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Super 8 Motel
Mac sat on the double bed and stared at the TV in front of her without seeing it. She had been there two weeks and hadn't come up with a single clue as to Lacey's whereabouts. She was frustrated and just a little downhearted—nearly ready to give up, but not quite willing to do so.
She had called and visited every facility within a 50-mile radius. None of them had ever heard of Lacey or James Stephens. And, even if they had, they weren't talking. She'd contacted the VA in Dallas, too. They put her in contact with one of their JAG attorneys, Major Jason Willows.
He explained to her, in minute detail, that she couldn't launch an investigation into Lacey's whereabouts. She had no authority to do so, because she wasn't a member of Lacey's immediate family. Then he went into the whole “DADT” policy, to which Mac argued that she was a friend who had served with and survived a helicopter crash with Lt. Colonel Lacey Stephens.
Lt. Colonel Lacey Stephens was still listed as being on medical leave, according to the Army. That's what Major Willows told her. That was all he could tell her. As an officially-discharged former service member, Mac could no longer inquire of currently-active service members.
But then Major Willows said something that gave Mac a small spark of hope. After typing something into his computer and uttering a brief “Huh,” he put her on hold for ten minutes. Once he returned to the line, he said that it was his duty as a JAG attorney to report Colonel Stephens missing. She had not checked in with an Army representative in over a month and had failed to show up for a mandatory medical evaluation just last week.
Mac heard the hint of a smile in his voice as he delivered the news. It did nothing to dispel the feeling of dread she was still experiencing. He said he would launch a full investigation into her whereabouts immediately. That was all he could do at the moment. He then hung up.
That was over a week ago. And Mac hadn't heard a word from him, since. She had even given his administrative assistant her cell and hotel numbers, so they could let her know if they heard anything. She called the admin two days ago, but the woman wasn't at her desk and no one bothered to return her call.
She absently changed the channel on the television until she landed on a National Geographic Explorer episode about predators of the African savannah. She watched a lion take down an unsuspecting kudu antelope, after chasing it away from the main herd. But she really wasn't paying attention to the TV. Her thoughts turned to Lacey.
Where was she? Was she even in Houston anymore? Was she in Texas at all? Or was Mac wasting her time on a wild goose chase that would never yield results?
What she really wanted to do was camp on the steps of the Stephens home until they returned from their trip overseas. She wanted to wrap her hands around James Stephens' throat and wring Lacey's whereabouts out of him.
What she didn't want, however, was to be there to see Lacey emerge from the family limo. It was her worst nightmare and one she really didn't want to face in real life. What would she do? How would she feel if that happened?
Mac flipped channels again and landed on a rerun of that campy show she and Lacey discussed, once upon a time. A dark-haired woman in brown leather overlaid with tarnished brass did an unbelievable back flip, landing behind some tattooed thugs with a twirl of her sword. Blue eyes flashed with amusement, as the woman delivered a greeting to the men and then grinned. Her perfect white teeth showed brilliantly in chiseled features kissed by the sun—or by some really good makeup. Mac snickered.
Dropping the channel changer next to her on the bed, Mac decided to watch it for a bit. She watched the dark warrior take on all six guys, at once, with amazing agility and speed. The dialogue, however, made her cringe. How could anyone write such goofy dialogue and think it was believable?
Then the blond sidekick showed up. Mac watched the younger, shorter blond swing a long stick around, bashing heads and knocking some of the thugs on their butts. It was amusing enough to make Mac actually chuckle out loud. A close up on the blond actress' face showed expressive eyes and a youthful grin. Her outfit was a bit skimpy, but so was the warrior's. Seriously, Mac thought? Who goes around in a short skirt and chases down bad guys? She passed it off as probably being some man's brain child and left it at that.
Another close-up of the blond had Mac re-evaluating her previous assessment of the woman. Lacey looked nothing like her, even though there were a few similarities. Lacey was, by far, the more strikingly beautiful of the two. She had a sort of worldly wisdom behind her sea-green eyes that made her much more attractive than the quirky blond on the TV show. Lacey's face was also thinner and more defined. Her cheek bones stood out and her jaw line was slightly rounder. She was, in a word, gorgeous. The young woman on the show was beautiful. But in Mac's eyes her looks couldn't hold a candle to Lacey's.
Mac grabbed up the changer and flipped the TV off with a frustrated sigh. She missed Lacey. Seeing the blond on the TV show—despite the differences between them—only cemented that. She wanted to find Lacey and hold her—hug her tight and never let her go.
