For disclaimers, see Part 1 .
CORRECTION : This part contains references to a Commander Jason Willows. In part 3 he was Major Jason Willows. Since Willows is a member of the U.S. Navy and there are no majors in the Navy, I decided to correct the error. He will be known as a commander from here on out. Thank you to one of the readers for pointing out the discrepancy.
Feedback is appreciated ( firstname.lastname@example.org ). You can also get updates on my blog ( http://kennedynorthcutt.wordpress.com ) or friend request me on Facebook.
She could feel it. Somewhere at the very edges of her mind she could tell it was there. It was there. So faint, yet…
Lacey was aware of the hard plastic chair she was sitting in. She knew she was in a room other than the one she slept in. Sun was streaming through one of the windows in the room and tiny dust motes danced in beams of light around her head. She stared at them. She felt…
That part was still buried too deep for her to grasp. She still couldn't call up any emotions. They were there. She knew they were. She just had no way of reaching out to them. She wanted to, but…
Someone approached her and Lacey lifted her head slowly. The drugs made everything so fuzzy that a face had to appear right in front of her before Lacey could grasp who it was. And even then she still had trouble concentrating long enough to put a name to the face that appeared.
“Hello, little girl,” this particular face belonged to the bleach-blond who sat at the table with her. Lacey knew that face all too well. She didn't like the woman. “How are we this morning?”
Lacey let the question sink in and then concentrated on her reply. “We?”
Callie pulled up a chair and sat down right in front of the confused woman she enjoyed toying with. She wanted to do so much more to Lacey Stephens, but Maria's constant interruptions had kept that from happening, thus far. But Callie had a plan. She would be patient and bide her time until the perfect opportunity presented itself. Then she would show the strawberry-blond something she wouldn't soon forget. It made Callie shiver in anticipation just thinking about it.
Lacey knew she didn't like the way the bleach-blond was looking at her. She wanted to get up and leave. She itched to escape from the woman with the dark eyes that seemed to look right into her soul. Callie made her skin crawl, even though she felt nothing and could only sit there and stare at the woman.
“Oh, dear,” Callie tsked and then let a sly smile lift the corners of her lips. She reached out and tucked a stray lock of hair behind Lacey's ear. “Those little pills you're on still keeping you as docile as a newborn kitten, sweetie?”
Lacey continued to stare into Callie's soulless eyes. A spark of emotion bubbled up within her at the blonde's tone, but quickly dissipated. She wanted to hold onto it. Was it anger? It almost felt like anger. Almost.
“Leave her alone, Cal,” Maria appeared and Lacey turned her head slightly to find her protector standing there with her hands on her hips. Then Maria's face was within inches of Callie's. “I told you what I'd do to you if you didn't leave her alone, bitch.”
Callie was instantly on her feet. The move was so sudden that her chair toppled over and clattered to the floor. She towered over Maria by several inches, but the stocky Hispanic woman just stood her ground with a stern glare. She slammed a fist into her open palm and met Callie's gaze in open challenge.
“I'll see you later, my sweet,” Callie said to Lacey, as she backed down from the challenge. She then blew Lacey a kiss and sauntered away.
Maria watched Callie disappear around the corner and waited an extra moment to be sure the woman was gone.
“Bitch,” she said under her breath and then turned to Lacey. “Hey, there. How're you doing today, chica ?”
Lacey concentrated enough that she was able to produce a small smile. It wasn't much. But it was enough to put a wide grin on Maria's features.
“Well, that's a start, at least,” Maria righted the chair and took a seat across from Lacey. “You getting used to the drugs, yet? It's been a few days now. Your body should be adapting to them enough to clear the fog a little.”
Lacey frowned and slowly shook her head. She concentrated on putting words together in her head so she could speak. It took every ounce of focus for her to come up with something to say.
“Hard,” she managed finally.
Maria put a hand on Lacey's folded hands. “I know. I don't have a clue what they're giving you or why, but they must have you on some pretty powerful stuff to make you all out of it like this. Hang in there, though. It'll get easier. You'll see.”
Lacey noticed a tattoo on Maria's arm and felt a memory prickle at the edges of her mind. It was a familiar tattoo—barbed wire. Lacey knew what it was. She recognized it. But she couldn't quite place where she'd seen it before. The memory slipped away as quickly as it surfaced.
“You like my tat?” Maria glanced down at her bicep and flexed it. She was wearing a white tank top and a pair of worn black jeans. Her dark-brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail. There was nothing fancy about Maria, except her demeanor. She was the kindest person Lacey knew—or at least that she could remember knowing. “I got this a couple years ago from a guy in my neighborhood. He was giving ‘em to all the guys and I thought it would be cool to have one, too.” She flexed her arm again and smiled at Lacey. “Other than the gang tat on my shoulder, it's the only other tattoo I got. I'm not big on needles.”
Lacey continued to stare at the tattoo, as the memories suddenly flashed in her mind again. She was being held down by strong hands. She couldn't escape. And someone was…
Fear and panic suddenly gripped her. She wanted to run. To escape. But she couldn't move. That tattoo. It wasn't the same. But it was similar. Her breathing became ragged and she couldn't bring herself to tear her gaze from the barbed wire.
“Hey!” Maria's voice and a hand on Lacey's arm suddenly brought her back to the present. “You okay, chica ? You look like you saw a ghost, just now.”
The images were still fresh in her mind, but the panic was gone. It had retreated back into the drug-induced fog. Her breathing finally returned to normal. It was over. Or was it?
“Lacey?” Maria's face came back into focus again. “Hey. You okay? You're as white as a sheet, girl.”
“Okay,” Lacey managed.
A trickle of perspiration ran down the side of her face. She felt it but couldn't call up the energy or will to wipe it away.
“You need me to go get someone?” Maria continued. “Maybe I can find the doc and see if…”
Lacey was unaware that she actually moved, but suddenly she had Maria's arm in a vice-like grip. Maria just glanced down at the hand on her arm. She then met Lacey's gaze and saw the pleading in their green depths.
