For disclaimers, see Part 1 .
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Mac glanced out the window at the scenery beyond. Majestic white-capped mountains formed a picturesque backdrop for the white landscape below. It never ceased to amaze her. Seeing the landscape from the air was like gazing down at one of those miniature cities in a train layout. Everything was so tiny from the air, except the mountains. Those were rugged goliaths towering over the ground below.
The charter jet they were in started its final descent towards Jackson Hole Airport. It was nearly nine in the morning and Mac was so excited to be home again that she hadn't been able to sleep a wink all night. Lacey, on the other hand, had absolutely no trouble sleeping. She was still lightly snoring in the reclining leather chair next to Mac's—a peaceful grin on her lips.
Mac glanced over at the sleeping woman and smiled. The flight attendant had covered Lacey with a dark blue blanket that went with the jet's décor. Lacey merely snuggled down and kept a firm grip on Mac's hand. It had been a challenge for Mac to eat the light meal the flight attendant provided for her earlier, but she didn't care. That hand in hers was a lifeline that she was unwilling to release.
It had been a harrowing night for both of them. But they had gone through every moment of it together. Just like old times. Mac remembered some of the good times they'd shared in Iraq. And there had been some good times. Even amidst the crap, Mac was still impressed by Lacey's ability to bounce right back from adversity. The woman was an enigma and one that Mac wanted to spend the rest of her life trying to figure out.
The sound of the landing gear extending brought Mac out of her reverie. Lacey's eyes fluttered open and she looked at Mac in confusion.
“Wha'shappenin'?” Lacey stretched and yawned. “We there already?”
“Almost,” Mac couldn't keep the grin off her face. “That was the landing gear. We should be on the ground pretty soon. You have a good nap?”
“Mmhm,” Lacey nodded, as she let the blanket drop to her lap. “Dreamed about you.”
“Oh?” Mac turned her chair so she was facing Lacey. “Good dreams, I hope?”
“The best,” Lacey smiled sleepily. “We were sitting on a balcony and gazing at the sun as it set behind the mountains. It was beautiful. Picturesque.”
“Were we doing anything…special?” Mac absently caressed Lacey's hand in hers.
“You mean, were we having sex?” Lacey gave Mac a saucy grin, as she cocked her head slightly.
“Er…um…” Mac blushed.
“Priceless,” Lacey chuckled. “How did I ever get lucky enough to merit having you in my life?”
Mac pulled herself together and sat forward in her chair. She then took Lacey's other hand in hers and gazed into green eyes watching her intently.
“I'm the lucky one,” the words were heartfelt. “I love you, Lacey Stephens. More today, than yesterday. I can't wait to begin this new chapter of our life together. I want to be with you. Where you go, I go.”
Tears sprang to Lacey's eyes. “I…”
Lacey moved until her forehead was resting against Mac's. The tears fell, as a wellspring of emotion suddenly burst forth within her. The hands in hers were an anchor, as she watched her tears drip onto their joined hands. Her heart swelled and she was sure she was going to lose it—again.
“It's okay,” Mac said. “You don't have to say anything. I just want you to know I'm here for you. I want to be with you, Lacey. I want to make a life with you. You're all I need in this moment.”
Lacey pulled a hand out of Mac's and swiped her cheeks. “Not asking much, are you, Mackenzie?” She shook her head. “I just need some time to process everything that's happened. So much…” She sniffed back more tears and felt Mac's palm rest against her cheek. “God…”
“It's okay,” Mac repeated. “I'm here.”
“I know,” Lacey sat up straight, as the plane touched down with a slight jolt. She used a corner of the blanket to wipe the tears from her cheeks. “Sorry. I didn't mean to get all blubbery on you again.”
“You didn't,” Mac glanced down at the white t-shirt she was wearing. “Good thing you don't get airsick, though.”
They both smiled at their shared jest.
“Yeah, good thing,” Lacey scrunched up her face. “Throwing up is not on my list of priorities, right now.”
Just then her stomach growled loudly and they both look down at it.
“First order of business is to feed that monster of yours,” Mac teased with a chuckle. “Before it gets free and devours us both. I know the perfect place, too. They serve a mean omelet and the coffee is decent.”
“Sounds good,” Lacey replied. “You don't know a place where I can get a good, hot shower, do you?” She scrunched her face. “I know I took a shower last night, but I feel all grungy.” She ran a hand through her hair. “I don't think I've felt this grungy since Iraq.”
“Took me the better part of a month to get all the sand out of those places where sand was never meant to go,” Mac agreed. “I definitely share the sentiment. A nice hot shower would sure make me feel semi-human again.” She rubbed her gritty eyes. “Maybe a nap, too.”
“Yeah,” Lacey agreed and earned a confused glare from the dark-haired woman across from her. “What?”
Mac snorted and shook her head. “Nothing, Rip Van Winkle. I just think you need to tell me your secret.”
Mac glanced at her watch. “I think you've managed to get more sleep in the last couple of days than most people get in a lifetime, Doc.”
“Oh,” Lacey's expression turned sheepish. “I think it has to do with the company I've been keeping, lately. I don't usually sleep like a rock. Nightmares usually keep me awake more often than not. I haven't had a single nightmare since you rescued me from that loony bin.”
Mac grinned. “Huh.”
Lacey jumped into Mac's lap and wrapped her arms around the surprised woman. “I think I found my teddy bear or maybe my security blanket.” She then kissed Mac soundly. “I guess that means you're stuck with me, Chief.”
“S-stuck?” Mac stuttered with a bemused smile that turned into a sly grin. “I suppose I'll just have to adjust to this new development. I don't know, though. It might take me a while to—”
Lacey cut her off with another smoldering kiss that left them both breathless. A throat clearing had them looking up guiltily, as they met the impatient gaze of the flight attendant.
“Yes?” Lacey found her voice first. “What is it Mandy?”
“We've arrived, Ms. Lacey,” the young flight attendant said without making eye contact. “Would you like me to call a taxi to drive you to your final destination?”
“That won't be necessary, Mandy,” Mac cut in with a smirk and a quick peck on Lacey's lips to add to the flight attendant's unease. “I'll take care of our transportation needs from here on out.”
“Yes, ma'am,” Mandy made a quick retreat back to the galley.
“You are too funny,” Lacey chuckled, as she reluctantly extricated herself from Mac's lap. “If I didn't know any better, I'd think you were becoming a rich socialite, with all the snooty airs that go with it.”
“Snooty?” Mac teased. “I resemble that remark.”
“It does come in handy,” Lacey said, as she grabbed her sweatshirt and pulled it over her head. “You should see how well it works with the staff at the country club. All that charm and beauty of yours would have them licking your boot heels in order to get the chance to do your bidding. Too bad you weren't raised in the South. You would have made a fantastic Southern Belle.”
“Oh, please,” Mac replied with an exasperated eye roll. “Can you just imagine all of this in one of those fufu dresses with the hoops and lace and such?”
Lacey looked Mac up and down admiringly. “No. But I can see you in a blue silk form-fitting spaghetti strap number with your hair piled on top of that gorgeous head of yours. My heart is skipping a beat just imagining it.”
