue, by then. We put up a tattered blanket in a corner of our quarters—if you could call ‘em quarters. Anyway, gave ‘em some privacy. It was all good. Only one guy was homophobic enough to protest. But that didn't last long when he got sick and Denny—he was one of the two—was the only medic with us who knew anything about yellow fever. Old Lyle got over his homophobia pretty fast when he got so sick and dehydrated that he nearly died. Turns out he was just jealous that Denny and Tom hooked up together. Lyle actually had a little crush on Tom, himself.”

Mac chuckled softly. “Didn't want anyone to know he batted for their team, eh?”

“Can't blame him,” Justin shrugged. “People weren't as accepting of gays as they are nowadays. Times were a lot different. Women only served as nurses and chivalry wasn't yet dead. Things have sure changed over the last few decades. Didn't know I had a kid, either. That was sure a welcome surprise.”

“I'll bet it was,” Mac said.

“Are you two gonna keep talking all night? Some of us are trying to sleep, here,” Lacey mumbled in a voice hoarse from sleep.

Justin watched as her eyes fluttered open and he was staring into the same eyes he saw in the mirror every morning. A grin broke out on his scarred features as she just stared at him with a sleepy half-grin.

“Well, hello there, young lady,” he said. “I came by to see you before my partner and I have to escort James back to Texas in the morning.”

“Hi,” Lacey gave him a tired smile, as she studied his rugged features. “Justin Stephens?”

“In the flesh,” he nodded. “You have my eyes.”

“I've seen only one picture of you over the years,” Lacey said. “It was black and white, so…” She shrugged.

“If I'd known you were my kid, Lacey,” he began. “I would have made my reappearance sooner. I honestly didn't know. And it just seemed really cruel to step back into everyone's life after all those years had passed. Your mother seemed genuinely happy with the life she was living and I didn't want to cause her anymore pain. And James…”

“'Sokay,” Lacey reached out and waited for him to take her hand, which he did without hesitation. “I'm glad you're here now. I'm really glad you came by tonight, so I could finally meet you.”

“I was just telling Mac that we're headed back to Texas in the morning,” Justin clasped her hand in both of his. “I wish we could stay longer, but we really need to get James back as soon as possible. We already notified the home office that we have him in custody.”

“I understand,” Lacey nodded. “Maybe you can take some time off and come back for a longer visit?”

“Most definitely,” he smiled warmly, as he hesitantly released her hand. “I have a boatload of vacation time piled up that I never used. I'll just put in for a couple weeks when I get back. Can't wait to get to know my daughter and her partner better.” He shot Mac a quick wink.

“And I really look forward to getting to know my real father,” Lacey replied with an easy smile. “You don't know how ecstatic I was to learn that James isn't my real father.”

“Well,” he blushed. “I'm not exactly perfect father material, either. But I can sure try not to live down to the standards he's set.”

Mac snickered. “I don't think anyone but a serial killer could live that low.”

“He never did have a conscience,” Justin added. “The Almighty Dollar was the only god he ever worshipped, even when we were kids. But I guess I never thought he'd stoop so low as to murder someone.”

“I didn't murder anyone.”

Three pairs of eyes shot towards the man in uniform standing just inside the door. James pointed a service revolver in their general direction as a scowl darkened his features.

“What the hell are you doing here, James?” Justin stood up and put himself between his brother and the women behind him. “You're supposed to be locked up in a jail cell over at the police station. How the hell did you escape? And where did you get that uniform and gun?”

“I borrowed them,” James fingered the material of the shirt. “Uniform's not very comfortable, but it's serving its purpose. As to how I escaped, well, I'll just let you figure that one out for yourself. It wasn't very hard, though. People in these parts are more trusting than most.”

Mac quietly slipped from the bed.

“What do you want, James?” Justin continued. “Why are you here?”

“Unfinished business,” James waved the revolver slightly. “Now, get the hell out of the way, Justin, before I shoot you accidentally like I did that poor driver of mine.”

“Is that what happened?” Justin watched Mac from the corner of his eye as she gingerly move around the bed. “Did you kill the man accidentally?”

“He tried to grab the gun out of my hand after I shot Meredith,” James said and then an evil smirk split his features. “That was an accident, too. Didn't realize I had my finger on the trigger when I was waving it in her direction. Not sure how she managed to survive a bullet in the back.”

“Kevlar vest,” Justin supplied, as he lifted his hands in surrender. “She was wearing it per my partner's and her attorney's suggestion. They didn't trust you not to try something, Jimmy. And obviously with good reason, too.”

“Smart people,” James replied. “You and that offspring of yours should have followed Meredith's example. Because I intend to end this right here, right now. Neither of you will walk out of here alive.”

“Are you going to shoot all three of us?” Mac moved up next to Justin and crossed her arms over her chest in defiance. “'Cause that's what it's gonna take to keep this quiet.” She then cocked her head and looked him right in the eye. “I'd like to see you explain that one away to a judge, by the way. Besides, I don't think the hospital staff will believe you shot all three of us by accident.”

“No,” he smirked. “But there are ways around the truth, young lady. Or maybe I'll just tell the truth this time. We struggled for the gun and it went off. You two tried to save her and died trying.”

“You've never told the truth in your miserable life, old man,” Lacey put in. “But you could come clean on one little detail that has been bugging me since I woke up earlier.”

“Oh?” A gray brow rose on James' features. “What detail would that be?”

“My prescription,” Lacey replied. “How?”

“Oh, that,” he chuckled mirthlessly. “Told that other woman there was no Vicodin to be had. Filled the prescription with 140 milligrams of OxyContin, instead.”

“140?” Mac's eyes widened.

“Yep,” James nodded with a smirk. “Had the assistant put 40 mgs on the label. Stupid woman didn't know the difference.”

Lacey blew out an exasperated breath. “I should have looked closer at those pills.”

Mac reached back and patted Lacey's thigh. “It sure explains a lot.”

“You poisoned her, you son of a bitch,” Justin took a step towards James. “She almost died because of what you did.”

“So?” James shrugged and held the gun steady. “Do you think I give a damn what happens to that deviant offspring of yours? The only reason she's still alive is because I need her to sign over controlling interests in the damned family fortune. Tried to get her to do it when she turned eighteen, but she went off to college and then joined the Army.”

“Shit!” Lacey suddenly exclaimed. “That's it!”

“What?” Mac glanced from Lacey to James in confusion.

“Those sessions in his office,” Lacey slapped a hand to her forehead. “The beatings. He was trying to get me to remember to sign those papers when I turned eighteen. I completely forgot about that.” She then glared at James. “You bastard! That was why you took me into your office, instead of just beating me in front of Mother and Lily. I knew there was another reason. I just kept it suppressed for all these years. Mother FUCKER!!!”

“Watch your mouth!” James extended his arm with the pistol pointed at her. “You are no longer any use to me now that my good-for-nothing brother has returned from the dead.”

“Oh, but that's where you're wrong, Jimmy,” Justin put in. “The fortune is still in Lacey's name. That won't change, either. And if you kill her…”

“It all goes to charity,” Lacey added with a satisfied grin. “So, go ahead. Kill me! You'll never get your fucking hands on a single penny of it, jackass! So, there!”

Mac took a step toward him. “The jig's up, James. Put the gun down and just give yourself up. You're not going to win.”

“Stay back!” James turned the pistol on her.

Justin stepped forward and glanced at Mac. “Don't do it, Jimmy! Is it really worth the death penalty? You're already in deep shit for trying to kill Meredith and for murdering the chauffeur. Not to mention sending Lacey to a place that wasn't really a licensed mental institution. Did you know they caught old Elias Benson and are grilling him about his little operation and your part in sending your daughter there?”

James turned the barrel toward Justin. “Shut your damned mouth and let me think!”

“Why?” Lacey put in from the bed. “So you can cook up another way to make our lives miserable? Just give it up, Father…”

“Do NOT call me that!” James shifted the barrel in her direction again.

Mac and Justin both shot forward at the same time. Mac went for his legs, while Justin dove for his chest. Three shots rang out, as they took him down. The sound was deafening as it echoed in the room.

“Shit!” Justin exclaimed.

“Son of a…” Lacey sprang out of bed without thinking and hobbled around the bed on her bad leg. “Mac!”

Alarms went off in the hallway. Jason rushed in, took one look at the scene laid out before him and pulled his Smith & Wesson from his shoulder holster.

“Mackenzie!” Lacey collapsed on the floor next to Mac and pulled her into her arms. “Oh my God, NO!!!” She hugged Mac to her, as a trickle of blood spilled from the corner of Mac's lips. “Nononononono…”

“Jay!” Jason shouted, as he kept his weapon trained on the unmoving James. “Jay! Talk to me, partner! Don't leave me hangin' here!”

“Blood's not mine,” Justin coughed and blinked, as he tried to move and couldn't. “Or maybe it is. Not sure, partner.”

Chaos erupted as several police officers, security officers, a nurse and a doctor all poured into the room. The police officers surrounded James and subdued him, while the security officers hung back. Jason held his revolver with the barrel pointed up at the ceiling and showed his badge.

“U.S. Marshals!” Jason called to an officer who noticed the weapon.

“Status?” Someone shouted.

“Three shots fired,” Jason replied quickly. “Don't know who is hit.”

The nurse knelt next to Lacey, who was still holding Mac in her arms. She took one look at the blood on the front of Lacey's gown and then saw the trickle running from Mac's mouth.

“This one's been hit!” The nurse gingerly took Mac from Lacey's arms and laid her on the floor. She then rolled Mac slightly and applied pressure to the bleeding wound in Mac's shoulder. “

The doctor moved to an intercom across the room. “We have a situation in room 306. Trauma unit prepare to receive patients. Two with possible gunshot wounds.”

“Mackenzie?” Lacey gently brushed the dark hair away from Mac's eyes, as tears ran freely down her own cheeks. “Come on, hon. Please don't die on me. You can't die.”

“You need to return to bed, ma'am,” the nurse—Karen, by her name badge—ordered. “You're still a patient here.”

“I'm not leaving her,” Lacey glared at the woman. “Besides, I'm a doctor—a surgeon dammit. She has a through-and-through in the shoulder. Probably nicked the artery and the lung. She needs to be rushed into surgery, ASAP, before she loses too much more blood.”

“Yes, ma'am,” the young woman glanced up to find the other doctor glancing in her direction. “Dr. Lyons?”

“She's right, Karen,” Dr. Tim Lyons smiled at Lacey. “But Karen is also right that you should be back in that bed, Dr. Stephens.” He shot Lacey a lopsided grin. “And I concur. We can handle things from here.”

“Don't think that's possible, Dr. Lyons,” Lacey remembered him from the search and rescue mission. “Forgot about my damned knee when I jumped out of bed and rushed over here.”

“Then hang tight, Stephens,” he winked at her. “Help is on the way.”

“I sure as hell hope so,” Lacey leaned close to an unconscious Mac. “You hang in there, hon. Don't you go dying on me before we can get you taken care of. You're in the damned hospital, for Christ's sake. At least you don't have to suffer through an ambulance ride.”

“Hang in there, Jay!” Lacey heard Jason say from across the room. “Come on, man. Don't you dare…”


More alarms went off and Lacey wondered what was happening across the room from her. She couldn't see anything through the sea of uniforms surrounding those still on the floor. Then she saw blood pooling across the floor and her vision tunneled as a flashback hit her so hard that she was no longer in the hospital. She was in Iraq and it was hotter than hell. Men were screaming. Someone said something about an IED…

“Son of a bitch!” Lacey heard her own voice shout.


But it was too late. The alarms sounded. Sirens blared. Bombs exploded inside her head. And then the sea of red around her went completely black.


Chapter 58

Three weeks later, Lacey sat in a wheelchair next to a casket with an American flag draped over the top of it. A steady downpour beat down on the tent above her head. She ignored it. The rainy gray day fit her somber mood to a tee.

She wore her Army dress blues with several shiny new medals pinned to her chest. The medals had come with her uniform. A note had explained that they had arrived by U.S. Postal with a letter clearing Lacey of all charges and granting her an honorable discharge. None of it mattered, though.

