Hindsight by Lois Kay

Hindsight
by Lois Kay

Chapter One

 

“What? Now he wants a UA, CBC, BMP, H and H and a chest X-ray done STAT?” the secretary’s voice rose in annoyance. “I just finished all the other two pages of orders he wanted done as soon as possible! Does he think we only have one patient here?”

“Calm down, Gary,” Hannah Jensen sighed, patting the upset man on his shoulder. “If you take care of the orders for that new admission, I’ll take care of these.”

A pair of exasperated blue eyes glanced up at the nurse and Gary Cramer’s eyes softened.

“No, I’ll do them,” he replied with a small smile. “You haven’t done your charting yet and you look dead on your feet. Besides,” he added with a grin. “Last time you helped me out, I had to explain to Radiology why we asked them to draw some blood cultures.”

Hannah Jensen chuckled and gave Gary a playful slap on his shoulder.

“That was an honest mistake,” she defended herself.

“Yeah, right,” Gary snorted, grabbing the hand that was threatening to ruffle his thinning hair. “Radiology…laboratory…yes, that definitely sounds alike,” he teased.

“I was tired,” Hannah sighed, pulling a face when she remembered that extremely busy day, not that long ago.

“I know, sweetie,” Gary nodded, pulling the papers she held out of her hand. “That’s why I’ll do these, all right?”

“Okay,” Hannah breathed, casting a look at the clock. Twenty minutes before shift change and she still had so much to do. “Thanks, Gary.”

“You’ re welcome,” the secretary smiled, already pulling up the order screen on the computer. What would it matter if he couldn’t leave on time? He knew Jake would understand. Besides, Hannah never got to leave on time and he knew her life was a lot more busy and complicated than his.

Casting a look over her shoulder, he noticed Hannah was engrossed in her charting and with a small sigh he returned his attention to the screen. It had been months since the nurse had gone to a club with him and Jake and Gary knew for a certainty she had not been out since. He worried about his friend and decided to talk to Jake about the situation. Between the two of them, they could come up with a plan to drag their friend into some much needed relaxation. Maybe they could even talk her into a long weekend at the cabin. Do some hiking, fishing and swimming…just for old times sake.

With a smile, Gary nodded. He would talk to Jake about it.

With a groan, Hannah Jensen closed the door behind her, making sure to slide the safety locks into place. It was well past midnight and the house was quiet and dark, except for the night-light her grandmother always left on for her.

When she tossed her keys on the table and switched on the light, Hannah smiled when her eyes fell on a little note that was placed on top of her favorite mug.

Sweetheart,

Make sure to eat and drink something, before you go to bed. I know, I know, I sound like your grandmother….hey! I AM your grandmother!

Hannah chuckled and picked up the mug, heading for the kitchen, while her eyes scanned the rest of the note.

Try to sleep in tomorrow morning, I know you’ re tired. Don’t worry about me. Mildred is taking me out for breakfast. She says she’s buying, so I’ll have to think of some place expensive.

Sweet dreams, honey.

I love you.

Hannah smiled and carefully folded the note, before putting it into her pocket. She grinned when she imagined the look on her aunt Mildred’s face when her grandmother would chose an expensive place to eat. The woman had survived three husbands, who had left her extremely comfortable, but still, if she could save a penny or two, she would. And her grandmother loved to annoy her daughter about that.

Hannah yawned while she used the microwave to quickly warm up some soup, staring at the rotating mug, with dull, tired eyes, until the high pitched beep brought her back to reality.

“Bedtime,” she groaned, switching off the light in the kitchen and heading towards her room. It was more than just a bedroom. When she had moved in with her grandmother, Gertrude Jensen had insisted Hannah take the master bedroom which was huge. It had a full-sized bathroom and an adjacent smaller bedroom. To Hannah, it felt like having her own apartment, where she could relax and find the solitude she sometimes craved so much, especially after a hectic, difficult day at work.

Kicking off her tennis shoes, Hannah let herself sink down in a soft, leather recliner that once belonged to her father and leaned back, sipping the spicy, hot soup with half-lidded eyes that lazily traveled through the room, until they came to rest on a framed photo that showed a smiling couple, a man and woman, who had their heads close together while they looked straight into the camera. The tired blue eyes became a shade darker when the image evoked a sudden surge of emotion that was so intense, Hannah sucked in a breath.

“I still miss you so much, Mom, Dad,” she whispered. “I know it has almost been two years now, but that’s just time. It doesn’t feel that long,” she took a deep, shaky breath and raked her fingers through her thick, blond hair. “It feels like yesterday,” she whispered. “It still hurts.”

Unconsciously, Hannah’s fingers rubbed the armrest of the chair, something she had witnessed her father doing countless times. When she realized what she was doing, she smiled and drained her mug, setting it on a small side-table next to the chair.

“I really have to shower,” she mumbled, relaxed by the warmth the soup spread into her belly and the comfortable seat she was resting in.

“Just for a little while,” she sighed, closing her eyes.

Within minutes the deep, regular breathing was the only sound in the room. The queen-sized bed remained unoccupied.

Hannah cast an impatient look at her watch and drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. She was late, which she detested. She hated having to rush to work, fighting the traffic that was always busy in the downtown area. Of course, she was stuck behind a city bus that stopped on every corner and, with a sigh, Hannah glanced in her rearview mirror to see if she could quickly change lanes and overtake the annoying bus.

“Finally,” she mumbled when she saw her chanceto steer her car into the other lane. Within seconds, she was alongside the bus and for the first time since many minutes she had a clear, uninterrupted view of the road in front of her. When she approached a traffic light she slowed down when she saw the red light and took a moment to enjoy the clear blue sky. A few days ago, the November rains had started in earnest and although the roads were still wet, the clouds had lifted, giving the sun a chance to dry the saturated, soaked earth.

“I’ve got to start on my Christmas list soon,” Hannah mumbled to herself. “And maybe do some shopping.”

Christmas had been difficult for years now and Hannah wondered if that would ever change. Still, encouraged by her grandmother, who had always loved the holiday season, Hannah felt compelled, at least, tomake an effort to enjoy herself.

“I guess I need to call Jake and see if he knows what Gary would like,” Hannah mused, switching her foot from the braketo the pedal when the light changed to green. The bus next to her was not as fast as her Ford Bronco and just when Hannah passed the large vehicle, the sound of screeching tires filled her ears and while her head whipped to the right to get a visual confirmation of what her ears were picking up, something collided with the side of her truck, pushing the car into oncoming traffic, where it was hit again, causing the Ford to be sandwiched between a truck and a mini-van.

A sharp pain shot through Hannah’s head while fear- and pain-filled blue eyes stared at the thick drops of blood, splattering on her hands that were still holding the steering wheel in a vice-like grip. They slowly relaxed when Hannah let out a soft moan, while her head fell forward and darkness claimed her.

“I want those results within the next five minutes, Ken. Can you do that for me, please?”

“You bet, Rachel. I’ll have a look at that scan right now.”

“Thanks, Ken.”

Doctor Rachel Kendrick put down the phone and turned around to cast a look at the still figure on the bed. IV fluids were dripping down the tube that was attached to the cannula in Hannah’s left arm. A stark white dressing covered the right part of her forehead, while the angry red welt on her shoulder and chest were testimony to her use of the seatbelt.

“Thank heavens she was wearing one,” Doctor Kendrick sighed, having seen too many victims of car wrecks who had not been wearing the safety device. Some of the images she had seen would haunt her for the rest of her life.

She sent a small smile to the nurse who was trying carefully to clean the blood out of Hannah’s thick blond hair. They both knew they were giving Hannah Jensen the royal treatment, but they didn’t care. The unconscious nurse was one of them.

“Thanks, Betty. I’m sure she’ll appreciate that.”

“Hannah would do the same thing for me,” Betty Palmer answered, without taking her eyes off the woman on the gurney. It remained silent for a few moments, until Betty glanced up at the woman who was standing next to her.

“We worked here in the ER together for a while,” she explained. “Until Hannah couldn’t take it anymore.” Betty sighed and brushed away a strand of blond hair from Hannah’s forehead. “Too much violence, too many sad stories…too many cases of child abuse,” she added softly.

A loud voice from the hallway suddenly broke the silence and Betty chuckled when she noticed the startled look in the Doctor’s warm brown eyes.

“That sounds like Gary,” she said. “Keep an eye on Hannah, Doc. I’ll go talk to him.”

Before Rachel Kendrick could respond, Betty Palmer had already left the room, leaving her alone with the unconscious woman.

Rachel stepped closer and reached out a hand to check Hannah’s pulse. It was strong and rhythmical and, with a pleased smile, the Doctor slowly withdrew her fingers from the nurse’s wrist.

“You were lucky, Hannah,” she spoke softly, wondering if the woman could hear her. “No fractures, no internal damage. Just some cuts, scrapes and bruises. But I’d feel better if you’d wake up, though,” she added with a small frown.

She almost jumped when her pager started beeping. She quickly checked the display and sucked in a breath when she recognized the number.

“Ken! That’s fast.”

Stepping towards a phone that was mounted to the wall, Rachel turned her back on the unconscious nurse, while her fingers punched in four digits.

Hannah sighed deeply. It was so hard to concentrate. There was a dull, throbbing pain in her head and her body felt heavy, like it was pinned down to her mattress. She tried to open her eyes, but the lids seemed too heavy and with a soft moan she lifted a hand to rub them.

Immediately, the hand was grabbed in a gentle, warm grip.

“No, Hannah, careful for the dressing.”

Even while she was drifting in between awakening and unconsciousness, the voice stirred something deep inside and Hannah frowned, trying to recognize the gentle timbre and the familiarity of the fingers that stroked the back of her hand. It was a fleeting memory, but the accompanying surge of emotions was a lot stronger.

“Rachel?” she whispered, while a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. “Honey, is it time to get up yet?”

Doctor Kendrick swallowed hard and quickly withdrew her hand, feeling a painful pressure in her chest when Hannah softly whimpered. Her eyes flew to the computer on the desk, where she could see the images of Hannah’s CAT scan. No bleeding, no swelling, she reassured herself for the umpteenth time.

“It’s just a concussion,” she spoke aloud, needing to hear the words echoing off the wall in the silent room. “It’s just a concussion,” she added in a whisper.

She turned around when the door opened and Betty Palmer stepped inside. Her eyes traveled from Rachel to Hannah and back again.

“She’s waking up,” Rachel smiled, seeing the unspoken question in the nurse’s hazel eyes. “No damage, just a concussion,” she explained, gesturing to the images on the computer screen.

“Keep her here until she’s awake, before sending her to the floor. I’ll write some orders. Is her family here yet?”

“No, just Gary. Jake, he’s a…friend, is on his way to pick up Hannah’s grandmother.”

Rachel’s eyebrows lifted and she cast Betty a questioning, almost insecure look.

Gary Cramer?

“Gary’s an old friend of Hannah’s. They work on the same floor. Maybe you’d like to talk to him for a moment,” Betty suggested. “He’s pretty worried.”

“Um…well…uh, yes, sure,” Rachel stammered, clutching the chart against her chest. “You…um…keep an eye on Hannah and page me when there are any changes. I want to know the positive ones as well.”

“Sure, Doc,” Betty smiled, before focusing her attention back to her friend who was slowly, but surely, showing signs of regaining consciousness.

Rachel cast another look at the blonde on the gurney, before taking a deep breath and walking towards the door.

Time to face the firing squad!

As soon as Gary saw a person in a white lab coat emerge from the room he knew Hannah had been brought into, he jumped off the hard plastic chair and took a step forward.

“Doctor! Hannah, is she…?”

Gary paused in mid-sentence and his blue eyes went wide when he looked at the person who was standing in front of him. Her hair was shorter and over the years she had lost some weight, but the soulful brown eyes were exactly as he remembered, as was the nervous smile she sent his way.

“Hello, Gary,” Rachel spoke, anchoring herself by pressing the metal chart close to her chest. She could feel the painful pounding of her heart and she took a deep breath to try and steady herself.

“Rachel?” Gary breathed, wondering if he was dreaming. “Is it really you?”

Rachel could only nod and fought the urge to turn around and run. She knew there had been a chance for the past to catch up with her, she had just not expected for it to happen so soon.

“It’s me,” she answered, her voice soft and hoarse.

“You came home,” Gary smiled, reaching out and grabbing her arm. “Are you staying?” She nodded. “For good?”

“That’s my plan,” Rachel answered.

Gary’s eyes traveled to the door behind Rachel and his blue eyes took on a worried expression.

“Did Hannah…? What did she…?”

“She’s been unconscious,” Rachel hurried to explain. “There’s no damage, just a cut in her forehead and a concussion,” she quickly added when she saw the fear in Gary’s eyes. “She…she…,” Rachel swallowed hard and mustered up a sad smile. “She doesn’t know it was me…I think.”

“She’ll have to know,” Gary replied in a compassionate voice and, when he saw Rachel slowly nod, he quickly wrapped his arms around her, immediately feeling how tense she was.

“It will be all right,” he spoke softly, gently rubbing her back.

“I’m not sure about that,” Rachel mumbled, feeling comforted by Gary’s unexpected hug. ” She has every reason to hate me. I…,” she snorted and barked out a humorless laugh. “There are at least twelve hospitals in this area and I ended up here…where Hannah works.”

“Some things happen for a reason,” Gary smiled.

“She’ll want to kill me,” Rachel mumbled in a tired voice. “And you know what?” She looked up at Gary to see if there would be any confirmation in his eyes. But there was none. The only thing she saw was genuine kindness and warmth. “I can’t blame her,” she added in a whisper.

“Listen to me, Rachel,” Gary spoke, putting his hands on her shoulders and stepping back a little so he could look her in the eyes. “I won’t pretend I know what happened, because she never talked to me about it.” He saw the surprise in Rachel’s eyes and nodded. “That’s right. Hannah never talked to me about it, so I know that, whatever…catastrophe…came between the two of you, it must have devastated her. I’m not saying this to make you feel bad, sweetie, but I think you need to know. You’re here now and by some strange event, you’re her Doctor and you’ll have to deal with that.”

“That’s easier said than done.” Rachel blew out a breath and rubbed her forehead, something she always did when she was nervous, Gary remembered.

“You’ll be fine. You’ve always been a kind, compassionate person, Rachel, unless you’ve changed into a cold, heartless bitch theselast few years,” Gary winked with a grin.

Rachel smiled and playfully punched his shoulder. “Some people would probably agree with you,” she chuckled. Hannah will be one of them…

Suddenly Rachel’s pager started to beep and with an apologetic smile she looked up at Gary.

“I’m sorry, Gary, I’ll have to go. Will I…,” she swallowed and tried to push away a sudden surge of insecurity.

“We’ll see each other later,” Gary nodded, immediately seeing her eyes light up. “We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”

“Thanks, I’d love that,” Rachel answered gratefully. “I’ll stop by to check up on Hannah later, I promise,” she added in a soft voice.

“I’d appreciate that,” Gary nodded, knowing she could easily have handed Hannah over to one of the residents, or another Doctor. But Rachel Kendrick had never been someone who would take the easy way out and he trusted her to face Hannah and deal with the fall-out of their break-up and her disappearance all those years ago.

Wait till Jake hears about this, he’ll go nuts!

Hannah blinked against the harsh light and closed her eyes with a groan when a flash of hot pain seared through her head. There was a throbbing above her right eye and even the slightest movement made her feel nauseated.

“Crap,” she whispered, when the warm, fuzzy feeling she had experienced just before she woke up completely disappeared.

“Hannah?” a familiar voice sounded and carefully Hannah cracked open her left eye. Her vision was blurry but, after she blinked a few times, the images cleared up.

“Betty. What happened?”

“You don’t remember?” Betty Palmer asked in a calm voice. It was not uncommon for a person with a concussion to experience a lapse in memory.

“Give me a moment,” Hannah croaked, closing her eyes again. Her thoughts traveled back to events of that morning and slowly, but surely, her memories began to take shape. She had slept in, just as her grandmother had suggested, she had taken a long, hot shower and had spent a quiet morning at home. She had left for work and…Hannah gasped and her eyes flew open, something she immediately regretted when the thrumming in her head made her feel sick to her stomach.

“I was hit by a truck,” she moaned. “He must have run the light, but I didn’t see him coming.”

“I’m glad you remember,” Betty smiled. “How do you feel?”

“Like I’ve been hit by a truck,” Hannah mumbled, closing her eyes again. “I guess that gives new meaning to the old expression, doesn’t it?”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Betty chuckled.

“I need to call my grandmother, before she…”

“Jake’s picking her up,” Betty interrupted. “She’ll be here any minute now. Gary’s outside, talking to the doctor. She’s…oh, hey, Gary,” Betty greeted the man when the door opened and he stepped inside. “I was just talking about you.”

“Good things, I hope,” Gary quipped, quickly walking to Hannah and grabbing her hand. “How are you, honey?”

“I’ve had better days,” Hannah croaked, squeezing her friend’s hand. “I’m glad you’ re here,” she confessed. “But who’s holding the fort?”

“Tammy, one of the nurses from the floating pool,” Gary answered. “You scared the heck out of me, girl,” he added with a sigh.

“Sorry,” Hannah mumbled. “I didn’t mean to get sandwiched. Are the other people…?”

“Just a bump on his head,” Betty interrupted. “But I’m sure the police will give him a headache.”

“I guess that’s only fair,” Hannah sighed, making her friends laugh. It was good to see the nurse had not lost her sense of humor.

“So, when do I get out of here?”

Gary and Betty exchanged a knowing look and suppressed a laugh. It was going to be a challenge to convince Hannah it was in her best interest to stay.

“You’ re admitted on a twenty-three hour observation,” Betty casually remarked, immediately seeing her friend stiffen.

“I’m not staying here,” Hannah objected. “I’ve a nice, warm, soft bed at home where I can crawl into and feel sorry for myself.”

“How’s your head?” Gary asked casually. “And I want an honest answer.”

“Hurts,” Hannah grumbled.

“Well, you do have a concussion,” he continued in a calm voice. “What would you tell one of your patients if they had just been brought in with a concussion and wanted to go home?”

If it would not have hurt so badly, Hannah would roll her eyes at her friend, but now she just let out a deep sigh and mumbled something unintelligible.

“What?” Gary asked, biting back a grin.

“No fair,” Hannah mumbled, glaring at him with her good eye.

“I don’t care,” Gary shrugged. “You know I’m right, sweetie. Somebody needs to keep an eye on you to make sure you’re okay. So, humor us.”

“All right, all right,” Hannah muttered. “Can I get a room on my own floor?”

“I’ll make sure of that,” Gary grinned, walking to the phone and quickly dialing a number. Within a minute, he received confirmation of Hannah’s admission to the unit she worked in and, with a smug smile, he looked down at his friend.

“Room 6032,” he announced with a laugh.

“Oh, boy, right across from the nurse’s station,” Hannah knew. “You’ re serious about keeping an eye on me, aren’t you?”

“Absolutely,” Gary nodded

“I guess my fate is settled then,” Hannah replied in a tired voice. “But I’ll tell you one thing, my friend, I’m not wearing one of those stupid gowns.”

“Of course not,” Betty replied, winking at Gary. “We’ll get you a special one, one that actually does button up.”

The ER nurse bent down and kissed Hannah’s forehead.

“I gotta go check up on my other patients, but I’ll be back soon. I’m so glad you’ re all right,” she smiled.

“Thanks, Betty,” Hanna smiled back. “I promise I’ll try to be good.”

“Nurses are the worst patients,” Gary stated, seeing both women chuckle. “You girls know I’m right, it’s true.”

“Call me if you need anything,” Betty laughed, ignoring Gary’s remark. She disappeared from the room and Gary pulled out a chair so he could sit next to his friend.

“What are the Doctor’s orders, Gary? Could you read them to me?”

“I could if they were here,” Gary answered. “But she took them with her.”

“Rats,” Hannah sighed, feeling helpless and utterly vulnerable in her role as patient. Then Gary’s words sank in and she slowly rolled her head to the side so she could look at him.

“She?”

Gary nodded and tried to look casual, suddenly feeling a little nervous about having to explain his friend who her Doctor was.

“New Doctor,” he shrugged.

“What’s her name?” Hannah asked, hoping that if it was a new resident she might be able to talk her into letting her go home.

“Um…” Darn it, Hannah! You just had to ask, didn’t you?I had hoped for a little more preparation time. But he knew his friend well and if he would not answer, she would become suspicious.

“Rachel,” he answered softly, immediately noticing the almost imperceptible flinch.

“I’m sure that’s not her last name, is it?” Hannah asked after a brief silence. When she looked at Gary’s face and noticed his struggle to find the right words, her stomach dropped. Her mouth suddenly felt as dry as parchment and she nervously moistened her lips.

“Is…is it Kendrick?” she asked in a hoarse voice.

When Gary nodded she moaned softly and closed her eyes, suddenly feeling sick to her stomach.

“Of all the hospitals we have around here, she had to end up in this one?”

Funny, that’s what she said as well, Gary mused, but he just nodded and grabbed his friend’s hand.

“If it’s worth anything; she’s as shocked as you are,” he said in a gentle voice. “She looked like she was ready to bolt.” As soon as the words had left his mouth, he winced. Poor choice of words, Gary! Way to go!

“I bet,” Hannah answered in a bitter voice. “She’s good at that.”

“I’m sorry, sweetie, but she’s your admitting Doctor. Of course you can always request anoth…”

“No,” Hannah interrupted. “I’ll have to face her, because I’m sure as heck not leaving just because she’s decided to work here now.”

She brought a hand to her head and carefully rubbed it. The pounding had become worse and Hannah seriously wondered if she would be able to face the next few hours without having to throw up. Suddenly, she remembered the moment just before she woke up and she softly groaned.

Please, God, let her not have heard me calling her ‘honey’.

“Are you all right, Hannah?” Gary’s concerned voice sounded.

“No, I’m not,” Hannah moaned. “My head’s about to explode, I feel like I could throw up any minute now, my car is degraded to a worthless piece of junk and I just remembered I called Rachel ‘honey’, just before I woke up. Can I please go to sleep now and wake up somewhere next year?” she almost sobbed. “I don’t want to play anymore.”

Rachel Kendrick, who had quietly entered the room just before Hannah had answered Gary’s question, took a deep breath and clenched Hannah’s chart in her hands, willing her fingers not to tremble. It was time to face the music, but no matter how many times she had rehearsed the upcoming meeting, words suddenly failed her and she wished the ground would open up to swallow her whole. There had only been one thing harder in her life than the near confrontation with Hannah Jensen: that had been leaving her.

“Is…how does she look?” Rachel heard Hannah ask and before she could announce her presence, Gary answered.

“She looks great, she hasn’t changed much.”

“She always looked great,” Hannah admitted in a soft voice.

Feeling embarrassed to have heard this part of the conversation, Rachel cleared her throat, immediately seeing Gary cast a look over his shoulder, while Hannah groaned.

“Can this day get any better?” she muttered, closing her eyes so she didn’t have to look at the slowly approaching woman.

She could feel Gary’s hand giving her a friendly squeeze, before letting go and, with a feeling of dread, she knew he was about to leave the room.

“I’ll go see if Jake and your grandmother have arrived yet,” he mumbled, bending down to kiss Hannah’s cheek.

“Coward,” Hannah whispered, glaring at him. “It’s not like I’m in the position to kill her, you know.”

Rachel internally winced and fought the urge to fidget with the chart she was still holding. She did not want to look too nervous.

Gary didn’t answer his friend, he just sent her an encouraging smile and gently patted Rachel’s shoulder when he passed the Doctor on his way to the door.

Taking a deep breath, Rachel stepped closer and, with an insecure look, her brown eyes landed on the blonde who had closed her eyes, apparently waiting for her to start the conversation.

Maybe there’s safety in a professional approach.

“May I check your pupils?” Rachel asked softly, putting the chart on the desk and pulling a thin penlight from her pocket.

“I guess,” Hannah answered after a brief silence.

“All right,” Rachel sighed, covering Hannah’s right eye with her hand. “Open your left eye, please.”

Reluctantly, Hannah did as requested, but she made sure not to look up. The memory of soft brown eyes was still too much to bear. So was the careful touch of the fingers that brushed the side of her head.

“Now close the left and open the right eye,” Rachel continued, hoping Hannah would not have heard the small quiver in her voice.

“I really prefer to go home,” Hannah spoke, her voice soft and void of emotion.

“I understand that,” Rachel answered equally soft. “But you do have a concussion and it’s important to keep a close eye on you. Your CT looks good, but I want to make sure it will remain that way. You might need some anti-emetic to fight the nausea.”

“I’m all right,” Hannah answered through gritted teeth. How in the world did Rachel know she was feeling that sick? Had she turned green?

“Hannah…,” Rachel started, reaching out a hand to touch the other woman’s shoulder but quickly taking a step back when she changed her mind. “It’s only for one night. If, tomorrow morning…”

Rachel could not finish her sentence, because Hannah suddenly moaned loudly and, while turning on her side, emptied the contents of her stomach on the floor and Doctor Rachel Kendrick’s shoes.

“Oh, God,” she sobbed, grasping her painfully pounding head. “Ouch.”

Rachel quickly grabbed a towel from a small stack that she spotted on a shelf and gently wiped Hannah’s face, while her eyes took in the vital signs that were displayed on a monitor next to the bed. To her relief, she noticed everything was within normal limits and, after a moment of hesitation, she put her hand on Hannah’s shoulder and gave it a little squeeze.

“Do you think there will be more?” she asked softly.

“Wasn’t it enough?” Hannah sighed, slowly sinking back onto the gurney. She closed her eyes, trying to ignore the hand that was still resting on her shoulder. She didn’t know whether to shake it off or grab it. Willing away the tears that were stinging the back of her eyes, she silently wondered what was worse: the throbbing pain in her head or the unexpected, shocking presence of Rachel Kendrick that had made her heart beat fast and painfully.

Oh, Rachel, why?

“I’ll give you something for nausea,” Rachel’s voice interrupted her musings and for the first time Hannah opened her eyes to look directlyat the other woman.

“Don’t give me any Phenergan, please,” she said in a hoarse voice. “That stuff knocks me out.”

“Don’t worry,” Rachel smiled, remembering Hannah’s sensitivity to medication. “I’ll give you some Zofran, all right?”

Hannah could only nod and she quickly closed her eyes, not able to look at those familiar brown eyes any longer. The memories they awakened were too confusing and painful. All she wanted was to close her eyes and let herself sink into oblivion.

Please, Granny, where are you? I need you now. And where the heck is Gary?

“I’ll be right back,” Hannah heard Rachel say, aware of the undertone of shame and pain in the Doctor’s voice. Soft footsteps moved towards the door and Hannah sighed when she heard Rachel step out of the room. A single tear slipped from underneath her closed eyelids and trickled down her cheek.

Rachel’s eyes flew through the hallway and, when they fell on Betty, she motioned her over.

“Could you give Hannah some Zofran, please, here’s the order,” she mumbled, pushing the chart in the nurse’s hands. “I need to clean myself up a little,” she explained, before turning around and heading for the restroom.

Betty Palmer stared from the chart in her hands to the retreating back of the physician and back to the chart again.

“What was that all about?” she muttered, before heading back to Hannah’s room to check up on her friend.

Rachel had reached the restroom and after she had made sure she had closed the door securely, she leaned both hands on the sink and leaned forward.

“Oh, God,” she whispered, before she gave free rein to the tears that had been burning her eyes ever since she had found Hannah Jensen in the emergency room, bruised and bleeding.

“Hannah, I’m so sorry,” she sobbed. “I’m so sorry…”

“What do you mean? Are you implying I’m old?” Gertrude Jensen asked calmly, casting her granddaughter a look that could only be described as ‘indignant’.

“No, Gran, you’ re not old,” Hannah sighed, wishing the room would stop spinning. “But it would be insanity on your part to stay the night. I am perfectly all right, I promise. Unless,” Hannah opened her eyes and mustered up a small smile when her gaze was caught by a pair of warm blue eyes. “Unless there’s something you’ re not telling me.”

“Like what?” Gertrude almost snorted.

“Am I dying?” Hannah replied with a raised eyebrow. When she noticed the shadow cross her grandmother’s eyes she softly groaned. “I’m sorry, Granny, I shouldn’t have said that. It was a bad joke.”

“That’s a testimony to the state of your brain, sweetie,” Gertrude calmly answered. “Usually, your taste in jokes is better than that. Besides, I’m not the only one who lost a loved one that day. You lost your parents and somehow I still feel I’m failing you in helping you to deal with the pain.”

Hannah let out a deep sigh and sent her grandmother a small smile. The clear, blue eyes that hardly ever lost their sparkle were tired and dull. They have had the same conversation before, numerous times. She knew the elderly lady was not just talking about the loss of her parents. That was something they both had worked through together. It was the other loss, the one she had tried so hard to push into the back of her mind, and heart.

“I know my timing is bad and I promise I’ll shut up about it, but I just wish you would talk to me about it, honey,” Gertrude spoke in a voice that was soft and full of sadness.

“Maybe one day,” Hannah sighed, playing with the curled up edge of the tape on her arm that was keeping her IV in place.

“Stop fidgeting, before you accidentally pull that thing out,” Gertrude scolded.

“Yes, ma’ am,” Hannah answered, pulling a face.

“And don’t play innocent with me,” her grandmother smiled, reaching out and covering Hannah’s hand with her own. “I know you want to get out of here as soon as possible, but will just one night be that bad? Isn’t Kerry working the Graveyard?”

Hannah nodded and entangled her strong fingers with Gertrude’s frail- looking ones. The skin of her grandmother’s hand was thin and wrinkled, with the blue veins clearly standing out. Suddenly, it dawned on her that Gertrude would turn eighty-five in the Spring.

“Don’t let the look fool you, dear,” her grandmother’s amused voice penetrated her thoughts. “My hands may look old, but I’m not dead. I’m not planning on leaving you any time soon. I have too much fun harassing your Aunt Mildred.”

Hannah chuckled, immediately grasping her head, while sending her grandmother an accusing look.

“Don’t make me laugh. That hurts.”

“I’m sorry, sweetie, but at least you’ re laughing. I know today was a disaster, but you’ re here and you’ll be all right. I’m counting my blessings.”

“You’ re right, Granny,” Hannah answered with a warm smile. “Do you want to come car-shopping with me this week?”

“Only if you do as the Doctor tells you to do,” Gertrude teased, not missing the almost imperceptible flinch on Hanna’s face.

“That’s blackmail,” she softly muttered.

“Hey, it works,” Gertrude Jensen grinned.

“All right, here’s the deal,” Hannah decided. “You go home and sleep. I’ll be good. How does that sound?”

“That’s blackmail,” Gertrude mumbled, wondering when she had lost control of the conversation.

“It works,” Hannah smiled, flinging her grandmother’s own words back at her. “Doesn’t it?”

“It does,” Gertrude nodded with an audible sigh. “All right, I’ll go home and sleep in my own bed, but I want you to promise me you’ll call whenever you feel the need to do so.” The elderly woman clearly remembered her granddaughter’s nightmares after she had lost her parents. She didn’t want her to go through those horrible dreams alone.

“I promise,” Hannah replied softly. “By the way, Gary and Jake will be staying with you tonight,” she added casually.

“What?” Gertrude shot up straight in her chair and cast the younger woman in the hospital bed a puzzled glance.

“I don’t want you to be alone in the house,” Hannah explained. “I told Gary I would be worried about you tonight, so he offered to stay with you. Where Gary goes, Jake goes, so…you’ll have two capable helpers tonight.”

Gertrude Jensen knew her granddaughter and the determined look in those tired blue eyes were a clear indication that arguing would not do her any good. Besides, truth to be told, Gertrude did not like being all alone and knowing Hannah’s friends would be there made her feel a lot better.

“Fine with me,” she shrugged. “Anything to keep you here. Besides,” she shot her granddaughter a rakish grin. “Maybe the three of us can get drunk and try on all your clothes.”

“Oh, ha ha,” Hannah answered, but there was a smile in her eyes. “But I’m glad you’re not fighting me on this. Gary said he can leave a little early tonight, so he can take you home. I…”

Hannah was interrupted by a noise in the hallway and she glanced at the door that was slightly ajar. She could not see who was standing in front of the door, but she did recognize the voice. It was the son of a patient she had admitted the previous day and he had a very strong and outspoken opinion about his mother’s care. He wanted nothing but the best…and more, much more.

A soft, feminine voice answered him and inwardly Hannah groaned as she cast a look at her grandmother, whose blue eyes darted between the door and her granddaughter. Hannah closed her eyes, trying very hard not to show her grandmother the turmoil inside.

“No, I will not calm down,” the angry voice rose in volume and both Hannah and Gertrude jumped when an invisible hand slammed into the wall, just outside the door.

“My mother has been here for a full day now and her Doctor still has to come up here to see her and don’t tell me those…those wet-behind-the-ears medical students classify as Doctors, because they don’t!”

“Sir, I understand your frustration and…”

“No, you don’t understand. I want a Doctor to see my mother NOW! So why don’t you march your ass into that room, Doctor? You are a Doctor, aren’t you? Or is that stethoscope for decoration purposes only?”

“Oh, boy,” Hannah muttered, stretching out a hand and grabbing Gertrude’s arm when the elderly woman started to get up from her chair.

“Stay here, Granny, please.”

“But, honey, that…person is…”

“I’m sure Gary has already called security and they’ll be here any minute now,” Hannah answered, having called hospital security on more than one occasion.

“I hope you’ re right,” Gertrude muttered, sinking back down in the chair. “He sounds like an obnoxious, arrogant…pompous…”

“Granny!”

“Hannah!” Gertrude answered with a small grin. “My old ears recognize an asshole when I hear one and he certainly classifies as a real, genuine…”

“Yes, Granny, I get the picture,” Hannah replied, trying hard not to laugh. She had a splitting headache and even a chuckle felt like somebody was using her head for a drum. “Just hold on to your Southern charm and wait for Security to show up.”

“All right, dear, but they’d better hurry, because it sounds like he’s really going to lose it soon,” Gertrude reached out a hand and gently patted Hannah’s knee. “Honey,” she continued softly. “That woman in the hallway, I think… I…,” she took deep breath. “Is that Rachel?”

So much for trying to hide something for my eagle-eyed Granny. Now what?

Hannah glanced aside and swallowed hard when her eyes were caught by a pair of compassionate ones.

“I know, it’s a cruel twist of fate, but Rachel Kendrick somehow managed to become the doctor who admitted me after that truck decided to slam into my poor Bronco, which scrambled my brains in the process,” Hannah answered, trying to sound casual, but very aware of the tension that gave her voice an unwanted, slight tremble.

“Sweetheart,” Gertrude gasped, her blue eyes wide in shock. “How…?”

“I don’t know, Granny,” Hannah replied in a tired voice. “All I know is that, when I opened my eyes… there she was…” Almost exactly as I remembered her. But then, how could I ever forget those soulful brown eyes…?

“Oh, baby,” Gertrude sighed, covering Hannah’s fingers with a warm hand. “This has been quite the day for you then.”

“Oh, yeah,” Hannah groaned wholeheartedly. “A day that can’t end too soon.”

“NO! I WON’T,” suddenly sounded from the hallway, immediately followed by Rachel’s voice.

“That’s it. Sir, with all due respect, I’ve had enough of this verbal abuse. If you want to engage in some more ‘Doctor bashing’ I’d strongly recommend you contact your mother’s physician. I do not have the time, nor am I in the mood to stand here and listen to your unreasonable requests. I have patients to see. Good evening, sir.”

“What the…? You’d better wait, young lady, before…”

“Sir!” a deep voice Hannah recognized as John Overlander, one of the security guards, interrupted. “Put your hand down, sir. I know you’re upset, but as soon as you touch the Doctor, I ‘ll have you arrested for assault.”

“You…I…Are you inferring I was trying to hit her?”

“Sure looked that way to me, sir,” John replied dryly. “I’d suggest you come with me now, so we can have a little chat.”

“I don’t think that’s necessary. I guess I’ll just…”

“That wasn’t a question, sir,” John interrupted in a polite, but determined voice.

“Are you gonna kick me out?” the patient’s son asked, suddenly sounding a lot more timid.

“Not unless you give me a reason to do so,” John answered calmly. “Come this way, please.”

“Sounds like everything is under control,” Gertrude sighed. “Thank the heavens for security guards.”

“Amen to that,” Hannah replied. She looked at her grandmother who was a little paler than usual and tried to come up with the words to reassure the elderly woman that she was all right that Rachel Kendrick’s sudden return would be ignored, like her disappearance had been, at least, on the outside. That she, Hannah Jensen, would maintain a professional relationship with the Doctor.

“Avoiding her would be a good start,” she mentally added.

But before Hannah could actually give voice to her thoughts, the door was pushed open and Rachel Kendrick stepped inside. Hannah immediately noticed the flushed cheeks and glowing embers in her dark eyes and she knew the Doctor was upset.

No wonder, really, after the way that jerk treated her out there in the hallway. I’m sure the whole floor heard him hollering at her.

Hannah bit back a “Are you all right?” and avoided the familiar eyes by staring at the dull green blanket that covered her legs. Why would she care anyway?

Gertrude Jensen on the other hand, had slowly arisen when Rachel had reluctantly walked towards the bed. She reminded Gertrude of a little girl who was dragging her feet after being told to face the bully of the class.

“Rachel,” her soft voice filled the silence. “What a…surprise.”

Rachel Kendrick swallowed hard and, for the second time that day, wondered if returning back home had been such a good idea after all. Her gaze met a pair of cool blue ones that rapidly changed expression when they noticed the hurt in the dark-brown eyes.

Gertrude Jensen managed a genuine smile and extended her hand towards the young woman.

“Welcome home,” she said, while her hand was grasped by the Doctor, who shot her a grateful look.

“Thank you, Gr…Mrs. Jensen.”

“Oh, please!” Gertrude exclaimed, pressing her hand against her chest. “Don’t call me that! It reminds me of my mother-in-law, bless her heart.”

Rachel couldn’t help but smile after that melodramatic outburst and she chuckled, remembering all too well the stories Gertrude Jensen used to tell about her in-laws. From the corner of her eye, she noticed Hannah’s smile and a flood of relief rushed through her body, visibly relaxing her. Maybe she would be able to face Hannah after all, do her Doctor routine and leave without having to face a scene. But then, she inwardly sighed, Hannah had never been the type to cause a scene. That’s why she had been able to…

“Rachel?” Gertrude’s voice penetrated her thoughts. “Do you think Hannah will be able to go home tomorrow?”

“Oh…um..yes, yes, I believe so,” she stammered, quickly trying to regain her composure. “I just had a look at her vital signs and neurochecks and they’re all absolutely normal. If that doesn’t change during the night, Hannah will be discharged in the morning.”

Hannah swallowed hard when she heard her name roll off Rachel’s lips so easily. It reminded her of the moment just before she had regained consciousness, where she had been thrown back in time, betrayed by her mind and her heart.

“Great,” Gertrude Jensen smiled. “I’m pleased to hear that. I know my granddaughter enjoys keeping an eye on me. Now I can finally return the favor.”

“I’ll be fine, Granny,” Hannah muttered. “You don’t have to babysit me.”

“Oh, but sweetie, you don’t understand,” Gertrude answered with dancing blue eyes. “This is my time to prove to you where you got your bossy side from. And of course, your talent for nursing,” she added casually.

“You scare me,” Hannah mumbled, but there was a shadow of a smile on her face when she shot her grandmother an affectionate look.

“I’ll take care of her, Rachel,” Gertrude nodded. “Hannah is in good hands with me. Besides, I know I can always count on Gary and Jake to help me out.”

“The three stooges,” Hannah replied with a groan, resting her head back into the pillow.

Rachel’s eyes traveled from Hannah to Gertrude and back again. On more occasions than she could count, she had been witness to the friendly banter among the different members of the Jensen family. It was good to see Gertrude and Hannah still maintained that playful side of their relationship. She wondered why Hannah’s parents were not with their daughter, but she was reluctant to ask. It was not like she had any right to pry into Hannah Jensen’s life. She had burnt her bridges behind her and just had to live with that. No matter how much it hurt. In a few minutes she would be out of the door and if she was lucky, she would be able to avoid Hannah from then on. That would be so much easier now she knew where she worked.

Just a few more minutes…

Chapter two

With a groan of pleasure, Hannah let the warm water cascade down her body, skillfully avoiding the sutures in her eyebrow to get too wet. She knew Betty had tried to make her more presentable, but, in spite ofthe good intentions, it had only scratched the surface.

That morning she had been very impatient for Gary and Jake to pick her up at the hospital. She had been craving a long, cleansing shower, knowing it would make her feel so much better. And it did. And she had wanted to get away from the constant threat of coming face-to-face with Rachel Kendrick.

For a few moments, the warm, soothing water helped Hannah to push her thoughts and worries about Rachel Kendrick into the back of her mind, giving her the opportunity to relax completely. The night she had spent in the hospital had been restless and long. Hannah’s body was tired and sore and she was looking forward to stretching out on her comfortable bed, closing her eyes and sleeping. She knew a longshower was prolonging the agony her body was in, but it was an almost sweet pain, because Hannah knew that soon she would be able to close her eyes and let sleep claim her. Letting herself drift away into peaceful oblivion would be a blessing that ignited a small light into the tired blue eyes.

“Just a few more minutes,”Hannah mumbled to herself, while the warm water caressed her bare shoulders, the mottled bruise on her chest providing a stark contrast with the pale skin that surrounded it.

“Hannah, sweetie, are you all right?”Gertrude’s voice sounded from outside the bathroom door.

“Yes, Gran,”Hannah answered, “I’m all right.”

“Good. You’ve been in there so long, I was getting worried you had washed yourself down the drain. Do you want to eat something, before you go to sleep?”

“No, thanks, Granny,”Hannah replied, turning off the flow of water and reaching for a towel. “I think I’m too tired to chew.”

“Gary said you didn’t eat this morning either,”Gertrude’s voice accused.

“Is he your spy now?”Hannah sighed, wrapping the towel around her body before she opened the door and looked down at the smaller, elderly woman.

“Yes, dear, he is,”Gertrude winked. “He’s always been my private source of information. I thought you knew that.”

“I should have,”Hannah sighed, slowly shaking her head. “There have been lots of times I wondered which little bird you’d been talking to, or which grapevine you plucked. Now I know.”

“It was all done with your best interest in mind, my dear.”

Hannah sent her grandmother a tired smile and gave her a quick, one-armed hug, which earned her a squeal of protest.

“You’ re still dripping!”

“It’s just water, Granny. You won’t melt.”

“I’d better not. It’s bad enough to shrink. Sometimes I feel like a midget.”

“Did anyone ever tell you you’re the queen of exaggeration?”

“In detail, sweetheart, more times than I care to remember. Your granddad told me at least once a day.”

Hannah sank down on the edge of her bed and cast a look at one of the framed photo’s that adorned her dresser.

“You still miss him,”she said softly, seeing the slight darkening of her grandmother’s eyes. The mattress beside her dipped when Gertrude took a seat next to her.

“I do,”Gertrude nodded with a sad smile. “I still feel the pain every day. Like I still grieve the loss of your parents. My only consolation is that your granddad didn’t have to live through losing Gregory.”Gertrude gently patted Hannah’s hand and gave it a loving squeeze. “Phil was the love of my life and we spent many years together, but still, it wasn’t enough. It would have been wonderful to have had him for a few more years.”

“At least Mom and Dad were together,”Hannah whispered. “Dad always said he didn’t think he could live without her.”

“I’m sure he would have coped,”Gertrude replied softly. “But at least he didn’t have to deal with losing her. And vice versa.”

Hannah’s tired eyes studied the photo of her parents and in spite of the sadness she felt deep inside, she smiled. The photo usually had that effect on her. Her parents looked so relaxed and happy. And her Dad’s smile had always been very contagious.

“It must be wonderful to have that,”she mused, not aware of the fact she had spoken aloud, until Gertrude wrapped an arm around her and puller her close.

“I’m sure that somewhere out there, there’s somebody waiting for you,”Gertrude spoke in a soft but determined voice.

“I’m glad you have faith,”Hannah smiled, resting her cheek on the top of her grandmother’s head.

Both women sat like that for a while, lost in thought, finding comfort in each other’s close presence, while their thoughts traveled back to the loved ones they had lost. Hannah rubbed her eyes and suppressed a yawn. Her body had become quite persistent in its demand for sleep, but she fought it with all her might. It was obvious her grandmother needed her; besides, the gentle, loving presence of Gertrude was something she had craved as soon as she had awakenedin the Emergency Room.

“You don’t have to respond to what I’m going to say next, sweetie,”Gertrude’s voice was soft and kind. “But I hope you’ll listen and give it some thought. You’ve never really told me, nor your parents, what made you and Rachel break up.”Gertrude felt Hannah stiffen and she gave the younger woman a loving squeeze. “I never pried, because I decided it wasn’t my business and I thought that if you were ready, you’d come and talk.”Gertrude let out a small sigh and dropped a kiss on the top of Hannah’s head. “My eyes might be old, but they’re still pretty sharp and I did see the pain and grief you were going through, honey, and I dare to say that you’ve never really gotten over the break-up.”Again, Hannah stiffened and Gertrude rubbed slow circles across the terrycloth- clad back. “I can only imagine what it must have been like to see her again, so unexpectedly. I could tell, just by looking at you, that you were in complete agony.”

Gertrude paused for a moment and took a deep breath. She meant what she had just told her granddaughter; she did not want to meddle in the younger woman’s affairs, but the pain in a pair of clear blue eyes and the brief look of total devastation, guilt and shame in a pair of soulful brown ones, had cut through her heart.

“Things aren’t always what they seem, sweetie,”Gertrude continued. “And who knows, maybe sometimes things happen for a reason. However, I do know you still…care… about Rachel,”Gertrude chose her words carefully. “Personally, I’d like to know why Rachel Kendrick came back home. I wonder if she missed her family. It’s not like she was close with her folks.”

Gertrude’s heart clenched when she saw a lone tear slide down a freshly scrubbed cheek. With her thumb, she wiped it away tenderly.

“She took a huge risk when she came back and she must have known that, sooner or later, the two of you would run into each other. Apparently, she was willing to take that risk and I can’t help thinking there must be a reason for that.”

“I tried,”Hannah’s voice was soft, almost inaudible, and Gertrude had to strain herself to hear the words that were laced with a mixture of pain, sadness and frustration. “To hate her, that is,”Hannah continued, rubbing her tired eyes. “But I never could. I was…angry… so incredibly angry and hurt, but, for some reason, I could never hate her. Instead, I think I became numb.”

“Until yesterday,”Gertrude spoke, knowing she was right when she saw Hannah nod.

“Until yesterday,”Hannah whispered. “You have no idea how many times I imagined what it would be like to meet Rachel again; the things I would say to her; how I would show her my anger and indifference. But…yesterday…”Hannah sighed and tried to blink away the tears that were stinging the back of her eyes.

“Yesterday, when I first heard her voice again, even before I saw her, I felt…,”Hannah swallowed hard and shook her head. She still couldn’t believe the onslaught of emotions Rachel’s unexpected presence had awakened. “Almost happy,”she ended in a whisper. “And now, now I’m just confused and that makes me angry. I don’t deserve that. She should have stayed away. After the way she has treated me, I think I would have deserved at least that.”

Gertrude had felt guilty when she had sat next to her granddaughter on the edge of the bed, knowing she was keeping her from a well-deserved and much-needed sleep. But Hannah’s response to her words had pushed those feelings to the background because, for the first time in years, Hannah reallystarted to open up to her––something the elderly lady was grateful for.

“May I share a story with you?”Gertrude asked softly.

“Can I stop you?”Hannah gently joked, grabbing her grandmother’s hand between her own and putting both of them in her lap.

“Normally, I’d say ‘no’,”Gertrude smiled. “But I know you’re tired, so, if you want this conversation to take place some other…”

“No, Granny, go ahead,”Hannah encouraged.

“All right, I will,”Gertrude responded. “But why don’t you put on your sleeping gear. I don’t want you to be cold.”

“I guess I’d better,”Hannah sighed, letting go of her grandmother’s hand. “Turn around.”

“Like I’ve never seen you butt-naked before,”Gertrude snorted, but she obediently turned around, while Hannah quickly shed the towel and donned a light-blue flannel pair of pajamas.

“All right, Granny, what’s this story about?”

“It’s something that happened a long time ago,”Gertrude answered, turning back so she would be able to face her granddaughter. “Before your Grandfather and I got married. It’s something nobody knows, well, except for your Grandpa and me of course.”

The pensive, almost brooding expression in Gertrude’s eyes made Hannah curious and she shifted on the bed, pulling one leg up and under her body, giving her Grandmother her undivided attention.

“Philip Jensen was one of the most attractive people I’d ever met,”Gertrude started, while a soft smile ignited a light in her eyes. “All the girls were quite taken with him, which was one of the reasons I ignored him,”she chuckled. “He was tall and athletic. His hair was thick and blond, kind of like yours, and his eyes were as blue as a clear Oklahoma summer sky. He knew he was good-looking and it annoyed him I didn’t even look at him. Of course I knew he was there,”Gertrude grinned. “Anyway, after a long pursuit from his side, I finally gave in and let him walk me home from church one Sunday. That same day he asked my Dad permission to court me. A couple of months later, we were engaged and the wedding was set for the summer. Phil worked as a traveling salesman and was on the road a lot.”Gertrude let out a small sigh, while her eyes stared in the distance, completely lost in her memories.

“Anyway, one Friday evening he came home after having spent a week on the road. I had been worried about him, because it was Spring and we had seen a lot of severe weather, including a few pretty violent tornados. But there was a knock on the door and when I opened up, there he was. In all his handsome glory. Phil Jensen always looked good in a suit, but I wasn’t really pleased with the lingering scent of another woman’s perfume on his skin and the lipstick on his shirt.”

Gertrude paused and cast a look at Hannah, who was staring at her with wide, unbelieving eyes.

“Perfume and lipstick?”she echoed. “You mean…? No! Grandpa…? Really?”

“You bet,”Gertrude nodded. “Oh, when I confronted him, he confessed right away, telling me immediately how much of a mistake this young widow had been. He told me he had almost given into the temptation, but the thought of hurting me kept him from actually sleeping with her. He was very apologetic and he even cried, but I was so angry with him and so hurt, I sent him away and told him never to come back again.”Gertrude sent Hannah a small smile and gently patted her knee. “It was about six weeks before the wedding.”

“But you ended up marrying him anyway,”Hannah concluded.

“Because I loved him,”Gertrude answered softly. “I knew he was the only man I would ever marry and even though I was extremely upset with him, I knew I’d always regret it if I wouldn’t give him, us, a second chance. So, after a couple of months or so, your Granddad and I had a long, air-cleansing talk. He gave up his job as a salesman and, for the first few years of our marriage, he worked as a ranch-hand, until his brother offered him a job as store-manager in Oklahoma City and he worked his way up from there.”

“How did you cope?”Hannah asked softly.

“I was pretty paranoid for a few years,”Gertrude smiled. “But, as time went by, I started to trust him again, because in all his actions he always showed me how much he loved and appreciated me. We ended up having a wonderful marriage.”

There was a brief silence, until Gertrude slowly rose from the bed, wincing when her knees reminded her of the fact that she wasn’t twenty-one years young anymore.

“I won’t tell you what to do or what not to do, sweetheart,”she said, putting a hand on Hannah’s shoulder. “I just wanted you to know that, from my own personal experience, following your heart can be a risk that could be well worth it in the end.”

Hannah nodded and patted the hand that lovingly squeezed her shoulder. She appreciated her Grandmother’s concern and reluctantlyhad to admit that Gertrude’s words held a lot of truth.

“Thanks, Granny,”she smiled.

“You’re welcome, sugar. Now, crawl underneath that comforter, close your eyes and go to sleep. I don’t want to see or hear you for the next eight hours.”

“Works for me,”Hannah mumbled, exhaling slowly when she put her head on her pillow. It felt like her whole body let out a sigh of relief.

“What about you, Gran? Will you be all right?”

“Oh, yes,”Gertrude smiled, walking towards the door of the bedroom. “Gary and Jake will come over this afternoon and Jake has promised me he’d cook. I’ll see to it we’ll keep the noise level acceptable.”

“Thank you,”Hannah smiled, not able to keep her eyes open any longer. “Love you, Granny.”

“I love you too, baby. Sweet dreams.”

Hannah realized there were a lot of things she needed to think about, but she was so tired, she couldn’t keep her eyes open any longer. Even before Gertrude Jensen stepped out into the hallway, cautiously closing the door behind her, Hannah was curled up on her side, fast asleep.

Chapter Three

With a groan, Rachel Kendrick threw her car keys on the small table in the hall and put her briefcase on the floor next to it. A quick glance in the mirror showed a pale face that accentuated the dark circles underneath her eyes.

“You look like heck,”she mumbled, before she turned around and headed for the living room.

As soon as she entered the L-shaped room, she was greeted by a warm smile, which made Rachel instantly feel better.

“Busy day?”the blonde who approached her asked.

“Very,”Rachel answered, not willing to go into details about her meeting with Hannah the previous day. The different emotions had created chaos inside her head and all Rachel wanted was some quiet time to sit down and chew on them.

“How’s Nicky?”

“Fast asleep,”the blonde answered. “I think she’s coming down with something though, she sounded a little congested. Maybe you should check her out when she wakes up.”

“I will, thanks, Melissa,”Rachel sighed, hoping that two year old Nicole would sleep through the night.

“There’s some fresh tea in the fridge and I kept your dinner warm in the oven.”

Rachel’s brown eyes were warm when they looked at the young woman, who was now standing in front of her.

“You’re wonderful,”she smiled, giving the blonde a quick kiss on her cheek.

“Keep reminding Joe of that,”Melissa grinned with a sparkle in her eyes. “Our anniversary is coming up and I’ve been trying to convince him to take me to Dallas, to do some serious shopping.”

“Somehow I think my brother wasn’t very enthusiastic about that idea,”Rachel smiled, knowing how her older sibling detested everything that involved shopping malls or clothing stores.

“Of course he wasn’t,”Melissa answered cheerfully. “But I’ve been working on him for a while now and I feel I’m wearing him down.”

“You go, girl,”Rachel laughed, knowing her brother was on the losing end.

“What time will you drop Miss Nicky off tomorrow?”Melissa asked while grabbing her purse from the table.

“Will six-thirty be all right? I’ve got to do some early rounds,because there’s a budget meeting I need to attend.”

“Six-thirty is fine,”Melissa nodded. She walked towards the door, but then she hesitated. “Rachel? Are you sure you’ re all right? You look a little…I don’t know, haggard?”

Rachel mustered up a tired smile, while she made a conscious effort not to avoid the inquisitive green eyes of her sister-in-law. No matter how well her brother’s wife and she got along, she did not want to talk about Hannah. She wasn’t ready for that. Not yet.

“I’m just tired, Melissa. Nothing a good night’ sleep won’t cure.”

“Okay, you’ re the Doctor,”Melissa winked, before stepping out in the hallway. “I’ll see you two cuties tomorrow morning, six-thirty,”she called over her shoulder with a little wave, before stepping outside and closing the door behind her.

Rachel locked the door behind Melissa and walked towards a room in the back of the house. She carefully pushed open a door that was already slightly ajar and tip-toed towards the bed. While she looked down on the sleeping toddler, her features softened and with a small sigh she sank down on a chair in the corner, careful not to disturb the little girl. Rachel could easily hear the tell-tale sounds of a congested little nose and detected a faint trace of menthol in the air.

“Thank you, Melissa,”she smiled, realizing her sister-in-law must have rubbed Nicky’s chest with a menthol ointment.

Rachel leaned her head against the back of the chair and for the first time that day, she was able to relax. Maybe it was the semi-darkness in the room, the familiar sounds of her sleeping daughter, who had turned on her side, with her fist tucked underneath her chin, being in the safety of her own home or maybe a combination of it all, but the stress and anxiety that had made her stomach clench ever since she had met Hannah, slowly started to subside.

“Mommy!”

Rachel’s head shot up when the slightly hoarse voice of her daughter woke her up from slumber. The little girl had climbed out of her bed and was trying to crawl into Rachel’s lap. Her arms automatically reached out to lift the sleepy toddler in her arms and Nicky immediately snuggled up against her.

“Hey! How’s my favorite little girl doing?”Rachel pressed her lips against Nicky’s forehead and was pleased to notice the girl’s skin was cool to the touch. “Do you want something to drink?”

Rachel could feel Nicky nod her head and, with a smile, she stood up, holding the girl safely in her arms. She made her way to the kitchen, only then noticing the small stack of boxes in the corner. They were labeled as ‘personal stuff’ and Rachel knew Melissa, who had helped her unpack after she and Nicky moved into their new house, would never touch their contents. It would be up to her, Rachel, to find a place for her personal belongings.

“Looks like your poor, old, tired mother has a few more boxes to get rid of, sweetie,”she sighed, putting Nicky in her high-chair at the kitchen island.

“Apple juice or water?”

Nicky wrinkled her nose and her soft brown eyes looked at her mother with something that closely resembled exasperation.

“All right, apple juice it is. But you know you’ll have to brush your teeth again, okay?”

“Ahwight,”the little girl nodded, making Rachel smile. She grabbed a clean, toddler-proof cup and filled it with juice. When she put it in front of the little girl, she gave her a stern look.

“Small sips, Nicky, it’s too cold justto inhale it,”she warned, knowing all too well how fast her daughter could make a cold drink disappear.

“Ahwight, Mommy,”Nicky replied with a curt nod, reaching out and grabbing the cup with both hands and bringing it to her mouth.

Rachel smiled and brushed away a strand of dark hair from Nicky’s forehead. She bent down and dropped a kiss on the soft, shiny hair.

“You’re such a good girl,”she complimented, which earned her a beaming smile.

“Well, Nick, no better time than the present,”she continued with a sigh, looking at the boxes in the corner. Some of them had not been opened in years and she dreaded the confrontation with the physical presence of certain memories, but knew that postponing the challenge could only be regarded as an act of cowardice.

While Nicky was taking small, consistent sips of her apple juice, Rachel walked to the stack of boxes and lifted the top one, which she brought back to the kitchen island. She took a seat next to her daughter and, after taking a deep breath, folded back the cardboard flaps to give her access to the contents of the box.

Nicky craned her neck, but was too small to be able to sneak a peek. Rachel chuckled and lovingly patted the toddler’s back.

“Don’t worry, sweetie, if possible I’ll share my treasures. Oooh, look at this, I forgot I had this,”Rachel exclaimed, followed by a mental ‘duh, no wonder, you haven’t looked at this stuff in eons.’

“Mommy?”Nicky asked, gazing at her mother with big, curious eyes.

“Here, sweetie, look it’s my old Sooners shirt. Signed by the entire women’s basketball team, including the coach,”she added with a grin, putting the crimson-colored shirt on the table, out of reach of Nicky’s eager little hand. “It was the last home game and…”Rachel sucked in a breath and brought her hand to her mouth when, all of a sudden, she realized which box she had just opened.

“Figures,”she sighed. “First freaking box I open has to be the…,”Rachel swallowed and suppressed the urge to pick up the box and empty the contents in the trash can. “…it had to be the ‘Hannah’ box,”she sighed.

“Mommy? You sad?”Nicky’s hand was on Rachel’s arm and, with a watery smile, the Doctor looked down at the little girl.

“Just a little,”she smiled. “It’s the memories, Nicky, they…sometimes they hurt.”

Rachel reached inside the box and briefly closed her eyes when her fingers touched the cool glass of a frame. Deep down inside, she knew which photo was about to surface, so it wasn’t a shock when her eyes caught sight of a framed memory that, at one time, had been a golden one. Her fingers traced the outline of windblown, blond hair that was being highlighted by the setting sun and slid down to a bare shoulder, its tanned skin kissed by the sun, enveloping it in a warm bronze hue. A pair of clear, blue eyes danced with happiness and radiated so much warmth and love it still, after all those years, took Rachel’s breath away.

“Hannah,”she sighed, feeling the familiar, almost painful pressure building inside her chest.

“Hannah?”Nicky echoed. “Nicky see?”

Rachel slowly set the framed photo on the table, in front of Nicky and watched her daughter take in the picture with serious, brown eyes that occasionally traveled up to her mother.

“Pwetty,”Nicky finally said with a beaming smile, having trouble with her ‘r’.

“Beautiful,”Rachel whispered sadly. For a brief moment, the photo had thrown her back in time. She could remember the exact moment the picture had been taken, the date…the time of day. And, for a moment, Rachel was convinced she could feel the heat radiating off Hannah’s skin, while a mixture of perfume and suntan lotion wafted up into her nose. A scent that had become so much stronger and intoxicating after Rachel had put the camera down and, no longer able to resist, had pulled Hannah into her arms, kissing every inch of her face, finally coming to a slow, sensual stop when she had reached Hannah’s lips.

Rachel exhaled and slowly shook her head in disbelief when she noticed her heart rate had picked up and her skin was flushed.

“Get a grip, girl,”she scolded. “Those days are over, remember? You made your decision.”

For the both of you, an annoying voice in the back of her head insisted.

“For the better,”Rachel whispered, touching Hannah’s framed picture with careful fingers. “I’ve got to believe it was for the better,”she repeated softly.

“Goodness, girl, look at you,”Jake exclaimed when Hannah entered the kitchen. “You look like you went three rounds with Mohammed Ali himself!”

“Thanks, Jake,”Hannah mumbled, taking a seat next to her grandmother who was invitingly patting the chair. She rubbed her forehead, trying not to wince when her fingers touched the painful lump that had taken up residence just above her eye.

“Be nice, honey,”Gary rebuked his partner, punching him in the shoulder. “Hannah’s been through a lot.”

“No kidding,”Hannah mumbled, sipping from the juice Gary had put in front of her. The cold orange juice exploded against her dry throat and it felt so good, Hannah had to restrain herself not to chug down the rest of the drink. The last thing she needed was a stomach ache.

“How are you feeling, sweetie?”Gertrude asked, rubbing Hannah’s back in a slow, circular motion.

“Like I was hit by a truck,”Hannah sighed. “Which reminds me, I need to call my insurance company and…”

“Don’t worry about it, sugar. I had Gary call them this morning. They’ re waiting for the police report and said they’ll go have a look at your car this afternoon. What’s left of it anyway,”Gertrude added while pulling a face.

“Is it totaled?”Hannah asked, mentally bracing herself for the answer.

“I had a look at it yesterday,”Gary admitted, covering Hannah’s hand with his larger one and giving it a loving squeeze. “I do believe this was the end of it, sweetie.”

“Are you sure?”Hannah asked, casting her friend a hopeful glance. “Maybe it can be fixed.”

“Hannah,”Jake spoke from across the table. “Your right passenger door has been folded in half, your front axle has been snapped in two and the left side of your vehicle has been ripped open from front to back. I think it’s safe to say that your poor car is going to be retired.”

Hannah’s blue eyes were wide in shock when they met Jake’s compassionate green ones and after a moment of silence, she exhaled slowly.

“Damn,”she muttered. “Guess I can’t postpone buying a new car any longer, huh?”

“You’ve been putting that off for two years now, dear,”Gertrude remarked dryly. “I’m really sorry you had that accident and I’m very grateful you’ re all right, but I’m glad you’ re being forced to buy a new car. And please, do this old lady a favor, get one with an air bag.”

“Yes, ma’am,”Hannah sighed, pushing thoughts of the upcoming task of finding a new vehicle in the back of her mind. She didn’t want to think about that yet.

“So, what have you three been up to while I was asleep?”she asked in an effort to change the subject.

“Gertrude and Jake made some brownies, we played cards and gossiped about you.”

“I bet you did,”Hannah answered, yawning behind her hand. “I’m sure there’s a lot to gossip about.”Those last words were spoken with more bitterness than she intended and by the look on Gary’s and Jake’s faces, she knew her friends had picked up on her mood.

“It wasn’t done in a bad way, Hannah,”Gary spoke softly. “You know how much we care for you.”

“I know, Gary and I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it the way it probably sounded. I’m just sore and cranky and frustrated and…”

“Incredibly pissed at Rachel,”Gertrude added, raising a brow in challenge when Hannah sent her an indignant look. “Listen, baby, we, Gary, Jake and I, are your only family. If you can’t talk to us, who can you talk to? Besides, we’ve been carefully tiptoeing around the subject for years now.”

To give herself a few more moments before responding to her grandmother’s words, Hannah slowly emptied her glass, feeling the anger bubble up inside when her thoughts returned to Rachel. How could Rachel just barge back into her life like that? Why couldn’t she stay where she had been…wherever that might have been? Why did she resurface and turn her life completely upside down? And, why the hell did she, Hannah, even care?

With a groan of frustration, Hannah slammed down her empty glass on the smooth surface of the kitchen table, softly muttering an expletive.

“Yes! I AM pissed!”she admitted forcefully, immediately feeling a distant throb behind her eyes. “Damnit!”

“That’s it, honey, just tell us how you feel,”Gertrude calmly responded, suppressing a chuckle when she noticed the shocked expression on Jake’s and Gary’s faces. She silently cheered when Hannah glanced her way, allowing her to see the fire in her eyes.

“All right, I will,”Hannah bristled. “I’m so angry with Rachel Kendrick that if she’d walk into the room right now, I’d gladly throttle her! Yesterday, I tried to be polite and pretend like there was no ugly history between us, but you know what? I can’t and won’t keep that up. When I return to work, I’m bound to run into her. Heck, I’ll probably have to face her on a daily basis. But I refuse to pretend I’m not angry with her. I refuse to give her that peace of mind, because she doesn’t deserve it. I won’t allow her to waltz back into my life and pretend we have no shared history.”Hannah took a deep breath and involuntarily clenched her hands into fists. “I can’t go around and pretend she didn’t hurt me. She broke my heart,”she added in a hoarse whisper, while a single tear escaped her eye and made its lonely way down her cheek, to land on the kitchen table as a silent testimony to the agony Hannah felt inside.