“ Pfft! Right,” Mac scoffed, as she let Lacey lead the way toward the cabin's exit. “I'm not big on dresses, there, Doc. Had to wear my dress blues once and felt like the skirt was trying to trip me with every step I took.”
Lacey stopped and turned back to look at Mac with a critical eye again. “I can see you in your dress blues, too. Not bad.” She finished with a quick wink, before turning back around and stepping into the bright sunlight. “Ugh! Someone turn that light down, before I go blind.”
Mac chuckled. “Serves you right, Doc. That's what you get for sleeping during the entire flight.”
Lacey held a hand up to shade her eyes from the glare as she descended the stairs to the ground below. A brisk breeze caught her pony tail and whipped it against her cheek, as she wrapped her arms around her to ward off the chilly mountain air.
“ Brrr ,” Mac uttered, as she followed Lacey to the hangar. “Forgot it was still winter up here. Probably should have picked up a couple coats back in Houston.”
“Is there a place here in town where we can do that?” Lacey said, as she ducked inside the hangar and headed straight for the lounge. “I don't think my thin Texas blood can handle running around here in nothing but a sweatshirt. God almighty, it's fucking cold!” Her teeth were chattering as she hit the warm blast furnace inside the lounge. “Holy shit!”
Mac just chuckled as she followed Lacey into the lounge.
“Can I help you folks?” A portly gray-haired man behind a worn oak desk stood up and adjusted his suspenders over a grungy red, green and blue flannel shirt.
“Hey, Big Al,” Mac greeted the man with an outstretched hand and a warm smile. “Long time no see.”
“Well, as I live and breathe,” he took her hand in his beefy one and gave it a firm shake. “How're you doin', Mac? Or should I say Chief? I heard you was back in the States, but didn't believe it. Haven't seen you ‘round these parts, lately.”
“I've been…um…away,” Mac glanced at Lacey sheepishly, not sure how much to disclose to the scruffy man. “We just got in.”
He rounded the desk and tucked his thumbs in his faded red suspenders. “You come in on that fancy jet that just landed?”
“We did,” Mac nodded. “It belongs to a…um…friend of the family.”
Big Al scratched the stubbled on his cheek and eyed the scruffy blond next to Mac. He discarded the notion that she was the “friend of the family” that Mac was referring to. He then caught a gleam of mischief in the sea-green eyes gazing steadily back at him, as the blond wrapped a protective arm around her taller companion's waist.
“Er,” he looked to Mac and caught the hint of a smile on her features. “Dag-nab it, Mac. You gotta stop in here more often, so's we can catch up. I ain't seen ya since before you went off and joined the Army.” He scratched his head. “When was that, anyway?”
“It's been a few years,” Mac replied. “Enough that your hair is a lot grayer than it was the last time I saw you.” She looked around at the plush interior of the lounge. “And you've stepped up in the world, Big Al.”
“Grayer and a little thinner, that's for sure.” He touched his receding hair line and snickered. “Boss man promoted me just last year. Made me manager of this place and gave me a desk that doesn't look like it was forged out of an old tin can. It sure beats overseeing things over at the FBO. McGinty got that job when I took over here. More power to him.”
Mac nodded. “McGinty's a good man. I'm sure the guys over there miss you, though, Big Al.”
“Yeah, I miss ‘em, too, some days,” he flexed his suspenders with his thumbs and then leaned forward conspiratorially. “Between you and me,” he then glanced at Lacey, “and your friend here,” he winked at Lacey, who frowned back, “dealing with these high-browed mucky-mucks gets mighty tiresome some days. The rich snobs who come through here think the world revolves around ‘em and ain't afraid to throw their weight around, along with their money. Don't get me wrong. It pays a sight better than over at the FBO. But I ain't sure it's worth it, some days.”
Lacey stepped in front of Mac and extended a hand to the big man. “Lacey Stephens. One of the rich snob, high-browed mucky-mucks you revere so highly.” She grinned, as his eyes widened. “And that's my family's jet parked out there. Please be sure to take good care of it before they head back to Houston.”
Mac chuckled, as Big Al glanced at her in irritated confusion.
“She's with me,” Mac stepped up next to Lacey and put an arm around her shoulders.
“Bwa…” he looked at the outstretched hand and wiped his own on his shirt, before taking Lacey's in his. “Nice to meet you. Apologies for my earlier comments, miss. I had no idea.”
“It's okay,” Lacey shook his hand firmly. “It's the outfit. I won't hold it against you.”
Mac tried to hold in her laughter, but failed miserably. She was laughing so hard, in fact, that tears rolled down her cheeks.
“Thanks loads, Mac,” Big Al shot her a scowl. “You shoulda told me it was your friend's plane out there.”
“You didn't ask,” Mac wiped the tears from her cheeks. “But thanks for giving me something to laugh about, my friend. It's been one hell of a couple days.”
“Just wait ‘til your brother needs a lift to one of the outlying ranches and can't get one of the boys to take him,” Big Al groused. “He'll want me to hook him up with someone and I'll just have to tell him there ain't any takers.”
“Leave my brother out of this, B.A.,” Mac sobered. “My amusement at your expense has nothing to do with Ben.”
“Settle down, there, tiger,” Lacey gently patted Mac's stomach and then kept her hand there. “Both of you need to just take a step back and settle.” She shot the big guy a sly grin. “Truce?”
“Fine,” Al hesitantly conceded. “Anything I can do for you ladies today?”
“Transportation?” Mac put in. “We need to get to the ranch.” A squeeze from her companion had Mac remembering something else. “Oh, and we need to pick up a few things in town.”
“I got two pickups and a limo,” Al said. “What's your poison?”
Lacey shook her head. “No limos.”
“That's good. ‘Cause I got a couple guys comin' in from Salt Lake later this afternoon,” Al walked over to his desk and grabbed some keys from a drawer. He tossed the keys to Mac, who caught them easily. “Take the blue pickup parked out front. There's a full tank of gas in it. I don't need it ‘til late tomorrow.”
“I'll send it back tonight with one of the guys,” Mac jangled the keys. “Thanks, B.A.”
“Not a problem, Mac. Anytime.”
“It was nice meeting you, Big Al,” Lacey shot the man a quick wave, as Mac guided her through the lounge to the door on the other side.
“Good to meet you, too, Ms. Stephens,” Big Al called after them, as they disappeared through the door. “It was a real pleasure.”
He then went back to his desk and sat down in the worn faux leather chair. He propped his booted feet up on top of the desk and sat there shaking his head.
“What do you think?” Lacey pushed aside the curtain of the small dressing room in the modest clothing store and struck a pose for the woman standing there. “Too much?”
Mac struck a thoughtful pose, with her hand on her chin and surveyed the outfit with a critical eye.
“Flannel?Really?” Mac finally said. “Are you trying to fit in with the locals? Or are you trying to be the next poster girl for lesbian lumberjacks everywhere?”
