The Road Back Home by Lynne Norris (part 2)

Chapter Seventeen

“There you are.” Regina smiled up at Alex as the taller woman wandered into the living room and sat down on the floor beside her. She shivered, feeling the chill of the winter air on her partner’s clothes and gave her a disapproving look. “You were outside all that time without a coat.”

Annoyed at being on the receiving end of an apparent scolding, Alex stared down at her hands and pressed her lips together as she reigned in her initial response. Anyone else would have been instantly treated to a verbal barrage of indignant outrage, but this was different.

No one else had gone to the lengths Regina had, sitting vigil by her side for countless hours in the hospital and then patiently caring for her after she was finally discharged. That knowledge made the words a simple reminder of the fact that someone else in this world cared about what happened to her.

It felt good: scary, but definitely good.

“I didn’t think I’d be out there that long.” Alex raised an eyebrow and peered over at the blonde who simply shook her head and scooted farther away from her.

“You’re making me cold,” Regina complained, with a hint of a smile in her voice.

Out of the corner of her eyes, Alex caught the amused look on Caroline’s face as she watched the two of them sitting on the floor with her son. Unable to resist the temptation, the brunette leaned closer and whispered in Regina’s ear. “I promise to keep you nice and warm later.”

The blonde blushed to the tips of her ears while she fussed with Zachary’s pajama top and did her best to ignore Alex’s teasing eyes. “You’re toast,” Regina growled back at her without looking up.

Alex chuckled happily. “Gotcha.” She leaned closer to look at Zachary. “I guess he’s pretty wiped out from the day,” she commented, observing the young boy curled up contentedly in the Regina’s lap, fighting to keep his eyes open.

He was sporting a fresh pair of pajamas with a familiar-looking bear, sitting proudly on his shirtfront with one paw hidden inside a jar of honey. As Zachary pulled on his shirtfront the bear’s eye stretched wide over the top of the honey jar.

“He’ll sleep the whole way home in the car and probably won’t wake up until tomorrow.” Caroline folded a brown pair of corduroys and packed them into a small, duffel bag that held all of Zachary’s clothes.

Regina stroked the boy’s curly blonde hair and smiled down at him as he drifted off to sleep. “He really looks like you, Caroline.”

“Do you think so?” Caroline tilted her head and gazed down at her son from her vantage point on the couch.

“Yeah, he has your eyes and cheek bones. What do you think, Alex?” The blonde met Alex’s curious gaze and gave her a quirky smile.

Regina watched intently as her partner glanced up at Caroline and then back down at the sleeping toddler, comparing their features.

“He definitely looks like you from the nose up,” Alex concluded. Her attention was drawn to the hallway where she caught a glimpse of Michael walking past them, towards the kitchen.

A moment later, he walked into the room and joined his wife on the couch. Alex studied him, as he draped one arm over the back of the couch and tucked the other one in his pants pocket.

“I asked Mom to make a pot of coffee so I can get some caffeine before we leave.”

“Won’t that keep you up all night? I can drive if you want,” Caroline offered.

Michael shrugged. “She’s already started brewing it. I’m not going to tell her to throw it out now.”

“Fine, but I don’t want to listen to you complain when you can’t get to sleep tonight.” Caroline continued packing Zachary’s belongings into the bag.

“I wonder where Jeff is.” Regina interjected before her brother could utter a retort.

“He’s outside having a smoke,” Michael replied, as he stretched both arms overhead and yawned loudly.

Alex lifted her head up and stared at Regina’s brother intently. He met her gaze momentarily, then, glanced away, before he stood up.

“Does anyone else want some coffee?” he asked, as he shoved both his hands back into his pockets. All three women shook their heads and Michael quickly disappeared from the living room.

“I’ll be right back.” Alex curled her legs underneath her and stood up, bouncing on the balls of her feet lightly.

“Are you okay?”

Alex gazed back down at Regina and gave her a reassuring smile. “I’m fine.” Before the blonde could ask her another question, she strode out of the room and into the foyer. I really hope I’m wrong about you, Michael, but Jeff was smoking his last cigarette when I was out there. Why would you lie about that? The hairs on the back of her neck started to prickle as she opened the front door and stepped outside.

After a few seconds, her eyes adjusted to the dark and she saw the huddled form sitting slumped on the bottom of the steps. Maybe you need to stop expecting the worst from people, Alex. What would Regina think if she knew what you were thinking about her brother? With a vexed sigh, she shook her head as her cynicism won out.

“Jeff? Are you doing okay?” Alex asked, as she descended the stairs. She thought he nodded his head but she wasn’t sure in the darkness.

Jeff groaned and kept his head buried against his knees as he rocked back and forth.

“Too much to drink, Jeff?” she asked, wondering if he’d gotten sick and just decided to stay outside until he felt better, of course with the alcohol and the cold that wasn’t a good combination either. Alex sat down on the steps and rested her forearms on her knees as she studied Regina’s brother.

“Nah.” He shook his head.

Still not sure what the problem was, Alex wrapped an arm around his middle. “Come on, Jeff. Get up so you can move around. You’re going to freeze out here.”

He flinched and let out a muffled cry as she tightened her grip on his waist. “Don’t touch me there. It hurts.”

Confused by his reaction, Alex let go of him and rubbed her hand over his back. “What hurts?”

“I fell. It was stupid. I tripped over a rock and just landed on my side.”

Alex glanced around the immediate area and frowned at the seemingly flat landscape of the driveway. What rock? “Did you hurt anything else?” she asked, turning her attention back to him.

“Just my face. I’m a klutz and it doesn’t help that I’m stone, stinking drunk either.”

“All right, well let’s get you inside.” She stood up and helped Regina’s brother to his feet.

Halfway up the steps, Jeff turned stopped and grabbed her arm. “Alex can we just go to the bathroom so I can wash up? I feel like a fool.”

“Yeah … sure,” she replied hesitantly, as they climbed up the steps together. She opened the door and walked inside, keeping herself between Jeff and the view from the living room. He almost escaped unnoticed into the bathroom when Regina walked out of the kitchen and came to an abrupt halt, her eyes widening when she saw Jeff’s face.

“Good grief! What did you do to yourself?” She reached out a hand and tilted his face towards her as she inspected the angry looking discoloration on his cheekbone.

In the bright light of the hallway, Alex stepped around in front and looked for the first time, at the ugly bruise that was forming beneath his eye.

“I just tripped over a rock,” he muttered and jerked his head away, but not before Regina witnessed the mixture of hurt and confusion in his eyes. Jeff staggered into the bathroom and turned on the sink faucet.

That was no fall, Jeff. If it was, then that rock must have jumped up and smacked you in the face, Alex thought as she stared after him. She watched as he huddled over the sink and splashed the running water on his face. Her skeptical expression softened when she glanced down and saw the worried look on Regina’s face.

“Alex?” Regina touched her arm and stepped closer. “Something’s bothering you. What is it?”

The taller woman gnawed on her bottom lip and looked away as she considered what to say to Regina. Now how do I deal with this without making more of a mess of this situation?

She pondered while quickly considering her options. At the moment, all she had to go on was her instincts and they were screaming that Michael was responsible for what happened.

“Don’t you think that if he fell, he might have some cuts and scrapes on his face instead of just a nasty looking shiner?”

“You don’t believe him do you?”

Damn, there’s not much I can keep hidden from you anymore. Is there? “No, I don’t. I’m sorry, Regina.” Alex shook her head and stepped into the small bathroom behind Regina’s brother.

He was leaning heavily against the white, porcelain sink, so she slipped her arm around him to help steady him on his feet. Water dripped from his face as he glanced up at Alex in surprise and then tried not to let the pain show on his face.

“Don’t,” he whispered, trying to push Alex’s arm away from him.

“Let me look at your side.”

“No.” He twisted out of her arm and slumped down onto the toilet.

“Jeff, look at me.” Alex held his gaze and leaned down closer to him as she whispered to him. “It doesn’t matter to me how this happened, but this is your family. Don’t you think you owe them the truth?”

“It’s not a big deal, Alex,” Jeff protested. “Let it go.”

Alex shook her head and planted her hands on her hips. “I can’t. I grew up living with someone who thought they could get away with terrorizing his family. Don’t lie to me about it. I know all the ways you can try and cover for someone.”

“He was pissed off at me. What do you want me to do?”

Regina tugged Alex away from Jeff. “Let me talk to him.”

She knelt down in front of her brother, pulled a towel from one of the holders on the wall, and gently dabbed his face dry. Regina inhaled sharply as she got a close look at the welt that was forming along his cheekbone. “Alex, can you get me some ice from the freezer?”

“Yeah,” the taller woman whispered before she left the bathroom.

“You didn’t fall, did you?” Regina rested her hands on her brother’s thighs as she peered up at him.

Hazel eyes blinked and he lowered his forehead onto her shoulder. “I’m sorry. I was stupid to think I could come home after all this time.”

“Don’t say that.” Regina rocked him in her arms and closed her eyes. She didn’t want to believe what her gut was telling her. The signs were there. All she had to do was open her eyes and see the truth. “I’m glad you came home. We’ve missed you.”

She looked up as Alex reappeared in the doorway and held out a plastic bag filled with ice and a wet dishtowel.

“Thanks. Did my mother ask why you needed it?”

“No, your father was the only one in the kitchen and he didn’t ask any questions.”

“Good.” Regina took the bag and wrapped it in the towel before she lifted Jeff’s head off her shoulder. “Hold this for me.” She placed the ice against his face and held his hand to it.

Without a word, Regina pulled his shirt out of his khaki pants and ran her hand up under her brother’s shirt, frowning as she felt the heat radiating from his skin. “Jeff! You could have cracked a rib!” A mottled-looking purple bruise covered a fist-sized area over his ribs and he flinched as she pressed the palm of her hand to it.

“It’s just a bruise,” Jeff replied weakly as he stared down at the floor in acute embarrassment.

Alex stepped out of the doorway and leaned against the wall with her arms folded over her chest. It was an all too familiar scene that made her guts churn as she watched Regina tend to her older brother, except in her family it had been her father who had doled out the beatings.

She looked up as Michael walked out of the kitchen, carrying a travel mug in one hand, and a duffel bag slung over his shoulder. Her gaze settled on the angry looking bruise that was beginning to discolor the knuckles of his right hand.

His eyes narrowed as he realized what she was studying and he dropped his hand down to his side.

Gotcha! You bastard. Alex let a thin smile play on her lips as she watched him turn away from her.

Michael hesitated as he walked past the bathroom and glanced inside the room at his two siblings. “What happened to him?”

The concern in Regina’s eyes transformed to barely contained rage when she looked at her younger brother and then lunged up to face him. “Why don’t you tell me, Michael?”

“Regina, don’t!” Jeff pulled himself to his feet and laid a hand on her shoulder for support. “It’s not worth it.”

“How should I know? He’s drunk.” Michael readjusted the bag on his shoulder and glowered at his sister in apparent disinterest.

Regina stepped forward and grasped Michael’s wrist roughly, ignoring her older brother’s pleas. “Did you trip over the same rock he did and bruise your hand?”

“You’re just as screwed up as he is,” Michael sneered and pulled his arm from her grasp.

“What’s going on?” Caroline asked her husband hesitantly, as she stepped from the kitchen, holding her son in her arms.

“Nothing,” Michael snapped. “Jeff’s drunk and we’re leaving.”

Alex’s eyes widened, as she watched her lover physically block her brother’s path. “Do you want to know why Derrick was a mistake, Michael? Besides the fact that I was living a lie, he was an abusive bastard.”

“What’s going on out there?” She heard her father’s voice booming from the dining room before he appeared at the doorway, holding a drink in his hand.

“Regina Kingston! I don’t need to hear that language in this house.” Her mother stepped out of the kitchen, drying her hands on a dishtowel.

“It’s the truth, Mother.”

“That son of a bitch hit you?” Jeff lowered the bag of ice from his face and stared at his sister in dismay.

Alice stepped over to the bathroom door and gasped as she looked in at her son. “Jeffrey, what happened to you?”

“Nothing, Mom,” he whispered and quickly replaced the ice pack over his eye.

“Don’t tell me, nothing! Look at your face,” she cried in horror.

Caroline shifted Zachary in her arms and stepped over to Jeff. She covered his hand with hers and pulled the ice away, uncovering the damage. A gasp escaped her throat as she stared wide-eyed at his face.

Robert walked between his two youngest children to stand before his eldest son. “Do you want to tell me what happened to you?”

Jeff glared defiantly back at his father. “You didn’t care what happened to me for the past seventeen years. What does it matter now?”

“Jeff!” Regina spun around and stared at her brother.

“I don’t need to hear this,” his father grumbled and promptly walked out of the room.

“Caroline, let’s go!” Michael ordered, as he stepped around Regina and stormed towards the front door.

She jerked her head around and stared at her husband with a shocked expression on her face, then, snapped back at him. “Who do you think you’re talking to, Michael? Give me Zachary’s bag.”

When he didn’t answer, Caroline marched over to him and yanked the duffel bag off his shoulder. Instinctively, he tried to grab it as it dropped to the floor and winced as the weight of the bag dropped into his palm, jarring his injured hand.

“What’s wrong with your hand?” Caroline frowned as she pulled the bag away from him and then unzipped it. She set her son on the floor and then pulled out his coat

“Well?”

“Nothing,” he protested lamely, looking away as Jeffrey appeared next to Regina still holding the bag of ice to his face.

Caroline’s hands shook as she worked to close the zipper on Zachary’s coat. The boy twisted around, whimpering softly for his father’s attention but she lifted him up into her arms and walked back to Jeff and Regina.

“Regina can you hold Zachary for me?”

“Sure.” Regina stepped forward and lifted the toddler from Caroline’s arms and cradled him against her protectively.

Michael started to open his mouth to protest but promptly closed it as Caroline gazed at him through cold, gray eyes.

“Do you have a problem with your own sister holding him?”

“No, but … ”

“I don’t want you around my son.”

“Caroline!” Alice cried out in alarm. “Don’t say that.”

“Alice, he may be your son, but he’s my husband. Stay out of it!”

“Caroline, how can you say that? I’m his father.”

“No! Don’t you even talk to me after what you did tonight! You hit your own brother because you have a problem with who he is. Didn’t you?” she continued without letting Michael get a word in to defend himself. “Frankly, I don’t quite think I know who you are right now, so just go. Go home … alone.” Caroline dismissed him with a wave of her hand.

His shoulders slouched in defeat, as he looked back at her in utter confusion. “You don’t mean that, Caroline.”

“Oh, yes I do.” Caroline spread her arms out and leaned toward him as her voice rose an octave. “First, you don’t have the decency to tell me your own brother and sister are coming home for your mother’s birthday! Then I have to watch my husband act like a jackass the entire time they’re here. If that’s not enough you insult them and assault your own brother! Do I sound like I want to go home with you?”

“But … where are you going to go?” he asked timidly.

“I’ll be at my mother’s.”

An awkward silence followed, as Michael slowly turned away and trudged to the front door.

“Caroline.” Michael turned back around and looked beseechingly at his wife. “Can I say goodnight to Zachary before I go?”

Caroline closed her eyes and sighed after taking a few deep breaths. “Yes,” she finally whispered and turned away as he walked back toward Regina.

His sister stared impassively at him as he stepped up in front of her. Wordlessly, without making eye contact, he lifted his son from her arms and held him to his chest. He buried his face in the blonde curls and inhaled the sweet scent of his son’s skin.

“Daddy will see you later, Tiger.” He walked over to Caroline and after a brief moment settled their son in her arms. Michael pressed his forehead to hers and whispered. “I’m sorry, baby. I didn’t mean for this to happen.”

“Apologize to your family, not me.” Caroline whirled around and walked into the kitchen.

Alice glanced back at her son briefly before she quickly followed her daughter-in-law.

“Well, that was a pleasant evening,” Jeff remarked, still holding the bag of ice to his face.

“Why don’t you just shut up?” Michael shot back at him.

“That’s quite enough.” Reluctant to let Michael anywhere near his younger brother, Alex stepped in between the siblings and folded her arms over her chest. She spent the better part of the day watching her lover negotiate her way through the emotional turmoil that the two brothers were at the center of. Several times she had to physically bite her lip to stop from getting involved even though she knew Regina was more than capable of handling herself, but enough was enough.

“You’re finished here, Michael. The best thing you can do right now is shut your mouth and leave,” Alex warned him.

“You have no right to tell me what to do!”

Regina stepped up beside Alex and wrapped her arm around her waist. “Michael, stop. I think you’ve said quite enough for one night. So take your homophobic attitude and get out of here! Now!”

Enraged, Michael spun on his heels and stormed out of the house, slamming the door behind him with enough force to rattle the window in their frames.

Regina groaned and rested her head against Alex’s shoulder as the taller woman embraced her. “Oh my god, that sucked,” she breathed into her lover’s shoulder.

“You can say that again,” Jeff echoed, wishing suddenly that he had allowed Darryl to make the trip with him.

Alex turned around, bringing Regina with her and draped her other an arm over Jeff’s shoulder. “How’s your head?”

“It’s been better. I want to get the hell out of here and go home,” Jeff complained.

“You’re not going anywhere until you sober up,” Regina told him. “Besides, you should give Dad a chance. He’s trying, Jeff. You’ve got to try and meet him halfway. Please?”

“Why should I? He never gave me a chance.”

“You’re right, but he’s trying to now, Jeff. So don’t throw it all away because of your stubborn pride.”

Jeff stared angrily back at his sister and then dumped the bag of ice in the bathroom sink. “Great just what I need; a lecture from my sister.”

Regina glanced after her brother as he walked away and then hugged both her arms around Alex tightly. “I don’t think I would have survived today if you weren’t here,” she whispered as she tilted her head back to look up at her partner.

Alex shrugged and looked down into tired, green eyes. “Yeah, you would have.”

“Maybe, but I’m still very glad you were here. Thanks.” Regina rose up on her toes and kissed Alex soundly on the lips.

A moment later, the sound of someone clearing their throat from the kitchen doorway caught their attention and they both looked over to see Regina’s mother standing there holding the coffee pot, her eyes cast downward. She coughed and then looked back at the two women. “I wanted to know if you both wanted some coffee.”

“Sure,” Regina managed to croak out as she watched her mother’s face flush in embarrassment.

“Good. Well, um, just come in and get it when you’re ready.”

“Okay,” Regina heard her voice crack and had to stifle a nervous giggle after her mother disappeared around the corner. She glanced up at Alex who was staring back at her with a shocked expression on her face. “She saw us kissing.”

“Yes, she did,” Alex affirmed, still getting over the shock of looking up and having Regina’s mother staring right at her as she was thoroughly engaged in kissing her daughter.

Regina nodded her head once and patted Alex on her stomach. “Oh boy.”

“Well, at least we weren’t skinny dipping in your parent’s swimming pool,” Alex offered with a deadpan expression on her face. She grunted softly as she found herself on the receiving end of a back handed smack into her gut.

“Why do I think you would have somehow enjoyed that?” Regina arched an eyebrow and glanced up at the taller woman expectantly.

“There is something to be said about the thrill of danger.” Alex’s eyes darkened as she looked deep into Regina’s eyes and let a seductive smile cross her lips.

“Is there now?” Regina smirked suggestively and tugged at Alex’s shirt. Her smile turned genuine at the anxious look she received from the brunette. She reached for her partner’s hand and squeezed it, enjoying the brief episode of playfulness that had been missing from their lives for so many weeks. “Glad you think so.”
Chapter Eighteen
“I can’t believe Michael would do something like that to his brother.” Robert rubbed his forehead in agitation and leaned against the kitchen counter. Nothing prepared him for Michael’s bitter resentment and violent outburst towards his brother, earlier in the evening. He wanted to bridge the gap between himself and Jeff but the evening only made the chasm seem wider.

“What’s not to believe?” Alice shook her head in dismay and slumped into a chair at the kitchen table. She set her head in her hands and groaned. “Don’t you understand I taught him it was okay to treat Jeff differently by throwing him out of the house?”

Robert gulped down a mouthful of scotch to calm his ragged nerves before he crossed the room to stand beside his wife. “If that’s the case, then we’re both to blame.”

Caroline looked up from her seat on the other side of the wooden table. After shifting Zachary in her arms, she leaned forward and grasped the older woman’s forearm with her hand, pulling Alice’s hand away from her face.

“I know you both and you did not teach him to be violent. Mike’s always had a temper. When he feels threatened he acts like a cornered animal and comes out with his claws bared.”

“What was so threatening about asking our oldest son to come home?” Alice asked. “I don’t understand.”

Caroline released Alice’s arm and sat back in her chair. “Maybe it’s all those memories he’s stored up since he was a kid. I told Alex and Regina earlier, he felt like his relationship with you, would somehow change if Jeff came home and you accepted him back into the family.”

They all looked up at once as they heard footsteps approaching on the hardwood floor from the hallway.

Realizing they were talking about him and Michael, Jeff stopped just inside the doorway, unsure of what to do. He looked hesitantly at both his parents and then at Caroline.

“I just wanted to get some coffee.” He motioned awkwardly with his hand and walked over to where the pot was sitting on the counter.

“There’s some ibuprofen in the medicine cabinet if you need it.” Alice turned in her chair to look at her son. The entire evening it felt like her heart was breaking as she realized she hardly knew the man her son had grown into.

“I’m fine,” he muttered, wishing he were anywhere but here at the moment.

Jeff’s hands trembled slightly as he poured his drink into a mug and dumped a spoonful of sugar into the hot liquid. Acutely aware of the furtive glances cast in his direction, he retreated from the room and walked aimlessly into the foyer where he looked over at his father’s study.

Desperately wanting quiet solitude, Jeff turned and tip toed up the stairs, careful to miss the third step from the top since he vaguely remembered that it always creaked loudly whenever it was stepped on. It’s funny, he thought, the weird things I’m remembering about this place.

Jeff turned around at the top of the stairs and looked sorrowfully at the wall where his pictures were missing. Wow, I guess you really did despise me that much, Mom.

He tried to convince himself that it really didn’t mean that much to him, but it was useless. He trudged down the hallway. Halfway, he stopped and peaked into his sister’s old bedroom, where he saw the walls still decorated with her plaques and trophies from high school.

Stung, Jeff ducked back out and continued toward the room at the end of the hall. He reached inside and flicked the switch on the wall, bathing the white washed walls in a soft, luminescent, glow from the overhead light. With a brief hesitation, he stepped into what used to be his bedroom.

There was no helping the initial wave of jealousy and resentment that he felt as his room stood in stark contrast to his sister’s.

A stranger walking into the room would have never known it used to be a young boy’s bedroom. The wild array of rock posters that adorned his ceiling and walls, the collection of fantasy novels and World War II tanks and aircraft models he spent hours assembling and painting were gone. He stood in the center of the room and regarded the old Captain’s desk and chair with a cool, detached expression on his face.

Well, what did you expect after all this time, a welcome home party? Jeff laughed caustically at himself as he strode across the room. He lowered himself to the floor, and leaned back against the wall. He pulled his legs up to his chest, rested his forearms on his knees, and watched the tendrils of steam curl up out of the mug of coffee.

All he wanted was to feel like he belonged again. He exhausted himself over the years with the mental gymnastics of trying to make himself believe that none of this mattered and that he didn’t need his family to feel whole.

After all, Darryl was his family.

Darryl was the only person besides Regina who had bothered to care enough to drag him out of the black depression he fell into after Tom died. When he was beyond hope and wishing he could just die himself, it was Darryl who encouraged him not to give up and hold on because he’d taken all the bad things that life had thrown at him and survived in spite of it all.

Still … there was no denying the amount of pain he felt when he got the urge to pick up the phone and call his parents just to talk but didn’t. The most important part of his life was Darryl and he couldn’t share that part of him with his family.

Jeff tilted his head back against the wall and swallowed, fighting the lump he felt in his throat as his emotions roiled inside.

A moment later, he heard the telltale creak of the stair from outside in the hall, as someone climbed up the steps.

So much for being alone, he thought testily.

“Not like you remember it, I guess,” his father remarked from the doorway.

Jeff shook his head, keeping his eyes averted from his father’s gaze.

His father glanced around briefly and then stepped into the room. He held out a pint of milk. “Here, you forgot something.”

Jeff reached up and took the carton from his father.

“See, I still remember some things about my son after all these years. Surprised?” Robert settled himself onto the floor beside him with a groan as his aging joints protested the strain.

“No,” Jeff whispered ruefully, as he poured the milk into his coffee. He closed the container and set it on the floor beside him.

They sat in silence, the only sound was the hissing of the baseboard heaters as the heat cycled on again.

“What happened between you and Michael tonight?”

Jeff stared down at his hands. “What does it matter?”

Robert frowned as he looked over at his son. “Jeff, despite what you may think, I … you’re still my son.”

Jeff continued to stare down at his mug and shook his head as he listened to his father stumble awkwardly over his words. You can’t say, ‘I love you.’ Can you? “I guess Mike didn’t approve of me being here.” The slump of Jeff’s shoulders and the deep sadness in his voice betrayed the heartbreak inside.

“So he decided it was okay to punch you. He didn’t have any right to do that to you, Jeff.”

Jeff had a biting, sarcastic remark on the tip of his tongue, but he bit it back as he recalled Regina’s words about not letting his stubborn pride in the way. “I was never very good at ducking and weaving,” he offered quietly instead.

Robert cleared his throat before he finally spoke again. “There are some boxes of your stuff in the closet over there. You ought to look through them to see if there’s anything you’d like to keep.”

Jeff looked sharply at his father and then glanced over at the sliding doors. After a moments hesitation, he slowly rose to his feet, walked over to the closet, and started to slide open one of the doors.

“Don’t open the right door.” There was aloud thud as the wooden door popped out of the track and hit the floor. “It always jumps off the track,” his father finished half-heartedly.

“Sorry.”

His father shrugged indifferently. “Try the other one.”

Robert watched with cautious anticipation as his son knelt and pulled out one of the worn cardboard boxes.

Carefully, Jeff peeled the packing tape off the box and pulled it open. He sat back on his heels and pulled out a gunmetal, gray, fighter jet with the letters ‘USA’ emblazoned proudly on its wings.

“I remember making this. It took weeks to glue all the parts together and then paint them.” He ran his fingers over the contours of the plane, his eyes widening in youthful excitement as he examined it. “It’s a P-40 Warhawk fighter.”

“Ah, so you still remember.” His father picked up the milk carton and climbed stiffly to his feet. “I think that B-25 transport model we worked on is in one of the other boxes, if you’re interested.”

Jeff rubbed his hands over his face, wiping tears away in an irritated gesture. “I didn’t think Mom kept any of my stuff.”

Robert looked away, unable to bear the pained expression on Jeff’s face. “I packed your stuff away after you left.”

“I didn’t leave,” Jeff shot back.

There was a brief hesitation as Robert let the bitterness of his son’s words sink in. “You’re right, you didn’t leave. We threw you out of the house,” he acknowledged quietly. “I know I can’t change what happened and maybe it doesn’t make much of a difference now, but I’m sorry.” I’m sorry for all the time we wasted, for waiting so long to ask you to come home.

Jeff stared down at the model plane he was holding in his hands – a relic of his childhood and of a happier time with his family. He blinked back tears and furrowed his brow, trying to maintain some semblance of control while his father was still in the room.

Robert stood motionless a few feet away. He sensed the turmoil behind his son’s mask of indifference and stepped back. “I’ll um, I’ll give you some time alone to go through your things.” Quietly, he stepped back toward the door and was gone.

Jeff stared at the spot where his father had been standing and shook his head. It almost hurt more, knowing that his father regretted his decision but had never said anything to him about it. Jeff doubled over and buried his head in his hands, as a wave of grief swept through him.

Hunched over the box, he cried alone for what seemed an eternity to him and then, exhausted, he slumped back against the wall and closed his eyes.

******

Caroline looked up as Regina walked into the brightly lit kitchen followed by Alex. She’d been shocked, to say the least, when she heard Alice talking about Regina dating a guy last year. Her shock turned to utter disbelief when the words engagement entered into the conversation about Michael’s older sister.

She met Regina when she first started dating Michael in their senior year of high school. At the time, Regina was a quiet, introspective woman who was totally absorbed in her studies. That abruptly changed one summer after Regina returned home from college with a different light shining in her eyes. It wasn’t until one of Regina’s friends from school came to visit, that Caroline began to realize what had changed.

Sarah was the woman’s name and Regina was in love with her.

Caroline wasn’t the only one to notice the difference. Regina’s mother took an instant dislike to the woman and the house had turned into a battleground. Whenever Regina was going out with Sarah, her mother would find fault with everything about the woman and clearly vocalized her dislike about her daughter’s choice of friends.

It was a different time and Regina wasn’t prepared for having to defend herself or who she chose to love. Over time, the relationship between her and Sarah deteriorated and finally ended less than a year later.

Although, they never talked about it, Caroline could see how hurt Regina was and knew as any woman does what it’s like to see the death of a first love.

That was over six years ago and as far as she knew Regina was never involved with anyone else until Derrick. She wondered at the time if Regina was being true to herself.

Today she had finally gotten an answer to her question.

It was only when Regina sat down across from her and raised a questioning eyebrow that Caroline realized she was staring at her and turned away blushing.

From across the table, Alice spoke to her daughter. “Did you eat enough at dinner, Regina?”

Regina turned her attention to her mother and sighed. “No, not really.” She glanced over at Alex who settled quietly into the chair next to her. “How about you? Do you want a sandwich?”

“I could eat more.” Alex replied and then gently clasped her hand around Regina’s arm, pulling her back when she started to get up. “Stay. Just tell me where everything is and I’ll make it.”

The younger woman looked back at Alex in surprise. The pale blue eyes only revealed a genuine desire. “Sit with your family,” Alex whispered in her ear as she stood up from the table.

Regina directed Alex to the appropriate drawers and cabinets for a knife and plates. She watched as her partner retrieved the roast from the refrigerator and then expertly carved several slices of meat onto a plate.

What I would give to be in Provincetown with you already. This hadn’t been a pleasant experience for anyone today and she knew despite her own discomfort that Alex remained steadfast beside her throughout the entire ordeal

“Anybody else want some?” Alex asked over her shoulder before she wrapped up the meat and set it back on the shelf in the refrigerator.

“No, I’m fine,” Caroline replied, a sly smile crossing her lips. What better way to get to the skeptical mother-in-law? You do take good care of her daughter. Don’t you, Alex?

“Not for me.” Alice waved her hand.

Alex crossed to the table and set the plates down in front of herself and Regina. Her partner wasted no time starting to consume the sandwich.

“You weren’t hungry. Were you?” she teased Regina as she sat down.

Caroline chuckled. “I seem to remember you and Jeff practically eating your parents out of house and home when you were teenagers.”

Regina made an indignant noise and swallowed a mouthful of food. “Hey, we were just very active kids.”

“Mm, getting into trouble was more like what you two were usually up to,” her mother chimed into the conversation.

“Gee, thanks, Mom.”

Alex laughed at the comical expression on Regina’s face and then quickly ducked away from the playful swat directed at her.

“Alex, you can sit by me. It might be safer for you over here,” Caroline offered and winked at Regina mischievously.

“That’s all right, I know where she sleeps.” The words were out of Regina’s mouth before she could stop to think about whom she was saying them in front of. Her eyes widened to the size of quarters and Regina blushed crimson to the roots of her blonde hair.

“Oh god,” she groaned, wanting desperately to just slip beneath the table into oblivion.

Her mother sat back stiffly in her chair with a dismayed expression on her face.

Alex stared at Regina in disbelief, then, quickly bit into her sandwich, and chewed in silence. You sure do and now your mother does too, Reg.

“So, Alex,” Caroline fumbled desperately to direct the attention away from Regina as the stricken woman tried to regain her composure at the table. “Robert said you had been sick the last time he saw you.”

Alex groaned inwardly as the conversation suddenly went from bad to worse. She swallowed and glanced over at Regina who was starting to return to her normal skin tone. “Uh, yeah, there was an accident at work.”

“What happened?” Regina’s mother leaned forward in her chair and rejoined the conversation, grateful for any change in the topic of conversation.

Alex pressed her lips together briefly and frowned, as she decided how she wanted to answer the question. “There was a car accident and a boy died in the emergency department. We tried everything, but there was nothing we could do to save him. It was pretty awful. His father was out of his mind with grief.”

Regina had recovered enough from her embarrassment to wonder if Alex would actually tell them what happened. It was still incredibly difficult for her partner to talk about the subject, but she knew that talking about it was as important a part of the whole process of healing as Alex’s physical recovery had been in those first, few days.

Alex gnawed on her bottom lip for a second before she continued. “We had the person who was responsible for the car accident in the other exam room.” Her eyes took on a haunted, far away look as she stumbled awkwardly over her words. “This other patient had a gun … things got crazy … ”

In her mind, she could hear the crash of the supply cart in the hallway and saw the father burst into the room brandishing the weapon in the air. “Somehow the father got a hold of the gun.”

She felt the warmth of Regina’s hand as the younger woman wrapped it around her upper arm reassuringly. The gesture comforted her and calmed her racing heart. Alex swallowed a couple of times, forcing herself to gain control of her voice which was already starting to waver as she spoke.

“I remember him coming into the room. He demanded that we let the woman die. We tried to calm him down,” Alex said, looking directly at Regina.

“You were in the room while this was going on?” Alice cried out in shock, as she looked at her daughter.

“Yeah, I was there. We all were,” Regina replied evenly, without taking her eyes off of Alex.

“I told her to get out,” Alex explained quickly. The whole time, she’d been terrified the man would turn the gun on Regina if given the opportunity. “He was breaking down right there in front of us.”

Alex grimaced and stared down at her hands, which were visibly trembling. The flashes of memory were so vivid it was like she back in the trauma room all over again. Her breathing went ragged and she shook her head. Her jaw muscles clenched as she tried to clamp down on the emotions that threatened to overflow.

She felt Regina’s hand slide down her arm and the smaller fingers intertwined with hers. It took a few moments and then she was able to finish. “I don’t remember much after I heard the gunshot.”

“Oh my God!” Alice stared at her daughter incredulous that she had been witness to such violence. “You saw her get shot?”

Regina nodded silently, not trusting her voice.

Caroline gasped and covered her mouth with her hands. “Jesus, I had no idea! I’m so sorry, Alex. I feel awful for asking.”

Alex shook her head and pressed her lips together, still staring down at the table. “You didn’t know,” she answered with a voice that was still hoarse with emotion.

“This is the same place where you work now?” Caroline asked incredulously.

“Yeah, it hasn’t been easy going back there, but at least I’m here and able to give it a try.” Alex turned her head, and looked at Regina and then down at their linked hands. “I wouldn’t be here right now if it weren’t for Regina.”

Speechless, Caroline sat back in her chair and stared at the two of them for a moment.

Regina glanced up as her father entered the kitchen from the hallway. “Dad was there.” She nodded at him as she continued to speak. “In fact, he just met Alex before everything happened.”

Robert looked startled as he gazed at his daughter and her companion who were sitting across from his wife, holding hands. A peculiar expression glinted in his eyes before he looked away.

Subtly, Regina squeezed Alex’s hand and then slipped hers out of the warm embrace they had been sharing. It was all right, she reflected to herself. Her parents could think what they wanted. This was the person who captured her heart and ignited her soul with a passion that went far beyond any physical boundaries.

“Where’s Jeff?” Regina asked.

“He’s upstairs going through some of his things.”

“Not anymore,” Jeff stated, as he walked into the kitchen, carrying a box in his arms.

“What’s in there?” His sister leaned forward and peaked into the container as he set it down on the table.

“They’re just some old, model airplanes I made when I was a kid.” His voice downplayed the emotions he felt, knowing that his parents, or at least his father, saved some of the most cherished things from his childhood.

His mother’s only reaction was to glance in the box and then she abruptly stood up. She retrieved the empty plates from the table and placed them in the sink.

Jeff ran his fingers over the edge of the box as he briefly pondered the decision he arrived at while he was sorting through the boxes filled with childhood memories. Memories that made him remember there was a time in his life when he believed his father was a hero, like most children believe of their parents.

He realized while he sat alone in his old bedroom that he didn’t need these things to make him feel like he belonged here. What was important was whether he wanted to.

He slid the box across the table to his sister-in-law. “Caroline.” Jeff cleared his throat. “I know Mike always liked these models when we were kids. Lord knows we fought over them enough. I’m sure he doesn’t have any use for them now, but maybe he’d like Zachary to have them when he’s older.”

Caroline stared incredulously at him and then, without a word, she lifted Zachary into Alex’s arms much to the taller woman’s surprise and stood up. She wrapped her arms around Jeff and squeezed him tightly. “I want my son to have them,” she whispered, as her lips brushed his cheek.

******

Regina all I’m saying is, think about it. A relationship with a man is difficult enough,” her mother said as she walked out of the kitchen with her daughter by her side.

“Mom, I can’t believe you’re going to start this all over again.”

Alice stopped in the foyer and glanced over at the tall, dark-haired woman, standing by the front door. If her daughter could see the distrust she had in her expression, so be it, she didn’t care. “I just can’t imagine that she can make you happy. I don’t understand. Why would you want this life?”

Regina ignored her mother’s question, refusing to be baited into another argument. Instead she smiled as she watched Alex lean in and say something to Jeff that made her brother laugh. “Mom you don’t have to understand – just know that I’m happy.

Alice looked back at her daughter and sighed in exasperation.

“We have to go, Mom,” Regina said softly. She saw an anxious, almost fearful expression cross her mother’s face before the older woman embraced her briefly.

As they separated, Robert walked past them, carrying his sleeping grandson in his arms. “Jeff, are you sure you’re okay to drive Caroline home?”

“I’m fine,” Jeff assured him.

Regina walked over to Alex and slipped her arms inside the sleeves of the coat that the taller woman was holding out for her.

“Thanks,” she whispered, glancing back over her shoulder into sparkling, blue eyes.

“My pleasure,” Alex replied and ran her hand over Regina’s back affectionately. It had been an uncomfortable experience to say the least and she felt a weight lifting from her as they got ready to leave.

“Hey, Sis. I need my keys.” Jeff held out his hand expectantly.

Regina dug into her pockets and then tossed them to him, smiling as he snatched them out of the air.

Caroline stepped forward and gently lifted Zachary out of her father-in-law’s arms. “It’s time to take my little man home.”

“You’re going home?” Alice asked hopefully. She’d been worried all night about what Mike’s behavior might do to her son’s relationship.

“Yeah, Mike and I need to talk and it wouldn’t hurt him to apologize to his brother.”

Jeff shrugged indifferently and opened the front door. He appreciated Caroline’s sentiments but he didn’t hold much hope out for any kind of reconciliation with his brother. “Let’s go.”

One by one, they all filed out of the house until it was Jeff and his parents left inside. He looked at both of them briefly and then held his hand out to his father.

“Come here,” the older man growled and pulled his son into a hug. “I’m glad you came home.”

Jeff pulled back from the embrace first and stared down at the hardwood floor. “Me too.”

He winced and pulled away as his mother’s hand lightly brushed over his bruised cheekbone. “I’m sorry Michael did this to you.”

She looked up into his hazel eyes and smiled sadly. “I don’t know that sorry mean that much after all these years.”

Jeff leaned in and kissed her cheek. “It does,” he said and quickly turned away so they wouldn’t see his tears as he walked out the door.