Swinging her long legs over the side of the bed, Mac stood up and paced. She needed answers. She needed to find someone who knew something—anything. She walked over to the window and stared out at the view. Houston was quickly becoming her least favorite place on earth—next to Iraq. But she actually had mixed feelings about Iraq. Sure, it was hot as hell there and the sand was a royal pain in the ass—especially for the helicopters she loved so. Sure, she'd been shot down in the desert and nearly lost her life.
But that was where she and Lacey had become so much more than mere friends. Lacey had been a captain at the time. The woman had appeared to be one of the most aggravating, disconcerting, intolerable people Mac had ever met. Lacey was opinionated, headstrong—a know-it-all doctor who didn't follow orders and tended to get into trouble.
And she was adorable. That little knowing smile of hers was enough to melt Mac's heart. And then there was that time when Lacey got completely drunk and…
Mac sighed and placed a hand on the glass in front of her.
“Where are you?” Mac asked quietly into the silence. “Why can't I find you?”
She felt her heart break all over again, as she stood there gazing sightlessly at the Houston skyline towering there in front of her. A lone tear trailed down her cheek and dripped onto the worn carpet beneath her feet. Another followed. Mac didn't bother wiping the tears away, as she stood there and cried for her lost love. More tears followed until both cheeks were wet and the carpet absorbed the tears that fell unheeded.
She finally let her forehead rest against the glass beside her hand, as she closed her eyes and cried. No one saw her. No one shared her pain. There was no one in Houston to help her find the one person who meant everything to her. She felt lonelier in that moment than she had ever felt in her entire life.
And then her cell phone rang and she nearly dropped it when she went to answer it.
“Hello?” She sniffed and swiped at her wet cheeks. “Yes, this is Mackenzie Papadopoulos.” The voice continued on the other end. “Yes, I'm the one who talked to Major Willows about Colonel Lacey Stephens. Why? Is there news?” Mac listened again. “Yes, we served together in Iraq under Colonel Farrell. I was a pilot in a medevac unit, and she was the flight surgeon assigned to my helicopter.”
She walked over to the bathroom, grabbed a tissue and wiped the remaining moisture from her cheeks as she listened intently.
“Are you sure about that?” Mac waited for the reply. “No, the only reason I ask is because I was told she's still on medical leave of absence from the injuries she received in the helicopter crash in Iraq. She hasn't been discharged, medically or otherwise. And Major Willows didn't mention anything about an impending court martial.”
The voice spoke again and Mac took the opportunity to blow her nose.
“No, I wasn't aware that charges had been filed against her,” her expression hardened. “What the hell is she being charged with?” Mac frowned as the person on the other end continued. “That's a lie and you damned well know it. She was no more insubordinate than the three soldiers who raped her.” The voice was louder this time and Mac's frown deepened. “You have no idea what kind of person Lacey Stephens is, you sorry son of a bitch! I hope you rot in hell for this bullshit! Issue your goddamned subpoena and I'll…” She held the cell phone away from her and clicked it shut. “Asshole!”
She threw the phone down on the bed and watched it bounce once and disappear over the other side. She didn't bother to grab it, until it rang again. Then she hurried around the bed, reached down and picked it up.
“Dumbass! Now you listen to me…” she began without looking at the caller ID. “Oh, sorry. Yes, this is Mackenzie Papadopoulos.” She listened and she was instantly alert. “Yes, Major, thank you for returning my call. I've been a little worried that you wouldn't call me back.” She listened again. “Oh, no-no-no. I should be the one to apologize, Major Willows. I just got off the phone with some jerk from Virginia who claims he's with the Army JAG Legal Center. He made some disturbing accusations against Lacey Stephens that really pissed me off.” She listened again. “Yes, absolutely. Where do you want to meet?” She nodded, even though he couldn't see her. “Yes, I think I can find the place with no problem. I'll meet you there in twenty minutes.” He said something else that put a frown on her face. “No, sir, I understand. I won't tell anyone about this. See you then. Goodbye, Major.”
She flipped the phone shut and stared at it in confusion. Her mind was reeling over the two conversations she'd just had, and she didn't know what to think about either.
First, some lieutenant from the Army JAG Legal Center, in Charlottesville, VA, calls to tell her that Lacey is being brought up on charges of insubordination and failure to appear at a court martial hearing. They were also investigating several lesser charges, one involving a report that was filed concerning her behavior in Iraq and a violation of Pub.L. 103-160 (10 U.S.C. § 654), more commonly known as the DADT. The young lieutenant wanted to subpoena Mac to appear before JAG as a witness for the Prosecution.
Mac was livid.
But when she talked to Major Willows her anger dissipated and her confusion deepened. He knew about the charges and was very concerned that Lacey hadn't appeared for the hearing, which took place the same week that Mac had arrived in Texas. He wanted to meet with Mac to see if she had any information and to pass along some news.