Lacey looked down at her outfit and then back up in bewilderment. “What?” She did a quick spin and then looked at herself in the full-length mirror behind her. “It's not bad.”
“You're in a pair of tight jeans that you rolled up into cuffs,” Mac glanced down at Lacey's butt and then met her gaze in the mirror. “Nice ass, by the way. And you're wearing a flannel shirt over a white t-shirt.”
“Don't forget the boots,” Lacey lifted one foot toward the mirror.
“Hiking boots,” Mac rolled her eyes. “We do wear tennis shoes here in Wyoming.”
“I want warm feet,” Lacey shot a pout to her companion's reflection. “Besides, tennis shoes suck in snow.”
“Okay, I'll give you that,” Mac wrapped her arms around Lacey from behind and hugged her. “But the flannel has to go, Doc. Makes you look like a pint-sized lumberjack.”
“No short jokes, Chief,” Lacey frowned. “You know how self-conscious I am about my height. Besides, it's warm.”
“You look like a dork.”
“I do not.”
“I so do not look like a dork,” Lacey pouted, then batted her eyes flirtatiously at Mac in the mirror. “Doesn't the green bring out the color of my eyes?”
“Yes,” Mac looked more closely. “So get a green shirt and be done with it. You asked me for my opinion. I'm giving it to you.” She then straightened up and walked back over to one of the clothing racks behind them. “What about this?” She held a forest green, long-sleeved knit top with a v-cut neckline to her chest.
“Not your color, Chief,” Lacey shot over her shoulder. “I can see you in something blue, though. That would certainly make those baby-blues pop.”
“Smart ass,” Mac walked back over and handed Lacey the knit top. “Just try it on, will ya? I'm really not fond of spending hours on end in a clothing store. We've been here…” She glanced at her watch. “Has it been over an hour already?”
“On the upside,” Lacey pulled the curtain closed between them. “That lunch slash early supper we had over at the diner was delicious. I'm glad you recommended it.”
“I think they could hear your stomach growling when we walked in the door,” Mac leaned casually on the nearest clothing rack. “Chester was ecstatic to have a chance to cook for someone who isn't a tourist.”
“He was kinda cute,” Lacey said from behind the curtain.
“Yeah,” she tossed the flannel shirt over the curtain and didn't see it land on Mac's head. “He was eyeing you the whole time we were there.”
“We went to school together,” Mac pulled the shirt off her head, righted her disheveled hair and draped it over the rack she was leaning on. “He knows I don't bat for the same team he does. Or at least…”
“I get it,” Lacey pushed the curtain aside and stepped out with her arms outstretched. “Well?”
“Better than the flannel,” Mac grinned at the low neckline that revealed some enticing cleavage. “I like.”
“I'm not a fan of forest green, but this has possibilities,” Lacey completely missed the Cheshire grin Mac was giving her, as she looked down at herself. “It's a bit tight, too.”
“Yes,” Mac agreed in all innocence.
Lacey crossed her arms over her chest and gave Mac a look. “It's the cleavage, isn't it?”
“I haven't shown this much cleavage since prom,” Lacey motioned to her chest. “And I was almost falling out of that dress my mother picked out for me, by the way.”
Mac's grin widened. “I would have paid money for a glimpse of that.”
“Oh, you,” Lacey playfully slapped Mac's arm before she disappeared back into the dressing room and pulled the curtain closed.
“What? I like seeing cleavage,” Mac defended. “And that shirt looks good on you, Lac.”
Lacey poked her head out. “I'll buy it on one condition.”
“I also get to pick up the flannel to wear around…” She waved a hand. “Wherever it is we're going.”
“Oh, fine,” Mac conceded, as she grabbed the flannel shirt off the rack and waved it in front of her. “But you also have to buy a pair of tennis shoes to go with your entire wardrobe. The hiking boots are nice, but they're a little butch for that knit top.”
“Not a problem,” Lacey grinned, as she ducked back behind the curtain.
Mac stood there with the flannel shirt and crossed her arms over her chest. A grin graced her features, as she waited for Lacey to change.
Mac's eyes widened as she immediately recognized the voice and turned around to face the woman standing behind her. She quickly hid her surprise behind a mask of indifference, as the woman approached.
“Maria,” Mac said. “Fancy meeting you here.”
“I'm just running a few errands,” Maria sauntered up and leaned casually against the clothing rack Mac was standing next to. “What brings you to this place? I didn't even know you were back in town. Your sister in-law said you were away on business and she didn't know when you would be returning.”
“I took care of my business and now I'm back,” Mac replied with a shrug. “So, now you know.”
Lacey emerged from the dressing room with her arms full of clothing. The instant she spotted Maria, her hackles went up. She walked over to Mac and stood next to her.
“Hello,” Lacey gave Maria a quick once-over and took in the tight pants, short top and the coat that was two sizes too small for the Hispanic woman.
Maria watched Mac place a protective arm around the short blonde's shoulders. She went instantly on alert at the look the blond gave her.
“Who is this, chica ?” Maria returned her attention to Mac. “Let me guess. Another girlfriend?”
“Watch it, Maria,” Mac growled in a low tone.
“I'm Lacey,” she didn't bother to extend a hand toward the woman. “Her girlfriend.” She finished the words by leaning against Mac's side. “And you are?”
“She used to be the boys' sitter,” Mac put in before Maria could elaborate. “But Carrie fired her.”
“She didn't know a good thing when she had it,” Maria shot Mac a saucy grin. “Neither did you, Mackenzie.”
“Well, she does now,” Lacey added with a sly grin of her own. “We're putting the past behind us, aren't we, hon?”
“Yep,” Mac nodded with a silly grin. “If you'll excuse us, Maria. We have some more shopping to do before we head to the ranch.” She started to walk away with Lacey right beside her. “And I'll be sure to tell Carrie I saw you. I'm sure she'll be thrilled to know you're still lurking around town.”
“Punta…bitch,” Maria hissed.
Mac chuckled as she heard the expletive. She glanced at Lacey and saw a flash of temper flare in the sea-green eyes.
“Let it go, Doc,” Mac squeezed Lacey's shoulder. “She isn't worth it.”
They approached the counter with a smiling clerk standing patiently behind it. The young woman was in her early twenties and looked eager to help them. She had her hair partially pulled up into a knot on top of her head with the rest hanging around her shoulders. It gave her an almost puckish look that wasn't lost on the two women.
“Will this be all for you today, ladies?” The perky clerk said. “Or is there something else I can help you with?”
“Isn't it enough?” Mac replied in all seriousness.
“Just ignore her,” Lacey backhanded Mac in the stomach, as she set her burden on the counter.
“Ow!” Mac grabbed her stomach and struck a pout. “That hurt.”
“That so did not hurt, Chief,” Lacey rolled her eyes and returned her attention to the clerk, who was watching the interplay in confusion. “She doesn't get out much.”
“I see,” the young woman decided to busy herself with scanning tags and folding clothes. She made quick work of the pile of clothing. “Will that be cash or charge?” She said when she finally had everything scanned and placed into a large plastic shopping bag with the store's logo on it.
