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.
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Mac adjusted her position in the backseat of the sedan with a sleeping Lacey in her lap and watched the gate of the condo estates come into view ahead. Lights on the gate shone up into the night sky and cast a warm and welcoming glow. It wasn't the homecoming Mac hoped it would be, but beggars couldn't be choosers. Wyoming seemed a lifetime away, as Mac glanced down at the woman sleeping soundly in her lap.
Mac reveled in the quiet peace that descended over them after Lacey cried herself to sleep. The only times Mac had conversed with Willows during the long drive was when she gave him directions to the condo. Otherwise, neither of them said a word and Lacey just continued to sleep peacefully.
Brushing a lock of hair from Lacey's brow, Mac couldn't help the well of emotion that hit her unexpectedly. Lacey remembered her. It was almost too good to be true. She wanted to nudge Lacey's slender shoulder and ask her how her memories had returned. When? Why? But Mac couldn't bring herself to disturb the woman. Or maybe she just didn't want to break the spell and find out she had imagined the whole thing.
“You okay back there, Mac?” Willows asked as he pulled the sedan up to the security gate and hit the button for the automatic window.
“Fine,” Mac replied to him in the rearview mirror. “It's just been a really long day, Jason.”
“I hear that,” he answered with a heavy sigh.
Mac felt a little bad that she hadn't done any of the driving. But Jason had waved her off when she had offered. He said it was more important for her to keep Lacey company in the backseat than to relieve him for the last leg of their journey. He didn't really seem to mind the drive, so Mac didn't argue.
Mac watched Sergeant Major Tim Evans step from the small security booth to greet Willows with a friendly smile. She remembered the young ex-soldier and almost smiled when he put on an air of authority when he saw the uniform Jason was still wearing.
“Evenin',” he tipped his hat to the JAG attorney. “What can I do for you, Commander?”
“Hey, Sarg,” Mac called from the back seat. “Remember me?”
Evans leaned on the open car window and looked past Willows to the two women in the back seat. A genuine smile broke out on his boyish features, as he recognized Mac and her sleeping companion.
“Well, whatdya know,” he commented. “Chief? When did you get into town? What's goinin' on? And is that Cap'n Stephens asleep in y'all's lap there?”
“I've been here in Houston off and on for a while. Commander Willows and I took a little excursion across the border and just got back,” Mac gave a nod to the Naval officer in the front seat. “We decided to head over to Louisiana and see how the doc, here, was getting along. Then we realized she would be much better off sleeping in her own bed, so we brought her home.”
“Well, ain't that the be all,” Evans replied, as he removed his hat and scratched his dark head. “Haven't seen the captain in some time now. Thought she took off on a vacation or somethin'. Didn't know she went to Louisiana. She decide to visit New Orleans or somethin', Chief? It ain't Mardi Gras for another month, by my reckonin'.”
“Or something,” Mac sidestepped the question. “You don't happen to have an extra key to her place, do you, Sarg? She kind of left town in a hurry and forgot to grab her keys.” She glanced down at the sleeping woman in her lap and then back at the security guard. “Or she left them in her other sweats.”
He straightened up with a nod and shoved his hat back on his head. “Sure thing, Chief.” He then disappeared inside the booth and returned with a key that he handed to the commander. “Anything for Cap'n Stephens.And anything for you, too, Chief. Been a while since you've been around and I know she missed yasomethin' fierce while you were gone.” He shook his head sadly. “Ain't been the same since you went on back up there to Wyoming, Chief.”
“I'm here now, Sarg,” Mac gave him a resolute nod. “And I'm not going anywhere without her this time.”
He smiled. “That'll sure make Cap'n Stephens a sight happier, let me tell ya.”
“We'll both keep an eye on her,” Willows chimed in. “No worries, Sergeant.”
“No offense, sir,” Evans finally acknowledged the man. “But ain't you a Navy man? What're you doin' with these fine soldiers?”
It was Willows' turn to smile. “Was it the uniform that gave me away? I sometimes forget I'm wearing it. I'm also a JAG attorney, Sergeant.” He reached a hand out and Evans shook it. “But don't hold that against me.”
“I won't,” Evans smiled and then frowned. “JAG? As in Judge Advocate General? Is Cap'n Stephens in some kind of trouble? Did she do something wrong? What's going on?”
“Settle down, soldier,” Willows replied. “It's all good. Or it will be, eventually.”
“Is Cap'n Stephens in some kind of legal trouble, Chief?” He glanced to the backseat and met Mac's gaze.
“Do you remember when she gave the order not to allow her parents past this gate?” Mac explained and received a nod from him. “Well, long story short, her father found a way around her wishes and had her put into a mental facility. We just rescued her and are bringing her home.”
“Oh, Jeez!” Evans removed his hat and scratched his head again. He then glanced around, as if there might be someone watching them at that very moment. “Is there anything I can do?” He added in a hushed whisper.
“Can you keep an eye out, Sarg?” Mac could see that her revelation had upset the man. “I wouldn't ask it if it weren't important. But Lacey needs to rest and I think she'll be better off at home than anywhere else.”
Former Sergeant Major Timothy Evans seemed to wrestle with the decision for a few minutes. Then he set his hat back on his head, adjusted his pants and stood at stiff attention.
“I won't let you down, Chief, Commander,” he said. “You can count on me.”
“Glad to hear it,” Willows nodded. “Carry on, soldier.”
“Roger that, Commander,” Evans gave them both a quick salute, as he hit the button to release the gate arm. “Take good care of Cap'n Stephens, Chief.”
“Thank you, Tim,” Mac replied with a friendly smile and a quick wave, as Willows drove the car through the gate.
“Captain Stephens?” Willows commented, as he pulled up in front of Lacey's condo.
“It's complicated,” Mac just shook her head. “Something about her promotion being lost in transit, I think.”
“Ah,” he nodded. “I kind of wondered why her records from Iraq came back with the designation captain, instead of major. Seemed a little odd that they promoted her from captain to lieutenant colonel. But now it makes sense.”
“Go figure,” Mac commented, as she lifted Lacey into her arms and waited for Willows to open the door for her. “I'm sure there's some who would say it was military intelligence at work.”
Willows snickered as he opened the back passenger side door and took Lacey from Mac's arms with ease. He waited for Mac to straighten to her full height and watched as she winced.
“You okay, Mac?”
“Peachy,” she grunted, as she worked a few kinks out with some quick stretches. “Just a little stiff from riding in that backseat of yours, Commander.”
“Government issue does not mean comfortable, Mac,” he shot over his shoulder as he walked to the door and waited for Mac. “You of all people should know that. I don't think I've ever flown in a military aircraft that didn't have seats that put your butt to sleep and left a kink in your back.”
“I take it you aren't a pilot?” Mac grinned. “We get the good seats.”
It was dark there in the doorway of Lacey's condo, with only a few stars twinkling in the sky above. The lights from Houston made it difficult to see very many stars, even on a clear night. But even the lights from Houston didn't do much to illuminate Lacey's condo.
“Key's in my hand, Mac,” he said.
Mac took the key from him and searched for the lock. She was just about to insert the key into the key hole when the lights suddenly flashed on and practically blinded her.
“Jesus!” Mac exclaimed, as the door opened inward and she found herself face-to-face with— “Lily?”
“Mac?” Lacey's sister stood there in wide-eyed surprise.
Lily took a step back and opened the door wider to reveal Meredith Stephens standing just behind her. The two women wore silk pajamas and looked like they were ready for bed.
“What are you doing here, Mackenzie?” Meredith asked snootily as she glanced at the key in Mac's hand. “And where did you get that key?”
Mac stood up and set her hands on her hips. “I could ask you the same question, Mrs. Stephens. Aren't you supposed to be vacationing with your husband in Europe somewhere?”
“I have a key to Lacey's place. Remember?” Lily chimed in. “And we came back as soon as we heard that my sister was ill. We've had people trying to find out where she is…”
The words died on her lips as Mac stepped aside to reveal Willows standing there holding Lacey in his arms.
“Lacey?” Meredith pushed past Lily and was at Willows' side in an instant. “Mackenzie?” She looked to Mac for an explanation with open suspicion in her eyes. “What happened? Where did you find her? And why is she wearing these god-awful clothes?”
“Can we take this inside, ladies?” Willows put in. “The colonel isn't quite as light as she appears to be.”
“Of course,” Lily opened the door wider to allow Willows to enter.
Meredith followed and then Mac entered behind her and gave Lily a tentative smile of greeting.
“How…” Lily stopped Mac with a hand on her arm and closed the door.
“Let me get Lacey settled first, okay?” Mac put a hand on Lily's shoulder. “I'll explain everything. I promise.”