Mac didn't know whether to jump for joy that she was finally going to learn something about Lacey's whereabouts or start crying again for the legal mess Lacey was in. Court martial? Whose report was it? Surely it wasn't Colonel Farrell's. Mac vaguely remembered Lacey mentioning something about a report and a subsequent investigation, but Mac thought the matter had been dropped. Had that little puissant, Gregory, actually gone over Colonel Farrell's head, after all?
“Well, nothing for it but to meet with Willows and find out what he knows,” Mac shrugged, as she grabbed the keys to her rental pickup and headed out.
Mac sat on a worn barstool in a dim saloon in the center of downtown Houston. She stirred the tonic and water in the glass in front of her and watched the door. The bartender was a young guy still in college. He was busy cleaning glasses in anticipation of the happy hour crowd. Mac was grateful to be left alone.
She had chosen the far end of the bar, so she could see the door and had the wall at her back. She still couldn't put aside the caution she'd picked up while serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. Being cautious kept you alive when people wanted to kill you. Even though she was a helicopter pilot and didn't really have that much contact with people on the ground all that often, she still hadn't been able to shake the unease that came with being a soldier.
The door opened and a man in Navy white stepped into the dim interior. He glanced around while removing his hat and tucking it beneath one arm. When he spotted Mac, he headed right for her.
“Mackenzie Papadopoulos?” He said with authority.
He looked like he was about thirty years old, if that. His white uniform was pressed and clean. There were a number of service ribbons on his chest. And he wore the gold maple leaves of a major.
“Yes?” Mac sipped her drink, as she gave him the once-over. “And you are?”
“Major Jason Willows,” he held out a hand with a Naval Academy ring on it and relaxed noticeably as he took a seat on the stool next to her and signaled to the bartender. “I'll have what she's having.”
“It's just tonic and water, Major,” Mac clasped his hand firmly in her own. “Call me Mac. Most people do.”
“Good to finally meet you, face-to-face, Mac,” he returned with a smile. “I took the liberty of doing some digging into your service record. You have some impressive stats, Mac. A decorated veteran and a damned good pilot. The Army gave you several commendations and you are to receive the Purple Heart for your injuries when your helicopter went down.”
“I served my country, Major,” Mac downed the rest of her drink, set the glass down and pushed it away as the bartender deposited another in front of her. “So, what's with the secret meeting? I feel like this is a little cloak and dagger, here.”
He turned to fully face her. Mac noticed that he was quite handsome with a pair of smiling gray eyes under dark lashes and brows. His hair was in the high-and-tight style that most military men favored. His features were chiseled and he had a square jaw line that made him a bit rugged looking. He could have been a twin for the guy who played a JAG lawyer on television, except for the small scar under one eye.
“Colonel Stephens is to receive several commendations, as well,” Willows continued, as he turned and picked up his own drink. “But the court martial has put those commendations on hold for the time being. She's being charged with insubordination and…”
“I already know,” Mac interrupted. “I told you I got a call from someone in Legal before you called. They want me to testify on behalf of the Prosecution. I won't do it.”
“You may not have a choice, I'm afraid,” Willows set his glass on the bar and glanced over at her. “There are several lawmakers in Washington who want to make an example of your friend, Mac. They have affidavits from several witnesses who saw the two of you together.”
Mac instantly met his gaze. “What?”
“That's right,” he nodded. “They could pursue court martial proceedings against you, too. They won't, though. There's no point in going after a decorated veteran who is no longer serving. They want Colonel Stephens, instead. She's the big fish they need to prove that the DADT is a sound policy and should continue to be upheld.”
“But Lacey is as decorated as I am,” Mac couldn't believe her ears. “What kind of bullshit is this, anyway? Where is this coming from? Why Lacey?”
“There are rumblings in Congress,” Willows answered with a shake of his head. “I'm not going to go into the politics of it. Suffice it to say, one side wants a sacrificial lamb and they intend to get it, no matter the cost to said lamb's career. Colonel Stephens is that lamb. They're saying she used her rank to coerce you into having an inappropriate relationship. That's why the Prosecution is chomping at the bit to get you to testify. They think they can twist anything you say and use it on their behalf.”
“That's why I won't testify,” Mac stated. “I'm not getting in the middle of their bullshit Salem witch hunt. I care about Lacey. We didn't just serve together over there. We survived a damned helicopter crash. We fought back when the insurgents found us and tried to kill us. Just ask Sergeant Peters. He was there.”
“They have all that information, Mac,” Willows said and downed his drink. “They don't care about any of it. What they want is to discredit Colonel Stephens and make her into some kind of degenerate predator who used her rank and authority to engage in…erm…well, you know.” He signaled to the bartender again. “Another refill for me and make hers…” He looked pointedly at Mac.