“Cash,” Lacey replied and pulled the cash from the breast pocket of her brand new purple The North Face ski jacket. She glanced at the register total. “Here you go,” she handed over a couple of bills to the wide-eyed woman. “I don't use credit cards. All those companies do is rip people off.”
“I see,” the woman repeated, as she took the cash, set it in the drawer and handed Lacey back her change. “Have a nice day, ladies.”
“Oh, we plan to,” Mac winked at the young woman, as she hoisted the bag to her shoulder before Lacey could make a grab for it. “You want to hit any more stores while we're here, Doc?”
“Do any of them sell cowboy hats and shit kickers?” Lacey replied, as they left the store and the bewildered clerk behind.
Mac pulled the collar of her new Eddie Bauer shearling rancher's coat up around her neck and donned the new doe-skin gloves Lacey had purchased for her. She then wrapped her free arm around Lacey's shoulders as they made their way down the street. It was cold, but not intolerable. She just hoped Lacey was warm enough in her new ski coat.
“We're in cattle country, Doc,” Mac scoffed. “Of course there's a store here that sells cowboy hats and boots.”
“Then lead the way, Chief,” Lacey grinned. “My father never allowed us to wear cowboy hats or boots as kids. He said it wasn't ladylike to go out in public dressed like cow hands.”
“I've said it before and I'll say it again. Your father's an ass, Doc,” Mac returned. “Then again, he isn't really your father, now, is he?”
Lacey's expression turned thoughtful for a moment. “You're absolutely right.”
“I am?” Then Mac caught herself. “Yeah, I guess I am.”
“I just wish there'd been time to get Mother to tell me who my real father is,” Lacey's shoulders sagged slightly. “I know it shouldn't matter,” she sighed and looped an arm through Mac's. “But it does. I can't believe they kept that from me for all these years.”
“At least you don't have to claim James Stephens the First Class Jackass as your father, anymore,” Mac commented, as they continued walking down the quiet sidewalk.
“Speaking of,” Lacey leaned her head against Mac's arm. “I wonder how he's doing.”
That got a raised browed look from her tall companion.
“Lily hit him pretty hard,” Lacey shrugged. “I don't want her to get arrested for killing him on my account.”
“And I say, more power to your sister for clocking your old man with that frying pan,” Mac grinned. “Remind me not to get on her bad side. Ever.”
Lacey chuckled. “She used to hit me with her dolls when I didn't pay enough attention to her.”
“Ouch,” Mac winced.
“Yeah,” Lacey added. “She was a real bully while we were growing up. And she was always bigger than me.” She raised her head. “Come to think of it, she still is, on both counts.”
“Here's our next stop,” Mac pulled up in front of a shop with Western wear and boots hanging in the windows. “After you,” she gallantly opened the door and held it for Lacey.
“Chivalry certainly isn't dead here in cattle country,” Lacey stepped through the door into a blast of warm air. “Oh, that feels really nice.”
“You need to thicken that blood of yours, Doc,” Mac snickered. “You ain't in Texas, anymore.”
“No, I'm not, Toto,” Lacey agreed, as she peeled her coat off and draped it over her arm. “So, where are the hats?”
Mac motioned toward the back of the store with her chin. “Back there. They have a whole room dedicated to hats and another for just boots.”
Lacey smiled. “Whole rooms dedicated to cowboy hats and boots? I'm in heaven.”
“Go figure,” Mac chuckled. “Wouldn't you know that I'd fall for a woman after my own heart?”
“We were in the Army together, Chief,” Lacey commented, as she headed toward a doorway toward the back of the store. “Hats and boots come with the territory.”
“So does camo, but you don't see me wearing it anymore,” Mac added with a wry grin.
“Yeah, not going there,” Lacey shot saucy look over her shoulder. “Digital camouflage should be banned from existence.”
An older man in a cheap Western suit made a beeline for them the instant they stepped through the doorway into a room full of every style of cowboy hat one could imagine. His hair was silver and he had a smile pasted on his thick lips beneath a bush black mustache.
“Can I help you ladies?” He glanced from Lacey to Mac and his smile widened. “Well, if it isn't Mackenzie Papadopoulos, back from serving this great country of ours.” He extended a hand to Mac and she shook it. “How are you doing, Mac?”
“Hey, Lester,” Mac glanced around. “The place still looks pretty much the same as it did before I left. How's business?”
“Business is mighty fine,” Lester pushed his coat back and set his hands on his slender hips. “Missy married Pete Bristol, moved to Denver, Colorado. Now it's just Martha and me running things. But we still get plenty of tourist traffic through here year-round. No complaints there.”
“How is Martha?” Mac inquired. “Is she still the head of the festival and planning committee?”
“Sure is,” Lester grinned. “She'd be mighty grateful if you'd get all gussied up in that Army outfit of yours and ride one of the floats in this year's parade, Mackenzie. Just wait ‘til she hears you're home. She might just organize a welcome home spectacle for you.”
“No way, Lester,” Mac shook her head emphatically. “I'm not really big on crowds these days. Got my fill of those while serving in the Desert.”
“Well, at least this one won't try to kill ya,” Lester chuckled and then glanced at Lacey. “And who is this fine young woman with you?”
“Lacey Stephens,” Lacey extended a hand to him. “Nice to meet you.”
“Lester McGill,” he took her hand in his and gave it a firm shake. “Welcome to my establishment. You aren't from around here, are you, Ms. Stephens?”
“No,” Lacey replied. “But Mac and I served together in Iraq.”
“Ah,” his face brightened. “Another fine member of our Armed Forces?”
“Don't get any bright ideas, Lester,” Mac warned. “She's not one for crowds, either.”
“But I am one for cowboy hats,” Lacey put in with a quick scan of the numerous hats on display in the room. “You have a nice selection here, Mr. McGill.”
“It's just Lester,” he corrected with a proud grin that revealed one capped gold tooth. “And I am truly honored to have two of America's finest shopping right here in my store. I might just have Billy over at the print shop make me a sign to mark the occasion.”
Lacey moved into one of the aisles and perused the selection of straw cowboy hats on the racks above in a variety of colors, shapes and sizes.
“Do these really have a purpose?” She took a Sonoma – Raffia straw hat from a rack and placed it on her head. “I never understood why someone would wear a cowboy hat with holes in it.”
“Ventilation,” Lester replied confidently. “It can get mighty hot around here during the summer. Some folks appreciate a good, sturdy straw hat to cover their head and keep the sun out of their eyes.”
“Huh,” Lacey removed the slightly-oversized hat and placed it back on its rack. She then walked to the next aisle and stopped in front of several black felt Stetsons. “These aren't bad.”
Mac removed one from its rack and plopped it on her own head. “What do you think about this one?”
Lacey struck a thoughtful pose with her hand under her chin. “It certainly matches your hair.”
“Black is in, that's for sure,” Lester added. “Looks good on you and the fit isn't too bad. Won't take much to shape it to your exact measurements, Mackenzie.”
“What do you think about this one?” Lacey donned a gray wool felt hat with a rattlesnake band and feathers.
