Snowbound by Queenfor4

Artwork by Inge

Snowbound
by Queenfor4

Summary: A young homophobic writer finds herself convalescing in the home of a lesbian doctor. Can she overcome her distrust and become friends with the heart-broken doctor?

Chapter one

“Mmmm, yesss,”

She was having a wonderful dream. A warm wet tongue was lightly teasing her ear, and it was feeling rather good. Then something very cool and not so wet plunged directly in her ear and exhaled in a loud ‘Snoof’.

“Yaahhh!”

Her head shot straight up off the pillow. Her heart hammering, she looked around wildly. Then her eyes settled on a dark figure sitting next to her bed. The black triangular head tilted slightly, and blue eyes studied her with mischievous curiosity.

She lowered herself back down and turned so that she was nose to nose with the furry face. She glared at the unrepentant animal.

“You can be replaced with a goldfish at any time, you know.”

Her answer was a belligerent growl and a muted ‘woof’. She narrowed her eyes and opened her mouth for a retort, but the canine turned her back on her and sauntered to the bedroom door and paused, looking back at her expectantly.

Gazing at the dawning sunlight that snuck through her curtained window, she flopped over on her back and sighed. Feeling a slight movement at her feet, she looked down at the small butter golden canine that lay curled by her feet. The animal looked at her with sleepy, sympathetic eyes, then lowered her head back to her paws and closed her eyes.

Randi sat up and gently nudged the animal on her back and lightly scratched her belly.

“Oh no ya don’t. If I have to get up with the dragon lady, so do you,” she informed the squirming, stretching animal that decided if she had to get up, then this was a most pleasant way to do it.

Randi climbed out of bed and padded down the hallway, flanked by her furry companions. She stopped by the kitchen to pour herself a cup of freshly brewed coffee and silently thanked whatever gods might be listening for coffee makers with automatic timers. She continued on through the spacious livingroom to the foyer, where she opened the front door for her four legged friends. They both shot through the door and down the steps of the porch, scurrying into the woods to take care of business. Once finished, they got down to the serious business of playing.

Randi stood and watched the playful pair as they ran and wrestled in the crisp, early autumn air, wondering once again where this unlikely pair came from. They had just shown up on her property one day. The little one had been hurt; blood matted her fur from shoulder to mid-chest. She limped along gamely, being nudged, coaxed, and almost dragged by her midnight-black companion.

They made it halfway to the porch before the smaller animal gave up and just lay down. The larger animal sat down beside her and alternated between looking up at Randi and giving little nudging licks to her exhausted companion. Randi took the hint and approached the pair slowly, murmuring softly so as not to alarm them. Gentle cinnamon eyes regarded her patiently as she gently examined the bloody shoulder of the smaller animal. The tall woman winced at the long deep gashes that marred the silken fur.

“Well, this is bad,” she said to herself as much as to the ebony canine that watched her intently. “But it can be fixed. You’re going to have to let me get her inside if I’m going to help her.” And, as if understanding, the larger animal backed up and let the woman pick up the little one and bring her inside. Randi sutured the little canine’s wounds and made a place in the kitchen for her to rest and recover. The larger animal never left her side, except to answer nature’s call and take small amounts of food and water that Randi provided. The little one recovered fairly quickly and, as if by unspoken agreement, they had been with the solitary woman ever since. Their devotion to each other, much like their sudden appearance in her life, was a mystery, but Randi had to admit, she enjoyed it.

Randi shook herself out of her reverie and looked up, taking note of the heavy gray clouds that were moving in quickly and efficiently, overtaking the sun. This doesn’t look good, she mused to herself. Walking back inside the house, she flicked on the radio on her way to the kitchen. The radio was tuned to a local country music station, and she listened to Wynona rocking to the rhythm of the rain as she toasted a bagel and rummaged in the refrigerator for some cream cheese. She munched idly through the news and sports, paying close attention when Kip Kilbourne’s too cheerful voice began to announce the weather.

“Well folks, it’s time to stock up your pantries and break out those snowshoes. This is going to be a big one. There’s a high-pressure system moving our way from the great white north, and it’s gonna meet up with another fast moving front from the east. And three guesses where they’re gonna meet up with each other. You got it! Cutters Gap, Pike Mountain, and surrounding areas are going to be hit hard. Snowfall should begin about mid-day today, and I don’t look for it to stop until late Friday. Now this is Tuesday, folks. So think about that while you prepare. Especially you guys up there on the ridge, ‘cause it’s likely going to be a while before you can make it down here again. We’ll keep you posted as things develop.”

Randi sighed and ran her fingers through tousled raven hair, doing a mental inventory of what she would need to tide her over for at least five weeks. For that would likely be how long it took before the road leading to and from her secluded hilltop home would be clear. The list would be short, as she had a fully stocked pantry and an abundance of meat in the freezer housed in the garage.
Perhaps some extra Kerosene for the emergency generator and another 50 pound bag of dog food for my furry friends, she mused to herself. Ooohh, and maybe Toby has gotten a new shipment of paperbacks in. Reading fanfic on the net is fine, but it’s not real comfy reading when I’m in bed, even on the laptop. Ugh, I guess I’d better get this over with. Finishing her coffee in one gulp, she headed back to her room to shower and dress for the dreaded trip to Cutters Gap.
Chapter two
“Shit, shit, shit!”

Megan Galagher was lost. And she was not happy. What was supposed to be a ‘scenic’ route back to her native New York from a book signing in Manchester, NH was turning out to be the road trip from Hell. The attendant at the last gas station she stopped at ‘30 miles back’ promised her that this road would lead her to the interstate within 20 miles. Obviously he didn’t know what in the Hell he was talking about. She fumed to herself. Now here I am, driving down this narrow-assed road, around a mountain that looks like it’s about to go avalanche any minute, with no clue where I’m going, and no friggin’ interstate signs in sight. AARRGGHHH!

She spotted a sign that read Cutters Gap 3MI and breathed a sigh of relief. Thank you, God. Maybe they can give me some kind of clue how I can get to the interstate, or at least have a phone I can use to call the auto club and get directions and then, call my agent and let her know I’m still alive. My cell phone has been useless in these damn mountains. Breathing a little easier, she pressed a little harder on the accelerator of her Lexus and headed into Cutters Gap.

***

Randi navigated the winding road with a rumbling dread in her belly. She had driven this road, with its many sharp curves and 45 degree inclines, hundreds of times in the years she had lived here. The private road that led to and from her hilltop ranch was mostly treelined, but there were spots where the edge of the road dropped into little ravines, and if you weren’t careful, you would find yourself losing the road and tumbling into the ravine. However the tall woman’s dread had less to do with the road than it had to do with the trip into Cutters Gap. The people there were her friends, they had known the tall woman most of her life, but they knew. They knew of her shame. And after all this time she still saw the sympathetic looks, listened to the well-meaning advice to move on with her life. But she couldn’t forget, couldn’t move on, and couldn’t bear the sympathy that she felt she did not deserve. So she became a recluse. Living a solitary life in her house high up on a hill that more closely resembled a mountain. Only venturing into town when she absolutely needed supplies. I can do this, she promised herself. Get in quick; get out quick, no problem. “Then why do I feel like I’m about to step into an alligator pit?” She said aloud to no one in particular.

*****

Megan drove her Lexus ES300 down the middle of a street that looked like a throwback to the 50s. Small shops lined one side of the street, and ‘professional’ buildings lined the other, with diagonal parking on both sides. The young strawberry blond eyed the passing storefronts, searching in vain for something familiar. Jesus, no malls, no department stores, no Starbucks, not even a ‘McDonald’s. What part of the twilight zone have I wandered into? I don’t even see a friggin payphone! Driving on, and ignoring the curious looks from people, Megan’s hopes were dwindling. A gas station…I’ll settle for a damn gas station. As if in answer to her plea, the writer spotted a row of cheerful green gas pumps at the edge of town. Set well behind the pumps was what appeared, to Megan’s grateful eyes, to be a rather expansive convenience store. The large sign above the entrance read simply: TOBY’S GAS & GROCERY. “Thank you, Lord!” Megan sighed. Maybe I can at least grab something to munch on and use their phone.

Looking around as she pulled on the lot, Megan spotted the familiar blue and white booth. Pulling into a parking space set between the store entrance and the phone, Megan gathered up her dayplanner and exited the car. Pausing outside the auto, the petite author breathed deeply of the crisp cold air and took a moment to look around. As much as she hated being lost in the middle of nowhere, she couldn’t help but admire the rustic feel of the small town and the beauty of the surrounding hilly woods, lush with snowcapped pines. Looking up, Megan decided she really didn’t like the looks of the rapidly graying sky. All right Meg, sightsee later; take care of business now. Moving to the phone, Megan pulled her calling card out of the dayplanner and picked up the handset.
Chapter three
Charlotte Grayson was doing her best not to burst into flames as she patiently explained, once again, to the young writer on the phone that she could not provide him with a young woman so that he might perform some ‘research’ for the romance story he was working on. God help me! What ever happened to ‘cruising the bars’ for a date? The yodeling of her private phone interrupted her reverie. Thank God! “Look, Johnny, I’ve got an important call coming in. I can’t help you with your ‘research’, you’re gonna have to get a gal the old fashioned way; hit the bars.” Disconnecting quickly, she grabbed her other phone, “Grayson” she barked.

“What ever happened to ‘hello’?” the chiding voice on the other end inquired.

“Galagher!” The redhead bellowed. “Where on Gaia’s green earth are you? I’ve been worried sick, you little shit. I haven’t heard from you since you left Manchester. Your cell phone keeps telling me the party I’m trying to call is unavailable, and the weatherman’s been damn near peeing himself over a major storm front that’s coming through New Hampshire and Vermont on its way here. And we won’t mention the book signing you’re scheduled for at Barnes & Noble next week.” The exasperated woman finished, finally drawing a breath.

“I’m fine Charly, thanks for asking.” The strawberry blond chuckled into the phone. “First off, I’m about one hundred miles outside of Manchester, in a town called Cutters Gap. I’m surrounded by mountains, which is why you can’t reach me on the cell phone. I got a little lost while looking for the interstate, so I stopped here to use their phone to call you and then call the auto club to get some dependable directions to the interstate. Yes, I’ve noticed the weather is looking a bit nasty, but I should be able to get directions, grab something to eat and be well on the highway before the snow hits. Does that about cover everything?”

“Yeah, well,” the publisher replied, somewhat appeased, “you should have called me sooner. I was worried…I mean, I can’t have my star writing talent gallivanting around the countryside and missing her appointments.”

Megan smiled at the publisher’s weak attempt at disguising her concern. “I love you too, Charly.” The writer chuckled. “But I’m okay, and I’ll be home soon. How’s Eric doing?” Megan inquired about her live-in boyfriend, causing the red-haired publisher to grimace and snort.

“Oh, he’s missing you terribly, Meg; he only goes out on the town four nights a week instead of five,” she answered with no small amount of sarcasm.

Megan rolled her eyes. She was well aware of her publishing friend’s dislike of her live-in lover. “Be nice, Charly. He’s probably just lonely. I don’t expect him to cloister himself in the apartment until I come home.” She chided her friend.

“Whatever you say,” the publisher grumbled.

There was a pregnant silence before the petite blond said, “Look Charly, I’ve got to go. I want to grab something to eat and get directions before the snow starts falling. I’ll call you when I get clear of these mountains.”

“Sure thing Meg,” the redhead replied. “You be careful.”

Megan hung up the phone and pulled her auto club card out and dialed the tollfree number.

***

Charlotte Grayson sighed heavily as she stared at the now silent phone. She worried about the young writer, perhaps unnecessarily as Megan often chided her, but she worried anyway. Megan Galagher had come a long way in the three years since Charlotte first saw one of the young woman’s stories in an independent women’s magazine. The publishing editor recognized the raw talent in that short tale and quickly sought out the author. They met for lunch in one of Manhattan’s many small delis and Megan allowed her to read a rough manuscript featuring a beautiful, brainy, and deadly private investigator called Samantha Steele. And the rest, as they say, was history. The deadly detective became the heroine in several best selling mysteries, and Megan, the golden child of the book world.

The older woman became her agent, friend, confidante, and surrogate mother. The last being a role that Charlotte would have gladly relinquished to the real thing, but Megan would have none of it. The friendship between the women was comfortable. Despite the twenty-year difference in their ages, they shared many of the same interests and saw eye-to-eye on almost everything…. Except Eric. Charlotte had not trusted the handsome, arrogant, and decidedly smooth young blond since she first laid eyes on him.

The young man had simply appeared at one of Megan’s’ book signings bearing a red rose and exuding a hefty amount of humble charm. Megan fell for it hook, line, and sinker. And in no time at all, the unemployed drifter went from staying with friends to living in a New York high-rise, driving his own SUV, and sampling New York night life with a beautiful young author on his arm. Charlotte never hid her dislike or distrust of Megan’s companion, but the writer steadfastly defended him, saying the older woman simply did not understand. In this one area, both women simply agreed to disagree. Before Megan left for her most recent book signing, the publisher hoped that he would go with her. He might be useless, but he would at least be company for her.

Lover boy declined though, pleading carsickness on long trips. Now Megan was lost and alone, and in spite of the writer’s upbeat attitude, Charlotte had a bad feeling.
Chapter four
Megan let out an exasperated sigh as she listened to the overly cheerful recorded voice. “Thank you for calling Premier Auto Club, your 24 hour highway helpers. Due to heavy call volume, anticipated wait time for assistance is approximately 45 minutes. Please do not hang up and call back. This will only increase your wait time. Thank you for your patience.” “45 minutes my ass!” The frustrated blond growled as she slammed down the receiver. “Oh well, maybe someone in here will know how I can get back to civilization.”

***

A light snow was beginning to fall as Randi reached the fork that separated her road from the two-lane highway that led into Cutters Gap. Huh, it’s starting earlier than they said it would. It doesn’t matter, I’ll still be able to get in and out and back up the hill before it gets sloppy. Checking briefly for any oncoming vehicles and seeing none, Randi punched the gas pedal and pulled onto the road that headed into town.

***

Megan was pleasantly surprised when she entered Toby’s Gas & Grocery. The interior of the store was spacious, well lit, and seemed to have a little bit of everything. Off to her left were several mid-sized isles that carried the usual assortment of canned goods and sundries. The back wall sported two refrigerator cases. The long one carried an impressive variety of cold drinks, and the shorter one contained dairy products and cold cuts. Directly to her left there was a large cold case that held locally raised meats and poultry. Straight in front of her stood a long magazine rack that held a decent variety of magazines. There was even a section that boasted the latest in paperback books. Finally, to her right, a long counter that ran the length of the store. Half of which offered freshly prepared cold cut sandwiches and fountain sodas. The other half of the counter bearing the checkout registers. Oh yeah, this will work, Megan grinned to herself. Megan wandered up to the sandwich counter and eyed the selection of sandwiches listed on the handpainted sign.

“Good morning, young lady! And how are you this morning?” Boomed a deep masculine voice.

Megan turned at the greeting and watched as a mountain of a man ambled her way from the back of the store. He had to be at least 6’8″, broad shouldered with thickly muscled arms. He had a barrel chest that tapered only slightly at his waist and thighs that resembled small tree trunks. Good God! I’ve seen smaller mountains. His shoulder length salt & pepper hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail and his craggy face, though lined with age, was ruggedly handsome. As he approached her, it briefly occurred to Megan that she would hate to meet this man in a dark alley, but his warm open smile and gentle gray eyes quickly displaced that thought. Suddenly it occurred to Megan that she was gaping, and with a mental head slap she responded. “Oh! Uh, I’m fine. I was just looking at your sandwich selection and remembered that I skipped breakfast.”

“Well now,” he replied, “a little thing like you shouldn’t be missing meals, young lady.” He passed her and reached behind the counter, pulling out a high wooden stool. Whipping a hand towel from his back pocket, he wiped off the already clean seat and placed it in front of the counter. “Why don’t you have a seat and let me whip you up my famous Turkey Breast and Bacon Special?” Before Megan had a chance to reply, her empty stomach loudly rumbled its reply. The petite blond blushed prettily at the amused twinkle in his eyes. “I’ll take that as a ‘yes’,” he chuckled. As he set about preparing her sandwich, curiosity got the better of her and she wandered over to the stand that held the paperbacks.

“My name’s Toby, by the way,” the large man called from behind the counter. “And I’m sure you’ve heard this line before, but I swear you look familiar. Have you visited Cutters Gap before?”

“No, I’ve never been to this area before,” Megan replied. Her eyes twinkled merrily as she spied a certain book in the rack. She picked it up and walked back over and lightly plopped it on the counter. “But you may have seen me before.” She offered cryptically. Toby turned and looked down at the counter. His eyes grew saucer wide as he looked down picture of the pretty, petite blond woman gracing the back cover of the book, and then back up to the meadow green eyes of the living thing.

“Well, I’ll be whipped,” he exclaimed as he hurriedly wiped off his hands. “If it isn’t Megan Galagher in the flesh.” Holding out a large hand he continued. “Wait til I tell the missus that I shook the hand of the woman behind ‘Samantha Steele, Private Investigator’. Some mighty fine reading, if I do say so myself.”

Megan smiled and took the proffered hand in a warm handshake. “Thank you. I’m glad you like her. Sam is pretty easy to write for. She has a penchant for attracting murder, mystery, and mayhem, but she thrives on it.”

“Heh, she also thrives on handing the bad guys their butts in a sling,” Toby chuckled. “Black hair, gray eyes, six feet of muscle and attitude…. That’s my kind of woman,” the storekeeper mock growled. The petite blond shook her head and laughed.

“So what brings you to Cutters Gap?” The big man inquired as he handed the writer her sandwich and soda. “No offense, but it wasn’t by choice,” the blonde offered as she picked up the sandwich and took a bite, rolling her eyes and humming in delight at the heavenly taste. Causing the big man to grin proudly. “The attendant at the last gas station I stopped at, told me that if I kept straight on Highway 41, it would lead me directly to the Interstate in about twenty miles. That was thirty miles ago.” The writer finished dejectedly.

The older man blew out his cheeks and scowled. “That last gas station you stopped at was in Knox City, right?” Megan nodded and he continued. “And, about ten miles out, Highway 41 split, right?” Another nod. “I don’t suppose he told you that you would have had to branch off to the left, did he?” Megan sighed. “No, he sure didn’t.” The big man patted her hand reassuringly. “Well don’t you worry young lady. You’re not too far from the Interstate; you finish eating and old Toby will tell you exactly how to get there.” Looking out the plate-glass window at the falling snow he added.

“You should be well on your way before the snow starts to stick.” Reassured, the young woman dug back into her sandwich with gusto and the two talked some more about the daring detective.

***

Randi stomped her boot-clad feet to dislodge the snow that stuck to them. She had just finished filling the twin five-gallon cans that she had strapped to the back of her Jeep Cherokee, from the kerosene tank behind Toby’s store. The snow had begun to fall harder and was accumulating quickly on the ground. The tall woman wanted to finish her supply run and get back up the hill before the driving became hazardous.

She opened the door and walked into the cheery warmth. Looking around, she spotted the big man talking to a petite strawberry blond. Toby noticed the statuesque brunette immediately, a huge grin creasing his face. “Randi,” he bellowed. Excusing himself from the young woman, he exited from behind the counter, walked up to the tall woman, and wrapped her up in a big bear hug. “It’s good to see you, girl. I was wondering if I’d see you before old man winter had his way with us.” Randi returned the hug, allowing herself this small comfort from an old friend. Stepping back when he released her, she shrugged, “I figured I’d better grab some extra kerosene and food for my furry freeloaders.” Almost as an afterthought, she added, “I also wanted to see if you’d gotten in any new books. I’ve got a feeling I’m going to need something to keep me from going stir crazy.”

“Funny you should mention that,” the storeowner replied with a twinkle in his eye. “We got a good shipment in last week, and this week we’ve even got one of the book writers.” At Randi’s quizzical look he chuckled, “C’mon, let me introduce you to someone.” Slipping a big hand under her elbow, he led her over to the seated woman.

***

Megan turned in her seat to get a better look at the woman who’d just entered the store and who’d been quickly engulfed in the big man’s arms; she nearly gasped aloud when the woman stood back. The vision before her was six foot tall, if she was an inch, with silken raven-colored hair that flowed gracefully across broad shoulders. Her black bomber jacket couldn’t disguise her well-endowed chest and trim waist. Muscular Jean-clad legs seemed to go on forever before stopping at her charcoal-hiking boots. Dragging her eyes back up, Megan was captured by the crystal blue eyes, set off by thick dark lashes and high cheekbones. Good lord! Except for the blue eyes, that could be Samantha Steele come to life. Megan broke out of her reverie and stood as the pair approached her.

“Dr. Randi Oakes, allow me to introduce you to Ms. Megan Gallagher.” The man-mountain grinned as the two women clasped hands. “The lovely Ms. Gallagher is the brains behind…”

“Samantha Steele,” the tall woman finished, quirking a grin and releasing the smaller hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Gallagher. Samantha Steele is quite the popular detective.” Randi was polite, but Toby sensed coolness in the quiet but normally friendly woman.

“It’s nice to meet you, Dr. Oakes,” Megan smiled. “And thank you. It’s always nice to meet another Samantha Steele fan.”

“I said she was quite the popular detective, Ms. Gallagher; I didn’t say I was a fan,” Randi returned demurely. Noting the looks of puzzlement on the faces in front of her, Randi explained. “There’s a little too much bias in your stories for my tastes.”

“I’m sorry, Dr. Oakes, I don’t quite follow you.” Megan was puzzled and more than a little flustered at the accusation.

Randi took in the faces of the two people in front of her, noting the confusion on one, and concern on the other. I’m not in the mood for this. I came in here for supplies, not a debate. “Look…never mind. Let’s just say Samantha Steele isn’t my cup of tea and leave it at that.” With that, the tall woman started to turn away. She was stopped by a light touch on her arm.

“Please, Dr. Oakes,” the small blonde pleaded. “I’d really like to know what you are talking about. I try really hard not to offend any ethnic or religious groups.”

Randi sighed and turned, looking first at her friend, who stood with his arms folded across his massive chest and his bushy eyebrows furrowed in consternation, and then at the troubled expression on the small woman in front of her. “Ms. Gallagher, I’ve read quite a few of your stories. And, while they are gripping mysteries, they all have one recurring and disturbing trend. They all feature gay and lesbian characters. And those characters are always portrayed as being sick, twisted and immoral. That is a malicious, incorrect, and inflammatory stereotype, Ms. Gallagher, and I find it offensive.”

Megan’s confusion turned to cold indifference as she stepped back from the taller woman. “I call them as I see them, Dr. Oakes. Those kind of people are an affront to society, and serve absolutely no purpose in this world. I’m sorry if my portrayals of these individuals offend you.”

Toby was stunned at the sheer venom of the younger woman’s words. He stepped back as Randi stepped closer to the strawberry blond. Her narrowed eyes were chips of ice. “These ‘people,’ as you refer to them, are just that; people. No different from you, or your readers, except in whom they choose to love. They are your doctors, your lawyers, your friends, and your family. They have a hard enough time dealing with a society that won’t accept them, and laws that don’t protect them. They don’t need to be the poster children for your small-minded prejudice.”

“Well my ‘small-minded prejudice’ doesn’t seem to bother the public-at-large, Dr. Oakes,” the writer replied with smug venom. “As my book sales will attest to. If the faggots have a problem with it, they don’t have to read it.”

“Well, Ms.Gallagher, the ‘public-at-large’ also gobbles up the tabloids that feature women giving birth to three-headed babies,” the tall woman smirked and shrugged. “Go figure.” Gotcha! the tall woman thought smugly, as she saw the flush of anger creep up the smaller woman’s neck. “And trust me, the ‘faggots’ don’t read your books…we would rather read a grocery list.”

Megan stared blankly for a moment before the words sank in. Green eyes sparked and full, pink lips grimaced in distaste. “A goddamned dyke,” she growled. “I should have known.” She spun on her heel and, grabbing her dayplanner from the counter, she addressed the storekeeper. “I appreciate your hospitality, Toby, but I think I’d better leave. The less time I spend around her,” casting a glare at the stone-faced physician, “the cleaner I’ll feel.”

Toby didn’t want it to end like this. He began to protest. “Aw, Ms. Megan, please…”

Megan cut him off, a plea in those fiery, green eyes. “Please Toby, just let me pay for my food, and tell me how to get to the highway.”

The big man sighed and shook his head. “There’s no charge for the food.” He waved off her attempted protest. “No charge! Now, to get to the highway, just take a right when you leave here, and follow the road for about three miles. You’ll see a…”

“The snow’s getting too deep.” Randi cut him off. She was staring out the window at the hard-falling snow. “If that’s her car out there, it’s not going to make it. She’d be better off waiting it out.”

“The Hell I will!” the little blond snarled. “I’d rather end up face-down in a snow drift than spend another moment here with you.” With that, she stormed out the door and ran to her car.

The doctor and the storekeeper stood and watched as the Lexus sped, slipping and sliding, onto the main highway. Gray eyes turned to blue and held for a moment before the tall woman shrugged. “She’ll be back,” Randi offered with more confidence than she felt.

“I hope so,” the older man mumbled with some concern. He studied the floor for a moment before meeting her eyes again. “A little hard on her…weren’t you?” He commented, not unkindly.

“Not as hard as she is, on people she doesn’t even know,” Randi shot back sharply. Instantly regretting her attitude with the older man, Randi ran her fingers through her hair and sighed. “Toby, what she’s doing is wrong. There are people out there who think the way to improve society is to paint the pavement with some queer’s blood; and the picture she paints of gay people only lends credence to that theory.”

The big man pondered her words. “I never thought about that,” the older man offered. “Truth to tell, I never picked up on the ‘evil-gay-character’ trend either.” He grinned apologetically. “I guess I was just too caught up in the action.”

The tall woman shook her head and smiled. “She does write a gripping story, I’ll give her that.”

The subject of the writer having been dropped, both were at a loss as to what to say next. Finally, the older man broke the silence. “When are you going to come to dinner again?” he inquired gently. “Kate really misses her culinary test subject, says she’s tired of hearing ‘not enough pepper’ from me,” he teased hopefully.

Randi bowed her head and sighed. I knew this was coming. “I don’t know, Toby,” she mumbled. “I’m just not ready to face people right now.”

“Kate and I are not just ‘people,’ Randi…we’re your friends. We have been ever since you first came to Cutters Gap,” the older man rebutted, mildly scolding. He placed a caring hand on her shoulder. “And when will you be ready, Randi? It’s been damn near a year! I can almost…almost understand your leaving the hospital because of the memories. But, honey, I cannot, for the life of me, understand your walking away from a brilliant career and cutting yourself off from everyone that cares about you.” Tucking a thick finger under her chin, he nudged her head up until his eyes caught hers. “It wasn’t your fault, child.”

Randi felt the familiar ache wrap itself around her chest and begin to squeeze. Her eyes and throat began to burn, and she knew that if she didn’t get away soon she would fall apart…again. Gathering up her dwindling self-control, she patted his hand and smiled crookedly. “I’m getting there, Toby,” She lied. “I just need a little more time to get through this. Can you give me that?”

The storekeeper knew she wasn’t being completely honest with him, but knowing how skittish she was right now, he didn’t want to push. “Okay,” he smiled reassuringly. “I can do that.”

Randi let go of the breath she didn’t know she was holding. “Great! Well, I guess I’d better finish up and get out of here before Ms. Poison Pen comes back,” she mock-shuddered, then headed toward the books.

***

I can’t fucking believe it! Megan seethed, as she sped down the snow-laden road. She has the nerve to be offended by my writing when her whole lifestyle is an offense. Huh, wait ‘til she sees my next story; I’ll really give her something to be offended about. The small blond grinned evilly at the thought. She frowned again as another; more troubling thought came to mind. I can’t believe how much she resembles Samantha Steele; ugh! “Well, Sam,” she mused aloud, “you’re about to get a thorough makeover, girlfriend.”

Megan slowed the car as she came to the fork that separated Randi’s road from the highway. “Damnittohell!” the writer cursed aloud, “Toby didn’t mention this in his directions.” He hadn’t finished giving directions before ‘Dr. Dyke’ butted in; a little voice reminded her. “She should have minded her own damned business,” Megan grumbled. She studied the road, searching for some kind of sign that would tell her which way to go. Finding none, she resigned herself to turning around and going back for more directions. She paused when she noticed faint tire tracks in the road to her right. “Well, somebody went this way,” the author concluded, not knowing that they were the tracks Randi had made on her way into town. Satisfied with her decision, the writer stepped on the gas.

Megan negotiated the curvy road with growing unease. The snow was getting deeper; making it harder to maintain control, and the writer was beginning to worry. “This isn’t working. I’m going to have to turn around,” the writer mused aloud. “God, I just hope she isn’t there.”

She was so intent on finding someplace to turn around; the writer didn’t see the small, speckled fawn emerging from the trees until she was almost upon her. With a shrieking curse, the blonde hit the brakes and swerved to the right as the frightened animal bolted to the left. Desperately trying to regain control, the writer spun the steering wheel back to the left, bringing the front end back to the road, but losing the rear end as it fishtailed off the shoulder. The rear wheel buckled on impact with a low lying tree stump, and the laws of momentum flexed their muscles as the Lexus somersaulted three times through the snow-covered brush before coming to rest, wheels down, against an unforgiving maple.
Chapter Five
Randi grunted as she pitched the fifty-pound bag of dog food into the rear of the Jeep, then made a show of dusting off her hands. “Piece ‘o’ cake,” she grinned crookedly at the big man who eyed her with stern disapproval.

“Look, ‘Ms. Tuff-Stuff’,” he wagged a finger at her. “We both know you’re young, healthy-as-a-horse, and you lift weights, but it wouldn’t have hurt you to let me load that for you,” he mock-scolded.

Randi looked down contritely, scuffing the snow with the toe of her boot. “I know, uncle,” she mumbled, using the more familiar name she always called the older man. “But I’ve got to show off these awesome muscles to somebody,” she grinned rakishly, while curling her arm in a ‘muscle’ pose.

“Lord, save me from cocky little girls,” he chuckled, as he placed the rest of her purchases in the back.

The tall woman was closing the car door when a sudden thought hit her, and she turned to the storekeeper. “Toby, do you happen to have a spare piece of plywood lying around? It doesn’t have to be real big, maybe a couple of feet long, and about a foot wide. One of the windows in the shed is broken, and I need to board it up until I can get the glass replaced.”

The storekeeper pursed his lips and pondered for a moment before smiling. “I’ve got just the thing,” he declared, and headed back into the store. “Be right back.”

Within moments he came back, carrying a length of cream-colored board. “Will this do? It was left over from the fence I put up around Kate’s vegetable garden.”

“This will do fine,” Randi replied as she placed the board on the car seat, and closed the door. Walking arm-in-arm to the drivers’ door, they stood for a moment, in awkward silence as the falling snow dotted their hair and clothing.

“Well,” Randi broke the silence. “I’d better get going. Tell Kate I’ll see her soon” At the older man’s cocked eyebrow, she added, “I promise!”

“See that you do,” the big man rumbled sternly. “I promised your Uncle Jake that I’d look after you…. Don’t make me a liar.”

A bittersweet smile graced the tall woman’s face at the mention of her uncles’ name. “I won’t, Uncle Toby,” she reassured, as she settled in the vehicle.

The storekeeper stood and watched as the taillights of the Jeep faded into the white curtain. His mind wandered back to the day he first laid eyes on her.

Toby was on his knees re-stocking a shelf, when the ting-a-ling of the doorbell announced a visitor. The big man turned and saw his long-time friend, Jake Oakes holding open the door and encouraging an, as yet unseen, individual to enter. “Come on, Randi.
There’s someone I want you to meet.” And then, she walked in. She was tall, even at the age of twelve, and so gangly, but even then, she was a beauty; and nearly the spitting image of the man next to her. Jake gently took her hand, and together they approached the storekeeper.

“Toby Jenkins, I’d like you to meet Randi Christine Oakes…my niece.” The elder Oakes announced.

Toby held out his hand to the girl, who stood there in shy silence studying the floor. “A pleasure to meet you, young lady.”

She lifted her face to him, and Toby’s heart lurched. Her silky, raven hair hung limply about her face. Her cheeks, which should have held the pink blush of youth, were pale and drawn, and lightly tracked with dried tears. And her eyes…lord; her eyes…such a beautiful, crystal-blue; and filled with so much sadness. She looked up at him, and Toby could tell she was somewhat intimidated by his size, but she gamely placed her hand in his big one. “Pleased to meet you, sir,” she semi-whispered. From that moment on, the big man was hers.

Toby would later learn that Randi’s parents, Jake’s brother and sister-in-law, were killed in an auto accident. Randi’s mother had no living relatives and the authorities had misplaced Jake’s address information. So a grieving Randi spent weeks being shuffled between courts and foster homes, lost and alone, until Jake’s’ address had been found. Jake and Randi barely knew each other, as Randi was a toddler the last time he saw her, but their mutual grief became the foundation for a bond that even most fathers and daughters never shared.

Randi flourished under Jake’s’ care. Her outgoing personality and gentle, caring spirit made her the darling of Cutters Gap, and the center of Toby and Kate Jenkins’ world.

Now the center of their world was lost and alone again…for entirely different reasons. Only this time, there was no one that would come and rescue her. Jake had passed on years ago, from a massive heart attack, while the young woman was in her final year of medical school. Back then, she had a town full of friends and adopted family to see her through her heartache. Now, with this latest tragedy that befell her last year…well, the town was still here…but, in her grief and self perceived guilt, Randi had cut herself off from everyone that would help her through it. Toby knew in his heart, that if the gentle-hearted woman didn’t end her self imposed exile soon, she would never come out of the well of despair she had fallen into.

“We’ll be here for you honey,” he whispered to the falling snow. “Don’t wait too long.”

***

Randi breathed a huge sigh of relief as she traveled the snow-packed highway. That wasn’t so bad, she half smiled to herself. Thank you, Uncle Toby, for not pushing. I just need time. Satisfied with her self-deception, the dark-haired Doctor’s thoughts turned to a certain strawberry-blonde writer. God, what a pill! The tall woman grimaced. Still…she had some lovely green eyes. Hell, she had a lovely everything. It’s a pity. I’ll bet when she’s not being hateful, she’s pretty darn nice to be around. “Heh,” Randi snorted. “Not that you’ll ever get the chance to find out.”

The tall woman turned onto the road that led to her house and turned on the radio, hoping to hear the latest on the storm that was assaulting the area. Trisha Yearwood was belting out ‘Ribbons and Bows.’ Ooohh, I love this song. Randi leaned back and let her rich contralto voice accompany the country diva. Her voice trailed off, as she noticed bright beams of light branching across the road up ahead. What the hell…?

Randi wasn’t sure what to expect, and slowed her approach accordingly, craning her neck and following the path of the lights back to their source. “Son of a bitch!” The tall woman exclaimed as her eyes fell upon the broken and dented mass of metal that used to be Megan’s Lexus. Pulling her Jeep to the side of the road, Randi reached down and turned on the CB radio that hung below the dashboard. “Breaker, breaker…Cutters Gap Rescue, this is Randi Oakes. Come in please.” She barked into the handmike. Hearing no immediate response, she tried again. “Breaker…Cutters Gap Rescue, please respond.” Getting no response, the Doctor growled and threw open her door. She had one foot on the snowy ground when the radio crackled.

“Cutters Gap Rescue, responding. What’s the problem Randi?” Chet Masters’ voice sounded a little harried.

Randi grabbed up the Mic. “We’ve got a vehicle crash, Chet. About a mile and a half up my road. The driver’s still in the car, and I’m on my way down to assist…but she’s going to need transport ASAP.” Getting no response, Randi tapped the button. “I need transport Chet, do you copy?”

“No can do, Randi,” the medic sighed. I’m down here at old man Cuthbert’s place. He and his car got real familiar with a tree. He doesn’t look to be too bad, but we’re having a bitch of a time prying him out of this hunk of scrap he calls a car. And this damn snow ain’t making it any easier. Any way you can get the patient up to your place?”

Shit, shit, shit! “That’s an affirmative, Chet…I’ll find a way,” she gritted as she dropped the Mic and climbed out of the cab.

“Sorry, Randi. Keep me informed.”

“Yeah, right,” the tall woman grumbled as she threw open the back door and reached for the snow broom and the ‘First Response’ First Aid Kit that her uncle always kept in the Jeep.

Stumbling and sliding through the snowy brush, Randi made her way to the stout, aged Maple that cradled the silver Lexus in it’s bosom. Impact with the tree had loosed the snow that clung to the branches above, effectively covering the vehicle in a pristine blanket. Shit, if it hadn’t been for the headlights, I would’ve never known it was here. Setting the First Aid kit on a nearby stump, the tall woman quickly brushed the snow away from the door and part of the roof. Time was of the essence now, and she didn’t need packed or falling snow to impede her efforts.

Having cleared the door, she reached for the door handle and pulled…only to have the door open about an inch before locking in place. Randi cursed and pulled again…without success. The door was stuck. Grabbing the brush, she pushed more snow away from the bottom of the door, working her way back toward the front of the vehicle, and groaned in frustration when she saw the crumpled metal where the door meets the side panel. “Goddammit,” she growled. “I don’t need this right now.”

Dropping the brush, Randi straightened to full height and took a deep breath. “Getting mad isn’t going to help,” she reminded herself. “Just get the damned door open.” With that, she planted one foot in the snow, one foot on the car body, and both hands on the doorframe, counted to three…and pulled. Sinewy muscles strained and pulled, as flesh battled metal; and with a long, dull groan, metal yielded. Pushing the door back as far as it would go, the Doctor peered into the dimly lit interior, and groaned.

The blood-matted blonde head rested on the expended air bag that covered the steering wheel. Her limp body held in place by the shoulder harness. A blood caked arm hung limply between unnaturally twisted legs. Jesus, The first thing the tall woman did was recline the drivers’ seat back a few inches, to give herself a little more room. Then, reaching in, Randi gently grasped Megan’s head in her hands. “Megan, this is Dr. Oakes…can you hear me?” Receiving no response, Randi continued speaking aloud.

“Still not talking to me, huh? That’s okay. I need to check your breathing.” Unwilling to remove her hands from their supporting positions; the doctor leaned in further, until her cheek was within an inch of the unconscious woman’s lips. Almost immediately, she felt the warm breaths against her skin. “Well, you’re breathing okay. Now I have to move you away from this wheel, so I can see how badly you’re injured.” Keeping the blonde head as straight as possible, Randi lifted her away from the steering wheel, and lay her back on the seat. Next, Randi needed to stabilize the neck. And as much as she hated to do it, she would have to release her hold and step away.

“Okay Megan, I need to move away for a moment. I’ll be right back.” Releasing her hold and backing out of the car, Randi lunged for the First Aid kit. Please god, let there be a collar in here. I can’t remember the last time I’ve looked in here. Placing the suitcase-type kit on the ground, she unsnapped the latches and laid it open, doing a quick visual inventory. Thank you! Grabbing up the stiff, molded collar, she reached back in the vehicle and carefully fastened it around the writer’s neck.

With the most critical task completed, the raven-haired doctor began a swift inventory of the small woman’s injuries. The physician worked quickly and efficiently, verbalizing her actions, in the off chance that the unresponsive woman could hear and feel what was happening. “Your pulse is pretty fast, Megan, but that’s ’cause you’ve lost some blood. You’re breathing kind of fast too, but that’s to be expected. I’m going to open your eye and shine a light in there for just a moment, okay?” Shining the penlight in the young woman’s eyes, the dark haired woman noted a sluggish reaction from the pupils. “Hmmm, looks like you may have a concussion too. Don’t worry, we’ll take care of it.”

The one-way conversation continued as the tall doctor pressed, probed, and examined as much of the limp body as she could reach; applying temporary dressings and bandages as she went along.

A long twenty minutes had passed before Randi was finished with examination and treatment. She stood outside the damaged vehicle, pondering her next course of action. The snow was getting deeper and Megan’s chances of becoming hypothermic increased with every passing moment, in spite of the rescue blanket that Randi had covered her with. Now what,” her mind screamed. No backboard, no stretcher, nothing to immobilize her with, so I can get her up to the house…DAMMIT! Running a frustrated hand through her hair, the desperate doctor searched her mind for an answer. Looking up at her Jeep, and down at her patient, Randi decided on a course of action. It was risky, at best, but it was the only chance the younger woman would have.

Scrambling up to the Jeep, Randi grabbed the piece of board that Toby had given her earlier, and carried it back to the Lexus. She then grabbed the remaining roll bandage and elastic bandage; sliding the board down and behind Megan’s head, Randi used the remaining bandaging to secure the blonde’s head and upper torso to the board.

Randi sighed as she looked down at the tightly wrapped writer lying in the car. This solution was about as far from perfect as she could get; and risky as hell for the patient, but it was the best she could come up with. Now she would have to get the injured woman out of her car, and into the Jeep that waited for her at the top of the incline, about twenty yards away. Thank god, this didn’t happen further up the hill, where the woods really drop down from the road.