Gertrude scooted her chair closer to her granddaughter and wrapped an arm around the younger woman, pulling Hannah’s head on her shoulder and dropping a kiss on the disarray of blond hair. Mentally, she cheered. It was the first time since Rachel had gone that Hannah had showed any sign of anger towards her former girlfriend and Gertrude knew that, if Hannah ever wanted some kind of closure, dealing with her anger would be one of the first steps. Gertrude did not want to compare her pre-marital crisis with her granddaughter’s difficult situation, but there were some similarities. Dealing with anger was one of them.

“That’s it, sweetheart, just let it out. You’ve got to deal with this anger. You’ve kept it locked up inside for too long now. You can’t be a cool, calm and collected Jensen all the time. Even your Scandinavian ancestors had a hissy fit every now and then.”

“You think?”Hannah smiled through her tears.

“Oh, yeah,”Gertrude nodded with a chuckle. “I remember the stories your grandfather told me about his parents and how his mother was known for her temper. And she wasn’t even a redhead.”

“Hey! I take offense,”Jake responded in mock annoyance, raking his fingers through his thick, red hair. “Tell her, Gary.”

“What, honey? About your temper? Or your fiery passion? I didn’t think you’d want to share our bedroom escapades with Gertrude and Hannah,”Gary joked, which earned him a playful slap across the back of his head.

“No, please! Keep it to yourselves,”Hannah reacted, pretending to shiver. “That’s way too much information already.”

“Spoilsport,”Gary said, but his eyes were twinkling.

Hannah smiled and turned her head to give her grandmother a quick kiss on the cheek.

“Thanks, guys, you always make me feel better,”Hannah sighed. “Even if that’s not your intention.”

“Thanks…I think,”Jake chuckled, raising his juice glass in a silent salute.

“Just out of curiosity, Hannah,”Gary started, after a quick glance at Gertrude. “Do you have any idea how you’ re going to handle the situation?”

“I don’t know,”Hannah mumbled, feeling tired all over again, even though she had just spent more than six hours in a deep, dreamless sleep. “But I’m open to suggestions.”

From the corner of her eye, she noticed a silent exchange between Gary and Jake and with a frown she leaned forward, pinning her friends with a stare that made them shift uncomfortably in their chairs.

“What?”was all that Hannah asked.

Gary rubbed his forehead and, after glancing at his partner, he exhaled loudly and shook his head.

“I hate it when you do that,”he sighed.

“Do what?”Hannah frowned.

“See straight through me,”he admitted, which made Gertrude softly snort. But the elderly lady didn’t utter a word. She just leaned back into her chair and decided to watch and listen to the conversation that was about to ensue.

“So, I’m right when I think that you and Jake have discussed my…difficult …situation and have come up with an easy solution which will make everybody happy? Like, let’s say, an unexpected meeting, or something ludicrous like that?”

Jake scratched behind his ear and tried hard not to avoid Hannah’s eyes. He hated it when their friend became cynical. It didn’t suit Hannah at all, but it did indicate she was not happy with them at the moment.

“Gary. Jake,”Hannah continued in a soft, but determined voice. “I really don’t appreciate any meddling in my affairs. I know Rachel used to be a good friend to you both and I’m not expecting you to ignore her. But please,”Hannah’s voice took on a pleading tone. “Let me do this my own way, at my own pace. I know you all care about me and I know you want some answers as much as I do, but please, I need to do this my way.”Hannah glanced aside and met her grandmother’s innocent eyes. “That applies to you as well, Gertrude Amelia Braun- Jensen. Don’t try and pull the innocent routine, because I’m not buying it.”

“I promise, dear,”Gertrude immediately answered. “I have to admit, I’d like to drag Rachel Kendrick in here, sit her down and have a long talk with her, but I promise I’ll restrain myself.”

“Thank you,”Hannah sighed, patting her grandmother’s hand. “If somebody’s gonna sit Rachel Kendrick down to have a talk with her, it will be me.”

Chapter Four

The first few days after returning to work, Hannah’s stomach was tied in knots every time she walked down the hallway, stepped into the elevator or answered the phone, because she had been afraid of running into Rachel unexpectedly. The hospital was not huge, but big enough to be able to avoid a person and that was exactly what Hannah had in mind. And it seemed to work. After a few tense days, she was able to relax more and fall back into her usual routine. To her utter relief, she never did see Rachel, although she did have a few of the Doctor’s patients on her floor. According to Gary, Rachel made her rounds very early in the morning, or in the late afternoon, after the day shift had been replaced by the evening crew. Hannah didn’t mind at all. The longer she was able to postpone a confrontation with Rachel Kendrick, the better.

“Hannah, can you have a look at this order? I can’t read it,” Gary called when she passed the nurses’ station.

“Sure, show me,” Hannah answered, reaching out to grab the sheet of paper Gary held out to her. As soon as Hannah looked at the unreadable scribbles, a deep frown creased her forehead when she tried to decipher the words that seemed to flow together into a long, black smudge on the clean, creamy paper.

“I can make out a ‘once a day’ and ‘IV’, but that’s about it. I can’t even figure out the amount of milligrams,” she muttered. “It could be 350, or 150, or 750. Is this for Stella Thompson?” Hannah looked at the top of the page, where Gary had put a label with the patient’s name. “Alright, it’s for Stella. I suppose he wants us to give her some antibiotics, but I really can’t read it. I guess we’ll have to call him. I really wish Doctor O’Brien could handle a pen as well as he can a scalpel, that would make our lives so much better.”

If Hannah had looked up, she could have seen the startled look on Gary’s face, but she was so engrossed in trying to translate the order, she didn’t even hear him clear his throat.

She did feel a warm presence at her back, but did not pay attention to it, thinking it was probably one of the student nurses who was reading over her shoulder in an effort to help her out.

“Levaquin 750 mg IV, daily,” a familiar voice sounded and Hannah froze. When her eyes slowly traveled up from the sheet of paper she was holding, her gaze met Gary’s, who sent her an apologetic smile.

“Hello, Ra…Doctor Kendrick,” he greeted, realizing just in time they were within earshot of another nurse and a student.

“Hello, Gary,” Rachel’s velvety voice answered and even without turning around to face the Doctor, Hannah could tell by the tone of her voice her face was sporting a very familiar smile. Involuntarily, Hannah held her breath. It was that little smile, that caused the corner of Rachel’s eyes to crinkle and that created a dimple, only one, in her right cheek. How many times had Hannah touched that cute little spot, either with her fingers or her lips? More times than she could remember.

Hannah exhaled slowly and straightened her back, squaring her shoulders. More times than she wanted to remember.

“Doctor Kendrick,” she greeted Rachel in a cool voice, while she turned around to face the other woman. “Thank you for the translation.”

“You’re welcome,” Rachel softly answered, inwardly cringing when she met Hannah’s icy cold stare.

You deserve this, Rachel, don’t ever forget that. You deserve it.

“How’s your…how have you been doing? I mean, after your accident,” Rachel tried, not ready to break eye-contact yet. Even though Hannah’s eyes were cold and void of emotion, they were still the same color she remembered. The blue that still haunted her dreams every now and then. The blue she had searched for in the sky, countless times. And every time she had found it, recognition had been followed by a stab of pain. Over the years, a lot of things had changed, but her endless indulgence in this form of self-torture had always been the same.

“I…I’m fine… Doctor,” Hannah managed to answer. It was almost impossible to tear her eyes away from the warm brown that seemed to pin her in place, making it hard to move, or to breathe even. “I guess I should thank you, for…taking care of me.”

“No, you don’t have to,” Rachel answered softly. “But for what it’s worth, if it’s even worth something…you’re welcome.”

Hannah didn’t know whether she wanted to turn around and run, or stay where she was and try to make sense of the pain and sadness Rachel tried to hide, which was so clearly visible to her. The ambivalence had thrown her completely off guard and Hannah mentally slapped herself for her lack of control. But for the first time since her accident, she was able to get a good look at Doctor Rachel Kendrick and Hannah could not stop herself when her eyes took in the woman in front of her. Her thick, dark hair was as unruly as Hannah remembered; cutting it a lot shorter had not tamed it. Rachel, who was only an inch taller than Hannah, had lost some weight, she noticed, very aware of the fact that she had most likely gained what Rachel had lost.

Rachel’s face had not changed at all. There were a few lines around her eyes that had not been there before, but her features were still soft and open. A face Hannah remembered well; every inch, each and every curve. The way the dark eyes twinkled, with gentle amusement, or burnt with a fire that, at one time, only Hannah had been able to ignite. The warmth they used to radiate when they followed Hannah around had disappeared. It had been replaced by a guarded look, as if Rachel tried to hide her real emotions.

More secrets, probably, Hannah decided, instinctively knowing that tapping into her anger would help her to tear her eyes away from Rachel Kendrick, which would allow her to turn around and go back to work.

“Well, anyway…thanks,” she finally said in a voice that was barely a whisper. “I have a patient to see.”

Before Rachel Kendrick could respond, Hannah had already turned around, heading towards the end of the hallway, entering a room and carefully closing the door behind her.

Only when it slowly dawned on her she was staring at an empty spot in the hallway, Rachel stepped into the nurses’ station, in search of one of her patient’s charts. She automatically grabbed the document from its numbered shelf and took a seat at one of the desks. She stared down at the dark-green cover, but the only thing she could see, were Hannah’s eyes, capable of so much more than staring at her with cool detachment. A coldness that burned deeply into her already guilt-filled heart. The feeling made her miserable.

I deserve this. I really deserve this, the mantra in her head continued. But the words, repeated so often during the last few years, did nothing to take away the dull throbbing pain inside her chest.

Some things would probably never change.

***

Hannah, who had escaped into a room at the end of the hallway, knew that, as soon as she would return to the nurses’ station, Gary would give her an intensely inquisitive look. She had experienced that look before. He wouldn’t say a thing, but the expression in his eyes would convey it all: Hannah Ingrid Jensen, you’re a coward!

Hannah took a deep breath and sank down in one of the two chairs near the window. She leaned back and for a brief moment she closed her eyes, desperately trying to arrange her thoughts that had taken flight the moment Rachel had showed up so unexpectedly.

When she had turned around and walked off, Hannah wanted Rachel to think she was going to see to a patient, a convenient excuse to escape the Doctor’s presence. Seeing Rachel so unexpectedly had rocked her to the her core, something she was not willing to admit. She needed some time to regain her composure. Inside, she was shaking. The brief confrontation with Rachel had left her utterly confused and Hannah could not help wondering why.

With a tired gesture, Hannah rubbed her eyes and, involuntarily, her fingers brushed the tiny scar above her eyes, a remnant of the small cut Rachel had sutured. Hannah exhaled slowly and tried to push down the feeling of nausea that suddenly erupted, deep down inside her stomach.

“Not now, Hannah. This is no time to get sick,” she mumbled to herself, while getting up from the chair to enter the small bathroom. She quickly splashed some cold water in her face and immediately felt better. With a paper towel, she dried her hands and cheeks and when she looked up, she was met by her reflection in the mirror. Tired blue eyes in a pale face, unruly blond hair that desperately needed a cut. Hannah remembered that, in the past, Rachel had often referred to her as beautiful. She softly snorted and slowly shook her head.

“She needs to get her eyes checked,” she mumbled. “But then, it’s obvious she has changed her opinion about me anyway. She left.”

The feelings of sadness and confusion were pushed aside by a new surge of anger, when Hannah remembered the days, weeks and months after Rachel’s sudden, unexplained departure. The eyes in the mirror turned a few shades darker when the smoldering fire within was ignited with memories Hannah could not make herself to forget.

“You might have won this round, Rachel Kendrick,” she whispered. “But next time we meet, I’ll be more prepared.”

With that, and a last look in the mirror, Hannah turned around and left the room, strengthened by her resolve to face Rachel Kendrick with dignity.

***

The next time though came faster than Hannah had anticipated. It was the very next day, a Friday. She had planned to leave work on time, so she could do some Christmas shopping, hoping to avoid the huge crowds, which she detested. Hannah usually knew exactly what she wanted and where to buy it. Her shopping was purposeful, fast and efficient, just the way she liked it. And even though Christmas had never been the same since the death of her parents, the holiday season still managed to spark of excitement, reminding Hannah of the time when she was a little girl.

With a smile, Hannah cast a look at her watch, seeing her shift only lasted another thirty minutes and then she would be off for two days.

“Ah, weekend,” she sighed, closing the chart she had been working on. “What are your plans, Gary?”

Gary swivelled around in his chair and grinned when he noticed the twinkle in his friend’s eyes. He was happy to see the barely veiled excitement in Hannah’s eyes. It had been too long since he had seen her so relaxed.

“Jake threatened me with bodily harm if I don’t join him on yet another shopping spree,” he answered, rolling his eyes. “Of course his list of brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews is endless. Take my advice, Hannah, steer clear of eligible…,” he quickly looked around to make sure they were alone. “…women, who have large families. It not only costs you a fortune, it also squeezes every ounce of energy out of your body, especially around Christmas time.”

Hannah laughed heartily when she pictured a tired Gary being dragged across the mall by Jake and she nodded in understanding.

“Thanks for the warning, buddy,” she answered warmly. “If I ever meet somebody… eligible…I’ll make sure to ask for credentials.”

“You do that,” Gary laughed. “And don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“I’ll remember that,” Hannah answered with a chuckle, trying to push away the image of a dark-haired, brown-eyed woman she never thought would cross her path ever again. Until a few weeks ago. “Right now I only have to shop for a select few, which is fine with me.”

“Oh really?” Gary smiled, scooting his chair closer. “What are you buying me?”

“A pound of modesty,” Hannah promptly answered, grinning when Gary rolled his eyes. “But, maybe, if you’re really nice, I…”

The ringing of the phone interrupted Hannah in mid-sentence and she nodded at Gary when he gestured towards the device on his desk. He politely answered and listened intently when the person on the other side of the connection spoke to him. A quick glance in Hannah’s direction told the nurse she had to brace herself for some bad news. Hannah’s first thoughts went to her grandmother, but it was as if Gary could read her mind, because he reached out to touch her hand and quickly shook his head. Hannah let out a sigh of relief and leaned back into her chair.

“It’s Betty. For you,” he added, handing Hannah the phone.

With frown, Hannah brought the device to her ear, suddenly aware of a nervous feeling in the pit of her stomach.

“Betty, hi. How are you?”

“I’m all right, Hannah, thanks. Listen, I wish we could chat a bit, but we’ re real busy down here and I’ve a request. We’re swamped here in the ER. Would you be willing to help us out? It’s only for a few hours. Brenda’s coming in earlier tonight, around seven, but until then we’ve got nobody. There was a pile-up on the I-40 and a bus was involved. There are a lot of people with injuries, most of them seem to be minor, but still…”

“In about ten minutes I’ll give report to the evening shift. I’ll come down immediately after that,” Hannah interrupted her friend.

“Awesome! Thanks, Hannah, you’ re a lifesaver.”

“Are you sure, Hannah?” Gary asked when his friend handed him back the phone. “You look tired.” And you might run into Rachel, he mentally added.

“I know what a zoo the ER can be,” Hannah sighed, raking her hand through her hair. “Besides, it’s only for a few hours.”

But more than a few hours later, Hannah was still helping her former co-workers in the ER. Betty had not exaggerated, they had been swamped. People with minor injuries were waiting in the triage area, some more patient than others, while the more seriously injured were either treated on the spot, or diverted to other hospitals in the area.

Hannah had lost track of how many patients she had seen. All she knew was that the stream of people needing her help seemed to be endless.

“How are you holding up, sweetie?” Betty asked when she passed Hannah in the hallway.

“I’ll live,” Hannah sighed. “I think the adrenaline keeps me going, though. My feet are killing me.”

“I’m sorry, Hannah,” Betty answered,

“Don’t be,” Hannah shrugged. “I’m glad I was around to help you out.”

“So am I,” the charge nurse’s voice sounded behind them. “Hannah or Betty. The Doc needs help in room 3.”

“I’ll go,” Hannah answered, knowing her friend was already caught up in a case.

“Thanks, Hannah,” Betty smiled.

Before Hannah could ask either Betty or the charge nurse which doctor was in need of help, they had both disappeared and, with a tired gesture, Hannah rubbed her eyes. She knew Rachel was around somewhere, because she had seen the doctor run past her on numerous occasions. And even though their eyes had met briefly, Rachel had not acknowledged Hannah’s presence, something that had stung, even though the nurse had quickly pushed away that feeling. It was too complicated to wonder why being ignored by Rachel had hurt her feelings.

“All right, Hannah, room 3,” she mumbled to herself, making her way to the room opposite the nurse’s station; the nerve center of the ER.

“Holler when you need anything, Hannah,” Jane, the secretary called out, just before the nurse pushed open the door to the room.

Hannah nodded and sent Jane a small smile. After taking a deep breath, she stepped into the room, while her tired blue eyes took in the sight in front of her.

Rachel Kendrick was cradling a phone between her neck and shoulder, while her free hands were busy wiping away blood from an elderly man’s forehead. The patient seemed to be unconscious and for a split second, Hannah was thrown back in time.

Take e deep breath, Hannah, you can do this, she told herself. Be a professional and do your job.

“Did you need help with something, Doctor Kendrick?”

Rachel almost dropped the phone and cast Hannah a look that was a mixture of shock, disbelief and insecurity.

“Um…yes, I do, as a matter of fact. I need another pair of hands here.”

Without responding, Hannah stepped closer to the stretcher and quietly continued the clean-up job Rachel Kendrick had started. The Doctor immediately pulled away her hands and involuntarily took a step back.

“Yes, as soon as possible would be nice,” she sighed into the telephone, trying not to roll her eyes. “I know it’s busy, believe me,” she continued in a tired voice. “But I really need a scan…no, he’s unresponsive….yes, he’s breathing on his own, no, no ventilator…just an IV…isn’t it possible to…?…All right, all right, thirty minutes sounds wonderful. Thank you.”

Rachel broke the connection and tried hard not to slam the phone down on its cradle that was mounted to the wall. She was beyond tired and knew her patience was wearing thin. It was obvious the tech in Radiology was overwhelmed and she could not blame the poor girl.

“Hannah, this is Sam Ferguson. He’s the driver of the bus and when he was brought in, he was unresponsive. His vital signs are stable, but I’m worried about his head. I have reason to believe he was on blood thinners and we both know a closed head wound could be real bad news for him.”

Rachel reached out to grab a clean sponge gauze, but dropped it on the floor and she softly muttered a curse.

“I’m in serious need of some fresh coffee,” she mumbled, not realizing Hannah picked up on those words.

“When is the last time you had anything to eat or drink?” Hannah asked gruffly, without looking up from her task.

Rachel, having not expected any question or remark from Hannah at all, needed a moment to regain her composure. Her dark eyes rested on the top of Hannah’s bent head, while she desperately searched for an intelligent answer.

“Um…I can’t remember,” she answered softly, stepping closer to the stretcher to grab her patient’s wrist in order to feel his pulse.

Hannah looked up and for a moment she allowed her gaze to linger on the dark-haired doctor. Rachel seemed tired. Her face was pale and drawn and there were dark circles underneath her eyes. She seemed small and vulnerable in her light-blue scrubs, smaller than Hannah remembered her to be. Her gaze softened and when Rachel suddenly looked up, straight into her eyes, her heart skipped a beat and she quickly cast down her eyes.

“What about you?” a soft voice sounded.

“What do you mean?” Hannah answered, staring at her busy hands, glad she had an excuse to not have to look up.

“When is the last time you had something to eat or drink?”

Hannah frowned while trying to remember. She was so tired it was hard to think. She had skipped a few meals and could not remember when she had her last drink.

“I…um…I had breakfast,” she answered slowly, immediately hearing Rachel softly snort. That response almost made her smile and Hannah didn’t know whether she should be angry with herself for that, or to just accept things the way they were.

“You are as pathetic as I am,” Rachel remarked with atouch of humor in her voice. “It’s a miracle we’re still standing.”

“The secret is in the shoes,” Hannah quipped, taken back by her own words. She had not meant to have a light conversation with Rachel Kendrick. Not after everything that had happened.

Rachel’s familiar chuckle caused an ache in Hannah’s heart and she had to swallow hard to get rid of the lump that had suddenly appeared in her throat. Her eyes were still focused on the cut in her patient’s forehead, so she missed the sudden pain in a pair of brown eyes that were hungrily taking in the blond nurse’s features.

Hannah could feel Rachel’s eyes burning on her skin, but she refused to look up. She knew she couldn’t bear an emotional confrontation, not even a silent one. She was too tired. And there was too much to think about.

Hannah’s eyes flew to the monitor the patient was hooked up to, when, all of a sudden, the alarm sounded.

“Damn it, his SAT’s are dropping,” Rachel mumbled, increasing the flow of oxygen that gently flowed into the patient’s nose. “He needs a scan now. Let me call their supervisor.”

With that, Rachel turned around and yanked the phone out of its cradle, determination written all over her face.

***

“I don’t know how to thank you, Hannah,” John Oakley, ER’s charge nurse sighed when he sank down next to the blonde who was sitting on a low coach in the break room. “You were a tremendous help. Have you ever considered coming back to us?”

Hannah cast a look aside and smiled when she noticed the mischievous look on his dark-skinned face.

“I love you guys dearly, John, you know that,” she answered, patting him on the knee. “But I’m done here. Too much…of too much,” she grimaced. “I know, that didn’t really sound like a logical explanation, but it feels like my brain has shut down…about two hours ago,” she added with a sigh.

“Mine would have done that eight hours ago,” John grinned. “You’re a trooper, sweetie, and I’m really sorry we had to do this to you. But I’m grateful just the same. Will you be all right driving home?”

Hannah nodded and yawned behind her hand. Hours ago she had been tired, now she had past the point of exhaustion and all she could think about was taking a shower and going to bed.

“I’ll be fine, John, don’t worry. I guess I’d better get going though, before I fall asleep in here.”

“You’re welcome to,” John smiled, patting Hannah’s shoulder before he got back to his feet again. “A lot of residents swear by this couch.”

“I know,” Hannah groaned when pushing herself up from her comfortable seat. “But I have a nice bed at home and I can hear it calling my name.” Hannah sent John a tired smile and walked towards the door. “See you later, John. Tell Mandy I said ‘hi’.”

“I will,” John promised, wondering how his pregnant wife was doing. “If I ever get to go home today, that is.”

After a last wave, Hannah stepped into the hallway and was immediately surrounded by the noise of the ER. Crying children, ringing telephones, raised voices coming from the room where they usually treated addicts and drunks, carts being pushed or pulled across the floor…Shaking her head, Hannah slowly walked towards the exit, realizing she was happy with the floor she worked on. She knew rude, loud patients could be anywhere, but at least the noise level on her floor permitted her to hear herself think.

“Going home?” a familiar voice suddenly sounded beside her and Hannah almost jumped. She had not noticed Rachel and again she was taken aback by her own reaction, wondering if the Doctor would notice her flushed state.

“Um…yes, finally,” Hannah answered softly.

“You must be tired,” Rachel remarked and Hannah could hear the warmth and concern in her voice. “Are you off tomorrow?”

“Oh, yeah,” Hannah sighed in contentment. “What about you?” she asked before she could stop herself.

Rachel nodded and stuffed her hands in the pockets of her slacks. Only then Hannah noticed she had changed out of her scrubs.

“No call, for two whole days,” she smiled. “Are you parked in the main parking garage? Do you mind if I walk with you?” she asked softly when Hannah nodded.

Tell her ‘no’! Tell her to go to Hell and leave me alone. Tell her you won’t have anything to do with her. Tell her you have no time for insensitive, cold-hearted exes…

“Sure,” Hannah responded so softly, Rachel almost missed the whispered answer.

In silence, they left the noisy ER behind them and, with appreciation, Hannah breathed in the crisp evening air. She had worked for more than fifteen hours and had she not been that tired, she would have been tempted to take a walk around the campus.

“It’s a beautiful night,” Rachel spoke, not able to hide the melancholy in her voice. How many times had Hannah dragged her away from her books to get a breath of fresh air under a star-filled sky? It seemed a lifetime ago and yet, right now, Rachel felt like it had only been yesterday. So close and yet, so far beyond her reach.

“It is,” Hannah admitted, remembering a first, hesitant kiss on a warm, summer night, on the bank of Lake Tenkiller. The moment would have been absolutely perfect, had it not been for the mosquitos that had been out in what had seemed like entire swarms.

Hannah suppressed a sigh and tried to ignore the heaviness that settled in her chest. It was a long time ago. She had been so young and naive. So many things had happened since. So much hurt and sadness…

In silence, they walked into the parking garage, both women deep in thought and only when the door of the elevator closed behind them, Rachel spoke again.

“Which floor, Hannah?”

“Three,” Hannah answered, still a little absent-minded. She always parked on the same floor. That way she could remember where she had parked her car and she didn’t have to search for it, something that, in the past, had happened on different occasions.

With tired eyes, she watched Rachel push the button and lean against the wall of the elevator. Why was Rachel being so polite and friendly? And why did she, Hannah, respond the way she did, instead of ignoring the Doctor or just telling her what she thought of her exactly?

And what is that, Hannah? What do you think about her? You’ve had several chances to tell her how you feel, but you let it go. Why?It’s not like she deserves any kindness or sympathy from you. Or have you already forgottenhow much pain and misery she put you through? The endless , sleepless nights? The hope that, maybe, just maybe, it was all a bad dream and Rachel would come back to you? What about the tears you shed for her, Hannah? Do you remember the pain?

“Hannah,” Rachel spoke, while the concern in her dark-brown eyes was clearly visible. “Hannah!”

Hannah jerked her head up and, with a dazed look in her eyes, she stared at the woman in front of her.

“W…what?” she stammered, realizing Rachel must have been talking to her.

“It’s the third floor. We need to get out here.”

Rachel watched as Hannah slowly nodded and quietly stepped out of the elevator, trying not to shiver when a blast of cold air suddenly hit her.

“Are you all right? Are you sure you can drive?” Rachel asked with a frown.

“I’m fine, really,” Hannah answered. “I was…I zoned out there for a moment, that’s all. I know I can drive.”

“Just be careful,” Rachel urged, aware of her growing concern about Hannah. Maybe she should follow her, to make sure the blonde would make it home safely.

Hannah looked up and for a brief moment Rachel could see a mixture of pain, anguish and confusion in those tired blue eyes. It made her want to reach out and pull Hannah into the safety of her arms, to hold her and comfort her. The desire was so great, Rachel had to stuff her hands back into her pockets, while an intense pain, that was almost physical, rocked her to her core.

And what a lot of comfort that would be, the mocking voice in the back of her head spoke. Who says she wants to have anything to do with you? It was you who left her, without explanation. It’s a miracle she hasn’t called you on it yet, but that will be a matter of time. Mark my words…

“Rachel,” Hannah spoke slowly, searching for the right words. “I do appreciate your…concern, but…isn’t a little late to be worrying about me?” she asked, not aware of the bitterness in her voice.

Taking a deep breath, Rachel let the wave of guilt and pain wash over her, before lowering her eyes and exhaling slowly. She needed to stay in control of her emotions. She knew Hannah was as tired as she was, but she wanted to do this right. It could well be her first and last chance.

“I’ve always worried about you,” she finally answered in a low voice.

A pair of blue eyes suddenly flashed with anger, before Hannah averted her gaze, determined to not lose her temper.

“You had a…unique way of showing that.”

Rachel slowly nodded and took her time to respond to Hannah’s sarcastic words.

“You have every right in the world to say that,” she replied after a brief silence. “And if our roles were reversed, I wonder if I could be as composed and graceful as you are right now. But, Hannah, there are some things I need to explain and,” Rachel paused when Hannah snorted and again she was the recipient of an angry flash from those blue eyes that once had been so warm and inviting. Rachel swallowed hard, willing away the memory. She could dwell on that later. Right now, she knew she had to tread lightly and cautiously.

“There are a lot of things I need to explain and there are a lot of things I want…I need to talk to you about, but I understand if you’d refuse. The only thing I ask of you is to give it some thought. If you decide you don’t want to talk to me, I promise I’ll try to accept that.”

Hannah could feel her heart pound in her chest and she wondered if Rachel could actually hear it. She felt torn in two. Part of her wanted to be angry with Rachel and deny her the need to talk. But another part of Hannah was both curious and eager to let Rachel explain what had happened. Why she had left without an explanation. Why, all of a sudden, she had returned.

“I’ll think about it,” Hannah finally answered in a voice that was hoarse with emotion. She looked up and again she was struck by the raw, naked pain in Rachel’s eyes. It awakened the urge to reach out and brush away a strand of dark hair that dangled across the Doctor’s forehead. Clenching her car-keys into her fist, Hannah willed her hand to stay where it was, while she slowly started to turn, to walk to her car.

“Thank you, Hannah,” Rachel spoke and Hannah nodded, refusing to look up again. She did not want Rachel to see the tears in her eyes that slowly made their way down her cheeks.

Chapter five

“Hannah, sweetie, are you sure you want to go shopping today? You don’t look all that rested, if you ask me,” Gertrude remarked, lovingly ruffling her granddaughter’s hair.

“If I don’t do it today, I’ll never do it,” Hannah answered with a sigh. “You know how well shopping and I go together.”

“Not at all,” Gertrude answered dryly. “It must be a birth defect, because you sure didn’t inherit the ‘eeww-shopping’ gene from me.”

Hannah almost snorted coffee through her nose and shot her grandmother an accusing look when she wiped the tears from her eyes and blew her nose. Leave it to her grandmother to make her laugh just when she took a sip of hot coffee. Hannah had to admit to herself that, during the last few years she had not been laughing much. But then, she didn’t think there had been many reasons to laugh. First, completely unexpectedly, Rachel had left her, which had wounded her deeply, leaving her confused and broken-hearted. And if that had not been enough hurt, not long after Rachel’s disappearance, her parents had died when their car was run off the road by a drunk driver. The first year after those two events, Hannah had spent in a haze of pain and confusion. Her whole world had changed so quickly and so definitely, it had been hard to grasp. Only when Gertrude had suffered a stroke, Hannah had been shocked out of her numb state of mind, because her grandmother had needed her. Tapping into a strength she didn’t know she possessed, Hannah had pulled herself together and had been there for Gertrude, every step of the way, from the first, critical night in the hospital, to the day she had left the rehabilitation center and Hannah had moved in with her. They had become each other’s best friends and their close-knit relationship was something they both cherished.

“Do you want to come with me, Gran?” Hannah asked as she stood up to put her coffee mug in the dishwasher.

“No, honey, but thanks for asking. I’ll do my shopping on the internet.”

Hannah chuckled, knowing how much her grandmother enjoyed the computer class she had enrolled in, not in the least because the teacher was a cute young IT student she loved to embarrass.

“Well, I do mine the old-fashioned way,” Hannah smiled, while kissing her grandmother’s cheek. “I’ll be back in time for supper.”

“Make sure you get some lunch,” Gertrude warned. “You look tired and after that long shift yesterday, you need some extra protein.”

“I’ll try to remember, Gran,” Hannah smiled, grabbing her purse and keys from the kitchen table and making her way to the door. “I’ll see you later.”

“Bye, baby. Have fun,” Gertrude waved. “Don’t spend your entire inheritance.”

“Not today,” Hannah smiled. “Stay out of trouble.”

“As if,” Gertrude snorted, but her blue eyes twinkled. “Bye, sweetie.”

Hannah blew her grandmother a kiss and closed the door behind her, relieved to be out of reach from those intelligent, piercing eyes. Gertrude had already mentioned Hannah looked tired and the last thing Hannah wanted was her grandmother interrogating her about the amount of sleep she managed to get, because it had not been much.

After she had taken a quick shower the previous evening, Hannah had slid between the sheets, intent on falling asleep immediately, but that had not happened. It had taken hours for her to fall asleep. Time and time again, her conversation with Rachel had played through her head and no matter how hard she had tried, she could not get rid of the image of the pain in Rachel’s eyes. Or the carefully veiled anguish in the soft, low voice.

Once she had managed to doze off she had been plagued by dreams that had been fueled by memories she had tried to forget. And even after getting up that morning, the feeling one of the dreams had given her, still made her feel uncomfortable. It puzzled Hannah. All of a sudden she was almost haunted by images she had managed to push away from conscious thought for a long time.

Until now. Until Rachel had unexpectedly resurfaced.

Hannah sighed when she started the engine of her grandmother’s silver colored Buick. Life sure had become complicated in a hurry. First the accident, which basically was forcing her to go out and buy a new car, something she was still postponing and secondly…Hannah sighed again, while slowly letting the car roll down the driveway. Secondly, there was Rachel.

Rachel Kendrick, once Hannah’s world and future, a ghost from the past, who, all of a sudden, returned into her life and mercilessly confronted Hannah with fears and feelings she had suppressed and never dealt with. Until now.

Hannah knew too much about psychology and was too honest to herself notto see the years after Rachel’s disappearance had basically been spent in denial.

“You just pushed it all away,” she mumbled to herself. “Way to go, Hannah! If you’d have done something with it, maybe you wouldn’t have acted like an idiot the moment Rachel showed up. You can’t let her think you’ve been pining for her.”

Yeah, Hannah, you should show her the notches on your bedpost, a mocking voice in the back of her mind sounded. She’d be impressed.

“What notches?” Hannah sighed. “It’s not like I had time to hurl myself into the dating scene.”

That’s bull! the voice answered. You had your chances. Remember that cute girl at the pharmacy? And what about that curly-haired granddaughter of Granny’s friend? And all those girls Gary tried to set you up with?

“I was busy, I didn’t have time,” Hannah mumbled. She shook her head and let out a deep sigh. “Listen to me, I’m having a conversation with myself. I’m definitely going crazy.”

Don’t change the subject. Admit it, Hannah, Rachel might have been out of sight, but she’s never been out of your heart.

“Then maybe it’s time to deal with that, for once and for all,” Hannah spoke angrily. “Rachel Kendrick is past tense and maybe…just maybe, I should have that talk with her. Just to find out why she ran. I’m sure when I know all the ins- and outs, I’ll be able to continue my life, without her being in the background all the time!”

Feeling a little better about herself after these words, Hannah consciously ignored the voice in the back of her head and concentrated on the busy traffic. It was obvious to her that a lot of people had the same idea about doing some early Christmas shopping; the huge parking area surrounding Quail Springs Mall was buzzing with activity. Hopeful drivers were slowly driving up and down the aisles, eagerly looking for a vacant spot. A quick look at the narrow field of grass between the road and the parking area, showed Hannah a lot of drivers had given up the hope to park close to the Mall’s entrance. They had simply driven their vehicles up on the grass, using it as a makeshift parking area.

“Looks promising,” Hannah mumbled. “What was I thinking? Next year I’ll do my Christmas shopping in the summer. Or even better, I’ll buy everybody a book, from Amazon.com.”

With a groan of frustration, Hannah steered the car into a spot located in a corner that seemed at least half a mile away from the entrance to the mall. There was a bitterly cold wind and Hannah knew she would be chilled to the bone by the time she was able to step inside the building.

“At least it’s not raining,” she mumbled, casting a concerned look at the slate-grey sky. “I really should go and pick out a new car, so I don’t need to drive this…this,” she cast a look at the old, silver-colored Buick and wrinkled her nose. “So I don’t need to drive this Titanic anymore. I’d like to be able to squeeze a vehicle in a smaller area.”

A passerby cast Hannah a puzzled look and she sent the elderly man a sweet smile. He probably thought she was nuts and Hannah could not blame him.

“I really should quit talking to myself,” she mumbled, softly snorting when she realized she had done it again. “Way to go, Hannah. If I’m crazy now, how will I be after I’ve done my shopping in this madhouse?”

As soon as the blonde entered the mall, she tried to ignore the throngs of people who were milling about, looking for that one Christmas bargain. In her mind, Hannah had a list and she knew exactly what to buy and where. The only problem was getting there, since people were everywhere, which made it hard sometimes to quickly walk from one store to another.

Have patience, Hannah. You knew this would happen. Just think about the moment you’ll be in that monstrous car again, on your way home, with all your shopping done…

That thought actually perked her up a little and with an indulgent smile she accepted the apologies of a young mother who had just run her baby stroller into Hannah’s shinbones.

“Don’t worry about it,” Hannah reassured her, trying to not bend down and rub her painful shins. “I’m fine, honest. It was nothing.”

From the corner of her eye, Hannah noticed the colorful display of a toy store and with a friendly nod she left the embarrassed young mother to pick up a toy for her friend, Betty Palmer’s two year old. She knew the little boy loved the Weebles and she was set on getting him a ‘Weeble bus’.

Even though the toy store was crowded with parents and children, Hannah noticed, to her relief, there was a little more space to move around and she gratefully walked towards the aisle for toddlers.

As her eyes were scanning the colorful items on the shelves, the echo of a conversation, a long time ago, unexpectedly reached her ears.

Oh, yes, I’d love to. I’d like to have at least three, but if they all look like you, I want six, Rachel’s voice penetrated her subconscious so suddenly, Hannah gasped for breath.

It had been one of the many conversations she had tried very hard to forget. They had been part of a future she once had lived for, until all those hopes and dreams had violently been uprooted and carelessly tossed aside.

Hannah swallowed hard, rapidly blinking to prevent the tears, that were stinging her eyes, from falling. With the back of her hand, she rubbed her eyes, trying to dodge a toddler who came running around the corner on unsteady legs. While Hannah quickly stepped to the right, the toddler headed for the left and unceremoniously crashed into Hannah’s legs, landing on the floor with an audible thump.

Wincing in sympathy for the little girl, this time Hannah did rub her shins, while she cast a concerned look at the child, who was scrambling back to her feet, with a happy grin on her face.

“No tears, huh?” Hannah spoke, duly impressed. “You’re a tough one.”

“Weebles,” the girl laughed, pointed at the shelf behind Hannah.

“Oh, another wobbly weeble fan,” Hannah smiled, reaching out to push the little girl’s hair away from her forehead. The moment she touched her, a strong feeling of foreboding took possession of her and again the memory of yet another conversation made its way back into her conscious mind.

I don’t like the idea of little kids wearing dog-tags. They could seriously hurt themselves while playing. Nope, I’d sew labels with their names and stuff in their clothes…”

“Where are your parents, little one?” she mumbled, moistening her, suddenly dry lips.

Holding her breath and with trembling fingers, Hannah reached for the back of the girl’s jacket, carefully folding the fabric. Immediately, a white label, sown into the clothing caught her eyes.

“Oh, Lord, have mercy,” Hannah breathed while her eyes scanned the bold printed letters. She let go of the fabric as if she had burnt her fingers and quickly took a step back, ready to bolt.

Just as she was about to turn around, a little hand grabbed her jeans, just below the knee and gave the denim an impatient tug.

“Mommy?”

Hannah swallowed hard when her eyes met a pair of troubled brown ones that rapidly became moist when the little girl realized she had lost her mother.

“Oh, no! No, no, no, no, no” Hannah responded, when she saw the pout and the quivering bottom lip. “You can’t cry now, Missy. We’ll have to find your Mommy. Come here.”

Without hesitation, but with a heavy heart, Hannah lifted the toddler into her arms intent on heading for the customer service area. But, as soon as she rounded the corner, she suddenly stood eye-to-eye with Rachel Kendrick.

The look on the Doctor’s face was one of near-panic, which only intensified when she noticed the child in Hannah’s arms. Her dark eyes looked huge in her suddenly pale face.

“Mommy!” the toddler cried happily, reaching out both arms towards her mother, who quickly grabbed her before she jumped out of Hannah’s firm grip.

“Nicky!” Rachel responded, moistening her dry lips, while her eyes took in the blonde in front of her. She stared into the familiar blue of Hannah’s eyes, expecting to find anger, but all she could see was confusion and pain that lanced straight through her heart.

Oh, Hannah, I didn’t want you to find out this way, Not like this…

“Mommy?” Hannah repeated after a short, tense silence. Her voice was strained with emotion and no matter how much she wanted to turn around and walk away, the look of anguish in Rachel’s eyes made it hard for her to move. So, she waited.

“I…It’s not…Well, it’s exactly what it seems like, at least…I guess it does,” Rachel tried to find the right words, afraid to run Hannah off. She shifted Nicky to her other hip and took a deep breath, trying to regain her composure.

“I remember…someone…telling me once, that,” Hannah paused and slowly exhaled. “Telling me…she…would never be so stupid as to lose her child in a crowd. What happened…Doctor?”

Rachel almost cringed at the tone in the blonde’s voice and for a moment she felt like a small, rebuked child.

“I guess I faced reality,” she finally answered. “And I’ll make sure never to make silly statements like that again. Obviously, I didn’t know what I was talking about.”

“Obviously,” Hannah answered softly, remembering Rachel’s sense of responsibility, a character trait that made her disappearance even harder to understand.

Hannah sighed and rubbed her forehead, wondering how long she would be able to look at Rachel and her little girl without bursting into tears. Had they not dreamt about starting a family one day? Together? Hannah had no idea why Rachel had left her and their plans for the future, but, at the moment, the reality of Rachel’s choices brutally stared her in the face. It hurt more than she ever could have imagined.

“Hannah, this is not what it seems like, honestly,” Rachel tried again, desperately wanting the nurse to know the truth, but knowing Hannah and Nicky running into each other had given the blonde an impression that would not be easy to erase.

“Would you…please, let me explain?” Rachel tried, unconsciously holding her breath while she waited for an answer.

“Is there anything to explain?” Hannah asked, averting the soulful brown eyes by staring at the colorful toys that surrounded them.

“Yes, there is,” Rachel answered in a hoarse voice. “There’s a lot to explain.”

“Why would I believe you?” Hannah asked in a low, but bitter voice.

“Have I ever lied to you?” Rachel dared with an audible quiver in her voice.

Hannah looked up and for a brief moment allowed the anger to show, before she cast down her eyes and let out a shuddering breath.

You once said you loved me…

Rachel caught herself when she reached out a hand, yearning to touch the other woman, as she had done so many times before. She quickly withdrew, before she could make a fool out of herself and decided to wait for Hannah’s response, intent on accepting it, no matter how hard it would be.

“I guess it makes a difference whether you were on the giving or receiving end of that note you wrote me, the day you left,” Hannah finally responded, not missing the hardly visible flinch in Rachel’s face.

“I guess that’s true,” Rachel softly answered, trying to swallow away the lump in her throat. She knew the hurt she had inflicted on Hannah ran deep, but there was a difference between knowing something and actually witnessing it. The responsibility for the blonde’s pain weighed heavily on her shoulders and, like so many times before, Rachel wondered if she had made the right choices.

It’s not like you can change any of them, Rachel, you hurt her, deeply. Now, deal with the past and hope for the best.

For Rachel, the best would be having a civilized conversation with Hannah in which she would have the chance to explain a few things. That was the least she could do. Hannah deserved that, but would she accept it, too? From experience, Rachel knew that Hannah could be very stubborn. That, in combination with her tendency to withdraw into herself, sometimes made it hard to approach her.

Inwardly, Rachel cringed, Hannah was a great listener, but trying to get her to open up, could provide a challenge. But deep down inside, Rachel knew she simply had to try. Somehow, she had to find out if there was anything left from the bond they had once shared. She knew she was grasping at straws, especially now, with Hannah’s eyes traveling between Nicky and her. The longer she would wait to explain the situation, the stronger Hannah’s belief in her infidelity.

“She’s not mine,” Rachel suddenly stated, immediately seeing Hannah’s eyebrows rise, while her eyes bore into her own.

“She’s not?” Hannah echoed in a cool voice. “The resemblance is uncanny and she did call you ‘Mommy’, didn’t she?”

Rachel sighed and tried not to fidget under Hannah’s scrutinizing look. The last thing she wanted was Hannah to think she was not in control of her nerves.

“She…” Rachel cleared her throat to get rid of the hoarseness in her voice. “Nicky is my daughter. I adopted her,” she added in a soft voice. She paused when Hannah opened her mouth, ready to reply, but, after a brief silence, closed it again, looking at Rachel with a mixture of curiosity and disbelief.

“To make a long story short; Nicky is Randy’s daughter,” Rachel explained, watching the expression on Hannah’s face. She was fascinated with the rapid changes in the expressive blue eyes, reflecting Hannah’s moods and feelings so easily. Seamlessly they went from suspicion to surprise to disbelief to careful acceptance. But only because Rachel had known the blonde so well, she was aware of the tiny little spark as well; a silent expression of amusement.

“Randy,” Hannah echoed, her voice soft. “Your brother.”

“My brother,” Rachel nodded, unconsciously resting her cheek on Nicky’s soft hair. The toddler had put her head on her mother’s shoulder, content to be held safely in her arms. “It’s a long story,” she continued. “And I’d…I would like to tell you about it, but…not here.”

Hannah bit her bottom lip, understanding what Rachel was asking of her, but she was not sure if she could handle a one-on-one conversation with the Doctor. She was still in too much turmoil and knew she needed to make sense of all the emotions that were raging through her system.

Rachel picked up on her hesitance and, trying not to show her disappointment, she mustered up a smile.

“I understand,” she nodded in a hoarse voice. “It’s a lot to…to take in. I’m sorry.”

Those last words were spoken with so much pain and remorse, Hannah realized Rachel was referring to much more than the present situation. And, even though a little voice in the back of her mind whispered :”You’d better be sorry and no, I’m sure you don’t understand’,” Hannah did not speak those words aloud, because, deep down inside, compassion stirred.

Hannah! the voice almost yelled at her, what are you doing? Please, don’t tell me you’re starting to feel sorry for her. Come on, Hannah, get a grip!

“You’re right,” Hannah finally spoke in a soft voice. “This is not the right place.”

For a brief moment, Hannah’s eyes met Rachel’s and in them, the Doctor read what Hannah had not yet said. She slowly nodded while forcing back tears of disappointment, grief and tension.

“And now is not the right time,” she spoke in voice that was hoarse with emotion. “I do understand that.”

“Thank you,” Hannah answered, wondering if she could make it back to the car without bursting out in tears. A little nervous, she raked her fingers through her hair, a gesture that was painfully familiar to Rachel.

Hannah knew she had to get out of the store and out of the mall. She needed physical distance between Rachel and herself. She needed to think. Her thoughts were a whirlwind of fragments, evoking a turmoil of emotions she could not make sense of. Not with a pair of familiar, soulful brown eyes staring at her with a look that, surprisingly enough, tugged on her heartstrings. And not with a cute, lively toddler, who was the spitting image of her adopted mother sending her shy smiles from Rachel’s arms.

“I…I need to go,” she stammered, not able to look the Doctor in the eyes.

Rachel could only nod, not trusting her voice, since her throat was painfully constricted.

“I’ll…I’ll see you around, I guess,” Hannah mumbled, before turning around and heading for the exit.

Biting her lip, Rachel watched her walk off, wishing she had been able to say something, anything, that would have delayed Hannah’s departure.

“Hannah,” she suddenly called out, surprising the blonde and herself by that unexpected action.

The nurse turned around, not sure whether to return to Rachel and her daughter, or to keep walking. The conflicting emotions were clearly visible and Rachel quickly crossed the distance between them.

“Hannah, I want to give you this,” Rachel explained quickly, holding out a business card. “I meant what I said in the parking garage; if you don’t want to talk, I’ll try to accept that. But…,” she paused and took a deep breath, hoping Hannah would not misinterpret her words. “In case you do want to talk, my address and phone number are on the card. You’re welcome to contact me at any time, day or night,” Rachel added with a small smile.

Rachel sounded so genuine, Hannah could not help answering the smile with one of her own. It was a brief smile, but to Rachel’s exhilaration, it reached the blue of Hannah’s eyes, giving it a depth that tore through her heart, causing a bitter-sweet pain. It reminded her of all those moments in the past, she had lost herself in a warm, blue haze. They were part of the many memories that, unbeknownst to Hannah, had kept Rachel going, all those years. But right now, Hannah’s smile was a gift Rachel accepted wholeheartedly.

Hannah’s eyes traveled to the card that Rachel was still holding out to her. When she reached out her hand to grasp it, her fingers touched Rachel’s and caused a flood of new emotions.

“I’ll think about it,” she nodded, before turning around again and walking away.

Rachel stared at her until she had disappeared into the crowd and Nicky impatiently tugged her arm.

“Mommy? Hannah gone?”

“Yes, baby, she’s gone,” Rachel sighed, the sadness in her expressive brown eyes mirrored in her daughter’s. She kissed Nicky’s soft cheek and smiled when a pair of chubby arms tightly wrapped around her neck. “But maybe, just maybe, she’ll accept, Nicky. Maybe she’ll want to talk, one day.”

Chapter Six

Later, Hannah could not recall how she had made it back to the car, but all of a sudden she was there, inside the old Buick, staring at the traffic that slowly crawled down the road, while her mind frantically tried to make sense of what had happened.

The scene from inside the toy-store kept playing through her mind and, even though the words tumbled together into a numbing mess, four words stood out amidst the constant repetition of sounds and syllables: Rachel has a child.

Hannah honestly did not know what to feel. Her first emotion, after she had read the label inside Nicky’s jacket and instantly knew the little girl had been a Kendrick, had been confusion, which was followed by anger. Followed by pain when the little girl had called Rachel ‘mommy’.

“God, what a mess,” Hannah sighed, using her fingers to rake through her hair in an effort to bring back some order in her windblown locks. She leaned back in the car seat and closed her eyes. The longer she tried to organize her thoughts, the more questions arose.

Where exactly had Rachel been all those years? Why had she come back? Why had she adopted her brother’s child? Where was Randy? Had the adoption of Nicky something to do with Rachel’s disappearance? Hannah immediately discarded that thought. Impossible. Nicky could not be older than two and Rachel had left almost four years ago.

Three years, ten months and two days, but who’s counting? The voice in the back of her head mocked.

Hannah grunted and pressed her forehead against her hands that were clenching the steering wheel.

What does this tell you, Hannah? another voice, sounding suspiciously like her grandmother, asked.

“I don’t know,” Hannah whispered. “I don’t know what to think or what to feel anymore. I just want to go to sleep and wake up, oh, let’s say, two years from now.”

She sighed and raised her head, just in time to see the first raindrops splatter against the windshield.

“Perfect,” Hannah grimaced, reaching for the seat belt so she could buckle herself in. She cast a look in the rearview mirror and pulled a face when she noticed the dark circles underneath her eyes. “Go home, pig out on Gran’s brownies and take a long nap this afternoon, Nurse Jensen,” she advised herself, after which she started the engine of the car.

The thought of the warm comfort of home, was very consoling and, feeling a little better already, Hannah steered her car away from the parking spot and headed for home.

***********

Of course, Gertrude Jensen immediately sensed something had happened, the minute Hannah had stepped into the room. She was curious, to say the least, but knew that Hannah would tell her in her own time, so she did not ask any questions. Instead, she made them both some hot chocolate, to go with the brownies, and quietly sat across from her granddaughter at the huge kitchen table. Sipping from the hot, sweet beverage, her eyes took in Hannah’s thoughtful expression. A small smile tugged on the corner of her mouth, when she noticed Hannah’s third attempt to start a conversation. The younger woman took in a deep breath, opened her mouth, but then seemed to change her mind. It remained quiet.

“Why don’t you just say it?” she finally encouraged in a soft voice. “You know you want to,” she added when Hannah sported a startled look.

“Am I that transparent?” the younger woman asked in an exasperated voice.

“Not always,” Gertrude answered truthfully. “But right now, you just look like you’re busting at the seams.”

Hannah sighed and slowly nodded, grateful for her grandmother’s honesty and care. She did need to talk to somebody and Gertrude was absolutely the best choice. But still, it was hard to find the words.

“I don’t know where to start,” she groaned in frustration.

“Try the beginning,” Gertrude replied dryly.

Hannah softly snorted and reached into the back pocket of her jeans. She pulled out a card and pushed it across the table, next to Gertrude’s mug of steaming hot chocolate.

“I guess this time, I’ll start at the end,” Hannah explained.

Raising one eyebrow, Gertrude picked up the card and let her eyes scan the elegantly printed words. The second eyebrow joined the first one when she glanced up and cast her granddaughter a look of surprise.

“I guess the story is how you got this card?”

“Yes, ma’ am,” Hannah sighed, grateful for her grandmother’s insight.

“Just what I thought,” Gertrude mumbled. “So, tell me, sweetie, did you run into Rachel while you were shopping?”

“Want to go to the casino today?” Hannah faintly joked. “I feel we could make a fortune.”

Gertrude smiled and thoughtfully placed the business card back on the table.

“I take it you two didn’t fight,” she smiled.

“Because she gave me her card?” Hannah replied. “No, we didn’t fight. She wanted to talk, but I…I couldn’t. Not yet,” she ended in a whisper.

“I’m sure you have a lot of questions though,” Gertrude gently prodded.

“I do,” Hannah nodded. “But there’s just too much to…to think about. I mean,” she impatiently pushed back her hair and softly grunted. “I had no idea…of course I had no idea, but…Rachel has a daughter,” Hannah sighed. “She adopted Randy’s daughter.”

Gertrude needed a moment to digest the information Hannah had just provided her with. Whatever she had expected, it wasn’t Rachel Kendrick’s transition into motherhood. Now she understood Hannah’s need to take a step back and catch her breath. It was a lot to take in. Especially since, at one time, Hannah and Rachel had looked forward to starting their own family. Together.

“Randy? Rachel’s brother?” Gertrude asked. She had met the youngest Kendrick on a few different occasions and, even though the young man had been utterly charming, Gertrude had always felt a certain tension between the two siblings. It was something she had never been able to put her finger on, but it was there just the same. The relationship Rachel had with her eldest brother, Joe, had been entirely different. They were playful, loving and very at ease with each other. Gertrude smiled. Joe Kendrick had always been the big, protective brother.

“I’ve always been under the impression that Randy and Rachel had some, let’s say, issues,” Gertrude stated, carefully choosing her words. “I’m surprised by the turn of events.”

“That makes two of us,” Hannah mumbled. “It leaves me with so many questions.”

“And the only way to get them answered is to talk to Rachel,” Gertrude concluded in a gentle voice.

“I know,” Hannah sighed.

Gertrude stretched out her hand and covered Hannah’s, who was fidgeting with her empty mug.

“It’s a big step, honey, I know. But, do you have anything to lose?”

“Granny, do you really have to be so logical about it?” Hannah sighed, but there was a smile in her eyes.

“Somebody has to be,” Gertrude answered, lovingly squeezing Hannah’s hand. “Besides, I earned the right to be logical. I’m old.”

“No, you’re not,” Hannah answered with indignance.

“Sweetie, I’ll be eighty-five next summer. Not exactly a spring-chicken, you know. Besides, you’re avoiding the subject. I asked you if you have anything to lose?”

Hannah shook her head and took a deep breath, before answering.

“No, I don’t. I guess I could only gain something by talking to Rachel. At least I might get some answers. Finally,” she added cynically.

“Then go for it,” Gertrude replied, shrugging her shoulders. “Talk to Rachel and hear her out.”

Hannah was silent for a few moments, thinking about what her grandmother had just suggested. There had been something about the elderly lady’s tone of voice that made her a little suspicious.

“You’re approaching this a little…too casually, Gran,” she finally spoke, her eyes fixated on Gertrude’s face, who stared back at her with an innocent smile.

“If, and I repeat, if I choose to talk to Rachel, I will do that only to get some answers. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately and I finally managed to be completely honest with myself. I know I never had any closure and that was partly my own fault.” Hannah leaned back in her chair and her face was somber. “Looking back, I feel like I’ve been standing still. I was afraid to look back and afraid to look forward. With Rachel being back in town, at least I’m forced to do something about that. And I think I will.”

“Good,” Gertrude smiled. “I’m glad to hear that.”

“Just one word of caution though,” Hannah warned, leaning forward and looking her grandmother straight into her eyes. “I’ll talk to Rachel in order to get some closure, not to get back together.”

“Hey,” Gertrude replied, holding up both hands in a defense gesture. “Don’t give me that look, you remind me of my mother, bless her heart. I think it’s wonderful you’re willing to talk to her. Just one thing, sweetie.”

Gertrude grabbed both Hannah’s hand in her own and pinned the younger woman with a serious stare.

“Don’t overlook what’s in your heart.”

Hannah did not try to avert her grandmother’s eyes, although she really would have liked to, because it was as if Gertrude could see straight through her. Her grandmother had always had that ability, even when Hannah’s parents were still alive. Sometimes that had caused her to feel uncomfortable, but sometimes, like now, it was almost reassuring.

“I won’t, Gran,” she promised in a soft voice, which earned her a smile from her grandmother.

“That’s all I ask of you,” Gertrude nodded.

**************

After Hannah had left her and Nicky at the store, Rachel had lost her desire to shop. Her thoughts were with the blonde. She tried hard to remember all the different expressions on Hannah’s face, just to reassure herself she had not seen any signs of rejection.

Give it a rest, Rachel, you’re just fooling yourself. Hannah is good at hiding her feelings, so, don’t get your hopes up. Just make sure your cell phone is on, just in case…

Immediately, Rachel stuck her hand in her purse and pulled out her cell phone. She checked to make sure the battery was charged and she had a signal. When the display showed her she had both, she increased the volume of the ring-tone and put the phone back in her purse.

If Hannah calls and I don’t hear it ring, I hope she’ll leave a message, Rachel mused.

“Get a grip, Kendrick,” she mumbled, annoyed by her own thoughts. “It’s very likely Hannah will never give you a call, so, don’t count on it.”

“Mommy?” Nicky sounded from the stroller. The little girl craned her neck in order to be able to look up at her mother.

“Yes, sweetie, Mommy is losing it, I guess. Let’s go home, get into our PJ’s and watch Sesame Street for the rest of the day.”

“Sesame stweet?” Nicky echoed with a beaming smile.

“You got it, girl,” Rachel nodded with a laugh. “Somehow I knew that would catch your attention.”

Skillfully, Rachel steered the stroller though the mall, managing not to run into other people’s legs and ten minutes later she was on her way home, with a happily chattering toddler strapped into her car seat in the back, trying not to think about the question whether a certain blond nurse would ever give her a call, or not.

**************

“Come on, Hannah, just grab that phone and dial the number. It’s not that hard,” Hannah mumbled to herself, staring at the cordless phone in her hand.

Her eyes traveled to the wall, where the faces of her parents were smiling at her from the picture that was taken a few months before their accident.

“Yes, I know, Mom,” Hannah sighed, almost able to hear her mother encourage her to grab the phone, dial the number and get it over with. Her father would not have said a lot about it, but Hannah knew for a certainty, there would have been a warm sparkle in his clear, blue eyes. He and his wife had always loved Rachel like a daughter and to them, it had been incomprehensible when she had decided to leave Hannah and all their plans for the future, without much of an explanation.

“It’s easy, right?” Hannah continued, balancing the phone in her hand. “It’s only seven digits. Just punch them in and …take it from there…Right?” she added in a small voice.

A pair of troubled blue eyes stared back at her from the mirror and Hannah poked out her tongue, before turning around and walking to her bed. She cast a look at her watch and noticed it was almost seven o’clock.

“What if I wake up Nicky?” she mused.

What if you stop making up excuses andjust dial the darn number?

“Alright, alright,” Hannah mumbled, taking a seat on the edge of her bed. “I’ll do it. Now.”

Before I change my mind…

With trembling fingers she punched in the numbers and with a pounding heart she waited for a response. The phone rang once, twice…Hannah let out a slow breath and moistened her dry lips. The phone rang again and just as Hannah had decided Rachel would not answer, a breathless, almost excited:” Hello?” sounded.

Hannah almost jumped when she heard Rachel’s voice, mentally slapping herself for a silly response like that.

“Hello?” it sounded again, a little more insecure and inpatient.

“Rachel, hi, it’s me, Hannah.”

There was a brief silence, in which Rachel, unbeknownst to Hannah, quickly had to grab a chair to sit down, because all of a sudden, her legs felt a little rubbery.

“Hannah,” she almost croaked. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Hannah responded. “I…um…”

“You called,” Rachel replied and Hannah could hear a smile in her voice. “Thank you.”

“You don’t even know exactly why I am calling,” Hannah answered, with a small smile of her own. Somehow it was a lot easier to talk to Rachel on the phone than facing her in person.

“That’s true,” Rachel admitted. “But I know it must have been very hard to pick up the phone and dial my number. So, thank you.”

“It wasn’t easy,” Hannah admitted. “I think I’ve been staring at the phone for at least thirty minutes.”

Rachel could almost picture Hannah, sitting on her bed, cross-legged, dressed in a pair of warm sweat-pants, her blond hair dancing around her face, while her eyes sported a pensive, almost brooding expression.

“I appreciate it, Hannah, I really do,” Rachel repeated softly.

“Thank you,” it was almost a whisper, before they both went silent.

Hannah cleared her throat and, feeling less nervous now she had taken that first step, decided to be direct.

“You said I could call you if I wanted to talk.”

“I did,” Rachel admitted. “Any time.”

“Alright,” Hannah exhaled. “Let’s talk.” She un-crossed her legs and leaned back against the head board. “Why did you come back?”

Rachel had expected Hannah to ask why she had left and taken aback, she needed a moment to collect her thoughts.

“I could give you a long answer,” she finally replied. “But it comes down to the fact that I missed home.” And you, always you…

“Home?” Hannah repeated slowly, trying to decide what that one word entailed.

She knew Rachel had never had a strong bond with her family, with the exception of her brother, Joe. But maybe, after she had adopted Nicky, things had changed. It didn’t even cross Hannah’s mind that Rachel might have missed her. “Where did you go when you…left…?” me.

“Different places,” Rachel answered. “I went to San Diego and from there to Boston.” Rachel let out a soft snort. “Quite a difference, huh?”

“What did you do?”

“I continued my residency and finally finished in Boston. It was…when I was done I…something happened and I…I decided the best thing was to come back. Especially since I really wanted to.”

“I can’t say your answers are very elaborate,” Hannah sighed, raking her fingers through her hair. “But knowing you, there’s a reason for that.”

“You haven’t lost your touch,” Rachel smiled, not aware of how wistful she sounded. “You still seem to know me so well.”

“I have changed, Rachel, a lot and I’m sure you have, too,” Hannah warned.”I’m not the same person anymore.”

“I know, Hannah,” Rachel sighed, trying to ignore the sting Hannah’s words had caused. “I realize that.”

Hannah nodded, while she vividly remembered the few times she had interacted with Rachel. The Doctor had changed. It was the way she carried herself, Hannah realized. Rachel radiated a calm self-confidence she had never possessed before. And she seemed a lot more patient than she used to be. The deep warmth of her eyes had not changed at all, and neither had her smile.

Hannah swallowed and took a deep breath. This was not the time to be distracted.

“I’d like to know why you left, Rachel,” she finally asked, mentally bracing herself for the answer. “And, please, be honest.”

“Of course,” Rachel answered in a hoarse voice. “I’ll tell you anything you want to know. Anything.”

“I hope so,” Hannah could not help saying

“There’s one thing, though,” Rachel hesitated, hoping what she was about to say would not upset Hannah. “It’s a long and…complicated story and it would be easier for…both of us if I could show you a few things.”

Hannah frowned and took a moment to digest Rachel’s words. What on earth was Rachel trying to tell her?

“What do you mean?”

“I know it sounds kind of weird, but, if you would allow me to show you something, I promise it will be a lot clearer.”

“You mean, show me…now?”

“If you want, yes,” Rachel answered and Hannah suddenly realized the soft timbre of her voice still had a very soothing effect on her.

“How?” Hannah wondered.

“Um…I could come over, or you could come here, or, if you want, we could meet somewhere. It doesn’t matter to me. I could call Joe and Melissa and ask them if I can drop off Nicky for a few hours and…”

“I’ll come to you,” Hannah interrupted, to her own surprise.

“W..what?” Rachel asked, sounding a little surprised.

“It’s the most practical and efficient solution,” Hannah shrugged. “Unless you’d rather do something else.”

“No, absolutely not,” Rachel quickly responded. “I…it’s very kind of you, Hannah. Thank you.”

“What time?”

“How about now?”

Hannah nodded, knowing that if she would have to wait, she would lose her courage and find an excuse to not go through with the plan.

“Alright. I have your address and I’ll be leaving within five minutes.”

“Do you know the street?” Rachel asked, not wanting Hannah to lose her way in the dark. The neighborhood she lived in was not exactly known for its street lights. The biggest part of the area had no street lights at all and a person could easily get lost in the dark.

“It’s off MacArthur, isn’t it?”

“Yes, keep going until the very end. I’m at the cul de sac. I’m the only one without Christmas decorations.” There was a hint of humor in Rachel’s voice and Hannah briefly smiled.

“That must be easy to find then. I’ll see you in about fifteen minutes.”

“Alright. Drive carefully, Hannah.”

Hannah pulled a face, remembering the accident that had landed Rachel back into her life in a hurry. It wasn’t as if careful people could not get hurt.

“I will. I’ll be right there.”

Hannah broke off the connection and tossed the phone on her bed, quickly jumping up to change from her sweat pants into a pair of jeans. She donned a bright blue fleece sweater and grabbed her purse and keys. Not giving herself time to think and change her mind, she stepped out of her room, carefully closing the door behind her.

*******

Rachel had been nervously pacing, looking out of the window every other minute. A ball of nerves had taken up residency in the pit of her stomach and she fervently hoped her already consumed dinner would not make an effort to rear its head in an ugly way.