“Gaudy?” Mac flipped the brim back on Lacey's head. “I'd stick with something simple, there, Doc.”
Lacey removed the hat and turned it so she could look at it. “I kinda like the feathers. They're…”
“Try this on for size,” Mac put a wide-brimmed hat on Lacey's head. “Oooo.Interesting look.”
The hat came down over Lacey's eyes and she had to tilt her head back to look at Mac. The look she gave the grinning woman was priceless.
“It doesn't fit,” Lacey growled. “And the brim is huge.”
“True, but it'll sure keep the sun off that light complexion of yours,” Mac gave Lacey a sly grin as she chucked her under the chin. “Wouldn't want you getting too much sun, there, Doc.”
“Yeah, well I don't need a damned sombrero, Chief,” Lacey shot back, as she removed the oversized hat and tossed it back to the woman. “Besides, I think less is more, don't you?”
Mac eyed the gaudy feather and snakeskin band on the gray hat. “And that was less?” She pointed to the hat.
“At least the hat fit,” Lacey shot back, as she grabbed a beige rope fawn felt hat off its rack and donned it. “Is this better?”
“It certainly has more going for it than the gray monster, there,” Mac replied. “And it brings out the blond streaks in your hair.”
“I would be happy to shape it to fit, too,” Lester added. “Not everyone has the same head shape or size, so we have a hat steamer to make the necessary adjustments.”
Lacey handed the hat to him. “That would be great.”
“Are you sure that's the one you want?” Mac eyed the plain chestnut Resistol hat skeptically.
“This here is one of the finest cowboy hats around,” Lester held it up for Mac to see. “It has a money-back guarantee and will resist all types of weather. It keeps the head warm in the colder months, and it breathes like cotton in the warmer months. It also resists rain and snow. I think she made a fine choice.”
Lacey just gave Mac an I-told-you-so smirk.
“All right,” Mac grabbed the black one she'd donned earlier. “Then I'm taking this one.”
“Another fine choice,” Lester said of the Stetson Skyline Felt. “You can't go wrong with the essence of the spirit of the west and a true American icon.”
“You're starting to sound like a damned radio ad, Lester,” Mac groused, as she handed over the hat to him.
“The mark of a good salesman, Mackenzie,” he took both hats toward the steamer. “Now, let me just get these fitted properly and we can send you two lovely ladies on your way.”
Lacey and Mac patiently allowed the man to fit their respective hats to their heads, until Lester was satisfied with the results. When he was finished, they kept their hats on.
“There, now, that wasn't terribly painful, was it?” Lester asked when he was finished.
“Nope,” Mac glanced at Lacey and tipped her hat to the woman. “Mighty fine head gear you have there, ma'am.”
“Ditto,” Lacey replied. “Can we just get the boots and be done with it?”
“She would like a pair of your finest cowboy boots to complete the ensemble, Lester,” Mac said. “Do you have anything in, say, a size one?”
Lacey rolled her eyes and pushed past the two grinning people. She made her way toward the doorway with the word BOOTS charred into the wood paneling above it.
“Heh, heh,” Lester chuckled. “If I didn't know any better, I'd think you two were married.”
“Why do you say that?” Mac responded.
“'Cause she acts just like my Martha when she's had just about enough of my shenanigans for one day,” he gave her a knowing smile. Just then, a bell sounded in the front of the store. “Strong-willed women like your Lacey and my Martha are treasures in this world, that's for sure, Mackenzie.” He then gave her a wink. “I'm needed up front. So, I'll just leave you ladies to your shopping. Give a holler if you need anything.” And with that he was gone.
Mac stood there for another moment and just shook her head. She knew that most people who knew her were aware of her sexual orientation. She just never thought there was anyone who accepted her for who she was enough to openly comment on her choice of a partner. Lester obviously was one who didn't care that she preferred women over men. And he wasn't one to mince words.
“Are you coming, Chief?” Lacey poked her head back into the hat room. “I don't think I can find a pair of boots in here on my own. This place is like heaven for cow people and ranchers.”
Mac continued to shake her head, as she made her way over to the doorway of the boot room.
“You okay?” Lacey commented, as she caught the perplexed expression on Mac's features. “You appear a little bewildered, there, Chief.”
“Just not used to people around here accepting me for who I am is all,” Mac said, as they entered the room. “I guess I never gave it much thought before. I was so anxious to get out of this crazy touristy cow town that I didn't think twice about the people here who never judged me for being a lesbian.”
“You're not,” Lacey said matter-of-factly.
“Nope,” Lacey shook her head and looped her arm through Mac's. “To me you're just Mackenzie Papadopoulos, ace pilot, knight in shining armor and hero to all of us poor depraved damsels in distress.”
Mac shot her a raised browed look. “Are those meds kicking in again on you, Doc?”
Lacey snickered. “Why?”
“Cause that's the biggest load of shit I've heard spill out of your mouth in a very long time,” Mac added in all seriousness. “Hero? I don't think so.”
“You are to me, Mac,” Lacey leaned her head against Mac's arm, as they slowly wove their way up and down the various aisles. “Any idea what kind of boots I should get? There's so many to choose from that I can't decide.”
“Well,” Mac glanced over the racks at the other aisles. “I guess it all depends.”
“What you want them for.”
“I was thinking of wearing them,” Lacey deadpanned. “On my feet.To protect them?”
“Oh, hardy harhar. You're so funny,” came the sarcastic reply. “I mean, what occasion would you like to wear them for? Do you want them for dress? To wear for every day cow poking? Are you looking for a stylish boot that says, ‘Hey, I'm totally down with the times'? What's your poison?”
“Don't they just have a pair of plain old brown boots?” Lacey glanced down at Mac's worn footwear and pointed. “Like those?”
Mac looked down at her feet and frowned.
“Plain? Old?” She then gave Lacey a mock glare. “Do not insult my Laredos, woman. I've had this pair of boots for years, and they've weathered every type of punishment I could dole out to them.”
“Didn't mean to insult the footwear, Chief,” Lacey held up her hands in surrender. “Just pointing out that they seem very practical and serviceable. I'm all for practical and serviceable footwear. I think I'd like a pair just like them.”
“Hm,” Mac shrugged. “I guess I can…” She ran her eyes over the tops of the racks. “Yeah, I think the boots two aisles over will do the trick.”
“Being tall certainly has its advantages,” Lacey glanced up at the ceiling. “All I can see from here is the ceiling and all the boots in this aisle.”
“It ain't the size of the horse that matters, Doc,” Mac opined. “It's the size of the heart in the horse that makes all the difference in the world.”
Lacey gave Mac a tolerant eye roll.
“At least you're not equating me with a mule,” she said with an exasperated groan.
“I would never put you in the jackass category, Doc,” Mac added with a warm smile. “That honor is reserved for people like your father and those who do asinine and selfish things to hurt others.”
Lacey snorted. “Yeah, ain't that the truth.”
“Let's get you a good, serviceable pair of shit kickers, then,” Mac wrapped an arm around Lacey's shoulders and guided her toward the women's section of the room.