“Scotch, straight up,” Mac answered with a heavy sigh. “I definitely need something stronger now.”
The drinks came and Mac immediately downed hers, then motioned for the bartender to give her another. The second one arrived and she managed to restrain herself enough to only sip it slowly.
“Better?” Willows looked at her with a hint of concern.
“Not really,” Mac shook her head. “But I really didn't come all this way just to find out Lacey is in legal trouble up to her brass. I came to find out where she is. No one seems to know what happened to her. Her parents are overseas on vacation and her sister went with them. I have no idea if Lacey went with them. No one knows anything. I've been to all the hospitals and mental facilities in a 50-mile radius. Nothing.”
He slapped a manila file folder on the bar in front of her. “This might shed some light on the colonel's whereabouts.”
Mac looked at the folder for a moment, before opening it and staring at its contents. She read the first two pages and then turned her gaze on him.
“I don't understand,” she said. “This is a court order to remand Justine L. Stephens into custody for assault.”
“The complaint was filed by James Stephens,” Willows explained. “Colonel Stephens had her name legally changed right before she entered the Army. She became Lacey Justine Stephens after the name change.”
“Her father had her arrested?” Mac was stunned for the second time that day—or was it the third? She was losing count. “I know he's a real asshole and beat her when she was a kid, but I didn't think he would find a way to have his own daughter arrested. She only gave him a bloody nose when she hit him on Thanksgiving Day.”
“I don't know the particulars of the case,” Willows shook his head. “But if you read the transcript from the sentencing hearing, which I glanced through yesterday, Colonel Stephens became violent and attacked several bystanders, including her former psychiatrist and her father's lawyer. Her father then asked the judge to appoint him as her legal guardian. The judge agreed and the colonel was sent to a private facility.”
“Did you locate the facility?” Mac asked. “Do you know where she is?”
“It's just across the border in Louisiana,” Willows added. “They advertise it as an exclusive retreat with a picturesque Gulf view for those who need extended care. Hillhaven or Beachhaven or something like that.”
Mac flipped through the file folder again until she found a colorful tri-fold brochure. It was called Twelve Palms. The front of the brochure showed a pristine beach with white caps topping aquamarine waters. It was beautiful. Tropical. And misleading. Cabana fringe framed the outside edge of the brochure, creating the appearance of a tranquil vacation resort.
Opening the brochure, Mac quickly scanned through the various services and treatment options outlined there. It sounded more like a spa than a mental health facility. It sure wasn't like any hospital she had ever visited. And it wasn't anything like the One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest image that was ingrained in her mind from the movies she'd seen.
They had treatment plans and programs for a variety of illnesses and psychological disorders, including alcoholism, depression, narcolepsy, sexual addiction, drug addiction and a number of neuroses and psychoses Mac had never heard of before. They even had a program for those suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, otherwise known as PTSD.
If Lacey had any of those, Mac thought, it was probably that last one. She knew Lacey was seeing a psychiatrist for the memory loss she'd experienced as a result of injuries sustained in the helicopter crash. But Mac also knew Lacey had been struggling with the childhood abuse her father had heaped on her, as well as a violent rape shortly after they met in Iraq.
Broken? Yes. Lacey was definitely broken. But she was also a fighter and had learned to weather many of the storms that life had thrown her way. She wasn't one to give up without a fight. It wasn't in her nature.
“So, how did James Stephens get her committed against her will?” Mac finally voiced the question that came to mind. “And why?” She held up the brochure. “Is this where she is? The name makes it sound like a plantation, not a mental health facility.”
“I made a few calls, told them I'm with the JAG here in Houston,” Willows continued with a half-smile. “When they tried to deflect my questions with the whole HIPAA and patient confidentiality thing, I told them that Colonel Stephens is still an active member of the United States Armed Forces, and, therefore, cannot be tried outside a military court. Therefore, her court-issued treatment is not valid and will be repealed.”
“They said she was there at the recommendation of a judge here in Houston,” he answered. “I spoke to a Dr. Elias Benson, who actually seemed surprised to learn that Colonel Stephens is still in the Army and was receiving treatment prior to being sent to him. He even graciously offered to continue treatment until such time as Colonel Stephens is scheduled to appear for her court martial hearing. When I explained that she had already missed the hearing, he was confused. He then said something about James Stephens never mentioning to him that his daughter—apparently this same James Stephens was able to convince the judge to appoint him as legal guardian over Colonel Stephens—served in the Army.”
“So, she is there, then,” Mac confirmed.
“Apparently, so,” Willows said.