“Okay, chica ,” Maria pushed the errant lock of hair back behind Lacey's ear. “No doctor. Just relax, okay? That grip of yours is strong enough to leave marks.”
Lacey expelled a breath she didn't know she'd been holding and loosened her grip on the woman now squatting in front of her. She wanted to thank Maria. She wanted to break down in tears of relief that Maria wasn't going to get the doctor. Lacey didn't want to deal with the doctor. Since the tears wouldn't come, she merely nodded and let the hint of a smile tug at her lips.
“Thank…you,” Lacey managed to utter.
“No prob,” Maria returned to the chair and looked Lacey over with concern.
She had no idea what Lacey was doing there or why Dr. Benson seemed to be doping her so heavily. But rumor had it she had attacked someone. Maria couldn't imagine the woman hunched next to her was capable of attacking anyone. Lacey didn't appear dangerous. She certainly wasn't butch or anything.
Actually, just the opposite. Lacey seemed to be a refined woman who was better suited to holding board meetings in some business setting than being locked away in a mental hospital. She was also fairly attractive. A little makeup and some different clothes and Maria figured Lacey could pass for gorgeous. But she wasn't Maria's type.
“Tell me something,” Maria leaned forward with her forearms on her knees. “You don't have to elaborate or anything. Just respond with a simple yes or no.” She waited to see if Lacey understood and got a quick nod of acknowledgement. “Did you attack someone? Is that why they tossed you in here with us?”
Lacey frowned. Did she? She didn't really remember what she had done to end up where she was. She didn't even know where she was. All she knew was she had to see the doctor once a day and eat all the food on her plate during the three meals served in the dining room.
And she had to take her meds. She had tried not taking them once. That's all it took. She didn't want to repeat that experience, ever again. Lacey couldn't even figure out why she could remember what the nurse and orderlies had done to get her to take the meds. All she knew was that she couldn't get the image of it out of her head. It was burned in there and wouldn't leave.
“I'm sorry,” Maria quickly added. “I didn't mean to pry. It's none of my business why you're here.”
Lacey felt the need to answer the question, but didn't know the answer. She sensed it was buried somewhere in the fog of her mind. But she had no way to dig it up—bring it to the surface.
“Don't know,” she finally managed.
She looked at Maria, who saw the utter confusion in the depths of Lacey's green eyes. It pulled at her heartstrings and made her all the more determined to protect her blond friend from the likes of Callie or anyone else. Maria even wanted to protect her new friend from that scum of a doctor who was doping her to the point of mindless confusion.
Maria scooted closer and put an arm around Lacey's shoulders. “Don't worry, chica . I'm your friend now. I got your back. I won't let anything happen to you.”
Lacey wasn't worried. She couldn't feel worry. She still couldn't feel much of anything. It was all encased in that mind-numbing fog. It was there. She knew it was there. She just couldn't access it.
Mac glanced over at Commander Jason Willows. He was dressed in crisp Navy whites, as he sat behind the wheel of the non-descript, government-issue blue sedan he'd borrowed for the day. In his early thirties and with a thick head of dark hair, he was quite handsome. Mac could admit that. She just had absolutely no desire to pursue any kind of relationship, other than friendship, with the man—with any man. He was handsome, but he wasn't her type.
Mac sat in the passenger seat in her Army-issue ACUs with her hair pinned up under the digital uniform cap similar to the one she'd worn in Iraq. She felt comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time. The clothing she'd worn in the Desert was familiar. It even smelled like the Desert. They weren't the ACUs she'd been wearing on that fateful flight that ended in tragedy. Those had been disposed of long ago. The ones she was now wearing were the spare set she'd brought back with her. Rather, they were the spare set that had been shipped home to Wyoming. Why she kept them, she didn't know.
She knew she wasn't supposed wear her uniform now that she was no longer an active member of the Army. But Willows had insisted it would add credibility to their cover story. She didn't have any of her insignia patches on and hoped the people at the hospital didn't notice they were missing. Willows had assured her they wouldn't.
Besides, Mac thought, she was doing it for Lacey. Lacey needed her. Nothing else mattered. She needed to see Lacey for herself. She needed to know that the woman she loved was actually okay—that they were treating her…
Mac couldn't finish that particular thought. She had no idea how they were treating Lacey. Despite the many calls the commander had made, they were still in the dark when it came to finding out how Lacey was doing. For all Mac knew, Lacey could be so hopped up on drugs that she had no idea where she was, much less who Mac was. Mac hoped beyond hope that it wasn't the case.
An angry scowl crossed her features when her thoughts turned to Lacey's father. James Stephens was responsible for Lacey's current situation. Mac was convinced of it, beyond a shadow of a doubt. He had used his influence in the medical community, as well as his friendship with certain members of the same country club he belonged to, to get his daughter committed. Bastard! She wanted to rip him apart with her bare hands for what he'd put Lacey through.
Feeling the rage surface, Mac quickly turned her thoughts to the scenery beyond the windshield of the car. They were in Louisiana and had been driving the back roads for several hours. Willows had suggested they drive to the place where Lacey was being kept. That way they would have a ready means of escape if things got ugly. Mac hoped that didn't happen, but wasn't adverse to using whatever means necessary to free Lacey from the hellhole her father had put her in.
“You okay?” Willows glanced her way. “You're really quiet.”
Mac set her elbow on the ledge next to the window and let her head rest in her hand. “I'm fine.”
“You sure?” He prodded. “No offense, but you look like you're ready to wring someone's neck, there, Chief.”
“Wish I could get my hands on James Stephens,” Mac looked at him and smiled. “Other than that, I'm good.”
He grinned and returned his eyes to the road ahead. “I've filed several affidavits requesting that James Stephens be charged with assault, battery and a few other creative charges that should put him away for a while. Unfortunately, he is nowhere to be found. There isn't a soul in Houston willing to reveal his secret vacation hiding place and his family seems to have disappeared with him. Not much more I can do than that.”