Tears streamed down her cheeks unheeded as a chaplain in Army dress blues droned on about God, life and the grief that came with losing a loved one. Lacey felt her heart break with every word. And then he said that there was hope beyond the grief.

Was there, really? Lacey asked herself. Was it possible to move beyond everything that had happened? Could she just forget the past and pretend that her heart wasn't breaking into a million pieces over her loss? She didn't know if she could. Too much had happened. Too many people's lives had changed forever.

And there she sat in her dress blues under a protective tent in front of a six-by-six foot hole in the ground with more than a hundred people gathered around her. She glanced at the casket again and tried to see through a sea of tears that wouldn't stop spilling down her cheeks.

Never again.

She closed her eyes and tried not to relive those harrowing moments when Mac's life hung in the balance. She tried not to feel the impossible ache in her chest that came with the memory of Carrie and Ben showing up in her hospital room with tears streaming down their faces. Lacey tried valiantly to push back those painful memories, but they just wouldn't go away.

She was still unconscious when they moved her to another room and quickly removed the bloody gown she'd been wearing. Someone cleaned away Mac's blood from her chest and dressed her in a clean gown. Lacey was awake when Ben and Carrie finally showed up for the vigil that ensued. Lily and Meredith came shortly thereafter.

No one spoke as they sat in the eerie silence of Lacey's hospital room and waited. Heather Morris showed up an hour later. Lacey refused to talk to the woman. She didn't want to talk to anyone about what had happened. She couldn't bring herself to think about it.

Heather patiently sat with the others and didn't say another word. Lacey just stared sightlessly at the wall across the room from her new bed. She continued to stare sightlessly for what seemed like hours. Time didn't matter as Lacey's heart shattered that day. She felt more alone than she ever had in her life.

A hand gently squeezed her shoulder and brought Lacey back to the present. She looked up into blue eyes shining with love and unshed tears and placed a hand over the one on her shoulder. Those eyes in that beautiful face grounded her and helped right her world just enough to make things bearable.

“…and so, we say a final farewell to Justin Travis Stephens, a true hero whose service to his country and to the U.S. Marshal Service shall never be forgotten.” The chaplain's voice paused a moment, as the rain beat down harder on the canvas covering overhead. “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

An authoritative shout could barely be heard above the pounding rain and then loud gunfire echoed three times in the murky late-afternoon sky. Two soldiers then stepped up to the casket. They removed the flag with military precision, took two side-steps away and proceeded to fold the flag into a crisp, clean triangle, as a lone bugler played taps somewhere close by.

The flag was silently presented to Lacey, who took it with shaking hands. The young soldier then stepped back and saluted her crisply. Lacey returned the salute and watched the man slowly turn on his heel and move away as if in slow motion. It all seemed so surreal to Lacey that she couldn't quite believe that it wasn't all just another of the nightmares that she'd had over the course of the last few weeks.

Lacey glanced around at the sea of faces surrounding her. Some she knew. Most she didn't. The U.S. Marshal Service had allowed those closest to Justin time off to attend the funeral. They didn't know her and streamed past with brief words of condolence. Lacey barely heard any of it and merely nodded at them with a wan half-smile. She didn't speak a word to any of the rest of the people who filed past the casket to pay their last respects to a man she barely knew.

And then it was over.

Lacey looked down at the neatly-folded flag in her lap and then up at the shiny brown casket that was slowly being lowered into the ground. She then glanced over to find her mother watching her behind her black mesh veil. Lacey almost laughed. The woman always stood on ceremony, she thought to herself. And there she was dressed in designer black with an old-fashioned black veil hiding her features beneath a fashionable hat that was more suited to the funeral of an important dignitary or head of state.

“You okay?” Mac knelt next to Lacey's wheelchair and watched her with concern. “You look tired, hon. Ready to go back to the house and eat some of Carrie's fried chicken?”

“Yeah,” Lacey smiled wanly at Mac and then placed a gloved palm against her cheek. “You're absolutely gorgeous in that outfit. Have I told you that lately?”

“I've heard it a time or two,” Mac cocked her head, smiled and shrugged, then winced when her shoulder protested. “Ouch. Damn, that still hurts.” She gingerly adjusted the sling that held her left arm in place.

She was dressed in a white silk dress shirt under a black blazer and black slacks. The first three buttons on her blouse were undone, showing off a bit of cleavage at Lacey's saucy suggestion. A pair of shiny black cowboy boots completed the ensemble. The only thing she refused to wear was the black Stetson Lacey had picked out for her. Mac said it wasn't necessary and would just be over the top. So, Lacey conceded the point and let it go.

“Which is why I'm here to act as chauffeur,” Ben stepped up behind Lacey's chair and proceeded to wheel her away from the graveside.

Underneath a huge black umbrella, Carrie and the boys fell into step next to Ben, as he turned the wheelchair and was about to push it out into the pouring rain.

“Wait a second,” Lacey glanced at her mother and sister, both of whom were still seated near Justin's grave. “Can you guys give us a few minutes?” She then took Mac's free hand in hers and kept her from leaving with her family. “Stay, please, Mackenzie.”

“Sure,” Mac stood silent sentinel, as Lacey wheeled herself over to the two women.

“Mother? Lil?”

“Hello, Lacey dear,” Meredith greeted her daughter with a wan smile. “You look quite dashing in that uniform.”

Lacey glanced down at her attire. “I wore it in honor of him, Mother. Thank you for asking Parker to pack it up and ship it here so quickly.”

“You're welcome,” Meredith lifted her veil and wiped her nose with a silk handkerchief she pulled from her matching pocketbook. “Justin would have been very proud to see you in it. I'm just so terribly sorry he never had the chance to get to know you.”

Lacey removed her white dress gloves and reached out to her mother. Meredith hesitated a moment, before she took Lacey's hands in hers.

“I'm glad you stayed, Mother,” Lacey squeezed Meredith's hands, as tears slid down her cheeks. “I really believe he still loved you deeply.”

Lily put an arm around her mother's shoulders, as Meredith broke down in tears.

“My girls,” Meredith finally said when the tears subsided. She then glanced at the silent figure who had moved up to stand next to Lacey's chair. “You look much better than you did the last time I saw you, Mackenzie.”

“I feel much better. Thanks, Mrs. Stephens,” Mac replied with a wry grin. “Shoulder doesn't hurt as much as it did. And I have your daughter to thank for saving my life.”

“I didn't save your life,” Lacey countered. “I passed out cold on that damned floor when I saw all that blood. Some surgeon I am.”

“Karen told Dani you saved my life,” Mac shot Lacey a pointed don't-you-dare-argue-with-me look. “And Dani said you're the one who ordered I be moved to that room we shared after they moved me out of the ICU.”

“I…” Lacey was about to argue, but decided against it and clamped her lips shut. She reached up and took Mac's free hand. “Okay, you win. I'm a total mush ball in the face of our undying love for each other.”

Mac beamed and wiggled her brows.

“You two are priceless,” Lily snorted, as she adjusted her Jackie-O style sunglasses. “I wish Bill would act like a mooning lovesick newlywed again. It's such a breath of fresh air to see you two like this.”

“Oh, he will when he's in that delivery room with you, sis,” Lacey shot her sister a wide grin. “He might even buy you another diamond for the occasion.”

“A strand of pearls would go with that new Dior dress I purchased just last week,” Lily replied with a playful grin. “Of course, I won't be able to wear it for months, yet.” She glanced down at the small bulge protruding from her midsection. “I'm banking on the Trent heir with this one. He's growing so fast. I just can't imagine a girl being this big.”

Meredith silently stood up and walked over to the open grave. She reached for some dirt beneath the tarp and tossed it onto the casket.

“Goodbye, Justin,” she said in a voice choked with tears. “I'm going to miss you…terribly.”

Lacey silently watched her sister go to her mother and wrap her arms around the woman. Lacey wished she could do the same, but knew her knee wouldn't support her weight, yet. She wore a brace underneath her pants, per the strict order of her orthopedic surgeon. The thing was uncomfortable as hell, but she was getting used to it. That and she wasn't allowed to argue when it came time for her to sit in the wheelchair.

“I can't believe I'll never be able to get to know him,” Lacey said on a tired sigh. “We only had that one night and then…” She shook her head and pressed her fingers to her lips, as more tears slid down her cheeks. “God. I really wish I could stop all this damned blubbering.”

“Heather says it's good for you, hon,” Mac pulled several tissues from her blazer pocket and handed them to the seated woman. “Just let it all out. Don't hold any of it in.”

“I really don't think that's possible,” Lacey blew her nose and then gave Mac a wan smile. “You sure you want to spend the rest of your life with a damned crybaby?”

“Nope,” Mac shook her head in all seriousness. “But I do know I want to spend it with you. You are my life, Lacey Justine.”

“And you're mine, Mackenzie Bridget,” Lacey reached up and took Mac's hand, giving it a firm squeeze. “What do you say to us taking a little vacation? I hear the Bahamas are really nice this time of year. Sunny. Warm. White, sandy beaches. Crystal clear water. Fish in all the colors of the rainbow. Whatdya say? Hm?”

Mac glanced around at the pouring rain. “And miss all this lovely weather?”

“It's been pouring for two weeks straight,” Lacey grimaced. “I thought it was supposed to be summer, not monsoon season. Didn't know I was moving to Bangladesh when I agreed to come here. I'm surprised the cattle haven't yet washed away in the rising floodwaters.”

“Who says they haven't?” Mac let the hint of a grin lift one corner of her mouth. “We'll just round ‘em up and send ‘em off to the butcher if that happens.”

“Ew,” Lacey shuddered. “I am never eating steak again. Ever.”

“Carrie's fried chicken okay with you?” Mac leaned close and gave Lacey a quick peck on the lips. “She made it just the way you like it. Greasy.”

“She's my hero,” Lacey wrapped her arms around Mac's neck and pulled her close for another kiss. Tongues danced and the kiss deepened until they were both breathless. “And you are definitely the love of my life.”

“Feeling's mutual, Col. Dr. Stephens,” Mac replied with a lopsided grin. “Or is it Dr. Col. Stephens? I never can remember which way that's supposed to go.”

“Honorably discharged Ms. Lacey Stephens, as soon as I'm out of this monkey suit,” Lacey fingered her uniform coat. “I will be so glad to permanently retire this thing after today.”

“Aw,” Mac cocked her head and looked Lacey over from head to toe. “You look really good in that uniform, Doc. Maybe we'll keep it tucked safely away for special occasions.”

“Like what?” Lacey's blond brow arched. “I am not wearing it to anyone's wedding, funeral or any other austere occasion. No way. If it's going to be tucked away, then it will be tucked away where no one will ever see it again.”

Mac thrust her lower lip out in a pout. “Even if the wedding is ours?”

“Especially if it's ours,” Lacey replied. “I was actually thinking of celebrating our impending nuptials on a beautiful sandy beach in either the Caribbean or the Bahamas. Aruba, maybe? I hear they actually allow same-sex marriage there.”

“What about my family?” Mac glanced through the gloom to see that Ben was the only one still huddled beneath the umbrella in the pouring rain. “I'd really like them to be there for the wedding.”

“I'll charter a jet for the entire family,” Lacey shrugged. “Send them to Disney World in Florida afterwards, while we are on our honeymoon. After all, what's the good of having billions if you can't squander it on the ones you love?”

“So,” Mac's expression turned serious. “You're really going to accept your inheritance?”

“I already accepted it long ago, when I turned 18 and tore up the legal document James tried to coerce me into signing,” Lacey shrugged. “I just never had a use for any of it—until now.”

“Your mother told me your net worth is…”

“I'm still me, Mackenzie,” Lacey sobered. “Money, or the lack thereof, isn't going to change that. I am who I am.”

“And who are you?” Mac knelt on a level with Lacey. “You once told me being a surgeon was what defined you.”

Lacey reached up and brushed the backs of her fingers against Mac's cheek. “I am the luckiest woman in the world. I hold your heart, just as you hold mine. You once told me that being a surgeon was only a small part of who I am. Well, I guess we're going to find out together exactly what the other parts entail. Eh?” She smiled warmly. “Could be interesting. You might find out there really isn't all that much to Lacey Stephens.