For the third time she straightened a neatly organized short stack of papers that she had placed on the table. It had been a while since she had taken the time and trouble to go through them, but Hannah’s unexpected visit had forced her to dig them up from the bottom of a box. Glancing at them caused her stomach to clench and she could only hope and pray that Hannah would give her the time to explain. No matter how, her side of the story would be very hard to tell.

Rachel almost jumped when, all of a sudden, the headlights of a car made it clear somebody was coming down the street. The car stopped in front of her house and by the pale glow of the light that was mounted on the side of her garage, she could see a familiar blond head.

Almost tripping over one of Nicky’s toys, Rachel made her way to the front door and yanked it open.

“Hi,” she breathlessly greeted a pale- looking Hannah.

“Hi,” Hannah smiled. “Nice place.”

“Thank you,” Rachel nodded, stepping aside and gesturing Hannah to come in. “I have the fireplace going. It’s cold outside.”

She remembers, Hannah mused, while her heart pounded in her chest. She knows I hate cold.

“Take a seat, Hannah,” Rachel the sitting area. “Make yourself at…make yourself comfortable,” she quickly corrected herself. She could only wish Hannah would make herself at home, but Rachel knew there was a slim chance of that happening.

Hannah wiped her sweaty palms on her jeans and choose a chair close to the fire. She knew she would be hot with her polar fleece, but she didn’t care. She preferred the heat over the cold anyway.

“Can I get you something to drink?” Rachel asked, hoping she didn’t sound as nervous as she felt.

“No, thank you,” Hannah politely declined. “Maybe later.”

“Alright,” Rachel answered, taking a seat and staring at the papers on the table that was in between them.

Hannah had noticed the nervous look in Rachel’s eyes and she wondered what Rachel needed to tell her that had required her to come over. The last twenty minutes she had wracked her brain to come up with all the possible scenarios she could be confronted with that evening. The one that kept coming back was the same one that had haunted her for years: Rachel had left her for another woman.

The Doctor nervously rubbed her hands together and took a deep breath. She knew she would only have one shot at it. She felt that if she would blow the chance to explain, she would lose Hannah forever.

“I know you must be…real curious, about all this,” she started. “And like I told you over the phone, it’s better for me to show you.” Rachel leaned forward and grabbed the stack of papers from the table. She removed the top one and handed it to Hannah, who accepted it with a small frown.

“I would like you to read this first, if that’s okay with you.”

“Sure,” Hannah responded in a soft voice. She turned a little towards the light and started reading, while Rachel’s eyes, full of tension, never left her face. After only a few seconds, Rachel noticed a slight trembling in Hannah’s hands and she had to suppress the urge to jump up, take a seat next to the blonde and protectively wrap an arm around her shoulders.

In the meantime, Hannah tried to grasp the meaning of the words that were staring at her from the page she was holding.

Haven’t I warned you? How many times do you need to hear this? I told you to stay away. I also told you what will happen if you don’t. You know the rules. I know you have them. I personally put them in your mailbox. And I know you read them.

Am I serious? Yes. Deadly. Wait and find out.

I saw her first, but you had to push yourself between us. Leave now. It’s for the better…

Confused, Hannah looked up from the paper and stared at Rachel with a slightly dazed look.

“What is this?” she asked with a frown.

“It was the first letter I didn’t tear up. When I received this one, I decided it might be a good idea to keep them.”

“But it’s a copy,” Hannah replied, wondering what the meaning of the letter was. “Is this what you wanted to show me? That you left me because of a letter?”

Rachel exhaled slowly and took her time to collect her thoughts. Coming up with the right words was essential.

“Yes, it’s a copy. The police have the original, or rather, originals. There were quite a few. And I didn’t leave you because of a letter. I left because, at the time, I was made to believe it was the only way to protect you.”

“Protect me?” Hannah echoed, suddenly sitting up straight in the comfortable chair. “But…how…why…protect me from whom? Rachel, I don’t understand.”

Rachel rubbed her forehead, while she was trying to come up with an answer that would sound logical. It was a long and complicated story and, even though she was willing to tell Hannah each and every detail, it was hard to decide where to begin.

“I’ll start at the beginning,” Rachel sighed, taking the remaining papers off the table and clenching them in her hands. “At least, at what I think is the beginning.”

Hannah noticed that her brown eyes were almost black in the dimly lit room and the light of the crackling fire in the fireplace cast a bronze hue on Rachel’s skin, making her look even more beautiful than she remembered. She was a picture of pensive serenity and drinking in the woman’s features caused a sweet pain deep inside Hannah’s chest.

“Do you remember when we first met?” Rachel asked in a wistful voice, letting her eyes slowly travel up until they met Hannah’s.

“I do,” the blonde softly answered, hoping Rachel would not be able to see the moisture in her eyes. She swallowed hard. “Is…is this part of…what you want to tell me?”

“Bear with me, please.” Rachel almost whispered.

Hannah nodded and cleared her throat. Her heart was beating wildly and she had to take a few calming breaths; it was hard to be confronted with the past.

“I…um…we met at The Bean. I had just started nursing college and had a part-time job there as a waitress and you…,” Hannah took a deep breath. “You were the quiet student who always came in around eight, ordered some coffee and buried yourself in your books.” Hannah looked up and noticed the half-smile that tugged on the corner of Rachel’s mouth. The Doctor seemed to be lost in thought.

“And then I dropped that cup of fat-free Cappuccino Mocha on your Microbiology book,” Hannah continued. “You didn’t know whether to scream at me or laugh and I felt so bad I offered you free coffee for a month.”

“Which got you fired,” Rachel smiled.

“I’m still not sure if it was the offer or the fact I dumped all that coffee on you,” Hannah replied with small twinkle in her eyes. “No matter what it was, we both ended up out in the street that evening.”

“Your boss was a jerk,” Rachel mumbled, frowning at the memory.

“I think he did me a favor,” Hannah sighed. “If he hadn’t fired me, I probably wouldn’t have found that job at the bookstore.”

“You might have a point,” Rachel nodded, fondly remembering all the endless evenings she had spent in the bookstore, reading and studying, waiting for Hannah to finish work so she could drive her home.

There was a brief silence in which Rachel studied the face of the woman who was sitting opposite from her. The soft glow of the fire painted Hannah’s hair a golden copper, while the dancing flames were reflected in her clear blue eyes. Her face had lost some of its youthfulness, Rachel noticed, but it had left her with a depth she had not possessed before. She had matured and, to Rachel, she had never looked more attractive.

“What?” Hannah asked, intercepting Rachel’s pensive eyes.

“Nothing,” the Doctor shook her head.

How can I tell you that you’re so beautiful, I can hardly stand it?

“So, what does our meeting for the first time have anything to do with you walking out on me?”

Rachel imperceptibly winced at the choice of Hannah’s words, knowing full well she had to take responsibility for her own choices and actions, no matter the consequences.

“I’ll come to that a little later, I promise,” she answered in a husky voice.

I have hurt her, Hannah immediately realized with increasing confusion. I don’t understand. Rachel hurt me, and yet, she’s in pain, I can see it in her eyes. What’s going on?

“Read this,” Rachel handed Hannah a second letter and without saying a word, the blonde accepted the piece of paper and started reading.

Enclosed you’ll find a few nice snapshots. I’d suggest you’d study them closely; you might recognize a few subjects…

Don’t think I can’t touch her. I can do so much more than you think I’m capable of.

One last advice; take me seriously…walk away…

“Alright,” Hannah sighed, carefully putting the letter on the table. For some strange reason, holding the paper made her feel uneasy. “These two letters look a little…threatening to me. What are the snapshots?”

“These,” Rachel answered, handing Hannah a little pile of photographs.

As soon as she looked down at the pictures the Doctor had handed her, Hannah’s eyes went wide and she almost dropped the small stack on the floor. Looking back from a photograph was her own face, smiling back at her with dancing blue eyes and windblown hair. It was a close-up, but Hannah didn’t have to guess whose hand was lying on her shoulder. She had no clue when the picture had been taken, but judging by the blurry background, it had been somewhere at a lake. Probably Lake Tenkiller or Eufala.

The next picture was also a close-up, but this time it was Hannah stepping through the front door of her parents’ house. The third one was taken from a distance and it showed her exiting a Wal-Mart.

“Where do these pictures come from?” Hannah asked with a trembling voice, glancing up at Rachel with troubled eyes. “What does all this mean, Rachel?”

“Somebody was stalking us. Especially you,” she quietly explained. “At first I just shrugged it off, because I thought it was a joke. A sick joke,” she sighed. “But a joke just the same. But, when I didn’t respond, the letters became more serious and more threatening.”

“Did you…?” Hannah hesitated, trying to comprehend what Rachel was trying to tell her.

“Yes, I went to the police, finally,” Rachel grunted, pushing her hair away from her forehead. “I should have done that immediately, before things got out of control.”

“Out of control?” Hannah swallowed. “How?”

Rachel tried to smile, but failed miserably when she took in the pain that radiated from the blue eyes that stared at her with a mixture of disbelief and confusion.

“I hate to do this to you, Hannah, but, read this,” Rachel replied, handing Rachel a third letter.

Hannah had to hold the sheet of paper with both hands, to be able to read the neatly printed words. Her fingers were visibly trembling and when her eyes flew over the letter, her whole body started shaking.

This is your very last chance. If things will get out of control, people will get hurt and you will be responsible. I told you to leave Hannah alone. Obviously, you can’t. Tell you what, if I can’t have her, neither can you.

Last chance: leave, or she’ll get hurt. I can do it, you know I can. I have the pictures to prove it. I have been in her room. You have the picture of my angel while she was asleep. I didn’t hurt her then, but believe me, next time I will. It’s up to you.

Stay, and she’ll die. Leave, and she’ll live.

Have a good life, Doctor

****

“Dammit, Rachel. What the heck is this all about? This…this…person, whoever it is, has been in my room, snapping pictures while I was asleep? What kind of…of…of insanity is that?” Hannah almost spat, her eyes blazed with fire. “Where are those pictures now? Oh, no, wait, don’t tell me, I know,” she added before Rachel could respond. “You gave them to the police, right?”
Rachel could almost feel the anger radiate from the blonde, who was now sitting on the edge of her seat, slightly leaning forward with the copy of the letter clenched in her hand. Hannah’s outburst had not surprised her. After all, this was the very first time she had heard anything about what had happened almost four years ago, while she, Rachel, had been able to deal with her own anger for a much longer time.

“I showed them to one police officer, yes, but I didn’t give him the pictures. It was too…too personal,” Rachel calmly answered. “I…I couldn’t do that to you, Hannah. Please, believe me.”

Hannah could not sit still anymore. She jumped up and started pacing, flinging the sheet of paper towards the table in an angry gesture. Rachel quietly watched her alternately clench and relax her fists. She decided the best course of action would be to let Hannah be and wait until the blonde had spent some of the angry energy she was displaying.

After a couple of minutes, Hannah halted her movements and turned to Rachel, so she could look her in the eyes. Her stare was piercing and Rachel swallowed. In the past they shared, she had only seen Hannah really angry once. It had not been pretty. This was the second time ever she witnessed the fury Hannah was capable of radiating in every cell of her body, and it made her a little nervous. She had wanted, needed, Hannah to know the truth, but for the first time she wondered if her strategy had been a good one.

“Who was it?” Hannah demanded in a low voice.

Rachel hesitated, wondering if Hannah would be able to handle all the facts. She had only heard a few bits and pieces and the whole story was so much longer and complicated.

“Hannah, I…”

“Who was it, Rachel?” Hannah repeated, enunciating every syllable.

There was no way Rachel would be able to convince Hannah to sit down and hear her out. The blonde was visibly upset and demanded an answer. Moistening her dry lips, Rachel nodded and wiped her sweaty palms on her denim-clad thighs.

“It was Nathan,” she finally answered in a hoarse voice, while her dark eyes were watching Hannah’s face intently for her reaction. She didn’t have to wait long. The blue eyes went wide and Rachel leaned forward when she saw the blood drain out of the blonde’s face, ready to catch her if she would pass out.

But Hannah remained standing, even though her body slowly swayed, until she let herself sink back into the chair, letting out a shuddering breath.

“Nathan’s my friend,” she whispered in disbelief. “We’ve known each other since…since junior high.”

“I know, sweetie,” Rachel answered, not aware of the endearment that made her voice tremble. “And believe me, I wouldn’t have told you this if it wasn’t absolutely true.”

Hannah’s fingers nervously fidgeted with the hem of her sweater and she desperately tried to push back the tears that were flooding her eyes. She rapidly blinked a few times to get rid of the blurry haze, but as soon as her vision cleared, she felt the warm moisture roll down her cheeks. Deep down inside, she really wanted Rachel to be wrong, but she knew her former lover was too honest to tell her anything but the truth.

“Why?” she whispered through her tears.

“He claimed he loved you. In his mind you were his. He hated me.”

“He’s your cousin,” Hannah with a trembling voice. “I don’t understand. I…I should talk to him. I mean…I need to understand that…”

“No, Hannah,” Rachel gently interrupted.

“But I…”

“Hannah, Nathan died a couple of months ago.” There was no reason to sugar-coat it.

If Hannah had not been sitting down, she probably would have sunk to her knees. Her whole body went weak and a wave of nausea almost made her double over in the chair. This time Rachel did jump up and almost leaped over the low table. She knelt down next to Hannah and reached out a hand to put on the blonde’s knee.

“I’m sorry, Hannah. I’m so, so sorry.”

Hannah pressed a hand against her mouth and let out a sob that tore at Rachel’s heart. She had her eyes squeezed shut, but, from underneath the lashes, tears welled up that made their way down her cheeks in rapid succession. Rachel swallowed hard and, again, fought the urge to wrap her arms around Hannah’s trembling body. Instead, her hand rubbed gentle circles on the blonde’s knee.

“What happened, Rachel?” Hannah asked after a long silence. Her voice was hoarse and a little shaky. “I…I still don’t understand. How did you know it was Nathan? Why did you never tell me anything about it? Did our…our relationship mean so little to you?” Hannah’s eyes were moist with tears when they looked at Rachel and for a moment the Doctor forgot to breathe. It had been years since she had been able to look at Hannah so closely and the vision made her tremble inside.

“No, it meant everything to me, Hannah,” Rachel managed to answer. “You meant everything to me. That was the reason I left. I couldn’t bear the thought of you getting hurt. Hannah,” Rachel shifted, so she could sit on her knees and grasp the blonde’s hands between her own. “Hannah, he threatened to kill you.”

“He what? Why didn’t you…where was the police in all this? Why didn’t they…why?”

” I did go to the police,” Rachel answered, the bitterness clearly audible in her voice. “I went to the only police officer I trusted completely.”

Hannah pulled one of her hands free from Rachel’s grip and used the back to wipe her eyes. Her other hand remained where it was.

“You went to Nathan,” Hannah concluded. “He had just started to work for the OSBI back then?”

“Yes, and I trusted him. I told him everything and showed him all the damn letters and pictures. He promised me to take it up with his superiors and I believed him. He told me he’d be discrete, since we were in a lesbian relationship. He said he wanted them to take this seriously.” Rachel let out a short, humorless laugh and shook her head. “I believed every word he said. I didn’t even really question him when he advised me to disappear for a little while.”

“A little while?” Hannah echoed.

“That’s what he said,” Rachel sighed. “But the weeks became months and when I called him to tell him I was on my way back, he convinced me to hang in there for three more weeks. Three.” Rachel rubbed her tired eyes and swallowed away a lump in her throat. “And then I received your letter.”

Rachel could feel Hannah jerk and she looked up in a pair of startled blue eyes.

“I never sent you a letter,” she said. “God knows I wanted to, but I had no idea where you were. I…”

“Did you write me, though?” Rachel calmly asked, ignoring her wildly beating heart.

“I…um…” Hannah frowned, trying hard to collect her thoughts. “I…yes, yes, I did write, but I never sent those letters, I…they were in one of the desk-drawers and…after my parents…” Hannah halted in mid-sentence, realizing Rachel did not know her parents had died. “They were an outlet for my anger and I burnt them, all of them. At least, I thought I did,” Hannah finished with a sigh.

“Nathan brought me a letter. He said you had asked him to give it to me and…he claimed he took it so seriously he jumped on the first plane to San Diego to deliver the mail, so the speak.” Rachel paused and cast a look at Hannah, whose blue eyes were dark with grief. “Looking back, I’m sure all he wanted was to see my face when he handed me your letter that held all your anger and resentment. He wanted to be there when I read that, even if I changed my mind and came back, you’d still never want to see me again.”

“I remember that letter,” Hannah whispered, no longer able to look into the warmth of Rachel’s dark eyes. “I was so angry when I wrote it.”

“I could tell,” Rachel softly answered. “And I understand.”

Conflicting emotions fought for attention, which only increased Hannah’s confusion. She raked the fingers of her free hand through her hair and shot Rachel a look that bordered on desperation. The Doctor gently squeezed her hand and for the first time Hannah realized Rachel was kneeling in front of her, covering her fingers with her own. The warm pressure was as much reassuring as it was frightening and Hannah did not know whether to leave her hand where it was, or to pull it away from its achingly familiar confines. The conflict was clearly visible in her eyes and with a small, wistful smile, Rachel slowly withdrew her hand. The sudden coolness came with a sense of loss that made Hannah almost reach out to keep hold of Rachel’s hand, but she controlled the urge and cast down her eyes. There was so much to think about, so many questions to ask; exploring the feelings that surged through her body had to be put on hold. For now.

“So that…letter that I wrote and Nathan…stole…made you decide to stay away,” Hannah concluded softly.

“Back then, I trusted Nathan to tell me the truth and I didn’t have any reason to doubt him,” Rachel shook her head and Hannah noticed the dark eyes flash with anger. “I listened to him and that was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done,” she added in a bitter voice.

It was hard to focus, but Hannah was doing her best not to be sidetracked. It was important to get the answers to all the questions that had plagued her for such a long time. She did not want to think about the fact that one of her best childhood friends, who also was Rachel’s cousin, deliberately, and successfully, had come between them. Something she, at one time, never would have believed. She had thought her relationship with Rachel would have been stronger than that. It was hard to grasp that Rachel had not left her because she wanted her freedom, but because she thought it was the only way to protect Hannah. Because she loved her…

Hannah suppressed a moan and felt her stomach cramp. Pressing her hands against her abdomen, she took a deep breath, trying to ease the pain. Immediately, Rachel’s hand was on her arm and a pair of worried brown eyes looked at her with concern.

“Are you alright? Is it your stomach?” Rachel quickly asked.

Hannah pursed her lips and nodded, waiting for the cramping pain to subside.

“When’s the last time you ate anything?”

“This morning,” Hannah confessed, trying not to be pulled in by the gentle rebuke in Rachel’s eyes.

“You need to take better care of yourself, Hannah,” Rachel spoke, softening her words by gently patting Hannah’s arm.

“I usually do,” Hannah sighed. “At least, lately I have been. It’s just that, I…”

I was too nervous to eat.

“I wasn’t really hungry,” she added, knowing her excuse sounded lame.

“Well, let’s get something in your stomach,” Rachel decided in a tone that warned Hannah not to protest. “I can whip up a sandwich and some soup.”

“You don’t have to, I…”

“You need to eat,” Rachel said in a stern voice, while she got back to her feet again.

“I didn’t come to eat, I came to talk,” Hannah tried, but Rachel was determined.

“Then come with me. We can talk in the kitchen.”

After those words, Rachel turned around and walked toward the door that lead to the kitchen. Just before she entered, she looked over her shoulder and sent Hannah a smile.

“All those who are hungry, follow me,” she stated, disappearing out of sight.

Hannah wanted to stay in the comfortable chair and ignore her body’s cravings, but when her stomach rumbled, which was followed by another painful stab, she let out a frustrated groan and jumped to her feet. When had she lost control of the conversation? Had she ever had it to start with? Hannah realized she wanted to be angry with Rachel, but for some reason she couldn’t. Especially not after what the Doctor had told her about Nathan, Hannah’s childhood friend and Rachel’s cousin. Could she blame Rachel for wanting to protect her? For turning to her cousin, Nathan, for help? With a heavy heart, Hannah realized she couldn’t. The only thing she could be angry about was Rachel’s four year long silence.

“You should have told me,” she spoke aloud while walking towards the kitchen, where she could hear Rachel opening and closing drawers.

“What?” was the immediate reply.

“You should have told me,” Hannah repeated with a sigh, entering the kitchen and leaning against the doorway, while her eyes took in Rachel who had just put a few slices of bread in the toaster.

“I know,” the Doctor simply answered, turning around so she could look at the blonde. “I should have, but I didn’t. Back then, I thought I did the only thing possible. Now I know that was wrong. Had I told you, we probably would have been able to face the threats together and work something out.” Rachel sighed and pushed her hair away from her forehead. “Heck, Nathan might even have given up. Who knows.”

“How did he die?” Hannah softly asked.

“Suicide,” Rachel answered, watching a look of horror cross Hannah’s face.

“Why?” the blonde almost whispered.

“That’s a long story,” Rachel replied. “But what it boils down to, is that Nathan had been involved in some…dubious activities. He was put on leave while the OSBI was conducting an internal investigation, but before they arrived at any incriminating conclusions, he decided that taking his own life would be the best thing to do.”

“I haven’t heard anything about it,” Hannah frowned. “You’d think it would have been in the news, or something.”

“It’s all still very hush, hush,” Rachel answered. “I talked to the head of Nathan’s department last week and he said they’re wrapping up the investigation. It will be all over the news soon.”

Hannah took a moment to ponder over Rachel’s words and her eyebrows slowly but surely rose when realization set in.

“You spoke to the head of the department last week? Why?”

“They contacted me after Nathan’s death, because they had found some letters that needed some explanation. Some of them had my name in it.”

“How?” Hannah asked, feeling nauseous all over again. Rachel’s eyes were dark with grief and anger and no matter what the explanation would be, Hannah knew it would not be pretty.

“In Nathan’s office, they found letters he had written to me. I mean, they were addressed to me, just never sent. In them, Nathan made no secret of his…hate…for me. I don’t want to go into details, but he had some very…creative…solutions to end my existence. The OSBI wanted to hear my side of the story and I think that, for a little while, they thought I might have had something to do with his suicide.”

Rachel paused and glanced at Hannah, who was looking at her with wide eyes.

“This is all very…very,” Hannah swallowed hard, trying to come up with the right words. “It’s hard to take in. It sounds so incredibly unreal. But I guess a few things are starting to make a little more sense now.”

Rachel pulled up a chair and made an inviting gesture. Without hesitation, Hannah walked towards the small bar and sat down. Her eyes had a faraway look when they stared at Rachel’s busy hands, expertly creating a sandwich with ham, cheese, lettuce and tomato.

“Go on,” the Doctor softly encouraged, when she put a plate in front of Hannah.

“After…after…you left, Nathan came around at the weirdest times. He always made it sound like he was just keeping an eye out for me and he…he always managed to say something negative about you. He didn’t understand how you could have treated me the way you did. On numerous occasions, he assured me your whole family was ashamed of you.”

“I guess that’s true, especially concerning my parents,” Rachel remarked with a shrug. “But then, they’ve never really accepted me being gay, anyway. With me being away, they didn’t have to deal with it.”

Hannah nodded, remembering all the arguments Rachel had told her about in the past. It had always pained her that Bob and Valerie Kendrick had not been more accepting of their daughter. They had tolerated her, at the most, but that was it. Thank heavens, Joe and Melissa had always been there for her.

“Did he ever…had he ever tried anything?” Rachel softly asked, not able to hide the anger in her voice.

Hannah immediately shook her head in denial.

“No, never. But then, I don’t think I…there were a lot of things going on in my life and it never occurred to me that he was looking for something more than friendship.” Hannah softly snorted and stared at the sandwich in front of her. “I guess that says a lot about my state of mind, huh?”

“I’m sorry, Hannah,” Rachel sighed. “I know I’m repeating myself, but I am really sorry.”

“I know,” Hannah nodded, seeing the pained expression in Rachel’s soft, brown eyes. “You’re sorry and I’m confused,” she added with a small smile. “I feel like my head’s going to explode. It seems like my whole world has been turned upside down.”

Hannah took a bite of her sandwich and let out a sigh of contentment. The combination of the honey-glazed ham and aged cheese tasted wonderful and she had to make an effort to eat slowly.

“This is good, thanks,” she mumbled between two bites, reluctant to ponder over the fact that, all of a sudden, her appetite had returned.

“You’re welcome,” Rachel smiled. “Just don’t inhale it.”

“Is that what you tell Nicky?” Hannah quipped with a small smile.

“Absolutely,” Rachel nodded. “She’s a little gobbler. I swear she can eat and drink faster than my two brothers combined.”

Hannah smiled and took another bite of her sandwich. She deliberately chewed slowly, not wanting to upset her stomach more than it already was. Her thoughts turned to Randy, Rachel’s younger brother. After the Doctor had told her Nicky was his daughter, part of her had been relieved. For some reason, the thought of Rachel having a child by herself was a little unsettling. And, at the moment, Hannah did not want to wonder where those feelings were coming from.

“What role does Randy play in all this? And how come you adopted Nicky?”

Rachel took her time to chew on her own sandwich, casting a look at the blonde who was staring back at her with inquisitive eyes. It was a look she was familiar with and she was happy finally to be able to see it again. She was not aware of the expression in her eyes when she glanced at Hannah. The nurse, however, did notice the look of warm affection that was sent her way and she quickly took a sip of her drink to hide the faint blush that started to creep up her face.

“While I was in San Diego, I received a phone call from my dear brother. As usual, he had gotten himself in trouble again. This time, his ex-girlfriend had told him she was pregnant and she wanted him to talk to me, because she needed advice on which abortion clinic would be the best.” Rachel sighed and slowly shook her head at the memory. “After I was done yelling at him, Randy assured me he didn’t want her to abort the baby, but he wasn’t able to provide for a child. I…The thought of her…I just couldn’t accept that and I told them I would pay all expenses and adopt the baby. Randy’s ex didn’t really feel like it at first, but when I promised her some extra money, she agreed.”

Rachel glanced at Hannah whose eyes had a pained expression in them. The Doctor knew how much the blonde loved children and how angry she could be when she heard of people abusing or neglecting children.

“You did the right thing,” Hannah said in a soft voice.

“Thank you,” Rachel smiled. “Sometimes, when I look at Nicky and think that, if Randy had not called me, she would not have existed, it just…it chokes me up,” Rachel almost whispered. “She’s so incredibly precious.”

“And she looks like you,” Hannah agreed.

“It’s the Kendrick genes,” Rachel smiled. “She only looks like me, because Randy and I are so much alike.”

“Where is he now? Randy, I mean.”

“I don’t know,” Rachel shrugged. “I’m afraid he’s running around with the wrong crowd. I wrote him about Nicky and I even sent him pictures, but he’s never responded. But then, he’s never been very responsible. I am grateful, however, for his reluctance to give into his ex’s wishes. That was a decent thing to do.”

“It’s the Kendrick genes,” Hannah lightly teased, which earned her a genuine laugh from Rachel. It caused a lightness in her heart she had not felt in a long time and, for a brief moment, Hannah allowed herself to savor the moment.

When she looked up at Rachel, their eyes met and she knew the Doctor had felt it, too. Hannah smiled and noticed the warm affection Rachel no longer tried to hide. It made her realize how much she had missed the one person who, once, had been such an intense part of her life.

The emotions that surged through Hannah were so powerful, she almost felt dizzy and she had to cast down her eyes, away from the gaze that still held so much power over her.

Hannah took a slow, deep breath and bit into her sandwich, pondering over all the things Rachel had told her. The other woman had given her a lot of answers to questions she had not been able to ask and slowly, but surely, things had become a lot clearer. Still, there was a lot left to discuss.

“What did you mean, when you asked me to recall the first time we met? How does that tie in with all the rest?”

“It was something that occurred to me much later. At the time it seemed insignificant, but do you remember, after you had dropped that cup of coffee in my lap and we left The Bean together, we thought we were being followed?”

Hannah frowned and tried to remember the moment Rachel was referring to. She would always remember the moment she and Rachel had met; it had been a cherished moment, but everything else that had happened that evening seemed to be a very distant memory.

After a few moments of silence, the blonde started to remember. The fragmented images slowly became a whole and finally she nodded.

“I think I remember, you walked me to my car and we thought we heard footsteps behind us, but every time we turned around the sound stopped.”

“Exactly,” Rachel nodded. “I’ve never mentioned this, but, at one time, in the reflection of a window, I saw it was Nathan who was following us.”

“Nathan? Really?” Hannah echoed in disbelief.

“I thought it was one of his silly pranks and decided I’d confront him with it later,” Rachel continued.

“Did you?”

“No, unfortunately, I didn’t. Things could have worked out differently if I had.”

“Why didn’t you?” Hannah asked, curious to hear Rachel’s reason.

Rachel sent the blonde an apologetic smile and shrugged her shoulders. For a moment she wondered how Hannah would respond to her answer, but then she decided she did not care. When Hannah had called her to tell her she wanted to talk, there had only been one option: the truth.

“I never talked to Nathan, because I forgot,” Rachel answered in a soft voice. “After that unexpected coffee-bath, I was full of you. That night, after you went home, I was so busy with coming up with a brilliant plan to see you again, that I completely forgot about Nate.”

“Yes, I remember that plan,” Hannah dryly answered, but there was a twinkle in her eyes.

“It was embarrassing,” Rachel sighed.

“It worked,” Hannah reminded her, while the shadow of a smile tugged on the corner of her mouth. “I guess it was your luck there were only about seventy-five Jensen’s in the area. Imagine, calling five hundred.”

“But I didn’t know most of the Jensen’s I called were relatives and before I eventually found you, the whole family had already discussed the ‘desperate girl’, who was looking for Hannah. You were actually expecting my phone call,” Rachel accused, but her eyes were dancing.

“I was wondering what took you so long,” Hannah chuckled. “I had to wait three whole days !”

“Was it worth it?” Rachel quipped, wishing she could take back the words when she saw Hannah flinch.

“I’m sorry, Hannah, I just…this clearly is a case of ‘open mouth, stuff in foot and eat dirt’–I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright, don’t worry about it,” Hannah answered in a hoarse voice. “And to answer your question…” she looked up and nodded. “For a very long time, I thought it had been well worth it, until you disappeared. It broke my heart and I started to look at my memories with totally different eyes,” the blonde confessed, all of a sudden feeling comfortable enough to bear the other woman’s part of something she had kept hidden for such a long time

“Do you…do you think it’s possible for you one day, to look back at those memories and…and feel happy?” Rachel dared, unconsciously holding her breath.

Hannah looked at the top of Rachel’s bent head and caught herself just in time when she stretched out her hand to touch the dark locks. It was so tempting to run her fingers through those thick, soft tresses. She had done it countless times before and her body must have remembered, because Hannah felt an almost physical pain when she quickly pulled back her hand.

“I wish I had the answer to that, Rachel,” Hannah answered, wishing she could see the look in the other woman’s eyes.

My goodness, Hannah. What happened to good, old-fashioned:’No !’

“A few weeks ago, I would definitely have told you ‘No’, but…” Rachel’s eyes lifted to meet her own and this time it was Hannah who dropped her gaze. “Right now, I’m so…very confused, I don’t know what to think or feel anymore. Ever since you left, I was angry and hurt and then…” Hannah swallowed when she remembered that fateful evening when two nervous police officers had knocked on her door. One look at their strained faces had told her enough and with a heartbreaking wail she had begged them to tell her it was not true. But they couldn’t. Both her parents had been killed when a drunk driver had slammed into them, pushing their car off the road, into a deep storm drain, where the vehicle had landed upside down.

Hannah wasn’t aware of the tear that was sliding down her cheek, while her eyes, dark with sadness, held a faraway look. But Rachel had noticed and again the grief and guilt slammed into her chest with a force that almost took her breath away.

“Hannah,” she half-breathed, half-choked. “Hannah, I…”

Rachel was interrupted by the ringing of the phone and, with a muttered curse, she cast the device a dark look.

Hannah, startled by the unexpected sound, looked up and sent Rachel a watery smile.

“Answer it,” she encouraged, after it rang again.

With an apologetic gesture, Rachel grabbed the cordless phone and brought it to her ear.

“Hello? Oh, h, Jack. What can I do for you?”

While listening to the voice on the other side, Rachel’s face sported a deep frown. Hannah decided she looked anything but happy.

“But Jack, I’m not on call this week and…No…”

Looking at Hannah, Rachel rolled her eyes and shook her head.

“Two hours? Only two? You’ re sure, right?…Because I have a two-year old and I can’t just…alright, two hours. I’ll see what I can do. But if my brother and his wife can’t babysit, I’ll bring her with me…Sure, yeah, I bet they would…Alright, two hours. You owe me, Jack !”

Rachel broke the connection and almost threw the phone back on the kitchen island.

“Hannah, I am so sorry, but…”

“Do you have to go in?” Hannah interrupted.

“Yes, just for a couple of hours. Jack assured me it wouldn’t be more than two, but we both know how things work in the ER. I’d be happy to be out of there in four hours.”

“What happened?” Hannah asked.

“Pete slipped and broke his foot,” Rachel explained. “Donald is willing to take over his shift, but he’s in Tulsa right now and it will take him a while to get here. Jack promised me that, as soon as Donald comes in, I get to go.”

Rachel let out a frustrated breath and send Hannah an apologetic look. She pushed her hair away from her forehead and mustered up a small smile when she noticed Hannah’s pensive stare.

“I could do it,” Hannah softly spoke.

“I’m sure you could,” Rachel nodded. “But I don’t think Jack…”

“Babysit, Rachel,” Hannah sighed, but her eyes held a glint of amusement. “I could stay here and…wait till you’re back. Is Nicky a good sleeper?”

“Um…um..yeah, yes, she is,” Rachel stuttered. “But Hannah…you don’t have to do this, I…”

“I don’t mind,” Hannah softly replied. “I’ll just grab one of those books and read, or watch TV. I’ll be fine.”

“Are you sure?” Rachel asked, blown away by the turn of events. That morning, she had seriously wondered if she could ever have a normal conversation with the blonde and now, not even ten hours later, Hannah suggested she babysit Rachel’s daughter.

“I wouldn’t have offered if I hadn’t been sure,” Hannah nodded. “Although, I do wonder how Nicky would respond if she wakes up and finds me here.”

“She’ll be fine,” Rachel assured her. “But, in case she does wake up and has a fit, you can call me.”

“Any ideas for when she starts crying and doesn’t want to stop?” Hannah asked with a hint of humor in her voice.

“Come to the ER,” Rachel advised, grabbing her purse from a chair.

“I don’t have a car-seat,” Hannah answered with a twinkle in her eyes.

“Take my car,” Rachel replied, tossing Hannah a set of car keys. The blonde caught them just before they were able to crash into her plate and she chuckled.

“You have two cars?”

“No, but I’ll be using yours. Keys, please?” Rachel smiled, holding out a hand.

Hannah reached into her pocket and pulled out the requested keys, putting them in Rachel’s outstretched hand. The Doctor glanced from Hannah to the keys and back again. She frowned.

“Um…do I dare ask?”

“It’s Granny’s old Buick,” Hannah grinned. “It’s still running.”

“Wow, I’m impressed,” Rachel smiled. “That thing is ancient. If I remember correctly, we…,” she paused and for a moment her warm brown eyes captured Hannah’s blue ones.

We made out on the backseat more than once…

“Does your grandmother know?” she asked, knowing by Hannah’s tell-tale blush the nurse had been thinking the same thing.

“I’ve never told her,” Hannah answered with a sigh. “But, with my granny, one never knows.”

“That’s true,” Rachel nodded. “She has a way of finding out things you really don’t want her to know.”

Hannah laughed and gestured towards the door. The sooner Rachel would leave, the sooner she might be back. But the Doctor had not heard Hannah laugh in a very long time and she was simply enthralled by the sound of it and the way the blonde’s eyes lit up.

“Thank you, Hannah. I really appreciate what you’ re doing for me. I know I don’t deserve your kindness.”

That remains to be seen, Rachel, a voice in the back of Hannah’s head answered.

“It’s no problem, really. Just drive carefully.”

“I will,” Rachel promised, walking towards the door. “I’ll be wearing my badge and stethoscope. That has kept me out of trouble on several occasions. Lock the door behind me, will you?”

“Sure,” Hannah nodded, following the Doctor to the door.

Just before Rachel stepped outside, she turned around and cast Hannah a look that was a mixture of confusion, affection and warmth.

“Thanks,” she almost whispered.

“No problem,” Hannah nodded. “By the way, do you have any Christmas decorations?”

“Two boxes, in the garage. Somewhere in between my bike and the lawn mower,” Rachel promptly answered. “I thought you were going to read?”

“I will,” Hannah answered. “But I know how you doctors are. I need a back-up plan.”

“If Jack keeps me longer than…Never mind, I’ll be back as soon as I can, Hannah, I promise.”

“See you later, Rachel,” Hannah smiled, watching until Rachel had started the engine of her grandmother’s old car, before closing the door and locking it behind her. Hannah waited until the sound of the car had faded away, before pushing herself away from the wall and walking back to the kitchen to finish her sandwich.

“This must be one of the strangest days I’ve ever had,” she muttered, perching herself on one of the bar stools and sinking her teeth into the tasty bread. Her clear blue eyes stared at the wall, while her thoughts turned inward. Hannah did not really mind that Rachel had been called away for a while. She could use the time to ponder over what had happened that day and try to make sense of all the emotions that surged through her body.

“Oh, Rachel, what a mess,” she sighed, reaching out a hand to grab the tall glass the Doctor had poured her drink into. But before her fingers could touch the cool glass, a high-pitched scream filled the quiet room.

“Mommy!”

****

“Sir, would you please take a seat. The Doctor will be with you in a moment.”

“CAN SOMEBODY BRING ME SOME RESTRAINTS ? NOW?”

“I don’t care what you say, I’m going. Just give me that AMA…whatever form and I’ll sign it. I’m fed up with you people.”

Rachel took a deep breath and shook her head. The ER was busy. She was standing in the nurses’ station in the middle of the unit and all the sounds seemed to surround her like a cloud of noise. At times, it was almost deafening.

“Don’t! Get your hands off me, you bitch,” suddenly sounded; a voice standing out amidst the rest of the noise.

Rachel looked up, just in time to see one of the nurses jump back to avoid being kicked in the stomach by an angry looking patient. The nurse muttered a curse and rubbed her elbow, where the patient had managed to hit her. Rachel quickly stepped closer and positioned herself between the nurse and the patient. The man on the stretcher had been brought in by EMT’s, she remembered. He had been found in the corner of a parking garage, underneath a stack of dirty rags and cardboard. He had been confused and dehydrated. It was obvious he was homeless, but no matter how sad his situation, Rachel could not accept the fact that he was lashing out at one of the staff nurses.

“What’s the problem, Frank?” she asked, having seen his name on the chart on the bedside table.

“She needs to keep her hands off me,” Frank muttered in his long, unkempt beard.

“Marion here just wants to help you, Frank. Why would you have a problem with that? Besides, I can’t have you kicking the nurses. They’re only doing their job.”

“I only suggested to Frank, I would help him clean up a bit,” Marion mumbled. “He’ll be out on the streets again in a few hours and I just wanted to help. I might even find him a change of clothes.”

“You don’t understand,” Frank raged. “You don’t understand!”

“It’s alright, Frank,” Rachel tried to calm down the upset man. “We won’t do anything, unless you agree.”

“She doesn’t understand,” Frank kept yelling, while a few angry tears made their way down his dirt covered face.

“It’s okay, Frank,” Rachel repeated. “I’ll take Marion with me, alright? I’ll explain to her, I promise.”

“Take her out, take her out,” Frank mumbled, hiding his face in his hands and slowly rocking back and forth. “Take her out.”

Rachel sent the nurse an encouraging smile and gestured her to follow her out of the small room. Marion obediently followed Rachel back into the nursing station, silently waiting for the Doctor to speak. When Rachel finally did, her voice was gentle and full of compassion.

“How long have you been working here, in the ER, Marion?” she asked, looking at the young, dark-haired nurse.

“A…a few weeks,” the nurse stammered. “It’s the first time I have gotten this kind of reaction, Doctor, I swear. The only thing I did, was offer him a shower and a change of clothes. I mean, I don’t want to be…disrespectful or anything, but he had a pretty bad body odor and I’m sure he’s got body lice.”

“I know,” Rachel smiled. “And that’s exactly the problem.”

Marion shot Rachel a questioning look and her face sported a small frown.

“You know, Marion, when I first started working in the ER, as a Resident, I once was assigned a patient like Frank. I wanted to help him and suggested the same thing you just did. His reaction almost knocked me flat on my a…behind,” she grinned, hearing the nurse chuckle. “And I didn’t understand why. But then, one of the nurses took me aside and explained it to me. It was painful lesson to learn, but that day I found out what body lice can do to a person.”

“What’s that?” Marion asked curiously.

“We can offer a person a shower and clean clothes. We can treat the body lice as well. But once we have ‘fixed them up’, we send them back on the streets. Did you know a person has to go through about two weeks of pure agony to get used to the lice again? For some unfortunate people, it’s easier to accept the fact they have lice, and live with it. Cleaning them up might sound like a noble thing to do, but to them it’s equivalent to torture.”

Marion’s eyes were huge in her face and Rachel could see her words had hit home.

“I…I had no idea,” Marion stammered. “But…it makes sense now. Why didn’t I think of that?”

“Why didn’t I?” Rachel smiled. “I guess that, sometimes, we get a little blinded by our good intentions. That day, I learned that what might be good for me, might not always be good for someone else.”

“You’ re right,” Marion sighed. “Thanks, Doc.”

“Don’t mention it,” Rachel shrugged. “Besides, I know how it feels to be chewed up like that. It sucks.”

Marion laughed and nodded.

“It sure does, but thanks anyway.”

“Doctor Kendrick,” the voice of the secretary called out.

Rachel looked up in the direction of the sound and gave the elderly woman, who was gesturing toher to come over a quick wave. She wondered if there was a phone call for her. It had been a few busy hours, but Hannah had never been out of her mind. She knew the nurse was more than capable of babysitting her daughter, but she couldn’t help worrying.

“Doctor Barrett has arrived. Right now he’s getting changed, but he asked me to tell you to meet him in the dictation room, so you can transfer your patients to him.”

“Alright, thank you, Esther,” Rachel nodded, grabbing a few charts off the desk and walking towards the dictation room. After a few moments, she turned around and took a few hesitant steps back.

“Um…Esther, have there been any phone calls for me this evening?”

Esther Christopher looked up at Rachel over the rim of her glasses, while she slowly shook her head.

“No, there haven’t been any. Did you expect a call?”

“No, not really,” Rachel sighed. “I…it’s just…it’s nothing,” she added with a small smile. “Thanks, Esther.”

*******

“Is that it?” Donald Barrett asked, unfolding his tall frame from one of the chairs and stretching to get the kinks out of his back. “Sounds like an average night.”

Rachel laughed and jumped to her feet, glad she could go back home again. The thought of Hannah waiting for her to come home, was exhilarating, even though Rachel was realistic enough to realize Hannah was only in her house because she was babysitting Nicky.

“I was worried there for a moment,” Donald Barrett grinned. “I didn’t see your car anywhere and I was afraid Jack hadn’t been able to reach you. I had visions of throngs and throngs of people waiting to see a Doctor. Your car didn’t break down, did it?”

“No,” Rachel shook her head, grabbing her purse and pulling out the car keys Hannah had given her. “A…friend of mine is babysitting my daughter and I’m driving her car. Actually, it’s her grandmother’s car. Hannah’s car got totaled and I believe she is in the process of buying a new one.”

“Hannah Jensen?” Donald asked in surprise. “I heard about her accident a few weeks ago. I didn’t know you two were friends. She’s a great nurse. We still miss her. Working here can be very confrontational and I do understand she had enough of the ER. Especially after what happened to her parents.” Donald Barrett shook his head and his gray eyes were pensive.

Rachel, who had been on her way to the door, halted in her movements and quickly turned around, shooting Donald a questioning look.

“Her parents?” she asked with a frown, while her brain frantically tried to piece together fragments of conversation. Hannah had not mentioned her parents once. Why was that? She had meant to ask Hannah about her parents, Gregory and Brenda, but had not had the chance yet. Rachel swallowed hard, while a sudden feeling of dread caused a wave of nausea.

“Yeah. They were brought in here, after the accident. Most of the staff knew them and…well,” Donald Barrett sighed. “There was nothing we could do and… it was so very hard on everybody. I’ve been here a long time and I’ve seen a lot of things. But when the Jensens were brought in it was the first and last time I actually saw the ER become absolutely quiet.” Donald Barrett took in the strained expression on Rachel’s face and took a step closer. “Rachel, are you alright?”

Oh, Hannah!

Rachel felt like her heart had been ripped from her chest, leaving an empty, but throbbing hole. The pain was so intense, that even breathing sent hot daggers into her chest, leaving a heaviness that settled in her stomach. Thanks to her experience in the ER, where often she had to console patients who were facing the end of their lives, Rachel was able to hide behind a mask of professionalism.

“Oh, I’m just tired,” she waved away Donald Barrett’s concern, although there was an audible tremble in her voice. “And I have a killer headache. Do you have everything you need, Don?” When the tall Doctor nodded, Rachel sent him a watery smile and turned around. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Get some rest, Rachel,” Donald Barrett called after her. “And thanks!”

*******

Rachel didn’t know how she had reached Gertrude Jensen’s car. But she had. She was sitting in the driver’s seat, with her hands clenched around the steering wheel and tears running down her cheeks. Her body shook as she cried with deep, painful sobs. She cried for the loss of Hannah’s parents, whom she had loved deeply. She cried for not being there when Hannah had needed her most. She cried for lost opportunities and bad decisions. But most of all, she cried for the loss of the unconditional love she had once known. And for the loss of Hannah.

If only she had talked to Hannah, before she had left on that fateful day. She sneaked out of Hannah’s life without even talking to the blonde about her fears. And wants. If only she had questioned Nathan, when she had discovered he had been following them. Things could have been so different. If she had listened to her heart, instead of her mind, Hannah Jensen would have loved her forever, she was sure of that.

At least they were on speaking terms, but Rachel wanted so much more than that. She knew she had to be content with anything Hannah was willing to give her, but she could not deny the deep longing she felt, every time she was near the blonde. It was not just the need to be physically close, but the desire to feel the warmth and security of the bond they had once shared. The feeling of belonging. Of being home.

After a long time, Rachel wiped her eyes and let out a shuddering breath. She knew she had to regain her composure. It was getting late and Hannah was waiting for her. The nurse would probably be eager to go home and get some sleep and the last thing the Doctor wanted was to upset her one-time friend with red-rimmed and puffy eyes.

But how could she look at Hannah and not think about the immense grief and pain her ex-lover had gone through when she had lost her parents? How could she, Rachel, ever be free of the guilt she felt for not being there?

Rachel sniffed and searched her purse for a tissue. After she had found one, she quickly blew her nose and by the cold light of the parking garage, she checked her appearance in the small rearview mirror.

“One look at me and Hannah will know I’ve been crying,” she mumbled, letting out a shuddering breath.

In spite of her red and puffy eyes, Rachel started the engine and slowly exited the parking garage. She took her time driving home, hoping that the few minutes that separated her from having to face Hannah, would be kind to her face. Cracking open the window, she hoped the cold evening air would cool her heated cheeks and get rid of the swelling around her eyes.

It was still hard not to cry. Rachel bit her lip when the images of Gregory and Brenda Jensen suddenly appeared in her mind’s eye. They had been such a warm and loving couple, who adored their daughter, something Rachel had always wholeheartedly agreed with. The three of them had always formed a small, but very close-knit family and Rachel knew Hannah simply must have been devastated when her parents had died.

“First, she lost me, then she lost her parents…” Rachel mused with a painfully heavy chest. “And I wasn’t there for her…”

Rachel drove the old Buick up the driveway and killed the engine. She half expected Hannah to open the door to greet her, but everything remained silent. Shrugging her shoulders, Rachel exited the car and headed towards the front door, which she quickly opened. As soon as she stepped inside, she was enveloped by warm air and involuntarily she smiled. Hannah had put the fireplace to good use. Somehow that didn’t surprise her. How many cold winter nights had they spent in front of the fireplace ? Snuggled up together, watching a movie, playing a game, or just staring into the flames, softly talking.

Rachel bit her lip and swallowed away the lump in her throat. She didn’t want to cry. Not now, maybe later.

“Hannah?” she softly spoke, while walking down the hallway.

There was no answer and Rachel frowned. She didn’t hear the sound of the TV, nor any music. Maybe Hannah was so engrossed in a book she had not noticed the Doctor come in.

Opening the door to the living room, Rachel stepped inside and she was just about to call out Hannah’s name again, when, all of a sudden, she stood still and sucked in a lung full of air. The vision that greeted her took her breath away.

Hannah had managed to find her artificial Christmas tree and had found the perfect spot for it; in between the fire place and the window. She had unpacked the boxes of ornaments and had decorated the entire tree with silver, blue and glass. The silver-colored angel Brenda Jensen had once given Rachel for Christmas, was carefully placed on the top of the tree. The sight brought fresh tears to Rachel’s eyes and she pressed her hand to her mouth, stifling a sob.

She quietly walked towards the chair and let herself sink down into the cool leather. Her eyes traveled from the tree to the couch where a blonde and dark head were sharing a pillow. Hannah was asleep, lying on her side, with a sleeping Nicky safely wrapped in her arms. The toddler had one fist pressed against her cheek while her other hand was being enveloped by Hannah’s larger one.

The combination of the sparkling, festive Christmas tree and the peacefully sleeping duo, crushed Rachel’s resolve not to cry. They symbolized everything Rachel had wanted out of life: peace, harmony, light and love. A family. It had been within her grasp, but she had let it go. Never had she felt the loss more. Never had she felt more alone.

Fresh tears rolled own her cheeks, splattering on her jeans where they formed a slowly growing wet patch, but Rachel did not notice. Her eyes were glued to the sleeping pair on the couch, while every tear was testimony to the desperate, sweet pain that was filling her chest.

********

Hannah woke up because of an unusual sensation. There was something warm and solid pressed against her chest. She smiled when, without opening her eyes, her sleepy mind remembered; she was holding Rachel’s daughter. Before she could wonder what time it was and when Rachel would be coming home, her ears picked up the sound of suppressed sobbing. Alarmed, Hannah’s eyes flew open and with a wildly pounding heart she had to give her eyes a few moments to get accustomed to the soft, dim light in the room.

Hannah’s heart skipped a beat when she saw Rachel, still clad in her coat, hunkered down in the chair, with her hands pressed against her face, while her shoulders shook with silent crying. Only occasionally, an audible sob escaped her throat.

Hannah acted on pure instinct when she rose and carefully untangled herself from Nicky’s smaller limbs. For a moment she cradled the little girl in her arms, before putting her back down on the coach again.

She turned to Rachel and hesitated, something her body welcomed with a stab of pain. There had been a time she never ever had hesitated when Rachel had needed her. She would have jumped over the table and thrown herself on her knees before the crying woman, pulling her in a strong hug and showering her face with kisses.

But those times were gone…

Stepping closer, Hannah gingerly touched Rachel’s shoulder when she knelt down in front of her. She could feel the Doctor jerk and slowly she withdrew her hand.

How things had changed.

“Rachel?” she almost whispered. “What’s wrong? Rachel?”

In between sobs, Rachel mumbled something unintelligible and slowly shook her head.

“I’m sorry, Rachel, I didn’t understand that. What did you say?”

Taking a deep breath, Rachel removed her hands from her face and a pair of red-rimmed brown eyes looked at Hannah with so much sadness and despair, the blonde unconsciously held her breath.

“What’s wrong?” she asked again, reaching out and tentatively touching Rachel’s knee.

“I’m so sorry, Hannah. I am so, so sorry,” Rachel replied in a voice that was hoarse from emotion and from crying. “I didn’t know, I swear. I just…I just…Donald Barrett told me and…I didn’t know…”

Understanding dawned when Rachel mentioned Donald Barrett’s name. She suspected he had talked about Hannah’s parents, not knowing Rachel was not aware of the accident that had taken their lives. Doctor Barrett had been the one in charge when Gregory and Brenda Jensen had been brought in.

“Are…are you…” Hannah swallowed hard. “Are you talking about my parents?”

When Rachel nodded and let out a soft sob, Hannah felt the tears sting in the back of her eyes. It was obvious Rachel was upset and in a great deal of pain. Hannah knew how much the Doctor had loved her parents and she did the only thing she could do. Reaching out, she pushed Rachel’s coat off her shoulders and tossed it behind the chair.

“Come here,” she whispered, pulling Rachel into her arms. Putting one hand behind Rachel’s head, she gently pushed the Doctor face against her shoulder, immediately feeling the hot tears against her neck.

“What happened?” Rachel sniffed.

In a soft, sad voice, Hannah told her about the drunk driver, the accident and how her parents had instantly died when their car had landed in the storm drain…all the while she was holding Rachel, trying to comfort the other woman as best as she could.

“I know it hurts. I’m sorry, Rachel, I should have told you. I’d never expected you to find out this way. I should have told you. I know how much you loved them.”

“No, it’s not your fault,” Rachel cried. “I was the one who left everything behind. It…it was…a bad choice, but…it was my choice, so…I’m…”

“Ssh,” Hannah interrupted, cupping Rachel’s cheeks and looking her in the eye. “Don’t do this, not now…please. We can talk about those choices later. You’ve just learned about my parents and…and…” Hannah bit her bottom lip to keep it from trembling. “They never stopped loving you, you know,” she added in a husky voice. “Dad always claimed you’d be back one day.”

Because that girl simply can’t be happy without you, Hannah. That’s why I believe there’s a lot more going on than we know…Rachel’s smart, she does things for a reason… Gregory Jensen’s voice echoed in Hannah’s head and she slowly nodded.

You were right, Daddy, as always…

“I’m sorry, Hannah,” Rachel sniffed, pressing her forehead against Hannah’s cheek. “I didn’t mean to…to…break down like this. I guess it was the shock…and all the other things that are going on,” she added softly.

“You didn’t know and you need to grieve,” Hannah answered.

Rachel lifted up her head and her eyes caught Hannah’s. They were so close she could see the tiny dark-blue specs in the blonde’s eyes. Her heart skipped a beat and she didn’t know whether to run, or to drown in the only pair of eyes that had ever been able to rob her of speech completely.

“Thank you,” she spoke with a watery smile. “I…you’ve become so…”

“Mature,” Hannah filled in with a sad smile. “I had to grow up in a hurry.”

“It pains me I wasn’t here for you, when…when…”

“I know, I can see it in your eyes,” Hannah interrupted gently, while her thumb wiped away a tear that was clinging to Rachel’s cheek. “And it did hurt me you weren’t here.” Hannah noticed Rachel flinch and she knew the Doctor was genuine about her feelings. “But, you know what? That’s all in the past and yes, if we knew then what we know now, things would have been different. But, as my Grandfather always used to say:’Don’t beat a dead horse.’ Should have…would have…could have…it doesn’t get us anywhere, does it?”

“When did you become so wise?” Rachel asked, but there was a smile in her eyes.

“It’s amazing how much soul-searching and reflection is involved while decorating a tree,” Hannah smiled.

“I see you had help,” Rachel’s eyes traveled to Nicky and back again.

“Oh, yes, your daughter is a great help,” Hannah nodded. “But she does have the attention span of a…let’s say…”

“Two year old,” Rachel smiled, all of a sudden feeling her heart soar when Hannah chuckled.

“Yup, a two year old,” the blonde agreed. “She’s a wonderful little person, but I’m sure you’ll have your hands full with her. Probably, sooner than you think.”

“I’m sure,”Rachel mumbled. “When did she wake up?

“Just after you left,” Hannah answered, “I was finishing my sandwich when I heard her call out. It was more like a humongous yell, by the way.” Hannah smiled and slowly shook her head in disbelief. She was still amazed at how well she and the little girl got along. “I went into her bedroom and she was sitting up in bed. At first she looked like she was going to cry, but then she just stretched out her arms and ordered a ‘dwink’,” Hannah relayed with a twinkle in her eyes. She was still kneeling in front of Rachel, with her hand resting on the Doctor’s knee.

The other woman was fighting the urge to cover the nurse’s hand with her own, not wanting to scare her off, but it was hard. The faint scent of Hannah’s perfume filled her nose, bringing back memories of moments of tenderness and love. If she would close her eyes, she could almost feel Hannah’s soft skin against her own, her heartbeat underneath her ear, while her breath tickled her arm and bare shoulder…

Rachel swallowed hard and shook her head as if she was chasing away an annoying fly. She could not think things like that. It was too hard and too complicated. And if Hannah would look into her eyes and see what she was thinking, she would be mortally embarrassed. What was happening between herself and the blonde right now was something unexpected and very welcome and she did not want to jeopardize the tentatively growing threads of trust. Deep down inside she secretly hoped that, maybe, one day, they could build something solid on the ruins of their shared past. Rachel would settle for friendship, even though her longing went far beyond that. Hannah’s decision to come over and talk had been a huge step in that direction.

Rachel raised her eyes to meet Hannah’s and gently cleared her throat.

“So, you and Nicky decided to decorate the Christmas tree?” she smiled.

“After we had some apple juice,” Hannah nodded. The blonde sighed and leaned back against the low table. “There’s something magical about seeing Christmas through the eyes of a child. Nicky had a great time. And so did I,” she added softly. She cast a look at the couch, where the toddler was still in a deep sleep and Rachel noticed the softening in the blonde’s clear, blue eyes. Or was it longing?

“You wore her out,” Rachel concluded gently. “Thank you.”

Hannah softly chuckled and turned back to face the Doctor, who looked absolutely drained. Her eyes were less puffy, but still a little red and there were dark circles underneath her eyes.

“You look like you could use some sleep yourself,” Hannah said, giving Rachel’s knee a gentle pat, before withdrawing her hand. “Are you going to be okay?”

Touched by Hannah’s concern, Rachel nodded and mustered up a small smile.

“Yes, I’ll be fine. I’m sorry I was so late and I’m sorry I…”

“Don’t, Rachel,” Hannah interrupted. “I meant it when I said we won’t talk about that now. We’ re both tired and I don’t know about you, but…there are a lot of things to think about and…I feel like I’m on anemotional overload. I don’t know how much more I can take.”

“I know, I feel it too,” Rachel admitted. “A few days back, no, yesterday even, I could not have imagined this happening.” Rachel could not help herself, she had to touch Hannah. She reached out a hand and let her fingertips gingerly touch Hannah’s cheek. The blonde did not pull away. For a brief moment, she closed her eyes and let the familiar touch soothe her soul. Hannah was tempted to stay where she was and revel into the warmth that Rachel’s touch evoked. But even though a few bridges had been built that day, there were still a lot more to cross. They both needed some time and distance.

Opening her eyes, Hannah’s gaze was caught by the intensity in Rachel’s and involuntarily she was drawn closer.

“I missed you,” she whispered, before she could stop herself.

“I missed you too,” Rachel answered. “I can’t begin to tell you how much.”

Hannah nodded and swallowed hard, making sure to keep some physical distance between herself and Rachel. It would be too easy to give into her body’s melancholy and lose herself in familiar warmth and softness. But too many things had happened and there was so much to think about and sort out.

“I need to go,” she whispered. “Now.”

“Of course,” Rachel answered hoarsely, letting her hands fall into her lap. “Thank you, Hannah, for babysitting.” Her brown eyes traveled to the lit up tree and back again. “And thank you for the tree,” she smiled.

“I’ve always been a sucker for Christmas,” Hannah gently joked, before pushing herself to her feet.

“I know,” Rachel smiled, rising from her seat and stepping towards the couch to pick up Nicky and cradle the toddler in her arms. In her sleep, the little girl sighed and snuggled closer to her mother, as if she knew it was the safest place in her world. Rachel dropped a kiss on the dark, tousled hair and walked to the door, closely following Hannah. The blonde opened the door and, before stepping into the cold, night air she turned around and shot Rachel a look that was a mixture of warmth, insecurity and fear.

“Have a good sleep,” she spoke softly.

“You too,” Rachel replied.

Hannah nodded and cast a look at the sleeping child. She reached out a hand and tenderly brushed some silky soft hair away from the toddler’s forehead.

“Goodnight, Nicky,” she whispered, before turning around and disappearing into the night.

Rachel waited until Hannah had pulled out of the driveway, before closing the door and locking it.

“Goodnight, sweet Hannah,” she sighed. “You know you still have my heart.”

*********

Gary yawned loudly and stretched his body, kicking off the duvet in the process. A quick glance at the clock showed him it was almost eleven and he wondered what Jake was doing. Was he still on the phone?

The door opened and the subject of his thoughts came almost dancing into the bedroom, jumping on the bed and crushing Gary in a bone-shattering hug.

“What are you doing?” Gary laughed, pushing his partner away from him, so he could look him in the eye.

Jake sported a big grin and dove underneath the covers, which made Gary yelp in surprise when, all of a sudden, Jake slid his cold feet underneath his legs.

“What has gotten into you? Have you been on the phone all this time?”

“Well, yeah,” Jake shrugged. “I was talking to Gertrude and you know how she is,” he explained with a beaming smile.

“I swear, between the two of you, you could start a talk-show,” Gary mumbled.

“I’m sure we could,” Jake agreed cheerfully. “But we won’t. Not yet, anyway. First we have other things to plan.”

After that remark, Jake suddenly had Gary’s undivided attention.

“Plan? You and Gertrude are planning something? What?”

“Oh, no, no, no, I can’t tell you that right now. First you need to hear the rest of the story.”

“Which is?” Gary sighed. This could become a late night.

“Hannah and Rachel are on speaking terms.”

Gary looked up, not impressed at all. Hannah had told him about her talk with Rachel in the parking garage.

“Well, they’ re both sensible adults. I hadn’t expected anything else and…”

“Hannah went to Rachel’s house this evening,” Jake gloated.

This was new. Gary’s eyes went wide and unconsciously he leaned closer to his partner.

“She did?” he asked, clearly surprised. “Good for her! Hannah needed some closure…” Gary paused and frowned. “And Gertrude told you all this?”

“Sort of. At first it was like pulling teeth, but she told me anyway.”

“You’re bad,” Gary responded while shaking his head. “Hannah asked us not to get involved in this, Jake. Don’t you remember? I don’t think that…”

“Listen, you worry-wart. Nobody will be butting in,but sometimes the people you love just need a little…incentive,” he added with a smug smile.

“And what might that incentive be?” Gary snorted. “You do know that, if Hannah finds out, I’ll be the one to take the brunt of her temper, don’t you?”

“Won’t happen,” Jake shook his head. “All Gertrude and I are doing, is organize a party. If both Rachel and Hannah will be there and if they will talk and maybe even visit, well, that’s not something we’ll be planning. Not exactly, anyway. We’ll just leave that up to chance.”

Gary frowned and Jake could tell his partner was not convinced.

“Chance, huh?” he echoed.

“Come on, honey, where’s your sense of adventure?” Jake laughed, giving Gary a quick kiss. “Our Christmas parties used to be the talk of the town!”

“Only the gay part of town,” Gary mumbled. “How did you get Gertrude involved in this? I mean, I…”

“Gary, honey, stop it,” Jake sighed, pressing his hand against Gary’s mouth. “You know what Gertrude is like. She’s so cool. Sometimes I think she’s more out of the closet than we are.”

Gary laughed and turned on his side, supporting his head with his hand, while he stared at his partner, who was almost bubbling over with enthusiasm.

“I guess you’re right,” he smiled. “So, what’s the plan and how are the two of you going to make sure both Hannah and Rachel will show up. Voluntarily,” he added with a wink. “Oh, and, of course, there’s the minor detail of Rachel’s schedule. She might have to work, or be on call.”

“That’s where you come into the picture, sweetie,” Jake answered with a broad smile. “Tomorrow, you’ll pay a visit to Rachel’s nurse, or secretary, whoever keeps an eye on the schedule and you’ll find out which day she’ll be off. And make sure she’ll be off at least two days in a row, because we won’t know what will happen during and after our party,” he added with a smug smile.

*******

Hannah stared at the ceiling, while her eyes followed dancing shadows, painted by the light of a street lamp. She had been in bed for hours, but could not sleep. Her body was tired, but her mind was still busy processing the events of the day.

Rachel’s voice still echoed in her ears and it was impossible to get rid of the image of the Doctor’s dark, soulful eyes. There had been such sadness, so much pain and longing in them.

She had felt it, too, the urge to seek a closeness they had once shared. And it had been so tempting. Especially when Rachel had been so close, staring at her with those beautiful, dark eyes. It had almost been Hannah’s undoing. After all the Doctor had told her about her reason for leaving and the role Nathan had played in it, Hannah had been dumbfounded as well as relieved and angry. Although she quickly realized she could not be angry at Rachel anymore. True, Rachel had made a few bad decisions, very bad, but deep down inside Hannah had to admit her anger had dissipated so fast, it had been confusing. It had left her with an emptiness that had quickly been filled with sadness. And a little bit of hope.

Hannah sighed and turned on her side, looking at the pictures on the wall. Her parents were smiling down at her, so was Rachel, from a picture she had not dared to look at for years. It had been hidden away in one of her drawers, covered by t-shirts and socks. But she had always known it was there, it had just been too painful to look at, until this evening. As soon as she had come home, she had pulled open the drawer and pulled out the photo. The enlarged image of Rachel stared at her with a radiant smile that made Hannah’s heart skip a beat.

“What are you doing, Hannah?” she whispered. “Why is all of this affecting you so much? What is it Rachel does to you, after all those years?”