“All right, Ms. Megan, I have to get you up to my truck. And in order to do that, I’m going to have to move you out of the car, and on to the ground for a moment. Now I’m going to have the thermal blanket under you, but you’ll still feel a few moments of cold; but it’ll be over quick, so don’t worry.” The tall woman bent to her task, but paused, as she remembered something. With a muttered curse, she ran back to the Jeep, whipped open the passenger door, and laid the seat back to a nearly prone position. That’ll make things a little easier when we get up here.

Back at the wreck, Randi placed the blanket beside the car and began the arduous process of removing the unconscious woman from the vehicle, and repositioning her for easier pickup. Having done this, the dark haired physician squatted down, and carefully gathered the smaller woman in her arms. God, she’s so light. Shaking off the thought, the tall woman made her way up to the Jeep with her helpless burden.

It was slow, awkward, and more than a little frustrating, but Randi finally had the writer tucked into the passenger seat of the Jeep. The motor was running, the heater was on, the patient was firmly strapped in. The only thing left for the weary physician to do was gather up the remains of the First Aid kit.

Short moment’s later; fingers nearly numb from the cold, shifted the Jeep into drive and headed home.
Chapter Six
Randi pulled up and positioned the Jeep parallel to the front steps of the sprawling ranch house that she called home. Throwing the vehicle in park and setting the emergency brake, Randi turned and addressed her unconscious passenger. “All right, Megan…we’re at my house. I’ve got to run up and open some doors, so I can carry you in. I’ll be right back.” Leaving the motor and heater running, the tall woman bounded up the snow-packed steps. Propping open the door to the screened-in porch, she stepped quickly into the house, side-stepping the happy canines that came to greet her. “Not now, ladies…we’ve got company, and I’ve got to get her in here and settled ASAP.” As if understanding, the furry pair wandered out to the porch and sat down, silently observing the large, humming creature that sat in front.

Randi’s mind was racing as she traveled down the long hallway, toward the back half of the house, pausing in front of the powder-blue door that she hadn’t opened in months. Sighing, Randi opened the door and turned on the light, battling the waves of melancholy that washed over her as she stood in the small treatment room and office of Dr. Jacob Oakes. Even though he was retired from practice, the elder Oakes insisted on keeping a well-stocked office in case his farming neighbors needed assistance. The nearest medical facility was in Knox, a full thirty miles away; much too far away for some injuries that came with using heavy farming equipment. Over the years there had been more than a few ranchers, farmers, and pregnant mothers that were thankful for the old man’s foresight. Just as Randi was thankful for it now, as she jogged out to the Jeep.

Within moments, the raven-haired doctor had the petite writer lying on the examining table. “Okay, Megan, the first thing I have to do is take care of that nasty head wound of yours.” The tall woman continued her one-sided conversation with the patient, no longer sure if it was for Megan’s benefit, or her own. “This is going to need some stitches. I’m pretty sure you’re not feeling anything right now, but, just in case, I’m going to administer a local anesthetic.” Moving to the locked cabinet, she pulled out a disposable syringe, a bottle of Lignocaine, 1%, and a pack of Ethilon suture. Snagging the rolling stool with her foot, she settled beside the blonde head and began her work.

Randi stood and stretched, groaning as stiff and aching muscles protested the action. A full two hours had passed while she reset bones, splinted limbs, stitched and bandaged wounds, and performed a more thorough examination of the unconscious woman. Her vital signs were greatly improved, and another check of the pupils showed them to be slightly more reactive, much to the tall woman’s relief. An injection of antibiotics finished the treatment.

“Well now, I guess the only thing left to do is to get you into a bed and sit and wait for you to wake up. I’m going to throw some sheets on the bed in the spare room. Be right back.”

Randi hastened to the spare bedroom, grabbing sheets and a blanket from the linen closet on the way. As she began to make the bed, a sudden thought made her pause. Better to be safe than sorry, she decided, as she went back to the linen closet and pulled down a plastic fitted sheet. Upon completion of the bed, the brunette returned to her patient.

“All right then, Ms. Megan, let’s get you settled into a real bed.” The doctor gently lifted the strawberry blonde into her arms, being mindful of the splinted limbs, and carried her to the other room. Once she had the smaller woman settled, the dark-haired doctor decided she would have some time to tend to her own needs before her patient regained consciousness.

As she turned to leave the room, Randi noticed, with no small amusement, two furry heads peeking around the edge of the doorframe. “Well, aren’t we the nosy ones,” she chided.

The little golden one had the grace to duck her head, as if in embarrassment, while her larger midnight companion merely cocked a triangular head; a gesture that was clearly doggie language for ‘and your point is…?’

Randi chuckled at the furry pair as she moved past them and down the hall. “Keep an eye on her,” the doctor called back. “Let me know if she starts to wake up.” The two canines looked at each other, then to the unmoving human in the bed. With a mutual sigh, they curled up in the doorway, facing the bed.

***

Randi finally felt human again. A quick, hot shower and warm, dry clothes had done wonders for her aching body. Now, she sat in her kitchen, munching on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and listening to the latest weather reports. Not much had changed from the first report she had heard this morning. The falling snow would vary in intensity, but would still continue until at least Thursday evening. The exhausted woman sighed and hung her head. Great! It’ll be a month before they can clear the road leading up here. And I get to spend that whole month with the delightful Ms. Galagher. Maybe I should just shoot myself now and get it over with. “Oh, well,” she muttered aloud, “at least it won’t be boring.” Picking up the phone, she dialed a familiar number. “I’d better let Toby know what’s going on up here, in case someone comes looking for her.”

A short while later, armed with a paperback book, a thermos of coffee, and a comforter, the tall woman padded back to the room where her patient lay. She would be keeping a vigil over the injured woman until she awakened. The woman stopped short as she approached the doorway and chuckled as she looked down at her appointed ‘watchers.’ The big black canine was sprawled on her back, snoring contentedly. Her golden companion lay horizontally, with her head resting comfortably across the black’s neck. “Damned if you two aren’t named right,” the woman grinned as she stepped over the cozy pair.

Laying her things at the end of the bed, the tall woman went back into the office to fetch several items that she would need close-by over the next few days. Returning to the bedside, she placed them neatly on the nightstand next to the bed, then proceeded to do a quick check of the blonde’s pulse, respiration, blood pressure and pupils. Finding them all satisfactory, she gathered up her things and ambled over to the big, overstuffed armchair that was located by the window.

Randi sighed as she curled her tall frame into the inviting softness. She had always loved this old chair. Growing up, it was her fortress, her cocoon…a warm, quiet place where a teenage girl could sit and dream and ponder the mysteries of life as she gazed at the stars through her window. Nothing’s changed Uncle Jake…I’m still pondering. Only now, it’s not so much the mysteries of life, as the unfairness of it. She shouldn’t have died, Uncle Jake…I should have been there…but I wasn’t…and she died! I’m sorry, Uncle Jake. Her throat burned with the sob that she was trying to suppress, as a lone teardrop escaped her tightly closed eyes. I’m so sorry, Casey.

The heartsick woman was startled from her grief as a small, leathery pad touched her hand. Watery, blue eyes flew open and were captured by soft brown orbs that gazed up at her with almost human compassion. Then the small golden creature that more closely resembled a fox than a dog, gingerly crawled up into her lap; a soft, little tongue snaked out, snatching away the errant tear, before the petite head lay gently upon her shoulder. “Thank you, baby,” the tall woman sighed, as she buried her face in the sweet-smelling fur. This scene was not new. It had been played out many times over the last several months. Her silent companions always seemed to know when the guilt and pain would overcome her…and they would be there. The little one would offer her best canine imitation of a heartfelt hug; and the beautiful black would sit beside them, silent and unmoving, as if offering comfort by the mere strength of her presence.

And she sat there now, once again, offering support in the best way she knew how. She would remain here, a silent sentinel, keeping watch as Morpheus lured her two companions into his realm.

***

She was tumbling, falling. Flashes of white and green and brown filling her vision like an insane kaleidoscope. And then, mercifully, oblivion. Now the world outside was pulling her from her cozy darkness…and she really didn’t want to go…it hurt too much. “Oh, God,” she croaked in a voice she barely recognized as her own. She wanted to move…. she really did, but even a little stretch of stiff limbs had hurt. “Owww,” she said through clenched teeth, as tears leaked out of tightly closed eyes.

“Easy,” the silky, deep voice cajoled her, as a cool hand brushed wisps of hair from her eyes.

Who…? Why does that voice sound familiar? Unwilling eyelids fluttered, finally giving way, as bleary green orbs brought into focus the face behind the voice.

“You!”

“Afraid so.”

“Aw, shit!”
Chapter Seven
The tall woman cocked a bemused eyebrow. “Well….that’s not the normal response for saving someone’s life, but…You’re welcome.”

Megan’s scathing response was reduced to a raspy squawk. The small blonde grimaced as she licked parched lips and tried to swallow the pound of sand that seemed to be sitting in her mouth. She flinched as she felt something touch her lips.

“Here, sip this….slowly,” the tall woman cautioned, as she held the straw to the blonde’s lips.

The writer glared as she wrapped her lips around the slender tube, bristling at the perceived ‘command’ given by this…. Person, and proceeded to take several long, deep gulps of the wonderfully cool water.

“Hey,” the doctor exclaimed, as she pulled the straw away from greedy lips.

Any protest the writer may have had to having her liquid treat removed, expired quickly. Her eyes bulged, as her stomach clenched painfully, and the liquid contents inside made a searing, painful journey back up her esophagus.

Randi knew what was coming, and without missing a beat, she placed the water cup on the nightstand and picked up the small kidney-shaped bowl that she had placed there last night, and had it in place as the small woman lurched to the side and surrendered the contents of her stomach.

Randi held the limp, sweaty strands of hair out of the young woman’s face as she spasmed through the remaining dry heaves of her rebelling stomach. Finally, the writer flopped back in the bed with an exhausted groan.

The tall woman simply couldn’t help it. “Feel better now?” she inquired innocently.

The writer glared, then squeezed her eyes shut as a wave of pain washed through her. “Wonderful, thank you,” she responded through clenched teeth.

You’re being a jerk; Randi’s conscience scolded her. You’re supposed to be a doctor! This woman is confused, exhausted, and in pain. You should be helping her…not baiting her!

With her self-lecture finished, the guilt-ridden brunette used a kinder tone to address her patient.

“Ms. Galagher, I know you’re extremely dry, thirsty, and maybe a little hungry. But, because of your concussion, and the trauma to your abdomen from the car seatbelt, your stomach is not able to handle whole lot. That’s why I told you to sip the water slowly.”

Green eyes looked up at the tall woman warily. You may not want to admit it, Meg…but she’s right. “Yes, of course, you’re right,” she mumbled. Taking a semi-deep breath, the blonde reined in her hostility for the moment. “Look, Dr. Oakes, I appreciate the fact that you saved my life and treated my injuries. But let’s face it…you don’t like me, and I don’t like you. The sooner we part company, the better off we’ll both be. If you will allow me to use your phone to call my agent, I can have her send an ambulance for me and take me back to New York. Once I’m settled, I’ll make sure you are suitably reimbursed for your time and trouble.”

The tall woman grimaced internally. She is gonna shit a brick. Clearing her throat, the brunette walked around the bed, heading toward the window. “Well, Ms.Galagher, I’ll be happy to let you use the phone to call your agent. I’m sure she’ll be glad to know that you’re okay.” Grasping the cord to the window blinds, the brunette pulled, slowly raising the pale lavender shield. “But I’m afraid an ambulance is out of the question right now.”

The small blonde’s eyes grew saucer-wide as she beheld the solid white world outside the window.

“There’s already more than two feet of snow out there,” the doctor continued as she lowered the blinds. “Snowfall is expected to continue for at least another twenty four hours. With that amount of snowfall, it’ll be six…perhaps seven weeks before the road leading up here will be clear. We’re snowbound, Ms. Galagher, I’m sorry.”

Megan sat there, stunned. The impact of the tall woman’s words sinking in. I’ll be at the mercy of this…this pervert for months! Pain, anxiety, and unreasoning fear worked together to shatter what little grasp she had on civility. “You bitch,” she rasped to the startled doctor. “You couldn’t bring me into town for treatment…couldn’t call an ambulance when you found me.” Using her good hand, the agitated blonde threw back the bed covers and struggled to rise. Only to have a firm hand on her shoulder, impeding her efforts. “Let me go,” she spat, still trying to rise, her green eyes sparking and her temper flaring. “I don’t know what you hope to gain by imprisoning me here with you, but it won’t work. I’ll get away sooner or later…and I’ll make you sorry you ever met me. I’ll…”

“ENOUGH!” The tall woman bellowed, as a firm shove set the blonde firmly on her back and kept her there. Randi had had enough. Her own temper was beginning to flare; and that was something a responsible Doctor should never let happen. She had to end this quickly. Steely blue eyes locked on to hostile green. “First of all,” she began, through gritted teeth, “I’m already sorry that I met you. Second, I tried to get our rescue squad to come for you. But they were tied up on another accident site. Third, the nearest medical facility that could handle your extensive injuries is over thirty miles away. Road conditions being the way they are, we never would have made it. Fourth, I don’t ‘hope-to-gain’ anything by keeping you here. If anything, I expect to lose quite a bit…my sanity, most of all. Now you don’t have to like me…you don’t have to like being stuck here with me. But you do have to quit fighting me, and allow me to help you heal. If you don’t, then by god, I’ll keep you so sedated you won’t know your ass from your elbow the whole time you’re here.” Taking a deep breath, and removing her restraining hand from the younger woman’s shoulder, she replaced the cover over the unresisting body. In a slightly gentler tone, she inquired, “which way is it going to be, Ms. Galagher?”

Frustrated tears escaped tightly closed eyelids. “You win, Dr. Oakes,” the blonde responded in a tight whisper. “For now.”

Randi sighed. Her temper had tucked tail and left her. Now she stood here feeling like five kinds of bully. Silence reigned for long moments, as doctor and patient each grappled with their own private demons. “I…um…I need to check a few things,” the brunette offered, breaking the silence.

Green eyes snapped open, filled with equal parts fear and defiance.

“I just need to do a visual check of your bandages, to make sure your ‘exertions’ didn’t undo them, or cause you to start bleeding again. Then I need to check your BP, heart rate, and pupils. It won’t take long, Ms. Galagher, I promise. Then I’ll leave you alone so you can get some more rest.”

The blonde pondered this for all of twenty seconds, “the sooner she gets this over with, the sooner she’ll leave you alone,” before nodding her acceptance.

The examination was proceeding smoothly, much to the writer’s irritation. She wanted to find something wrong with the doctor’s procedure…she needed to find something wrong. But the tall woman was being maddeningly efficient, and this frustrated the small woman to no end. Finally, the writer decided she would make something wrong.

“Why am I naked?” the blonde inquired, knowing full well the obvious answer.

“I had to cut off your clothes in order to do a thorough examination and treat all your injuries.” If the tall woman was taken aback by the question, she didn’t show it, as she shined a light into the smaller woman’s eye.

“Did you enjoy taking my clothes off?” the blonde inquired cattily. “Did you get a quick thrill having a woman laying there naked in front of you?”

Damned if you aren’t some piece of work, the doctor mused, as she checked the pupil of the other eye. Betraying no emotion, the brunette put her equipment away, and turning to face the irksome blonde, she crossed her arms and smirked.

“You’ve been reading too many of your own books, Ms. Galagher. (A) I was too busy saving your life to ogle your…. Assets. (B) The sight of a broken and bloody body does not turn me on. It never has, and it never will. And (C)…” the tall woman quirked a mischievous eyebrow, “don’t flatter yourself.” With that, she calmly turned and left the room. Leaving the young blonde speechless, embarrassed, and thoroughly miffed.

***

“Weeks…I’ve got to put up with this for weeks,” the dark-haired woman huffed aloud, as she hefted the weighted barbell off her chest. “We’ll kill each other,” she continued through gritted teeth as corded muscles strained to raise the one-hundred-eighty pound barbell one more time. She had retreated to her well-equipped weight room to blow off the excessive steam that had built up during her time spent with the venomous writer. And now, two strenuous hours later, her high ire was reduced to fatalistic grumbling. Her silk boxer shorts and tank top were glued to her lanky frame by the sweat that liberally coated it, and her muscles ached from the extended workout she had put them through. With a final heave, she racked the barbell and slowly lifted her weary body from its prone position. Sitting on the half-bench, the dejected brunette ran her fingers through sweat-dampened hair.

You’re getting a kick out of this, aren’t you, Uncle Jake? Whenever I would get down in the dumps, or start feeling sorry for myself over one thing or another, you always told me that a good swift kick in the pants would straighten me out…and you’d be more than happy to provide it. Randi chuckled at the memory of those ‘swift kicks’ being delivered in the form of a good lengthy tickling; followed by an extended cuddle in warm, strong arms. Well, if this situation isn’t a kick in the pants, I don’t know what is, the tall woman mused, as she exited the room.” But damned if I didn’t like it better when you did it.
Chapter Eight
Something was smelling awfully good. Traveling through sleeping nostrils, down to a thoroughly empty stomach, causing it to grumble in protest of its current state. Bleary green eyes opened to long woodgrain paddles slowly revolving around a milkwhite globe. The eyes idly traveled across the ceiling and down walls that were papered with delicate floral designs. The blonde shifted her head to the right, continuing her perusal, and gasped when her curious green eyes collided with gentle brown ones.

Randi was in the kitchen, sprinkling mint flakes into a pan of rapidly boiling chicken broth. Dipping a ladle into the fragrant liquid, she scooped some out and gently blew on the steaming contents before taking a taste. Hmmm, not bad. The tall woman’s taste testing was interrupted by the click-clack of canine toenails on a linoleum floor. The midnight-hued German Shepard ambled into the kitchen and paused in front of the woman.

“I take it she’s awake, huh?”

A brief ‘urf’ was her answer.

Randi sighed and turned back to the stove. Picking up a small bowl, she ladled some broth into it and set it on a tray along with a slice of bread and a pitcher of water. Picking up the tray, she turned to her four-legged companion. “Well, here goes round two,” she mumbled as she headed down the long hallway.

***

“Well, hello there. Aren’t you the pretty one,” the blonde rasped to her small visitor, earning her a happy, full-body wiggle and spin from the little canine. “You’re a little small to be a nurse, so I’m going to hazard a guess that you’ve been appointed to keep an eye on me for her.” This earned the writer a brief, yodeling ‘roof’and an upraised paw; bringing an amused smile to the young woman’s face.

“Actually, she appointed herself,” came the voice from the doorway. “She seems to think that you could use the company, whether you’re awake or not.”

The smile faded from the blonde’s face as she looked up at the tall brunette standing in the doorway holding a large tray in her hands. “Well, I certainly prefer her company to…anyone else’s,” the blonde replied acidly.

Randi chose to ignore the caustic comment. Striding into the room, she placed the tray on the dresser and looked down at the little dog that had come to greet her. The brunette dropped down to one knee and reached out, gently scratching behind a golden, triangular ear. “Good morning, little lady,” she crooned to the little animal, who leaned blissfully into the tender touch. “You did a good job. Now, go get something to eat before your buddy hogs it all.” Standing up, she chuckled as the little canine took her warning to heart and scampered out of the room. Stepping into the bathroom to quickly wash her hands, she came back out and addressed her patient, who had been observing her with a mixture of curiosity and pique.

“And how is Ms. Galagher this morning?”

“Ms. Galagher is thirsty, hungry, in pain, and has to use the restroom; but other than that, just dandy. Thank you for finally getting around to asking, Dr. Oakes,” the blonde responded caustically.

“I’m sorry,” the Doctor responded sincerely as she approached the bed, “I didn’t mean to ignore you. The writer was caught off guard by the gentle response, but didn’t show it; choosing instead to remain silent.

Oooh, no catty comeback, color me happy, the tall woman mused. “Well, Ms. Galagher, the good news is, we should be able to do something about all of your complaints. The bad news is, I’m going to have to change your bandages and check your vital signs first.”

The blonde woman tensed. “My vital signs are fine,” she gritted. “My bandages are fine. Just let me have some water and maybe something for the pain, and I’ll take care of the rest on my own.”

Randi took a deep breath. “Ms. Galagher, I understand this isn’t easy for you, considering how you feel about ‘my kind’, but your first priority is to get better. And my first priority is to do everything in my power to make that happen. If I don’t change your bandages, infection can, and will set in. If I don’t monitor your signs, I will not know if something is wrong inside your body.” Seeing the blonde’s posture relax a little, Randi walked over and picked up the water cup. Returning to the bed, she placed the straw to the blonde’s lips. “Remember,” she cautioned, “small sips.”

Mindful of her last experience, the writer obeyed. Taking a few small sips, pausing, then taking a few more. Finally, having quenched her thirst for the moment, the writer released the straw. Looking up into patient blue eyes, she mumbled a ‘thank you.’

“You’re welcome,” the tall woman returned. “I need to go to the office to get fresh bandages and antiseptic and a bedpan. I’ll be right back.”

“Excuse me?”

Randi was halfway to the door when the icy question stopped her in her tracks. “Oh, shit. I knew this was coming.” She turned and grimaced internally at the flushed and furious glare directed her way.

“Did I hear you say ‘bedpan’?

“Uhm, yes.”

“You have got to be kidding.”

“Actually, no.”

“Well then, you’re insane if you think I’m going to endure the humiliation of having you shove a bedpan under my bare ass every time I have to relieve myself.” Using her good hand, she pulled back the blanket, keeping the sheet covering her body, tried to rise. “I’ve endured enough humiliation at your hands, ‘Doctor’, the bathroom is right…”

“ALL RIGHT, HOLD IT RIGHT THERE!”

The no nonsense tone in the tall woman’s voice made the writer pause in her attempts to rise. She looked up as the brunette clenched her eyes and took a deep breath, as if mentally counting to ten, then strode back over to the bed. The smaller woman unconsciously pulled back as the taller woman squatted down so that she was at eye level. If the taller woman noticed, she didn’t comment.

“Look, Ms.Galagher,” the doctor began, “I’m not going to say that I know how you feel, because I don’t. But I do understand.” Ignoring the blonde’s skeptical snort, the doctor continued. “But there are some things you have to understand too. Your left leg is broken, a clean fracture of the Tibia, to be exact. Your right arm is broken as well. The Ulna was fractured severely enough to break through the skin. Your head impacted with something hard enough to result in a mild concussion, as well as a deep laceration that required several stitches. You have a severely bruised abdomen that was caused by your seatbelt doing its job.”

“Okay, I get the picture; I’m a fucking mess,” the blonde snapped impatiently, “is there a point to this conversation?” The writer was unnerved by the doctor’s close proximity; and she really had to go to the bathroom.

“Yes, there is,” the doctor answered patiently, “and I’m just about to make it. You need a cast on your leg and arm. But I don’t have the material here for casts. The best I could do, was splint them and wrap them tightly. If you try to put any pressure on your leg, such as trying to walk to the bathroom, your leg will buckle, and you’ll drop like a rock. The resulting damage from that fall will be worse than what you came in here with. That leaves us with only two options: I can catheterize you, which is, in my opinion, not an option, or we can use a bedpan.”

Randi’s heart lurched at the defeated tears that now cascaded down the young woman’s face. She always hated to see one of her patient’s cry, and even though this woman looked at her as an enemy, it still pained her.

“Hey,” she offered gently, “it won’t be that bad. You can pretty much remain covered. I’ll elevate your upper body and your bad leg. You can use your good leg to lift yourself, while I slide the pan under you. Then I’ll leave you alone for a few minutes, and, when you’re finished, we can remove it the same way. How does that sound?”

“Fine,” the heartsick blond mumbled.

“Great,” the relieved doctor replied, as she stood up and hurried out of the room.

“She’s enjoying this,” the writer rasped through her tears, to no one in particular. “I don’t care how nice she acts. She’s getting a perverse pleasure out of having me helpless and at her mercy. Her kind doesn’t care about anyone else’s pain. They only care about themselves.” Are you sure about that? A small voice inside her asked. “Of course I’m sure,” she mumbled aloud. “I’m living proof of that!” Are you sure about that? The small voice repeated, leaving the blonde frustrated and, for the first time in years, uncertain.
Chapter Nine
Randi had a smile on her face as she gathered the items she would need to tend to Megan. Well, she’s not blowing kisses at me, but at least she’s being a little more agreeable. Maybe it’s because you’re not being such a jerk, Randi. The tall woman had to chuckle at the ‘duh’ quotient of that last thought. “Yeah, that definitely helps,” she muttered aloud. Randi thought back to last night. She had lain awake for a long while after she got in bed. That in itself was not unusual; as she had lain awake many nights, her thoughts consumed by grief and guilt. What made last night different, was her preoccupation with a certain strawberry blonde.

She could not, for the life of her, understand why she was so impatient with the writer. The young woman was biased and homophobic, true; but Randi had met many such people in her life, and had always been able to overlook their smallmindedness. Why was this woman different? Throughout her life, Randi had been gentle and caring. This was especially evident in her treatment of her patients, regardless of their temperament. Why did she allow the writer to get to her? Randi had no answers. All she knew was that her behavior was inexcusable. Uncle Jake would be ashamed. So the pretty Doctor came to the only conclusion she could live with; To knock the damn chip off of her shoulder and treat the blonde with the same kindness and respect that all her patients used to receive, regardless of the younger woman’s ill manners. And damned if it isn’t making a little difference, the brunette mused with a grin as she made her way back to her patient.

“Hi, sorry it took so long,” the doctor apologized as she bustled into the room. The blonde offered no response, as she stared morosely at the ceiling. Placing her things on a small folding table she had brought along, the brunette moved over to the bed.

“Okay Ms.Galagher, we know I have to do some checking and changing, and we also know that you have to answer nature. What would you like to do first? It’s your call.”

The young blonde’s eyes flew to the doctor’s face, searching for some sign of deceit, or condescending attitude. Genuinely surprised at finding neither, and unable to deal with the sincerity in those blue eyes, the writer looked away and mumbled, “I really have to go.”

“Okay, fine,” the doctor returned as she moved to the closet. “There are some extra pillows and blankets in here. We can use them to raise your torso and leg a little bit, to make it easier for you to lift and situate yourself.”

***

One and a half-hours later, Megan was in that blissfully fuzzy place between the waking world and the peaceful oblivion of sleep. Her belly was somewhat full, That broth was actually pretty good. Her bladder was empty. That wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I thought it would be. Her bandages were changed, and the doctor had given her something for the pain. And then she rode off into the sunset…just like the hero in a bad western, the writer giggled to herself as she drifted into the realm of dreams.

***

Randi lay sprawled in the big recliner. The massive stone fireplace had a roaring fire going, spreading toasty warmth throughout the room. The house was clean, the fireplace re-stocked with wood, and her patient was dozing comfortably. That left nothing for the brunette to do but to curl up with a book and catch up on some reading. A course of action that lasted all of ten minutes before blue eyes drifted closed and the book dropped from limp fingers. All too soon, relaxed muscles became rigid, facial muscles began to twitch, and eyeballs careened wildly beneath closed lids.

The hallway seemed to stretch for miles as frantic feet raced along its length. The blue beacon flashed incessantly above the door. Bursting through the door, she found the room was in chaos. A cacophony of voices was vying to be heard. A willowy redhead stood in the far corner, hands covering trembling lips, tears streaming down a pale face. Machines cried out in alarm. A wiry black man in a white lab coat was on the bed, straddling a small body; rhythmically pushing on a small chest while grim faced nurse held a breather bag over an unmoving face. Moving to the bed, she barked, “What the hell’s going on?”

“She started having respiratory distress about a half hour ago,” the dark man responded between compressions. “She’s rejected any treatment we’ve tried. She was calling for you. We’ve been calling and paging,” he informed her, not unkindly. ” She went into full respiratory arrest about ten minutes ago, and then cardiac arrest just before you walked in. WHERE THE HELL IS THAT CRASH CART?

As if on cue, the door burst open, as the requested machine was hustled in. Randi reached out and pulled the machine to her. Grabbing the paddles, she barked, “Get this damn thing fired up, STAT!” Turning to the tiny, pale child in the bed, she whispered, “Hang on, Casey. Don’t leave me, baby.”

***

The dark head lifted. Blue eyes scanned her surroundings as triangular ears rotated left and right, searching, listening. She heard it again; a faint, keening ‘noooo.’ Raising up, she cast a glance to her honey-colored companion, who was listening worriedly to the sounds of distress, and then sauntered down the hall. Striding into the livingroom, she approached the recliner and paused, observing the writhing, moaning figure in the chair. With a mental shrug, she reached up and grabbed the nearest shirtsleeve in her teeth, and began to tug.

Reaction to the tugging was almost immediate, as the raven-haired woman bolted up, ramrod straight, wide-eyed, and gasping. Her disorientation faded quickly as she looked down at the ebony canine that sat there staring at her. The strong, angular chin quivered as she looked into patient blue eyes. “I did it again, didn’t I?”

In answer, the dark canine reached over and lightly nibbled the length of her arm until she hit a spot that made the tall woman jump. “Aahh, you little shit!” Randi was on her feet now, rubbing the sensitive spot and glaring at the arrogant beast who was now sitting on the other side of the room, wagging her tail and looking at the tall woman with, what Randi would swear, was an evil grin.

Woman and animal locked stares for a long moment, before the woman gave in. “All right, Ze, you win. I’m better now. Although,” she chuckled as she squatted down, “I like your partner’s remedy a lot better.” The raven-haired canine moved closer to the squatting woman, until they were almost nose to nose. “You are such an asshole,” she grinned to the animal. And had absolutely no chance to dodge the sloppy, wet, pink tongue that slapped her nose.

“Eeeewww!”
Chapter Ten
“Rise and shine, Ms. Galagher. A bright, new day beckons!” the brunette announced cheerfully, as she strode into the room carrying a large tray. It was a cheeriness that was decidedly unappreciated by the woman in the bed.

“I’ve no intention of rising or shining,” the blonde grumbled as she reached for the blanket with her good hand, “and the ‘bright, new day can kiss my dull, old…” The last word was muffled by the blanket that the small woman threw over her face.

Randi was hard-pressed to contain a chuckle at the unknowing cuteness of that act. Setting the tray on the dresser, she walked over to the bed and squatted down by the bunched up blanket that had blond hairs sticking out.

“Aw, c’mon now,” the brunette cajoled, “surely you don’t want to miss out on some nice, hot, fluffy scrambled eggs.” The doctor grinned to herself as she watched the blanket creep down, revealing a bleary green eye.

“A thick slice of tender, juicy ham.” The blanket moved down further.

“Fresh, hot, buttered sourdough bread.” The blanket moved down even further, revealing two wide-open green eyes, and a pert nose.

“Scrambled eggs?” a muffled voice inquired hopefully. The tall woman nodded.

“Ham?” Another nod.

“Hot bread and real butter?” A smile and a nod.

The green eyes narrowed. “This had better not be a trick to get me up, so you can poke and prod.”

Randi feigned a shocked expression. “Me?”…. Never!”

A snort was the response as the blonde drew down the covers and sighed. “Okay, what do I have to endure in order to eat?”

“Well,” the doctor responded as she stood up, “we have to do the usual checks, check and change your bandages, and you probably have to use the pan, but….” She paused at the crestfallen expression on the young woman’s face. “Why don’t we let you eat first, so your breakfast doesn’t get cold.” Randi was rewarded with the first genuine, open smile she had seen since meeting the writer. And it warmed her immeasurably. The tall woman decided, as she helped her patient sit up, that some way…somehow…she would see more of those smiles.

*****

“Mmmm,” the blonde hummed delightedly, as the slightly cheddary flavor of the eggs caressed her palate. This was the first truly solid food she’d had in days. And, while the broth and soups she had been given were good, her stomach was getting really pissed at not being given regular food. Now, as she sat munching contentedly, she would swear she could hear her tummy chanting a litany of ‘thank yous’. God, who knew she could cook like this? the writer mused as she speared a piece of pre-cut ham. Actually, she does a lot of things good; you just refuse to see it, her small voice reprimanded. “Don’t start!” she warned the small voice. She’s only doing this because she has to. Keep telling yourself that, the small voice sneered. Trying to quiet her conflicting thoughts, the writer’s mind drifted back to the night before.

“Grayson,” the gravelly voice barked into the phone.

“Don’t you ever just say ‘hello’?” the amused blonde inquired.

“Galagher?!” the publisher shouted. “Is that you? Jesus Christ, woman, where are you? Are you all right? I’ve been worried sick about you!” Where in the hell have you been? “The older woman ranted, clearly pissed, but near tears in relief at hearing her young friend’s voice.

“I’m uh, I’m okay, Charly.” The blonde was clearly struggling to keep from breaking down. But it was so hard. She was so scared…and so alone…and the familiar, caring voice threatened to destroy what little control of her emotions she had left. “I was in an accident.” At the quick intake of breath on the other end, the writer hastily reassured, “But I really am okay. I’ve got a broken arm, and a broken leg, and a mild concussion, but that’s all.”

“That’s all!? Goddamn it, Megan, that’s enough!” the distraught publisher bellowed. “What? hospital are you in? What room? Who’s your doctor?” The older woman was rattling off questions faster than the bemused author could answer them. Before she could respond, she heard footsteps coming down the hall and stopping at her door, followed by a light tapping.

“Hold on a moment, Charly,” the blonde instructed before laying the phone down and bidding Randi to enter.

The tall woman strode into the room with an apologetic grin. “Sorry to bother you,” she offered, “but I figured you might want these.” She handed over a sheet of paper, accompanied by a legal-looking document and two laminated cards. Megan briefly examined the items in her hand. The sheet of paper contained, in neatly typed order, Randi’s full name, address, phone number, vehicle make and license number. The document was her medical certification, and the laminated cards were her driver’s license and hospital ID badge. At the blonde’s questioning look, the doctor explained, “These are the things I would need to know, if my friend were injured and in a stranger’s hands.” And, with a gentle smile, the tall woman left the room, leaving the young woman thoroughly flabbergasted by the wisdom, and unexpected kindness of that act. Megan was brought out of her consternation by a muffled shout, as she hastily picked up the phone.

“Sorry about that,” the blonde apologized.

“Who was that?”

“That was just the doctor.”

“Is everything okay?”

“Everything’s fine, Charly. She was just dropping off a couple of things. Now, as to your questions, I’m not exactly in a hospital.”

“Whoa,” the older woman interrupted, “what do you mean ‘not exactly in a hospital? You just said that was a doctor in the room. What the hell’s going on, Meg?”

“I’ll be happy to tell you, sweety, if you’ll quit interrupting,” the young woman chuckled, earning her an impatient growl. Once the older woman quieted down, the writer filled her in on the events leading up to the present conversation. The publisher’s reaction was a long silence, before inadvertently putting her foot in her mouth.

“Whoo, talk about sleeping with the enemy,” the older woman blurted, then quickly clapped her hand over her mouth in belated recognition of the ill chosen words.

“That wasn’t even close to funny,” the icy voice responded.

“You’re right, Megan. That was an extremely poor choice of words,” the publisher apologized, mentally kicking herself. “I’m really sorry.”

The writer chewed on her lip for a long moment before sighing; “it’s all right, Charlie. I just…”

“I know, baby,” the older woman responded maternally. “But really, personal bias aside, is she treating you okay?

“I suppose,” the younger woman allowed. “What choice does she have?”

The older woman frowned in puzzlement. “What do you mean?”

“I won’t be trapped here forever, Charlie. She knows that. She’s taking care of me so I don’t have her ass thrown in jail when I get back.” The writer paused as an evil thought brought a catty smile to her lips. “Of course, with what goes on in those places, she might feel right at home.”

The publisher dropped her head and scrubbed her eyebrows with the fingers of her free hand. “Oh, Megan.” “Honey, if she were really worried about you having her arrested, don’t you think it would have been easier to just leave you in your car?”

“She’s a pervert, not a murderer,” the younger woman huffed.

“Thank you for clearing that up for me,” the publisher chuckled, amused at the petulant distinction. “Seriously, Meg, I would like to find out a little more about this doctor; can you ask her for her full name and perhaps her address? I’d feel a lot better if I knew a little bit more about her and her medical credentials. I’ve got a few friends in the medical field who can provide me with the information I need.”

The blonde glanced at the papers in her hand and smirked. “Got a pen?”

The older woman gazed at the wealth of information that she had written down in front of her. “Jeezus, this is damn-near everything but the color of her underwear.”

“Um, just out of curiosity, how did you get your hands on all this information?”

“Do you remember when she stopped in here earlier?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s when she just handed me all this stuff. Her hospital ID, driver’s license, AMA certificate and personal info. I asked her why, and she just said something like, she’d want to know this stuff if she were you.”

“Well, that was certainly nice of her,” the publisher commented, duly impressed by the doctor’s proactive response.

“If you say so,” the younger woman shrugged.

“Megan, honey, from the sound of things, you’re going to be there awhile. How pleasant or unpleasant your stay will be is going to depend on you as much as her. Now, it really looks like she is trying to do right by you.” Hearing the indignant snort on the other end, the older woman rushed on. “Look, I know how you feel about gays, lesbians in particular, but I also know that you are an extremely fair and level-headed young woman. I’m not asking you to become best buddies with her, or start putting rainbow stickers on your car. All I’m asking you to do is try looking at her as a person, and not as a symbol. Accept the help she’s trying to offer, gracefully. And when the road clears enough for you to get out of there and come home, you won’t ever have to see her again.”

“It’s hard,” the young woman responded, her voice cracking, “I look at Dr. Oakes, and I think of ‘her’. She wanted me to think she cared for me too, but she didn’t. If she did, she never would have left.” The young woman’s voice was a bare whisper now, and the publisher had to struggle to hear her. “She never called, she never wrote. She had her ‘girlfriend’; she didn’t need me or daddy anymore.”

The publisher’s heart hurt at the pain in those whispered words. “Oh, honey, I know. But this woman isn’t your mother. She’s just a young woman that came to your rescue and, in spite of your differences, is trying to take care of you. Let her out of your mother’s shadow, and I promise you, your ‘forced vacation’ won’t be half so bad.”

The writer bit her lip and sighed deeply. “I’ll try, Charlie.”

Now, in the cold, clear light of day, she wasn’t sure she could do as her friend asked. It was good advice, to be sure. But the writer wasn’t sure she could look past the tall woman’s lifestyle and see the person underneath. Especially since that lifestyle was responsible for the years of pain and feelings of abandonment that she had endured. Megan’s introspection was interrupted by a soft knocking on the door.

“Come.”

A sable-crowned head peeked in the door, wearing a toothy grin. “All done?”

The writer looked down at her tray, which was cleared of everything but random crumbs. I ate all that!? God, I must have been hungry. She looked back to the expectant face at the door; you can do this, Meg. “Yes. Thank you.”

The lanky physician opened the door wide and walked in, carrying her necessary medical items, and something else that Megan couldn’t see, because it was mostly shielded by the woman’s body. Placing the unknown item in the deep chair, and the other items on the small table, the doctor approached the bed.

“Breakfast was okay?” The doctor inquired, as she removed the tray to the dresser.

“Very good, thank you.”

“You’re quite welcome,” the doctor responded with a warm smile that the young woman found hard not to return. “Okay, we’ve got breakfast done,” she announced as she returned to the bed. “Now we have to do a check and change, and you, I’m sure, have to answer nature’s call. Again, Ms. Galagher, the choice is yours. What would you prefer to do next?”

Megan again searched the tall woman’s face, searching for something…anything…that would reveal the insincerity she was sure the doctor possessed. But all she found was an open and honest warmth that, on some deep level, shamed the young woman. “I, uhm, I really have to go,” the writer responded.

“No problem,” the doctor reassured, as she moved to the closet for the items she would need.

*****

Charlotte Grayson picked up her private line for the tenth time. And for the tenth time, she paused. She would kill you if she found out, her head shouted. But she’s worried sick, the heart argued. It’s not going to kill you to let her know that everything’s all right. You don’t have to write her a book. Just give her the basics and ease her mind. She deserves that much. “Arrghh, I hate this!” the publisher growled, as she dialed the memorized number. She listened to one-and-a-half rings before the other end picked up. “She’s all right,” the publisher announced briskly. “She wrecked in the snow up there, and broke an arm and leg, but she’s being taken care of.”