“Never,” Mac gave her a peck on the lips. “I will never tire of peeling away your numerous layers, Lace. It will be my greatest challenge and one I will cherish for as long as I live. And I will enjoy every damned minute of discovering your many hidden talents and secrets.”

“I love you, Mackenzie Bridget.”

“And I love you, Lacey Justine,” Mac replied with a beaming smile.


“Forever and a day.”

The rain finally let up and suddenly stopped altogether, as a break in the clouds appeared. A sliver of sunlight peeked through the gray gloom and bathed the distant mountains in a golden glow. As the clouds continued to part, the glow intensified until the mountains were awash in golden sunshine.

“He sure has a fantastic view,” Lacey commented, as she gazed in awe at the green rolling hills with the mountains standing sentinel beyond.

“Yes, he sure does,” Mac stood up and smiled. “I'm glad my brother agreed to this.”

“Me, too,” Lacey glanced over her shoulder at Ben and smiled. “He didn't have to allow Justin's final resting place to be up here on this hill. But I'm really glad he did.”

“It sure is a gorgeous view,” Jason Willows stepped up next to them in his white Navy dress uniform with his cake hat tucked beneath one arm and his dark hair slicked back. “Justin loved views like this—could never seem to get enough of them after he came back from Vietnam. He could stand for hours and just admire a view of mountains or the ocean or stand in the middle of the desert on a clear night staring up at the stars. He loved communing with Nature almost as much as he loved taking down bad guys.”

“Thank you for coming, Jason,” Lacey held out a gloved hand to him.

Jason glanced at her hand, leaned forward and gave her a hug, instead. Lacey returned the hug with a sad smile.

“My pleasure, Colonel,” he grinned that charming grin of his when he straightened up. “Or should I be calling you Ms. Stephens now?”

“Just Lacey, please,” she replied with a haughty air. “I am officially a civilian and looking forward to a very long life away from the military.”

“Won't you miss it?” A dark brow rose on his chiseled features. “I hear you were one damned fine field surgeon before the helicopter crash.”

“Not gonna miss it at all,” Lacey replied firmly. “The past is the past. Time to put it where it belongs and concentrate on my future.” She took Mac's hand and smiled up at her. “And my future doesn't involve arguing with politicians and the Brass over a policy that I wholeheartedly believe should be abolished altogether.”

“Will you be joining us at the ranch, Commander?” Mac put in, before that particular discussion could take root. “My sister-in-law has been working on quite the spread. There's plenty of food for an entire army—civilian or otherwise.”

“I really wish I could, Mac,” Jason smiled sadly. “But I still have to escort my—our—prisoner back to Houston. Put this whole thing to rest, once and for all.”

“Yeah,” Mac nodded her understanding. “Can't say that I'm sorry about what happened to poor old James. Although, he really deserved to pay for all the despicable deeds he had a hand in.” She placed her hand on Lacey's shoulder. “Dying from a bullet wound to the throat was just too quick and not painful enough for the bastard.”

“At least he won't hurt anyone else,” Jason glanced at Lacey and winked. “Maybe once I get him back to Houston and turn his body over to the proper authorities, I can come back for a visit. Take you up on that offer to explore this wild territory on horseback, Mac.”

“Why don't I just send you a ticket to join us in the Caribbean, instead?” Lacey piped up. “We'd like you there for the wedding.”

His brow shot up at that. “Wedding?”

“Yeah,” Mac beamed. “She finally agreed to marry me.”

“Ahem,” Lacey glared up at Mac. “I agreed to marry you? Really, Papadopoulos? That's how you want to play this?”

Mac blushed to her roots and Jason just laughed.

“Really,” Meredith scoffed, as she joined them with Lily in tow. “Is this behavior appropriate, Lacey Justine? Your father was just entombed in his grave.”

“Actually, Mrs. Stephens, Justin was a fun-loving guy who had an unending passion for life,” Jason sobered instantly. “He wouldn't want us to take his death too seriously. He would be smiling now to see us laughing and enjoying ourselves. Actually, he probably is smiling down on us from that special place in Heaven reserved for heroes.”

“And on that note, time to go back to the ranch and enjoy a few beers,” Lacey started wheeling herself out from under the tent. “I intend to toast my real father and sing a few bars in his honor to let him know just how much I appreciate his timely donation.”

Mac, Lily and Jason snickered.

“Donation?” Meredith glanced around at them in confusion. “I'm afraid I don't understand.”

“She means the donation of his sperm, Meredith,” Mac explained, as she gave Jason a quick hug and then followed Lacey.

“Wha—” Meredith was speechless at the abrupt response and departure.

“Never mind, Mother,” Lily rolled her eyes and wrapped an arm around the older woman's shoulders. “That's just Lacey's way of saying she's going to enjoy herself at our expense.”

“Ladies, shall we?” Jason stepped up next to Meredith and chivalrously held his arm for her to take. “I would be happy to escort you back to the ranch. Then I'm afraid I'll have to get to the airport to catch my plane home.”

“Thank you, Commander,” Lily shot him a flirtatious smile.

“My pleasure, ma'am,” he tipped his hat to her and smiled charmingly.

“Let's just get this over with, so we can return to the hotel and pack,” Meredith huffed. “This has been a very trying trip and all I want to do is return home to some peace and quiet.”

“Yes, Mother,” Lily leaned back just enough to roll her eyes behind Meredith's back for Jason. She smiled when he just grinned back at her.


Mac sat on the front porch swing and stared at the sun setting behind the mountains. The clouds were gone and the sky was clear for the first time in two weeks. She was no longer wearing her blazer and had rolled up the sleeves of her blouse. It was warm, but not uncomfortable.

“You okay?” Carrie stepped outside onto the porch with two glasses of iced tea in her hands. She sat down next to Mac and handed her one of the glasses. “Thought you could use a drink.”

Mac held her glass up and shot her sister-in-law a wry glare. “And this was the best you could do?”

“Under the circumstances, yes,” Carrie replied with a motherly grin. “I watched you take one of your pain pills earlier, li'l bit. Shoulder bothering you again?”

“Aches mostly,” Mac gingerly sipped her iced tea with an anticipatory wince that quickly turned into a surprised half-grin. “Not half bad, for a non-alcoholic beverage.”

“There's enough sugar in it to give you a little kick,” Carrie sat back and pushed the swing into a gentle motion. “Turned out to be a really nice afternoon, considering.”

“You've done a really great job with everything, sis. Thanks,” Mac smiled warmly at the woman.

“I just do what I do,” Carrie shrugged, as she sipped her tea.

“Lacey enjoyed the chicken,” Mac continued. “And I think I saw her sneak another piece of that brownie pie of yours, when she thought no one was looking.”

Carrie smiled as she studied Mac. “My work here is done, then.”

“Yeah,” Mac nodded, as she returned her gaze to the landscape beyond.

“So, why are you sitting here all by yourself, rather than keeping Lacey company?” Carrie looked at Mac with concern. “Is there something going on between you two that I should know about?”

“No,” Mac shook her head. “Just needed a little space is all. A little time to clear my head and get away from all the guests who came to pay their respects. Had a bigger turnout than I expected.” She then glanced at Carrie with a small smile. “There's still about a hundred people out back. And that tent was a nice touch. Thank the guys for getting soaked while they got it set up. Don't know what we would have done if it had rained on all these people.”

“Probably would have sent most of them home,” Carrie smirked. “My house doesn't hold twenty people, much less a hundred.”

“Yeah, I suppose,” Mac nodded. “Lacey looked like she was enjoying being regaled with stories of Justin's days as a U.S. Marshal. She was really soaking it up when I managed to slip away.”

“She was on her third or fourth beer,” Carrie shot back with a wry grin. “Her eyes were starting to glaze over when I saw her last.”

A dark brow arched over a blue orb. “You think she's had enough?”

“Either that or the stories are boring her to tears.”

Mac handed her glass back to Carrie and stood up. “Thanks, sis. I think I'll go rescue my girl and take her home.”

“You're welcome, li'l bit,” Carrie took the half-empty glass from her. “You sure you two don't want to stay here tonight? Your old room is still available.”

“No thanks,” Mac shook her head emphatically. “I still can't help seeing her lying on that floor after…well, you know. Besides, I think we need some time alone.”

Mindy came scampering around the house at that moment and practically flew onto the porch with Dillon close on her heels. He dove to grab her and ended up sliding across the grass, much to his mother's dismay.

“Hey!” DJ yelled, as he got up and bolted onto the porch after the dog.

Mindy managed to scoot under the swing before the youngest Papadopoulos boy could catch her. She then looked up at Mac with pleading in her light-blue eyes.

“Looks like your dog needs a break from my kid,” Carrie pointed a finger at her son and gave him a silent ‘that's enough' gesture that had him fleeing instantly. “I don't think you'll be alone tonight if Mindy has anything to say about it.”

“Come here, Minders,” Mac knelt down and held out her free hand to the puppy, who scooted out from beneath the swing to get her ears scratched. “Do you want to come home with Lacey and me?”

Mindy gave her an enthusiastic lick on the mouth and Mac grimaced. Carrie chuckled.

“I think you have your answer, there, li'l bit,” Carrie got up to take the glasses back into the house. “Just let me know when you want the boys to come get her in the morning. They want to take her out on the trail with them tomorrow.”

Mindy barked loudly as if in agreement. Carrie just chuckled as she walked back into the house.

“Oh, you are such a traitor, aren't you?” Mac gave the puppy a firm scratch behind the ears. She then stood up again and started down the steps. “Come on, Minders. Let's go find Lacey and take her home. She's probably beat after all the excitement we've had today.”

Mindy followed close on Mac's heels as they made their way around the house to where a large tent had been set up. There was still plenty of food on the long tables set up at the outer edges of the tent. A space had also been cleared for dancing and a DJ was playing a Country and Western tune that Mac didn't recognize. Several couples were line dancing to the music and seemed to be enjoying themselves. To Mac's eyes, it looked like a wedding reception, not a funeral wake.

But she also knew that was how Justin wanted it. Jason had made that perfectly clear when they were making the funeral arrangements. And Lacey had wanted to abide by Justin's wishes—even if he hadn't been able to verbalize those wishes during his final days. The bullet wound to his head put him in a coma shortly after the shooting and he never recovered. It still sent shivers down Mac's spine to think that Lacey could just as easily…

Mac pushed the morbid thoughts aside as she strode purposely toward the tent and a crowd gathered around a barely-visible familiar blond head. But Mac stopped when she caught sight of two figures approaching.

“Hey, Mac,” Dani greeted her with a grin.

Mac waited for the Dani and Brenda to join her. She glanced in Lacey's direction when the group around her laughed at something. But then she turned her attention to the two women.

“This was some shindig you guys put on,” Brenda said with a smile. “Can't say I've ever been to a funeral quite like it. There was enough food for two armies. And the music is pretty good, too. Nice touch.”

“Commander Willows suggested it,” Mac said. She couldn't help noticing that the two were holding hands. “I see you're more than acquainted with each other.”

“We've been seeing each other for weeks,” Brenda replied. “Where've you been? Oh, wait, don't answer that.”

Dani frowned at her partner and rolled her eyes.

“The guys from TCSAR sure enjoyed the spread,” Dani decided a quick change in subject was in order, as she waved at several men and women in red windbreakers with the Teton County Search and Rescue emblem on their sleeves. Several of them lifted bottles of beer in salute and others merely waved. “Can't say that I didn't gain about ten pounds just looking at that dessert table.”

“You'll work it off tomorrow, hon,” Brenda said. “I intend to give you a good workout on our bike ride in the morning.”

“You sure you wouldn't rather…” Dani glanced up to find Mac watching them with her head cocked to one side. “Er…” She blushed to her roots.

“After lunch, then,” Brenda kept her expression neutral. “We'll find other things to do in the morning.”

“Yeah, I'm sure you two will,” Mac said after clearing her throat.

“Hey, Stretch,” Dani glared at her. “Don't think we don't know what you and Lace will be doing in that secluded cabin of yours.”

It was Mac's turn to blush to her roots. “I deserved that, I suppose.”