In the meantime, Meredith directed Willows to carry Lacey into the back bedroom. She then quickly pulled back the comforter and sheets. He gently placed the sleeping woman between the sheets and stood back, just as Mac entered the room.
“I'll be in the living room, Mac,” Willows placed a hand on Mac's shoulder and glanced back at Meredith leaning over her sleeping daughter. Then he lowered his voice. “You might want to go easy on her. I don't think knew what her husband was doing.”
“Thanks, Jason,” Mac patted his hand and watched him leave. She then stepped over to stand next to the Stephens matriarch. “She probably won't wake up for a while. They had her on some pretty heavy medication in that place—the place your husband sent her to.”
Meredith wiped her eyes and composed her features. She then looked up at the dark-haired woman towering next to her. The stern look she was receiving told her everything she needed to know.
“I didn't know,” Meredith said. “If I had, I would have put a stop to it. She never deserved to be treated the way he always treated her. James never had an ounce of compassion where Lacey was concerned. But I didn't know he was physically abusing her. I swear.”
Mac watched Meredith take Lacey's hand in hers and hold it. Mac could tell Meredith cared about her oldest daughter. So she finally decided to give her a chance.
“I believe you,” Mac conceded. “Sometimes the people closest to us don't see how much we're hurting.”
Meredith nodded. “Where did you find her?” She stood up next to Mac. “How did you find out where she was being held?”
Mac glanced at Lacey and saw that she was still sleeping soundly. She reassured herself that Lacey would be all right for a few moments and turned her attention to Lacey's mother.
“Can we take this back into the living room, Mrs. Stephens?” Mac turned the lamp on that sat on the nightstand next to Lacey's bed and adjusted the covers under Lacey's chin. She then gently ruffled the strawberry blond overgrown bangs that spilled over Lacey's brow and dropped a kiss on her forehead. “I'll be right back, love,” she said in a hushed whisper, as she placed another quick kiss on top of the blond head.
“Well?” Meredith stood uncomfortably by and watched the affectionate display. “I'm not sure I'm very comfortable with…” she waved a hand dismissively. “I still don't think two women should have those kinds of feelings for each other.
“Give it a rest, Mrs. Stephens,” Mac said.
She herded the woman out of the room and back down the hall to the living room. Once there, Lily came forward and guided her mother toward the loveseat next to the couch. They sat down together and waited.
“What is going on?” Mac stood behind the couch with her hands on the back of it. “What are you two doing in Lacey's house?”
“We could ask you the same question,” Meredith shot back with a scowl.
“But we won't,” Lily cut in with an apologetic glance at Mac. “Care for anything to drink, Mac?”
“I'm fine,” Mac just waved her off, then noticed that Willows was sitting in an armchair with a beer in one hand. “Or, better yet, I'll have what he's having.”
“Coming right up,” Lily dashed to the kitchen and found another bottle of Coors in the refrigerator.
“Oh, Lillian, please,” Meredith pressed her fingers against one temple. “This is not a social gathering. These people…”
“Found my sister and brought her home,” Lily returned to the living room and handed Mac the bottle, then sat down next to her mother. “We're all on the same side here, Mother. There's no reason we can't be civil toward each other.”
“For all we know,” Meredith shot Mac and Willows impatient glares. “They could be the ones who took your sister away.”
“Really, mother?” Lily jumped to her feet and moved to stand behind the couch next to Mac, who took a long drag on her beer. “Mackenzie would never knowingly harm my sister.” She turned to Mac. “Would you?”
“Maybe I can shed a little light on this,” Willows set his bottle on the coffee table and folded his hands together on his knees in front of him.
“Oh, please do, whoever you are,” Meredith shot back snidely. “It's not every day we have someone from the military pay a personal visit to my daughter's house. I certainly hope you have a good explanation for where my daughter has been for the last few weeks.”
“Well, I do, actually,” he continued, nonplussed by her snide remarks. “But first let me introduce myself. I'm Commander Jason Willows, of the United States Navy JAG Corps.”
Meredith eyed him suspiciously. “So, what, might I ask, is a Navy JAG person doing rescuing my daughter?”
“He's with me,” Mac added. “He helped me track down Lacey's whereabouts.”
“I've had private investigators working on locating her for weeks,” Meredith narrowed her gaze at Mac. “How did you two find out where she was?”
“I did some digging into recent civil cases here in Houston,” Willows said. “The name Justine Lacey Stephens came up on an assault case from over a month ago. I traced the records to your husband, who had a judge issue a bench warrant for your daughter's arrest. The court records indicate she was agitated and acted out violently on the day she appeared in court. After the judge remanded her into the custody of the bailiff, she became violent and attacked several people. Her psychiatrist and an attorney were among those who were listed as injured. The judge recommended she be sent to a facility for psychiatric evaluation. He then appointed your husband as her legal guardian, Mrs. Stephens.”
“That's not possible,” Meredith shook her head. “James would never…”
“We know he was after her money, Mother,” Lily confirmed. “That's what Preston Dietrich told you on the phone the other day. And now we know how he was able to get her out of the way in order to get his hands on it. Father must have had someone drug her so she wouldn't be able to control her actions in that courtroom. I certainly wouldn't put it past him. Not after the way he abused her when we were growing up.”
Meredith sat back with a heavy sigh. Mac could see that the woman was having a hard time accepting everything her husband had done to her own daughter. She glanced at Lily and caught Lacey's younger sister watching her out of the corner of her eye.
“It's not possible,” Meredith closed her eyes and continued to shake her head in denial. “I don't believe James would be that callous—that vindictive—toward your sister like that.”
“Mrs. Stephens,” Jason got up from his chair, walked over to the loveseat and sat down next to the elder Stephens. He put a hand on her knee and patted it sympathetically. “I understand this is difficult for you. But you need to be strong for your daughter.” He glanced up at Lily. “For both of your daughters. Colonel Stephens needs you to believe in her, right now. She's been through a terrible ordeal and there's…um….there's more. She's in some trouble with the military.”
“What trouble, Commander?” Meredith sighed heavily. “I just found out my own husband had my daughter committed to a mental hospital so he could gain control of money that isn't even his. What more could there be?”
Willows glanced at Mac, before returning his attention to Meredith. “Colonel Stephens was supposed to appear for a court martial. When she failed to do so, the judge issued a warrant for her arrest. The MPs are on their way here, right now.”
“What?” Mac's eyes widened. “You didn't tell me that.”
“I didn't know, until I checked in with the office earlier,” he responded. “The MPs have been standing by and waiting for her to be located. When I told my colleague that we had the colonel, the MPs were notified.” He turned toward Mac. “I wanted to tell you, Mac. I did. I just knew you wouldn't like it. I know how much you want Colonel Stephens to spend the night here, but that's just not going to happen.”
Mac's temper flared. “Son of a bitch!” She launched herself over the couch and slammed a fist into his face before he could react. “How much time do we have before they get here, Commander?” She reached down and picked him up by his uniform collar. Then she held him up in both hands and glared. “Tell me, you son of a bitch! Tell me!”
“Now, listen here, Mac…” he held his hands up in surrender.
“Kiss my fucking ass, Commander!” Mac glared at him and then abruptly let him go. He stumbled back a step and touched his fingers to his quickly-bruising cheek. “I will not allow the MPs to take her. She won't survive a night in a jail cell, much less the stockade. What the hell were you thinking?”
Mac let her temper cool and turned away from him as she tried to gather her thoughts. She glanced at the two women in the room and noticed the smile on Lily's features and the wide-eyed shock on Meredith's.
“I have an idea,” Lily looked pointedly at her mother. “They can take the limo and head to the airport. The private jet is still standing by. Mother will call ahead and let them know you're coming. Take the jet and just go. We'll take care of things here, while you find a safe place to lay low for a while.”
“You can't be serious,” Willows held up a staying hand when Mac rounded on him and looked ready to punch himagain. “I can't…”
“Oh, do shut up, Commander!” Meredith shouted. “I have an entire legal team standing by who would be more than willing to intercede on behalf of my daughter.” She grabbed her purse, pulled her cell phone out and hit speed-dial. “Yes, Preston Dietrich, please.”
“Mother!” Lily protested.
“What the hell is going on out here?”
All eyes turned to find Lacey standing there behind Mac and Lily. She had her arms crossed over the word Army on the gray sweatshirt she was wearing. Her own clothes fit her petite frame much better than the other sweats she had been wearing. Her hair was also freshly brushed and pulled it back into a ponytail, with a fringe of bangs spilling over her brow.