“I know,” Mac nodded. “I'm just worried that we'll show up at this place and find that they've moved her to another facility—or worse.”
“Keep the faith, Chief,” Willows reassured. “I called, just this morning, before we left the motel. She's still there. The receptionist let me know that much.”
“Do they know we're coming?”
“Yes,” Willows' expression went sober. “I gave the receptionist a heads-up this morning. I'm sure she told Dr. Benson that he'll be receiving visitors this afternoon.”
“Was that wise?”
“Under the circumstances?” He shrugged. “I really can't say. I don't know what their instructions are concerning the colonel's care. For all I know they could have her on hallucinogens and a whole slew of other drugs to keep her from going postal on their asses.”
Mac couldn't help but chuckle. “She definitely wouldn't hesitate to kick the crap out of anyone who tried to subdue her, if given half the chance. Lacey isn't one to take shit from anyone, excuse my language.”
“Let's hope not,” He returned his attention to the road, but allowed the hint of a smile to touch his lips. “I can't wait to meet her.”
Mac let a smile of her own show, as she stared out at the passing scenery. The landscape was changing the closer they got to the coast. She noticed weeping willows and an increase in swampy bogs along the highway. They were definitely not in Texas anymore.
Lacey watched Nurse Hester wheel the med cart around the dining room in the wake of the noon meal. The hefty woman delivered afternoon doses of the prescribed medications to everyone in the room—except her. As the nurse wheeled the cart past Lacey, she shook her head and shot Lacey a sympathetic look.
“Poor child,” Lacey heard the nurse mutter, as she kept right on wheeling the med cart past where Lacey sat.
Lacey didn't know what the woman's sorry expression really meant. Nor did she have a clue why a woman who had practically shoved pills down her throat would suddenly walk right on by, as if Lacey no longer mattered. It set the nape hairs on the back of Lacey's neck to tingling, as the fog in her mind slowly receded.
And that was the other thing. She could almost feel something. She still couldn't quite pinpoint which emotion was slowly creeping up out of the misty bog, but she actually knew it was there.
Lacey sat in her seat at the dining table she shared with Maria, Emily and Callie. Lunch done and the dishes had been cleared away. She hadn't eaten everything on her plate, this time. She really didn't feel like eating. That thought, alone, gave her pause. Up to that moment she had practically forced herself to make the effort to eat. She knew she needed to eat—knew she needed to keep up her strength. She didn't know why. She just did what she knew she needed to do.
A memory flashed before her eyes and the room suddenly disappeared. She found herself in an operating room. At least, she thought it was an operating room. And then she looked down into the open cavity of a patient's abdomen. Her gloved hands were covered in bright-red blood. The smell of it was overwhelming. A wave of nausea hit her unexpectedly and nearly doubled her over where she sat.
Then the memory receded as quickly as it came. She looked up and her world righted itself. She was in the dining room. Alone. No blood.
Lacey looked down at her hands on the table in front of her and they were trembling. She lifted them in front of her and stared at them. They continued to shake, as her heart raced in her chest. She felt beads of sweat break out on her upper lip and brow. Something was wrong.
Then she felt it. Panic. Like a dagger to her gut. It broke free of the fog and she was powerless to stop it from overwhelming her. Her breathing quickened and her heart raced. Another flashback suddenly took her to a scene in Iraq she never wanted to relive. She was being held down while three men brutally raped her. She could hear their laughter in her ears and smell the sweat from their bodies in her nostrils.
The flashback was so real that she wasn't even aware of what she was doing. Lacey toppled out of the chair and started writhing on the floor in agony. Her screams brought several orderlies to her side in seconds. The first one to reach her made the mistake of trying to grab her. He went sprawling when she delivered a sweeping kick that took his legs right out from under him.
Two others moved in and managed to grab her flailing arms, while the first grabbed for her feet. It finally took three more of them to pin her down before they had Lacey subdued completely. And still she continued to scream and flail as the flashback intensified to the point that more memories were bombarding her, one after another.
“Keep hold of her long enough for me to inject a tranquilizer,” Hester ordered, as she produced a syringe and pushed the plunger up and tapped the air from it. “Hold her still.”
Lacey was no longer aware of anything around her. She was trapped in a nightmare of torn flesh, broken bones, severed limbs and blood—so much blood. Fear and anger gripped her like a vice that was wound tightly enough to cut off her breathing. She heard voices far off in the distance. People shouted. Others held her down. The ordeal of her rape combined with all the horror she had witnessed during her time as a surgeon seemed to meld together into a terrifying miasma of inescapable torment that threatened to drive her completely mad.
And then everything went black.
“This is it?” Mac stared out the windshield at the expanse of green grass and neatly-trimmed shrubbery beyond.
She glanced up at the red-brick building with the neat, white trim and black shutters. Well-groomed hedges were set below paned windows edged in white trim made the place look almost welcoming. Willows pulled the sedan into a parking stall in front of the building and turned off the engine.
“This is the place,” he surveyed the expanse of green, before removing the key from the ignition and opening the driver's-side door. “Shall we?”
Mac handed him his white hat with the shiny black bill, then opened her own door. As she stood up to her full height, she adjusted her ACUs and the hat on her own head. She also made sure no stray wisps of hair had escaped the French braid that was tucked under her hat.
They made their way toward the front door of the brick building with the military bearing of a couple of seasoned veterans. Mac just hoped they would be leaving with one extra passenger, in tow.
Lacey felt like she was on fire. Her entire body was screaming in agony. Sweat poured off her and soaked the restraints that held her firmly down to the unyielding surface beneath her. A blinding white light pierced through her closed lids. She wasn't about to open her eyes. Then again, all she could do was writhe in agony.
So much pain.
She wanted to lash out at something. She couldn't. Her arms and legs were being held down by padded leather restraints. And she couldn't scream for the rubber mouth piece firmly lodged between her teeth. Her jaw ached from the convulsions that poured through her. Her throat was raw from her now-silent screams.