“Can you get her out of there?” Mac had to ask the question. “She doesn't deserve to be locked away in some mental institution,” she held up the brochure, “even if it does look like a damned spa. She's probably ready to use excessive force to escape captivity. I wouldn't put it past her. Lacey isn't fond of hospitals.”
“I'm afraid it isn't that easy,” Willows folded his hands on the counter in front of him. “There's the matter of the assault charges that were filed against her by the three parties she attacked in the court room. And, unfortunately, the judge witnessed the whole thing. Apparently she used some impressive moves the Army taught her to take down two guards, not to mention the psychiatrist and the Stephens' lawyer. There was mention of considerable blood loss and a few broken bones in the transcript. I can't really have those dismissed.”
“Close combat training,” Mac couldn't help but smile. “I thought you told this Benson character that a civilian court can't try and convict her.”
“I lied,” he shrugged. “If the judge was a vet he might have understood and sympathized with her. Unfortunately, he isn't.”
“You talked to him, personally?”
“I did,” Willows nodded. “I also explained the court martial situation to him in detail.”
“What'd he say?”
“He won't budge,” he answered with an apologetic shrug. “Said his hands are tied since she decided to go ballistic in his courtroom and take out the attorney and shrink right in front of him. Besides, those two are adamantly insisting that she remain under strict observation and receive the treatment she deserves. They argue the point that she is a danger to herself and society.”
“They both probably work for Lacey's father,” Mac commented sarcastically. “I wouldn't put it past him to have a hand in Lacey's violent reaction, either. He probably shot his mouth off at her and she went after him. The lawyer and shrink were probably just in her line of fire.”
“Is it common for her to react violently against her father? Or is there something else I should know?”
“He beat the crap out of her when she was a kid,” Mac said. “And her mother did nothing to stop him.”
“Colonel Stephens told you that?”
“Yes,” Mac nodded. “He took her into his office and beat her with his belt until she couldn't sit down. It wasn't just a spanking, you understand. It was a full-blown beating. I even witnessed his verbal and physical abuse with my own eyes. He slapped her right in front of her mother and me in her own home, too.”
He shook his head. “That still doesn't explain why she would become so violent in a public venue, though. It just doesn't make sense to me, given the description of what happened in the courtroom transcripts.”
“Why do you say that, Major?” Mac looked at him in confusion. “I mean, I know Lacey doesn't have violent tendencies, unless she feels threatened…”
He opened the file and took out several sheets of paper that he handed to her. Mac read them over and actually had tears swimming in her eyes when she looked back up at him.
“Are you sure it was really Lacey Stephens who did those things?” She asked. “This says she was screaming nonsense and couldn't be restrained. One person even commented that she looked like she was strung out on drugs. Was she given a drug test after they removed her from the court room?”
“No,” he looked her in the eye. “So she hasn't exhibited violent tendencies in the past? What about when you served together in Iraq?”
“She's a surgeon, for crying out loud, Major,” Mac countered. “She swore to do her utmost to treat and save people—you know, the do no harm thing. Lacey wouldn't knowingly hurt someone unless they tried to hurt her first.” She threw the papers back onto the file in exasperation. “This wasn't the Lacey Stephens I knew in Iraq and it certainly wasn't the same woman I saw a few months ago. Something changed. Or someone had a hand in changing her behavior.”
“I didn't see any record or mention of drug addiction,” he said. “Did she seem disturbed or agitated and did she exhibit even the remotest inkling of wanting to cause her father harm when you saw her last?”
“She punched him in the nose at Thanksgiving,” Mac answered gravely. “He ordered her to his office. She refused. He slapped her. She punched him in the nose. That was it.”
“He assaulted her first?” Willows clarified. “Are you sure?”
“No, but her mother and sister were both there,” Mac said. “I'm sure if you ask them, they'll tell you exactly what happened. Lacey was going to tell me the whole story when she came for a visit at Christmas. She never showed up. That's why I came here. I had to know why she didn't come to Wyoming, where I live. If I'd known…”
He saw the guilt enter her pale blue eyes.
“Hey,” Willows put a hand on top of hers. “Don't beat yourself up over this, Mac. You couldn't know what was going on.”
“So, what happens next?” Mac glanced down at his hand and then slipped her out from under his. She folded her hands in her lap. “How can I help Lacey?”
“I've asked to be assigned to the colonel's case,” Willows said with the hint of a smile. “I want to help her—to help you both.”
Mac's eyes narrowed. “If you don't mind my asking, which case are you being assigned to, Major?”
“The whole enchilada,” he shrugged. “Believe it or not, I'm a sucker for hard luck cases. And this one is as hard luck as it gets.”