******

Alex strolled to her Jeep with an arm draped over Regina’s shoulders. She squeezed her and cast a quick glance down at her lover’s somber countenance. “Nickel for your thoughts.”

Regina wrapped an arm around Alex’s waist and leaned in against her taller frame. “I guess I just feel sad.”

The older woman remained silent and let her fingers curl around Regina’s shoulder. At her truck, Alex turned around and leaned against the hood of the vehicle.

Regina pressed against her and nestled her head against the Alex’s shoulder. She bit her lower lip and her eyes filled with tears as she felt the gentle pressure of Alex’s hand as she stroked her hair.

“Anything I can do?” Alex watched the blonde head shake back and forth and heard the quiet sniffle.

“Just hold me.”

“Always,” Alex whispered. She suspected her partner prepared herself for a negative response from her parents towards the two of them and was blindsided by her brother’s hostility with Jeff. The taller woman pressed her lips to the top of Regina’s head and closed her eyes. When she opened them she looked across the driveway and watched as Jeff descended the steps and headed towards them.

Halfway, he stopped and trotted over to his rental car and unlocked it for Caroline. He took his nephew from her as she crawled into the back and secured the car seat in place.

Jeff looked over at Alex standing a few feet away with her arms wrapped securely around his sister and smiled shyly at her. He carried Zachary over towards the two women.

“Hey, say goodnight to your nephew.”

Regina wiped her eyes and turned around as Alex released her. She smiled when Zachary scrunched his face up, rubbed a fist over his eyes, and then yawned. “Ah, he’s exhausted.”

She lifted him up and planted a kiss on a chubby cheek. “Say goodbye, Alex.” Regina waved Zachary’s arm at Alex.

The taller woman arched an eyebrow and waved briefly at Zachary.

“Well, we had quite a night didn’t we?” Caroline ambled over and joined them. She hunched her shoulders and stuffed her hands in her pockets.

Jeff scuffed the heel of his shoe on the gravel. “We should get going. I have an early flight out tomorrow.” He handed Zachary to Caroline and then wrapped an arm around Regina’s shoulder. Gently he guided her away from Alex. “You’ve got someone special there, Reg.”

A sweet smile crossed the younger woman’s lips in response. “I know.” She looked over at Alex and then back up at Jeff. “You know you have an open invitation at my place.”

“Thanks.” He leaned closer and gathered her into his arms. “I may just take you up on that sooner than you think.”

“Good. I’m going to hold you to it.” Regina stepped back as Jeff let her go. There was a part of her deep inside that ached at the sadness that emanated from her brother’s eyes.

After, they all said goodbye and were in there cars, Regina leaned back in her seat and looked at Alex’s profile silhouetted by Jeff’s headlights as he backed his car up.

“What are you thinking?”

Alex turned in her seat, draped an arm over Regina’s shoulder, and brought her face close to the blonde’s. “I was just wondering how you would feel about waking up in Provincetown tomorrow morning, instead of our hotel room.”

“Ooh, I’d love to.” Regina raised a hand and let her fingertips graze the soft flesh of Alex’s lips. Her brow creased in concern. “Do you want to sleep for a while before we leave?”

A low growl rumbled from the brunette’s chest and she captured one of Regina’s fingers between her lips. She shook her head as she slowly released it. “No, I’m fine, and I’ll be even better when we get there.”
Chapter Nineteen
Jeff felt a quiet melancholy settle over him as he pulled into his sister-in-law’s driveway. Michael’s taunting words echoed in his mind. Did coming home fulfill your expectations? He wished he’d had the guts to wipe the sneer off his brother’s face when he uttered the bitter remark.

He shifted the car into park and let the engine idle. The headlights illuminated the garage at the end of the driveway and their glare reflected back off the windows, forcing Jeff to blink and look away.

He watched Caroline turn and look over the seat at her son’s sleeping form. Her eyebrows knitted together in concern as Zachary shifted in the car seat and whimpered in his sleep. After a moment, she glanced back at Jeff and met his steady gaze.

“I’m glad Zachary is too young to remember what happened tonight.” Caroline rested an elbow on the lip of the window. She settled her head in her hand as she studied her husband’s older brother, wondering briefly what the evening’s events would do to Jeff’s already jaded view of his family. In her mind, she couldn’t reconcile that it was her Michael’s hand that put the ugly, discolored mark there in the first place.

Caroline turned her gaze out the window. “When Mike walks into the room, Zachary just lights up; to him his father walks on water.”

Jeff lowered his head and ran a hand over his face. “I think we all felt that way at some point about our parents. I learned a long time ago that they’re just human, suffering from the same frailty and weaknesses as everyone else. The sooner he learns that, the less he’ll be hurt in the end.”

“Don’t say that.” Caroline’s voice broke and she covered her mouth with a trembling hand.

“Why? It’s true.” He flipped his hand in growing irritation.

“I want him to look up at his father and see the man that I know he is,” Caroline pleaded.

Jeff exhaled and shook his head. “I’m sorry, Caroline. I just don’t know that side of my brother. If that’s what Michael wants him to see, then he will.” He managed to get the curt response out, firmly setting the responsibility of Zachary’s opinion of his father on Michael’s shoulders.

“Jeff, I know there’s no love lost between you two, but it would mean so much to me if you would just talk to him.”

“How can you ask me that, Caroline?”

“He’s your brother.”

Jeff snorted and shook his head. “As if that should mean anything at this point. What the hell do you want me to say to him?”

Caroline leaned over in the seat and wrapped her hand around Jeff’s arm. “Jeff you’re the same man who gave me that box of airplane models to give to your nephew. So don’t try and convince me you don’t care, because I know you do.”

Jeff closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Why don’t you go inside, Caroline. It’s cold and I’m sure you want to get Zachary to bed.”

“You’re going to give up just like that?”

“Hey, it’s late, and frankly I’ve been through enough crap for one day.”

A light flicked on inside the garage and then they heard the rumble of the door as the automatic opener was engaged. A familiar figure walked toward them, stopping just inside the door.

Jeff turned off the headlights when he saw his brother bring a hand up to shield his eyes from their brilliant glare. Impatiently, he reached across the front seat and opened the door for Caroline.

“Look, it’s not going to work. He had seventeen years to think about it and the first thing he does when he sees me again is take a cheap shot at me.”

Jeff watched as Caroline’s expression sobered and she huddled deeper into the heavy, wool coat she was wearing.

“If you go back to California tomorrow, do you think you’ll ever talk to your brother again?”

No, Jeff thought to himself as he stared back at her. He realized his silence was an admission and looked away.

“That’s what I thought,” Caroline replied sadly.

He remained silent the entire time while she stepped out of the car and then retrieved her son from the back seat.

Why the hell should I care? Jeff flinched when Caroline slammed the door and walked away from the car. He threw the gearshift into reverse, looked over his shoulder out the rear window, and then stepped on the gas. As he backed out of the driveway, he caught sight of the cardboard box sitting on the back seat.

“Ah, shit!” He hit the brakes hard, causing the car to lurch to an abrupt halt. After he fumbled for the handle in the dark, he finally got the door open.

“Caroline! Wait!”

He watched her stop halfway, turn around, and look back at him. She made no move to return to the car.

With an exasperated sigh, Jeff grabbed the box from the rear of the car and then stepped out of the front seat. He could see Michael studying him from inside the garage and he wished he could read what was going on behind the enigmatic expression on his brother’s face.

“I … um,” he hesitated. Jesus, what the hell am I doing? “You forgot the box.” Brilliant. You’re a lawyer and that’s the best you can come up with?

“I guess I did,” Caroline stated offhandedly.

“I called your parent’s house and they said you weren’t there.” Michael stepped forward and took the car seat from his wife’s hands.

“I changed my mind and Jeff gave me something to give to you.”

Michael stared through his brother. “I can’t imagine anything he could have that I would want.”

Jeff gnawed on the inside of his lip, wondering briefly if he should just chuck the whole box at his bull-headed brother’s head and leave now, with what little dignity he had left. He exhaled forcefully and shook his head, wondering why this seemed so important now, after all these years that he try and rebuild a relationship with his brother.

“Look, I really don’t care what you do with this stuff.” Jeff stalked past Caroline and set the box on the top of the garbage can that was sitting next to the garage door. “They’re some old models that I made when I was a kid. Dad gave them to me today.”

Michael turned his head and scowled at his older brother. “Why would I want those things?”

“Michael, just listen to him,” Caroline insisted.

Jeff’s eyes met Michael’s and he returned the hardened look with one of his own “Like I said, you can throw them out or maybe, you’d like your son to have then one day. There was a time when you couldn’t keep your hands off them.”

He ran his fingers over the top of the box, searching for something to say, then, stepped away from his brother and headed back to his car. As he opened the door, he stopped and looked back.

“Caroline’s right, Michael.” He offered her a gentle, knowing smile. “I do care, and whether you like it or not, I’m still a part of this family. The question is whether you want to be a part of mine.”

He hesitated uncertainly before he got back in the car. Without another glance at his brother, he backed out of the driveway, wondering briefly if he would ever hear from Michael again.

******

Alex entered their hotel room and shed her black leather jacket, dumping it unceremoniously over the back of a chair. She tossed her keys onto the nightstand next to her pager.

Her younger companion strode in behind her and slumped onto the king size bed with a loud groan. “I can’t begin to tell you how glad I am that’s over,” Regina stated and dropped her head into her hands.

“It was pretty rough,” Alex admitted, judiciously keeping her opinions of Michael to herself. She could see the tension settle in her partner’s shoulders and scooted back on the bed so she was sitting behind Regina with her legs straddling the smaller woman’s hips. “Come here.”

She pulled Regina closer and started massaging the taught muscles at the base of her neck. “You’re really tight up here,” Alex tilted her head and peered around to look at Regina’s face. “Are you okay?”

“I think so.” Regina leaned back into the strong body behind her and sighed. “I don’t know why I feel the way I do. Jeff’s the one who got treated like shit today.”

“You love him. Why wouldn’t you be upset?” Alex kept up the kneading motion with her hands, wishing she could take away some of the hurt Regina was feeling.

“God, I can’t believe what a prick Michael was. I guess I know how he really felt about Jeff and me all those years.”

Alex pulled Regina back and rolled onto her side so they were curled up next to each other.

“Are you still up for driving out to Provincetown tonight?” Regina inquired. She nestled closer and rested her head on Alex’s outstretched arm. Inhaling deeply, a contented smile formed on her face as she savored the clean scent that lingered on her lover’s body.

“Absolutely,” the brunette responded and then nuzzled the back of Regina’s neck with her lips. She smiled at the soft purring noise her partner made and felt a stirring sensation in her groin as Regina pushed her hips back against her body. In response, Alex stretched the fingers of her hand out and teasingly slipped them beneath the waistband of the blonde’s jeans.

“I thought you wanted to leave.” Regina arched her back and rotated her hips into Alex’s belly.

“I do,” Alex chuckled seductively and kissed her cheek, knowing full well that if she stayed right here, there was no way they were going to make it to Provincetown tonight. “Let me go throw some cold water on my face and then we can go.”

“You’re such a tease,” Regina pouted at the sudden loss of contact that left her feeling empty and wanting. She rolled onto her stomach when she heard the water running in the bathroom and settled her chin on her forearms. Several tendrils of hair fell forward and Regina brushed them back behind her ear.

Her thoughts turned inward as her mother’s parting words to her replayed in her mind from earlier in the evening. Of course any relationship can be difficult. We’ve certainly had our share of obstacles, but we’ve made it so far. I wonder if any of that would matter to you, Mom.

She propped her chin on her hands and stared at the wall with a thoughtful expression on her face. I wonder where we are going.

Regina picked up Alex’s beeper, turned it over in her hands, and looked at the time displayed on the screen. Just after ten. If we leave now and don’t hit any traffic we’ll be in Provincetown by one in the morning at the latest. Not too bad.

Out of habit, she checked for any pages and unexpectedly found one. Oh boy.

“Alex?”

“What?” Came the muffled response as the taller woman walked out of the bathroom while she wiped her face dry with a terry cloth towel.

“You got a page from the emergency department.”

“What?” She reached for the beeper. “Let me see. I know Jon is covering for me while I’m away.” Alex strode over to her jacket and pulled out her cellular phone. She hardly looked at the keypad as she quickly punched in the numbers.

The doctor tapped her foot impatiently, waiting for the connection to be made and then spoke after the voice on the other end told her she reached Saint Xavier’s Emergency Department. “This is Dr. Margulies. Somebody paged me.”

She waited again as she was put on hold. A moment later a wry grin broke out on her face as a familiar voice came over the line.

“Hi Sandy. What’s up?” Alex rolled her eyes as the nurse recounted the chaos of the last couple of hours.

“What are you doing calling here while you’re off?” Sandy asked.

“I got a page earlier,” Alex replied.

“I don’t know who paged you. At least, nobody is owning up to it and anyway. Jon is here manning the zoo.”

The doctor chuckled at the image her mind conjured up. “Anything going on that I need to know about?” Alex inquired, as she ran a hand through her thick mane of hair.

“Some guy in a suit, was here looking for you earlier, but he wouldn’t leave a name or tell me what it was about.”

Alex could hear the irritation in Sandy’s voice. “Was it someone from the hospital?”

“I didn’t recognize him, but that doesn’t mean anything. You’ve seen on suit, you’ve seen them all,” Sandy drawled. “Oh I almost forgot. Pediatrics called a code six, twice tonight. I haven’t heard anything official, but security has been crawling all over the place.”

“So no one knows if a patient is actually missing or if it’s just a drill.” Alex glanced over at Regina and shrugged.

“No, not yet,” Sandy replied.

Alex heard loud voices in the background and then Sandy’s voice came back through the line. “I’ve got to go Alex. We’ve got two gun shot victims on the way.”

“Talk to you later. Bye.” Alex turned her phone off and tucked it back into the pocket of her jacket.

Regina sat up on the bed and leaned forward. “What happened?”

Alex shrugged. “Pediatrics may have a missing patient on their hands.”

“You’re kidding me! Maybe I should call the unit and find out what’s going on.”

Alex frowned. “No, don’t do that. We don’t even know if it’s for real and there’s nothing you can do about it from here anyway.” She turned away and tucked a few items back into her duffel bag. “Besides, if they did have a kid run off it’s going to end up being a police matter,” she added offhandedly.

There was a hesitation before Regina spoke quietly. “I guess you’re right.”

Alex heard the catch in Regina’s voice and turned around. Her eyes widened slightly when she saw the hurt expression on her partner’s face. “I’m sorry, Reg. That sounded pretty callous.” She sat down on the bed, rested her elbows on her knees, and looked over at Regina.

“It’s all right.” Regina averted her eyes from Alex gaze and then looked intently at the floor.

“No, it’s not. You have patients up there, so you have every right to be concerned. I shouldn’t be telling what you what to do.” Alex slipped her arm over the blonde’s shoulder and sighed. “You always think about everyone else before yourself. My motives were purely selfish.”

“What are you talking about?”

Alex snorted, feeling rather ashamed that she so easily discounted Regina’s concern. “I just don’t want anything to happen that would ruin this time we have together.”

Regina considered this while she regarded Alex’s stern profile. “I think I can understand why you would feel that way.”

“Do you?” Alex asked, afraid to voice what she was feeling.

Regina leaned back, supporting her weight on her hands. “Maybe I don’t, but I know how I felt when you first went back to work. I resented it.” She met the wary blue eyes and continued. “I resented it for all the times you sacrificed yourself to do what was right and no one bothered to even acknowledge what you’d done.”

Alex blinked, surprised at the anger she heard in Regina’s voice.

“So, I decided that it was all right to be selfish about the time we spend with each other. After what we’ve been through I think we deserve to be for a little while.”

Alex studied Regina serious expression for a moment. “I wasn’t sure what you would think of me if I told you that very thing. It’s not wrong to feel that way is it?”

“No, it’s not wrong and I’m not even sure it is being selfish,” Regina reaffirmed tenderly, as she gazed fondly at the proud and stoic woman. She ran her fingers through Alex’s long hair, lifting it back off her shoulder. “It’s human,” she admonished gently and pulled her lover closer, affectionately kissing her cheeks and forehead before lightly touching her lips.

Relieved, Alex let out a sigh and a slightest hint of a smile played around her mouth. She started to say something else when Regina leaned closer and kissed her again. She lost track of her thoughts instead, reveling in the sensations of Regina’s lips on hers and the warm hand lazily caressing her neck.

Regina slowly pulled away and smiled at Alex’s slightly unfocused gaze. “You don’t need to worry about what I would think of you. I love you.” With a smile, she tugged the taller woman to her feet. “Now I believe we have someplace to go.”

******

“Terry do you know where TJ is?” The nurse glanced at her watch, as she stepped into her patient’s room. The last time she checked, which had been over an hour ago, her patient had been curled up on his bed, staring at the television. Now, not only couldn’t they find him, but the plastic bag filled with his clothes was gone as well.

The young girl slowly pulled her eyes away from the television program she was watching to look at her. She shrugged. “Sometimes he goes down to the cafeteria to get something to eat.”

“What? He has no money!” the nurse exclaimed and then shook her head. “Oh never mind.” She ducked back out of the room and Terry heard her call out to the nurse’s station. “Tell security to check the cafeteria!”

Are they gone yet?” TJ craned his neck to peer up at Terry from beneath the bed.

“Shush. Just a minute.” Terry crawled off the bed and shuffled out into the hallway with her IV pole to look. She returned after a brief inspection. “There’s still one security guard hanging out at the nurse’s station.”

“The one that likes that nurse with the blonde hair?” He made a face and unrolled the towel where he hid the small stuffed animal he stole from the gift shop earlier that day.

It was easy since they were heaped up in bin by the door. All he did was wait until the woman behind the counter was distracted and then he stuffed the orange and black striped tiger underneath his shirt and slipped away unnoticed.

“Yeah,” Terry responded.

TJ scooted out and sat cross-legged on the floor. “Thanks for not ratting me out.” He tied the shoelace on one of his sneakers. He scraped at an old, brown bloodstain on the worn canvas.

“You’re not welcome.” Terry pouted from her perch on the hospital bed.

“I’m not going to another foster home,” TJ replied.

“Isn’t that better than living on the street?”

TJ stared up at her. “You wouldn’t understand.” How could she? Terry had two parents and a house to go home to. Nobody had ever gone into her room in the middle of the night, woken her up, and told her to pack up her things because she couldn’t stay there anymore.

The first time that happened it was because the cops found out his father was selling drugs out of the house. “We’re going to take you someplace where someone can look after you,” the man in the uniform told him.

He believed them, but it turned out to be a lie. Nobody told him how the foster parent’s real kids would resent him and make his life a living hell.

The last foster home he’d been in was no better. He suffered a beating at the hands of the woman’s drunken boyfriend one night. When it was over, he curled up in his bed and lay awake, afraid to go to sleep.

Without any real conscious thought as to where he would go, he had shoved his few possessions into a backpack and silently crept out of the house while everyone else was asleep. He couldn’t quite remember how long ago it was but he did know he was never going back.

TJ stood up and looked down at Terry. Her back was to him as she sat with her knees pulled up to her chin. He saw the shudder as she breathed and realized she was crying.

He looked nervously at the door, knowing he couldn’t stay long. They were looking for him. “Here.” He unceremoniously shoved the stuffed animal into her hands and stepped back.

Her eyes widened in surprise and she wiped her nose, sniffing loudly. “You’re the only friend I have here,” she whispered. It was true. TJ was the only kid on the floor who regularly came to visit her. He even brought her a bag of potato chips or an ice cream bar from his occasional late night jaunts to the cafeteria.

TJ looked down at the floor and frowned. “You’re my only friend too,” he said, when he looked back up at her.

Terry knelt on the mattress and crawled over to where he was standing and hugged him. “Where are you going?”

He shrugged as he stepped back self-consciously. “I don’t know.”

Terry wiped her eyes and reached into the nightstand by her bed. “Here.” She shoved her gray sweatshirt into his hands. “Take this. It’s cold.”

With a grateful smile he tugged it over his head. “Thanks.” His eyes darted up to her face and then he kissed her quite awkwardly on the cheek before he walked to the door.

He peered out into the corridor, waited until the coast was clear and then sprinted down the hall to the doors that led off the pediatric unit. He yanked the door open and bolted across the tiled floor to the open stairwell. With his heart pounding in his chest, he waited, listening for any voices. Hearing none, he scampered down the three flights of metal steps to the ground floor.

He noticed a couple of people dressed in scrubs and lab coats walking towards him but they were completely engrossed in their own conversation and ignored him. He saw the exit sign up ahead and walked quickly towards the revolving door.

“Hey!”

His whole body jerked, when he heard the sharp voice. He glanced up and saw the gray-haired man, dressed in green scrubs, mopping the floor off to his right.

“Watch your step there, son. The floor is still wet.”

TJ nodded and then stepped into the doorway. The cold air was a shock after the heat that was being pumped through the overhead vents in the doorway.

He pulled the sweatshirt sleeves down over his hands when he stepped outside. Without a backward glance he walked along the sidewalk and disappeared into the dark.

******

Alex rolled over in the queen-sized bed, folded her hands behind her head. The ride across the narrow peninsula the night before had been relatively uneventful. After stopping at a roadside diner for two large cups of coffee they were quickly on their way and arrived at Alex’s apartment on the Cape, early in the morning.

The bright light from the sun was just starting to peak through the glass doors that led out onto the small balcony. Through the windows, Alex could see the late winter sky. It was the off-season in Provincetown, and the town stood in stark contrast to summer season when its streets teamed with people.

She reached a hand out and stroked her fingers through the silky, flaxen hair that surrounded her lover’s head in a disheveled halo on the pillow. Her expression softened as she studied the fair-skinned woman’s youthful features.

Who would have guessed that this ornery, cynical, and untrusting soul would have found someone who believed enough in her to remain steadfast by her side? Certainly, not me, the doctor thought to herself.

Alex lifted a lock of Regina’s hair and curled it around her fingers while she continued to sift through her emotions. They’d known each other for almost a eight months now. It was hard to believe that it passed as quickly as it did.

The gray emptiness she drifted in before she met the Regina had been transformed and in its place was a landscape of vibrant colors. There were times when Alex looked at Regina and she wondered, what in her life she’d done right to deserve such a wonderful gift as her love.

Whatever it was, she vowed silently to god, that she’d spend the rest of her days trying to make sure she didn’t do anything to lose what had become as essential to her as the air that she breathed.

Alex exhaled softly as she acknowledged the powerful emotions stirring inside.

A tender smile crossed her lips as sleepy, green eyes fluttered open. Beneath the warm down covers, Regina shifted in the bed to curl her body into Alex’s and wrap an arm firmly around her waist.

“Morning,” Alex whispered, with an amused expression on her face.

Regina stretched and rubbed up against Alex’s naked body. “I don’t think I remember falling asleep last night.”

“You mean this morning,” the taller woman replied in an uneven voice as her body responded to the contact.

Regina blinked and lazily let a hand drift up and graze Alex’s breast before it settled on her shoulder. “I’m so glad you suggested we come out here instead of staying at the hotel. It makes yesterday seem like it happened a long time ago.”

“I wanted us to have more time together.” Alex’s eyes twinkled gently as she looked at Regina’s wistful smile.

“So, what do you have in mind now that you have me all to yourself?” Regina squirmed closer and playfully nibbled the skin along her jaw. Her fingers caressed her neck and she teased Alex with her fingernails.

Alex flashed a smile and let a hand stray over the silken skin of her lover’s belly. “Oh, there are a few things I could think of,” she replied, deepening the pitch of her voice, the one she knew drove Regina to distraction.

“Really? Mm, tell me,” Regina coaxed in a huskily, as she abruptly scooted up and straddled Alex. She nipped lightly at Alex’s earlobe, sending a shiver down the taller woman’s spine.

“There’s a little café where we could eat.” Alex caught her breath as a sensual wave of heat shot straight to her groin and ignited her desire. “Breakfast,” she gasped, as Regina trailed her lips along her collarbone and then captured a nipple and tugged on it gently.

“Then what?” Regina ran her tongue along the underside of Alex’s breast and then moved up to suck the hardened nipple between her lips again. Slowly, she relinquished the swollen bud and focused her attention on the other one. “Mm, still thinking?” she asked, as she lay kisses across Alex’s shoulder and then down her arm to taste the tender flesh along the inside of her elbow.

Regina trailed her fingers over Alex’s belly, skirted the dark tangle of hair, and then caressed the skin of her inner thigh.

Alex attempted to lift her head up and let it fall back onto the pillow with a groan. “You talk about me being a tease.” Regina smiled wickedly, before she tossed the bedcovers back and continued her slow, exquisite torture.

Nothing escaped her attention as she traced the contours of Alex’s calf with her tongue. Her exploration took her back the inside of Alex’s thighs where she rubbed her cheek over the quivering muscles.

“Oh,” Alex arched her back and dug her heels into the bed as Regina’s fingertips traced a meandering path over the fine, pale-colored hairs running down the center of her taut belly.

“Oh, what?” Regina teased, as her hand stroked over the coarse, dark hairs covering Alex’s mound.

Alex shuddered as Regina parted her moist lips. “Oh god.” She moaned and her hand covered Regina’s guiding it to where she needed her to be. Her body shuddered and she was sure she was going to explode long before Regina released her.

“Not yet,” Regina told her. She straddled Alex’s hips again, leaned forward, and touched her lips to the sweet mouth below her. She increased the pressure, her tongue slipping between those lips, teasing the softness of her lover’s mouth. Slowly she pulled away and smiled into the blue eyes before she left a searing trail of heated kisses along Alex’s long frame.

“You’re going to kill me,” Alex rasped, as she watched Regina slide down her body and settle leisurely between her legs. The only response she got was a knowing, seductive smile.

Regina teased Alex, blowing softly on the coarse hairs before she nuzzled the silky wetness of her swollen lips with her tongue. A moment later, Alex’s breathing went ragged and she pressed her head back into the pillow. Her hands clutched the sheets and she arched her hips, encouraging Regina to go deeper.

As Regina matched the rhythm of her lover’s hips with her thrusts, Alex reached overhead and grabbed the headboard. Their movements rocked the bed.

“Look at me, Alex.” Regina lifted herself up, still working her fingers in and out of the warm, wet, suppleness of Alex’s sex. She watched the blue eyes darken with unrestrained passion as they fixed on her.

Alex whispered Regina’s name, chanting the words, “Don’t stop, please, don’t stop,” she cried out, and her body arched and her hips bucked as the first waves of her orgasm raced out from her center. Bright lights danced in her vision and she clutched at Regina’s shoulders in an iron-like grip.

As the last shudders coursed through her, Regina wrapped herself around Alex and let the quiet afterglow consume them.

Sometime later, Regina smiled at the sight in front of her as she sauntered out of the bathroom. Alex was stretched out asleep on her stomach, head resting on her arms, with the bed sheet tangled around her waist. Her long dark hair, splayed out over the muscular expanse of her back.

Unable to resist, Regina straddled the firm buttocks and began massaging the strong shoulders. She pressed against the firm body and laid gentle kisses over the smooth skin until Alex stirred and lifted her head up.

“I guess we missed breakfast,” she commented in a sleepy voice.

“We sure did.” Regina rested the palms of her hands on Alex’s back, enjoying the warmth and the strength she felt beneath them.

Alex twisted beneath her, struggling to look up into those green eyes, which had held her captive during their lovemaking earlier. Up until now, she’d always been the one to initiate anything between them. “You, um, were more-” Alex frowned searching for words. “Aggressive today.”

She watched the blush creep up Regina’s neck and highlight the blonde eyebrows. Regina ducked her head and started to roll off of Alex to hide her embarrassment.

“Hey.” Alex shifted and caught Regina’s arm, stopping her. “Come back here,” she whispered and struggled to sit up beneath her lover. She lifted the Regina’s chin with her fingertips and kissed the soft, full lips. Alex’s tongue grazed the edges of her teeth before gliding over Regina’s tongue in a playful caress. She pulled away and looked into uncertain green eyes. “I liked it very much.”

Enough said, she flopped back down onto the bed and tucked her hands behind her head to watch Regina. A smile played at the corner of the blonde’s mouth and her blush continued. Instead of trying to slip away, Regina snuggled down on top of Alex and buried her head in her neck.

“I um … bought some books the last time I was here,” she confessed.

Alex arched an eyebrow and tilted her head to look at Regina, thinking back to last summer and wondering when she read them. “Really. That was quite a while ago.”

Regina giggled and nodded her head. “You’re telling me.”

Alex laughed at her remark and tickled Regina’s side with her fingertips, causing her to squirm. “So, I guess you liked them.”

“Very much,” Regina whispered, still keeping her head buried in Alex’s shoulder.

“Maybe we should get some more.” Alex rolled over and pinned Regina down, a predatory smile crossing her features.

“We’ll miss lunch,” Regina gasped at the sudden change in her position.

“I’ll make it up to you later,” Alex replied, as she ducked her head and kissed Regina again.
Chapter Twenty
Alex strolled down the quiet sidewalk with her arm draped affectionately over Regina’s shoulders. Both of them were bundled up in layers of clothes and heavy coats. It was almost comfortable in the sun but the shady overhangs of the storefronts brought an instant reminder that winter was reluctant to let go of its hold on the region.

Alex hugged the shorter woman to her, then, turned as Regina slowed and peered into another store window. She felt her shiver slightly and brought her lips close to her ear. “Are you warm enough?”

“Perfect,” Regina replied, smiling up into sparkling blue eyes. She snuggled closer within the embrace of Alex’s arm and sighed contentedly.

They had lounged in bed together until late that morning after they spent a leisurely time in loving exploration. It felt wonderful and the rest of the world with all its incessant problems seemed to fade farther away, unable to intrude on their special time together.

“Anything particular you’d like to do?” Alex asked, as they resumed their walk.

The narrow street opened up as they neared a wharf. The sweet smell of chocolate and fudge filled the air around them. “Oh boy. I hear my sweet tooth calling me.” Regina flashed a gleeful smile at her companion as she lifted her head and inhaled the fragrant aroma of the confections.

“I can’t believe they’re actually open,” Alex replied as she trotted up the concrete steps and pulled the door open for Regina. “After you.” She waved her arm in front of her and gave a half bow.

Regina winked playfully at her as she slipped into the warm, sweet smelling environment. “Wow! Look at all this candy.”

Alex walked up beside Regina and rested her elbow on the glass counter top, as she eyed the trays of fudge that were arrayed in the case below. A playful smirk tugged at the corner of her mouth and she cocked an eyebrow up when Regina tilted her neck and smiled up at her. Unable to resist the opportunity she leaned closer and whispered in Regina’s ear. “Isn’t chocolate an aphrodisiac?”

A blush immediately crept up Regina’s face and the blonde covered her face with a hand. “You’re incorrigible, Alex. You know that, right?”

A middle-aged woman with her hair pinned up in a bun, turned around, leaving the taffy she was working with and smiled at the two women across from her. “What would you ladies like?”

Alex cast a quick glance at Regina and answered first. “I didn’t realize you did such a big business that you stayed open all year.”

A smile broke out on the woman’s face. “You’d be surprised how many people buy this stuff and have it shipped all over the states. Do you know what you’d like yet?”

Regina cleared her throat and nodded. “I’d like a quarter pound of the dark chocolate fudge with nuts please.”

“Actually, make that a half pound,” Alex added.

“Oh, you have a sweet tooth. Do you?” Brown eyes regarded Alex from across the counter. “Coming right up. Do you want me to put it in a box?”

“Can you put half of it in a box and the other half just wrap up in a bag?”

“Sure.” Came the reply and the woman turned away to retrieve a medium sized, white cardboard box from a cabinet.

Regina reached out and ran her hand down the front of Alex’s off-white, ribbed sweater, shaking her head as she regarded the taller woman. “A half-pound? Sandy would have a heart attack if she saw the hunk of chocolate you just bought.”

“Well, I thought I might give her a small bit of it when we get back.” Alex brought her thumb and index finger together, indicating a very small hunk of fudge.

“I think you can spare more than that little bit,” Regina teased and grabbed hold of Alex’s hand playfully. She quickly found herself turned around and wrapped up in a tight hug.

A deep throaty, chuckle escaped Alex’s throat as she picked up Regina and set her down, facing the doorway. The younger woman fell into a fit of giggles and walked over to the counter to pay for their purchase. She turned and wagged a finger at Alex. “You do not need anymore chocolate.”

In response, Alex pushed out her lower lip in a pout and sauntered over to the door.

Regina paid the woman behind the counter for her purchase, and then followed Alex down the concrete steps. Standing on the sidewalk, she opened one of the packages and broke off a piece of fudge, which she immediately started to nibble on. “Alex, do you want a piece?” She watched as the taller woman came to an abrupt halt at the edge of the sidewalk. “Alex?”

“Huh? What?” A stricken expression crossed Alex’s face and she swallowed nervously. Her breaths came in short gasps and her stomach tied up in knots. She swallowed and clenched her jaw as a tide of guilt, remorse, and a deep sense of loss filled her soul.

She wasn’t prepared for the visceral response at seeing Lana’s store a mere fifty feet away in the distance and could barely contain the tears that unexpectedly brimmed in her eyes.

A hand touched her side and she closed her eyes before she looked into the green ones that she knew were watching her.

“Alex, what’s wrong?” Regina asked, as she looked into the tormented blue eyes.

Alex raised her arm and then let it drop limply back to her side and shook her head. What a blubbering idiot I am. Come on get it together here. “Nothing. It’s okay.”

She’d been so engrossed in their walk a few minutes before she hadn’t even realized how close to the store they were. Irritated with herself, for letting her emotions get the better of her, Alex turned away from Regina to collect her thoughts.

Regina could tell by the clipped response and the rapid darting of Alex’s eyes that she wasn’t telling her everything. She reigned in her initial response to pepper her with questions, knowing that if she gave the woman some space she would eventually get around to telling her what was wrong.

Instead, Regina slipped an arm through Alex’s and turned her so they were facing the bay. “You asked me what I wanted to do earlier. I want to take a walk by the water.”

“That’s easy enough,” Alex replied in an oddly subdued voice as she stepped down off the curb.

Regina glanced back over her shoulder as she fell into step beside her partner. There was no one in the street behind them and she wondered briefly what Alex saw that caused such an intense reaction.

She glanced off to her left and spied a small wharf with its boat slips and something came to her in a flash of memory. Regina tightened her grip on Alex’s arm and snuggled closer as they walked. You were so worried about how I would feel coming back here that you didn’t stop to think about how it would affect you. Did you, Alex?

The wind blew at their backs as they walked along the sidewalk and approached the jetty.

Regina tilted her head and closed her eyes for a moment while the wind to lift her hair from her face. She soaked in the rhythmic rumble of the waves as one after the other, they swept in from the depths, gathering strength, and speed only to crash into the sand and resume their journey back out to see again.

“I love to listen to the sound of the ocean,” Regina remarked, breaking the silence between them. “It’s soothing.”

“Soothing,” Alex repeated, shaking her head in wry amusement.

“You don’t think it is.” Regina blinked as the sun peaked out from behind a dark cloud.

“I guess. I don’t think of one of the most powerful forces on earth as being soothing.” Alex shrugged indifferently.

Regina regarded the sad expression on Alex’s face for a moment and then straightened her shoulders before letting go of her arm. “Come on. Let’s walk out on the jetty.” She held her hand out to Alex and then hesitantly let it drop as her companion made no move to take her hand. With an exasperated sigh, Regina turned and stepped up onto the rocks and began carefully picking her way across them.

After walking for several minutes, Regina finally turned around and scanned the distant shoreline for Alex. She was surprised not to see her anywhere. She ran a hand through her hair; a mixture of disbelief and anger running through her. “Dammit, Alex. Where the hell did you go?”

She toyed with the idea of walking back in to find Alex, but her stubborn nature won out. With a grim expression on her face she turned and continued to walk farther out on the jetty.

She tried to think about everything that they had done today and pick out what it was that caused Alex to be so upset. The only place that managed to get her was mad at herself for not asking the woman what was upsetting her when she saw the change in the expression on her face.

Had she done something to upset her? Regina didn’t think so but, at this point she wasn’t sure anymore. She cupped her hands together and blew on them before she jammed them back into her coat pockets and resumed her lonely walk away from shore.

******

Alex watched Regina for a moment and then looked over at the small diner. She frowned not quite understanding why she was feeling this way now, after all this time. I have no right to this, not after everything I’ve done. Frustrated, Alex bent down, picked up a medium sized stone off the ground, and tossed it in her hand before she threw it out into the waves. A plume of water shot up as it plunged into the water.

After a few minutes, she gazed back out across the rocks and was surprised at how far out Regina had already walked. Great, now I’ve gone and pissed her off.

This was not how she envisioned their day and Alex sank deeper into her sullen mood. She ducked her head and walked over to the diner. Inside, she walked up to the counter and ordered two hot chocolates. Disgusted with herself, she leaned on the counter, waiting for the waitress to finish filling the two Styrofoam cups with the hot beverage.

Ten minutes later, carrying a cup of hot chocolate in each hand, Alex walked back out to the jetty. She stepped up onto the mile long outcropping of rocks and frowned when she spotted the dark silhouette of her partner standing off in the distance.

She called her name out but the wind carried the sound back towards the shore and she knew unless Regina turned around she wouldn’t know she was there.

******

Regina was cold, angry, and upset as she hunkered deeper into her wool jacket. She walked out as far as she felt comfortable going and now was trying to decide if she wanted to start the equally long walk back in towards the shore. The wind had kicked up again and the dark waves sent a cold, salty spray up over some of the rocks below her.

She scuffed the toe of her shoe against the rock and turned around. She let out a startled gasp when she saw Alex walking towards her across the rocks.

The taller woman stopped a few feet away and just looked at Regina. After a moment’s hesitation, she set the two cups down on a flat rock and stepped closer, her gaze settling on her partner’s face.

“I’m sorry.” She glanced down at her sneakers and sighed.

“You should be … sorry,” Regina answered shortly, still confused, and hurt about what happened.

Alex darted a quick surprised look over at the fiery, green eyes. “I don’t know what happened back there.” She shook her head and stuffed her hands in her coat pocket to keep from fidgeting. “I mean I do, but … damn, this isn’t coming out right.”

A gull squawked as it flew in for a landing a few feet away from Alex and hopped around, searching for the odd scrap of food and any shells that might have lodged between the rocks.

Regina looked away from her. “I stood out here trying to figure out what I did wrong.”

A gust of wind whipped the hem of Alex’s coat whipped around her legs and she turned her head against the chill. “You didn’t do anything wrong, Regina. It was me.”

When she got no response from the blonde, Alex stepped closer. “Please look at me.” She expected to see tears brimming in her eyes when Regina finally turned her head and looked at her.

There were none.

“I … I,” she coughed and cleared her throat, then tried again to put into words the private, inner feelings she seldom acknowledged to herself, let alone to another human being.

Patient green eyes met hers when she hazarded a glance over at Regina.

Alex ducked her head and frowned as she stared down at the rocks beneath her feet. “I don’t know why it happened, but I felt it when we came out of the candy store. We were down the street from where Lana’s store used to be.” She took a step and turned, putting her back to the wind.

Now, facing Regina she continued haltingly. “I felt guilty about being here … with you.” Alex saw the look of bewilderment and hurt in Regina’s eyes and cringed, wondering if she was making things worse by telling her the truth. “I don’t know if I can explain this.”