“Hey,” Mac instantly closed the distance between them and took Lacey into her arms with a glad smile. “How're you feeling?”
“Like death warmed over. You?” Lacey wrapped her arms around Mac's waist and leaned into the hug. She glanced past Mac's arm to the expectant faces beyond. She also noticed the red mark on the Commander's cheek. “Why are my mother and sister dressed in their pajamas? And who is the guy with them? Is he wearing Navy whites? And did someone hit him? It looks like there's the beginning of a bruise on his cheek.”
Mac couldn't help the chuckle that Lacey's words elicited, as Lily went to the freezer and grabbed an ice pack. When Lily returned to the living room, she handed the ice pack to Willows.
“Thanks,” he said and pressed the pack against his cheek.
Mac ignored them and remained close to Lacey.
“Sorry,” she said when Lacey pulled back enough to look her in the eye. “It's just good to hear you talk like the Lacey I remember.”
“Thanks for letting me sleep, by the way,” Lacey rubbed Mac's hip and then got up on her toes and kissed the taller woman soundly on the lips. “I really needed it.”
“Yeah, you did,” Mac just grinned. “Me, too.”
Mac then leaned down again and planted a smoldering kiss on Lacey's lips that left them both weak in the knees. Neither woman wanted to be the first to end the kiss that quickly deepened, as they reconnected in a way that was vaguely reminiscent of their time in Iraq. The kiss held such promise of things to come and of a healing that they both needed.
A throat clearing behind them, however, had them coming up for air sooner than either of them wished.
“Damn,” Mac exclaimed quietly. “Forgot they were still here.”
“'Sokay,” Lacey smiled up into blue eyes shining with love. She was so glad she could remember what it felt like to be loved again. It was fantastic. It was amazing. She never wanted to let that feeling go again. Never. “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” Mac said in a hushed whisper.
“Not to put a damper on this moment, but you wanna tell me what's going on here, Mac?” Lacey's expression turned serious. “What are they doing in my living room? Can't we just make them leave?”
“Not that we're not enjoying the show and all,” Lily stepped up next to the two women until Mac took a reluctant step away from Lacey. Lily then took her sister in her arms and hugged her. “Hey, sis. Good to see you safe again. We didn't know what happened and were worried sick.”
“That doesn't explain what the hell you're doing in my living room, Lil,” Lacey pulled back and grimaced at her sister's attire. “Or why you're in your pjs. And what the hell is Mother doing here? I thought I gave the guard at the gate strict orders not to let her and that no-good excuse for a father of ours in here. Speaking of…” She glanced around. “If that son of a bitch is here, I'm gonna kill him.”
Mac put a staying hand on Lacey's shoulder. “Your father isn't here, Lac.”
Seeing the look of hatred in Lacey's eyes, Mac decided the best thing for her to do was hold onto the woman. So she moved in behind Lacey and held her close.
“Lacey Justine?” Meredith stepped forward with her usual straight-backed snobbish air.
“Where is he, Mother?” Lacey tried to push Mac's arms off her, but finally just gave up and relaxed into her, instead. She still didn't feel strong enough to put up much of a fight. “Where is that no-good excuse for a father of mine?”
“Your father isn't here, Lacey dear,” Meredith replied. “I—we—” She glanced at Lily. “We left him in Italy.”
“In Venice, actually,” Lily added. She then moved behind her mother and put her hands on the woman's shoulders. “Mother got a call from the lawyer while we were on vacation. She learned what Father tried to do to you. We were on the next available flight back to the States and had the jet meet us in New York. We arrived home yesterday and decided to come here, just in case you found your way home while we were away. It was late, so we decided to stay the night and head back to the house in the morning.”
Lacey tried to straighten, but was still held firmly by the arms of the woman behind her. She was grateful to Mac for the support and gave up trying to escape. That's when she realized again that their little family reunion was being observed by a third party.
“And him?” Lacey nodded toward Willows. “Why is a Navy commander here?”
“He's with me,” Mac said. “At least, he was until he called the MPs to come get you. Commander Willows helped me spring you from the facility in Louisiana yesterday. Remember?”
“I'm still a little fuzzy on most of the details,” Lacey shook her head. “They had me on some stuff that…” She swallowed down a sudden lump in her throat, as tears sprang to her eyes and she tried hard not to let them fall. “MPs?” She looked over her shoulder at Mac. “Did you just say the MPs are coming here?”
“Shit!” Mac hissed. “Forgot about the damned MPs.”
Just then the phone on the wall rang. All eyes shot to it.
“It's the front gate,” Lacey said. “Probably one of the security guys giving me a heads up that the MPs are here.”
“There's no time,” Lily sprang into action. She quickly locked the front door and shut the light off, then answered the phone. “Hello?”
“Quickly, Lacey,” Meredith motioned her daughter toward the sliding glass door off the living room. “You need to leave. Go with Mackenzie. She knows what to do.”
“Fuck that, Mother!” Lacey dug in her heels. “I'm not going anywhere! This is my house…”
“Lac,” Mac kissed the top of Lacey's head. “I really don't think you want to spend your first coherent night away from that crap-hole in a cell in the stockade. As much as I hate to admit it, your mother is right. We should leave.”
Lacey glanced down at her attire. “What about my clothes? I haven't worn a decent…”
“Lacey!” Lily called from the door. “They're coming! You don't have time to argue about this, right now.”
“Oh, for the love of...” Lacey rolled her eyes in exasperation, as she grabbed Mac's hand and dragged her toward the open sliding door. “Where the hell are we going? It's not like we have a car—”
“We have your mom's limo,” Mac quickly cut her off. “Now, go.”
“Not without you, Stretch,” Lacey kept a firm hold of Mac's hand, then saw the commander watching them warily. “What about the commander?”
Mac stopped in the doorway and turned back to Willows. “Commander?”
Willows seemed to wrestle with his conscience for a moment, then sighed. “Go.” He waved them away. “Go, before I change my mind and let the MPs in here myself.”
Lily rushed over to where her sister was standing in the doorway behind Mac and gave Lacey another hug. She then turned to Mac and gave her a hug, too.
“Take her home, Mac,” Lily said and pulled back enough to wink. “Take her home, and we'll take care of things here.”
Mac couldn't help the smile that split her features, as she pulled the younger Stephens sister into another quick hug. “Thank you, Lily.”
“Just take good care of my little sis,” Lily whispered.
Lacey scowled. “Who are you calling little?”
“You,” Lily grinned and then sobered. “Now, go. Before those guys show up here and find you. Something tells me they won't let you sleep in your own bed, no matter how much we argue with them about it.”
Mac didn't need to be reminded that the MPs were only minutes away. She grabbed Lacey's hand tightly in hers, ducked out the door and navigated the shadowy terrain behind the building.
She'd seen the limousine parked at the end of the row of condos when they'd arrived and hadn't given it a second thought. But now she made a beeline for it. Unfortunately, she realized they would have to step out into the open in order to get to it. And there was a light shining down right on top of the black vehicle.
Mac stopped at the corner of the building, in the shadows, and waited. She pulled Lacey to her and held her close.
“You doing okay?” Mac felt Lacey's head rest against her shoulder.
“Fine,” came the quiet answer. “Why did we stop?”
“Well,” Mac checked around the corner to see if the coast was clear. “We have to go out there in the open to get to the limo. Just want to make sure the coast is clear before we…” She moved back against the building.
A government-issue sedan pulled up in front of Lacey's condo and two men in ACUs emerged. They glanced around and then proceeded toward Lacey's condo. Mac held a hand up to Lacey in silent warning, as she glanced around the corner again.
Lacey ducked under Mac's arm and saw the two MPs. She looked up at Mac and smirked.
“Just like old times, eh, Chief?” She said in a whisper loud enough for Mac's ears only.
Mac snickered. “We really need to stop meeting like this, Doc.”
“If it's not my damned father or a bunch of insurgents on our asses, then it's the goddamned military tryin' to put a damper on things,” Lacey snorted. “You'd think we were celebrities or something. I mean, really.”
“Coast is clear.” Mac said. “Let's go.”
They made a mad dash for the limo and quickly climbed into the backseat.
“Hey, Wilson,” Lacey called to the startled limo driver, who nearly jumped out of his skin with their unexpected appearance. “We need a quick getaway. Drive, please.”
“Yes, Ms. Lacey,” he immediately started the car and pulled out of the parking area. “Where would you like to go?”
Lacey settled in next to Mac and wrapped her arms around the silent woman.
“Take us to the airport, please, Wilson,” Lacey replied. “My mother told me she'll have the plane standing by. I think a trip is in order.” She then glanced up to find Mac watching her beneath hooded lids. “You don't mind if we just leave all this glamor and glitz behind us and go to your neck of the woods, do you, Chief?”