“I'm not admitting to anything,” Mac said.
“You don't have to and I'm not going to ask,” he shot her a cocky grin. “I don't want to know, not even as part of the attorney-client privilege deal. As far as I'm concerned, you two are good friends who worked together, served together and went through hell and back together. You survived. Let's leave it at that.” A teasing gleam came into his gray eyes. “All I ask is that you keep it professional in front of me, Mac. Try not to get too affectionate with each other when we get the colonel out of that place. We'll still need to deal with that court martial and that will require some discretion from both of you.”
Mac hesitantly let the skepticism give way to acceptance. She didn't really know if she could trust the major, but she didn't really have a choice. He was the only hope she had for freeing Lacey from that place.
“You really mean that?” She finally asked, as she finished off her scotch and set her empty glass down.
“I'm a firm believer in actions speaking louder than words,” he nodded with a warm smile. “You two are heroes and deserve to be treated as such. You don't deserve to have your reputations smeared or besmirched over something that never affected how you did your jobs or how you courageously emerged from one of the most horrific situations any soldier could face.”
“What about the accusation that she was my superior…”
“Not an issue with me,” he continued with the same cocky grin. “I've defended worse. Even represented an admiral who actually confessed to using his rank to influence the young women under his command. The sorry son of a bitch should have been thrown in the brig. I certainly would have thrown the key away.”
“So, what happened to him?”
“He retired with full benefits and now owns a saloon on a beach in Florida,” he grinned. “He invites me to spend a weekend or two with him every year. He says my boyish charm is good for business.”
“You got him off?” Mac was incredulous. “Even after he confessed?”
“I found a small technicality—a loophole, if you will—and blew it wide open,” he nodded and then sobered. “It wasn't one of my finer moments. And it finished him. I got him to agree to an early retirement, as long as he accepted the verdict that was handed down. He's not a bad person, you understand. He just can't keep it in his pants. Now he can have his cake and eat it, too. No one gets hurt. It's all good.”
“If you say so,” Mac blew out. “Doesn't sound like someone I want near any kid I know.”
“Some might say the same about you and Colonel Stephens,” he countered with a raised brow. “After all, isn't that the whole reason for banning gays from the military? The whole ‘They might influence impressionable young soldiers to become gay' stigma?” He shook his head. “Actually, I think that's the excuse behind the one the press uses every time the DADT comes up on a politician's agenda. We may be more civilized than fifty years ago, but we still can't control how people perceive the military. Go figure.”
“Yeah, well,” Mac shrugged. “I'm a firm believer in monogamy. And I never used my rank to influence anyone into doing anything against their will, not even onboard my helicopter. Neither did Lacey. She has as much integrity, if not more, than I do.”
“That's why I asked to represent you both,” he lifted his glass of ice in mock salute. “Your service records impressed me when I read them over. The only exceptions were the few notations by Colonel Stephens' COs that she has trouble with authority.”
“That's definitely Lacey,” she snickered. “I gave her a few direct orders, myself. She ignored them.” She caught the look in his eyes. “Don't get me wrong, Major. She always had the best interests of the team and the patient at heart when she bucked authority. But that didn't mean we didn't have more than a few words over it.”
He chuckled and shook his head again. “I can't wait to meet Colonel Stephens, then. She sounds like quite the dedicated doctor and soldier.”
“You have no idea,” Mac said with a warm smile.
“Here's to you both, then,” he raised his glass again. “I'm going to work my damnedest to clear everything up—come hell or high water.”
“Or gritty desert sand,” Mac raised her own empty glass and they clinked their glasses together.
Dr. Elias Benson sat behind his handmade oak desk and stared at the phone in front of him. Several lights blinked. Others flashed. A few were dark. He wasn't really paying any attention to the light show. His mind was on the telephone call he had to make. He had the number memorized, so no one would find it in his notes.
He didn't want to make the call, but knew it couldn't be helped. His employer needed to know the situation. After all the money that had been paid—all the arrangements that had been made—he deserved to know. But…
Dr. Benson never dreamed he would one day do something that was so ethically and morally…well, wrong. Yes, he could admit it, if only to himself. He couldn't tell another soul about the deal he had made with the devil. No, that was something he would have to take to his grave.
Only one other person knew the truth, and she was being paid well to keep her mouth shut. Hester had been with him from the beginning. She knew how to keep her mouth shut. But Dr. Benson added a hefty bonus to her paycheck, just in case. He figured he could write the bonuses off as added business expenses. After all, his employer didn't exactly stipulate how the money was to be used.
He glanced out the window at the ocean view beyond and wondered how things had gone so wrong. The task was simple: Keep the daughter of one of Houston's elite under sedation until such time as…Well, he really didn't know the particulars. He just knew he would receive a call when the time was right.