“Try,” Regina answered over the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks.

Alex shook her head and looked out at the dark clouds gathering on the horizon. “You know what happened the last time you were here.”

“Yeah,” Regina drew the word out slowly, trying to figure out where Alex was going with this.

“Before you called me that night, I came out here and spread Lana’s ashes out over the water.” Alex pressed her lips together, remembering the moonlit night and the quiet sense of finality she’d felt standing out here alone. “At that moment, I never planned to come back here. I told myself I didn’t deserve to have that kind of happiness ever again after everything that happened.” Alex let her voice trail off and stared down at the water lapping up onto the rocks. “Now, here I am with you.” Alex spread her hands in defeat and hung her head.

Regina stared in disbelief at the bowed head. She had no words to answer what Alex just told her. Not knowing what else to do, she walked the short distance to where Alex had set the Styrofoam cups down and retrieved them.

“Here.” She pressed the now lukewarm cup into Alex’s hands and stood next to her. A shiver passed through her as another cloud passed in front of the sun, blocking the warmth of its rays again.

Her initial response to Alex’s words was to be angry and then resentful. How could she compete with Alex’s feelings of guilt and remorse for what happened in the past?

Then she had another thought that tempered her raw emotions. Six months ago, you would have never told me that, Alex. Regina sighed to herself as she pulled open the lid on the cup and inhaled the pleasant aroma of the hot chocolate before she sipped it.

Her eyes roamed cautiously over the grim countenance of her lover. I guess this is something we’re going to have to work on together, because I don’t think either one of us can do it alone.

“I don’t want you to believe that.” Regina reached out and touched one of Alex’s arms.

“Believe what?” Alex blinked and turned her attention back to Regina.

“That you don’t deserve to be happy.” Regina reached up and ran the back of her knuckles against the soft skin of Alex’s cheek. “I don’t choose to believe that.”

The taller woman closed her eyes and exhaled softly. “Your hands are freezing,” she commented gruffly, as her larger hand covered Regina’s. “I’m sorry.” Alex turned her head and pressed her lips into Regina’s hand before she pulled the smaller woman closer, and tucked her hand into the pocket of her coat.

Regina tilted her head to look up at Alex. “Let’s walk back so we can find someplace where we warm up and get something to eat.”

******

They were both cold and hungry by the time they reached the center of town. The sun had begun its descent towards the horizon and the sky was painted in brilliant shades of burnt orange and reds.

Alex felt the smaller woman shiver against her and she pulled her underneath an awning out of the wind. “Do you have any preferences where we go?”

Regina shook her head and pressed her hands up between their bodies, warming them between the layers of Alex’s coat. “No,” she replied, fighting not to let her teeth chatter. She looked across the street at the restaurant on the corner. Through the windows she could see dim lights and the outlines of tables and a bar. “What about over there?”

Alex looked across the street and shrugged. “Okay.” It wasn’t what she had in mind, but then again she had no one to blame but herself for ruining her own plans for a romantic dinner and evening.

She let the door shut behind her, shutting out the wet, damp wind that was beginning to blow in off the bay. Alex blinked as her eyes adjusted to the dim light. She looked around the rustic looking establishment. Fishnets, spears, and other whaling implements adorned the planked walls and ceilings above.

A haggard looking man with his hair pulled back into a ponytail, sat by the jukebox, staring intently at his drink. Behind the bar, stood a young man with curly, black hair and a nose ring, looking expectantly at Regina. Except for the four of them the establishment was otherwise empty.

Regina looked over from her perch on the stool. “What do you want to drink?”

“Whatever you’re having is fine.” Alex walked over, pulled a twenty-dollar bill out of her wallet, and set it on the bar. “It’s quiet in here,” she commented to the bartender.

“It’ll fill up later. We’ve got a band coming over to play tonight,” he replied and then retrieved two frosty mugs from inside a freezer and poured their drinks. He set them down on the counter and looked over at Alex. “You want to just keep a tab running?”

She shrugged a shoulder indifferently and pocketed the bill. “Sure.” She glanced outside where large, fat raindrops were starting to spatter on the windows and then looked back at Regina who stared at her over the brim of her frothy mug. “We might be here a while.” Alex sipped her beer and rested an elbow on the edge of the bar.

“Let’s go over there.” Regina tugged Alex’s arm and pulled her off the stool. She directed her companion to a dimly lit corner of the room and settled comfortably into a chair.

Alex draped her coat over the back of a chair and reached for Regina’s as the blonde shrugged out of it. Quietly, she settled into the chair opposite her friend and focused on her drink.

They were both quiet for a few moments until Regina cleared her throat and leaned forward, resting her elbows on the wooden table. “What was Lana like?”

The question caught her completely off guard and she missed the edge of the mug with her lips and sloshed the amber liquid on the table. Alex muttered a curse and quickly grabbed for some napkins to clean up the spill. Her eyes flicked over at Regina who was watching her intently.

“Sorry about that.” Alex set her mug down and took a breath.

Regina shook her head and looked away, her fingers fidgeting nervously on the tabletop. “I just … obviously you’ve been thinking about her and … well, I was curious.”

Alex stared at Regina from across the table. She saw the blush color Regina’s fair-skinned features and reached across the table to clasp her hands inside her larger one. “It’s okay. I just wasn’t expecting that particular question,” she assured Regina with a squeeze of her hand.

So, what was Lana like? She felt a pang inside as she recalled the pictures she kept in her nightstand and realized they were the only two she had of the woman.

“Lana was a brilliant doctor.” Alex trailed her fingertip down the side of the mug. “She was compassionate and dedicated.” She looked over at Regina and tilted her head, knowing that wasn’t what Regina really wanted to hear. “What do you want to know?”

“How did you meet her?”

A wry grin crossed Alex’s face and she sat back in her chair. “We were in medical school together. We ended up being lab partners in gross anatomy.”

Regina wrinkled her nose at the memory of that particular class and the stench of formaldehyde that clung to their lab clothes for an entire year.

“Actually, it was pretty funny,” Alex continued. “It was one of the first days in lab and we were all standing around waiting for the professor to unzip the body bag. He was an egomaniac and loved making a big production of it.” Alex shook her head in disgust. “You remember Richard?”

“The doctor who treated me up in Boston?” Regina’s face brightened for an instant.

Alex nodded. “He brought a bag of Granny Smith apples with him each day. I guess he thought it was a good way to get everyone to loosen up,” she chuckled at the memory of loudly munching on an apple and the looks the two of them were getting from their colleagues. “Anyway, this blonde-haired woman is standing in front of me during one of the lab sessions. I remember the professor unzipping the black bag in front of us and all of a sudden she leans back against me.”

Regina raised an eyebrow and leaned forward again. “What do you mean?”

“I mean her whole upper body.” Alex patted her chest and smirked. “I look over at David and he’s laughing. So, I nudge her and the next thing I know she’s on the floor out cold.”

Regina covered her face with her hand. “Oh no. She passed out.”

“Cold.” Alex grimaced. “David never let either one of us live it down. He said it gave new meaning to having someone throw themselves at my feet.”

“So, did you two start seeing each other after that?” Regina tilted her head and gazed over into Alex’s face.

A flicker of emotion showed in the blue eyes and Alex cleared her throat. “I guess you could say that.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Regina cracked a smile at the older woman’s evasive response.

Alex sat back in her chair and folded her hands on the table. “I don’t know that you’d call it dating, Regina. Things were always … intense between us. It was either good or it was bad. There wasn’t much room for anything in between.”

“Oh.” It was Regina’s turn to sit back. She studied the grain of the wood, her fingers idly tracing the whorls as she considered what Alex told her and how it made her feel. It felt weird and she was a little surprised at the unmistakable sense of jealousy that reared its ugly head. Stop it. Regina chastised herself. You asked her, so deal with it.

Alex finished drinking her beer and set it back down on the table. She nodded when the bartender walked over and asked if she wanted another drink. “Do you want another one, Reg?”

Regina jerked her head up at the sound of her name. “Uh, yeah. That’s fine and can we get some menus too?”

The curly headed man nodded and strolled back to the bar to refill their mugs.

“This time I’ll try not to spill half of it on the table,” Alex offered jokingly as she watched Regina warily from across the table. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” Regina tucked a few strands of hair back behind an ear.

Alex leaned forward and she slid her hand underneath Regina’s to still the nervous tracing. “You know, for all the things we were to each other, Regina.” Alex focused on the startled green eyes and continued. “Lana and I were never best friends.”

“You loved her though,” Regina replied, looking down at the thumb that was massaging her hand.

“As best as I was able to back then.” Alex sat back as the bartender returned with their drinks and menus. She waited to continue until after he left. “I was a different person when I met Lana, and you know what medical school was like. Weeks at a time would go by and we would hardly see each other.”

Regina offered a knowing smile as she recalled the endless hours spent researching and studying. It all seemed like a blur with classes, labs, and examinations that left little time for the normal things in life like eating and sleeping.

“We were two ambitious people and there was little room inside our egos for each other. Looking back now, I think I knew then, that our relationship wasn’t going to last.”

“Why do you say that?” Regina asked and then sipped her beer, peeing over the rim at Alex cautiously. “You took care of her right up until the very end.”

Blue eyes met hers and then looked away, staring out the window at the pelting rain. “Guilt is a strong motivator.” With that last remark, Alex slid a menu across the table and opened hers, signaling that the conversation was over.

******

Regina skipped along every few steps to keep up with Alex’s brisk pace. “You’d think the devil was hot on your tail the way you’re walking.”

Alex snorted and pulled her keys from her pocket as she rounded the corner from the street and walked over to the door to her apartment. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was, she brooded silently. She unlocked it and held it open for her companion to pass through.

Regina started to say something but stopped and simply trudged up the stairs when she saw the grim expression on Alex’s face. Over the past few months, she’d gotten better at reading her companion’s moods, knowing when to push and when to back off and give her time to herself.

Alex followed Regina up the stairs and stopped short when she realized she was about to plow right into her.

“What are you doing?” She tried to step around Regina.

Regina stepped sideways and blocked her path. “I’m waiting for you to stop your self-flagellation.”

Despite her bad mood, Alex had to bite the inside of her cheek to fight a smile from forming. “Is that what I’m doing?” she asked, her eyes level with Regina’s as she stood a step below her.

“Ha, ha.” Regina took the keys from her partner’s hands and walked toward the apartment door. She unlocked it and waited for Alex to join her inside before she spoke again. “I’m not sure what’s going on in that head of yours, but you need to stop and listen to me,” Regina said, as she shut the door and then faced her lover.

Alex folded her arms across her chest and pursed her lips together as she met Regina’s defiant gaze.

“I’m glad I talked to you about Lana.”

Wordlessly, Alex dropped her arms to her side and turned away. She shed her coat and walked over to couch where she sat down and tucked a leg up underneath her. She wasn’t … talking about that time of her life dredged up all kinds of bad memories.

“Why?” Alex asked quietly, without looking up at her.

Regina joined her on the cushions and leaned back. She could see the strain on Alex’s face as the dark-haired woman stared down at her hands that she had linked together in front of her. She willed her stomach to stop churning before she reached out and touched Alex’s hands with her own.

“I needed to know if there was still room enough inside your heart for me.”

Alex stared at Regina in wide-eyed disbelief. “Y … you’re kidding, right?” she managed to get out around the lump that suddenly formed in her throat.

Regina lowered her gaze and shook her head. “After what you said earlier, I … I wasn’t sure,” her voice trailed off and it was her turn to stare down at her hands, clutched together so tightly the skin over her knuckles turned white. Self-consciously, Regina loosened her grasp and flexed her hands.

Alex looked away sharply and clenched her jaw, fighting the sudden wave of heart-breaking pain in her chest. It was another lesson about how very fragile everything was for them still.

Very slowly, Alex raised an arm and rested her wrist on Regina’s shoulder. She curled her fingers around the smaller woman’s neck, and lightly grazed her thumb against Regina’s cheek. “I guess what I said didn’t leave you much reason to believe otherwise.”

A tear splashed down on the back of one of Regina’s hands. “Oh, Reg,” Alex whispered, as she inched closer. She wrapped an arm around the younger woman’s shoulders and pulled Regina to her. Alex pressed her lips against the top of the blonde’s head and held her close. “When I’m with you … the rest of the world could fall apart around us and it wouldn’t matter as long as we’re together.”

Regina let out a strangled cry and snuggled her body up against her partner’s sturdy frame. She gazed up at the chagrined expression on her face. “I … it’s just you don’t say what you feel and sometimes … I just need to hear you say that.”

Alex tilted her head back and exhaled, feeling very far out of her element. “I’m sorry. I … um … I’ll try to be better at telling you from now on.” Her heart slowed its wild beating and she rubbed her hands over Regina’s back. “I’d be lost without you, Reg.”

The stark look in the blue eyes when they focused on her, said it all. Regna leaned in and touched her lips to Alex’s mouth in a reassuring gesture of tenderness. “I would be too.”

Regina closed her eyes and the last thing she felt before she finally drifted off to sleep was the pressure of Alex’s strong arms as they wrapped around her and the whispered endearments that made her want to believe that everything would be all right.

******

Alex woke first and blinked her eyes in confusion as she looked around at her surroundings. Guess all that talking wiped us both out. Regina was still asleep with an arm wrapped tightly around Alex’s waist. She watched the tiny muscles twitch as the younger woman smiled peacefully in her sleep.

Cautiously, Alex ran her fingers over Regina’s cheek and brushed her hair back behind her ear. She had never been very good at verbalizing her emotions and it grieved her to know that what she shared with her yesterday caused Regina to doubt her love.

Alex shifted on the couch and gazed down at her still sleeping lover, then, whispered softly. “Don’t give up on me, Regina. I promise I won’t ever make you doubt my love for you again. You mean too much to me.”

Alex lay quietly for as long as her body would bear and then gave into her body’s need to stretch. She grunted softly as a vertebrae popped in her back. That’ll teach me to fall asleep on the couch, Alex chided herself.

Across the room, a shrill beeping broke the silence and she muttered a curse as she glared at the two duffel bags that were lying on the floor at the foot of the bed.

Regina grimaced in her sleep and reached up with an arm in a feeble attempt to stop the noise. Alex caught her arm before it collided with her nose.

“Reg, wake up.” She massaged the younger woman’s back and shoulders with her hands as she whispered to her.

The only response she got was a low groan and then Regina burrowed her face into Alex’s sweater before she stretched and lifted her head.

“Morning,” Alex said, as one green eye stared up at her and then closed.

“What is that god awful beeping?” Regina mumbled.

“It’s one of our pagers.” Alex shifted and struggled to push herself up as she extracted herself from Regina’s grasp. She stumbled across the floor and then cocked her head as she knelt beside their bags.

She unzipped Regina’s bag, pulled out the offending item, and switched it off. “Damn thing,” she muttered. She studied the backlit display and turned back to the couch. “Reg, it’s your beeper.”

“Throw it out.” Came the grumbled response.

Alex rolled her eyes, walked back to the couch, and stood beside her with a sympathetic expression on her face. “I don’t think I can do that, love. Here.” She held the black pager out to Regina.

“Ugh, I can’t even open my eyes yet,” the blonde complained as she took it from Alex and attempted to read the number.

“Need the phone?” Alex held out her cell phone to Regina.

“Thanks.” Regina rested her head against Alex’s thigh as she typed in the numbers and waited for the connection to be made. She tilted her head up to gaze at Alex and smiled at her rumpled appearance. “You look cute … hello? This is Dr. Kingston. Someone paged me.”

Alex reached down and offered a friendly scratch between Regina’s shoulder blades while she spoke.

“Uh, I’m sorry,” a meek voice replied on the other end. “I didn’t mean to bother you.”

“Wait, who is this?” Regina frowned, not recognizing the young voice.

“It’s Terry.”

Terry? Who do I know named Terry? Then, Regina recalled the young girl who she had given her pager number to before she left for the weekend. “Terry, what’s wrong?” she asked, her voice tinged with concern.

“I wasn’t sure I should call you.”

“It’s okay. I told you to call me if you needed to. Tell me what’s wrong.” She glanced up at Alex and smiled apologetically.

“It’s TJ. He left the hospital.”

Regina ran a hand through her hair and suddenly sat up straighter. “What do you mean he left?” Her voice rose an octave.

“He ran away the other night. The nurse told him they found another foster home for him to go to.”

Regina rubbed her face, wondering what she should say to the girl. “Terry, I’m sure the hospital has people looking out looking for him. He couldn’t have gone far.”

There was silence on the other end of the phone and then Terry quiet voice came through the line. “I know. I’m just scared for him. I’m sorry to bother you, Dr. Kingston.”

The line went dead and Regina groaned, as a feeling of helplessness overwhelmed her.

“What was that about?” Alex draped an arm over Regina’s shoulder and sat down beside her, studying the anguished expression the blonde’s face.

“Do you remember the code six from the other night? It was one of my patients.”

“Ah, I’m sorry, Reg.” Alex squeezed her shoulder. “Who was that?”

“One of the kids I was treating on the pediatric floor. You must think I’m really stupid for giving the service’s number out to one of my patients.”

“No, it’s just not something I would do. So who’s this missing kid?”

“A teenage boy who came in with a head trauma a couple of weeks ago. I guess he didn’t like the idea of going to another foster home.” Regina stared down at the phone and shook her head. “How can a kid just walk out of the hospital without anyone seeing him?”

“Probably not as hard as you think, with the way staffing is on the floors at nights.”

“I feel awful. Terry’s upset and I think she expected me to be able to do something.” Regina frowned and stood up suddenly. She pressed a hand to her temple and closed her eyes in concentration. “Wait, oh, what’s radiology’s number?”

Alex rattled the number off and watched uneasily as Regina paced.

“I need to speak to Dr. Summers, please. This is Dr. Kingston.” Regina stopped and stood in front of Alex as she waited. “I ordered a CT scan of his head. His white blood cell count was slightly elevated and psych was trying to delay his discharge. I thought that if there was something that could justify keeping him it might help.”

Alex raised an eyebrow but kept silent, knowing full well that Regina was taking a risk ordering a test under these circumstances. She watched as Regina turned away from her as she started talking into the phone.

“Hi, Dr. Summers,” Regina answered as the doctors voice came over the line. “I ordered a CT scan on a sixteen year old boy who was a John Doe.”

Regina frowned and shook her head. “No I don’t know his hospital number but he was on pediatrics. Sure I’ll hold.”

While Regina waited, Alex took the opportunity to dig her toiletries out of her bag and headed into the bathroom.

“Dr. Kingston?”

“Yes, I’m here,” Regina answered, smiling briefly, as she watched Alex’s shirt fly out onto the bed followed by her jeans and then undergarments.

“I have the results of the CT scan. Everything is fine.”

“So there’s no evidence of any new bleeding from the original injury to the brain?”

“No, he just needs to be kept on his anti-seizure medications for the time being.”

She knew this, but the doctor’s re-affirmation brought the seriousness of the information home to her. “Unfortunately, our patient happens to be the one they called the code six for the other night,” Regina replied. “I’m away and just found out today.”

“Oh, yes, I remember hearing the code called. Well, let’s hope they find the boy soon. I know I don’t need to tell you, but without them he’s at serious risk for complications.”

“Yes, I know. Thank you, Dr. Summers.” Regina shut the cell phone and tossed it down onto the couch with a sigh. “Now what do I do?” She had a sudden vision flash in her mind’s eye TJ, standing on a street corner lost and afraid.

It was a few minutes before Alex emerged from the shower with a towel wrapped around her lithe body. Her skin was tinged a healthy pink from the hot water. “Hey, what’s the long face for?” She strode over to where Regina was sitting on the couch and cocked her head.

Regina dropped her head into her hands. “The CT scan was negative, but I know he’s not taking his seizure medication. He’s at risk, anything could happen.”

Alex stared down at Regina and considered what they could reasonably do. “Why don’t you call Dr. Timmon’s office or the Pediatric department and see if they’ve heard anything about this kid’s whereabouts.”

She turned to walk away when she saw the doubtful expression on Regina’s face. “Hey, I’m sure they’re doing everything they can to find him.”

Alex crouched down in front of her, tilted Regina’s chin up and pressed her lips to Regina’s mouth in a soft, reassuring kiss. Her eyes twinkled softly after she pulled away and spent a moment just looking into the green eyes before her. “You know something. That kid is very lucky he’s got you to worry about him.”
Chapter Twenty-One
Some time later, the two women left Alex’s apartment and walked down Commercial Street to a small street side café that faced the bay. There was an eclectic air to the interior, with pastel colored murals painted on all the walls and old-fashioned ice cream parlor stools along the counter that gave the place an eccentric retro design.

Regina rubbed her nose and looked up at her companion. “Kind of bright, huh?”

Alex arched an eyebrow as she watched a waitress grab two menus from the counter and head in their direction. “It looks like the Easter Bunny nibbled on the wrong patch of grass and then came here to paint the eggs.”

Regina stopped laughing just long enough to hear the waitress introduce herself as Allison. They had their pick of where to sit and the waitress guided them to a booth in the back corner that overlooked the water at Alex’s request.

“Would you like anything to drink?”

“Two coffees, please,” Alex replied, as she settled into the booth.

“Certainly.” She flashed them a bright smile and sauntered back behind the counter.

“Alex wouldn’t you love to have a room painted like this with all these wild and crazy colors?” Regina leaned across the table and smiled up at her.

Two blue eyes peered back at her from over the menu. “You’re kidding, right?”

Regina held the smile as long as she could and then dissolved into a fit of giggles again. “Sorry, I think this place is making me feel goofy.”

“Well, if you really like these colors, I’m sure we could find some edible body paint in one of the stores and play connect the dots later,” Alex deadpanned, enjoying the wide-eyed expression on Regina’s face for a few seconds. “Breathe, Reg.”

“Hmm, maybe we should go check one of those stores out. That could be interesting.” Regina arched an eyebrow and blew a kiss across the table at Alex.

The taller woman leaned back against her booth and groaned. “God, I walked right into that.”

They carried on for a few more minutes, totally absorbed in each other, until they both ended up laughing so hard that tears rolled down their cheeks. Alex held her hands up in surrender.

“No more. Please, you’re going to kill me if we keep laughing like this.”

Regina inhaled and regained some of her composure before she opened the menu and quickly read it over.

Their waitress appeared, having taken the silence at the table, as they were ready to order. “So what would you ladies like to eat?”

Alex coughed and cleared her throat as she glanced across the table at Regina. The blonde was blushing badly and trying desperately not to burst out laughing again. “Fried eggs over easy and pancakes, for both of us,” she answered quickly.

“Great, thanks.” Allison gathered up the menus and graced them both with a bright smile.

Regina tried desperately to keep a straight face as the waitress left to place their order and then sunk very low in her booth and started to laugh again. “Teach us to have conversations like this in public,” she finally managed to get out.

“Mm and who started it?”

“Okay, okay truce. I can’t handle any more laughing right now,” Regina replied, still holding her stomach. She decided it felt good to laugh and carry on like two kids.

Regina glanced out the window at the water. She was glad to be out of the apartment. After placing telephone calls to Dr. Timmons office, security, and the pediatric floor she knew no more now than she had after her brief conversation with Terry. She still couldn’t shake the haunting image her mind conjured up of TJ all alone possibly sick or hurt.

“Hey. Where did you go off to?” Alex waved her hand in front of Regina’s eyes, smiling as the blonde blinked her eyes and refocused on her.

“Sorry. I just can’t get him out of my head.” Regina toyed with her fork and shook her head as she let out an exasperated sigh. “It’s like he just disappeared into thin air and nobody seems to know anything, let alone, care very much that he’s gone.”

“Security filed a missing person’s report with the police department and they’ve probably checked every inch of the hospital to make sure he isn’t hiding out somewhere,” Alex told her. “It’s been forty-eight hours so the police are officially involved.”

Regina set her fork down and took a sip of her water. “I just hope they find him and that he’s okay. The longer he goes without his medication the more at risk he is for having a seizure.”

Alex pressed her lips together and tilted her head, feeling the worry, and genuine concern Regina expressed. “I know you’re worried about him. Let’s eat and try to enjoy the rest of today.” She stopped and leaned forward as Regina turned her head and looked out the window with a forlorn expression on her face.

“I just wish there was something I could do,” she whispered, her voice trembling slightly.

Glancing down at her watch, Alex considered if there was any benefit in returning a day earlier than they planned. It wasn’t what she wanted to do, but if it made Regina feel better she decided it would be worth it. “It’s eleven o’clock now. If you wanted to, we could drive back after we eat. Maybe there is something we can do to help.”

“You would do that?” Regina regarded the serious expression on Alex’s face as the older woman steadily met her gaze.

“Yes,” Alex replied and leaned back as the waitress arrived with their plates of food. She let an easy, graceful smile cross her lips, while she was swept in by the look of quiet admiration and love she was getting from across the table.

******

Alex draped an arm over Regina’s shoulder as they walked down the street after they finished and paid for their meal. She felt better having food in her stomach, the dull headache she had earlier was receding and Regina seemed to be in better spirits as well.

“Ooh, how pretty.”

Alex turned her head and looked over to see what had caught her partner’s attention. A wooden box supported on a sturdy pedestal, its locked glass lid, protecting a small array of sparkling jewelry. Alex glanced up at the store and saw the lights on inside. “It’s open. Do you want to go in?”

“Do you mind?” A curiously shy look crossed Regina’s features when she looked at her partner.

“I wouldn’t have offered if I did.”

Regina laughed, not quite understanding the nervousness she felt in her gut as she tugged Alex’s hand and started up the brick steps.

A red-haired woman looked up from behind the counter. “Hi,” she greeted them with a friendly smile and went back to her work.

After returning the greeting, Regina’s attention was immediately drawn to a glass case to the right of the door. It was filled with ear rings, specifically a beautiful set of sparkling sapphire stones that winked at her from underneath the lights.

Regina looked back at Alex and raised an inquiring eyebrow. “I’d like to see that pair, please.” She pointed down at the gleaming azure jewels inside the case.

Alex’s heart skipped a beat and her throat went dry as she looked on. While the woman retrieved them from the case, she discreetly slipped over to the other side of the store and took great interest in the necklaces laid out on the white background. Her eyes strayed over to the rings and she briefly studied several of them as she took a few deep breaths, wondering why she felt so out of control.

Soft footfalls, muffled by the carpeted floor approached and then she felt a warm presence at her back. Alex shifted and turned around, her eyebrows creeping up beneath her bangs when Regina held the sapphire-blue, gemstone earrings up next to her face.

“I think they’d look beautiful on you,” Regina commented softly.

Alex swallowed and ducked her head, feeling a completely unexpected surge of adolescent awkwardness. “With this long hair? You’d never see them,” she replied, feigning a casual offhandedness she didn’t feel.

Regina made a clucking noise with her tongue and lowered her hands. She slipped one into Alex’s hand and laced their fingers together. “You would if you pulled it up, just like you did when you had to give that presentation at the hospital last summer.”

She waited for Alex reaction, knowing she remembered exactly what she was talking about. Regina certainly did. Alex had managed to turn an incredibly hostile environment to her distinct advantage that day. “You looked really hot, um … ” A blush colored her face and she shook her head. “You looked really nice in that blue pant suit you were wearing.”

“You,” Alex cleared her throat and looked down at the floor before she tried again. “You remember that?”

Their eyes met and Regina simply nodded her head. “So, listen … just don’t say anything right now.”

“Bu … Reg, you don’t … I.” Alex stammered and didn’t get to finish as two fingers pressed against her lips, quieting her strangled protests.

“Shush,” she gently chided her and felt a tremor run through the hand she was still holding. Regina smiled up at the bewildered blue eyes that stared back at her, knowing she’d caught Alex completely off guard. “Maybe when we get back home, we can go out someplace nice one night and you can wear them, because I’d really be honored to get them for you.”

She’d be honored? Alex met her gaze and got lost in the quiet regard, as she thought about that.

After a moment, Regina turned, but before she could walk away, felt the warm weight of Alex’s hands on both her shoulders and was pulled gently back against the taller woman, and heard these whispered words.

“Thank you.” Alex squeezed her shoulders and leaned around to place a soft kiss on her cheek.

“You’re welcome.” Regina closed her eyes briefly and smiled as a warm, wonderful feeling flowed through her as she walked back to the counter.

Subtle things were changing between them, Regina acknowledged; like the fact that Alex had shared some of her insecurities about their relationship with her the day before.

Even though it had been painful to hear the words, she knew it meant that some unseen barriers were finally sliding away.

The woman behind the counter, gladly wrapped up Regina’ purchase, smiling as she handed it back across to the blonde. “You picked out a beautiful pair of sapphires.”

“Thanks,” Regina replied, thinking they were almost as captivating as the Alex’s blue eyes. She chuckled at the thought. No way do they even hold a candle to your baby blues, Alex.

When she was finished, Regina joined Alex over by one of the glass cases and stood beside her. She bit her bottom lip and arched her eyebrows as she looked up at the serious expression on Alex’s face. I hope she doesn’t think I got her these because she offered to go home early. Regina tossed the thought away and nudged Alex with her hip.

“You ready?”

“Yeah.” Alex nodded her head and gave her a crooked half smile before she walked over and opened the door for Regina.

After walking along the street for a few minutes, Alex guided Regina down through a half-filled parking lot to a small patch of beach. There was an old sun-beaten, turquoise colored row- boat that looked like it had seen better days lying upside down, half-buried in the sand.

Their shoes crunched softly through the sand as they trudged over and took a seat on the end of the boat. Regina snuggled closer to Alex and wrapped an arm around the taller woman’s waist to ward off the chill of the damp sea air. A stiff breeze lifted Alex’s hair, blowing it back off her face while she soaked in the blissful feeling of her lover’s embrace.

Alex cleared her throat and gave Regina a nudge with her shoulder. ” So, do you think your Mom is over the shock of your declaration the other night?”

“What? Oh, geez.” Regina rubbed her face sheepishly. “That just slipped out of nowhere. I wanted to die.”

“Mm, I think that made three of us at the time,” Alex deadpanned.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”

Alex let out a soft chuckle and rubbed her temple. “You didn’t, well not too badly. Just caught me by surprise. I’m pretty sure we answered any lingering questions she had when she walked in on us kissing.”

Regina ducked her head and groaned. “I’m sure I’ll hear about that the next time I talk to her. My parent’s are not big on public displays of affection.”

Alex felt the slump in Regina’s posture and sensed the quiet depression settle over her partner. “Hey. What’s up?” She ran her fingers through the pale hair and sucked in a breath at the forlorn expression on Regina’s face.

The blonde shook her head. “Right when we were leaving my mother was questioning why I would want to be with you. I don’t know if she’s ever going to accept our relationship or you.”

Alex drew the collar up on her coat and stared down at the sand. She didn’t worry so much about herself and what Regina’s mother thought. If the woman chose not to like or accept her, then, so be it, but she knew it was important to Regina and at the moment she wasn’t quite sure what she could do about it. She offered up the only thing she knew to be true. “Sometimes the only thing that brings people around is time.”

They were both silent for a while, lured in by the rhythmic sound of the surf. There was less of a breeze today and the warmth of the sun could be felt when it poked through the high clouds.

Regina glanced up at the intense profile and caught Alex staring out at the horizon, a faraway expression on her face. “What are you thinking?”

Alex looked down at Regina and then refocused her attention out at the water. “Do you remember the fire fighter we met over at the clinic?”

“Yeah, his name was Todd, I think,” Regina answered tentatively, wondering what had brought this subject up. She had a suspicion that at the time Alex had been more than a little annoyed at the innocent attentions that the young man had shown her.

It wasn’t until they finally broke past the hurt and confusion did Regina realize the extent of the emotional turmoil and stark vulnerability that haunted her partner. Little pieces fell into place and some of pain receded that night they talked, leaving them a chance to start to heal the wounds that were keeping them apart.

Alex’s voice interrupted her thoughts. “Didn’t he mention that there was a kid that got attacked right by there?”

Regina leaned back in Alex’s arms and regarded the sober expression on her partner’s face. “Yeah, he did. The night he came over with Dana’s … um … the German Shepard he rescued. Sorry, I didn’t mean to bring that up.” Regina smacked the side of her head. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Just what she needs is a reminder of who shot her.

Alex pulled Regina’s hand down. “Hey, don’t do that.” She cupped Regina’s face with her hand and regarded her seriously. “I don’t want you to feel like you have tiptoe around that subject. It didn’t do us much good when we did before. Did it?” Her voice lowered and gentled as she rubbed a thumb over Regina’s cheek.

Regina blinked and stared up at Alex. “No, it didn’t,” she admitted quietly and leaned into the caress, glad that they regained the quiet intimacy that had become a wonderful part of their relationship. “Alex, you didn’t really think I was interested in Todd, did you.”

Alex darted a sideways glance at Regina and exhaled forcefully. “Blunt and to the point as usual, eh?”

Regina let her hands fall down between her knees and studied the faded and peeling paint on the boat. “Sorry, I just remember … and I wanted you to know, that was never the case.”

“I know that.” Came the soft, rumbling reply as Alex wrapped an arm around Regina’s shoulder and pulled her close. “I just … wasn’t feeling really very good about who I was or what had happened.” Alex hesitated and then looked right into Regina’s eyes. “I couldn’t help but think that it would be a hell of a lot easier for you to be with someone who didn’t have a whole lot of baggage they were carrying around.”

“It wouldn’t have been easier,” Regina sighed, remembering the long, interminable seconds in the emergency department when she could feel that force, that life giving bond that was her partner’s soul slipping away. “I almost lost you once. I don’t for any reason ever want to know that feeling again. It would kill me.”

Alex blinked and let the fiercely spoken words sink inside her soul. “That’s not going to happen. I’m not going to leave you, ever.”

Regina studied her and then tilted her head, as she let herself drown in the depths of those blue eyes. “You mean that.”

She looked at Regina and smiled. Yes. There were so many things she’d come to look forward to in their relationship and she realized that she didn’t want to have to live without them.

She loved to hear her infectious laughter and watch Regina toss her head back with a radiant smile on her face. What she had grown to like the most, was how Regina would touch her when she was telling her something, just reach out and put a hand on her arm or shoulder. They were simple gestures but they had woven themselves into the tapestry of her soul and awakened a desire deep inside that she long ago shut the doors on.

A tiny smile formed on Alex’s lips and faintly uncertain, pale, blue eyes peered out underneath wind-rumpled bangs. She could feel a moment unfolding between them, one that would forever be etched in her memory as she looked deep into those green eyes and saw reflected back a look that gave her the courage to speak what she already knew was etched forever in her soul. They were she realized, the truest words she’d ever spoken and they came from somewhere deep inside her heart in a rush of emotion.

“We’ve kind of done this sickness and in health thing already and if … you’ll have me … I’d like a chance to find out about the good times and bad times too.” Alex waited, watching the stunned expression blossom over Regina’s face.

A second later, she found herself enveloped in a passionate hug that rocked her backwards over the keel of the upended boat and dumped them both unceremoniously in the sand.

Regina picked her head up and brushed her hair back off her face. “Oh, I … that was bad. I’m sorry.”

“So that’s what they mean about being knocked off your feet.” A low, rumbling chuckle trickled up from deep inside Alex’s chest as she peered up into the mist green eyes.

“Um, I know it’s not the most traditional way … ” She glanced around her immediate surroundings with a rueful eye and moved her arm in a wide arc, enjoying the feel of the course grains on her fingers. “No ring and not exactly the romantic setting you deserve, but I promise when we get back I’ll make it up to you.”

Regina shook her head and kissed the tip of Alex’s nose. “I don’t need you to make anything up to me.” A serious expression took over her face and Regina sat up, straddling Alex’s hips. “In fact, if you told me you wanted to be one of those doctors who travel around the world from place to the next, setting up clinics and the like, I’d be right there with you.”

“Really?” An excited fire glinted in Alex’s eyes.

“Absolutely.” Regina sat back and smiled, tracing her fingers over the strong, angular planes of Alex’s face. “Do I detect a bit of wanderlust in you?”

Alex’s lips curved into a grin and she reached up lacing their fingers together. “You know what I’ve always dreamed of doing. Travel to some of these countries that don’t have a good medical system in place, teach them what we know and help them set up clinics.”

“That sounds like it would be exciting.”

Alex wrapped her hand around Regina’s neck and pulled her down for a kiss. It was several moments before they broke off.

Just then, Regina lifted her head and frowned. “Alex, get up.” Regina leaned back and stumbled to her feet as the leading edge of the first wave washed up onto the sand.

She winced at the assortment of curse words that spouted out of Alex’s mouth as she hopped to her feet and danced away from the oncoming surf.

Regina glanced up at Alex, watching as sand and droplets of water exploded from her hair as she shook her head vigorously. Her quick reflexes allowed her to avoid most of the water but her sneakers and upper half of her coat were soaked.

Casting an annoyed glance at the incoming tide, Alex muttered under her breath and then turned to look at Regina. “Oh, so you think it’s funny. Huh?” A rakish grin spread over her face.

Regina shook her head and stepped back, doing her best to stifle a giggle. “No, no … but you have to admit it was … Alex,” her voice lowered and she started to backtrack up the sand toward the pavement. “Alex don’t you dare, that water is freezing.”

“It is, is it?” A diabolical grin crept over Alex’s face and Regina shrieked as the taller woman darted after her.

She managed to duck under the outstretched arms once and then realized as she whirled away that Alex was chasing her right back to the water’s edge. Regina closed her eyes and huddled down waiting for the inevitable … that never came. Carefully, she peaked out from one eye and sucked in a breath when she saw blue eyes peering at her from very close range. Oh damn, she cringed.

“Gotcha.” Alex winked and hopped back a step when Regina swatted her arm at her in mock annoyance.

“You’re a brat.”

Alex arched an eyebrow and pulled Regina closer to her as another wave swept up over the sand, leaving a sweeping arc of foam only inches from where they were standing. “I am no such thing, but I will be an ice cube pretty soon if I don’t get out of these wet clothes.”

Regina fell into step alongside Alex and sighed as she eyed the water dripping from her coat and the puddles forming around her sneakers with each step. “Sorry about that. I looked up and the wave was right there.”

Alex snorted and nudged Regina with her hip.

******

They enjoyed a long hot shower that culminated with Regina pushing Alex onto the queen size bed and settling against her warm, naked body. It was nice, she mused, just to lie there afterwards in a contented haze, her fingers idly tracing the contours of her lover’s body.

Later, after Regina’s stomach had made itself known she had run out to the store to gather a short list of supplies that Regina wrote down while she was still lounging in their bed.

Alex purchased everything that Regina requested and even managed to find a kit of multi-colored threads that she used to make bracelets with when she was younger. Alex snorted and shook her head at her childish indulgence as she tromped up the stairs to their apartment.

What would Regina think? Sorry excuse for anything after what I said earlier. With a disconcerted grunt she opened the door to the apartment and stopped, her jaw slackening a little as she took in the sight of the flickering candlelight that was illuminating most of the apartment in a soft yellow glow.

“Bu … wh … Regina?”

“Hey.” The smaller woman stepped up beside her and smiled shyly. “I hope you don’t mind, I rummaged through the storage closets and found all these.” Regina waved her arm around the room. “Guess you like candles, huh?”

Alex felt one of the bags lifted out of her arms and she blinked as she looked around the apartment that had been transformed in her absence. “I forgot I had all these candles.”

“Is it okay?” Regina asked quietly, trying to judge her partner’s muted reaction.