The older woman listened for a moment, then resumed speaking. “No, she’s not in a hospital. The woman that found her is a retired doctor who lives up the road from where she crashed. The ambulance was tied up, and the roads were too bad to try and get to the hospital, so the doctor brought her to her home. The downside is that they are snowbound. It’ll be weeks before she can get out of there.” Charlie listened to the voice on the other end for a moment, and with a mirthless chuckle responded, “It’s a downside because the good doctor just happens to be gay.” The silence on the other end was long and deafening before the publisher heard a muffled sob. “Look…she’ll be all right,” the editor consoled. “This may be the best thing that could have happened to her. This may force her to look at things through eyes that have been closed for years. Yes…..I’ll keep you informed.” With that uttered assurance, Charlotte Grayson hung up the phone. Forgive me, Megan.
Chapter Eleven
The doctor briskly dried her hands as she exited the bathroom. “Well, that didn’t take long,” she commented cheerfully as she moved about the room gathering her things. “The stitches are healing quite nicely, and the bruising pretty quickly. I was pleasantly surprised that you didn’t suffer any internal damage or develop an infection.” Randi paused and met the green eyes that had been surreptitiously watching her as she moved about the room. “All things considered, Ms Galagher, we were pretty lucky.”

The blonde grimaced and turned her face toward the blinds-covered window. “Forgive me, Dr. Oakes, if my interpretation of ‘lucky’ differs from yours,” she replied hollowly.

Randi pursed her lips for a thoughtful moment. “Yeah, well, I can see as how it would. But I guess it all boils down to perspective. You look at it as what has happened, and how perfectly miserable you are right now. I look at it as what could have happened, and how perfectly miserable many people would be, at the loss of such a great storyteller.” Randi finished with a crooked grin.

Megan stared at the brunette with narrowed eyes. Every nerve in her body screamed She’s lying! She’s just saying things she thinks you want to hear! But another voice penetrated the cacophony. But what if she’s not? What if she’s really sincere? The writer closed her eyes and sighed. A decision had been made. What do I really have to lose right now? But she had just one question.

“Why?”

The tall woman was confused. “Why? Why what?”

“Why are you so nice to me?”

The smile returned with a playful arch of her eyebrow. “Why not?”

Two words, agonizingly simple, but complex enough to leave the wordsmith floundering for a rejoinder that never came. The tall woman didn’t give her time to fret over the verbal inadequacy though, as she began speaking again.

“You know, it occurred to me that you sit in here, day in, day out, with absolutely nothing to do but stare at the walls. I don’t have a TV for this room, and I don’t think you’d care for the books I have.” This last part said with a guilty grin that earned her a withering glare from the blonde. Ignoring the look, she continued. “I’m still working on a way to get you out of this room for a while. But, until I do,” the brunette stopped talking momentarily as she walked over to the big chair and picked up the item she had laid there earlier, “I figured you might occupy yourself with this for a while.”

Megan gasped as the doctor gently placed the laptop computer in her lap. “Oh, God.”

The tall woman made quick work of connecting the modem line to the wall outlet. Then, reaching over, she lifted the lid and tapped the power switch.

The absolutely joyful smile on the younger woman’s face as the darkened screen came to life made Randi’s heart do cartwheels. Houston, we have liftoff.

“I’ve got MSN as my service provider,” she explained to the blonde, who was already tapping keys, “but I also have access to AOL and Netscape. You can ‘surf’ to your heart’s content, check your email, find some fanfic sites if you want to do some reading, or…” she held up the floppy discs she’d removed from her back pocket, “do some writing. It may be a little awkward with your bad arm, but I don’t think that will stop you.”

Seeing that the writer’s attention was already riveted to her new toy, the doctor chuckled to herself. I guess it’s time for me to stop babbling and make my exit. “Well,” the doctor began, as she placed the discs on the folding table, “I guess I’d better…” She was stopped cold by a tentative hand placed briefly on hers.

Startled blue eyes collided with green for a fleeting instant, before the green moved down swiftly to the keyboard.

“I…” Nervous fingers caressed the keyboard, “I…um…thank you. You didn’t have to do all this, but I really appreciate it.”

“I know I didn’t have to,” the tall woman responded, smiling warmly, “but I wanted to. And you’re very welcome.”

A comfortable silence settled between the two women as they absorbed the comfort of a moment that, for once, was not clouded by fear, mistrust or defensiveness.

The furry blonde head appearing in the doorway broke the moment. “It looks like you have a visitor,” the tall woman chuckled.

“Or two,” the writer added as a larger, midnight-colored head joined the first. “Hello, ladies,” she greeted, as the two canines cautiously entered the room.

The tall woman squatted down and stroked a golden head with one hand, while reaching her other hand out in anticipation of the large black paw that settled in it; an apparent ritual that the author observed with an expression of bemused curiosity that did not go unnoticed by the doctor.

“Miss ‘Attitude’ doesn’t seem to like being petted,” the doctor offered in explanation. “She’d rather do the handshake thing.” The blonde rolled her eyes, and the doctor just shrugged, “Hey, who am I to argue?” The tall woman rose to her full height, “Well, I’ve got some shoveling to do.” Heading to the door, she noticed she had only one shadow. “Are you coming?” she inquired of the smaller canine that sat placidly by the foot of the bed. The lack of movement by the little one gave Randi her answer. “She seems to want to keep you company for a while,” she announced to the blonde. “Is that all right with you?”

The young woman looked down at the hopeful little face. “We’ll be fine.”

The doctor nodded. “If you need anything, Ms Galagher, just tell her to come get me. Believe it, or not, she’ll understand.” As the tall woman turned to exit, she was halted by a single word.

“Megan.”

“Excuse me?”

The blonde’s eyes stared fixedly at the computer screen, but her voice was soft.

“My name is Megan.”
Chapter Twelve
The tall woman whistled merrily as she strolled down the hallway behind her ‘special surprise’.

She’s gonna love this, the brunette mused happily. The past two weeks had had their ups and downs, with both women trying to bridge the gap that their differences provided. But the enforced isolation they were enduring often left them moody and snappish with each other. When that happened, both women would retreat to their own little worlds; Megan to her writing, and occasional phone calls to her publisher friend, and Randi to her weights room, for a vigorous workout. The brunette also spent her time trying to clear the snow from in front of the house, as well as exploring the house, looking for minor faults to repair. It was on one of these ‘expeditions’ that Randi discovered her prize.

The entire second story of the large ranch house was one huge attic and storage space, and the raven-haired woman was up there checking the insulation. The lightbulb in the huge room had blown out, and Randi was shining her flashlight around the room, looking for something to stand on so she could reach the light fixture. “Son of a bitch,” the doctor muttered with a grin, as the flashlight’s beam spotlighted the dusty frame of a wheelchair. An electric wheelchair, at that. The tall woman knelt by the chair, and ran the flashlight over it, doing a quick visual examination. I forgot this was here. This is just what Megan needs to get out of that damn room for a while.

Randi’s Uncle Jake would get severe attacks of gout, and he’d needed the chair to get around. Having it motorized had allowed him more freedom of movement. After he’d passed Randi had stored it in her attic, always intending to donate it to charity and never getting around to it. Now she was glad she hadn’t.

A slight frown creased the woman’s full lips. Hmm, the control is on the right side, and her right arm is in a splint right now. She scooted closer, examining the wiring. After a few moments, she shrugged, no problem; I’ll just switch the control to the left arm. All thoughts of the blown light bulb were forgotten, as she exited the attic with her dusty treasure. It took a few days, and a variety of colorful curses, but she was finally wheeling her cleaned, shiny, fully functional prize to Megan’s door. Parking it just out of sight of the open doorway, she tapped lightly on the doorframe.

“Come in.”

The blonde was sitting propped up in the big bed. Her breakfast tray was moved to the bedside table, and she sat with her head lying back, eyes closed.

“Was everything okay?” the brunette inquired.

“Everything was excellent…as usual,” the blonde responded with a wan smile.

Randi couldn’t help but notice the listlessness of the blonde’s response. Oh yeah, she’s been in that bed, and in this room too long.

“Are you okay?” she inquired of the melancholy blonde.

“I’m fine,” she responded with little conviction as she looked over to the window. “Tell me, what’s it like out there?” the writer asked wistfully.

“Well, it’s white,” the brunette answered coyly, earning her a green-eyed glare. “But it’s really pretty. Everything looks so clean and unsullied. And the trees,” the brunette paused, staring out the window, searching for the right description, “the trees look like they’re wearing coats made of the fluffiest white clouds.”

“Thank you for that image,” the blonde responded sincerely. “I wish I could see them, for myself.”

“You can, actually. There’s a picture window in the livingroom with a great view.”

“That’s all well and good,” the blonde answered with pique, somewhat hurt and annoyed at the tall woman’s unthinking remark, “but in case you’ve forgotten, I have a slight mobility problem right now.”

“Maybe,” the brunette answered and, to the blonde’s surprise, turned and left the room.

“Or maybe not,” she smiled as she re-entered the room with the wheelchair.

Megan’s eyes grew saucer wide as she beheld the gleaming black and chrome mobile chair.

“Please,” the blonde whispered as she lurched forward, pulling at the covers, “please tell me this isn’t a joke.”

“It’s not a joke,” the doctor grinned proudly, before scrambling over to the bed, preparing to catch the smaller woman before she threw herself off it. “Whoa, slow down,” she admonished the writer. Finally managing to get the young woman’s attention, she laid down a few rules. “You’re going to need my help getting in and out of this thing, at least until your arm and leg have healed more,” she informed the blonde, who nodded eagerly. “No wheelies. No racing. And no chasing the dogs,” she recited solemnly, and getting an equally solemn nod in return. This solemnity lasted all of five seconds before the blonde let out a gleeful yip and threw her good arm around the startled doctor.

Randi froze when the small woman wrapped her in a grateful hug. Her first instinct was to return the embrace, but fear that the blonde would mis-interpret the act, kept her still. Her caution was well founded. When the blonde, realizing her position, drew back suddenly, as if she had been burned.

“I…” The writer was flustered and embarrassed, angered at her own impetuous act. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get carried away like that.”

Sensing the younger woman’s discomfort, the doctor acted to dispel it. “No problem,” the tall woman replied as she stood up, “at least you didn’t use your splinted arm. You might have knocked me out,” she winked.

Her teasing reply produced the desired results; as evidenced by a small pink tongue being playfully poked out at her.

A witty rejoinder of ‘promises, promises’ briefly flashed through the tall woman’s mind, and was quickly discarded. She settled for a brief chuckle as she positioned the chair next to the bed and locked the wheels.

“Now, until your limbs are strong enough, it’s going to be up to me to get you in and out of this chair,” the brunette announced. Seeing the expected look of discomfort cross the young woman’s face, she knelt in front of her.

“Look, I know that part of it doesn’t appeal to you. But we both want you out of this room, and right now this is the only way that’s going to happen.” Capturing the green eyes with her own, the doctor inquired gently, “Will you trust me?”

Years of homophobic reasoning screamed at her to say no, to recognize this as yet another attempt to seduce her and then use her. But she has been nothing but good to me. She’s given me everything, and asked for nothing. Even now she’s trying to give me freedom, and is asking only a small bit of trust. How can I say no? Besides that, I…I want to trust her. I like her…God help me…I like her. Releasing her anxiety with a nervous exhale, the blonde nodded.

“Great!” the tall woman exclaimed as she quickly rose and removed the right armrest from the chair. Turning back to the bed, she finished removing the covers from the blonde’s body, and with a courtly bow exclaimed, “Your chariot awaits, milady.”

With a nervous snort, the blonde cautiously lifted her splinted arm, and placed it behind the tall woman’s neck, and uttered a startled squeak as she was effortlessly lifted in strong arms.

In one smooth motion, the tall woman turned and gently placed her petite patient in the chair. As she set about replacing the armrest and adjusting the footrest, the doctor was mentally chastising herself for the feelings that having the young woman in her arms invoked. It felt so good, she felt so wonderful. I wish it had lasted longer. Stop it! Stop it right now! Her conscience bellowed, She is your patient! Your helpless, emotionally damaged, barely trusting,patient. She doesn’t need this garbage…and neither do you. The doctor acknowledged the truth of that lecture with an inaudible sigh as she finished her adjustments, completely unaware that the patient in question was having a very similar argument with herself.

*****

“And this,” the doctor announced with a dramatic flair, “is ‘The Picture Window.’ From which you can see miles and miles of snow, snowcapped trees, and the occasional beautifully rendered sunrise.”

The writer was speechless, as she gazed out into a world of pure, pristine elegance as far as the eye could see. Massive pine trees stood as silver clad sentinels, keeping watch over the small creatures that darted through the whitened landscape, both searching for food, and just plain romping.

“Pretty, isn’t it?” came the soft, mellow voice beside her.

“Pretty doesn’t even begin to describe it,” breathed the author, who reluctantly tore her gaze away from the snowy tableau to study the woman squatting beside her. The writer had to admit that Dr. Randi Oakes was indeed a beautiful woman. Her high cheekbones, aquiline nose, and full pink lips were the stuff of artists dreams, but even they paled in comparison to the winter blue pools that were the woman’s eyes. Eyes that, the writer observed over time, served as an excellent barometer of the tall woman’s moods; ranging from an icy silver-blue when she was angry, to a soft aquamarine when she was happy; which she seemed to be at this moment. And somewhere, far back in her mind, some part of her wondered what color they were when the woman was in the throes of passion.

Deciding that the young woman had studied her enough, Randi opted for a trip to the kitchen for some hot chocolate. A course of action wholly supported by a young blonde with a weakness for chocolate.

The break to the kitchen gave the tall doctor a chance to corral the hyperactive butterflies that were throwing a party in her belly. It wasn’t so much that the author was studying her, for she had noticed the young woman doing that a lot in the past few weeks. No, it was the intensity of this latest study, as if the young woman were blind, and running mental fingers over every inch of Randi’s face. The scrutiny created a riot of sensations that Randi hadn’t felt since….well…for a long time. And if she hadn’t gotten away, she might have done something that both of them would regret.

*****

Megan Galagher was clearly unhappy. Once the tall doctor had left the room, it was as if the young woman had snapped out of a trance. What in the hell were you doing? The homophobe screamed at her. You were ogling her like a starving man ogles a piece of steak. She’s supposed to be the pervert here, but you can’t seem to keep your damned eyes off her. That’s not true, the writer argued. I was simply studying her. Whether you want to admit it or not, she is a classically beautiful woman. I was just noting her features…in case I wanted to use her likeness in one of my stories. the writer finished, satisfied with her explanation. Keep telling yourself that, the homophobe snorted.

She is beautiful, is she not? another small voice whispered. A gentle, knowing voice that was sounding more and more like Charly every time. Beautiful…and gentle…and kind. Everything she is not supposed to be in your somewhat narrow perception of what ‘her kind’ is like. It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, the kindly voice continued, If you’re wrong about Dr. Oakes…then perhaps you may be wrong about other things too. With that, thankfully, the voice was quiet. Leaving the young woman to sigh at the headache that these confusing thoughts were causing.

*****

Randi entered the room just in time to hear the amused giggles of her patient. Great God almighty! the tall woman mused with a grin. She’s laughing. I never thought I’d hear her laugh. Curious, the doctor hurried over to the picture window to see what her patient found so amusing. A grin split her face as she looked out and saw a small golden streak emerge from the trees; closely followed by a larger ebony body that was curiously covered with snow. The smaller creature headed, full bore, toward the house, and suddenly seemed to disappear.

“Good grief, where did she go?” the wide-eyed blonde inquired, as she watched the big black dog skid to a stop just before the stairs. The thwarted canine launched into a round of, what seemed like, canine expletives, then with head held high, sauntered back towards the woods.

“She went under the porch. She knows Xena can’t fit under there,” the brunette explained.

“Xena?”

“Uh, heh, yeah.”

“Let me guess,” the blonde said with a smirk, “the little one is Gabrielle?”

“Yup,” Randi said with a grin.

“Do I want to know how you came to call them that? Please don’t tell me it’s because they’re both queer.” The blonde cringed inwardly at the last part. It was uncalled for, but was out of her mouth before she could stop it.

If the doctor took offense, she didn’t show it. “Not at all,” she answered. “There were quite a few reasons. Like the TV characters, one is light and one is dark. Also like the TV characters, the small one is gentle, outgoing, empathic and loving, while the large one is stoic, aloof, and a bad ass. But very fierce and protective of those she cares for; especially the little one. I think the main reason the names fit is, again, like the TV characters, these two are the best of friends, and so totally devoted to each other that it isn’t funny.”

“Interesting,” the blonde commented, “When you put it like that, I guess the names do fit. So, have you had them since they were puppies, or did you adopt them?”

The tall woman chuckled. “No, I haven’t had them that long. And, if the truth were known, it’s more like they adopted me.” At the writer’s quizzically raised eyebrow, the brunette settled on the floor and launched into the tale of her first encounter with the canine companions.
Chapter Thirteen
Megan lay in her bed, wide-awake and slightly frustrated. It was one o’clock in the morning and, by all rights, she should be sleeping soundly. But sleep was eluding her, and she couldn’t figure out why. She looked down at the two furry bodies that lay sprawled on her floor in blissful slumber, and grinned in remembrance of their earlier antics. Maybe I’m just still too wired, she reasoned. It had been a full day for the writer. The good doctor was an attentive hostess as she gave the small blonde a full tour of the massive ranch house; relating little anecdotes of her growing years with her beloved uncle. The tall woman enlisted her help in preparing dinner as well. I’ve never been an ‘official taste-tester’ before the blonde mused with a smile.

She finished off the day by having a long enjoyable chat with her publisher and friend. Charly was pleased that Megan was warming to the doctor. The publisher harbored a secret hope that the writer and the doctor would establish a friendship that would last beyond their current situation. Megan was disappointed to learn that her live-in love was carrying on with his partying lifestyle as if she didn’t exist. With my money, of course. Her lover didn’t even bat an eyelash when he was informed of her situation. He was provided with Randi’s number in case he wanted to call the injured writer, but that call never came. And, sadly, Megan acknowledged to herself that she would have to see the writing on the wall, and make some changes when she got back to her life. In spite of that situation, her verbal visit with her friend was a pleasant end to an unexpectedly pleasant day. “So, why aren’t I sleeping?” she grumbled to no one in particular.

Her frustrated reverie was interrupted by a long, pained ‘nooooo’ that echoed down the hall. Her heart began to pound, as she looked down at the canines that suddenly snapped awake; their heads cocked to the side as they listened alertly. The pained voice came again. “Stay with me, Casey, don’t leave me, baby.” The writer watched as the two canines looked at each other for a moment, before the little one rose and trotted out the door and down the hall. The writer watched the small dog’s departure with a mixture of confusion and concern. She knew it was Randi’s voice she was hearing, but the pain in that voice had her worried. As if reading her thoughts, the ebony canine approached the bed, sat down, and placed a large, black paw on the edge of the bed. The writer eyed the beautiful, dark animal that stared at her with intense blue eyes.

“Ya know,” the writer mumbled uncertainly, “I feel kinda silly talking to a dog, but, is she…I mean Randi…okay?”

A gentle, rumbling ‘uurrrr’ was the response, which made the young woman giggle in surprise and relief.

The small body arched stiffly for a long moment before sinking bonelessly back on the bed. Worried blue eyes looked to the nearby monitor, hoping for some variation in the lonely green line that split the screen; Nothing. “Again,” she barked. She gazed down at the small, still body in the bed. “C’mon Casey, don’t leave me. We’ve got a circus to go to, you can’t leave.” Picking up the defibrillator paddles, she announced “Clear” and positioned them on the small chest. A loud thump echoed through the room as the little body arched and slumped again. And still the monitor maintained it’s slender green thread.

The dark-skinned physician that was first on the scene looked with sorrow filled eyes to the redhead at the back of the room. “I’m sorry. There’s nothing more to be done.” With that, he motioned for the other two nurses to join him as they silently left the room. With tears cascading down pale cheeks, she approached the bed where the tall doctor was bent over the still form, still whispering pleas for the child to come back. “Randi” a trembling hand touched a white-coated shoulder. “She’s gone. Let her go.” The shoulder flinched, and watery blue eyes looked up into tear-filled amber orbs. Any professional composure the brunette had, left her, as her face crumpled and she dropped to her knees, whispering ‘I’m sorry, I should have been here’ over and over again.

The small golden canine sat at the foot of the bed watching her two-legged companion thrash and moan in the twisted, sweat-dampened sheets, and it made her quite unhappy. She liked this tall human. She was friendlier, kinder, and even smelled better than other two-legged ones she had come across in her travels. Even her big, dark companion liked her; and considering that the dark one didn’t like a whole lot of things, that was saying quite a bit. Therefore, when the two-legged one was in distress, it was up to her and her companion to make it better.

With a smooth leap, the little animal was on the bed at the foot. Randi lay curled in a tight fetal position, with handfuls of sheet clutched tightly to her chest. The small canine belly-crawled up the bed until she was nose-to-nose with the moaning woman; and with a gentleness reminiscent of her fictional namesake, began to place little licks upon the forehead and cheeks of the somnolent woman.

Heavy eyelids opened, and groggy blue eyes met gentle cinnamon orbs. “Come to my rescue again eh, little one?” the tall woman sleepily burred. Her only answer was a little whimper and a light lick of her sweaty forehead. Pushing down the lump in her throat, the tall woman gathered the little canine to her chest. “Thank you. I love you too.” She rumbled to the small creature who snuggled into her with a contented canine sigh.

“Hello?” The voice drifted faintly down the hall, causing woman and animal to start in surprise.

“She’s awake?” It was a statement more than a question, so Randi didn’t look for a response as she released the little animal and began to rise from the bed. “I guess we better go see if everything’s okay.”

*****

The writer lay in the bed, silently cursing her inability to get out of it. I hope everything’s okay. She had called a ‘hello’ down the hall, but hadn’t received a response. But I’m sure if it wasn’t, ol’ dark-and-dangerous here would have checked it out by now. The canine to which she was referring sat placidly next to the bed, her head resting next to the writer’s hand, allowing the blonde to idly scratch and stroke the sensitive area behind the large pointed ears. This was doggie heaven, and the big Shepherd had no intention of moving; even though she heard the quiet approach of her companions.

“I always knew you were a closet pleasure hound,” the tall woman rumbled from the open doorway. Earning her a startled gasp from the blonde, and a sidelong ‘so what’ glance from the dark canine that hadn’t bothered to budge from her cozy position.

“Randi,” the relieved blonde exclaimed, “are you….I mean, is everything okay? I heard….I was…” the blonde trailed off, uncomfortable with displaying how concerned she really was.

“I’m fine,” the brunette reassured as she crossed the room. Stopping next to the bed, she squatted down, meeting the shyly concerned green eyes of the blonde. “It was just a nightmare. I have them every now and then.”

“Can you remember them? Do you want to talk about it,” the writer inquired helpfully, and was startled by the intense look of pain that flashed across those expressive blue eyes.

“Um, no…I can’t.” she whispered, trying desperately to regain the composure that the young woman had nearly shattered by asking that simple but caring question. “Perhaps someday,” she continued, “but not just yet. Thanks for asking though, and thanks for being concerned.” Taking a chance, she reached over and gently grasped the younger woman’s hand. Catching the green eyes that widened slightly, she added, “that means a lot.”

And was surprised when small fingers closed over her hand in a gentle squeeze.
Chapter Fourteen
Megan was bored. She had spent most of the day reading, corresponding with friends, and writing while Randi busied herself with minor chores. Now she was restless, eyesore, and her behind was a little sore from sitting all day. She was in dire need of some pampering, Some hot chocolate and cookies would do nicely right now, or at least someone to talk to. A certain tall, dark-haired doctor would do quite well too, her little ‘Charly’ voice helpfully supplied. Knock it off, the voice of reason admonished, as she began her search for the woman in question. It’s not like there are a whole bunch of other people here to talk to. This is true, little Charly agreed, but you have to admit, the delightful Dr. Oakes is quickly moving up on that short list of people whose company you truly enjoy. Quite an accomplishment for one of those people, wouldn’t you say? “Oh, shut up,” the blonde muttered aloud, effectively ending the debate.

As much as she didn’t want to, Megan had to admit, she did enjoy the tall woman’s company. It had been a week since that night she had heard Randi cry out in her sleep. A week in which, against all odds, the two women had grown closer. A week of talking, laughing, mid-night snacks, and horror stories of their youth. Their conversations covered a world of topics and often sparked friendly debates that would keep them going until the wee hours of the morning. The only subjects the two women tended to steer clear of, were Megan’s mother, and Randi’s nightmares. Perhaps someday, the blonde mused, as she motored down the hallway in search of her hostess. She cracked a wry grin at the memory of one such ‘debate.’

“Oh baloney! They are too!” the blonde proclaimed obstinately, as she kept trying, and failing, to cross her arms at her chest.

“Hmmm, I’m not so sure about that,” the brunette returned, smiling benignly. She was playing ‘devil’s advocate,’ and loving every minute.

“Oh, don’t give me that! You’re one of them, and if you can’t see it, then you’re as blind as a bat.”

“See what? I’ve never seen them in a serious lip lock. I’ve never seen them roll around under the covers. And I’m certain I’ve never seen the Amazons presenting either one of them with a toaster.” The tall woman couldn’t help but grin at the green-eyed glare she was receiving.

“Well of course you’re not going to see that, the producers aren’t stupid,” the writer huffed, fully aware she was being baited, but enjoying herself anyway. “But you can still tell. I mean, look at how touchy-feely they are with each other. That’s …Ooowww” the blonde suddenly stiffened her foot, “cramp,” she groaned.

The brunette rose from her chair and crossed the room. Kneeling next to the bed, she uncovered and gently lifted the affected foot and began to massage it. “Are you talking about the consoling hugs, or the gentle touches?” Receiving no response, the doctor looked up into green eyes that were half closed in hedonistic pleasure from the gentle massage. “Or are you referring to how they tend to each other’s hurts…” suppressing a grin as she felt the cramped muscle relax. “Offer comfort to each other when it’s needed.” She placed the foot back on the bed and pulled the cover back over it. Moving up to the head, she removed the extra pillow from behind the blonde, allowing her to lie prone in the bed. The writer remained quiet; listening and gazing fixedly through half-closed eyes as the tall woman tucked the covers around her. “Is that what you’re talking about?” Randi leaned over and tenderly brushed away an errant lock of blond hair. “It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re lovers…” As the writer surrendered to slumber’s call, twinkling blue eyes and whispered words followed her into Morpheus’ realm.

“…It just means they’re friends.”

As the blonde neared her destination, she couldn’t help but marvel at the smooth, subtle ease with which the doctor proved her point. She was caring for me the same way they care for each other, and we’re not lovers. Very smooth, doctor.

Aha, found ya, the writer gloated when she heard the telltale ‘clank’ of barbells. Time to…Oh, my! The blonde’s thought processes were put on immediate hold as she gazed in fascination at the sweating, straining figure lying on the slender metal bench. The tall doctor was doing reps with a set of barbells that, judging from the size of the metal discs on each side, had to weigh a great deal. God, she’s lifting that thing like it was made of paper! Indeed, the only telltale signs of the effort Randi was putting into her chore were the even, labored breaths she was taking, and the rhythmic bunching and flexing of marvelously pronounced muscles. Good grief, no wonder she can lift me like I weighed nothing. This woman is built! And speaking of built, little Charly mischievously piped up as the writers eyes, quite unconsciously, began a thorough perusal of the body on the bench.
From the long, tapered fingers that gripped the barbell, to the sneaker covered feet that were planted firmly on the floor, fascinated eyes covered every inch. My word, she is a goddess! On their return trip from the doctor’s feet, the green eyes seemed intent on focusing on the full breasts, hard abdomen, and lean thighs that were painfully highlighted by the sweat-soaked clothing that clung to them. And try as she might to peruse other areas, the writer’s gaze stubbornly kept returning to those rock hard thighs and, much to her consternation, the forbidden area in between. Unconsciously, she licked her lips, and was startled by the fluttering in her lower belly. Oh, this isn’t good…this isn’t good at all. I think I need some cold water…to drink. Yup, a good, cold glass of water. With her mind set on beating a hasty retreat, the blonde reached for the control switch and began to turn the chair around.

“Hello there.”

Oh, crap!

The writer turned the chair back around, plastering an innocent smile on her face and silently praying that her cheeks were not as red as they felt. “Um, hi there.”

“Is everything okay?” the brunette inquired, as she toweled the sweat from her face.

“Uh, everything’s fine,” the writer semi-squeaked. If she thought her body’s reactions were bad before, when Randi was on the bench, they were worse now. The tall woman stood less than five feet away from her. Close enough for the writer to see the droplets of sweat that traveled down the woman’s chest, to disappear into her cleavage. Close enough to notice the small, pert nipples that were not quite erect, but not quite relaxed either. Close enough to smell the sweat, and the fragrance of hyacinth the she had come to associate with the tall doctor. And close enough for the little homophobic voice to be having a total meltdown.

“Are you sure?” the doctor inquired, mildly concerned. “You’re looking a little pink.” She wanted to feel the smaller woman’s forehead, to check for fever, but the slightly wild look in the writer’s eyes told her it would not be a good idea right now.

“Oh, yeah, I’m fine,” the writer waved off the concern. “It’s just a little warm in here.”

Not believing her for a moment, but deciding not to press the issue, the brunette shrugged. “Yeah, it tends to get a little humid in here when I’m exercising.”

Not getting a response from the smaller woman, and needing to dispel the odd tension in the air, the tall woman spoke again. “Hey, why don’t we make our way to the living room and I’ll pour you a nice, cold glass of iced tea. And while you’re sipping on that, I’ll jump in the shower and hose myself off, then come back and make us a couple of sandwiches?”

Bless you, doctor! “That sounds like a winner,” the younger woman agreed with a silent sigh of relief.

****

Megan sat in front of the picture window idly sipping her iced tea. At first glance, one would assume that she was enjoying the picturesque view. Truth to tell, she wasn’t even seeing it. She was too wrapped up in the battle that was going on inside her head. What the fuck are you doing? the homophobe was screaming. First you stop treating her like the dirtbag she is, then you start talking to her…being nice to her…talking to her like you two are old friends. And now you’re drooling over her while she’s lifting weights. You’re becoming a pervert…just like them, the voice finished in a hiss. No I’m not! she retorted vehemently. I was not ‘drooling’, I was just impressed by her physique, the writer defended, earning a derisive snort from the homophobe. And as for being nice to her, why the hell not? She’s been good to me when she had absolutely no reason to be. She’s helping me realize that the world isn’t as black and white as you want me to think. That not every gay woman is evil. That some of them are wonderfully kind…and giving…and caring, the writer trailed off as the burn of burgeoning tears stung her eyes. Kind of like someone you used to know, eh, little one? little Charly gently whispered. No! Don’t you even go there! the writer snarled. If she really cared she would have written to me, she would have called, she wouldn’t have left me so alone.

“So alone,” the writer croaked aloud as she buried her face in her hands and gave way to the tears that had been building for years.

In a far corner of the room, two pair of eyes watched the young woman dissolve into tears. Both of them were distressed by the scene, but neither moved. No, this one was not for them to comfort. This was a job for the other; and she would be here soon.

*****

Randi stood with her hands braced against the shower wall. Her head hung limply between outstretched arms, and she groaned in near-orgasmic bliss as the pounding spray of the twin showerheads assaulted her body from shoulders to calves. The hot, pulsing water massaged and relaxed tight, well-worked muscles, pushing the tall woman into a state of near boneless lassitude while her mind replayed the events in the weights room. She had been aware of the small woman’s presence in the doorway, but, as the woman hadn’t tried to get her attention in any way, she saw no need to interrupt her workout, figuring that everything was fine, and the young woman was just watching her out of idle curiosity. However, the sight of the writer as she approached her caused the doctor to re-think her earlier assessment. The younger woman’s face was flushed, her eyes wide and slightly glassy. Her pupils, what little there was of them, had taken on a darker shade, and her breathing was slightly elevated.

The doctor was immediately concerned but, not wanting to argue with her patient, accepted her word that it was just the heat. I don’t buy that for a minute. Room temperature doesn’t make your eyes go all glassy and dark. And it certainly doesn’t elevate your breathing…unless the heat is a little more extreme. No, she was showing all the signs of being totally embarrassed, or flustered, or… Randi’s head shot up and her eyes grew saucer wide as the final thought hit her. Or aroused!!?? Oh no, no way…huh uh…no possible way, Randi’s mind shouted furiously, as she turned and grabbed the soap. This is not happening. This is your overactive imagination, Oakes. Yes, she’s beautiful. Yes, she’s bright, and witty, and warm, but… she is not that way…she never will be that way…she doesn’t like that way. And even if she’s having doubts and wants to try that way, you will not be her guinea pig! So derail that train of thought and drop the whole issue. Accept her explanation and leave it at that.

Randi sighed as she stepped out of the shower and grabbed her towel. Part of her was glad that her conscience knocked some sense into her head. But another part of her ached at things that could never be.
Chapter Fifteen
Randi padded into the kitchen humming to herself and feeling invigorated after her shower. Pulling the bread from the cabinet, she paused. I should bring her in here and find out what kind of sandwich she’d like. Having made that decision she put down the bread and exited the kitchen; stopping dead in her tracks when she heard muffled sobbing. Megan?? Shit! With her heart in her throat she scrambled into the livingroom and dropped to her knees beside the sobbing woman. “Megan, what’s wrong? Are you sick? Is something hurting? The doctor fired off the questions while doing a rapid visual inspection. The only response she received to her questions was a quick headshake as the woman continued to cry.

With a low growl, the doctor allowed her heart to overrule her caution as she removed the armrest from the chair and slid her arms underneath and behind the small woman and, being careful of the injured limbs, lifted her out of the chair. In one smooth motion, she sat back on her behind and lowered the smaller woman onto her lap. Wrapping long arms around the quivering frame, she murmured soft reassurances.

Quickly overcoming her surprise at the doctor’s actions, the heartsick woman accepted the comfort that was being offered and burrowed deeply into the warm softness. Whatever emotional walls she had left came tumbling down as a bitter, confused and lonely young woman convulsed in sobs; repeating two words over and over again, like a mantra. “So alone. So alone. So alone.”

Randi felt her own heart breaking as she held the quivering body tightly. “It’s okay,” she crooned, “you’re not alone. I’m here. I’ve got you.”

I’m here, Megan. And I’ll be here for you as long as you need me.

*****

The dwindling remains of daylight cast silvered shadows throughout the room, and gently highlighted the huddled figures on the floor. The smaller woman lay limply against the larger body; having cried herself into a state of near exhaustion. The larger woman sat placidly with her head lolling back on the cushions of the couch she was leaning against. Her arms, though loose in their grip, still surrounded the young woman; continuing to offer what comfort they could.

Finally marshaling her strength, the writer lifted her head and drew back some from her warm haven; looking up into liquid blue eyes that radiated so much caring and concern that it almost made her break into tears again.

“I’m, uh…I’m sorry,” the blonde rasped, “I don’t…I couldn’t …”

“Don’t,” Randi gently interrupted her. “You have nothing to apologize for. You’ve been through a great deal these past five weeks. You’ve had to deal with the pain of your injuries, the fear and uncertainty of being trapped and helpless in an unfamiliar environment. You’ve been forced to co-exist with, and submit to, an individual who represents everything you detest.” Alert green eyes caught the flash of hurt accompanying that statement before Randi concealed it and continued. “And to top it all off, you’ve had to go through all this alone; without family or even a friend who could hold your hand and tell you it’s gonna be okay. Considering all that,” Randi tenderly brushed a lock of hair away from watery green eyes and smiled, “a good, heavy crying jag is nothing. You’re a good, brave, strong woman, Megan Galagher, and, circumstances aside, I’m glad I got to know you.”

Oh, god. The blonde buried her face in the warm hollow of the doctor’s collarbone; no longer able to face that sweet smile and warm, caring eyes. “Thank you,” she mumbled from her hiding place. Then gathering her courage and raising her head, she reconnected with those blue orbs. “Thank you, Randi, for so…many things. Thank you for rescuing me. Thank you for healing me. Thank you for giving me your best when all I gave you was grief.” There was a long, thoughtful pause, then she added, “Thank you for being better than me.”

Randi’s attempt to dispute the last statement was cut short by three fingers that gently covered her lips. A golden head cocked slightly and full lips offered just a hint of a smile. You know I’m right, Randi.

Finally, blue eyes blinked in acknowledgment and a single, grateful tear slid down a beautifully sculpted cheek.

Megan smiled and, with some regret, removed her fingers from the wonderfully soft lips. Feeling that both of them needed to regroup from the intensity of the last hour, the blonde took a deep breath and grinned sheepishly.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m famished.”

Randi smiled, knowing this was a thinly disguised attempt to allow both of them some ‘breathing room’. “Come to think of it, I am too.” Taking their current positions into account, the tall woman gave a few moments’ thought, and came up with a plan. “Okay, I need to get up and, in order to do that, I’m gonna have to set you on the floor for a moment. Is that okay?”

“What?” the blonde feigned indignation. You mean you can’t just flex those well exercised muscles of yours and simply sweep us both up off this floor?”

The brunette grinned wryly at the jibe. “Well, normally I could. But as I’ve been sitting here for the past hour with a certain blonde in my lap, my legs have fallen asleep. And I’m gonna have to move that certain blonde to get some circulation back.”

“Suuurre, blame it on the blonde,” the writer returned with a roll of her eyes, then squeaked out a yelp as she was effortlessly lifted in strong arms and shifted to the left before being gently deposited on the carpet. Green eyes watched with barely concealed admiration as the raven-haired woman rose with fluid grace. She gave herself a small moment to regain the feeling in her legs, then reached down and gathered the smaller woman into her arms.

“Okay, chair or couch; where would you like me to dump…er…place you?” the doctor grinned rakishly at the narrow-eyed glare her intentional gaff produced.

“The couch, if you please,” the writer huffed with playful indignity. “My butt’s a little sore from sitting in the chair for so long.”

I will not go there…I will not go there…I will not go there. “Your wish is my command,” the brunette intoned as she deposited her petite patient on the couch, immediately missing the contact.

Placing the ottoman closer to the couch, the doctor gently lifted the younger woman’s legs and set them on it.

“How about we do ‘light’ tonight? I’ll put together some sandwiches and heat up some of that French onion soup you like so much.”

A blinding smile and eager nodding gave her all the answer she needed. “Great! I’ll be back in a little bit.” With that, she turned and left the room.

Never aware of green eyes that studiously observed her backside as it exited the room.
Chapter Sixteen
Randi sighed, for perhaps the twentieth time, as she placed the bowl of soup in the microwave and turned it on. She never knew she could feel so good and so bad at the same time. She was happy, no; elated with the unexpected friendship that had developed between her and the once bitter and spiteful young writer. For beneath the veneer of anger and mistrust, there was a bright, witty, gentle, and utterly charming young woman that one could easily fall in love with.

And that was the problem.

Against all odds. Against all good reason. Against every shred of common sense she’d ever possessed, Randi had, indeed, fallen in love with her. And that was the bad part; she knew, without a doubt, that love would never be returned. Hell, she’d do her level best to kill me if she knew. Tears burned her eyes as she chuckled at the bitter irony. Leave it to me to fall in love with a woman who is not only straight, but is homophobic too. I guess it’s no less than I deserve, is it, Casey.”

The chiming of the microwave interrupted her morose musings. As she set about transferring the soup to smaller bowls, she concentrated on a fact that was as much a source of pain as relief. According to Toby, the main roads are mostly clear, and they’ll be able to concentrate on getting my road cleared within the next week or so. Then Ms. Megan can get back to her happy life, and I can get back to …

The intense aching in her heart didn’t allow her to finish that thought, as she picked up the dinner tray and walked out of the kitchen.

*****

“Heads up everyone! Meals on heels is headed your way,” the doctor cheerfully proclaimed as she entered the room; bringing a bright smile to the young face that, only a moment ago, was wreathed in sober thought.

“God, that smells delightful,” the writer exclaimed, as the smells from the steaming bowl of soup assailed her nostrils and made her mouth water.

“Merci,” the doctor replied in an exaggerated French accent as she carefully placed the tray in the amused blonde’s lap; then sketched a humble bow as she proclaimed, “Nozzing but ze best for Madame.”

“Ooohh, tall, dark, beautiful, and charming. Be still, my galloping heart,” the blonde retorted, as she batted her eyelashes and mock-fanned her face in a coquettish manner. Did I say beautiful?

“And humble. Don’t forget that!” the brunette shot back, as she padded back to the kitchen for her tray. Did she say beautiful?

Ricky Van Shelton crooned in the background as the two women ate in amiable silence. Finally, having reached a decision, Megan cleared her throat.

“She left a few weeks after my fifteenth birthday.”

Randi’s eyes snapped to the blonde’s face, but she kept silent; knowing the young woman was gathering her courage to continue.

“I remember coming home from school in a really great mood.” She smiled at the memory. “I got great marks on a really nasty exam that I had been sweating over, and my English teacher, who I thought hated my guts, took a moment to tell me that I was one of her best students, and she believed I had potential in the literary world. I was one happy camper. When I got home, I just about vibrated into the house. I remember running through the house hollering for mom so I could tell her all about it. When I got to the kitchen I saw my dad sitting at the table, which was unusual ’cause he wasn’t due home for a couple more hours. Anyway, he was sitting at the table holding a piece of paper, and he said, in this really dead tone of voice, that mom wasn’t home. I asked him when she was gonna be home and he didn’t answer me. He just handed me the piece of paper.”