“I'm not going to jail for him, Mother,” Lily whispered conspiratorially to the woman seated next to her on a matching hard-plastic chair in the hospital waiting room. “He's not worth it. Especially not after what he tried to do and actually did to my sister.”
“I know,” Meredith sighed heavily. “I know, Lillian. But there's no reason to even think about that right now.”
“He better not die. That's all I have to say,” Lily continued in the same hushed whisper. “Lacey would kill me if he died as a result of my defending her.”
“You did hit him rather solidly, Lillian,” Meredith shot her younger daughter a knowing look. “But I don't think your sister will hold any grudges against you for defending her. He was pointing a gun at her when you hit him, remember.”
“It wasn't like I meant to kill him, though,” Lily glanced at the other occupants of the hospital waiting room to see if anyone was eavesdropping on the conversation. She then leaned toward her mother and continued in a hushed whisper, “Did you take care of that other matter we discussed?”
“Yes,” Meredith didn't bother to whisper. “She knows.”
“There just wasn't time to tell her everything,” Meredith shot her daughter an irritated glare. “Those people showed up only a few minutes after your sister and her…um…”
“Mackenzie,” Lily supplied with a wry grin.
“Yes, Mackenzie,” Meredith huffed. “Anyway, while you were busying yourself with other matters, Commander Willows and I managed to convince the authorities that they were mistaken in their assumption that Lacey was there at the house.”
“The commander was quite convincing,” Meredith added with a wry half-grin. “He is very charming and terribly persuasive when he believes strongly enough in something.”
Lily caught the gleam in her mother's eyes. “He's half your age, Mother,” she said with an exasperated groan.
“So,” Lily continued, “don't you think you're a little old to be falling for a man who is young enough to be your son?”
“Not at all, Lillian dear,” Meredith grinned slyly. “Besides, I always did have a soft spot for a man in uniform.”
“Father never…” Sudden dawning hit Lily. “Ohhhhhh, I see.”
“Justin wore those dress blues like he was born to wear them,” Meredith continued and then she let out another heavy sigh. “I just wish he hadn't gone to Vietnam so soon after his graduation from West Point and our engagement.” Her expression turned solemn. “Two weeks after he shipped out I realized I was pregnant with your sister. A month later, we received word that the chopper he was in had been shot down over the jungle. There were no survivors and Justin's body was never recovered. They think he might have fallen to his death before the helicopter crashed.”
Lily placed a comforting hand on her mother's leg. “I'm sorry, Mother. I didn't know.”
“No one knew, Lillian dear,” Tears glistened in Meredith's brown eyes, as she met Lily's gaze with a watery smile. “Your father was there for me when I received the news. Justin was his younger brother.” She patted Lily's hand on her thigh. “He never forgave himself for not stopping Justin from attending West Point. He couldn't understand why his baby brother chose a life in the military over the life of privilege their parents provided. James was determined to become a doctor and was already in his second year of residency when Justin was sent to Vietnam. The news that Justin went missing in action nearly killed us both.” A tear slid down her cheek. She grabbed a tissue and impatiently wiped it away, then dabbed at both eyes—careful to not smear her mascara. “I couldn't believe he was gone. I held out hope for months that they would either find his body or that he would turn up alive in some horrible POW compound somewhere.”
Meredith sniffed. “The Army declared him dead after they found a torn and bloody scrap of his uniform near a river that was infested with crocodiles.”
“How did they know it was his?”
“The scrap had part of his name patch sewn onto it,” Meredith answered with a wry half-grin. “They found it only a mile from the crash site, in the nest of a mother crocodile.”
“That's awful,” Lily responded grimly. “So, is that when Father asked you to marry him?”
“No,” Meredith shook her head. “We held a funeral for Justin a month later. I just couldn't believe he was dead. I still held out hope that the Army would locate him and that he was alive and well. I was also nearly four months pregnant and my hormones were raging. I cried almost every day. James came to the house to comfort me when he wasn't working at the hospital. We talked about Justin and about the baby.” She smiled wanly. “I told him I thought the baby was a boy and he agreed. He said Justin would want his child named after him. So, we decided to name the baby Justin Lucius Stephens. The Lucius was as close as we could come to Justin's favorite grandmother, your Great-Grandmother Lacey.”
“But little Justin wasn't a boy,” Lily added with a sad smile.
“No,” Meredith dabbed her eyes again. “No, she wasn't a boy, after all.” She smiled wanly again. “Your sister was born four months later. I was so distraught over Justin's disappearance and so depressed about everything, including the Army's callous handling of the situation, that I didn't eat well or take care of myself. I lost weight, instead of gaining it like I should. The doctors grew concerned and suggested to my parents that I be institutionalized until after the baby was born—for both our sakes. Your father argued vehemently against the recommendation. He stood up for me when no one else would. He was there when Justin wasn't. And he was there the day your sister was born.” Another tear slid down Meredith's cheek. “I was weak from losing so much weight and I didn't even realize I was in labor at first. I just thought I was having cramps. Then my water broke. James rushed me to the hospital and we arrived just in time. They told me I was in full labor and there wasn't time to stop it, even though the baby would be born prematurely.
“James held my hand, even when the doctor and nurses told him he had to leave the delivery room,” Meredith continued. “He told them he was a doctor and looked right at the obstetrician and said he wasn't going anywhere.” A genuine smile lit her eyes. “I was in so much pain, by then, that I didn't really care what was going on around me. All I knew was there was a hand holding mine and it didn't let go. It was my lifeline. They gave me drugs for the pain. I don't even remember giving birth to your sister.” She dabbed her eyes again and cleared her throat. “I wasn't allowed to see her after she was born, because she was so tiny and I was so weak. The nurses rushed her off to the intensive care nursery—the ICN—right away. James assured me he would make sure she was well taken care of. And then he asked me to marry him.”
“Father asked you to marry him right after Lacey was born?” Lily couldn't believe her ears.
“I told him no…again,” Meredith continued with a sad shake of her head. “I was weak and exhausted from labor. The drugs made me sick to my stomach. I just didn't want to go on living without Justin there. But James stayed with me the entire time and had the nurses give us regular updates on how your sister was doing. He actually bullied me into eating, so I would regain my strength and told me the little one in the ICU nursery had more spirit and gumption than I did.”
“Sounds like something Father would say.”
“After a week, I was finally strong enough to be wheeled to the ICN to see your sister,” Meredith went on. “She was so tiny that it broke my heart to see what my actions had done to her.”
“It was the grief, Mother,” Lily reassured the woman with a gentle squeeze. “Lacey's premature birth wasn't your fault.”
“It was my fault,” Meredith affirmed. “I shouldn't have let myself get so thin. Just like I shouldn't have turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to your sister when she tried to tell me what your father was doing to her. I let her down on both counts, Lillian. I let you both down by not standing up to him.”
“Father is a bully, Mother. You just said so yourself,” Lily said.
“I never loved James like I loved Justin,” Meredith admitted with a shrug of her shoulders. “I think he always knew it, too. I never should have married him. I know that now.” Then she met Lily's gaze. “But I'm glad I did, if for no other reason than to have you here to comfort me, Lil—Lily.”