“Okay? Regina, it’s more than okay.” Alex set the bag she was holding down on the table and took the younger woman in her arms. “It’s beautiful.”

“I’m glad you like it,” Regina whispered, against the leather coat.

“I love it.” Came the quiet reply. Alex closed her eyes and hugged the smaller woman to her.

They held each other for a few more moments and then Regina peered over into the bag. “Ooh, you got wine.”

“Well, I thought it was appropriate for the occasion.” Alex let her arms drop to her side and she regarded the contents of the bag with a suspicious eye. “You want some help with the cooking?”

Regina shook her head, pulled the still damp coat off her partner’s shoulders, and set it on a hook behind the door. “No. Go sit over there and relax.”

Alex eyed her for a moment and then sauntered over to the leather couch and flopped down. She drew the small kit out of her pocket and peeled the plastic off with her fingers. Her eyes darted over to where Regina was busily chopping something up by the sink. Satisfied that she was engrossed in her task, Alex selected the colors she wanted and started to work on her project.

It was a comforting feeling to sit here in Regina’s presence Alex mused, as she stole occasional glances at the younger woman while she worked on the bracelet. She suspected that all the talking they did over the past few days had brought them closer and the possibilities of where there relationship was going intrigued her.

“Alex?”

Regina’s voice caught her attention and she looked up. “What?”

“What made you think of that kid getting attacked by the clinic?” Regina glanced over and then went back to chopping up the vegetables for the stew she was making.

Alex stopped the motion of her fingers and sighed. “I don’t know. I guess you got me thinking about your patient.” Alex regarded the green eyes thoughtfully for a moment and gnawed on her lower lip before she spoke again. “Do you still want to drive back? We could leave tonight after we eat.”

Regina stopped what she was doing and looked over at Alex. “No, but thanks for asking. I appreciate it. I’ll call security later on and see if they’ve heard anything. Maybe they’ll have some good news.”

Alex watched as Regina dumped several handfuls of vegetables into the pot and then opened a package of meat and started chopping it up into neat cubes. The sound of sizzling reached her ears and the sharp tang of garlic and onions tickled her nose. She glanced down at her handiwork and tied a final knot to secure the bracelet together.

After stretching, Alex tucked the bracelet into her pocket and stood up. Her nose twitched as she inhaled the smells of vegetables sautéing in the pot.

“Wow, that smells great,” she offered, as she walked up behind Regina and peered into the bubbling mixture.

“Good. I hope you like it.” Regina glanced back over her shoulder. She added the cubes of meat and stirred them around in the mixture.

“I’m sure I will.” Alex leaned closer and dropped a soft kiss on the side of Regina’s neck. She smiled when she saw the smaller woman shiver and nibbled her earlobe.

“Hey, no fair. You’re distracting the cook.”

Alex chuckled, and stepped back a little and continued watching the younger woman with interest. “How about I pour us some wine?”

“Mm, good idea.” Regina wiped her hands off on a dishtowel and turned to face her taller companion. There was something she’d been meaning to do for quite a while now and an opportunity never seemed to present itself at just the right moment, but tonight things were falling into place nicely.

She accepted the glass of wine Alex handed her and sipped it, her eyes twinkling gently as she looked back at her lover over the edge of the glass. “Come with me.” Regina reached out and took Alex’s hand, leading her over to the sliding glass door.

Alex reached out, and unlocked the small latch and slid the door open. “It’s a little cold out, don’t you think?”

Regina, not to be dissuaded, handed Alex her glass of wine and stripped the blanket off the bed.

Alex raised an eyebrow. “Are you planning on being out here for a while?”

“Well, the stew does need to cook and I thought it might be nice … ” Regina draped the blanket over Alex’s shoulders and then set the glasses of wine out on the rail of the deck. ” … If we stargazed for a bit.” With a smile, she slipped herself underneath the warm folds of the blanket and wrapped her arms around her lover.

Alex stared at her for a moment before she closed her eyes, tilting her head, as a memory jogged bits and pieces of a simple request made through a haze of pain all those months ago.

Regina waited for Alex to refocus on her and tugged her out the door onto the small deck. “So, I was telling you about Orion’s Belt the last time we did this.”

Alex grinned and wrapped her arms around Regina’s middle, pulling her close in front of her. “I remember.” You were standing so close to me, my insides were all tied up in knots I was so nervous. I should have known then what was happening to me then.

“Did you know that in Greece, Orion was the son of Neptune?” Regina tilted her head and looked up at the shadowed face behind her.

“He was a hunter and Diana’s lover, right?”

A delighted smile broke out on Regina’s face. “Ah, you remember a bit of Greek mythology, too!”

“I used to read some books about it when I was a kid, yeah,” Alex admitted quietly, enjoying the warmth of her lover’s body pressed up against her in contrast to the chill of the night air around them.

Regina reclaimed one of the glasses and took a sip of wine, then offered it up to Alex who willingly obliged her. The taller woman leaned over, cupped Regina’s cheek with her hand, and pressed their lips together, sharing the berry tasting liquid with her.

Alex lifted the glass from Regina’s hand and set it back down on the railing before she reclaimed her lover’s lips in a long, leisurely exploration. Her hands wandered over the soft curves and firm muscles, building a fire in her belly that extended outwards until her breathing became ragged.

She felt the smaller woman tremble against her and eased off, resting her forehead against Regina’s. “We’d better stop that or I know we won’t be eating any dinner. Do you need to check on it?”

“Nah, it’s on a low flame, so we have plenty of time to snuggle,” Regina replied, running her hands over Alex’s back. That was another thing that was different between them now she realized. After her injury, Alex had quietly rebuffed Regina’s tentative advances at intimacy, but now that they gotten past that rough spot, it was like they both craved the security of each other’s touch.

Alex hugged Regina against her, nestling the blonde head beneath her chin. There was a contented, peacefulness about standing under the stars like this, something she’d never felt before, but yet somehow familiar and comforting at the same time.

“Give me your hand.”

Regina frowned but lifted her right hand and Alex grasped it gently in her larger one. She watched with shy interest as Alex drew something from her pocket and wrapped the finger wide band around her wrist.

“You made this.” Regina’s voice faltered, as gentle fingers brushed against her wrist, tying the ends into a secure knot.

“Yeah, I wanted to give you … something today. I mean … ” Alex exhaled, but didn’t let go of Regina’s wrist. She stepped around, drawing Regina into the light that filtered through the sliding glass door from inside the apartment. Her heart was pounding so hard in her chest she was surprised that Regina couldn’t hear it.

Regina wasn’t sure but she thought she could see a faint blush covering Alex’s features as she stumbled over her words. Why are you so nervous?

“See, I used to read these books about the Middle Ages, too. My brother and I would pretend we were knights, and plan elaborate battles and rescue people from the evil warlords.”

“Who were you rescuing?”

Alex sucked in her lower lip and closed her eyes. “My mother.” It was an admission she never made to anyone before and had only recently allowed herself to open those doors to the painful childhood memories she kept tightly locked away. “We weren’t very good at it and most times we just pissed my old man off with all our running around and hollering.”

Regina rested her head against Alex’s chest. “I wish I knew you when I was younger. We would have made great friends.”

Alex snorted and wiped her eyes, grateful that Regina wasn’t looking up at her. “Regina, I was bad news back then and everyone knew it. Your mother would have taken one look at me when I was a kid and chased me off with whatever she could get her hands on.”

“I would have found a way to be with you.”

This brought a smile to Alex’s face, knowing that when Regina decided she wanted something she usually got it.

“The um … knights,” Alex continued. “They used to paint designs on their shields so they could identify their allies in a battle.”

“Like a coat of arms,” Regina offered, staring up into Alex’s face with a look of wonder in her eyes.

“Yeah, something like that.” Alex’s finger traced the braided lengths of the bracelet. “The colors all meant something. The red symbolizes someone who is brave and strong, the blue is for loyalty,” she hesitated, swallowing nervously before she continued. “The gold symbolizes generosity and the green is for hope, joy and love.”

Regina started to say something and Alex shook her head, covering her lips with two fingers.

“Let me finish or I won’t get this out. Remember when you asked me why I got into Emergency Medicine last year?”

“Yeah, you said that way you didn’t have to get involved with the patients. Just sew them up and ship them out.” Regina recalled the stilted conversation clearly.

“I didn’t give you the whole answer.” Alex inhaled, fighting back the hoarseness in her voice. “It was a way for me to try rescue people in trouble. Growing up, I could never do that for my brother or my mother. The funny thing is, after all this time I never realized that I needed somebody to save me too.”

“That’s not true.”

Alex shook her head. “You were brave enough to stand beside me regardless of the consequences last year. You stood up for me when I couldn’t do it for myself and despite everything you found out about me, you still loved me. Nobody has ever done that before.” She hooked a finger under the bracelet and looked into Regina’s eyes. “I just want you to know how much I love you.”

“I love you, too.” Came the quiet, sure reply. Regina laid her head against Alex’s chest and closed her eyes. Warm tears trickled down her cheeks as she soaked in the meaning of everything that Alex told her.

They stood beneath the starlit sky and watched as it filled with the evening stars. Alex hugged Regina one last time before she reclaimed their wine glasses and guided her back inside.

She refilled their glasses and set them on the table, all the while thinking about how much each of them had changed since they first met. Alex straightened and regarded Regina as the smaller woman walked over to her.

Regina clasped Alex’s hand in hers and kissed it. Her eyes twinkled as she pressed her body against Alex, enjoying the tingle of anticipation that ran up her spine.

Alex chuckled softly and wrapped her arms around Regina. “I guess you’d like to eat later.” She gasped softly on the last word, as her belt buckle was unclasped.

“Much later,” Regina purred, as she tugged the belt from Alex’s waist and walked slowly backwards towards their bed.
Chapter Twenty-Two
It was a couple of hours before sunrise but Alex was lying in bed awake, thinking. The past couple of days had been a welcome respite from the troubles of the outside world. Alex turned her head and gazed down at the peaceful smile that graced Regina’s face as she slept.

Regina’s question about there being room in Alex’s heart for her, had shocked the older woman into recognizing how much she was still keeping Regina at arm’s length. She wasn’t doing it intentionally, but the fear of being that open and vulnerable to anyone, was getting in the way of showing Regina how much she truly needed and wanted their relationship as a part of her life.

She made a very conscious decision to set aside her fears and let Regina past those final defenses. After all her experiences, she didn’t expect to feel this way or to fall so deeply into something that made her willing to risk her heart again, but despite everything, she had.

So much had changed between them over the past couple of days. Their conversations, at times, were poignantly uncomfortable but in the end, Alex realized that they both gained an insight into each other’s closely guarded fears and insecurities. Last night, she’d fallen in love all over again as she held Regina in her arms. There were moments where she felt like their two bodies had been one person, sharing the same soul.

Alex reached out and stroked Regina’s hair, brushing a few strands off her face. A rush of emotion, made her heart clench and she closed her eyes to fight back the tears that welled up and brimmed her eyelids. I don’t know why or how you came into my life, but whoever might be up there looking over us, thank you.

Beside her, Regina stirred and opened her eyes, blinking as she focused on Alex’s face. “What are you doing up?” Her voice was a bit gravelly and she cleared her throat. “It’s early.”

“Watching you sleep.” Alex gave her an appreciative smile.

Regina exhaled softly while she curled her hand around Alex’s upper arm and settled her face against the warm shoulder. “Thank you.” Regina kissed Alex’s collarbone and smiled, closing her eyes.

“For what?” Alex covered Regina’s hand with hers.

“For making last night so special.”

Alex slipped her hand beneath Regina’s and intertwined their fingers. The rest of the world could wait she decided, as she closed her eyes and let Regina’s quiet breathing lull her back to sleep.

******

Later while she finished with her own packing, Regina regarded Alex curiously out of the corner of her eye, as the taller woman stuffed her clothes into her canvas duffel bag. She could see the rigid set of her partner’s shoulders and the subtle tensing of the muscles along her jaw line, her suspicions about the unsettled feeling she sensed growing in Alex confirmed.

She guessed at a couple of things that might be causing Alex’s upset but, Regina knew her partner’s stubbornness would keep her from initiating the conversation so she decided to find a tactful way to open a door for her.

Regina closed her suitcase and then walked over to the small kitchen to retrieve the leftovers from the refrigerator. She filled a bowl with the stew, then, set it inside the microwave and turned it on. Wiping her hands on a paper towel she pulled off a roll, she turned around and watched as Alex walked around the corner.

Anxious, blue eyes met Regina’s and Alex slowed to a halt a few feet away from her. She tucked one hand into her pant’s pocket, hooking her thumb through her belt loop. “Good idea.” She motioned with her other hand indicating the leftover food. “We can eat something now and not have to stop on the way home.”

“I thought so,” Regina replied as she glanced at the microwave, waiting for the timer to go off. When it did she pulled the bowl out and carefully set it on the table with a fork. “You don’t mind sharing, do you? It’ll be less to clean up.” Regina smiled and patted Alex’s side affectionately.

The motion became a caress and she moved closer, wrapping both arms around Alex’s waist. She looked up and met Alex’s gaze, matching the taller woman’s smile with one of her own as strong arms enveloped her in a hug.

“Are you okay? You seem kind of quiet.” Regina slipped out of the embrace, asking the question in a casual voice.

Alex simply nodded and claimed the chair beside Regina, smiling as a thigh pressed against hers and remained there.

Obediently, she accepted the spoonful of food from Regina and chewed absently. She rested her elbows on the table while her gaze wandered outside the window to the trees that were still several weeks off from setting their buds.

Admittedly, she’d been restless since she’d woken up, an uneasy, edgy feeling filled her gut. Knowing she was going back to work tomorrow had set her mind into overdrive about all the unfinished business waiting for her at the hospital.

Alex’s eyes narrowed as she thought about the upcoming deposition. When she first discovered what was happening, the whole thing seemed like it was a simple case of greed; one doctor’s own ambitions gone awry. Since her return, she’d come to realize her first impression was most likely wrong.

“Here eat some of this.” Regina pushed the bowl in front of Alex, interrupting her thoughts.

Alex pulled her eyes away from the window and glanced at Regina. “Thanks.” She took the fork and speared a hunk of meat. There are too many unanswered questions and nothing seems to be making sense. Why would someone pull all of those charts out of medical records … unless they’re trying to hide something? There must be information in those charts that they don’t want legal to see. Why take the risk, now? Desperation?

“What’s going on inside that head of yours today?” Intense green eyes regarded her solemnly from close range.

Alex stopped mid-chew and stared at Regina, caught awkwardly between deflecting her concern and allowing the younger woman in on a hunch that she hoped to hell she was wrong about. A chagrined expression crossed her features when she acknowledged to herself that she couldn’t just pretend that everything was okay anymore and expect Regina not to question her.

It wasn’t fair to either of them. They knew each other too well and had come too far, to go down that road again.

Alex wasn’t sure exactly what Regina was thinking, but she didn’t have to. The expression on Regina’s face said it all. There could be no more half-truths between them, not if she wanted what they had built together to work.

It was a simple decision once she took a few seconds to look at her priorities. The tension eased in her shoulders as she gazed back into Regina’s eyes. “How did you know something was wrong?”

Green eyes twinkled back at her in what looked like amusement and Regina ducked her head before she answered. “Mm, let’s see, you furrow your brow and won’t make eye contact when you’re hurting. When you’re nervous you fidget more and when you’re deep in thought you stare out the window for long periods of time. Take your pick.”

Regina reached out and laid her hand over Alex’s forearm, squeezing it gently. “You forget, I got plenty of practice reading all those little signs when you were hurt. Lord knows you didn’t verbalize it to me.”

Alex pressed her lips together and averted her eyes. “Sorry I gave you such a hard time through all that. You didn’t deserve it.” She snorted derisively and shook her head. “It’s a wonder you just didn’t kick me out on my butt some days.”

“I wouldn’t have done that to you.” Regina edged closer and tucked dark strands of hair back behind Alex’s ear. “I knew some of what you were feeling would get better with time, the rest … ” her voice trailed off as Alex met her concerned gaze, “you have a hard time letting people take care of you. Just remember, I want to be able to do that for you if I can.”

Regina studied Alex for a moment longer as her thoughts revolved around one of their earlier conversations. She smiled when Alex tilted her head and leaned into her touch. Regina pressed her lips against Alex’s head and sighed, deciding not to bring up the topic of Alex talking to a psychologist just yet. Later, we’ve had such a good time. I don’t want to mess it up. “So, what were you going to tell me?”

Alex exhaled, collecting her thoughts before she answered Regina’s question. Truth time. “Someone at the hospital is covering up what’s really going on with the drug trials. I think Dr. Jameson is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Regina straightened in her chair, releasing Alex from her embrace. “Why do you think someone’s covering up?”

Alex watched the limbs outside the window sway in the breeze for a second before she turned her serious gaze to Regina and took in the startled expression. At that moment, she cursed herself for admitting her suspicions and hoped she wouldn’t regret her decision later.

Alex toyed with the fork in her bowl, as her appetite suddenly vanished, replaced with an annoying sense of nausea. “All the patients’ charts that we found who were involved in this supposed study were taken from medical records.”

“W … well, maybe the hospital’s attorneys requested them for the deposition?” Regina offered hopefully.

“I don’t think so.” Alex shook her head. “I got paged before we left on Friday. The attorney doesn’t have them and wanted to know if I knew where they were.”

“Do you think it might the case of the right hand not knowing what the left is doing? I mean we’ve seen that happen before.”

“No. I keep thinking there has to be a reason why these patients were picked to be in the study.” Alex pressed her lips together and stared down at her hands. “You read those charts, tell me what you remember.”

Regina frowned and spread her hands out on the table, trying to pull together fragmented memories during what had been an incredibly stressful time in her life. “They were all cardiac patients.”

“Right, I remember that, but there was something else. Let me think for a minute.” She stopped and closed her eyes, pulling up details she hadn’t thought about since she’d been shot. The answers were there if she could just remember. After several minutes, Alex slammed her hand down on the table as she got a clear picture in her mind of the admission sheets. That was it! “Not one of those patients had insurance.”

“What?” Regina eyebrows rose in surprise as she digested this new information. “I guess thirty patients with no insurance is outside the realm of coincidence.”

“I think whoever was running this scam was specifically targeted indigent patients. They knew they couldn’t afford the medical care they needed and would jump at the chance of trying a new medication depending on their individual situation.”

“Why would they do that?”

“Normally, the hospital would eat the cost of treating indigent patients. It’s how we maintain our tax-exempt status.” She formulated her thoughts as she answered Regina’s question. “If what I’m thinking is right, then, the hospital has stepped up its drug research program because they’ve found a way to offset the financial losses by entering patients into the drug studies instead of treating them with what would normally be the standard of care.”

“I just don’t understand why someone would do that.”

Alex shrugged. “Maybe whoever decided to do this, wanted the financial gains so badly that they don’t care about the consequences anymore. They had a good thing going for them. No one would have ever found out what was happening if Dr. Jameson hadn’t gotten sick.”

“You’re pretty sure someone else higher up knows what’s going on.”

Alex nodded her head. “Dr. Jameson was never very organized and he could barely put together a budget without help. There’s no way he devised this whole thing himself. Someone else was calling the shots.”

“Any idea about who that might have been?”

Alex tilted her head and pressed her lips together. “I don’t know.”

Regina leaned forward and rested her forearms on the table. “I hate to even ask this, but what about Dr. Mitchard.”

Alex pressed the bridge of her nose with her thumb and index finger. “Anything is possible at this point.” One thing is for sure. I have to find out who’s involved and make sure they’re stopped before this gets any worse than it already is. She smiled half-heartedly at Regina and stood up. “Let’s head out.”

******

The taller woman looked up at the façade of the large medical center after she stepped out of the Jeep in the Emergency Department parking lot. She stretched her arms over her shoulders and shook her head, grateful that after the six-hour drive home the evening before, Regina insisted that she stay the night. I think she was surprised that I agreed so easily, Alex mused.

A moment later, she heard the passenger door shut and watched as Regina walked around the vehicle to stand beside her.

“Are you going to talk to her today?” Regina looked up at Alex and shielded her eyes from the early morning sun.

“Yes. That’s the first thing I’m want to do today,” Alex replied as she started to walk towards the entrance of the medical center.

Regina took a breath, forcing her voice to remain calm, despite the nervousness in her gut. “Please be careful.”

Alex turned her head and smiled at Regina. “I will be, don’t worry. I’ll page you after I finish talking with her.” She slowed to a halt and pulled the glass door open, waiting for Regina to precede her into the building.

“Good, because I don’t want to worry about what you’re up to all day.” Regina reached out and touched Alex’s arm as she walked through the open door into the lobby. “Good luck.”

Regina stepped out of the way of a woman being wheeled toward the door in a wheelchair. A smile crept over her face when she saw the newborn baby, swaddled in blankets, being cradled in its mother’s arms. The baby reminded her of what her nephew might have looked like at that tender age. That has to be the most incredible thing a woman can do in her life. Regina shook her head and looked at Alex.

“Well, I better go or I’ll be late for rounds on the unit.”

“See you later.” Alex winked at her and enjoyed the warm smile she received in return.

With a wave, Regina trotted down the hallway and disappeared around a corner.

Alex turned and strode down the corridor, weaving her way through the steady stream of staff members and visitors who were walking in the corridor.

At the end of the hallway, Alex bypassed the elevators and took the stairs, climbing them two at a time until her legs began to burn. The fatigue irritated her and she pushed herself up another flight to the third floor where her office was located. She came to the decision over the weekend that her body was healed enough to start returning to her normal routine of working out on a daily basis. This, she thought, would have to do for now.

At the top of the stairs, she stopped for a moment to catch her breath and collect her thoughts about her impending discussion with Cassandra Mitchard. She needed information and hoped that the Vice President would be a good place to start.

After entering her office, Alex cast a cursory glance at her desk, noting with a combination of irritation and disappointment that no charts from medical records were there. She picked up the phone on her desk and punched in five numbers. She sifted through several pieces of mail while the phone rang several times.

“Medical Records, this is Robin DeSimone.”

“Robin, it’s Alex. Where are those charts I requested last Friday?” Alex pulled out her chair and settled into it as she waited for the woman’s response.

“Not even a good morning or how was your weekend?” Robin asked, her voice taking on a hurt note.

Alex opened an envelope and glanced at a memo before she set it down. “Good morning Robin, now where are the charts?” She heard a sigh on the other end of the phone before the director finally answered her question.

“I have a faxed response from the company that converts our charts to microfilm format. It says that those charts were picked up three weeks ago.”

“You’re kidding me? Why would they be microfilmed if we need the originals for a deposition now?”

“I don’t know but, I can have them recalled if you need them,” Robin offered.

“No. Fax that letter over to me now. I want to read it myself,” Alex ordered and then rattled off the number to the fax machine in her office.

“Hold on.” A minute later, she heard Robin’s voice again. “It’s on the way. Does this have to do with Dr. Jameson?”

“Why do you ask?”

“No reason. I just like to know what’s going on. That’s all.”

“Thanks for your help, Robin.” Alex hung up before she could hear the woman’s response. No sense in feeding the grapevine. She swiveled her chair around and plucked the paper out of the fax machine. Her eyes quickly scanned the document and then she picked up the phone again and dialed another number.

The phone was picked up after two rings. “Microdoc, this is Melanie. Can I help you?”

“Yes, this is Doctor Margulies from Saint Xavier’s Medical Center. I need to know if you have some medical records of ours and how quickly I can have them recalled for a deposition.”

“Give me a second to bring that screen up on my computer,” the woman told her on the other end of the phone. “Okay, read me the medical record numbers.”

One by one, Alex read the numbers off to the woman. She heard the tapping of fingers on a keyboard as the numbers were inputted into a computer.

The tapping stopped and then Alex heard the sound of the person clearing their throat. “Are you sure those are the right numbers?”

Alex double-checked the numbers. “Yes, they’re the right ones. What’s the problem?”

“None of those charts appear in our system.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, as far as I can tell, they were never picked up from the hospital.”

In response, Alex closed her eyes and pressed her fingers against her temples. “I have a copy of a letter on your company’s letterhead, stating that these charts were picked up three weeks ago by your company.”

“Yes, it’s a form letter the computer generates when the charts are processed. We scan the numbers into our system at the pick up site so we can track them from start to finish. I don’t know how a letter got sent out without the charts being processed in the first place.”

“Is there a supervisor there I can speak to?” Alex pulled a pad of paper over to her.

“Not at the moment, but I can have him call you later.”

“All right, but I want his name and number now.” Alex reached for a pen.

“His name is Edward and this is his direct line.”

Alex quickly scribbled the information down on a piece of paper as it was given to her.

“Thanks,” she replied and hung up the phone.

Alex stood up and stared out the window as she tried to make sense of what she had just learned in the last few moments. Someone was lying, that was clear enough. What she needed to find out was, who and why. With a growing sense of concern, she left her office, locked her door, and walked up three flights of stairs to the fifth floor.

She stepped out from the stairwell and walked down the hallway towards Cassandra Mitchard’s office. Her steps carried her past a secretary’s desk that was, for the moment unoccupied. Good, she thought to herself, relieved that she didn’t have to talk her way past the woman.

Alex hesitated at the door and glanced in to see Cassandra sitting behind her desk talking on the phone. What she heard sent a chill up her spine.

“No, tell them everything is under control. There’s no need to get cold feet. We’re ready to go ahead with the next to studies as planned.” Cassandra looked up and her eyes widened when she saw the doctor standing in the doorway. She immediately lowered her voice and abruptly ended her conversation.

As she hung up the phone, Alex stepped into the office and shut the door firmly behind her. “Morning, Cassandra.” The dark-haired woman lowered herself into a leather chair opposite the Vice President’s and graced her with a cool smile.

“I have a meeting. You’ll need to talk with my secretary to set up a meeting.” Cassandra started to collect a few folders on her desk, pointedly avoiding Alex’s gaze.

“This won’t take long,” Alex assured her. The doctor sat back and folded her arms across her chest. “I want the truth about the drug trial that Dr. Jameson was conducting and I want to know where the medical records are for all those patients.”

Cassandra leaned back in her seat and gazed at the far wall. “I’m not discussing this with you.”

“Robin DeSimone in Medical Records told me the charts were sent out to be microfilmed. I called the company to recall them and found out that they have no record of them ever being picked up. What’s going on?”

Cassandra paled slightly and moistened her lips with her tongue. “Alex, this is something our legal counsel will deal with. That’s why we have them – to protect the hospital.”

Alex shook her head in disbelief. “They’ll make sure the hospital is protected! What about the patients? Who the hell protects them?”

The sharp sound of the Vice President’s hands slamming down on the desk punctuated the silence that followed. “This has nothing to do with you. Stay out of it!”

“Don’t give me that line. I’m already involved in the deposition for this whole mess. Why do you think I’m trying to find the charts?”

“Don’t worry about the deposition. It’s simply to tie up any loose ends with Dr. Jameson. Your predecessor didn’t play by the rules and for that he was terminated. With any luck it’ll be a distant memory for us all soon.”

Alex crossed her legs and glowered at Cassandra. “Aren’t you worried about the kickbacks he got, putting the hospital in jeopardy?”

Cassandra snorted, picked up a pile of charts, and walked around her desk. “No, the hospital won’t let that happen. Besides all we’ve done is offer patients an alternate treatment regimen.”

That’s why the charts are missing, Alex thought. All right, time for a little damage control before I really get myself in over my head. “Well, that’s comforting to hear.”

Cassandra studied the doctor, weighing the truthfulness of her words. “So, I take it you’re still on the team then.”

“That’s why I came up here.” Alex met her steady gaze and held it until the Vice President looked away and cleared her throat.

“Well, I’m glad we finally came to an understanding on this. I’d hate to lose you, Alex. You’re a good doctor,” Cassandra replied, pulling herself up straighter. “There’s a black tie affair on Friday night. It’s to kick off the fundraising campaign for the new cardiac wing.” She pulled out a square envelope from her desk drawer and handed it to Alex. “As the new medical director of the Emergency Department, you should be there to demonstrate your support.”

This is a command performance, no doubt. “I wouldn’t want to miss it,” Alex replied.

“Good, I’m glad we got things cleared up between us. I was beginning to worry that we might lose you as well.” Cassandra walked to the door and opened it.

Alex smiled. “You won’t lose me.”

“Let me know if there’s anything that you need for the clinic downtown. We all want it to be a big success.”

I bet you do. Alex fought the urge to shiver in revulsion as she listened to the drivel. “I’ll be sure to let you know,” she replied over her shoulder as she walked towards the stairwell. Suddenly feeling like she put in a ten-hour shift already, Alex rubbed her eyes and stifled a yawn before she headed down the stairs to the Emergency Department. She wondered briefly Regina’s day was going any better and hoped that it was.
Chapter Twenty-Three
Regina walked into the suite of Pediatric offices located on the third floor of the medical center and signed in at the front desk. The walls were painted a clear blue, summer sky filled with billowy, white clouds.

She noted in the sign in log that Dr. Timmons had arrived only minutes ahead of her and was still probably in the office. Since the office staff wasn’t in yet Regina walked unchallenged down the hallway towards the Pediatric Director’s open door.

The older doctor with salt and pepper hair was just shrugging out of his overcoat when Regina tapped on his door.

“Hi, Dr. Timmons.”

“Hello, Regina.” His face brightened and he tossed his coat over one of the chairs in the cluttered room. “I trust you had a good weekend off.”

“Yes, it was the first time that my whole family was together in a while.” She looked at the walls of the office and glanced at the vast array of diplomas and certificates the doctor had earned over the years.

“Good to hear.” He picked up a pile of charts and set them down on windowsill behind him.

Regina cleared her throat and gripped the back of the chair in front of her. “Dr. Timmons has there been any word on the boy who disappeared from pediatrics Saturday night?”

The pediatrician frowned as he turned back and sifted through some papers on his desk. “I’m afraid not. The whole thing is just a mess.” He stopped and placed his hands on his hips, a distressed look on his face. “It seems our young patient simply walked off the floor unnoticed.”

“I’m really worried about him. He was on anti-seizure medication.”

“I know. I’m concerned about him too. Listen, I’m glad you stopped by. I had my secretary call a list of patients we saw in the Emergency Department last week that need follow-up. I planned on seeing them in the clinic downtown today. Unfortunately, because of this boy disappearing I’m going to be tied up in meetings all day. I want you to go down there and cover for me.”

“You’re talking about the clinic across from the fire department? I didn’t think it was open yet.”

“We got a certificate of Occupancy from the town on Friday and most of the equipment is there now. It’s still a little unorganized but, it’s functional.” Dr. Timmons picked a folder and handed across the desk to Regina. “Here’s the list of patients.”

Regina opened the folder and looked at the list of patients. An eyebrow lifted in surprise. “That’s quite an ambitious list.”

Dr. Timmons waved his hand. “Don’t worry. Half of them probably won’t show up for some reason or another. I recruited one of the nurses from the ER to be there, so you won’t be working there alone.”

“Oh, good.” It would be kind of creepy being there all by myself. “Do you know if the police are looking for TJ?”

“TJ?” Dr. Timmons furrowed his brow and then recognition flashed across his features. “Oh, the boy, right. We filed a missing person’s report. One of the detectives was here on Sunday asking question, so I imagine they are.”

Regina nodded her head somberly, wondering where the boy was right now and if he was safe. “Do you want me to stay for rounds, then?”

Her director studied her for a moment and then shook his head. “No. You’ve got you’re work cut out for you.” He went back to searching through his desk and then stopped. “Oh, before I forget. Here are the keys to the front door and the small one is for the medicine room.”

“Well, I guess I’m all set then.” Regina jiggled the keys in her hand and looked at the folder with the list of patients in it. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Dr. Timmons walked over to the door, reached up, and pulled a white lab coat off a hook from behind the door. He looked over at blonde haired woman sensing the nervousness there and smiled reassuringly at her. “You’ll do fine. Help is just a phone call away if you need it.”

Regina nodded, feeling a bit foolish for the nervous jitters that beset her. Why do I feel like this? I know what I’m doing. What difference does it make if it’s in a hospital or a clinic? Maybe my cycle is getting close? She turned and walked out of the office, still chastising herself mentally.

Regina was still lost in thought as she walked onto the pediatric ward. She stopped at the desk, unsure of why she’d come here when her responsibilities took her elsewhere today. A unit clerk glanced up at her, offering a wan smile before she returned to her task at the computer.

Her green eyes glanced up and down the hallway. Regina smelled the distinct odor of hospital food before she saw a small-framed woman step around the corner, pushing a large, metal, food cart.

Terry. Regina sighed, wondering what the girl thought after their conversation on the phone the other day. Somehow she felt like she had let her down, although she wasn’t sure what there was she could do to make the situation any better.

With a determined set to her shoulders, she walked down the hallway towards Terry’s room. At the door, she stopped as she listened to the muted sounds of the television. She tapped on the door and waited a second before she entered the room.

Regina pulled the curtain back and peered down at the young girl, curled up in a tight ball on her side. “Terry? It’s Dr. Kingston.” The girl shifted under the covers but didn’t respond. The gentle hiss and click of the IV pump drew Regina’s attention and she glanced at the bag of fluid, noting the dosage of the chemotherapy. I guess they’re bringing out the big guns now, she thought soberly.

She lowered the rail and sat on the edge of the bed. “Terry, I’m sorry about TJ.”

A sniffle confirmed her suspicions that Terry was indeed awake and Regina waited for the girl to speak.

“Do you think he’ll be all right?” Came the whispered voice.

“I hope so,” Regina replied honestly.

“I miss him.” Terry shifted in the bed and looked up at Regina from beneath her tousled bangs.

“You two were getting to be friends.”

Terry nodded her head as she plucked at the white sheets with her fingers. “He brought me snacks from the cafeteria because the food sucks.”

As if on cue, the woman Regina saw in the hallway entered the room, carrying a tray of food. Regina shrugged her shoulders in apology and noted the sympathetic look the woman gave Terry.

“It’s better today. French toast and oatmeal,” the woman said as she set the tray down on the table.

“I hate oatmeal,” Terry complained.

Regina screwed up her nose. “It’s not one of my favorites either. Maybe I can find a way to make it taste better,” Regina offered. “I’ll be right back.” She disappeared out of the room and located the pantry on the floor.

She rummaged through some drawers and found where the nursing staff hid their stash of snacks and condiments from the cafeteria. Pleased with what she found, Regina sauntered out of the pantry.

“Okay, let’s see if this helps,” Regina announced when she re-entered Terry’s room a few minutes later. She set the packets of raisins and brown sugar on the bedside table and folded her arms across her chest to wait.

Terry wrinkled her nose and peered at the offerings suspiciously. “Maybe if I make it really sweet, I won’t notice the lumps.”

“My thoughts precisely.”

Terry mixed the condiments into the oatmeal. Tentatively, she poked her spoon into the mixture and tasted it. “I guess it’s okay,” she admitted grudgingly. She took another bite and leaned back against the pillows. Brown eyes stared up at Regina. “The doctor says my hair is going to fall out.”

Regina returned Terry’s gaze and nodded her head. “It’s one of the side-effects of the chemotherapy.”

Terry frowned and squirmed against the pillows. She reached behind her and pulled out a stuffed tiger. “That’s where you went!” she scolded the stuffed toy and then looked up at Regina. “Will it grow back?”

“It takes awhile but it usually does.” Regina leaned closer and fingered the tiger’s black, velvet ear. “Did your parents give you this?” she asked, trying to figure out what to say to Terry next.

Terry shook her head, absently stroking her thumb over the sleek fur. “No, TJ gave it to me.”

“Really?” She wondered how he had the means for such a gift and then discarded the thought with a shrug of her shoulders. “That was sweet of him.” Regina smiled down at her affectionately. “Terry do you want to ask me any other questions about the chemotherapy?”

Terry stopped petting the stuffed animal and then shook her head. “No. I want to cut my hair off before it falls out.”

Regina pressed her lips together and inhaled deeply. She chose her words carefully, not wanting to influence Terry’s decision. “You could do that.”

“My mother wants me to wear a wig.”

“What do you want to do?”

Terry shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know.”

“I don’t think you have to make a decision about the wig right now.”

“You don’t understand. It won’t be my decision. She’ll just go out and buy it.” Terry wiped her eyes in irritation and sank lower in the bed.

Ah, there in lies the problem. “Have you talked to your mom about what you just told me?”

“She won’t listen.”

The conversation brought back memories of her own teenage years and the sometimes, volatile relationship she had with her mother. “Terry, don’t assume she won’t listen. You owe it to both of you to talk about it.”

“Okay.” Terry swirled the spoon in the oatmeal and looked up at Regina. “Are you going to look for TJ?”

A half-dozen different answers flashed in her mind but only one came to Regina’s lips as she stood there. “I’m going to try and find him.”

******

An hour later, after an uneventful bus ride downtown, Regina unlocked the clinic doors and walked through the front entrance. A rueful smile crossed her lips as she looked around the clinic, recalling Dr. Timmons earlier words about the condition of the place, unorganized but functional.

With the remaining time she had left before the first patients that were scheduled to come in for appointments started to show up, Regina began to move some chairs to the waiting area for patients and family to sit in.

She unpacked some essential supplies and found the boxes containing the necessary forms for the charts. Regina looked up when she heard the front door open.

“Hello?” a female voice called from the waiting area.

Regina straightened up and wiped her hands off on her scrub bottoms. She walked around the corner and smiled when she saw her friend. “Hi, Sandy!”

“Oh thank god.” The nurse set the box she was carrying down and then gave Regina a hug. “I wasn’t sure who was going to be here, but I sure am glad it’s you.” Sandy slipped out of her jacket and tossed it over the desk. “I didn’t see your car outside. How did you get here?”

“I took the bus.”

“Oh.” Sandy frowned in confusion. “What happened to your car?”

“Nothing. I rode into work with Alex.”

Sandy nodded her head, hoping that things were working out between her two friends. She looked around the open room with raised eyebrows. “Dr. Timmons has an interesting definition of functional.”

Regina laughed and nodded in agreement. “My thoughts exactly.” She pointed to the desk. “I left the list of patients there.”

Sandy raised her eyebrows as she read through the names. “Here, I had the unit clerk make copies of all the intake notes from the patient’s emergency room visits.” The nurse rummaged through the box she brought with her and handed Regina a stack of files.

“Good. At least I’ll have some idea of what their follow-up visits are for,” Regina commented, as she started to read over the notes.

“How was your weekend?” Sandy asked.

Regina brushed her hair back behind her ears. “Alex and I drove up to my parent’s house. It was the first time my oldest brother had been home in over ten years.”
“How did it go with your family?”

Regina rolled her eyes. “It was very difficult for Jeff. I think by the end he was wondering if he made a mistake coming home.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Sandy offered, as she unlocked the cart the held the clinic’s supply of medication.

Regina folded her arms and looked down at her feet. “I’m going to give him a call this week and see how he’s doing.”

Sandy’s eyes fixed on the multi-colored bracelet tied around Regina’s wrist as she walked over to the doctor. “That’s new.” She reached out and slid the woven bracelet around Regina’s wrist so she could see the intricate pattern. “I love the colors in it.”

Regina fingered the bracelet, a warm feeling igniting in her chest as she remembered what Alex said to her that night out on the deck. “Thanks. Alex made it for me while we were in Provincetown.”