Megan paused, taking deep breaths in an effort to maintain control. Having accomplished this, she continued. “To this day, I remember every word in that short and not-so-sweet little note. It said: ‘Dear Peter. I wish I had the courage to tell you this in person but, unfortunately, I don’t. Forgive me, Peter, but I can’t live with you anymore. Caitlin has been pleading with me for a very long time to move in with her. I have finally agreed. For with her, I will have something that you have been unable to give me for years; and that, dear Peter, is love. I have talked to Edwin, and he has agreed to handle the divorce proceedings. I, of course, will accept all blame and will not seek any material or financial compensation. It is the least I can do. I’m sorry, Peter.’ And that was that,” the writer sighed heavily, “she never mentioned me at all. No ‘see ya, kid’ or ‘we’ll be in touch, Meg.’ Just very brief and concise, no embellishments, no apologies…hell, she didn’t even sign her name.”

“That must have been terrible for you and your dad,” the brunette murmured, wanting to reach out and comfort her friend, but not sure if it would be welcome at this point.

“It was seven kinds of hell for me,” she admitted. “But, to be honest, I have no idea how it was for my dad.” At Randi’s puzzled look, the writer explained. “My dad’s never been much for showing feelings. He always believed that being emotional or outwardly affectionate was for women and fags.” Megan winced inwardly at the word she didn’t much care to use anymore. “My mother’s desertion only served to make him even more remote. He clothed me and fed me, and made sure I did well in school, and that’s as far as it went. If I was lonely, or hurting, well…let’s just say I learned to keep it to myself.” Megan turned pained eyes to her listener, “Don’t get me wrong, Randi. He wasn’t cruel, he just…wasn’t.”

“Your mother never tried to call or visit…at all?” Randi inquired as she removed the trays to a nearby table and curled herself onto the couch, closer to the younger woman. She had a hard time believing that Megan’s mother would abandon her daughter just like that. Her husband, maybe…but not her child. And not even a word to her in the note? That’s way too odd.

“Oh, she tried to visit, all right,” the writer sneered. “Seven years later. She had the nerve to come to my father’s funeral. Telling me how sorry she was that he had died and asking to talk to me.”

“What did you do?”

Megan had a far away look in her eye. “I told her she had nothing to say that I wanted to hear. If she wanted to talk to me, she should have done so years ago, instead of running off and pretending I didn’t exist. She tried telling me she didn’t do that, that she loved me, and I guess everything just crashed on me at one time, ’cause I…” Megan faltered, as vivid memories and emotions threatened to overwhelm her. “I hit her,” she gasped out. “I slapped her across the face and started screaming at her, telling her not to dare say she loved me, because you don’t leave someone you love. You don’t hurt her. You don’t leave her to wonder what she did wrong to make you leave like that and never see her again. I guess dad’s police friends had had enough, ’cause they came and told her to leave. Then they led me back to the car. I remember looking back one last time, and seeing her standing there, with all these tears running down her face, and I thought to myself, now you know how I feel. I never saw her again.” The young woman studied her hands as they idly plucked at a loose thread in the blanket that covered her legs. “Pretty pathetic, wasn’t I?” she whispered.

“No,” the brunette responded, as she placed a large hand over the two smaller ones. “I’d say pretty hurt. You were dealing with a lot of pain at the time. It’s quite normal to lash out at someone you feel was responsible for a great deal of that pain.”

Megan stiffened. “I didn’t just feel that she was responsible…she was responsible. Her and her ‘lover.’ The last word was spat like a curse.

Okay, she’s feeling way too prickly to open a discussion on that subject. Let’s go somewhere else. “Who is this Caitlin? Was she a friend of the family?”

Megan relaxed slightly, but retained a scowl. “No. She was my mother’s friend. When I was thirteen, mom joined a Tai chi class where Caitlin was one of the instructors. She started out only going there twice a week. But with me spending more time with my friends, and dad spending most of his time at the office anyway, she increased it to five nights a week. After a while, they started spending time together outside of class. Dad didn’t seem to pay it much attention He was a CPA, and he spent a lot of time either at the office or hanging out with his cop buddies, who were also his best clients. I didn’t pay it much attention either, because Caitlin seemed like a cool person, and I had my friends, so why shouldn’t she have hers.” Megan closed her eyes as a lonely tear wandered down a pale cheek. “I didn’t know friends were supposed to tear families apart,” she whispered brokenly.

Megan looked so small and so very lost. And Randi, for the first time, got a glimpse at the sad and lonely young girl that lived inside the bitter and spite-filled woman.

And it broke her heart.

Once again, she allowed her heart to overrule her head, as she spread open her arms; silently offering that young girl the comfort she was denied those long years ago.

And with a sniffle and a sigh, she accepted.

“They’re not supposed to,” the brunette whispered to the golden head tucked beneath her chin. “And they usually don’t. But sometimes it happens. Even when they don’t mean it to.”

And the evening wore on, much as the afternoon had, with a small body finding a haven in warm, comforting arms. Randi grieved for the pain that her patient had endured, but something in the back of her mind kept telling her that there was more to the story than even Megan knew. But the tall woman doubted she would ever be in a position to find out for sure.

*****

“Are you sure you’re ready for this?” the tall doctor questioned with a grin that earned her a green-eyed glare. “‘Cause if you’re not, I can leave it on for a while longer.”

“If you don’t remove this damn thing right now, I’m going to rip it off myself,” the blonde mock-growled. “And then I’m going to stuff it someplace that’s gonna make you, and a proctologist, very unhappy.”

“God, some women are just so grouchy,” the doctor playfully complained as she set about removing the splint from the blonde’s slender leg. After six and a half long weeks, Megan was more than ready to have the restrictive casing removed from her leg. She’d had the arm splint removed a couple of days ago, but the doctor wanted to leave the leg splint on a little longer, preferring to have the young woman do some walking exercises with the aid of a crutch first. That would allow the limb to regain some strength before removing the stiff support.

Megan sighed in blissful relief as the leg was finally released from its restrictive prison. The doctor graced her with an understanding smile as skilled hands began a probing massage of the freed limb; an action that allowed her to feel for any abnormalities while stimulating the muscles.

God, she looks so tired, the writer mused, with no small worry. The past week had been bad; with the tall woman’s nightmares visiting every other night. Megan would lie in bed, listening to the heartbreaking pleas, as Randi begged the mysterious Casey not to leave her. Wishing, time after time, that she could go to her, and cursing, time after time, the damaged limbs that prevented her from doing so. Megan had tried, a couple of times, to get the recalcitrant doctor to talk about her nightmares; even asking outright who Casey was. But the doctor politely refused to discuss the contents of her nightmares, and would only say that Casey was a friend. It was a vague answer that left the young writer frustrated in her friend’s unwillingness to confide in her and agonizingly curious about the oft mentioned Casey. Her fertile writer’s imagination tended to speculate that Casey had been a sweetheart that the doctor had loved and lost.

Megan studied the face of the woman who was intently focused on the leg she was tending. The strong, high cheekbones that only last week were a healthy tan were now drawn and slightly pale. The full, red lips that always seemed to be on the verge of a smile were now drawn and barely pink. And the eyes that once contained all the warmth and beauty of a summer sky were now pale and gray.

Dammit, Randi, I wish you’d let me in. Let me try to help you, as you’ve helped me. I care about you, Randi, more than you know. More than I ever thought I could. It hurts to see you suffer like this and not be able to do a damn thing about it.

As if sensing the blonde’s thoughtful scrutiny, the brunette looked up and offered a tender, sweet smile that, much to the writer’s chagrin, turned her insides to something resembling warm oatmeal.

“Feel like taking this leg out for a little test run?” the doctor inquired.

“Run?” the blonde squeaked.

“Okay, okay. Maybe a slow stroll.” The brunette paused for a moment, quietly formulating a plan, then grinned. “How about a stroll out to the porch? It’s fully enclosed and runs the entire front half of the house. You can check out the view from the front and sides. There’s a large and comfy bench swing out there, where you can give your leg a rest while I scare up some hot tea for the both of us. We can sit for a while and watch the dynamic doggy duo fend off marauding warrior squirrels in between taking potshots at each other.”

The doctor’s idea was positively scintillating. God, I haven’t been outside for so long… “That sounds wonderful,” the writer enthused. Then, making the mistake of once again meeting those bluer than blue eyes, she added, “I, uh, I don’t want to use the crutch if I don’t have to. Will you, um…will you stay beside me? In case I stumble…or something,” the writer finished lamely, silently cursing herself for feeling and acting like a shy, teenage schoolgirl.

Randi stood to her full height and held her hand out to the seated blonde. Pulling her gently to her feet, the doctor looked deeply into springtime green eyes. “I’ll stay by you forev…for as long as you want me to,” the doctor announced solemnly as she placed the writer’s smaller hand on her arm and led her out of the room.
Chapter Seventeen
Megan lay in bed, listening to the tinny ringing of the telephone, and feeling her annoyance level steadily rising. No answer. Big surprise there, the writer mentally snorted. He doesn’t answer the phone, doesn’t check the messages, doesn’t return my calls. What the fuck is going on here?

Taking a deep breath in a vain attempt to dispel some of her aggravation, she picked up the phone again and dialed a familiar number.

“Hello?”

“Has Eric Chalmers dropped off the face of the earth, or is it just me?” the writer snarled into the phone.

“Well, hello to you too, dear. I’m fine…thanks for asking.”

Having been properly chastised, the young woman sighed and began again. “I’m sorry. Hi, Charly. How’s my favorite publisher?”

“Your ‘only’ publisher is fine,” the older woman chuckled at the long running tease between them. Then sobering, she added, “And as for your ‘Mr. Wonderful,’ I’m afraid I have no clue. Although, from the almost daily activity with your bank account, I’d venture to say that dear Mr. Chalmers hasn’t wandered far.”

Megan felt the hairs on the back of her neck begin to bristle. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means, honey, that Eric has been making good use of the ATM card that you provided him with – to the tune of about fifteen thousand dollars so far. He’s been hitting the ATM machines just about every day. The only reason it’s not more is because there’s a limit on how much he can take out in a one day period.” The silence on the other end was deafening. There was one thing that Charlotte Grayson never wanted to do; and that was hurt her young friend. But that, unfortunately, was just what was happening. There was no way around it though. Megan was not a child and, like it or not, she had to be made aware of these things.

Knowing that, however, did not make the older woman feel any better.

“Fine,” the younger woman said, suddenly sounding very old. “Charly, can you please contact the bank for me and have them deactivate his ATM card? I think there are forms that have to be signed and, with you having power of attorney for me, you’ll be able to do that. I know I’m asking a lot, but…”

“Don’t worry about it, baby,” the older woman interrupted. “That’s one of the pitfalls…er…perks of being your ‘unofficial’ manager,” she kidded. “It’s also part of being a surrogate mom. Somebody’s gotta look after your little blonde butt,” she added warmly.

“And you do that very well,” the blonde responded, with a thickness in her throat. “I’ll never be able to thank you enough for what you’ve been for me over the years.” The writer broke off quickly, needing a moment to regain her equilibrium.

“Pshh, don’t worry about it. I’ll just come and live with you when I get too old and crotchety to work anymore.”

“And I’ll be more than happy to have your cantankerous old butt staying with me,” the blonde responded cheekily, silently appreciating the older woman’s attempt to lighten her mood.

“Watch it, little girl, or I’ll show you cantankerous when I see you.”

“Oooh, I’m scared,” the blonde mock-shuddered. “Anyway,” the blonde huffed out a breath. “Thanks a bunch, Charly. I owe you one.” She thought for a moment, then added, “oh, and while you’re at it, can you have them suspend Eric’s credit card too. If Mr. Chalmers wants to pretend I don’t exist, he’s going to have to do it without my money. There shouldn’t be any problems with the bank. But if there is, just have them call me here at Randi’s house.”

“Oooh, it’s not ‘that woman’ or ‘the doctor’ anymore. It’s ‘Randi’ now,” the older woman cheerfully noted. “Speaking of the good doctor, how are things going?”

The subtle change of subject didn’t go unnoticed, but Megan let it slide. Nor could she help but notice the hopeful optimism behind the question.

Or the unexpectedly pleasant warmth that filled her when she thought of the tall doctor.

“Things are going great,” she smiled. “As a matter of fact, she took the splint off my leg today. And then she took me out to the porch so I could get some fresh air. She’s got a great view of the mountains from one side of the porch. After a while, my leg started to get tired, so she sat me down in the bench swing on her porch, and went in and made some tea for us. After that, we just sat there for a while and talked.”

Charly was both amused and heartened by her friend’s happy rambling. “She hasn’t sounded this lighthearted in a long time.” “It sounds like Dr. Oakes has taken good care of you, my friend.”

“She has,” the writer admitted, guiltily. “She’s been kind and gentle and patient. Even when I was acting like an ass, she was caring for me.” The writer paused thoughtfully, then continued. ” I owe her a great deal, Charly. More than I think I can ever repay.”

“I don’t think she ever cared about repayment,” the older woman answered softly. “I think that’s just the way she is. I made those ‘discreet inquiries’ we talked about some weeks back, and everyone I was able to talk to said the same thing – that Randi was an outstanding physician. The key words I kept hearing were dedicated, hard working, gentle, caring. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. In other words,” the publisher smiled, “you lucked out, little one.”

Megan lay her head back on the pillow as an indulgent smile crawled across her lips. “I believe you’re right, Charly. As much as I hate to admit it, you were right from the beginning.”

“In light of that admission, I’ll refrain from saying ‘I told you so’ ” the publisher returned, with smug playfulness. “So, how much longer before you’re able to come home? Is the road up there going to be clear any time soon?”

Megan’s head jerked up off the pillow as she remembered why she was trying to call Eric in the first place. “Yes, the road leading up here is just about finished. I was going to call you after I talked to Eric and let you know. My car is history, so Randi’s checking with a company in Knox to see if they can provide a car and driver to bring me back home.”

“You’ll do no such thing, young lady,” the publisher proclaimed. “I’ll send one of our cars for you. You just name the time and place.”

“You don’t have to do that, Charly,” the writer admonished. “I don’t want to put anyone to any trouble.”

“You’re not. These are company cars and company drivers, Meg. This is what they get paid to do. You’re one of our most prolific and best selling authors. I would be remiss in my duties if I left you to find your own way back home. So, stop arguing with this ‘cantankerous’ old lady, and tell me when and where.”

“Well, um, I suppose Sunday will be good. I can have Randi take me into Cutter’s Gap, and the car can pick me up there. I can call you back with a definite time frame,” the writer finished in a much more subdued tone.

The change in the younger woman’s voice did not go unnoticed by the older woman, but she decided not to question it. “That sounds wonderful, dear. It will be wonderful to have you back.”

“It’ll be wonderful to be back,” the writer answered, hoping she sounded more enthusiastic than she felt. “Charly, I’m gonna let you go for now. I’m having the damnedest time keeping my eyes open.”

“You go ahead and get your sleep, honey. I’ll contact the bank first thing in the morning and start making the arrangements to come get you.” The publisher paused briefly as another thought forced its way to the forefront. “Um, what should I tell him if he calls and wants to know why he’s been cut off?”

“Just tell him it was my decision, and I’ll discuss it with him when I return and not before.”

“It will be my pleasure,” the publisher purred. “You get some rest now, and I’ll see you in a few days. Sweet dreams, honey.”

*****

You go, girl! The older woman mentally chortled as she hung up the phone. You’re growing up, opening your eyes, and gaining a backbone. It’s beginning to look like that accident was the best thing that could have happened to you. I can’t wait to meet your Dr. Oakes. She seems to be a most remarkable woman. The publisher looked at the phone for a long moment, weighing, once again, professional ethics against maternal instincts. With a weary sigh, she reached for the receiver, as maternal instinct raised its fist in victory.

While, many miles away, a young woman tossed and turned fitfully in her bed, completely at a loss to explain why her long-awaited return to ‘civilization’ wasn’t making her feel as good as it should. That’s not so hard to figure out,” little Charly helpfully supplied, “you don’t want to leave her. Face it, Meggie, you’ve grown quite attached to the good doctor. You know that when you leave here, the chances of seeing Randi again are slim, and that’s tearing you apart. “But why does it hurt like this?” the young woman whispered plaintively. “I’ve had friends before that I’ve had to leave behind, and it never felt like this.” Because she has become so much more than a friend, little one. And someday soon, when you’re ready, you’ll understand.

“I don’t want ‘someday,’ Goddammit,” the blonde growled as she turned on her side and punched the pillow into submission. “I want to understand ‘now’ why I can’t stand the thought of leaving her. I want to understand why I care so much for someone who represents everything I hate. I want to understand why I feel so warm and safe in her arms. And I really wanna understand why I get a warm tingling in my stomach when I watch her work out. I’m not like that…am I? Damn you, mother! Where are you when I need answers? Where are you when I need you?” Frustrated and confused, the young woman buried her face in the pillow and let silent tears fall.

And down the hall, another young woman lay prone in her bed, staring at the ceiling. Torn between happiness and heartache, the tall woman paid no heed to the abundant tears that made lazy trails down her cheeks. She was profoundly happy for Megan’s recovery and glad that the young woman would soon be able to return to her home and her friends. She was happy for Megan, true. But a very large part of her grieved for the fact that, when the young woman left, she would be taking Randi’s heart with her.

And right along with that, the only happiness that the doctor had known in such a long time.

It’ll all be over in a few days, Uncle Jake. Come the weekend, she’ll be able to kiss this town, and me, goodbye. She can get back to her life and her friends and forget we ever existed. I should be happy for her, Uncle Jake. Hell, I am happy for her, but it’s gonna hurt so damn much. Is this the way it’s always gonna be? Am I always going to lose the people I love? Have I been so bad that I don’t deserve to be happy? Ever? I don’t think I can take it much more, Uncle Jake. ” I can’t,” she whispered brokenly as she turned her face into the pillow and gave way to heartwrenching sobs.

Two silent figures sat in the doorway, watching the tall body on the bed convulse in quiet sobs. Both animals shivered in empathic response to the profound sadness that radiated from this woman and the one down the hall. They looked at each other for a long moment, communicating on their own level, before the small, fair-haired one rose and ambled down the hall.

With an audible sigh, the black Shepherd quietly padded across the room and eased herself up on the bed. With a gentleness that belied her size, she settled her large frame against the body of her friend.

There would be no ‘tough’ approach this time. Nor any attempt to ‘cuddle’ the human out of her funk. No, the woman didn’t need that this time. She just needed to know that she was not alone. And the beautiful black was there to provide that assurance. No matter how long it took.
Chapter Eighteen
Saturday came entirely too fast, and both women spent the entire day trying to prepare, mentally and physically, for the writer’s imminent departure. As a result, conversation was strained, and physical interaction was awkward at best. There was so much to say, but neither woman had the courage to say it.

Dinner was a quiet affair, with both women doing little more than pushing the food around on their plates. Randi looked across the table at her petite patient. She looks so sad. But why? She’s finally getting out of here. That’s what she’s been wanting for months, so why isn’t she kicking up her heels? Probably because of you, idiot! You’re walking around here looking like a five year old that lost her puppy, and she doesn’t want to make you feel any worse, so she’s keeping a tight lid on any happiness she’s feeling.

Well, that’s gonna stop, Randi decided, as she pulled her napkin off her lap and threw it on her plate. “Hey there,” she addressed the blonde, startling her out of her depressed reverie. “It doesn’t look like either one of us is very hungry, so why don’t we just leave it. It’s a pretty warm night, so why don’t we go sit out on the porch? We can throw a few CD’s on the player, and I can crack open a bottle of Merlot and we can celebrate your recovery and return to ‘the World.'” This last part said with a mischievous wagging of her eyebrows.

Megan saw the invitation for what it was; a sweetly subtle attempt to brighten her mood. Still taking care of me, aren’t you, doctor? “That sounds wonderful,” the blonde agreed.

“So, what are your plans when you get back to the city?” Randi finally broached the subject that both women had been subtly avoiding. They had spent the evening sipping wine and discussing the weather, the history of Cutters Gap, the stars, everything but what the next day would bring. Now, the pregnant silence fairly screamed for one of them to step forward. And Randi complied.

Megan gazed into the inky blackness of the surrounding forest, gathering thoughts that had become slightly muzzy from the three glasses of flavorful wine she had imbibed. Finally succeeding, she heaved a sigh. “I dunno, I guess I’ll take a week to get things back in order. Do some editing on my current story, go through my mail, settle a couple of personal issues, things like that. Then, after that, let Charly re-schedule my book signings, and…go on from there, I guess.” She turned and studied the graceful profile of the woman sitting next to her. “What about you. What’ll you do?”

Randi shrugged noncommittally. “Same as what I’ve been doing, I guess. Putter around the house, finish cleaning the attic, rescue another cute blonde,” she concluded with a lopsided grin.

“Funny girl,” the writer shot back with an answering grin, then sobering, she said, “Can I ask you a personal question?”

Warning bells sounded in Randi’s head. “You can ask. No guarantees on an answer, though.”

“Fair enough,” the blonde responded. “Randi, I know from first hand experience that you’re an outstanding doctor. You have a God given talent for healing. And I’m not just talking about mending bodies. “The blonde paused in brief reflection before smiling gently. “You do wonders for troubled spirits, too. But I think you already know this. My question is, why are you hiding this wondrous gift away in a lonely house on a hill? Why aren’t you actively practicing, either here or at the hospital in Knox?”

The brunette closed her eyes against the pain that washed over her, threatening to pull her under. I knew this was coming. “I did work at Knox for a while. I completed my residency there,” she responded listlessly.

“So, why aren’t you still there?”

“Because I don’t deserve to be there,” she spit out with a vehemence that startled the writer.

“Can you tell me why you feel that way?” the writer inquired gently.

Megan watched silently as a flurry of emotions flitted across the chiseled features of the taller woman, mute testimony to the struggle within. Finally, “I can’t, Megan,” she whispered hoarsely, dropping her head. “I’m sorry…I just can’t.”

Saddened and frustrated as she was, the young woman let the issue drop. Both women sat in contemplative silence for long moments as Trisha Yearwood crooned in the background, until Megan could take no more. She knew what song was coming next, and decided What the hell, why not? The young woman stood up, pausing for a moment to gather her equilibrium. Whoa, good wine.

She then reached her hand out to the still seated doctor. “Dance with me?”

Randi’s head shot up, her face reflecting her surprise. “Here? Now?”

“Why not?” the blonde smiled.

Randi took the proffered hand and stood. Feeling awkward and unsure, she kept hold of the hand and placed her other hand tentatively on the blonde’s shoulder as the opening music of the next song began.

Megan was hard pressed not to giggle at the endearing shyness of the normally confident doctor. Deciding to take the bull by the horns, she looked up into impossibly blue eyes and sang along with the opening words of the song.

“Don’t be afraid to hold me tight, you know I won’t break in two. What we’re doing here tonight, sure beats what we’re going through.”

The young blonde smiled as the words had their intended effect, as the tall woman moved in closer, sliding her hand from Megan’s shoulder to the small of her back. Satisfied, Megan sighed and placed her head on the warm, familiar shoulder.

We both loved and lost before
Know the sadness it can bring
Tonight let’s close the door
And hold on to the nearest thing.

Let’s keep hanging on
So we won’t fall apart
Let’s make love tonight
Like we never had a broken heart

Warning bells rang madly in the tall woman’s head as she held the smaller body close to her own. I shouldn’t be doing this. She’s young, she’s lonely, and she’s feeling the effects of the wine. Hell, we both are. But this feels so good…so perfect…as if we’ve done this in countless other lifetimes. Just a few more minutes…that’s all…then we’ll stop. With that, Randi’s heart closed the door on those warning bells as the tall woman sighed and rested her cheek on a silky blonde head.

Don’t be afraid to close your eyes
Pretend I’m someone that you love
And I won’t have to tell you lies
‘Cause it’s not you I’m thinking of

Let’s keep hanging on
So we won’t fall apart
Let’s make love tonight
Like we never had a broken heart.

Megan was lost somewhere between ecstasy and awe. She had slow danced with Eric before, but it never felt as good…as perfect, as it did right now. The arms that held her close made her feel so cherished that it almost hurt. The long, lean body pressed so close to hers provoked responses from certain areas on her body so intense that it did hurt. And the heart beat, oh, that wonderfully intense rhythm that bounded against her ear somehow seemed to keep time with her own. There was only one small problem. She’s a woman! It’s not supposed to feel this good. I’m not supposed to feel this good! As the music chorus swelled, Megan made the mistake of looking up…and falling into twin pools of ocean blue.

Oh! I like that color. Is that what they look like when… Her thoughts trailed off as the magic of the moment and the feel of the body moving against her effectively silenced them.

Tonight we’ll just pretend
We’ve been in love right from the start
Let’s make love tonight
Like we never had a broken heart.

Almost as if they had a mind of their own, Megan’s hands began to move. One of them pressed against the small of the taller woman’s back and pressed firmly, melding both bodies tight, while the other hand tangled itself in silky, midnight hair. Gentle pressure brought the unresisting head closer as the blonde whispered the songs final line against full red lips.

“Don’t be afraid to close your eyes.”

Megan’s lips were sweet. Sweeter than Randi could ever have imagined. And she imagined quite a bit. And so it was no surprise that the tall woman drank greedily of the sweetness she had found there.

No surprise that the fingers running through her hair sent electric tingles running through her body-tingles that ran from her head to her toes before finally settling in her belly.

And started a fire there.

No surprise that her thigh instinctually pressed against two smaller ones – that her tongue slid against soft lips, begging entrance.

And thighs and lips parted for her.

And certainly no surprise when her forays into those two places produced a very needy whimper.

From a very lonely, very horny, very drunk homophobic young woman.

Dear lord, what am I doing? Randi’s eyes flew open and she jerked away as if burned. Her withdrawal so abrupt that the blonde limpet attached to her nearly fell.

“Randi, what…?”

“We can’t do this.”

“Yes we can,” the blonde protested as she stood on tiptoes, desperately trying to reach those delicious, full, wet lips.

“No, we can’t,” the brunette reiterated hoarsely as she gently held the blonde at bay.

“Why,” the smaller woman whined pitifully. She was more than a little aroused, and her level of intoxication only added to the feeling that she would perish if she didn’t get relief…and soon.

“Because you’re drunk.”

“I am not,” the blonde insisted, silently wishing it was not so damned hard to focus on the woman in front of her.

“Yes, you are,” Randi retorted, gentling her tone. “Megan, right now you’re lonely, you’re aroused, and more than a little tipsy. You may think you want this right now, but in the morning you’ll feel very differently.”

“No I won’t,” the blonde growled, her temper rising to the fore.

“Yes you will. You’ll look at me in the morning and see a woman who took advantage of you in a weak moment. In your eyes I’ll be that vicious, immoral sexual predator you think all gay women are…and you’ll hate me for it.” Worse than that, my love, you’ll hate yourself…for letting it happen.

Megan ceased her amorous advances, becoming completely still; she hung her head in defeat. Noting the seeming surrender, Randi removed her hands from the smaller woman. “Megan, I…”

Randi’s head rocked back from the force of the stinging slap that connected with her face.

“You’re wrong,” the blonde spat hotly. “I already hate you. Damn you, Randi Oakes! Damn you!”

The next sound Randi heard was the slamming of the screen door as she watched the blonde race down the hall to her room.

And then there was only silence.

Randi stood on the empty porch rubbing her stinging cheek. Her pleasant buzz had fled into the night. Her raging libido had tucked it’s tail and followed.

Now there was only emptiness.

And pain.

And Megan’s words ringing in her head.

“I hate you. Damn you, Randi Oakes! Damn you!”

Randi’s legs lost their battle as the heartsick woman sank to her knees and broke into wrenching sobs.
Chapter Nineteen
Saturday morning came and went, with both women maintaining a not so subtle distance between them. Conversation was minimal, at best. Reduced to short questions, and even shorter answers. Both women showed signs of the prior sleepless night. As evidenced by their haggard expressions and the listlessness of their movements.

But neither was willing to talk about it.

It still hurt too much.

“Are you ready?” Randi was standing by the open passenger door, watching the blonde bid a tender farewell to the two canines that, by their subdued behavior, weren’t happy this morning either.

“You have no idea how ready,” the blonde sniped as she climbed into her seat and yanked the door closed.

Randi sighed as she walked around the jeep and got in.

*****

Megan was pleasantly surprised as she walked into Toby’s Gas and Grocery. It seemed the big man had made some changes in the past couple of months. Shelves and racks had been rearranged and moved back, to create a large open space in the front half of the store. A space that was now occupied by three small, cozy round tables with chairs. Each table wore a tablecloth decorated with a homey, checkerboard design. A small vase filled with an assortment of wildflowers completed each table.

I like it, the young woman mused as a small smile, her first of the day, creased her face.

“From the smile on your face, I’d say it meets with your approval, Ms. Megan.”

Megan turned to face the owner of the deep, rumbling voice, a deeper smile etching her face. “Very much so.” She held out her hand in greeting and it was immediately enclosed by two big, warm, callused ones and held for a long moment as kindly gray eyes examined her. “It’s good to see you again, little one. I was sorry about your accident, but I’m glad that Randi found you and took care of you. Are you all right now?”

“I’m fine,” the blonde reassured. “Dr. Oakes did take good care of me and, now that the roads are clear, I’m headed home.”

“Yes, Randi told me that you had a car coming for you.” The older man was slightly surprised at Megan’s use of Randi’s title, instead of her given name. It was his understanding, from conversations with the raven-haired doctor, that they were getting along well. Now, he wasn’t so sure. And, noticing the weary, pained look the young woman was trying to hide, he decided not to ask questions. “Why don’t you have a seat and let me get you something to eat while you’re waiting?”

The mere thought of food made the writer’s stomach turn. “I’m, uh, I’m really not hungry right now, Toby. Something to drink would be nice though,” she offered as she sat down.

“That’s fine, Ms. Megan, I’ll…”

Both heads turned at the tinkling of the doorbell announcing Randi’s entrance.

The older man was hard pressed to stifle a gasp at the pale, haggard appearance of the woman he had come to think of as a daughter. Dear lord, she hasn’t looked like that since…What the devil’s going on here? Wisely choosing to save his questions for later, Toby broke into a big smile and boomed, “there’s my girl. Please excuse me for a moment, Ms. Megan. Terry,” he called to a petite, tow-headed girl who was sitting at another table, talking with a red headed woman. “Please get Ms. Megan a hot chocolate.” With that, he walked away.

Megan watched the beautiful brunette walk in the door and pause, her crystal blue gaze seeking, and immediately locating, her old friend and former patient. In spite of the brunette’s haggard appearance, the writer’s reaction was as immediate as it was unstoppable. God, she’s beautiful. Megan’s face screwed up in disgust at the unbidden thought, and she cursed her rebellious heart for its suddenly rapid beat. Stop it! You don’t want her. You don’t need her. You don’t even like her. She’s just like all the rest. Remember that! She scolded, tearing her eyes from the tall beauty, and finding the tablecloth pattern extremely interesting.

So intense was Megan’s perusal of the tabletop, that she never noticed Toby’s departure, nor the arrival of her chocolate until it was placed in front of her. Startled, she looked up into friendly brown eyes. “Sorry about that,” the writer offered. “Woolgathering.”

“No problem,” the girl smiled, offering her hand. “I’m Terry.”

“Nice to meet you,” the writer smiled back, taking the proffered hand. “I’m Megan.”

“I know. You write the Samantha Steele mysteries.” The girl beamed, then paused before adding shyly,” um, could you, um, if you don’t mind, would you sign my book?

“I’d be delighted,” the writer smiled.

“Great! I’ll be right back.” With that, she sprinted toward the back of the store. Megan heaved an amused sigh and sipped her chocolate. Mmmm, delicious. This can’t be instant. I’ll have to see if I can get Toby to tell me how he makes it. Megan’s eyes automatically shifted to the front of the store where the big man stood in earnest conversation with the younger woman. She couldn’t hear what was being said but from their body language, he with one big hand clasping her arm and the other gently cupping her face, and she leaning into the caress while nodding agreeably, Megan could pretty much guess what was being said. He’s comforting her. She looks like I feel and he’s trying to comfort her.

Megan couldn’t suppress the surge of envy that washed through her as she watched the tender interaction between the two. Is that what it’s supposed to be like with a father and daughter?

“Must be nice,” she mumbled with some bitterness as she took another sip of her chocolate and resumed her study of the tablecloth.

*****

Randi stepped gingerly into the cheerful warmth of the little store. She had put it off as long as she could, filling the jeep with gas, checking the fluids, washing the windows, and any other little thing she could do that would keep her away from the two people that could very easily bring her to tears right now. Toby, with his loving concern, and Megan with her biting words. Not that she could blame the young woman. Megan needed something from Randi last night. Something that the raven-haired woman was unwilling to give. The reasons seemed clear enough last night. But now, in the cold, clear light of day, the doctor had to wonder if they were reasons…or excuses. A way to keep the blonde at arms distance, prevent her from knowing all of Randi. And, upon that knowing, finding her wanting…and then she would leave…just like everyone else Randi loved. Not that it matters. She’s leaving today, anyway. So, maybe everything worked out exactly like it should. Randi stood for a moment, taking in the changes to the interior. Nice, she thought briefly before setting sight on the big man and the small blonde. She winced internally as she noted the shock that flashed across the big man’s face before he concealed it with a big smile and a loud proclamation of “There’s my girl.”

I must look like shit, she mused as her eyes flicked briefly to the seated blonde, whose expression was one of schooled indifference. She doesn’t look much better. Even so, she’s still beautiful.

Any further musing was cut short, as she was engulfed in the warm and loving embrace of her ‘uncle.’

An embrace that, contrary to her intentions, she melted into with a desperate abandon that she hadn’t felt since she was a young girl.

Finally, the long, massive arms released their willing captive just enough for the big man to study the younger woman. Callused hands kept a gentle but firm grip on her shoulders as he studied her face.

“You’re not looking good, Princess,” the big man rumbled softly. “You sounded better than this on the phone the other day. What happened, honey?”

Randi dropped her head, and watery blue eyes squeezed shut in an effort to bind the tears that threatened to fall. “I can’t go into it right now, Uncle Toby,” she whispered hoarsely. “Let’s just say that I failed somebody again.”

A large hand cupped her chin and lifted her head until liquid blue eyes were confronted with stormy gray ones.

“Now you listen to me, Randi Christine Oakes,” the old man growled. “You didn’t fail anybody the first time. You can’t take responsibility for someone else’s actions. You can’t blame yourself for not being there if you don’t get the call. And you most certainly can’t prevent the inevitable. You’re a doctor, Randi, and you know it’s the truth.” The stormy gray eyes gentled as the storekeeper placed a soft kiss on an ebony eyebrow. “And someday soon, your heart’s going to accept it too. I have faith in that…in you.” The large hand moved from her chin, to cup her cheek. “We’ll talk more about this new problem later,” he promised, getting a small nod in agreement. “But right now you need a good cup of old Toby’s coffee. Now go find you seat. I’ll be right back.”

Randi looked toward the table area, or, more specifically, at one table in particular, and hesitated. Maybe I should stay outside for a while longer. Then, remembering something that she carried in her back pocket, decided. What the hell. Not much she can say that hasn’t already been said. With a resigned sigh, the tall woman approached the blonde’s table.

Cool green eyes lifted and studied her briefly. “What?”

Randi reached into her back pocket for the diskettes and placed them on the table. “You left these on the nightstand. If you’ve got any of your writing on them, you’ll want to keep them…to make sure you have a backup.”

Megan had left them there intentionally. She wanted to take as little as possible away from this encounter, but the tall woman made a good point. “Thank you,” she replied coolly. I’ll be sure to add these to the reimbursement check. Along with the clothes I’m wearing.”‘

Randi shook her head. “That isn’t necessary. I’ve got tons of empty discs that I don’t need. And, as for the clothes, hell, I haven’t worn them since I was a teenager. They’re just old jeans and sweats that I left here when I went away to college. I figured Jake would toss them out, but, being the packrat he is, he put them up in the attic instead.”

“Be that as it may,” the blonde replied crisply. “I still intend to pay for them. I don’t want to owe you for anything, Dr. Oakes. Not a blessed thing.”

Randi ran her fingers through her hair and blew out a frustrated breath. “You don’t owe me anything! At first, I took care of you because it was the right thing to do. And later on, it was because I wanted to…because I cared. Just like I cared last night. I couldn’t let you do something you’d be sorry for later on. If I was wrong…I’m sorry. If I offended you…I’m sorry.”

Somewhere down deep, the writer knew the truth of Randi’s words. The tall woman only ever acted in her patient’s best interest. But that truth was buried deep beneath the anger and pain of being rejected yet again by someone she…loved? “Tell me, doctor; do you often make decisions for others, and have to apologize for it later? Is that what you did to your beloved Casey? Is that why she left you?”

Randi rocked back as if it were a physical blow. Her face became a pale, expressionless mask. But the eyes that stared into Megan’s revealed a depth of pain that took the younger woman’s breath away.

Without a word, the tall woman turned and walked away.

Megan watched the retreating figure in stunned silence, completely unaware of her equally stunned audience. Until the thump of a coffee mug being set on the table got her attention. She looked up into gray eyes that reflected both anger and deep disappointment.

“That was wrong, Ms. Megan. That was just plain wrong,” the old man rumbled before striding briskly out the door in search of the distraught doctor.

“And this day just keeps getting better,” the blonde mumbled into her cup, trying desperately to ignore the guilt that was creeping up her spine.

She couldn’t ignore, however, the slim, silent woman that seemed to simply appear, and who now stood eyeing her critically.

“You’re Megan Galagher, the writer.” It was more a statement than a question.

“Yes, I am,” the blonde responded warily. The woman didn’t appear threatening, but she didn’t seem all that friendly either.

“You tell good stories, Ms. Galagher. If you don’t mind, I’d like a few moments of your time. I’d like to tell you a story.”

You’ve got to be kidding me! I don’t need this. “I’m not sure,” she made a point of checking her watch. “Someone’s supposed to be picking me up any time now.”

A small, knowing smile curved pink lips. “It won’t take long, Ms. Galagher. I really think you need to hear this story.”

“Fine,” the blonde acquiesced. “Please, have a seat.”

“Thank you,” the willowy redhead smiled as she sat down. Clasping her hands in front of her, the redhead took a deep breath and began.

“Once upon a time,” she began, quirking a wry grin at the fairy tale beginning she was using. “There was this beautiful little princess who became very ill one night. So ill in fact, that she had to be brought to the emergency room of a hospital. And the little princess was very scared. She couldn’t understand why she was having such trouble breathing, and to make matters worse, all these big people were wearing masks and doing all kinds of uncomfortable things to her without telling her why. So the princess began to cry and squirm, trying to make these masked people leave her alone, but they wouldn’t.

And then, someone else walked into her room. Someone very tall, with long, dark hair and very blue eyes. This tall person spoke very briefly with the other people in the room, and then walked over to the princess’ bed. Then she did something that none of the other big people did; she took the princess’ hand in hers, and then she pulled the mask down from her face. She smiled at the princess and said, ‘hi, I’m Randi, and I’d like to try and make you feel better. Will you help me do that?’ The princess liked the doctor’s pretty smile and the fact that the doctor was actually talking to her, so she let doctor Randi and the other big people help her.

Unfortunately, it was discovered that she had AIDS. It was a ‘gift’ from her daddy that mommy never knew about. Because of that, the princess had occasion to visit the hospital more often than she would have liked. And she became very good friends with the pretty doctor.” Here, the redhead paused thoughtfully as a bittersweet smile creased her lips. “No, they became so much more than friends. The princess worshipped the ground that doctor Randi walked on. And everyone knew that the doctor felt the same way. For she doted on the princess as no one else ever had, except for her mommy.”

The redhead paused in her tale long enough to take a sip of her coffee and gather the courage she would need to finish the story. Megan was, by now thoroughly engrossed in the other woman’s story, even though she had a sinking feeling she knew how it would end. But what the hell does this have to do with me, and why did she think I needed to hear it? Nevertheless, the writer listened intently as the redhead began again.

“Two years passed. Two years in which the princess and her mommy had many fun times with the good doctor. Unfortunately, the fun would not last. For the princess came down with a cold that, very quickly turned into pneumonia. Once again, she was brought to the hospital, and once again the good doctor was there for her. The princess would spend many days in the hospital, struggling very valiantly to fight her sickness, and doctor Randi would spend every possible moment watching over her.

But doctor Randi was also working double shifts in the emergency room because of a staff shortage. By the end of the week, doctor Randi was near collapse and her supervisor ordered her to leave the hospital for at least twenty-four hours so that she could rest. Randi didn’t want to leave the princess, but she had no choice. So she went home. Now, at the time, doctor Randi was seeing a young lady named Jenna. Jenna was very nice, and she cared a great deal for the doctor. But she was also of a mind that the doctor worked entirely too hard. So when doctor Randi was sent home to rest, Jenna took it upon herself to make sure that the doctor did just that. For when the doctor fell asleep, Jenna unplugged the phone and turned off her pager and cell phone.