The nightmare continued.
And then a loud alarm drowned out the other noises around her. She heard it a split-second before she felt her chest go still.
“We're losing her, doctor!”
“She's going into full cardiac arrest,” came the panicked reply. “Administer 1 milligram of epinephrine and start immediate chest compressions. I'm charging the defibrillator.”
Lacey knew those terms. Cardiac arrest?Epinephrine?Defibrillator? What in the world was happening?
She had no time to prepare herself before an agonizing jolt of electricity shot through her chest and lifted her torso off the hard surface she was lying on. The pain was so intense that all she wanted to do was scream in agony. But she couldn't. There was suddenly something lodged in her throat that was keeping her from uttering a sound.
Again? She wanted to open her eyes and look around at her surroundings. But they wouldn't open, no matter how hard she tried. Was this what it was like to experience the last few moments before death? Was she going to die? Her body sure felt like it was giving up on her. Every nerve ending was on fire. And her chest felt like a thousand-pound weight was pressing down on her. Breathing was next to impossible, despite the tube delivering oxygen directly to her lungs.
That jolt shot through her again and she saw a bright flash of lightning behind her closed lids. It was the most excruciating experience she'd ever had. And it, too, was vaguely familiar. It wasn't the first time. She'd been through this same agony once before.
Lacey's thoughts whirled in her confused mind, as Dr. Benson and his staff continued to work frantically to bring her failing body back to life.
Lacey suddenly felt it. The faintest vibration deep within her chest that steadily grew stronger with each precious beat. Her heart. It was beating again. She was alive. She was…
The pain returned like white-hot fire so intense that she wasn't convinced she hadn't actually died and plunged straight into the fires of Hell. Every fiber of her being burned. And the fog that had clouded every corner of her mind thus far was gone. She was aware of everything.
All she wanted to do was sink into oblivion. But even that escape was denied her. She was burning within her own skin—burning alive—and there wasn't a thing she could do about it.
“I'm sorry, but Dr. Benson is unavailable at the moment, Commander,” the perky blond receptionist shot Commander Willows another flirty smile. “You'll just have to come back tomorrow.”
“I really don't think you quite comprehend the situation, miss,” Willows glared at her this time around. “We're not asking permission to see the doctor. I have an order from a JAG court that says we have every right to enter these premises and locate Colonel Lacey Stephens. She is no longer under the jurisdiction of the circuit court in Houston; therefore, her father's recommendation that has her locked away here is null and void. I have been given full authority to remove Colonel Stephens and place her under my protection until such time as she can appear before a JAG court. Do I make myself clear, Miss Jenkins?”
“Um, y-yes, sir,” Kelly Jenkins answered. “B-but I…uh…”
Just then, Mac saw a black woman come barreling around the corner. The woman made a beeline for the front desk with all the determination of a soldier on high alert. She was built like a linebacker and had the look of someone who didn't take shit from anyone. She also wore pastel scrubs that hugged her ample girth and showed every curve.
“Who are you people?” The woman waved a dark hand in their general direction. “No visitors allowed after five o'clock. Go on, now. Git on back to wherever you came from.”
“We aren't going anywhere, Nurse—” Willows glanced at the name badge over the woman's left breast. “Nurse Hester. We have a court order to remove Colonel Lacey Stephens from this facility, immediately.”
Her eyes widened just enough for Mac and the commander to confirm that she knew exactly who Lacey Stephens was. But then a stoic mask dropped into place and Hester stood with her hands on her ample hips.
“I don't care if you're the president himself come to give her the damned Medal of Honor,” she shot back with a glare. “You ain't getting past me and that's final.”
Willows held out a folded piece of paper. “This says we will and that's final.”
Hester glanced at the paper with disdain and folded her arms over her ample bosom. She then stood her ground with a challenging glare.
“Nurse Hester,” Mac stepped forward with her hands clasped behind her back. She then leaned an arm on the counter and smiled charmingly at the woman. “You seem like a very intelligent woman.”
Hester's expression turned wary. “So?”
“So,” Mac continued, as she turned those baby-blues up enough to offer her best puppy-dog pleading look. “Colonel Stephens and I served in Iraq together. Our helicopter went down in the desert after we took heavy enemy fire. We survived the crash, escaped enemy pursuit, survived an ambush, and lived through Hell to return home. Colonel Stephens is a decorated war hero. She has more medals and honors to her name than most combat soldiers who return from war. She's also one of the finest surgeons to ever serve this great country of ours.” Mac could see that she was getting to the woman. “Now, you can either continue to stand there and pretend that Colonel Stephens is just another one of your patients or…”
Mac straightened up and turned away from the woman. She gave Willows a covert wink, before turning back to place both hands on top of the counter in front of her.
“Court order aside, Nurse Hester,” Willows took up where Mac left off and leaned on the counter next to Mac. “I appeal to your sense of honor as a medical professional. Let us go in there and see Colonel Stephens. Just take us to her.” He shrugged. “Your boss, Dr. Benson, need never know. And if he finds out, just show him this.” He placed the court order on the counter and pushed it towards the woman. “He can't ignore the letter of the law, Nurse Hester.”
Hester could no longer keep up the pretense. She'd had no idea that the woman they'd admitted nearly a month ago was a military officer, much less a decorated war hero and surgeon. She wondered if Dr. Benson even knew the truth about his patient's identity. Was that why he'd ordered such strong medication for Lacey Stephens that she could barely function? Or was he afraid that she would use her military training to retaliate against him?
“Come with me,” Hester turned and walked down a side hallway.
Mac and the commander immediately followed the nurse, before she had the chance to change her mind. They glanced at each other in confusion, as the nurse took several turns and then continued down a longer hallway. She stopped in front of a locked door, produced a key from her pocket and unlocked the door. As the nurse pushed the door open, Mac stopped dead.