Hannah groaned and pressed her face into her pillow. She wished she could just fall asleep and wake up with a clear head, having an answer to all the questions that played through her head.

What does Rachel do to you, Hannah? How does she make you feel?

“I can’t think about that,” Hannah answered herself. “Not now. There’s so much to think about, I don’t know where to begin.”

She still loves you, Hannah, you know she does. You saw it in her eyes. You know that look. You’ve seen it before…many times…

“I don’t know,” Hannah mumbled, shaking her head. “I don’t know what to think, or what to feel, not anymore.”

What does she do to you, Hannah? The voice in the back of her mind repeated. Do you still love her, too? What are you afraid of?What did you feel when you were around Rachel and Nicky?

Hannah squeezed her eyes shut, but she could still feel the tears make their way down her cheek. She could not make sense of what she was feeling. Her mind told her she was supposed to keep her distance from Rachel. She needed a lot more answers. When she thought about Nathan, she felt a deep, burning anger. Shouldn’t she feel some sort of anger towards Rachel as well?

“I must be going insane,” Hannah muttered. “Why does being with Rachel make me feel so at home?”

The words that played through her head were too frightening to say aloud and Hannah quickly turned on her stomach, pulling her pillow over her head, just as she had done when she was a little girl. It had always helped her to scare the demons away. Maybe it would still work.

That’s it, Hannah, hide…

Part 7

The road was dark, there was no illumination at all. Only the dim light of the dashboard provided enough light not to not become disoriented.

Unconsciously squinting her eyes, the blonde had clenched her hands around the steering wheel so tightly, her bloodless knuckles turnedwhite. Leaning forward, she strained the muscles in her back, but stubbornly she ignored the cramping pain. She had driven for hours, but felt like she had not gone far. It was so hard to estimate any distance in the pitch-dark night. Hours ago, the moon had disappeared behind the clouds and she had not seen it since.

Suddenly the car rocked and, involuntarily, the blonde yelped, tightening her grip on the steering wheel. She could not see the surface she was driving on, but she could feel it had become rockier. It was hard to keep the vehicle straight every time one of the wheels hit a pothole. Her arms became more painful and tired and her eyes started to tear up. She knew she had to pull over and stop soon, in order to be able to finish her journey.

She frowned. What was her journey again? Where was she going? A sudden feeling of panic took her breath away and she blindly reached out to feel the passenger’s seat. Hadn’t she had a map, or something? Maybe a note, with some directions?

“Oh, God, no!!” she whispered in horror when she realized she would be lost without her notes. “I can’t do this by myself. I can’t.”

Her right hand reached up to find the light switch on the car’s ceiling, but when she flipped it, nothing happened. She tried again, and again, but there was no escape from the darkness that seemed to become thicker and thicker.

All of a sudden, the car hit a big, solid object and her body jerked. The seatbelt prevented her from flying forward when it locked in place and trapped her in her seat. Strangely enough, it didn’t hurt.

She let out a shuddering breath when she realized the car had come to a stop and, with trembling hands, she wiped her clammy forehead. Her eyes traveled from left to right and back again, desperately trying to penetrate the surrounding darkness. She knew she could not stay where she was. She needed to keep moving.

The engine was still making a comforting, humming sound, but when she put her foot on the pedal, nothing happened. While her heart was pounding in her chest, she pumped the pedal a few times, but other than revving the engine, the car did not respond.

“Hannah,” a voice suddenly called out and the blonde looked up; startled. She could still see nothing but darkness .

“Hannah,” the voice sounded again and tilting her head to the side, the blonde listened intently. Where had she heard that voice before? It sounded so familiar.

“Hannah, what have you done?”

“What? What did I do?” she whispered, confused.

“You could have had it all, but you didn’t want it. You killed it. You killed me.”

“Who are you?” the blonde asked with a trembling voice.

“Don’t you remember me? I remember you! I’ve watched you for such a long time. You were my angel.”

The blonde tried to unlock the seatbelt, but no matter how many times she pressed the red button, nothing happened. Her breathing became fast and labored; she was trapped.

“Who are you?” she tried again.

“Don’t you recognize me, Hannah? Are you sure? You make me sad.”

“You’re not…her. You don’t sound like…her.”

“Like who?” the voice sounded closer now and more threatening, but the blonde could still see nothing.

“Like Rachel,” she whispered.

Suddenly the car rocked, and it sounded like a big fist had been slammed on the roof. The blonde cringed and again tried to push the pedal, but to no avail.

“Don’t you EVER mentioned that name again. Ever!” the voice bellowed, close to her ear this time.

“Who ARE you?” the blonde yelled, while tears streamed down her face. “WHERE are you?”

“I’m right here, where I’ve always been. I’ll always be close to you.”

The sound of a hand tapping against the window made her jump in her seat and she quickly looked aside. What she saw made her blood chill in her veins. She recognized the face that was almost pressed against the glass, but the look in the eyes was something she had never seen before.

“Open up, Hannah.”

“No,” she whispered.

“Open the door, Hannah,” it sounded a lot more forceful this time.

“No,” the blonde shook her head vigorously. “I can’t. I won’t.”

“Open the door, Hannah,” anger and trauma had distorted the face and Hannah tried to get away from it as far as she could. But the seatbelt was relentless; she could not move.

“Open the door.

“No,” Hannah yelled. “Go away, Nathan. You’re dead. Go away.”

“OPEN THE DOOR!!”

“NO!”

A hand started to pound on the window and Hannah sobbed in frustration.

“If I can’t have you, no one will. Especially, not HER.”

“Oh, God, help me. Help me,” Hannah cried, when the door slowly, but surely opened. “What have I done? Rachel, where are you? Rachel. RACHEL!!”

Bathed in sweat, Hannah woke up. She was gasping for breath, while her eyes were wide in fear and desperation. Her heart pounded in her chest and tears were rolling down her cheeks while she was still whispering Rachel’s name.

With trembling fingers, she flipped the switch of the lamp on the night stand and only when she realized she was in her own bed, in her own bedroom, didher breathing slowly became normal again.

“Oh, God, what a nightmare,” she whispered, raking her fingers through her unruly, damp hair. “Where did all that come from?”

Feeling sick to her stomach, the blonde pushed back the covers and slowly crawled out of bed. On unsteady legs, she walked towards the bathroom, where she let the cold water run for a few moments before scooping up some of the cold liquid and splashing it in her face. It made her shiver, but she needed to shock her system to snap out of the feeling of horror the nightmare had created.

Patting her face with a fluffy towel, Hannah softly groaned and fought the feeling to grab her phone and call Rachel. Deep down inside, she felt that if she only could hear the Doctor’s voice, it would chase the lingering demons away. It always had, she remembered. On the rare occasions she had experienced a bad dream during the time they had been together, Rachel had always managed to make her feel better. Of course, it had not only been the soft, velvety voice that had whispered soothing, sweet nothings in her ear, it had also been the arms that had held her close, a circle of warmth and safety. And the soft lips that had planted kisses on her forehead and cheeks.

Forget it, Hannah. Don’t think about it. It’s over. It’s in the past.

“Is it, really?” Hannah whispered, glancing at her reflection in the mirror. Her face was pale, making her blue eyes look so much darker than they really were. With a sigh she tossed the towel on the rack, switched off the light and returned to her bedroom. A glance at the alarm showed her it was two-thirty in the morning and, with a frustrated groan, Hannah let herself fall back into the pillows.

There was a feeling, deep down inside, that tried to catch her attention. It was like a gentle, emotional tap on the shoulder and Hannah knew that, if she would turn around, she would see something very unexpected and very scary. Just the thought of giving it the attention it was asking for, was enough to make her tremble inside. She really wanted to ignore it, but it had been growing in strength and she knew she wold have to confront it soon.

“Soon,” Hannah whispered. “Not now. It’s too early.”

Again, like they had done before, her eyes traveled to the photos of her parents and of Rachel. Just looking at those familiar faces made her feel a little better. Her parents’ smile warmed her inside and Hannah managed to muster up a small smile of her own.

“Thanks, Mom, thanks, Dad,” she whispered, slipping back underneath the covers. Her eyes lingered on Rachel’s photo and she took a deep breath.

“Goodnight, Rachel.”

********

“Sweetheart, I don’t want to make your Monday harder than it already is, but you look like you’re not feeling well,” Gertrude greeted her granddaughter when she stepped into the kitchen.

“I don’t,” Hannah sighed. “I’ve got a huge headache and just the thought of food makes me want to throw up.”

Gertrude’s clear, blue eyes were worried when she glanced at the young woman who had taken a seat opposite her. There were dark circles underneath Hannah’s eyes that looked sunken and dull. Her face was pale and even her hair had lost its youthful, healthy bounce.

“Maybe you should call in sick,” Gertrude suggested.

“I can’t,” Hannah replied softly. “We’ re very short-staffed today and Mondays are usually crazy.”

“They’ re always short-staffed, sweetie,” Gertrude argued in a gentle voice. “When you’re sick, you’re sick.”

“I guess I’m just PMS’ ing,” Hannah shrugged. “Once I start my period, I’ll feel better.”

Gertrude smiled and gently patted Hannah’s hand.

“You can’t fool me, Hannah Jensen, I know you too well. I’ve seen you PMS’ing and this is not it. If you don’t want to talk about it, I’ll respect that, but…” Gertrude hesitated, but then continued anyway. “Is it Rachel?”

“No,” Hannah answered, too fast. “I haven’t seen her since…since last Sunday.”

“Exactly,’ Gertrude nodded.

Hannah glanced up and sent her grandmother a dark look. Part of her wanted to jump up and run away from those piercing blue eyes but the other part wanted to stay right where she was, close to her grandmother, and let the elderly lady comfort her when she poured out her heart.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Hannah sighed moodily.

“It means that, in my humble, elderly opinion, you’re miserable because you haven’t seen Rachel in a week.”

Hannah cast down her eyes and stared at her finger that was drawing invisible lines on the table cloth.

“You think?” she asked in a small voice.

“I think,” Gertrude smiled. “I also think you’ re coming down with something. I even think you might have a fever. I know how responsible you are, but even you get sick once in a blue moon, Hannah. It will be Christmas next week and I’d hate for you to be sick then.”

“I don’t want to be sick either,” Hannah mumbled. “But I…I really need to go to work.”

All of a sudden, Gertrude realized why Hannah was so intent on ignoring her body’s need for rest and healing. It was Rachel. Gertrude was not known for beating around the bush and again, she was about to remind her granddaughter about that.

“I understand,” she nodded. “Why don’t you crawl back into bed, call in sick and then call Rachel. She does have a phone, you know. You really don’t have to go to work, feeling as miserable as you do, just in the hope of running into the good Doctor.”

Hannah’s head jerked up and a blush crept up her cheeks when she looked at her grandmother in shock.

“I’m sorry, honey,” she said gently. “But I can’t sit here and say nothing, while you jeopardize your health. I love you way too much for that.”

“Oh, that’s slick,” Hannah mumbled, but there was a hint of amusement in her eyes. “You’re playing the love card now.”

“Did it work?” Gertrude asked, smiling when Hannah chuckled. The soft chuckle was followed by a deep, rumbling cough and Gertrude winced.

“I know what you’ re going to say next,” Hannah continued in a hoarse voice. “You don’t want me to spread all those germs around my patients.”

“Something like that,” Gertrude replied dryly. “But, you’re a big girl and I trust you know what to do.”

“Do you, really?”

“Um, no,” Gertrude grinned, making Hannah smile.

“Alright, Granny, I give in. I’ll call in sick and then I’ll go back to bed,” Hannah mumbled, knowing her grandmother had been right all along. It was irresponsible to go to work the way she was feeling, but she had not seen Rachel in more than a week. Not since she had babysat Nicky. Work had been crazy and she knew Rachel must have been swamped, down in the ER. She could not help wondering how the Doctor was doing.

Admit it, Hannah, you just want to hear her voice and see her face. And her eyes, they still…

“Huh, what?” Hannah stammered, her thoughts interrupted by Gertrude’s voice.

“I wondered when you’ll let Gary and Jake know whether you’ll be at the party next week.”

“I don’t know, Granny,” Hannah sighed, rubbing her aching head. “Right now, I don’t even want to think about it.”

“They’ve invited me as well,” Gertrude smiled, while her eyes were twinkling.

“Really?” Hannah asked, somehow having no trouble at all picturing her grandmother at a gay Christmas party.

“I might even get lucky,” Gertrude winked, which elicited a groan from her granddaughter.

She laughed and slowly got to her feet. She gave Hannah a quick hug and dropped a kiss on the unruly blond hair.

“Go back to bed, sweetie. I’ll bring you a nice cup of hot tea.”

“Thanks, Granny. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

******

Rachel skillfully avoided a man on crutches, who clumsily tried to make his way out of the ER, as she headed for the nursing station. She had a pile of charts to finish and not enough time to do it. She had been working the weekend and it had been crazy. The first serious frost had descended on Oklahoma City and it had been like every homeless person had made his or her way to the ER with complaints of abdominal pain, in the hope of finding a warm place to stay for a night, maybe two. On top of that, reckless driving on the slick roads had contributed to numerous accidents and she had seen patients until the early hours of the morning.

With a sigh, Rachel picked up a stack of charts and headed to the dictation room. If she was allowed to work undisturbed, maybe she could leave in time. As she sat down and opened the first chart, she glanced at the clock and muttered a curse. It was almost seven and she knew she had missed Hannah. Again.

Unwilling to call the blonde, she had tried to meet her on the floor, but every day she had been too late. Whenever she had arrived at her unit, Hannah had already gone. Gary had helpfully provided her with the nurse’s phone number, but she was hesitant to call. She did not want Hannah to think she was pushing. From experience, she knew the blonde needed time to think things over and get emotionally accustomed to the new situation. It had been that way when they had started dating. Hannah had been so cautious it had sometimes driven Rachel insane.

“I’m sorry, Rachel,” Hannah had once said. “I know I’m slow, but I needed to be absolutely sure about us. Just think of it this way: you had to wait a while, but at least you’ll have me forever!”

Involuntarily, Rachel smiled. When Hannah had set her mind to something, she went for it and usually gave one hundred percent.

“Oh, Hannah,” she whispered, staring at the page in front of her. “I’m sorry I didn’t have the chance to see you after that one Sunday. I really wanted to.”

Reluctantly, Rachel started the task of going through the charts and after a while she was so absorbed in what she was doing, she almost jumped when her cell phone started ringing.

A quick glance on the display showed her ‘H.J.’ and her heart skipped a beat. This couldn’t be, could it? Was Hannah actually calling her?

With trembling fingers, Rachel pushed the green button and brought the device to her ear.

“This is Rachel,” she announced, a little out of breath.

“Rachel, it’s Gertrude.”

“Oh…hi, Mrs…I mean, hi, Gertrude,” she stammered confused.

“Rachel, sweetheart, I know you would have liked Hannah to call you, but you also know how incredibly stubborn she can be. Anyway, the reason that I’m calling you is that I need some….advice.”

“Sure,” Rachel nodded, having regained her composure. “What can I do for you, Gertrude?”

“It’s Hannah,” Gertrude sighed. “She’s sick and I…”

“What?” Rachel interrupted, shooting up straight in her chair. All of a sudden, her heart hammered in her chest and her palms had become sweaty. How bad would it be for Gertrude to call her? “What’s wrong?”

“Well, that’s something I’d like to know, but I’m no Doctor and Hannah refuses to see one. I threatened to take her to the ER, but she knows I’m physically not capable of doing that. Otherwise, I would.”

“I know,” Rachel nodded. “What are her symptoms?”

“She has a fever, a terrible cough, she wheezes and she refuses to eat. I’m afraid she’s developing pneumonia and I…Phil died of pneumonia, you know. I…I…”

“I’ll be there as soon as I’m done here,” Rachel promised.

“Oh, but Rachel, sweetie, I didn’t mean for you to…”

“I know you didn’t, but I need to see her. Maybe she’ll let me examine her.”

“If not, I’ll whack her with a frying pan,” Gertrude mumbled. “Thank you, Rachel, thank you so much.”

“Don’t mention it, Gertrude. I’ll be there soon.”

“Do you have the address?” Gertrude asked, a little surprised.

“Gary gave it to me,” Rachel confessed in a small voice and Gertrude smiled.

“Great! Thanks, Rachel.”

Rachel disconnected the call and tried not to think about all the things Hannah could be suffering from. Instead, she tried to focus on her work and within thirty minutes she was completely done with her notes and dictations. She quickly changed into her street clothes, grabbed her bag, checked its contents and made a beeline for the exit.

Twenty minutes later, Doctor Kendrick parked her car on Gertrude Jensen’s driveway. On the way over, images of Hannah had wreaked havoc with her mind and her eyes were worried and dark in her strained face when she knocked on the storm door.

“Rachel! I’m so happy to see you,” Gertrude exclaimed, giving the Doctor a heartfelt hug. “You look tired.”

“It has been a rough week,” Rachel smiled, genuinely happy to see Gertrude Jensen. She had always had a soft spot for Hannah’s grandmother. “I came as fast as I could.”

“Thank you, sweetie, I so appreciate that. I hope I didn’t inconvenience you. Hannah told me you have a little girl.”

“Nicky,” Rachel nodded with a smile. “She’s with my brother and sister-in-law at the moment. I’ll pick her up later.”

“Hopefully, I won’t keep you that long. It’s just that…I’m worried,” Gertrude confessed.

“That’s okay, Gertrude, I understand. I’m worried as well.” Rachel looked around, not really seeing the tastefully decorated living room. “Where is she?”

“In bed,” Gertrude sighed. “That was the only thing I could convince her to do; stay in bed. Follow me.”

Gertrude slowly walked through the hallway toward the end of the house, where Hannah’s bedroom was.

“Don’t feel bad, Gertrude,” Rachel soothed, putting a hand on the elderly lady’s shoulder and giving it a gentle squeeze. “She always did this to me as well.”

“Nurses!” Gertrude mumbled.

“Doctors can be worse,” Rachel smiled, eying a familiar picture on the wall. She remembered taking it, on Hannah’s parents’ twentieth anniversary. Times had been so happy and carefree back then. Sometimes she wished, she could go back in time and correct all the mistakes she had made. Maybe that would give her back what she had always held closest to her heart.

“This is her room,” Gertrude spoke, gesturing towards a closed door. “Last time I checked, she was asleep, but she looked like she had a fever.”

Rachel hesitated and glanced from the closed door to Gertrude and back again.

“You sure it’s okay, if I…?”

“It’s fine, sweetie,” Gertrude spoke, demonstrating her words by opening the door. “I know for a certainty that she won’t be angry.”

“Alright, if you say so,” Rachel grimaced, pushing the door open and stepping inside the room. If she had any doubts left after Gertrude’s intervention, they disappeared when her eyes took in the woman in the bed.

Hannah’s face had unnatural red blotches and her hair was sticking to her damp forehead. Even from across the room, Rachel could hear her wheeze and without thinking twice, she stepped inside and walked towards the bed. She opened up her bag and pulled out a stethoscope. Gently pulling back the cover, she placed the instrument against Hannah’s chest and listened intently. With a frown she pulled back again and gently cupped Hannah’s face.

“Hannah! Wake up, Hannah,” she urged. “I need you to sit up for me.”

Hannah mumbled something unintelligible and grabbed the hand that was touching her face, pressing it against her chest.

“Hannah, sweetie, wake up,” Rachel continued, using her free hand to smooth the unruly hair that was spilling over the blonde’s forehead.

“R…Rachel?” Hannah finally responded in a hoarse voice. “What…?”

“You’ re sick and I need you to sit up for me for a little while, alright?”

“Am I in the ER?”

“No, honey, you’ re not,” Rachel smiled, knowing how mortally embarrassed Hannah would have been had she been at the hospital. “But I need to listen to your lungs.”

“Oh,” Hannah mumbled, trying to push herself up. With dazed eyes, she looked at the Doctor and she slowly shook her head.

“I’m dreaming,” she concluded in a thin voice. “It’s finally happened, I’m losing my mind completely.”

“No, you’ re not,” Rachel answered, supporting the struggling woman by wrapping an arm around her shoulder and steadying her. “Hold on to me, okay? I need to listen to your lungs.”

While Hannah obediently grabbed Rachel’s upper arms, the Doctor proceeded to listen to Hannah’s lungs, trying to ignore how the closeness to the blonde threatened to rob her of all her senses. But it was hard, especially when the other woman put her head against her shoulder and let out a soft sigh.

“Alright, that’s it. Thanks, Hannah,” Rachel mumbled after a little while. “Now, lie back and let me take your temperature.”

Before Hannah could respond, Rachel had pulled a tympanic thermometer out of her bag and stuck it in Hannah’s ear.

“Did you take it from the hospital?” Hannah asked with closed eyes. For some reason the light of the room turned into a bright beam, hurting her head every time she opened her eyes.

“No, I use it for Nicky,” Rachel smiled, her brown eyes instantly worried when she read the tiny display. “You’ re having a pretty bad fever,” she concluded.

“I always wanted a little girl like Nicky,” Hannah mumbled feverishly. “A girl who would look like you…with your eyes….your smile…that cute little dimple in your cheek,” she continued, barely audible. “I know I have a fever, I just talked to Mom and Dad…they said to stay home…”

Rachel’s eyes were dark with worry when she turned around and shot a look at Gertrude, who had been waiting at the door.

“If I write some prescriptions, do you have somebody who could get them filled?” she asked. “I need to give her a shot, to clear her lungs, but she needs some antibiotics as well and some decongestant.”

“I’ll call Jake,” Gertrude promised, stepping inside the room to head for Hannah’s phone. It would be so much faster to use her granddaughter’s than to walk all the way back to the living room.

“Mom. Dad,” Hannah’s voice sounded sad and Rachel noticed a tear rolling down the blonde’s cheek. “I didn’t mean to…I really wanted to come…”

Rachel felt helpless, watching the blonde fight her demons in a fever-induced dream. She could tell Hannah was dreaming about her parents, but it was hard to understand what she said, because most of the time she just mumbled and moaned. In the background, she could hear Gertrude talking on the phone, but she didn’t realize the elderly woman was finished, until she gently squeezed her shoulder.

“Jake’s on his way,” she spoke softly. “Did she tell you?”

“About Gregory and Brenda?” Rachel asked. “Yes, she did, last Sunday. I should have been here, Gertrude,” she added in a whisper, grabbing one of Hannah’s hands and pressing it against her chest. “Her world fell apart, several times, and I wasn’t here. She ought to hate me.”

“But she doesn’t,” Gertrude replied, wrapping an arm around Rachel’s shoulders and smiling when the Doctor leaned into the embrace. “That’s not who my Hannah is.”

“I know,” Rachel whispered. “Did she tell you? Why I left, I mean?”

“Not really,” Gertrude answered, shaking her head. “I know she will, eventually. She just needs the time to process things and come to terms with them. She’s so much like her father and grandfather.” Gertrude gave Rachel a loving squeeze and saw how the Doctor quickly wiped away a tear. “I do know she had a nightmare, that night after she had talked to you. She denied it, but I heard her scream. It worried me.”

“I’m sorry,” Rachel whispered, stroking Hannah’s cheek with the back of her hand. “About everything.”

“I know, sweetie,” Gertrude sighed. “Whatever happened, four years ago, I’m sure you and Hannah will learn how to deal with it. She might not admit it just yet, but she needs you, Doctor Kendrick.”

Rachel smiled and felt her heart warm after Gertrude’s words. The fact that the elderly woman had embraced her as a lost daughter, instead of a heartbreaking villain, was raising her hopes. Maybe, just maybe, Hannah and she would be given a second chance.

“I need her, too,” she admitted, feeling the truth settle around her soul like a warm blanket. “I’ve always needed her.”

*******

Hardly an hour later, Rachel had given an oblivious Hannah a shot and with some help from Gertrude, she had managed to make the nurse drink some tea, so she could take her medications.

“All she needs to do right now, is sleep,” Rachel had sighed, forcing herself not to check Hannah’s temperature every five minutes. She knew the blonde had a fever, but she also knew she needed to give the medication the chance to work.

“Have you eaten anything at all?” Gertrude whispered, when Rachel had tip-toed out of the room to make a phone call to her brother, Joe.

“Um…not really,” Rachel had answered with an apologetic smile. “But I’ll be fine, Gertrude, don’t worry about me.”

“But I do,” Gertrude had mumbled. “I don’t want you to come down with a bronchitis as well. You need to take care of yourself, Rachel.”

“Yes, ma’ am,” Rachel had mumbled, hoping her stomach would not choose that moment to growl. She was beyond hungry, but she was reluctant to leave Hannah’s side for more than a few minutes.

“Jake is getting us something to eat. How does fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans and honey-kissed biscuits sound to you?”

“God, Gertrude,” Rachel had stammered, pressing her hands against her stomach. “Are you trying to kill me?”

“I take it you like the idea,” Gertrude had smiled. “Go wash up. I can’t let you go back to your daughter like a starving wolf.”

“Nicky’s taken care of for the night,” Rachel had answered, obediently washing her hands in the kitchen sink. “I’ll pick her up from Joe and Melissa’s in the morning. I’ll stay here tonight.”

Gertrude had opened her mouth to make a remark, but the determined look in a pair of dark-brown eyes, made her change her mind.

“I feel torn,” Rachel had explained. “But I know Nicky’s being cared for and…Hannah…I don’t…” her eyes had gone wide and she had been quick to explain herself. “I don’t imply Hannah’s not taken care of, it’s just that…I want to be around to…to see how she’ll do and….and see if the fever will break. If her temperature doesn’t go down soon, I might have to take her to the hospital.”

“You’ re welcome to stay, Rachel,” Gertrude had smiled, inwardly pumping her fist in triumph. Maybe they didn’t need Jake’s and Gary’s Christmas party after all. Her old eyes had seen how Rachel cared for her granddaughter and if Hannah felt the same way for the Doctor….Gertrude smiled; things were looking up.

That had been hours ago. It was almost eleven now and Rachel was comfortably snuggled in Hannah’s recliner. Gertrude had given her a pair of Hannah’s clean sweats and after she had enjoyed a quick, but relaxing hot shower, she had reclined the chair and covered herself with a warm fleece blanket. Her body was ready to go to sleep, but Rachel’s mind was still busy.

With a look of wonder, her eyes took in the sleeping form of the blonde, who was turned on her right side, facing the room and who was peacefully asleep. To Rachel’s relief, the fever had broken and while she still had to keep an eye on the nurse’s temperature, she knew Hannah was already doing a lot better. Her breathing was slow and regular and even the wheezing had diminished noticeably.

“You look so young and vulnerable,” she whispered. “And so incredibly familiar.”

Rachel smiled a sad smile, aware of the pain that had settled in her chest. How many times had she watched Hannah sleep like that, turned on her side, with one hand tucked under her chin? How many times had she spooned up against her, reveling in the feel of the other woman’s body in her arms? Enjoying the warmth and peaceful slumber. Would she ever experience it again?

Rachel’s eyes traveled to the wall, where she studied her own face, framed by an intricately cut wooden frame. She had bought it for Hannah at the annual art festival, in the same year the picture had been made. She had joked about it and said that, at least the frame was something worth looking at. Hannah had disagreed with her and, in a protective gesture, had pressed the photo against her chest.

“She kept it,” Rachel sighed, her whispered words full of awe and wonder. “Like I kept hers.”

Snuggling closer into the soft, comfortable chair, Rachel closed her eyes, just for a minute she promised herself, but after only a few moments, the dark-haired woman was fast asleep, while a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth.

*********

Hannah did not know what exactly had awakened her. It could have been the sound of the wind, howling around the house, or the rain that was sent crashing into the windows, quickly filling up the gutter until it spilled over.

Maybe it was the dream she just had, a strange concoction of sounds and images, that made no sense to her at all. It had left her confused and tired.

Maybe it was her aching body, that felt warm and cold at the same time, and so incredibly heavy, as if an unseen force tried to pin her down to the mattress.

With a small sigh, Hannah opened her eyes, surprised to see the small light on the night stand had been turned on. A tall glass of water was standing underneath it and all of a sudden Hannah realized how thirsty she was. She reached out and grabbed it, bringing it to her mouth and starting to drink it greedily.

“Don’t inhale it,” a familiar voice suddenly sounded and, taken by surprise, Hannah put down the glass and raised herself up to a sitting position. It was amazing how much strength that took, though, and she fought the dizziness that suddenly threatened to take her breath away.

Rachel was at her side within the blink of an eye and a strong arm was wrapped around her shoulder, while the Doctor gently guided her back into the pillows.

“That was a bad idea,” Hannah swallowed.

“You’ re pretty sick, Hannah,” Rachel explained. “Although I’m happy to see the fever broke.”

“Did Granny send for you?” the blonde asked with closed eyes. Rachel was just too close. She didn’t want to make a fool of herself in her vulnerable state and Hannah knew that closing her eyes for a few moments might give her the distance she so desperately needed.

“Yes, Gertrude called me this afternoon,” Rachel explained, feeling Hannah’s forehead. “She was worried about you.”

“Is it bronchitis?” the blonde asked with a cough.

“Yes, it is,” Rachel nodded.

“Sucks,” Hannah groaned. “I make a lousy patient.”

“That remains to be seen,” Rachel smiled. “Until now you’ve been pretty quiet and cooperative.”

“Granny and you probably just knocked me out with some drugs,” Hannah mumbled.

“You needed them,” Rachel answered calmly. “But, yes, that’s what we did.”

Hannah nodded and cautiously stretched her stiff and aching body. She felt like she had been sleeping in the same position for days. Suddenly her eyes flew open.

“What time is it?” she asked, alarmed at the silence in the house.

“About one-thirty,” Rachel answered. “In the morning,” she added for good measure, not sure how dazed the drugs had made Hannah feel.

“What are you still doing here? And where’s Nicky?” Hannah suddenly sounded a lot more awake and, inwardly, Rachel sighed. She hoped the blonde would not give her a hard time about her staying.

“Nicky is with Joe and Melissa and she’s fine and I’m here because I needed to keep an eye on you. It was either that or take you to the hospital,” she said, hoping that mentioning the hospital would be enough to convince the nurse.

“Oh,” was the only response and, inwardly, Rachel cheered. She was too tired to fight with Hannah about her good intentions.

“Alright, you win,” Hannah mumbled, wondering why she still felt tired and sleepy. “How’s the chair?”

“I’ve had worse,” Rachel smiled.

“Hop in,” Hannah croaked, turning on her side, facing away from Rachel, before she could change her mind.

“W…what?” the Doctor asked, not trusting her ears.

“Hop in the bed, Rachel,” Hannah sighed. “I might be sick, but I’m not entirely drugged out of my mind. You need to go to work in the morning. You need a good rest. This bed is big enough for two.”

Besides, it’s not like we’ve never slept in the same bed before…

“Or do you want me to sic Granny on you?”

“No, not really,” Rachel answered, feeling her heart pound in her chest. “Um…alright…I guess.”

Slowly, as if she was afraid even to touch Hannah, Rachel crawled into bed beside her and in spite of the unexpected, strange situation, her body seemed to sigh in relief. The chair had been comfortable, but the bed was so much better.

Lying on her back, Rachel stared at the ceiling, waiting for her heart beat to return to normal. It took a while, but when it finally did, it was a little easier to relax.

“Tell me this isn’t better than the chair,” Hannah’s sleepy voice sounded, as if she had been reading Rachel’s mind, and the Doctor nodded.

“You were right,” she answered softly.

It was silent for a while and Rachel shifted into a more comfortable position, thinking the blonde had fallen asleep again. Her eyes stared at the back of Hannah’s head and she could almost touch the blonde’s hair with her fingertips.

“What’s happening?” she mused. “This is so…frighteningly soothing. I wonder if Hannah knew what she was asking. Maybe it’s better to wake up before she does and get up, before she realizes I spent the night in her bed. I don’t want her to freak out.”

“Rachel?” a sleepy, hoarse voice suddenly sounded and the Doctor jerked.

“Yes?” she breathed.

“Thank you for looking after me.”

“Thank you for letting me,” Rachel answered softly. “It must be hard for you.”

Hannah shifted and half-turned so she could look at Rachel, who thought she had never looked more adorable with her tousled hair and sleepy blue eyes.

“It’s not,” Hannah confessed, barely audible. “I’ve missed you.”

Part 8

With a small frown, Rachel stirred. She was in that comfortable no-man’s land between sleep and consciousness and, while her body was still heavy with sleep, her mind was already trying to wake her up by processing some interesting impulses her nerves were sending to her brain. There was something warm and heavy pressing on her shoulder. It was not an unpleasant feeling and it stirred some long-forgotten memories in the back of her mind, but it took her a few moments to identify the weight; Hannah.

Rachel’s eyes flew open and her whole body tensed. What was going on? Her eyes stared at the blond hair that was so close to her chin, a few strands tickled her nose.

“Hannah,” she whispered, suddenly remembering why she was in the blonde’s bed. Carefully lifting a hand, she felt the nurse’s forehead, relieved to notice it was cool to the touch. The fever had not returned. That was a good sign.

“But now what?” Rachel mused, wondering how she could slide away from underneath the blonde, without waking her up. She had no idea if Hannah would remember anything from the previous evening and the last thing she wanted to risk was a scene. Their brief conversation that night could easily have been inspired by fever, but still, when Hannah had told her she had missed her, something inside of Rachel had shifted — as if a heavy, painful burden had disappeared, leaving her with something much lighter, much more positive; hope, no matter how hard her mind tried to tell her Hannah would probably not even remember,

“Alright, sweetie,” she spoke softly, slowly moving away from the body that had her pinned down in place. “I really need to get up.”

Hannah’s answer was a small sigh, as she stretched out an arm and draped it across Rachel’s chest. The Doctor swallowed hard when Hannah’s fingers grazed her breast and, for a brief moment, it was impossible to move. Her heart was pounding so fast, she could feel the blood surge through her veins.

Oh, my, God…I need to get out of here…

A little less carefully, Rachel lifted Hannah’s arm and scooted away from her, out of the bed. When Hannah stirred she held her breath, waiting for the inevitable to happen, but the blonde just rolled onto her side and mumbled something unintelligible without waking up.

Rachel was so relieved, she almost felt dizzy and when she turned around to tip-toe away from the bed, she stopped dead in her tracks when a pair of twinkling blue eyes greeted her from the doorway.

“How long have you been standing there?” she breathed, pressing her hand against her chest.

“Long enough,” Gertrude answered with a smug smile. “That escape was priceless, by the way.”

“I bet,” Rachel sighed. “Listen, it’s not what you might think. I…”

“I understand that,” Gertrude nodded. “I know you’d never take advantage of the situation. You’re too darn honorable. I bet Hannah asked you to join her and I have to admit, Rachel, you two looked so cute last night.”

“You mean…?” Rachel paled.

“Hey, I’m an old woman,” Gertrude smiled. “I don’t need much sleep. I got up around three in the morning and decided I’d check up on the two of you. Believe me, you both were fast asleep and very comfortable.”

“Well, I…,” Rachel raked her fingers through her hair and shot Gertrude an apologetic look. “It’s…I do feel a little awkward though, I mean, after all that has happened and…I….”

“Relax, Rachel,” Gertrude smiled, patting the younger woman on her arm. “Don’t worry about it. Do you want some coffee?”

“Um…yes, I’d love some,” Rachel answered, grabbing her cell phone from the table and stuffing it in her pocket, intent on calling her brother as soon as she left the bedroom. No matter how much she wanted to stay with Hannah, she was eager to see her daughter and spend a little time with her before she had to go to work. She had missed the little girl and even though the close presence of Hannah had been exhilarating, it had not erased the deeply-felt absence of Nicky.

Looking forward to hearing about her daughter’s antics, Rachel followed Gertrude into the kitchen and cast a look at the clock at the wall; almost six o’clock. It was not too early to call Joe and Melissa; their children were usually already up at that time.

“Sit down, honey, let me pour you some coffee,” Gertrude spoke, while walking towards the kitchen counter. “Still one dash of cream and two helpings of sugar?”

“Just some cream, please, Gertrude,” Rachel answered, pulling her cell phone out of her pocket before sitting down.

“Aha, you wised up,” Gertrude smiled.

“I did,” Rachel answered with a smile of her own. “I’m not sixteen anymore and too much sugar tends to…stick with me these days.”

“I know what you mean,” Gertrude answered with a wink, putting a cup of steaming coffee in front of the Doctor.

Rachel sent the elderly woman a smile and looked down at her phone, intent on speed dialing her brother’s number, when her eyes fell on a tiny icon on the display. The little envelope told her she had a message and immediately Rachel frowned. She had never heard her phone ring and she hoped Joe and Melissa had not tried to reach her in vain. Quickly punching in the right sequence to get to her inbox, Rachel noticed it was a text message. A little tense she opened the message and her eyes flew over the words. A feeling of relief flooded through her when she saw it had not come from her brother, but from the law-enforcement officer from the OSBI she had talked to after Nathan had taken his own life.

“Call me as soon as you have a moment,” it read and it gave her a number.

“Everything alright with your daughter?” Gertrude asked, having noticed the frown in Rachel’s forehead.

“Yes…yes, this is…this is from Jack Wilson, he works with the OSBI. He wants me to call him,” Rachel answered, only then realizing Gertrude might not have a clue what she was talking about. “Um…did…what exactly did Hannah tell you about the talk we had last week?”

“Nothing much, really,” Gertrude shrugged. “The only thing she mentioned was something about Nathan stalking the two of you and making threats. I didn’t really understand what that had to do with you leaving, but I knew she’d tell me more as soon as she’s ready.”

“It had everything to do with me leaving,” Rachel sighed. “He threatened to hurt Hannah, although, back then, I didn’t know it was Nathan who was making the threats.”

In a somber voice, Rachel told Gertrude about the letters, photo’s and threats she had received and the reason she had left. Her words were concise and clipped and it was easy to detect the anger that was brewing just underneath the surface. After she stopped talking, she took a sip of her coffee, while Gertrude stared at her with disbelief in her eyes.

“That’s simply horrible,” the elderly woman stammered. “What a….little…what a monster!”

“That he was,” Rachel nodded.

“You said he committed suicide,” Gertrude continued. “How did he die?”

“Drove his car off a cliff in Arizona,” Rachel answered. “Of course there wasn’t much left, but they identified his car and they did find his badge, gun and all that stuff. He left a note as well, both in his house as well as in his office.”

“I can’t say I’m sorry to hear he’s dead,” Gertrude admitted with a wrinkled nose.

“I know,” Rachel replied with a sigh. “He was…evil, for the lack of a better description.”

“Amen to that,” Gertrude agreed. “I do hope this Jack Wilson understands you had nothing to do with his…demise,” she added, rolling her eyes, which made Rachel chuckle. “Let me know if he gives you a hard time. I know a few people in the OSBI.”

“I’m sure you do,” Rachel chuckled. “And I already feel sorry for them. I’ll give him a call later today, right now I need to get my daughter and spend some time with her.”

“I can’t thank you enough, Rachel, for coming over and staying the night. I was so worried about Hannah.”

“Which was absolutely justified,” Rachel said. “She was very sick yesterday. She still is, but if she takes her medication on time, she’ll be a lot better soon. Right now, she doesn’t have a fever, which is good news.”

“I’ll let her sleep a little longer. Hopefully, she’ll eat something later.”

“That would be great,” Rachel nodded. “Just make sure she drinks plenty of fluids. She needs that. And call me if you have any questions or…concerns…”

“I’ll give you a call sometime this morning,” Gertrude promised with a twinkle in her eyes. “If only to let you know how she’s doing.”

“Thanks,” Rachel smiled with relief. “I’m counting on that.”

“You certainly can,” Gertrude promised, sipping from her coffee.

********

After driving to her brother’s house, Rachel had spent almost an hour with her daughter, before having to leave for work. She went with a heavy heart, because Nicky had cried when she had kissed her goodbye and again Rachel had felt torn between the two people she loved most; her daughter and Hannah. The nurse’s illness had brought that home tenfold and Rachel had to admit to herself she still loved the blonde. As a matter of fact, she had never stopped loving her. That’s why it had been so easy to stay with Hannah during the night, even though it had made her question her qualities as a mother. Especially after seeing her little girl in tears.

Rachel did not have the energy to ponder over all the feelings that were raging through her system; she needed to focus on her work and that was a welcome distraction, even though she knew it would probably be another long day. And it was. From the moment she walked in, she was swamped with a neve- ending stream of patients. It was way past noon when she finally had a chance to sit down to have something to eat. Her heart skipped a beat when she checked her phone and found a message from Gertrude.

“Hello, Rachel. I know you’ re busy, but I’m sure you’ll be checking your voice mail sometime today. Hannah is doing a lot better. She still has that nasty cough, but I’m sure you know everything about that, since you spent the night real close to her. She has a low grade fever and still refuses to eat, but other than that, she’s so much better. She’s cranky as heck, which is a good sign,” Rachel smiled when she heard Gertrude’s low chuckle. “Of course she isn’t talking about last night and I’m not bringing it up, that’s something between the two of you. I’m only mentioning it, because I know you’ re wondering about it,” Gertrude added and, unconsciously, Rachel nodded. She had been wondering about that. “Anyway, give me a call when you’re home, oh, and don’t forget to call that OSBI person. You forgot, didn’t you? Bye, sweetie, make sure to get a decent meal.”

Rachel stared at her half-eaten turkey sandwich and grimaced. She was sure Gertrude would not approve of her meager meal.

“And I did forget about Jack Wilson,” she mused. “How come those Jensen women always seem to be able to read my mind?” Rachel cast a look at her watch and decided to call the OSBI agent, before she would forget again. She was curious to find out why he wanted to talk to her and also a little worried. The Doctor could not help wondering if some new information had come up.

“Hi, this is Rachel Kendrick,” she spoke when her call was answered.

“Good afternoon, Rachel. How are you? Thanks for returning my call,” Jack Wilson’s deep voice sounded.

“I’m fine, thanks, sir. Is there anything I can do for you?” she asked, feeling a little tense.

“There’s something I need to discuss with you, Rachel. Do you have a minute?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

“A week ago I received a phone call from Miss Jensen and…”

“Hannah?” Rachel interrupted in surprise. “Hannah called you?”

“Yes, she did,” Jack Wilson answered. “She asked me if I was able to give her some more information about Nathan. Due to the ongoing investigation, I could not tell her much, but we started talking and then she asked me an interesting question. She wanted to know if I was a hundred percent certain Nathan had died during the crash. Of course, I was curious to find out why she would ask me a question like that and she told me it was probably just because she had this nightmare, in which Nathan was trying to get to her. It left her unsettled.”

“I bet,” Rachel mumbled, feeling her heart ache for the blonde. Hannah must have been petrified if she had gone as far as calling the OSBI.

“Anyway, we had a pleasant conversation,” Jack Wilson continued. “Miss Jensen seems to be a very sensible, sweet young lady and our conversation left me unsettled. I could not help wondering if we had missed anything when investigating the crash.”

“Did you?” Rachel asked, moistening her lips. Her heart was pounding in her chest and a nervous ball settled in the pit of her stomach.

“The dental records,” Jack Wilson sighed. “It was the only thing we could identify Nathan with. I had a second look at it and again, it made sense, until I noticed the date on the x-rays. They seemed to be taken just a day before Nathan died. That surprised me and I had sent them to the forensic lab. They determined the x-rays were tampered with. They were not Nathan’s.”

“Oh, my God,” Rachel breathed, suddenly looking very pale.

“Come to find out they were another man’s. Some poor soul’s, who might have been…used… by Nathan to cover his tracks. In short, Rachel, we have reason to believe Nathan is still alive. We have the dentist in custody and you understand we’re hoping to find out a lot more about this soon. The reason I called to let you know this, is…your safety,” Jack Wilson added in a soft voice. “You might consider…”

“I’m not leaving town,” Rachel quickly interrupted, sounding very determined, even a little angry. “I’m not leaving her. Not again. If there’s anything to face, we’ll face it together.”

And what does Hannah have to say about all this? A nagging voice in the back of her head immediately piped in.

“It might not be a bad idea to get together and talk some things through,” Jack Wilson suggested, pulling Rachel’s attention back to the conversation. “You, Hannah and me.”

“Hannah’s not well at the moment,” Rachel sighed, feeling sick to her stomach. “But…I guess I…I should tell her.”

“I’m sorry about all this, Rachel, I really am. Let’s stay in touch, alright? I’ll keep you informed of everything that I can share with you. After reviewing all Nathan’s letters and the things you told me about him, your and Hannah’s safety will be my first priority.”

“Thank you, sir,” Rachel replied, feeling drained of all her energy. Tears were stinging the back of her eyes and she tried to blink them away. She had no time to cry, she had to stay focused. She could not give into the desire to crawl away and cry. It was most likely that Nathan was still alive and there was no way to tell if or when he would make a move. However, if it would come that far, Rachel wanted to be ready. This time she would be prepared and, if Nathan would ever try to hurt her or Hannah again, she would put up a fight. She was determined never, ever toleave Hannah again, unless the blonde would decide she did not want her back into her life. Rachel swallowed hard and rubbed her tired eyes. Whatever would happen, no matter what decisions Hannah would make, Rachel was determined to do anything necessary to win back the blonde. No matter how long it would take her.

********

“Mommy hos…ho…hopsital?”

“No, sweetie,” Rachel smiled. “We’re not going to the hospital. Mommy’s done working for the day. We’re going to see Hannah.”

“Hannah,” Nicky repeated with a sunny smile. “Chwistmas Twee,” she added, remembering the evening she and the nurse had spent decorating the tree. “Pwetty.”

“The tree is very pretty,” Rachel agreed, casting a look in the rearview mirror to catch a glance of her daughter. Nicky looked adorable in her soft yellow fleece jacket. It had a pattern of dancing polar bears and penguins and every now and then Rachel caught Nicky admiring the little creatures that were woven into the fabric.

“You’ re very pretty as well,” she smiled, grinning when she noticed Nicky’s beaming smile.

“Hannah pwetty?” Nicky asked innocently.

“Yes, she is,” Rachel nodded, while her stomach did an unexpected somersault. “Hannah’s beautiful,” she added softly.

It had been three days since her conversation with Jack Wilson and Rachel had tried to be patient and give Hannah a chance to recover from her bronchitis, before springing the news about Nathan on her. She had stayed in touch with Gertrude, calling the elderly lady at least twice a day. She had been pleased with Hannah’s progress. The nurse was rapidly regaining her strength and, according to Gertrude, she was already planning her return to work. But before she returned, Rachel needed to let her know about her conversation with Jack Wilson. So, with her heart pounding in her chest, she had called Hannah, asking her if she felt good enough to see some visitors. Hannah had responded with a :”Of course!”, which had sounded so warm and genuine, it had made Rachel smile.

After parking on the driveway, Rachel helped her daughter out of her car seat and, while walking towards the door, could not help looking over her shoulder, something she had started doing after her talk with the OSBI agent. The thought that Nathan was most likely still alive filled her with a mixture of fear and apprehension. She knew from Jack Wilson that her cousin had been involved in some illegal business, but she did not know the details. Who knew what Nathan was capable of? Rachel did not want to find out and had decided to be very aware of her surroundings, especially since Nathan had proved himself to be an excellent stalker.

“Rachel, come in,” Gertrude greeted with a smile while opening the door. “Oh, and who is this pretty young lady?” she added looking at the toddler, who was trying to hide behind her mother’s legs.

“This is Nicky,” Rachel chuckled, feeling a pair of small but strong hands dig into her jeans. “Nicky, say hello to… Hannah’s grandmother,” she added a little hesitantly. She had no idea how her daughter should address the elderly lady.

“Hello,” a small voice sounded from behind her and Gertrude laughed heartily.

“You obviously hadn’t given that much thought,” she grinned. “Nicky may call me whatever she wants to, but how about ‘Granny’?”

Rachel nodded and lifted her daughter into her arms.

“Can you do that, Nick? Can you say ‘Granny’?”

“Gwanny,” Nicky obediently repeated and she sent Gertrude a shy smile.

“That’s very good,” Gertrude complimented the little girl. “I bet you and I will get along just fine. It’s wonderful to meet you, Nicky. Do you like cookies?”

Rachel rolled her eyes when she felt Nicky almost jump out of her arms.

“Cookies,” the little girl repeated with sparkling eyes.

“Figures,” Gertrude responded, winking at Rachel. “That’s how I was always able to catch your mother’s attention. That is, unless Hannah was around,” Gertrude teased and she laughed when she saw Rachel’s blush.

“Are you harassing my visitors, Granny?” a soft voice suddenly sounded and Rachel’s heart skipped a beat when her eyes fell on Hannah, who was clad in dark blue sweat pants and matching sweater.

“Hannah,” Nicky cried out happily, wiggling her way out of her mother’s arms. Rachel had no choice but to put her daughter down on the floor. The toddler immediately ran up to Hannah who knelt down to catch the little whirlwind.

“Hey, sweetie,” she greeted the little girl, who had her arms wrapped around her neck, as Hannah pressed a kiss on the soft, dark hair. “How is my little Christmas tree decorating partner?”

“Hannah sick?” Nicky asked with a serious expression on her face. “Bad tummy?” she added, knowing from experience how it felt to have a stomach ache. Especially, after disobeying her mother and chugging down a whole cup of cold apple juice.

“I’m feeling a lot better already, Nicky,” Hannah smiled, very aware of her grandmother’s twinkling eyes and Rachel’s silent presence. “I had a very good Doctor.”

Over Nicky’s head, her eyes traveled to Rachel’s and what she saw almost took her breath away. Rachel was looking at her with such intensity, it was hard to miss the feelings she no longer tried to hide. For a few breathless moments, their eyes locked and it was only when Gertrude gently cleared her throat, that she was able to tear away from those dark, warm pools.

“Are you and Nicky staying for dinner?” Gertrude asked casually, trying to give both women a chance to regain their composure.

“Uh…Well, I…We don’t want to impose, Gertrude, I mean, I…” Rachel stammered, still at loss for words after almost drowning in Hannah’s eyes.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Gertrude interrupted cheerfully. “Alright, girls, if you need anything, I’ll be in the kitchen.”

The elderly woman gently ruffled Nicky’s hair while passing Hannah and disappeared into the kitchen, at the end of the hallway, carefully closing the door behind her. NeitherRachel nor Hannah could see the smug smile on her face.

“So, how…how do you feel?” Rachel asked after a few moments of silence.

“A lot better, thank you,” Hannah answered in a soft voice. “I meant what I said, I had a good Doctor.”

“Thank you,” Rachel smiled. “You were pretty sick. You know, Hannah, as a nurse you should know when…”

“Oh, please,” Hannah interrupted, while rising to her full height again, taking Nicky with her. “Granny already gave me that talk. Three times, if I remember correctly,” she added with a chuckle. “And then, of course Jake and Gary had to give their side of the story, so I’ve been properly scolded.”

“I didn’t mean to scold you,” Rachel hurried to explain, but, when seeing the look in Hannah’s eyes, she paused. “Okay, I guess I did mean to give you a lecture,” she added with a sigh. “You scared the heck out of me.”

“Why?” Hannah asked softly, not able to meet Rachel’s eyes.

Rachel nervously moistened her lips and tried to ignore her rapidly beating heart. This conversation was taking an unexpected turn and Hannah’s question had made her feel extremely vulnerable.

Honesty, Rachel, Honesty.

“Because…because I still…I care about you, a lot,” Rachel finally answered, afraid that the naked truth would scare the blonde away, even though Hannah had asked for it. “And you were…delirious, your fever was very high and for a little while I really thought you’d be better off in the hospital,” Rachel added in one breath, which made Hannah smile. The Doctor always had a tendency to talk fast when she was flustered, or nervous.

“You stayed the night,” Hannah said, searching Rachel’s eyes for a reaction. “I remember that.”

“Oh,” was the soft reply and Hannah bit back a smile. Rachel looked like a little girl who thought she had done a good job but was criticized instead.

Hannah stepped closer and shifted Nicky to her left hip, so she could reach out her right hand and cup Rachel’s cheek. They were standing so close, Rachel could see the dark blue specks in the blonde’s eyes. Her breath hitched when a thumb gently caressed the skin of her cheek, while a pair of blue eyes looked at her intently.

“Thank you, Rachel,” Hannah whispered. “It meant a lot to me that you stayed.”

I needed you and you were there…

Hannah leaned forward and Rachel felt her knees go weak when she realized what was about to happen. She clenched her hands into fists, determined not tomake a fool out of herself. But when Hannah’s lips touched hers in the softest of kisses, Rachel let out a soft whimper, not aware she was holding her breath.

“We still have a lot to talk about, so, let’s take it slow,” Hannah whispered when she pulled back and Rachel could only nod, hungry for more, but content with whatever Hannah was willing to give. “You can breathe now,” the blonde added with a twinkle in her eyes and, obediently, Rachel let out a shuddering breath.

“I guess slow would be wise,” she agreed in a hoarse voice. “And yes, we do have a lot to talk about,” she added, remembering her talk with Jack Wilson.

“Nicky kiss too,” the toddler chimed in with a pout and both Hannah and Rachel chuckled.

“Of course, how could we forget you?” Hannah smiled, playfully tickling the little girl behind the knee. Immediately, Nicky started squirming and giggling. She reached out for her mother, unceremoniously jumping into her arms.

“Oh, that’s one of your mother’s spots as well,” Hannah laughed, which was immediately followed by a round of coughing.

“You need to drink something and sit down,” Rachel spoke as stern as she could, which was very hard, because in the last few minutes Hannah had made her heart soar.

“Yes, Doctor,” Hannah spoke in between two coughs, obediently heading for the kitchen, closely followed by Rachel, who was carrying Nicky, feeling like she was walking on clouds.

As soon as she entered, Gertrude handed her a glass of water, shaking her head while Hannah was drinking.

“And you want to go back to work tomorrow?” she said in disbelief. “Honey, one whiff of the cold Oklahoma wind rolling down the plains and you’ re back in bed! Tell her, Rachel.”

“Um, yes, I’m afraid that’s true,” Rachel nodded, biting down on her bottom lip to keep from laughing. The way Gertrude argued was always delightful. “Right now, you might feel like a million dollars, Hannah, but it’s a good idea to wait a few more days before going back to work. Were you scheduled to work this weekend?”

“No,” Hannah shook her head. “But..”

“But the Christmas Holiday is coming up and the census is low. They’ve been reducing nurses all week. Go back to work Monday, that will give you tomorrow and the weekend. Be sensible, Hannah, please.”

“Oh, alright,” Hannah gave in with a sigh. “Between the two of you I can’t win anyway.” She glanced up at Rachel and almost blushed when she saw the warmth and affection in those familiar dark eyes.

“Thank you for humoring me,” the Doctor smiled.

“Amen to that,” Gertrude added, handing Nicky an animal cracker, which the toddler gratefully stuffed into her mouth.

“Chew, Nicky,” Rachel frowned.

“Yeff, Mommy,” Nicky answered, spraying Rachel with crumbs.

“Come here, sweetie,” Gertrude laughed, taking Nicky over from Rachel and walking to the corner of the kitchen. Only then, Rachel noticed the toddler-size table and chair. “Here, why don’t you sit down on this little chair here and I’ll give you a glass of…” she shot Rachel a questioning look. “Juice? Milk? Tea?”

“Juice,” Nicky decided and Rachel nodded.

Gertrude poured some apple juice in a colorful plastic cup and sat it in front of the happily chewing little girl.

“What do you say, Nicky?” Rachel gently reminded her daughter.

“Thank you,” Nicky obediently said, glancing up to Gertrude through her long, thick eyelashes.

“You’re welcome, pumpkin,” Gertrude smiled, totally enamored with Rachel’s daughter. She was amazed at how much the little girl resembled her mother and she had no problem at all imagining what the Doctor had been like at the age of two. No wonder Hannah had been totally shocked, the first time she had laid eyes on the toddler; the resemblance was uncanny.

“Do you want something to drink as well, Rachel?” Hannah asked, leaning against the kitchen counter and looking at the Doctor with clear, blue eyes that radiated warmth.

“There’s fresh iced tea in the fridge, girls,” Gertrude encouraged.

“Iced tea is fine,” Rachel nodded, finding it harder and harder to tear her eyes away from Hannah. Something between them had shifted. It was as if Hannah had decided to let down a few walls. In their previous interactions, the blonde had been more distant, almost aloof, constantly making sure there was a physical and emotional distance between them. The fleeting kiss in the hallway had changed all of that and it made Rachel almost lightheaded to think about the implications of that gesture, and the words that had followed: ‘We still have a lot to talk about, so, let’s take it slow.’ It meant Hannah was willing to give it a chance. To give them another chance. What else could she have meant? But what if Nathan would find out they were seeing each other again? How safe would Hannah be?

“Oh, God,” Rachel whispered, rubbing her forehead. With her kiss, Hannah had opened a floodgate of emotions and right now they were starting to give Rachel a pounding headache.

“Are you alright?” Hannah’s concerned voice sounded, while a hand gently squeezed her shoulder.

“I…I’m fine,” Rachel stammered. “It’s just…” she took a deep breath and mustered up a smile. “I guess I’m tired and I’ve got a bit of a headache.”

“Hannah, take your woman into the living room and park her behind in a comfy recliner, or snuggle on the couch, I don’t care,” Gertrude remarked in a determined voice. “Fact is, she needs to sit down, before she falls down. I swear, you two make quite the pair.”

“Come on, Rachel,” Hannah said, grabbing her arm. She cast a look at the toddler, who was drinking her apple juice and she smiled. “Nicky, do you want to come with us, or do you want to stay here with Granny for a little while?”

“Gwanny,” Nicky immediately replied, having noticed the box with crackers on the kitchen table.

“Okay. Mommy and I are next door, alright?”

“Ahwight,” Nicky answered, looking up at Gertrude with a shy smile.

“Do you want some Tylenol?” Hannah asked, when she steered Rachel into the living room and gently pushed her down into her grandfather’s old recliner.

Rachel shook her head, fighting the urge to grab Hannah’s hand to pull the other woman into her lap, wrap her arms around her, bury her face in the unruly blond hair, close her eyes and soak up all the warmth and closeness she had so sorely missed for such a long time.

“I should be the one taking care of you,” she smiled. “After all, you’re the one who’s sick.”

“I’ve been lounging around all day,” Hannah answered, pulling a face. “Granny’s been spoiling me rotten those last few days. You, on the other hand, are the one who has been working all day. How was the ER? Busy?”

“Yes, it was,” Rachel sighed. “There had been a house fire and a family of six had been brought in with some minor injuries and smoke inhalation. I had somebody who had fractured a wrist, an old lady who had taken a fall and needed a hip replacement, I had two patients who came in with bad pneumonia, a transient with hypothermia, a six year old with an asthma attack and a traveling salesman with a heart attack . And that was just at the start of my shift,” Rachel smiled and Hannah chuckled. She knew exactly how busy the Emergency Room could be.

“I never regretted leaving the ER to work the floors,” Hannah admitted. “I know it gets crazy there too, but it’s different. I like it a lot better.” The blonde nurse cast a look at Rachel and for a brief moment she seemed to hesitate.

“Go on,” Rachel smiled, having noticed the expression on the blonde’s face. “You want to ask me something.”

“I do, actually,” Hannah admitted, never taking her eyes off of Rachel. “From the moment you walked in today, I sensed there’s something that…You seem upset,” she spoke in a gentle voice. “There’s this…anger. You control it well, but I see it anyway. What’s wrong?”

Rachel looked at Hannah with a mixture of amusement, sadness and surprise, while she struggled to come up with the right words. In spite of the emotional and physical fatigue and the fear she had experienced from the moment she had learned Nathan could very well still be alive, Rachel was delighted by the fact that Hannah still had the ability to read her emotions so easily. Maybe some things had not changed at all.

“You still see straight through me,” she remarked in a voice full of wonder.

“I’m glad,” Hannah answered with a serious expression in her eyes. “I would have hated to lose that advantage,” she added with a smile. “What’s wrong?”

“I’ve missed you,” Rachel answered.

“I’ve missed you too,” Hannah replied softly. “But I already told you that, didn’t I?”

“You remember?” Rachel asked with a hint of surprise.

“Oh, yes,” Hannah nodded. “I might have been sick and delusional with fever, but I do remember that part. I’m glad I didn’t have to drag myself out of bed to come and get you. It was sensible of you to take me up on my offer.”

“It was a heck of a lot more comfortable,” Rachel admitted. “I couldn’t help wondering why, though.”

“I was miserable,” Hannah related. “Very miserable and I…I needed to feel safe and cared for. You always made me feel safe and, for some reason, after all that has happened, you still do. A few days ago I was too sick to question that. All I wanted was not to feel alone, I needed to feel safe. And you made me feel that way.” Hannah swallowed hard when she noticed the moisture in Rachel’s eyes. “I needed you and you were there.”

“I’m glad,” Rachel whispered. “I’ve let you down on so many other occasions, it’s about time I start doing it right.”

“You did,” Hannah nodded with a warm smile. “It was a good beginning.”

Again, Rachel’s heart skipped a beat and her eyes flew to Hannah’s to seek confirmation of what she hoped the blonde was telling her.

“Is that what it was, a beginning?” she softly asked.

“If you want to,” Hannah answered, equally soft, while her eyes were held captive by Rachel’s dark ones.

There was a long silence, in which Rachel fought for self-control. In her eyes, Hannah could easily see the rapidly changing emotions. They went from apprehension to confusion, to understanding and, finally, to excitement and joy.

“I want to,” the Doctor finally answered in a voice that was hoarse with emotion.

“I hoped you would say that,” Hannah replied with a mixture of a sob and a chuckle and before Rachel knew what was happening, Hannah had jumped up from her seat and knelt in front of her, grabbing both of her hands and pressing them against her lips.

“We have a lot of catching up to do,” Rachel said and Hannah nodded.

“We do and we will. It’s been years, Rachel, and a lot of things have changed. I mean, look at you, you’ re a mother,” she smiled through her tears. “We do need to take things slowly, but…I did a lot of soul-searching lately and I can’t be angry with you. I’m hurt and sad for all the missed opportunities, but, even though you made the decision to leave all by yourself, I now understand you were only trying to protect me. I can’t be angry with you for trying to keep me out of harm’s way. I think I might have done the same thing. I don’t think it’s too late for us. We’ re here now, you and I, and Nathan’s gone. I really believe that, if we’re both willing, we have a good chance to regain what we lost.”

Rachel’s eyes were almost black with emotion when she looked at the blonde while she was speaking. Hannah’s words and the tone of her voice were so soothing, she felt like a loving hand had gently rubbed away the tainted and sore spots on her soul. Even though she knew there were still a lot of things to discuss and to get used to, she was grateful for the second chance and said a silent prayer of thanks.

“So, if I’d ask you out on a date, would you accept?” Rachel asked with a barely audible quiver in her voice.

“I’d love to,” Hannah smiled, her blue eyes dancing with anticipation.

“Would you, please, be my date to Jake’s and Gary’s Christmas party?”

“Heck, yes,” Hannah nodded with a twinkle in her eyes. “Have you ever been to one of those parties? Girl, you need me to protect you.”

“That bad?” Rachel asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Oh, yeah,” Hannah laughed. “And I’m glad you’ re asking me as your date, because, if you’d have gone by yourself, I might have been jealous.”

“Really?” Rachel laughed. “You’ve never been jealous.”

“I’ve never felt this insecure,” Hannah admitted sadly.

Rachel pulled free one of her hands and gently cupped Hannah’s cheek. Her eyes were understanding when they caught Hannah’s and she smiled a sad smile.

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m sure I’ll get over it,” the blonde answered, closing her eyes and leaning into the touch. She was feeling tired and a little scared, but she knew she had done the right thing by, more or less, telling Rachel she wanted to work on reconciliation. Deep down inside, her feelings for Rachel had never changed. Even though, at first, she had ignored her inner voice, which had been trying to tell her the truth she tried so hard to deny, eventually she had to be honest with herself and admit there could only be Rachel. If she ever wanted to find true happiness, it would have to be with Rachel.

“You’ re here now,” she whispered. “We’ll take it day by day and see where it leads us.”

“I like that,” Rachel admitted, no longer able to fight the urge to lean over and press her lips against Hannah’s forehead. “There’s something you need to know though,” she added and Hannah’s eyes flew open when she heard the distress the Doctor could not keep out of her voice.

“It’s what you so easily saw, when you asked me what was wrong,” she continued, rubbing Hannah’s cheek with her thumb. “Hannah, I don’t know how to tell you this, but, a few days ago, Jack Wilson from the OSBI called me and…” Rachel swallowed hard and took a deep breath. Hannah’s eyes were huge in her suddenly pale face and Rachel had a feeling the blonde knew exactly what she was about to say.

“He’s alive,” Hannah whispered, softly moaning when Rachel nodded. Her eyes flew to the window and Rachel could almost feel the fear rolling off of Hannah.

“I don’t know where he is, but he’s not here,” Rachel quickly said, grabbing the other woman by the shoulders and gently shaking her. “Hannah, he’s not here, I promise.”

“Oh, God, Rachel,” Hannah whispered, pressing her hand against her mouth. “What if he comes back? What if he finds you?”

“Sweetheart, I’m more concerned about you,” Rachel gently answered. “He hates me, but it was you whom he threatened to hurt.”

“He hurt us both,” Hannah replied somberly. “Deeply. By driving us apart, he knew we’d both be miserable.”

“That won’t happen again,” Rachel promised. “You’ll have to believe me. I’m not going anywhere.”

“I believe you,” Hannah smiled, squeezing Rachel’s hand. “But what are we going to do?”

“You and Gertrude are moving in with me.”