“You're the boss, Doc,” Mac put an arm around Lacey's shoulders and pulled her close. “And I can't say that it won't be nice to go home and experience some peace and quiet for a change. No offense, Doc, but Texas isn't exactly one of my favorite vacations spots. It's kinda lost its appeal for me.”
“Mine, either,” Lacey let her head rest against Mac's shoulder. Then a thought crossed her mind and she raised her head. “What about the clothing you brought with you? Do you need us to stop and pick it up?”
“A little late for that,” Mac snickered. “Everything I brought with me is in a suitcase in the trunk of Commander Willows' car.”
“Did you rent a car while you were here? Do you need to return it?” Lacey added.
“Nope,” Mac shook her head. “Returned the truck before we drove to Louisiana to find you. Figured I'd rent another one, if I needed to.”
Lacey frowned. “I didn't see my truck. I wonder what happened to it.”
“Your mother put it in storage, Ms. Lacey,” Wilson piped in. “The movers were to arrive first thing in the morning to pack up your condo and do the same.”
“Tell me she wasn't planning to sell my condo and have me move back in with her,” Lacey replied dryly. “That would just be the icing on the cake, Wilson.”
“No, Ms. Lacey,” Wilson smiled into the rearview mirror. “But she said she didn't want your father to get his hands on it, either. She was worried that he would try to sell everything and use the money to find you again.”
“I wouldn't put it past the son of a bitch,” Lacey blew out an exasperated sigh. “My father is a bastard who should be locked up in that fucking excuse for a mental facility he put me in. If he were here right now, I'd beat the shit out of him and revel in bloodying my fists on his face.”
“Hey,” Mac took one of Lacey's hands in hers and kissed her knuckles. “Can we just forget about your father for a while and enjoy this time together? It's been quite a while since we were alone. And we still need to come up with a plan to hide you from the military police.”
“Yep,” Lacey snuggled closer to Mac and reveled in the warmth that surrounded her. “I must say, I'm a little surprised that you don't have a plan. What kind of knight in shining armor hero are you, anyway?”
“The kind that has been flying by the seat of her damned pants for the better part of a month now,” Mac propped a booted foot on the seat across from her. “And the kind who doesn't want to see you suffer another night in a crappy motel room or in the stockade.”
Mac looked at Lacey and found green eyes gazing intently back at her. She couldn't help the feelings that welled up inside at the open love she saw reflected in those eyes. A rush of protectiveness and love washed over her and all she wanted to do was continue to hold Lacey for the rest of her life. Instead, she leaned down and kissed the lips so close to her own.
“I could get used to this,” Lacey smiled when Mac pulled back. “It's nice.”
“What?” Mac pressed her forehead against Lacey's. “Nice? That's it? Just…nice?”
“I'm all warm and fuzzy inside?” Lacey snickered, as she gently stroked Mac's cheek. “It's a little unnerving, after all that's happened, lately. Give me a little time to adjust, hon. I've only been drug-free for a day or so.”
Mac straightened up and her expression sobered. “Yeah. Sorry about that. I didn't mean to—”
Her words were cut off, as Lacey pulled her back down and kissed her soundly again. This time Mac put every ounce of the love into it and felt Lacey melt against her. Mac reveled in the close contact and felt her libido kick into overdrive.
“I'm not sure this is a good place for making out, Doc,” Mac glanced at the partition that separated them from the driver.
She wasn't surprised to find that Wilson had put the barrier up to give them a measure of privacy. The windows were tinted, so she knew no one would see them from the outside of the vehicle.
“Wilson is the epitome of discretion, Mac,” Lacey grabbed a handful of sweatshirt and pulled Mac back down to her. “And I need this. I need us.”
Mac just went with it. Soft lips found hers again, as Lacey's hands dove under her clothing and found the bare skin beneath her t-shirt. Mac groaned at the contact and decided her own assault was in order. She returned the favor and felt a shudder go through Lacey, as her fingers trailed upward toward a pair of taut nipples.
“Gawd,” Lacey purred against Mac's lips. “I do believe I've done died and gone to heaven, Chief.”
“Close,” Mac continued her assault, trailing light kisses down the slender neck until she reached the barrier of Lacey's hooded sweatshirt.
She quickly removed the offending garment and tossed it to the floor. Lacey only wore a thin tank top underneath, which was just fine with Mac. She gently shifted Lacey until the smaller woman was lying on the black leather seat.
“Good thing we're not back at the condo,” Lacey snickered, as Mac's lips found her collar bone. “Mmmm…”
“Good thing,” Mac muttered. “'Cause I think your mother would have a fit if she saw what we were doing right now.”
Mac quickly removed Lacey's tank top and just stared down at the beautiful breasts that were revealed to her in the muted lighting.
“You gonna just sit there and gawk, Chief?” Lacey cocked her head at the woman. “The airport isn't that far away, you know. We don't have much time.”
Spurred into action by the quiet words, Mac lowered her mouth to the swell just above Lacey's breast. It was heaven. The feel of the soft skin against her lips and the heartbeat below was like a lifeline to her drowning soul. She couldn't get enough and was soon suckling a taut nipple.
“Oh, Jesus!” Lacey exclaimed as her body responded instantly to the intimate contact.
She shoved her hands into Mac's hair and pulled her closer. Her body rose up to meet Mac's, as she the woman gave her other breast the same attention she gave the first. Lacey's entire being was on fire as she forgot about everything and concentrated on the sensations coursing through her.
The sound of the partition lowering brought both women instantly out of the moment and on high alert. Mac reacted by grabbing Lacey's discarded sweatshirt off the floor and covering her.
“Wilson! What the—”
“Apologies, Ms. Lacey,” the man said from behind the small crack at the top of the partition. “But I think you'll want to take a look out the window. We have company.”
Mac scrambled to pull herself together and then looked out the windows, as Lacey quickly donned the tank top and her sweatshirt.
“Uh oh,” Mac uttered from the left side of the limo.
“What?” Lacey joined her and pressed her own face against the tinted glass, as the limo pulled to the shoulder and stopped. “Oh, shit.”
“Looks like we need a different plan, Doc,” Mac commented.
Lights flashed in the near distance as Mac hit the window control and the window rolled down enough for them to get a better look. The private charter area of the airport was ablaze with red and blue police lights. Men stood next to the police cars, while others emerged from the jet that sat just outside the hangar.
“We definitely need a new plan, Chief,” Lacey poked her head out the window for a better look.
“Agreed,” Mac sat back with a heavy sigh. “So?”
“So?” Lacey rolled the window back up and turned back around to face the dark-haired woman. “Any ideas?”
“You're asking the woman who flies by the seat of her pants?” Mac shot back with a lopsided grin.
“I'm asking my knight in shining armor,” Lacey returned to her place in the crook of Mac's shoulder. “What? You don't have a Plan B tucked away in that gorgeous head of yours?”
“I'm all tapped out,” Mac let out an exasperated sigh and ran a hand through her hair. “It's been a really long day.”
“Have a cell phone with you?”
“Yes,” Mac pulled her phone out of her jeans and handed it to Lacey. “Who are you planning to call? The Pentagon?”
“Huh, you wish,” Lacey quickly dialed a number and held the small phone to her ear. “Hey, it's me. Can you put Mother on?” She paused for a moment and hit a button above her head. “Hello, Mother.” She glanced at Mac and rolled her eyes. “Yes, this is Albert, Mother. Just listen if you can't talk in front of Willows and the MPs.” Another quick pause as Lacey listened to the response. “I understand, Mother. Here's the deal. The police are here at the airport and we can't get to the jet. Is there any way you can…” She rolled her eyes again and then heard a phone ring in the front seat. “Mother, Wilson is right here in the car with us. You could have just…Fine.” She hung up Mac's phone and handed it back to her. “She'll take care of it,” she said, as Mac tucked the phone back into her pocket. “I just hope she knows what she's doing.”
Lacey crossed back over to sit next to Mac and scooted in under the arm Mac held up for her. Mac didn't mind in the least. She merely wrapped her arm around Lacey's shoulders and squeezed.
“It'll be okay,” Mac kissed the top of Lacey head. “You'll see.”
“I hate relying on my mother for anything,” Lacey blew out a frustrated breath and wrapped an arm around Mac's waist. “This sucks.”
“More so than that place in Louisiana?” Mac put in, then felt the woman in her arms stiffen. “Sorry. Didn't mean to bring that up.”
“'Sokay,” Lacey mumbled against Mac's chest. “I really don't want to think about that just now. Trying to put the whole nasty experience out of my mind until I can actually process what happened.”