The sight that greeted her made her stomach plummet and brought a gasp of surprise to her lips. But her military training kicked in and she remained ramrod straight in the doorway, even though every instinct urged her to bolt inside the small room and kneel at the side of the woman she loved.
“Why is she being restrained? And what are those monitors for?” Willows looked at the nurse who wouldn't meet his stern gaze.
Mac was no longer listening to the conversation, as she hesitantly stepped inside the room. She removed her hat and held it tightly in both hands, as she moved to stand next to the small figure strapped down in the hospital bed.
Lacey looked awful. Her hair was damp with sweat and she shivered uncontrollably, even though a wool blanket was pulled all the way up to her chin. Her once-tan complexion was deathly pale and there were dark circles under her closed lids. Her lips quivered and she tossed her head from side to side occasionally, uttering nonsensical mutterings.
The monitors beeped and whirred at the head of the bed, as an IV bag delivered medication through a tube that disappeared beneath the blanket.
Mac wanted to pull the covers aside to see what was hidden beneath. Lacey's gaunt features told her that the woman hadn't been treated well. But she still wanted to see for herself.
“Chief?”Willows was suddenly standing right next to her and placed a hand on her shoulder.
“Yes, Commander?” Mac answered automatically.
“Nurse Hester says the colonel is going through drug withdrawals or, as she puts it, the DTs,” he continued. “She says Dr. Benson has been working with Colonel Stephens to get her off the drugs she was hooked on when she arrived here. Nurse Hester says Colonel Stephens came to them strung out on several different drugs, including heroine and LSD.”
“Colonel Stephens is not an addict, Commander,” Mac's expression hardened. “The only drugs in her possession were the pain meds prescribed to her for the injuries she received in the crash. There's no way Colonel Stephens is a junkie, Commander.”
Willows nodded. “Understood, Chief.” He patted her shoulder and turned his attention back to the nurse still hovering in the doorway. “Now, Nurse Hester, why don't you and I go somewhere private where we can talk? Colonel Stephens is in good hands with Chief Papadopoulos. She'll keep a close eye on your patient and make sure nothing happens to her. Right, Chief?”
Mac nodded silently.
“But,” Hester motioned with the key still in her hand, “my orders are to make sure the patient…”
Willows walked over to stand in front of the woman. “You really don't want this, Hester. I honestly don't think you had any idea what you were being ordered to do here. Right?” She nodded absently. “So, why don't we go somewhere and leave the chief here with Colonel Stephens. She'll take very good care of her. I promise.” He then motioned with his hat for Hester to precede him, as he guided her up the hallway and away from Lacey's room.
The instant Mac knew they were gone, she dropped to her knees next to Lacey's bedside. She then pushed the blanket back enough that she could take Lacey's hand in her own.
“Oh, Doc,” Mac pressed her forehead against Lacey's and tried willing those green eyes to open for her. “What the hell did they do to you, Lac?” She ran the backs of her fingers along the shivering woman's cheek. “Come on, Lac. I'm here now. Come back to me.”
Mac knew what Willows was doing. She also knew there wasn't much time to waste. It was now or never. So, she stroked Lacey's cheek one last time and proceeded to shut off all the monitors. She then removed all the leads and pads from the still-shivering woman. The restraints were removed last and Mac tossed them aside with disdain.
She the rose to her feet and looked closely at the IV bag dangling from over the head of Lacey's bed. She knew enough about detox to recognize the drug they were giving Lacey. It was meant to clear her system of any drugs, prescription or otherwise. So, rather than take Lacey off the IV, she merely lifted the bag off its hook and tucked it into the crook of the unconscious woman's arm.
Mac carefully wrapped Lacey up in the wool blanket and lifted her into her arms. She noticed that Lacey was much lighter than she'd been during their time together in Houston. But she didn't have time to ponder that for long. She then walked out of the room and back down the hallway toward the front desk. Not sure how much time she really had and not wanting to waste any of it on explanations, Mac continued on without talking to anyone or meeting the confused gazes of the few orderlies she passed in the hallway.
“Hey, where are you going with this patient?” A tall, muscular black man asked, as Mac rounded a corner and nearly ran into him. “She isn't supposed to be moved from her room. Doctor's orders.”
“And my orders are to remove her from this facility,” Mac shouldered her way past him. “So, get out of my way or you'll be answering to a JAG court for the unlawful imprisonment of a member of the United States Army.”
“Say what?” Jackson shot back in bewilderment, stopping Mac in her tracks.
She turned around to face him and hefted her burden higher in an attempt to relieve the strain on the shoulder she'd had surgery on only a few months ago.
“Didn't your boss tell you that this woman is a colonel in the United States Army?” She glanced down at Lacey and then back up at him.
“Are you serious?” His demeanor changed instantly. He was no longer ready to challenge Mac for carrying one of his favorite patients away. “Tell me that you're springing her from this place and I'll make sure no one else stops you along the way.” He then glanced at her ACUs and noticed she wasn't wearing any insignias. “Did you actually serve? Or are you just wearing that uniform to get her out of here?”
“I served,” Mac realized he wasn't just an orderly, he was a fellow veteran. “You?”
“Came home with shrapnel in my left knee,” Jackson smiled at her. “You want me to take her for you? You look like you came home with a few injuries of your own, not the least of which left you with a barely-noticeable limp.”
Mac wasn't sure she wanted to give Lacey over to the man until she looked him right in the eye and saw the sincerity in the gaze staring back at her. She reluctantly handed Lacey over to him and was relieved when the strain on her shoulder eased immediately.
“Thank you, my friend,” she slapped him on the shoulder, as they turned another corner and the front desk came into view.
“Anything for a fellow soldier,” he said. “Name's Jackson, by the way. PFC Elmo Jackson of the 121 st Infantry, at your service.”
“Chief Warrant Officer Mackenzie Papadopoulos,” Mac said. “And the woman in your arms is Lt. Colonel Lacey Stephens. We served together in the Desert.”