Part 9

Hannah’s blue eyes were wide in surprise when she looked up at the dark-haired woman. She was still kneeling in front of Rachel’s chair with one hand resting on the other woman’s knee. A pair of brown eyes looked at her expectantly, while the blonde quickly tried to gather her thoughts.

“Granny and I are moving in with you?” she finally repeated calmly, immediately seeing Rachel nod.

“If we all stay close together it will be easier to keep an eye on each other. When Nathan was stalking us before, we didn’t have a clue and if the photos he took are any indication, he came pretty close. He even managed to work his way into your bedroom while you were asleep and…”

“Rachel,” Hannah gently interrupted, but the other woman did not seem to hear her.

“…I just think that if he ever tried to pull a stunt like that…”

“Rachel,” Hannah repeated, a little more forcefuly this time. “Rachel!”

The Doctor paused in mid-sentence and slowly closed her mouth when she noticed a pair of blue eyes staring at her with a calm, but determined look.

“Rachel, listen to me,” Hannah said, unconsciously rubbing the other woman’s knee. “I appreciate the fact you want to do this, I really do, but have you thought about the practical implications?” Hannah smiled when Rachel shook her head and she slowly nodded. “I thought as much,” she confessed. “I know you can’t just pack up a two year old, so I understand why you’d like us to mo…to stay with you, but Granny has some issues as well. After her stroke, we had a lot of things in the house modified. Her bathroom, for example, has handlebars and a shower with a seat and all that. There are no thresholds and the doors are wide enough for her to use a walker, which she does if she has a bad day.” Hannah paused and sent Rachel an affectionate smile. “We don’t know when, or even if Nathan will show up. I can’t expect Granny to pack up and leave, just because…just because Nathan might come back, no matter how much that scenario scares me,” she added in a soft voice.

“You’re right,” Rachel sighed, after a few moments of silence. “I guess I…I didn’t think about the implications. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Hannah smiled. “It was very thoughtful of you to offer us your home.”

“I want you to be safe,” Rachel replied in a somber tone of voice. “I can’t bear the thought of…him…trying to get close to you. Before, he managed to enter your bedroom, while you were asleep.” Rachel swallowed hard and clenched her free hand into a fist, until her knuckles were white. “When I saw those photos, I…it scared me so much, I…”

“You decided to leave,” Hannah filled in, knowing her words to be true when a single tear made its way down Rachel’s cheek.

“Yes,” Rachel whispered, again feeling the intense pain of that heart- breaking decision.

With infinite tenderness, Hannah caught the salty drop with her fingertips and traced its path up Rachel’s cheek, gently rubbing the skin with her thumb.

“I should have talked to you, before I made that decision,” Rachel admitted in a sad voice. “That must have been the stupidest, most inconsiderate thing I’ve ever done.”

“Hindsight is twenty-twenty,” Hannah replied calmly, although her heart ached for the other woman. “You probably knew I wouldn’t have let you go.”

“No, you wouldn’t have,” Rachel admitted.

“So, at the time, it was the only way you knew to keep me safe,” Hannah logically concluded. “Besides, you thought it would only be for a few weeks, didn’t you?”

“Yes, I did,” Rachel sighed. “I figured that, when I’d return after a month or so, you’d be royally pissed at me, we’d have a fight, then we’d have a good talk, we’d have kissed and made up and that was it.”

There was a twinkle in Hannah’s eyes when she looked up at Rachel, a sight the Doctor had not seen in a long time. It made her heart skip a beat and involuntarily she smiled.

“What?” she asked, curious to know what the other woman was thinking.

“The kiss and make up part would have been nice,” Hannah replied with a soft chuckle.

“You think?” Rachel smiled, covering the hand that was resting on her knee with one of her own.

“I think.” Hannah nodded.

Rachel leaned slightly forward and when their eyes met, Hannah only saw the soulful brown of the other woman’s eyes that slowly, but surely, pulled her into a familiar depth.

“Do you think it’s too late for that now?” Rachel asked, deliberately lowering her voice.

“For what?” Hannah breathed, aware of the pounding of her heart.

“To kiss and make up,” Rachel answered, while a smile tugged on the corner of her mouth. It was good to see she still had a hypnotizing effect on the blonde.

“I don’t know,” Hannah swallowed hard, not willing to give in just yet.

“Do you want to find out?” Rachel whispered, bringing her face so close they were breathing in the same air.

Hannah did not immediately answer. Her body, heart and soul were soaking up Rachel’s closeness and the sweet, playful mood that had suddenly steered their serious conversation in a totally different direction. She reveled in the tingling sensation that ran down her spine and the butterflies that made her stomach do flip-flops. It had been so long since she had experienced something like it and she wanted to enjoy the moment as long as she could, knowing it would even get better if she would respond to Rachel’s challenge. The only thing she needed to do was to lean forward and capture those familiar, soft lips.

With her eyes locked into Rachel’s, Hannah started to lean forward. Their faces were so close, she could feel the heat radiating off the Doctor’s skin and, when their lips were almost touching, she whispered:”Oh, yes,” immediately jerking back when, all of a sudden, the door was opened and Gertrude’s voice filled the silence.

“I thought you two wanted some iced tea, I…,” the elderly woman paused in mid-sentence when her eyes fell on the two woman in the room and a knowing look crossed her face.

“Oh,” she spoke with a gleeful smile. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know you two were…um…in the middle of something…intimate. I guess I could take it back into the kitchen. It’s there whenever you’re ready…” Gertrude added, turning around to head back for the kitchen.

“No, Granny, don’t worry about it,” Hannah sighed, getting to her feet and walking towards her grandmother. She took over a small tray with two glasses and tried not to blush when Gertrude gave her a saucy wink.

“I’m glad you two are…talking,” Gertrude said, not able to hide the mirth in her voice. “Although it might have been better to have this type of… conversation at a later hour, when there are no annoying grandparents or toddlers around.”

“It’s alright, Gertrude,” Rachel replied with a twinkle in her eyes. “Our…conversation…was interrupted before it had even started.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Gertrude smiled, giving Hannah an affectionate pat on the back. “But I’m sure there will be another opportunity very soon.”

“Most likely,” Rachel responded with confidence. Her eyes lost their amusement when she gestured Gertrude to sit down.

“Believe it or not, Gertrude, but Hannah and I were in the middle of a serious talk and it involves you as well. There’s something I need to tell you.”

“Are you going to try and kiss me as well?” Gertrude teased, making Hannah hide her face in her hands with a heartfelt groan.

Rachel just laughed and sent the elderly woman an appreciative look. Leave it up to Gertrude Jensen to lighten the mood.

“On second thought, I’d better leave kissing you up to my granddaughter,” Gertrude chuckled. “I don’t want to risk her wrath. Did you see the look she just gave me?”

“You’re a troublemaker, Granny,” Hannah smiled.

“I know,” Gertrude nodded. “But I’m not the only one. Did you know, Rachel, that your daughter wolfed down two animal crackers in less than a minute?”

“Cwackew?” Nicky suddenly sounded next to Rachel’s knee. The Doctor grinned and lifted her daughter into her lap, where the little girl contentedly snuggled into her arms.

“No more crackers for you, Miss Nicky,” Rachel said, dropping a kiss on the toddler’s dark hair. “You need to eat dinner later. Alright?”

“Ahwight,” Nicky replied, playing with the wristband of Rachel’s watch.

Hannah looked at the scene in front of her with a mixture of sadness and joy. From the first time they had met, she and Nicky had taken an instant liking to each other, but every time she saw the toddler and Rachel together, it confronted her with the fact that, in the last few years, a lot of things had changed. It made her realize how much Nathan had taken away from them. And how much she despised and hated him for that. At one time, they had been childhood friends. When had his friendship turned into an obsession and why had she not noticed that? Had there been things she could have influenced? Why had he done those awful things? Had it been something she had done to him? Maybe, if she had picked up on his behavior and thoughts, she could have prevented his escalation into threats and, possibly, violence. Maybe, if she had been a better friend…

“Hannah, sweetie, what do you think about all this?” Gertrude’s voice slowly penetrated Hannah’s thoughts and a little dazed she looked up.

“Um…what?”

“Are you alright?” Gertrude asked with a frown. Hannah still looked pale and tired.

“Yes, yes, I’m fine. I’m sorry, I was just thinking about something. What do I think about all what?” she asked, sending her grandmother a questioning look.

“It would make sense for us to be closer, at least until the police have found Nathan. It would be good to keep an eye out for each other so, I suggested Rachel stay with us. We have enough room for two more. What do you think?”

“W…What do I think?” Hannah repeated dumbfounded. “I…what does Rachel think?”

“I think it’s a good idea,” Rachel calmly answered. “Like I told you before, I’m more concerned about your safety than mine.”

“So am I,” Gertrude added in a very serious tone of voice.

“Great, two mother hens to hover over me,” Hannah mumbled, partly annoyed by her grandmother for teaming up with Rachel and partly exhilarated for the chance of having Rachel and Nicky close by.

“I don’t mean to ‘hover’, Hannah,” Rachel responded, slightly hurt by Hannah’s words. “I…”

“I know and I’m sorry,” Hannah immediately said, wishing she could reach out and wipe away the hurt from the Doctor’s eyes. “I didn’t mean it like that. It was a poor choice of words. I know you only want me to be safe, I’m sorry.”

Rachel nodded and, over Nicky’s head, sent Hannah a warm smile, which was immediately answered.

“A lot of things have happened in a short period of time,” she said. “Every now and then I have trouble wrapping my mind around it as well.”

“Not all those things are bad,” Hannah smiled. “I think having you and Nicky here is a wonderful idea.”

“Good, I’m glad we have that settled,” Gertrude spoke with a curt nod. “I guess I’ll have to dig up your Grandfather’s old Winchester and have it cleaned and oiled.”

“What?” Rachel asked in shock.

“Ignore her, Rachel, she’s joking,” Hannah chuckled, knowing her grandmother’s dislike for guns.

Gertrude grinned and slowly pushed herself up from the couch.

“I invested in a good security system,” she told Rachel. “I feel pretty safe here, even without a shooting apparatus. Although I don’t think I would mind if somebody would puncture a few holes in that Nathan,” she added with uncharacteristic venom.

******
With the help of Gary and Jake, Nicky’s bed and most of her toys were moved into the house of Gertrude and Hannah the next day. Rachel figured it was important to make the little girl feel at home in the new environment and having her own toys, bed and stuffed animals would hopefully contribute to that.

They had transformed Hannah’s grandfather’s old office into a cozy room, suitable for a toddler. Jake had visited some of his brothers and sisters and had arrived with enough colorful posters to cover every inch of the walls, donated by his many nieces and nephews. A huge poster of Nicky’s favorites, Nemo and Dori, had been pinned on the wall over her bed.

“The boys”, as Gertrude lovingly called Gary and Jake, had been shocked when they had heard the entire story about Rachel’s disappearance and the role Nathan had played in it. Jake had been furious and Gary had been on the verge of tears when Hannah had told them in a calm and soft voice what Rachel’s reason for leaving had been.

“I wish I’d have known,” he had said with tears in his eyes. “Hannah, sweetie, I could have been there for you.”

“You were,” Hannah had answered him, wrapping her arms around her friend to give him a comforting hug. “You’ve always been such a good friend to me, Gary, you and Jake both. You’ve no idea how much you’ve helped me through the years, but you have, believe me.”

Jake had thrown his arms around both Gary and Hannah and the group hug had ended in laughter when Jake had asked Gary if they should call off the Christmas party, now Rachel and Hannah were at least talking to each other.

“Are you kidding?” Hannah had answered, playfully tugging Jake’s ear. “Rachel has asked me to be her date that evening. Don’t you dare call off the party!”

“Oh, really? Do we need to reserve the backroom?” Jake had teased her, laughing when she had shot him a dirty look.

“I’m sure we’ll manage to restrain ourselves for a few hours, thank you,” she had haughtily answered, before turning on her heels and walking away. But before she had left the room, she had stopped and had looked over her shoulder. “Just make sure you have plenty of ice,” she had added, before continuing on her way. Gary’s laughter could be heard throughout the entire house.

That had been Friday afternoon. A few hours later, the temporary move had been completed and Hannah had to lie down to take a nap. Her grandmother and Rachel had warned her not to do too much, but she had wanted to help Gary and Jake, something she did not regret, although her body felt like she had been run over by a truck.

Rachel had not been able to take the day off, but the previous evening she had packed Nicky’s things and some of her own clothes. It was not as if she couldn’t come back later to get the things she needed. Before going to work that morning, she had handed Gertrude a key to her house and the elderly woman had taken care of the rest, knowing she could always count on ‘her boys’.

“Are you staying for dinner?” Gertrude asked Jake, who was stretched out in front of the fireplace, staring into the dancing flames.

“You’ re not cooking, are you Granny?” Gary asked with a frown from his place on the couch. “You need to sit down and rest. I’m exhausted and you make me feel like a weenie.”

Gertrude chuckled and took a seat next to the young man. She lovingly patted his hand and cast an affectionate look at Jake, who was suppressing a yawn.

“As a matter of fact, no, I won’t be cooking,” she answered with a grin. “Rachel called me and told me she’s taking all of us out for dinner. All we’ll have to do, is to come up with a decent place to eat.”

“Oh, the Doctor’s treat,” Jake said with delight, pushing himself to a sitting position. “What do you feel like, Gertrude? Mexican? Italian? Chinese?”

“Yes, Granny, your pick,” Gary agreed. “Just make sure to pick right,” he added with a smile.

“Well,” Gertrude drawled. “I haven’t had Italian in a while. What about Olive Garden?”

“Sounds like a plan,” Jake grinned, feeling his appetite spontaneously increase. “When will Rachel be home?”

Gertrude smiled at his choice of words and cast a look at the clock. Rachel had told her she would probably make it before six. It was five-thirty and the Doctor had to pick up her daughter first.

“She’ll be here soon,” Gertrude answered with confidence.

“So, how are things between Hannah and Rachel?” Jake asked. “We know they’re on speaking terms, but is there anything else we need to know about?”

“Nothing you need to know about,” Gertrude replied with a wink. “But, to tell you the truth, things are going well, really well. So I’d suggest we let things take their course. I have faith in a good outcome.”

“Really?” Gary smiled.

“Absolutely,” Gertrude nodded. “I think that…” she paused when she heard the front door close, followed by little, running feet.

“Gwanny?” Nicky’s voice sounded from the hallway.

“In here, pumpkin,” Gertrude smiled.

The door, that had been ajar, was pushed open and a yellow-clad Nicky came running into the room, skidding to a halt when her eyes fell on the two men. Gertrude could tell she was about to turn around and run back and she chuckled.

“Come here, sweetie,” she encouraged the little girl. “These two boys are Gary and Jake and they are your Mommy’s friends. You’ll see a lot of them, I promise.”

Nicky did not move, she just stood there, looking at Jake and Gary with one finger stuck in her mouth. The expression on her face was a mixture of curiosity and shyness and as soon as Rachel stepped into the room, she turned around and wrapped herself around the Doctor’s legs, much to the amusement of the adults.

“Hello everybody,” Rachel smiled, immediately noticing Hannah was not in the room. “You look ready for a nap, Jake,” she teased, taking a seat next to Gary.

“Too much hard work,” Jake quipped.

“I’m sorry,” Rachel answered and Gary knew she genuinely felt bad about the whole situation.

“He’s fine, Rachel, just ignore him,” he said, patting his friend on the hand. “By the way, your daughter is gorgeous. She looks just like you!”

“Thank you,” Rachel replied with a chuckle. “On both accounts. I never knew you thought I was gorgeous.”

“Oh, ha ha,” Gary snorted. “You’re on a fishing expedition. I might be gay, but I’m not blind, Doctor Kendrick. But I guess I’ll leave it up to Hannah to whisper all those sweet compliments in your ear,” he shot back with a twinkle in his eyes.

“I’d like that better,” Rachel agreed. “Talking about Hannah; where is she?”

“I sent her to bed, to take a nap,” Gertrude answered. “She did too much, of course.”

“Of course,” Rachel muttered.

“Somebody better wake her up, because I’m starving,” Jake spoke from his comfortable position on the floor.

“Where are we going?” Rachel asked, putting Nicky on the floor, before standing up again.

“Olive Garden,” Jake and Gary answered in unison and Rachel chuckled.

“Good choice. Come on, Nicky, let’s wake up Hannah,” she said, ruffling her daughter’s hair.

“Hannah?” the little girl answered with a bright smile.

“Yes, sweetie. It’s time for her to wake up.”

“Don’t take too long,” Jake called after them in a sing-song voice.

******
Rachel slowly opened the door to the bedroom and motioned Nicky to be quiet. The little girl looked up at her mother and mimicked the shushing sound she made. Rachel suppressed a chuckle, which made the toddler giggle.

“If she wasn’t awake yet, she is now,” Rachel mused, almost laughing out loud at the way her daughter tip-toed through the room.

Hannah was lying on her side, with one arm stuffed under her pillow and the other one tucked under her chin. It was a sleeping position Rachel was very familiar with. She had watched the blonde sleep like that on many different occasions , but she knew it was a vision she would never get enough of. It had always filled her with a sense of peace, to watch the relaxed features and hear the deep, regular breathing when Hannah was asleep.

Nicky was standing next to the head of the bed and cast her mother an expectant look. Rachel smiled and stretched out her arms in invitation, lifting the toddler into her arms. She took a seat on the edge of the bed and, with her free hand, she gently brushed a strand of hair away from Hannah’s cheek.

“Hannah sleeping,” Nicky whispered so loud that Rachel winced.

Glancing down at the blonde, Rachel noticed the small smile that tugged on the corner of her mouth and involuntarily she chuckled.

“So much for waking you up gently, huh?” she softly snorted.

Hannah slowly opened her eyes and blinked a few times. Her sleepy eyes traveled from Rachel to Nicky and back again. Her smile had grown into a full-fledged one and, with a contented yawn, she pushed herself upright, pulling Nicky out of Rachel’s arms, into her own. The little girl squeaked in delight when Hannah tickled her and quickly tried to worm her way out of her grip.

“Oh, no, little one, you’re in for it now,” Hannah laughed, completely enamored by a pair of dark-brown eyes that looked up at her pleadingly.

“Oh, alright,” she grinned. “I’ll stop tickling, but I do want a hug.”

“Hug,” Nicky repeated with an enthusiastic yell. She did not need more encouragement and the little girl threw herself in Hannah’s arms, wrapping her arms around the nurse’s neck, giving her a sloppy, but heartfelt kiss on her cheek.

“Wow,” Hannah breathed. “That was a nice hug.”

“Mommy hug too?” the little girl asked, looking at her mother with questioning, brown eyes.

“Mommy is patiently waiting her turn, Nicky,” Hannah teased.

Rachel just nodded, but Hannah noticed the twinkle in her eyes and she could not help smiling. It felt so good to be around Rachel, to see her and even touch her, if she wanted to. And she did want to. To be honest, she had to force herself not to reach out and pull Rachel in her arms, holding her close and losing herself in the Doctor’s close presence.

The other woman must have read the longing in her eyes, because she shifted position and enveloped both Nicky and Hannah in her arms, pulling them close and dropping a kiss on a dark and a blonde head.

“Mommy might be patient, but she’s also very human,” Rachel mumbled in Hannah’s ear and she pressed her lips against the blonde’s cheek. “Am I allowed to kiss you before our first date?” she added in a whisper.

“You almost did yesterday,” Hannah replied amused.

“I thought it was you wanting to kiss me,” Rachel replied in an innocent voice.

“It was more like a mutual thing,” Hannah quipped, without missing a beat and Rachel laughed. “But to answer your question: yes, you may.”

“May what?” Rachel asked.

“Kiss me before our first date,” Hannah explained with a smile. “Because, technically, it won’t be. Our first date, I mean.”

“I know. But it feels like it, though,” Rachel replied in all honesty. “It’s nice,” she quickly added. “I love the thrill of anticipation.”

“In that case, I’ll let you anticipate a little longer,” Hannah decided with a wink, very aware of Nicky’s presence. “We can continue this conversation later.”

“I’m looking forward to that,” Rachel smiled. “Did you have a good nap?”

“I did, thank you,” Hannah nodded, nuzzling Nicky’s hair, while glancing up at Rachel. When their eyes met, the expression on her face turned serious and she let out a small sigh.

“Rachel, what do…what…I can’t help wondering what will happen…if…Nathan shows up. I…,” she paused for a moment and took a deep breath. “I can’t seem to shake that nightmare I had last week and…it’s a little scary.”

“A little?” Rachel repeated gently. “Now, that’s an understatement.”

“Alright, I’m petrified,” Hannah admitted. “Today, I couldn’t help wondering if he had followed you to work, or maybe show up in the ER, or here.” Hannah brought her hand up to push a strand of hair away and Rachel saw her fingers tremble. “I don’t really know if I can handle this.”

Rachel nodded, understanding why Hannah was feeling the way she did. She was struggling with the same issues. Every time she had looked over her shoulder that day, she had wondered if she was being paranoid.

“I’m not sure if I’d be able to handle this by myself,” Rachel confessed, reaching out a hand and grabbing Hannah’s. “But together with you, I can,”she added. “And I’m ready to show that to Nathan. I want him to know we’ re here, you and I, together, in spite of his efforts to destroy what we had. He might have succeeded for a little while, but that’s in the past. He’ll find out that what he did to us, has made us grow stronger.”

Rachel paused and looked down at Hannah’s hand that was captured between hers. With a small smile she leaned forward and kissed the blonde’s fingertips. When she looked up again, her dark-brown eyes shone with determination.

“Together with you, I can handle anything,” she softly added.

When Rachel’s lips had touched her skin, Hannah had swallowed hard, trying to get rid of the lump in her throat. If she had not been holding on to Nicky, she would have reached out and buried her fingers in Rachel’s thick, dark hair. Instead, she briefly rested her cheek against the Doctor’s, needing to let the other woman feel how much her words were appreciated.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

******
It was almost nine o’clock when Rachel killed the engine of her car, in front of the house that would be hers and Nicky’s home for an undetermined amount of time. Casting a look aside, she smiled at Gertrude, who gave her a wink.

“If I carry Nicky inside, will you carry Hannah?” she asked with an amused voice.

“I’d love to,” Rachel replied dryly. “But I’m afraid both Hannah and I would end up in the rosebush, if we would make it that far,” she added with a grin.

“I’m awake, you two,” Hannah’s sleepy voice sounded from the backseat. “So stop making fun of me.”

“You don’t sound very awake to me,” Gertrude teased, opening the door and stepping into the cold night air.

“Whatever,” Hannah mumbled, untangling herself from the quilt somebody had draped over her and Nicky, who was sound asleep in her car seat. “I might have dozed off, but I’m awake now.”

“The cold air will do that to you,” Rachel muttered, shivering as soon as she stepped outside. She opened the back door and quickly released her daughter from the seat. Holding the toddler close to keep her as warm as possible, she walked around the car, waiting for Hannah to appear.

“You don’t have to wait for me, Rachel,” Hannah spoke, eying the shivering form of the Doctor. “I wouldn’t want Nicky or you to catch a cold.”

“Nicky is fine,” Rachel answered, noticing Gertrude had opened the front door and was impatiently waiting for them.

I’m not letting you out of my sight. Call me paranoid, but those last few days I’ve had a feeling somebody was watching me…

“Come on, sweetie,” she gently encouraged Hannah. “It’s nice and warm inside.”

Hannah obediently followed the small path to the front door, closely followed by Rachel, who resisted the urge to turn around to scan the street. She did not want to make a fool out of herself. And she certainly did not want to scare Hannah.

So, without looking back, Rachel stepped inside and closed the door behind her. Silently, Hannah slid the deadbolt in place and keyed in the code for the alarm. After she was done, she glanced up at Rachel and shot her tired smile.

“It’s not just you,” she softly spoke. “I felt it too.”

Rachel’s eyes were wide with surprise when she turned to the blonde and she was about to reply, but Hannah gently pressed her fingers against the other woman’s lips.

“Not now, later,” she whispered.

Even though she felt like she was bursting with anxiety and curiosity, Rachel nodded and gestured towards the hallway.

“I’ll put Nicky to bed. I’ll be right back.”

“Do you want some hot tea or decaf coffee?”

“I’d love some coffee,” Rachel answered.

“I’ll make some,” Hannah promised. She stepped closer to Rachel and tenderly pressed a kiss on the sleeping toddler’s cheek. “Sweet dreams, Nicky,” she whispered.

Rachel could not help it; the moment was perfect. Hannah was so close, she only had to lean forward to steal a kiss. And without giving herself the chance to change her mind, she did. If Hannah was surprised by Rachel’s actions, she did not show it. For a split second only, Rachel could feel her jerk at the unexpected contact, but then Hannah leaned into her body and the soft, almost playful kiss, became a lot more solid.

Rachel, who was still holding Nicky, let out a soft whimper when Hannah’s arms slid around her waist and the blonde pressed herself against her side without breaking the contact.

When they finally broke apart, they looked at each other and smiled.

“That was nice, thank you,” Rachel said, kissing the bridge of Hannah’s nose.

“It was,” Hannah nodded with soft, blue eyes. “I’ve been wanting to do that ever since yesterday.”

“When we almost made it?” Rachel chuckled.

“Yes, before Granny walked in on us,” Hannah nodded, rolling her eyes.

“It was worth the wait.”

“Yes, it was,” Hannah smiled warmly. She patted Rachel on her side and gently pushed her towards the end of the hallway. “Go, put your little girl to bed. I’ll be in the kitchen, making us some coffee.”

“I won’t be long,” Rachel promised.

“I’m counting on that,” was the playful answer and with a happy grin on her face, Rachel walked towards Nicky’s temporary bedroom, opening the door with her hip. She gently lowered the toddler on to the bed and expertly changed the little girl into her warm pajamas. Nicky, who was worn out by all the activities of that evening, never woke up and, with a last kiss, Rachel tucked in her daughter and quietly left the room.

She smiled when she headed for the kitchen, already looking forward to spending a few quiet hours with Hannah. She knew they had agreed to take it slowly and she certainly wanted to honor that, but she couldn’t and wouldn’t ignore the tingles that traveled through her body every time Hannah was near. She knew the blonde was experiencing the same sensations. She had seen it in her eyes. On more than one occasion, the familiar blue had darkened in a very familiar way and Rachel was grateful for that. It gave her faith and hope, feeling with every passing minute that the odds of restoring their relationship was in their favor.

Rachel rounded the corner to go into the kitchen, when a soft sound drew her attention to the front door. It had been the rustling sound of paper. With a small frown, Rachel stepped to the door and peered through the little peephole. The driveway was lit and even though the view was limited she could see there was nobody in front of the door or on the driveway. Curious, she disabled the alarm and opened the door and immediately a cream-colored envelope landed on the doormat, in front of her feet. Kneeling down, Rachel picked up the envelope, when she noticed the neatly printed name on the paper. Immediately, she dropped it, as if burnt.

“Oh, my God,” she whispered in horror, feeling sick to her stomach. She had recognized the writing instantly. A tidal wave of emotions flooded her senses and Rachel did not realize she had made a sound, until the door of the kitchen was thrown open and Hannah came rushing out. Her eyes were dark-blue in her ashen face and she hurried to the place where Rachel was leaning against the wall for support.

Without saying a word, the blonde stepped past Rachel and closed the door, making sure it was locked and the alarm was back on, before turning around and facing the Doctor.

“Are you…?” her breathing hitched when she noticed the envelope on the doormat and with a soft moan she sank through her knees, staring at the paper that had her name on it.

“Is it…is it…him?” she whispered.

Rachel had to pull herself out of her near state of panic and her dark eyes traveled from the envelope to Hannah.

Get a grip, Hannah needs you!

“I…I recognize the writing,” Rachel answered in a hoarse voice. “I think we both had the same gut-feeling.”

“That he was around,” Hannah nodded in a quiet voice. She picked up the envelope from the ground and, with Rachel’s hand supporting her, got back to her feet.

“I don’t think I want to open this. Maybe we’re wrong,” she said. “Maybe it’s something else, like a Christmas card, or something.”

“Maybe,” Rachel echoed in a toneless voice. “Do you want me to open it?”

Although Hannah would have loved to leave that difficult part up to somebody else, she did not want Rachel to be the one to open the envelope and, after letting out a shuddering breath, she quickly ripped it open and pulled out its contents.

With trembling fingers she turned around the white piece of paper and she sobbed when her eyes fell on the picture. It was a photo of her and Rachel entering the house after they had come home from dinner, less than thirty minutes ago.

“Nathan,” she whispered, feeling Rachel’s arm slip around her shoulders. “You freaking jerk.”

Part 10

Hannah stared at the photo on the table without really seeing it. Occasionally, she blinked her eyes to keep them from tearing up, but other than that the nurse hardly moved. She was exhausted and wished she could crawl into bed and go to sleep. But she knew it would not be restful. The fact that Nathan had been able to take a photo of them had really shaken her up. It had scared her, but also enraged her and Hannah tried to determine which emotion was the strongest. It could very well be anger, because every time she thought about Nathan, she unconsciously clenched her hands into fist, wishing she could tell him what she really thought about him.

“Hannah, sweetie, are you alright?” Gertrude’s voice suddenly penetrated her dark thoughts and, with tired eyes, the blonde looked up.

“Just tired, Granny,” she sighed, rubbing her eyes. “And I’ve got a bit of a headache as well.”

“I’m sure they’ll be done in a little while,” Gertrude tried to reassure the younger woman. ‘They’ were the two police officers who had been inspecting the house meticulously. As soon as Rachel had called Jack Wilson, the police man had come over, bringing one of his co-workers with him. With a grim expression on his face, he had listened to their story and he had insisted on inspecting the outside of the house.

“If Nathan’s still around, he’ll know you’ re looking for him,” Rachel had remarked, but Jack Wilson had shrugged his shoulders and there had been a determined look in his eyes.

“I want him to know who is chasing him,” he had answered. “He knows I’ll be hunting him down like an animal and, if he has one functioning brain cell left, he knows who will win this game.”

“He’s never been stupid,” Maureen Rivers, his red-haired co-worker had responded.

“He’ll make a mistake,” Jack Wilson had answered, his low voice full of confidence. “All we have to do is keep the pressure on and wait until he screws up.”

Both Hannah and Gertrude looked up when the door opened and Rachel stepped into the room. The Doctor’s face was pale and there were dark circles underneath her eyes. She took a seat next to Hannah and pushed her hair away from her forehead.

“They left,” she explained in a soft voice. “Jack said he’ll make sure there will be frequent patrols, but he can’t guarantee round the clock protection. Of course,” she added with a sigh.

“Did they find anything out of the ordinary outside?” Gertrude asked.

“No,” Rachel shook her head. “Nothing. Nathan must have used a zoom lens and one of those portable printers. It’s the only way he could have printed that photo so fast.” Rachel took a deep breath and when she lifted her head she caught Gertrude’s eyes. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered. “I wish you didn’t have to go through this and…”

“Did you invite him?” Gertrude asked with a hint of a smile.

“Did I invite…? You mean Nathan? No, of course not,”the Doctor responded. “I would never…”

“Then stop apologizing,” Gertrude insisted. “It’s not your fault, Rachel.”

“No, it’s not,” Hannah added. “Besides, we knew this could happen, we just didn’t expect it so soon. But you know what?” In spite of her fatigue, frustration and headache, the blonde mustered up a smile. “This time we’ll be facing it together.”

“That’s true,” Gertrude smiled. “And if we get our act together, you, Hannah and I can give Nathan a run for his money.”

“You think so?” Rachel smiled.

“Oh, yes,” Hannah nodded, reaching out and grabbing her grandmother’s hand. “Do not underestimate the Jensen women.”

“I’d never do that,” Rachel mumbled, which made both Gertrude and Hannah chuckle.

Gertrude nodded, patted Hannah’s hand and slowly rose to her feet.

“These old bones need some rest,” she said. “Make sure you get some sleep, both of you,” she warned with a stern look on her face. “Breakfast will be served at seven-thirty.”

“Granny,” Hannah protested. “You shouldn’t. You need your rest as well. I can cook breakfast and…”

“Hannah, it’s alright,” Gertrude smiled. “I’d be happy to get more than six hours of sleep at night. I’m always up early. It comes with the old age,” she winked.

“We could go out for breakfast,” Rachel tried.

“We could,” Gertrude nodded. “But we’re not going to. As long as I’m capable of cooking, I will. Case closed. I’m old, not dead.”

A pair of clear, blue eyes traveled from Hannah to Rachel and back again. Gertrude almost chuckled when both Hannah and Rachel obediently nodded and she smiled.

“Good girls. Have a good sleep and don’t worry about Nathan; even he will not be able to slip into this house unnoticed.”

Hannah jumped up and enveloped her grandmother in a hug, which was returned with surprising strength. Old, blue veined hands stroked the unruly, blond hair and for a moment it was completely silent.

“I love you, Granny,” Hannah whispered, kissing the elderly woman’s cheek.

“I love you, too, sweetie. Get some rest, alright? Rachel’s not going anywhere,” she added in a whisper, before lovingly patting her granddaughter’s cheek and slowly walking towards the door.

After Gertrude left, the room was very quiet. Only the soft, rhythmical ticking of the clock could be heard until Rachel scooted closer to Hannah, who was sitting next to her on the couch, and wrapped her arm around the blonde’s shoulders.

“You look tired,” she gently spoke. “Gertrude is right; we need some sleep. I don’t know about you, but I’m about to topple over.”

“I feel like I could sleep for days,” Hannah admitted. “But I’m afraid I can’t. I’m still too wound up about this whole thing.” The blonde paused and glanced at the dark-haired woman at her side. “How did you deal with this, Rachel? On your own?”

“Well, at first I thought it was some bad, practical joke. When I realized it wasn’t, I figured that, whoever was responsible for those letters and photos I received, would eventually give up and leave me alone.” The grip around Hannah’s shoulder tightened and unconsciously the blonde leaned into the one-armed embrace. “When I saw those photos that were taken in your bedroom, I freaked out. That’s when I left. I felt I had to.” Rachel exhaled slowly and rested her cheek on top of Hannah’s head that was tucked against her shoulder. “But it was so hard to deal with it,” she softly continued. “No matter how many times I told myself it was for the better, because it would keep you safe, I had to force myself not to run back to you.” The Doctor swallowed hard and closed her eyes, letting Hannah’s closeness chase away the pain of the dark memories. “I wanted to call you so badly that, one night, I had to pick up my phone and hurl it against the wall, so I wouldn’t be able to use it.”

“I’m so sorry,” Hannah whispered, feeling the tears sting in the back of her eyes.

“So am I,” Rachel responded. “But no matter what I’ve been through, you’ve been through worse.”

“It wasn’t easy,” Hannah nodded against Rachel’s shoulder. “After you left, I…I was in shatters. I so wanted to be angry at you, but, deep down inside, I knew you must have had a good reason to leave and I refused to believe there was someone else. I tried to rationalize the whole situation, but that didn’t change the fact I was hurting so badly, even breathing seemed to be painful.” Hannah took a deep breath and clasped Rachel’s hand between hers before continuing. “ I was convinced I couldn’t hurt more than I did, but I was wrong. When Mom and Dad were killed in that accident I really believed I’d die as well. I could not imagine surviving that much pain, but I did,” she added in a soft voice. “When Granny had a stroke I had to pull myself together. It brought me out of my…I don’t know what it was,” Hannah shrugged. “I was in a haze. It’s a miracle I was able to do my job.”

“You left the ER though.”

“I had to,” Hannah nodded with a sigh. “I couldn’t deal with all the anger and pain anymore. There’s so much…sadness. It became harder and harder to deal with the domestic violence and child abuse cases. I figured the best way to keep my sanity was to leave the ER. I guess it worked,” she added with a small smile, lifting her head and looking up into a pair of warm dark-brown eyes.

“I guess it did,” Rachel smiled. “I know there are a lot of things I can’t…undo, because they’re in the past, but I can promise you I’ll do my best to keep you from being hurt in the future.”

Hannah looked up from Rachel’s shoulder and her eyes were dark, contrasting starkly with her blonde hair. To Rachel, it seemed like she hesitated for a moment, but then she let out a shaky breath and increased the pressure on the Doctor’s hand.

“I’m…very…willing to give us another chance,” she started in a voice that was hoarse with emotion. “But…if you’d leave…again…I don’t think I’d survive. Not a second time,” she added barely audible.

Rachel swallowed hard, trying to get rid of the painful lump that constricted her throat. Again, she felt a hot stab of pain lance straight through her heart when she realized how much pain the blonde had endured. That made her gentle and forgiven attitude even more impressive.

“Hannah…I,” she tried in a husky voice, searching for the right words, but Hannah reached out a hand and pressed her fingers against Rachel’s trembling lips.

“Right now, I don’t care what happened and how long we’ve been apart,” the blonde whispered. “You’re here and that’s all that matters. You were my very first love and I never wanted anyone else but you. The fact that you left and we spent almost four years apart doesn’t change the fact you’re here now,” Hannah explained softly, pressing Rachel’s hand against her heart. “There’s only been you.”

Rachel’s eyes caught Hannah’s and she managed to muster up a watery smile, even though her heart was pounding with heavy, painful beats.

“I don’t deserve you,” she spoke very softly, surprised when Hannah reached out and wiped away a tear that had made its way down her cheek. The blonde smiled and let go of Rachel’s hand to cup the Doctor’s face.

“But you’re here,” Hannah repeated with a smile that put a sparkle in her eyes, “And I plan on keeping you around.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Rachel agreed through her tears. “Come here.”

Before Hannah realized what had happened, Rachel had pulled her in her lap, wrapping her arms securely around the slightly smaller blonde, pressing her lips against her forehead. Hannah relaxed against her and they soaked up the warmth of each other’s close presence.

They sat like that in silence, until Hannah stirred and glanced up at the other woman from her comfortable spot in the circle of her arms.

“I’ve missed this,” she confessed with a small sigh. “I always loved to snuggle up with you.”

“I know,” Rachel nodded with a warm smile. “I remember you once telling me you didn’t want to go to Medical School, because you couldn’t study and snuggle at the same time.”

Hannah chuckled at the memory and nodded.

“It’s true. Studying takes away precious cuddle time. Besides, one Doctor in the family is more than enough.”

After hearing Hannah’s words, Rachel unconsciously sucked in a breath, while her heart skipped a beat.

“What’s wrong?” the blonde asked with a small frown.

Rachel cleared her throat and dropped a kiss on Hannah’s head, needing a few precious seconds to regain her composure.

“You said ‘family’,” she explained, barely able to keep the quiver out of her voice. “It’s…that’s something we always dreamed about, you and I.”

“And I haven’t given up on that dream,” Hannah answered, burying her face in the crook of Rachel’s neck, letting out a contented sigh. “That is, if you still want that,” she continued with a touch of insecurity in her voice.

“More than anything else,” Rachel whispered in her ear, pressing her lips against Hannah’s temple. The blonde leaned into the contact and, encouraged, Rachel let her lips travel down a soft, warm cheek, until she reached the corner of Hannah’s mouth.

“I love you,” she said softly against the blonde’s skin.

Hannah turned her head sideways, so she could look at the other woman and when she caught Rachel’s eyes, she saw something she had once feared she had lost forever. She reached up and stroked the Doctor’s cheek, before running her fingers through the thick, dark hair.

“I love you, too,” she answered, before their lips met in a slow kiss that felt so familiar, yet so new. They took their time to explore each other leisurely, pressing their bodies so close, Rachel had to lean back into the couch to prevent them from losing their balance and ending up on the floor. She smiled against Hannah’s lips when the blonde let out a soft moan and slipped her hands underneath Rachel’s sweater.

“Is it hot in here, or is it me?” she asked, aware of her irregular breathing.

“Must be you,” was the mumbled answer. “Of course, you could take off your sweater,” Hannah encouraged, playfully tugging the heavy fabric.

“I could,” Rachel breathed, closing her eyes when a pair of lips left a hot trail of kisses down her neck. Thinking became increasingly difficult, especially when Hannah shifted and suddenly straddled Rachel’s body. “What happened to taking it easy?” she asked in a husky voice. “Mm? Oh, I guess we should,” Hannah answered, nibbling Rachel’s skin. “I guess I had a reason for saying something like that, huh?” she muttered as an afterthought. “Can’t seem to remember why though,” she grunted when she felt Rachel’s hand caress the skin of her back. How the Doctor had been able to slip her hands underneath her shirt without her noticing was a mystery to the blonde. One she didn’t ponder over for long. Instead, she concentrated on the feel of Rachel’s lips against her own and the interesting sounds the other woman made, every time she deepened the kiss.

It was extremely hard for Rachel to stay focused. Hannah’s loving administrations were extremely distracting and she would have loved to give into it wholeheartedly, but somewhere, in the back of her mind, a disturbing thought kept nagging her. It was important to remember, she knew that much…Then she remembered….

“Hannah, sweetie, we need to slow down,” she whispered. “Nathan’s around…we need to…”

“Yes, we do,” Hannah responded with a sigh. “He managed to drive us apart for almost four years, but you’re here now, with me and I know he’ll never succeed in driving us apart again.” Hannah swallowed hard and leaned back so she could glance into those warm brown eyes she loved so much. Her fingertips traced across Rachel’s face and she smiled. “I don’t want to make things…complicated, but I love the way you make me feel” she confessed with a mixture of desire and shyness in her eyes. “I need to know…I need to feel …us…you and me…I need to be close to you, Rachel. I want us to be close, before we’ll have to face whatever he throws in our path.” Hannah cast down her eyes and let out a shuddering breath, missing the look of love and admiration the Doctor sent her. “Don’t get me wrong, but…do you…I’d really like you to stay with me tonight,” she added in a whisper.

“I’d love to,” Rachel smiled. “ And you need to know that…,” she hesitated, searching for the right words. “I want to be as close to you as I can, but I…some things have changed and…”

“We’ll leave the door of Nicky’s room open,” Hannah responded, having guessed what Rachel was trying to say. “She’ll be across the hall from us and when she needs you, we’ll know.”

“Thank you,” Rachel smiled, leaning forward to kiss Hannah’s soft lips, something the blonde did not leave unanswered. She wrapped her arms around the Doctor’s neck, losing herself completely in the increasing passion between them.

“I need a shower,” Rachel whispered, playfully biting a tasty earlobe. “I’ve been in the ER all day and…”

“Say no more,” Hannah responded with a soft chuckle. She slowly stood up, too tired to make any fast movements, extended her hand and, when she felt Rachel’s firm grip, pulled the other woman up off the couch. “Let’s go.”

Silently, Rachel followed the blonde, who in passing the light switch, gave it a swift tap, effectively killing the soft illumination in the room. The Doctor reveled in the feel of Hannah’s hand in her own and involuntarily her thoughts returned to the time they had just started dating. Back then, she had loved taking her girlfriend to the movie theater, simply because, in the dark, she could hold the blonde’s hand undisturbed.

“What are you thinking about?” Hannah asked, glancing aside and seeing the half-smile on Rachel’s face.

“Long movies,” Rachel promptly answered, giving Hannah’s hand a gentle squeeze.

Hannah left out a soft, surprised laugh and briefly rubbed her cheek against Rachel’s shoulder.

“Your favorite time of the week,” she remembered. “If my memory doesn’t fail me, I believe ‘The English Patient’ was one of your favorites.”

“It was nice and long,” Rachel admitted with a chuckle, suddenly stopping in the middle of the hallway and pulling Hannah into her arms.

“And if I remember correctly, our goodnight kiss that night was quite…impressive,” she recalled with a twinkle in her eyes.

“Oh, yes, it was,” Hannah nodded, feeling her heart rate pick up by the memory. “You were relentless.”

“I aimed to please,” Rachel smiled, not able to resist kissing the blonde’s lips.

“Aimed?” Hannah drawled with an impish smile, chuckling when she saw the twinkle in Rachel’s dark-brown eyes.

“Oh, I still do,” she whispered close to Hannah’s ear, which immediately caused goose bumps to erupt all over the blonde’s body. “If you let me, I’ll show you.”

“I might, one day soon,” Hannah whispered back, fighting the urge to bury herself into Rachel’s arms. She knew that, if she would do that, they’d never make it into her bedroom.

“If you check up on Nicky, I’ll dig up some towels for you” Hannah suggested in a husky voice. “Did you need anything else?”

“Just you,” Rachel answered, slowly letting go of the blonde and stepping towards Nicky’s room. “I’ll be there soon.”

#

Rachel sighed in pleasure when the warm water ran down her body and swirled around her feet, before disappearing down the drain. It was relaxing to feel the liquid caress her neck and shoulders, areas that were tense after a long, stress-filled day. Even though she was tired, her body was still humming, remembering Hannah’s kisses and the soft promises of things to come.

With a smile, Rachel rinsed the shampoo out of her hair while her thoughts were with the blonde, who was waiting for her only a few yards away. Her heart skipped a beat, every time she remembered those familiar blue eyes that had looked at her with so much trust and affection, it had robbed her of speech.

“She loves me,” the Doctor mused with a sense of wonder, stopping the flow of water and reaching for a towel. “She still loves me.”

Rachel quickly toweled herself off, slipped into a sleeping shirt and combed her hair, very aware of the smile that was plastered on her face. For the first time in some long years, she was happy. It was funny, she thought, the idea of Nathan stalking them should bother her, but instead there was a feeling of warm joy and lightness in her heart. And that had everything to do with the blonde who had so openly reached out to her.

“Together we can face this,” echoed in her mind. “We won’t let him win.”

Rachel nodded at her reflection in the mirror and switched off the light in the bathroom, opening the door and stepping into the bedroom where Hannah was already snuggled up underneath the blankets. In spite of the warm flow of air that warmed the room, there was still a bit of a chill in the air and Rachel shivered while walking towards the bed.

As soon as she turned down the covers to slip in next to the blonde, her smile deepened and she let out a low chuckle. Hannah was lying on her side, facing her, with one hand curled around the pillow and the other one tucked underneath her chin and the blonde was fast asleep.

“Poor baby,” she whispered. “You must have been exhausted.”

Rachel slid underneath the covers, carefully wrapping an arm around Hannah to pull her closer. The blonde let out a contented sigh and snuggled closer, putting her head on The Doctor’s shoulder.

Rachel smiled and dropped a kiss on the blonde hair. It felt so good to have Hannah in her arms again. It made her realize how much she had missed her, something she had tried to tuck away in the back of her mind. It had been the only way to deal with the aching emptiness after she had left. The arrival of Nicky had taken away part of the pain and loneliness, but there had always been the nagging pain of not having Hannah in her life. But those days were over. They were back together again and Rachel was incredibly grateful for the chance she had been given to reclaim her part in Hannah’s life.

Rachel turned her head so she could brush her lips against Hannah’s forehead, enjoying the feel of the other woman’s skin.

“Sweet dreams, my love,” she whispered.

#

The days before Christmas were extremely busy for Rachel and Hannah. The blonde had returned to work on Monday and before lunchtime she already felt exhausted.

“What’s wrong with this picture?” Mary, a nurse tech had mumbled when Hannah had asked her to give her a hand in one of the patient’s rooms. “I’ve worked here for almost fifteen years and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it this busy just before the Holidays.”

“Maybe it’s the early flu-season,” Hannah had sighed, wishing she could sit down for a while and rest her tired body. “Or maybe it’s because they had that fire at Mercy and their ER and part of their surgery units are closed now.”

“Maybe both,” Mary had nodded, following Hannah into the room.

That had been hours ago. Hannah was still trying to get all her work done and had missed lunch completely. When she finally had a chance to sit down, it was to go through her patients’ charts, but she welcomed it anyway. At least, she was off her feet.

“How are things going here?” a cheerful voice sounded and with a tired smile Hannah looked up at Yolanda, the head of Nursing Services. “Busy, huh?” Yolanda continued having seen Hannah’s face.

“Kind of,” Hannah mumbled.

“Did you get lunch?” Yolanda asked. “Did any of you get lunch?”

“We did,” Jada, one of Hannah’s coworkers answered. “About twenty minutes ago. Hannah didn’t.”

“Snitch,” Hannah said, turning around to look at the tall red-head, but there was a smile in her voice. “Besides, do you call a five-minute break to eat half a sandwich, washed down with lukewarm coffee, lunch?”

“Hey, I also had a piece of chocolate,” Jada grinned and Hannah chuckled. She turned back to the dark-skinned Yolanda and shot her an apologetic look, knowing what the other woman was going to say.

“I know, I know, I should take better care of myself,” she beat the older woman to it.

“Yes, sweetie, you should,” Yolanda sighed. “You’ve been pretty sick last week. You should at least try and eat something to keep your strength up. Yesterday, I had a nurse on the eighth floor who passed out because she skipped lunch. Come to find out, she hadn’t even had breakfast either.”

“Oh, but I did,” Hannah quickly spoke. “My Grandmother makes sure of that. If I’d leave without breakfast, she’d follow me and give me a lecture that would make your toes curl.”

“Somehow I believe that,” Yolanda chuckled, having met Gertrude on several occasions. “Your Grandmother is a force to be reckoned with.”

“Amen to that,” Hannah agreed.

Yolanda smiled and her dark eyes looked at the blonde with a mixture of curiosity and worry. She had known Hannah ever since the nurse had started her first day at the hospital. At that time, she had been her manager.

“Hannah, I don’t want to pry into your personal life,” she started hesitantly, aware of the look of surprise that was sent her way. “But…there’s something you need to know.”

Hannah put down the pen she had used to write into her chart and folded her hands on top of the paper, giving Yolanda her undivided attention. Outwardly she was calm, but inside her heart was racing.

“You know the hospital’s policy on it’s staff’s privacy; no names, phone numbers or addresses are exchanged, especially not through the phone. Well, this morning I received a phone call from this man…” Yolanda continued, while Hannah moistened her suddenly dry lips. “He was asking for you and when I asked him for his name, he became evasive. Then, in the end, he said you’d know who he was, if only I’d tell you, and I quote here, ‘the guy from the photo’ had called.”

Hannah sucked in a breath and tried not to shiver. Nathan. He had found out where she worked. But how? Fear and shock were rapidly replaced by anger when Hannah realized Nathan must have followed her that morning. How else could he have found out where she worked? Obviously, he did not know which floor she worked on, but she knew that would only be a matter of time.

“Creepy jerk,” she hissed through her teeth, feeling her anger rise.

“I take it you don’t care for him,” Yolanda replied dryly. “I guess I figured that after I delivered a message to Doctor Kendrick. Her reaction was about the same as yours, although the expletive she used was new to me. It must be very educational to work in the ER.”

Hannah’s eyes went wide when she stared at the other woman.

“When did you talk to her?” she asked with difficulty.

“Just now, a few minutes ago,” Yolanda answered softly, touched by the distress in the other woman’s eyes. “She was in a difficult case and asked me to come up here and make sure you were alright.” Yolanda paused and stretched out a hand to cover Hannah’s fidgeting fingers and gave them a gentle squeeze. “What’s going on, Hannah?”

“I…it’s a long story,” Hannah sighed. “But, to make a long story short, the man you talked to on the phone used to be a friend of mine. Until he turned into a stalker,” she added with bitterness in her voice. “He has done a lot of damage and we thought he was dead, until a few days ago.”

“Are you in any danger?” Yolanda asked with a worried frown. “Is Doctor Kendrick?”

“I’m not sure,” Hannah answered, suddenly feeling drained of all energy. “In the past he did threaten me, although I didn’t know anything about that. I’m afraid he’d hurt Rachel, though,” she added softly, not seeing the barely raised eyebrow of the other woman in response. Hannah looked up and her blue eyes were dark with worry. “What…” she swallowed hard. “What did she say? Ra…Doctor Kendrick?”

“She’s worried about you and asked me to tell you to stay here, until she’s talked to you. And she made sure I’d tell you it’s not an order, it’s a request.”

That last remark put a tired smile on Hannah’s face and the blonde nodded.

“I won’t go anywhere, I promise. I need to talk to her as well.”

“Good,” Yolanda answered. “I’m glad my mission was successful. I have one more thing to ask though; can you tell me what this…person looks like? I’d like to give the security a heads up, just in case…”

“Gosh, I haven’t seen him in years,” Hannah sighed, rubbing her forehead. “The last time I saw him, he was a little taller than I am, dark-blond hair, always clean-shaven face, immaculately dressed…pretty plain looking, I guess,” Hannah said.

“Any special features? Is he cross-eyed? Does he have a limp? A very visible scar maybe?”

“He has a scar on his neck,” Hannah quickly answered, glad she remembered. “When he was a kid, he fell in some barb-wire and it left one of those ragged looking scars. It runs from underneath his right ear to the back of his neck.”

“I’ll make sure to tell security,” Yolanda answered with a grateful smile. The information Hannah had given her was not much, but at least it was something they could work with.

“Hannah, sweetie, if you want some time off, I’m sure we can arrange something. Your safety and well-being is very important to me. To all of us.”

“I appreciate that, Yolanda, but I have no plans to give this bas…this idiot what he wants. I can’t put my life on hold, just because he doesn’t have one. I can’t and I won’t!” Hannah responded and Yolanda nodded, happy to see the fire in the blonde’s eyes. She still had not figured out how Rachel Kendrick fitted in the picture, but, given time, she knew she would. She had her suspicions, though. The intense shock and fear in a pair of dark-brown eyes when the Doctor had asked her to find Hannah, please, had been indication enough. Yolanda had a feeling there was something going on between Hannah Jensen and Rachel Kendrick, but she would keep that to herself. There was no need to stir up unrest, just because of the prejudice and bigotry of a lot of people. Inwardly though, Yolanda smiled. She would keep a close eye on Hannah, not just to make sure she would be safe, but also to make sure no gossiping tongues would be able to hurt her favorite nurse.

#

It was hard for Rachel to stay focused on her work. She wished she could leave the small room she was in, leave the floor and run up the stairs to the floor where she knew she would find Hannah. Ever since Yolanda had told her about the strange phone call, there had been a heavy, painful feeling in her chest that did not want to go away, no matter how many times she took a deep breath. Rachel knew that, inside the hospital, Hannah would be reasonably safe. But she wanted to make sure of that and the only thing that could possibly reassure her, was seeing Hannah in person.

With difficulty, Rachel turned her attention to the still figure on the gurney. Her eyes took in the different bags of fluids and the tubes that ran from them into the patient’s arms.

“Do we have results back yet?” she asked in a tired voice, looking at Betty Palmer who had just entered the room.

“Hemoglobin is 7.2, Doc. That’s all I can tell you, the rest of the results will come in soon. They’re working on it.”

“I can’t wait much longer. This patient is losing his blood as fast as we can pump it in. I’ll call GI and ask for the Endoscopy team to come down. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s got varices that are bleeding.” Rachel sighed and headed for the door. “Keep an eye on him, Betty, I’ll be right back.”

Rachel grabbed the first phone she saw and, within a minute, she was talking to one of the hospital’s GI Doctors, who promised to come down to the ER as soon as he could.

“Is the patient stable?” he asked.

“For now,” Rachel answered. “We’re keeping the units going and right now his blood pressure is reasonable; 96/54.”

“Give me fifteen minutes, Rachel. We’ll be there as soon as we can.”

“Thanks, I appreciate it,” Rachel sighed, feeling the responsibility for her patients weigh heavily on her shoulders. Again, she had to fight the urge to leave the ER and go up to see Hannah.

“Damn,” she muttered, glancing at the clock. She knew she could not abandon her patients, but making a phone call should not be a problem. Dialing the number of Hannah’s floor from memory, she waited for a response, impatiently tapping her fingers on the dark green surface of the desk.

“Hannah Jensen, please,” she said, after the call was answered. There were some sounds in the background and after a few muffled exchanges, the same nurse who had answered the phone, sounded again.

“Who is calling?”

“Who is…? Oh, yes, of course,” Rachel responded, mentally slapping herself. How insensitive of her after Nathan had just called the hospital, asking for Hannah. “It’s Rachel Kendrick. May I talk to Hannah, please?”

“Yes, Doctor, of course. Hold on.”

Rachel could hear some chairs being moved and a few seconds later Hannah’s voice filled her ear. She was so relieved to hear the familiar sound, she instantly felt relaxed.

“Are you okay?” she asked, very aware of the people around her.

“I am now,” was the soft answer and Rachel smiled, feeling a comfortable warmth settle in the pit of her stomach.

“I should be done here in about an hour or so. Will you wait for me? I don’t like the idea of you leaving on your own.”

“I’ll wait,” Hannah promised, wishing she could reach out and stroke that little frown she knew for sure was visible on Rachel’s forehead.

“Thanks for indulging me,” the Doctor spoke softly. “I feel a lot better now.”

“I know,” Hannah smiled. “I do, too. How are you holding up?”

“I’m hanging in there. I can’t wait for this day to end, though. We need to talk and come up with a plan.”

“Yes, we do.” Hannah agreed. “A good plan, because I want this stalking business to end for once and for all.”

“Just stay put for now and let me come up and get you when I’m done, all right?”

“I will, I promise,” Hannah nodded. “I have to go, one of my patients needs me. I’ll see you soon.”

“Absolutely,” Rachel smiled and, involuntarily, Hannah smiled back, unseen to Rachel’s eyes.

“Stay out of trouble,” the blonde gently joked.

“Always,” was Rachel’s chuckled reply. “Bye, see you soon.”

“Bye,” Hannah put the phone down and, with the smile still on her face, sent an apologetic look to Yolanda, before walking out of the nursing station, heading for room 5012. She wondered what Abel Jacobs wanted. He was an elderly man who never asked for any attention, so, when he used the call light it was serious.

“Mister Jacobs,” Hannah spoke opening the door. “What can I do…?” The nurse halted in mid-sentence when she noticed the bed was unoccupied. With a frown and increasing worry she cast a glance at the bathroom door. Abel Jacobs had been seriously ill and was too weak to get out of bed and walk to the bathroom all by himself. And as far as Hannah knew, Jacob’s wife had left to run some errands.

“Mister Jacobs?” she called out, stepping towards the door of the bathroom and putting her hand on the handle. With her other hand she knocked.

“Abel? Are you all right? May I come in?”

When there was no answer, Hannah didn’t hesitate. She knew the safety of a patient took precedence and with a feeling of dread she opened the door. Immediately her eyes flew to the corner where, on a low stool, she noticed the slumped form of Abel Jacobs.

“Mister Jacobs!”

The nurse rushed to the elderly man’s side and quickly felt for a pulse. She let out a sigh of relief when she felt a weak and rapid beat underneath her fingertips. Only then she noticed the blood that had formed a puddle on the side of the stool.

“Oh, my God.”

Hannah’s hand went to the nurse’s call light behind her, but before she could pull the cord, her fingers were suddenly caught in a painful, vice-like grip.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” a smooth voice sounded behind her and, with a yelp, Hannah jumped to her feet, positioning herself between the patient on the stool and the unexpected visitor.

“Who…what…?” she stammered, staring at the man in front of her. Then all blood drained from her face and she had to stretch out a hand to grab the edge of the sink keeping her balance. The face she saw was the one from her nightmares and with a half-sob she realized she and her patient were trapped.

“Nathan!” she whispered.

Part 11

Thanks to one of her colleagues who had taken over from her, it had taken less than twenty minutes for Rachel Kendrick to finish the paperwork on her patients and to make sure her last patient, a man with a bleeding stomach ulcer, would be transferred to one of the floors as soon as there was a bed available. Now, her shift had ended and after having quickly changed out of her scrubs, she hurried through the hallway, heading for the elevator. Impatiently drumming her fingers on her thigh she waited for the carriage to come down and the doors to open. Nothing happened. The elevator was notoriously slow, especially on busy days when it had to stop on every floor, due to visitors who were constantly coming and going.

“Figures,” Rachel mumbled, letting out an exasperated sigh. “Time for a workout, I guess.”

Turning on her heels, Rachel took a few steps to the left and opened the door that would lead her to the staircase. She would have to climb four floors, but knew it would probably be a lot faster than waiting for the elevator.

Taking two steps at the time, Rachel climbed the stairs, quickly realizing she was hopelessly out of shape.

“Back to the treadmill, Kendrick,” she mumbled, feeling the muscles in her calf protest against the sudden strain. “I’m getting too old for this.”

Involuntarily, Rachel smiled. If Hannah could hear her now, she would be laughing at her. Her eyes would display a twinkle that had attracted Rachel from the first time she saw her. The sight of it still made her heart miss a beat, Rachel realized.

“Great, halfway,” she muttered after a little while, trying not to pant.

Just as she was about to start a new flight of stairs, Rachel’s ears picked up a sound that seemed too loud in the quiet staircase. Standing still, she cocked her head and listened intently. For a brief moment, Rachel thought she had imagined the sounds. But just as she was about to put her foot on the first step, she heard it again. It came from below her, a muffled sound, like somebody speaking with a hand over their mouth and the sound of scuffling feet. With a small frown, Rachel leaned over the railing and looked down, wondering if she could see something. While she peered down, she suddenly saw two pairs of shoes; a pair of shiny dress-shoes and a pair of tennis shoes. The latter pair looked vaguely familiar, but it was only when Rachel’s eyes noticed the color of the scrub pants she realized who was making their way towards the basement. Her heart stood still and for a brief moment she felt like she would pass out from sheer agony.

“Hannah,” she whispered.

Quickly grabbing her cell phone from her pocket she flipped it open, only to realize that in the concrete encased stairwell she did not have a signal.

“Damn.”

Without thinking twice, Rachel turned around and started her descent. She tried to keep the noise level down, hoping she could catch up with the blonde. She knew for certain that the owner of the shiny dress-shoes was her cousin, Nathan, and that thought made her blood boil.

“A security guard doing rounds would be nice right now,” she thought, hoping somebody, anybody, would enter the staircase, something she knew would not be very likely. It was a fact that most people took the elevator.

Rachel had to force herself notto call out Hannah’s name. She knew that, eventually, Nathan would hear her coming after them, but she would try and postpone that moment as long as she could, in the meantime frantically trying to come up with a plan.

“Please, let me be able to get her away from him,” she thought, fighting the urge to scream in frustration. “Please, please, please.”

Apparently, Hannah was putting up a fight, because Rachel could hear Nathan curse and inwardly she cheered.

“That’s my girl. Don’t give up, Hannah, I’m on my way.”

Rachel was catching up on them, but she knew they would probably reach the basement before she would. Increasing her speed, she threw all caution in the wind and bolted down the stairs, hoping to catch Nathan before he took Hannah into the belly of the hospital; a maze of scarcely lit hallways and rooms.

“What the hell?” she heard Nathan’s voice, full of surprise and annoyance. “Who is there?”

Rachel did not answer, knowing she was only one more flight of stairs away from him and Hannah. She kept up her speed and groaned when she heard a door being opened.

“I…am…not…going…in…there,” she heard Hannah’s voice, full of anger and fear. “Let me go, Nathan.”

There was the sound of a slap and a muffled sob. With rage coursing through her veins, Rachel rounded the last corner, ran halfway down the stairs and before Nathan knew what was happening, she had launched herself through the air, straight at him. Their bodies impacted with a thud and the momentum threw Nathan backwards where he collided with a solid steel door, while Rachel fell sideways, hitting the wall.

“You freaking bitch,” he spat, feeling the pain shoot through his arm and shoulder.

Rachel’s reckless attack had made him drop the knife he had been holding and, with a murderous look, he glared at the Doctor, who had pulled Hannah away from him and was standing between him and the blonde. Nathan’s knife was lying at Rachel’s feet, taunting him. He knew he would not be able to get to it. Not with Rachel standing over it. Nathan was about the same height as his cousin and even though he probably could take her down, he knew that with Hannah there, he would not stand a chance.

A pair of light-brown eyes shone with hate when they looked at Rachel, who answered his glare without blinking. The Doctor’s skin was flushed and she was panting, but her eyes showed so much anger, Nathan knew his opportunity was lost.

“The next round will be mine,” he snarled, before quickly opening the door of the basement and disappearing out of sight.

Even though Rachel would have loved to hand her cousin over to the police, she did not want to follow him into the basement and leave Hannah by herself. The blonde was leaning against the wall, staring at Rachel with a mixture of disbelief, joy and anxiety. Her face was pale and sported a fiery red mark where Nathan had hit her and to Rachel’s horror and fury, she noticed the blonde’s hands were tied.

“Oh, honey,” she breathed, stepping towards Hannah and pulling her into a warm embrace.

“Rachel,” Hannah whispered with a sob. “Please untie me”

“Yes, sweetie, of course, just a second,” Rachel answered, swallowing hard. Reluctantly, she let go of the blonde and bent down to pick up the knife Nathan had dropped. Carefully not to hurt Hannah, she slit the rope that bound the blonde’s hands together. Even before the rope had hit the floor, Hannah had thrown herself into Rachel’s arms, softly crying. The Doctor pressed her face in the blonde’s hair and held her close, while realization slowly set in; Hannah was safely in her arms. Nathan had not succeeded in taking her away.

“We need to go back upstairs and call Jack Wilson,” Hannah whispered after a few quiet moments.

“Yes, we do,” Rachel agreed, wishing she did not had to let go of the woman in her arms. “Are you up to it? Walking up, I mean?”

“Are you going to carry me if I’m not?” Hannah asked with a tired smile.

“Yes,” Rachel nodded.

“You would too, wouldn’t you?” Hannah sighed, grabbing Rachel’s hand and pressing it against her heart. “But I can walk, honey, I promise. Let’s go.”

In unspoken agreement to postpone talking about what had happened until they had called the police, both women slowly climbed the stairs to the ground floor. Hannah knew there was a public telephone just around the corner and she silently led the way. The noise in the lobby contrasted starkly with the silence in the stairwell and Rachel felt like she had just entered a totally different world.

“What was his number again?” Hannah asked softly.