“Heh heh,” Brenda chuckled. “Just be careful. I really don't want to see either of you at the clinic or the hospital anytime soon. Or ever again, for that matter. I've seen enough of both of you to last me a damned lifetime.”

“Ditto,” Mac smirked. “Never was a big fan of hospitals, anyway. Needles, either.” She shuddered visibly.

“Most people don't,” Dani added. “Hey, speaking of medical personnel. Where's that patient of ours?”

“There,” Mac pointed to the laughing group across the way. She still couldn't see Lacey, but she knew the woman was there. She just had no idea how she knew.

“You planning on rescuing her from that bunch?” Brenda asked. “They've been sharing war stories for the last hour.”

Just then, Mac watched as one of the guys wheeled Lacey over to the DJ. She continued to watch as Lacey took a microphone from the man and her escort returned to the group after she gave him a grateful smile.

“Attention, everyone,” Lacey's voice came through loud and clear over the speakers. “Thank you all for coming here to celebrate the life of a man that I'm sure you will agree was a true hero and a wonderful friend.”

Mac listened to Lacey go on about the man she had only recently learned was her real father. Mac wanted nothing more than to go to Lacey and just be with her. But something kept her riveted to the place she was standing.

“Now,” Lacey continued. “I don't usually do this. But I really wanted to honor Justin in my own way. So, I hope you enjoy this.” She finished with a shy smile as she nodded at the DJ.

The low strains of a sorrowful tune began to play over the speakers and Mac thought she vaguely recognized it as a song she had heard a few years back. Then Lacey's voice lifted in song and Mac was entranced.

“Did you know she could sing?” Dani asked.

“I don't think she did,” Brenda answered.

Mac just stood there transfixed and stared in wide-eyed astonishment at the woman's whose angelic voice she had never heard lifted in song before. She really had no idea Lacey could sing, much less that she knew such an iconic song as May It Be from the movie Lord of the Rings .

…Mornie utulie (darkness has come), believe and you will find your way. Mornie alantie, a promise lives within you now....May it be the shadows call, will fly away. May it be your journey on, to light the day. When the night is overcome, you may rise to find the sun…”

Mac watched Lacey's eyes close as she belted out the refrain again. And then she repeated the last line and the song ended. Silence reigned for several heartbeats. No one dared move. And then someone began to clap slowly. Someone else joined in. Soon the entire crowd was clapping and several whistles were heard.

“Thank you, everyone,” Lacey nodded to the crowd with a blush and then she handed the microphone back to the DJ, who took it as a jaunty tune came over the speakers.

Mac watched as Lacey wheeled herself out of the tent on the side opposite of where Mac was standing.

“Thanks for coming, you guys,” Mac quickly gave them each a hug. “Hope you enjoy yourselves.”

And then she was gone.

“Did that surprise you as much as it surprised her?” Brenda shot Dani a raised-browed look.

“You could knock me over with a feather,” Dani replied with a lopsided grin. “There is no end to the surprises out of those two.”


Mac caught up with Lacey just as she was angling toward a small rise near the horse corrals. The sun had dipped behind the mountains. A golden glow was quickly fading in the twilight of evening.

“Hey,” Mac said as she stopped just behind Lacey's chair. “Mind if I join you?”

Lacey turned the chair and looked up at Mac with tears swimming in her eyes. She gave the woman a wan smile.

“Not at all,” Lacey wiped at her eyes.

She had removed her uniform jacket and rolled up her own sleeves in deference to the warmth of the evening. She was also no longer wearing the tie that went with the outfit and her blouse was open at the collar.

“You okay?” Mac asked, as she rested a hip on the arm of Lacey's chair.

“I am,” Lacey nodded.

“Can I ask you a question?”

“Shoot…um…poor choice of words,” Lacey finished with an exasperated eye roll. “Damn. Just ask your question.”

“It's okay, Lace,” Mac put her arm around the woman's shoulders and squeezed. “It was a beautiful song, by the way. Didn't know you were a fan of Lord of the Rings .”

“I've read all the books,” Lacey shrugged. “Tolkien was a genius.”

“Did you know that song was from the first movie, The Fellowship of the Ring ?”

“No, I didn't.”

“Enya wrote and sang it for the movie,” Mac continued.

“Was that your question?” Lacey prodded.

“No,” Mac leaned over and rested her cheek against Lacey's hair. “I just wanted to know why you never told me you could sing like an angel, Lace.” She sat up and shifted until she could see Lacey's face. “I don't think I've ever heard you sing before.”

“Haven't had a reason to sing before tonight,” Lacey shrugged, as Mac knelt in front of her. “It's not really something I'm comfortable doing in front of people. It just seemed important that I do it for him.” She shrugged again and ducked her chin to hide her embarrassment.

Mac reached up and brushed her fingertips against Lacey's cheek. “He would have been really proud to hear you sing, Lace. I know I am.” She smiled. “I think you sang that song better than Enya. And her version was nominated for an Academy Award.”

Lacey smiled shyly, as she met Mac's gaze. She saw nothing but love in the eyes gaze back at her and her heart swelled.

“God, I love you so much,” Lacey said. “I can't believe how much of an ass I was before I met you. You bring out the very best in me, Mackenzie. Do you know that? I never would have gotten up there to sing that song if not for you.”


“Absolutely,” Lacey smiled. “I had no idea where you went after you slipped away. All I could think of was how much I missed having you there when those guys were telling their stories about Justin. I wanted to go look for you, but I also wanted to hear their stories. Then I remembered all the times I used to sneak away from home and hang out at the saloon with the guys. Some of them could really sing and they taught me a few tunes—mostly sea shanties totally inappropriate for a kid my age.” She chuckled and Mac did, too. “My mother would have blown a gasket if she'd ever heard me sing one. I actually learned May It Be from one of the guys in Iraq. He was a big Enya fan and was always playing her music in the OR. I really liked May It Be and had him download it to the music library on my laptop. It just seemed to fit this occasion, perfectly. I think of Justin as a kind of Aragorn figure. He seemed like a protector and a warrior who fought for the innocent.”

“Yeah,” Mac agreed. “I suppose that's a pretty good description. And the song fit, too. I'm sure he would have loved hearing you sing it.”

“I'm not really that good,” Lacey ducked her chin again.

“Yes, you are, Lace,” Mac put a finger under Lacey's chin and lifted it until their eyes met. “You really do sing like an angel. I'm not just saying that because I love the dickens out of you. I really mean it. You could go on tour with that voice and making a killing.”

Lacey cocked her head and grinned. “Only if you get right up there and sing with me.”

Mac frowned. “I really don't think that's a good idea, hon.”

“Why not?”

“'Cause I sing like a dying cow,” Mac shot back with a wry grin. “Can't carry a tune to save my life. My brother actually kept a pair of ear plugs close at hand in the morning when I used to sing in the shower. He could not stand to hear me butcher show tunes, especiall that early in the morning.”

“Huh,” Lacey said. “I guess that's another thing you don't have in common with that chick that played the leather-clad action hero on TV, then. Because I think she can sing. Don't quote me on that, though. I've never actually heard her do it. For all I know, she probably can't carry a tune either.”

“She sings pretty well, actually,” Mac added. “I've heard her. They did a couple musical episodes and she did her own singing.” She frowned. “Her blond co-star, on the other hand, wasn't singing at all.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah,” Mac continued. “They dubbed her with someone else's voice. Not sure if she can even sing. Never heard her.”

“Well, there ya go,” Lacey chuckled. “We aren't destined to become a couple of sword-wielding action heroes, I guess.”

“I'll stick to what I do well, thank you very much,” Mac added. “I wouldn't mind being your roadie, though. Might be kinda fun.”

“Have I mentioned lately that I have no desire to take my voice on the road?” Lacey shot Mac a sarcastic half-grin. “No offense to your roadie skills, but I'm not a big fan of spending months tripping from one hotel to another and living out of a suitcase. Leave the music tours to people who actually enjoy that kind of thing.”

“Okay, Doc,” Mac stood up and walked behind Lacey's chair. “How about we go back to our place and you can put that voice of yours to good use. I'd really like to hear a few of those sea shanties.”

“You want me to sing about old sea dogs pining for their ladies fair using language that will make you blush to your roots?” Lacey snickered, as Mac pushed her chair toward a distinct pickup truck with a patiently waiting Mindy standing next to it.

“Nope,” Mac replied. “I want to hear you sing. Don't care what song you sing. I just really love hearing that beautiful voice of yours. You could sing about toilets and dirty socks for all I care. Just as long as I get to hear you sing.”

“Charmer,” Lacey blushed to her roots.


“You don't think we should say our goodbyes to everyone?” Lacey glanced over her shoulder. “Thank them for coming?”

“There's plenty of beer, food enough for a week and decent music to keep them entertained for hours,” Mac replied. “You thought of everything, Lace. Let them have their fun and we'll have ours. I really don't think they'll miss us.”

Mac wheeled Lacey around to the passenger side of the truck and helped her up into it. Mindy quickly jumped in after Lacey and sat on the seat next to her.

“You really shouldn't do that with your shoulder…”

“That's why I'm here,” Ben suddenly appeared to break down the wheelchair and toss it into the back of the pickup. “A little bird told me you two might try to make a break for it. I was keeping an eye out.”

Mac climbed into the truck and waited for Ben to close the door for her. She then put the key in the ignition and put the window down.

“Thanks, bro,” Mac gave him a quick peck on the cheek when he leaned in. “Appreciate the help.”

“Not a problem, li'l bit,” he gave her a peck of his own. “Just holler if you need some help out there tomorrow. The boys will probably pick Mindy up around nine, if that's okay with you.”

“Works for me,” Mac replied. “We're probably just going to laze around all day, anyway. Maybe watch some TV on that big screen Lacey picked up the other day.” She rolled her eyes at him. “I think she's become a shopaholic.”

“I am not,” Lacey shot back. “You didn't have a damned TV and I can't exactly go hiking or horseback riding right at the moment. There's nothing else to do out there. You don't have internet yet. That place of yours really needs an upgrade, hon.”

“Of ours, sweetheart,” Mac sat back in the seat. “It's our place. Or did you change your mind about staying there. Too rustic for ya?”

“Nope,” Lacey sat back and crossed her arms over her chest. “Just needed a nice TV, so we can catch up on all the movies and TV shows that I've missed over the last decade.”

“On that note,” Ben grinned at them as he stepped back away from the truck. “You two have a good night. And don't worry about the horses, li'l bit. I'll send the boys out to take care of them for you.”

“Thanks again, bro,” Mac wiggled her brows at him. “Say goodbye to everyone for us.”

“Will do,” he waved, as Mac put the truck in gear and pulled away.

He continued to wave until they were out of sight. Then he headed toward the large tent where the music was blaring and the party was in full swing. Carrie intercepted him and he wrapped an arm around her shoulders.

“The girls headed home?” She asked conversationally, as she caught sight of her oldest son slow dancing with a young girl. “Who is Jimmy dancing with, anyway? Is that Patsy Wilkins?”

“Yep,” he smiled fondly. “And yes to your other question. The girls are on their way home. I don't expect to see them until well after noon tomorrow—if at all. The boys will pick Mindy up in the morning and take her on the trail with the others. Is there anything you want to send over with them?”

“I made a batch of blueberry muffins,” Carrie said. “They can take those to the girls. They'll probably need the carbs. Heh heh.”

“Sounds good.” He grimaced. “Er…Did you just…”

“You wanna dance, lover?” Carrie shot him a saucy grin. “I will try not to lead, this time.”

He laughed aloud and garnered the attention of several people close by.

“Yeah, right,” he said, as he took her in his arms and moved them onto the dance floor. “You were born to lead, Carrie Chastity Papadopoulos.”

“Just dance, Benjamin Anthony,” she grimaced at his use of her full name. “Before I change my mind and go round up your young'uns, instead.”

“Yes, ma'am,” he said as he twirled her expertly around the dance floor like a professional.


“Why are you awake?” Lacey opened one eye and peered at the woman lying next to her, as she spoke in a voice hoarse from sleep. “The damned sun isn't even up. And I'm not lying on your shoulder, so don't use that excuse.”