“I knew it,” he shook his head as they passed by the front desk without a glance at the receptionist who was talking on the phone and not paying attention to them. “I had a feeling this one was special. I could feel it in my bones. She wasn't like the rest of the patients here. Doc Benson kept her drugged up so much that I was sure it was for good reason. Turns out he was probably just afraid she would turn on him and kick his sorry white ass.”
They made it to the sedan without incident and found it locked. Mac glanced over her shoulder at the entrance, but Willows was still nowhere in sight. Then she saw a stocky Hispanic woman standing at one of the windows, giving her two thumbs-up and grinning from ear to ear. She had no idea who the woman was or if the thumbs-up was for her.
When she returned her attention to the window a moment later, the woman was gone and another woman was standing in her place. The second woman, a tall blond in designer slacks and a silk blouse, wasn't smiling at all. As a matter of fact, her expression was that of a petulant child who had just lost her favorite play toy. Dark eyes glared at Mac accusingly, until Mac finally turned away. When she glanced back, the window was empty.
“It's a good thing you came when you did, Chief,” Jackson said quietly.
Mac turned and met his gaze. He was still holding Lacey like she was precious cargo and seemed comfortable with his rather light burden. Lacey was still unconscious and, in the light of day, looked almost peaceful. Her long lashes feathered against the dark circles under her eyes tugged at Mac's heartstrings.
“What did they do to her, Private?” She asked in a hushed voice.
He shook his head and then looked away. “Not really sure,” he finally answered. “I tried to keep my eye on her when I could. But the drugs they were givin' her were pretty powerful. The combination the doc prescribed was enough to keep a stubborn mule docile and pliable as a newborn calf. Way I understand it, she couldn't feel nothin' with all those drugs in her system.”
Mac glanced at Lacey's face. “And now?”
“When the heavy tranqs they gave her wear off?” He shook his head again. “My advice is get her checked into a hospital, soon as possible. There's a VA hospital in Lafayette and one in Shreveport.”
“Thanks, Private,” Mac said. “But we're headed to Houston. We won't be staying in Louisiana any longer than it takes to cross the border into Texas.”
“That's a pretty long drive, Chief,” Jackson's brow furrowed in deep concern. “You plannin' on stoppin' anywhere for the night? Or are you going to drive on through? I don't recommend tryin' to drive straight though. Those tranqsain'tgonna last for long and there's no tellin' what will happen when she wakes up.”
“What aren't you saying, Private?” Mac got out before the telltale click of the electronic locks on the car distracted them both.
“Hey,” Willows approached at a hurried walk. “Let's go.”
Mac pulled the passenger-side back door open and waited for Jackson to gently lay Lacey across the seat. He then straightened up and looked at Mac.
“The drugs they gave her suppressed everything, Chief,” he said and placed a hand on her shoulder as he gazed intently into her eyes. “Ain't no tellin' how she'll react when the tranqs wear off. Just be prepared for the worst case scenario. Get her to someplace safe, preferably with a medical staff that deals with this kind of thing.”
Mac placed her hand over his and squeezed. “We'll do our best, Private Jackson. Thank you.”
“Will do, Chief,” Jackson stepped back and saluted, then spun on his heel and marched back toward the entrance to the facility without a backward glance.
Mac leaned on the open door for a moment and watched him go. Her thoughts whirled with speculation, as she ran his warnings around in her head. She then glanced down at Lacey lying peacefully in the back seat of the government-issue sedan.
“We ready, Mac?” Willows' voice intruded on her silent musings. He climbed into the driver's seat, as she ducked into the back seat next to Lacey. “I think we can probably make it over the border and into Texas before midnight.” He added, as he started the car and put it in gear. “I'll stop somewhere and pick up something to eat here in the car, so we don't leave her alone.”
“We'll play it by ear,” Mac said, as she pulled Lacey's head into her lap and gently stroked the strawberry blond hair.
As she pulled the hair away from Lacey's face and tucked it behind an ear, Mac frowned in concern. There was a purple bruise just inside Lacey's hairline that extended all the way from her forehead to the top of her ear. Mac wondered if someone had hit Lacey or if she'd fallen recently.
“What the hell did they do to you, Doc?” She said in a hushed whisper. “What did they do to you?”
The charter jet touched down with little fanfare on the runway of Houston Intercontinental Airport and taxied to a private hangar. The sun was just setting and colors lit the sky in shades of oranges, violets and pale blues as the jet pulled up in front of the metal building with the huge open door.
As the door to the jet popped open just behind the cockpit, steps and a retractable railing extended down and locked in place. A woman with a beige silk scarf draped over her dark hair donned a pair of designer sunglasses and stood in the doorway. Another woman with similar designer shades and dark hair stepped up next to the first. The two women navigated the steps to the ground below and made a beeline for a side door of the hangar.
Their clothing flapped in a crisp breeze that blew across the flat expanse of brown grass and asphalt beyond. They looked like they were going to a garden party, not returning from a trip abroad. A black limo sat to one side of the hangar and the driver leaned against the side of it.
“We'll be along shortly, Wilson,” Meredith Stephens called to the man in black with a chauffeur's hat perched atop his bald head.
“Is it really necessary to do this right now, Mother?” Lily followed her mother into the spacious and elegant interior of the lounge next to the hangar.
“I don't want your father using the plane or car for his own twisted pursuits, Lillian,” Meredith removed her glasses and brushed the scarf off her well-coiffed hair, as she walked into the office in the back of the lounge.
She didn't even bother to knock as she stepped right up to the dark walnut desk and waited for the well-groomed, gray-haired man behind it to acknowledge her. It didn't take him long to look up from the laptop screen on his desk.
“Mrs. Stephens,” he smiled warmly. “What can I do for you? Did you enjoy your flight? Was everything…”
Meredith held up a bejeweled hand to stop the questions. “The flight was fine, Samuel. The champagne was just the right temperature and the hors d'oeuvres were delightful. You must give my compliments to your new chef.”