“Here, let me,” Rachel answered, taking the telephone from Hannah and quickly dialing the number from memory. She could have tried to call with her cell phone, but she did not want to run the risk of dropping the call, something that was not unlikely while calling from inside the hospital.

As soon as Jack Wilson answered the phone, Rachel quickly told him what had happened and promised to wait in the hospital to give him a detailed story.

“You’ll find us in the cafeteria,” she promised, looking up when Hannah pulled her arm and shook her head. “Not the cafeteria?” she asked.

“My floor,” Hannah answered, needing to go back up and check up on Abel Jacobs. “He hurt one of my patients.”

Rachel repeated what Hannah had told her and promised Jack Wilson not to leave the hospital until he had spoken to them.

“What happened?” she asked the blonde, who was already on her way to the elevator.

“I’m not sure,” Hannah answered, “He was..Nathan was waiting for me in the room of one of my patients and…I…there was blood on the floor and…”

“I don’t understand why nobody has checked up on you yet,” Rachel frowned. “I mean, how long do you have to be in a patient’s room, before you get any help?”

“Welcome to the world of nursing,” Hannah replied with a wry smile. “We’re all very busy, ho…Rachel,” she corrected herself, realizing they weren’t alone. “Besides, this one patient usually takes a lot of time to help. He’s been very sick. It’s not unusual for me to be in his room for thirty minutes or more.”

Rachel cast a look at her watch and to her amazement she saw that only forty minutes had passed since her phone call with Hannah. It felt like it had been so much longer!

“Wow,” she muttered, following Hannah into the elevator.

A few minutes later, they entered the floor where Hannah worked and as soon as they rounded the corner, they were met by the sight of frantic activity. People were walking in and out of Abel Jacob’s room and two security guards were apparently checking each and every door.

“I guess they’re looking for you,” Rachel remarked in a tired voice.

“Seems that way,” Hannah mumbled, hoping Nathan had not seriously hurt Abel Jacobs.

“Hannah! Hannah’s here,” Jada’s voice sounded and for a moment all activity ceased. The security guards were the first ones to recover from the surprise and immediately headed for the blonde, who let out a sigh and stepped away from Rachel’s comforting presence. She knew if she would have stayed where she was, the temptation to bury herself in Rachel’s arms would be too great to resist and the last thing she wanted was to make a spectacle of herself and the Doctor.

“Hannah, are you alright?” Yolanda’s worried voice sounded and when the blonde looked up it was in a pair of dark, anxious eyes.

“I am now,” she sighed.

“Was he here?” Yolanda asked sharply, muttering a curse when the nurse nodded. “Did he hurt you?”

“No, not really,” Hannah answered. “Just some pushing, shoving and slapping.”

And a vicious blow against my ribs. I’m sure that’s a nice looking bruise.

“How is Abel Jacobs?” she asked in a small voice, feeling sick to her stomach when she realized Nathan could easily have killed the sweet, old man.

“He’s got a nasty cut on his head, but other than that he seems to be fine. They’re on their way to take him to get a CT scan done. Just to make sure his head is alright.” Yolanda let out a frustrated sigh and rolled her eyes. “Administration is already up my butt. This is every hospital’s nightmare; a patient being attacked in his hospital room. I think in the last five minutes, I’ve heard the word ‘lawsuit’ at least ten times.”

“I’m sorry,” Hannah whispered, immediately feeling Rachel’s hand descend on her shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze.

“Don’t be sorry, Hannah,” Yolanda responded. “This is not your fault. You’re as much a victim as Abel Jacobs. How did you get away from him?” she added with barely veiled curiosity.

“Somehow, Rachel came to the rescue. She came flying down the stairs and almost knocked Nathan senseless,” Hannah answered with so much love and pride in her voice, Yolanda smiled. Yup, there was definitely something between the Doctor and the nurse. How romantic!

“Ma’am, are you alright?” a serious looking security guard asked Hannah, frowning when he saw the angry, red mark on her cheek. When the blonde nodded he pursed his lips and grabbed his walkie-talkie. “Where is he?”

“He ran into the basement,” Rachel answered. “The police are on their way.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” the security guard nodded. “I advise you to stay here, until we have a chance to talk to you later.”

“Sure, we will,” Rachel sighed. “Get in line,” she added under her breath.

“Thank you,” the guard nodded, before running towards the elevator, with his companion right behind him.

“Okay, you two, get into the office here, I’ll bring you something to drink. Tea, coffee?” Yolanda suggested, pointing towards an office room, that was being used for staff-meetings and more private conversations with patients and their families.

“I need a strong cup of coffee,” Hannah sighed, raking her hand through her hair, trying not to wince when she felt a lump where Nathan had hit her with the hilt of his knife.

“Same for me,” Rachel nodded. “Thank you.”

They quietly entered the small room and, as soon as Rachel had closed the door behind her, she found her arms full of trembling blonde.

“Do you want to sit down?” she asked softly, pulling Hannah closer and gently rubbing her back in soothing circles.

“No, I want you to hold me,” was the muffled answer.

“That I can do,” Rachel smiled, dropping a kiss on Hannah’s head. “For as long as you’d like,” she added in a whisper.

“Which will be for as long as we’re not disturbed, which won’t be that long,” Hannah sighed with regret. “How did you know where I was?”

“I didn’t,” Rachel confessed. “I was tired of waiting for the elevator and decided to take the stairs. As I was going up, I heard this sound and when I looked over the railing, I recognized your shoes and scrubs. I just knew it was you. Like I knew the other shoes I saw belonged to Nathan.” Rachel pressed her lips against Hannah’s forehead and held her even closer, knowing too well how lucky they had been. “I got my phone out to call for help, but I didn’t have a signal. That’s when I decided to come after you myself.”

“My hero,” Hannah smiled against Rachel’s shoulder.

“How did he get to you?” Rachel asked, wondering how Nathan could have entered Hannah’s floor without being seen.

“There was a call from Abel Jacobs’ room and when I went in there, he wasn’t in his bed. I thought that was odd, because he’s not well enough to go to the bathroom by himself. I knocked on the door and didn’t get an answer, so I went in and found him sitting on the stool. He looked like he was unconscious and when I looked closer, I saw blood on the floor.” Hannah swallowed hard and remembered that moment as if it had just happened. She had been so afraid the old man had died. “I wanted to call for assistance, but before I could pull the cord, Nathan was there to stop me. He had a knife and threatened to…to…stab Abel if I didn’t come with him, I…had no choice, so I did. He walked behind me when we left the room and held the knife against my back. Abel’s room is at the back and the staircase is right next to it. That’s how he could take me off the floor without anybody noticing it. As soon as we were in the staircase, he tied my hands and made me walk down. At first I refused, but he kept hitting me and he said he’d push me down if I refused to walk. I believed him,” Hannah added slowly. “I was trying to stall as much as I could, because I hoped somebody would take the stairs and run into us.” Hannah let out a humorless laugh and looked up at Rachel. “I guess most people take the elevator. Except you.”

“I would have, if I hadn’t been in such a hurry to get to you,” Rachel confessed. “But I’m glad I took the stairs.”

“So am I,” Hannah smiled, letting her hands slip behind Rachel’s neck, so she could pull the other woman’s face closer. “Kiss me,” she whispered.

Even though Rachel knew they were in a room where other people could enter at any time, she gladly obeyed and lowered her head to capture Hannah’s lips in a slow and tender kiss. Hannah’s body molded against her own and she soaked up the warmth and comfort the blonde’s closeness provided. Only ten minutes ago, she had feared for the safety of the woman in her arms and she could not express how grateful she was to have pulled her out of Nathan’s clutches. Not in words.

“Like that?” she gently asked when they finally broke apart.

“Like that,” Hannah smiled, cupping Rachel’s cheeks and kissing the tip of her nose. “I love you.”

“I love you, too,” Rachel answered softly.

There was a modest knock on the door and reluctantly they released each other. Hannah immediately felt cold and she wished she could crawl back into Rachel’s arms. And stay there for a very long time. Instead, she walked towards one of the uncomfortable looking chairs and sat down, while Rachel opened the door to let in Yolanda, who was carrying two cups of coffee.

“Oh, real coffee,” Rachel’s eyes lit up at the sight of the familiar green logo that was printed on the cream colored cup. “Did you get this at the gift shop?”

“That’s the only place around here where they sell Starbucks,” Yolanda chuckled. “That’s why it took me so long. I’m sorry about that.”

“I…um…that’s okay,” Hannah mumbled. “I appreciate the gesture.”

“You’re welcome,” Yolanda smiled. “Even though I have the distinct feeling you two have not really missed me.”

The supervisor laughed when Hannah blushed and Rachel cast an uncomfortable look at her shoes.

“I’m just teasing, girls, I’m sorry. What’s going on between you two is none of my business, really. Although, I must say, it’s very obvious.”

Hannah looked up and when her eyes met Rachel’s she suppressed a grin because the expression on the Doctor’s face was one of surprised shock. A small frown appeared in Rachel’s forehead when she noticed the twinkle in Hannah’s eyes, but then she visibly relaxed and let out an amused chuckle.

“Very obvious even, huh?” she said with a wry smile.

Yolanda nodded and smiled at the dark-haired woman.

“Don’t worry about it. As long as you’re not caught in any compromising situation, nobody can say anything about it. And that same rule applies to everybody else,” she added in emphasis. “So, no kissing in the hallway,” she winked.

“Of course not,” Rachel responded, while Hanna mumbled: ‘I’ll try not to.”

“Why don’t you take a seat and try to relax, Doctor Kendrick,” Yolanda continued. “The two of you are quite safe here, because there’s a security guard posted outside the door. Courtesy of one Jack Wilson, who also told me to let you know that, at this time, Maureen Rivers is on her way.”

Yolanda disappeared, closing the door behind her, leaving Hannah and Rachel staring at each other with worried eyes.

“What now?” the blonde finally asked.

“I’ve no idea,” Rachel answered with a sigh. “But I know I’ll be calling Melissa right now. I’ve no idea if that lunatic knows about Nicky or not, but I don’t want to take any chances.”

#

It was hours later when Rachel silently steered her car through the busy downtown traffic, carefully keeping an eye on her speedometer.

“Honey, they’re not going to give you a speeding ticket, believe me,” Hannah dryly replied from the passenger seat.

“I’m not so sure about that,” Rachel answered, glancing in the rearview mirror. “Did you see that guy? He looked like he would arrest his own grandmother for jaywalking.”

“He’s here to protect us,” Hannah chuckled, amused by Rachel’s grumpiness. She reached out and put her hand on the Doctor’s thigh, giving it a loving pat.

“I bet Nathan is miles away from here, coward that he is,” Rachel muttered. “I just wish I could have grabbed his scrawny ass and handed him over to the police.”

“Scrawny ass?” Hannah mouthed, suppressing a nervous laugh. She was tired and, deep down inside, she was also scared. She had experienced first hand what Nathan was capable of and the intensity of his anger and hatred had rocked her to the core.

Once she had heard the entire story, Rachel had been beyond anger. While Hannah had been talking to Maureen Rivers, and later also to Jack Wilson, Rachel had jumped up and paced the room, trying to find a way to channel her anger and nervous energy. They had expected Nathan to return, but not so soon and certainly not so furiously. After thinking back about all that had happened, she had come to realize that Nathan could have easily hurt Hannah, or even worse. It was hard to accept the fact that Hannah had been kidnapped from her workplace and for the first twenty minutes no one had noticed. Not even Rachel herself.

“Rachel, honey?” Hannah’s soft voice penetrated her dark thoughts and startled, the Doctor glanced aside.

“Do you want me to drive?” the blonde asked with concern. “You’re obviously not yourself.”

“No, I’m fine, thanks,” Rachel sighed. “I was just thinking.”

“Are you sure that was it? It looked to me like you were beating yourself up. Nothing that has happened is your fault, believe me.”

“I put your life in danger,” Rachel mumbled.

“No,” Hannah forcefully answered. “That wasn’t you, that was Nathan.”

There was a loaded silence and even though Rachel was concentrating on the road ahead, she could almost feel Hannah’s scrutinizing gaze.

“Say it,” the blonde encouraged.

“Say what?” the Doctor asked, shooting a quick glance aside.

“What you’re thinking. Come on, Rachel, out with it.”

The Doctor bit her lip, willing it not to tremble, while she tried to swallow away the lump in her throat. She knew she was tired and her thoughts were irrational, but that did not change the way she felt.

“Okay, if you’re not going to say it, I will,” Hannah sighed. “You think all of this is your fault because you came back. That’s it, isn’t it?”

“It’s true,” Rachel almost whispered. “If I hadn’t come back, he would have left you alone. All the time I was away, he didn’t bother you and as soon as I show up, wham, there’s mister ‘If-I-can’t-have-her,-you-can’t-either’.”

“He’s a lunatic, Rachel, a complete nutcase. I don’t know what happened to him those last few years, but he’s absolutely crazy. And we know he’ll be back, but next time, we’ll be ready for him. We will win this battle, you and I. You need to believe that.”

“I’ll never forgive myself if something happens to you,” Rachel spoke, feeling a tear slide down her cheek. “Or Nicky.”

“Then we’ll need to stay together, the three of us. We need to do what Jack and Maureen want us to do; disappear for a little while and make Nathan panic. They believe that will smoke him out. Sooner or later, he’ll make a mistake.” Hannah paused and took a deep breath. “Unless you want to leave again,” she added.

The words had been a mere whisper, but to Rachel it felt like they had been shouted out aloud. They affected her like a physical blow and, immediately after their meaning had sank in, she felt sick to her stomach. Hannah’s whispered words had been full of pain and agony and they had touched the deepest part of Rachel’s soul.

“No,” she answered in a voice that was hoarse with emotion. “I won’t. I’ll never leave you again. Ever.”

Rachel’s hand covered Hannah’s that was still lying on her thigh and she let their fingers intertwine. When she had a solid grip on them, she brought their hands up and kissed the back of Hannah’s hand.

“I’ll never leave you again,” she whispered, squeezing the blonde’s hand when she heard her sob. “Were you afraid I was going to?”

“For a few moments, I wasn’t sure what to think,” Hannah confessed, wiping her eyes with the sleeve of her coat. “You seemed to be in a very dark place and that scared me.”

“I’m sorry, honey,” Rachel replied, her voice full of remorse. “I was trying to come to terms with all the stuff that has happened today and how…” she swallowed hard. “How easy I could have lost you. I wouldn’t know…” Rachel’s voice wavered. “I wouldn’t know how to live without you again. I don’t think I could.”

“Then let’s make sure neither of us will have to find out,” Hannah decided in a voice that was soft, but determined. “Let’s do what the police tells us to do and make sure we’ll get rid of Nathan. Once and for all.”

#

“You’re going where?”

“I can’t tell you, Gary, so please, don’t ask me. It’s not that I don’t trust you, you know that, it’s just that…”

“I know, I know,” Gary sighed, leaning back in his chair and nibbling his bottom lip. “Somebody else might find out. Somebody whom I’d love to get my hands on.”

“Get in line,” Rachel mumbled, able to follow the conversation because Hannah had put the speaker phone on.

“Yes, of course, Rachel would beat me to it, but hey, if you’d leave a piece for me, I’ll finish him off, Doc,” Gary suggested in a grim voice.

“Enough with the bloodthirsty stuff,” Hannah decided with a sigh. “I just wanted you to know we won’t be able to make it to your Christmas party. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be, sweetie. We’ll postpone the party until you’re back. I don’t care when that will be. Will you and Rachel…no, don’t tell me, I don’t want to know. The less I know, the safer you are.”

“That’s the plan,” Hannah agreed, watching Rachel carefully fold some shirts and put them in her suitcase. Nicky was sitting in the middle of the bed, chewing on a piece of bread, while Gertrude brought in a paper sack that suspiciously smelled like freshly baked brownies.

“I’ve got to go, Gary. Say ‘hi’ to Jake for me, alright? Hopefully, we’ll be back soon,” Hannah spoke with an audible quiver in her voice. “I’ll miss you.”

They could hear Gary take a deep breath and clear his throat before he spoke again. His voice was soft and husky.

“I’ll miss you too, Hannah. Please take care of yourself. Hey, Doc!”

“Yes?” Rachel answered, stepping closer to Hannah and wrapping her arms around her.

“Look after my girl, okay? She’s the closest thing to a sister I’ve got.”

“Don’t worry, Gary. I’ll keep an eye on her twenty-four hours a day. I promise.”

There was a muffled sniff and a soft cough. Hannah knew Gary was on the verge of tears, which made it so much harder for her not to cry.

“Okay, Doc, I’m gonna hold you to that.”

“You may,” Rachel promised, tenderly wiping a tear from Hannah’s cheek.

“Bye, Gary,” the blonde said in a choked voice.

“Bye, sweetie. I love you.”

“I love you, too,” Hannah answered.

There was a soft click and then the connection was broken. Hannah slowly put down the phone, taking a deep breath and fighting the urge to throw herself on the bed and cry. There was no time for that. Besides, if everything went according to plan, they would be back soon.

“Are you alright?” Rachel’s soft voice sounded close to her ear and Hannah shook her head.

“No, not really,” she sighed, feeling herself being pulled into a warm hug.

“If all goes well, we’ll be back before we know it,” Rachel spoke gently. “We need to have faith in Jack and Maureen. I’m sure they know what they’re doing.”

“They’d better,” Hannah sniffed, rubbing her cheek against Rachel’s shoulder. “But, no matter what, we’ll be together, you, Nicky and me. That’s all that matters.”

“That’s the spirit,” Rachel responded with a smile that brought a dimple in her cheek. Hannah could not resist the urge to kiss it and, while she pressed her lips against the soft skin, she could hear her grandmother clear her throat.

“I hate to be a party-pooper, but you two need to finish packing,” she urged. “Maureen will be here in ten minutes and you know how cops are…”

“Actually, I don’t,” Hannah answered, slowly untangling herself from Rachel’s arms. There was a twinkle in her eyes that made Rachel smile.

“They could arrest you for obstructing…something,” Gertrude dead-panned, chuckling when Rachel started laughing. “That’s it, Rachel. We all need to see the positive side of this whole situation. The three of you get to spend a lot of time together. It will be like a vacation.” Gertrude saw Hannah take a deep breath, but she raised her hand and continued:” I know, it will be a vacation with police protection, which is something most people will never experience, but still, I’m sure there will be a lot of time to…um…get reacquainted,” she added with a wink.

“With the police just outside the door?” Hannah snorted. “I don’t think so.”

The blonde glanced aside when she heard Rachel let out a deep sigh. The expression on the Doctor’s face surprised her.

“Is that a pout?” she asked with a small smile.

“It might be,” Rachel answered with a sigh. “I was looking forward to a lot of snuggling time, but if you’re not interested, I…”

Hannah grinned when she noticed the twinkle in the Doctor’s eyes and she leaned over to give Rachel a quick kiss.

“I guess we’ll make the best of it…somehow,” she promised with a wink. She brought her mouth closer to the Doctor’s ear. “And I am very interested,” she spoke, grinning when she heard the small, but sharp intake of breath.

“Are you girls ready to go?” Gertrude asked, taking a seat next to Nicky and smoothing back the toddler’s soft, dark hair. The little girl smiled at her with trusting, dark eyes and immediately Gertrude felt a lump in her throat.

Please, keep them safe. They are so precious to me…

” We’re ready,” Hannah softly replied, walking to her Grandmother and enveloping the older woman in a heartfelt hug. “I’m going to miss you, Granny.”

“I’ll miss you too, baby. But I know you all will be safe and that matters the most to me. Is everything taken care of?”

Although Hannah had not even told her Grandmother where they would be going, she knew Gertrude had a pretty good idea what their destination would be.

“Everything is ready,” she nodded.

“Just to reassure this old woman, tell me, do you have means to defend yourselves?” Gertrude softly asked, sending Hannah a watery smile when the blonde nodded.

“Yes, but I just hope I won’t have to use it.”

“I hope that too, but…just be prepared,” Gertrude advised with a sigh.

“I will be, Granny, I promise,” Hannah whispered, slowly letting go of her grandmother and immediately feeling the comfort of Rachel’s hand against her back.

“We’ll be back the minute all of this is over,” the blonde promised through her tears.

“I know you will,” Gertrude nodded. “I’ll have the brownies ready.”

” I love you, Granny,” Hannah said, kissing her Grandmother’s cheek.

“I love you, too. I love all three of you,” Gertrude answered. “Now, go, before you turn this old woman in a sobbing puddle. And police protection or not, keep your eyes open and trust your instincts.”

“We will,” Rachel promised, bending down to kiss the older woman. “Say ‘bye, Granny’,” she encouraged Nicky.

“Bye, Gwanny,” Nicky obediently repeated, lifting her arms to her mother, who picked her up and held her close.

“Ma’am, Doctor,” a young man with a crew-cut spoke, sticking his head around the door. “Your ride is here.”

“Okay, let’s go,” Hannah responded with a quivering voice. She picked up her suitcase and her eyes met Gertrude’s.

“Be strong,” the elderly woman encouraged and Hannah nodded, aware of the tears that were streaming down her face. They followed the police man out of the room and the last thing Gertrude heard was Nicky’s voice calling out.

“Bye, Gwanny.”

“Bye, sweetpea,” Gertrude whispered, finally giving in to the tears she had managed to blink away for such a long time. Grabbing a pillow from Hannah’s bed, she pressed it against her chest and buried her face in the smooth, soft cotton. Her heart cried out in pain, while the tears were rolling down her cheeks, creating a slowly growing patch of wetness on the pillow in her arms.

#

Under the cover of darkness, Hannah, Rachel and Nicky were loaded into a white van with blue lettering on the sides. Making sure to keep their heads down, they were transported to a nearby company whose owner had been so kind to lend the police one of his vans. The car was driven into one of the garages, where the passengers were loaded in a waiting Ford Expedition. Not even two minutes after arriving, they were on the way again, followed by a similar looking car that took a left turn when their driver took a right one. It was only after having driven another ten miles that the person on the passenger side turned around and sent them a small smile.

“It’s okay to sit up now,” Maureen Rivers encouraged. “We’re not being followed.”

“Good,” Rachel groaned, rubbing her stiff and painful neck. “Are you doing okay?” she asked the blonde, who quietly straightened in her seat.

“I’m alright,” Hannah sighed. “How is Nicky doing?”

“Sleeping like a baby,” Rachel smiled, casting a glance at her daughter who was asleep in her car seat.

“I’m jealous,” Hannah mumbled. “It will be hours before we can get comfortable enough to stretch out and have a good sleep.”

“I’m sorry, baby,” Rachel quietly answered.

“Don’t worry about it,” Hannah answered, already regretting her complaint. “I’m sure I’ll live. Besides, we’ll have plenty of time to sleep once we reach our destination.”

“Not with this energetic little bundle around,” Rachel warned, but there was a smile in her voice.

“I guess we’ll have to think of things to wear her out then,” Hannah chuckled. “I need some serious sleep.”

“We can always ask Maureen to babysit,” Rachel suggested in a teasing voice.

The tall redhead in the front softly snorted and half-turned to look at the Doctor.

“I hate to say this, Doc, but I’m not very good with kids.”

“Sounds like she needs the practice,” the driver remarked and both Rachel and Hannah laughed.

“Oh, ladies, I’m sorry, I forgot my manners,” Maureen Rivers spoke. “Our driver, who is also my partner during this case, is Special Agent Lauren DarkWolf. She can be a total pain in the butt, but I trust her with my life.”

“That’s good enough for me,” Rachel answered. “Nice to meet you SpecialAgent DarkWolf.”

“Oh, my goodness, please, call me Lauren,” was the immediate answer and Maureen Rivers grinned. “The rest is too long.”

“Do you know Nathan, Lauren?” Hannah asked.

“Yes, as a matter of fact I do,” was the calm answer. “He and I go back a long time and believe me, nobody wants to nail his butt more than I do .”

Part 12

Slowly, the car made its way down the winding road. There was no illumination at all, save the bright headlights of the vehicle that lit up the dense foliage at the side of the road, giving the trees a grayish tint. Every now and then a small animal was courageous enough to cross the road, staring at the approaching SUV with eyes that lit up brightly, once hit by the light. Lauren DarkWolf made sure to avoid the possums and raccoons, cautiously using the brakes, or steering around them. They had not seen another car ever since they had left the highway and Rachel could not help wondering where they finally would end up. Hannah knew, but she had been reluctant to ask, almost feeling paranoid about being overheard. She had decided to try and relax and see where the journey would lead them. As long as they were together, that was the main thing.

Hannah cast a look aside and watched Rachel’s profile in the light the instruments on the dashboard provided. The Doctor was leaning back against the headrest and was staring outside the window, her head half-turned. Every now and then she blinked her eyes, the only movement she displayed, except for her regular, deep breathing that made her chest rise and fall in a comforting rhythm. Her quiet presence gave Hannah a sense of peace and involuntarily the blonde smiled. Even though they were on the run from Nathan, she would do her utmost to enjoy the time she would spend with Rachel and Nicky.

“Hey,” she spoke softly, reaching over Nicky, who was still asleep in her car seat. She grabbed Rachel’s hand and gave it a gentle squeeze.

“Hey,” the Doctor smiled back, folding her hand around Hannah’s. “I thought you were asleep.”

“No, I tried to doze off,” Hannah confessed. “But it’s hard to sleep.”

“I’m sure we’ll arrive soon, wherever it is we’re going to,” Rachel remarked with a touch of humor in her voice.

“Yes, in about ten minutes, I think,” Hannah nodded.

Rachel’s thumb caressed the skin of Hannah’s hand, the only close contact they could afford with Nicky in between them. The desire to pull Hannah into her arms and hold her close was almost painful and she let out a small sigh. Ten minutes. After having been apart for almost four years, ten minutes should not pose a problem, should it?

“It won’t be long now, honey,” Hannah’s voice sounded and Rachel shot the blonde an amused look. How did she do that? It was as if Hannah had been reading her mind.

“I’ll hold you to it,” she smiled, squeezing the warm hand that was still resting in her own.

“Yes, Hannah, so will I,” a tired voice sounded from the front of the car and when Hannah looked up, she noticed Maureen Rivers had half-turned. “I’m so tired I could sleep standing up.”

“We’re almost there,” Lauren DarkWolf spoke up. “Two more winding turns and a narrow path to the left.”

“Don’t tell me you have the whole route memorized,” Maureen remarked in amazement.

“Would that give me brownie points?” Lauren replied with a chuckle.

“Probably,” the red-haired police woman sighed.

” To be honest, I grew up around here. I think I know every tree and rock. That’s what got me this assignment,” Lauren explained.

That, and a little persuasion…

“Hannah knows where we are,” Lauren continued, casting a look in the rearview mirror.

“My parents had a cabin here,” the blonde softly explained. “I haven’t been here in years ,” she added with a hint of pain in her voice.

“I knew about the cabin, but somehow I’ve never made it there” Rachel sighed.

“Neither did I, not in the last few years. After you…after you left, Dad encouraged me to come here and relax. But that was so hard to do, I tried, but…” Hannah shrugged her shoulders and shot Rachel a small smile.

“Have you…when’s the last time you were here?” Rachel asked.

“I’ve only been here once after they died. It was too…confronting, too painful and way too lonely for me. I couldn’t stand it,” Hannah answered. “Not much relaxing, huh?” she added with a wry smile.

“Not really,” Rachel nodded. “Will you be okay? I mean, I’m sure it won’t be easy to go back to the cabin if you…”

“I’ll be fine, Rachel,” Hannah interrupted. “You’re here.”

Lauren steered the SUV into a small path and, even though she was going very slowly, she could not avoid the car being rocked by the potholes created by rain and neglect.

“Sorry, Ladies,” Lauren mumbled, casting an apologetic look at Maureen Rivers who muttered a curse when her head collided with the side of the door.

“No problem,” the red-haired police woman answered, rubbing the tender spot on her head. “It’s not like there’s much to be damaged up there anyway.”

“That’s true,” Lauren dryly replied, making Rachel and Hannah chuckle. “Alright, Ladies, we’re about to reach our destination. Keep your seatbelts fastened until the vehicle has come to a full stop. Thank you for…traveling…DarkWolf freight company. Hopefully, you’ll be using my services to return to Oklahoma City in the very near future. Until then, I hope you’ll enjoy your stay here.”

“Thanks…Captain,” Maureen snorted, opening the door as soon as Lauren stopped the car. “Make sure to get all the bags out of the back.”

“Oh, ouch,” Lauren laughed, pressing her hand against her heart. “That’s cold, Agent Rivers.”

The dark haired agent opened the door and stepped out, unfolding her tall frame. Rachel and Hannah exchanged an amused look and the blonde chuckled.

“I guess I understand why Maureen said that. She looks pretty tall and strong.”

“Six foot four, two hundred and ten pounds,” Lauren grinned, opening the door for Hannah to let her out of the vehicle.

“Wow, what did your mother feed you?” Rachel teased.

“Mainly milk, cornbread and beans,” Lauren answered with a relaxed laugh.

“Remind me never to pick a fight with you,” Hannah mumbled, accepting Lauren’s outstretched hand to help her out of the car.

“Don’t worry, Hannah, she’s all bark and no bite. She’ll only beat you up if you’re a bad guy,” Maureen Rivers chimed in, opening the backdoor of the SUV and starting to unload some items.

Hannah sent the tall policewoman a smile and chuckled when she saw her roll her eyes.

In the meantime, Rachel had unstrapped Nicky from her car seat and cautiously exited the SUV with the sleeping toddler in her arms. Her eyes traveled to the cabin and even though it was dark, the outline of the structure gave her the impression the building was not as small as she had expected it to be.

“How many bedrooms does this cabin have?” she asked Hannah, who had walked up to her and had wrapped an arm around her waist.

“Four and two bathrooms,” the blonde answered, suppressing a sigh.

Rachel let out a soft whistle and half-turned to cast a look at the other woman. Even the darkness could not conceal the look of sadness on the blonde’s face and Rachel shifted Nicky to her other arm, so she could wrap an arm around Hannah’s shoulder and pull her in for a hug.

“They had planned to move here permanently, after Dad’s retirement,” Hannah explained in a soft voice. “It’s a real nice cabin. Come on, let’s go inside.”

Hannah was about to step away from Rachel, but the arm around her shoulders tightened when Rachel pulled her back.

“Will you be alright?”

Hannah nodded and rested her head against Rachel’s shoulder, soaking up the warmth and affection the other woman so freely offered.

“I’ll be okay,” she softly answered, briefly pressing her lips against Rachel’s cheek. The skin felt cold to the touch and Hannah frowned.

“Let’s go inside. It’s way too cold out here.”

The two police officers had already climbed the three steps to the screened-in porch and Lauren was opening the cabin door, stepping inside while carrying four bags. Maureen Rivers followed her with another three bags and a few seconds later the lights were switched on.

Following Hannah, Rachel cradled Nicky in her arms, letting out a grateful sigh when she entered the cabin. To her surprise, the cabin smelled like wood polish and beeswax. It was obvious it had been recently cleaned and somebody had turned on the heater as well, because the temperature was wonderfully warm.

“Someone knew we were coming,” she remarked, amazed by the speed in which things had been organized.

“The Merry Maids,” Lauren smiled. “My brother’s a locksmith and I asked him to open the door this afternoon. The Maids have done the rest.”

“Great job,” Hannah mumbled. “Thanks, Lauren.”

“Don’t thank me, thank Agent Rivers. It was her idea.”

“No big deal,” Maureen waved away the compliment. “It was just a phone call.”

“I appreciate it just the same,” Hannah mumbled. She opened the door to the Master bedroom and let out a soft laugh when she noticed the neatly made bed and the smaller crib in the corner.

“I didn’t know the Merry Maids carried around and installed toddler beds.”

“Uh…they don’t,” Lauren replied with a shrug of her shoulders. “I…kinda mentioned Nicky to my brother, who has four kids and he promised to bring something appropriate for the little one to sleep in. I guess he did, huh?”

“He sure did,” Rachel chuckled, stepping into the bedroom, so she could put Nicky to bed. As soon as she had put the little girl down, she shrugged off her coat and quickly undressed the sleeping toddler.

“I’ll go find her some pajama’s,” Hannah whispered, but Rachel shook her head.

“Don’t worry about it, honey. She’ll be warm enough in her t-shirt. We can sort out all that stuff in the morning.”

“Are you sure? I don’t mind …”

“I’m sure,” Rachel interrupted with a smile, turning to the blonde and pulling her into her arms in an unexpected hug. “But thanks for the offer.”

“Don’t mention it,” Hannah sighed, wrapping her arms around the Doctor’s waist and burying her face in the crook of her neck. ” I’m too tired to think.”

“Then we should get you to bed as soon as possible,” Rachel responded, kissing the top of the blonde’s head.

“Sounds like a plan,” Hannah nodded. “What time is it?”

“Almost two,” Rachel answered, chuckling when Hannah groaned.

“No wonder I feel like I’ve been mangled.” Hannah gave Rachel a quick kiss and reluctantly freed herself from the warm arms. “Let’s give Maureen and Lauren a quick tour and then hit the hay. I’m exhausted.”

#

The sky was dirty gray, heavy with moisture that blocked the sun’s rays. The wind was thin and icy cold, rustling the dead leaves on the forest floor, every now and then stirring them in an upward spiral, before scattering them again.

A pair of solid brown eyes quietly took in the environment, finding landmarks and setting invisible parameters, filing away the different sights and sounds for future reference. It was Lauren DarkWolf’s assignment to keep Hannah Jensen and Rachel Kendrick safe and she took her job very seriously. Even though she had only been able to enjoy a few hours of sleep, as soon as daylight had peeked over the horizon, she had left the cabin to scout the area.

With a contented nod, the Agent turned around and strolled back towards the log cabin, very aware of a pair of eyes that followed her every move. She tried not to grin when she entered the porch, carefully closing the door behind her. Turning around, her eyes lazily swept the tree line again, before she turned and stepped inside the cabin.

“Do you want some coffee?” Maureen Rivers greeted her quietly when she shrugged off her coat and rubbed her hands together.

“I’d love some, thanks,” Lauren answered, stepping towards the kitchen to retrieve a cup.

“I’ll get it. Sit down,” Maureen replied. “What were you doing up so early?”

“Habit,” Lauren answered, eying the fireplace and wondering if there would be a stack of firewood somewhere. She was sure both Hannah and Rachel would appreciate a cozy, crackling fire to sit next to and relax.

“It’s my habit to let the alarm wake me,” Maureen mumbled, handing Lauren a mug of freshly brewed, steaming coffee.

“Thanks,” the dark-haired woman smiled, breathing in the familiar scent, while she warmed her hands on the ceramic mug.

“Next time, wear some gloves,” the red-head advised, sinking down on the couch and eying the woman across from her with hooded eyes.

“Point taken…Mom,” Lauren grinned, chuckling when Maureen sent her a dark look. “I forgot you’re not a morning person.”

“Never been, never will be,” Maureen admitted with a sigh. “But if you’ll let me drink my coffee in peace, I promise I won’t bite your head off.”

“Deal,” Lauren smiled, sipping the hot beverage. Maureen had made the coffee strong and inwardly she chuckled. She had a feeling her colleague really needed the caffeine, especially after the previous long day. Her eyes traveled from her coffee to Maureen River’s face. The red-haired woman was pale and there were dark circles underneath her eyes. Lauren wondered if the tired expression in her eyes was caused by the lack of sleep of one night only. She really wanted to ask the other woman if she was alright, but her recently made promise prevented her from speaking. At least until Maureen had finished her coffee.

With a small sigh, Lauren focused on her own cup of hot, sweet coffee. She had known her co-worker for a few years now and knew Maureen was a very private person. If the other woman had problems or worries in her private life, who was she to make inquiries about it?

Maybe she should just wait and see how things developed. She was patient and if there was one positive side to her assignment, it was the fact that, right now, she had all the time in the world.

#

Hannah stirred and still half asleep, she wrinkled her nose, reveling in the wonderful feeling of warm arms that were wrapped around her and the scent of clean, fresh linens. She burrowed a little closer in the warmth that enveloped her and involuntarily smiled when her ears picked up a low chuckle.

“I am awake, you know,” she mumbled against Rachel’s chest.

“You could have fooled me,” Rachel answered with a smile, briefly tightening her grip on the other woman. “Are you comfortable, sweetie?”

“Are you kidding?” Hannah muttered with a sigh. “If I get any more comfortable, I think I’ll melt.”

“Now, don’t do that,” Rachel’s voice sounded very close to her ear. “I’d really, really miss you.”

Hannah smiled and reluctantly lifted her head from its soft resting place. Her sleepy blue eyes lazily blinked against the soft illumination that spilled in from the skylight above and Rachel felt a very familiar warmth spread through her entire body.

“You look adorable,” she whispered, smoothing back some of the blonde hair that almost fell into one of Hannah’s eyes. “So cute,” she added, gently pressing her lips against Hannah’s forehead.

“I’m a mess,” Hannah objected carefully shifting her body. A sudden jolt of pain shot through her side and she sucked in a breath.

“What’s wrong?” Rachel immediately asked, pulling away from Hannah’s arms, while her eyes shone with worry. “What happened?”

Hannah sent the Doctor a watery smile and slowly shook her head. She did not want Rachel to worry, it was nothing.

“Just a sore spot, I guess,” she mumbled. “And I guess I was so tired last night, I slept in the same position for hours. I’m just a little stiff.”

“Where does it hurt?” Rachel asked, not fooled by Hannah’s casual words. The blonde never complained about pain, but on the rare occasions she did, she was really hurting.

“Where, Hannah?” Rachel repeated, a little more firm this time.

“My right side,” Hannah finally answered in a small voice. “It didn’t hurt that much yesterday. It’s just stiff, Rachel.”

“What happened?” the Doctor asked with a grim face. Mentally she was already bracing herself for the answer. Deep down inside she knew her cousin had something to do with Hannah’s injury.

“Nathan kicked me. I…At first, I refused to go down the stairs with him and he…kicked me halfway down the first flight. I…” Hannah swallowed hard and shrugged her shoulders. “I’m sure it’s just a bruise.”

“I need to see it.”

Hannah looked up into a pair of anxious brown eyes and she let out a small sigh. She really did not want to make a big deal out of it, but the look in the Doctor’s eyes was a mixture of worry, anger and pain and she decided the only way to reassure Rachel was to let her have a peek.

Silently she lifted up her t-shirt, trying not to wince when she felt the muscles in her side protest against the painful motion.

“Damn,” Rachel muttered, as soon as her eyes fell on the mottled bruise that covered a large part of Hannah’s side. “No wonder you’re hurting. I should have kicked that bastard into next year.”

“I’m glad you didn’t though,” Hannah sighed. “He had a knife and I’m sure he knows how to use it.”

“I’m sure I could still kick his sorry behind,” Rachel responded angrily. “Even when we were kids, I was always stronger and faster than he was. That’s probably one of his biggest frustrations.”

“Hush, baby,” Hannah responded, grasping Rachel’s hand and pressing it against her cheek. “Don’t wake Nicky.”

Rachel cast a look at the sleeping toddler and immediately Hannah noticed the softening of her eyes. All the anger seemed to have disappeared when the Doctor cast her a dazzling smile.

“Isn’t she precious?” she whispered.

“She is,” Hannah nodded, grateful for the change of subject. “Now, am I getting a morning kiss or do I have to beg?”

“Mmm…now that’s an interesting idea,” Rachel mused, grinning when Hannah produced a genuine pout. “Don’t give me that look, blondie,” she gently teased. “You know I’m a sucker for the puppy dog routine.”

“Exactly,” Hannah responded, carefully leaning forward to bring her face closer to the Doctor’s. “Did it work?”

“Yes, it was flawless,” Rachel whispered, before meeting Hannah halfway and capturing the blonde’s lips in a long, tender kiss. They both felt like they were too far apart and instinctively they moved closer, until Rachel was stretched out on her back, with the slightly smaller blonde on top of her. For a few wonderful moments, Hannah forget about the pain in her ribs, letting herself be carried away by a glowing, sensual haze.

When they finally broke apart, they both let out a deep, shuddering breath, which made them chuckle.

“That was nice, thank you,” Hannah smiled, tracing one of Rachel’s dark eyebrows with the tip of her index finger. She brought her face closer, coming nose to nose with the dark-haired woman, who looked at her cross-eyed. “You’re a goof, sometimes,” Hannah smiled. “But that’s one of the many reasons I love you.”

“Many, huh?” Rachel replied, tucking a strand of blonde hair behind Hannah’s ear.

“Yes, many.” Hannah nodded. “But I’m not going to list them. I’ll take my time mentioning them, every now and then, one at the time, for the rest of my life.”

Rachel went completely still, while her dark-brown eyes stared at the blonde, who was returning her gaze with an openness Rachel had never seen displayed before. She felt a lump form in her throat and her eyes quickly became moist. It gave her a reassurance on many different levels. No matter how quickly they had rekindled the bond they had once shared, Rachel was still haunted by insecurities and fears. Hannah’s softly spoken words had wiped many of them away, brushing them aside and diminishing them, until only feelings of warm happiness and anticipation were left behind.

“That was a beautiful thing to say,” she finally whispered. “Thank you.”

“I meant it,” the blonde replied.

“I know,” Rachel smiled. “These last few days I’ve been wondering why I was given this second chance, because I knew for sure I didn’t deserve it.” The Doctor paused and playfully kissed Hannah’s nose. “I guess it’s time to stop wondering why and just accept it for what it is and be happy.”

“Amen to that,” Hannah nodded, reluctantly scooting back to her side of the bed. “I smell coffee,” she added with audible appreciation. “I guess our Agents are already up and in full protection mode.”

“Do you want to get up and check out that theory?”

Hannah turned her head to shoot a glance at Rachel and wrinkled her nose.

“Not really. I’d like to stay where I am, here in bed, with you, but I’m afraid that’s no option. Especially not since Miss Nicky is fixing to wake up as well.”

Rachel looked at the small crib in the corner and smiled when a pair of sleepy dark eyes stared back at her from underneath the colorful quilt.

“Mama?”

“Good morning, sweetie,” Rachel greeted the little girl. “Did you have a good sleep?”

“Thiwsty,” Nicky responded, smacking her lips as if to prove her point.

“I can relate to that, Nicky,” Hannah laughed. “I feel like I’m dehydrated.”

“Well, I can’t have my girls turning into parchment paper,” Rachel muttered, sliding out from under the cover and padding to the crib to lift up her daughter, who wrapped her small arms around her neck to give her an enthusiastic hug and a few heartfelt, but sloppy kisses.

“Hannah too?” she asked, shooting her mother a questioning look.

“Of course,” Rachel nodded. “But be careful, Hannah has a big owie.”

Nicky’s eyes went round and when Rachel put her down on the bed next to Hannah she gingerly scooted closer.

“Hannah?”

“It’s alright, sweetie. I’m sure a nice hug from you will make me feel a lot better.”

With a serious expression on her face, the toddler crept closer and carefully wrapped her arms around Hannah, who pulled the little girl in her lap with a happy sigh.

“See? I feel better already,” she smiled, dropping a kiss on the soft, dark hair.

“Bettew,” Nicky echoed, patting Hannah’s knee with one hand. “Hannah bettew.”

#

Gertrude Jensen slowly walked into the kitchen and, with a big sigh, sat herself down on a chair. She would never admit it, but her aches and pains were getting worse each passing year and having gone through a long, sleepless night had not helped matters much. She worried about Hannah and Rachel. Nathan’s attempt to kidnap her granddaughter had been a very fearful reminder of what the man was capable of. The thought of him hurting her granddaughter, Rachel or Nicky chilled her to the bone.

The night had seemed endless. Her mind had gone over the previous day again and again. Hannah’s departure had caused a throbbing pain, deep in her heart and she already missed the blonde dearly. But she knew it had been a sensible thing to do, to leave the city and create some time and distance between their stalker and themselves. It had also seem sensible for her to stay with her daughter, Mildred, until the police deemed it safe enough for her to return home.

“Oh, Hannah, sweetie, please be safe,” Gertrude mumbled, smoothing the dark-colored tablecloth with fragile, bleu-veined hands.

“Who are you talking to, mother?” a voice suddenly sounded and with a tired smile Gertrude looked up.

“Just to myself,” she sighed. “Good morning, Mildred, did you have a good sleep?”

“Good morning, mother,” a woman with dyed blonde hair greeted her. “I had a horrid sleep! I kept dreaming about that dreadful stalker! Poor Hannah. The things she must have been through!”

Mildred took a seat across the table and stared at her mother with curious pale blue eyes.

“You look tired,” she stated.

“I am,” Gertrude sighed. “I’m worried about the children.”

“They have police-protection,” Mildred waved a jewel covered hand. “You, on the other hand have not and I…”

“He’s not after me, Mildred,” Gertrude explained with an exasperated sigh. “He’s after Hannah and Rachel.”

“Hannah would be fine if that…if Rachel had not come back,” Mildred muttered.

“I don’t appreciate that tone of voice,” Gertrude almost snapped, her blue eyes flashing. “Rachel’s return is the best thing that has happened to Hannah since…since…well, since years.” Slightly trembling fingers pushed back a strand of silver gray hair, while Gertrude took a deep breath, trying to control her emotions. “What those two have is something a lot of people would be jealous of. They love each other and I don’t want to hear anything negative about their relationship.”

There was a brief silence in which Mildred studied her mother. Gertrude was starting to show her age and that worried her. She had always been such an energetic, bubbly person. But the loss of her son and daughter-in-law had left its marks and Mildred knew the only reason for Gertrude to hang onto life after having gone through a serious stroke, was Hannah. Like Hannah had, somehow, pulled herself together when her grandmother had needed her. They had needed each other and had managed to leave behind the dark places they were in. Together. For that, Mildred was very grateful. She knew her mother often teased her about her three marriages and the money her late husbands had left her, but just as often they had serious conversations or just enjoyed each other’s company.

“I’m sorry, Mother,” Mildred finally spoke. “You’ re right, I shouldn’t have said that.”

“And I’m sorry I snapped at you,” Gertrude sighed. “I’m very tired.”

“Maybe you should go back to bed for a few hours,” Mildred suggested. “It’s still very early.”

But the older woman shook her head and sent her daughter a very determined look.

“No, I’d rather not. I don’t want to miss Jack Wilson’s phone call.”

“Are you sure he won’t tell you where they are? It’s not like you would tell Nathan.”

“No, he won’t,” Gertrude answered. “It’s a matter of safety. Like he won’t tell Hannah I’m here with you, although I’m sure she can guess that.”

Like I can guess where they took the girls.

“It feels like I’m in a police movie,” Mildred muttered, remembering the specific instructions she had received about leaving the house and how to know if she was being followed.

“Hopefully, they’ll find Nathan and haul him off to jail soon,” Gertrude spoke. “Preferably before Christmas.”

“That’s only a few days away,” Mildred sighed. “They’d better be quick.”

She stood up and cast her mother an inquisitive look. “I’ll have to run a few errands, will you be all right? If you want to come with me I…”

“I’m fine, dear, really,” Gertrude interrupted her daughter with a smile. “You go and do whatever you’d planned for today.”

“Okay,” Mildred drawled, not entirely sure. “Promise to call me on my cell phone if you need anything.”

“I will,” Gertrude nodded. “Be careful.”

“Of course, I’ll make sure to look over my shoulder at least five times between here and Kohl’s,” Mildred softly snorted. She leaned down to give her mother a quick kiss. “I won’t be long. Get some more rest.”

“Yes, Mom,” Gertrude muttered, but there was a tiny sparkle in her eyes.

When the door closed behind Mildred, Gertrude let out a sigh and slowly got to her feet to make herself some coffee. No matter how much she loved her daughter, she sorely missed her granddaughter. The quiet moments in the morning when they both were sipping a cup of coffee, were precious to her. They could talk about anything and Gertrude loved to hear Hannah’s stories from the hospital. Some were very sad, while others were hilarious. She could not help wondering what would happen when Nathan was finally out of their lives. Would Hannah move in with Rachel? Probably.

Gertrude let out another, small sigh, feeling the heaviness firmly settle in the pit of her stomach. She was happy and intensely grateful that Hannah and Rachel had found each other again, but she dreaded the moment the blonde would leave home.

“I guess it’s time to check out some assisted living places, Trude,” she mumbled. “Time to acknowledge your age and start socializing with the other Old Timers.” She let out a soft, humorless chuckle. “Time to start thinking about your last stop.”

#

The wind was howling around the cabin, blowing leaves and small twigs against the walls and windows. Outside, branches were violently whipped by the rushing, icy air, separating the sick and dead branches from the healthy ones. Every now and then there was the telltale sound of a snapping branch that was torn off and haplessly flung through the air, until it hit something solid, like a tree and fell to the ground that was littered with debris.

“It’s not exactly weather to go out for a nice walk,” Hannah muttered from her comfortable spot on the couch. She was dressed in a pair of thick sweats and a fleece sweater. The cabin was nice and warm, especially after Rachel and Lauren had built a fire that was cozily crackling, almost hypnotizing Hannah back to sleep every time she stared into the dancing flames.

“It’s not just dangerous with the wind and the flying debris, but it’s freezing cold as well,” Lauren spoke from her spot at the huge, wooden table. The dark-haired Agent was scribbling on a piece of paper, every now and then looking up to sweep the room with her eyes. “It’s not safe to go outside.”

“I know,” Hannah sighed. “But I’d like to get a breath of fresh air. Maybe tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow will be better,” Maureen nodded, from the recliner where she was reading a book. “The weather forecast is good for tomorrow. Cold, but clear and not much wind.”

“I sure hope so,” Hannah mumbled, looking up when Rachel entered from the bedroom where she had put Nicky down for a nap.

“Do I see a pout?” the Doctor asked curiously, having seen the look on the blonde’s face the moment she stepped into the room.

“I wasn’t aware of the fact that I’m pouting,” Hannah sighed. “But I am developing cabin fever. Already,” she added while pulling a face.

“Better stay out of jail then,” Maureen mumbled, which made Hannah chuckle.

“Don’t worry, I will. I’ve always been a good girl.”

She backhanded Rachel in the stomach when she snorted and cast the dark-haired woman a mock annoyed glance.

“I have too,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve never done anything illegal.”

“Good girl,” Lauren grinned, without looking up from her paper. “What about you, Rachel?” she asked with a quick look at the Doctor.

“Oh, um, I’ve been good as well…I think,” Rachel answered without much conviction. “Just a…ticket…I guess.”

Hannah’s interest was raised and she half-turned to face the Doctor who had taken a seat next to her on the couch. Her blue eyes sparkled when they looked at Rachel and a smile was tugging on the corner of her mouth.

“Just a ticket…you guess,” she repeated with raised eyebrows. “Could you elaborate on that?”

“I could,” Rachel nodded. “But I’m not sure I will,” she added with a wink, laughing when Hannah stuck out her tongue.

“Don’t worry, Hannah, if there’s a file on her, I can find it,” Maureen promised. “You might want to check out her past, to see if she’s as eligible as you think she is.”

Hannah pretended to give that suggestion some thought and she slowly nodded, while her eyes bore into Rachel’s.

“I might hold you to that,” she said in a thoughtful tone of voice. “Unless you want to spill the beans, of course.”

“There’s nothing much to spill, really,” Rachel laughed, stretching out a hand and playfully tickling the back of Hannah’s knee, which made the blonde jump.

“Up until now, I’ve received two tickets for speeding and one for parking in the middle of the road.”

“Parking in the middle of the road?” both Hannah and Maureen echoed, while Lauren just raised an eyebrow.

“Yup,” Rachel grinned, remembering the event. “I was on my way to Boston and I drove through a tiny little town, I can’t even remember the name of it now. Anyway, I saw this young kid fall off his skateboard. He hit the sidewalk pretty hard and to me it looked like he was out cold for a few seconds. I stopped the car, jumped out and ran to the kid. He assured me he was fine and all of a sudden he took off like he was being chased by a herd of buffalo. Anyway, I took it he was all right and went back to the car. A police car had pulled up and this young cop, he couldn’t have been older than twenty, was writing a ticket. I explained to him I was a Doctor and saw this kid fall off his skateboard, but did he believe me?”

“I guess not, seeing he gave you a ticket,” Hannah chuckled.

“Exactly. Not only did he give me the ticket, he warned me to be careful about the excuses I used to park in the middle of the road, because riding a skateboard on the sidewalk was against the law and he had not seen anyone do that.”

“He sounds like a good ol’ boy,” Lauren laughed.

“I guess he was,” Rachel sighed. “I was seriously pissed at him, but decided to keep my mouth shut. I didn’t feel like spending the night in jail, so I got back in the car and left town. He followed me all the way to the county line, probably making sure I wasn’t going to park the car anywhere illegal again,”

“He sure spotted a crook when he saw one,” Hannah teased, quickly grabbing Rachel’s hand when it went straight to the back of her knee again.

“You better watch it, Goldielocks,” Rachel warned in a low growl.

“Oh, I am scared,” Hannah responded with a laugh. “Rachel Kendrick, FBI’s most wanted street parker.”

Both Lauren and Maureen laughed while Rachel just shook her head, but the amusement in her eyes was clearly visible. She loved Hannah’s playful side and she was happy to see that the circumstances they were in had not been able to take that part of her away.

“You’re a little troublemaker, aren’t you?” she smiled.

“Isn’t that why you love me so much?”

“One of the reasons,” Rachel immediately answered, which reminded them both about the conversation they had earlier that day. Their smiles deepened when they looked at each other and Rachel had to fight the urge to lean forward and kiss Hannah senseless. She knew Maureen and Lauren knew about their relationship, but she had no idea how they felt about it and she did not want to provoke the agents by kissing the blonde right in front of them.

Hannah had noticed Rachel’s inward struggle and she slowly let go of the Doctor’s hand, after giving it a loving squeeze. There was always later, she knew, in the privacy of their room. She was confident they could wait that long and if not, well, she could always lure Rachel away with a simple excuse.

When she was finally able to tear her eyes away from Rachel dark-brown ones, she noticed Maureen had returned her attention to her book, while Lauren was looking at them with a small, wistful smile. The look on the Agent’s face immediately tore at Hannah’s heart and she just knew the tall police woman had gone through her own share of pain and heartache. She liked Lauren DarkWolf. The woman was very soft-spoken and kind and as soon as Nicky had entered the living-room that morning, she had taken a liking to the dark woman, climbing onto her lap and demanding stories. Lauren had willingly complied and, for a long time, she had been able to capture Nicky’s attention with a variety of tales.

Hannah suddenly remembered Lauren’s words from the evening before and before she could stop herself she had already asked: “Lauren, what’s the story with you and Nathan? Why do you dislike him so much?”

From the corner of her eye, Rachel saw Maureen’s head jerk up from her book, while the red-head’s eyes flew from Hannah to Lauren and back again. Lauren’s hand in which she was holding a pencil suddenly stilled and the knuckles of her hand went white. It only lasted for a few seconds, then she visibly relaxed, put down the pencil and folded her hands over the paper that was on the table. Her dark eyes held a soft expression when they looked at Hannah, who was about to apologize for her question, when Lauren shook her head.

“No, it’s alright,” the Agent said. She took a deep breath and her eyes traveled to the window. It was as if she was staring into the distance, when her soft voice started to speak.

“I’ve known Nathan for a long time,” she spoke. “We went to college together and he hung out with some of my friends. He didn’t have many friends of his own, but our group tolerated him, even though he seemed to be a little odd. It was like he blended into the background. He could be around and you would hardly notice him, until all of a sudden he said or did something and he was noticed. I had the impression he liked it that way.” Lauren moistened her lips and leaned back into her chair, her eyes still focused on something outside. “I had a…friend,” she continued, speaking the last word with a little hesitance. “She…her name was Debra and she was one of the kindest, smartest people I’ve ever met. We spent a lot of time together and one day I started to notice Nathan’s interest in her.”

Lauren tore her eyes away from whatever she was staring at and focused on Hannah, who was leaning against Rachel’s shoulder, the Doctor’s arm securely wrapped around her shoulders. “She was blonde, like you, with eyes like a summer’s sky. She was by far the prettiest girl on campus,” Lauren smiled. “She could have had tons of friends, but she chose to spend most of her time with me. Nathan was jealous and although he never said a word about it, I knew he was trying to come up with a plan to come between us. I warned Debra about him, but she said I was probably just imagining things. Until that day she opened the front door and found her cat’s head on the porch. Just its head, in a little box with a ribbon tied around it. The first time I saw Nathan after that incident, he had such a smug smile on his face I simply knew he had killed Booger, but I couldn’t prove it. He was so slick. Then pictures started to show up. Photo’s of Debra coming out of the shower or sleeping in her bed. We notified the campus police and even thought they took it pretty seriously, they never really increased their surveillance.

One day when I was visiting my parents, Debra called me in a near panic. Somebody had been stalking her when she left her job that evening and she was so scared she didn’t want to go back to the apartment. I told her to come to me, at my folks’ house. They lived in Newalla and that wasn’t too far from Moore, where Debra worked at the time.” Lauren shook her head and there was a sad smile on her face. “I should have told her to go straight to the police. She called me from a payphone, at the gas station, to tell me she was only fifteen minutes away and that she thought she had been able to shake off her stalker.” The Agent took a deep breath and for a brief moment they saw how she clenched her fists. “That was the last time I heard from her. She was run off the road by another car and hit a tree. They say she died instantly. They never found the driver of the other car, but, according to witnesses, it wasn’t an accident.”

Lauren raked her fingers through her thick, dark hair and sent Hannah a small smile.

“I know it was Nathan,” she said, her voice full of conviction.

“How?” Maureen and Rachel asked simultaneously.

“Because he told me so.”

Part 13

There was a long, shocked silence, in which Maureen, Hannah and Rachel stared at Lauren with a mixture of emotions. The red-haired Agent looked puzzled and somewhat intrigued. By the look on her face and the keen interest in her eyes, Lauren could tell Rachel’s brain was already working on solving the puzzle.

Hannah looked surprised and a little shocked, but there was an open, inviting expression in her eyes, an invitation for Lauren to talk about what had happened and to explain.

Lauren could tell Rachel had trouble meeting her eyes. The Doctor looked upset and almost sick and, when their eyes briefly met, the Agent read anguish and shame for what her cousin had done to Debra, and fear, for what he could do to Hannah.

“I…am so sorry,” Rachel finally spoke, her voice hoarse with emotion. “Lauren, I don’t know what to say. I…”

“It’s all right, Rachel,” Lauren gently interrupted. “It’s been quite a few years ago and it had nothing to do with you.”

“He’s family,” Rachel had trouble saying the words. “We share the same blood.”

“Which does not make you responsible,” Lauren immediately responded. “You’re not responsible for his actions, his thoughts and his choices. Nathan is his own man.”

“What exactly did he tell you, Lauren?” Maureen asked, curious to hear the rest of the story. She had known Lauren DarkWolf for quite a while, but she had never heard anything about Nathan being responsible for the death of the other Agent’s friend.

“Nathan left college, and went somewhere else and only when I started to work at the OSBI, I ran into him again. It wasn’t exactly a happy reunion. As soon as I saw his face, I was reminded of what had happened to Debra. I always had a feeling he knew more about it.” Lauren let out a sigh and rubbed her forehead. The memories were not pleasant, but she felt she needed to share them with the other women. “Soon after I ran into him again, he followed me to my car one evening and he handed me a picture of Debra.” Lauren paused and swallowed hard. The anger was still so close to the surface that she had to take a few deep breaths to control her temper. “He told me I could have it, since he was sure I missed her. He said he had enough trophies.”

Maureen sucked in some air, while Hannah clasped her hand in front of her mouth. Her blue eyes were wide with shock when she looked at the dark-haired agent.

“I asked him if he had anything to do with her death and he said ‘yes’. Just like that. And then he told me there was nothing I could do about it, because there was no evidence and there never would be any, either. After that, he laughed, turned around and walked off.” Lauren let out a soft, humorless laugh and rubbed her hands together. “I so wanted to pull my gun and just shoot him, but I guess I had too much sense for that. He was right, there was no evidence.”

“That must have been so hard,” Maureen spoke in a voice that was laced with compassion. “What did you do? Did you talk to his superiors?”

“No use,” Lauren shook her head. “At first, I wanted to resign, but then I realized nobody in the OSBI knew anything about what he had done, only I knew how cunning and manipulative he was. So, I decided to stick around and keep an eye on him. I was convinced that, one day, he’d make a mistake and he has. We’ll get him and when we do, he’ll never be free again.”

“I hope so,” Hannah whispered. “When he tried to abduct me, in the hospital, I looked in his eyes and I didn’t recognize him. While we were growing up, he never was like that. I know he could be quiet and withdrawn and that’s why I wanted to be his friend. I never expected him to be this…this…insane.”

“Don’t let him fool you, Hannah,” Maureen warned, closing her book and putting it on the side-table next to her chair. “Nathan is the type who tortured animals when he was a kid. A loner with a sick mind and a serious lack of compassion.”

“That thought scares me,” Hannah almost whispered. “The idea of him being in my bedroom, taking pictures while I was asleep is just so…so…it scares the heck out of me. Why didn’t he hurt me back then? It’s not like he didn’t have the chance.”

“Because he liked the game,” Lauren answered and Maureen nodded. “He felt like he was in control, like he had power over you and over Rachel. And as long as he was in control, you were safe. Losing his power would have put your safety in jeopardy.”

“So, the fact that Rachel left…” Hannah paused and put a hand on Rachel’s knee, giving it a loving squeeze.

“The fact that Rachel left when she did might have saved your life,” Maureen finished Hannah’s sentence for her. Her blue-gray eyes traveled from Hannah to Rachel and she sent the Doctor a half-smile. Leaving somebody you loved was an incredibly hard thing to do, she knew. But sometimes it was for the better.

“Do you seriously think Nathan would have…hurt Hannah had I stayed?” Rachel asked in a voice that was thick with emotion.

“Yes, I really believe he would have,” Maureen answered. “I know he orchestrated your departure, but as soon as you were gone, he left Hannah alone. I guess the challenge was gone. There was a certain dare in trying to keep you away, though. I’m sure that gave him some sick pleasure. With you gone, he could picture Hannah as his conquest, even though, emotionally and physically, she wasn’t. But it was all in his mind, his own little world he had created for himself. Nathan has a lot of serious problems, Rachel.”

“I know,” the Doctor nodded. “You know, I thought he was ‘just’ a stalker, but after hearing Lauren’s story, I am seriously starting to believe he’s a psychopath.”

“Is that a clinical opinion or a personal one?” Hannah asked with a small smile, grabbing Rachel’s hand and holding it tight between her own. The Doctor noticed the blonde’s hands were cold and she scooted a little closer, covering Hannah’s hands with her own.

“My clinical and personal side are in consensus about this one,” Rachel sighed. “I’m glad we left the city. I want as many miles between us and that nutcase as possible.”

“There’s a risk he’ll find out we’ re here, though,” Maureen warned and Lauren nodded in agreement. “But we’re prepared. If Nathan shows up, we have a surprise for him.”

“So do I,” Hannah nodded, while her eyes traveled to tile floor in front of the fire place.

“You do?” Rachel frowned, not sure what Hannah was referring to.

“I do,” the blonde answered, gently pulling her hands free from Rachel’s grip. She pushed herself up from her comfortable seat and walked towards the fireplace. Kneeling down next to it, she stretched out a hand, while her fingers looked for a small depression that was hardly visible in the grout between the bricks of the mantle. When she had found what she was looking for, she pushed the stone and immediately one of the tiles in the floor opened up. Lauren, Maureen and Rachel almost jumped in surprise, while Hannah reached inside the dark opening and pulled out a small, metal box. She pressed down on the tile, efficiently closing the hidden space and walked back towards the couch, where she took her seat next to Rachel, after putting the small box on the coffee table.

“What’s that?” the Doctor asked curiously.

Hannah did not immediately answer. She bit her lip and it was clear to see she was struggling with herself.

“Hannah?” Rachel gently urged, a little worried about the mixture of sadness and anger on the blonde’s face.

Without speaking a word, Hannah opened the small box and immediately leaned back in her seat, unconsciously putting as much distance between herself and the contents of the box.

Maureen and Lauren, however, leaned forward and the first one let out an appreciative whistle.

“Wow, Hannah. Is that a Smith & Wesson?” she asked.

“An M&P .40,” Lauren added. “9 mm, if I’m not mistaken.” The tall policewoman looked up and sent Hannah a reassuring smile. “They’re scary, aren’t they?”

“I hate guns,” Hannah confessed. “I’ve seen what those things are capable of. But I can promise you this; if Nathan comes close, I’ll be using it.”

“We won’t let it come that far, Hannah,” Maureen promised.

“I hope so,” the blonde sighed, unconsciously leaning closer to Rachel, who wrapped an arm around the blonde’s shoulder and pulled her close.

“Was it your Dad’s?” Rachel gently asked.

“Yes, he didn’t like guns either, but he thought it would be a good idea to have one around here, because it’s kind of remote, especially in the winter, when most cabins are empty. The day he bought it, he put it in that safe. It’s never been out since, until now.”

“Do you want us to keep it?” Lauren asked.

Hannah nodded and rested her head on Rachel’s shoulder. The other woman’s warm presence was comforting. It gave her the reassurance she needed and again, she realized how grateful she was for having Rachel back into her life.

“Keep it as far away from Nicky as you can,” Hannah sighed and both Lauren and Maureen nodded.

“Don’t worry, Hannah. I’ll put it somewhere so high, only I can reach it,” Lauren promised, grabbing the steel pistol and the accompanying ammunition out of the box.

“So, if anything happens and you’re not around, the girls will have to wish Nathan away?” Maureen softly snorted.

Lauren, who was on her way to the kitchen, stopped and turned around to shoot the red-haired agent an amused look.