“Wow. She made it?” Sandy’s eyes widened with surprise. “Who knew she could do that.”

“It surprised me, too,” Regina admitted quietly.

“So, I guess things are going better for you two.” Sandy glanced briefly at her friend, probing gently with Regina where she dared not tread with Alex. She rechecked her count and wrote the quantity of the drugs on the inventory sheet.

“We’re just taking it a day at a time, but yeah, I think things are better.”

“Nothing wrong with that.”

Regina looked down at her watch. It was ten minutes to nine in the morning and they would be at the clinic until at least six that evening. “I better call Alex and let her know where I am. She thought I was going to be at the hospital all day.”

Sandy looked up as the front door opened and a middle-aged woman bundled in a purple down jacket, walked in carrying a young child. “Go ahead. I’ll get her settled in a room.”

Regina walked behind the desk and picked up the phone. After keying in the numbers she waited as the phone rang several times.

“ER.” An agitated voice answered.

“This is Dr. Kingston. I need to speak to Dr. Margulies.”

“Hang on.”

Regina looked up as Sandy appeared and handed her a file.

“We’ve got a two year old girl with a kidney infection. She was seen in the ER last week, hospitalized and then discharged over the weekend.”

Regina opened the file and read through it while she waited on hold. “Okay. I want to get a new set of labs before we prescribe anything. The antibiotics she was on should have taken care of the infection.”

“I’ll get the blood drawn.” Sandy winked at Regina before she turned around, and stopped at one of the carts where she selected the rubber-stopped glass vials she needed.

Regina glanced at the list of patients and exhaled.

“Dr. Margulies here.”

She smiled, hearing the deep timbre of Alex voice through the phone. “Hi, it’s Regina.”

“I know your voice,” Alex chuckled, pleasantly surprised to hear Regina on the other end of the line.

In the background, Regina could hear the overhead paging system announcing an all clear on a fire drill. “It sounds kind of crazy there.”

“What makes you say that?”

Regina snickered, hearing the tinge of sarcasm in her lover’s voice. “I can just tell. I called to tell you I’m downtown at the clinic all day.”

“What? I didn’t know they approved it being open yet.” Alex hesitated and then asked. “You’re not there by yourself are you?”

“No, Sandy is here with me. Dr Timmons scheduled the pediatric follow up visits down here. Listen, I’ve got a patient waiting to see me,” Regina explained quickly. “Can you pick me up when you’re done?”

“Sure,” Alex replied. “If you get done early, ask Sandy if she’ll give you a ride back to the hospital. That way you won’t have to wait there alone.”

“Okay. I’ll talk to you later,” Regina replied. She hung up the phone and then realized she didn’t ask Alex if she got to talk to the Vice President yet. She tucked the thought away in the back of her mind as she opened the patient’s file and focused on the task at hand.

******

Alex set the phone down in the cradle and looked over at unit clerk. “Donna, where are the charts I need to sign?”

The brunette pointed down the hallway. “They’re in the nurse administrator’s office. It should be unlocked.”

“Thanks. If anyone’s looking for me that’s where I’ll be.” Several minutes later, the attending was settled behind the desk.

She frowned as she flipped through the pages of order sheets, which were followed by the hand written history and physicals taken by the Emergency Department’s residents. She read over several consent forms signed by the patient’s that allowed the physicians to perform invasive procedures. Satisfied with what she read, she co-signed the order for narcotics and then closed the chart.

Over the course of the next several hours, she worked her way through the stack of charts. As she read over the notes, her mind continued to run through all the questions no one seemed to have answers for regarding the missing charts.

If the charts aren’t at the company that does the microfilming, then where the hell are they? “Jesus.” Frustrated at the lack of answers, Alex picked up another chart and opened it. She shook her head and signed off on discharge orders for three patients.

“You don’t sound happy.”

Alex looked up and saw Jon leaning against the doorframe, with a newspaper tucked beneath his arm. “No, I’m fine.”

“Well, I’ve got some news that might cheer you up.”

“Yeah, what’s that?” Alex leaned back in her chair and tilted her head, regarding her colleague.

“Here.” He dropped the newspaper on the desk and pointed to a small article at the bottom right corner of the page. “Read that.”

Alex glanced up at Jon and then started to read the small print. “Dana Romano … ” she glanced up at him and then continued, “was convicted of manslaughter in the second-degree, driving while under the influence, and criminally negligent homicide. Is this today’s paper?” She opened the paper to look for the date.

“Yes.” He smiled and sat on the edge of the desk. “You know that’s a maximum prison term of seven and a half years.”

Alex shook her head in disbelief. “I didn’t think Dana’s court case was coming up that soon.”

Jon looked down at his hands. “The mother of that kid has a good attorney and he really pushed things along for her.”

“Sounds like you kept in touch with the family.” Alex stared down at the paper and frowned as a myriad of conflicting emotions warred inside her.

Jon shrugged. “She lost a son and her husband is in jail. It was the least I could do.”

“You don’t have to justify yourself to me.” Alex rubbed her face as a wave of exhaustion hit her.

“I know it was just a bad situation all around. I thought this might help you put closure on some of what happened.”

Alex looked at Jon and scowled at him. “Since when did you start to dabble in counseling?”

He held his hand up, warding off the angry look he was getting. “I don’t. It’s just from one friend to another. That’s all.”

Alex closed her eyes and took a breath to calm her racing heart. “Thanks.”

Jon tapped his knuckles on the desk and looked at Alex. “Those files you told me about never showed up.”

“I know.” She motioned him closer with her hand. “Close the door.”

“Shit.” Jon kicked the door with his foot and folded his arms. “Why do I get the feeling I’m not going to like what you have to say?”

“Those files were apparently picked up by the company who does the microfilming for the hospital.” Alex folded her arms. “When I called to get them sent back, I was told they have no record of them being picked up.”

“Where are they?”

“Your guess is as good as mine.” Alex met his bewildered gaze and sighed.

Jon hung his head and sighed heavily. “I don’t like this.”

“Neither do I.” Alex leaned forward. “Jon, not a word to anyone on the staff. As far as I’m concerned, any drug trials in the emergency department that are ongoing or proposed at this time are suspended until this whole mess with Dr. Jameson is over. No one talks to anyone unless they come to me first.”

“You got it.” Jon stood up from the desk and opened the door. Half way out he stopped and turned back around to face Alex. “Hey.” He ran a hand over his mouth, stepped back in the office, and shut the door behind him. “I may need to take some time off on short notice.”

“Everything okay?” Alex tilted her head and studied Jon, aware of his discomfort.

“Yes and no. Chris is pregnant.”

“That’s great! Congratulations.” Alex moved from her seat and sat on the corner of the desk. “You two will make great parents.”

Jon pressed his lips together and ran his hand through his hair. “It’s not the first time. She’s miscarried two times before and the docs are considering this a high-risk pregnancy.”

“Is she still working?”

“Yeah, as long as she doesn’t start to have any cramping or bleeding she’ll stay on. I told her she doesn’t have to but she wants to stay busy so she’s not thinking about it constantly.” Jon’s shoulders slumped and he shook his head. “I just want to be there for her more this time. She won’t admit it, but I know she’s scared.”

“Do what you need to do. We’ll be fine here.” Alex laid a hand on Jon’s shoulder. “I hope everything works out all right.”

“Thanks, Alex.” Jon stood up and gave Alex a nervous smile. “I’ll let everyone know that we’re suspending any ongoing projects for the time being.”

“Good.” Alex watched Jon leave. Her eyes scanned the shelves of medical texts, binders and nursing books and then found what she was looking for.

Alex pulled the phone book down and found the section for county and government listings. After flipping through several pages, she wrote a number down. She drummed her fingers on the desk while she considered what to do. Cassandra, you have another thing coming if you think that I’m going to be a pawn for you.

With a grim expression on her face, she walked out of the cramped office. Alex walked down the corridor and passed several stretchers and wheelchairs that lined the hallway. About half the rooms in the emergency department were filled with patients and the staff was enjoying the brief lull in the usually steady flow of cases.

Alex nodded a hello to one of the nurses as she walked past the desk. She continued on, pushed the glass door open and walked down the concrete steps to her Jeep.

After unlocking the door, she settled in behind the wheel. Alex pulled out her cell phone and dialed the number she had written on the piece of paper.

The phone rang several times and she was about to hang up when a male voice came over the line. “Office of the Inspector General.”

“I wasn’t sure there was anyone who would still be there this late,” Alex replied.

“We’re always here,” the man said. “What can I help you with?”

“I need to speak to someone about possible fraudulent drug trials that are being conducted.”

“Can I get your name?”

Alex hesitated, knowing there was no return when she crossed this particular line. “Alex Margulies. I’m a doctor.”

“Doctor Margulies my name is Matthew Weber. I have two questions for you. Where do you work and where are you calling from?”

“I work at Saint Xavier’s Medical Center and I’m calling from my cell phone in my car.”

“Stop, that’s enough. Give me your pager number.” After Alex recited it to him he continued. “I’ll page you to a number this evening and we’ll set up a time and a place where we can talk.”

“That’s it?”

“For now.”
Chapter Twenty-Four
“Do you want me to wait with you until Alex gets here?” Sandy placed the last of the patient files into the five-drawer file cabinet.

“No, Alex said she would call if she was going to be late.” Regina looked up from washing her hands and shook her head.

Sandy slipped her jacket on and regarded Regina dubiously. “I don’t like leaving you here alone.”

“Don’t worry.” Regina dried her hands off on a paper towel and then tossed it into a waste container. “I’m going across the street to talk with Todd.”

“Who’s Todd?”

“He’s the fireman we met here a few weeks ago,” Regina explained.

“All right.” Sandy locked the door to the file cabinet and then walked to the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow then.”

“Well, hold up. I’ll walk out with you.” Regina grabbed her coat and followed Sandy out of the clinic.

They parted at the sidewalk. Regina looked up and down the street for Alex’s Jeep. When she didn’t see her she trotted across the road. She shivered in the damp air. Her thoughts wandered to TJ and she hoped he was safe.

The lights from inside the firehouse cast the misshapen shadows from the trucks outward onto the pavement. She could hear raucous laughter and voices from inside and she called out. “Hello.”

“Hi there.” A tall, burly looking man with a goatee and moustache walked towards the front of the garage.

“I’m looking for Todd. Is he around?”

“Yeah, he’s upstairs.” He tilted his head and let out a piercing whistle. “Yo, Todd. You’ve got a visitor.”

A few moments later, a door towards the rear of the garage opened and claws scrabbled across the concrete floor. “Lucky, heel.” The large German Shepard stopped lunging ahead against his leash and fell into step along side his master. Todd’s face brightened when he saw Regina standing beside his friend. “I haven’t seen you in a while. What brings you here?”

Regina reached down and scratched between Lucky’s pointed ears. “I worked at the clinic today and figured I’d stop by to say hi and ask you a question.” She glanced down as the dog grumbled and pressed against her. “He’s a pleasure hound.”

“Always. You have a friend for life there. Why don’t you come inside?” Todd motioned with his hand.

“I’m waiting for Alex to pick me up.”

“No problem. This is Moose by the way.” Todd jabbed his thumb at the taller man.

Regina smiled up at him. “Why Moose?”

Todd chuckled. “Besides being incredibly hard-headed, he’s the strongest guy on the unit.”

Moose puffed his chest out proudly at the compliment.

“Regina is a doctor at the Medical Center.” Todd continued his introductions.

“Oh. What department do you work in?”

“Pediatrics,” Regina replied.

Moose nodded tersely. “Well, I’ve got to get back and finish cleaning our gear. Nice talking with you.”

Todd watched him leave and then looked back at Regina. “His ex-girlfriend works at the hospital. It’s still a pretty sore subject for him. So what do you want to ask me?”

Regina laughed as Lucky nudged her hand and leaned against her. “There’s a patient that disappeared out of the medical center on Saturday and no one can find him. He has a traumatic brain injury. I just wanted to know if you can keep an eye out for him in your travels.”

“What does he look like?” Todd’s brow creased in concern.

“He’s approximately fifteen years old. His head was shaved about ten days ago and he has a half-moon scar on the left side of his head,” Regina said.

“What’s the kid’s name?”

“I’m not even sure it’s his real one. He told me it was TJ.”

“I’ll let the guys know.” Todd looked over Regina’s shoulder. “Any idea why he ran off?”

“I think he was trying to avoid going into another foster home.”

“That’s tough.” His eyes followed a pair of headlights as they grew closer and came to a stop in front of the clinic across the street. “Is that your ride?”

Regina turned just as Alex stepped out of the Jeep and shut the door. “Alex. I’m over here.” She waved at the taller woman.

The doctor glanced at the darkened windows of the clinic and then walked across the street. “Hey. What are you doing over here?” Alex asked as she walked up beside Regina.

“I was just telling Todd about that pediatric patient. I thought maybe it would help since he’s downtown and we have absolutely no idea where this kid ran off to.”

“It couldn’t hurt. Alex nodded and gave Todd a reserved smile. “He’s gotten big since the last time we saw him.” Alex stooped down and ruffled the coarse hair around the dog’s neck.

Todd laughed. “Tell me about it. I pay his food bills.”

“Speaking of food,” Alex jumped in, grateful for the excuse to end the conversation. “You ready to go home?”

“Yeah, I’m starving.” Regina replied. She turned to the fireman and smiled. “Thanks, Todd. Let me know if you hear or see anything about our friend.”

“I will.” He nodded and waved his hand as the two women turned and walked back across the street.

******

“You’re awfully quiet.” Alex cast a glance at her companion, wondering why she was being so quiet on the ride home. She slowed the Jeep and turned into the driveway of her condo.

Regina rubbed her face and stifled a yawn. “I’m just tired. Sandy and I treated thirty patients today.”

Alex regarded her thoughtfully and then caressed Regina’s face with her hand. “Let’s go inside and get something to eat.”

“Sounds good to me,” Regina said, as she stepped out of the vehicle. She followed Alex up to the door and leaned against the taller woman as she unlocked the door.

“Hey. What are you doing back there?” Alex asked, over her shoulder.

“Mmph. Nothing, you feel good that’s all,” Regina replied in a sleepy voice.

Alex smiled and stepped inside. She closed the door and turned to Regina. “Come here.” She wrapped her arms around the smaller woman and hugged her tightly. Alex closed her eyes and pressed the full length of her body into Regina, marveling at how well they fit together. “Wait here,” she guided Regina to the leather couch and nudged her back onto the cushions. “I’ll see what I can scrounge up for us in the kitchen.”

One green eye opened and regarded her skeptically.

“Tch. Have more faith.” Alex swiped her hand across Regina’s knee and walked away.

She opened the refrigerator and cringed at its meager contents. Alex made a mental note to stop at the grocery store before she invited Regina over again. “Okay.” She rubbed her hands together and then reached for the eggs. “Looks like we’re having breakfast for dinner.”

“Are you talking to yourself?”

Alex turned around to see Regina leaning against the doorframe with her arms folded across her chest. “I thought you were tired.”

Regina shrugged and pushed off the wall. “Not anymore. Do you want some help?”

Alex gave her a sheepish look and held up the carton of eggs. “It’s not like we’re having anything lavish.”

“Let’s see what else you have hidden away in here.” Regina rummaged through the refrigerator, pulling out several items, while Alex set a pan on the stove.

“I talked to Cassandra today,” Alex offered, as she cut off a pat of butter and dropped it into the frying pan.

“How did it go?” Regina looked at her and then pulled a knife out of a drawer.

“Not good.” Alex shook her head. “Do you want four or six eggs in the omelet?”

“Four,” Regina said, as she cut up a pepper. “What did she say?”

Alex cracked the eggs and drained them into a bowl. “I walked in on a phone call that she obviously didn’t want anyone hearing. From what I overheard, she and whoever else is involved has no intention of stopping any of the drug trials that might questionable.”

“What did you say to her?” Regina turned the burner on and scraped the chopped pepper into the frying pan.

Alex didn’t answer and her brow furrowed as she stirred the eggs with a fork. “I played along with her.

Regina’s eyes widened and she grasped Alex’s forearm. “What do you mean, ‘you played along with her’?”

Alex leaned on the counter. “She wanted to know if I was still on the team. I told her I was.”

“Have you lost your mind?” Regina’s eyes widened in disbelief.

“Maybe.” Alex cringed before she told her the rest. “I also called the Office of the Inspector General today.”

Regina pulled a spatula out of a drawer and fussed with the mixture of egg and green pepper. “Is there anything else I need to know about?” She closed her eyes and shook her head. “If there is, I’m going to need a Valium, right now.”

“The guy I talked to is going to page me tonight so we can set up a time and a place to meet.”

“Sweet Jesus. You’ve already made up your mind to do this.” Regina turned off the burner and pulled two plates out of a cabinet.

“Yes I have.”

“Why didn’t you tell me you were going to do this?” Regina stared down at the counter, trying not to get angry with Alex. Her heart fluttered in her chest and she forced down a wave of nausea.

“Reg, I didn’t know what I was going to do right up until I was talking to Cassandra. She told me I would be expected at a black tie affair to kick off the fundraising for the new cardiac wing.”

“Wait a minute. I thought that idea got canned when they were six million in the hole at the end of last year.”

“It was, but apparently they found a way to fund it.”

“Alex, don’t be the one to do this.” Regina stepped in, wrapped her arms around her waist and rested her head on Alex’s shoulder.

Alex linked her arms around the smaller woman’s waist. “Reg, my gut tells me I’m too close to what’s going on, not to get involved. I don’t want to be on the wrong side of this battle when the game is finally up.”

“I’m scared for you.” Regina tilted her head up and looked at Alex.

Alex kissed her forehead and hugged her. “Let’s eat before the eggs get cold.”

*******

It was ten o’clock and Alex was stretched out on the leather couch with Regina tucked in against her side. They spent the last couple of hours debating what Alex was about to do and they were both exhausted.

Regina sighed and rubbed her hand over Alex’s shirt. Her fist clenched and she grabbed a fistful of fabric and tugged it several times. “I hate it when you’re right,” she grumbled.

Alex ran her hand over Regina’s face, stroking her gently. “It’s not about me being right. It’s about doing the right thing. I can’t in good conscience let them continue to do these drug tests. At best they’re not getting consent from the patients and at worst they’re falsifying the data to get the drugs out on the market sooner.”

Regina jumped as Alex’s pager went off. “Son of a bitch,” she muttered as her heart raced nervously.

Alex lifted it from her belt and squinted as she read the numbers. She reached behind her and picked up the portable phone that she had set on the table earlier. Silently, she punched in the numbers and waited for a voice.

“Weber.”

“Hello, Matthew.”

“Good, I’m glad you called me back. Do you know where Hawke’s Nest Reservation is?”

“Yeah, I used to run there all the time.”

“We’ll meet at the south entrance in the parking lot at six tomorrow night.”

“I’ll be there,” Alex replied. Click, the connection cut off and she set the phone down on her stomach and sighed. I might as well get this over with now. “Regina … ” She studied the blonde who was looking back at her with a wary, resignation on her face and realized she couldn’t expect her not to come with her. “Do you want to be to come with me tomorrow?”

“What?”

Alex chuckled at the perplexed expression on her partner’s face. Not what you were expecting was it? “Do you want to come with me tomorrow?”

Regina studied her for a second and then nodded her head. “Someone’s got to look after your butt. Might as well be me.” She settled her head back down on Alex’s chest and nuzzled the softness of her breast through her shirt. “So what happens now?”

“I suppose he wants to find out what I know so far and then make a decision to go forward with an investigation or not.”

“Can I ask you a question?”

“You just did.” Alex’s body shook as she stifled her laughter.

“Brat.” Regina smacked her on her hip, then, propped up on her elbow to look at Alex. “Do you remember the girl with the tumor in her leg?”

“The same one who called you over the weekend?”

“Yes.”

Alex nodded her head slightly. “I know who you’re talking about.”

“She wants to shave her head before all her hair falls out.”

“Mm. That’s what Lana did.” Alex shifted on the couch so she was lying on her side with Regina pressed up against her. “What did you say to her?”

“I told her to talk to her mom and see if they could agree on something.” Regina draped an arm over Alex’s hip and slid one of her legs in between the taller woman’s thighs.

“Sounds reasonable,” Alex replied softly, waiting for Regina to get back to what she really wanted to ask.

“Alex, what happens if the investigation proves there is something illegal going on?”

“I guess it’ll go before a grand jury.” Alex rubbed her hand over Regina’s back in a reassuring motion.

“No, I mean what will happen to you.”

Alex heard the concern in Regina’s voice and looked at the worry-filled green eyes. The realities were there, staring her in the face. Legally, the hospital couldn’t do anything, but the fact remained, her decisions were sure to set off a chain of events that once started could never be pulled back. “I don’t know, Regina.”

The blonde cupped her hand around Alex’s cheek and rubbed her thumb across her lips. “Well, whatever happens, we’ll get through it together.”

Alex smiled and closed her eyes. She leaned her forehead against Regina’s in quiet relief. “I’m glad I have you with me.”

“You are. Are you?” Regina worked the top two buttons loose on Alex’s shirt and nuzzled the warm skin, inhaling the subtle fragrance of her perfume.

Alex inhaled sharply as Regina nibbled at the base of her neck and felt her shirt being tugged from her pants. She watched as Regina undid another button and moved her lips lower and brushed over her cleavage. She shifted and rolled over, pinning the smaller woman beneath her. Their eyes met and a mischievous smile spread over Alex’s face as she leaned closer and then ducked her head to nibble at Regina’s earlobe.

She moved lower and began a slow, leisurely exploration of Regina’s neck, teasing her with soft nips of her teeth. Beneath her, Regina squirmed and moaned softly, her hands urging Alex on as they moved across her back and shoulders.

Slowly, Alex pulled back and smiled down at Regina as she sat back on her heels, straddling her hips. Her body was tingling with a pure animal arousal of their contact and she ran her hands over the front of Regina’s shirt, caressing her breasts through the cotton fabric.

She stared down into unfocused green eyes, tugged playfully at Regina’s belt, and then kissed her chastely on the corner of her mouth. She pushed herself off the couch and stood up.

Alex took Regina’s hand and led her up the stairs into her bedroom. She turned the light on and turned to Regina. “Come here.” A wistful smile crossed her lips and she brushed her fingers through Regina’s hair. She trailed them down over her shoulders and then unbuttoned Regina’s shirt the rest of the way.

Regina’s eyes closed and she inhaled sharply as Alex’s lips brushed along her neck, down over the swell of her breasts. Her hands clutched at Alex’s hips and tilted her head back.

Alex ran her lips along her up turned chin and then captured her lips in a slow, tender kiss. Her hands slid up over Regina’s back and unhooked her bra, which she let fall to the floor between them. “I love to touch you,” Alex growled, closing her eyes and rubbing her cheek against Regina’s.

After a time of touching and caressing Regina’s body, Alex sat her down on the bed. She tugged off her shoes and socks and gently pushed the younger woman onto her back.

She kicked off her own shoes and stepped out of her pants. Alex joined Regina on the bed and kissed her again. Her fingertips traced a lazy pattern across her eyebrows, down her nose and around her mouth, which she punctuated with a kiss before she renewed her tracing around her ears and down her shoulders.

Alex maintained eye contact with Regina the entire time watching her face flush with excitement as her fingers circled around her breasts. She trailed her lips down between her breasts, smiling as she heard Regina’s breath catch in her throat.

Regina’s hands grasped Alex’s shoulders and pulled her back up. Ignoring the buttons on her shirt, she pulled Alex’s shirt over her head. A mischievous smile touched her lips as she pulled the cloth down over her wrists and left the cuffs buttoned. Her hands roamed unchecked over Alex’s naked body.

Alex chuckled and shook her head. “Oh no you don’t,” she said, deftly undoing the buttons and tossing her shirt to the floor. She leaned over Regina, planting her hands over her head and staring down at her.

Unable to resist the sight of her raised brown nipples surrounded by slightly darker areola Regina lifted her head and pressed her mouth over one breast, breathing warm air over the sensitive flesh. She caressed the other breast with a free hand, enjoying the sensual chemistry between them.

Alex’s head fell forward and she moaned softly. She reached down, and worked Regina’s belt loose and undid the button.

Their mouths met in a passionate kiss and Regina arched against Alex’s body, seeking more contact. Alex tugged the zipper down and broke off the kiss to pull Regina’s pants off.

Alex reached an arm down and caressed one of Regina’s calves while she rubbed her face over her belly and inhaled the heady scent of her arousal. She ran her hand up the inside of Regina’s leg, intermittently massaging the muscles and teasing with her nails.

Regina lifted her leg over Alex’s thigh, pushing her hips up as Alex’s fingers finally caressed and glided ever so softly over her swollen lips. “Please,” Regina breathed arching her back to push herself onto Alex’s fingers. Her hands brushed through Alex’s hair and grasped the back of her head, guiding her mouth lower.

Regina’s hips rocked, matching the rhythm of Alex’s fingers as they filled her and then her body trembled anew as soft lips enveloped her clitoris. The trembling started in her center and spiraled outwards. Her hands clutched at Alex’s shoulders, her fingers clamping and unclamping until she arched her back in orgasm.

Afterwards, Regina lay half on her side with Alex curled up and resting her head on her belly. She ran her fingers through the dark hair, lifting it up and letting fall over Alex’s shoulders.

Alex caught her hand and planted a kiss on the soft skin of her palm. “You doing okay?”

Regina smiled and squirmed closer, still feeling tiny aftershocks of pleasure down below. “Wonderful.” Her eyes twinkled and she laughed softly at herself.

“What?” Alex lifted her head and studied the changing emotions on Regina’s face.

“I was just thinking.”

“Mm. About?” Alex propped her head on her hand in anticipation.

“Wouldn’t it be incredible if we could make a baby?”

Alex’s eyes widened. “Well, unless I missed a class in medical school I don’t think we’re going to have much luck with that.”

“Tch.” Regina rolled her eyes. “I know that,” she replied and ducked her head to hide a blush. “I just think it would really be beautiful if we could, that’s all.”

Alex stared at her and swallowed as her heart pounded in her chest. “Did you want to have a baby?”

“I don’t know. I think at some point I reconciled myself to never having that be a part of my life, but after seeing Zachary I started thinking about it again.” Regina looked up at Alex. “Don’t worry it’s not like I’m going to go find a donor and get pregnant or anything. I just was thinking about it. That’s all.”

Alex sat up and scooted up to the head of the bed. Okay, breathe, Alex. She’s just thinking about it. Agh! If she’s thinking about it that means … what? Does she want to have a baby and she’s afraid to say anything? Crap! A kid! I don’t even like them. She stared down at her hands and exhaled. “I never knew you felt that way.”

Regina shrugged and curled up on her side. “Will you hold me?”

“Sure.” Alex curled around her with her belly pressed up against Regina’s backside and her arm draped over her middle. She rested her head on the pillow and stared at the wall while she listened to Regina’s breathing as it slowed and became deeper as she relaxed and finally fell asleep. Alex rubbed her eyes and snuggled closer realizing that she never considered the possibility that Regina might want to have a baby. It certainly put a different perspective on things.
Chapter Twenty-Five
Alex opened her eyes and blinked in the darkness of the bedroom. She stretched and arched her back away from the mattress. Beside her, Regina stirred under the covers and mumbled sleepily.

“It’s early. What are you doing up?” Her grip tightened momentarily around Alex’s waist as she snuggled closer.

“I couldn’t sleep,” Alex grumbled. Abruptly she rolled over, dislodging Regina’s grasp and sat up over the edge of the bed.

“Hey, what’s wrong?” Regina reached up and rubbed her back affectionately.

“Nothing.” Alex stood up and searched around the dark room for her duffel bag. The illumination from a single street lamp silhouetted her body as she moved about the room until she located it in the corner where she’d placed it before she went to bed. Alex fumbled through her duffel bag for her sweats and running shoes.

Regina sat up and pulled the covers over her chest, as she watched Alex pull her sweats on. “Where are you going?”

“Running,” Alex replied curtly, pulling a running shirt over her head.

Concerned, Regina sat up and took her hand. “Are you sure you’re ready to do that?”

“It’s been too long. I need to run.” Dammit, I need some time alone to think, too.

“Okay,” Regina replied hesitantly.

For a moment, they both stared at each other in the gray light of the room and then Alex lightly squeezed Regina’s hand before letting go.

“I’ll see you later at the hospital,” Alex said and then stepped out of the room, carrying her sneakers.

What happened between last night and this morning? She was fine when we went to sleep. Regina stared at the space where Alex had just been standing in utter confusion and then flopped down onto the bed. She wrapped her arms around Alex’s pillow and closed her eyes as tears welled up in her eyes.

Outside the condo, Alex tied her hair back in a loose braid and slowly stretched her legs. She forced herself not to think about Regina, knowing she ran out leaving the younger woman confused and upset. Her thoughts turned to last night’s conversation as she jogged in place on the macadam. A baby? I wonder how serious she is about doing this. My God our whole lives would change.

With a grim determination, Alex started to run. The only sound aside from the occasional car in the distance was the rhythmic pounding of her feet on the road. Her body responded sluggishly at first as it protested the increased demand she placed on it.

Angry at the fatigue and the memories, Alex ran up the steady incline of the hill. It’s been one crisis after another since we’ve been together. I love her, but I want some time just for us. Is that so selfish?

She crested the top of the hill and felt her body settle into a more comfortable rhythm as the initial shock to her system eased. She didn’t say she wanted to do this right away. A baby? What the hell do I know about being a parent?

Alex adjusted her stride as she reached a grassy stretch of land that led into a small park at the end of the cul-de-sac. She ran until she doubled over coughing, as the cold air burned her lungs. “Shit. I’m out of shape.”

Alex dropped to the ground on the dew-covered grass and pumped out a flurry of push-ups. She gritted her teeth, hating the weakness she felt in her arms and chest. She pushed herself past the trembling and burning sensation until all she focused on was the rushing of her pulse between her ears.

Exhausted she sat back on her heels, tilted her head up to the sky, and closed her eyes. Regina’s words echoed in her memory. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could make a baby? Alex dropped her head forward and staggered to her feet. With her hands on her hips, she stared down the hill at the dark outline of the Saint Xavier’s before she started a slow jog back down the hill.

An hour later, Alex walked into the Emergency Department and headed into the locker room. Alex grabbed a pair of scrubs from the linen cart and tossed them onto the bench. The run made her feel a little better, but she was still unsettled by Regina’s comments.

The locker room door opened and Sandy walked into the room and slumped unceremoniously onto the bench. With a groan, she opened her locker and stared bleakly into the narrow space. “Do you think anyone would notice if I shoved myself in there and just hid for the rest of my life?”

“That’s a little extreme. What the hell would you do that for?” Alex snapped her scrub pants at the back of Sandy’s head.

“Hey!” She rubbed her neck and then did a double take when she looked at Alex. “What the hell are you doing down here?”

“What do you think I’m doing?” Alex opened her locker and hung her keys on a hook inside.

Sandy shrugged and started changing her clothes. “I figured you were getting assimilated by the suits.”

Alex snorted and pulled her scrub pants on. “Sorry to disappoint, but I’d rather be treating patients. So tell me why do you want to hide in the locker?”

Sandy tied her sneakers. “Long story. It involves blue paint, a new carpet, and my ass being grass when I get home. Do you think I could work a string of double shifts?”

Alex rolled her eyes. “It sounds like it was an accident.”

“I wish. If it hadn’t been preceded by a fight about painting the room a neutral color for … Alex she wants a baby!”

Alex stopped pulling the scrub top over her head and stared at Sandy. “She what?” Great what is it? A god damn epidemic? “Tina?”

“Who the hell do you think I’m talking about?” Sandy slammed her locker and banged her head against it. “We’ve been together for ten years and not once has she ever brought up having a baby. Now all of a sudden her biological clock is ticking.”

Alex exhaled slowly trying to slow down the rapid beating of her heart. “Sandy … ”

“I don’t want a baby, Alex.” Sandy closed her eyes and leaned against her locker.

“What did you tell her?”

“Before or after I spilled the paint?”

“Does it matter?”

Sandy slid to the floor and buried her head in her hands. “I told her if I wanted to have a baby in my life I would have married a guy and had two point four kids, a dog and a white picket fence.”

Alex continued to stare at the nurse, resisting the urge to cover her mouth in a sympathetic reaction. Thank god I went running this morning and kept my mouth shut. “You could work double shifts if you want but I don’t think it’s going to help.”

“No shit.”

A moment later, the locker room door burst open and one of the nurses poked her head inside. “We’ve got multiple traumas on the way. A school bus ran a stop light and plowed into a van.”

Alex finished changing and slammed her locker shut. “How many?”

“Three major and ten minor traumas.”

“Who else is on?”

“Dr. Washington, yourself and Dr. Torres.”

“Sandy call the pediatric intensive care unit and tell them we may need beds.” Alex hurried past her into the hallway. The doors to the ambulance bay burst open and two paramedics rushed a stretcher through the door.

“Maggie, I need your help,” Alex said, as the nurse walked out from behind the nurse’s station. Out of the corner of her eye, Alex saw the tall, blonde-haired Vice President bearing down on her. Damn, now what does she want?

“Dr. Margulies.”

Alex turned her head. “What Cassandra? She grabbed a yellow, isolation gown from one of the linen bins and shoved her arms into it.

“I need you to be at the dinner on Friday night by six.” The Vice President trotted alongside the doctor.

“That’s important enough for you to tell me now?” Alex upper lip curled into a snarl and she fought to hold back the blunt accusation that formed in her mind. Oh yes, this is important enough for you to be down here right now, so the whole staff can see you’ve got me involved in your little game.

“There’s a new cardiac study we’re about to start and I want you to meet our lead investigator since the Emergency Department will be involved in the patient selection process.”

Alex waved her hand in irritation and turned her attention to the paramedics. “What have we got?”

“Eight year old boy with a fractured tibia. He’s complaining of shortness of breath. His pressure is one hundred over sixty.”

“Alex.”

“I heard you,” Alex snapped. “I’ll be there, when I get there.” Alex grabbed hold of the stretcher and guided it into the open trauma room.

She grabbed a fluid shield mask from one of the boxes on the wall and tied it behind her head as she entered the room. Outside in the hallway, she heard Jon barking orders out in the hall as another patient was brought in. Okay, one thing at a time. Let’s do this. Alex grabbed hold of the backboard and looked briefly at the brown-haired boy. “On my count, one, two, and three.” Four pairs of hands easily lifted the boy onto the treatment table.

“Where’s my brother?” the boy wailed as Alex started to examine him.

“What’s his name?” Maggie asked, as she cut the boy’s shirt off with a pair of blunt nosed scissors.

“Joey,” the boy gasped out in between sobs.

Maggie looked at one of the technicians as he set a tray of instruments onto a metal stand. “James, go see if you can find anything out about his brother.

“Gotcha.” He ducked out of the room.

Alex positioned the stethoscope in her ears and listened to the boy’s chest. “Good breath sounds bilaterally.” She moved the stethoscope to listen to his heartbeat and then flipped the instrument around her neck. “Let’s get a trauma panel, type and cross match for two units of blood. I need two more IV lines with normal saline and get a catheter in him, now.” She quickly examined his abdomen and chest, probing for any tenderness with her hands. “Does this hurt?”

The boy shook his head, fighting back a fresh wave of tears.

“What’s your name?” Alex asked, as she continued to examine him for any other injuries.

“Robert.”

“You’re going to need surgery to fix your leg.” She glanced up at Maggie as the nurse finished inserting an IV into the boy’s arm. “Find out where the parents are. We’re going to need their consent for the surgery.”

Alex peeled off her gloves and stepped away from the table. “Get x-rays of the lower leg, anterior, posterior and oblique views. Call orthopedics and let me know if there are any changes in his condition.” The door to the adjacent trauma room swung open and Sandy stuck her head into the room.

“Alex, Jon needs your help, now.”

Alex nodded her head as she stripped off her gown. She grabbed a clean one on her way into the room and quickly shoved her arms into it. “What have you got?” Alex asked over the din of the alarms that sounded incessantly from the wall monitor. She pulled gloves from a box and slipped them onto her hands.

“The kid’s got a crushed pelvis and internal bleeding,” Jon answered as he sutured a chest tube into place.

The boy grabbed the oxygen mask from his face and writhed on the table. Alex grabbed the plastic mask and replaced it over his nose and mouth. “Easy. Keep this on.”

“It’s hard to breathe,” he cried.

“Hang on. It’s going to be okay,” Alex re-assured him.

Meanwhile, Sandy ducked around a resident who was inserting an intravenous line into the boy’s arm. She grabbed a package of Vaseline gauze from an instrument tray and packed it around the tube exiting from the boy’s chest.

The nurse glanced up at the monitor and rattled off the vitals. “His blood pressure is one-twenty over eighty. His pulse is sixty. Jon his oxygen sats are dropping.”

Alex pulled the stethoscope from her neck, adjusted the earpieces, and bent over the boy’s chest. “Open an intubation tray,” she ordered as she listened to the breath sounds. “He’s got scattered rails bilaterally.”

One of the technicians tore open a sterile package and set it on a metal stand by the head of the stretcher.

The door to the trauma room banged open and Alex felt a chill run up her spine as the sound brought back a flood of memories. One of the nurses stood in the doorway. “Dr. Washington we’ve got a fourth critical coming in.”

“Get Dr. Ortiz. He’s finishing up in trauma two.” He looked up at Alex whose face had gone pale. “Alex, you okay?”

She shook her head and blinked trying to refocus her concentration as the noise reverberated inside her head. “Yeah, I need a laryngoscope.”

“It’s coming,” Sandy called from the across the room.

“No, I need it now.” Alex picked up the endotracheal tube from the tray and held her other hand out. “He needs Versaid.”

Beneath her on the table the boy looked up at her through the oxygen mask. “Am I going to die?”

Alex stared down at him and her mind flashed another image, and for a horrifying instant she was back on that table staring up at Regina. Still haunted by the intrusive and fragmented memories she rasped, “No, we need to put a tube in your mouth to help you breathe.”

Her hand closed reflexively around the laryngoscope as Sandy placed it in her palm. Alex watched as the resident drew up the dosage and injected it into the IV line. Almost immediately the boy’s eyes rolled back in his head as the drug took hold.

“Where’s the hematocrit?” Jon asked, watching intently as Alex bent over, tilted the boy’s head back and started to insert the endotracheal tube.

“It’s low at thirty-one,” Sandy called out.

“I’m in,” Alex said, as she finished the procedure and inflated the balloon to keep the tube in place.

“Let’s move him now!” Jon grabbed the stretcher and kicked the brakes off the wheels of the stretcher.

Sandy attached the bag-valve mask and started to ventilate the boy’s lungs.

“Let’s go.” Alex grabbed the drug box and pushed the stretcher ahead of her.

The hallway was an obstacle course of visitors and gurneys as the injured from the accident scene flooded the emergency department. Somehow the three of them managed to dodge through the crowded hallway and turn a corner into a corridor that led to the operating suites without incident.

As they reached the OR doors, Alex stepped back from the stretcher. “I’m going back.” She turned and trotted back to the emergency department, keenly aware of the bitter taste of adrenaline remaining in her mouth. Alex detoured into the locker room and stumbled to the sink where she gagged and coughed. Her hands trembled as she turned on the cold water and splashed it on her face. Come on. Get a grip. You need to get back out there and take of the rest of the patients.