“Understood,” Mac nodded and let her chin rest on top of the blond head. “So, are we just going to sit here and wait for your mother to do whatever it is she…” She let the words die on her lips and just shook her head. “Never mind.”
“Ms. Lacey,” Wilson lowered the partition and looked at them through the rearview mirror.
“Still here, Wilson,” Lacey mumbled. “Just not in the mood to move. What's up?”
“Mrs. Stephens asked me to tell you that your truck is at the house, if you'd like me to drive you there,” Wilson continued.
“I thought you said she put the truck in storage,” Lacey lifted her head enough to look at him in the rearview mirror.
“She had it stored in the back garage for you, Ms. Lacey,” Wilson replied. “She thought it best to keep it handy, in case you returned home. My apologies for not mentioning it before, but she asked me to only say she had it in storage.”
“I'll just bet she did,” Lacey groused quietly. Then in a louder voice, “Let's go, Wilson. I'm not getting any younger. And Mac, here, is anxious to find us a place to sleep for the night.”
The chauffeur nodded and quickly set the limousine in motion, executing a quick U-turn and taking them back the way they had just come.
Mac snorted. “I'm the one who is anxious to find a place to sleep, eh?”
“You promised me a comfortable bed,” Lacey slipped a hand beneath Mac's shirt and absently rubbed the warm belly. “I'm holding you to that promise, Chief. I might even hold you to a bit more than that, if you're good. We definitely need to continue what we started before we were so rudely interrupted.”
“I suppose I can spring for another cheap motel room,” Mac reached into her back pocket and pulled out her wallet and a credit card. “But the police and MPs probably have a trace out on my credit cards. We might not get much sleep.”
“Oh, no worries, there,” Lacey pulled a roll of cash out of the pocket of her sweat pants and held it up for Mac to see. “My sister thought we could use a little help along the way, just in case of an emergency. So she floated me a small loan in the form of about ten grand. I think this certainly counts as an emergency. Don't you?”
Mac eyed the roll and saw that the outside bill had the image of Benjamin Franklin on it. She swallowed.
“I didn't see her give you anything,” Mac said. “When did she do that?”
“Hugs are good for more than just saying goodbye, hon,” Lacey smiled tiredly and then yawned.
“Apparently,” Mac smiled at the second verbal slip, as Lacey settled back into what was quickly becoming her favorite spot. “Why don't you get some rest, Doc. I'll let you know when we reach the house.”
“Wanna see Wyoming, Mac,” Lacey let her eyelids drift shut, as she felt the exhaustion seep back in. “Take me home?”
“Will do, sweetheart,” Mac rested her cheek on top of Lacey's head. “I even think I know just the place where we can disappear for a few weeks. It's a perfect hideaway for the criminal mastermind.”
Mac knew Lacey didn't hear her last words, because soft snores told her the woman in her arms was already fast asleep. So, she stretched both legs out on the seat across from her and decided to enjoy the ride. Her last thought before she, too, drifted into a light doze was that she hoped they weren't in for any more surprises. She just wanted some alone time with the woman in her arms, even if it meant they had to spend a night in some crappy motel room on the road.
Then she remembered the roll of cash in Lacey's pocket and realized they might just be able to sleep in comfort, instead.
The cell phone in his breast pocket rang. James Stephens pulled it from his pocket and answered it immediately.
“Hello? Yes. I see. Yes, I understand,” he closed the phone and shoved it back into his pocket.
“James?” Delores looked at him expectantly from across the table.
The single candle in the middle of the table cast a muted glow over the face of the man across from her. She could see his brow was furrowed in concern, as he waved impatiently to their server, who immediately crossed the room towards them.
“Bring the check,” James ordered.
The young server was dressed in a white tuxedo shirt, black bow tie and tuxedo pants as he stood with his hands behind his back at the side of their table.
“Right away, sir,” the young man nodded and hurried away.
“What is it, James?” Delores glanced down at the half-eaten plate of marinated muscles in front of her. “I haven't even finished my meal, yet. Who was that on the phone?”
The waiter returned with a small black leather check cover and placed it on the edge of the table between them.
“Will there be anything else, sir, madam?” He glanced from James to Delores. “Or may I take your plates?”
James unceremoniously handed over his half-eaten plate of medium-rare filet mignon to the waiter. “I'll take mine in a to-go container.” He then looked at Delores. “You want him to put yours in a container, too?”
“I don't think so,” Delores looked distastefully at her unfinished meal. “Seafood just isn't something one can save for later.”
The server took both plates and hurried away. James looked from the leather check holder to Delores, who immediately picked it up and set it next to her. She grabbed her purse, pulled out her platinum credit card and stuck it inside the check holder, then placed it back on the table.
The server was there again and hurried away with the bill and her credit card in hand. Silence reigned at the table during his brief departure. He returned a few moments later and presented her with the open holder.
“Your signature, please, madam,” the young server said with a pleasant smile.
Delores signed the restaurant copy of the bill, took her receipt, returned her credit card to her purse and waited for the server to make a hasty retreat. She then coolly addressed the man across from her.
“I want answers, James,” she steepled her bejeweled fingers in front of her. “What is going on?”
“My daughter is back in town,” James answered gruffly. “The private investigator you hired just called to tell me she's on her way to the house.”
Delores' eyes widened. “You're not thinking of…”
“Going to the house, myself?” He stood up and tossed his cloth napkin back down on the chair. “That's exactly what I plan on doing, Delores. I want that money and I'm going to get it, one way or another.” He then glanced at the leather check holder on the edge of the table. “I'm tired of not being able to pay my own bills. It's time I got back on my own two feet. It's time I took back what's rightfully mine.”
Delores stood up and walked around the table until she was standing in front of him. She leaned in close and caught a whiff of the expensive cologne she had given him for Christmas.
“You told me you were done chasing after your daughter's trust, James,” she said in a hushed voice. “You said you were finished with your family and with all the grief they've caused you.”
James bristled and held a finger up between them. “You know this has nothing to do with you, Delores. That money belongs to me and I intend to get it back. This is none of your damned business.”
“It's not?” She stood toe-to-toe with him and wasn't afraid to do so. “Are you saying I don't have a stake in all this?” She waved a well-manicured hand negligently around the room. “Are you telling me that this doesn't matter—that we don't matter? Is that what you're saying, James? Is it?”
James glanced uncomfortably around the nearly-deserted dining area of the elegant restaurant and caught the open stares some of the remaining patrons were giving them. He took Delores' upper arm in a firm grip and tried to lead her toward the nearest exit. But Delores was having none of it and merely shook off his hold on her.
“Do not get physical with me, James Stephens,” she warned. “I am not your wife, nor am I one of your daughters. And I have an entire team of lawyers at my beck and call who will put your sorry ass behind bars in the blink of an eye if you so much as think of being physical with me in any way. So, do not lay a hand on me again. Understood?”
He blew out a frustrated breath and stormed from the restaurant without a backward glance. But Delores wasn't to be deterred. She followed him out to the valet parking area, where her limousine sat waiting for them. James didn't stop at the limo, however. He just kept right on walking.
“Where are you going, James?” Delores called after him from the open door of the limo.
“I don't need you or your goddamned money, Delores!” He shouted without looking back. “Go to hell!”
Delores nodded to her driver and quickly took her seat in the back of the limo. The driver closed the door, climbed behind the wheel and turned the limo around to follow the seething man. The limo slowly pulled alongside James as he continued to stride purposefully down the sidewalk without looking left or right.
When her window was even with him, Delores hit the button and waited for it to slide down enough that she could talk to the angry man.
“I know you don't need me, sugar,” she said in a conciliatory tone, as he continued on without glancing her way. “And I know how much that money means to you, James. But it's just money. There is plenty more where that came from. Believe me. I have more than enough for both of us. My offshore accounts are chalk full of dollar signs, sweetheart.”
“I don't want your damned money, Delores!” He shouted angrily. “The money in that trust is mine. It belonged to my father and my father's father and his father's father before him. That no-good excuse for a deviant spawn of the devil doesn't deserve to share my DNA, much less the money that has been in my family for generations. My great-great grandfather earned every penny of it with the sweat of his brow and his bare hands. I will not have it go to that…that…her, just so she can spend it on her deviant lover and their godforsaken lifestyle. It's mine. That's my final word on the subject.”
“Get in the car, James,” Delores ordered firmly, then let her tone soften. “Please?”
James stopped and clenched his fists at his sides. He wanted nothing more than to continue railing angrily at her for her callous disregard of his wishes, but he knew he really did need her—at least for a little while longer. She paid the bills on the penthouse suite he was living in. She was also giving him the money to start his own practice.