“Let me rephrase that, please,” she said with a half- smile. “I’ll put it up so high, Nicky won’t be able to reach it for the next ten years.”

“Thanks, Lauren,” Rachel said with a grateful smile, while Hannah nodded.

“Besides,” the tall agent continued. “I’m planning on being around when our friend shows up, no matter where, no matter when…”

#

“Darn it,” Mildred muttered, grabbing the bag that had slipped out of her hand and had almost landed in a puddle of water. “That was almost the end of Hannah’s cashmere sweater.”

“Are you alright, ma’am?” a friendly voice sounded and, when Mildred looked up, it was into a pair of friendly light-brown eyes. “Isn’t Christmas shopping a curse?” he continued while reaching out a hand to help her with the slippery plastic bags.

“Sometimes it is,” Mildred nodded with a sigh. “Thanks for your help, I appreciate it.”

“No problem,” the man smiled, stepping aside so she could open the door of the car. “Have a blessed day.”

“Thank you,” Mildred returned the smile, while deep down inside she felt like she had to know the man who was standing in front of her. Those eyes…and his smile…it struck a cord and Mildred frantically tried to remember where she had seen him before. And then, with sickening clarity she remembered. Mildred Jensen-Brennigan sometimes made the impression of being superficial, more interested in material things than in the world around her and people sometimes wondered how smart she really was, but in the end Mildred was a Jensen. Her parents were descendants from hard-working, level-headed Scandinavian immigrants and, in times of stress, Mildred was usually able to keep her cool.

Right now, the adrenaline was rushing through her body and she had to make a conscious effort not to scream, turn around and make a run for it. She had parked her car on the side of the store and she knew there was not much traffic. There was a security officer around, but he was inside the store and there was no way she could draw his attention. She could almost see him, the tall, well-built blonde with the crew cut and warm smile. He was only a few feet away, but there was at least three feet of concrete wall between them.

“My goodness,” Mildred sighed, rubbing her forehead with her hand, wondering if she was visibly shaking. “I knew I’d forgotten something. That’s what happens when you don’t make a list.”

She looked up at Nathan and realized the eyes that had seemed so warm when he had smiled at her before, were now cold and calculated. But, instead of letting her fear paralyze her, Mildred was even more determined to walk away graciously from a potentially dangerous situation.

“Do you work here, Dear?’ she asked with an innocent smile.

The question startled Nathan and he needed a few seconds to regain his composure. Mildred immediately took advantage of his laps in concentration.

“Because, if you do, I’d ask you if you would be a darling and keep an eye on my car for me? I really have to run back in and grab one of those cute mittens for my friend’s grand baby. I won’t be long, I promise.”

“Um…well, I…sure, of course,” Nathan stammered, mustering up a smile. This woman, Hannah’s Aunt was one of the stupidest people he had ever encountered. First, she didn’t even recognize him and then she just assumed he worked at Kohl’s and asked him to keep an eye on the car. How naive!

“I’d be happy to, ma’am,” he nodded, which earned him a genuine smile from Mildred. That had been easier than she had expected.

“Thank you so much, Honey. I’ll be right back, I promise,” she rushed out the words, before turning around and heading for front of the building. Only when she had rounded the corner, Mildred let out a shuddering breath. That had been close! She needed to contact the police. If Nathan had followed her when she went to the store, he might know where her mother was.

#

“Tell us, Rachel, what is the craziest thing you’ve ever seen as an ER Doctor?” Maureen Rivers asked, nibbling on a piece of toast.

Rachel looked up from her plate and her brown eyes traveled to Hannah, who looked at her with an amused twinkle in her eyes.

“The craziest?” Rachel echoed with a frown. “That’s a hard question, I’ve seen a lot of crazy things. It’s hard to determine who’d get the Oscar for the craziest.”

“Give it a try, Doc,” Maureen encouraged with a grin. “You’ve worked in some big hospitals, right? I bet you have a million stories to tell.”

“Most crazy things are also pretty sad,” Rachel sighed, seeing Hannah nod. Of course the blonde agreed. One of the reasons she had left the ER, had been the confrontation with the never ending stream of pain, sadness and despair.

“I once took care of a man who thought he was Napoleon and he accused me of stealing his horse,” Rachel mused.

“Why did he accuse you?” Hannah asked curiously.

“I have no idea,” Rachel sighed. “Maybe because I was trying to assess his mental state of health. I’m sure I posed a threat to him. Maybe he translated that as me stealing his horse.”

“What happened to him?” Lauren asked.

“He was admitted, because he threatened to hurt some people. That’s the last thing I’ve heard about him. And then we had the lady who had a bead stuck up her nose.”

“A bead?” Hannah chuckled. “How did that happen?”

“She was a Mom, trying to show her three year old what would happen if he’d put a bead in his nose.”

“You’re kidding?” Maureen laughed. “She did it on purpose?”

“Yes, she did,” Rachel grinned. “When I was done lecturing her, she burst out in tears and then her husband accused me of being ‘less than empathic’.”

“Idiot,” Hannah mumbled, which earned her a warm smile from Rachel.

“In the end, I wondered who was crazier; the wife or the husband,” Rachel grinned. “Oh, and then there was this guy who’d fallen in love with one of the nurses and he managed to come back to the ER with all sort of emergencies, just to get her attention.”

“What a nutcase,” Maureen muttered. “What kind of emergencies did he come up with?”

“Once he cut his finger, almost to the bone,” Hannah answered, remembering the situation, because she had been working in the ER at the time. Rachel had been a resident. “Then a couple of days later he came back, because all the stitches had disappeared. He said he didn’t know what happened. He woke up and found a bloody mess.”

“Then he came in with unspecified abdominal pain,” Rachel continued, smiling at Hannah. “We ran a bunch of tests on him and eventually found out he had been taking an enormous amount of laxatives.”

“Eeew,” Maureen responded, wrinkling her nose in disgust. “He sounds like a real weirdo.”

“He was a little strange,” Hannah admitted. “Especially when he showed up with a second degree burn on his shoulder and a Henna tattoo on his chest that read: ‘Marcia, will you marry me?'”

“I’ll never forget poor Marcia’s face,” Rachel laughed at the memory. “I thought she was going to choke him.”

“Her husband almost did,” Hannah chuckled. “Boy, Grant was fuming.”

“What happened to him?” Lauren asked from her seat near the window.

“He disappeared after Grant had a…talk…with him,” Rachel related. “I’m sure he fled town,” she added with a grin.

“I’m sure he…,” Lauren paused when he cell phone started ringing and with an apologetic smile she flipped the device open.

“DarkWolf,” she spoke, frowning when she listened to the person on the other side of the connection. Her face grew serious and aware of three pairs of eyes that looked at her intently, Lauren stood up and walked towards the kitchen window.

“Yes, of course,” they heard her say. “And they…oh, they didn’t? That’s very…unfortunate…yes, sure, no, I’ll tell them. Alright….thanks, Inspector. Bye.”

Lauren closed her phone and slowly put the device back in her pocket, before turning around and facing the questioning gazes of the other three women.

“That was Inspector Wilson,” she spoke softly. “First of all, I need to say that everybody is alright,” her brown eyes looked for Hannah’s blue ones and held them effortlessly while the blonde swallowed hard and quickly nodded in understanding.

“Nathan followed your Aunt to the store and they think he tried either to get into her car or make her go into his. Anyway, your Aunt was very cool and collected and she managed to go back into the store and alarm a security guard, who immediately called the police. Unfortunately, Nathan was probably on to them and when they arrived, he had disappeared. As a matter of safety, Inspector Wilson has decided to relocate your Grandmother and Aunt.”

“Relocate?” Rachel frowned.

“Yes, relocate,” Lauren nodded. “For their own safety they’ll be placed somewhere safe, where Nathan can’t find them.”

“Are you sure?” Hannah asked in a little voice, wishing she could be with her Grandmother. She knew the elderly lady was tough, but there had been a lot of fear and tension lately and Hannah could not help wondering how that would affect Gertrude’s health.

“I’m positive, Hannah, trust me,” Lauren added with a warm smile.

But the blonde had jumped up from the couch and was restlessly pacing the room. It was obvious she was worried about her Grandmother and Rachel wished she could say or do anything that would make her feel better. But the Doctor had her concerns as well. Obviously, it had been easy for Nathan to find Mildred and follow her to the store. Or had it been a coincidence? Knowing her cousin, Rachel doubted that. One of the most dangerous things about Nathan, especially in his deranged state of mind, was that he was thorough.

Hannah, unaware of Rachel’s dark thoughts, stared out the window, suppressing a shiver when she saw how the wind whipped the branches up and down, like a cold hand rattling the trees.

Her blue eyes reflected the gray clouds in the sky and, with a deep sigh, she realized it was not exactly weather to go out for a walk. She knew she was worrying too much, especially about her Grandmother, but it was hard to have faith in the skill of some stranger to keep Gertrude safe. If only Nathan would realize he had no chance and give himself up to the police. If only they could return to their lives, so she and Rachel could continue to develop and cultivate their feelings for each other. If only…

All of a sudden, Hannah sucked in a breath and her body went completely still. From the corner of her eyes, she had caught a movement between the trees and with her heart hammering in her chest, she stood motionless.

“Maureen, Lauren,” her voice was soft and hoarse when she finally dared to speak. “There’s…there’s somebody out there and…”

Immediately, Maureen jumped to her feet and with a few long strides she had herself positioned at the door, her gun in her hand. Lauren on the other hand, stared at her co-worker with something that resembled amusement in her eyes.

“Chill, Rivers, it’s my brother,” she spoke calmly.

“What?” Maureen Rivers exclaimed, annoyed with her partner’s calm demeanor.

“Your brother?” Hannah echoed with audible relief in her voice.

“One of my brothers, actually,” Lauren explained. “Tall, long braid, green camouflage outfit and chewing on a toothpick?”

“I think so,” Hannah smiled.

“That’s Chuck. If you look to your right, towards the lake, you’ll see a shorter green-clad guy, wearing a green bandana.”

Lauren watched Hannah’s eyes stare into the distance for a few seconds and she smiled when the blonde chuckled.

“Brother Joe. They can’t help it, they need to keep an eye on their little sister.”

“Little?” Maureen muttered, before she let herself fall back down into her chair. “When did you call in the troops?”

“I didn’t.” Lauren answered softly. “They were there this morning and they’re here to stay. That’s how that works. I’d do the same for them.”

“Does the Inspector know?” Maureen wondered, knowing Jack Wilson’s affinity for protocol.

“Not yet,” Lauren replied dryly, making Maureen laugh.

“Don’t worry, DarkWolf, he won’t hear it from me,” the red-head promised.

“I know,” Lauren nodded, resting her dark eyes on her partner for a brief moment. It was long enough for Rachel to see the flash of pain though, and the Doctor was intrigued. What was it that caused such an anguish in this confident, strong woman? Maybe she would be able to find out, although she hoped she would not have the time for it. She wished the police would find Nathan and arrest him so they could go home again. She had been so looking forward to spending Christmas with her brother, his wife and the children. Rachel thought that, with a little luck, she might have been able to talk Hannah and Gertrude into spending Christmas with them. And then there was Gary’s and Jake’s party, no doubt organized in their behalf. Rachel smiled when she remembered the devious looks her friends had shared. She knew they had been up to something; matchmaking, no doubt. Her dark eyes traveled to Hannah and her smile deepened, making the dimple in her cheek appear. Maureen, who saw the look in the Doctor’s eyes, had to turn away her gaze, because she felt like she was prying. If only someone would look at her that way.

Maureen let out a sigh and tried to push away the dark thoughts that were trying to emerge. Her husband, ex-husband to be precise, had left her for another woman. One, he had said would be able to be there for him completely. It hurt her deeply, he had not allowed her time to work things out for herself, even though, deep down inside she already knew the answer to a lot of the questions that had plagued her for a long time. She knew she never should have married Robert, but she had been so young and, at the time, she had believed he was the one who could chase away her shadows. She had been so wrong. If only she had known then what she knew now…

Again, Maureen’s eyes traveled back to Rachel, who had managed to catch Hannah’s eyes. There appeared to be so much love and trust between the two women, it was heartwarming. All of a sudden, Maureen could feel somebody’s eyes resting on her face and when she looked up, it was in Lauren DarkWolf’s friendly, but inquisitive eyes. Immediately she turned away her face, afraid to show any of the vulnerability she was feeling. She had to keep up the facade of being the tough, indifferent Agent, it was the only way to keep her sanity.

If Maureen had looked up, she would have been able to see the small smile tugging at the corner of Lauren DarkWolf’s mouth. And she would have been shocked if she had been able to read her mind. Even though the tall Agent usually made quite an impression with her wits and strength, many would have been amazed at her sensitivity. One look in the unguarded eyes of Maureen Rivers had told her more than words ever could have. With a small nod she stared out of the window, hoping Jack Wilson would call her soon with the news of Nathan’s arrest.

#

“I tell you, Inspector, this guy not only knows the system better than anyone else, he’s also as slick as a stick of butter on a hot potato.”

“I know, believe me,” Jack Wilson sighed, rubbing his tired eyes.

“Tell me again where you lost him.”

“On the corner of Penn and 10th street. He just took off like a madman, almost hitting a pedestrian and two cars. He must have known I was following him. He went South.”

“He could be anywhere by now,” Jack Wilson nodded somberly. “Do we have people on the main roads?”

“Yes, sir, but…,” the younger Agent paused, before saying the dreaded words. “He knows his way around town. He could have taken any side street and leave the area. He might even be on his way South.”

“No, I don’t think so,” Jack Wilson shook his head, staring at the State Map on the wall. “If he has left town, he’s going North, towards Grand Lake.”

“Are you…do you think he knows where they are?”

Jack Wilson tore his eyes away from the map and cast a look at the sandy-haired man who was sitting at the big conference table. All of a sudden an idea struck him and he cursed under his breath.

“What, Sir?”

“Did they sweep the building?”

“You mean, looking for bugs?”

“Yes,” Jack Wilson sounded a little impatient. “Did they find anything?”

“No, they didn’t.”

“Did they check outside as well?”

“Outside?” the Agent echoed. “I don’t know if…I don’t think so. Do you really think…?”

“Yes, I do,” Jack Wilson answered with a raised voice. “Have you any idea what kind of equipment there’s available to eavesdrop? With the right stuff, you can sit across the street and literally hear what’s being said. Damnit! I should have known. Get me a phone. I need to call Rivers and DarkWolf.”

#

The dark car sped through the night, its driver carefully taking the back roads. Nathan did not want to run the risk of being pulled over. Especially not after getting so far. Leaving Kohl’s unseen was something he was still gloating about. When Mildred had not returned within a few minutes, he had started to worry. He had been inside the store before Hannah’s aunt had showed up and he knew the mittens she had talked about were close to the checkout registers. After she had left him near her car, he had realized it was impossible for Hannah’s aunt to be so trusting toward a stranger. Mildred had even left the car unlocked. Nathan had not hesitated; he had turned around and headed towards his car, quickly leaving the area. After aimlessly driving through town for a while, he had noticed a police car that seemed to be following him.

With a smug smile, Nathan turned right on a rapidly darkening farm road. Idiots. Did they really think they could catch him? From the very beginning, he had practically known their every move. It had been so easy to lose the police cruiser. And the look on the pedestrian’s face he had almost run over had been priceless. It was a pity Hannah had not been there to see it.

Nathan pursed his lips. He knew Gertrude had been staying with Mildred, but he had also realized that the elderly lady would never tell him where Hannah was. Mildred would have been a better chance, but she had proven so much smarter than he had anticipated.

“Stupid Jensen women,” Nathan mumbled to himself. “But I’ll get them. They’ll find out they messed with the wrong person. And as for Rachel,” Nathan let out a short laugh. “I’m going to make my dear cousin suffer. By the time I’m done with her, she’ll curse the day she was born. Better watch your back, Kendrick.”

#

“You know, Hannah Jensen, you do have the best ideas,” Rachel sighed contentedly, stretching her legs and burrowing closer into the soft pillows behind her back.

“Thank you,” Hannah smiled, accepting the Doctor’s compliment with a twinkle in her eyes. “But I meant it when I said I was really tired. This last week has been…insane. Right now, I feel like I can sleep for at least two days.”

“Don’t talk about sleep, it makes me yawn,” Rachel protested, covering her mouth with a hand.

“I don’t want to talk about sleep,” Hannah chuckled. “I actually want to do it. It’s so sweet of Lauren to babysit Nicky.”

“Nicky really seems to like Lauren, but I hope she won’t wear her down. We need her for protection,” Rachel joked, turning on her side so she could watch the blonde who had slid underneath the cover beside her.

“We have Maureen for back up,” Hannah said, letting out a sigh of pleasure when she could feel her entire body relax.

“That’s true,” Rachel nodded, stretching out a hand to brush away a strand of blond hair that threatened to fall into Hannah’s eyes. “You need a hair cut,” she smiled.

“I know,” Hannah answered in a tired voice. “It’s one of the million things I need to do as soon as our lives will be back to normal.”

Rachel nodded and leaned over to softly kiss Hannah’s cheek.

“I know this might sound a little silly,” she hesitated. “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like the situation we’re in with Nathan chasing us, but…,” the Doctor paused and took a deep breath, trying to collect her thoughts. She wanted Hannah to understand her feelings. “I do enjoy the time I get to spend with you,” she continued. “Even though, when I think about it, it’s all pretty scary and intimidating. But, right now, lying with you in a comfortable bed, in a lake cabin, makes me the happiest woman on the planet. Even with Maureen and Lauren ten feet away from us, and even with Nathan trying to destroy our lives. I really wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

While Rachel was softly talking, Hannah’s blue eyes had never left the Doctor’s face. They took in the other woman’s features with a loving, peaceful gaze and, when Rachel fell silent, she grabbed the other woman’s hand and brought it up to her lips, gently kissing every knuckle.

“I feel the same. I’d rather be with you in the situation we’re in, than be without you. Rachel?” Hannah cast down her eyes and nibbled on her bottom lip, all of a sudden looking very young and insecure.

“Yes?” Rachel answered, suppressing the urge to lean forward and kiss the blonde senseless.

“I don’t ever want to be without you again,” Hannah continued in a hoarse voice. “So, if getting away from Nathan means moving to the other side of the country, or even to the other side of the world, I’d do it, as long as I can be with you.”

“Oh, honey,” Rachel sighed, no longer able to resist the urge to pull Hannah into her arms. She tucked the blonde’s head under her chin, wrapping her arms tightly around the other woman’s body, burying her face in the unruly blond hair. “That’s an incredibly sweet thing to say. And brave, too.” Rachel dropped a kiss on Hannah’s head and gently stroked the cotton- clad back. “Thank you,” she whispered.

“I mean every word.”

“I know,” Rachel smiled. “That’s what makes it so special. Let’s hope we don’t have to do that though, leave Oklahoma and make a home somewhere else. I’m pretty fond of this place.”

“So am I,” was the muffled response. “Besides, I’m addicted to my Grandmother’s brownies.”

“They are good,” Rachel admitted with a chuckle.

“Yes, as you can tell by looking at me,” Hannah sighed. “I must have gained at least twenty pounds since the last time you’ve seen me, before you left, I mean.”

“I think you’re exaggerating,” Rachel chuckled.

“I gained weight though,” Hannah sighed somberly.

“So?” Rachel responded. “You look great, Hannah. And even if you had gained twenty pounds, that wouldn’t change my feelings for you. I’d still love you, even if you’d gain fifty or a hundred pounds.”

“I know, I’m just being silly,” Hannah admitted, raising her head so she could look up at Rachel.

“Yes, you are,” Rachel smiled, kissing the tip of the blonde’s nose. “Besides, I like a woman with some meat on her bones.”

“You do, huh?” Hannah grinned, wrapping her arms around Rachel’s shoulders and pressing her forehead against the Doctor’s. “You’re an amazing woman, Rachel, you know that, right?”

The Doctor shook her head and Hannah laughed when she saw her roll her eyes.

“I love you, Rachel Kendrick.”

“And I love you, Hannah Jensen,” Rachel smiled, her dark eyes shining with warmth and adoration. She noticed the dark circles underneath the blonde’s eyes and gently rolled her on her side.

“No matter how much I’d want to cuddle and kiss, I think you need to take a nap.”

“I agree,” Hannah mumbled, feeling loved and protected as Rachel’s arms slid back around her body when the Doctor spooned up against her.

“Rest, Hannah. Close those beautiful blue eyes and sleep.”

“Will you stay here with me?”

“Absolutely,” Rachel nodded, smiling when she heard her daughter’s delighted laugh from the room next door.

“Nicky’s having a good time,” Hannah’s voice was soft and warm. It was silent for a few moments. “I would, you know,” she sleepily continued.

“Would what, sweetie?” Rachel asked, sounding a little puzzled.

“I hate guns, but if he’d threaten you, Nicky or my Grandmother, I’d use it. I think I would shoot him, Rachel.”

Part 14

“I’m sorry about this road, ma’am,” an apologetic voice sounded from the driver’s seat. “There are just so many potholes.”

“I know, son, don’t worry about it,” Gertrude answered in a tired voice. “It almost makes you wonder what the heck they’re doing with our tax money, doesn’t it?”

The Agent chuckled and avoided yet another part of the road where the Oklahoma weather and traffic had eaten away a big chunk of the surface. The treacherous holes were hard to see in the semi-darkness and Agent Van Zant did his utmost to make the ride a smooth one, hoping that soon they would reach a better maintained road. He had taken an instant liking to the elderly woman who had been entrusted into his care. Inspector Wilson had been very clear about it; take care of Gertrude Jensen like she is your own Grandmother.

Agent Van Zant smiled into the darkness. His assignment had not been hard. Gertrude Jensen was a delightful lady, who had already shared her recipe for the ultimate brownie with him and who had made the long drive to their destination a lot more pleasant with her wit and sense of humor.

“May I ask you a question?” Agent Van Zant asked after a brief silence.

“Sure, honey, go ahead,” Gertrude encouraged, trying to suppress a yawn. She was bone-tired and wished she could go to sleep, potholes or no potholes. But she had never been able to doze off in a moving vehicle and today was no exception. She could only hope they would reach their destination soon, so she could rest her weary bones.

“Have you ever met Nathan Kendrick?”

“Yes, I have,” Gertrude answered, having thought back to that first encounter many times over the past few days.

“What is he like? If you don’t mind me asking,” Agent Van Zant quickly added.

“Nathan is very charming,” Gertrude answered. “He comes across as a real gentleman. He’s polite and eloquent. I guess he would have made a great politician,” she added with a trace of humor. “I’d be lying if I said I’d always known he had the potential to become what he is today, but I do remember a talk I once had with Hannah, my Granddaughter. I guess it had been the way I caught him looking at her. It made me feel uncomfortable. I asked her how much she knew about him and if she had ever had problems with him.” Gertrude remembered that one evening and, involuntarily, she smiled. Hannah had been so young, and so in love with Rachel, whom she had just met. It had not been necessary to tell her Grandmother about her feelings for the young medical student; Gertrude had known and had silently cheered her on. The young blonde’s response to her Grandmother’s concern had been one of surprise. She had assured her Nathan was just a friend she had known almost all of her life. That he and Rachel were cousins had been a surprise and they had laughed about it. Hannah had even teased Nathan about keeping his cousin a secret to her. That was the moment Gertrude had caught the look in the young man’s eyes that had her worried. Back then, she had decided it was jealousy, since she suspected Nathan had had a crush on Hannah for a very long time. Now, she knew better.

Gertrude let out a sigh and glanced aside to the young man who had been assigned to accompany her to a safe address. A strong jaw and elegant nose. His brown hair was cut short, almost a crew cut and he looked incredibly young.

By escorting her to a safe address, Gertrude knew the young Agent could have a run in with Nathan if the former OSBI Agent would be able to find them. She tried not to worry about the consequences that would have. Nathan was a seasoned Agent who was very smart, cunning and, Gertrude feared, ruthless. Agent Van Zant would probably not stand a chance against him.

“We’re almost there, ma’am,” Agent Van Zant promised, casting a glance at his companion’s face that was a little paler and drawn than when they had started their drive. “Have you any idea where I’m taking you?”

Gertrude smiled and let out a soft chuckle.

“I think I do, Agent Van Zant, I think I do. Whose idea was it to house me there?”

“The Inspector, ma’am,” Agent Van Zant answered with a smile.

“I thought as much,” Gertrude nodded. “Remind me to bake him some brownies. And let’s hope Jack Wilson’s diversion tactics will have the desired effect.”

#

Nathan gritted his teeth and glanced at the map he had put on the passenger seat. He wanted to beat Agent Van Zant to the safe address. How sweet would it be to be waiting for them and when they show up just pop up in front of them and saying:’Hello Agent, I’m here to relieve you of your burden.’

Nathan chuckled at the thought, immediately feeling better. He was so looking forward to surprising his former coworker. Not to mention the blow he would deal when calling Jack Wilson to tell him he had Gertrude Jensen. Hannah would freak out.

Nathan’s smile disappeared when his thoughts turned to the blonde and for a brief moment he allowed himself to wonder how things would have been if Rachel had not shown up. Rachel. She had always been trouble; ever since they were kids.

“Bitch,” Nathan mumbled, unconsciously tightening his grip on the steering wheel. “If it hadn’t been for you, she would have been mine. But she will be cousin, eventually. First things first though,” he whispered. “I’m almost there. Just a little further…”

#

Maureen glanced up from her book and smiled when she saw Lauren DarkWolf stretched out on the couch with Nicky tucked at her side. The toddler had fallen asleep during a third repeat of Lauren’s version of ‘Finding Nemo’. Maureen had been staring at her book, but she had not been reading. Instead, she had been listening to Lauren’s voice; smooth and warm, with an undertone of dry humor that had Maureen hiding a smile behind her hand. The little girl had been hanging on to her every word, laughing in delight, until her eyes were so heavy with sleep she could not keep them open any longer. From the corner of her eye, Maureen had seen how Nicky’s head had slowly but surely fallen back, until it was resting against the tall woman’s chest. To Maureen, who did not have any children of her own and was not used to being around them, Lauren almost seemed like a magician. It was amazing how she had managed to keep the little girl entertained while her mother and Hannah were taking a well-deserved nap. Lauren was convinced the toddler had not even missed Rachel.

“Penny for your thoughts,” a soft voice suddenly interrupted her musings.

Startled, Maureen looked up, straight into a pair of dark brown, almost black eyes and she nervously pushed back her hair.

“You’re good with kids,” Maureen answered, staring at the book in her lap, its story already forgotten.

“I’ve had a lot of practice,” Lauren answered. “There are a lot of children in my family.”

“How many?” Maureen could not help asking. Part of her was curious to find out more about the other Agent’s private life, the other part was afraid to do so. The more she knew about Lauren DarkWolf, the harder it would be to work with her.

“Well, let me see,” Lauren smiled. “I’ve got fourteen nieces and nephews and then there are all my cousins’ children. I carefully estimate there are…about…twenty-five kids younger than sixteen in my family.”

“Twenty-five?” Maureen echoed. “My goodness. What does your family do during Holidays? Rent the Cox Convention Center?” she joked.

“We all congregate at my Grandparents’ house,” Lauren smiled. “The walls are made out of elastic.”

“They’d have to be,” Maureen mumbled to Lauren’s amusement.

There was a brief silence in which Maureen stared at the book in her lap, her eyes dark and pensive, while Lauren’s eyes calmly studied the red-haired woman. She knew Maureen wanted to talk about something, she could see it in the nervous look in her eyes and in the way she avoided looking in her direction. Lauren really wanted the other Agent to take the initiative, but, knowing how stubborn Maureen could be, she decided to give her a gentle push in the right direction.

“What’s wrong, Maureen?” she asked gently, immediately seeing the body tense. Unconsciously, Lauren held her breath, expecting Maureen to jump up and leave the room, but, to her surprise, the other Agent let out a small sigh and leaned back into her chair.

“Rob and I are getting a divorce,” Maureen spoke in an emotionless voice. “He’s found somebody who can be there for him all the time, as he put it. I guess I should have seen it coming and I think I did, it’s just that…I made such a mess of things,” Maureen sighed again, still not able to meet Lauren’s eyes. “I never should have married him,” she added, almost inaudibly.

Lauren did not immediately respond. It took her a few moments to process what Maureen had just told her and even though she was completely taken aback, she knew she had to tread lightly. Maureen Rivers was not the type of person who would bare her soul to just anyone and she did not want to violate the trust the other Agent had in her by responding too quickly and too insensitively.

“Why?” she finally asked. “Why do you say you never should have married him?”

“Because I didn’t love him, not the way he deserved to be loved,” Maureen sighed, rubbing her tired eyes. “I guess we were doomed from the start. We never really wanted the same things.”

Maureen paused and bit her lip. She knew she had not really answered Lauren’s question and she knew the dark-haired Agent would not let her get away with that. She was right.

“Why did you marry him if you didn’t love him?”

“I was young and did what was expected of me; marry my high school boyfriend. I thought our friendship would be enough to build up our relationship.” For the first time Maureen looked up, straight into a pair of compassionate eyes. “I was naive,” she added with a wry smile. “One only has to look at Hannah and Rachel to know that what Rob and I had was a pathetic surrogate of the real thing.”

“A divorce is pretty final,” Lauren replied. “Have you…” she hesitated and saw Maureen shake her head.

“No, we don’t need to work it out. There’s nothing to work out,” she added. “He’s found somebody else, someone who apparently loves him and he wants to marry her. Especially since she’s pregnant,” Maureen said, pulling a face. “Rob finally gets what he has wanted for a long time. I don’t begrudge him anything.”

“Then why the sad face?” Lauren asked gently.

“Because it’s hard to be alone,” Maureen almost whispered, blinking away the tears that were stinging the back of her eyes.

“Why?” Lauren insisted in a soft voice.

“It gives me too much time to think and to worry about things I can’t change.”

Lauren nodded, understanding what Maureen was telling her.

“It’s nice to have somebody to share your demons with,” she agreed. “I’m sure it’s hard to be facing those all by yourself.” Lauren paused a moment, waiting for Maureen to look up. After a few seconds, the red-haired woman did and Lauren sent her a warm smile. “I’m a good listener. If you want to share some of your worries with me, I promise to be there for you.”

“Thank you,” Maureen nodded, wondering if she should take Lauren up on it. The words that were so regularly floating through her head had never been spoken aloud and she was afraid of how they would sound. Did she trust Lauren enough to bare her soul? If she didn’t, who could she talk to instead? After a few moments of thought Maureen came to the sad conclusion there was nobody else.

“You’ll be shocked,” she tried to joke, but Lauren shook her head.

“I’m not shocked that easily. Unless you’re Hannah’s stalker and we’ve been chasing the wrong person all along.”

In spite of the situation, Maureen laughed softly, appreciating Lauren’s sense of humor.

“No matter how cute and sweet she is, I don’t think Hannah’s my type,” Maureen answered. “As a matter of fact, I’ve got no idea what my type would be. Rob was my high school boyfriend and there’s never been anyone else, not really,” she added softly.

“Not really?” Lauren repeated, casting a curious look at the woman who was sitting in the big recliner. No matter how difficult it was for Maureen to talk about herself , she seemed pretty relaxed, which pleased Lauren, but the other Agent’s words had made her curious to find out more.

“It’s a long story,” Maureen answered, having seen the interest in Lauren’s eyes.

“I’ve got time,” Lauren immediately answered, casting an affectionate look at the sleeping toddler, who was now practically draped across her chest. The little girl was fast asleep and Lauren carefully brushed a strand of dark hair away from Nicky’s forehead. “This little yard ape is not going anywhere and by the lack of sounds from the other side of the cabin, I guess her parents are still in Dreamland as well. ” Lauren looked up and caught Maureen’s eyes. “If you want to talk, this is a good time.”

#

A pair of blue eyes blinked lazily against the soft grey light that fell through the curtains that almost covered the entire window. It was hard to wake up, especially since Hannah was encased in the warm cocoon of Rachel’s arms. The Doctor was spooned against her and the deep, regular breathing was a good indication she was still asleep.

Hannah closed her eyes and smiled, gently stroking the arm that was holding her in place. In her sleep, Rachel pulled her even closer and the blonde chuckled softly, feeling utterly loved and protected.

“What’s so funny?” a sleepy voice sounded close to her ear.

Hannah turned her head and from the corner of her eye she could see Rachel’s dark eyes looking at her sleepily. She kissed the skin that was closest to her lips, which happened to be the side of Rachel’s nose.

“It was the way you were holding me,” Hannah explained with a smile. “Like you were holding on for dear life.”

“I was,” Rachel answered, burrowing her face in the crook of Hannah’s neck, breathing in deeply and letting out a contented sigh. “I’m holding you and I never want to let you go.”

“You don’t have to,” Hannah smiled, turning in Rachel’s arms so she could look at her without hurting her neck. “I’m yours for as long as you want me.”

“How does ‘forever’ sound?” Rachel asked, the expression in her eyes warm and loving.

Hannah frowned and pretended to have to think about it, but there was a twinkle in her eyes. When, in reaction to Hannah’s expression, Rachel started a pout, she burst out laughing.

“That’s the cutest face,” she said, not able to resist kissing a pair of warm lips that were so close. “By the way,” she added after a few breathless moments, ” was that a proposal?”

Rachel feigned surprise, making Hannah chuckle and pulled the blonde impossibly close against her warm, relaxed body.

“Well, I guess it was,” she drawled with a touch of humor in her voice. “No, let me rephrase that: yes, it was a proposal. I admit, it was an unexpected one, but it’s from my heart.”

“I know it is,” Hannah mumbled against Rachel’s shoulder. “And yes, forever sounds good to me as well.”

“Good, that’s settled then,” Rachel sighed, lifting Hannah’s head so she could kiss her.

“That was easy,” Hannah replied, in between kisses. “And it didn’t even hurt.”

Rachel chuckled and pulled away, so she could look into the eyes she loved so much.

“I meant it, though.”

“I know you did,” Hannah replied softly, cupping Rachel’s cheek and caressing the soft skin with her fingertips. “Besides, I have to admit I’d already decided you won’t be able to get rid of me again.”

“Good,” Rachel smiled, kissing the tip of Hannah’s nose. “When did you decide that?”

Hannah’s face grew serious, while her eyes took in Rachel’s tousled dark hair, the warm brown eyes and the smile that created a dimple in her cheek. The sight of the love she once had believed had been lost forever filled her with a joy and gratitude that made her heart overflow. She swallowed hard and blinked against the moisture in her eyes.

“Tears?” Rachel asked softly, brushing a drop of moisture away with her thumb.

“They’re good tears,” Hannah answered in a hoarse voice. “Waking up next to you is something…incredible. A few months ago, I wouldn’t have believed it would ever be possible and yet, here we are and it’s like those years without you have never happened. When you came back…I really wanted to…I wanted you to…” Hannah paused, carefully choosing her words. ” I thought I’d finally started to get over you, but, when I was in the ER, after the accident and I heard your voice, I knew I wasn’t. All the pain and grief were still there, but so were my feelings for you. I guess, deep down inside, I knew I couldn’t just ignore you. You were such an important part of my life for such a long time, I decided that, no matter what your reasons for leaving me had been, I’d probably be happier with you than without you, in spite of all the things that had happened.”

“I don’t deserve you,” Rachel whispered, humbled by Hannah’s words. “I really don’t.”

“Tough luck,” Hannah responded with a smile. “You just proposed to me and I accepted, so get over it.”

“I will,” Rachel nodded. “I’ll do my best to make you happy.”

“I am happy,” the blonde replied, sliding her hand to the back of Rachel’s neck, so she could pull her closer. “And I’d be even happier if you’d kiss me…like you mean it,” she added with a wink.

“I’m sure I can do that,” the Doctor promised, letting Hannah pull her down so their lips could meet in a slow, tender kiss that made her tingle, warming every inch of her body. Rachel let out a soft moan, slowly but surely losing herself completely in Hannah’s soft, but persistent touches. Before she knew what was happening, she was on her back with Hannah on top her, claiming her lips in rapidly increasing passion. Insistent hands slid underneath her shirt, taking Rachel’s breath away with achingly familiar touches she had missed so much. But, in the back of her mind, a small voice became louder by the second, until Rachel could no longer ignore it.

“Hannah, honey,” she spoke with difficulty, pulling away from the blonde’s soft, warm lips. “I’m afraid we’ll have to stop. We’re not alone in this cabin and…”

“Crud,” Hannah answered, pressing her burning face against Rachel’s chest. “You’re right. Shucks.’

“I’m sorry,” Rachel said with regret.

“It’s not your fault,” Hannah replied with a wry smile. “I shouldn’t have let my hormones take off with me like that. Now, I need a cold shower.”

“And you think you’re the only one?” Rachel asked with a raised eyebrow, but the twinkle in her eyes showed Hannah she was teasing. “Can we shower together?”

“Oh, yes,” Hannah immediately responded, making Rachel laugh. “I can’t be held responsible for my actions though. I…”

“Say no more,” Rachel interrupted with a grin. “If you want to hop in the shower, go right ahead. I’ll be a very, very good girl and stay right here, because,” Rachel lowered her voice and brought her face close to Hannah’s, “I cant be held responsible for my actions either.”

Hannah swallowed hard when she noticed the expression in the dark eyes that were staring at her at such a close range. How easy it would be to let all caution fly and lose herself in that warm gaze, like she had done so many times, such a long time ago.

“I’d better get up,” she finally whispered, not moving an inch.

“I guess so,” Rachel answered, staying exactly where she was.

After a few moments of intense silence, they both smiled.

“We’re not making any progress here, are we?” Hannah’s voice sounded amused.

” Not really,” Rachel admitted with a nod. “Maybe we should both move at the same time. On the count of three, I’ll move to the left and you’ll move to the right.”

“Okay,” Hannah chuckled with sparkling blue eyes. The playfulness she and Rachel had so easily shared in the past was something she had missed dearly. To know it still existed was priceless.

“One…Two…Two-and-a-half,” Rachel counted with a wink. “Three.”

Immediately, both women moved; Rachel to the right and Hannah to the left, which made them both burst out laughing.

“You fraud,” Rachel accused the blonde, tickling her ribs, which made Hannah squirm underneath her agile fingers.

“Oh, right, listen who’s talking,” Hannah laughed, trying to grab Rachel’s hands to stop the torture. “You moved the wrong way as well. I guess we both had the same wicked idea.”

“Who are you calling wicked?” Rachel pouted, making Hannah softly snort.

“I swear, Doctor Kendrick, you and Nicky have the same pout,” she said, finally able to grab Rachel’s hands and press them against the mattress.

“Is it a cute one?”

“It’s cute on Nicky,” Hannah answered with a laugh.

“Oh, gee, thanks,” Rachel answered, but her eyes were still twinkling. “I’m not cute then?”

“No,” Hannah replied, leaning forward until their noses were almost touching. “You are beautiful.”

Deliberately slowly, Hannah leaned in for a long, deep kiss that was not as passionate as the kisses they had shared before, but tender and warm. When, after a few intense moments, they finally broke apart, both women were smiling.

“That was nice, thank you,” Rachel smiled, brushing away a strand of blond hair from Hannah’s forehead. “Now it’s easier to just relax and wait right here while you take a shower.”

“Don’t go anywhere, though,” Hannah warned, dropping a kiss on the other woman’s forehead.

“I wouldn’t dare,” Rachel promised solemnly. “Just hurry.”

#

With a muttered curse, Nathan parked his car alongside the road, flipping on the switch of his halogen flashlight. With angry eyes he studied the map he had so carefully worked on before he left the city. Against all odds, he was lost. He had no idea what had happened or how, but somewhere he must have taken a wrong turn.

“I’m sure he said Sulphur and Paul’s Valley,” he muttered. “I’ve been here hundreds of times, how can I have missed that track going east?”

Impatiently, Nathan grabbed a small device from the passenger’s chair and pressed a button. Immediately, a metallic voice filled the confined space of the car. In spite of the dubious quality of the tape, the voice was still clearly recognizable as Jack Wilson’s.

“We need to make sure we carefully consider all our options. Gertrude Jensen needs to leave town immediately and I’ve already arranged a safe place for her. We know Nathan probably think she’ll be going North, so I decided to take Gertrude to a house of an old friend of mine who’s out of the country right now. It’s between Sulphur and Paul’s Valley. I won’t mention the name of the road, just in case Nathan manages to hear this as well, but I assure you, Gertrude will be safe…”

Nathan pressed the ‘off’ button and practically threw the dictation recorder back on the chair. It bounced twice, before toppling over the side and ending up between the door and the seat.

“Do you think I’m stupid, Wilson? Like I don’t know who your precious friend is. I know it’s your brother and he lives around here somewhere. I swear I’ll find the house. If it’s the last thing I do.”

#

“I haven’t been here in a long time,” Gertrude smiled, drinking in the surroundings with eager eyes. It was hard to see details, due to the quickly darkening sky. Still, she recognized where she was and her heart all of a sudden felt a lot lighter.

“I need to thank Inspector Wilson when all this is over,” she mumbled, glancing aside to see Agent Van Zant smile.

“More brownies?” he asked with a chuckle.

“Probably,” Gertrude laughed, feeling her fatigue rapidly disappear when her eyes caught sight of a cabin. Behind the closed curtains she saw soft, warm light and against the dark-grey sky she saw smoke billowing up from the chimney.

” Ha, the fireplace is in good use,” she smiled, looking forward to relaxing near the fire. “This looks like a good place to be.”

“I agree,” Van Zant nodded, carefully steering the car down the narrow track towards the house. “I do hope they know we’re coming. Agent DarkWolf has a black belt in karate. I’d hate to have to fend her off.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll protect you,” Gertrude promised, gently patting his knee.

“Thank you,” Agent Van Zant chuckled, parking the car next to the dark-colored SUV. “Well, here goes nothing,” he said, pulling a face. “Why don’t you stay in the car while I check if the coast is clear, ma’am?”

“Somehow I think that’s not necessary,” Gertrude answered. “I think the coast has been pretty much covered already.”

“Ma’am?” Agent Van Zant asked with a puzzled expression on his face.

Gertrude didn’t answer, but with her head she nodded towards the driver’s window. With a frown Agent Van Zant turned his head to see what the elderly lady was talking about. Sucking in a breath he froze when he stared straight into the barrel of a gun.

#

With a delighted chuckle, Nathan parked his car off the road, between a few trees, hoping it would be invisible from the house. Making sure his gun was loaded and his back-up revolver was tucked into the belt of his pants, he cautiously closed the door of the car, slowly walking towards the house that was clearly outlined against the darkening sky.

Making sure to be as soundless as possible, he made his way down a slope that would lead him to the back of the house. Every now and then he paused, tilting his head to listen intently to the sounds around him. After a few more yards, he stopped again and, with a frown, he stared at the house he was slowly creeping closer to. There was something wrong. Something he could not put his finger on. Kneeling down in the grass that reached to his knees, he practically blended in with his surroundings, making it impossible for anyone in the house to see him. Reaching into one of the pockets of his thick, padded jacket, he pulled out a small pair of binoculars. He brought them to his eyes and patiently studied the house. Most of the lights inside were on and the curtains were closed. There was smoke coming from the chimney and for a moment Nathan doubted himself. It all looked perfectly normal. He know both Hannah and Rachel loved a fireplace and he knew they had not hesitated to make themselves a cozy fire.

“Probably to snuggle in front of,” he mumbled to himself. “Perverts.”

After a few minutes, Nathan tucked away the binoculars and he was just about to continue his journey, when a movement behind one of the curtains caught his eye. Holding his breath he knelt down again, all of a sudden feeling his heart pound inside his chest. He narrowed his eyes, pulling the binoculars out again.

“What the…?”

A dark colored car had driven down the road at the front of the house and disappeared out of Nathan’s sight. He had completely missed its approach because the driver had turned off the headlights.

Nathan increased his grip on the gun he had pulled from its hiding place and crawled a little further, making sure to keep his head low. It was of the utmost importance to stay hidden for as long as he could.

#

Slowly, very slowly, Agent Van Zant lifted his hands, so the owner of the gun could see he was not armed. Perspiration formed on his forehead when a large, gloved hand reached for the door handle.

“Don’t move, ma’am,” he warned in a hoarse voice. “Let me do the talking, alright?”

“Sure, honey,” Gertrude nodded, hoping, for his sake, her young companion knew what he was doing.

The door was opened and a tall, dark clad person, his face hidden behind a green ski mask, bent down in order to cast a look at the car’s occupants.

“Van Zant?” a deep voice asked, making the young Agent swallow hard.

“Who wants to know?” Van Zant replied with more bravery than he really felt.

A low chuckle was the answer and Van Zant suddenly wrecked his brain to remember where he had heard a similar chuckle like that before.

“Who’s holding the gun?” the voice inquired with amusement.

“He has a point, you know,” Gertrude answered, leaning forward a little so it was easier to look up to the tall man outside the car. “Son,” she directed her attention to the stranger. “Are you related to that tall, cute police woman; Lauren?”

“Cute?” was the chuckled response. “Don’t let her hear you say that, Mrs. Jensen. She’d probably disagree.”

“You might be right,” Gertrude nodded. “I’ve only seen her for a few minutes, but she seems the ‘I’m tougher than my breeches type’.”

“You’re absolutely right, ma’am. You’ve got a sharp eye.”

“And a lot of years under my belt,” Gertrude chuckled. “So, are you done teasing this poor man?”

“I guess so,” was the answer. “By the way, my name is Chuck. Nice to meet you, Mrs. Jensen. Van Zant,” he nodded at the Agent who had slowly let down his hands, clenching them around the steering wheel to hide their trembling. Chuck DarkWolf had scared the living daylights out of him when he had pointed that gun at him. Van Zant realized the man had to have an enormous amount of self-confidence to have done a thing like that.

“I could have shot him,” Van Zant mused, immediately mentally slapping himself. “Yeah, right, as if…”

“Do…um…do they know we’re…did the Inspector contact Lauren?” he stammered, feeling very green and foolish.

“Yup, hours ago,” a familiar voice suddenly sounded and when both Van Zant and Gertrude looked up, it was in the smiling face of Lauren DarkWolf.

“Hey, cutie,” Chuck greeted his sister, who shot him a puzzled frown, but decided not to respond.

“I’m glad you made it,” Lauren continued, ignoring her brother completely, which made him chuckle. “Hannah will be surprised.”

“She doesn’t know?” Gertrude asked with surprise.

“No,” Lauren smiled. “She and Rachel took a nap, a long one,” she added.

“Must have been a heck of a nap,” Gertrude winked. “Are they alright? How’s little Nicky?”

“Precious,” Lauren smiled. “I bet she’ll be happy to see you, since she kept telling me about ‘Gwanny’ and ‘cookies’, all the time giving me a puppy-dog look with those huge brown eyes of her.”

Gertrude laughed and unbuckled her seatbelt when Lauren opened her door and invitingly extended her hand to help the elderly lady out of the car.

“So, are they still in bed?” Gertrude asked, looking forward to see her granddaughter and making sure she was alright.

“I don’t know about that,” Lauren answered. “But I know they’re awake, because we heard them laugh and I think the shower is running at the moment.”

“Good,” Gertrude nodded. She cast a look at the cabin and for a brief moment she felt a stab of pain that was reflected in her eyes. Lauren noticed it and gently placed her hand on Gertrude’s shoulder.

“Are you alright, ma’am?”

“Gertrude, please, or Granny,” Gertrude answered with a small sigh. “Yes, I’m alright. I was just reminded of my son’s dreams about this place. He wanted to retire here. Enjoy nature, fishing in the lake, taking hikes with Brenda, who loved ornithology. All those dreams and plans crushed in less than a minute…gone…”

“I’m sorry,” Lauren responded in a soft voice. She was familiar with Hannah’s background and Gregory and Brenda’s car wreck had saddened her. She realized how blessed she was to have her entire family intact, including her parents and Grandparents. She knew that was not a given.

Gertrude nodded and reached up to give the hand on her shoulder a gentle pat.

“Thank you,” she said. “Hannah and I have been through a rough time, so has Rachel, but we all made it. All we need to focus on right now is to keep Nathan away from them and haul his a…haul him off to jail so my Granddaughters can get on with their lives.”

“Amen to that,” Lauren nodded. “Are you ready to go inside?”

“More than ready,” Gertrude agreed. “Besides, it’s freezing out here.”

Lauren took Gertrude’s elbow and guided her towards the steps that led to the porch, careful to avoid tree roots and anything else that could trip the elderly woman. A quick glance towards the cabin showed her Maureen was standing in front of the window, watching their slow progress through the dark.

Lauren suppressed a sigh when her thoughts returned to the conversation she and Maureen had that evening. They had used Hannah’s and Rachel’s absence and Nicky’s peaceful slumber to talk about what was bothering the red-haired Agent. It had surprised Lauren to hear what Maureen had been willing to tell her and it had left her more unsettled than she was willing to admit, even to herself. Their talk had showed her a completely different side of the often aloof and cool woman. Now she realized that attitude was just a shell Maureen used to protect herself from the outside world. Maureen was lonely, no matter how many people surrounded her. Lauren could only hope the other Agent would really allow her close enough to help her in her struggle with her demons.

Lauren sent the shadowy figure behind the curtain a small smile, realizing Maureen was not able to see it. She was determined to show her fellow Agent there was a way to overcome all the obstacles she faced. She liked Maureen. It would be worth it.

#

Muttering a curse, Nathan made himself even smaller, holding his breath when he studied the outline of the person whose profile was faintly painted on the curtain by the light inside the room.

It was easy to see it wasn’t Lauren DarkWolf or Maureen Rivers, who weren’t only taller than the shadow, but certainly a lot more feminine. It was obvious this was a man. A short, stocky build man with a square jaw line and a crew cut. It wasn’t Agent Van Zant, because the young Agent was tall and slender.

Nathan’s eyes flew to the next room and even though there was nobody standing in front of the window, he was sure he saw a small movement that resembled a person rubbing his head. Neither of the women he had hoped to meet had a hairstyle like that.

“It’s a trap,” he whispered to himself. “That son of a…” he hissed between clenched teeth, realizing Jack Wilson had deliberately steered him into the wrong direction, hoping to be able to catch him.

“Think again, Jack,” Nathan spat, crawling back to the tree line on top of the hill. “That was a stupid move. You just played your hand and guess who has the trump card now?”

Part 15

With a sigh of frustration Hannah turned on her other side, facing the peacefully sleeping woman next to her. In spite of her annoyance with her inability to fall asleep, a smile crept across her face when she watched Rachel. The Doctor was lying on her back with one arm across her stomach and the other one tucked under her chin.

Careful not to wake her up, Hannah pressed her lips against Rachel’s arm, not able to resist kissing the soft, warm skin. Her thoughts returned to the past and her smile deepened when she remembered the very first time she had laid eyes on Rachel Kendrick. As soon as the medical student had entered ‘The Bean’, the coffee house where Hannah used to work, she had caught her eye. After Rachel had entered the establishment, she had placed her order and claimed a table in the very back. She had pulled a stack of books out of her oversized backpack and had buried herself in one of them. Until Hannah had doused her with hot coffee.

The blonde chuckled and felt herself grow warm all over again when she remembered the look on Rachel’s face. The brunette had jumped up, knocking back her chair and her dark eyes had showed a mixture of shock and annoyance, but as soon as they had landed on the equally shocked blonde, her eyes had softened and the dimple Hannah loved so much, had appeared in her cheek. Looking back, Hannah was convinced she had fallen for the medical student then and there, even though it had taken her months to figure that out for herself.

Unconsciously, Hannah’s hand stroked the skin of Rachel’s arm when she remembered the very first time she and the dark-haired woman had kissed. The moment had been magical and, even now, after all those years, Hannah’s heart skipped a beat when she remembered how soft and gentle Rachel’s lips had been and how good they had made her feel.

“Are you all right?” a sleepy voice suddenly sounded and Hannah quickly withdrew her hand, immediately feeling guilty about waking the Doctor.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you,” she whispered. “Go back to sleep, honey.”

“I will, if you do the same,” Rachel yawned, extending a hand and smoothing back Hannah’s hair. “Why are you awake?”

“I’m not sure,” Hannah sighed. “Maybe because I had a great nap this afternoon and I’m not tired. Maybe I’m still excited about Granny showing up.”

“That was awesome,” Rachel smiled. “What a surprise, huh?”

“The best,” Hannah nodded with a happy grin.

“Come here,” Rachel invited, putting her arm around Hannah’s shoulders and pulling the blonde against her chest. With a sigh, Hannah put her head on the Doctor’s shoulder, reveling in the closeness and warmth she found in the gentle embrace.

“How’s that?” Rachel asked softly.

“Heaven,” Hannah mumbled, not able to stop her hand from roaming across Rachel’s abdomen and chest. The contact was limited due to the cotton shirt the Doctor was wearing, but the barely audible intake of air had not escaped her attention. Hannah smiled and nuzzled the soft skin of Rachel’s neck, very aware of the increasing heart beat underneath her ear. She knew she was teasing the Doctor, but she could not help it, she just had to touch the other woman.

“Are you trying to kill me?” Rachel rasped when Hannah’s wandering fingers raked over a cotton- covered nipple.

Hannah’s face grew warm, but she chuckled when she lifted her head to cast a glance at the woman who was holding her.

“I’m sorry,” she spoke softly, but even the dim light that fell through the window could not hide the twinkle in the blonde’s eyes.

“No, you’re not,” Rachel shook her head and, letting out a soft laugh, she pulled Hannah closer. The blonde’s body melted against her own and Rachel found it harder and harder to resist the sensual haze that had enveloped her from the very first moment she had opened her eyes.

“You’re fueling the fire,” she warned, feeling Hannah’s lips brush against her pulse point. The blonde did not answer. Instead, she let out a sigh and started to slide off the body she had draped herself around. But Rachel’s arms tensed, holding her in place.

“Do you have any idea how much I’ve missed this? How I’ve missed you?” she whispered in a shapely ear, slowly pulling Hannah back, while kissing the blonde’s neck, jaw line and, eventually, her lips that responded willingly to the intimate touches.

“If it’s as much as I’ve missed you, you must have been in agony,” Hannah replied in between kisses, smiling when Rachel’s body shook in a silent chuckle. “By the way,” Hannah lifted her head and shot Rachel an inquisitive look. “What happened to ‘we’re not alone in the cabin’?”

“Flew out of the door the moment you woke me up,” Rachel stated, sliding her hands underneath Hannah’s shirt and rubbing lazy circles across the warm skin of her back. “Besides, my love, Nicky is almost impossible to wake and Lauren and Maureen are fast asleep at the other side of the cabin. Granted, Gertrude is next door, but hopefully her hearing is not as sharp as it was ten years ago. Agent Van Zant is keeping watch and I don’t think he’d come barging in our room, unless you give him a reason to,” Rachel added in a teasing voice. “Like, oh, let’s say…”

“Don’t say it,” Hannah interrupted with a laugh, putting her hand over Rachel’s mouth. “I don’t want to be reminded of that night. Besides, I’m still not sure if it was me or you they heard. It’s not like I was keeping track of time and of who was making what noise when.”

“You don’t want to be reminded of that night?” Rachel asked, feigning hurt.

“The night was wonderful,” Hannah sighed, remembering that one Summer night like it had been yesterday. “The next morning was a little embarrassing though.”

“I still think Joe and Melissa were just razzing us,” Rachel mused, pulling Hannah’s shirt over her head. The blonde sucked in a breath and willingly slid her arms out of the short sleeves, feeling the cooler air of the room bounce off her heated skin. “Knowing my brother, he was just trying to get a rise out of us. You were wonderful that night,” Rachel continues, gently letting her hands slide up and down Hannah’s naked skin. The Doctor pulled the blonde closer for a slow, tender kiss and when, after a few minutes, she pulled back a little, she smiled at the woman in her arms. “Don’t worry, sweetie, you’ve never been loud. You make adorable little noises.”

“Adorable little noises?” Hannah softly snorted, pushing herself up and away from Rachel’s body so she could reach out and start tugging the crisp white shirt over the Doctor’s head, something Rachel had no objection to.

“Oh, yeah,” Rachel nodded, feeling her temperature rise a few degrees when Hannah’s warm, naked skin brushed against her chest. She swallowed hard and placed a hand on the blonde’s neck, so she could pull her back into her arms. As soon as their bodies met, they both let out a soft gasp. While Hannah nuzzled the soft skin between Rachel’s breasts she was rewarded with a familiar low moan that stirred something deep inside her body. Something she had not felt in a very long time; desire. Feeling her heart pound inside her chest, she brought her face closer to Rachel’s and slowly kissed a pair of warm, waiting lips, trying to convey all the love she felt in one single kiss.

Rachel could hardly breathe when Hannah’s lips brushed against her own; so soft and warm and gentle, slowly increasing in intensity, until the loving, but insistent touch robbed her of all speech and thought. All she could do was gently touch every inch of exposed skin that was so freely offered to her. It was humbling to see how Hannah was trying to leave the past behind them and move forward with their relationship, even accepting Nicky in her life like the toddler had always been there.

“I love you,” Rachel whispered, when they finally had to come up for air. Her hands slid down the sides of Hannah’s body and she reveled in the softness of her breasts, smiling when she heard a soft moan.

“I love you, too,” was the whispered response.

“There’s only one small thing wrong right now,” Rachel mumbled, shifting a little so it was easier for her to support the weight of Hannah’s body.

“You can’t breathe?” Hannah guessed, starting to move off Rachel, who immediately tightened her grip, not willing to let the blonde go.

“I can breathe just fine,” Rachel assured her, letting her hands roam across Hannah’s back, until they reached the waistband of her panties. Her fingers slipped underneath the elastic and she smiled when Hannah pressed her body closer. Cupping the soft, firm mounds, Rachel applied some pressure, feeling a wave of happiness when Hannah responded exactly as she had done in her many memories; the blonde sighed and buried her face in Rachel’s neck, gently nibbling the soft skin, while, unconsciously, her hips started to move in sync with the motion of Rachel’s hands.

“Rachel, what’s…the small…wrong thing?” Hannah gasped when she felt Rachel’s hands push her panties down, creating a fiery path down her skin.

“Don’t worry about it, sweetie,” was the whispered answer. “I’m taking care of it right now.”

Hannah chuckled and wanted to give the Doctor a witty reply, but, when Rachel slid a firm thigh between her legs, the words never made it out of her mouth.

#

Maureen Rivers stared at the dark sky, barely visible through the thick canopy of tree tops. The wind had died down and the naked, leafless branches were hardly moving in the gentle breeze.

Suppressing a sigh, Maureen pushed back her thick, red hair. She usually wore it tied back, so it would not be falling in her face, but after she had taken a shower that evening, she had let it hang loose.

A small smile tugged on the corner of her mouth when she remembered the look of surprise on Lauren’s face when she had emerged from the bathroom, dressed in a pair of dark-green sweat pants and a matching shirt, her hair flowing freely across her back and shoulders.

Even though Agent Van Zant should be capable of staying awake all night to keep watch, Maureen was secretly pleased with the presence of Chuck and Joe, who were still outside the cabin, providing her with more peace of mind than a room full of Agents could. This way, she and Lauren were granted a reasonable good night sleep.

From her seat on the wide windowsill, Maureen cast a look at the sleeping form of Lauren DarkWolf, who seemed relaxed in the comfortable looking queen-sized bed. The dark police woman was sleeping on her side, with one hand tucked underneath her pillow and the other one curled around her arm. Maureen, who had never seen Lauren asleep before, could not get enough of the soft, unguarded expression that adorned the Agent’s face in her sleep. Her shoulder length hair fanned across the pillow, dark against the white of the clean cotton and, if it had not been for the loaded gun on the side table next to the bed, Maureen could almost have believed she looked like a little girl.

With a sigh Maureen shifted, aware of the window pane that radiated cold, sending a shiver down her back. She tried to ignore the uncomfortable feeling, returning her gaze back to the starlit night. She enjoyed the peaceful surroundings, but knew it would have been a lot more pleasant had the circumstances been different. She could not help wondering how it would be to spend a relaxed, carefree weekend at the Lake with somebody she cared for.

Maureen softly snorted, doubting if she ever would be able to have a love and friendship like Hannah and Rachel shared. Her own relationship with Robert had always been more like a friendship than anything else. And in the end, the friendship had not been enough to keep the crumbling foundation intact.

With a wry smile, Maureen had to admit to herself the only regret she had was the fact it had taken her so long to come to the conclusion she had been hiding behind a facade for years. She did not begrudge Robert his newfound happiness, although she feared the loneliness that would inevitably follow their breakup. If Nathan was caught in time, Christmas would be a lonely affair.

“You’ll catch a cold,” a warm voice suddenly spoke, startling Maureen, who almost tumbled down the window sill. Only the strong grip of a pair of hands on her shoulders saved her from an embarrassing fall.

“Damn it, DarkWolf,” she snapped. “You scared the heck out of me.”

“I take that as a compliment,” Lauren chuckled. “Surprising a smart, well-trained Agent like you is quite an accomplishment.”

“How long have you been awake?” Maureen asked, suddenly feeling a little suspicious.

“Long enough,” Lauren answered vaguely, grabbing a quilt from the bed and wrapping it around the other Agent’s shoulders.

Maureen had to make a conscious effort not to moan in pleasure when the quilt, with Lauren’s body heat still clinging to the fabric, felt like a warm embrace, immediately chasing the chill from the skin of her bare arms.

“Better?” Lauren smiled, having seen the expression on the other woman’s face.

“Oh, yeah,” Maureen sighed. “Thank you.” She cast a glance at the woman who was standing so close she could feel the warmth radiating off her body. “You didn’t answer my question though; how long have you been awake?”

“A while,” Lauren answered vaguely, leaning her hip against the window sill, casting a look at the darkness outside.

“Aren’t your brothers freezing?” Maureen asked, wondering how Chuck and Joe could stand the cold.

“Probably,” Lauren answered with a shrug. When she turned to face the other woman, Maureen noticed a twinkle in her eyes. “But, don’t worry about them, they can handle it. Besides, it will give them a chance to be martyrs for a while. I’m sure they’ll remind me many times how they camped outside the cabin, in the freezing cold, just to keep me safe.”

“If there’s any woman who can look after herself, it’s you,” Maureen replied in a soft voice.

“You’re not bad yourself,” Lauren grinned. “I’ve seen you in action a few times and I was impressed. You pack a mean right punch.”

“I practiced on my little brother,” Maureen answered, making Lauren laugh. “You should laugh more often,” she heard herself say, mentally slapping herself for the remark.

“You think?” Lauren smiled. “Why? Don’t I laugh enough?”

Maureen felt she owed Lauren an explanation, but it was hard to explain what had made her say a thing like that. It would be another confrontation with a part of herself she had so carefully shielded for such a long time.

“I…um…that’s not what I meant, I…I…,” she stammered, searching for the right words. “Oh, hell, yes, that’s exactly what I meant,” she sighed, frustrated. “You do smile a lot, but I’ve hardly ever heard you laugh, I mean, really laugh. It…it’s a nice sound. I like it,” she added quickly, looking away from the dark eyes that were gazing at her so inquisitively.

“You do, huh?” Lauren answered, still smiling. She was standing so close to Maureen, she could feel the other woman’s body heat, even through the thick quilt that was draped around her shoulders. “Agent Rivers,” Lauren continued in a soft voice. “Why is it so hard to meet my eyes?”

Lauren noticed the stiffening of Maureen’s shoulders and the barely audible intake of breath. All of a sudden, it was like the air was quivering with tension that seemed to roll off the red-haired Agent. It remained painfully silent and for a brief moment Lauren was afraid she had pushed the other woman too hard and too far. But then she heard a sound that was a combination between a sob and a chuckle, while a slender hand wiped the corner of an eye.

“You must think I’m losing it,” Maureen sighed, letting out a deep breath, squaring her shoulders and lifting her chin to meet Lauren’s eyes.

“I don’t,” Lauren shook her head.

“Then what are you thinking, because I know you are thinking something. You’ve got this…little…sparkle in your eyes.”

Lauren raised an eyebrow in surprise, which made Maureen smile.

“A sparkle?” the tall woman echoed. “I’m amazed at your ability to observe so well in such a…dimly lit environment,” Lauren gently teased.

“I’m a well-trained Agent. I see a lot,” Maureen mocked herself, wishing she would have been so honest with herself a long time ago. “Don’t say it,” she laughed, raising a hand when Lauren opened her mouth to speak. “I was being sarcastic.”

“I noticed,” Lauren replied dryly. “By the way, you still haven’t answered my question and I’d really like to know if you think I don’t laugh enough.”

“How long have I known you?” Maureen answered the question with one of her own. “Two, three years?”

“Something like that,” Lauren answered, amused by the conversation. She was curious to find out what Maureen would come up with.

” In those years, I’ve only heard you laugh a few times,” Maureen confessed, knowing she was making herself more vulnerable with her answer. But she did not want to back out, not anymore.

“Really?” Lauren spoke softly. “Have you been keeping track?”

Maureen swallowed hard and she had to make a conscious effort to meet Lauren’s gaze. She was grateful for the darkness; it provided a soft, comfortable shield that made it easier for her to share her thoughts and feelings.

“I…it’s not like I’ve been keeping track, it’s just that…it was something I noticed,” Maureen finally answered. She tried not to think as to ‘why’ and was relieved Lauren was not pushing the issue. The dark-haired woman just smiled and, before she could change her mind, extended her hand to brush back a strand of red hair that fell across Maureen’s cheek. The unexpected and gentle gesture almost brought tears to the red-head’s eyes and again, she swallowed hard.

“So, are you keeping an eye on Van Zant?” Lauren asked after a brief silence.