By sheer will alone, Alex walked back out into the hallway several minutes later. She stopped at a stretcher and bent over its young occupant. “What’s your name?” Alex asked, as she slipped the stethoscope from around her neck.

“Joey.”

“Do you have a brother?”

The boy nodded. “He was sitting in front of me in the bus.”

“What’s his name?”

“Robert.”

“Is he all right?”

Alex listened to the boy’s chest before she answered. “He broke his leg and he needs surgery.”

“Can I see him?” He sat up on the stretcher and peered around the hallway.

Alex pressed up against the stretcher as on of the technicians wheeled a stretcher past her. “After we finish checking you out first. Does anything hurt?”

“I have a headache. Can I get up?”

“Not yet.” Alex placed a hand on his shoulder to steady him.

“Where’d you go?” Sandy asked, as she hung an IV on the pole of the stretcher.

“Locker room,” Alex answered curtly, as she flicked a penlight at the boy’s eyes and watched his pupils react. “His brother is in room four. He can stay with him but he needs to have another neuro check done in an hour,” Alex told her and then moved on to the next patient.

It was several hours later before all the patients were treated and the emergency department had returned to its normal level of chaos. Back in one of the empty trauma rooms, Jon and Alex sat opposite each other at a treatment table, finishing the last vestiges of paperwork before their shift ended.

Alex signed her last note and flipped the chart closed with a relieved sigh.

“Congratulations,” Jon said, a smirk crossing his face.

“On what?” Alex’s head jerked up and she stared at him with a blank expression on her face.

“Surviving your first marathon since you’ve been back.”

Alex rolled her eyes. “Is that all? No wonder I feel exhausted.

“How about we head down to the diner and get something to eat,” Jon offered.

Alex shook her head. “Sorry, I’ve got something I have to do.”

They both looked up as the door to the room opened. Regina stepped into the room and hesitated before she walked over to the stretcher. “Hi. I was looking for you.”

Alex rubbed her neck and forced a smile. “I’m here.”

Regina glanced at Jon. “You both look beat.”

He yawned and rubbed his unshaven face. “We got hammered today.”

“I know. We got three admissions in the Pediatric Intensive Care unit and two on the step down unit.”

Regina touched Alex’s shoulder. “You ready to go?”

Alex nodded her head, grateful for the warmth of Regina’s hand on her shoulder. “Yeah, let me go change my clothes and I’ll be right back.”

Regina slid into Alex’s chair as the taller woman left the room.

Jon continued to write in several charts before she he finally sat back and tossed his pen on the table. “Finished.” He studied Regina for a moment before he spoke. “How do you think she’s doing?”

“Alex?” Regina raised her eyebrows. “What do you mean? Here?”

Jon rested his forearms on the table. “She looked like she was really struggling to stay focused during the trauma today.”

Regina glanced at the door and then looked back at Jon. “Did she make any mistakes?”

“Well, no.”

“Then cut her some slack, Jon. She’s under a lot of stress, but she’s working though it.”

Jon regarded Regina seriously. “Are you being objective or are you just protecting her?”

The door to the trauma room opened and Alex walked in. She stopped as Regina and Jon squared off at each other, neither aware of her presence for the moment.

Regina bristled at the comment. “Of course I’m protecting her. I also know her well enough to be sure that she wouldn’t do anything to compromise a patient’s life.”

“I know Alex would never hurt anyone intentionally-”

“Hey, what the hell is going on?” Alex walked over to the table and looked back and forth between the two doctors.

Regina stared openmouthed at Alex. “I-I.”

“Don’t.” Alex held her hand out to Regina and turned to Jon. “If you’re concerned about my performance then you come to me, not Regina. Are we clear?”

Jon leaned back, his eyes widening. “Alex, I’m just concerned.”

Alex leaned over the table and glared at her colleague. “I don’t want your concern. Save it for your patients.

“I’m done here. Let’s go, Reg. We have an appointment we need to keep.”

*******

They were both quiet as they waited in the parking lot of Hawke’s Nest Reservation. Alex stared grimly out the window, keeping her thoughts on a tight rein. She could sense Regina’s upset as the smaller woman sat quietly beside her. Alex seesawed between being angry with Jon for voicing his concerns to Regina and upset at herself for jumping on the defensive so quickly.

“Alex,” Regina started.

“Do you really want a baby?” Alex blurted out. She glanced nervously at Regina and then puffed her cheeks out before she rubbed her eyes.

“I knew that’s why you were upset this morning.” Regina turned in her seat and faced Alex. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

Alex rested her elbow against the window and rested her head on her hand. “Honestly, you blew me away last night. The thought never really crossed my mind that you would want something like that.”

Regina was quiet as she looked down at her hands. “Alex, I don’t want to get pregnant right now.”

“But someday.” Alex leaned against the door and stared out the window.

“Someday, I’d like to get pregnant and bring a child into the world.” Regina reached out and rubbed the back of her fingers against Alex’s cheek. “Talk to me. Tell me what you’re thinking.”

Alex closed her eyes and shook her head. “I don’t know if I want that.”

A heaviness settled on Regina’s chest as she studied Alex’s angular profile. “Ever or just now?” she asked, feeling like the wind got knocked out of her.

“I don’t know. Right now, I just want us to be together.”

“We are and we always will be.” Regina leaned forward and pressed her lips against Alex’s temple.

Alex sat, quietly absorbing Regina’s words. She watched a blue colored sedan pull slowly into the parking spot next to them. “I think he’s here.”

Regina peered around her, and observed a lanky, brown haired man with a boyish face step out of the car and looked expectantly at Alex from across the roof of his car.

Alex opened the window partway and raised a questioning eyebrow as she looked at him.

“Dr. Margulies?” His voice carried easily in the crisp, cool air.

“Yes.”

“I’m Matthew Weber.”

“Show me some identification first.” Alex stared at him impassively.

He walked around his car to Alex’s vehicle while he fumbled inside a pocket of his gray over coat. He pulled out his wallet and flipped it open.

Alex peered at the laminated card and then nodded at the investigator. “All right Mr. Weber, now what?”

He peered in the driver’s side window and frowned when he saw her passenger. “I thought you were coming alone.”

“This is Dr. Kingston,” Alex replied with an icy stare.

Regina mustered a smile as she leaned forward in her seat to acknowledge the man standing outside Alex’s door.

Matthew simply nodded and backed away from Alex. “Let’s talk out here.”

Alex opened her mouth to speak, but Regina cut her off. “Don’t say it. I’m going with you.”

A slow, side-ways smile crept over Alex’s face. “I was just going to ask if you’re ready for this.”

“Oh, I thought … ”

“I was going to ask you to stay,” Alex finished for her.

Regina ducked her head. “Sorry, I should have let you finish.”

Alex squeezed her hand, then, stepped out of the vehicle, and followed Matthew to a picnic table several yards away from where their cars were parked. She rubbed her hands together and pulled the collar up on her coat as wind swirled around them, lifting and twirling the dead leaves into the air.

“I don’t want to chance talking in the car.”

Alex shrugged indifferently, although she wondered if he wasn’t being a tad paranoid as she sat on the bench across from him. A smile briefly warmed her eyes when she glanced up as Regina sat down beside her.

Matthew looked at both women, his face hardening into an expression of intense scrutiny. “I appreciate your cooperation doctors but I will warn you, this is not a game.”

“We’re both well aware of that.” Alex leveled an irritated gaze at the investigator. “Get on with it.”

“Fine.” Matthew pulled out a small notebook and pen. “We already know that the hospital is involved in some questionable relationships with drug companies. Up until now, their legal department has been able to take advantage of every possible loophole available to them. We need someone on the inside. I’m hoping you’re willing to do the right thing.”

Regina leaned forward. “Do the right thing? Wait a minute. Alex hasn’t done anything wrong.”

Matthew ignored Regina and spoke to her taller companion. “Alex you have knowledge of fraudulent drug trials being conducted at the hospital. If you choose not to assist the investigation you can be prosecuted for obstructing justice.”

“That’s bullshit. She called you.” Regina slammed her fist on the table.

“Reg, it’s okay.” Alex pressed her leg against Regina’s as she glared at the man across from her. She was surprised when her lover leaned across the table and got to within inches of the investigator’s face.

“Do you want our help or are you just trying to intimidate us? We can very easily call my attorney and you can deal with him and not us. It’s your choice.” Regina finished her short speech and slowly sat back down on the bench.

Matthew bowed his head and sighed before he looked at Alex again. “Fair enough. I just want you to know that once the hospital finds out your assisting in the investigation, they will use anything they can to rattle you.”

“I’m well aware of that,” Alex said.

“First, I need to know exactly everything that you’ve found out or have first hand knowledge of.”

“Most of what I have just leaves more unanswered questions,” Alex replied.

“It doesn’t matter. If it’s enough to justify getting a warrant it’ll be worth it.”

“I can put something together for you.”

“Good. Now there’s a dinner taking place on Friday night that we’re very interested in. Do you know about it?”

“I’ve been invited.” Alex assumed a bored expression on her face while inside her guts stirred as she anticipated what his next remark would be.

“Would you be willing to wear a wire?”

Alex squeezed Regina’s thigh before the younger woman could lend voice to the concerns that were evident in the tensing of her whole body. “Why me?”

“You’ve done what it would take us another six months to do. We don’t have time to plant someone in their midst so we can find out the extent of what they’re up to.”

“Why can’t you just get a warrant to get the information that you need?” Regina asked.

“Like I said before we have no just cause to do that. At the moment, our suspicions are not enough.”

Matthew stopped and studied Alex before he continued. He’d done his homework and hoped the knowledge he gained would pay off. One name in particular had popped up on many occasions as he checked out Alex’s past and then suddenly the trail of credit card reports and other electronic data that was kept stored in large databases at the bureau just stopped. His search brought him to a jail cell and one bitter and angry Dana Romano. “Can I talk to you privately for a minute?”

Alex darted a glance at Regina and then back at the dark-haired man sitting across from them. “What ever you need to say you can say right here.”

Matthew nodded, a little surprised by that. “Your choice, Dr. Margulies.”

Uh oh. Alex tensed as she sensed the change in the man’s tone. Beside her Regina fidgeted and she knew her partner was aware of the shift in the tone of the conversation as well.

“The statute of limitations on the possession of drugs and selling them is six years. There are two years left on that statute in your case. If you agree to wear the wire on Friday, I can make those two years go away and you won’t face any charges now or in the future.”

Alex swallowed, her ears burned hot and her stomach roiled in reaction to what she heard. She braced her elbows on the table to stave off the uncontrollable trembling that started in her gut. Even after all this time it still comes down to this.

With a resigned sigh, Alex lowered her head and then looked over at Regina, not sure what she would find in her eyes. What she saw was a look of quiet acknowledgement without a hint of recrimination.

“I’m sorry.” She didn’t know what else to say.

They held each other’s gaze, conveying more in that one unspoken moment than a handful of hurried words would have accomplished. Alex looked back at Matthew and nodded her head. “I’ll do it.”

For the next two hours, Matthew reviewed what information the government wanted to collect for their investigation. Both Regina and Alex were exhausted by the time they finally returned home.

Alex leaned against the wall, with her arms folded over her chest, quietly gazing out the window of Regina’s condo. She closed her eyes and tried to slow her racing mind. On the ride home she came to the conclusion that maybe this was justice being played out, since she did everything she was being accused of. Alex yawned and cracked her neck to relieve some of the tension she felt in the muscles.

“Alex come and sit down.” Regina looked up from opening her mail and patted the chair next to her.

Blue eyes rolled in her direction and the taller woman walked to the table and slumped into the chair.

“Tired?” Regina ran her fingers through Alex’s dark hair.

The older woman nodded and rested her face in her hands. “Why aren’t you angry or yelling at me?”

Regina stared at Alex. “You’re doing a good enough job of beating yourself up. You don’t need me to add to the pile.” This got her a tiny smile and Alex lifted her head up to look at her. Regina rested her head on Alex’s shoulder and inhaled the subtle, spicy scent of her perfume.

“This could get ugly in the next few days.”

Regina nodded her head soberly and pressed her face into the curve of Alex’s neck. “I know.”

Alex wrapped an arm around Regina’s shoulder and kissed the top of her head. Her thumb grazed Regina’s cheek and wiped away a tear. “You know there’s no guarantee the district attorney will agree to throw out the charges against me.”

Regina lifted her head and wiped the tears from her eyes. “I choose to believe that he will, Alex. I have to.”

Alex was silent as she stared down at the table. She exhaled and then looked into the pair of stricken, green eyes. “I guess I always felt that I was living free on borrowed time.” Alex glanced up at the ceiling and took a nervous breath. “Maybe this is, it … the proverbial other shoe falling.”

“No.” Regina scooted forward in her chair and squeezed Alex’s hand. “It’s been four years and you’ve turned your life around. You’re not that person anymore. I wouldn’t be with you if you were.”

Alex nodded her head in quiet acknowledgement. “I know. Listen, I wasn’t mad at you before in the car. I was upset at Jon for putting you in the middle of everything.”

“I wasn’t sure,” Regina acknowledged quietly.

Alex reached out and turned one of the envelopes around to read it. “What’s this?”

Regina squinted her eyes and read the address. “My lease is up in a month.”

Alex bit back the question that was on the tip of her tongue, prudently deciding that at the moment it wasn’t the right time for her to ask Regina if she wanted to take that step with her. She wants a baby. I don’t. Why would she want a commitment if we don’t want the same things? “I think we should hit the sack. It’s going to be a long couple of days.” With a sigh the taller woman, stood up and stretched. “You coming?”

“Yeah. I’ll be there in a couple minutes.” Regina watched as Alex walked over to the bedroom and disappeared inside.

What if she decides she never wants to have a baby in her life? Then what? Well, we’ve come this far together, Regina thought to herself. It’s not the time to have a crisis of faith. She propped her elbows on the table and rested her head in her hands.

After a quiet moment of reflection, Regina picked up her cell phone and dialed a number to the police station. She listened as the phone rang several times and then a gruff voice answered on the other end. Officer Briggs.”

“Hi, this is Dr. Kingston from Saint Xavier’s. I’m calling to get an update on the boy who’s been missing since Saturday.”

There was a monosyllabic grunt on the other end. “Hold on.” A few seconds later the officer came back on the phone and spoke. “Sorry, ma’am but we don’t have any new information on him yet.”

“Nothing?”

“No ma’am.”

“Are you even looking for him?” The words leapt from her mouth before she could thing about what she was saying.

“Ma’am, we get hundreds of reports of missing children every year. We go through the same procedures for each of them.”

Regina sighed. “I’m sorry. I just can’t believe he’s disappeared and no one has seen him.”

“It’s tough. Sometimes these kids don’t want to be found and they just slip into the shadows of street life.”

Regina shuddered at the images that conjured up. “Let me give you my cell phone number. If you hear anything please call me.”

The officer took down the number as she recited it. Thanks,” Regina replied when she was done and flipped the phone closed.

She walked into the bedroom, stripped off her clothes, and tossed them into the hamper. “You asleep?” she whispered, as she crawled into bed beside Alex.

One blue eye opened and peered back at her. “No, I was just thinking.” Alex reached out with her arm in an invitation to Regina.

With a smile, the blonde snuggled down beside her and rested her head against Alex’s shoulder. “I’m going to be covering down at the clinic for the rest of the week.”

Alex nodded her head and continued to stare up at the ceiling.

Regina traced a fingertip over Alex’s collarbone. “I want you to come down there before you go to that dinner on Friday.”

Alex looked at Regina and gave her a nervous smile. “Why? So you can make sure I look presentable,” she joked in a feeble attempt at humor.

Regina shook her head and kissed Alex’s neck. “No, silly. I want to be able to wish you luck before you go.”

Alex slid an arm around Regina and pulled her close. “Are you upset about what I said earlier?”

“You mean about you wearing a wire for Matthew. He’s using you and that pisses me off.”

“I know. I meant about the baby.”

Regina rose up on her elbow and peered down at Alex. “I’m not upset, disappointed that you don’t feel the same way, but we’ve never talked about it before this. Things have to be different than they are right now and we both have to want that.” She leaned down and kissed Alex’s collarbone. “Tomorrow’s another day. Go to sleep.”
Chapter Twenty-Six
Sandy pushed the privacy curtain aside and stepped into the exam booth. “Alex, when you’re done here, there’s a fifty year old in room two with bronchitis.”

Alex finished stitching the laceration on her patient’s forehead and then looked over at the nurse. “Have Jon take it. I’m already late.”

Sandy held the chart out to Alex. “He’s tied up with a trauma in room three.”

“Then page a resident,” Alex replied curtly.

Sandy raised her eyebrows. “You got a hot date or something?”

Alex gave her a dour look and flicked her gloves into the trashcan beside the stretcher. “Or something.”

“Ooh, you’re touchy today. What’s up?”

Alex ignored the comment and walked past the blonde haired nurse. “Did you work a double shift last night or did you actually go home and talk with Tina?”

Sandy kicked the toe of her sneaker against the floor and wrinkled her nose. “I went home, late. She was already asleep.”

Alex stopped at the sink and stepped on the floor pedal. Tepid water ran over her hands and she washed them under the stream. “Sandy, you two have been together too long to long not to be able to work this out.”

The nurse leaned against the wall and folded her arms over her chest. “Alex, we want different things.”

“People want different things all the time. Do you still love her?” Alex glanced at Sandy as she dried her hands.

Sandy leaned closer, as a patient was wheeled past them. “What kind of a question is that? Of course I love her.”

“Then isn’t it worth staying together?” Alex turned and walked toward the locker room.

“Alex, it’s not that simple.” Sandy stormed after her. “Who are you to ask me anyway?”

“A friend.” Alex opened the door and walked inside.

Sandy followed and waited for the door to shut behind her. “Like you you’ve got some great track record with relationships.”

“You’re right. I don’t.” Alex removed the lock from her locker door and then leaned against it. “I know I’ve got a long way to go to learn about loving another person. Regina and I don’t always see eye to eye but you know what? She challenges the hell out of me. She’s forced me to change and grow and not to run away because that’s the easy thing to do.”

Sandy folded her arms and glared at the doctor. “Since when did you turn into a damn philosopher?”

“Because a month ago I had a choice to make about my relationship with Regina.” Alex stripped off her clothes and changed into her pants and sweater while she talked. “It was a pretty simple decision when I thought about it. Work it out and stay together or give up the best thing I have in my life and for what?”

Sandy threw up her hands. “You’re right she is rubbing off on you.”

Alex smiled as Sandy turned and opened the door. “Go home and talk to Tina. Don’t throw it all away.”

Ten minutes later Alex slipped unseen out of the Emergency Department and walked to her Jeep. While she pulled out of the parking lot, she started to review the information she needed to get for Matthew’s investigation. Alex guided her Jeep through the early rush hour traffic. She uttered a curse and hit the brake pedal as an oversized sport utility vehicle abruptly changed lanes nearly clipping her front bumper.

She rolled to a stop at a red light, watching the offending vehicle speed off down the road. So tonight I get a chance to trade information for my freedom. Ironic, what I found out may put someone else away. I wonder how Regina feels about that.

Her expression changed to one of pensiveness as she saw the jewelry store she had been to with Regina. She recalled the promise she made to Regina not to long ago while they were up on the Cape and a wistful smile crept over her face.

As the light turned green, Alex flicked her blinker on and pulled into an open parking space across from the storefront. She folded her arms over the steering wheel and rested her head on them. I must be crazy. I don’t even know what’s going to happen tonight.

She snorted derisively and shook her head, knowing full well that she should have been going to the clinic to meet Matthew Weber. Alex lifted her head and blinked to refocus her vision. She watched as a group of teenagers jostled and shoved each other as they sauntered across the intersection.

She rubbed her face with her hands and finally got up the nerve to step out of the Jeep.

Alex waited beside the Jeep as a small, compact Toyota sped by her and raced through the yellow light in the intersection barely missing one of the kids. Must be a full moon. Several angry shouts erupted and the closest teen graced the driver with a universal hand signal.

Alex watched the group congregate on the corner, still angry at the recklessness of the driver. First there are diapers, then, they go through the terrible-two’s and then the dreaded teenage years. She shuddered at the thought.

She cast a cursory glance in either direction of the street, stuffed her hands into her coat pockets, and trotted across the street. Alex shook her head in mild disbelief at herself when she finally stepped into the store. My god, am I really going to do this? Alex almost spun on her heel and left in that instant.

“Hello there.” A warm cheerful voice called out from behind the counter.

Alex recognized the older gentleman who sold Regina the necklace for her mother’s birthday the last time they were in the store. “Hi.” She stepped closer and glanced down at the glass cases.

“Can I help you find something?” the jeweler asked, as he moved closer to her.

Unused to feeling so unbalanced, Alex stammered as she fumbled with her words. “The last time I was here, there was a ring, downstairs.”

The older man’s blue eyes twinkled as he watched the dark-haired woman. “I remember you and your fair haired friend. It was a Celtic design the young lady fancied.”

Alex stared at him as her heart bounded in her chest. “I’d like to see the ring if you still have it.”

A gentle smile touched the man’s lips and he moved from behind the counter. “Certainly. Come, I’ll show you.”

Alex followed him down the carpeted steps as her mind raced in half a dozen different directions. I must be half crazy out of mind. She wants to have a baby.

The jeweler looked over his shoulder as he swept back the heavy velvet curtain and stepped into his small back workroom filled with the tools of his trade. “Every now and then there’s a piece that comes into the store that is just waiting for the right person to come along.”

Slowly, he knelt in front of a safe, and spun the dial several times and then opened the door. “Now, it may look a bit different from the last time you saw it.”

Alex frowned as she watched him pull out a black box and slowly straighten up. “I don’t understand.”

He set the box on the table and turned to her. “The vines that form the bands of the ring signify the never ending circle of our lives and the ones we love.” He opened the box and slipped the gold ring from its velvet nest.

Alex’s eyes widened as she studied it. Perfectly imbedded into the smooth intertwining bands were three, sparkling diamond chips nestled into the spaces where the vines curved around each other. “It’s stunning.”

The jeweler beamed as he turned the band around for her to see.

Alex brushed her palms on her coat. “Can I?” she asked, reaching for the ring.

He nodded and placed it in the palm of her hand. “What’s your name? If you don’t mind me asking.”

Alex glanced at him from beneath her bangs. “Alex Margulies.”

“I’m Vincent Falco.”

“How long have you owned the store?”

“It’s been in the family for fifty years. I’ve worked here for the last thirty.”

“So why did you hold onto this ring?”

Joseph chuckled at the quizzical look on Alex’s face. “After working in the business this long, I can see when two people are in love with each other.”

A shiver ran up Alex’s spine and she stared down at the ring. She swallowed nervously, feeling suddenly like all the air had gone out of the room. “It does make everything else seem pretty insignificant.”

“It’s the reason why we’re here on the planet.”

Alex laughed and looked back down at the ring. “Can you clean it up so I can take it with me tonight?”

“I certainly can.”

******

It was five o’clock by the time Alex arrived at the clinic. Alex opened the door and stepped out of the Jeep. She pulled her dry cleaned suit out of the back and walked up the concrete steps. Alex stopped on the landing and looked up at the sky. I’m not very good at this God. I’m not even sure I know how to do this or if you’re listening up there. If you are, please let this work out tonight.

She entered the front entrance and smiled when a door opened to her right and Regina stepped into the hallway. When their eyes met, a feeling she couldn’t even describe settled deep inside her and she stood where she was until Regina walked up to her.

“Hey. Where have you been?” Regina clasped her hand over Alex’s arm and pulled her closer as they walked over to the reception desk.

Alex’s eyes darted nervously over Regina’s face as she leaned against the counter top.

“I had a couple of errands to run.”

Regina frowned and rubbed her arm. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” She moistened her lips and forced a smile, despite the nervous flutter she felt in her guts. “Is Matthew here yet?”

The younger woman nodded and pointed toward the back of the clinic. “He’s in the back room with all his high-tech gear. You better go back because I’m going to have to cause bodily harm to him the next time he comes out and asks me if you’re here yet.”

An evil smile appeared on Alex’s lips and she leaned closer to the Regina. “Now that I’d like to see.”

“I bet you would.”

“There you are. You were supposed to be here a half hour ago,” Matthew called out and flung his arms up in agitation as he walked towards the pair.

Alex met Regina’s gaze and rolled her eyes. “Come back when you’re done out here.”

“You bet I will.” Regina reached out with her hand and touched a wisp of Alex’s hair before she walked away.

Halfway down the hallway, Alex turned back around and held Regina’s gaze for a moment. She pointed to herself, then placed a hand over her heart and pointed at Regina.

Regina hugged her arms around herself as a warm tingle ran up her spine and mouthed the words ‘I love you’ back to Alex.

Behind her, a door opened and her patient, six-year old girl with straight brown hair and gentle brown eyes walked out, clutching a teddy bear in one hand. An older, grizzled looking man shuffled along next to her, holding the girl’s hand.

“Thank you,” he rasped and nodded at Regina as he walked past her.

Regina grabbed a prescription pad from the counter. “Here let me get the door for you.” She jogged across the room and pushed the door open. “Don’t forget this.” Regina tore a page from the stack of bound paper.

The man reached out and took the piece of paper. “Thank you, doctor. Say goodbye, Becky.”

Regina waved as the girl forced a smile and then ducked her head against her grandfather’s leg. “Remember to have her take the pills with food.” She stood on the landing and watched as the pair walked down the steps.

The man hunched forward against the breeze that stirred up around them. He directed the young girl ahead of him as he walked along the sidewalk. Regina watched them disappear into the dark before she stepped back into the clinic and shut the door.

After filing her charts away and locking the cabinet she walked to the back of the clinic. She knocked lightly on the closed door, waiting until she heard the sharp acknowledgement from inside to open the door.

Regina stepped into the stark white room and stood off to the side, watching quietly as Matthew went about his work.

Inside, Alex sat on a treatment table half dressed in her black linen pants and bra. Next to her on the table was an open briefcase with several small devices sitting inside, which looked similar to the pagers they used for work. The doctor’s face was set in a stern and somber expression as she allowed Matthew to tape the wire to her skin.

“Um, I … ” He motioned with his hand where he needed to tape the final length and Alex rolled her eyes.

“Here,” she grumbled and grabbed the wire from him. She slid it up underneath her bra and affixed it between her cleavage with a piece of tape. “Good enough?” She glared at him from beneath furrowed brows.

“Yeah.” Matthew averted his eyes and fiddled with two of the devices in his briefcase. “You, um, have quite a scar there.”

“Gee, thanks.” Alex leaned toward him. “Would you like one too?”

Matthew startled at the ominous tone her voice and his body stiffened. “I’m sorry. I just meant … ” his voice trailed off as he met Alex’s stony gaze. He decided it was better not to pursue his present course and instead went back to studying the receivers in the briefcase.

He selected one and inserted the lead hanging at Alex’s side. “You don’t need to do anything special when you talk. This little microphone can magnify your voice to ten times its normal volume so I’ll be able to hear you from the car.” He cleared his throat and stuffed his hands into his pocket. “You know what information I need you to get.”

Alex picked up the small, black instrument, looked at it for a second, and then clipped it to her belt. “Did you talk to the District Attorney?” She boosted herself off the table with her arms, flexing well-toned muscles that despite the two and a half months of little exercise still maintained some of their sleek definition.

“I spoke to him yesterday and they’re willing to make a deal based on the information you get for the investigation.”

“What’s the deal?”

“They would agree not to bring any charges against you.”

Regina tilted her head and watched as Alex slipped her high-collared shirt on and started to button it. She pushed off the wall and approached her. “Can we have a few minutes together?”

Matthew glanced at his watch and started to protest.

“Alone,” Alex growled as she pinned Matthew with her eyes.

“Uh, sure. I’ll meet you outside.” He grabbed his briefcase and closed it, then, ducked out of the room and shut the door behind him.

“You didn’t tell me you were wearing a tux to this thing.” Regina ran her fingers over the black three-quarter-length coat and smiled up at Alex.

“Well, it is a formal affair.” Alex finished working on her cuff links and glanced at Regina. “You didn’t honestly think I’d be wearing an evening gown.”

The younger doctor wrinkled her nose and pretended to think about that. “Uh, no, but then again you’d look incredible no matter what you had on.”

Alex raised both her eyebrows and pointed at the tiny microphone. “I’m quite sure the he’s already listening.”

Regina rolled her eyes and stepped closer. “I don’t give a crap. I hate that he manipulated you into doing this.” She tugged on the tails of Alex’s shirt and kissed her lightly on the lips.

Alex sighed and rested her chin on the top of Regina’s head. “I got myself into this, Regina.” She stared at a crack in the floor, thinking about how one moment in a person’s life could change it all forever. “It’s just … I have a chance to change something that can ruin the rest of my life and everything I care about.” Alex lifted her eyes and looked at Regina. “I don’t want my past ruining what we could have together.”

Regina tilted her head up and smiled sadly. “Come here. I want to give you a hug, but I don’t want to get your shirt all wrinkled. You’ll get to this stupid cocktail party and everyone will be wondering what you were doing and with who.”

Alex snorted and stifled a laugh. “Or I could just bring you and there’d be no question.”

“You’re bad.” Regina undid several buttons and slipped her arms inside. “Mm, that’s better.” She nestled her head against Alex’s shoulder and hugged her tightly.

Alex closed her eyes and slowly wrapped her arms around Regina. “You okay?”

“I’ll be better when you’re back home safe, with me tonight.” Regina lifted her head when she heard a muffled cough from the other side of the door. Her lip curled and she pinched the top of the microphone with her fingers. “Do you think he’ll hear this?” She flicked her middle finger hard against the tip.

“Ow! Shit, dammit! What did you do that for?” Matthew’s aggrieved voice filtered through the closed door.

Alex tilted her head back and her body shook as she laughed. “Excuse me, one second.” She slipped from Regina’s grasp and opened the door.

Matthew was leaning against the wall, still rubbing one ear as she descended upon him. He shrank away from her as she invaded his space and towered over him. “Listen you little shit. You pull another stunt like that and I’ll shove this receiver so far up your ass you’ll be able to pull it out your throat. Turn it off and get lost.”

He fumbled with the device for a few seconds. “Okay, it’s off,” he whined and then slunk past her along the wall towards the front door.

“Stupid piece of … ” Regina’s hand clamped over Alex’s mouth as the taller woman turned around.

“I think you just scared the crap out of him.”

Alex stared at Regina and then nibbled at the palm of her hand.

“Brat.” Regina poked her in the stomach and then backed up as the taller woman’s eyes glinted with a predatory gleam.

“Come here.”

Regina yelped and half-heartedly skipped back a couple of steps as Alex playfully advanced on her. The next step brought her back up against a wall and she found herself pinned against it with Alex’s outstretched arms on either side of her head.

She stared into eyes that seemed more gray than blue in the fluorescent light. Regina watched the corners of Alex’s lips twitch into a smile and then felt the soft touch of strong fingers running through her hair.

“What are you going to do while I’m gone?”

“Mm.” Regina pressed into the caress that enveloped her senses. “I um,” she cleared her throat and continued. “I’ve got some paperwork to finish up here.” She heard Alex exhale.

“Don’t stay here too long by yourself. Okay?”

“I won’t.” Regina wrapped her arms around Alex’s waist and pulled her close. “Please be careful tonight.”

“I will be.” Alex ducked her head and pressed her lips against Regina’s in a slow, gentle kiss. When she pulled away she kept her eyes closed while she savored the gentle strength of Regina’s arms and the warmth of their bodies where they touched. “Regina,” she whispered and opened her eyes.

“What?” Regina started to re-button Alex’s shirt from the bottom up.

“I love you.”

She stopped what she was doing, rose up on her toes, and kissed Alex’s lips. “I love you, too.”
Chapter Twenty-Seven
After Alex left the clinic, Regina locked the front door and walked back to her desk. She settled down into a chair, dragged the top chart off the pile in front of her, and opened it. She scanned over the hastily scrawled notes and then rubbed a hand over her weary eyes.

“I wish I could do something to help Alex. I feel so useless sitting here, just waiting.”

With a pensive sigh, she started to write the remainder of her notes for the patients she treated throughout the day.

An hour later, after working her way through half the pile, Regina leaned back in her chair, yawned and stretched her arms over her head. A sound from outside startled her and she twisted in her chair.

“What in the hell was that?”

At first, she attributed it to a loose shutter being rattled by the wind. Then, it came again, and this time, she realized the short, staccato like, high-pitched noise was a dog’s frantic barking. The young doctor looked briefly at the pile of paperwork and stood up. She grabbed a flashlight from behind the counter and then lifted her coat off from behind the door.

Regina slipped her jacket on as she unlocked the front door. At the top of the steps, she zipped up her coat while soft gusts of air crystallized into a misty cloud in front of her with each breath.

Across the street, at the firehouse she made out the silhouette of the German Shepard, dancing around in a circle as he barked.

Regina trotted down the steps, glanced up and down the street, and waited for a break in the traffic. When the line of cars finally broke she darted across the road.

“Hey, Lucky. What’s wrong?” She called out as she approached the distressed animal. “Did the guys leave you here all alone?” Both rigs were gone and her voice echoed off the concrete walls of the firehouse.

Regina ruffled the coarse hair on the German Shepard’s neck and the dog whined softly as he strained against the length of rope that was tied to a bolt in the concrete wall. “It’s okay, boy. They’ll be back.”

A burst of deep guttural barks startled Regina and her eyes darted around looking for the source of the dog’s agitation. “What’s got you so upset tonight?” Before she could react, the dog lunged furiously against the leash that restrained him.

“Lucky, stop.” She tried to mimic Todd’s stern tone with the dog. A frustrated whine and high-pitched bark answered her.

The powerful dog lunged repeatedly toward the open door. Suddenly, the rope pulled taught and snapped. Lucky bolted into the street, darting in front of an oncoming car and just barely avoided being struck.

Regina took her hand away from her mouth and shook her head in relief. “That was too close.”

Across the street, Lucky lowered his head to the ground and sniffed frantically all along the sidewalk in front of the warehouse. He barked several times and then trotted into the alleyway on the side of the clinic.

Regina ran across the street and called the dog’s name. “Oh this is just stupid,” she chastised herself as she halted in front of the dark opening that led between the two buildings. “What am I chasing after him for? He’s not my dog.”

She heard another bark and the sound of scamper of large paws running on the concrete grew louder. Regina yelped as the dog’s form took shape as he emerged from the shadows.

“This is a fine time for you to decide to play games. Come here.” She reached out to grab his collar but the dog ducked and pranced away from her. Regina glanced back up at the clinic, briefly giving a thought to the paperwork she had left on her desk. “Maybe I can coax you inside.”

She backed away several steps. Lucky tilted his head and cocked his ears at her. He whined and shook his large head obstinately, then barked several times as he backed away.

“What are you trying to tell me?” Regina turned on the flashlight and swept the beam over the alleyway before she tentatively stepped forward. She felt something gooey squish beneath her shoe and she shivered involuntarily. “Yuck. I don’t even want to know what that was.”

As she approached the dog, he wagged his tail and danced closer to a stairwell that took shape as her eyes adjusted to the dark. “What is it, Lucky?” She grasped the cold, metal rail and felt a shiver run up her spine as she looked down the dark, forbidding steps.

Lucky turned and trotted to the end of the alley and disappeared around the corner.

Regina shook her head and cautiously followed after the dog. She turned the corner and flashed the beam of light on Lucky in time to see him worming his way underneath the partially opened garage door.

Regina shivered and looked around her. A large garbage dumpster stood in a far corner of the empty lot and garbage littered the ground.

She walked over to the loading dock and boosted herself up onto the concrete ledge. Regina peered under the door and shined the beam of light inside. Two eerie golden orbs reflected back at her from several feet away and she heard the dog whine. She shifted the beam of light and a startled cry escaped from her lips.

Two dirty bare feet stuck out from behind a crate.

“Hello, can you hear me?” She called out but got no reaction.

Regina struggled to lift the door up. It budged several inches and then stuck solidly in its track. Next, she sat back on her heels, pulled out her cell phone, and flipped it open. She dialed several times and then ran her hand nervously through her hair. “Damn, it figures I can’t get a connection from here.”

She peered back under the narrow opening and then lowered herself onto her stomach. It took several minutes but Regina finally managed to squirm her way under narrow opening.

A dank, musty odor assaulted her senses and she wrinkled her nose in revulsion. “Gross.”

She pushed herself up onto her hands in knees and was immediately welcomed by Lucky’s warm, wet tongue. “I know, I know. You’re a good boy.” She pushed him away and then shined the beam of the flashlight around her. After a few minutes of searching, found a row of light switches on one of the walls.

She flipped the switches and was relieved when several rows of fluorescent lights flickered on overhead. Regina exhaled nervously and walked back to where she saw the pair of feet sticking out from between several crates.

Regina looked down and let out a startled cry. “Jesus, how did you get here?” She dropped to her knees, reached down, and felt for a pulse. “Thank god, you’re still alive.” Regina cradled the boy’s face in her hands. “TJ wake up. Come on sweetheart open your eyes for me.”

The boy stirred and mumbled incoherently for a moment. Suddenly, his limbs thrashed and his eyes rolled back in their sockets. Regina stripped out of her coat and bundled it beneath TJ’s head. She leaned against one of the boxes and pushed it several inches away, then, did the same with several others.

Lucky whined and lowered his head as he hunkered down next to the boy.

Regina rolled TJ onto his side and waited for what seemed an eternity until the seizure passed and the boy lay quietly on the ground.

*******

Alex walked around to the back of her Jeep and dropped her keys into the hands of the young valet attendant. A low rumble caught her attention and she quickly jumped back onto the sidewalk just as a candy, red Porsche rolled to a stop right where she had been standing a second before. The driver side door opened and a tall, lithe man with wavy, salt and pepper hair stepped out.

“Where’d you learn how to drive?” Alex glared at him in contempt.

“What are you worrying about, I didn’t hit your old relic,” he replied with a sneer. With negligent grace, he tossed his keys at the same valet and walked away with his coat tails flourishing out behind him.

Alex forced a smile as she looked up at the sky and then over at the attendant. “There’s a nice piece of open road over on Valley Drive. You should be able to open it up all the way.”

Dark eyes met hers and laughter rung in the air as the valet tossed the Porsche keys in his hand. “Indeed it is, ma’am.”

Alex clapped him on the shoulder and then walked across the circular drive. “Could they have picked anyplace more ostentatious?” Her eyes roamed over the dramatically lit main entrance that was flanked on either side by two life-size, marble statues carved in the likenesses of Greek water bearers. Water bubbled over from their fluted openings and flowed into the pools that were their bases.

Alex opened the door and was immediately blasted with a gust of hot, dry air from the overhead vents as she walked through the entryway.

She slipped out of her long, black leather coat and draped it over the wooden half door of the coatroom where an attendant handed her a ticket in exchange for her coat.

Around her, the noise level rose as a number of medical staff continued to arrive in small groups. Alex walked through the growing crowd toward the large ballroom that was reserved for the evening’s function. Strains of dinner music filtered from over-sized speakers at the other end of the hall.

The thought of eating, smiling and fraternizing with Cassandra and her cronies all night nauseated her. What I’d give to be with Regina right now.

Seeking some reassurance, Alex’s hand drifted to the inside pocket of her coat where she felt the small ring box that was tucked securely away. She stopped and looked around her for a second, pushing away the dark thoughts that crept into her consciousness. I hope I get that chance after tonight.