He wasn't merely beholden to her for the money, though. He owed her for helping ease his way back into Houston's elite social circles. She was his ticket back into the good graces of those who had the money to spend on those procedures that others could not afford.
So, he reluctantly turned to face her, even though he stood his ground.
“On one condition,” he said in that hard-edged tone of his that brooked no argument.
“Name it, hon,” Delores replied with a saucy grin.
“Not that condition, Delores,” he sighed.
“Then what's the condition, sugar?” She opened the door and beckoned him inside. “Climb on in here and we'll discuss it.”
James hesitated for another moment, before opening the door and climbing into the limousine with her.
Delores slid over just enough to give him room to close the door. Then she reached past him and closed the window.
“That's better, sugar,” she smiled into his stoic features. “Now, tell me what this li'l ole condition is.”
She ran a finger up his chest, up his throat and along his jaw line. James just stared straight ahead for a moment, then reacted in the blink of an eye. He grabbed her wrist in an iron grip and held it up between them. Delores stared at him in wide-eyed fear, as she saw the anger smoldering behind those gray-green eyes of his.
“You're hurting me, James,” she couldn't help the whimper that escaped.
“Don't you ever threaten me again, Delores,” he hissed just inches from her face. “You hear me? I will not tolerate threats from you or anyone else.”
Delores glared at him for a moment, until the pain in her wrist was too much to bear. “Okay, fine.”
He released her wrist as quickly as he'd grabbed it and pushed her away from him. He then straightened his suit coat and tie, as he let the anger slowly ebb.
“You have a mean streak in you a mile wide, you know that?” Delores rubbed her aching wrist, as she moved to the seat across from him and out of arm's reach. “There's not a man alive who would have tried what you just did and got away with it.”
“I'm sorry, Dee,” he swiped a hand down his face and let himself relax. “I really am.”
“Sorry enough to make it up to me?” She replied with a pout.
He moved across to the seat next to her and took her in his arms. “You know I love you, don't you, Dee?”
She looked deeply into his eyes and tried to read the emotions behind them. But Delores knew James Stephens well enough to understand that he often did things to please her only when it suited his own needs. She could not read him and decided it was futile to try.
“I love you, too, James,” she conceded with a small half-smile.
He pressed his palm against her cheek. “I want to make you happy. I want us to be happy. You're my life now. Okay?”
“In order to do that, I need to be the man in this relationship,” he continued, as he gently caressed her cheek. “I need that money, so I can give you things. I don't want to be the one always getting things from you. That isn't right. I need to do this. Understand?”
She nodded again.
“Good,” he pulled her to him and kissed her soundly. “Now, tell that driver of yours to take me home. It's high time I took care of matters, once and for all.”
Delores nodded, as a shudder of dread raced through her. The look in James' eyes told her more than words ever could. She was sure he meant to do his daughter harm in some way and could only imagine what he was planning. She just hoped she didn't get caught in the crossfire when they arrived at his family home.
“We're here,” Mac gently shook Lacey awake. She had dozed lightly herself, much like she had learned to do when she was on a mission. “Your parents' house looks deserted.”
Lacey's eyes fluttered open. She yawned and stretched like a cat, but didn't give up her place against Mac's shoulder. Mac rolled the window down and looked at the dark structure beyond.
“Place gives me the creeps,” Mac commented.
“Mother must have sent the staff home early,” Lacey couldn't help another yawn that escaped her. “She usually doesn't do that, though—even when she isn't home.”
“So,” Mac sat up straighter as they pulled in front of the house. “Where is this garage where your truck is being kept?”
“Around back,” Lacey answered, as she, too, sat up just as the car stopped.
Wilson opened the door for them and they emerged into the inky darkness that was lit only by the headlights of the car. Mac stared up at the dark house and shuddered. Lacey just wrapped her arms around herself.
“Mother said there's some spare clothing in my old room,” Lacey commented, as she headed toward the front door with Mac close on her heels. “I should probably change into something less frumpy and pack a small bag. We can shop for some clothes for you after we get away from Houston.”
“Works for me,” Mac replied, as Lacey turned the knob and the door swung open for them. “Your mom in the habit of leaving the house unlocked?”
Lacey quickly punched in the security code to the alarm and disarmed it.
“The security gate we passed on the way in does a pretty good job of keeping out the riffraff,” Lacey shot back over her shoulder, as she flipped on the ostentatious crystal chandelier in the entryway and ascended the stairs to the second floor. “Besides, there aren't many home burglaries in this neighborhood. The security system is top of the line and there's a patrol that passes by on a random schedule. And the staff has been with our family for years. Mother trusts them and pays them well not to steal the silver.”
Mac snickered, as they reached the second floor and Lacey flipped on another light.
“What? No German Shepherds patrolling the grounds, Ms. Lacey?” Mac quipped.
“Just my father's hounds,” Lacey snorted. “He likes to pretend that he's an English lord from time to time. He was always having people to the house for fox hunts on the grounds during the summer.”
“People actually still do that?” Mac frowned. “I thought it was illegal here in the States.”
“It is, if you kill the fox,” Lacey replied, as she stopped in the doorway of a room at the end of the hallway and flipped on another light. “Well, here we are.”
Lacey stepped aside and waved Mac into a spacious sitting room decked out in lacy pink and burgundy. Mac just stood there and gawked in open-mouthed awe.
“Yeah, I know,” Lacey walked over to a closed door and stepped inside. “The place always reminded me of Marie Antoinette's boudoir. Why do you think I left the first chance I got? College couldn't come fast enough, let me tell ya.”
“And then you joined the Army,” Mac snickered. “This certainly explains a lot.”
Lacey walked over to a dresser and rummaged through the drawers until she found what she was looking for. She tossed several pairs of jeans, several t-shirts, a few flannel button down shirts and underwear on the burgundy silk comforter of the canopied bed.
Mac walked over and grabbed a red lace thong, held it up and wiggled her dark brows at Lacey with a saucy grin.
“I guess we know where your name comes from,” she teased.
“Give me those,” Lacey swiped the underwear out of Mac's hands and tossed them into a corner. “I can't believe those are still here.”
“Oh?” Mac sat down on the down-filled silk comforter and ran her hands over the material. “I sense a story behind those words, Doc.”
“I bought them during college,” Lacey rummaged in her closet and tossed a beige canvas duffel onto the floor at Mac's feet. “They were a dare from my roommate. She wanted to embarrass the hell out of me during a frat party. She figured I'd get drunk, pass out and she could remove them and auction them to the highest bidder.”
“And, yet, you still have them in your possession,” Mac returned with a grin. “I really would like to see you in them, Doc.”
Lacey glanced at the underwear sitting in the corner. “Ugh!” She groaned, as she went over, retrieved them and tossed them into the duffel with the rest of the clothes. “The things I do for love.”
“Such a terrible burden,” Mac teased. “I'm surprised your mother didn't find them and toss them out.”
“Mother doesn't deign to step foot inside my room,” Lacey returned to the closet and pulled out a pair of custom Van's tennis shoes and a pair of beige desert combat boots. “She never did, except when she had the decorator do his damage. I was just a kid when she had the place decked out to resemble a whore house. Or I probably would have pitched a fit about it.”
Mac cocked her head and looked Lacey over. “I picture you in something a little sportier. Or maybe even a little equestrian?”
Lacey reached behind the dresser and pulled out several rolled up posters. “I kept these on my walls when I knew I could get away with it.”
She unrolled a poster of Jaclyn Smith, Cheryl Ladd and Kate Jackson from Charlie's Angels. She then unrolled a poster of Catherine Bach in her short-shorts and skimpy top. The woman was stretched out on top of the General Lee from The Dukes of Hazzard.
A third poster fell to the floor and Mac reached down to pick it up. It was of Lynda Carter dressed in her red, white and blue Wonder Woman outfit. Blue eyes stared back at her. She turned the poster around so Lacey could see it and then held it close to her face.
“Really, Doc?” Mac couldn't help but tease the woman.
“What can I say?” Lacey didn't take the bait and simply shrugged. “I'm a sucker for dark-haired women with sexy asses and expressive blue eyes who don't give a shit if they fit into a certain mold or not. That woman was hot in her day. I could lie in bed and stare up at her for hours on end. I never dreamed I would ever find someone more gorgeous than good ole Ms. Carter.”
Mac turned the poster back around and gave its subject a conciliatory nod of approval. “I guess she did have a certain sex appeal. Still does, from what I hear.”
Lacey closed the distance between them and gingerly pulled the poster out of Mac's hand. She rolled all of them back up and tossed them on the bed. Then she wrapped her arms around Mac's waist and gave her a quick peck on the chin.