“No,” Mac replied easily, as she snuggled closer to her bedmate. “Just relishing the peace and quiet before the boys invade. Had to take Mindy out for her morning potty break”

Lacey lifted her head and peeked over the side of the bed. She then turned her face up toward Mac and frowned.

“Mindy is still asleep, Chief,” Lacey growled. “So, why are you awake? Wanna try another excuse?”

“I love you?”

“Yeah, like that works,” Lacey wrapped an arm around Mac's middle. “Ugh! My head hurts.”

“How many beers did you have last night?”

“Not sure,” Lacey groaned softly. “Three, maybe four? I lost track after you disappeared. And I am paying for it this morning. Where did you go, anyway?”

“Front porch of the house,” Mac lightly stroked Lacey's temple with her fingertips. “Just needed a little break from all those people. Carrie came out and kept me company for a bit.”

“You should have taken me with you,” Lacey said. “You know how much I just love crowds.”

Mac snickered. “You were enjoying the stories of your father's exploits, Doc. Didn't want to take that away from you.”

“They're going to compile them and put them in a book,” Lacey said. “They'll send me a copy when it's finished.”

“That's cool. You'll have a permanent keepsake to remind you of him.”

“Yeah,” Lacey rested her head on Mac's chest, as she slipped her hand under the t-shirt the woman was wearing. “Not quite the same as having him here, though. They're also gathering up photos of him that were taken over the years. Mickey will send them when she gets enough to fill a box.”

“That's nice of her.”


Lacey brushed her fingers lightly against the Mac's belly. She could feel the warm skin quiver beneath her fingers and it brought a smile to her lips.

“That tickles,” Mac growled low.

“I know,” was the giggled reply.

“Not fair,” Mac added. “You have my good arm pinned and…”

Lacey dipped her head and brushed her lips against the fabric of Mac's shirt just above one breast. She then flicked her tongue out and watched with satisfaction as the nipple instantly reacted.

“Oh, boy,” Mac groaned.

“That did not hurt, Ace.”



“I really want you in the worst way, right now, hon,” Mac tried to move, but her pinned arm wouldn't let her.

“You already have me, lover,” Lacey tilted her face enough to give Mac a sultry grin. “Hook, line and sinker.”

“Oh, now you're a fish?” Mac snickered.

Instead of answering with a witty comeback, Lacey dipped her head to Mac's breast and latched on, shirt and all.


“Heh heh,” Lacey looked at the wet fabric with satisfaction. “Teach you to joke at a time like this.”

Mac made fish lips at her and crossed her eyes. Lacey burst out laughing and moved just enough for Mac to get her arm free.

“Ha!” Mac wiggled her fingers in triumph.

“You wouldn't dare,” Lacey saw the gleam of mischief in Mac's eyes.

Mac quickly slipped from the bed and moved to the end of it. She threw back the covers and exposed Lacey's feet. Then she peered up at Lacey with an evil grin.

“Not fair, Mackenzie,” Lacey pulled one leg up and out of Mac's reach, but her other one was hampered by her brace. “Tickling an injured woman is a capital offense, punishable by…er…” Mac's fingers found the bottom of her foot and Lacey burst out in a fit of giggles. “Stop!”

Mac peeked up and used her good hand to make a gill, as she did the fish-face again.

“You are so dead when I get back on my feet, Papadopoulos,” Lacey growled on a fit of giggles.

Mac looked down at the wet spot on her t-shirt, then back up at Lacey. “Paybacks are hell, Dr. Stephens.”

Lacey managed to slide her leg across the bed far enough away from Mac so the woman could no longer reach her. She then swung her body around until she was eye-to-eye with Mac.

“Get back in this bed and I might just forgive you,” Lacey sealed her words with a searing kiss and let her lips trail a blazing path across Mac's jaw to her earlobe.

She flicked her tongue and then took the lobe between her teeth. A soft moan from her lover told Lacey Mac was thoroughly enjoying the attention. Lacey's lips moved lower until she felt Mac's heartbeat in the pulse point on her throat. She heard another soft moan and smiled, then let her lips trail even lower.

Mac responded by lifting Lacey's face to hers and kissing her soundly. Their lips met and tongues collided. Mac's body instantly responded to the intimacy of the moment, as she savored the taste of her lover's lips and tongue against her own.

“God, I love you,” Mac's words came on a breathless whisper when their lips parted.

“You're still on the floor,” Lacey shot Mac a scowl.

“I am,” Mac quickly scrambled back onto bed, careful not to jar her shoulder and not the least bit successful. “Ouch,” she hissed and winced in pain. “Damn.”

Lacey waited patiently for Mac's expression to relax. Once it did, she resumed her intimate ministrations. This time, however, she lifted Mac's shirt enough to reveal the twin mounds hidden beneath.

“Beautiful,” she breathed, as she blazed a trail of kisses along the heated flesh along Mac's side.

“Oh…yeaaaaaaah…” Mac responded instantly to Lacey's touch.

But a loud knock at the door and a bark from Mindy brought both women up short. Mac groaned in disappointment, as she sprang from the bed and awkwardly yanked a pair of shorts on using only one arm. Lacey just let her head sink back to the bed, as she groaned her frustration into the rumpled sheets.

“Coming!” Mac called loudly, as someone pounded on the door again. “Just a damned minute! I only have one good arm, here!”

She closed the door to the bedroom and headed to the front door with Mindy close on her heels. The puppy was whining anxiously, as Mac yanked the door open. Mindy bolted outside before Mac could stop her, much to the joy of the two boys standing behind their mother. The boys took off after the puppy with excited giggles.

“Hey, Carrie,” Mac stepped back to allow the woman to enter. “I thought Ben was bringing the boys over to pick Mindy up.”

Carrie walked in and cast a sidelong glance at her tall sister-in-law. She had a large grocery bag in both arms and headed directly to the kitchen.

“Did we interrupt something?” She entered the kitchen and deposited the grocery bag on the counter. “Sorry we're so early. Thought you might still be asleep and we could just sneak in and be done with it before you even knew we'd been here.”

“So you practically knocked my door down?” Mac shot her a raised-browed skeptical look.

“Dillon got a bit carried away,” Carrie removed several items from the bag and proceeded to put them away.

“You don't have to do that, you know,” Mac glared at her. “I'm perfectly capable of buying my own groceries.”

“I also brought a fresh batch of muffins,” Carrie lifted a smaller bag out and set it on the counter. “Made them this morning. Ben got an early call to deliver a foal over at the Frazier ranch, so I was up.”

Mac leaned back against the counter and ran a hand through her disheveled hair. She then glanced up to find Lacey leaning against the doorframe just outside the bedroom door.

“What are you doing out of bed?” Mac was by Lacey's side and helping her to the nearest chair in an instant.

“I'm not staying in bed anymore,” Lacey groused. “Besides, I need to start getting up and around if I'm going to eventually be able to walk again. Can't keep babying this stupid knee or the muscles around it. They'll atrophy if I don't start getting them back in shape.”

“She's got you there, li'l bit,” Carrie rooted around for coffee and started a pot. “Just don't overdo it, Lacey. You don't want to end up back in the hospital, now, do you?”

“No,” Lacey gingerly sat down in the chair Mac helped her to. “Not going to happen.” She smiled up at Mac. “Thanks.”

“Not a problem, hon,” Mac gave Lacey a quick peck on the forehead, then sat down in the chair next to her. She watched Carrie putter around the kitchen and just stayed out of her way. “So, how'd things go last night? Did the party break up at a reasonable hour?”

“All's well that ends well,” Carrie replied. “Sent everyone home just after midnight.” She looked pointedly at Lacey. “Your DJ was a hit, by the way. He had everyone on their feet and doing a conga line around the place. It was fun. Haven't danced that much in years.”

“I'm glad you enjoyed it,” Lacey smiled. “At least some good came out of what happened.”

“Oh, your mother and sister send their regards,” Carrie added. “Meredith said she's tired of all the excitement and wants to go home to enjoy some much-needed rest. And Lily just wanted to get back to her husband. They both left this morning on early flights out of Idaho Falls. One of the boys volunteered to fly them over.”

“Okay, thanks,” Lacey nodded.

Carrie then looked at Mac. “And Jason Willows called just before midnight to say he and James' body made it safely to Houston.”

“Ah.” A shadow passed over Lacey's features.

“Hey,” Mac placed a hand on Lacey's. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” Lacey replied quickly and then she shook her head. “I can't believe it's finally over. He's really dead. He can't hurt us anymore.” She smiled sadly.

“No, he can't,” Mac gazed fondly into Lacey's eyes. “James will never hurt either of us again. It's definitely over.”

Lacey breathed out a sigh of relief. “Thank God.”

“And Justin,” Mac added. “He's the one who knocked the gun up into James' throat with his head.”

“It's what killed them both,” Lacey sadly shook her head. “I still have a really hard time believing they were brothers. They were so different.”

“Yeah,” Mac agreed. “As different as night and day.”

“So,” Carrie set two cups of coffee on the table and then poured one for herself. “What happens next with you two?”


“Well,” Lacey glanced from Carrie to Mac and back again. “How would you like to fly to the Caribbean for a wedding?”

“Er…yeah. What she said,” Mac blushed to her roots, as Lacey placed her hand on her arm.

“Whose?” Carrie glanced from one woman to the other with a hopeful smile.

“Ours,” Lacey replied. “We're just not sure how quickly we can put something tasteful together. Maybe the first or second week of November?”

“The Caribbean?” Carrie looked skeptical. “Why not just hold the ceremony here?”

“Um, because,” Mac put in. “We can't actually get married here, sis. Wyoming kinda frowns on same-sex marriage.”

“And you're sure you can actually get married on one of those islands down there?” Carrie added. “Why not just go to a state where it's legal?”

“Because I don't want to get married in Iowa or one of the eastern states,” Mac replied. “It gets cold in those places in November. I'd like to get married on a nice warm beach with the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean as a picturesque backdrop.”

“You want paradise,” Carrie nodded sagely. “I understand.”

“And I want to be able to walk down the aisle,” Lacey said. “But in order to do that on a white, sandy beach, I'm going to need to get this stupid leg working properly again. And that's going to take some time.”

“And money,” Carrie added with a pointed look at Lacey.

“I have that pretty well covered,” Lacey gave her a lopsided grin. “I just need to settle my affairs and sell off my shares in the three corporations I control.”

“You're going to sell your shares?” Mac was more than a little surprised by the revelation. “Won't the IRS ding you big time for it?”

Lacey shrugged. “So?”

“You want the government to get their grubby hands on a chunk of that money after everything that's happened?” Mac looked incredulous. “Why not just take the money and flush it down the toilet?”

“You mean you actually care about the money?” Lacey couldn't believe her ears. “Since when?”

“I don't,” Mac quickly countered with a nonchalant shrug. “I just don't want to see the government swoop in and bleed you dry. You've given this country more than enough blood, Lace. Why not keep the shares and use the money to open a clinic? Or maybe you can donate some of it to a worthy cause? Something other than just flushing it down the IRS toilet of no return.”

“Hm, I guess I never gave it much thought before now,” Lacey was thoughtful. “But I can certainly run your suggestions by my financial advisor and see what he thinks.”

A dark brow arched. “You have a financial advisor?”

“I have three, actually,” Lacey couldn't help but smile at the look Mac gave her. “Zachary, Chase and McIntosh. Would you like to see my investment portfolio, too? I'm sure I can arrange something.”

“She has a portfolio, too,” Carrie took a sip of coffee to hide her amusement at Mac's expense.

“My personal portfolio is quite extensive and includes some rather lucrative investments,” Lacey continued in her best haughty air. “The returns on those investments have been quite profitable, I'm pleased to say.”

“You're yanking my chain, aren't you?” Mac narrowed her eyes at Lacey.

“I've always been honest with you about the wealth I posses, hon,” Lacey sobered. “I may not be completely straightforward with my thoughts and feelings, but I've never lied or deceived you when it comes to how much money I have. And the money really doesn't matter to me, Mackenzie. I would give it all away in a heartbeat and beg for scraps on the street, as long as I'm with you. I honestly…I can't live without you. I don't want to. If it came down to a choice between keeping this vast fortune or sharing my life with you, I'd choose you without hesitation.” She placed her hand on Mac's arm. “I love you more than anything else in this world, Mackenzie.”