After walking through the ballroom, Alex’s gaze settled briefly on Cassandra who was dressed in a low cut, black evening gown. At the moment, she was engaged in a conversation with the driver of the Porsche. Oh how lovely, he must be her latest prize. We’ll see how long it takes him to fall from grace.

The man’s dark eyes locked with Alex’s momentarily as he continued to talk with the Vice President. A second later Cassandra turned and glanced her as well.

Alex simply returned the Cassandra’s incendiary look with an impassive expression, then, casually turned and walked away. Yeah, that’s right I’m here Cassandra, but we’re going to play this little charade by my rules not yours.

Across the hall, Dr. Timmons emerged from the fringes of a crowd of people and walked up to Alex. “Evening, Dr. Margulies. How’d you get wrangled into attending this lovely affair?”

“I believe the words command performance are appropriate for this occasion,” she answered shortly.

“Don’t I know it. I feel sorry for the poor bastards who don’t realize yet that their budgets for next year hinge on the amount of their department’s contributions.” He gestured at the long buffet tables that were meticulously decorated with ice sculptures. “How much do you think they’re shelling out for this affair anyway?”

Alex shrugged and leaned closer so he could hear her over the rising din. “Too much, I’m sure.”

The pediatrician laughed and gestured across the room with his hand. “It’s an open bar. We might as well recoup some of our donation. Do you want anything?”

“Just a tonic with lime.” Alex declined the offer.

“Are you on call tonight?” He glanced at Alex as they walked through the crowd of people toward the bar.

“No. I just want my wits about me tonight.”

“Not me. I need a stiff one to make it through this nonsense.” He turned to the bar tender. “Give me a scotch straight up and a tonic with lime.”

Alex took her drink from Dr. Timmons and sipped it while she studied the occupants of the room around her.

“Let’s check out the spread at the buffet before we get dragged into a night of talking about hospital politics.”

“Sounds good,” Alex answered, realizing it had been hours since she’d last eaten.

Twenty minutes later after sampling their way through the buffet, Alex and Dr. Timmons stood at the far end of the room and talked briefly amongst themselves.

“So, shall we go rub elbows?” Alex scanned the room again and found Cassandra standing with a cluster of doctors and administrators.

The pediatrician shook his head. “You mingle. I’ll refresh my drink.”

A smirk crossed Alex’s features and she acknowledged him with a wave of her hand, then, focused her attention on her quarry standing ten feet away from her.

Okay, this is game time. Get your head on straight, Alex reminded herself as she slipped up behind Cassandra and flashed a smile at the two colleagues the Vice President was engaged in a conversation with.

“We’d truly appreciate any support you can contribute to our endeavor,” Cassandra stated sweetly as she laid a hand on one of the doctor’s forearms.

“Hello, Dr. Margulies.” One of the radiologists acknowledged her with a nod of his head.

“Hello, Gordon.” Alex lifted her glass in mock salute and then smiled disarmingly at Cassandra when the Vice President turned toward her.

“Alex it’s so nice of you to be here. Gentleman.” Cassandra dismissed the two men with a brief nod of her head. Once they were alone, her eyes roamed appraisingly over Alex’s figure. “You’re looking rather butch tonight.”

Alex ignored Cassandra’s comment and lifted the doctor’s empty glass from her hand. “What’s you’re poison?” she asked, trying valiantly to appear and sound normal and not like she was plotting a strategy to entrap her boss.

“Vodka Gimlet.” Cassandra eyed the taller woman warily and hesitated. “Maybe I shouldn’t.”

Alex rolled her eyes and forced a chuckle. “Come on, Cassandra. What’s one drink to take the edge off? You deserve it, after all.”

“I suppose one more wouldn’t hurt,” she conceded.

Alex nodded her head and strode to the bar. She glanced back at Cassandra as she waited for the bartender to mix the drink she requested.

Cassandra appeared by her side seconds later. “Why thank you, doctor,” she demurred as she took the proffered drink from Alex and sipped it. Her lips left a ruby-colored outline of their shape on the rim of the glass. “I think that’s the nicest thing any one’s done for me this week.”

“That’s not saying much, Cassandra,” Alex replied evenly.

The blonde shrugged. “It’s a lonely place at the top, Alex.”

“As lonely as you choose to make it, I suppose.”

“It’s a trade off for having to make unpopular decisions.”

That’s an interesting spin on things, Alex thought.

Several boisterous residents crowded around the bar where the two women were talking. Alex discreetly guided Cassandra away from the ruckus. “You have a lot on your plate with the new Cardiac program coming on board. When’s the ground breaking date?” Alex probed cautiously.

“That depends.”

“On what?”

“How much we draw in from tonight’s proceeds.” Cassandra tipped the glass to her lips again and waved exuberantly to a doctor standing several feet away from them.

“How much are you expecting to raise?”

“We have a million dollars in pledges so far, but what’s more important is that we have a party who is willing to match us dollar for dollar.”

“Must be one hell of a plaque that’s going up on the wall of the new unit for that price,” Alex half joked. Come on Cassandra, give me something I can use.

“We’re way beyond plaques at this point,” the Vice President scoffed.

Alex nodded at one of her colleagues as he walked past them on his way to the buffet table. She leaned in closer to Cassandra. “What’s the prize? A position on the Board of Trustees?”

Cassandra’s eyes widened and she gulped down a swallow of her drink. “Oh, look there’s Doctor Pierce. He’s the doctor I was telling you about the other day. I must introduce you to him,” Cassandra gushed. “Roger, come here. There’s someone I want you to meet.”

Oh lucky me, Alex groaned inwardly as she watched the doctor scrutinize her as he walked towards them.

“Hello, Cassandra.” He nodded graciously.

“Roger, this is Doctor Margulies, the director of our Emergency Department.” Cassandra laid a hand on his arm and turned him towards Alex.

“Ah, the doctor who has nine lives. I’ve heard so much about you.”

Alex extended her hand, expecting a hand shake and then steeled herself when Dr. Pierce abruptly turned her hand over and kissed the back of it. “Funny, I haven’t heard a thing about you,” she replied through gritted teeth.

“No one told me you were so beautiful,” he replied as he raised his head and smiled at her.

Alex extracted her hand from his grasp, resisting the urge to wipe it off on her pants leg.

“So where did you practice before joining the medical staff here?”

“I’ve been at several facilities out west,” Dr. Pierce shrugged his shoulders.

“Really, where?”

“This is supposed to be a fun evening, Alex. There will be plenty of time to talk about business later,” Cassandra jumped in.

“I’m sure we will,” replied evenly, hoping her voice didn’t betray the nervousness she felt. Movement from across the room caught Alex’s attention and she watched as two men dressed in white shirts, blue coats, and gray wool pants walked briskly toward them.

“Dr. Mitchard, we have a problem,” the huskier of the two guards reported nervously.

Alex turned and watched Cassandra’s reaction closely.

Cassandra’s eyes bored into the security guard and a vein bulged in her neck. “What do you mean we have a problem?” Cassandra demanded.

“I think you should come see for yourself.” The guard shifted on his feet and looked around the room before he returned his gaze to the Vice President.

Dr. Pierce turned to Cassandra, his eyes narrowing as he stepped into her space. “I thought you said everything was tied up and there would be no loose ends.”

“Roger, I assure you everything is fine.” With an exasperated sigh, Cassandra waved her hand ahead of herself. “This better be important,” she warned the security guards.

Alex followed the small entourage out of the crowded ballroom and down a side corridor that led away from the boisterous noise of the party. The taller security guard opened a locked door and led them into a small room.

“I thought you should see this.” He pointed at one of the monitors on the wall.

Dr. Pierce walked up behind Cassandra and squinted as he tried to make out the grainy images that were displayed on the screen of one of the wall monitors. “Who in the hell is that?”

Alex’s eyes darted to the monitor as she stepped closer. Her mouth went dry and she felt nauseas as she made out Regina’s unmistakable image on one of the screens. Oh sweet Jesus, Reg what are you doing there?

“Should we call the police?” Dr. Pierce asked.

“No, absolutely not. We’ll take care of it internally,” Cassandra said coldly.

“Is that a good decision?”

“It’s not yours to make. Besides, the police can’t be involved. There’s too much at stake now.”

A chill ran up Alex’s spine. She backpedaled to the door while Cassandra argued with Dr. Pierce.

Cassandra leaned closer and then tilted her head. “That’s one of our doctors. What is she doing in the warehouse?” She whirled around and let out a frustrated shriek when she realized Alex was standing behind her. “You, you’re responsible for this. Do not let her leave the building,” she yelled at the security guards.

Alex yanked the door shut and sprinted down the hallway. She bypassed the coatroom and flung the exit door open as she ran through. Outside, she raced to the small valet shack and leaned in the door, startling the attendant.

“I need my Jeep now. I have an emergency.”

“Sure lady so does everyone.” The young man slowly uncrossed his legs and stood up from his chair.

Alex pulled out her wallet and slipped a bill into his hand. “I’m serious. Now move!”

The boy’s eyes widened as he looked at the bill in his hand. “You got it.” He grabbed the keys from a hook, raced out of the booth.

Alex glanced behind her and saw the two security guards bearing down on her. “I’ve got to go. Just don’t give up on me yet.” She flipped her cell phone shut.

She turned to follow the valet but a meaty hand grabbed her by an arm and twisted her around. “Ma’am you have to come with me.”

“Like hell I do.” Desperation fueled her actions and she wrenched her arm out of his grasp. She ducked under his outstretched arm and slammed an elbow into his solar plexus.

As he grunted and doubled over, Alex grabbed his shoulders and shoved him back into the other security guard. There was a strangled shout as they both stumbled and collapsed to the ground in a heap.

Breathing heavily, Alex turned and saw the illumination from the Jeep’s headlights swing out of a parking spot. She ran out into the road and flagged the attendant down as he sped up the hill. “Thanks.”

She jumped in behind the wheel and slammed the door shut. Her heart pounded in her chest and the bitter taste of adrenaline soured her mouth. She glanced into the rearview mirror in time to see Cassandra and Dr. Pierce hail down the same valet attendant. Alex hit the gas pedal and sped out of the driveway. She offered a silent prayer that she would make it to the warehouse before they did.

She gripped the steering wheel tightly as she weaved in and out of traffic down the four-lane divider highway. Alex punched in the number for Regina’s cell phone and waited.

User unavailable? “Dammit!” She threw the phone on the passenger seat and focused on the road ahead.

Minutes later, she cut across two lanes of traffic and raced up the exit ramp, unaware that behind her, a pair of headlights winked on from the shoulder and a car accelerated out of the shadows.
Chapter Twenty-Eight
Regina yanked the blue plastic cover from the metal cart. “Finally,” she exclaimed and pulled the green oxygen cylinder from the shelf. She grabbed the regulator lying beside it and lost her balance as she stepped back into a stack of boxes. She teetered precariously for a moment and then fell backwards into them. Her weight sent the box at the top of the stack crashing to the floor. A pile of papers bound in folders slid out from the broken lid.

She shook her head at her clumsiness and gingerly got to her feet still holding the tank tightly in her grasp. “Nice Reg, why don’t you just drop the oxygen tank on the floor and have it explode,” she berated herself.

Lucky’s ears twitched and the German Shepard leapt to his feet, and stared at the stairwell. A low growl resonated deep from within his barrel chest.

“It’s all right, Lucky. It was just me,” Regina re-assured him.

Regina knelt and connected the regulator to the oxygen tank. She glanced down at the boy and pressed her lips together. His seizure lasted several minutes and she had no way of knowing if he had suffered more before she discovered him. She didn’t want to leave TJ alone, afraid that if she did he would have another seizure while she was gone.

She finished hooking up the oxygen tubing, and slipped it over TJ’s ears, then, adjusted the cannula inside his nose. She adjusted the flow and checked the gauge relieved to see that the tank was still full. Next, she pulled a blanket from another box she opened earlier and draped it over the boy’s body. “At least that’s something for now.”

The young doctor stood up and wiped her hands on her pants, leaving dusty handprints on the fabric. The sound of water dripping onto the concrete floor from a pipe somewhere in the cavernous warehouse was the only thing she heard besides her own breathing.

Lucky growled again and his hackles rose on his neck as he stood at attention next to TJ.

“What is it, Lucky? What do you hear?” She ran a hand through his fur, more for her own re-assurance. The dog jerked his head around and whined softly.

“He’ll be okay,” Regina said, hoping to herself that she was right.

She moved several boxes aside and found one that was marked medical supplies. “Ah, maybe this has something I can use.” Regina ripped the tape off the lid of the box and tossed it on the floor.

Lucky’s sudden ferocious barking startled Regina and she fumbled around on a shelf for something to protect herself with. She grabbed a metal pole and gripped it tightly in her hands.

Regina knelt down beside TJ and checked him as she tried to figure out what to do next.

Her heart lurched in her chest when she peaked over the box and saw a shadow looming along the wall of the stairwell.

Lucky launched himself forward and disappeared around the corner. She heard a startled shout and the sound of a body tumbling down the steps, then, more excited barking.

Mustering her courage, she hefted the pole in her hands and crept from her hiding spot. Regina stopped at the top of the stairs and furrowed her brow as she looked at the crumpled body, lying in a heap at the bottom of the stairs.

Lucky sniffed curiously around the body. He backed up as the person stirred and sat up with a groan.

“Well, that was one hell of a greeting you stupid dog.”

“Alex!” Regina dropped the pole and darted down to the bottom of the stairs. She knelt beside the taller woman and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Are you okay? Regina cupped Alex’s face in her hand and kissed her temple. “How did you get in here?”

“I still have the keys from when we were here before.” Alex rubbed her head and winced as she tentatively moved her shoulder around. “What is he your personal guard dog?”

Regina glanced at Lucky and watched as he caught a scent of something and darted down the dark hallway. “H … how did you know I was here?”

“Long story.” Alex struggled to her feet. “We need to get out of here. Cassandra saw you on a video monitor that was hooked up in the security office of the hotel.”

“W … what?”

“I’ll explain later. Come on. Let’s go.”

“Alex, wait.” Regina grabbed hold of Alex to steady her. “I found TJ.”

Alex blinked and leaned back against the wall. “You what? He’s here?”

“He’s up in the storage area.”

A car door slammed shut out in the alleyway. A moment later the doorknob jiggled and a shadowy silhouette of a man’s hulk filled the window.

“Go.” Alex grabbed Regina’s hand and together they raced up the stairs.

“This way.” Regina led the way to the cramped space where TJ was tucked securely beneath a blanket. “I think he got in through the loading docks.

Alex glanced back at the narrow space at the bottom of partially closed door “You fit under that?” She observed the muddy streaks across Regina’s pants and shirt for the first time and shook her head.

“I had to.”

The slightest hint of a smile played around Alex’s mouth and she squeezed Regina’s shoulder affectionately. Alex knelt down with a groan and opened one of the boy’s eyelids. “He’s out cold.”

“He had a seizure thirty minutes ago and hasn’t woke up yet.”

“Let’s get him out of here.” Alex grabbed the boy underneath the arms and started to drag him towards the garage door.

The sound of footsteps running up the stairs alerted Regina. She grabbed a handful of Alex’s dinner jacket and tugged her back down. “Someone’s coming.”

“Dr. Margulies,” a familiar voice echoed through the warehouse. “I know you’re in here, Alex.”

“Matthew, go to hell,” Alex growled as she gingerly lowered TJ back down to the ground. “I had two security guards try to stop me from leaving the hotel after Cassandra saw Regina on the tape.” She stood up and swept her hand out in front of her. “Figure it out. Whatever they’re hiding is right here under our noses.”

The investigator stood under the feeble glow of the flickering fluorescent lights and stared at her. “That means they know you’re here.”

“Brilliant deduction, Sherlock.” Alex looked at Regina and shook her head before she looked back at Matthew in disgust.

Regina knelt beside TJ and adjusted the blanket around his shoulders. “Alex we need to get him to the hospital.”

Alex turned back to Matthew. “Now might be a good time to call for back up and while you’re at it, call EMS so we can get this kid transported.”

Suddenly, on the far side of the warehouse, the front door banged open and Cassandra and Dr. Pierce rushed into the storeroom as Matthew reached for his cell phone.

“Put that phone down,” Pierce ordered as he pulled a gun from the inside pocket of his jacket and aimed the muzzle at Matthew.

Alex’s adrenaline surged. She tackled Regina to the floor and rolled them behind a row of boxes.

“What’s wrong Alex? Bring back memories?” Pierce cackled from across the warehouse.

Regina pressed her body against Alex. “Alex, what the hell his going on?”

On trembling arms, Alex crouched behind the stack of boxes and watched as Matthew held his phone up and closed it. “It was Cassandra all the time, Reg.”

She reached back and wrapped her arm around Regina’s shoulder as the younger woman pressed against her.

Dr. Pierce stepped closer to Matthew and kept the gun trained at his chest. “Take your gun out and turn it around. Don’t try anything, smart. Cassandra hurry up and find the charts.”

“Just take it easy. Nobody wants to get hurt here.” Matthew slowly pulled his jacket back, and removed the nine-millimeter Glock from his side holster,.

“Shut up! Set it on the floor and slide it over there.” The doctor pointed to an open spot on the floor between them.

Matthew did as he was told and slid the gun across the concrete floor.

Dr. Pierce scooped it up. “Now lay face down on the floor where I can see you.” He pulled a pair of handcuffs from his coat pocket and tossed them across the room where they landed a few feet away from where Alex was crouched. “Those are for you Dr. Margulies. Take those handcuffs and get over to that row of pipes with your girlfriend. Now!”

Oh god, we’re dead. Alex shuddered as she stooped and picked the manacles off the floor. She looked at Regina who was staring back at her with a grim look of desperation in her eyes. Slowly, she held her hand out and waited for Regina to come to her.

A moment later, with the warmth of the Regina’s smaller hand tucked in hers, they walked to the back of the warehouse where a myriad of pipes ran along the wall.

“Now, toss the handcuffs over the pipe and lock yourselves together before I put a bullet in your girlfriend’s head.”

Alex glanced overhead and slipped one of the cuffs around her wrist. “It’s too high for her.”

Pierce glared at Alex and shrugged. “Then cuff yourselves to one of the pipes along the wall. It’s of no consequence.”

Alex stared down at the rust-stained floor around several of the pipes and stepped back several paces before she motioned Regina to follow her. Her hand shook as she gingerly squeezed her forearm behind the pipe and held the manacle out to Regina. “You’ve got a chance to make it to the door when he’s not looking,” she whispered to Regina.

“Not without you,” Regina replied, while she slipped her wrist into the manacle and locked it around her wrist.

“Shut up over there!” Pierce charged across the floor, lunged at Alex and backhanded her across the face.

Alex raised her head and leveled a hateful stare at him. Beside her, Regina growled and very deliberately spit in his face. “I hope you rot in hell!”

“Robert, enough! We have work to do,” Cassandra reminded him.

Dr. Pierce wiped the spittle off his face and stepped back. “Did you find them?”

“Right here, where we left them.”

“Good. Torch them so we can get the hell out of here. We have a plane to catch.” He kept his gun aimed at Matthew’s head as the agent lay sprawled face down on the concrete floor.

“You just couldn’t play by the rules, could you, Alex?” Cassandra asked.

“Rules? You mean the rules you made up as you went along.” Alex raised her head and glared at Cassandra with penetrating eyes.

A tingle of dread that ran up her spine when she saw the gas can in the Vice President’s hand. She spared a glance at Matthew and frowned in confusion as he turned his head and tried to mouth something to her.

“It was such a simple plan really,” Cassandra continued. “T&M approached us two years ago to perform drug trials on their number one and two experimental drugs. They offered twenty thousand dollars per patient that we enrolled in the study.”

“So at some point it went from conducting medical research to embezzling money from the drug company,” Alex stated, as she continued to watch Matthew.

A subtle movement of his fingers pointing toward his feet alerted her to the irregular bulge outlined by his pants. A glint of metal flashed beneath the overhead fluorescent lights and she realized it was another holster. Alex quickly jerked her attention back to Cassandra.

“You’re in no position to accuse me of anything,” Cassandra spat.

Keep their attention on you. Alex didn’t dare look back at him. “How many of the patients that you enrolled were real?”

“Enough to make it look legitimate.”

Alex forced a laugh. “That’s why all those charts were missing from medical records. You enrolled dummy subjects into the drug trials and needed to forge the consent forms so the drug company would pay you for more subjects.”

“Precisely,” Cassandra laughed.

Don’t let them focus on Matthew. Alex racked her brain for a way to keep the conversation going. “You ran two sets of books, one for the hospital and one for the drug company to see.”

“It’s too bad you picked the wrong team to play for,” Cassandra sneered at her.

“I don’t think I did.”

Cassandra unscrewed the cap from the can and doused the boxes in front of her.

Oh sweet Jesus. The thick, oily, bitter scent of gasoline filled Alex’s nostrils and her throat constricted at the thought of burning alive.

“Dr. Jameson was sloppy. I needed to get rid of him.” A self–satisfied smile lit up Cassandra’s features as comprehension dawned on Alex’s face. “That’s right, all it took was a slight adjustment in his normal dose of medication and oops … ” She pulled a lighter from her coat pocket, flipped it open, and held the flame against the corner of one of the boxes. “He had a heart attack.” The boxes ignited with a whoosh.

Alex watched the flames follow the trail of fuel in search of more to feed its deadly appetite. The warehouse was crammed with boxes, old mattresses and god knows what else.

“You conniving bitch. You planned this all out from the beginning,” Regina shouted at her as she lunged forward against the pipe.

“Not everything. You being here tonight was unexpected, but not something we couldn’t handle.” Cassandra turned and walked away from the growing inferno.

“For god’s sake, take the boy. He has nothing to do with this,” Alex shouted over the growing roar of the flames.

Pierce glanced over at the limp form huddled on the floor and shrugged with callous indifference. “Wrong place, wrong time.”

Several feet away, Mathew lunged to his knees and desperately grabbed for the gun that was holstered around his ankle. Dr. Pierce reacted instantly and gunfire erupted, echoing throughout the warehouse.

Matthew’s body jerked like a marionette and spun around from the impact of the bullets. His arms flailed helplessly overhead.

As the gun jarred loose from his grasp and arced into the air, Alex pulled Regina to the ground and threw her body over hers.

“Oh god, no.” Regina covered her mouth as tears flooded her eyes.

“Don’t look.” Alex hugged Regina to her and battled the overwhelming sense of futility as flames engulfed the stack of boxes in the middle of the room and erupted towards the ceiling.

The smoke detectors on the ceiling finally blared and the sprinklers spit out a pathetic stream of water.

“I think you used up your nine lives last year, Dr. Margulies,” Pierce laughed as he walked backwards and tossed the keys to the handcuffs into the flames.

Alex stared after them until she lost sight of Cassandra and her accomplice in the smoke. It would be easy enough to close her eyes and let the smoke overtake her before her body ever felt the searing heat from the flames but one look at Regina and she knew giving up was not an option. Not if I have anything to say about it, you bastard.

“Alex,” Regina’s voice cracked and she began to cough.

Alex tilted Regina’s face up to hers. “Slide your arm behind the pipe.”

Despite the paralyzing fear, Regina twisted around and slid her handcuffed wrist between the pipe and the wall, wincing as she pushed her arm through as far as she could.

Alex grasped the handcuffs with her free hand and tugged them. She stretched out to her full length and extended her leg until the toe of her shoe touched the handle of the gun. “Just a little more, Reg. Come on. That’s it.” She nudged the gun forward until she was able to cup it with the top of her shoe. She gritted her teeth as she pulled it toward her.

She grabbed hold of the gun and pushed the safety off. “Close your eyes.” Alex pulled the links between their hands taught and aimed the muzzle of the gun down at the metal chain.

Regina ducked her head between her arms and turned away.

Without a second thought, Alex squeezed the trigger and two shots thundered through the warehouse. The metal links shattered between them and she felt the sharp bite of metal as a link flew past her face.

Alex ripped off her jacket, balled it up, and shoved it over Regina’s mouth. “We have to get out of here.”

She leapt of Regina’s body and frantically scrambled across the floor to TJ. Alex grabbed the oxygen tank lying beside his body and ripped the tubing off of the regulator. With all her strength, she hurled the pressurized canister into the air away from her and Regina.

A loud reverberating explosion shook the warehouse and a wall of flames erupted toward the ceiling twenty feet away from where Alex was crouched.

“Alex!” Regina cried out and started toward her.

“Down! Stay down!” Alex screamed at Regina as she flattened her body over the boy’s to protect him.

Heavy acrid smoke and filled the air. Light bulbs exploded overhead from the intensity of the heat as the flames consumed everything in their path.

Alex scrambled over to Regina and grabbed her by the arm. “Get TJ out of here. Can you do that for me?”

They both flinched as a shower of sparks cascaded down from several light fixtures up on the ceiling.

Regina nodded and crawled beneath the cloud of smoke.

Alex watched as Regina grabbed his wrists and dragged his body over to the garage door.

As Regina disappeared through the opening, Alex turned and raced back towards Matthew. Overhead, flames flared again and flashed across the high ceiling. Please, just give me one more minute. That’s all I need.

Alex crouched beside Matthew and rolled him over. He lifted his head and tried to push himself up but collapsed to the floor.

“Just stay still.” Alex grabbed his wrists and dragged him over to the door. Smoke burned her lungs and her eyes filled with tears, blurring her vision.

A loud metallic noise echoed in the distance and then drew closer. Alex redoubled her efforts. Suddenly out of nowhere, something slammed into her back and knocked her flat.

With enormous effort, Alex lifted her head and saw Dr. Pierce staggering to his feet with a metal pole clutched in his hand

Blood trickled down the side of his face. “You fucking crazy bitch, you trapped us in here.”

“You trapped yourself.” Alex glanced at the garage door, knowing every second she stayed the slimmer her chances were of surviving.

She squinted as the dim light filtering through the narrow opening changed shape and then was blocked out. Her blood ran cold when she saw Regina pull herself back through the opening and crouch on her hands and knees.

“Regina, no!”

Pierce whirled around and cocked the pole back. It took all of Alex’s strength to stagger to her feet. Desperation fueled her oxygen starved muscles and she lunged at his knees, driving her shoulder into his body as the metal pipe descended in a sickening blurred arc toward Regina’s head.

It missed Regina’s head by inches and Pierce’s knees buckled as he collapsed to the ground with a grunt.

Flames erupted from an overhead vent and fiery debris rained down on them. Regina screamed a warning at Alex as Dr. Pierce rolled to his feet and swung the bar wildly at Alex’s head.

Instinctively, Alex threw her arms up and took the force of the blow on her ribs. As her body absorbed the impact, Alex drove her arms down and wrapped her hands around the metal shaft. Desperately, she used Dr. Pierce’s momentum to shove him off balance. He struggled to yank the bar from her hands.

Alex leveraged her body weight against his body and slammed her knee into his stomach. His grip loosened and she viciously shoved the end of the pole into his gut.

“Get Matthew out of here,” Alex yelled at Regina over the roar of the flames.

Regina darted around Alex and grabbed Matthew who was slowly crawling on all fours. She struggled to pull him towards the door and collapsed under his weight.

Alex broke free from Pierce’s grasp and kicked him viciously in the head. She lifted Regina to her feet and shoved her toward the door. “Get out of here!”

Regina squirmed through the opening first. Alex shoved Matthew after Regina and then squeezed her body through. She crawled to the edge of the concrete loading dock and lowered herself to the ground. Her lungs violently protested the smoke she inhaled and she doubled over in a bout of coughing.

Around her, sirens and horns blared as emergency vehicles converged on the warehouse. With Regina leaning against her, Alex dragged TJ off the loading dock and carried him several feet away.

Firemen and paramedics rushed towards them.

Alex let them take TJ from her and held onto Regina. “Are you okay?” she asked staring into Regina’s eyes.

Regina looked up at the warehouse as an explosion sounded from inside and windows shattered. They fell to their knees and held onto each other.

“No,” Regina buried her head in Alex’s shoulder as the flood of tears came.
Chapter Twenty-Nine
Twenty seconds … ten minutes?

Alex couldn’t remember how long they huddled together, desperately holding onto each other as they knelt on the broken asphalt. It wasn’t until the wind changed direction and doused them in a cloud of cold water vapor from the fire hoses that Alex loosened her grip on Regina and looked inferno still raging in the building. Sweet Jesus. She closed her eyes to block out the images.

A pair of strong hands lifted Alex and Regina to their feet.

“Come on, we have to get you out of here,” the gruff voice rumbled in Alex’s ear.

Alex stared numbly at the firefighter. It took a moment for her to recognize that the person hidden behind the bulky turnout gear and soot stained face was Regina’s friend, Todd.

“You both need to get checked out.” He splashed through water-filled potholes and guided them carefully through the rubble filled alley.

As they turned the corner onto the street, Alex shielded her eyes from the bright strobes flashing atop the emergency vehicles that lined both sides of the street.< She watched two firemen work feverishly to drag a serpentine length of hose towards the front entrance of the warehouse.

“Where’s TJ?” Regina shouted over the deafening noise of heavy equipment.

“The kid?< He’s being flown out by the chopper,” Todd replied, as the staccato noise of a helicopter engine worked into a crescendo as it lifted off the street. He directed them to one of the waiting ambulances.

They all turned and stared at the building as another loud rumble shook the structure and thick black smoke billowed from one of the second floor windows.

“We need you inside,” one of the firefighters shouted from the front steps.

< “Go on.” He nudged Alex toward the paramedics.

Alex boosted Regina up into the ambulance and hoisted herself up behind her. She slumped down on the stretcher next to Regina and gathered the smaller woman into her arms.

Todd gave Alex a thumbs-up sign and shut the door after the paramedic climbed into the rig.

Behind her, the paramedic reached over and slipped an oxygen mask over Alex’s face.< Startled, she yanked it off as a flood of unbidden memories caught her off guard.

Regina’s gentle touch on her face settled her pounding heart. “Alex, it’s okay. Keep it on,” Regina soothed her as she replaced the mask over her friend’s face.

Alex inhaled the oxygen greedily and met Regina’s anxious gaze. “Thanks,” she managed to rasp and buried her head in her hands.

Regina accepted an oxygen mask from the man and held it up to her mouth. Overhead, the wail of the sirens blared as the rig pulled away from the curb.

Slowly, the shock and horror of the evening’s events sank into Alex’s consciousness. More than once she buried her head against Regina’s neck and battled the waves of raw emotion that threatened to overwhelm her. If I feel this way, god … we need to time together to talk. Later.

She felt the tremulous clutch of Regina’s hand around her bicep and the shuddered breath as her companion choked back a sob.

“We’re going to be okay, Regina,” Alex said quietly, as she wrapped her arms around her companion.

A short ten-minute ride later the ambulance’s sirens cut off as it rolled to a stop in front of Saint Xavier’s Emergency Department. Alex lifted her head when the double doors to the rig were pulled opened.

“What’ve we got?” She heard Jon’s voice from outside.

“A thirty-five year old female with smoke inhalation. She’s alert and her vitals are stable.” He started to give Regina’s information when he turned around and held his hand out. “Ma’am, wait. You can’t get up.”

“The hell I can’t. I work here.” Alex pulled off her oxygen mask and climbed out of the rig despite the paramedics protest.

“Alex!< Jesus Christ, what the hell happened to you?” Jon’s eyes widened as he stared at her soot smudged face and tattered clothes.

She ignored him as she reached up and helped Regina out of the rig. “Long story, Jon. Did they bring anybody else in yet?”

“We already got a young kid with smoke inhalation and two more on the way.”

Alex slipped her arm around Regina’s waist and guided her to the double doors. She punched the keypad and the glass doors slid open.

Jon spotted one of the nurses coming out of a storage room as he entered the Emergency Department and called out to her. “Maggie, get me two blood gas kits and tell Sandy to get over here.” He led Alex and Regina down the hallway and into an empty exam room.

“Jon, you’ve got patients in worse shape than us,” Alex protested as she helped Regina onto the stretcher.

He pulled a stethoscope from his lab coat pocket as he whipped the curtain closed.< “They’re in route and the kid is awake and stabilized, so my concern is you two at the moment. Now sit down and let me take a look at the two of you.”
Alex complied and curled an around Regina’s shoulder as the younger woman shivered.< “You’re cold.”

“Freezing,” Regina responded as her teeth chattered.

“Jon, get me a couple of blankets.” Alex held out her hand as Jon pulled two out of a linen cart in the corner of the room.

He handed them to her and then listened to Regina’s lungs. He looked up as Maggie entered the room. “Run a trauma panel and blood gas on both of them.”

“What happened to you two?” Maggie asked as she slid up Regina’s sleeve and swabbed the doctor’s arm with an alcohol wipe. After probing once for the vessel, she slipped a needle into an artery.

Regina flinched and tightened her grip around Alex while the nurse drew her blood for the test.

“Do you think Cassandra made it out?” Regina asked and buried her face against Alex’s neck.<

“I don’t know, Reg.” She met Jon’s probing eyes and shook her head when he opened his mouth to voice a question.

******

An hour later, after she endured being examined, Alex leaned back against the semi-reclined stretcher in the trauma room. Regina was medically cleared and took the opportunity to escape to the locker room for a well-deserved shower.

Alex frowned at Sandy while the nurse took her blood pressure again. “Are you trying to purposely cut off the circulation in my arm?”

Sandy glared at her from beneath furrowed eyebrows and adjusted the earpieces of the stethoscope. “Shh.< I can’t hear a damn thing with you talking.”

“I’m fine.”

“Bullshit.< You’re covered in soot. Have you looked at yourself?”

“Sandy,” Alex growled.

“What?”< She ripped the blood pressure cuff off of Alex’s upper arm.

Alex ran a hand through her hair and grimaced when she looked at the oily soot that stained her hand. “All I want to do is go wash this crap off me.”

“Well, here’s the Ventolin. Make sure you do the whole respiratory treatment before you move one foot off that table.”

Alex sighed and flopped back against the hard mattress. “Give me that. The sooner I start the faster we’re getting out of here tonight.”

The door to the room opened and Regina walked in towel drying her hair. “Here, I thought you might want these.” She set a pair of scrubs and several hospital towels down on the stretcher. She glanced back and forth at Sandy and Alex.

“You two okay?”

The nurse stepped back and nodded. “Just making sure the good doctor here does what she’s supposed to do.”

Regina eyed the plastic oxygen mask that Alex was holding over her face. “Don’t worry she will.”

That got a grin from Sandy. She turned and started washing her hands in the sink. “I’ll be back in a little while. You’d better be resting, Alex.” She turned around and felt a warm blush creep up her neck.

Regina was sitting on the stretcher tenderly wiping the away the streaks of soot and dirt from Alex’s face with her damp towel. When she was done she leaned in and stroked the angular sweep of Alex’s jaw line with gentle fingers.

Alex tilted her head and a smile played at the corners of her lips. They both moved toward each other and Alex brushed her lips against her partner’s mouth, enjoying the sweet softness that welcomed her.<

Sandy swallowed and tiptoed out the door, wishing fervently that neither of them realized she was still in the room.

Regina’s eyes twinkled as she pulled away from Alex. “Poor Sandy.”

“She’ll live. Besides you’re the only one allowed to mother me like this.” Alex brushed her thumb over Regina’s lips. “God, you’re a beautiful sight.”

Regina blushed. “Just freshly scrubbed and clean, except I can’t get the smell of the smoke out of my nose.”

Alex stopped her hand, and tangled her fingers in Regina’s hair. She leaned closer and inhaled the scent left behind by the herbal shampoo she used in the shower. “I kept thinking about all the things I would miss if we didn’t make it out of there.”

“What like sniffing my hair?” Regina quipped and felt some of the tension between them drain away.

Alex snorted indignantly and wrapped Regina in her arms. She was quiet for a moment, acknowledging the nervous energy that still ran through her core from the affects of the adrenaline. She spoke softly into Regina’s ear. “No, I’d miss our life together and all the things we still have yet to experience.”

Regina pulled back and stared at Alex. A wistful smile touched her lips and she tilted her head. “Are you getting all sentimental on me?”

“Never.”< Alex rubbed her nose against Regina’s and then smiled. “Only with you.”

Regina clasped one of Alex’s hands and lifted it to her lips. She eyed the handcuff still locked around Alex’s wrist and shuddered. “They’re going to find someone to take these off.”

Alex glanced down at the angry bruise that discolored her wrist. “Not much of a fashion statement I guess.”

“Hardly.”< Regina met Alex’s watchful eyes and looked away to hide the tears that welled up in her eyes.

It was Alex’s hand that drew her back.

She cupped Regina’s face and wiped away tears as they rolled down her fair-skinned cheeks. “Come here.”

“I was so scared.” Regina’s lower lip quivered. “I thought we weren’t going to make it.”

“I know.” Alex pressed her lips to Regina’s head and held her close. She’d felt death closing in for one brief moment as the heat of the fire threatened to melt the soles of her shoes as she desperately struggled to reach the gun.

Regina took a calming breath and hugged Alex fiercely. “I knew you’d get us out of there.”

Alex kissed the top of her head. “I think you believed enough for both of us, love.”

Regina’s face flushed and she lifted the oxygen mask up to Alex’s mouth. “Here, you need to finish this. You’ll feel a thousand times better.”

Alex nodded, inhaled the humidified air, and pulled it away again as another more urgent thought pressed to the forefront of her mind. “Have you seen Matthew around?”

Regina folded her arms and cleared her throat only relaxing after Alex replaced the instrument in her mouth. “He’s got a nasty bruise on his chest and a flesh wound in his shoulder. Thank god he had a vest on.”

“Which room is he in?”

“Six.”< Regina rested her head on Alex’s shoulder and closed her eyes. A weary exhaustion seeped through her and it only took a few minutes before the blonde-haired woman was snoring lightly.

Alex closed her eyes, enjoying the warm pressure of Regina’s body where it pressed against her length. She pressed her lips against Regina’s head. I don’t know who was looking out for us tonight … whoever it was, thank you.

After she finished the treatment, Alex gently lowered Regina down to the stretcher and covered her with one of the blankets. She leaned over, nuzzled Regina’s neck, and inhaled the warm, clean scent of her skin. “We’ll get out of here as soon as we can. I promise.”

Alex walked out of the room and squeezed past two orderlies who were pushing a stretcher through the crowded hallway. On her right, an elderly woman argued with one of the nurses about her husband having to wait so long for a bed on one of the medical floors.

Halfway to the locker room, she heard her name and turned around to see Todd walking toward her. “You okay?”

He shrugged. “Too much smoke. After, I got you guys to the ambulance they found two more people inside. We got them out just as the roof started to come down.”

“Are you getting checked out?”

“Yeah,” he replied sheepishly. “I’m waiting for … ” His voice trailed off as a medical student suddenly ran past him with an oxygen tank and darted into one of the storage closets.

Alex watched the door swing shut. A frown crossed her face and she glanced at Todd. Her eyes narrowed as he ducked his head and coughed into his hand.< “Why do I know I’m not going to like this?”

Todd trotted alongside her. “You won’t, I mean … don’t go in there.”

Alex skirted around him and opened the door despite his feeble protests.

Two pairs of eyes stared up at her and one tail thumped enthusiastically on the floor.< The Shepard whined and twitched his ears as Alex groaned. After she recovered from seeing one of the medical students holding the oxygen mask over the German Shepard’s snout, she quietly shut the door and pressed her forehead against the door. “Why am I not surprised?”