“I'm glad I found the real deal,” Lacey said. “Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman couldn't hold a candle to Mackenzie Papadopoulos in a Black Hawk helicopter over the desert in Iraq.”
“Um, we crashed, remember?” Mac corrected her.
“We survived,” Lacey countered with a swat to Mac's backside. “So did Peters. Not many people can say that.”
“Not many people survive helicopter crashes,” Mac reiterated.
“My point exactly,” Lacey nodded. “You're the best damned pilot I know, Chief.”
“I think I'm one of the only pilots you know, Doc,” Mac grinned. “But thanks for the compliment, just the same.” She glanced at the door to the bedroom. “Not that I'm not enjoying this warm and fuzzy moment with you, but…”
“Yeah, I know,” Lacey reluctantly released her hold on Mac and went back to her packing. “It was fun while it lasted. You have to admit.”
“Oh, I plan on continuing said fun when we're not in your parents' creepy mausoleum of a house,” Mac glanced around at the furnishings and shuddered. “No offense, Doc, but this place just screams snootiness.”
“Snootiness?” Lacey snorted. “I actually think it screams pathetic and overly ostentatious. Mother wanted us to remember who we were, so she decorated the place to fit her ideal of old money.”
She finished securing the clasp on her duffel and was just about to hoist it to her shoulder, when Mac grabbed it from her.
“Allow me,” Mac hoisted the duffel to her good shoulder.
“As your doctor…”
“You're not, so don't go there,” Mac cut Lacey off before she could say more. “Besides, I'm used to physical stuff like this. I help with things around the ranch all the time. And a bale of hay is ten times heavier than your clothing, Doc.”
“My hero,” Lacey teased as she headed for the door to her bedroom and stopped dead in the doorway. “Shit!”
The words died on Mac's lips, as she saw the shotgun in the hands of the man standing directly in front of Lacey.
“Don't think either of you is going anywhere,” James pressed the barrel of the shotgun against Lacey's chest. “At least, not anytime soon.”
“Get out of the way, old man,” Lacey held her hands up in surrender, as she backed up into the woman behind her. “Don't do this.”
“Not this time,” James kept the end of the barrel planted firmly against Lacey's chest. “Not without my money.”
“Take it,” Lacey said. “I don't want your damned money. I have money of my own and plan to live my life my way.” She glanced up at Mac. “Didn't we already have this discussion once?” Mac nodded and Lacey returned her attention to James. “I thought so.”
It was James turn to be surprised. “You remember?”
“Every gruesome detail, you fucking excuse for a father,” she shot back with an angry glare. “Why don't you drop that gun and we'll discuss this like adults. I can show you some moves I learned in the Army. You never did respect me enough to realize that I was old enough to make my own damned decisions and live on my own. I joined the damned Army to get away from you and your fucking bullshit.”
James pushed them both back into the sitting room with the shotgun. “None of it matters.”
“Oh, really?” Lacey stopped moving and let her hands drop to her sides. “Then shoot me, you coward. Shoot me and get it over with. You never loved me and you know it. So, just do it. I'm tired of playing games. I'm fucking tired of all your bullshit. Not gonna do it anymore. Mac and I are leaving together and we're never coming back.” She glared right at him. “And I love her. What do you have to say about that?”
Lacey could see the anger flare in his gray-green eyes and it just made her smile.
Mac, on the other hand, was sure that Lacey was pushing him beyond his limit. She could see it in his eyes and felt a shudder of fear race down her spine. The gun barrel remained firmly planted against Lacey's chest, as James Stephens held it steady and just glared daggers at her.
Then he chuckled. And the chuckle turned into a full belly laugh. But the shotgun didn't waver.
“Nice try,” he said soberly. “The MPs and Houston police are on their way. I'm sure they'll put you in cells close enough that you can chat with each other. At least you'll have that.”
Lacey continued to glare at him. “Fuck you, old man.”
“All the military did for you was turn that mouth of yours into the devil's own,” he replied.
“No, actually it did a lot more than that,” Lacey returned. “I met a wonderful woman that I love and who loves me in return. And I learned basic combat skills, like…”
With lightning quick reflexes that surprised all of them, Lacey brought one arm up and swept the barrel of the shotgun aside. She followed that up with a roundhouse kick, but her bad leg gave out on her at the last moment and she collapsed to the floor in a heap.
A loud bang echoed through the hallway. Mac went down with Lacey and covered her with her own body. Then James went down, face-first. Both Lacey and Mac flipped over to find Lily standing over them with a frying pan in her hands.
“Hey, guys,” she said with a tentative half-smile. “Am I too late?”
Mac got to her feet and pulled Lacey up with her.
“You okay?” Mac checked Lacey over to make sure she wasn't hurt. “Did he shoot you?”
“I'm good,” Lacey said, as she turned to face her sister. “Lil? What are you doing here? How…”
“I caught a ride,” Lily turned her head.
Willows stood to one side with his service revolver in both hands. Meredith stood just behind his left shoulder. There were tiny holes in the wall next to them from the shotgun blast.
“Stand down, Commander,” Mac said. “I think the coast is clear.”
Willows quickly tucked his revolver in his pants behind his back. He then grabbed the shotgun and took the other shell out of it.
“The coast really isn't clear, Mac,” Lily added. “The MPs and Houston P.D. will be here soon. We were only a few minutes ahead of them when we left the condo. Apparently, Father called them when he got here and let them know a couple of fugitives were in the house.”
“You have to go,” Meredith stepped forward and glanced down at the unconscious man on the floor. She then eyed the frying pan in her younger daughter's hands. “Nicely done, Lillian. I couldn't have done it better myself.”
“Thank you, Mother,” Lily beamed.
“Yeah, thanks for that,” Lacey added, as she rubbed her knee. “I didn't count on my leg going out on me like that. Damned thing.”
“Lacey Justine,” Meredith scowled at her. “That's quite enough foul language out of your mouth for one night. You need to go before the authorities come crashing through that door and ruin my good tile. I called Samuel and told him to have the plane ready for you. They are awaiting your arrival and will take you wherever you wish to go.”
“Yes, ma'am,” Lacey straightened and found Mac right there next to her to offer support. An arm snaked around her shoulders and held her upright. “Shall we, Chief?”
“I don't know,” Mac looked from Lily to Meredith and then to Willows. “Can we sneak the truck out of here under cover of darkness? Is there a back way out of here?”
“We can take the old horse trail,” Lacey said. “It's wide enough for a pickup—at least it was when we were kids.” She glanced at her mother. “Is the trail still clear?”
“I have the gardener and his staff clear it every spring,” Meredith replied. “It should be fine, even though there was some debris near the creek when it overflowed its banks last month.”
“The truck will make it. It has four-wheel drive,” Lacey said with confidence. She then looked down at her unconscious father. “What about him?”
All eyes went to James Stephens, who was still sprawled on the floor.
“Maybe the commander will be kind enough to drive him back into town and drop him off somewhere,” Meredith gave Willows a questioning look. “Won't you, Commander?”
Lacey knelt next to her father and felt for a pulse. She then carefully examined the back of his head.
“Help me turn him over?” Lacey glanced up at Willows.
“We need to leave, Doc,” Mac said. “We don't really have time for this. I hear sirens and they're getting closer.”
Willows helped Lacey turn James over and she quickly checked under each closed lid.
“Better call an ambulance, instead,” Lacey looked pointedly at her sister. “And you'd better go back down to the kitchen and put that skillet away before the police get here. They'll arrest you if they find out you hit him with that thing. I think you probably cracked his skull with it.”
“Oh, dear,” Meredith stood by, wringing her hands in agitation. “Is he—”
“Alive,” Lacey watched her sister's retreating figure. “But Lily whacked him a good one. He's got a concussion and will wake up with one hell of headache. He needs to go to a hospital for observation.”
They could all hear the approaching sirens, just then.
“You'd better get out of here, Colonel,” Willows put a hand on her shoulder and gave it a slight push. “Go. We'll take care of things here.”
“Thanks again, Jason,” Mac said, as she helped Lacey stand up and then guided her back down the hallway toward the stairs.
“Don't mention it, Mac,” Willows called. “Take care of yourself. I hope we don't see you two again anytime soon. I'll be in touch.”
Mac shot a wave over her shoulder and started down the stairs. Lacey was about to follow when her mother rushed up the hallway towards her.
“Lacey dear!” Meredith called. “Wait!”
“What is it, Mother?” Lacey turned toward the woman and stood on the top step, until Meredith stopped before her. “They're almost here.”