A broad smile broke out on Lily's features at her mother's uncustomary use of her nickname. “Me, too.”
“I love you both so very much—you and your sister,” Meredith continued, as she took Lily's hand in hers and squeezed it. “I'm so sorry for everything that I put you through.”
Lily pulled her mother into her arms and hugged her for the first time since she was a child. It was a heartfelt moment for both women and brought tears to their eyes.
“I just wish Lacey was here, right now,” Lily said, as she pulled back from the hug and wiped her cheeks.
“I do, too,” Meredith replied. She then looked around the waiting room and remembered why they were there. “On second thought…”
“Yeah,” Lily agreed. “Not a good place to have a Leave It To Beaver family moment. I agree.”
Meredith chuckled. “Oh, Lily. You are a treasure. You know that? What would I do without you?”
“Ha!” Lily wrapped a protective arm around her mother's shoulders. “Have you met my little sister? She's got the mouth of a sailor and the witty repartee to go with it.”
“Yes, about that,” Meredith frowned. “Wherever did she pick up that atrocious vocabulary of hers? I have half a mind to write a letter to the President and let him know just what I think of the language that is being used by the members of our Armed Forces.”
Lily rolled her eyes. “Oh, Mother…”
“What?” Meredith sat up and met Lily's smiling gaze. “Tell me you aren't appalled by your sister's…”
“Inventive ways to verbally send Father into fits of rage?” Lily cut in. “Oh, I heard her cuss up a storm long before she decided to join the Army. She used to fly out of the house with more than a few choice cuss words on her lips after a session with Father. And she would head straight to her favorite hang-out and pick up more than a few additional expletives to add to her expanding vocabulary.”
“Where did she go?”
“Papa J's,” Lily replied. “You know that place on the other side of the tracks, where the hookers, pimps and drug dealers all hang out? It's a bar that mainly caters to ex-marines, ex-sailors, ex-grunts, former cowboys and a few other unsavory characters that Lacey wasn't afraid to talk to.”
Meredith frowned. “Your sister went to a drinking establishment and associated with reprobates?”
“She said it was cathartic,” Lily explained. “She went there and sat for hours just listening to people talk about how unfair life was and how much they'd been wronged by those they thought they could trust. She said she even got up the nerve to participate in a few conversations and earned the trust of some of the people there. One man—Crazy Jack, I think she said his name was—was a drill sergeant in the Army for years before they sent him back out into the field. He shipped out to Vietnam and lost an arm after he was shot during a bloody fire fight with the Viet-Cong. The Army doctor didn't even bother to try and save the arm. He just amputated it in the field. Lacey said it was an injustice that the Army gave the man a medical discharge and left him with very few resources. I think he was one of the reasons she joined the Army, in fact. She wanted to provide better care in the field, so soldiers wouldn't lose limbs or their lives to such injuries.”
“She is so much like Justin that it frightens mesometimes,” Meredith smiled sadly. “He was a medic and just wanted to help others. He didn't want to bother with medical school and all the time it would take to become a doctor. He also enjoyed wearing his uniform, especially the dress blues. And he was so handsome with his sandy-blond hair and those expressive sea-green eyes of his. I fell in love with him the instant I laid eyes on him. He was home for a visit and we met at the country club. We were so young and in love that we didn't listen to anyone, not even our parents. Mother said he was just a common soldier and not worth my attention. She wanted me to set my sights on someone like your father.” She chuckled bitterly. “Justin was truly a better man than James ever will be.”
“To put it bluntly, Mother, Father is an ass,” Lily stated flatly. “Lacey is right about that. She was always right about him. I just wish someone had listened to her.”
“I do, too,” Meredith agreed. “And I promise that I will do whatever it takes to put all of this right, once and for all. Your sister deserves that much.”
“Oh, I think Lacey is pretty happy with what she has now,” Lily couldn't help but smile. “She has Mackenzie to share her life with.”
Meredith rolled her eyes and sighed. “Oh, Lillian, please don't bring that up again.”
“Why not?” Lily prodded. “Doesn't Lacey deserve to be happy in a loving relationship with someone of her own choosing? You make it sound like her happiness is a bad thing.”
“Your sister's…er…tendencies, for lack of a better word…”
“She's a lesbian, Mother,” Lily interrupted. “Just call it what it is. It doesn't make her any less of a person than she has always been. Being a lesbian doesn't define her. It's just a part of who she is. Just like being a doctor is part of who she is.”
Meredith sat up and crossed her arms over her chest. “It isn't right.”
“Why?” Lily continued. “Because it doesn't fit with your right-wing, conservative, Bible-thumping view of the world?”
“Is a compilation of outdated texts written by a bunch of celibate, judgmental priests two centuries ago in order to control the illiterate masses and bring the pagans to heel,” Lily interrupted again. “The next thing you'll tell me is that slavery should never have been abolished, because it says in the Bible that slaves should obey their masters and wives should submit to their husbands. Please, Mother. I don't buy into that conservative religious bullshit, and it's high time you didn't either. God loves us all. He created us all to be who we are. We're human beings created in His image. But we make mistakes. We ask forgiveness. And when all is said and done, only He has the authority to judge our actions. And I can't abide a ‘loving God' who created my sister to be who she is and who would then judge her for finding love and happiness with another human being.”
Meredith's brow furrowed in thought as she considered all that her daughter was saying.
“But that kind of love goes against everything that I was taught to believe,” Meredith finally said. “It isn't natural for two women to love each other in that way. God created women to bear and care for children. And He created men to provide for and be the head of the family. Women and men were meant to be together.”
“Is that really what you think of women?” Lily continued. “That we are just here to reproduce offspring and do the bidding of men? What about loving and nurturing and caring for others? Can't we do that without giving birth? What about those women who are barren and can't have children of their own? Are they any less for being unable to reproduce? Are they ‘unnatural' because they can't produce a child from their own bodies, so they choose to adopt one, instead? And what about those women who choose not to have children? Where do they fit into your grand holier-than-thou scheme of things, Mother? Is a woman not a woman if she chooses not to bear the burden of carrying and birthing babies? Is she less than human for it?”
“I—” Meredith was unable to finish what she was about to say, as she thought hard about what Lily was saying. “I guess I never gave consideration to any of those arguments before.”
“Is Lacey any less of a person—of a human being—because she is in love with another woman?” Lily said in a softer tone. “Is Mackenzie someone that my sister shouldn't be with? From what we both witnessed here recently, Mackenzie is a brave, honorable, loving soul who would never lay a hand on my sister and will always treat her with the utmost respect and devotion. I don't know about you, but I, for one, think the woman deserves a medal for putting up with everything that Lacey brings to the table. I lived with my sister for years and had to care for her when she returned from Iraq. She isn't an easy person to spend time with, day in and day out. She can be a royal pain in the ass, as a matter of fact.”
Meredith let that sink in, too. “It certainly bears thoughtful consideration, Lillian. I will endeavor to carefully ponder what you've said.”