Mac smiled and took Lacey's hand in hers. “Can we keep just a little and maybe use it to add on to this place? I can see us in a loft bedroom above a much larger living room. Gotta have someplace to put that monstrous TV of yours.”

“Ours,” Lacey grinned. “Sure. Whatever you want.”

“Do you two want me to leave, now?” Carrie piped up after silently listening to the exchange. “I need to get back and help with the cleanup, anyway.”

“You don't have to go, yet, Carrie,” Lacey squeezed Mac's hand in hers. “We can continue this discussion later. Right, hon?”

“Absolutely,” Mac agreed and then added with a lopsided grin, “Consider it officially tabled—for now.”

“And your plans for today? Any idea what you're doing for lunch and dinner?” Carrie inquired. “There's plenty of food leftover from yesterday. I can bring some over later. Or you can come up to the main house and eat with us. The guests won't be returning until Friday. The hands took them on a cattle drive early this morning.”

“At least you have a little breather before they return,” Mac commented.

“I do,” Carrie nodded with a tired smile. “Gives me time to get that tent taken down and finish cleaning up the mess. And since the rain stopped, I've been able to hang the wash out to dry. It's been really nice.”

“Speaking of which,” Lacey said. “I need to send my uniform to the dry cleaners and have them seal it in a clothing box. Someone might enjoy looking at it someday. Not sure who, though.”

“It's official, then? You're no longer in the Army?” Carrie asked.

“I am officially a civilian,” Lacey nodded.

“Which means we both need to find jobs,” Mac added with a wry grin. “Otherwise we'll go stir crazy around here and drive each other nuts.”

“Speak for yourself, Chief,” Lacey said. “I'm perfectly fine staying at home and taking care of things here.” Silence reigned and Lacey glanced at both women. “What?”

“Exactly what will you take care of?” Mac gave Lacey a look of incredulity.

“I don't know,” Lacey shrugged. “I'm sure I'll figure it out as I go along.”

Mac snickered. “Yeah, right. I give that about a week and then you'll be stirring up trouble.”

The front door suddenly banged open and Mindy raced in, followed by an out-of-breath Dillon.

“Speaking of,” Carrie chuckled. “Dillon Jeremiah!”

“Yes'm?” He stopped next to Lacey and she wrapped a protective arm around his waist, as Mindy scooted under the table next to her leg.

The Aussie puppy set her chin on Lacey's thigh and looked at her pleadingly. Lacey couldn't help but chuckled at the puppy's antics.

“What's up with you?” Lacey gave Mindy's ears a quick scratch. “These boys giving you grief again?”

“Were you?” Carrie looked pointedly at her son.

Tanner sauntered in at that moment and quietly closed the front door. He leaned against the doorframe and crossed his arms over his chest, glaring at his brother all the while.

“Tell her what you did, Deej,” Tanner said when no one spoke.

“I didn't do it! I swear!”

“What have I told you about swearing, young man?” Carrie asked sternly. “Now, tell me what you did or did not do.”

“Nothin',” Dillon replied, as he ducked his chin and pouted.

“Spill it, DJ,” Mac put in, as she tried to hide a grin behind a closed fist. “It'll go a lot easier on you if you just tell your mom what you did. Fess up, Deej. Come on.”

“I didn't do nothin'!” Dillon protested. “Mindy did it! I sw—er…I promise. It wasn't me!”

Lacey looked at the puppy, who gazed back at her expectantly. “What did you do, Minders? Hm?”

Mindy barked once and kept her chin firmly planted on Lacey's thigh.

“I think she thinks you'll protect her,” Carrie chuckled. She then looked sternly at Tanner. “What happened?”

“Mindy took off after a rabbit and chased it into some bushes behind the barn,” Tanner explained with a glare towards his brother. “You probably don't want to touch either of them, Aunt Lacey.”

“Why?” Lacey asked warily.

“Because DJ chased Mindy into a patch of poison ivy,” Tanner gave his brother a pointed look. “He's covered in it.”

“Oh, for the love of…” Lacey rolled her eyes, as she realized both the dog and Dillon were covered in the itchy resin. “You're not serious.”

“'fraid so, Aunt Lacey,” Tanner replied with a stern nod. “Dad taught us what it looks like. It was definitely poison ivy.”

“Dillon Jeremiah!!!” Carrie exclaimed, as she gingerly grabbed her son by the collar of his shirt and escorted him outside. “How many times have I told you not to chase the dog into the bushes?”


The two were gone and the noise died down instantly, as the front door closed.

“You're gonna hate me for this, Doc,” Mac said. “But I think we'd better get you into the shower, right away.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Lacey knew exactly what Mac was suggesting.


“Yes'm?” He straightened up and waited expectantly.

“Take Mindy outside with your brother and rinse her off with the hose, please,” Mac ordered. “Make sure you get her head, too. Rinse her down really well. The poison ivy won't hurt her, but the oil will still be on her fur.”

“Yes'm,” he patted his leg as he headed toward the door. “Come on, girl. Let's go get you washed up.”

Lacey waited for Tanner to leave before she gingerly stood up and limped toward the bedroom.

“I can't believe this,” she grumbled as she quickly and carefully pulled her tank top over her head on her way to the master bathroom.

“You want some help?” Mac stopped in the doorway and leaned against it, as she watched Lacey strip down to nothing with a sly grin.

Lacey quickly dropped her shorts and sat down on the bed in her underwear. She then stared at her brace with a frown.

“Yeah,” she replied and waited for Mac to kneel at her feet. “I can't believe your nephew dove into a poison ivy bush and then let me touch him. Remind me not to let you talk me into have kids of our own.”

“Dillon doesn't think, sometimes,” Mac carefully removed the brace and set it aside. “How do you want to do this?”

“Let me lean on you,” Lacey replied. “I only touched him with my left side, but Mindy put her head on my right leg. There's no telling how much of the resin she had on her fur. Better safe than sorry, I suppose.”

Lacey carefully stood up and held onto Mac's arm with her right hand. She limped heavily toward the bathroom.

“Knee hurt today?” Mac asked in concern.

“Stiff,” Lacey replied. “And just a little sore.”

They made it to the bathroom and Mac opened the shower and turned on the water. She then helped Lacey sit down on the toilet seat.

“Make sure it's cold,” Lacey said. “Hot water will just open my pores and cause the rash to spread like wildfire, if I get a rash at all.”

“Yep,” Mac nodded as she knelt in front of Lacey and helped remove her underwear. She stopped a moment and just stared at the woman with a lazy grin. “You're beautiful, you know that?”

Lacey gave her a lopsided grin of her own. “I never tire of hearing you say it.”

“And I will never get tired of looking at your beautiful body, Lace,” Mac kissed Lacey's knees and was careful to avoid the places where Mindy might have touched her. “I am so in love with you that I just want to make love to you every damned minute of the day and night.”

“That often, eh?” Lacey continued to grin.

“On the beach in Aruba?” Mac suggested.

“I can certainly look into getting us a place with a private beach,” Lacey said. “Or maybe I can just rent an entire island. That way we don't have to worry about anyone freaking out when we walk naked down the beach and make love until the sun sets.”

“Or until it rises,” Mac grinned lazily. “I'm all for watching the sun rise and set on that beautiful body of yours.”

“God, you're insatiable,” Lacey leaned forward and took Mac's lips in a searing kiss.

“I'm insatiable?” Mac snickered as she pulled back slightly. “Your shower awaits, my dear.” She stood up and reached in to feel the temperature of the water. She shivered slightly. “Colder than a witch's tit in January. If that doesn't cool your ardor, I don't know what will.”

Lacey stood with some effort and climbed into the shower.

“Holy SHIT!” She exclaimed as soon as the water hit her body. “Goddammit that's freezing cold!”

Mac laughed as she went back to the bedroom and sat down on the bed to wait. It didn't take long for Lacey to scrub her skin with soap and rinse it well with the cold water. She was only in the shower for five minutes, tops. Mac grabbed a fuzzy towel from the hall closet and returned to the bathroom. She opened the door and held the towel out for Lacey.

“Thanks,” Lacey shivered as she carefully stepped out of the shower and into the towel that was instantly wrapped around her body.


“Much. Thanks.” Lacey leaned against Mac's side, as they returned to the bedroom. “I really wish this knee would heal faster. I'm tired of limping around like a damned invalid.”

“Be glad you still have the leg, Doc,” Mac said, as Lacey sat down on the edge of the bed and Mac put her brace back on. “You and I both know things could have been much worse.”

Lacey dropped the towel and let it pool around her hips, as she gave her kneeling lover a saucy grin.

“You want to leave a couple towels out in the entryway for Carrie and Dillon?” She suggested. “Lock the bedroom door and continue what we started earlier this morning?”

Mac didn't answer. She merely raced out to do Lacey's bidding. When she returned, she made sure the bedroom door was locked and then she crawled back into bed next to Lacey, who was propped against the headboard with nothing on.

“Where were we?” Mac dipped her head towards Lacey's bare cleavage and breathed in deeply. “You smell really good—like sandalwood and heather.”

“I'm glad we found that little shop in town,” Lacey wrapped her arms around Mac's head and ran her fingers through the thick, dark hair as she savored the sensations that were coursing through her body. “Ngh, that feels so good, baby.”

Mac smiled, as her lips found a taught nipple and she flicked her tongue out until Lacey was panting with need. She gave equal attention to the other breast and then slowly moved south. Lacey's leg parted for Mac in open invitation. Mac accepted the invitation and soon they were both lost to the sensations and love that washed over them.

The bedroom door remained firmly locked and neither woman heard Carrie grab the towels and leave again with a knowing grin on her flushed features.

“I'll bring the towels back when I'm finished!” Carrie called, as she pulled the front door shut behind her.

Before the door closed completely, Carrie thought she heard a distinctive cry of pleasure from inside. She chuckled and just shook her head, as she headed for the Jeep Cherokee with her two boys and a rambunctious puppy standing there waiting for her.


A week later, Lacey sat on the couch in Heather Morris' office and tried not to scratch at the slight rash that still lingered on her arm. It wasn't as bad as it could have been. Just irritating. Her cold shower had rinsed the poison ivy resin off—for the most part.

Dillon's rash had been more wide-spread than Lacey's. Despite the fact his mother had hosed him down from head-to-toe with the hose outside Mac's front door, he still ended up with a rash. The raised bumps went from the top of his head and covered his legs.

Lacey was grateful for the antihistamines Brenda prescribed for both of them. Without them, Lacey didn't know what she would do.

“So,” Heather watched Lacey lift her gaze toward her. “Tell me how things are going for you.”

“Better,” Lacey replied. “Considering my real father and the man I thought was my father are both dead. I never got to know the one and wish the other never existed. Other than that, I'm good.”

Heather looked skeptical. “Really?”

Lacey sighed. “I've cried enough tears to last a lifetime. I swear I can cry at the drop of a damned hat these days.”

“Do the tears help?”

“A little,” Lacey shrugged. “They don't seem to hurt at all. And Mackenzie has been very supportive through it all.”

“You two are talking through your feelings?”

“Yes,” Lacey nodded. “It was really hard, at first. But I'm getting better at it, I think.” She looked down at the clasped hands in her lap. “I sang a song at Justin's funeral.”

“I know,” Heather let the hint of a smile touch her lips. “I was there and had the pleasure of hearing you. You have a beautiful voice, Lacey.”

“Thanks,” Lacey blushed. “I don't usually sing in public like that. But I wanted to pay tribute to Justin's memory. May It Be just seemed to fit the moment.”

“It was a beautiful tribute to his memory,” Heather agreed. “I'm sure he would have appreciated it very much.”

“Yeah,” Lacey smiled sadly. “Wish I could have gotten to know him better. He was there and then…” Tears sprang to her eyes. “Dammit!”

“It's okay, Lacey,” Heather reached over, grabbed a handful of tissues and handed them to Lacey.