“I will most certainly do that, Mrs. Stephens,” he nodded. “They will be quite happy to hear that you enjoyed the fare. Please, won't you sit down for a few moments?”
He folded his hands in front of him and waited for her to sit in one of the two hunter-green faux-leather wingback chairs. He then watched the elder Stephens woman motion to the younger brunette.
“Sit down, Lillian,” Meredith ordered. “I don't wish to strain my neck looking up at you.”
“I'd rather stand, Mother,” Lily responded with a pointed glare at the older woman. “We really don't have time for idle chitchat, so just get to the point.”
“Yes, well,” Meredith turned her attention to the gentleman waiting patiently behind the desk. “Samuel, I need to discuss a rather delicate matter with you. And I need your utmost discretion and your assurance that this will go no further than this room.”
Well used to serving the Stephens family, Samuel Trent merely nodded. “You have my word, Mrs. Stephens.”
Meredith glanced up at Lily before returning her attention to the man across the desk from her. “As you might have noticed, my husband did not return from our trip abroad.”
“Mother,” Lily growled as she glanced at the platinum Rolex on her wrist. “Please.”
“Oh, all right,” Meredith fidgeted with the designer handbag in her lap. It matched her cream and beige outfit and was trimmed in yellow gold, her favorite precious metal. “Samuel, my husband is no longer to have use of either the jet or the limousine. I want your assurance that he will not be allowed to use either of them from this point forward. I've had all his assets and accounts frozen, until a delicate family matter can be resolved.” She pressed her well-manicured fingers to her forehead to forestall the headache she could feel brewing behind her eyes. “James Stephens is nothing more than a common criminal and his behavior of late is nothing short of atrocious.”
Samuel's eyes widened at the revelation. “Mrs. Stephens? I really don't understand…”
“My husband had my oldest daughter locked away in a mental institution, Samuel,” she blurted. “There is nothing to understand, except that he needs money and did the unthinkable to gain access to her fortune.”
“Oh, I see,” he glanced down at his folded hands. “May I ask, since you've had his assets and accounts frozen…”
“I have my own funds, Samuel,” Meredith waved him off. “You needn't worry that I will no longer continue to retain your company's services.”
“The senator and I will still continue to require your services, as well,” Lily chimed in. “Your company will continue to remain under the Beauregard-Stephens-Trent employ, Samuel. My father, however, will not be allowed to use said services. If need be, we will have the family attorney draw up papers to that effect.”
“Very well,” he nodded curtly. “I would appreciate it if you would have your attorney contact our legal department before the end of the business day tomorrow with the details. They will then forward them on to me and I will notify the rest of the staff.”
“Thank you, Samuel,” Meredith sniffed back a few unexpected tears and pulled a silk handkerchief from her bag. “I appreciate this more than you will ever know.”
She rose from her chair and he did the same. He rounded the desk and came to stand in front of both women, then offered his hand to Meredith.
“Always a pleasure, Mrs. Stephens,” he said as he took her hand in his and kissed the back of it. “If there is anything else we can do to make things easier for you and your delightful daughters, please don't hesitate to ask.”
“Thank you, Samuel,” Lily put a hand on her mother's shoulder and steered her back toward the lounge. “We'll let you know. But, right now, we need to return to the house and take care of some pressing matters. Right, Mother?”
“Yes, dear,” Meredith patted Lily's hand, as they crossed the lounge and exited out the side door to the limo that waited beyond. “This is all just so difficult, Lillian,” Meredith said, as she nodded to the driver who held the door open for them. She gracefully climbed in after her daughter and waited for the door to be closed behind her. “I'm very glad to have you here with me during this trying time.”
Lily patted her mother's leg as they settled into the spacious passenger compartment of the limo and waited for their driver to take his place in the driver's seat.
“To the house, Wilson,” Lily said to the man's reflection in the rearview mirror.
“Yes, Mrs. Trent,” he removed his hat and set it on the seat next to him, then pulled the stretch limo away from the hangar.
“We need to find your sister and bring her home, Lillian,” Meredith commented absently. “I need my girls with me right now. There's no telling what your father will do, now that he is penniless and stuck in Italy.”
“I don't think he'll try anything right now, Mother,” Lily reassured. “He's probably sitting in that townhouse in Venice, licking his wounds and trying to figure out what his next move will be. I wouldn't put it past him to put a call into Chamberlaine, Dietrich and Starr with some cockamamie sob story that paints him as the victim in all of this.”
“Oh, don't worry about that, Lillian.” It was Meredith's turn to offer reassurance. “I already had a nice phone conversation with Franklin Chamberlaine and Preston Dietrich during our flight. They know the situation and are already drawing up the divorce papers, as we speak. I even asked them how the investigation into Lacey's disappearance was progressing. They assured me that the firm's private investigator has what's needed to keep your father from ever getting his hands on Lacey's money, as well as the funds I put away for just this sort of emergency. Now all we have to do is find your sister and bring her home.”
“I just hope she's okay,” Lily glanced out the tinted window at the brown and gray landscape beyond.
She then sent a silent prayer to the heavens that her sister was in good hands. Her greatest fear was that Lacey was being mistreated, both emotionally and psychologically, to the point that she would never recover from the deep scars in her mind.
Her older sister had already been through so much that Lily was convinced this latest episode would be the proverbial last straw that finally broke Lacey's iron will. Lily hoped against all hope that it wasn't the case and even sent another silent prayer to the heavens that Lacey would be all right. Her sister was strong. Lily knew Lacey was one of the most stable people she had ever met. But even the strongest will could break when heaped with enough emotional and psychological baggage. No one was invincible, not even her sister.
The scream that tore through the silence was so sudden, so unexpected, that Mac sat bolt upright and looked around in the darkness in utter confusion. She quickly fumbled for the light switch on the lamp next to the double bed she had been sleeping in.
As soon as she flipped the switch, she nearly fell out of bed in her haste to get to the other bed in the small motel room she shared with Lacey. A quick glance at the red digital numbers on the clock on the nightstand told her it was nearly four in the morning.