As fate would have it, the princess’ health took a dramatic turn for the worst. The nurses tried many times to contact the doctor, to no avail. No one knows what woke the doctor out of a sound sleep, but awaken she did, and she automatically checked her pager, only to find it had been turned off. When she turned it on and saw the messages, she set out for the hospital immediately, knowing without question that her princess needed her. Alas, by the time she got there, it was too late. The princess was in full cardiac arrest, and nothing doctor Randi did, not medicine, not electric shock, nor pleading, would bring her back. And when she died, Doctor Randi Oakes died too.

She left her job, her career, her friends, Jenna. She left them all. She came back here and exiled herself to that damn house on the hill, refusing all contact from those that loved her and would offer comfort she felt she didn’t deserve. For she loved the princess so; and blamed herself for the princess’ death; believing with all her poor heart that if she had gotten there sooner, she could have saved her. But she’s wrong. Nothing she could have done would have saved the princess. The little one was simply too tired to keep fighting, and so the Angels took her home. We all know that; and someday, with our help, Randi will know it too.” Piercing amber eyes caught and held solemn green ones. “Little Casey Tucker would want it that way.”

Green eyes widened in comprehension and a guilty flush stole over pale cheeks as the writer lowered her head. “I didn’t know,” she whispered.

“No, you didn’t,” the redhead agreed. “You didn’t know the first thing about it, but you slapped her across the face with it anyway. That’s a pretty lousy thing to do to a woman who saved your life, took you into her home, and cared for you for two months.”

Megan bristled at the condemnation in the woman’s tone, as defensiveness overcame guilt. “Look, you don’t know me, and you don’t know what happened. I had my reasons.” She hissed.

The redhead cocked an eyebrow. “Did you, now?” Rising out of her chair, the redhead leaned over, placing both palms flat on the table and stared directly into defiant green eyes. “You’re right, I don’t know you. But I do know Randi. She is the sweetest, kindest, gentlest and most caring individual I’ve ever known, and I can’t think of a single thing she could have done to deserve what I’ve seen today.”

The woman straightened to full height and shook her head. “You may be a fine writer, Ms. Galagher, but you’re not a nice person.” With that, she walked away.

Too flustered to offer any retort, the writer simply sat and stared as the redhead walked out the door. Finally, regaining some composure, she picked up her lukewarm drink. “Who in the hell does she think she is, anyway,” she grumbled.

“That was Amy Tucker…Casey’s’ mother,” the tow-headed waitress responded, placing a paperback book on the table. “You can keep this. I don’t think I want it anymore,” she added before she too walked away, leaving the writer with only her misery for company.

Before long, a cream-colored luxury sedan pulled up in front of the store. Catching sight of it, the blonde bolted up from the table and was out the door before the vehicle had a chance to park. Whipping open the back door, Megan let out a happy cry as she clambered into the car and into the surprised arms of her publisher friend.

“Well, I’ve certainly missed you too,” the publisher drawled with amusement to the trembling body clinging to her. “Trembling? ” The publisher gently disengaged the clinging blonde and leaned back a little, trying to do a visual inspection. “Honey, are you…is everything okay?”

“Everything’s fine, Charly. Can we just go?”

“Well…of course we can,” the older woman offered hesitantly. “I was hoping to meet the delightful doctor Oakes, though. I wanted to offer my personal thanks for her taking such good care of you. Is she not here?” the older woman inquired, looking around.

“No,” the blonde responded, a little too quickly for the publisher’s liking. “Dr. Oakes something to do. She had to leave. You can thank her with a check when we get back home,” she finished coolly.

“Ouch” “All right, my young friend,” gentle fingers grasped the younger woman’s chin. “What’s going on here?” she inquired sternly.

Liquid green eyes searched warm brown ones, pleading. “Not here, Charly…not now. Please. I just want to go home.”

The publisher heaved a frustrated sigh. “Fine. But we’re going to have a long talk when we get home, Megan.” With that, she addressed the driver. “Let’s go, Jim.”

The car began moving and the blonde sank wearily into the plush leather seat. Turning her head to the window as they moved away, she took a last look at the quaint little store she would likely never see again.

And emitted a quiet gasp at the sight of the big man who stood next to the building.

Holding on tightly to the familiar, tall body that convulsed with sobs she could not hear.

It was a sight that would haunt her for a very long time.
Chapter Twenty
Charlotte Grayson was not a happy woman.

It had been two weeks since she had brought her talented young client home. Twelve days of which the blonde had been on the move, racing from city to city on a self-imposed, non stop book-signing tour.

“I’ve got obligations,” the blonde insisted when she requested, no, demanded this schedule. “I lost two months sitting on my ass. If I don’t make that up now, I never will.”

And off she went. Owning up to her ‘obligations.’

“Bullshit! She’s running. Running from that talk we were supposed to have. Running from whatever happened up on that damn mountain. Running from herself. Well that stops today, my friend. You didn’t know I could cancel appearances that fast, did you? I hated to pull rank and drag you back here like that, but you left me no choice. Something happened between you and doctor Oakes and neither one of you will talk about it. But whatever it is, it’s affecting you both.

Charlotte recalled a disturbing conversation she’d had last week.

“Hello?”

“Dr. Oakes?”

“Yes. Who is this?”

“Dr. Oakes, my name is Charlotte Grayson. I’m Megan Galagher’s publisher.

… “Is she…is everything all right?”

“Megan is fine, Dr. Oakes. Thank you for asking. Actually I’m just in the process of cutting you a check for your services in regard to my client, and I was just wondering if you would like to have a check sent to you, or would you like to have the amount wired directly to your bank account?”

“Mrs. Grayson, I’ve told Ms. Galagher and I’ll tell you; I do not need, require, or desire any payment for my ‘services.’ If Ms. Galagher is so determined to write a check, then make it out to the Pediatric Aids Foundation. They need it a great deal more than I do.”

“I see. Dr. Oakes, may I speak openly for a moment?”

“Please do.”

“Megan is, physically, doing quite well. And that is due in no small part to the excellent care she received from you. But something is troubling her, Dr. Oakes. Something she cannot, or will not, talk about. When I picked her up in Cutters Gap, I could tell right then that something was wrong. But she refused to talk about it at that time; promising that she would when we got back to New York. However, when we got back, she went directly to her apartment and stayed there for two days. Not communicating with anyone. The next thing I knew, she blew into my office insisting on an immediate whirlwind book signing tour. Stating that she needed to make up for the ones she missed while she was incapacitated. Needless to say, she got her way. I suppose that, as her publisher, I should be happy that she’s back in the saddle, so to speak. But, as her friend, I’m concerned. She’s changed, Dr. Oakes. There’s an aura of gentle pain that surrounds her now; so profound that it would make a statue weep. Try as she might to disguise it, she cannot. Now, this was not the sense I got when I spoke to her on the phone two days prior to picking her up. At that time she was in fairly good spirits. Something happened in between those times, Dr. Oakes, and I’m dearly hoping that you can tell me what it was.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that, Ms. Grayson. That is information that you’ll have to get directly from Ms. Galagher. I admit to being surprised though, at your perception of sorrow from your client. I would have expected anger.”

“Why would you expect anger, Dr. Oakes?” Did something…did you…?”

“No, Ms. Grayson, I would never violate my patient’s trust like that.”

“Then what…?”

“As I said, I can’t go into that with you. Suffice it to say she is angry. And it’s entirely my fault. My…failure. And I’m more sorry than I can ever express.

“You care for her, don’t you?”

“Very much so. She’s a special woman, Ms. Grayson. We didn’t hit it off very well at first, as I’m sure you know. But in the time we spent together, I discovered that beneath the prickly exterior I first encountered, there was a sweet, warm, lovely young woman.

“And do you know why she has that ‘prickly exterior’?”

“Yes I do. And it shames me to say that I am yet another who’s let her down.”

“I see. And you won’t provide me any more detail than that?”

“No ma’am, I’m sorry. Please, talk to her. It will not only answer your questions, but it may also help her if she gets it off her chest.”

“I’ll most certainly do that, Dr. Oakes. Before I go, are you sure you will not take any payment?”

“I’m positive. As trite as it may sound, just having her here, and getting to know her was worth a great deal more than any money you could offer.”

“Very well, Doctor. Is there anything you would like me to tell her for you?”

“Tell her I…” There was a weighty pause, then, “no, there isn’t.”

“Very well. Thank you again, Doctor Oakes…for everything.”

“You’re welcome.”

“And, Doctor?”

“Yes?”

“Be well. Somehow I sense that my headstrong young client is not the only one in pain.”

A hoarsely whispered ‘thank you’ was all she heard before the click that ended the call.

“A disturbing but very informative phone call,” the older woman mused. “Methinks the good doctor is smitten with the fair-haired young bard. Now the question or questions of the day are,

1) Does Megan know?

2) If she does know is that what she’s angry or sad about?

3) Or is she completely unaware, and simply missing the new friend she had made. That would explain her melancholy. But that wouldn’t explain why Dr. Oakes thinks she would be mad. Nor does is explain what I saw when we were leaving the store.

“Or am I just a doddering old woman who’s watched too many soap operas?” the publisher chuckled to herself.

Hearing a light tap on her door, she turned to find her Administrative Assistant’s head poking in.

“Ms. Galagher’s here,” the portly brunette announced softly, then, looking back over her shoulder, she added, “and she’s not a happy camper.”

“Big surprise there,” the older woman snorted. “Send her in and I’ll build a little fire and roast her some marshmallows.”

“I’ll send her in,” the Admin snickered. “But I don’t think you’ll need to build a fire. Just hold them over her head for a few seconds.” With that, she left.

“Now,” the older woman clapped her hands together and took her seat. “Let’s see about getting some answers to those questions.”

No sooner had those words left her lips when her door flew open and in walked one livid writer.

“All right, Charly, what in the hell’s going on here?” she barked.

“Hello Megan. I’m fine, thank you for asking,” she replied, keeping her voice deliberately calm. “And what do you mean, what’s going on here?”

“You know goddamn well what I mean!” the blonde spat, slamming both palms on the desk. “You canceled my signing appearances and sent orders that I had to return immediately to see you. I don’t know what in the hell you’re playing at, Charly, but I’m not in the mood.”

“Are you quite finished?” the older woman inquired calmly.

“No, I’m…”

“Oh yes, you are,” the older growled, rising from her chair and, at 6’2″, towering over her petite client. “You are going to calm down, sit down, and stop behaving like a spoiled two-year-old. Because if you don’t you’re gonna find yourself signing books in places like Bumfuck Arkansas from now until the end of your contract.”

“You wouldn’t,” the blonde squeaked, goggle-eyed.

The older woman leaned forward until she was just about nose-to-nose with her client. “Try me, little girl.”

The publisher’s face was a study in steely determination and the blonde knew, without a doubt the she could, and indeed would, do exactly what she had threatened.

With her high fury properly deflated, the writer meekly lowered herself into a chair. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When she opened them again, her publisher friend was once again seated, a benign smile playing across her lips.

“I’m sorry, Charly.”

“It’s all right, hon.”

“No, it’s not,” the blonde replied sheepishly. “I acted like an ass.”

“No, like a two-year-old,” the publisher contradicted with an amused grin.

The blonde blushed prettily. “Touché.” Then sobering, she added, “I don’t know what’s gotten into me lately. I seem to be snapping at a lot of people.”

“Hmm,” the older woman agreed. “Either snapping at them…or avoiding them altogether.”

The blonde blinked owlishly, her mouth opened, as if to refute, then snapped shut.

“It seems you’ve been avoiding everyone that knows you.” The publisher snorted, “Hell, even lover boy called here bitching. It seems he’s been trying to get a hold of you, but you’re never home and won’t return his calls. Of course I won’t fault you for that,” the older woman grinned devilishly, then sobered. “You can’t keep running forever, honey.”

“I’m not running,” the blonde returned weakly, unable to meet the older woman’s eyes.

“Yes, you are…and you know it,” the older woman got up and walked around the desk. Sitting in the chair next to her friend, she reached over and cupped her chin, raising the bowed head until shuttered green eyes met hers. “You haven’t been the same since you left Cutters Gap. Something happened between you and the doctor, Megan, and I’d like to know what it was. Because whatever it was, it’s hurt both of you.”

Megan pulled from the hand that cupped her chin, once again avoiding the older woman’s penetrating gaze.

“What makes you think something happened?”

“Because you looked like hell when I picked you up Sunday, which is quite different from how I pictured you when I talked to you Friday night. Because the Randi you talked about Friday night, suddenly became Dr. Oakes again Sunday afternoon. Because the young woman who propelled herself into the car and attached herself to me like her life depended on it fairly vibrated with extreme angst. And finally, because that same young woman, who’s normally a pretty talkative sort, didn’t part with even ten whole sentences on the entire trip back home.” Charly reached over and gently clasped the writer’s chin, an indulgent smile gracing her lips. “Now, I’m no Samantha Steele, but there are some clues that even I can catch.”

That earned her a small grin before she returned to studying her hands. “It’s nothing really, Charly,”

The older woman leaned back, spreading her arms in a ‘so what’ gesture. “If it’s nothing, hon, then there’s no harm in the telling now, is there?”

The blonde looked up, a wry grin creasing her lips. “I’m not gonna get out of this, am I?”

“Nope.”

“It’s not real pretty.”

The older woman’s smile faded somewhat. “All the more reason you should talk about it. Just answer me one question first,” somber brown studied the younger woman’s face intently. “Did she….do anything to…?”

A guilty flush crept up her cheeks. “No, Charly,” her voice was almost a whisper, “I did.”

The publisher leaned back. “Whoa!” Quickly recovering her composure, she rose from the desk.

“Oookay, I think this is going to require a good, strong coffee.”
Chapter Twenty-One
The publisher leaned back in her chair, her face an expressionless mask.

“You slapped her?”

“Yes.”

“Said you hated her?”

“Yes.”

“Threw that girl’s name in her face without having the slightest inkling of exactly who, or what she was?”

“Yes.”

“And all this because she cared enough to prevent your drunk, horny ass from making a mistake that you know you would have regretted the next day.”

Megan couldn’t sink any lower in her chair. “Yes,” was a hoarse whisper.

“No wonder she was crying,” the older woman mumbled, more to herself than her client.

Green eyes widened in shock. “You saw…?”

“That tall, dark haired woman sobbing into that old man’s shoulder? Hell yes, I saw,” the publisher returned, her tone reproachful. “And I wondered what that was all about.” She shook her head sadly.

“Now I know.”

“Not one of my finer achievements,” the blonde confessed, shame coloring her tone.

“Not by a long shot,” the publisher barked a laugh, then sobered. “I’m disappointed in you, Megan. More than that, I’m angry. That woman took you in, healed you, gave you all the comfort and compassion she had to give and you pay her back with verbal and physical abuse.” She looked at the blonde, who sat with head bowed, her face concealed by a curtain of fair hair. “That was wrong, Megan. So terribly wrong.”

“Don’t you think I know that?” the writer answered, her voice cracking. “Do you think I’m proud of myself?” she continued, raising a tearstained face. “Do you think I spent those two days in my apartment gloating?”

Startled by the anguish written across the younger woman’s face, the publisher’s anger vanished, to be replaced by concern as she moved from behind her desk to kneel beside her distraught friend.

“I know what I did was wrong. I know I hurt her,” the blonde was fully sobbing now. “She was only doing what was best for me and I disparaged her for it. That woman was right; I’m not a nice person. I’m a bitch,” she sobbed into the arms that were now wrapped around her. “Nothing but a cold hearted bitch. No wonder they all leave me. I’m sorry, Charly…so, so sorry.”

“No, baby, no,” the older woman gently admonished. “You’re not a bitch, little one, and nobody left because of you. Shhh, it’s okay, baby…it’s okay,” she cooed, holding on tightly and letting the distressed writer release her pain.

After several long moments, the raging sobs were finally reduced to intermittent hiccups and shaky sniffles. The publisher leaned back and grabbed some tissues from the ever-present box on her desk.

“Are you okay now,” she inquired as, with a mother’s gentle touch, she dried the tearstreaked face.

“I’m fine, Charly,” the blonde answered with minimal conviction as she took the proffered tissue and blew her nose. “I’ve made a mess of things, Charly, and I don’t know how to fix them. I want to call her and say I’m sorry, but she’d probably hang up on me.”

“Why would she do that, honey?”

The blonde looked at her friend incredulously. “After what I’ve done? She probably hates my guts.” Shame colored the young woman’s face. “And I can’t blame her, Charly…I hate me too,” she finished hoarsely.

“All right, enough of that,” the older woman ordered crisply as she rose to her feet. Taking a position directly in front of the smaller woman, she leaned back against her desk and crossed her arms. “She doesn’t hate you, Megan…she never did. Hell, as far as she’s concerned, this whole thing is her fault.”

Megan’s head snapped up and green eyes narrowed skeptically. “How do you know this?”

The publisher shrugged, “I talked to her.”

“When?”

“Last week.”

“She called you?”

“No, actually I called her. I needed to know if she wanted her ‘payment for services rendered’ to be sent to her as a check, or deposited directly to her account.” The older woman paused deliberately before adding, “And she refused payment, by the way.”

“Then you already knew what happened,” the writer bristled, assuming, incorrectly, that the doctor had ‘spilled her guts.’

“No, dear, I didn’t,” the publisher returned gently, knowing the path her young friend’s thoughts were taking. “I’ll admit, I did ask her what had happened, but she refused to tell me; insisting that I should talk to you. The only thing she would commit to, however, was that it was her fault. Her…failure, as she put it.”

“Jesus, Charly, it wasn’t her fault,” the blonde cried, exasperated. “She didn’t fail me…I failed me.” The blonde slumped dejectedly in her seat. “What am I going to do, Charly? I need to talk to her. I need to apologize. But I’m scared. No matter what you say, she’s got to be pissed at me. She won’t want to hear from me.”

“No, dear,” the publisher smiled patiently. “She isn’t ‘pissed’ at you. The overwhelming feeling I got from talking to her is that she is simply hurt. I won’t sugarcoat this for you,” the older woman warned as she focused a no nonsense gaze on the younger woman’s face. “She’s no doubt hurt by your reaction to her well-intentioned refusal…especially the bit about Casey,” she emphasized the last part, noting the guilty wince by the young woman. “But I think she also believes that her ‘failure’ has cost her a good friend.” Intense brown eyes captured engrossed green ones. “Someone that she had come to care for a great deal.”

The publisher had to bite back a grin at the incredulous expression on the younger woman’s face as the import of that last sentence became clear.

“She cares for me?” the writer squeaked, hesitant to acknowledge the truth that her heart already knew.

“Very much so. And I’m going to venture out on a limb here, and propose that she’s not alone in that respect.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the blonde mumbled, somewhat weakly. But from the coral flush that highlighted the younger woman’s cheeks, and her sudden aversion to direct eye contact, the publisher knew she had struck a nerve. Encouraged by these signs, the older woman continued.

“I think you have found that you also have feelings for the good doctor, and you have no idea how to handle it, so you figure that if you keep busy, keep running,” she emphasized, “it’ll go away. But it’s not working is it?

“No…it’s…I…” the blonde floundered, wanting desperately to deny the truth of the older woman’s observation, but finding she could not. “Dammit, Charly, I can’t feel that way about her,” she finally blurted.

“Here we go.” The older woman crossed her arms. “Why?”

“Because it’s wrong!”

“Why?”

“Because she’s a woman.”

“So?”

“Dammit!” the writer was getting frustrated. “It’s not natural,” she gritted.

“Says who,” the older woman challenged. “Since when is ‘love’ not natural?”

Megan was looking at her like she had grown two more heads. “Charly, what are you saying?”

Her gaze then turned flinty. “Are you…?”

“No, Megan, I’m not. Though Gaia knows, sometimes I wish I were. The selection might be better,” she muttered to herself. Then, bringing herself back to the original discussion, she continued. “And what I’m saying, my dear, is that you have been so tainted by your father’s hateful bias and your mother’s supposed betrayal that you’re trying to close the door on what may be the best thing that ever happened to you.” The older woman reached down and cupped the young woman’s face in both palms, willing the soft green eyes to meet hers. And when they did, her heart hurt for the anguish and uncertainty that radiated from them. “Talk to her, sweet girl, let both of you heal each other for that weekend. And then, if nothing else, let her at least be your friend.”

“I don’t know, Charly,” her voice was breaking. “What if she hurts me too?” Gentle tears slid down the writer’s face, gathering in the publisher’s cupped hands. “I couldn’t take that again,” she finally sobbed.

“Now we’re getting to the heart of the matter, aren’t we, little one. You’re not worried about the supposed ‘unnaturalness,’ you’re scared of being abandoned again. This can’t go on.”

Arriving at a decision, she grabbed another tissue and dabbed the young woman’s cheeks. “All right, dear heart,” she announced briskly. “I need you to get a hold of yourself here. I have something I need to tell you and I need (a) your undivided attention, (b) your promise that you’ll keep a lid on your temper and your mouth long enough to hear me out, and (c) that you will at least give some honest and sincere thought to what I’m going to eventually propose.”

Caught off guard by the statement, and the older woman’s change in demeanor, the writer stared at her dumbly. “Charly, what…?” she sniffled.

“Please, honey,” the older woman insisted. “This is something we need to discuss…for your sake more than mine. But I need your promise to stick with me.”

Warning bells were sounding left and right inside the younger woman’s head, but she was intrigued by the older woman’s announcement. She took a deep breath to gentle her still raw emotions.

“All right. Go ahead.”

The older woman quirked an eyebrow.

“All right, all right, I promise to behave,” the younger woman huffed.

The older woman paused, searching for a way to begin. Finally she settled on the most direct.

“Your mother didn’t abandon you.”

“Excuse me?” the younger woman’s tone took on an immediate chill.

“I said, your mother didn’t abandon you. She left your father, but she didn’t simply abandon you.”

“Then why didn’t she write, or call, or try to see me? It may be just me, but when none of those things happen, I call that abandonment.” She remarked caustically.

“She tried, she…”

“Bullshit!” the blonde cut her off. “She didn’t try hard enough!” The blonde narrowed her gaze at the older woman. “How do you know any of this?”

“I’ll get to that later,” the blonde opened her mouth to challenge, but Charly cut her off. “You gave your word, Meg. Now you just sit there and listen,” the older woman commanded.

The writer glared at her for a long moment before giving in. She sat back and folded her arms across her chest, looking for all the world like a petulant child. “Go ahead,” she gritted.

“As I was saying, she tried. She tried writing…all the letters were returned. She tried calling…your dad always told her you were ‘unavailable.’ She even tried a few times to visit you, but your father was always there to turn her away. After the third attempt, something happened, and she stopped trying to visit. And not too long after that, the calls and letters stopped too. But she never stopped thinking of you, Meg. Instead of writing letters, she began a diary of sorts. Writing down thoughts to you, and of you, in hopes that someday you would read them and know the truth…” the older woman stared deeply into wary green eyes. “…that she never, ever left you.”

The older paused, taking a sip of her now cool coffee, and watched the myriad of emotions that played on the young woman’s face as she processed this new information.

Megan was dumbstruck. Her mind and her heart were engaged in a furious battle of wills, one needing desperately to believe, and the other needing just as desperately to deny, for no other reason than to keep it’s angry shield in place over that foolish, gullible heart.

Finally, the persistent mind gained a small foothold. She leaned forward in the chair; small hands gripped the armrests white-knuckle tight. “How do you know any of this?” she rasped, her gaze hard and cold. “How do you know anything about her?”

Now it was Charly’s turn to be stunned. “God, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her this mad. Ah, well, nothing for it now.” Girding her mental loins, and keeping her voice deliberately gentle, she responded, “Because I’ve done something you’ve refused to do all these years, Meg. I talked to her.” Raising a hand to arrest the younger woman’s attempted outburst, she continued. “And more than that, I listened! I listened when she talked about why she left. I listened when she talked about the many times and ways she tried to contact you…and always failed. I listened to her, Meg, and I believed her.”

“Then you’re a fool,” the blonde bit out.

“Perhaps I am,” the older woman allowed. “But you’ll be an even bigger fool if you don’t at least entertain the possibility that what I’m telling you is the truth.”

“I thought you were my friend,” the blonde muttered, her tone was both sad and bitter.

“I am your friend, Meg,” the older woman responded, ignoring the younger woman’s sarcastic snort. “And that’s why I’m telling you this. Because I can’t just stand back anymore and let you keep on believing that, if you let yourself love someone, they’re going to leave you.”

“You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about,” the blonde fired back heatedly. “I love Eric, and I’m not worried that he’s going to leave.”

Now Charly snorted. “Give me a break, Megan! For all intents and purposes, Eric left a long time ago, and you didn’t even bat an eyelash. Oh, you were irritated, when he didn’t call or try to contact you, but that’s about it. And love him? I don’t think so. Eric was pretty to look at, and probably made a good bed warmer when you needed one, but you had about as much ‘love’ for him as I do for this cup of coffee.” The older woman leaned forward, astute brown eyes pinning the younger woman in place. “Tell me I’m wrong, Megan,” she challenged.

Green and brown locked on each other for a long silent moment; neither one willing to look away, or even blink. For to do so would be tantamount to surrender, and neither woman was prepared to allow that.

However, even in the most hard-fought battles, there can be only one victor.

“I can’t,” she sighed, slumping dejectedly in her seat. “I can’t tell you you’re wrong…about any of it. Are you happy now?”

“No. But I will be. And so will you. Talk to her, Megan.”

“Who?” asked warily.

“Your mother.”

“No!”

“Why on earth not?” the older woman barked, beginning to lose her patience. “Are you so comfortable in your animosity toward her that you’re unwilling to entertain even the possibility that it may be misplaced?”

“No…I…she,” the blonde was stammering helplessly now. All her arguments were being shredded, her carefully built walls were being systematically decimated by the older woman’s unrelenting onslaught. “Goddamit, Charly,” she finally railed. “I won’t let her hurt me again!”

“What makes you think she will, baby?” the inquired gently, knowing her young friend was close to breaking down completely. “How do you know she’s not telling the truth?”

“And how do you know she is?” the younger woman returned hoarsely, on the verge of tears.

Charly didn’t answer. Instead she pulled open a desk drawer and reached in. Pulling out a small, weathered envelope, she reached over and gently placed it on the desk in front of the blonde.

Watery green eyes glanced at the publisher briefly before tracking warily, hesitantly down to the item on the desk. The writer unconsciously held her breath as she reached over and plucked the envelope from the desk. The breath she was holding burst forth in a ragged sob as she laid eyes on the achingly familiar handwriting that listed her name, and the address where she lived those many years ago.

“No, it can’t be,” came as a broken whisper.

“Yes, it can be, sweetheart,” the older woman cooed gently. “That was the first of many that would be sent…and returned, unopened.”

“How…” her voice hitched, “how do I know that? How do I know that this wasn’t written last week, or last month?” she was reaching now.

“C’mon, Megan, use your eyes,” the older woman chastised. “Look at the postmark. And if that’s not enough, look at the handwriting on the ‘return to sender’ notation. I’ll bet even money you’ll recognize that, just like you recognized your mother’s handwriting.”

Megan studied the faded ink symbol of the postmark, paying particular attention to the date. June 02, 1987. Exactly one day after coming home from school and finding her life forever changed. Her gaze then tracked to the terse three-word sentence scrawled across the front of the envelope. And she knew, without a doubt, whose hand wrote it.

She cast a helpless glance to the publisher, then to the letter, then back to the publisher. Her lips moved, but no words came. Charly ached for the pain and confusion so clearly defined in those green eyes. “Open it, Meg,” her own voice was close to breaking. “It may be twelve years later, but you still need to know what it says.”

With trembling hands, the young woman tore open the aged envelope and gingerly removed its contents. Unfolding the stiff, white paper, she read:
Dearest Megan

There’s so much I have to tell you, Meggie; so much I need to explain in order for you to understand. I don’t believe I can cover it all in this one letter, nor shall I try. For that is something best discussed when I can talk to you face-to-face. Suffice it to say that I have been very lonely, Megan, for so very long. A large part of me believed that it would be this way for all my life. And because I had you, my beautiful, bright piece of heaven, I accepted that tenet. (what intelligent mother wouldn’t?)

But then I met Caitlin. And in her eyes, I saw so many things that I had never seen before. But most of all, I saw my future; a future that promised warmth, companionship, and most of all…love.

I know you are probably thinking, ‘what about Daddy?’ All I can say to that, sweet girl, is that your father is a good man, and has been an efficient, provider for us all these years. But the things that I have wanted, no needed all these years are things that he has ever been unable to provide. If this explanation seems vague, I apologize. But he is your father, and I will not diminish him in your eyes. For it is not his fault that I wanted…more.

I know it upsets you that I will not be there, but I want you to understand that I am not leaving you! I won’t be home, that is true. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t be spending time with you, or that I won’t continue to be the annoying mother-hen you have always accused me of being. What it does mean, my big girl, is that you are going to have to pick up after yourself, clean your own room, and, for heaven’s sake, try to insert a few regular meals in that horrible junk food diet you’re on.

Caitlin and I are in the process of moving into a larger place together, and it will take us a little time to become settled. But once that happens, we would like very much if you would consider coming to visit. Be it for an hour, a day, weeks, or even years. There will be an extra bedroom in our home, and it will always be yours. That is, if you want it. For I will not force anything on you. In the meanwhile, I will continue to write and call as often as I can.

I love you, Meggie, always remember that. I pray that you love me enough to try and understand. But whatever you do, please, do not blame Caitlin for this. She only opened a door; it was my decision to walk through it.

Love always

Mother.

Charlotte Grayson sat there silently and intently watching the range of emotions that swept across her friend’s expressive face. There was some anger, to be sure. But there was also confusion, surprise, awe, and even some small bit of amusement. But the one expression that pleased the older woman most was the expression of childlike wonder that suffused her face even as the tears ran freely down her cheeks.

“She…they…were going to have an extra room…just for me,” she whispered, her voice tinged with awe. “She wanted me to come visit. Maybe even stay.”

“Yes,” the older woman smiled knowingly.

“She loved me.”

“Loves,” the older woman corrected gently.

“She wanted me.”

“She still does, Megan.”

“But, what happened? Why…” her voice trailed off, unable to finish for the burn in her throat.

“That’s something you need to ask her, honey. I’ve been privy to a few details, but not all. You would have a better understanding of the whole picture if you talk to her. And I beg you, sweet girl,” the older woman implored gently, “please talk to her. Give her that chance. Give yourself that chance. Perhaps talking to her will serve two purposes; to heal a very old and painful wound, and perhaps provide some insight to your dilemma regarding Dr. Oakes,” the older woman finished with a wry smile.

The young woman nodded numbly as she gazed unseeingly at the pieces of paper in her hands. “Does she…does she still want to see me?” “After what I did to her…said to her at daddy’s funeral.”

“With all her heart.”

The younger woman nodded again, acknowledging the sweet fluttering of her heart as she allowed herself to hope. “Oh, god! Is it just that simple then? To banish the pain of those lonely years? No, it’s not. It may not change anything. But we can at least try.” She took a deep, cleansing breath.

“Can you give me her address?”
Chapter Twenty-Two
Megan sat in her chair, idly running her finger across the surface of the small, three-by-five inch Rolodex card, studying the address printed in Charly’s bold, distinct style.

Laura Holloway
712 East Lancaster Street
Conaway, NY 14102
Tel: (716) 555-1202

“Charly?”

“Hmm?”

“How long have you known – about her – about this?”

Charly looked into the green eyes that studied her intently. Oy! She cleared her throat.

“Almost three years. She contacted me shortly after your first book came out. Knowing of your history with her, and your feelings about her, I was reluctant to talk to her at first. But she was persistent, and finally I agreed to meet her for lunch one day. We talked for a very long time as she told me of her repeated attempts – and failures – to contact you. Like you, I didn’t believe her at first.But she showed me a few things that supported her story, chief among them being her letters to you.”

The older woman shrugged nonchalantly. “She made a believer out of me.”

Hurt green eyes regarded the older woman. “Why did you wait til now to tell me? Why didn’t you tell me back then?”

The publisher met the hurt gaze with equanimity. “Were you ready to hear it back then? How far past ‘I’ve talked to your mother’ would I have gotten before you went ballistic and walked out of that door, never to return?”

Whatever posture the young woman had disappeared as the truth of the publisher’s statement hit home, and she slumped miserably in her chair. And Charly’s heart went out to her once again.

“But it was more than that, Meg,” the publisher continued. “Your mother didn’t want me to tell you. She said that you made your position quite clear at your father’s funeral and, as much as it hurt, she would abide by that.”

Megan flushed guiltily at the memory of her actions at her father’s funeral. I wouldn’t want to be with me after that, either. But one question nagged at her.

“Okay, I can understand her logic there,” the blonde conceded warily, an ugly suspicion rearing it’s head. “But if she didn’t want to reconcile, what did she want?”

Charly grinned as she expertly read the blonde’s expression. “Yeah, I wondered about that too. And I asked her pretty much the same question.” The older woman’s gaze grew distant for a moment, and her smile became bittersweet. “To this day I remember the hurt in her eyes and the exact words of her reply. She just said, ‘I don’t want anything. I just want someone to talk to every now and then. Someone who can tell me how she’s doing, what she’s doing…if she’s happy. I just need to know that she’s okay.'” The publisher gave a helpless shrug. “How could I really say no to that, Meg?”

The writer nodded absently, studying the card, thinking.

Finally, she looked up. “I can keep these?” indicating the card and letter.

“Of course.”

Placing the items in her purse, she rose from her chair. “You’ve given me a lot to think about, Charly. Thank you.” With that she turned to leave.

“You’ll talk to her?” the older woman persisted.

“We’ll see,” she answered with a small smile, then quickly raised her hand to forestall the protest that the older woman was preparing to offer. “Please, Charly. You’ve given me a lot to take in here. Give me some time to wrap my mind around it. Okay?”

“All right,” the publisher sighed, acknowledging the turmoil her friend must surely be feeling right now. “But will you call me soon?” the older woman pleaded. “I need to know that you’re okay too.”

“I will, Charly. I promise,” she returned with a sincere smile, then turned and left.

“Dear lord,” the publisher mumbled as she ran both hands through her hair. “Please let me have done the right thing here.”

*****

Megan sat out on her balcony, watching the pink blush of dawn emerge from it’s midnight womb. Sleep would have been a futile pursuit, so she hadn’t bothered trying. She had too much on her mind. Charly had indeed given her a great deal to think about, but, to be fair, she had given her hope too.

Hope perhaps, but not courage. Not enough courage to finish dialing the numbers to Randi’s house.

No matter how many times she picked up the phone and tried.

She didn’t even try to call her mother’s house. No, that would have to be done in person.

If she did it at all.

Can I do this? Can I afford not to? Is Charly right? Am I so comfortable in my enmity toward her that I’m willing to let it continue, knowing that it may be unfounded? Jesus, why am I even thinking about this? I’ve been pissed for years and blaming her for it. Hurting because I thought she didn’t love me. And now I have a chance to lose that hurt, and I have to think about it? Bullshit! Grow up, Megan.

Her mind made up, Megan rose from her chair and headed toward her room.

*****

Okay…708, 710, 712. Oh, God.

Megan cruised slowly down the picturesque, tree-lined street and pulled quickly to the curb when she spotted the large, elegantly curved numbers she was looking for above the door. It was a small, single-level home. Now she sat staring at the neatly manicured lawn, overlooked by a large picture window that was framed on either side with tall, wide rose bushes, currently enjoying their long, winter slumber. C’mon, Meg, you can do this. You didn’t drive three hours outside the city just to chicken out now, her little Charly voice chastised. “I’m not chickening out,” the blonde protested aloud. “I’m just…preparing,” she finished lamely.

Uh-huh, little Charly drawled skeptically. Get out there…chicken!

Heaving a resigned sigh, the writer opened the car door and exited. Closing the door, she stood beside the vehicle and breathed deeply of the crisp, cold air and noted absently the clean, dry streets. Thank God it’s only been cold in these parts so far. I don’t think I want to see any more snow again for quite a while.

And she felt her heart clench at the memory of blue eyes and raven hair.

Tucking that image away for another time, she strode resolutely across the street and up the short cement walkway.

Standing in front of the door, the writer paused, praying desperately for the rioting butterflies in her belly to lose some steam.

Finally, a trembling finger pressed the doorbell button.

The writer held her breath as the door opened to reveal a smiling, petite, auburn-haired woman about the same height as herself.

And watched as the smile faded, as pink cheeks became drained of all color, and bright, hazel eyes quickly filled.

“Meggie?” A hoarse, ragged whisper.

“Hello, Mother.”

Megan had pictured several different scenarios for this moment, but none of them required her to lunge across the doorway and catch her mother before she hit the floor.

However, that was exactly what happened, as Laura Holloway’s knees turned to gelatin.

Megan yelped a startled “No” as she leaped across the doorway and caught the swooning woman in her arms, gently easing her down to the floor. Great going, lamebrain. Make her die from a heart attack before you get the first chance to talk to her.

The writer’s self-chastisement was cut short by the panicked yell from behind her.

“Laura!”

Megan swiveled her head just in time to see the solid, well-proportioned body of the tai chi master slide to her knees beside them. Dark blue eyes widened in recognition before darting down to the dazed figure of her lover. Assuring herself that her lover was okay, Caitlin looked back to the still kneeling blonde.

“Megan,” her greeting was cordial, but wary.

You think I’m going to hurt her again, don’t you? “Hello, Cait,” the blonde smiled gently. “Will you help me get her up to the couch?”

Caitlin gave a small nod, and both women lifted the dazed woman and led her to the couch.

Once Laura was seated, Caitlin backed off to observe mother and daughter.

Megan sat next to her mother, her hand held in a vise-like grip as watery eyes devoured every inch of her face, as if trying to convince herself that her child was really there.

Megan looked deeply into beautiful hazel eyes that she thought she would never see again, and saw every bit of the pain and loneliness she had experienced over the years reflected in those blue-green depths. God help me, she did care!

Megan felt her own eyes burn and begin to fill as she reached a trembling hand to cup a pale cheek.

“Let’s try this again,” she smiled tenderly, her voice cracking. “Hello, Mother.”

And found her arms filled with a sobbing, warm, soft body that she missed terribly for so many years.

Tears ran unbidden down the blonde’s face as she held tightly to the weeping woman. Megan chanced to look over at the intense, dark eyes of her mother’s mate,

And was surprised to see that they too glistened.

Royal blue met tearful green for a long moment before Caitlin offered a sincere smile and small nod before silently exiting the room.

And a large, lonely piece of the small writer’s heart finally found its way home.
Chapter Twenty-Three
Megan sat staring dazedly at the dozens of small envelopes that lay in her lap, each one bearing her name and address. And each one bearing the tersely worded command, Return to Sender! Some of them even contained the added, Addressee Deceased. Megan questioned this addition.

“Mother, why did he put that on there?”

Laura sighed and shook her head. “That was his way of telling me that you were dead to me.”

Megan blanched at that revelation, but said nothing. She gazed thoughtfully at the letters in her lap, then turned her eyes back to her mother.

“There’s something I have to know,” she stated carefully. At her mother’s “go ahead” expression, she continued. “Charly said that you had tried to come and see me a couple of times and were turned away.”

Laura paled. She knew what was coming next and dreaded it. “That’s true.”

“She also said that after one of your visits, something happened and you stopped trying. I’d like to know what that ‘something’ was, Mother.” She searched the older woman’s face. “I need to know.”

Laura closed her eyes and took a deep breath, trying to gather the courage she knew it was going to take. Finally, she girded her mental loins and began.

“On my third attempt to see you, your father and I got into a terrible shouting match. The end result being my vow to go to court and sue for custody of you. His only reply was, ‘We’ll see about that.'”

Laura looked down at her hands, which had unconsciously clenched into fists at the memory of what came next. “Two days later, after closing the studio for the night, Caitlin was attacked. She was beaten terribly, cut viciously and almost raped. But a couple who happened to be nearby managed to scare the attackers off and call the police. That nice young couple followed her to the hospital and called me to let me know what had happened. When I got to the hospital, they filled me in on what they saw and let me know that, if needed, they would go to court as witnesses on Cait’s behalf. They provided pretty good descriptions of the attackers and what they saw, so you would think that it would’ve been pretty open and shut. The bastards would be caught and prosecuted, and justice would be served, right?” Laura snorted and angrily swiped at a tear that escaped her eye. “Don’t kid yourself!”

Cait chose this time to bring the seated women some iced tea, which was gratefully accepted. She knew that Laura had reached a difficult point in her narrative and decided to remain. Perching herself on the arm of the couch next to her lover, she offered the silent support of her presence.