“Don't worry, Mother,” Lily added with a quick pat to the woman's shoulder. “Lacey won't hold it against you if you can never accept her for who she is. As a matter of fact, I wouldn't be surprised if she never returns here. I think she's found her place in the world and the person she will spend the rest of her life with. Just don't think that I share the same outdated views as you. I might even just take a little side trip to Wyoming on my way back to Washington. Bill wants me there now that the next congressional term has started. He says he needs me there on his arm for all the parties and balls that are taking place. You know how people in Washington talk.”
“And when are you leaving?” Meredith was glad for the change in subject.
“I'm supposed to join Bill week after next,” Lily replied. “I'll leave sooner, though, if we can get this legal situation with Lacey resolved. I'd like to head up there with some good news, if at all possible. Lacey certainly deserves some good news after all that's happened.”
Just then a man in surgical scrubs entered the waiting room and looked around. He spotted the two women he was looking for and headed for them.
“Mrs. Stephens?” The handsome doctor inquired.
“Yes,” Meredith stood up and linked an arm with Lily's. “I'm Meredith Stephens, Doctor—?”
“Mitchell,” He extended a hand and gently shook hers. “I was the on-call doctor when he was brought into the ER.”
“And how is James?” Meredith kept her expression neutral.
“He suffered a severe concussion and hairline fracture of his skull as a result of that fall he took,” the man glanced from one woman to the other. “I'm a little concerned about that, by the way. Are you sure your husband fell, ma'am?”
“Positive,” Meredith answered confidently. “He slipped on the newly-waxed tile in the upstairs hallway and landed on the back of his head. The fall knocked him unconscious and that's how we found him. It was a most unfortunate accident, Dr. Mitchell. But James is notorious for being careless. He probably didn't remember that we were having the floors waxed yesterday morning.”
“Well, okay,” suspicion still in his hazel eyes, Mitchell hesitantlynodded. “I suppose that could explain the fracture he sustained. Falls are one of the leading causes of injury in the home, after all.”
“Will he be able to leave the hospital today, Dr. Mitchell?” Lily inquired.
“No,” Mitchell shook his head. “We'd actually like to keep him here until he regains consciousness and for a couple days afterward. I'm quite concerned that he hasn't already done so.”
“Do you know if he suffered any long-term ill effects from the fall?” Meredith put in. “Will he recover fully from this, doctor?”
“There's no way of telling, just yet, Mrs. Stephens,” Mitchell answered. “Head injuries are very unpredictable. There are just too many variables involved when someone suffers a blow like the one your husband suffered.”
“A blow?” Lily asked in confusion. “He wasn't hit. He fell.”
“Yes,” Mitchell nodded. “Any type of head injury can yield unpredictable results.”
“Can I see him?” Meredith glanced at her daughter with her characteristic stoic calm and then returned her attention to the doctor. “I won't stay long, I assure you. I just want to see for myself that he is receiving the best care possible.”
“I'll take you to him, Mrs. Stephens,” Mitchell took her arm and led her away.
Lily breathed a sigh of relief and collapsed into the chair behind her. She knew she'd almost given away more than she should have. She could see it in the suspicious glare the doctor gave her. But then her mother had intervened. She just hoped her mother would successfully distract Dr. Mitchell with her charms. If there was one thing Meredith Stephens had going for her it was charm.
“Breathtaking,” Lacey sighed and watched her breath float away on the slight breeze.
“You like it?” Mac came up behind Lacey and wrapped her arms around the woman.
“Are you serious?” Lacey grinned from ear to ear. “I think it's the most spectacular view I've ever seen.”
“It is pretty nice,” Mac let her chin rest on top of Lacey's covered head. “Scratchy, though.”
“Huh?” Lacey turned her head until she was looking up at the tall woman.
Mac rubbed her chin. “Your hat, Doc. It's made of scratchy wool.”
“Heh,” Lacey scoffed, as she returned her attention to the picturesque view in front of them that included a spectacular sunset. “That's what you get for always using me as a prop, Chief.”
“I like holding you like this,” Mac replied. “I think we fit rather well together. Don't you?”
“I don't know,” Lacey placed her arms on top of Mac's and leaned back into the woman. “Maybe we should go back inside and climb into that queen-sized bed of yours, stretch out beneath the down comforter and cotton sheets, and find out just how well we fit together.”
“And miss out on the milk and Double-stuff Oreos I have waiting for us on the kitchen counter?” Mac grinned.
“Milk and Oreos?” Lacey pulled her gaze from the huge orange sun dipping behind the mountain peaks. “You have Oreos? When did you find time to shop for Oreos?”
“Carrie sent them over after I called to tell her we were heading here, instead of the ranch house,” Mac replied. “She, Ben and the boys were a little disappointed that we weren't showing up tonight. But Carrie said she understood.”
“That we needed some space,” Mac added. “I kind of gave her a quick rundown of everything that happened over the last few days. She was actually impressed that we weren't both completely passed out in one of the bars in town, by the way. She says she can't wait to see us tomorrow at breakfast.”
“Breakfast sounds great,” Lacey squeezed the arms holding her. “But how about we go inside and down those cookies and milk, then get naked in your bed, first.”
“Naked?” Mac's eyes widened.
Lacey glanced at Mac out of the corner of her eye and caught the wide-eyed expression. “Tell me you're not going to get all shy on me all of a sudden, Chief. I am a doctor, after all. I've seen it all.”
“Shy is the furthest thing from my mind, Doc,” Mac replied. “I just don't think you're fully aware of how rustic my cabin still is at the moment.”
“Rustic?” Lacey turned around fully in Mac's arms. “Exactly what does that mean?”
“No heat, except for what's in the fireplace,” Mac continued. “As in, when the fire dies down to nothing but a few smoldering embers during the middle of the night, it's gonna get colder than a witch's tit in there.”
“So we're staying here at your place tonight…why?” Lacey asked.
“Privacy?” Mac replied. “And the chance to get away, just the two of us, for a little while.”
Lacey hugged Mac close. “So that's why you had me purchase the flannel pajamas for both of us. I wondered about that. Especially when you made such a big stink about the flannel shirt I wanted to buy at that one shop.”
“You bought it,” Mac added. “Against my better judgment, might I add.”
“And I'm wearing it,” Lacey grinned up at Mac. “Right this very moment.”
Mac rolled her eyes. “Oh, brother.”
“I certainly hope he doesn't show up unannounced,” Lacey snickered. “'Cause I plan to spend some quality naked time with you, before the fire dies down and we have to don those flannel jammies you made me buy.”
“Oreos, then sex?” Mac wiggled her brows.
“Oh, definitely,” Lacey stretched up onto her tiptoes and planted a kiss on Mac's lips. “I think we'll both need the Oreos and milk if we're gonna go the distance tonight, Chief.”
“Then what are we waiting for?” Mac stepped back and pulled the sliding door open for Lacey. “After you, Colonel.”
“Thank you, Chief,” Lacey quickly ducked back inside with an eager Mac right on her heels.
Continued in Part 8
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