“I'm really tired of crying like a baby all the time,” Lacey dabbed at her eyes. “This is so not like me, Heather. I'm a lot stronger than this. I don't cry—ever.”

“The psychological healing will take some time, Lacey,” Heather said. “You just have to bear with it. Give yourself a chance. Sharing your thoughts and feelings with others is very new territory for you. It will get easier the more you practice.”

Lacey nodded, as she blew her nose and wiped the last of the tears away.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Lacey added. “I recalled some suppressed memories after James died.”


“Yeah,” Lacey nodded. “Don't ask me what triggered them. But I remembered why he used to take me into his office and lock the door.”

“You said he did it to beat you when you displeased him,” Heather said.

“He did that, too,” Lacey shifted uncomfortably. “But he had an ulterior motive.”

“Other than lowering your self-esteem, you mean?” Heather added.

“Yeah,” Lacey continued. “He was trying to brainwash me into believing that the fortune I inherited should be signed over to him when I turned eighteen.”

“Did it work?”

“Nope,” Lacey shook her head and smiled in sad triumph. “I remember that day now like it was yesterday. He had the papers all drawn up and waiting for me in his office. Took me in there and held a pen out to me. Told me it was for the best that I sign them and turn the fortune over to him. When I told him to go to hell, he beat me so badly that he broke two of my ribs. He tried to get me to sign the papers as I was spitting up blood onto his plush carpet. I just looked up at him and told him to fuck off.”

Heather watched the emotions play across Lacey's features. She waited patiently for her patient to continue. When it was apparent Lacey wasn't going to elaborate, Heather decided to take the initiative.

“What happened after that?” Heather asked.

A satisfied grin split Lacey's features. “He cold-cocked me and knocked me out. I woke up in the hospital with no memory of what happened. I have no idea how he explained that away to the staff at the hospital. Probably came up with some cockamamie story about me falling out of my tree house or something like that.”

“And did you ever sign the papers?” Heather asked curiously.

“Nope,” Lacey grinned. “He showed up in my room with the papers and a pen two days later. I pretended to take them. Then I tore the papers up into tiny pieces and threw the pen back at him. Told him there was no way in hell I was signing anything he ever put in front of me.”

“Good for you,” Heather smiled. “That took a great deal of courage, Lacey.”

“I left for college shortly after that,” Lacey continued with a slight shrug. “I didn't want to take the chance that he might try to corner me in that office again.”

“And then you joined the Army after you finished medical school,” Heather said. “You made a difference, despite everything that happened.”

“He couldn't touch me in the Army,” Lacey explained. “And I learned some basic fighting skills that came in handy. My mother kept trying to get me to return home for a visit. I refused and she finally stopped communicating with me. Then I got shipped to Iraq and the rest, as they say, is history.”

“And how did you feel when your family cut off all ties with you?” Heather prodded.

“Alone,” Lacey admitted. “I wanted to talk to Lily—tell her about the things I was experiencing over there. But I didn't trust James to keep his nose out of things. And I didn't know how much Lily shared with my parents. So, I stopped communicating with all of them.”

“And threw yourself into your work,” Heather nodded her understanding. “And learned to erect psychological barriers to keep people at a distance.”

“Didn't have much choice,” Lacey continued. “We were working crazy hours. Things were pretty intense and the fighting was very bloody. I helped set up one of the first forward combat hospitals and we were right there on the front lines. We had casualties on our doorstep 24/7. Some of them made it. Others didn't. We were practically swimming in blood and guts. There wasn't time to deal with thoughts or feelings. Compartmentalizing was the only way to keep going when things got tough.”

“You learned to suppress most of what you saw and felt,” Heather added with a nod.

“Yeah,” Lacey shrugged. “When you've seen as much blood and gore as I have, you tuck it away so you don't go crazy.”

“It's a survival instinct,” Heather nodded. “It's also one of the main causes of PTSD. Those memories are still there, even though you do your best to repress them. Unfortunately, most anything can trigger those memories and bring them to surface unexpectedly.”

“Yeah,” Lacey sighed. “It happened in my hospital room, by the way.”

“Oh?” Heather's brow shot up.

“Yeah,” Lacey looked away uncomfortably. “I had a flashback and passed out on the floor.”

Heather sat forward and clasped her hands in front of her as she studied Lacey intently.

“Tell me what happened, Lacey,” she said.

“I…” Lacey blew out a breath and rolled her eyes. “Everything happened so fast. I was on the floor with Mackenzie after…” She swallowed down the bile that rose with that particular memory and shut her eyes tightly in an attempt to keep the memories at bay. “She'd been shot.”

Lacey felt a wellspring of emotion wash over her again, as she tried to stifle it and keep the tears at bay. And then panic set in so suddenly that she couldn't stop it. Her hands started shaking uncontrollably and she started hyperventilating.

Nothing she did could stop it.

“Lacey!” Heather's voice was stern and authoritative. “Open your eyes and look at me.”

Lacey complied instantly.

“Mackenzie is fine,” Heather had moved to sit on the table in front of Lacey and placed a comforting hand on her good knee. “She's fine and so are you. You need to relax and breathe slowly. You're hyperventilating.”

Lacey slowed her breathing, as she stared into Heather's eyes. The psychiatrist breathed with her and continued to keep eye contact until Lacey was finally breathing normally again.

“Okay,” Lacey slowly let out a final breath. “Okay, I'm okay now.”

“Are you sure you don't need another moment?”

“No,” Lacey shook her head. “I'm good. Just wasn't expecting that.”

“The trauma of seeing all of that unfold right before your eyes is still fairly fresh, Lacey,” Heather said. “Take your time. You don't need to push to revisit those memories if you're not ready to deal with them quite yet.”

“Okay,” Lacey slowly let out another deep breath. “That was a little scary.”

“Yes, I'm sure it was,” Heather smiled. “But you did a fine job of using the coping techniques we've been practicing. Nicely done.”

“Thanks,” Lacey let the hint of a smile show, as she looked down at her hands and saw that the shaking was subsiding. “I really wasn't expecting that.”

“But you handled it well,” Heather placed a hand on her arm and squeezed. “I'm very proud of you, Lacey. You've come a long way since our first session together.”

“I have?” Lacey looked at her in surprise.

“Yes, you have,” Heather returned to the chair she'd been sitting in earlier. “Does that surprise you?”

“A little,” Lacey shrugged. “I guess I don't really see it.”

“Well,” Heather continued. “You didn't bolt for the door when that panic attack set it. You sat there and used the coping techniques I taught you to get past it. That's definitely progress.”

“Okay, I guess so,” Lacey conceded. “If you say so, Heather.”

“I definitely say so,” Heather smiled. “Just keep practicing and don't forget to let Mackenzie in on what's been happening. She knows and understands what you're going through.”

“Yeah,” Lacey said. “I've also learned that she's a really good listener.”

“Yes, she is,” Heather added with a quick nod. “The two of you are very good for each other.”

“Yes, we are,” Lacey smiled warmly. “I really love her.”

“And she loves you,” Heather added. “It's a beautiful thing for two people to love each other the way you two do, especially considering how much you've been through.”

“We are really good together,” Lacey smiled. “I can't believe it took me so long to open up to her, though. I was such an idiot to hold everything back like I did.”

“And now?”

“We talk—a lot—among other things,” Lacey dipped her chin and grinned shyly. “We share…everything. She teases me and I give it right back to her. Those are the moments I cherish the most. I like the playful side of our relationship. It just feels…right.”

“Welcome back to the world, Lacey,” Heather smiled proudly. “Welcome back.”

“It's good to be back,” Lacey added with a smile of her own. “Now we just have to get through these next few months before the wedding. You're invited, by the way. Non-professionally, of course.”

“Oh?” Heather perked up. “Will it be held out at the ranch? Justin's wake was quite the party, by the way. I noticed you and Mac were noticeably absent from the evening festivities.”

“We…uh…” Lacey blushed to her roots.

Heather chuckled then sobered. “We haven't yet discussed the overdose. I really wanted to touch on that today before you leave.”

“Oh,” Lacey's expression fell. She glanced up to find Heather watching her intently. “You want to know if I did it intentionally.”

Heather rested her head against her fist on the back of the chair she was sitting in as she continued to study Lacey.

“Just tell me what happened, Lacey,” Heather said quietly.

Lacey sighed heavily, as she glanced up at the ceiling and then let her eyes rest on the ocean scene on the wall across the room.

“I didn't know the prescription had been switched, for one thing,” she finally said in a voice devoid of emotion. “Thought I was taking Vicodin or something similar. That's what Carrie said when she dropped them off. I took them only when the pain was no longer bearable, even though Carrie said I could take them every 4-6 hours.”

“And that night?”

“I'd had a rough physical therapy session that morning and was tired and sore,” Lacey explained. “I actually took two pills afterward and then took a nap. The boys came in to play video games later in the afternoon. My knee was still really bothering me, so I took two more pills. After dinner, I was frustrated and had an argument with Mackenzie. Then I had an argument with my sister over the phone. I took another pill or two—I don't really remember. And then Carrie came in and chewed me out for the argument with Mackenzie. I…” She swallowed over a sudden lump in her throat and shook her head—narrowed her eyes as she tried to remember exactly what had happened. “Things are really fuzzy after that. I remember reaching for the bottle, but…”

“You don't remember taking the rest of the pills,” Heather nodded her understanding. “It is my understanding that the dosage was much higher than what was prescribed.”

“Yeah,” Lacey nodded. “My fa—James admitted to upping the dosage the night he came up to my room…” She took a deep breath and let it out as her heartbeat picked up again. “God.” She shook her head again, this time in an attempt to dispel the memories that surfaced. “He said he switched the dosage to 140 milligrams of OxyContin and then told Carrie it was only 40.” She looked down at her shaking hands and balled them into fists as she took a couple of deep breaths and let them out slowly. “I still don't know why he did it. He said he wasn't going to kill me because I hadn't signed over the fortune to him. It just doesn't make any sense. And now…” She took another deep breath and let it out slowly as she felt the world right itself again. “He's dead. Now I'll never know what was going through that twisted mind of his.” She ground her teeth together in frustration.

“And that makes you angry?”

“Pisses me off,” Lacey looked down at her balled fists. “He was always trying to manipulate me into giving into him. The son of a bitch was forever coming up with ways to break my spirit so he could get what he wanted.” She looked up at Heather with a sudden grin that lit up her eyes. “But I didn't. He couldn't break my spirit, no matter how hard he tried.”

“No, he couldn't,” Heather returned the smile. “You are much stronger than you sometimes give yourself credit for, Lacey.”

“Yeah,” Lacey breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed noticeably. “I am. And he's gone.”

“Yes, he is,” Heather nodded. “He won't be trying to manipulate or hurt you anymore.”

Lacey let her head fall back until she was staring up at the ceiling with a bright smile. “No, he can't,” she chuckled. “The son of bitch is finally dead. I'm free.” Her chuckles turned into full-fledged laugher that eventually had tears of joy spilling down her cheeks. “Oh, God, that felt really good to get that out of my system.”

“I'll bet it did,” Heather handed over more tissues with a knowing smile.

“Thanks,” Lacey accepted the tissues, blew her nose and wiped the tears from her cheeks. She then gave Heather a tired smile. “Are we there yet?”

“Closer than we were at our last session,” Heather replied and then glanced at her watch. “I think we're good for this one, don't you?”

“Yeah,” Lacey nodded. “Thanks again, Heather.” She grabbed her cane and sat forward. “And the invitation still stands. We'll be having the ceremony and celebration on an island in the Caribbean, not at the ranch.”

“Oh?” Heather brightened. “That sounds wonderful! I can just stay at my condo on St. Thomas, then.”

“You're more than welcome to stay on the island I'm renting,” Lacey suggested. “It's big enough for the entire guest list and then some. Everyone will have their own place and there's a full staff to take care of everything.”

“That sounds wonderful, too,” Heather said. “I might just take you up on that.”

“Can I put down a tentative confirmation for you and a guest?” Lacey used her cane to help her stand up and then leaned heavily on it for support. “I'm trying to get that detail settled before the end of the week.”

“I really don't have anyone I could invite,” Heather replied. “Why don't you put me down for just one? If that changes, then I'll let you know.”