Elias picked up the phone and punched in the numbers. He listened for the line on the other end to be answered and was a bit surprised when a woman's voice came on the line.
“Hello,” he said after a short pause. “May I please speak to James Stephens?”
“ I'm afraid he is unavailable ,” the woman said in a level tone. “ May I take a message? ”
Elias quickly searched his mind for something to say. “To whom am I speaking, please?”
“ This is Mrs. Stephens ,” came the curt reply. “ And you are? ”
“Oh, Mrs. Stephens,” Elias breathed a sigh of relief. For a moment he thought he'd dialed the wrong number. “This is Dr. Benson calling. I need to speak to your husband about an important matter. Do you happen to know when he will be available?”
“ Is this in regards to my daughter, Dr. Benson? ” Meredith Stephens asked. “ I'm assuming you have news concerning her condition? ”
“Well, yes, I do,” Elias answered, as he realized she must know all about the care Lacey Stephens was receiving from him.
“ And are things going according to plan? ” Meredith prodded. “ Is the treatment working? ”
“The…er…treatment is moving forward at exactly the pace your husband requested,” Elias said. “She hasn't given us any trouble at all and is behaving as a model patient. But that's not why I'm calling, Mrs. Stephens.”
“ Oh? ” Meredith's tone changed, ever so slightly, on the other end of the line. “ Why are you calling, Dr. Benson? ”
“There's…erm…a…um…a problem,” he stuttered over his answer. “Actually, I received a call from an attorney the other day that has me concerned. He was fishing for information about your daughter and wanted to know if she was here at this facility.”
“ And do you have the attorney's name? ” Meredith asked.
“He said something about being a JAG attorney—you know, Judge Advocate General of the Armed Forces,” he explained. “He said your daughter is a colonel in the Army, and is on a medical leave of absence. He also said the court order to keep her here with us is invalid, since your daughter is still in the military. Is this true, Mrs. Stephens?”
“ I'm not exactly sure, Dr. Benson, ” Meredith said. “ I will have to speak to my husband about it and see what he has to say. ”
“Well, ma'am,” he continued. “If this attorney insists on paying us a visit, I'm not sure that I can keep him from seeing your daughter. We are a private facility, but there are certain things even we cannot control. If he presents a court order, then my hands are tied. I must comply with the court's wishes or face legal issues of my own. That would not be a good idea, ma'am.”
“ You do what you must, doctor, ” Meredith said. “ I will speak to James and fill him in on the situation. One way or another, we shall get this resolved. In the meantime, it would probably be a good idea to take Lacey off the medication you have her on. That way, if this attorney does get his court order to see her, she will be able to interact with him in as normal a manner as possible. ”
“Are you sure about that, Mrs. Stephens?” Elias couldn't believe his ears. “Maybe I should wait for your husband's…”
“ My husband is in the middle of an important business deal and cannot be disturbed, doctor ,” Meredith impatiently cut him off. “ Besides, he doesn't have time to play games or deal with such trivial matters. Just do as I say. Do I make myself clear ?”
“Y-yes, ma'am,” Elias said into the receiver. “I understand.”
“ Good ,” she continued in a more relaxed tone. “ I am returning to the Houston area in a few days. I will then make a personal trip to see my daughter. I expect her to behave herself, but to be lucid enough to understand what is going on around her. Do not disappoint me, Dr. Benson.”
“O-okay,” he stammered again. “Goodbye, Mrs. Stephens.”
“ Goodbye. ”
Elias looked at the receiver before putting it back on the phone. He didn't know what to make of the conversation his employers wife. He wondered why she had answered the private cell phone that James Stephens said he would be the only one to have access to. Elias also had the niggling suspicion that she knew what was going on, but hadn't had a hand in its orchestration.
He shrugged off his misgivings and the slight unease he felt as a result of the conversation. He had a job to do. There was nothing for it but to do that job. It was what he was getting paid a hefty sum to do. He had accepted his fate and now he would live with the consequences, whatever they might be.
First things, first. He had to order his staff to reduce Lacey's medication dosage. It was time to slowly bring her out of the stupor they were keeping her in and help her readjust to life without the drugs.
Elias just hoped there would be no lasting effects. The mix of medications he had put her on was enough to drive a sane person insane. He knew it when he put her on them. He also knew they were highly addictive and would have her going through withdrawal symptoms over the next couple days.
He just hoped the attorney didn't appear at his doorstep before then. There was no telling what the man would do if he found Lacey in such a state. Then again, maybe the man didn't really know what she'd been like before she was committed and would just chalk her behavior up to the mental illness she was supposed to be suffering from.