The action was not unnoticed by the young writer. God! How many times has Randi done that for me? Not talking, not touching, just…being there. Even when I was still being a jerk. I’d be lying there sulking, and she’d be sitting there, in that huge, old chair, reading a book or staring at the stars. I thought she was just being annoying. But she was offering me comfort in the only way she could. Oh, Randi, I’m sorry.

Buoyed by her mate’s presence, Laura continued her tale. “Once the doctors were finished, Cait was moved to a room, and I was allowed to sit with her. I was there when the police officer came to take her statement. I remember him sitting there, looking almost bored, while she poured out the details of that vicious assault. He took few if any notes. And when she was finished, he just got up and said ‘We’ll call you if we come up with something.’ Something about the way he said that bothered me, so I asked him, ‘You’ll catch them, won’t you?’ He turned to me, and he had the absolute deadest look in his eyes, and he said, ‘If they’re smart, they’ve left the area for a while. We’ll keep our eyes open, but there are a lot of decent people out there whose cases are more severe and take higher priority.’

Cait didn’t catch it, and I didn’t say anything because I didn’t wish to upset her, but something in the way he emphasized the word ‘decent’ made me think that there was more going on than a simple assault. My suspicions were confirmed the next day when I got a call from your father. He chose his words carefully, but let me know in no uncertain terms that, should I continue to try and remain in contact with you, or make any attempt to gain custody, Caitlin and I both could be subject to ‘other random acts of violence.’ He also made it clear that we would get no help from the police. He had many friends in the police department, and they were entirely sympathetic to his supposed plight.

I’ll admit, Megan, that scared me. But what frightened me more was his casual mention that you would be going off to college soon, and that college campuses could be ‘dangerous places for pretty, young girls.'” Tears spilled freely down Laura’s face as she recalled that conversation, and she reached up and grasped tightly the comforting hand that her lover placed on her shoulder. Guilt-ridden hazel eyes pierced deeply into Megan’s own. “That finished it for me, Meggie. I caved,” she whispered hoarsely. “I gave him what he wanted and let go of my baby. God forgive me, I didn’t know what else to do.”

Megan’s senses were reeling as she leapt up off the couch and fairly flew to the picture window on the other side of the room. She knew her father was stiff and distant, even more so after her mother left.

But this?

“No,” she voiced less forcefully than she would have liked. “He wouldn’t…he couldn’t,” she muttered, her mind refusing to accept such betrayal from a man whom she believed loved her, in spite of his aloof manner.

“No!” she spun on her heel and glared at them. “He wouldn’t do that! You’re making this up so you can worm your way back into my life. But it’s not gonna work,” she spat as she made for the door,only to find her path blocked by the slightly taller, solidly built tai chi master.

God! I never even saw her move! “I’m leaving,” the blonde growled. “Get out of my way.”

“Not yet,” the woman replied with calm intensity, feeling Laura move up behind her and place a calming hand on her back. She met Megan’s glare with steely poise.

“So you think everything your mother told you was a lie.” It was more a statement than a question.

“Yes.”

“We made everything up, just to get back into your so called good graces.”

“Yes.”

“I was never attacked. We were never threatened.”

“Yes,” was bitten out a third time, the writer’s hard gaze never leaving the older woman’s face.

Never noticing that Cait was unbuttoning her blouse.

“Then this would be made up too, right?” With that, she pulled open her shirt.

Without conscious thought, the writer’s eyes flashed to the bare skin suddenly on display,and fixed on the long, angry, red lines that ran diagonally, one on each breast.

They were the last things she saw before darkness claimed her.

*****

Mmm, Windsong. The fragrance of her mother’s favorite cologne filled her somnolent senses. A small hand tenderly brushed the bangs on her forehead, and the writer’s eyelids fluttered blissfully as she basked in the tender affection.

Wait a minute! Windsong? Mother?

“Mother, what…”

“Shh, it’s all right, baby,” the older woman cooed.

“What…where…this bed…how…” The writer sputtered, wholly frustrated with her inability to form complete questions.

Laura bit back a smile at her adorably flustered child. “You fainted. You’re in our room. In our bed.

We carried you,” she smiled, answering her daughter’s incomplete questions in precise order.

“Fainted?” The question died on her lips as the image of ugly, red scars marring pale skin flashed across her mind. “Oh, God, Cait! It’s all true, isn’t it,” she groaned. “I was so sure you were lying. I didn’t want to believe you. I’m sorry, Mama. I’m so sorry,” she whimpered, ashamed.

“Shh, it’s okay, baby,” the older woman reassured as she helped her daughter to an upright position. “You didn’t know, and therefore your reaction to what we told you was perfectly normal.” She emitted a chagrined chuckle. “If anything, I’m afraid it is I who should apologize. I never expected Cait to ‘flash’ you. But she was being rather protective of me and believed, at the time, that it would be the most expeditious way to convince you that I was telling the truth.” Laura’s expression became serious. “She never expected it to make you pass out, and she was horrified when you did so. She asked me to apologize for her, as she’s quite unable to face you right now.”

Megan chuckled in spite of herself. “Well, it was effective, I’ll give it that,” she offered wryly, then sobered. “Tell her it’s all right. Tell her I’m sorry,” the younger woman murmured, fastening her eyes on hands that had begun their nervous habit of plucking at the spread that covered her legs. “I just…I couldn’t accept that daddy could be that cruel, that…evil.”

Laura placed a gentle hand atop the fidgeting ones. “The actions were evil, honey, not the man.”

“But he…how could he,” the younger woman began to protest, but was interrupted.

“Let me try to explain,” Laura offered. “Your father was a proud man. And very set in his…beliefs. I believe he would have accepted my leaving. He wouldn’t have liked it…but he would have accepted it. But the fact that I left him for a woman was unacceptable. It was a blow to his pride, his ego, his beliefs, his very manhood.” She shrugged helplessly. “I think something in him just…snapped. He wanted to hurt me, and he used you to accomplish that.”

“Yeah, but,” Megan swiped angrily at the tears on her face. “He was hurting me too, goddammit! I was confused and missing you and hurting, and he was always…busy! What did I do to deserve that?”

“Oh, honey, you didn’t do anything,” the older woman admonished gently, cupping her daughter’s face. “I believe he was just so set in his ways and so bitter, that he just couldn’t see what it was doing to you.”

“Couldn’t see it or didn’t give a damn?” the blonde retorted angrily. “If I remember correctly what you said earlier, he threatened to see me harmed too if you didn’t stay away.”

Laura bit her lip and sighed. “I think,” she paused, choosing her words carefully, “I prefer to think that that was an empty threat. But, at the time, I couldn’t take the chance to test it.”

Megan nodded, scowling. “I never knew he could be so cold-hearted.”

“Anger and bitterness does horrible things to people, Meggie,” the auburn-haired woman offered gently.

Tell me about it, the blonde mused, reflecting on her own behavior and seeing, once again, the image of a beautiful, gentle doctor sobbing into a big man’s shoulder. I’m so sorry, Randi. Some way, somehow, I’ll make it up to you…I promise.

Pushing that sad image away, the writer refocused on the present. One thing still bothered her. “Mother, how was Daddy always able to intercept my mail and be there to stop you when you came by? He couldn’t be there all day, every day.”

The older woman quirked her lips wryly. “It wouldn’t have been terribly difficult. He knew, from the note I left, that I would be writing to you. And, as he was on pretty good terms with our mailman, he likely arranged for any mail addressed to you to be held and given directly to him. And, as for my attempts to come and see you, I figure that’s where his police friends came in handy. If they saw me in town, they would call him and let him know, and he would just go home and wait for me because he knew that would be the only reason I’d come around. I even went to your school, in hopes that I could meet with you when you got out. But I was approached by an officer, and he politely informed me that if I didn’t leave, I’d be arrested for loitering.” Laura gritted her teeth at the memory. “He said it would be a shame for you and your friends to watch me being led off in handcuffs.” A single tear escaped closed eyes and fell onto small, clenched fists. “I couldn’t win, Megan…I just couldn’t win.”

Megan placed a sympathetic hand over her mother’s clenched fists, her own eyes watering for the pain and frustration that must have haunted her mother for years. Something that the auburn haired woman said was sticking in her mind. “Mother, you said that, from your note, he knew you’d be writing to me. That doesn’t make any sense. There was nothing in it about writing. There was no mention of me at all.”

Laura’s brow furrowed in puzzlement. “Of course there was, dear. I told him to tell you that I loved you and was not leaving you. That I would sit down that very night and write a letter to you explaining why I had gone. Did you not read the note?”

“Well, yeah. But there…” Megan halted, mid sentence, as a sudden thought hit her. “Mother, did you sign the note?”

“Of course I did, dear. What…” her question was interrupted by her daughter’s vehement curse.

“Bastard!”

“Megan?” The older woman was startled by the sudden invective. “Honey, what is it?”

“I never saw that part of the note. He tore it off. I was so stunned and hurt that you had left, I never thought to question why it ended so abruptly, without your even signing your name.” The young woman’s chin trembled and tears spilled from her eyes. “I’m sorry, Mother. I should have asked questions, I should have known, I should have…”

Megan never got to finish her self-condemnation as she was pulled into warm, familiar arms and held tightly while years of bitter loneliness were finally released in a storm of convulsive sobs.

*****

Megan heaved a long, cleansing sigh against her mother’s bosom. Her tears had long dried, and now she simply basked in the comforting haven of her mother’s arms. A small part of her chided that she was a grown woman and needed to straighten up and act like one. But another part, the winning one, decided that she needed this; needed this solid, loving, healing connection. A conclusion that neither Megan nor Laura was willing to argue with.

A timid knock called both women’s attention to the open doorway, and they observed Cait standing there, her hands tucked deeply into the back pockets of her jeans, shifting from one foot to the other.

“I, um…I fixed a light dinner,” one hand came out of a pocket long enough to point a thumb toward the dining room before quickly returning to it’s haven. “If you two are hungry or anything.”

Laura had to bite back a grin at how adorably shy her normally gregarious lover looked at that moment. She looked down at her daughter and noted the amused twinkle in those verdant orbs. A barely perceptible nod answered her unasked question, and she held out a welcoming hand.

“C’mere, you bristly ol’ she-bear. Our cub has something she wants to say to you.”

Cait had that deer-caught-in-the-headlight look and briefly entertained the urge to flee. But one look at the warm regard in two remarkably similar pairs of eyes quelled that urge, and she slowly entered the room.

The young blonde couldn’t help but notice the term her mother had used. Our cub? Her mind rolled it around like a sweet treat. Our cub…I think I like that. She watched the brown-haired woman cross the room and sit lightly on the bed. Her mind turned once again to the hideous scars now concealed by the older woman’s shirt, and her good mood evaporated under a wave of guilt. He did that because of me.

Cait approached the bed and sat gingerly on the edge. Looking into her lover’s eyes, she saw a peace and contentment in those hazel depths that had not been there in a very long time. Oh, they had had a very loving and fulfilling life together, but Laura never stopped aching over her lost child. And in her deepest heart, Caitlin never stopped blaming herself for that loss.

But now mother and child had reunited, and the rapt expressions on both faces invoked a giddiness in her own heart that would linger for quite a while.

Her delighted musing was interrupted by a shy voice.

“Um, Cait?”

Warm, deep blue eyes shifted to the young woman. “Yes, Megan?”

“I’m sorry.”

Chestnut eyebrows furrowed in bafflement. “Why…whatever for?”

Contrite green eyes met hers. “For what he…for what happened to you.”

“Aw, Meg, no. You had nothing to do with that. That wasn’t your fault in any way.”

“But it was because of me,” the blonde protested meekly.

“No, hon. You were a convenient excuse for evil-minded people to do evil things. You were a victim, Meg, a truer victim than any of us. Your mother, your father, me…we all made choices, and we suffered the consequences of those choices. But you ¾ you were given no choices. You were forced by lies, deceit and selfishness to spend the most crucial years of your life alone, lonely and hurting, without ever knowing why.” Cait reached over and gently grasped the younger woman’s hand. “And for that, little one, I’m sorry.”

Megan felt the now-too-familiar burn of tears. She knows, her heart cried with awe-filled wonder. In one simple statement, this woman, this virtual stranger laid bare the pain of the last twelve years, and, in doing so, showed a depth of compassion and understanding that the young blonde had seen in only one other person. Returning the clasp with a firm one of her own, the writer pushed back the tears and smiled at her mother’s partner. “Thank you, Cait…very much.” Then, looking at her mother, she added, “And thank you for being there for Mom all these years.”

Deep blue eyes gazed lovingly into hazel ones. “It’s been my pleasure.” Looking back to the blonde, she sobered. “I wish we could have been there for you.”

Megan’s smile faltered slightly as she swallowed against the lump in her throat. “So do I,” she responded sincerely.

Laura felt an intense wave of contentment wash over her as she watched the gentle interaction between the two most important people in her life. You didn’t win, Peter. It may have taken a few years, but I’ve got my baby back. And I’ll never let her go again.

“Did somebody say something about food?”
Chapter Twenty-Four
Megan navigated the busy evening streets with the ease of one long accustomed to city traffic. Her body was fully in tune with the task at hand, but her mind was in another place altogether. Her reunion with her mother was everything she hoped for and nothing like she expected. Oh, there was a rough spot or two, but the end result was…

Sweet.

And Cait was an added bonus.

She expected a cautious relationship at best with the sturdy, somewhat-stoic woman … a wary, semi-tolerance between the two of them as they grudgingly shared the attention of the petite, hazel-eyed woman.

God, was I ever wrong! She’s generous…and gentle…and funny. She treats me like a favorite niece. I think I would have had fun growing up with her around.

And that’s another thing!

I thought I’d be uncomfortable being around them as a ‘couple,’ but I wasn’t. They were kind to each other … playful, affectionate. All the things I never saw between Mother and Daddy. I could feel the love between them. And what makes it even better is that it wasn’t exclusive; they pulled me right in there with them.

Quite unbidden, her thoughts turned once again to a certain blue-eyed beauty. Is that what it could be like with Randi? I know Charly’s right, and that Randi cares for me. But is it as a friend, or…

Megan gasped involuntarily as realization hit her right between the eyes.

Cait! The look in her eyes every time she looked at mother. That’s the same look Randi would get when she looked at me! I never saw it. I was so busy being a bitch over the love I thought I lost, that I never saw the love that was right there in front of me. Megan wanted to pound her head against the steering wheel. Jesus, I’m an idiot!

Megan stole a glance at her watch as, with a push of the button on the device attached to her windshield, she activated the security gate of the underground-parking garage for her apartment complex. Ten-thirty. That shouldn’t be too late to call her. Oh, God, what am I going to say? ‘Hi, Randi…I’m a jerk…I think I love you. But, just to be sure, can I come back up there, and we can try that dancing and kissing thing again?’ The blonde turned her car off and shook her head at the sheer silliness of that line. Oh, yeah, that’d go over well. The first thing I need to do is say I’m sorry and then see what happens from there.

Satisfied with that course of action, the blonde emerged from her car and activated the alarm, tucking her keys and cell phone in the pockets of her light winter jacket. Megan’s step was light as she strolled to the elevator, her thoughts so focused on blue eyes and midnight-kissed hair that she never realized she wasn’t alone.

Not until she heard him.

“Well, well, well. So you haven’t dropped off the face of the earth after all.”‘

Megan let out an involuntary squawk as she spun around to face the speaker.

“God, Eric. You scared the shit out of me,” the blonde scolded.

Eric was leaning casually against one of the massive stone columns that riddled the underground parking garage. Dressed in form-fitting black jeans, tan polo shirt and charcoal Hush Puppies, he looked every bit the all-American boy next door.

“Sorry about that,” he apologized insincerely. “But it seems that the only way to talk to you is to sneak up on you.”

“You had plenty of chances to talk to me while I was recovering at Randi’s house.”

Eric shrugged and grinned contritely. “I had some old friends come into town. I got caught up hanging with them.”

“Uh-huh. So ‘caught up’ that you couldn’t return my calls…even to see how I was doing.” It was more a statement than a question.

The sandy blonde-haired man shrugged away from the column and sauntered toward the writer, employing, once again, the boyish charm and sensual charisma that had always worked on her in the past. “What can I say, sweetheart? I’m a scoundrel.” He moved in close to the young woman who maintained a stiff reserve and stroked her cheek with a crooked finger. “A scoundrel who’s really missed you,” he purred.

“You missed my money is more like it,” she replied coolly, stepping back to put some distance between them.

Eric stiffened momentarily at the truth of her observation before plastering on a rakish smile as he closed the distance between them again. “That’s not true, sweetheart. I’ve missed your smile, your laugh, your sweet voice.” He leaned in, nuzzling her ear with his nose and taking a deep breath. “I’ve really missed your sweet, sexy perfume,” he murmured throatily.

“Mmm,” she hummed. “I don’t see how. Your clothes reek of it.” the blonde bit out, pushing him away. “The only problem is, I wear Opium, you shit, not Obsession! Get the hell out of here, Eric. The bank, as well as the bed-and-breakfast, is closed.” With that, she turned and headed toward the elevator.

The realization that he had lost his meal ticket hit home. “You bitch,” was snarled as he lunged after the retreating blonde.

Megan had no time to react before her arm was grabbed in an iron grip and she was pulled backwards. The breath exploded from her lungs as she was slammed back against a dark sedan. Before she had a chance to gather her wits, he was on her. Grabbing a fistful of her hair, he yanked her head back viciously as his other hand pulled at the buttons on her shirt. “You fucking bitch,” he snarled as he gave up on the buttons and ripped open her shirt. “You think you can use me as your trophy boy and fuck buddy for months, and then just blow me off? Think again, whore!”

Megan’s shock and disorientation were fading rapidly, being replaced by anger and outright fury. “Fuck buddy, my ass! You weren’t even that good,” she snarled as one hand came up and raked his face with sharp, short nails, while the other slammed into his chest and shoved, propelling him away from her.

As Eric stumbled backwards, clutching his face, the frantic writer made a dash for the stairwell, hoping against hope that she could outrun him long enough to get to the lobby and find help.

Her hopes were dashed as a hand grabbed the back of her jacket collar and jerked her backward forcefully, causing her to lose her footing and fall to the ground. She had no sooner hit the concrete deck than Eric was on her, straddling her thighs and pinning her down.

Pain exploded across her face as Eric’s half-closed fist connected with her cheek, stunning her and rendering her helpless as he continued to pummel her viciously about the head and chest.

After a seeming eternity, the blows stopped, and Eric sat back panting heavily and staring at the battered woman beneath him. Megan’s eyes were closed, but he could tell that she was still conscious, which suited him fine. He wanted her aware of what was coming next.

“I know you’re awake, Meg,” he stated matter-of-factly as he unfastened the belt of her pants. “And that’s good. I want you awake for this.” Deft fingers unsnapped the button of her pants and pulled down the zipper. “The bank might be closed, you bitch, but I intend to make one last withdrawal,” he hissed as he lifted a leg so he could pull down her pants.

Megan lay dazed, her tenuous grasp on consciousness aided only by the intense, throbbing pain that radiated throughout her head and torso. Her limbs felt heavy and leaden; even the thought of moving hurt. Eric’s voice echoed hollowly in her ears. She knew what he had in mind, and a small part of her wished she could finish passing out so that she wouldn’t be awake for it. Maybe this is what I deserve, she thought dully as she felt her zipper being lowered.

Bullshit! This is not what you deserve! The voices of Randi, Charly, Laura and Cait … the ones that loved her … thundered through her head, blasting through the cobwebs. Megan’s eyes popped open as she felt the body above her shift and give her just enough room for…

Eric screamed as a hard thigh slammed into his unprotected crotch and a small, powerful fist connected with his nose. He fell back, one hand clutching his freely bleeding nose, while the other one clutched his screaming groin.

Megan looked around quickly, trying to get her bearings, and almost sobbed with relief as her eyes landed on her vehicle, less than ten feet away. She knew if she could make it to her car, she could lock herself in before he could get to her … an advantage she would not have if she tried to use the stairs or the elevator.

Reaching into her jacket pocket, she pulled out her keys and quickly pressed the button to disable the alarm and unlock the doors, then scrambled on hands and knees to the waiting vehicle.

Upon reaching her car, Megan pulled open the door and launched herself inside, slamming the door behind her and locking it. Heaving a relieved sigh, the battered blonde slumped in the seat and let her swollen eyes slide close. Just for a moment…I just need a moment.

She never got that moment. Megan yelped in alarm as the car rocked from the force of a body slamming against it. She stared at the bloody, wild-eyed face of her former lover as he furiously pulled on the door handle with one hand and pounded on her window with the other, all the while screaming invectives at her.

The young woman could take no more; her fight-or-flight instincts were screaming at her, and the flight instinct won. Jamming her key in the ignition, she started the car, threw it into gear and pressed on the accelerator, flinching as Eric’s fist impacted with the window one last time before the vehicle’s momentum tore his hand from the door handle and sent him crashing to the ground.

Megan refused to look back as she sped away from the scene of the attack. Her body was still in full flight mode as she activated the gate and exited the garage. Unsure of where she was going, she only knew that she had to get away … far away. She knew she was a mess; three quarters of her face felt puffy, swollen and throbbed with pain. She could feel the hot stickiness of blood on her face, could taste it on her lips; every breath she took sent daggers of pain shooting through her chest and back. And she idly wondered why she didn’t just pull over somewhere and let herself pass out. Someone will find me eventually.

But something inside her vehemently rejected that option, as, prodded by sheer, unconscious instinct, she continued to drive, wholly unsure of where she was going, but certain that she had to get there.

Before long, she found herself on the interstate headed out of New York.

Realization finally set in.

And swollen, cracked lips etched a small, knowing smile.

Megan reached in her jacket pocket and extracted her cell phone. God, I hope it didn’t get broken in the scuffle.

Flipping it open, she breathed a silent thank you when the tiny screen and keypad came to neon-green life. Punching a button from the memory, she waited while the call connected.
Chapter Twenty-Five
Charlotte Grayson looked up from the book she was reading when the phone rang. Glancing at her watch, she noted the time. Eleven-forty? Who in the hell would be calling at this time? Picking up the receiver, she answered in a cautious “Hello?”

“Hi, Charly.”

Alarm bells sounded immediately. “Megan? Honey, what’s wrong?”

“What makes you think anything’s wrong?” In spite of the situation, Megan couldn’t help but be coy with her friend.

“Honey, you never call me this late. What’s going on? Did you talk to your mom? … Did she …”

“No. I went to see her.” Megan smiled at that memory, then winced as her split lip reminded her of its condition. “It was better than I could have ever hoped for, Charly.”

“Then what …”

“When I got home, Eric was waiting for me in the garage.” Megan heard the gasp on the other end and quickly continued, anxious to get it all out now. “Bottom line, he wanted back in, and I told him he was out … permanently.” Megan snorted. “He didn’t like that very much. He grabbed me and threw me up against a car and tried to paw me, but I scratched his face and pushed him away. I tried to get away, but he grabbed me again and flung me to the ground. He sat on me … and hit me … a lot.” The blonde’s voice was a ragged whisper at this point … one that the anxiety-ridden publisher had to strain to hear. “When he finished hitting me, he started to undo my pants; he was, um, he was going to…” Megan trailed off, her voice cracking right along with her composure as the images she struggled to suppress of those terrifying moments surged forward.

“Oh, God, Megan, no,” the publisher whispered hoarsely, her stomach twisting.

The torment in her friend’s voice forced the younger woman to regroup and continue. “No, Charly. It’s okay, he didn’t. I, ah … kicked him and got him off me. Then I ran to my car and locked myself in. When he came after me again, I panicked and started the car and got the hell out of there.”

Good for you, baby! “Thank God,” the publisher exclaimed. “Where are you now, honey? Did you call the police? Did you go to the hospital? Tell me where you are, and I’ll come get you,” the older woman rattled off as she went in search of her coat.

“Charly, stand still a minute,” the blonde commanded, biting back a smile at the knowledge that her friend was probably just about two steps away from bolting out the door. The sudden quiet at the other end told her that Charly had done what she asked. Sighing, she continued.

“No, Charly, I didn’t call the police. Not yet anyway,” she added hastily before her friend went ballistic. “And, no, I’m not at the hospital, either. Hush a minute, Charly. Let me get this out. When I got out of the garage, I didn’t stop. I didn’t know where the hell I was going; I just wanted to get away.”

“Oookay, so…where exactly are you,” the older woman drawled carefully, a feeling in her gut telling her that she wasn’t going to like the answer.

“Heh, believe it or not, Charly, I’m on the interstate heading out of state.” Megan felt the explosion coming from the other woman and headed it off. “I’m going back, Charly. I’ve got to see her. I need …” her voice broke, unable to continue … unable to adequately describe the desperate, bone-deep need to be with the raven-haired beauty in spite, or perhaps because, of her current condition.

Charlotte Grayson was hard put to keep the top of her head from blowing off when Megan revealed her location, but the young woman’s plaintive reasoning struck a chord deep within. Like it or not, she understood the instinctual need to be with a loved one when a body is scared or hurting. And I’m sure she’s plenty of both right now. And that’s the problem; just how badly is she hurt? Is she in danger of going into shock and passing out? Is she already in shock? Is she bleeding badly? How will I know? Shit! Pushing back her alarm, the older woman used her most soothing tones.

“It’s okay, honey, I understand. But it’s a long drive to Cutters Gap, and I don’t know how badly hurt you are. Can’t you pull in to a nearby town and let a doctor have a look at you, and then once you’ve been treated, you can continue on to her place?”

The young woman bit her lip. “No, Charly, I don’t want to stop anywhere.” If I do, I know they won’t let me go. “I just want to get there. I’m not that badly hurt, honestly.” The deafening silence on the other end radiated disbelief. “Okay,” she sighed, “I am kinda messed up, but I can’t stop, Charly. I just can’t.” Tears blurred the white lines of the endless highway. ‘Cause I won’t be able to start again.

“Megan, you need to be looked at,” the older woman was nearly pleading.

“Randi will take care of me, Charly.” I hope.

Hardheaded, stubborn, mule-brained. “All right, fine,” the older woman finally huffed. “At least let me call her and let her know you’re coming, so she can keep an eye out for you.”

Megan let out a small chuckle and regretted it instantly as her bruised ribs made their presence known. “I don’t think so, Charly. You’ll scare the hell out of her by making her think I’m at death’s door. Just let me …” the blonde had to stop speaking and pull the phone away from her ear as a burst of pain lanced through her head and the road in front of her tilted crazily. She bit deeply into her already bleeding lip to stifle the groan that was bent on escaping. Please, God, please…not yet.

Sucking in as deep a breath as her damaged ribs would allow, the young blonde willed the dizziness into submission and brought the phone back to her ear, wincing at Charly’s frantic shouting. “Sorry about that. There was an accident scene with police that I had to get around,” the writer lied smoothly. “Now, as I was saying, don’t worry about calling her, Charly. Just let me do this my way…please,” she added when she sensed the older woman preparing to argue.

“Dammit, Meg. You’re hurt,” she argued desperately. “What if you get dizzy and pass out behind the wheel? I’ll never forgive myself if anything happens to you and I could have prevented it,” she finished, her voice breaking.

“I love you too, Charly,” the blonde smiled bittersweetly. “I’ll be all right. I’m only a couple of hours from Cutters Gap now. Give me three hours. If you haven’t heard from either me or Randi by then, you can call anybody you want to. Okay? … Please?”

“Damn you, Megan Galagher,” the publisher said hoarsely. “You’d better be okay, and you’d better call me.”

“I will, Charly, I promise.”

*****

Randi sat propped up in bed, her computer in her lap, re-reading the same paragraph for the sixth time and sighing disgustedly, when, for the sixth time, her attention was diverted by one of the two animals either entering or leaving the room. “Look,” she growled to the ebony canine that flopped on the floor beside the bed. “I’m trying to read here, and you guys are not helping any with your tag-team wandering.”

The black hound simply looked at her with studied indifference.

“There’s nobody out there; we’ve looked … four times already! Now, I don’t know if you guys are PMS’ing together, or if you’re just spoiled from having uncle Toby visit. Either way, I don’t care. But if you guys don’t quit with the pacing in and out, you can spend the night in the kitchen.” The brunette leaned over the bed, glaring into nonchalant blue eyes. “Ya got me?”

The opportunity was just too good for the mischievous canine; she lunged forward and dragged a wet tongue up the woman’s face from under her nose to her hairline, then quickly sauntered from the room, leaving the dark-haired woman furiously scrubbing her face in the sheets and muttering curses.

Having sufficiently cleaned and dried her face, the doctor re-positioned herself on the bed and tried, once again, to involve herself with the story she was reading … only to give up moments later when she realized that the dogs weren’t the only ones distracted this evening. With a resigned sigh, she exited the disc she was reading from, removed it and shut down the laptop.

Randi lay on her back with her hands clasped behind her head, patiently waiting for Morpheus to beckon and contemplating the last several weeks. They had been busy weeks, with Toby and Kate maintaining an almost-constant presence, no longer willing to let the young doctor bear her burden alone. I guess I scared them that day Megan left. I scared me too. I couldn’t take any more.

She remembered that day as if it were yesterday.

Megan’s caustic, unknowing barb about Casey was the final blow to the gentle doctor’s already-battered psyche. She fled from the little store with every intention of never being seen again. She had one foot already in her Jeep when she heard the big man calling to her.

When Toby approached her, he did so carefully, knowing the young woman was just this close to bolting and knowing, in the very core of his heart, that if he didn’t stop her now, she would be lost to him forever. He searched his mind frantically for the right thing to say to the skittish beauty and could only think of one thing; reaching his hands out, palms upward, he searched liquid blue eyes.

“I love you, princess. Don’t leave me.”

It was exactly the right thing to say.

Randi stepped away from the Jeep and hurled herself into his arms.

Massive arms held firmly to the quaking body enclosed within them, keeping her back to the road so she would not see the limousine as it pulled away.

After many long moments, anguish and exhaustion took their toll on the young woman, and long legs became rubbery. Without missing a beat, the big man bent slightly and scooped the younger woman up into his arms. Being too tired and heartsick to resist, Randi closed her eyes and nestled into the comforting warmth.

Cradling the unresisting woman against his chest, he strode purposefully down the street to the small, red and white cottage that he and Kate called home.

Having seen his approach from their kitchen window, a very concerned Kate had the front door open. Seeing the pale, tearstreaked face of the doctor, Kate’s concern intensified. “Toby, what …”

“In a minute, Kate,” he offered as they continued to the back of the house. “Let’s get our girl into a bed first.”

Toby placed his precious burden on the bed and straightened. “I’ll be right back,” he offered, wagging a thick finger at her. “And don’t you even think about moving from there, young lady,” he warned sternly.

As soon as her husband moved away from the bed, Kate made her way over and sat on the edge. Loving brown eyes studied the drawn, tearstained face worriedly.

“Hi, Aunt Kate,” the brunette offered a wan smile.

“Can’t leave you alone for a minute, can I,” the older woman mock-scolded as she brushed gentle fingers through raven bangs. “What have you been doing to yourself, little one?”

“It’s…I…it’s nothing,” she sputtered, her meager grip on composure being lost to the warm, caring regard and tender touch of the woman who had been her surrogate mother for more than half her life. “I’m acting like a baby,” she muttered, becoming disgusted with herself on yet another level.

“I shouldn’t …”

“Hush,” Kate commanded gently. “You are a baby…my baby. And I absolutely cannot stand to see my baby hurting. Now, I’ve been patient; I’ve stood back and let you try and work through this thing with that sweet child. But something tells me that you’ve been handed a new heartache on top of that, and I refuse to stand back and let you deal with this alone anymore.” A firm, callused hand tenderly cupped a tear-tracked cheek. “Talk to me, sweetheart…tell me,” the older woman entreated.

And Randi did. Minutes turned into hours as the brunette poured her heartache, her tears and herself into the loving embrace of the storekeeper’s wife.

Later that evening, Randi lay curled on her side, her head resting in Kate’s lap, trying desperately to stay awake, but losing to the gentle fingers that combed through her hair.

“You know that puts me to sleep,” she mock complained.

“Mm-hmm,” the older woman rumbled softly. “And sleep is exactly what you need right now. Along with a few good meals and some major TLC … which is just what you’re going to get for at least a couple of days.”

“I can’t. The dogs …” she argued half-heartedly.

“Will be just fine. Toby will see that they’re looked after.”

The tall woman searched her mind for reasons why she could not stay … and found none.

And so she surrendered gratefully to the gentle ministrations, her blue eyes fluttering closed, her restive psyche reluctantly giving itself over to calm.

But for one small, sad question that begged an answer.

“Why do people leave me, Aunt Kate?”

“Oh, honey, some people don’t have a choice. You know that better than most. And others…well, I think it has more to do with personal demons than anything you’ve done.”

“I miss her, Aunt Kate.”

“I know you do, sweetheart.”

“I love her.”

“I know that too, baby.” Kate continued to stroke the ebony hair. “You’ll see her again. I truly believe that, one way or another, you’ll see her again.”

“I hope so,” the tall beauty mumbled drowsily as sleep claimed her.

Randi’s smile was bittersweet as she recalled that conversation. I’m still waiting, Aunt Kate. Bless your heart. You and Uncle Toby have been great these last few weeks, talking to me about Casey and trying to make me see that it wasn’t my fault. You even tried to get me to talk to Amy. But I still can’t face her…not yet. Still, I appreciate everything you’ve been trying to do. The tall woman snorted a laugh. Even all those silly ‘chores’ you and Toby would think up, just to keep me busy so I wouldn’t be lonely or brood too much. I love you guys.

Randi was feeling the first fuzzy edges of sleep surround her when the doorbell rang. What the hell?

Eschewing her robe and slippers, and clad only in her boxers and an old T-shirt that had been cut off at mid-torso, she padded down the hall to the front door and turned on the porch light as she opened the door.

A startled gasp burst from her lips as she beheld the slim, compact figure that had haunted her dreams for months. Megan stood at the rail surrounding the porch, curiously facing the darkened woods instead of the front door where Randi stood.

“Megan?” The tall woman moved to approach her visitor.

“Randi, don’t,” the strawberry blonde called out, sensing the movement. “Please, just stay right there.”

Stung and confused, Randi complied anyway, and backed up into her doorway. “Megan, what …”

“Please, Randi. There’s something I need to say, and I need you to just stand there for a moment and just listen.”

“But …”

“Please, Randi,” the young woman’s tone was husky and urgent.

“Okay,” the brunette reluctantly agreed. “I’ll stay right here.”

“Thank you,” the blonde whispered, taking a deep breath to gather courage, then gritting her teeth against the sharp, sudden pain as her bruised ribs announced their displeasure.

“The first thing I need to do is say I’m sorry. I acted like a total shitheel before I left, and there was absolutely no reason for it.”

“I…disappointed you,” the tall woman mumbled, still feeling the sting of that evening.

“You protected me,” the blonde retorted hotly, hating herself for the anguish and undeserved self-abasement that radiated from the woman behind her. “You prevented me from making a mistake that, as you predicted, I would have regretted in the morning. My behavior that night, and the following day, were inexcusable. Even so, I’m asking your forgiveness. If you don’t…if you can’t give it, I’ll understand. I’ll walk away and never bother you again.” The writer bowed her head and fought the sobs that struggled to escape. Her post-fight adrenaline rush was fading, and the pain of her injuries was becoming unbearable. She needed to finish this and finish it quickly, while she still had the strength to walk away if Randi rejected her.

Randi was plainly…stunned. The hot tears that gathered in her eyes as the writer spoke now trailed lazily down her cheeks as one of two very large stones was lifted from her heart. “There’s nothing to forgive, Megan. Even if there were, I forgave you a long time ago.”

Megan felt a sweet pain invade her heart. Of course you would. That’s the beauty of you, Randi Oakes. “Thank you,” she whispered hoarsely as black spots danced before her eyes. She turned slowly, her tongue felt thick and a subtle roaring filled her ears. “That’s good to hear…’cause I think I’m gonna need your hel …” The word went unfinished as she tumbled headlong into oblivion.
Chapter Twenty-Six
“No!” Randi yelped as she lunged to catch the smaller woman’s body before it hit the wooden deck. and succeeding only partially, as, with one arm around the smaller woman’s shoulders, she was forced to descend with the limp body.

The raven-haired doctor hadn’t gotten a good look at the blonde before she was forced to catch her, and subsequently hissed in horrified surprise when the writer’s slack head fell back and her battered face was revealed.

“Dear God, what happened to you?” the brunette whispered brokenly as she took in the bloody, bruised and swollen flesh that was three quarters of Megan’s face. “Who did this to you, Megan…why?”

Randi shivered as an unfamiliar rage seared through the pit of her belly, and in the depths of her soul, an ancient warrior screamed her displeasure to any who would hear.

Pushing aside her emotions, the tall woman tucked her arm under the unconscious woman’s knees and, gathering her close, rose and headed for the infirmary.

Randi laid the unconscious woman down gently, her physician’s mind automatically making observations and rattling off treatments and procedures as the tall doctor began the task of stripping and carefully examining her patient.

The brunette froze as she reached Megan’s pants and noticed their partially open state. Her heart hammered triple time against her chest as she considered the ugly implication. Oh, God, please…no. Randi ruthlessly pushed down her dread and continued her task, dismally mindful of the additional examination she would have to make.

An hour and a half later, the doctor was gently swabbing away the traces of blood from the blonde’s face and speaking gently to her, even though she was fairly certain the still-unconscious writer couldn’t hear her. “It wasn’t too bad, sweetheart,” she murmured softly, oblivious to the endearment she’d uttered. “You just needed a few stitches to a cut on your temple and a couple to your split lip. Your nose was pretty bloody but, thankfully, it wasn’t broken. Your ribs are bruised, and they’re gonna be really sore for a few days, but nothing’s broken.” You weren’t raped either, love. And I thank God for that. She laid down the stained gauze and tenderly brushed aside damp, blonde bangs. “You’re gonna be really tender for a few days, but you’re gonna be fine, Megan, just fine.”

“Course I am,” the raspy voice mumbled, startling the tall woman. “I’ve got you taking care of me, don’t I?” Puffy eyelids slid open and hazy green eyes focused on the beautifully sculpted features of the woman who, Megan was slowly coming to realize, owned her soul.

“Hi there.”

“You scared me,” the brunette accused, unable to conceal the tremulous tone in her voice.

“I know. I’m sorry,” the blonde returned contritely. “Couldn’t be helped.”

“Who did this to you?” The brunette’s tone was just shy of a growl.

“My ex-boyfriend. Long story,” the blonde supplied her sentences shortened by painful, throbbing lips and protesting ribs. She closed her eyes briefly to reign in the pain. Opening them again, she gasped at the glacial blue orbs that now beheld her. Ooh, boy, Eric, I think you need to be really glad that you’re not here right now. She reached out and covered the hand that rested on the bed beside her. “It’s all right,” she reassured gently. “I’ll tell you everything later. I promise. But right now, can you…ah…can you do me a favor?”

“Anything,” the doctor promised.

“Can you call Charly for me? She knows what happened, and she knows I was on my way here. She was…um… she was worried that I wouldn’t make it, and I promised her that one of us would call her. I think she’s probably ready to call out the National Guard by now,” the blonde quipped with a tiny smile.

The brunette turned her hand palm up and gently squeezed the smaller hand. “I’ll be right back.” I need to get a hold of myself anyway.

Megan watched the long, lean figure exit the room, craning her neck to let her eyes linger as long as they could. When Randi was finally out of sight, the small blonde let her head fall back onto the flimsy, generic “pillow” that doctors’ offices always employed. Closing her eyes, she let a small, happy thought run it’s tickling fingers across her heart. She doesn’t hate me. She doesn’t hate me. She doesn’t hate me. Megan’s eyes snapped open, as another thought demanded to be heard. She called me sweetheart! I didn’t imagine that…I know I didn’t. She closed her eyes again as a wave of giddy warmth slid through her being. She called me sweetheart.

Megan was drawn out of her blissful reverie by the sound of Randi’s voice as the tall woman entered the room, still talking on the phone.

“Yes, ma’am,” the doctor’s tone was calm and reassuring as she addressed the person on the other end. “I’ll see to it that she gets plenty of rest…even if I have to tie her to the bed,” the doctor winked at the goggle-eyed blonde who was now blushing furiously. “Yes, ma’am,” she responded to another unheard question. “She’s right here; would you like to speak to her for a moment?”

Randi held out the cordless phone. “Here you go. Not too long though,” she counseled, “I want to give you something for the pain, and then get you into a regular bed so you can rest.”

Acceding to the doctor’s wishes, Megan kept her conversation brief, promising that Charly and she would speak again in a day or so.

As soon as Megan disconnected the call, Randi handed her two small, white tablets. “It’s just Tylenol 3,” the raven-haired woman volunteered. “It’ll help with the pain and allow you to get some sleep.”

Megan smiled her thanks and popped the pills into her mouth, following up with careful sips from the cup of cool water that Randi held for her. When she was finished, Randi put the cup down. “I’m gonna go turn down the bed in your room,” she announced with a teasing wink, referring to the room that the writer had spent copious amounts of time in, mere months ago.