“Am I?” Maureen frowned. “I don’t think so, even though I’m not entirely sure he’s cut out for the job.”

“I agree,” Lauren nodded. “It’s only because Chuck and Joe are out there that I allowed myself to take a nap. You should try it too, it feels pretty good,” Lauren added in a gently teasing tone.

“Are you trying to tell me something?” Maureen could not help smiling. She enjoyed the light bantering between herself and the other Agent. Ever since their talk that afternoon, something in their relationship had shifted. It was subtle, but Maureen knew Lauren could feel it too. There was a sense of warmth and trust between them that had not been there before. It was nice, Maureen decided. It made her feel less alone and cared for.

“Thank you,” she said, immediately seeing Lauren frown. “For…this afternoon. I’m very grateful you were willing to listen to my…soap-opera moments.”

“It’s alright, Maureen,” Lauren replied. “I told you I’m here if you need a friend and I meant it. Besides, I’ve had my share of what you call ‘soap opera moments’. I think we all have.”

Lauren gestured towards the bed and hiked up one eyebrow in silent question.

“Are you ready to try and sleep? I can sleep in the chair if you’d rather. I understand if…”

“Are you nuts?” Maureen interrupted. “You’re not sleeping in that chair. Believe it or not, but it’s no problem for me to sleep with you. I mean…share a bed with you,” she stammered and slapped Lauren across the stomach when she heard an amused chuckle. “You know what I mean.”

“I do,” Lauren answered with a grin, pulling the quilt away from Maureen’s body and spreading it out on the bed. She then gave the other Agent a gentle shove towards the bed while crawling back between the cool sheets herself. “Come on, Rivers, let’s get some sleep. I need my strength to beat the snot out of Nathan when he shows up.”

“You think he will?” Maureen asked, following Lauren’s example and sliding between the sheets. “If the Inspector’s plan works, they might have him by now.”

“That would be great,” Lauren nodded, casting a look at the woman next to her. Maureen was staring at the ceiling and to Lauren she looked a little nervous; ready to bolt. “I’m afraid Wilson’s plan won’t work though. Nathan is too slick for that. He’ll find us here and when he does, I want to be ready for him.”

#

It had taken him twice as long to crawl back to his car than he had wanted it to, but in the end, Nathan had been able to crawl back inside the vehicle and start the engine. With the lights off he had carefully made his way down the dirt road, any moment expecting a police cruiser with flashing lights pouncing on him, like a spider on its prey, but nothing had happened. When he had finally reached the main road again without having seen one police car, Nathan softly laughed, hardly believing his luck. How arrogant of Jack Wilson not to cover every road to and from the cabin he had used to lure him, Nathan Kendrick, into his web. The inspector was slipping.

“You should seriously think about retiring, Jackie,” Nathan whispered. “I might even assist you with that. I’m sure the OSBI would love to get rid of somebody who can only be an embarrassment. Especially, after they find the lifeless bodies of their poor little protegees.” Nathan let out a longing sigh and smiled. “Oh, what a sweet day that will be.”

His thoughts returned to the moment he had discovered the male Agents in the cabin he had just left and his face hardened.

“Change of plans,” he spoke to himself. “I think it’s time to call in some debts and favors.”

Reaching into his pocket, Nathan pulled out a cell phone and quickly dialed a number from memory. The phone only rang twice, until it was answered.

“Did you expect a call, my friend?” he asked sweetly, grinning when he heard the sharp intake of breath.

“Is…is that you, Nathan?” a male voice asked hesitantly.

“It sure is, bro. How have you been doing? Long time, no see.”

“Oh, I…I’ve been busy, you know. Trying to do my job.”

“I bet that’s hard, being straight out of the Academy and all that,” Nathan stated in a smooth voice. “Are you making ends meet?”

“I’m fine, really,” the voice hurriedly replied. “As a matter of fact, I’ve got some extra hours and I’m doing pretty good. I can’t complain.”

“Good for you,” Nathan answered. “Listen, are you interested in making some extra cash? It’s a fast job.”

There was a moment of silence and Nathan grimaced. He could almost feel the hesitance through the phone.

“Are…is it…legal?”

“You’re talking to a cop, buddy.”

“I…I know, I just, you know, I’ve just started here, Nate. I don’t want to lose my job.”

“Let me rephrase my question then,” Nathan smiled, but his eyes were cold. “I have a job for you. It’s not a question…”

#

Relaxed, warm and utterly content, Hannah used her finger to draw invisible lines on the skin of Rachel’s shoulder. The Doctor’s arms were firmly wrapped around her, spinning a cocoon of comfort she had not known for a long time.

“Are you okay?” Rachel’s voice sounded near her ear, while she pressed her lips against Hannah’s skin in a soft kiss.

“If I was more relaxed, I’d be boneless,” Hannah sighed in response, dropping a kiss on Rachel’s collar bone. “Go back to sleep, honey, it’s still very early.”

“I’m fine,” Rachel answered reveling in the soft, warm skin, touching hers in all the right places. It was something she wanted to savor as long as she could. The feel of Hannah’s body, practically draped around her was something she had sorely missed in the years they had been apart. “Besides, I’m not really tired.”

“You could have fooled me,” Hannah chuckled. “If I remember correctly, I woke you up a few hours ago.”

“It wasn’t a few hours ago,” Rachel objected with a soft laugh. “It was hardly an hour ago. And I was only asleep out of habit,” she explained, smiling when she heard Hannah’s unbelieving snort. “When I was a resident, I had to take naps whenever I had the chance. I guess I can sleep on command now.”

“Mmm, I need to remember that,” Hannah replied, suppressing a yawn. “I might use that to my advantage some day.”

Rachel did not answer and in the comfortable silence, Hannah felt her eyes grow heavy with sleep, while Rachel’s warm hand rubbed lazy circles across her back. As the blonde started to doze off, Rachel stared at the ceiling, not able to wipe the smile off her face. Being with Hannah was incredible and she dreaded them being apart, even if it would only be temporary.

“I need to talk to Gertrude,” Rachel mused, not aware she had spoken the words out aloud, until Hannah raised her head a little and shot her a sleepy, but inquisitive look.

“About what?” she asked in a husky voice.

“Huh?”

“Ask Granny about what?” Hannah patiently repeated.

“About you,” Rachel sighed. “And me, and her and Nicky. About all of us sharing a house.”

Sleep forgotten, Hannah looked up. Her eyes were wide when they stared at the Doctor, who looked back at her with a small smile that bordered on insecurity.

“You…would you do that?” Hannah asked.

“I would,” Rachel nodded. “I know how much you two mean to each other. I also realize Gertrude needs some help every now and then, but she’s not ready, or willing, to move to an assistant living center. To give you and her both peace of mind, I think it would be best to all live together, no matter where that would be.”

The look on Hannah’s face was something Rachel would never forget. The blonde radiated a mixture of surprise, joy, love and gratitude. The Doctor did not have to wonder if her idea had been received well.

“You’re such an incredible sweet woman,” Hannah whispered, brushing Rachel’s cheek with her fingers. “Granny won’t know what hit her when you ask her.”

“Do you think she’ll accept?” Rachel wondered, knowing how proud and independent Gertrude could be.

“She’ll probably give you a whole list of reasons why she can’t accept, but in the end she’ll do it,” Hannah answered with conviction. “Especially, if I’d ask her as sweet as I can.”

Rachel chuckled and pulled Hannah closer to her body.

“You have her wrapped around your little finger, haven’t you?”

“Just a little,” Hannah nodded with a smile. “I honestly try not to abuse that fact, though. But I guess that, ever since…since my parents died, she…” Hannah swallowed, still having difficulty talking about the most traumatic event in her life. “I’m all she has left of my Dad. Well, and her memories, of course.”

“So you became the focal point in her life,” Rachel nodded. “It’s completely understandable, honey. And it’s one of the reasons I want her to live with us.”

“I’d like that,” Hannah confessed, burying her face in the crook of Rachel’s neck. “Because no matter how much I want to be with you, I’d still worry about Granny.”

“I know,” Rachel replied, smiling when she felt Hannah gently nibble her neck. “What are you doing?”

“Well, I was thinking that your good idea deserves an appropriate award,” Hannah answered with her lips against Rachel’s skin. “And I also noticed how awake you are, so maybe, with the right attention, I’ll be able to help you go back to sleep.”

“Ever considered a career in politics?” Rachel asked with a laugh that suddenly died on her lips when Hannah found a particular sensitive spot. “Never mind, don’t answer that,” she breathed. “Don’t let me distract you.”

#

Agent Van Zant stared outside the window, enveloped in darkness, so he would not be visible to anyone outside. He knew exactly where Chuck and Joe DarkWolf were. The two men had signaled him when they had made themselves comfortable in their shelters that were hidden by the trees. He could not help wondering how they managed to stay warm and focused in the freezing cold. He himself was enjoying the luxury of sitting in a comfortable chair, indoors, close to the still smoldering embers of the dying fire. It was nice and warm and deep down inside it bothered Agent Van Zant. It hurt his ego to know that outside, not even a hundred yards away from where he was sitting, two men were denying themselves comfort and warmth, just to keep an eye on their sister.

Agent DarkWolf.

Van Zant sighed and raked his fingers through his short-cropped hair. He admired the tall female Agent. Her strength and intelligence were legendary among the young Agents, who looked up to her as if she was a hero. Which, in his eyes, she was. He had taken a lot of teasing about his adoration of the senior Agent. His friends knew they could get to him by asking him if he had asked her out on a date yet. Usually, he just laughed and shrugged his shoulders. They knew, as well as he did, that he did not stand a chance. Lauren DarkWolf did not date men. That was something everybody knew.

Again, Agent Van Zant let out a deep breath, while his eyes lazily scanned the tree line, hardly visible against the darkness of the sky. He had only spent a few hours in the company of the women that evening, but he had seen more than he had wanted to know. It was only because of his interest in the dark-haired Agent that he had seen that her eyes were easily distracted by another person in the room. It had not really surprised him, even though it had hurt to come eye-to-eye with the source of her affection.

“Who would have thought?” Van Zant mused, letting the recliner slowly rock back and forth. “I wonder if Lauren realizes it herself.”

#

The subject of Agent Van Zant’s thoughts had fallen asleep again, but, out of habit, started to wake up only a few hours later when it was still dark outside. Lauren suppressed a yawn, wondering if it would be a very bad thing to stay in bed a little while longer. Judging by the regular, deep breathing behind her, she knew Maureen Rivers was still fast asleep. Leaving the bed might disturb her and Lauren did not want to wake her up, so she decided to stay where she was, enjoying the warm sleepiness of her body. Closing her eyes the Agent quickly started to doze off again, until, all of a sudden, a strong arm wrapped itself around her middle, pulling her closer into Maureen Rivers’ body, who, in her sleep, let out a small sigh of contentment.

Lauren’s eyes flew open and while her heart tried to hammer its way out of her chest, her body shamelessly threatened to betray her mind by wanting to scoot backwards, increasing the enticing contact with the other woman. Unexpectedly, the unexpected contact had opened a floodgate of emotions that had been so overwhelming, she felt almost dizzy.

Lauren’s breathing was fast and irregular and she made a few conscious efforts to slow it down by taking some deep breaths. After a few moments, her strategy started to work and her heart rate became more normal again. But her emotions were still raw and ragged. In the course of a few seconds, it had become clear to her that she had been deceiving herself for a long time. It was hard to process all the thoughts that tumbled through her mind, but one thing stood out clearly; her body had acknowledged what her mind had not been willing to confront; she had feelings for the red-haired Agent that went far beyond regular friendship.

“Damn,” Lauren whispered, totally confused. “What do I do now?”

Part 16

It was still very dark outside when Lauren managed to crawl out of bed without waking up Maureen. It had been tempting to stay where she was, feeling the warm body of the other woman pressed against her back and her arm firmly wrapped around her waist. But Lauren was very aware of the turmoil Maureen had been in lately. She did not want the other Agent to be embarrassed when she woke up. So she had carefully disentangled herself from the red-head’s firm grip and had let out a sigh of relief when her feet had touched the cool hardwood floor.

About ten minutes later, after taking a quick shower, Lauren entered the cabin’s living room, immediately noticing the form of Agent van Zant in the recliner near the window. As soon as he heard the barely audible footsteps behind him, he jumped up to face the dark woman.

“Morning, Van Zant,” Lauren greeted him in a soft voice. “Anything to report?”

“Only if you count owls and a big buck that was sniffing around just a little while ago,” Van Zant answered dryly, making Lauren smile. “Do you think Nathan will try to come here?” he asked, casting her a curious look.

“Yes, I do,” Lauren nodded. “I don’t believe he’ll go for the trap they set for him in Sulphur. He’ll be making his way over here pretty soon.”

“We’re ready for him,” Van Zant mumbled, suppressing a yawn.

“Go take a nap, Agent,” Lauren suggested, giving the younger man a friendly pat of the shoulder. “I’ll take over from here.”

“Sure, alright,” Van Zant nodded. “Is…um…is Agent Rivers up as well?”

Lauren cast a look at the young man, his normally clean-shaven face was covered with a day old beard and he looked tired and worried.

“She’ll be here in a little while,” Lauren answered. “Go, Van Zant.”

He nodded, stuffed his cell phone that had been lying on the table next to him inside his pocket, turned around and left the room, not aware of a pair of pensive, dark eyes that stared at his retreating figure.

As soon as Van Zant had left the room, Lauren headed for the kitchen to make some coffee. One of her favorite times of the day was the morning, when the world was still quiet and she was allowed to let her eyes stare and give her thoughts free reign. This morning was no exception. While sipping her hot, fragrant coffee, Lauren stared in the distance, not seeing the calm, dark-blue shimmering of the lake through the tree line. Instead, her thoughts turned to Maureen Rivers and the response of her own body to the unexpected physical contact. Somehow, Lauren felt she had missed some important clues in her relationship with the other woman. How was it possible she had let her own feelings surprise her like that? It was so unlike her.

Letting out a sigh, Lauren remembered the conversation she had with Maureen the previous afternoon. All of a sudden, she saw the things they had discussed in a totally different light. Dark eyes stared unseeing while the echo of Maureen Rivers’ voice filled her mind.

“You know, I can’t blame Rob for anything. I basically deceived him from the start, even though, at the time I didn’t really know I was. Him being unfaithful wasn’t even a real shock. It was an eye-opener, really. The only hurt I felt when he told me ,was a bruised ego and regret for wasting so much time. So, when it was clear our, so- called ‘marriage’ was over, I felt free to…to…give into things I’d always been…curious about and…Do you remember that investigation we did in Tulsa a few months ago? The one at the Community Bank?…Do you remember that one Detective, the tall brunette?” Maureen’s voice had deepened and the barely audible quiver had given away her insecurity. Lauren had not answered. She had just nodded and patiently waited for Maureen to continue, which she did after taking a few big breaths. “After we closed the case, she invited me for a drink.” Maureen had swallowed hard and had avoided Lauren’s eyes. “I slept with her,” she confessed in a whisper.

Lauren shifted in her chair, remembering her surprise after Maureen’s words. It had taken her all the self-control she possessed to restrain herself from replying: ‘Really?’, knowing Maureen could do without her showing her astonishment so blatantly.

“How do you feel about that?” Lauren had finally managed to ask, her voice calm and gentle.

“Confused, kind of. I know I’ll never see her again. It…it was a…real one-night stand. It…I felt cheap and disappointed…I still do when I think about it.”

“Why?”

“Because it …I had no feelings for her whatsoever, except some physical attraction. But it was still…it was…better than …it was so different than being with Rob.”

“Different as in ‘good’?” Lauren had asked with a small smile.

“Oh, yeah,” Maureen had answered. She had finally looked up and returned Lauren’s smile, but the shadows had still been there.

“What’s hurting so much then?” the dark-haired woman asked.

“It left me with an empty feeling and I can’t help wondering what…how it would have been…with somebody…different,” Maureen had replied with difficulty, avoiding Lauren’s eyes.

“Somebody different,” Lauren repeated softly, feeling a flutter of fear deep inside her chest. “What if…?”

She did not finish the question, afraid of the answer. The morning had caused enough emotional turmoil already and Lauren knew she needed to stay focused. She had a job to do and losing her cool was something she could not allow herself to do. She had to be prepared for Nathan, because she was sure he was coming….sooner or later. So she tucked away the feelings that were bubbling up inside her, banishing them to the deep recesses of her heart, where they would wait until Lauren was ready to face them, or until they would become so prevalent nothing would be able to stop their ascent to the Agent’s conscious thoughts.

Lauren looked up when she heard the sound of a door closing and, to her annoyance, she immediately felt her heart skip a beat.

“Get a grip, DarkWolf,” she mumbled to herself as she got to her feet. When she turned around she saw Gertrude walking into the kitchen and she greeted the elderly woman with a warm smile.

“Good morning, Gertrude.”

“Good morning, Lauren,” Gertrude smiled back. “I couldn’t help noticing the enticing smell of a good cup of coffee. I just had to get up.”

“Sit down and let me pour you a cup, then,” Lauren laughed.

“Thanks, sweetie,” Gertrude answered, not seeing the raised eyebrow and the amused flicker in a pair of dark eyes. “How did you sleep?”

“I had a good sleep,” Lauren replied, feeling her skin grow warm when she remembered the moment Maureen had hugged her to her body, waking her up. “Knowing my brothers are out there to keep an eye on me helped a lot.”

“They strike me as very capable of looking after their sister,” Gertrude nodded and when Lauren looked up she noticed the amused twinkle in the clear blue eyes. “I bet they keep forgetting their sister can look after herself, but still, it’s sweet.”

“It is,” Lauren smiled. “And to be honest, Gertrude, it really does make me feel better they’re here. Nathan is so slick, it’s hard to anticipate his next move. I’ve no idea what he will come up with next. I do know he’ll be here, sooner or later.”

“I think you’ re right,” Gertrude nodded, sipping from her hot coffee. There was a brief silence in which both women were lost in thought. The cabin was still very quiet and, in the distance, they could hear the sound of a barking dog.

“May I ask you a personal question, Lauren?” Gertrude finally asked, while her eyes looked at the agent with gentle curiosity.

“Go ahead,” Lauren encouraged.

“I know it’s none of my business and you’re absolutely welcome to tell me that, but…,” Gertrude paused for a second to collect her thoughts. “I’ve got some experience with Hannah and the way she has mastered the skill of avoiding her own feelings. That’s why I couldn’t help noticing a few things last night. Are you aware of Agent’s Rivers feelings for you?”

Lauren, who had just taken a sip of coffee, almost spit it out again when Gertrude’s words reached her ears. She quickly put the cup down on the kitchen table and covered her mouth with her hand while she coughed.

“You’re not pulling punches, are you?” she finally managed to say, her voice hoarse and slightly quivering.

“I’m too old to be diplomatic,” Gertrude joked, making Lauren chuckle.

“Well, since you’re being so honest with me, I’ll return the favor,” Lauren sighed. “I wasn’t aware of it, until…until last night, really. And even then, I wasn’t sure, so I’m curious to find out how you reached your conclusion.”

“Observation,” Gertrude answered calmly. “When Hannah fell in love with Rachel, years ago, she had no clue about her feelings for a long time, although her parents and I had already figured it out. But we decided it was up to her to make sense of what she was feeling and come to her own conclusions.”

“What has changed that?” Lauren asked in a soft voice.

Gertrude sighed and reached across the table to gently cover Lauren’s larger hand with her own. Her blue eyes searched the Agent’s dark ones and she sent her a sad smile.

“Life is short, Lauren, too short sometimes to waste time with sitting around and waiting. I’ve lost my husband, my son and my daughter-in-law, all of whom still had so many dreams and plans for the future. They were never able to reach those dreams, but when they passed away, at least they had known love, real love and to me that is something so precious, I just can’t help myself when I see two people who should be together but are not. I just have to butt in and try to open their eyes.”

Lauren could not tear her eyes away from Gertrude’s intense gaze and she swallowed hard, feeling her heart pound in her chest. It was as if the elderly lady had suddenly opened her eyes, showing her truth and possibilities she had not been aware of.

“You think Maureen and I should be together?”

“Yes, dear, I do,” Gertrude nodded. “There’s a pull between the two of you you’re not even aware of. When you two are together, your whole demeanor is different than when you’re apart. Even when you or she leave the room for a few minutes things change, until the other one is back. I know you weren’t aware of that, but I saw it and I hope you’ll forgive me for sticking my nose in something that is not my business, but I just had to tell you. You’re both wonderful women and I just know you’ll be happier together than apart.”

Lauren shook her head and let out a soft laugh, while she shot Gertrude an appreciative look.

“I respect your honesty,” she said. “And I promise to heed your words, but I’m not sure if now is the time or place. There’s too much at stake here to lose my focus.”

“I understand,” Gertrude answered the warm smile and gently patted Lauren’s hand before releasing her. “But when this is all over, you might want to woo that attractive red-head. I could give you the names of a few nice, romantic restaurants,” Gertrude winked.

“I’m sure you could,” Lauren chuckled. “And I might hold you to that. Thank you, Gertrude,” Lauren added, referring to more than the offer to name some places to eat.

“You’re most welcome, sweetheart. I hope it will all work out for you.”

Lauren nodded and took another sip of her coffee, wondering why the burden she had felt before all of a sudden seemed so much lighter. She drained her cup and pushed back her chair intent on stepping outside a few minutes to get a breath of fresh air and to check up on her brothers. To her surprise, the door of Agent Van Zant’s room opened and the young man strolled back into the living room, looking tired and worried and, as Lauren noticed, he could barely control his agitation and nervousness.

“Van Zant,” she spoke. “What are you doing up?”

“Um…I can’t sleep,” the young man answered, avoiding her eyes. “I thought I’d make myself some hot tea and try again later.”

Lauren frowned, but before she could say anything, her cell phone started to ring.

“Excuse me,” she spoke, pulling the device off the clip on her belt.

“DarkWolf,” she spoke, turning away from Van Zant and walking towards the window. She stopped dead in her tracks when the voice on the other side reached her ear.

“Hello, Lauren,” a familiar voice sounded, immediately sending shivers down her back. “It’s nice to hear your voice. How’s Hannah?”

“That’s none of your business, you son of a bitch,” Lauren almost hissed.

“Tsk, tsk, Agent DarkWolf. Is that the proper way to address an old friend? You hurt my feelings.”

“What the hell do you want, Nathan?” she asked coldly, hearing the sharp intake of breath from Gertrude, while Van Zant almost dropped the cup he was holding. Lauren’s eyes scanned the tree line, looking for her brothers. She wanted to signal them, but they were nowhere in sight. She knew they were probably checking the parameters they had set around the cabin and she decided to try and buy some time. Nathan must be close for him to call her.

“What makes you think I want something?” he replied with feigned hurt.

“Maybe I just wanted to hear your voice.”

“Get to the point, asshole,” she spat, trying to control her rage. She knew losing her temper would not be the best way to interact with the psychopath Nathan was, but the moment she had heard his voice had brought back all the pain and hurt he had caused when Debra had been killed and Lauren was fighting for control. He knew her anger over Debra’s death was her weak spot in dealing with him, but she did not want to give him the satisfaction of fueling her rage. The best way to deal with Nathan Kendrick was to stay calm and level headed.

“You are so not being nice,” Nathan sighed. “Aren’t you going to ask me where I am?”

“Are you going to answer me?” Lauren replied in a cool voice.

“I might,” Nathan chuckled. “Are your brothers still there?”

“Who?” Lauren replied, feeling her blood go cold after Nathan’s question. He knew her brothers were there. How? Even Jack Wilson had no idea about Chuck and Joe.

“Stall, Lauren,” a voice in the back of her mind encouraged her. “Stall, buy time. Think!”

“Your brothers, the tall, dark warriors. Come on, DarkWolf, I’m not stupid. I know they’re there.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Kendrick. Have you been using those drugs again? You know, the ones that got you fired because you were dealing them? I should have known you couldn’t resist a taste yourself.”

“You bitch,” Nathan hissed in her ear and a small smile appeared on Lauren’s face. She had turned the tables on him, for now. He had wanted her angry, out of control, but instead she had managed to enrage him “You think you’re so smart, but you’re just as stupid as the rest.”

“I guess we’ll have to see about that,” Lauren answered calmly, feeling a wave of relief when her eyes fell on the familiar form of her brother, Chuck, emerging from behind a tree. “So, are you going to tell me what this is about or is this just a social call?”

Lauren sounded calm, but inside a storm was raging. How had Nathan found out about her brothers? Was he that close? Had he seen them? In order to observe the cabin, one had to come really close, since the small building was tucked away in the forest. She could hardly imagine her brothers would have missed anyone approaching them. That left only one other explanation; somebody in the cabin had informed Nathan about their whereabouts and the presence of her brothers. Lauren’s eyes traveled back to the room and the kitchen while she slowly turned around, making sure she kept her back towards the window. Gertrude, who was still sitting at the kitchen table looked pale and drawn. Her eyes were filled with a mixture of fear, anger and frustration and Lauren sent her a small, encouraging smile, immediately seeing some of the tension in the older woman’s body disappear. Lauren made a conscious effort to remain calm and unaffected when her eyes fell on Agent Van Zant, who was nervously fidgeting with a tea bag, almost pulling it apart with slightly trembling fingers.

Lauren’s eyes grew cold and with the phone still firmly pressed against her left ear, her right hand reached behind her back in such a smooth, fast motion, in the time it had taken him to take a breath, Agent Van Zant was staring at the barrel of a gun. Lauren’s hand was steady when she walked closer and it was obvious to the young man she was ready to pull the trigger at any time.

“W…what?” he stammered and on the other side of the connection she could hear Nathan’s chuckle.

“You are so great to play with, Lauren,” his amused voice sounded. “You’ve already figured it out, haven’t you? But how do you know it’s Van Zant and not Rivers?”

For a split second Lauren froze, but then her body relaxed and she stepped even closer to Van Zant who looked positively sick.

“Because the phone call must have been made during the night. Van Zant was the one keeping watch and he was the one calling you. I bet if I check his cell phone, I’ll find your number in there.”

“Again, how do you know it wasn’t Rivers?”

“Because I do,” Lauren answered, unwilling to give Nathan more ammunition by telling him Maureen had been with her all night.

“You sound very sure of yourself,” Nathan spoke and Lauren detected a hint of insecurity in his voice.

“I am,” she answered with a cold smile. “So, again, what do you want Nathan?”

“You know what I want, DarkWolf. I want Hannah.”

“You can’t have her,” Lauren answered calmly, catching a movement from the corner of her eye. Hannah had entered the room and Rachel was standing right behind her with Nicky in her arms. They were frozen in place by the sight of Lauren aiming her gun directly at Van Zant’s heart.

“Go back into the bedroom and close the door,” she said, without taking her eyes off Van Zant. “But first, wake up Maureen.”

Hannah nodded and disappeared out of Lauren’s line of vision, as did Rachel when she stepped back into the room with Nicky firmly held into her arms.

“Are the girls up already? How convenient,” Nathan’s voice sing-songed and Lauren let out a slow breath. “I bet you think you’ve got this all under control, don’t you?” Nathan continued and this time his voice was cold and vicious.

“I’m not getting comfortable, if that’s what you think, Kendrick,” Lauren answered. “But I am looking forward to hauling your ass off to jail and throwing away the key. It will be so much fun to visit you while you’re on death row. It will provide me years of fun just to watch you rot away, while you wait for your appeals to run out. I wonder if it hurts, you know, those first few currents that run through your body. I bet it…”

“Shut up!” Nathan suddenly yelled into her ear. “Shut up, you bitch.”

“Oh, touchy subject, Nathan?”

Lauren felt more than she saw Maureen rushing through the hallway. Her long hair was bouncing around her shoulders when she slid behind Van Zant, expertly removing his gun from his belt. She pulled his hands down behind his back and, within seconds, the young man had been efficiently cuffed.

Lauren relaxed and sent Agent Rivers a grateful smile, lowering her weapon, but not putting it away.

“You want to know where I am? You want to know where I am?” Nathan’s disturbed voice yelled at her and involuntarily Lauren winced. “I’m staring at your Dad and Mom right now. How does that feel, DarkWolf? Huh? Wanna trade? Your Dad doesn’t like that nylon rope at all, it hurts his wrists. Do you think he’d scalp me if I hurt your Mom?”

It took Lauren a few seconds to register what she had just heard. All of a sudden she felt so sick, she had to swallow hard to keep down the bile that was rising in her throat. Her eyes were full of anger when they landed on Van Zant and the young man cringed.

“My Dad might not, but I will,” she stated in a cold voice. “If you hurt them, my brothers and I will hunt you down and take care of you in a way your worst nightmares can’t prepare you for. Your death will be slow, very slow, and I promise that when I scalp you, you’ll be fully aware of what I’m doing.”

There was a brief silence in which Lauren fought hard for self-control. She was aware of Maureen’s worried eyes and Van Zant’s sickly pale color and with satisfaction she heard Nathan’s labored breathing.

“Don’t like that visual, do you?” she sneered.

“I could kill them and hit the road. You’ll never find me.”

“You’re wrong, I will,” Lauren said with self-confidence. “You’re not in the city anymore, Kendrick. This is my turf.”

“I want you to give Van Zant his gun back and hand yours over to him. Then I want Rivers to tie you to a pole, so he can cuff her to the pole next to you. Then he’ll get Hannah and hit the road. I’ll give him a call to tell him where to meet me.”

“You’re delusional,” Lauren answered, wondering why Nathan had not mentioned her brothers.

“No! You are if you think you can get out of this one, DarkWolf.”

“You won’t be able to pull this off, Nathan,” Lauren replied in a calm voice. “I know you’re afraid to die and, I promise you this, if you don’t surrender, you will.”

Lauren had noticed Maureen had gotten her cell phone out and the red-head was talking to somebody in a soft, but urgent voice. She knew the other Agent was aware of what was going on and in spite of the tense situation, Lauren felt her heart warm at the knowledge she was not alone. Maureen was at her side and she could not have asked for a more intelligent, stronger partner. Holding up one finger behind Van Zant’s back, Maureen signaled her she needed another minute and Lauren nodded, knowing it was not hard to stall Nathan.

“I want Hannah,” Nathan repeated and this time it sounded like whining. Lauren knew he was mentally unstable and she realized she had to be cautious if she wanted her parents to get through their ordeal of being held hostage unscathed.

“You tell me you have my parents, but how do I know you’re not lying?” she spoke, casting a quick look outside to see her brother Chuck talk into his cell phone. He looked at the cabin and knowing he could see her she gave him a hand signal that told him to stay put, grateful for the silent communication skills their father had taught them on their many camping trips when they were young. Chuck signaled back he had understood her message and Lauren turned back to face Van Zant, who looked like he could faint any given minute. Lauren sent him a cold smile, before her eyes shifted to Maureen who had finished her conversation and was tucking her cell phone back into her pocket.

“I want to talk to my parents,” Lauren said in a firm tone.

“I want to talk to Hannah.”

“You already know she’s here,” Lauren replied. “I need to talk to my parents. We’re going around in circles here, Nathan. I can’t offer you any kind of deal if you don’t let me talk to my parents.”

There was another brief silence in which Lauren could hear the sound of mumbled voices and scuffling footsteps.

“Lauren?” her mother’s voice suddenly sounded and Agent DarkWolf swallowed hard, fighting for self-control.

“Mom, are you and Dad alright?” she asked, not able to hide the anxiety in her voice.

“For the most part,” her mother answered in a tired voice. “He has us tied to…”

“That’s enough,” Nathan’s voice suddenly sounded and Lauren could hear how he pulled the phone away from her mother. “Well, you’ve heard her. What’s my deal?”

“How about you letting them go and I’ll let you live?”

“How about you handing Van Zant his gun back and let him take Hannah?”

Lauren’s eyes shifted to the note Maureen had been writing and had pushed into her hand.

Wilson is on the way, so are the locals. Orders: stay put. Stall. Sheriff’s department is surrounding your parent’s house as we speak.

“Oh, Lauren, by the way, have I mentioned your parents aren’t home anymore?” Nathan’s amused voice sounded. “I took them on a little road trip. I’m so nice.”

“Bastard,” Lauren spat, fighting for self-control.

“That’s not a nice thing to say to somebody who has the power to sniff out the lives of two people you care for so much. Or do you?”

“You wouldn’t know the meaning of the word ‘caring’,” Lauren answered. “You’re just a sick, piece of…” Maureen’s hand on her arm made her swallow the rest of the words and with a pained expression she stared into a pair of compassionate eyes.

“Give me the phone,” Maureen mouthed and Lauren shook her head.

“Give it, Lauren,” the red-head insisted. “I have a plan, trust me.”

Lauren did not move, but when Maureen reached out and gently pulled the phone from her grasp, she did not protest.

“Nathan?” Maureen spoke. “It’s me, Rivers. I’m going to work out a deal with you, because DarkWolf is involved too much. What do you want?”

Maureen noticed the flash of anger that crossed Lauren’s features and she grabbed the other woman’s hand while her eyes begged for trust and understanding. For a woman like Lauren, it was hard to simply give up control like that and trust someone else to take care of the crisis. In any other situation she would have refused, but something deep down inside told her to trust Maureen and let her handle it. She nodded and Maureen sent her a grateful smile before returning her attention back to the conversation with Nathan.

“Why would I trust you?” Nathan replied.

“How about this? I want to be home for Christmas, which is tomorrow, I’m sick and tired of all this crap and, on top of it all, I’m PMS’ing. I want this situation done and over with and I want to do it now. I don’t want to wait for a spineless inspector to throw his weight around, because he doesn’t know what he’s doing anyway. Where can we meet?”

Maureen visibly winced at her choice of words, hoping that they would never make it back to Jack Wilson. But she had to win some resemblance of trust and the best way to do that was to make Nathan believe she would throw all caution in the wind.

“When you leave the cabin and head North, three miles down the road, there’s an old barn. We can trade there; The DarkWolfs for Hannah.”

“What time?” Maureen asked.

“Hour from now.”

“You got it.”

Maureen ended the conversation and turned to Lauren to hand her back her cell phone. Without speaking a word she walked towards Van Zant, grabbed his arm and roughly pushed him into a chair.

“Talk to me,” she ordered, her eyes dark with anger.

“I…I…”

“If you don’t talk to me right now, I swear I’ll have Chuck and Joe pull every word out of you with a blunt knife.”

Van Zant’s eyes traveled from Lauren to Maureen and back again and it was obvious the young man was on the verge of losing the contents of his stomach.

“I didn’t mean for this to happen,” he whispered. “Nathan…I…he…he knows something about my past and he said he’d make sure I’d be kicked out of the service and land in jail…I was…I didn’t think he’d take your parents hostage, I swear. I thought he’d show up and you could all overpower him and get it done and over with.”

“What kind of hold does he have on you?”

“When I was in college…I…I was involved in a hit-and-run accident,” Van Zant took a deep breath and cast down his eyes, not able to meet Maureen Rivers’ eyes. “I was the one running. The person I hit was in a coma for months and…and…eventually died…I had been drinking and…I ran,” he whispered.

“Is alcohol your vice?” Maureen asked relentlessly. “Is that how he got a grip on you?”

“I met him in a bar. I didn’t know it was him, I swear. We started talking and he kept buying me drinks.”

“And you spilled your guts, giving Nathan a nice grip on you. Good job, Van Zant,” Maureen spoke. “You managed to get us all in a busload of trouble here. But guess what?”

A pair of fearful eyes stared up at her and Maureen sent Van Zant a cool smile.

“You’re going to help us fix this.”

Straightening her back, Maureen half-turned and cast a look at Lauren who had signaled her brothers to come to the cabin, which they had done. Two tall figures were entering the door Lauren had opened and two pair of dark eyes scanned the cabin, landing on a handcuffed Van Zant who was staring at the floor, afraid to look up.

“What’s going on?” Chuck asked.

Lauren informed her brothers what had happened and to Chuck and Joe’s credit they listened intently to their sister and Maureen, without interrupting them. Once Agent Rivers had told them about her short conversation with Nathan, Chuck stepped closer to Van Zant who softly whimpered when a large hand grabbed his chin and forced his face up.

“You’re going to do exactly what we tell you to do,” he said in a calm voice that belied his anger. “And I do mean exactly. One wrong move and you’re toast, you got that?”

“Y…yes, sir,” Van Zant stammered, wishing he could rectify his past mistakes.

“Good, you’re coming with us.”

“Whoa, hold on, guys, what’s the plan?” Maureen asked, casting a look at Lauren, who was checking her gun.

“We’ll go meet Nathan,” she answered calmly.

“I got that, Agent DarkWolf,” Maureen answered, not able to hide her irritation. “But we need a plan. We’re both OSBI Agents and there’s some rules we’ll have to stick to. It’s been a while since a posse rode out to lynch the bad guy.”

“I won’t lynch him,” Lauren with a smile that did not reach her eyes.

“You can’t scalp him either,” Maureen added, making Chuck and Joe grin.

“I won’t,” Lauren smiled again, this time for real. “But I will get my folks out of his clutches, trust me.”

“Amen to that,” Chuck added and Joe nodded.

“Alright,” Maureen sighed. “So, what’s the plan?”

#

Hannah nervously looked at the clock, wishing she could speed up time and end the day. It had not been long since Lauren and her brothers had left the cabin, dragging Van Zant along with them, leaving them in the protective care of Maureen Rivers who was as nervous and tense as the rest of them. They had left it up to Maureen to inform them about what had happened and when the Agent had finished her story, Hannah had been visibly shaken, while Rachel had been very quiet and withdrawn.

Hannah cast a look at her lover and her heart went out to the Doctor. Even though she disliked Nathan as much as Hannah did, Rachel also had to come to terms with the fact that it was her cousin who was terrorizing their lives and who was currently holding two people hostage.

“What are you thinking?” Hannah asked softly, covering Rachel’s fidgeting fingers with her own.

“I’m hoping all of this will end without bloodshed,” Rachel sighed, looking at Nicky who was telling Gertrude her own version of ‘Finding Nemo’. A small smile crept across her face when she heard her daughter’s clear, high-pitched voice telling the elderly Lady about Nemo and the ‘tuwtles’

Rachel’s eyes traveled back to Hannah and she reached out to brush away a strand of blond hair from the nurse’s forehead.

“And if there’s any blood to be shed, I so hope it will be Nathan’s,” she added, not able to hide the bitterness in her voice.

“I second that,” Maureen’s voice came from her spot at the window. She had stood there ever since Lauren and her brothers had left. “If he hurts her parents…” she did not finish the sentence, because all of a sudden her throat constricted. If anything would happen to Lauren’s parents, the tall Agent would be heartbroken, which was a very unsettling thought, to say the least.

The silence that followed was so long and intense, Nicky paused her story and stared at the adults with insecurity written all over her face.

“Mama?”

Rachel looked up and managed a smile, immediately seeing Nicky’s small form relax against Gertrude, who had her arm protectively wrapped around the small child.

“It’s alright, sweetie. I want to hear the rest of your story. I want to know what happened to the turtles”

“Awight,” Nicky beamed, immediately continuing her story with enthusiasm, not aware the adults could only understand part of her enticing tale.

Hannah let out a sigh, leaning against Rachel, who wrapped her arm around the blonde’s shoulders and pulled her close.

“I love you,” Hannah mumbled, pressing her face against the Doctor’s neck.

“I love you, too,” Rachel answered, equally soft. “It will be over soon, honey.”

“I hope so,” was the whispered answer.

#

The DarkWolfs had not wasted any time. As soon as they had left the cabin, they had started to plan and organize their strategy in detail. It had only taken a couple of phone calls to mobilize a few more friends and family members and when Chuck shut off his phone, stuffing it in his pocket, Lauren asked: ‘How many?’

“About thirty,” was the calm answer, but in his voice she could hear the pride and she sent him a smile.

“You know what to do,” she told him.

“Don’t worry, sis. Just take care of yourself. You won’t be alone.”

“I know,” Lauren nodded, opening the door of the car and stepping out, immediately feeling the icy cold wind blowing against her face. “Buzz me when they’re safe.”

‘When’, not ‘if’.

“I will,” Chuck nodded, closing the door and gesturing Van Zant to continue driving.

The cold wind stung her eyes when Lauren stared at the car until it had disappeared out of sight. Only then, she turned around and started her jog up the hill.

#

Nathan pulled the ski-mask over his head, making sure every inch of his skin was covered. He hated cold, especially when it was windy. It always made his ears hurt and he had promised himself after he had taken care of business, he would leave Oklahoma for good. Maybe he would go to Florida or California. Or even south Texas. As long as he did not have to deal with cold winters anymore. Nor the always blowing wind.

Cold, calculating eyes followed the car that was slowly approaching the cabin and he could not suppress a giggle. They would get a nasty surprise. What a bunch of idiots! Did they really think he would just sit around, waiting for them? Like he would bring his hostages to that barn! Lauren’s father, Jacob DarkWolf was a huge man and the only way Nathan had been able to control him was to use his wife as a living shield.

Again, Nathan chuckled. It had been so smart of him to let April DarkWolf tie her husband’s arms and legs. Tying her up had been easy. It was amazing a woman of April DarkWolf’’s size had such tall children. Lauren really had her Daddy’s genes.

“Well, no time to sit around and laugh,” Nathan decided, tucking away the binoculars. “There’s a cute blonde only a few hundred yards away from here who is dying to see me.”

#

Lauren stood motionless, using all her senses to keep an eye on her surroundings. The jacket Chuck had given her made her almost invisible in between the bushes and the trees and her ability to quietly blend in would be her best weapon. Although Nathan was extremely cruel and cunning, he had never really mastered the art of camouflage. He had always disliked getting down and dirty. It was something she would use to her advantage. As she had told him over the phone; this was her turf, the land she had grown up in, where she knew every rock and tree. Every sight and sound.

Tilting her head, Lauren was aware of the sound of rustling leaves that did not correspond with the strength of the wind, nor its direction and she nodded in contentment. Her prey had taken the bait. Her eyes scanned the trees, while the adrenaline pumped through her system in anticipation of the battle that certainly would take place. And the outcome would be in her favor, she was going to make sure of that.

The cell phone she had stuffed inside her pocket vibrated and, without taking her eyes from the tree line, she pulled it out so she could cast a quick glance at the display. Letting out a sigh of relief she put it back into place, while the words in the message were etched into her brain: “Safe! Get him.”

#

“Girls, it’s time to get into the kitchen,” Maureen calmly said, while her eyes never left the tree Lauren had pointed out to her just before she had left. If she had not known where to look, she would not have been able to detect the other Agent at all. Even while she knew where to look, it was still hard to see Lauren, who was standing motionless behind the tree.

The kitchen was the only area of the house without windows and it was relatively far away from the door. The area was open, but there was a narrow wall the other women could hide from Nathan’s eyes. Maureen did not expect Nathan to try and climb through a window, but she did not want to take any risks. It was her job to keep Hannah, Rachel, Nicky and Gertrude safe. If Nathan wanted to get to them, he would have to go through her.

Maureen quickly checked her gun, taking it off safety, while she made sure she had a few more clips within reach. If it came to a shoot-out, she wanted to be prepared.

Rachel was holding Nicky, while Hannah had grabbed Gertrude’s arm, guiding the elderly lady into the kitchen, where she sat her in a chair.

“Are you alright?” she asked, her face pale and her eyes wide with fear and anxiety.

“I’m fine, don’t worry about me,” Gertrude smiled.

“Mama?” Nicky asked. Watching her mother with big, brown eyes.

“It’s alright, Nicky. We’re waiting for Lauren to come back, okay?”

“Lauwen?” Nicky echoed with a smile. “Lauwen’s my fwiend.”

“I know,” Rachel smiled, hugging her daughter close with one arm while she extended the other one to wrap around Hannah, pulling the blonde close. She dropped a kiss on the soft blond hair and took a deep breath, willing her racing heart to calm down.

“I won’t let him hurt you,” she whispered in Hannah’s ear and the blonde nodded, lifting her head to look into Rachel’s eyes. Without breaking eye-contact, she reached up and, with her fingers, searched the top of the cabinet until she touched smooth, cool steel. Making sure to keep the gun out of Nicky’s sight, Hannah put it behind her on the counter.

“I won’t let anything happen to any of you, either,” she whispered, leaning in for a kiss. “Nathan’s game is going to end today.”

#

The goal was in sight, he could see the cabin and he could almost taste the victory. It was so sweet. Soon he would have accomplished what he had been craving for such a long time; Hannah would be his, forever. She would never be Rachel’s.

The thought of his cousin fueled his anger and his eyes turned to slits when they stared at the rapidly approaching cabin. Sometimes he wondered which feeling was stronger; his desire to control Hannah or his hate for his cousin. It was all her fault anyway. He would have been content with watching Hannah from a distance, fantasizing about them being together one day. She had never shown any interest in anybody after Rachel had left, which had been fine with him. That way it had not been necessary to get rid of anyone. Until Rachel came back and Hannah just fell for her all over again. Disgusting. All his hard work and his patience had been in vain. Hannah had thrown herself in Rachel’s arms and his cousin had won. Again. No more, though. Her victory over him was over. Within a few moments, he would make her watch while he would take what she loved the most; Hannah Jensen.

Nathan giggled and tightened his fingers around his gun, feeling comfort in the cold, hard steel.

Just a few more minutes…

#

Lauren’s eyes had not left the bulky form the second she had spotted it. With a raised eyebrow and a sly smile, she realized Nathan did not even try to hide his descent down the hill. He was slipping and sliding down as fast as he could, snapping twigs and branches in the process. Apparently he was so sure of himself, he was getting careless.

“Way to go, Nathan,” Lauren mumbled, making sure she had a good grip on her gun. “You’re showing your eagerness, buddy, and that will be your downfall.”

Knowing she would have no problem spotting him again, Lauren allowed her eyes to roam her surroundings and she smiled when she noticed a familiar red-head behind the window. Her eyes shifted and she nodded when her eyes fell on a few irregularities in the bushes. A well-known bird call reached her ears and Lauren smiled. The day would be theirs.

#

A few more yards and he would be there. Almost…almost…almost. Nathan could feel his heart pounding in his chest, while his breathing was labored. The cold air almost made him cough, but he was able to suppress it, he did not want to alarm the women inside the cabin. How stupid of DarkWolf and Rivers to rush to the barn. Now he would have all the time he needed to finish his job. He was sure they had left Hannah and Rachel in the cabin, because he had only seen three forms in the car. How stupid they were.

Finally, Nathan reached the porch. He slowed down, pulled off his ski mask and looked around the corner to make sure the coast was clear. With a chuckle, he realized they had not even left somebody to guard the cabin.

“Jack Wilson, this will be your downfall. Rachel, this will be the end of you. You won’t have another happy day for the rest of your life. My time has come.”

Balancing his gun in his hand, Nathan stepped closer to the porch. His eyes were shining in anticipation of what was about to happen. He was so giddy, he almost giggled.

As soon as he put his right foot on the first step, a strong voice called out behind him and when he turned in surprise, the door of the cabin behind him flew open and a strong leg kicked him in his back, making him lose his balance, staggering forwards, until he toppled over.

“Drop the gun, Nathan,” a cool voice sounded behind him.

Nathan, who had landed on his knees on the cold, hard ground, turned his head to see Maureen Rivers standing in the doorway with her gun aimed at his chest.

His eyes grew wide, but his surprise turned into anger when another voice sounded through the clear, morning air.

“Put your hands where I can see them, Kendrick.”

“DarkWolf,” Nathan whispered, stunned at the tall Agent’s presence. “Take one step closer, DarkWolf, and your parents will die.”

Lauren’s dark eyes never left the kneeling form in front of the cabin. She had her gun clenched in both her hands, her arms stretched, the gun aimed at Nathan’s chest. She was ready to fire. Her long legs ate up the distance, while her heart slammed against her rib cage. She was so close to slapping him in handcuffs. Finally, after all these years, there would be justice for Debra. And for all the other people Nathan had hurt.

“My parents are safe with my brothers, Nathan. Did you really think I wouldn’t see through your sick, little plan?”

Nathan’s eyes shifted, noticing at least ten forms emerging from the trees. Damn it! How could he have missed that? Where did they come from?

Without moving his head, Nathan could see his gun. It was so close. If he would move fast, he could grab it, roll, aim and shoot. The question was; who would be his victim? Maureen? Or Lauren? He had known Lauren longer and somehow he felt taking out Maureen would be devastating for the tall, dark warrior. His choice was made. It would be Maureen Rivers.

Lauren, who was only about ten yards away from him, could see Nathan’s fingers twitch and her eyes narrowed.

“Don’t even think about it, Nathan,” she called out, knowing her fear and anxiety was clearly audible. “If you move, I’ll have to shoot you.”

“Good luck with that,” Nathan mumbled with a chuckle, knowing he was in between Lauren and Maureen. If she wanted to shoot him, the dark Agent had to be careful not to hit her partner, so she would be hesitant to pull the trigger. Nathan hoped it would give him the second he needed to execute his plan.

Before Lauren could call out a warning, Nathan had grabbed his gun, turned and aimed at Maureen, who, as soon as she saw him move, threw herself off the porch in an attempt to avoid the bullet that was coming her way. There was no way she could take aim at Nathan, because Lauren was standing right behind him and Maureen did not want to risk hitting her. She knew Nathan had realized the same thing the moment he had turned towards her.

It was the longest couple of seconds in Lauren’s life. As if in slow motion she watched Nathan move, raising his arm and aiming his gun at Maureen who flung her body to the side, desperate to avoid being hit by a bullet. She knew he would have a better chance at hurting her by waiting until she would have hit the ground. As soon as Maureen would stop moving, if only for a split second, Nathan’s chances to seriously hurt her would increase by leaps and bounds.

It was as if an invisible hand guided Lauren’s arm when it followed Nathan’s movements. Her hand was steady when her finger tightened around the trigger and her eyes were focused on Nathan who was aiming for Maureen. When his arm lifted there was no time for thought, just for reaction. There was no hesitance when Lauren pulled the trigger. The sound of the shot echoed through the cold morning air, scaring a bird who flew up from the bushes. A split second after Lauren’s bullet had penetrated fabric, muscle and bone, another shot rang out, just as his gun slipped out of Nathan’s grip, skidding on the frozen ground before coming to rest in a patch of dry, brown grass.

After the first shot had rang out, Maureen had closed her eyes, holding her breath and waiting for the inevitable second shot. It came almost immediately and she cried out when a hot, searing pain shot through her leg. Warm, thick fluid immediately stained her jeans, cooling quickly in the cold air, leaving her cold and shivering.

“Maureen!” Lauren cried out, sprinting towards her fallen partner. Nathan was being taken care of, she knew, by two of her cousins who had flanked her when she had approached him. Jeremy had already taken care of the gun, she saw, making sure the heavily breathing Nathan would not be able to reach it, while Kevin stood over the fallen ex-Agent, his shotgun pointed at the bleeding man.

“Maureen,” Lauren breathed. “Where are you hit? Your leg,” she saw, tentatively touching the other woman’s thigh. “Where else?”

“Nowhere, just my leg,” Maureen answered through gritted teeth. “It hurts.”

“I bet it does,” Lauren answered, taking off her jacket and draping it around the shivering woman’s shoulders. One look at Maureen’s leg showed her there was a massive amount of blood and for a brief moment Lauren had to fight the panic she could feel rising inside.

“You’ll be fine,” she said in a hoarse voice, needing the reassurance herself. “You’ll be fine, just take it easy. I’ll go get Rachel.”

Without waiting for a reply, Lauren jumped to her feet and ran up the stairs, entering the cabin through the still open door.

“Rachel?” she called out. “Rachel? I need your help, Maureen is shot.”

“Damn,” Rachel’s voice sounded from the kitchen and, before Lauren knew what was happening, both Rachel and Hannah were hurrying past her towards Maureen.

“Are you alright, Lauren?” Gertrude’s worried voice sounded while she emerged from the kitchen with a subdued Nicky on her arm. “We heard two shots.”

“Nathan is down as well. I had to shoot him,” Lauren explained somberly. “He was trying to…he was aiming for Maureen. Thank God he only managed to hit her leg.”

Gertrude nodded and sent the Agent a weak smile. Hearing the two gunshots and not knowing who had been shot had left her a little shaken.

“Go to Maureen,” she encouraged. “She needs you now. Nicky and I are fine. Go.”

Lauren nodded and ran out of the house, trying to not look too anxious when she knelt next to Maureen, who was looking up at her with pain-filled eyes.

“Why is it that it never looks too bad in the movies?” she gasped, trying not to cry out in pain when Rachel’s experienced fingers probed her leg.

“Because, in the movies it’s always a flesh wound,” Rachel answered with a grim expression on her face. “In your case, the bullet seems to be lodged into your femur, You’ll need surgery to have it removed.” Rachel turned to Hannah and pointed to Maureen’s leg. “Honey, if you’d stop the bleeding, I’ll see if I can find anything to use as a dressing.”

“Master bathroom, right drawer of the cabinet in the corner,” Hannah answered, using her fingers to put pressure on Maureen’s groin in an effort to stop the steady flow of blood. “There’s a pretty good sized first-aid kit.”

“Be right back,” Rachel replied, jumping to her feet and running back into the house.

“Is there anything I can do?” Lauren asked, wiping her sweaty palms on her jeans.

“Comfort the patient,” Hannah answered with a small smile. The pressure she was applying was hurting Maureen, but it was slowing down the bleeding to a small trickle. Her eyes traveled to Nathan, who was moaning loudly, holding his arm where the bullet had gone straight through his shoulder. Jeremy was applying pressure to his wound, his face stoic.

“He’ll be fine, believe me,” Lauren remarked, seeing Hannah’s gaze.

“I’m sure he will be,” the blonde nodded. “Which is a good thing, because I’d hate to think he’d escape jail time.”

“I second that,” Maureen moaned. “I can’t complain, though,” she added with a quick glance at Lauren, who was looking pale and tired. “If it hadn’t been for you, I’d be in worse shape. That was a heck of a shot, Agent.”

“I meant for him to miss you.”

“He got my leg, which is better than my head or chest,” Maureen responded. “I’m sure this can be fixed, right Doc?” she asked Rachel who had found the first-aid kit and was kneeling down next to Maureen, cutting her jeans off her leg with the scissors she had found in the kit.

“No time to be modest,” Maureen grimaced when the fabric parted, revealing her leg all the way up to her hip.

“I’m sorry,” Rachel mumbled, eying the oozing wound in the center of Maureen’s thigh. A small lump indicated where the bullet had penetrated the thigh-bone, getting stuck in the process. “I’ll need to apply a pressure dressing, Maureen.”

“Why do I have the feeling I’m not going to like that?” Maureen replied in a quivering voice.

“Because it will hurt like hell,” Rachel answered in all honesty. “But you’ve lost quite some blood already and I need to try and stop that.”

“Do what you have to do, Rachel,” Maureen breathed, trying not to scream when the Doctor pressed a small stack of sterile gauzes on the wound.

“Want to hold my hand?” Lauren asked. “You’re allowed to squeeze as hard as you’d like.”

“Okay,” Maureen answered with a sob, grabbing Lauren’s hand. But instead of squeezing it, she pressed her face into it, stifling her cries while Rachel worked on her leg.

Lauren used her free hand to rub Maureen’s back in a silent gesture of comfort. She could feel wetness on the hand Maureen was pressing her face against and she knew the other woman was hurting so much, she was crying.

“If I could trade places with you, I would,” she whispered softly. There was no answer, but Maureen increased her grip on Lauren’s hand, pressing her face even closer. “Rachel will be done in a minute. Hang in there,” Lauren continued to encourage the red-head. “And the ambulance is on the way.”

“I’m done,” Rachel announced after a few moments in which the silence was only broken by soft gasps and moans from Maureen and angry, soft muttering from Nathan.

Rachel cast a look at Maureen’s pale face and sent the Agent an encouraging smile, gently patting her uninjured leg.

“I know it hurts, but you’ll be fine, Maureen. This is all fixable.”

Hannah, who had slowly eased off the pressure after Rachel had applied the pressure dressing, looked at the Doctor with insecurity written all over her face.

“Do…will we…I guess we need to take a look at Nathan as well,” she spoke softly.

“I’ll do it,” Rachel nodded. “There’s no need for you to expose yourself to him. He’s a nutcase.”

“That’s put pretty mildly,” Lauren mumbled, brushing a strand of red hair away from Maureen’s clammy forehead. “I’d say he’s a real psychopath. Look at his wound, Rachel, but try to ignore the rest of him. He’ll try to get a rise out of you. Make sure to stay on his hurt side and don’t get in between him and Kevin. I don’t trust Nathan.”

“I know,” Rachel nodded, getting to her feet. “But I won’t let him get to me,” she added, sending Hannah a warm smile. “Keep an eye on our patient here, alright?”

She turned and, after taking a deep breath, walked towards Nathan who was sitting on the cold ground, cradling his right arm with his left one.

“I’ll have a look at that,” she said in a voice that was emotionless.

Jeremy nodded and stood up, while Kevin never moved, keeping his shotgun aimed at Nathan who looked up at him with hate-filled eyes. His gaze shifted to Rachel and a snarl appeared on his face.

“What do you want, bitch? A family reunion?”

Rachel did not answer, but used her scissors to cut away some of the fabric from his shoulder, so she could examine the wound. Ignoring Nathan’s muttered comments, she managed to cut away enough clothing to see there was an entry- and an exit wound. The wound was bleeding, but not as profusely as Maureen’s had been. It was obvious Nathan’s shoulder had not sustained any major damage.

“You’ll live,” Rachel remarked dryly, dressing the wound with some gauzes.

“You shouldn’t,” Nathan spat with venom. “It’s not right, she should be mine, not yours. I wanted her first. We were friends when she didn’t even know you.”

“You can’t force love, Nathan,” Rachel answered as calmly as possible. He was trying to get to her, she knew and it was important to keep her composure.

“I was so close,” Nathan whispered, staring up at Rachel with a crazed look in his eyes. “If it hadn’t been for those two…two…traitors, Hannah would be mine now. I would have taken her away from you and you’d have been miserable for the rest of your pathetic life.”

“Like I said, you’ll live,” Rachel said between clenched teeth. She knew Nathan was sick and engaging him in a discussion would only be unsettling for her, so she got back to her feet, feeling sick when she realized it had been Nathan’s intent to kill Hannah. Walking back to where Hannah was still sitting next to Maureen, she knelt down and wrapped both her arms around the blonde, pulling her into a tight embrace.

“Are you alright?” Hannah asked softly, raking her fingers through Rachel’s dark hair. “Honey?”

Rachel sighed and lifted her head so she could look at the blonde. When she noticed the worried blue eyes she smiled, gave her a quick kiss on the lips, not caring who might be watching.

“I’m fine,” she answered and it was the truth. Holding Hannah was reassuring and comforting. It centered her in a way nothing or nobody ever could, which filled her with gratitude.

“I owe you two my happiness,” she said simply, turning to Maureen and Lauren. “And I’ll never be able to thank you.”

“We just did our job,” Lauren smiled.

“Although free healthcare for the rest of my life would not be a bad thing,” Maureen joked in a tired voice.

“I hope you’re not planning on getting shot more often,” Hannah gently teased, chuckling when Maureen rolled her eyes.

“Don’t worry,” the red-head sighed. “Once is more than enough.”

#

After Maureen and Nathan had been whisked away in an ambulance, Rachel and Hannah stood on the porch, arm-in-arm, trying to wrap their minds around the fact that their ordeal was over.

“It’s a little unreal, isn’t it?” Hannah mused. “I guess I’d been under so much tension and stress, now it’s all over, I feel like a deflated balloon.”

“You don’t look like one,” Rachel joked, half-turning so she could wrap her arms around the blonde. Hannah leaned into the embrace and let out a contented sigh, wishing they could stay like that forever.

“I love your hugs,” she mumbled against the Doctor’s shoulder. “You make me feel so safe and loved.”

“I’m glad,” Rachel replied softly, kissing the smooth skin of Hannah’s forehead. “I love holding you.”

“We sound cheesy,” Hannah replied dryly, smiling when Rachel let out a soft laugh. “But I don’t care anyway.”

“Good, because I was about to make it even tackier,” Rachel chuckled, tilting her head and capturing Hannah’s lips in a slow, deep kiss. Hannah’s pulse quickened when Rachel’s lips deepened the kiss, making it impossible for her to breathe. All she knew to do was press her body even closer against Rachel’s, reveling in their closeness.

“We don’t have to run anymore,” she whispered, when they finally came up for air. “And tomorrow is Christmas.”

“Did you finish your shopping?” Rachel asked in a teasing voice, lazily planting a trail of kisses from the side of Hannah’s cheek down to her neck and back up again.

“I did, but I still need to get a thing or two,” Hannah moaned, fighting the urge to wrestle Rachel to the ground and have her way with her. “It’s…it’s,” closing her eyes Hannah moistened her dry lips, very aware of Rachel’s soft touches against her skin. “I need…something…for you,” she finally managed to finish her sentence.

“What are you getting me?” Rachel mumbled, wondering how Gertrude would respond if she would drag Hannah into the bedroom. She buried her face in Hannah’s soft hair and smiled when she her ears picked up a barely audible moan.

“I’m…not telling,” Hannah sighed, hooking her fingers into the belt loops of Rachel’s jeans, playfully shaking her.

“Stop getting me all hot and bothered,” the blonde laughed with flushed cheeks. “We’ll have to continue that later, in privacy,” she added, casting a look through the open door of the cabin. “Why don’t we pack up and wait for our ride? Or do we need to stay here?”

“No, Lauren will be back in a few hours. She said she had some explaining to do and she wanted to check up on Maureen before she drove us back.”

“I hope she’ll be alright,” Hannah sighed, feeling bad about the Agent being hurt while protecting them.

“She will be,” Rachel reassured the blonde, giving her a last, long kiss, leaving her gasping for breath.

“Later,” she whispered.

#

Epilogue

“Careful with that box, honey, why don’t you let the movers take care of that?”

“I’m fine, it’s not heavy,” Hannah muttered, casting Rachel an amused look. “I just want to help.” The blonde put down the box long enough to lean in and give her partner a quick kiss. “Stop worrying about me, Doctor. Besides, Granny asked me to take extra special care of this box because it has a lot of her memories in here.”

“Like what?” Rachel asked with a curious look.

“Baby pictures,” Hannah answered. “You know the ones, naked little baby on a hairy rug.”

Rachel laughed and playfully tugged a strand of blond hair.

“You know I need to see them later, don’t you?”

“Sure, in the privacy of our room,” Hannah winked. It was still amazing to her that she was actually moving in with Rachel, together with her Grandmother who had accepted Rachel’s offer to live with them without putting up a fight, which had been like a miracle.

“I’ll hold you to that,” Rachel whispered in her ear, quickly flicking the lobe with the tip of her tongue. When Hannah’s face flushed, she laughed and swatted the blonde on her behind.

“Back to work, woman.”

“Oh, I see how this relationship will work out,” Hannah mumbled, but there was a twinkle in her eyes.

“Need any help?” a familiar voice called out and when both Rachel and Hannah cast a look over their shoulders their eyes showed surprise.

“Lauren!” Hannah called out, putting down the box. “What a surprise. How are you doing?”

“I’m great,” Lauren DarkWolf smiled.

“So am I,” another voice sounded when Maureen Rivers appeared from behind the parked truck, supporting her weight with a pair of crutches.

“Hey, how are you doing?” Rachel asked with a laugh. “You look great.”

“Getting shot has its perks,” Maureen answered with a grin. “I got lots and lots of rest. No Agent partners to haul my butt out of bed in the middle of the night and I even managed to read a book or two.”

“Good for you,” Hannah laughed. “Why don’t you come in? I’ll make some coffee.”

“And don’t forget the brownies,” Lauren added, licking her lips in anticipation.

“Have you been talking to Gertrude?” Rachel asked with a chuckle.

“Well, yeah. Gertrude invited us over this morning,” Lauren answered with a shrug of her shoulders. “I guess she wanted me to help you guys move.”

“Not at all,” Gertrude’s voice sounded from the kitchen. “Lauren. Maureen, come in, girls. The coffee is ready.”

“What about the brownies?” Hannah called out.

“Of course,” was the reply. “Are you done unloading those boxes, honey?”

Hannah laughed and walked into the kitchen, putting the box on a side table so she could give her Grandmother a hug.

“Granny, what do I do with you?”

“Anything, as long as you don’t put me in a home,” Gertrude answered dryly.

“Don’t worry,” Hannah grinned. “I’m not up to that fight…yet,” she added, ducking when Gertrude wanted to give her hair a playful tug.

“Lauwen!” a happy, high-pitched voice sounded and when Lauren turned around she saw Nicky running up to her, hugging one of her long legs.

“Hey, squirt,” she laughed, bending down and lifting the toddler in her arms. “How have you been?”

“Nicky’s good,” the little girl beamed. “Nemo?”

“Yup, there ya go, Agent,” Maureen laughed, sinking down in one of the kitchen chairs. “You gotta tell her the story, but don’t worry, I’ll take care of your brownie.”

“I’m sure you would,” Lauren mumbled, taking a seat next to her with Nicky on her lap.

Rachel leaned against the doorsill while her dark eyes took in the scene in front of her. The warm, happy feeling intensified when a familiar arm snaked around her waist and a blond head was pressed against her shoulder.

“Seems to me your daughter has found herself a new hero,” Hannah smiled.

Rachel nodded and dropped a kiss on the blond head that was now tucked underneath her chin.

“Our daughter,” she corrected in a soft voice. She could feel Hannah’s body still, before the nurse slowly turned, so she could look Rachel into her warm, brown eyes. Swallowing hard she nodded, while a smile spread across her face.

“Our daughter,” she repeated.

The End
Continued in Breathless

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