One could hope.
Meredith Stephens sat back in the lounge chair next to a shimmering swimming pool and stared out at the distant sea beyond. She felt a moment of utter panic that her daughter was in the hands of a maniac and she wasn't there to protect Lacey. She wanted to hop on the next chartered flight back to the States and demand answers. But she had a private investigator digging those up for her.
And the things he had managed to dig up, so far, made her cringe. She never would have dreamed that her husband was not the loving, doting father and husband he pretended to be. And now she knew the real truth. He was not at all loving and he didn't dote. He was a lying, thieving, conniving S.O.B. who deserved to rot in hell for all the things he had put Lacey through.
Unfortunately, Meredith could do nothing except divorce him. Well, she could also cut off his finances, which she'd already done.
As soon as she confronted him about the discrepancies her accountant had discovered in her husband's finances, Meredith hired a private investigator. That's when she found out her husband wasn't the wealthy aristocrat he pretended to be. He was broke. Flat broke. His private practice was financed by the other two partners and James didn't own a dime of it.
“Mother?” Lily's voice intruded on Meredith's musings. “Are you okay?”
Looking up at her youngest child and realizing Lily was no longer a child at all, Meredith was struck by a thought.
“Oh, where did the time go?” She said aloud and then looked away.
“Now you're scaring me,” Lily said, as she sat down on the lounge chair next to her mother's. “First, Daddy up and leaves without a word of farewell. And now you're acting like the world just came to an end. What is going on with you two?”
“Oh, Lillian,” Meredith took her daughter's hands in hers. “It's your sister.”
“Yes,” Meredith nodded. “I'm afraid I have some bad news.”
“Is she…” Lily couldn't bring herself to finish the question.
“She's in a mental hospital,” Meredith hurried to say, seeing the grief enter Lily's brown eyes. “She's not dead. They've just been keeping her there against her will.”
“But…how?” Lily was relieved, one instant and concerned, the next. “Who is keeping her against her will?”
“She's there because of your father,” Meredith almost couldn't bring herself to say the words. “He wanted access to your sister's trust fund. He is also after the money she invested and saved. He's broke, darling. He lost everything to bad investments years ago. It's all gone.”
“So, he essentially kidnapped Lacey and is holding her against her will in a mental institution?” Lily slapped a hand against her own forehead. “Father wouldn't…”
“He did,” Meredith confirmed. “I never believed he was capable of those things that Lacey accused him of. Not until I learned that he is capable of so much more.”
“He beat her, Mother,” Lily stated. “Didn't Lacey ever tell you?”
“She did, but I just thought…” Tears sprang to her eyes. “I can't believe he is the same man I married all those years ago. The James Stephens I knew when we first met would never do such things.”
“He wasn't always a wealthy man, Mother,” Lily said, as if that explained everything. “He probably couldn't live without the power that his wealth provided.”
“No,” Meredith dabbed her eyes with a silk handkerchief. “I know now that he only married me for my money.” She then met Lily's gaze. “He left when I told him I wouldn't give him another dime.”
“Is that why he went after Lacey's money, instead?” Lily wiped a tear from her mother's cheek.
“No,” Meredith shook her head. “He actually thought we were completely broke. He was wrong. I didn't tell him about the bank account I keep in my maiden name.” She sniffed back her tears. “I told him after I found out what he did to your sister. I confronted him and he told me everything—or, at least, what I hope was everything. The private investigator I hired hasn't been able to find out where your sister is being held, yet. That worries me. Your father is no longer a concern of mine. I filed for divorce.”
“You don't think he'll go back there and try to harm her further, do you?” Lily couldn't keep the alarm from her tone.
“No,” Meredith shook her head. “He chartered a flight to Venice. I'm sure he plans to stay there until this all blows over. I hope he enjoys water, because I expect he'll be there for a while. I had my attorney freeze all his assets after he chartered the flight. I also had our accountant put a hold on our joint bank account until after the divorce is final. I just wish I had known about this sooner. I'm not sure I will ever be able to forgive myself for what that man put Lacey through.”
“Lacey's a fighter, Mother,” Lily put a hand in her mother's. “She'll be fine once we find her and get her out of the place she's in.”
“I don't know if she will, this time, Lily,” Meredith delicately caught another tear before it could smear her mascara. “Your sister isn't as strong as she appears.”
“She's a soldier, Mother,” Lily patted her mother's hand. “She survived a helicopter crash and only God knows what else. I'm sure this scheme that Daddy cooked up won't leave her with any lasting scars beyond the ones she already carries.”
Meredith smiled wanly. “I hope you're right, Lily.”
“I am,” Lily nodded confidently.
Continued in Part 4
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