“Yeah, you do that, smartass,” Megan snorted to the retreating brunette.

Within moments, the doctor returned. “All set,” she announced as she moved to the examining table and tucked one long arm beneath the blonde’s knees and the other behind her shoulders, preparing to lift.

“Randi! I’m too heavy,” the blonde squawked as her backside left the bed, her arms instinctively circling the bronzed neck.

“Yeah, right,” the brunette snorted as she cradled her precious burden. “Either of the dogs is heavier than you. Now hush and enjoy the ride.”

The “ride” ended entirely too soon for the young blonde as she felt herself being lowered onto the cool softness of the bed. With grudging slowness, she removed her arms from around the smooth, strong neck and had to bite her lip to keep from crying at the loss of that wonderful warmth.

The sentiment was shared by the quiet doctor, and she found herself wishing that the distance from the infirmary to this room were a little greater. Like a mile or so, maybe. Randi pulled the covers over the too-quiet blonde. Misinterpreting the distress on the younger woman’s face, she leaned over and brushed back an unruly lock of fair hair. “You’ll feel better soon, Meg. I promise,” she whispered reassuringly.

As she turned to go, a small hand darted out and captured hers. Randi turned back to the bed and cast a quizzical look at the reclining blonde.

“Don’t go.” Megan’s voice was ragged with emotion, her eyes a misty plea that Randi was helpless to deny as she allowed herself to be guided down to a sitting position next to the blonde.

Ignoring the intense throbbing in her torso, Megan reached up and placed a trembling hand against the achingly soft cheek of her savior. Tears welled in her eyes at the wonder and adoration in the azure orbs that beheld her.

“I’ve missed you,” she whispered brokenly. “So very, very much.”

Randi’s eyes fluttered closed; her heart reached out with gossamer fingers to gather in this moment and lock it away. Forever.

Opening her eyes, she lightly grasped the hand on her cheek, turned her head and placed a feathery kiss on the soft palm. “I’ve missed you too, little bard,” she murmured. “More than I can say.”

Megan bit back a sob. She knew that her injuries and her exhaustion were playing havoc with her emotions, leaving them too raw, too close to the surface.

Knowing this, however, didn’t change the way this woman, this sweet, gentle, beautiful woman, made her feel.

Loved.

Humbled.

And very, very lucky.

So rather than give in to the tears that her overstressed emotions demanded, the young woman chose to bury her face into the living, loving warmth of her doctor’s shoulder and…

Just absorb.

Just feel.

Just…be loved.

Randi’s lips curled into an indulgent smile as she felt the small blonde slide into the arms of Morpheus. Her sensible mind suggested she detach herself from the sleeping woman and allow her to rest in a position more conducive to healing.

However.

Her heart and her arms were having none of that. Randi looked down at the face that, even swollen and bruised, rendered her mindless with its innate, wholesome beauty.

A face that, at this moment, radiated a childlike contentment so pure that it almost made her cry. I put that look there.

Me.

Is this what you meant, Uncle Jake, when you told me that story about soulmates? And that when I found mine, I would know what forever meant?

Randi settled back against the headboard and placed a whisper-soft kiss on fair hair. You were right, Uncle Jake…you were right.

Having decided that she, indeed, wasn’t moving from her newly discovered favorite position, the brunette heaved a contented sigh and let her eyes drift shut.

Only to open them moments later when she heard the subtle clicking of canine toenails on the hardwood floor. She watched as the small, golden canine she had dubbed Gabrielle nimbly leaped up onto the bed and began a cautious but thorough nasal inspection of the sleeping blonde.

Randi knew that her colleagues in the medical profession would have a fit over what she was allowing to take place, and, under normal circumstances, she might agree.

But there was nothing normal about these two animals.

They possessed a wisdom and intelligence that far outstripped most creatures, both the two-legged and four-legged kind.

More than that…they cared.

Which is how the raven-haired woman knew that the subtle growls the little canine emitted during her inspection were born of outrage and the tiny whimpers the golden dog emitted when she finished were pure, unabashed empathy.

“I know, little bit,” the tall woman consoled. “But she’ll be all right. We’ll make sure of that.”

Mollified, the little animal eased off the bed and joined her midnight-hued partner, who sat beside the bed. Randi watched the two animals as they briefly nuzzled before turning to look at her with a smug “are you happy now” look.

The proverbial lightbulb flashed above Randi’s head, and she turned narrowed eyes on the two.

“You knew, didn’t you?” she accused in a whisper. “That’s why you were so restless. You knew she was coming.”

Their answer was as eloquent as it was understated as two sets of eyes, one cinnamon and one electric blue, captured the tall woman’s own and held them for a long moment before both animals slid down and stretched out on the cool wood.

Randi looked down at the resting animals and shook her head. God, you two are spooky.
Chapter Twenty-Seven
Megan was having the most mouth-watering dream. They were sitting on the porch watching the sunrise and eating breakfast. Or, more precisely, she was sitting in Randi’s lap, and the tall woman was feeding her bits of breakfast sausage.

Mouth to mouth.

“Mmm, delicious,” the sleeping woman mumbled, eliciting a curious look from the little foxlike canine on the floor.

However wonderful her dream though, she was being slowly dragged from it by the even more wonderful smells that were drifting into her room and tickling her senses. Oh, God, that smells good.

A reluctant eyelid slid open, allowing a bleary green orb to take in its surroundings. Where…?

A clearing of her senses revealed that she was, (a) face down in a strange bed, (b) she was naked and, (c) everything hurt. Wha…

Memories of the prior evening’s trauma fast-forwarded through her mind. Oh. Shit. No wonder I feel like roadkill, the blonde groaned internally as she gingerly rolled over onto her back.

But I’m happy roadkill. The blonde mused with a limited smile as her thoughts turned to a raven-haired doctor.

It was amazing, Megan acknowledged, as she reflected on the prior evening and the subtle ease with which their relationship had become…

More.

That Randi’s feelings for her went beyond friendship was obvious from the moment Megan regained consciousness on the treatment table. The azure gaze that met her own reflected so much love that one would have to have been blind not to see it.

And for perhaps the first time in her life, Megan was not blind.

And the writer found herself liking the feeling that that gaze invoked.

A lot.

Small wonder then, that she wanted to not just experience that feeling, but immerse herself in it totally. Which is perhaps why she became so needy, so unwilling to let the doctor leave her alone in her bed.

And why it felt so darn … right … to fall asleep cradled in those long, strong, warm arms. I could get used to that, she concluded, a wicked half smile creasing her lips as she stretched languorously.

“Should I be worried about that smile?” was the playful greeting from the doorway.

Without missing a beat, Megan’s face took on a look of wide-eyed innocence. “Why, Doctor, whatever would you have to worry about from a poor, helpless, injured woman like me?”

Randi shook her head, chuckling. “Yup, I should be worried.”

Moving into the room, the brunette seated herself on the edge of the bed. “Glad to see you awake.”

“Mmm,” the blonde hummed languorously. “Who can sleep with such delightful smells floating around?”

“Well now, I guess I should take that as a clue that someone’s hungry,” the brunette drawled and was answered almost immediately by a rumbling growl that made one woman grin and produced a coral flush that covered every visible inch of the other’s skin. “I’ll take that as confirmation,” the doctor chuckled.

Randi’s smile turned from mirthful to affectionate as she gently brushed through fair bangs, checking for fever. Finding none, she moved her hand down to lightly grasp the smaller hand that rested on top of the covers. “How are you feeling today?”

Megan closed her eyes and took a quick mental inventory, then reopened them. “Truth?”

Randi nodded.

“Not that bad, actually.” At the doctor’s skeptical expression, she added. “I mean, my ribs hurt, and my face feels like I went a few rounds Rocky Balboa and lost, but I guess I just don’t feel as bad as I thought I would.” She scrunched up her face. “Does that make any sense?”

Randi grinned. “Perfect sense. And I’m glad to hear it.”

Megan turned her hand up and squeezed the larger hand. “It must be the excellent medical attention I received when I got here.”

Randi coughed and lowered her eyes as old demons raised their heads. “I wouldn’t say excellent,” she murmured.

Sensing the direction the doctor’s thoughts had taken, the blonde squeezed the bigger hand more firmly until Randi’s gaze met hers again. “I would,” she stated forcefully, the intensity in her verdant stare daring the brunette to argue.

Randi swallowed reflexively at the hard, unyielding conviction in the young woman’s voice and eyes.

And in that deep, dark corner of her heart where doubts and self -condemnation thrived, a small candle flickered to light.

“Thank you,” was the barely heard whisper accompanied by a small, crooked smile.

Megan smiled her acknowledgment as her thumb unconsciously stroked the knuckles of the still-captured hand.

Randi allowed herself a few extra heartbeats to bask in the blonde’s affectionate regard before reminding herself of the reason she’d come seeking the younger woman.

“Um, about that breakfast,” she prompted.

“I’d love some,” the blonde responded eagerly, mentally salivating at the memory of the doctor’s perfect, fluffy, cheesy scrambled eggs.

“Great! Would you like to eat in bed, or do you feel up to eating at the kitchen table?”

“Well, I’d love to join you at the kitchen table, but…” the blonde made a show of lifting the sheet from her chest and peering underneath for a moment before turning mischievous green eyes on the doctor. “I’m a bit underdressed for the occasion.”

“Hmm, I suppose that is a consideration,” the brunette responded in mock seriousness.

“And I’m pretty sure you’d be quite unable to enjoy your breakfast with me sitting across from you, wearing nothing but skin,” she added coquettishly.

And nearly bit her tongue in half to stifle a giggle at the sudden, raging blush that swept up Randi’s neckline and disappeared into her hairline. Or not, her mind supplied amusedly. Oooh, what a cute blush.

Randi stared at the impishly grinning blonde, her mind too busy creating certain images to even attempt a rejoinder. Is it hot in here?

Clearing her throat and, reluctantly, her mind, Randi pointed to the open door. “I’ll … uhm … I’ll just go grab some of my old sweats.” With that, she scrambled out the door, leaving the strawberry blonde clutching her protesting ribs and giggling wildly into her pillow.

*****

The energetic flames danced and crackled merrily within the rough-hewn walls of the fireplace, casting warm, amber nets over the two women reclining on the big, overstuffed couch that faced it.

Or, rather, one was sitting and one was comfortably horizontal, her head resting cozily on a firm thigh. Shania Twain crooned in the background, while Randi idly twirled long golden tresses around her fingers.

That this arrangement was one more suited to lovers than nascent friends mattered not.

It was warm.

It was comforting.

It was nurturing.

It was needed.

And so, it very simply…was.

Randi listened attentively as Megan recounted her experiences since returning to the city, silently cheering the blonde’s publisher for forcing the headstrong writer to confront the truth about her past, and delighting in the news of the reunion that followed.

Then Megan got to the part about Eric.

And the tall woman’s delight took a nose dive as the blonde relayed the details of the encounter with her former lover; her mood became progressively darker as the writer, oblivious to the change, and immersed in her memories, provided a disturbingly detailed account of the assault.

Oblivious that is, until a deep, rumbling growl tickled her awareness. Curious, she turned her head to the source of the growl and cringed inwardly at the grim, furious mask that was Randi’s beautiful face.

Oh, God! That’s for me.

Warmed beyond measure, the blonde reached a trembling hand up and cupped the doctor’s rigid cheek. “No, Randi. It’s all right,” she murmured. … “Randi?”

Frosty blue eyes tracked to green.

“It’s okay,” the blonde offered gently.

“How can you say it’s okay?” the brunette voiced hoarsely. “He hurt you. He …” Further words were clipped by small fingers against full lips.

“Yes, he did. And he’ll get his, I can promise you that. But look beyond Eric for a moment and consider the whole incident,” the blonde’s eyes twinkled in amusement as ebony eyebrows furrowed, wondering where she was going with this. “As one very wise doctor once told me, it all boils down to perspective.” Megan grinned cheekily at the narrow-eyed glare she’d earned for plagiarizing the doctor’s earlier reasoning. “Looking at the entire thing, you see it as something bad that happened to me.” Megan’s eyes glowed with loving warmth as her thumb stroked a chiseled jaw. “And I see it as the catalyst that brought me back to you.”

Randi absently wondered if it were possible for something to feel so wonderful that it hurt. If it were, then that would’ve been the best way to describe what she was feeling at this moment as she gazed into emerald warmth. “Then if I ever see him, I’ll have to thank him while I’m kicking his ass, won’t I?” she rumbled affectionately.

The unbruised half of Megan’s mouth curled into a grin. “My hero,” she declared half-kiddingly before sobering her expression and adding, “in so many ways.”

“Only for you,” the brunette whispered as, surrendering to the powerful entreaty in liquid green orbs, she lowered her head and gently placed her lips upon the blonde’s.

Sweet…so very sweet, the blonde’s mind hummed as she savored the soft, delicious offering. But… An impatient hand reached behind the brunette’s head, pulling down and increasing the contact with the luscious lips … an act she regretted immediately as pain shot through her damaged mouth, forcing her to break contact with a gasping groan.

A single tear squeezed through her tightly closed eyelids as she waited for the throbbing to ease. Finally, she opened her eyes to the amused, concerned ones above her.

“Are you okay?” the doctor inquired with a half grin.

“Just dandy,” the blonde pouted.

“Now you know,” the brunette lowered her head and placed a butterfly-soft kiss on the undamaged corner of the writer’s mouth. “Why I,” another kiss. “Kept it light,” a final kiss, and then the doctor pulled back and asked again, this time earnestly. “Now, once again, are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” the blonde replied, trying to keep the silly grin that was being prompted by the delighted fluttering in her belly off her face. “But I’ve got to get better quick … real quick.”

“You will,” the tall woman assured, smiling fondly. “But before then, we’re going to have to have a talk. We have much to discuss, you and I. About what has happened. About what’s going to happen. And most important, what we want to happen.

I…care for you a lot, Megan. I think you know that. And I…I think you like me. Or at least I hope you do. But I don’t want you to think…I don’t want you to feel like…I…” Small fingers pressed against her lips arrested her rambling.

Mortified blue eyes blinked into amused green ones. “I’m babbling, aren’t I?” vibrated against petite fingers.

“Just a tad,” the blonde responded, barely containing a giggle, then sobering slightly and adding, “But you’re right. We do have to talk. But not tonight. Tonight…right now…I just want you to walk me to my room, tuck me in and, if you don’t mind,” fair eyelashes fluttered shyly over pinking cheeks, “just…hold me for a while. Until I fall asleep…if you don’t mind?”

Randi wrapped long fingers around the smaller hand and, lifting it to her lips, gently kissed the knuckles. “I’ll hold you whenever you want…as long as you want,” was whispered against fair skin.

Megan closed her eyes and let the sweet, soft warmth of that promise wash over her in gentle waves. I don’t deserve you, she thought. “I’m gonna hold you to that,” she said.
Chapter Twenty-eight
“Are you sure you’ll be okay?” the doctor asked for perhaps the tenth time.

“I’ll be fine,” the blonde growled in playful exasperation as she scooted the reluctant woman toward the door.

“I’ll be.”

“Just over at Matt Dawson’s place, which is just a few miles over, helping him patch a hole in the roof, and his number, along with your cell phone number, is right next to the phone so I can call you if World War Three breaks out or if I get a splinter in my finger,” the blonde rattled off, almost word-for-word, the doctor’s earlier briefing, adding the last part for her own amusement and earning a sheepishly hung head.

“Overkill?” the tall woman pouted adorably.

“Just a wee bit,” the blonde confirmed with an indulgent grin. “But I love…it,” the blonde placated, silently scolding herself for not being able to say the word she wanted to say. I love…you. “Now go, do what you have to do and hurry home,” she commanded, placing a quick peck on a convenient chin before shooing the grumbling woman out the door.

Megan collapsed against the closed door and huffed out a relieved breath. “Finally,” she mumbled to the two canines who sat watching her curiously. “Now we can get down to business.”

Moments later, armed with a cup of coffee, notepad, pen and telephone, Megan settled into a chair at the kitchen table. Glancing at her two constant companions, who now lay sprawled on the linoleum floor, she announced, “Well, ladies, wish me luck.”

Picking up the cordless handset, she punched the only memory key she was familiar with and waited, nearly losing her nerve when the deep baritone greeting sounded in her ear. “Um, Toby?”

Hours later, the writer mumbled a tearful thank you into the phone as she pressed the end key. The last half-hour spent on the phone had been the most heartwrenching she had ever known. But it was enlightening too…very enlightening. Now I just have to figure out what to do…and when to do it. Timing’s going to be everything, she decided as she wiped away an errant tear. Giving herself a mental shake, she glanced at her watch. Randi’s going to be back soon, and I want to surprise her with dinner. So I guess I’d better pull it together and get started. With that, the writer got up from the table and proceeded to rummage through the cabinets and refrigerator. I hope she likes lasagna.

*****

Randi was feeling downright bubbly as she pulled out of the Dawson’s driveway and headed for home. Home, she mused. It hasn’t been ‘home’ in a long time. It’s been a cave, a hideout, a place to bury myself in and shut the world out. But now, she reflected in giddy wonder, now it’s a home again. She makes it that way. And I’ll bet my last dollar it’s becoming home for her too. That’s why she said ‘hurry home’ instead of just ‘hurry back.’ Please, Uncle Jake, if you have any words with the man upstairs, please ask him to let it be so. I know I don’t deserve it…but I’d like a chance to be happy, Uncle Jake…I…need it.

*****

Megan stared at the blank laptop screen and blew out a frustrated breath. She’d been trying to pass the time since she’d put the lasagna in to cook by doing some writing.

But it wasn’t working.

In spite of her best efforts to concentrate on her writing, her rebellious mind had other ideas.

Like blue eyes, midnight hair and perfect lips.

And, in the battle for focus, the blonde really didn’t put up that much of a fight.

Conceding defeat, the writer shut down the laptop, rose from the table and wandered over to the window. With her coffee mug clutched in both hands she gazed unseeingly past the small fenced in garden and pondered the last few days.

They had been…idyllic.

Randi had been attentive, kind, gentle, loving and most of all… patient, giving hugs when they were needed, kisses when they were wanted, and unquestioning support always allowing the writer to become gently accustomed to the new and sometimes scary concept of loving another woman. Loving? Megan shook her head and snorted softly. Yup, that pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it? God, when did it happen? When did my heart suddenly decide ‘this is the one’ Megan paused, looking inward for a moment. Or maybe it wasn’t sudden at all.

I think I’ve been having feelings for her for quite a while, but my ass was too firmly planted on my shoulders to see it. Megan gave herself a hard mental shake. Stop analyzing, dumb ass, and just go with it! Megan shrugged. “Best advice I’ve heard in a long time,” she addressed the empty room. Megan spared a long look at the phone. I should call mother again, just to let her know I’m still doing okay. God! I thought she was gonna have a cow when I called her the other day and told her what happened. A wicked grin graced the fair face. Especially when I told her I drove all the way up here before getting any medical attention. Her ‘That woman must be one hell of a good doctor’ comment was priceless. Just the way she said it tells me she knows that there’s more going on than I’m telling. But she’s being patient, bless her heart for waiting until I’m ready to talk about it. And we will talk about it. Her reverie was interrupted by the slamming of the front door and the playful “Looocy, I’m hooome,” that followed. Later, the blonde decided as she turned to greet her tall, beautiful ‘Ricky.’

*****

“God, I’m stuffed!” Randi groaned from her slumped position in the chair. “That was, without question, the best lasagna I’ve ever tasted.” She raised her head and cast a narrow-eyed glare at the proudly beaming blonde. “You never mentioned that you could cook like that. You’ve been holding out on me,” she accused.

“Not really,” she offered shyly. “I mean, most of my experience in the kitchen comes from a cookbook, and I can hold my own I guess. But this,” she waved her hand to indicate their mostly eaten fare, “this, my mother taught me,” she finished with a pleased smile.

“I like seeing that,” the brunette commented kindly.

“Seeing what?” the writer was puzzled.

“Seeing that sweet smile when you mention your mother,” Randi replied sincerely.

“Oh.” The blonde ducked her head, feeling the warm blush spreading over her face. God! How does she do that? Just a few words or a look…and I’m blushing like a silly teenager. “Um, thank you,” she mumbled, trying to beat down the heat on her face. “I like it too. I never realized how much I missed her…loved her…until I was with her again,” the writer reflected with a wistful smile.

“Sure you did,” the mellow voice posed.

“Pardon?”

“I said sure you did,” the brunette repeated as she rose from her chair and walked around the table where she dropped to her knees in front of the puzzled blonde. “You loved her and missed her every day of your life. And it hurt…terribly.” Large hands gently grasped smaller ones. “Which is why you were so angry. Sometimes, being angry with someone that leaves you seems easier than grieving.” The doctor shrugged and studied the hands she was holding. “Less…painful.”

The tall woman gave herself a mental shake. “Anyhow,” she continued, “like I said, you loved her and missed her, but wouldn’t let yourself admit it. Although, it did show,” Randi announced with a wry grin. “In every book you wrote. Every time the writer lashed out at gays, the hurt and lonely young woman cried out for her mother.” Twinkling blue eyes addressed wide, astonished green ones. “Make sense?”

“Buh…” The blonde’s mouth worked furiously, but no words emerged, save one. “How…?”

“How did I know?”

Megan nodded dumbly.

“I didn’t at first. But when you told me about your mother and Cait, it all made sense. I still didn’t approve of your ‘venting’ method,” Randi smiled warmly to reduce the sting of her words. “But I understood it.”

Megan shook her head and snorted a laugh. “Ya know, I want to argue with you,” she reached out and tucked a strand of raven hair in place. “Tell you that you’re wrong. But I can’t. When I look back and really think about it…I can’t.” Leaning forward, she placed her forehead against the brunette’s. “How did you get so smart, Randi Oakes?” was a husky whisper.

“Not smart,” the tall woman mumbled, drowning in the pleasant contact. “I’ve just been there.”

Randi almost groaned aloud at the loss of contact as the fair head pulled back and perplexed green eyes fixed on her, begging an explanation. “My parents,” she sighed, fixing her gaze on the small hands she grasped. “After they died and I was brought up here, I wouldn’t talk about them. Every time Uncle Jake tried to, I would change the subject or suddenly ‘remember’ that I had something else to do or somewhere to be.” Randi snorted a chuckle.

“It didn’t take Uncle Jake long to figure out what I was doing. One afternoon he confronted me with it. I was in my favorite chair in my room, and he knew that if I wanted out, I would have to get past him. He started talking about daddy,” Randi shrugged minutely, “just nonsense stuff about what they used to do when they were boys. I tried talking about other things but Uncle Jake kept coming back to daddy. Finally, I got up and said I had something to do, and he got in front of me and said, ‘It won’t work, Randi. I know what you’re trying to do, and I won’t let you keep doing it.’ Well, I got mad and told him he didn’t know what he was talking about and tried pushing him away.” Randi’s crooked smile was laced with chagrin.

“Didn’t work…Jake was a big man. Anyhow, that just made me madder, and I started yelling at him and trying to get past him. Finally, I thought I saw a way out if I jumped over the bed. Did I happen to mention that he’s quick too? He caught me in midair, and we both landed on the bed. By that time, I was struggling hysterically, yelling and kicking and hitting. But he just wrapped his big arms around me and held on, while I went from screaming and fighting to just plain crying my eyes out.”

Randi took a long, deep breath in an effort to regain control of the ragged emotions her memories were prompting ¾ an action that was not unnoticed by the small blonde who raised her hand and gently stroked the doctor’s cheek. Comforted, she continued. “Finally, after I calmed down, we had a long talk about my parents…and my anger over their leaving me. He made me understand that sometimes people just don’t have a choice. My parents didn’t plan on leaving me like that, they didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. He made me understand that no matter how much people love you, or how good their intentions are, things happen. And people leave you,” she finished hoarsely, her watery blue eyes focused not on the here and now, Megan knew, but on visions of a tow-headed little girl.

Okay, Meg, it’s now or never. “You understood that, but you didn’t really accept it, did you?” the blonde inquired gently.

Randi’s liquid gaze returned to the writer’s face, her brows furrowed in confusion. “What do you mean? Of course I did,” she protested.

“Did you, Randi?” the writer pushed. “Are you sure about that?”

“Yes,” the doctor sputtered, pulling away from the writer. “What the hell are you getting at, Megan?”

“Then why can’t you accept Casey’s leaving you?”

The color drained from Randi’s face, as her entire body became painfully rigid. She gaped incredulously at the blonde for a long moment before her eyes narrowed to dangerous slits. “You have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about,” she hissed.

“Then educate me,” the blonde challenged.

The tall woman shook her head violently. “I can’t,” she gritted and tried to rise, only to be halted by a small hand on her chest and beseeching green eyes. “Please, sweetheart, tell me.”

Solidly built walls, formed from months of self-imposed guilt and anger, liquefied under the delicate dual assault. “She didn’t leave me…I killed her,” was the bitter rasp from pale lips.

“How, Randi?” Megan’s voice was warm, coaxing.

“I wasn’t there when she needed me.”

“Were there other doctors there? Tending to her?”

“Yes. But she was calling for me.”

“Why do you think she was calling for you?”

Randi gaped at the blonde, her expression incredulous. Why the hell do you think she was calling? “So I could help her,” she supplied impatiently.

“Are you sure of that?” C’mon, Randi, stick with me here.

Randi’s discomfort with this conversation was growing by leaps and bounds. Her composure was dwindling, making her answer snappish. “Of course I’m sure. Why the hell else would she be calling out for me?”

Bingo! That’s the opening I was looking for. “So she could say good-bye.”

Randi’s entire body seemed to deflate as she sat back heavily on her heels. “What?” she croaked, her eyes saucer-wide in disbelief. “No,” she growled, shaking her head furiously. “That’s not…she didn’t…”

Megan grabbed the wagging head in both hands, stilling it and forcing astonished blue eyes to meet hers. “Yes,” she countered forcefully, willing the stubbornly, wrongfully repentant woman to listen…to hear her. “Yes,” she repeated, “she knew she was dying. But she didn’t want to leave you without saying goodbye.”

“Noooo,” blue eyes filled and overflowed as hope warred with denial. “She needed me, she…”

“She loved you,” the blonde interjected gently, her own eyes succumbing to insistent tears. “She loved you and needed to let you know it before she left. That’s why she was calling for you, honey. That, and no other reason.”

“How do you know this?” The question was rife with hope and suspicion.

“I talked to Amy,” the blonde offered with a teary half smile. “She would have told you this herself, but you, my hard-headed, reclusive friend,” the blonde chided gently, “avoided her…refused to talk to her.”

“I couldn’t,” the brunette rasped, fresh tears spilling down her face. “I couldn’t face her.”

“Because you blamed yourself for her child’s death,” Megan again caressed away the tears. “But she didn’t. She still doesn’t.” A small hand cupped a trembling chin, recapturing the tall woman’s gaze. “No one,” she emphasized strongly, “blames you for Casey’s passing…except you!”

Dazed, watery blue eyes searched the younger woman’s face and found nothing short of open, honest, loving conviction. “It’s true?”

“Every word. I swear.”

Then the dam broke in earnest as a dark head burrowed itself into the young woman’s lap and a long, lean body shook with hard, wracking sobs.

Megan’s own tears fell into raven locks as she bent over and whispered into her friend’s ear. “Casey loved you, Doctor Randi…she loves you still. And she doesn’t want you to cry for her any more.” With that, she leaned back, content to stroke the midnight-kissed hair and patiently wait for the storm to pass.
Chapter Twenty-nine
Bleary, outraged green eyes glared at the annoyingly bright slice of sunlight that, despite her best wishes not to, seemed intent to drag her into full wakefulness.

“All right, all right already,” she growled to the intermittent rays that splashed across her face. “You can quit with the peek-a-boo crap now. I’m awake.”

Almost as if it heard her, the sun chose that moment to slide behind a large cloud formation, inspiring an even deeper scowl on the grumpy writer’s face. “I liked you better at the beach,” she groused as she threw her legs off the side of the bed and sat up. Within moments, her attention was drawn to the barely perceptible sounds of some rather upbeat music radiating from somewhere down the hall. Hmm, somebody’s in a mood today, she grinned. Let’s just go check it out.

Megan scanned the room for something more to wear than the panties and T-shirt that currently, just barely, covered her body. She smiled when her eyes landed on an item of clothing that lay sprawled across the arm of the big chair. Ooh, her mind cooed happily as she ambled over and grabbed the large, brightly checked flannel shirt that Randi wore yesterday. On impulse, she held the shirt up to her face and inhaled deeply through her nose, imprinting her senses with the smell of woodsmoke, hyacinth, and just plain…Randi.

Satisfied with her aromatherapy, she slipped the shirt on and buttoned it, giggling when she had to roll up the sleeves a few times just so she could utilize her hands. Using her fingers to give some order to her disheveled, shoulder-length hair, she exited the room.

The closer Megan got to the kitchen, the louder the music got, and the sight that greeted her when she approached the entrance of the kitchen made her stop in her tracks.

Randi, clad in only boxer shorts and T-shirt, danced and strutted her way around the kitchen as Wynona belted out “Rocking to the Rhythm of the Rain” on the radio. Megan barely stifled a giggle as the doctor, using the egg whisk as a microphone, added her own voice to the song, mock serenading the small, golden canine who hopped and wriggled in jubilant appreciation of her friend’s antics.

Movement to her right caught her attention, and Megan stifled another giggle as she observed the big, black animal staring at her with a pathetic, do-you-see-what-I-have-to-put-up-with look. You love it, and you know it, you big, furry fraud! she mentally directed at the canine, who huffed an indignant snort and sprawled out on the floor. God! If I didn’t know better, I’d swear she heard that.

Turning her attention back to the dancing duo, who were still oblivious to her presence, she leaned against the doorjamb and emitted a happy little sigh. God, she looks like a teenager … so happy and carefree. I’m glad. She didn’t deserve the pain she was in. I’m happy that I was able to help her get past it, and I was really glad when she let me take her to bed and hold her for a change. God, that felt so seamless, so…right. As if we’ve done that through hundreds of lifetimes. Megan rolled her eyes and shook her head. Get a grip, Galagher! Keep thinking like that and next thing you know, you’ll be writing sappy stories about soulmates and destinies.

And down on the floor, timeless blue eyes twinkled briefly before closing.

As the song wound down, Randi’s final dance move was a spin that ended abruptly with a yelp as she noticed the grinning blonde standing there. A crimson blush stole up her neck and past her eyebrows, as she stood, wide-eyed and frozen to the spot. . . much like a doe caught in a very bright spotlight.

Finally, the brunette cleared her throat. “Um, hi,” she squeaked. “I was…we were…um.”

“Being absolutely, unequivocally, undeniably adorable,” the blonde finished as she sauntered into the room and right up to the abashed beauty.

“Really?” The brunette breathed in childlike wonder.

“Yes, really,” the blonde confirmed, her hand, with a mind of its own, reaching up and stroking a silky, soft cheek.

“It’s all your fault, you know,” the brunette mumbled, leaning into the caress as her arms automatically circled a petite waist.

“Is it now?”

“Yes. You lifted a tremendous weight from my soul last night, and now I’m filled with such unbearable lightness that I’ve got to work it off somehow, or I’ll just…float away.”

“Well, we can’t have that now. I’ll just have to find some way to…tie you down,” the blonde postulated throatily, smiling inwardly at the full-body shiver her words induced in the tall woman.

“Um…”

“Only to keep you from floating away, of course,” the blonde reassured.

“Of course,” was squeaked past an incredibly dry throat.

“Let’s see if I can find another way to keep you grounded,” the blonde offered as she threaded her fingers into raven tresses and gently tugged, bringing beautiful, full lips into contact with her own needy ones.

Unlike the kisses of the last few days, there was nothing tentative or shy about this one. The blonde, no longer hampered by the pain of her bruises, took bold possession of the tall woman’s lips, deepening the precious contact as her body, following suit, molded itself tighter to the strong, supple form of the doctor.

It was a move wholly endorsed by the taller woman, as evidenced by the small, whimpering moan that originated in one mouth and vibrated through both. Two sets of hands wandered, caressed and stroked while two sets of lips pressed, pulled back and pressed again. Somewhere in between, one mouth opened slightly, inviting and was rewarded by a silky, pink tongue that entered, explored and reveled in the sweetness it found inside.

Several long, heavenly moments later, the need for air prompted a reluctant separation as the two women stood with foreheads touching, fighting to control their bounding heartbeats and basking in the sheer, light-headed wonder of it all.

“Thank you,” Randi breathed into the fair hair she was nuzzling.

“For what?” the blonde murmured distractedly, enjoying the contact.

“For last night, for this morning, for being you.”

Megan pulled back slightly and placed her hands on the tall woman’s chest. “You’re welcome, but last night I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right moment. And this morning,” she stood on tiptoe and kissed a strong, angular chin, “was my pleasure,” she purred. “And as for being me,” she wagged her hand and made a face. “Well, the jury’s still out on that one.”

“Well this ‘jurist’ is hopelessly compromised in your favor,” the brunette burred, grabbing the wagging hand and kissing the palm. “And as for last night, I think there was more than ‘luck’ involved.” She raised a curious eyebrow.

Megan lowered her eyes and blushed prettily. Busted!

Randi observed the writer’s chagrin with wry amusement. That’s what I thought, she mused triumphantly. “Let’s get some coffee and get comfortable, so you can tell me all about it,” she declared, grasping the smaller hand and leading the sheepish blonde into the livingroom.

“All right, little bit, spill it,” the brunette commanded from her position as backrest to the extremely comfortable blonde.

“There’s not that much to tell, actually,” the blonde remarked demurely, eliciting an impatient growl from the body behind her. “Okay, okay,” she capitulated with a mischievous grin that faded quickly when she recalled the day of her departure. “That last day,” she began in a subdued voice, “when I…when you walked out of Toby’s store. A woman came and sat down at my table and said she wanted to tell me a story. I was already in a pissy mood and didn’t really want to hear it, but she was pretty insistent.” Megan shrugged. “Anyway the story she told me was about Casey and you and what…um…happened.” Megan lightly stroked the arm around her waist, which had unconsciously tensed.

“I’m not going to go into the crash course in shame I took from that encounter,” she mused with a grimace. “Suffice it to say, she gave me a lot to think about. And I did think about it…a lot.” She turned her head and kissed a conveniently close jaw. “And I ached for you. But I was also confused as to exactly why you blamed yourself. I was sure there were some things I was missing, but,” she gave a small shrug, “with the situation being the way it was, I didn’t know that I would ever get the chance to find out more.” The younger woman turned sideways and wrapped her arms around the too-quiet doctor. “Which is perhaps another reason why what happened to me wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Because now I was in a position where I could find out more. Which is exactly what I did after you left yesterday. I made some phone calls,” she affected a slightly embarrassed grin, “did a lot of groveling, and finally wound up with a complete picture.” She reached up and stroked a tense jaw.

“A more complete picture than even you had. You only knew that you got there too late, and that she was crying out for you. And your poor, grieving heart believed that she was crying out for you to come save her, and, by not being there, you failed her. But that wasn’t the case. Every one knew that, except for you. And you,” she grasped the other woman’s chin and lightly shook it, “my sweet, tender-hearted, stubborn friend, refused to let anybody get close enough to tell you,” she mock-scolded the sheepishly blushing beauty. “Well,” she continued, “I was close enough, but now I had to figure out a way to tell you. I couldn’t just walk up to you and say, ‘Hey, Randi, guess what!’ Luckily, you opened the door for me when you started talking about your parents.” She smiled into glistening, grateful blue eyes. “So you see, it was just right place, right time luck.”

“No,” Randi whispered, using her fingers to guide the younger woman’s face closer to her own. “It was the tenacity of a beautiful, thoughtful young woman who cared for me enough to sacrifice her pride in order to save my soul. I love you, Megan Galagher,” she burred as she laid claim to the writer’s sweet, soft lips.

Randi took her time, pouring her love, her gratitude, her very self into the contact as she explored, stroked and worshipped the mouth attached to her own. And Megan not only accepted, she devoured the older woman’s offering, as one starving would consume a meal.

Finally, a panting, flushed Megan broke off the kiss. “Dear Lord,” she gasped, “you keep kissing me like that, Dr. Oakes, and I’m gonna spontaneously combust right here on the couch.” Every nerve ending in the younger woman’s body was raw, and her libido was beating on the bars of its cage with an aluminum bat. Her groin throbbed painfully as she struggled to keep from grinding against the firm, muscled thigh that, somewhere in the course of the kiss, had insinuated itself between her own. Oh, I’m in so much trouble here.

Randi chuckled throatily. “I guess I should stop then,” she said half-teasingly as her own raging hormones howled in protest. God, I want her so badly, but I don’t want to push if she’s not ready.

Megan’s mouth opened as she prepared to inform the good doctor just how bad for her health stopping would be right at this moment.

The ringing of the telephone, however, pre-empted the verbal strike.

Randi grinned apologetically as she disentangled herself from the frustrated blonde and padded into the kitchen to answer. Returning a few moments later, the tall woman’s expression was even more regretful. And the blonde knew, just knew, that a cold shower was in her immediate future.

Randi sat gingerly on the edge of the couch, flinching inwardly at the baleful glare she was receiving from the small blonde. She cleared her throat. “That was, uh, that was Toby. I promised him a while back that I’d help him move some shelving around in the store. And he just called to remind me that we were supposed to do it today.” She hung her head. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled.

“Don’t be,” the writer murmured, cupping the angular chin and raising the doctor’s face. “I’m glad that you’ll be there to give him a hand,” she smiled affectionately. “I’d hate to think of him trying to move that stuff on his own and possibly hurting himself.”

Randi smiled her relief at the young woman’s understanding. “You could come with me, you know.”

Megan snorted a laugh. “No, I don’t think so. Toby may have said he’s forgiven me, but I still think if he saw me right now, he’d be tempted to turn me across his knee just for general purposes.” The blonde’s grin was self-effacing. “And I really couldn’t blame him.”

“He wouldn’t do that, and don’t say that,” Randi admonished. “You had your reasons for behaving the way you did.” Randi held up a hand to halt the blonde’s protest. “I’m not trying to justify anything here, sweetheart, or make excuses. What you…what happened was…harsh…and it hurt…a lot. But I understood. You were going through a lot the last few days you were here.” She offered a half smile at the blonde’s stunned expression. “You were dealing with a lot of questions and confusing emotions. The closer you came to leaving, the worse it got. That last night, you were…reaching out to me in perhaps the only way that made sense at the time. And I,” blue eyes glistened with regret, “I refused you. I believed, and still believe, I was doing the right thing. But in your eyes, it was yet another rejection by someone that you had, against all personal conviction, come to care for. So you threw on your prickly armor once again and came out swinging, determined to make me hurt as least as much as you did. And you had no idea how successful you were until after I walked out of Toby’s store.”

“I’m so sorry,” the blonde husked, tears traveling freely down her face.

“Don’t be,” the doctor murmured gently, wiping at the tears with tender fingers. “I didn’t tell you this to make you feel bad. I told you this so you would know that I understood. And that, to some degree, Toby does too.” At the blonde’s bewildered look, Randi clarified. “I didn’t go into detail because that’s private. But I did make sure he understood that you were lashing out not so much at me, but at many things that were hurting you.”

“Still looking out for me,” the writer smiled tremulously.

“Always.”

Megan took that sweet promise and wrapped it around her heart.

And she immersed herself fully in the loving, crystal-blue gaze that accompanied it, capturing that look and imprinting it on her soul.

*****

A half-hour later, both women stood loosely embracing in front of the open door.

“Are you sure you don’t want to come along?”

“I’m positive,” the blonde answered, smiling. “This will give me a chance to sit down and do some work on my new Samantha Steele novel. I’m introducing a new character, and I want to make sure I put her together just right.”

“Put her together, huh? I dunno, that sounds a little Frankenstein-ish to me,” the tall woman teased, straightening her long arms in front of her, blanking her expression and stiffening her body in a classic monster pose.

“You are a nut!” the blonde squawked in mock outrage as she backhanded the “monster” in the belly.

“Yeah, but I’m your nut,” the doctor responded cheekily as she dropped her arms onto the blonde’s shoulders.

“Yes, you are.” And I can’t possibly express how grateful I am for that fact. “Now go climb into your shell and roll on down to Toby’s, so you can do what you need to do and hurry back home.”

“Yes, ma’am!” the brunette barked, sketching a quick salute and ducking out the door, narrowly avoiding a slap to her backside.

Megan stood at the door, watching as Randi skipped down the stairs and ran around to the back of the Jeep, where she opened a back door and emitted a shrill whistle. Within seconds, a large, black bolt of lightning exploded from the woods, followed closely by her smaller, golden counterpart. To Megan’s utter amazement, the ebony canine stopped dead in her tracks a few feet from the back of the vehicle and dropped to the ground just as the smaller dog approached. Without missing a beat, Gabrielle leaped from the ground, to her companion’s back and into the Jeep in one, graceful motion. Megan stood, goggle-eyed and dumbstruck as the large dog, with all the nonchalance of her namesake, got up, shrugged off any remaining snow and leaped up into the vehicle. Oh. My. God! They did not just do that! Her eyes tracked to the smugly grinning doctor. “Did I mention that they do stunts just like ’em too?” the brunette winked as she closed the door and climbed into the driver’s seat.