“Okay,” Lacey carefully maneuvered around the furniture and toward the door. “See you next week, Heather,” she stopped in the doorway and turned back with a warm smile. “And thanks again—for everything.”

“You're welcome, Lacey,” Heather followed Lacey to the door and held it for her. “See you next week.”

She stood in the doorway and watched Lacey limp heavily down the short hallway toward the waiting room. Heather then watched Mac stand up to greet Lacey and glance in her direction. She waved to the dark-haired woman who waved back with a smile.

It really was a good session and Heather was more than pleased with Lacey's progress. She had certainly come a long way from those early sessions. And so had Mackenzie. Heather was optimistic that the couple would eventually find peace and healing, as they built a life and a future together.


A month later, Mac guided Lacey, who wore a red bandana blindfold over her eyes, into a construction area at one end of the barn at the ranch. Lacey was still limping heavily and leaning on both Mac and her cane for support.

But at least she was walking on her own. The intensive physical therapy she was undergoing with Dan Abrams, one of the EMTs from the search and rescue, was really paying off. And Mac had been especially pleased when they'd returned the wheelchair and picked up the cane, instead.

“Just a little farther, Lace,” she said, as she gingerly steered the woman away from some boards and nails strewn haphazardly on the sawdust-covered concrete floor.

“This is so not a good idea, Chief,” Lacey said, as she felt her feet slide a little on the dusty floor.

“Don't worry. I've got ya,” Mac stopped in the middle of the room. “Okay, now, go ahead and remove your blindfold.”

Lacey took a deep breath in anticipation and pulled the red bandana down from her closed eyes. She then opened them, gasped and stared in wonder.

“What the…”

Mac beamed. “It's a little rough, yet. But it's coming along nicely, don't you think?”

Lacey turned a very slow circle, as she gazed in awe at all the boards and framed walls surrounding her. She finally made a full circle and looked up at Mac in confusion.

“I don't understand,” Lacey shook her head. “What is all this?”

“Your new clinic,” Mac grinned. “I talked to Carrie and Ben—well, proposed it, actually. They agreed that having a full-time doctor on-call here at the ranch was a really good idea. They'd actually been discussing it for months—long before we even moved up here. Since the ranch hands are always coming back from the field with aches, pains, cuts and bruises, not to mention the occasional broken bone and other serious injuries, they figured it was a really good idea. And you never know what might happen when you have a bunch of green guests staying at the B&B who just love running around this place when the mood hits them. Well, it just made sense to have someone here around the clock.” She closed the distance between them and rested her arms on Lacey's shoulders. “And you, Dr. Stephens, are more than qualified for the job. Not to mention you're driving Carrie nuts.”

“I am?” Lacey looked up at the grin Mac wore.

“Yeah,” Mac chuckled. “She's not used to sharing a kitchen with someone. Not that she really minds that it's you, but she is kinda possessive when it comes to her space.”

“I just want to learn how to cook for myself,” Lacey thrust out her lip in a faux pout. “Carrie's amazing at it. Why shouldn't I learn from the best?”

“You burn water, Doc,” Mac sobered. “And that takes an incredible lack of skill. Carrie's words, not mine. She thinks it best that you use your talents and skills for healing, rather than delve into a field that you have absolutely no aptitude for. My words, not hers.”

Lacey let a small smile play at the corners of her mouth. “Okay,” she conceded with a shrug. “I suppose you both are right.” She then looked around at what would eventually be her new clinic with a fond smile. “Wasn't this a tack room?”

“Partly, yes,” Mac followed Lacey's gaze. “Ben hired a local contractor to add on to it. The old tack room is actually back there,” she pointed toward an already finished wall. “They gutted it yesterday and are putting up shelves and cabinets for storage.” Mac then waved her arm around the framed area they were standing in. “The space we're in right now will be a small reception room with a desk and a couple chairs. I figure you can hire a part-time person to answer the phone, forward any calls and schedule appointments when this place eventually takes off.” She then walked them over to another area. “This will be an exam room and that one there will be for the x-ray machine I had Brenda order for you.”

“Yeah?” Lacey glanced up at Mac in surprise. “Cool. I can actually see where that would come in handy.” She gave Mac a genuine smile. “Blackie wasn't too happy with me for telling him he had to have one of the guys drive him into town for an x-ray on that ankle of his. Said it wasn't necessary. When I insisted he go see Brenda, he actually growled at me and told me I didn't know what the hell I was talking about.”

“He was singing another tune, altogether, when he returned in that walking cast, though,” Mac snickered. “Dumbass thought it was just a twisted ankle.”

“He's no spring chicken,” Lacey added with a chuckle of her own. “Those old bones, tendons and ligaments of his just aren't what they used to be. And I really didn't know if it was broken or just a bad sprain. But I didn't want him taking any chances, either.”

“You did good, Doc,” Mac wrapped an arm around her shoulders.

“And now I can do the x-rays myself,” Lacey beamed, as she imagined all the possibilities that her new clinic entailed. “This is absolutely fantastic, hon.” She hugged Mac to her and leaned her head against the taller woman. “I can't believe you did this for me.”

“For us,” Mac bent down and gave Lacey a lingering kiss. “I am happiest when you're happy. And I know you won't be truly happy unless you're doing what you love most. Being a doctor may not be who you are, but it sure is a big part of what makes you tick, Lace. I've seen you taking care of the bumps, bruises and scrapes we've had here in the last month. You're a natural. You really care about your patients and want what's best for them. This is just my way of contributing.”

“And it will keep me out of Carrie's kitchen,” Lacey shot her a wry grin.

“Absolutely,” Mac nodded. “You really have no skills in that particular area, Doc. How about we leave that particular talent and skill to Carrie? She'll fatten us both up in no time.”

“Yeah, she's the master when it comes to boiling water,” Lacey added with a wry grin.

“Among other things,” Mac chuckled and Lacey joined in. “So,” Mac sobered. “You don't mind that I used a little bit of that fortune of yours to splurge on this place?”

Lacey sobered, as well. “It's now our money, hon. I didn't have Franklin draw up those papers for nothing. We are partners and will soon be married. I want you to have as much say in how the money is spent as I have. That's why I spent all those hours pouring over the legalese and signing all of those documents.” She squeezed Mac's waist. “You're not just my lover, anymore, Chief. You're my legal heir and an equal partner in the Stephens Foundation. There's no getting out of it, now. And if you don't show up to our wedding in November, I'll have Franklin and that PI of his hunt you down to the ends of the earth.”

Mac chuckled. “Okay, then. I guess I'm in this for life.”

“You betcha,” Lacey nodded. “Just don't go crashing that plane into a mountain or breaking your damned neck while horseback riding. I don't think your nephews will know what to do with all that money they'll inherit.”

“Or that little guy of your sister's, either,” Mac added. “That is, if it's a boy.”

“Lily and Bill seem to think it will be,” Lacey said. “And I tend to agree. But I could be wrong. It happens.”

“Noooooooo,” Mac teased with a sarcastic eye roll.

Lacey gave her a playful slap on the belly. “Watch it, Chief. One phone call and you're completely cut off from my vast fortune.”

“Oh, you wound me, Doc,” Mac feigned a wound to the heart. “Whatever would I do without my weekly stipend?” She sobered. “I still don't know what to do with five thousand a week, you know. I have more than enough clothing to last a lifetime. Not to mention dog and horse food doesn't cost that much.”

“Airplane fuel?” Lacey suggested. “It can't be that inexpensive if regular gas prices keep going up the way they do.”

“There is that,” Mac steered them out into the bright sunlight of a beautiful late-summer day. “Want to take a weekend trip somewhere? Or we could just do a $100 hamburger lunch on Friday. Maybe take a trip over to Salt Lake in the 206?”

“Eat at McGillicuddy's?” Lacey perked up. “I love their steak. It's so tender it just melts in your mouth. And those shoestring onions are chock full of greasy goodness.”

“You're gonna end up with a heart condition, Doc,” Mac chuckled. “Seriously.”

“Brenda says I have the heart of a twenty-year-old,” Lacey shot back with a wry grin. “Must be all those times it stopped and had to be restarted again. Gave it a second wind.”

“Yeah, I'm sure that's it,” Mac reached for the back door to the house and let Lacey go ahead of her. “Honey! We're home!” She called loudly.

Carrie watched the two women enter her kitchen through the mudroom. “So, how'd it go?” She asked warily.

Lacey walked right up to the woman, gave her a peck on the cheek and an enthusiastic hug. “You don't have to worry about having me underfoot anymore, sis. I am tickled pink that I will be spending most of my time over at the new clinic.”

Carrie beamed. “You're not upset about…”

“She understands completely,” Mac put an arm around Lacey's shoulders. “Don't you, hon?”

“Absolutely,” Lacey replied with a wiggle of her brows. “I'll leave the water boiling to those who don't boil the pot dry.”

Carrie was relieved. “Oh, that is fantastic. You don't know how worried I was that you would think I wasn't happy to have you around here. But Mackenzie said you would appreciate having your own space.”

“You're always welcome to come to the clinic and volunteer your services as a counselor,” Lacey put in with a grin. “I'm sure there will be those who could use a good ear and some sound advice.”

“And you're more than welcome…” Carrie stopped and shook her head sternly. “No. That's where I put my foot down. Stay out of my kitchen, Lacey Justine. Unless you're coming over to share a cup of coffee and some conversation. Just stay far away from the cooking utensils. I'll let you stir a pot and cut up some vegetables, but that's where I draw the line. You have about as much skill in the kitchen as I do at flying Mac's airplane.”

Mac's eyes widened at the woman's words and stern tone.

Lacey sobered, then she saw the twinkle in Carrie's eye and burst out laughing. A moment later, Carrie joined in the laughter. Mac just stood there in confusion and looked from one woman to the other.

“Relax, hon,” Lacey hugged her close. “I don't hold it against her because she's absolutely right. I burn water. And those cookies I tried to make the other day. Ugh!” She rolled her eyes in exasperation.

“I buried them in the compost pile behind the barn,” Carrie chuckled. “They're keeping company with that poor chicken and those roast potatoes you tried to make last week. Good thing I had a few leftovers in the fridge for you two. Otherwise, you would have starved.”

“Those were leftovers?” Mac's brow rose.

“Yeah,” Lacey chuckled. “I actually thought you knew.”

“No, I didn't,” Mac replied. “I thought you made those hamburgers yourself.”

“Aw,” Lacey gave Mac a lopsided grin and then wrinkled her nose. “That's so sweet. But I actually just put them in the microwave for the time that Carrie told me to. She didn't trust me to heat them up on my own without specific instructions.”

“You charred that chicken to the point of no return, Lacey Justine,” Carrie added with a wry grin. “I'm surprised Mackenzie didn't notice the smell.”

“Air freshener,” Lacey ducked her chin slightly and wrinkled her nose in embarrassment. “I sprayed the hell out of the place and then made sure all the windows were wide open. I think I actually went through two cans of the stuff before I was satisfied that the raunchy smell of burnt chicken was gone.”

“Oh, that explains a lot,” Mac gave Lacey a look. “I couldn't figure out why the placed smelled like a damned pine forest when I got home. The trees outside never give off that strong an aroma unless we cut one down and burn it in the fireplace. And, even then, it just smells like burning wood. Not a whole damned green forest.”

Carrie burst out laughing again and this time the other two joined in. They were all laughing so hard that Lacey had to sit down at the table before her knee gave out beneath her. Mac joined her. Carrie quickly made coffee and set some fresh bakery on the table.

Soon the conversation turned to wedding plans and the eventual arrival of the newest addition to the Stephens-Trent family. The three women talked excitedly about the wedding and the ideas Mac and Lacey had for it. Carrie offered a few suggestions that were taken under consideration. But Lacey insisted on having the entire affair catered. She was adamant that Carrie enjoy her vacation without having to prepare meals or lift a finger. She was to sit on the beach with a daiquiri in hand or swim in the crystalline waters. That was it. The rest would be taken care of. Carrie reluctantly agreed with a wink and a sparkle of mischief that had them all laughing again.


Concluded in Part 18

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