She bent over the occupant of the other bed and gently stroked Lacey's cheek. The violent reaction she got from that simple gesture was enough to send her stumbling backwards. Lacey thrashed around and almost launched herself right out of bed. Mac's quick reflexes, as she caught the flailing woman in mid-air, were the only thing that kept Lacey from toppling to the floor in a heap.
Mac didn't think about what she was doing. She simply climbed into bed behind Lacey and held her in her arms, while whispering words of assurance against Lacey's ear. Beads of sweat gathered on Lacey's brow and her hair was a damp and disheveled mess. Mac didn't care. With her cheek pressed against Lacey's and her arms firmly wrapped around the smaller woman, Mac continued to hold on for dear life.
The IV had emptied itself hours ago, before they had even stopped to rest for the night. Mac had removed the needle from Lacey's hand and tossed the whole thing into a dumpster outside the motel.
Willows had requested two separate rooms as far away from the neon motel sign and the noise of traffic as possible. The sleepy manager had put them in the last two rooms at the far end of the building.
The parking lot was practically empty when they drove the short distance to their rooms, except for one eighteen-wheeler and two cars with U-Haul trailers in tow. The manager had assured them they would have peace and quiet, since the rest of the motel's occupants were in the rooms closest to the manager's office.
Little did they know that the peaceful night's sleep that Mac and the commander were hoping for would be interrupted by the woman they had rescued. This was the third episode in so many hours and Mac was beginning to wonder if their decision to forego checking Lacey into a hospital wasn't a terrible idea, after all.
A knock at the door brought Mac's attention back to the matter at hand. Lacey had calmed down enough that she was no longer screaming at the top of her lungs. But now she was making a strange mewling sound as she continued struggling weakly in Mac's arms.
“It's open, Commander,” Mac called out. “Come on in.”
Willows tentatively pushed the door open and stepped inside the room. He was dressed in a pair of gray sweats with the word NAVY down one leg. He also wore a plain white t-shirt and no shoes.
“I heard the scream and thought I'd check to make sure everything is all right,” he said as he walked over to the dresser with the TV on top of it and poured some ice water into a plastic cup. He took the cup to the nightstand and set it down within Mac's reach. “How's she doing?”
“Not good,” Mac couldn't keep the emotion from her voice. It had been a long night and Lacey didn't show any signs of letting up anytime soon. “She's still sweating so much that I'm worried about dehydration. Maybe we should just put her in the car and drive her to the nearest hospital.”
He glanced at his wrist watch and ran his hand through his hair. “It's nearly four in the morning. The sun will be up in another hour or so.” An unexpected yawn escaped him. “Sorry,” he apologized with a shy grin.
“How far from Houston are we?” Mac yawned herself in response.
“Another couple hours, I think,” he said and took a seat on the bed across from the two women. “I really wasn't paying attention to the signs when we pulled in here. Were you?”
“All I know is we're somewhere outside of Beaumont,” Mac replied, as she continued to hold Lacey against her. It seemed to help. The smaller woman was no longer struggling and the strange mewling cries were subsiding. Mac could even feel Lacey becoming progressively limper in her arms, as she allowed her own body to relax. “You talked to that nurse back there. Did she say anything about these unexpected bouts of terror or whatever they are?”
“Hester wasn't very forthcoming when I got her alone,” he answered, as he massaged his aching neck muscles with one hand. “And I really wasn't trying to do anything more than get her out of the way long enough for you to get the colonel out of there.” He glanced at Lacey, who appeared to be sleeping soundly again. “Who was that guy who had her in his arms when I got to the car, anyway? You never told me why you called him private. Was he a soldier?”
“Yes,” Mac answered, as another yawn escaped her. She scooted down and tried to find a comfortable position, not yet willing to risk climbing out from behind the sleeping woman in her arms. “You want to do me a big favor, Commander?”
“Only if you drop the formalities and just call me Jason from here on out,” he answered with an easy grin. “I think this little adventure of ours, and everything we've been through together over the last couple days, easily puts us in friend category. Don't you?”
“I do,” Mac returned his easy smile. “So, Jason, could you help me out by grabbing one of those pillows next to you and propping me up against this headboard. I think I'm just going to stay right here where I am for a while longer. At least until the sun comes up. Maybe Lacey will finally let me catch an hour or so of sleep, if I don't leave her alone in this bed.”
He quickly grabbed the pillow and did what she suggested. “That better?” He asked, as she settled back against the two pillows that were now behind her.
“Much,” Mac nodded, as he proceeded to pull the sheet and comforter up underneath Lacey's bare arms. “Thanks.”
“You're welcome, Mac,” Jason replied. “Just let me know if you need anything else. I think I'll head back to my room and see if I can catch a few more winks before we head out. I didn't come all this way just to nod off behind the wheel this close to Houston.”
“Good idea,” Mac yawned again. “Sorry.”
“Sweet dreams, Mac,” Jason reached for the door, opened it and slipped out of the room.
Mac glanced down at the strawberry blond head resting against her chest. She then reached over to the lamp and switched it off. Lacey didn't move at all as Mac settled her arms lightly around the smaller woman. She breathed a heavy sigh of relief and let the peace and quiet settle over her like a comfortable blanket, as her eyes drifted shut. She listened to the soft snores of the woman in her arms and took comfort in the warmth of Lacey's body against hers.
Despite everything that was going on, Mac was glad to have Lacey there in her arms. She even imagined that Lacey, who had yet to regain consciousness, took some measure of comfort from the contact. She seemed far less agitated than when Mac had left her the last time and returned to her own bed for some much-needed sleep.
Unconsciously stroking Lacey's damp temple, Mac didn't even realize it when she finally drifted into a dreamless sleep. Nor did she feel Lacey snuggle up against her and sigh in contentment. The world around the two women faded away, as they slept peacefully for the first time all night.***
Continued in Part 5
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