Leaving the blonde leaning against the doorway, doubled over in helpless laughter as the vehicle’s taillights disappeared from view.

*****

Randi whistled a carefree tune as she neared Cutters Gap, her spirits so high and her thoughts so fixed on a beautiful, green-eyed blonde that she paid no attention to the small, burgundy vehicle that passed her going the other way. Low growls and frustrated whines interrupted her off-key trilling, and she cast an impatient glare in the rearview mirror at the two animals that paced and stared out the rear window. “Don’t even try that,” she warned. “You guys wanted to come into town with me, so you’re stuck with me until we head back.” With that, she resumed her contented whistling, mindless of the still-agitated beasts in the back.

*****

Megan stared at the computer screen, her fair eyebrows furrowed in mystified contemplation as she studied the neatly typed and spaced lines of text. Where in the hell did that come from? What started out as an attempt to add to her novel, swiftly turned into something quite different as her muse decided to take a small detour onto a slightly different, very virgin, path. She re-examined the lines with critical intent. Well, it’s not bad…then chewed on her lip. I don’t think…then mentally threw up her hands. Oh, how the hell would I know? I’ve never been into that stuff. Maybe I should give Charly a call and run it by her; she reads this type of stuff. Yeah, that sounds like a plan! Deciding on a cup of coffee first and phone call second, the writer headed toward the kitchen.

*****

Randi turned off the engine and climbed out of the Jeep. A smile lit up her face as she saw the massive form of her adopted uncle heading towards her.

“Hi, Uncle Toby.”

“Don’t ‘hi’ me, young lady. C’mere,” the big man rumbled as Randi found herself literally swept off her feet by the massive arms that engulfed her in a loving embrace ¾ one that she no longer felt herself unworthy of.

And it felt…so…good.

Finally, the big man released his delighted captive from the bear hug and held her at arm’s length for a long moment. His gray eyes examined her with parental intensity, noting with approval the healthy tone of her complexion and the vibrant felicity in those sky blue eyes. “You look good, princess.”

Randi’s smile was serene. “I feel good, Uncle Toby.”

“I take it our feisty little mystery writer got through to you then.”

The tall woman blushed, but didn’t lose her smile. “Yes, she did.”

“Then I owe her a debt.”

Randi’s eyes glistened. “I think we both do, Uncle Toby.”

A round of unhappy barks broke the moment as Randi was reminded of her passengers. “Oops, forgot about them,” the tall woman muttered as she and the big man walked behind the Jeep.

“I’m surprised she didn’t come with you today,” the older man pondered aloud as Randi opened the door. “Though maybe it’s a good thing she didn’t.”

“Why,” the brunette inquired absently as she stared at the animals, wondering why they were standing there staring at her and not exiting the vehicle.

“She would have missed her friend.”

Randi’s eyes snapped to the storekeeper. “What friend?”

“A young man,” Toby answered. “Clean cut, fairly good-looking. He said he was a writer too, and that, as he was in the area, he thought he’d look her up. He said their publisher gave him your address, but couldn’t give him directions, so he stopped in here to ask.”

The color drained from Randi’s face. “Son of a bitch!” she growled as she slammed the back of the Jeep closed and ran around to the driver’s door and whipped it open.

Toby grabbed her arm as she climbed into the vehicle. “Randi, what’s going on?”

“Megan doesn’t have any friends that write,” she ground out as she jammed the key in the ignition. “That was her ex-boyfriend, Eric, and he’s already attacked and beat her once.”

Toby’s ruddy complexion darkened as the implications set in. “I’m going with you. I’ll get Kate to watch the store.”

“No time,” Randi bit out as she started the engine and threw it into gear. “Call the Sheriff’s office and get Dave to meet me up there.” And with that, she was gone.
Chapter Thirty
Megan had just finished pouring her coffee when the telltale crunch of tires on hard-packed snow caught her attention. Setting the carafe back on the warmer, she glanced at the clock. Hmm, that didn’t take long, she mused as she padded toward the door to meet her friend.

*****

Randi searched her pockets for her cellphone and pounded the steering wheel in frustration when she realized that she had left it on the charger. “Shit! I’m such an idiot!” she cursed loudly as she sped down the highway that suddenly seemed entirely too long. Movement at the corner of her eye caught her attention, and she noticed her two silent companions had moved up to the front and were anxiously focused on the road ahead. “You knew, didn’t you? Once again, you knew,” it was more a statement than a question. “That’s why you started carrying on when that car passed us.” Frustrated tears stung her eyes. “When am I gonna learn to listen to you? If anything happens to her…”

*****

Megan flew to the front door, delighted to have her friend back to soon. “Getting fast in your old age?” The teasing observation died on her lips as she pulled the door open.

“Hi, sweetheart. Miss me?” Eric grinned in smug satisfaction at the look of utter terror written across the blonde’s face.

“H…how?” was all that would struggle past her constricted throat.

“Funny that,” he grinned rakishly. “It’s amazing how much information can be gleaned from a single phone number. Of course,” he added conceitedly, “it helps if you’re friends with someone in law enforcement.”

Megan’s paralyzing fear was abruptly annihilated by white-hot anger at the thought of her life once again being screwed by the very people who were sworn to protect her. She barely registered the complete shock on Eric’s face as she slammed the door shut.

Trembling fingers scrabbled for the deadbolt latch, touching on it a whisper too late as the door exploded inward, propelling her backwards to land in a disjointed heap halfway across the foyer. Panic-induced adrenaline surged through her veins as she scrambled to her feet and tried to run.

Eric’s iron grip on her bicep neutralized that attempt, and he redirected her flight momentum to send her crashing into the attic stairwell. Pain erupted throughout the small body as this new violation heaped itself on top of still-healing injuries. Megan bit her lip as she attempted to rise again and failed miserably as Eric pounced on her, pinning her to the lower steps.

“Oh, you’re not going anywhere, my pretty little bitch,” he bit out as one hand attached itself to her exposed throat and squeezed. “Not until I’m finished with you. And when I am finished with you,” he growled as his hand tightened on her throat, “you won’t be going anywhere, anyway.” Megan’s desperate eyes darted to the door, hoping against hope that she would see her dark-haired savior lunging through it, an action not unnoticed by Eric. “Your dimwitted doctor is in town,” he gloated cheerfully. “I passed her on the way over here. By the time she gets back here, you’ll be no good to anyone, and I’ll be long gone.” His face contorted into a malignant grimace. “You don’t fuck me over and walk away, bitch,” he seethed, squeezing her neck harder as he lifted his free hand and balled it into a fist.

Megan squirmed weakly in an attempt to break free, but with one arm trapped underneath her back and the other one pinned to her side by Eric’s legs, it was ultimately a futile effort. Her thoughts shifted to Randi … who would come home to a nightmare. Oh, Randi, I’m so sorry.

Black spots danced in front of her eyes, and an insistent thrumming filled her ears. She watched with fuzzy detachment as Eric’s fist loomed above her.

Suddenly the fist, along with the body that held her down, was gone. A startled squawk met her ears, followed by a grunt as something (a body?) impacted explosively with a wall. Sucking in great lungfuls of sweet, precious air, Megan’s eyes tracked to the sound …and widened in utter astonishment at the vision before her.

Eric Chalmers’ feet dangled helplessly above the floor, his entire body pinned to the wall and held in place with seeming effortlessness by a long, rigid arm. The hand of that arm was wrapped firmly around his throat.

The woman holding him there with a contemptuous ease was someone Megan was quite certain she had never seen before. Oh, she resembled Randi Oakes all right, but this woman standing before her now was something more. . . something sharper and darker with an aura of edgy, deadly menace that scraped a long, pointy fingernail of chills down Megan’s spine. The tall woman’s lips were etched in a feral grimace that only served to enhance the sub-zero fire in her eyes.

Oh, God.

Megan’s vision blurred momentarily as an image of leather and brass burst across her consciousness like a camera flash.

And then it was gone.

What the hell…? Megan’s eyes snapped shut as she tried to recapture the fleeting image, only to have them quickly re-opened by the sensually deadly tone of the other woman’s voice.

Eric Chalmers came to the firm conclusion that sometimes life really sucked. One moment he was getting his sweet revenge and choking the little bitch senseless, and the next moment, he was flying backwards through the air and making hard, intimate contact with a wall. To make matters worse, he was now pinned to that wall by a very tall, very angry Amazon, whose arctic glare told him that he was a lump of coal.

And she was a blast furnace.

Some little voice in the back of his mind screamed at him to do something: resist, struggle, threaten, anything. The only problem, he reasoned, was that any or all of those options required the ability to breathe; something he was finding quite difficult to accomplish thanks to the large hand that was wrapped around his throat. And that damnable smile on her face… The one that begged him to put up a fight. The one that said she would destroy him utterly if he did. And that she would enjoy it…immensely. And then she spoke.

“Do you have any idea how little pressure it actually takes to crush a windpipe?” she purred, her voice a velvet razor that slid across his nerve endings.

He blinked at her, his response an unintelligible grunt.

“Would you like to find out?” The hand tightened just a bit.

This time he was able to cough out a raspy, “No…please.”

And just like that, the hand on his throat was gone, and he dropped to the floor in a gasping, boneless heap.

“Then you’ll sit there and not move,” she rumbled. “And when the Sheriff comes, you will very quietly and very cooperatively get into his car and let him take you away from here.” She dropped down on one knee and locked eyes with him. “And you will forget Megan Galagher ever existed. Because if you don’t,” a lightning-fast hand darted out and locked painfully on his jaw, “you’ll be making a one-way trip back up this mountain. And my friends and I,” she cast a glance at the two rigidly posed, snarling animals behind and beside her, “will make quite certain your body is never found. Ya got me?”

Eric shivered from the silky, venomous timbre in the woman’s voice as she delivered her warning and, upon her mention, found his eyes tracking to her two “companions.” Where the hell did they come from? One of them, a small, golden creature, hovered protectively in front of the writer. And the other, sleek, large and darkly beautiful, stood almost shoulder to shoulder with the raven-haired woman. Eric blanched as his gaze darted back and forth between two sets of menacingly blue eyes. Jesus Christ…their eyes…they’re the same! his mind babbled disconcertedly. A quick, painful squeeze of his jaw brought his attention back to the woman as she repeated, “Got me?” He fixed wide, panicky eyes on hers and nodded as enthusiastically as her grip on his jaw would allow. No way, no how, do I ever wanna see you again, lady. He was pathetically pleased to see the stocky, somber man in the neatly pressed brown uniform place a gentle hand on the Amazon’s shoulder and say, “We’ll take care of him now, Randi.”

At the soft touch and gentle assurance, all the air seemed to leave Randi’s body, and she turned grateful eyes to the law officer standing above her. “Thanks, Dave,” she sighed as she was finally able to turn her focus to her beloved writer whose watery green gaze begged for her nearness.

Randi crossed the room in less than a heartbeat, and in less time than that, found her arms filled with a shaking, sobbing blonde writer. She clung tightly to the distressed woman and nuzzled the fair hair while cooing soft, soothing reassurances in her ear. Randi took this small brief moment of down time to reflect on the last few minutes. That’s really all it was, wasn’t it? It all happened so fast.

And it was…surreal.

She barely remembered throwing the Jeep into park and leaping out of the vehicle, barely recalled bounding up the stairs and being jolted to an abrupt stop in the shattered doorway by the sight of that bastard straddling her beloved and choking the life out of her.

She did remember though, the sensual chill of the red haze that swept across her senses and enveloped her soul. Everything after that played out like a very detailed, very interactive dream sequence as she watched and felt herself move into the house, grab Eric Chalmers by the back of his shirt and fling him across the room as if he were a rag doll. It never occurred to her to wonder how she could do that. Or how she could lift this man, who likely outweighed her by a good forty pounds, and hold him suspended off the floor with just one hand. Or why it felt so damn good to look into his eyes and see complete, mindless terror there. But none of that mattered at the time. All that did matter was the dark, heady power that sang through her veins and the primal, wolfish … something … that clawed at her belly and whispered in her head, He hurt her…and now it’s his turn to hurt.

It would have been so easy to just … keep … squeezing. She wanted to. The Wolf certainly wanted her to. But his panicky, pathetic “No, please” struck a chord that neither she nor the Wolf could ignore. Megan wouldn’t want that…and neither do I. So the Wolf heaved an aggrieved sigh, and Randi let drop her loathsome captive.

But we can still have some fun, the Wolf grinned … well, wolfishly. And so she did, keeping Eric Chalmers very intimidated until Sheriff Dave Burrows smooth intervention chased the Wolf back into her lair and allowed the gentle doctor to turn her attention to where it was needed.

God! What was that? I’ve never…I mean, I couldn’t even bring myself to use a trap to get rid of that mouse that got in here last year. Since when did I become some dark and deadly ‘terminator’ type? She absently nuzzled the soft hair of the now-quiet blonde who clung tenaciously to her, and the answer knocked on her forehead. Since I fell in love, that’s when. I may not be crazy about that part of me, but it’s nice to know that I can protect her if she needs it, the brunette resolved with a sigh.

“Randi, are you okay?”

The blonde’s concerned question roused the brunette from her troubled contemplation. “I’m fine, sweetheart.” Randi caressed the tearstained cheek. “Are you all right?”

“I’m great…now,” the blonde murmured, her verdant gaze comprised of lingering awe, sincere affection and something slightly more…intense. “You were,” she paused, searching for the right words, “amazing.” Megan cupped the doctor’s hotly blushing cheek. “You are my hero. You know that, don’t you?”

Randi’s embarrassed protest was interrupted by a deep masculine voice. “Are you girls all right?”

Both women looked up at the approaching man-mountain the voice belonged to. “We’re okay, Toby,” the raven-haired woman responded.

The older man crouched down in front of them, his gray eyes focusing on the small blonde and narrowing angrily as he reached out and gently caressed the yellowing bruise around Megan’s eye.

The young woman swallowed a sob at the unexpected tenderness from a man who barely knew her and had every reason to still dislike her for the pain she put his heart’s daughter through. Leaning lightly into the touch, she brought her hand up and delicately covered his. “It’ll heal,” she murmured reassuringly.

“Of that, I have no doubt, young lady. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t still like a few moments alone with that young devil,” he growled.

And he was rewarded with a grateful smile that was so innocent… and open…and affectionate, that it took his breath away. Aw, Katie, we’ve got another heart thief on our hands, love.

“Urhmm,” he cleared his throat noisily, trying to regain the gruff composure that had melted under her green gaze. “The Sheriff’s going to want to be talking to you two. So I’m gonna go rustle up a pot of coffee,” he announced brusquely, rising to his full height and striding off to the kitchen.

Randi watched the big man’s retreat for a moment before turning to the smaller woman who was clearly confused by his abrupt departure. “Is he okay?” Megan inquired timidly.

“Oh, he’s fine,” the doctor grinned. “He just gets a little flustered when adorable young writers bag big, tough ol’ bears without even trying.”

Emerald eyes blinked owlishly. “I didn’t…don’t be silly…he’s probably just…I don’t…” she sputtered.

“You’ll see,” the tall woman smirked as she rose to her feet and held out a hand for Megan. “Let’s go talk to Dave and get this over with.”
Chapter Thirty-one
Randi leaned against the kitchen counter, sipping on her now-lukewarm coffee, as Megan finished up the phone conversation with her mother. Both women had decided, after everybody had gone for the evening, that the writer should call both her mother and her publisher and let them know what had taken place. As expected, both the publisher and Megan’s mother were outraged and concerned and fully ready to drop everything and take a trip to Cutters Gap. But Megan managed to convince them that she was in good hands, and that, between the attack in New York and the one here, Eric would not be seeing the outside world for quite a while. She sweetened the deal by promising that both she and her flabbergasted savior would be making a trip to the city within the coming weeks. Megan rose from the table and padded over to the tall woman as she offered final reassurances to the woman on the other end of the phone.

“Yes, mother, I promise,” the young woman murmured into the phone as she stood before the tall doctor and basked in the affectionate gaze that was for her and her only. “I love you too, mother. Good night.” With that, she placed the receiver on the counter and, giving in to her body’s insistent pleading, folded herself into the warm, welcoming body of her doctor and sighed contentedly as long arms enveloped her.

It had been a hell of a day, she reflected. Shit! It’s been a hell of a month her mind grumbled. But, with this being the end result of that month, she found she didn’t really mind the rest of it. “Can I stay like this forever?” she sighed, mostly to herself.

“Yes.”

One word, simple and concise. But said with so much meaning that Megan had to lift her head and look at the speaker.

And what she saw in that crystal blue regard almost made her cry, as it filled her with a peace and a sense of belonging that she had never known before. I’m home.

There was so much she wanted to say, but couldn’t find the words for. So she went for the ones her heart was tapping at the door with. “I love you, Randi Christine Oakes.” With that, she reached up and captured the lips that she’d been hungering for all evening.

Finally, after many long moments of oral and tactile exploration, the breathless writer drew back and looked into glazed, darkened eyes. “Randi?”

“Hmmm?” was the only response the brunette was capable of.

“I’m not drunk now.”

Randi’s heart rate doubled and her hormones did a standing ovation, as the import of Megan’s statement became clear.

Without another word, the small blonde took the speechless doctor’s hand and led her purposely down the hall.

Megan paused as they reached the bedroom door. Hesitating for just a moment before turning her head and becoming captured by the look of pure desire and love that radiated from Randi’s face. Megan’s thudded wildly at the sight and she squeezed Randi’s hand tenderly. The doctor raised the smaller hand to her lips and kissed it softly.

The simple tender gesture caused Megan’s knee to buckle slightly. Randi wrapped her long arms around the writer’s body and pulled her closer. The gesture, meant only to steady Megan sent a jolt of pleasure thru both women. A sigh escaped Megan as she leaned in closer to the woman who had stolen her heart.

Randi couldn’t believe that she was finally holding the woman who had at first infuriated her. Now she couldn’t imagine her life without her. Randi brushed her thumb across Megan’s cheek, eliciting another sigh from the smaller woman. She found herself captivated by those amazing pools of emerald staring up at her. There was so much trust in those eyes. The thought of how much trust Megan was placing in her hands suddenly frightened Randi.

Megan reached up and laced her fingers thru Randi’s long raven tresses. The writer pulled her closer as she leaned up to meet her. Their lips met shyly. The warmth of this encounter washing away all fears and doubts from both women. At this moment in time it was just the two of them.

Randi pulled Megan closer, her hands roaming down the writer’s back. This is what she needed. Megan was a part of her. Randi’s tongue began to caress Megan’s lips, silently pleading for entrance. Megan parted her lips inviting, Randi’s exploration. The doctor found herself moaning as she entered the warmth of Megan’s mouth. As she explored the sweet warmth she knew that she had never experienced anything this incredible in her life.

Megan’s heart was pounding inside her chest as her own tongue began to dance sensually with Randi’s. The kiss deepened quickly as they explored one another freely. For the first time in her life, Megan felt alive. The feel of Randi’s arms wrapped around her body and her breath on her skin was making her body tremble and her stomach clench.

Reluctantly Randi broke away when the need for air became overwhelming. “All of this from just one kiss.” Megan gasped as she continued to run her fingers thru Randi’s hair. “I never knew I could feel like this.” the writer confessed with a slight blush, the look of love clearly written across her cherubic features.

“I love you.” It was the only response Randi could manage to utter. She felt the truth of those three words echoing to her very core.

Megan felt like crying from the sincerity of those words as Randi reclaimed her lips. The soft kiss was full of promise as Randi’s mouth moved to Megan’s cheek. Then Randi began to place feathery kisses on Megan’s chin. Megan’s head fell back slightly as she offered her neck to the doctor’s eager mouth. The sensation was causing her body to quiver. The writer’s skin burned with desire from each tender kiss Randi placed down her neck.

Randi stepped slightly away from the petite blonde and took her gently by the hand. The smaller woman’s smoky green gaze told her everything she needed to know. Randi slowly led her lover into the bedroom. The doctor’s hormones were racing uncontrollably, and she quieted them as best she could. She wanted to take things slowly with her young lover. She needed to savor every moment of making love to this woman. Standing before the bed she captured Megan’s face in her hands.

Megan leaned into her lover’s touch, fighting back the urge to beg this woman to ravish her right then and there. Despite the urgent signals her body was sending, it wasn’t what she truly wanted. Megan nuzzled Randi’s neck and drank in her scent. She kissed the hollow of the doctor’s throat, feeling herself ache in response as Randi released a sensual moan. Everything about the taller woman inflamed her. The unfamiliar intensity was as intoxicating as it was frightening.

Randi hands ran slowly over Megan’s shoulders as the blonde feasted upon her neck. The tall woman’s fingers ached to touch the skin that lay beneath the writer’s clothing. She felt Megan’s trembling fingers fighting with the buttons on her shirt, and she stepped away slightly, capturing the quivering digits in her hand. Megan looked up at her quizzically.

Randi brought Megan’s hands to her mouth and kissed each one softly. Then slowly she brought Megan’s smaller digits to her mouth. She tasted each one slowly, torturing the blonde as her tongue suckled the fingers one by one. Randi watched in pleasure, as Megan’s breathing became ragged.

Megan thought she was going fall from the sensation of her finger being sucked into the warmth of Randi’s mouth, her tongue wrapping around the digit as her teeth grazed across it. Megan could only whimper in response as she fought to remain standing. Her head was spinning by the time Randi was done. Thankfully Randi finally released her trembling hands. Megan reached out and clasped her lover’s hips in an effort to steady herself.

Megan couldn’t believe the sensation of sheer pleasure her body was experiencing. She watched in a haze as Randi began to slowly unbutton her blouse. Her hands gripped the taller woman’s hips tighter as her top was lowered from her shoulders.

Randi’s heart was pounding as she drank in the sight of Megan standing before her with her shirt hanging half way off of her body. “You are so beautiful.” She whispered softly as she leaned in and began to kiss Megan’s inviting neck. Her mouth and tongue slowly began to blaze a trail down Megan’s body. She felt her lover’s hands moving across her backside. Randi moaned into Megan’s skin as the blonde hands began to tug her shirt out of her pants.

Megan could feel Randi’s breath on her skin as she yanked the taller woman’s shirt out of her pants. Randi kissed the valley between her breasts as the blonde’s hands slipped up under the shirt. The feel of Randi’s skin beneath her fingers sent another wave of desire thru her body. Randi lifted her head, and once again Megan was mesmerized. The writer moved her hands and allowed her lover to remove her top and toss it onto the floor.

Randi’s fingers made small circles across her lover’s exposed flesh. Randi was lost in the feel of Megan’s skin responding to her touch. Megan slowly removed Randi’s top and tossed it along side of her own. They stood there, each drinking in the sight of the other as their fingers ran slowly up and down the other’s body. Randi smiled when she felt Megan’s stomach muscles clench as she ran her fingers across her abdomen. She moaned as she felt Megan shyly touching her breast.

Megan licked her lips in anticipation as she carefully felt the curve of Randi’s firm full breast through the material of her bra. She felt her lover’s hands caressing her back. As she felt her bra being unclasped, her body arched in response. With the palms of her hands, she brushed against Randi’s nipples, which were straining against the material of her bra. Megan felt a rush of desire as her lover’s breasts responded to her touch.

Randi slowly lowered Megan’s bra down her arms. She felt her breath catching in her throat as she looked down upon her lover’s half naked body. The doctor choked back the tears as she realized she had never seen anything more beautiful in her life. Her body hummed with desire as she felt her own bra being lowered. Each stepped away slightly allowing their lover to remove the garments and toss them aside.

They leaned into one another, their nipples brushing as they reclaimed one another’s lips. The feel of their bodies meeting for the first time as their tongues dueled for control only made Megan crave for more. Hands roamed freely needing to feel the other. Megan pressed into Randi’s firm body, driven by the sudden urgency to feel more of her lover.

Randi fought to slow things down. But as their bodies swayed together, she could feel her passion growing steadily out of control. She reluctantly broke away from the kiss, only to feel Megan kissing her neck once again. She moaned as she realized her lover was nearing her aching breasts. She released a strangled cry as she felt Megan cupping one of her breasts. Her body arched as the blonde’s tongue began to tease her other nipple.

The sounds of her lover panting, and the taste of her skin, were driving Megan insane. She continued to tease Randi’s nipple, and with each flick of her tongue, she could feel Randi’s body shudder in pleasure. Megan captured Randi’s nipple in her mouth as the brunette groaned in pleasure. Megan could feel her lover’s excitement as she teased her with her teeth and her tongue, and she felt her lover leading her. It wasn’t until her knees pressed against the edge of the bed did she realized where she was being led to.

Randi pulled away from her lover’s eager mouth and slowly lowered her onto the bed. “I love you.” She repeated in a husky tone as she looked down upon Megan lying on her bed. Randi knelt before her lover who was reaching out for her. Randi captured the blonde’s hand and kissed it tenderly. “I want to show you how much I love you.” Randi stated with conviction as she released Megan’s hand.

Megan could only nod in response as Randi’s hands began to slowly caress her body. Megan quivered with each touch as she watched her lover slowly begin to remove the remainder of her clothing. Soon the blonde lay naked on the bed, knowing that her arousal was clearly written across every inch of her body. And she didn’t care; the only thing she cared about at this moment was Randi.

Randi stood before her lover, drinking in her body. But it was more than that sight that moved the doctor; it was the look of love in the young writer’s eyes that made her heart and body ache. Randi watched in delight as her lover’s hungry eyes tracked her every movement. Slowly she removed her own clothing. Now completely exposed to the woman she loved, she blushed as Megan licked her lips with desire.

Megan held out a hand to the vision of beauty standing before her. Their fingers wrapped together as Megan gently pulled Randi down onto the bed. Both women moaned in pleasure as their bodies met, and melded. Two bodies instinctually wrapped around each other in a sensual dance. Megan could feel her lover’s passion pressing against her skin and she pulled Randi closer, claiming her lips in a deep, wet kiss.

Randi was lost in the pleasure of Megan’s kiss as their bodies began to move against one another. Hands roamed freely, needing to feel every inch of the other’s body. They sank deeper into each other as they rolled around on top of the bed. Randi slipped her thigh between her lover’s legs and was greeted by a deep moan. She could feel how much Megan wanted her touch. Randi slowed the kisses as she cupped Megan’s breast.

The taller woman began to nibble on Megan’s earlobe. The writer trembled as she felt Randi’s hot breath in her ear. Her body arched as she felt Randi’s tongue dip into her ear, and her fingers teased her already aching nipples. “Yes.” Megan heard herself groaning as their bodies continued to rock together.

Randi began to kiss her way down Megan’s body taking to time to savor the taste of the blonde’s skin. Her lover lay beneath her, squirming in pleasure as their hips moved together in a sensual rhythm. Randi kissed the valley between Megan’s breasts as the blonde gripped her shoulders tightly. Randi smiled against Megan’s heaving chest as her mouth continued to tease the blonde.

Randi captured Megan’s nipple in her mouth and began to suckle it greedily. She felt Megan thrust against her as she teased her nipple slowly. “Randi.” Megan moaned with desire. The sound of Megan calling out her name further fueled her desires. Randi turned her attention to her lover’s other breast and then back again. She knew she was driving Megan crazy as she felt her lover wrapping her legs around her body.

Megan pressed against Randi’s body with fury. “Please.” She whimpered as she rocked against Randi’s firm body. Every fiber of her being was calling out for more. She needed to feel her lover, to touch Randi the way she was touching her. She whimpered again as Randi’s mouth abandoned her breasts. Randi captured her once again in a deep sensual kiss. Megan was certain that she was going to pass out from the intense emotions racing thru her body.

Randi found herself stopping just to look into her lover’s eyes. Megan smiled up at her. Randi leaned down and kissed those addictive lips once, and then again. “I love you.” Megan whispered against the doctor’s full lips. Blue eyes twinkled in gentle response as the raven-haired beauty began kissing her way down her lover’s body. This time continuing to blaze a trail further down; nestling herself between Megan’s thighs as she placed tender kisses across the blonde’s stomach.

Randi descended further and blew a heated breath through Megan’s dampened curls. Randi looked up at Megan, seeking reassurance. “Make love to me.” Megan choked out as she wrapped her legs around Randi’s broad shoulders. Randi flashed Megan a brilliant smile as she adjusted her position raising her lover’s body slightly.

Megan felt her body arch uncontrollably as Randi kissed the inside of her thighs. She couldn’t help gasping suddenly as Randi slowly dipped into her passion, tasting her for the first time. Megan watched as blue eyes twinkled up at her while Randi’s tongue continued to pleasure her. Incoherent sounds bubbled from her lips as she felt Randi’s tongue taunting her center; alternately caressing and devouring her unbearably sensitized flesh. She bit down on her bottom lip to stifle a scream as she felt that talented muscle spear into her depths to gather more of her.

Randi listened to her lover’s whimpers as she began to suckle her. She captured the throbbing bundle in her mouth and suckled her greedily. Randi lost herself in the taste of her lover’s wetness. She held Megan steadily as her body rose in pleasure. Megan was calling her name as Randi filled her. The blonde’s body trembling against her as she pleasured her with her fingers and her mouth.

Megan felt the waves of ecstasy crashing down on her as her body lifted higher. Unable to fight against the sheer pleasure, she allowed herself to fall over the edge. She could hear a strange buzzing in her ears as her eyes fluttered shut. She knew she was screaming, but was unaware of what she was saying. She collapsed against the bed. Randi continued to pleasure her and once again she felt her body exploding.

“That’s not possible.” She moaned as the aftershocks trickled thru her body. She looked down to Randi laughing lightly between her thighs. She could feel her body continuing to pulsate against Randi’s fingers as the brunette rested her head against her trembling stomach.

Finally Megan’s breathing calmed slightly. “Hold me.” She pleaded. Randi smiled up at her as she climbed up her body. The feel of Randi’s hair caressing her body as the doctor climbed up her sent a new wave of desire through her body.

Randi wrapped the trembling woman up and her arms and kissed the top of her head. She felt Megan wrapping her body around her own. Randi moaned before she could stop herself. She felt Megan gently guiding her onto her back. The blonde leaned over Randi’s long body and placed a gentle kiss on her lips.

“That was… amazing.” Megan murmured huskily. “I never knew it could be like that.” Megan touched her lips shyly as realized how she tasted on her lover’s lips.

The writer smiled as she looked down upon her lover. Her hand cupped Randi’s cheek, and she sighed as the brunette leaned into her touch. Her heart lurched as she realized that this was what she had been waiting for. It took her lifetime but she finally understood what was to love and be loved.

Randi lay there as Megan’s hands began to explore her body with soft gentle caresses that were slowly driving her insane. Randi allowed the gentle touching as she felt her need growing. Megan seemed to be memorizing every inch of her body.

Megan lay down beside Randi and allowed her fingers to drift slowly up and down the long firm body. Megan watched in delighted pleasure as Randi’s breathing became ragged. Her hand drifted down to the dark triangle. Megan unconsciously licked her lips as her fingers felt the soft curls. She felt Randi’s excitement greeting her touch. She hesitated briefly as she looked deeply into Randi’s eyes. The look of desire she was receiving made her heart start to race once again.

Randi moaned as she felt Megan’s fingers dipping shyly into her wetness. She parted her legs, allowing the blonde to feel all that she had to offer. Her eyes drifted shut as she felt Megan’s thumb grazing her throbbing clitoris. She willed herself to be patient as Megan continued her shy exploration.

Megan felt her own excitement growing as Randi responded to her touch. Her caresses through the slick folds becoming bolder as her lover moaned in pleasure. She pressed her thumb against her lovers swollen clit as her fingers slipped into wet warmth. She felt her own heart skip a beat as her lover’s walls greedily captured those fingers. With an excited moan, Megan leaned her head down and seized one of Randi’s nipples in her mouth, loving the taste of her lover’s skin.

Megan’s fingers slowly plunged in and out of Randi as she teased her nipple in her mouth. After she felt Randi’s body rising in pleasure, she needed more. She released Randi’s breast from the warmth of her mouth and began to kiss her way down her lover’s body. Spurred on by the taste of Randi’s skin and lost in a haze of desire, she found herself nestled between those long legs.

Randi draped her legs down Megan’s back and opened herself to her lover. Megan’s mouth moving shyly as she felt her way. Randi fought to keep her eyes open so she could watch her lover. “I love you.” Megan whispered into her. Randi fought back the tears of joy.

Slowly Megan began to taste her lover deeper; bringing tentative fingers up to caress the silken folds and, responding to Randi’s very favorable reactions, began to pleasure the tall beauty with lips and tongue and fingers. The sensation of her lover pressing against her was driving Megan crazy with desire, as mouth and fingers began working in unison. She was rewarded by the feel of Randi’s endless legs pressing against her back in passion’s rhythm. She could feel her lover nearing the edge with each flick of her tongue.

Feeling her own thighs trembling she increased her pace steadily. Megan held Randi tightly as she thrust against her mouth, the taste and sounds of her lover causing Megan’s own body to respond. Randi was begging her for more, and Megan happily deepened her touch. As she felt her lover climaxing against her, the sensation drove her over the edge. She found herself screaming into Randi’s wetness.

“You are amazing.” Randi panted as Megan curled up in her arms. “What is it?” The doctor inquired seeing the puzzled look on Megan’s face.

“I never thought I could feel so much by making love to someone else.” Megan choked out.

Randi let out a soft chuckle as they clung to one another. They climbed under the covers and held each other tightly, exchanging soft promising kisses. Their hands roamed ceaselessly, and they soon found themselves lost in the throes of passion once again. They made love slowly, neither one wanting this time to end. Each time they cuddled up, a simple touch or look would reignite their passion.

Early dawn found two sated lovers locked together in sleep. Two hearts locked together in love. And two souls reunited and locked together,

Forever.
Epilogue
Randi laid her pen down and closed the bright orange folder that she was making notes in. Leaning back in the large, leather chair, she heaved a contented sigh as she let her eyes wander around the room. It contained the customary desk fronted by two rather bland chairs, file cabinets, bookshelves lined with medical reference materials and a surprisingly comfortable leather couch. As offices go, it wasn’t very large, and it certainly could never be accused of being professionally opulent. But the name proudly displayed on the white, opaque glass of the door made the size and the plainness totally irrelevant.
Dr. Randi C. Oakes, M.D P.C.

Randi studied the name proudly displayed on the door and allowed a small, self-indulgent smile to shape her lips. I never thought I’d see that, Uncle Jake. I never thought I’d even set foot back inside this hospital, let alone be practicing here again. But, then again, I’d never imagined meeting a little five-foot-four keg of dynamite that would drag my sorry butt out of the hole I had dug for it. Randi shook her head as she reflected on the last few months. They had been a whirlwind of activity as Randi, with the gentle encouragement and support of the writer, emerged from her reclusive shell and allowed herself to reunite with the community and the friends she had left behind. Megan had also kept her word to her mother and publisher as an adorably shy, raven-haired beauty was introduced to a warmly welcoming mother and partner and, later, to a smugly happy publisher. I’m glad we took the girls along. Charly got an absolute kick out of Xena. But the beautiful, blonde writer hadn’t stopped there ¾ no. Randi’d had one more hurdle yet to leap ¾ one that would be the hardest, but would have the most profound effect on the rest of Randi’s life.

And so, it was a highly reluctant and inwardly trembling woman who walked into Knox General Hospital to “visit” with friends and acquaintances, and a shell-shocked, but proud and happy, reinstated doctor who emerged. Looking back, the brunette couldn’t help but shake her head at the small blonde’s dogged determination that she just “drop in and say hi.” Some ‘hi’ that turned out to be, the tall woman snorted. That brat must have known they’d want me back. And bless her heart, she must have known how badly I needed to be back. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay her for all that she’s given me, but I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying.

Watery blue eyes tracked to the delicate, gold leaf, book frame that sat proudly her desk. Megan had presented it to her on the eve of their victorious visit to the hospital. On one side was a photograph of a wildly grinning Randi standing behind, and with her arms wrapped around, an equally happy Megan as they posed at the front entrance of Toby’s store. And in the other frame was a small, beautiful poem that Megan swore just, somehow, happened when she was thinking of Randi one day. Deciding that she liked it and hoping that Randi would too, the writer took the poem and had it rewritten by a calligrapher on authentic, aged parchment and then placed it in the adjoining frame.

Do you know what I see
When I look in your eyes?

I see endless summer skies
And deep, peaceful lakes.

I see gentle, moonlit nights
And the twinkling of a thousand stars.

I see gentle passion
And fierce serenity.

I see ancient wisdom
And childlike wonder.

And when they look at me

I see infinite patience
When I am most trying.

I see boundless affection
When I am most undeserving.

I see absolute warmth
When I am most cold.

I see pure, abiding love
When I am most unexpecting.

And best of all
I see my home
When I am feeling most lost.

I see everything I should be, could be and ever want to be
In your eyes.

I see…

Forever.
Randi reflected on the day that she’d received it. To say that she’d liked it would be a gross understatement, and a tearful, joyful and exceptionally ardent doctor spent the rest of the day and most of the night expressing her appreciation in any and every way that she knew. I can’t believe she’s never written poetry before. But that’s what makes this all the more special. It’s not just a poem, it’s a…heartsong. A delighted smile curled her lips. And it was just for me! God, I miss you, baby. I hope you get back from your book signing tour soon.

A knock on the door interrupted her wistful reverie as a cheerful, curly-haired young nurse bounced in, carrying a small, square package. “This just came for you, Dr. Oakes,” she announced brightly. “I figured it might be something you were expecting, so I brought it right over.”

“Thanks, Ronny,” the doctor called to the retreating nurse as she examined the return address on the label. Hmm, Megan’s publishing house. I’ll bet I know what this is, the tall woman grinned as she tore open the box. Randi tore off the final wrapping and surveyed the bold title of her writer’s newest offering.

Deadly Medicine A Samantha Steele mystery

You knew I was gonna want to read this one, didn’t you, you brat? Randi recalled her surprise when, in the course of obtaining some medical advice for the plot of her new story, Megan revealed her intention to introduce a gay, female doctor who starts out assisting a reluctant Sam Steele and ends up becoming Sam’s unofficial sidekick. Randi had expressed concerns over how this change would be received by the current readership, but the writer remained undeterred. Meg felt that she owed something to that class of people whom she’d vigorously maligned, and this was her way of repaying that debt. “You are going to tweak so many noses with this one, my love,” the doctor speculated aloud.

“True,” a cheerful voice rang from the doorway. “But I might also un-tweak a few noses…and gain a new reader base in the bargain.”

Startled by the unexpected response, Randi looked up, a delighted smile lighting up her face as she beheld a flaxen-haired, green-eyed goddess lounging against the doorjamb. In less than a heartbeat, she was out from behind her desk and within arm’s reach of her lover as the blonde entered the office and closed the door behind her.

Megan let out a startled, delighted squeak as she was lifted in strong arms, twirled and then kissed absolutely senseless.

After several long, luscious moments, the blonde was allowed to come up for air. “Good lord!” she gasped in glassy-eyed wonder. “I’m going to have to go on book tours more often.”

“Nuh,uh” the tall woman murmured between random, wispy pecks. “Just being you and loving me will get you these kinds of kisses any day, every day, for the rest of my life. I love you.”

Megan’s throat burned against the joy-filled sob that begged to escape as she gazed into adoring, azure eyes. “I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve you, Randi Oakes, but I hope I’ll keep doing it. In this lifetime and every one that follows.”

“You will. It’s in our contract,” the brunette quipped, lightening the heavy emotional atmosphere. Randi straightened and assumed an officious air. “Small, beautiful, blonde bards must meet, hang around with, and eventually fall in love with tall, dark, guilt-stricken and dense warrior/healer types. It’s on page sixty-seven, paragraph ten,” the doctor finished with a satisfied grin.

“Well, I guess we can’t go against a contract then, can we?” the blonde surmised, green eyes twinkling merrily.

“Nope.”

The two stood grinning at each other for a long moment before Randi spoke up. “So, I notice that your new character is also short, blonde and green-eyed,” she observed wryly. “Is that contract gonna be amended to read ‘small, beautiful, blonde bards/healers that meet, hang around with, and eventually fall in love with tall, dark, warrior/healer/detective types?'”

“Hmm, I dunno,” the blonde grinned mischievously. “I could make them really…close…”friends” and let the readers draw their own conclusions. Or,” she chuckled at the narrow-eyed glare she was receiving, “let’s just say it depends on the ‘feedback’ I get from certain loyal readers,” she finished, smiling coquettishly.

“Feedback, huh?”

“Yup.”

Randi grasped the smaller hand and began backing up to the leather couch.

“I can do feedback.”

The End

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s