“I know,” Meredith took Lacey in a heartfelt hug. “Be safe.” As she pulled back, tears sprang to her eyes. “There's something you should know before you go.”
“Mother, there's really no time,” Lacey glanced at Mac, who was waiting at the base of the stairs motioning for her to hurry up. “I have to go.”
“Lacey,” Meredith took hold of Lacey's shoulders and held her still for a moment. “James Stephens is not your real father.”
“What?” Lacey's eyes widened at the sudden and rather unexpected revelation. “What the hell are you talking about, Mother? Of course…”
“No,” Meredith adamantly shook her head. “It's too complicated to explain right now. Just know that James Stephens isn't your real father.”
“Lacey, NOW!” Mac called to her from the base of the stairs. “They're here!”
Caught between wanting to know the truth and needing to escape before she was arrested and sent to jail or the stockade, Lacey just threw up her hands and raced down the stairs. She reached Mac a moment later. Mac started toward the front door when Lacey reached the bottom step, but a hand on her arm stopped her.
“No, this way,” Lacey grabbed Mac's hand and practically dragged her toward the back of the house.
She ducked down a short side hallway and snaked her way through what Mac could only imagine was a labyrinth of small rooms and one very large kitchen. They continued on in silence until they reached a small side door with steps that took them down into a mud room. Lacey continued down a dark path littered with pots and dirt on top of long work benches with other garden utensils scattered here and there.
She stopped at another door at the far end and slowly opened it outward, then pressed a finger to her lips as she slipped her head through the door to check if the coast was clear. She then opened the door wider and waved Mac through.
They silently made their way across the yard and ducked inside a smaller building. There was very little light in the building, but Lacey knew her way by heart. She took Mac's hand and continued to weave her way past the bumpers of several cars, until she reached her truck.
“Oh, thank you, Mother,” Lacey whispered. “Go ahead and get in. I have to grab the keys from the cabinet.”
Mac jumped up into the passenger seat and quietly closed the door. She quickly strapped her seatbelt on and waited for Lacey. The woman didn't take long to grab the keys and jump into the driver's seat.
“They're going to hear the engine when you start this thing up, for sure,” Mac pointed out, as Lacey put the key in the ignition.
“I'm certainly open to suggestions, Chief,” she sat back and looked at the woman next to her in the muted light shining through a window near the garage's ceiling.
“Maybe we should wait and see if they leave, first,” Mac suggested.
“Or we can go now and avoid them altogether,” Lacey replied. “My truck doesn't make that much noise.”
“Don't we have to open the garage door in order to get out of here?” Mac countered.
Lacey hit a button. What appeared to be a wall in front of them, was actually a door that rolled up toward the ceiling. It didn't make very much noise and was on the opposite side of the building from where the house was.
“Okay, never mind,” Mac shrugged. “Let's just get the hell out of here.”
“Roger that, Chief,” Lacey started the engine and slowly pulled out of the garage. She kept the headlights off and navigated the narrow dirt road mostly by memory. “God, it's been a while since I did this.”
“Snuck out of my parents' garage and traveled this road in the pitch black,” Lacey replied with a grin. “I think the last time was when some friends and I decided to take a little trip up to Katy, during our senior year of high school. We went to a honky tonk place there and got totally drunk off our asses. I was so drunk, in fact, that I couldn't drive home. I had to sleep in my father's car until morning.”
“Did your parents catch you?”
“Oh, yeah,” Lacey continued to watch the road ahead. “My father took me into his study and beat my ass black and blue with his trusty belt. It hurt to sit down for two whole weeks, but it was worth it.”
“I'm sorry he did that to you, Lac,” Mac said. “Parents shouldn't beat their kids.”
“No,” Lacey shook her head. “But things are starting to make a little more sense, now that I know he isn't my real father.”
“What?” It was Mac's turn to be surprised.
“That's what my mother told me when she stopped me at the top of the stairs tonight,” Lacey kept her eyes glued to the shadowy road ahead, as tears suddenly sprang to her eyes. “She didn't have time to tell me anything else. She just said James Stephens isn't my real father. Can you imagine?”
No, Mac couldn't imagine. But she also couldn't imagine how such an incredible bastard could sire such a wonderful woman. Now she knew he didn't and it almost made her laugh in relief. Then she glanced over at Lacey and saw the tears swimming in her eyes.
“Are you okay?” Mac asked, as she reached over and caught a tear on her finger. “You want to pull over and let me drive? I'm kinda used to navigating in the dark.”
“No, I'm okay,” Lacey swiped impatiently at her wet cheeks. “Can't believe I have any tears left after all the crying I did earlier today. Wait. Is it still the same day?” She glanced at the muted green digital clock and saw that it wasn't. “Never mind. It's well past midnight.”
“I can't believe you've been able to hold it together for this long,” Mac replied, as she cupped Lacey's cheek in her palm and gently stroked the soft skin. “You're the real hero, Lacey Stephens. Any other woman would have collapsed in a fit of hysterics, long ago. But here you are, navigating a narrow horse trail in the dead of night without a single light to guide you. And you're as calm, cool and collected as a poker player caught up in the game of her life.”
“Right,” Lacey snorted. “You can't see how white my knuckles are from gripping this steering wheel so tight. I'm afraid I won't be able to let go when we reach the airport. There's bound to be something on the trail we're on. I'm afraid we'll hit a fallen log or a tree stump and I won't see it in the dark. I really don't want to spend the night in my truck.”
“You're doing fine, Lacey,” Mac said and turned her own eyes to the road ahead. “The trail looks fairly clear ahead.”
“You can see where we're going?” Lacey glanced at the woman.
“I can see shadows,” Mac replied. “And there aren't any on the trail ahead.”
“You amaze me every damned day, you know that?” Lacey shot Mac a warm smile. “I'm so glad I can remember most of them now.”
“It's nice to know you didn't completely forget me,” Mac continued to watch the road ahead. “My last visit was a little disheartening.”
“And this trip has been better?” Lacey shot Mac a skeptical glance.
“It's had its moments,” Mac said. “I really wasn't too fond of you throwing up on me in the motel room last night. That was definitely a low point on this rather crazy adventure.”
“You threw up on me,” Mac nodded. “Right down the front of my ACU shirt.”
“I'm sorry, but I don't remember doing that, Mac,” Lacey said. “I guess I'll have to buy you a new one.”
“Don't worry about it,” Mac shrugged. “I've been trying to figure out a way to get rid of it, anyway. Gray and beige really aren't my colors.”
Lacey chuckled. “Mine, either.”
She saw a break in the trees ahead. They emerged from the tree line several minutes later and Lacey turned the truck onto an asphalt road.
“Where are we now?” Mac looked around to make sure they weren't being followed.
“This road takes us to one of the main highways,” Lacey answered. “It'll only take about twenty minutes to get to the airport, once we reach the interstate.”
Mac sank back into her seat with a relieved sigh. “You think they'll have anyone waiting there for us this time around?”
“Not this time,” Lacey shook her head. “At least I hope not. I'm really beat. I just want to get on that plane and get the hell out of here.”
Mac added, “You sure you don't want me to drive, now that we're off that horse trail?”
“It's only twenty minutes or so,” Lacey rubbed a kink in the back of her neck. “I think I can make it that far.”
“Let me know if you need me to drive, Doc,” Mac turned so she could keep an eye on the road ahead and behind them, just in case.
“Will do,” Lacey glanced at Mac and saw her watching her. “What?”
“You're beautiful, you know that?” Mac said.
“I probably look like death warmed over,” Lacey shot back with a grimace. “I didn't get the chance to change clothes and we left all my stuff back at the house.”
Mac pulled her leg up and wrapped her hands around her knee. “You're still beautiful to me, Doc. Gorgeous, in fact.”
“I'll bet you say that to all the girls you rescue, Chief,” Lacey snorted.
“You're the first,” Mac replied in all seriousness and got a skeptical glance in return. “No fooling, Lac. You're not just beautiful on the outside, but on the inside, too. It's one of the reasons I love you so much.”
“I love you, too,” Lacey said. “I just hope we can find a place to hole up in until all this blows over. I don't think you want to see me when I finally break down in a fit of uncontrollable hysterics.”
Mac knew she was being tweaked. “I'm sure I can handle anything you throw at me, Doc. Or even throw up on me, for that matter.”
“Oh, I'm sure you can, Chief,” Lacey chuckled. “I'm sure you can.”
Mac chuckled, too. And soon they were both laughing until they were crying tears of joy. Once the laughter died back down, silence reigned for the remainder of the drive to the airport. Mac took one of Lacey's hands in her own and just reveled in even that limited contact.
Continued in Part 7
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