“He wasn’t breathing when the guys found him. I had to do something,” Todd stammered helplessly.

“I would have done the same thing,” Alex replied honestly. “Just don’t let anyone see him when you take him out.”

“I won’t,” he promised. “Here, this is why I was looking for you.” Todd held out what was left of her jacket. “I found this outside the warehouse. It had your wallet it in it and this.” He handed her the black ring box.

Alex stared at the partially burned remains of her wallet. She blinked back tears as a wave of emotion she didn’t have the strength to deal with hit her square in the chest. She reached out and took them from Todd. “Thanks,” she managed to get out.

“Don’t mention it.” He waved his hand and let it drop back down to his side. “I’ll get him out of here as soon as they’re done.”

Alex walked backward a couple of steps and then quickly turned to escape into the quiet solitude of the locker room. She straddled one of the benches, sat down, and rested her elbows on her knees.

The hinges of the ring box creaked as she opened the lid. Inside, the diamonds gently twinkled back at her and the overwhelming certainty of how close she had come to losing everything swamped her.< Alex hung her head as tears brimmed in her eyes. Her shoulders shook and she broke down crying.

Get up and take a shower. You’re going to scare the crap out of Regina if she comes in here and sees you blubbering like a baby. She wiped her eyes in irritation.

Alex placed her wallet and the ring into her locker and closed the door. She turned the water on in the shower and let it run as she stripped out of her filthy clothes. Steam filled the locker room as Alex pulled the curtain aside and stepped into the tiled shower.

Turning the hot water up as much as she could stand it, Alex stood beneath the pounding stream, letting it soothe some of the bone deep ache she felt.

After she showered and scrubbed the soot and grime from her body, Alex dried off and changed into a pair of light green scrubs. She shifted her shoulders settling the fabric over her scraped and bruised skin.

Alex gathered her belongings and walked out into the hallway. She checked the admission board and found which room TJ was in. She walked over and stopped outside the door when she saw Regina sitting beside the boy’s bed.

The doctor leaned against the door and smiled at Regina when their eyes met. She really does have some incredible instincts with kids, Alex mused as Regina leaned in and pulled the covers up around the boy’s shoulders.

A moment later, Regina walked out of the room, balled up her isolation gown and threw it into the hamper outside the room.

“Hell of a night, huh?” Alex ran her hand through Regina’s still damp hair and then wrapped an arm around her shoulder. She closed her eyes as a wave of lethargy swept over her.

“It’s not over, yet,” Regina fumed, as she broke away from Alex’s embrace and washed her hands in the sink.

“Whoa … what’s wrong?” Alex followed Regina, her gut suddenly churning as she caught the waves of anger rolling off the younger woman.

Regina spun around, her eyes flashing intensely as she met Alex’s concerned gaze.< “He remembers what happened when he got attacked at the warehouse the first time.”

“And.”< Alex’s eyes darted anxiously over Regina’s angry countenance as she waited for an answer.

“Someone chased him down and handcuffed him in the alleyway. After that he just remembers waking up in the hospital.”

“That’s one lucky kid.” They both turned as Jon walked up behind them. He threw a paper towel into the wastebasket by the sink when he finished drying his hands. “What the hell happened in that warehouse?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” Alex rubbed the bridge of her nose and took a breath before she looked back at him. “Any word on Cassandra?”

“They found her collapsed by the front door of the warehouse. She’s got serious burns on her hands and arms, probably trying to get the door open. She took in a lot of smoke.”

“There was a man with her,” Alex added dispassionately.

“They flew him in on the chopper.” Jon furrowed his brow and waggled his hand, a sign he tended to use when things didn’t look particularly good for a patient. “It’ll be a miracle if he makes it through the next seventy-two hours.”<

“We got out just in time.” Regina closed her eyes and shuddered, remembering the ground-shaking explosion that rocked them to their knees. She met Alex’s sober gaze and then leaned in against her.

Alex looked down the hallway and sighed as she saw Matthew walking toward them. On his left was a police officer and Alex cursed vehemently when she recognized him. Just when I thought tonight couldn’t get any worse.

“Alex, Regina.” Matthew looked at both of the women. “This is officer will get you out of those things.”

Regina lifted her head from Alex’s chest and eyed Derrick warily. “They couldn’t send anybody else or you couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Which was it?” she snapped, as she held her arm out.

Derrick glared at her as he undid Regina’s handcuff. “Neither. I heard the call go out over the radio and I was the closest. They didn’t say it was you,” he sniped testily.

“Listen, just shut up, and do what you need to do.” Alex looked in at TJ as she held out her arm, pointedly ignoring Derrick.< “It’s weird that he ended up at the warehouse again. Why there of all places?”

Regina furrowed her brow and looked up at Alex. “I wonder … do you remember that backpack you picked up from the warehouse several weeks ago?”

Alex nodded. “Sure, Sandy found it beneath a stretcher.”

“What about me?” The curly-headed nurse popped her head up and stopped writing notes in the medical chart she’d been engrossed in.

Alex shook her head and smirked. “We’re talking about the backpack you found in the warehouse a few weeks back.”

“Oh.”< Sandy shrugged and went back to writing.

“What backpack?” Derrick scowled at Alex as he unlocked her handcuff.

“Oh come on, you and your partner came in because we called the police. You couldn’t pass up the opportunity to harass me,” Regina stated boldly in front of everyone.

“What about it?” Derrick’s face flushed as he clipped his keys back on his belt.

“Do you still have it?”

“Why?”

“Because I think it belongs to this kid,” Regina explained.

“How the hell do you arrive at that conclusion?”

“This is the same kid who got admitted to the hospital because he was beat up so badly in the alley. Why would he go back to a place he got attacked by if he wasn’t looking for something?”

“How should I know?” Derrick’s eyes darted back and forth between them.

“I’m not asking you.” Regina rolled her eyes. “Do you still have the backpack in your cruiser?”

“Nobody claimed it after we filed a missing person’s report. It might still there.”

“Can you go check?”

Derrick stared at her incredulously. “You’re kidding right?”

“Come on if it’s his, think about how it’ll make him feel to have it back. The poor kid doesn’t have anything else,” Regina insisted.

Derrick stood with hands on his hips for a moment and then left them all standing in the hallway as he pivoted on his heel and stormed away.

“Is he always that way?” Matthew asked.

“He’s probably wishing he was putting the cuffs on me and not taking them off,” Alex replied, as she stared after Derrick’s retreating form.

Regina made a clucking noise with her tongue and swatted Alex in the stomach.< “Don’t you say that.”

“Hey.”< Matthew stepped in front of Alex.< “I want to thank you for saving my life back there. I wouldn’t have made it out if you didn’t haul my ass out of there.”

“We weren’t going to leave you lying there.” Alex rubbed the bruised skin from where the metal had dug into her wrist.< “So, what happens now Matthew?”

“They’ll be a grand jury investigation. I’ll need you to be available for a deposition.” He walked away from the group and motioned Alex to follow. “You should get a lawyer to look out for your interests.”

Alex demeanor immediately hardened and she set her hands on her hips. I knew it was too good to be true. “Are you charging me with anything?”

Matthew shook his head. “No, I talked to the District Attorney. We’re not bringing any charges against you. This case the government is developing against the hospital exists only because you brought it to my attention. The hospital will consider you a hostile witness. That’s the only reason I’m suggesting it.”

Alex exhaled and let go of the sudden tension that built up inside her. < “Are we done here tonight?”

“You’re free to go. I’ll call you tomorrow and let you know when I’ll need you.”

“Fair enough.” Alex tilted her head back and squeezed her eyes shut. Fiery images morphed and crystallized in her memory. She hated the feeling that she had no control and never had it been so clear to her as when she stood shackled to pipe and watched the flames raging toward the ceiling.

She tucked it away in the far recesses of her memory and tried not to think about it.< Alex looked at Regina who was standing alone, leaning against the wall outside TJ’s room. I’ll deal with that later, right now I need to get her home.< She’s operating on pure adrenaline and nothing else.

The double doors at the end of the hallway swung open and Derrick walked toward them.

Damn, Alex walked over, making it to Regina’s side several seconds before Derrick arrived.

He dumped the backpack on the floor at Regina’s feet. A well-worn stuffed tiger tumbled out on to the floor.< “Satisfied?”

Regina ignored him as she picked up the stuffed animal and then snatched a gown from the linen cart next to the room. She shoved her arms into the sleeves and entered the room.

Alex watched as Regina raised the head of the hospital bed and then she reached in and yanked the curtain closed, blocking Derrick’s view of the boy. “He doesn’t need an audience.” She turned and stared him.

Derrick hooked his thumbs in his belt loops and assumed a bored looking stance as he looked around the bustling department. “Hey, I didn’t know you all treated animals in here,” he announced loudly enough for everyone in the immediate area to hear.

Alex whirled around to see Todd, carrying an odd shaped lump draped in a sheet out of the supply closet. Four brindle colored paws poked out from underneath the white cloth and a pair of pointed ears flicked curiously beneath it, taking in all the strange noises.

“Oh, look.< He’s so cute,” one of the nurses exclaimed. Two other medical staff realized it was a dog and immediately left the nursing station to fawn over him.<

Todd looked at Alex from over the dog’s hulk and his face colored with embarrassment.< “I tried.”

“What is that dog doing in here? Jon waved his arms excitedly. “Do you know how many infection control policies you’ve just broken? Get him out of here!”

“Do you have to make a grand announcement?” Alex clamped a hand over her eyes. “I told Todd not let anyone see him sneak that damn dog out of here.”

Jon turned and gaped at his colleague. “You knew about this?”

“Yes,” Alex admitted.

“Hey, doc.”Todd squeezed between the two nurses to stand beside Jon. “I brought him in because he wasn’t breathing when we found him.”

Lucky poked his head out from underneath the sheet and stretched his neck out to sniff Jon’s ear.

Jon scratched his ear and tried to keep a smile from crossing his lips as he stepped back from the curious animal. “Just get him out of here,” he grumbled.

Alex folded her arms over her chest and stared accusingly at Jon. “You wouldn’t have turned him away either, you old softie.”

“I think you inhaled too much smoke.”

“Quite possibly,” she remarked with a shrug.

“What’s all the commotion about?” Regina pulled the curtain back and walked out of TJ’s room, coming face to face with Derrick. “Aren’t you finished here?”

Derrick looked over Regina’s shoulder and made eye contact with the boy for one brief arrogant second. “Must be the kid’s lucky day.”

Lucky’s ears twitched and he struggled violently, fighting his way out of Todd’s arms.

At the same time, the monitor in TJ’s room shrilled and the boy cried out in fear.< “No, no, no!”

Regina darted back inside the room as he scrambled higher in the hospital bed, putting as much distance between him and the police officer. “TJ, what’s wrong?”

He curled up against the mattress and trembled violently despite Regina’s reassuring touch. “It’s him. I remember his voice!” TJ wailed.

“What did he say?” Alex whirled around and stared at the boy.

“Lucky, no!” Todd cried out as the dog kicked him in the chest and sprang to the ground. With his hackles raised and a low ominous growl, rumbling deep in his chest, he stalked toward Derrick.

Everyone scattered out of the dog’s way. Matthew hopped up onto a counter and drew his legs up, while Jon plastered himself against a wall and yanked a code cart in front of him.

With a wide-eyed look of fear, Derrick scrambled backwards and tripped over his feet in his haste to get away. Lucky launched his body airborne and slammed into Derrick, pinning him to the floor with his bulk.

Derrick flung an arm up to fend off the gleaming fangs that snapped close enough to his face that he felt the dog’s hot breath. Lucky clamped down on his arm and held tight. “Get him off me!” Derrick shrieked.

Todd ran forward and grabbed hold of the dog’s collar. “Lucky, stop!” He grabbed the dog’s snout and tried to pry his mouth open.

“Todd, get me a syringe.” Alex broke open a lock on one of the code carts. She quickly rummaged through one of the drawers and pulled out an ampoule of Valium.

“Do you know how much to give him?” Jon ripped open the plastic packaging and handed the syringe to Alex.

“How much do you think he weighs?” Alex flipped the plastic cap off the bottle and slipped the needle inside.

“Ninety pounds?”

“Good enough.” Alex drew the dose into the syringe and then knelt down beside the dog’s hindquarters. “Todd, hold him tight.”

“Jesus Christ just shoot the damn dog,” Derrick cried out as he frantically tried to take his gun out of his holster with his other hand.

Todd released Lucky, lunged over the dog’s body, and pinned Derrick’s arm to the floor.< “Don’t even think about it,” he snarled, as he clamped his hands around the officer’s wrist.

With one last look at the tangle of bodies on the floor, Alex pinched a handful of skin and jabbed the needle into the furry haunch. “Sorry, boy.” She eased back and waited for the drug to take effect, hoping she hadn’t given him too much.

Seconds later, Lucky relaxed his grip on Derrick’s arm and settled down at Todd’s feet.< He rolled onto his side and pawed at Todd’s arm as he panted nervously.

The fireman looked helplessly at Alex and ran his hands over the dog’s massive shoulders. “Is he going to be all right?”

“I think so,” Alex replied and patted the dog’s shoulder. “Should’ve used it on him.” She nodded at Derrick who rolled to his knees and clutched his arm.

“That dog’s being put down,” Derrick sputtered as he climbed slowly to his feet.< “He tried to kill me.”

“If he wanted to kill you he would have ripped your throat open and not just held onto your arm.” Alex discarded the needle and whirled around. “Don’t you even think of laying a finger on him.”

Regina stepped from the room and stood beside Alex in the hallway. “Derrick, he says he remembers you.”

“That kid?< He was knocked out.” He waved his hand in the air. “What the hell can he remember?”

“You handcuffing him in the alley,” Regina shot back.

“That’s bullshit!” Derrick’s voice cracked. “He … ” his voice trailed off and he hobbled over to a linen cart and grabbed a towel from a shelf.

Alex stormed after Derrick, her eyes glinting dangerously as she pointed an accusing finger at him. “He was what, Derrick – running from you just like Regina was the night you attacked her? Was that it? Did you beat the crap out of him just like you tried to do to Regina?”

Derrick’s pupils dilated until all that she could see was a sliver of his brown irises around the inky black circles.

Alex advanced on him her lip curling into a feral snarl. “Go ahead, say it! He was what?”

Everyone around them was silent, riveted on Alex as she gathered her fury and bore down on the police officer.

Derrick’s nostrils flared and his eyes darted around as he looked hopelessly for a sympathetic party. “H … he ran.”

“He ran, so you chased him. You son of a bitch, you ran him down like some common criminal and beat him to within an inch of his life. Didn’t you?”

Derrick flinched and cowered back against the counter.

Alex curled her hand into a fist and cocked her arm back, her whole body vibrating with the intensity of her anger. “Say it.”

Derrick swallowed audibly and nodded his head as the words slipped out in a hoarse whisper. “Yes.”

“You don’t know how much I want to do this right now,” she growled.

A hand touched her arm and she glanced down to see mist green eyes peering back up at her.< “Alex, please don’t.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t,” she snapped and immediately regretted the harshness of her voice when she saw the confused and hurt look in Regina’s eyes. “Next time pick on someone your own size,” Alex snarled at Derrick.

Matthew lowered himself off the counter top and walked a wide path around the panting dog.< He looked Derrick up and down, reached for his holster, and relieved him of his gun. “It seems to me you won’t be needing this anymore, officer.”

“You’re going to take her word over mine?” Derrick backed away from Alex. “What about the dog, it attacked me!”

Jon walked over, folded his arms, and brought his face close to Derrick’s.< “What dog? I didn’t see any dog. Did you, Alex?

“Nope.< How about you Matthew?”

“It’s a hospital. There are no animals here.< Sit down, officer,” Matthew ordered.

Alex yanked a chair out from behind the nurse’s station. She spun it around and presented it to Derrick. “Sit.”

When he made no move to do so, Alex grabbed his jacket, spun him around, and then roughly shoved him into the chair.

Sandy walked out from behind the nurse’s station and pulled a pair of latex gloves from her lab coat pocket. She shoved her hands into them. “Let me see that.” She unwrapped the towel from around his arm and yanked up his shirtsleeve. “You won’t even need stitches. Too bad.”

“That hurts.” Derrick yanked his arm away from Sandy.

“Looks like you’re going to have fun tonight,” Alex said to Sandy.

The nurse rolled her eyes and shook her head in exasperation. “What the hell are you still doing here?”

“Haven’t a clue,” Alex remarked. She looked around the department and saw Regina enter the locker room. With a sigh, she followed her partner.

She pushed the door to the locker room open. Regina was leaning against her locker, her head resting against the door as she undid the lock.

Their eyes met and Regina glanced away first as she opened the narrow door.

“Hey.”< Alex dropped her arms down to her side and walked up behind her. “I’m sorry I snapped at you out there.”

Regina glanced up at her and gave her a sad smile. “You were angry at Derrick.”

“Don’t make an excuse for me, Regina. I took it out on you.”

Regina nodded her head in silent acknowledgement. “I feel bad leaving TJ here.”

Alex rested a hand on Regina’s shoulder and massaged her thumb over the tense muscles in her neck. “He’s safe for now.”

Regina closed her eyes and tilted her head back against Alex’s chest. “I wish there was something more we could do for him.”

“You saved his life,” Alex stated quietly.

“So why doesn’t that feel good enough?” Regina turned to Alex with a completely forlorn expression on her face.

Alex scuffed her sneaker against the floor and chewed on her lip. “I think I know why.”

Regina studied the thoughtful look on Alex’s face. “I think maybe it’s because we get to go home tonight and he doesn’t.”

Alex nodded in agreement as she gently traced a finger over Regina’s eyebrow. “Well, maybe this time when he’s better, there will be a family he can finally call his own.” She offered her hand to Regina. “Come on, I’ll take you home.”

Regina gladly accepted the warm embrace of Alex’s hand. < “I can’t think of any other place I’d like to be right now.”
Chapter Thirty
Alex crossed her legs at her ankles and sat back in one of the burgundy colored leather chairs that were arrayed in a loose semi-circle in the executive suite waiting room. She massaged her temples, trying to stave off the headache that started earlier in the day, from blossoming into a full-blown migraine.

The hospital’s attorneys were relentless. They spent most of the time meticulously rephrasing questions in an attempt to confuse and muddle the facts as they were presented during the lengthy deposition.

A blonde-haired woman with horn-rimmed spectacles looked over the top of her mahogany desk at Alex. “I’m sorry, Dr. Margulies, Mr. Stedman will be out in just another minute. Can I get you anything?”

Alex swallowed down a wave of nausea and shook her head. “No thanks, Louisa.”

The Chief Executive Officer’s assistant gave a curt nod her head and returned to her typing.

Several minutes later, the door to the executive suite swung open and a tall, meticulously dressed man stepped out into the hall. Astute brown eyes focused on Alex and he extended his hand as he walked toward the doctor.

“Dr. Margulies, I’m so glad you could meet with me on such short notice.”

As if there was another choice. Alex rose and returned his firm grasp, meeting his steely-eyed gaze. “It was good timing. We just finished with the deposition when Louisa paged me, Mr. Stedman.”

There was a subtle tensing of his shoulders at the mention of the legal proceedings and he immediately released her hand. “Let’s go inside.” He closed the door behind them and indicated a captain’s chair at a round coffee table. “Have a seat doctor. Can I get you anything to drink?” He opened a small refrigerator and removed a bottle of water.

“No, I’m fine.” Just get to the point. Alex walked to the table and sat in the chair across from John Stedman.

“Very well.” He sat and folded his neatly manicured hands on the cluttered table. “May I call you Alex?” The velvety smooth quality of his voice seared through Alex’s consciousness.

The doctor inclined her head, and relaxed back in her chair and waited in silence for Mr. Stedman to continue.

They just stared at each other. Her silence unnerved him and for a moment he didn’t seem to know what to do.

After clearing his throat and opening his water he finally spoke again. “Very well, Alex.” He pulled a file off the top of one of the piles on the table and flipped it open. “You’ve been with us for quite a number of years, most of them rather outstanding I would say.”

Seeing her personnel file from human resources before him, Alex lifted her chin and looked him squarely in the eye. “Ten, to be exact.”

Mr. Stedman studied the top sheet for a moment and then closed the file. “I trust you’ve fully recovered from the gunshot wound you suffered last fall.”

“I have,” Alex replied, wondering where her CEO was going with this conversation.

Mr. Stedman waved his hand dismissively over her file. “All this aside, Dr. Margulies, I have a proposition for you.”

Known for his acumen in cunning business practices, alarm bells sounded in the doctor’s head. “What kind of a proposition?”

“I’d like to offer you a compensation package.”

Alex forced her expression to remain neutral, while her heart leapt up into her chest. “For what?” My resignation?

Mr. Stedman chuckled and took a swallow from his water bottle. “Your troubles.”

“Really, and what would that be?” She kept an even tone to her voice despite the trepidation that she felt in her gut.

“Five hundred thousand dollars. That’s more than double your annual salary,” he pointed out triumphantly.

Alex mouth suddenly went dry and she ran her tongue over her lower lip. “What do you want?”

“Very simple. I need your signature on a piece of paper that says you won’t hold the hospital liable for any injuries you suffered at the warehouse. That should more than cover your medical expenses. It also relieves you of any further responsibility to testify in the upcoming grand jury investigation. I find it intolerable that we waste one of our top physician’s energy and time being tied up in countless hours of tedious depositions.” He slid the paper across to the doctor.

Alex took her time reading the document. “Interesting choice of words, Mr. Stedman.”

“Why’s that?” He folded his arms and regarded her intently.

“Why don’t you just come out and say you want to buy my silence.” Alex watched as the CEO’s nostrils flared and his cheeks flushed ever so slightly. Bull’s eye.

“You are just as blunt and painfully honest as your colleagues make you out to be.” He tapped his fingers on the table while he studied the doctor. He wagered she wasn’t someone he wanted as an enemy but as far as he was concerned he was holding all the cards. “That’s a noble sentiment, but misplaced. It’s in your best interest, Dr. Margulies.”

So I can be beholden to you? “I’m sure you think it is.”

His eyes narrowed as he sensed his prey slipping away. “These proceedings have a tendency to drag mundane details into the limelight.”

“I have nothing to hide.”

“The offer will only be on the table this one time, Dr. Margulies. I suggest you consider it carefully.”

Alex pushed her chair back and snatched the document from the table. “I have. My answer is no.”

Mr. Stedman stood up from the chair and leaned on across the table. “That’s an unfortunate decision, Dr. Margulies. You have your career to consider.”

“As do you, Mr. Stedman.” Alex refused to back down, knowing she was inviting the wrath of a powerful man. She walked out of the office without a backward glance.

Alex closed the door behind her and let out a sigh of relief. Her legs trembled and it took all her concentration to walk past Louisa’s desk without stumbling on the plush carpet.

“Good bye, Dr. Margulies,” Louisa called out.

Alex managed a polite smile and quickly strode out of the office. Once in the elevator, she leaned back against the wall and closed her eyes. Suddenly, nervous laughter bubbled up from inside and she covered her face. I probably just black listed myself but damn that felt good.

The doors slid open and Alex strode out into the ground floor lobby. Several of the attorneys from the deposition were still milling about talking amongst themselves. She caught Matthew’s attention and attorney walked over to her.

“You okay?”

Alex shrugged and handed him the unsigned paper. “Here, you might find this interesting.”

Matthew set down his briefcase and studied the document. “I figured he would try something like this.” He lifted his eyes to Alex’s and gave her a not so re-assuring smile. “He’s afraid of what you know.”

“That’s supposed to make me feel better?”

“Not really. Just do your job, keep a low profile here, and let me know if he tries anything else. In the meantime, did you speak to a lawyer?”

“It’s taken care of.”

“Then you’ve done all you can. We’re going out for drinks. Do you want to come?” He jerked his thumb back at his cohorts.

“No thanks. I have some unfinished business to attend to.” Alex smiled and shook her head.

******

Regina closed another carton of charts and labeled it with a black marker. She sat back on her heels and looked around clinic. The walls and floor nearest the warehouse were blackened from smoke damage and water had buckled the wallboard and warped the tiled floor. Structurally it was sound but would be closed for weeks until the repairs were completed.

She ran her fingers through her hair and then lifted the last box up onto the table. Her mind wandered back to earlier that morning. She smiled to herself, cherishing the brief, intimate interlude they shared before the responsibilities of the new day would intrude on their peaceful respite.

Regina rolled over and watched as Alex pulled on a pair of black linen pants. “Don’t let them keep you late again,” she whispered, her voice still rough with sleep.

In the darkness, she saw Alex’s lips twitch into an impish smile. “Not a chance. I have plans for us later today.”

“Plans? What plans?” That sparked Regina’s curiosity and she sat up in bed.

Alex winked as she cinched the leather belt around her waist. “Well, if I tell you now it will spoil the surprise.”

Regina groaned and flopped back down onto her pillow. “No fair,” she sulked and folded her arms over her chest.

The mattress dipped as Alex knelt over her and stroked the side of Regina’s face. Without a word, she bent forward and kissed her lover.

Regina trailed her hand over Alex’s cheek and ran her finger’s through the silky black hair, getting lost in the sensual wave of their embrace as their kiss deepened. A groan escaped Alex’s lips as Regina slid her thigh up between her legs and rubbed against her.

“That’s … not … fair.” Alex bit her bottom lip and arched her back as she strained against Regina’s insistent pressure. “Oh … god.”

“You started it,” Regina exhaled as she ran her fingertips over Alex’s ribs and then angled her hands to caress her breasts through the fabric of her shirt.

Regina inhaled sharply as one of Alex’s hands worked its way under her nightshirt and traced a meandering pattern over her belly before wandering higher.

A rich, deep chuckle tickled Regina’s ear. “I do believe you’re trying to make me late, Regina Kingston.” Alex lowered her mouth and nibbled Regina’s earlobe.

Regina rubbed her palm over the outside of Alex’s pants, feeling the heat and dampness of her lover’s arousal. She tugged the belt buckle loose, undid the button, and then worked the zipper down on Alex’s trousers.

“Whatever gave you that impression?” she teased as she slid her hand inside the bikini briefs and cupped Alex’s hardened clitoris. “Besides, I can’t let you leave like this. It … wouldn’t … be … fair.”

Regina shook her head, still a little surprised at her emboldened advance. A smile played at her lips and heated blush crept up her neck, as her breathing grew ragged at the vivid memory of their lovemaking.

I wonder what she’s got up her sleeve for this afternoon.

“Regina?”

She whirled around, startled by the male voice. “Oh, Todd. I didn’t hear you come in.”

He scratched his head. “I know. You were really out there for a minute.”

Regina looked away from him and fiddled needlessly with the lid of the box. “It’s weird seeing the warehouse look the way it does.”

“We’re cooking dinner at the firehouse and I thought maybe you’d like something to eat.”

Oh boy. “Thanks, but I’m waiting for Alex. We’re going to pack up all this stuff and bring it back to the emergency department.”

“Well, bring her over. She’s welcome too.”

Regina walked Todd to the door. “We’ll see.” A car door slammed out in the street and Regina looked out the window to see Alex walking from her Jeep.

Instantly, her heart rate lifted as she watched her partner’s confident stride and the frown on her face, as she looked around her surroundings unaware that Regina was watching her.

“Alex.” Regina stepped out of the building and waved to her.

Alex’s hawk like gaze settled immediately on Regina and a smile graced the taller woman’s lips.

“I couldn’t wait to see you.” Regina laughed as Alex slipped her arm around her waist and kissed the top of her head.

“Me either. I thought about you all day.” Alex tilted her head and smiled down at her partner as she ruffled Regina’s hair. She looked over at Todd and smiled at him. “You look a hell of a lot better than the last time I saw you.”

He snorted. “Ditto. I told Regina we’re cooking dinner at the firehouse if you two want a bite to eat.”

Alex shrugged. “Why not.”

“Excellent.” Todd rubbed his hands together.

“Go get your jacket, Reg. We’ll leave this stuff ‘til later.”

“Okay, sure.” Regina gave Alex a curious look, surprised by her partner’s acceptance and then disappeared back inside.

“Do you think she has any idea?” Todd waited until she was out of earshot.

“Not a clue. Matthew had a friend of his run a search on the kid and came up with nothing as far as family is concerned. It may just work.”

Todd ran his fingers through his hair. “We’ll hope for the best.”

Alex nudged him as Regina re-appeared around the corner, tugging her jacket over her shoulder. “We’ll meet you over there.”

“Gotcha.” The fireman trotted down the steps and jogged across the street.

“You ready?” Alex flashed a smiled at her partner.

“Yeah.” Regina locked the door and followed Alex down the steps. “I’m really surprised you wanted to do this.”

“Why?” Alex slowed her steps so Regina could catch up with her.

“You weren’t too fond of Todd when we first met him.”

“He grew on me.” The slightest hint of a smile played around her mouth. Alex ushered Regina ahead of her as they entered the firehouse.

They climbed the stairs, listening to loud, raucous voices emanating from the kitchen. Barking followed by a high-pitched squeal reached their ears.

Regina reached the landing first and walked around the corner. She stopped and stared at the familiar faces and then turned to Alex and poked her several times in the ribs. “You rat. You knew all along and you didn’t say a word.”

Alex fended off the flurry of Regina’s hands and turned her around. “Hey, Sandy where’s the guest of honor?”

“Feeding Lucky table scraps.”

The end of the large wooden table rocked slightly as the Shepard stood up and backed out from underneath it. His ears twitched and he licked his chops as he rested his snout on the table.

“I am not,” came the protest from the back of the kitchen. TJ poked his head out from behind one of the firemen and stuck his tongue out at Sandy.

“What is he doing here?” Regina stared up at Alex with an incredulous expression on her face.

“The state Welfare system placed TJ in a group home until they find something more permanent for him,” Alex explained.

Todd walked up to them and held out two sodas.

“Thanks.” Alex took them both and handed one to Regina. “Todd talked to social services and worked it out so TJ can come here after school everyday if he wants. It’s not ideal but at least he’s with people who care about him.” Alex glanced across the room and watched as TJ shoved a roll into his mouth and then offered one to the dog. “He’s going to make your dog fat.”

“That beast? You should see how much he eats in a day and still doesn’t put on one pound. Hey TJ, don’t feed him pizza.”

“But he likes it.” The teenager grinned back.

“Good, then you get to walk him tonight.”

The boy thought about it for a moment and then shook his head vehemently. “No way.”

“Get over here and say hello to the docs.” Todd waved his arm at Alex and Regina. “I think at least one thank you would be proper.”

“Go ahead and embarrass the kid,” Alex grumbled in his ear as she squeezed past him.

Todd gave her a knowing sidelong glance and snorted. “Don’t like the sensitive stuff, huh.”

Alex ignored his jibe while she grabbed a paper plate from the table and filled it with a pile of pasta and sauce. “I didn’t think you were going to make it,” Alex said as she sat down next to Sandy.

The nurse rested her forearms on the table. “Tina’s working late so I figured I would stop by.”

Alex nodded soberly, recalling the conversation she had earlier in the week with Sandy. It unnerved her that after ten years of being together Tina and Sandy might give up on what they had and call it quits with their relationship. “Did you guys work things out?” Alex asked in between forkfuls of pasta.

“We’re talking, which is more than we were doing a few days ago.”

Alex started to reply but one of the firefighters sat down next to Sandy and started talking to her so she focused her attention on her food.

******

Regina sat down at the long table, watching as TJ straddled the chair next to her. He covered his mouth and coughed, still suffering the side effects of the smoke inhalation.

“Todd said you pulled me out of the warehouse.”

“I had some help.” Regina looked across the table to where Alex was sitting next to Sandy. Something fluttered inside when she caught Alex studying her and she found herself completely distracted by the thoughtful expression on the woman’s face.

“That man who beat me up is going to jail.” TJ rubbed his hand over the stubble that was his hair growing back on his head.

Regina turned her attention back to TJ. “Yes, he is.” Five days had passed since Derrick’s confession and she still had trouble acknowledging that someone she had let get so close to her was capable of such hateful actions.

“Todd said he thought I was someone else, but I told him he was wrong. Why did he beat me up?”

Regina pressed her lips together and tilted her head as she cupped the TJ’s chin with her hand. “I don’t know, TJ. It wasn’t your fault.” Regina lowered her hand and sighed. “I was worried about you being out there all by yourself.”

TJ stared at Regina and he fiddled with a loose button on his shirt. “I didn’t think anyone would miss me.”

Regina shook her head. “You were wrong about that. People do care about you.”

TJ brightened momentarily as he heard Todd’s boisterous laugh in the corner of the room. “I like it here better than the place I’m staying.”

“I know but you won’t be alone anymore, kiddo.” Regina blinked back tears and rose from the table. She stroked her hand over TJ’s hair, bent, and placed a kiss on the top of his head.

“I’ll be back to see you,” she whispered.

TJ held onto her arm. “Promise?”

“You bet. Now it’s my turn to go thank someone.” Regina collected herself and walked over to where Alex was sitting. She sat down and helped herself to a forkful of the pasta on Alex’s plate. “Was this your surprise?”

Alex’s lips twitched as she tilted the soda up to her mouth. “Part of it.”

“Are you in on this too, Sandy?” She leaned on the table and peered at the nurse curiously.

“Nope, I’m just sitting here minding my own business,” the nurse replied with a wicked smile.

“As if … ” Alex flinched as Sandy nudged her with an elbow. “You could do that.”

Regina leaned forward, her hands pressing on the edge of the chair and she whispered so only Alex could hear her. “I know I’ve told you that I love you before, but I want you to know that tonight, I fell in love with you all over again.”

Alex said nothing. Regina was aware of the seconds slipping by as they sat inches apart staring quietly into each other’s eyes, the rest of the room seeming to fade away.

Alex cleared her throat. “I have to ask you something but I don’t want do it here.” She stood up from the table. “Come on.”

“Where are we going?” Regina asked, wondering what all the secrecy was about.

“Bye kids. Don’t stay out too late.” Sandy tried to hide her self-satisfied smile bit failed miserably.

“You’ll see.” Alex rolled her eyes at Sandy and then clasped Regina’s hand. “Let’s get of here.” Without another word, Alex led the way out of the fire station with Regina walking along beside her.

Her hands shook as she unlocked the Jeep and climbed in beside Regina.

“Are you okay, Alex?” Regina peered at her in the darkness.

Alex coughed and nodded at the burnt out warehouse. “Guess it just gives me the creeps knowing what happened in there.” Her mind conjured up an image of the Phoenix rising from the ashes and she thought of all the things that brought them to this point in time. She knew this was their chance for a new beginning.

“So what do you have to ask me?”

“I found something I think you’ll like.”

“You’re not going to tell me?” Regina turned in her seat and studied serious Alex’s profile as she directed the vehicle out of the parking space.

“No, just wait a few minutes

Regina couldn’t hold back the smile she felt pulling at the corners of her mouth when she looked into those ice blue eyes. “I guess I can wait,” she grumbled and pushed out her lower lip in a pout while Alex turned the engine on.

Alex leaned across the center console and kissed Regina on the cheek. “You look cute when you do that.”

Regina slumped lower into her seat as Alex tuned the key in the ignition. “I’m pouting, not trying to look cute.”

It took ten-minutes to drive to Hawke’s Nest Reservation. Alex turned on her blinker and fifty feet later turned right into the park. She guided the Jeep up the gravel drive and parked by a row of tall Maples that were just beginning to show a slight hew of red along their branches, signaling the approaching spring bloom.

“We haven’t been here in a long time,” Regina remarked quietly as she stepped out of the Jeep and looked around at the landscape.

“I thought you might enjoy this.” Alex turned the engine off and hopped out. She retrieved the woolen blanket from the back seat and turned around, suddenly struck with a strong sense of deja vu.

Emotion stung her eyes as she watched Regina walk in front of the Jeep, stopping for a moment and lifting her face to soak in the warmth of the setting sun’s rays. Alex brought a hand to her face and wiped away a tear sliding down her cheek.

A moment later, after she regained her composure, she joined Regina and slid an arm around her partner’s shoulder. “Standing here with you makes everything else seem pretty insignificant.”

Regina shaded her eyes from the sun to look up at Alex. “It does.”

Not long after, they were walking hand in hand away from the parking lot, heading up a gently sloping hillside that led to a winter beaten dirt path.

As they crested the top and started down the other side, Regina let out a small gasp. Below them, unhidden by the sparse late winter foliage was the shimmering surface of the lake. A trail of deep, gold light from the sunset reflected off its surface, leading off to some potentially magical place beyond the horizon.

Regina leaned against her taller companion savoring the colorful hues of the sunset. “Thank you.”

“For what?” Alex draped the blanket over Regina’s shoulders and wrapped her arms around her neck.

“For making the end of a really horrible week into something that feels peaceful and right.”

“I just thought you might want to come out here instead of staying at the firehouse,” Alex replied matter-of-fact.

“You’re right, but it feels so good because you cared enough to do this.”

Alex studied the blonde for a long moment and then rested her head against Regina’s. She felt the younger woman snuggle closer and wrap a hand around her arm with a contented sigh.

Alex closed her eyes allowing herself a moment to bask in the warm, comforting feeling emanating between them. After the week they experienced, it caught her totally off guard to feel this calm and grounded.

“We were lucky,” Alex murmured.

“It wasn’t luck,” Regina assured her. “I knew deep down that no matter what happened in that warehouse as long as we were together we would make it out.”

Alex took Regina’s hand and led her over to an old weathered cedar bench by the water’s edge. They sat and Alex’s arm automatically went around Regina’s shoulder as the younger woman nestled her head against Alex’s shoulder.

“I smell fish.” Regina wrinkled her nose.

“No you smell a dead fish,” Alex replied cheerfully and motioned to one floating in the shallow water.

“Gross. Thanks for pointing it out.” Regina playfully poked her in the ribs.

“Your welcome,” Alex said, deadpan. “Kiss me?”

“Not after that, you fink.”

Alex laughed and brushed a kiss against Regina’s temple. They sat in silence for another few minutes, watching the sky turn brilliant shades of pink and burnt oranges.

“I used to think I could control what life threw at me,” Regina whispered softly, breaking the silence. “Isn’t that naïve?”

“No.” Alex shook her head. “I thought if I buried myself in my work I could keep all the demons away. After I got shot I tried to convince myself I didn’t need anyone. The problem was that meant not having you in my life.” She spared a glance at Regina and looked down at the water, her voice taking on a far away tone. “I got so lost – I thought it would just be easier to let go.” The fear, the pride, and the hurt had all wedged between them at the time. “I’m sorry I hurt you.”

Regina kissed her cheek. Alex turned her face and their lips touched, warm, and soft, a perfect fit as they explored each other. The kiss was tender and gentle – a giving, not taking.

“We’re a pair. Aren’t we?” Regina murmured, breaking the kiss of first. She looked up into the pale blue eyes and swallowed nervously at the raw emotions she saw flash across her partner’s face.

The past month had been an ordeal but it had brought them closer. Of that she was sure.

She’d fallen in love with Alex’s confident, strong, magnetic personality and in the last several weeks she’d come to love her as much for her vulnerability. It was only the trust built between them that allowed those particular walls to finally come down.

When Alex raised her head, a question was there in her eyes, shining dark and intense.

The words tumbled out of Regina’s mouth unplanned. “You know I can’t imagine my life without you.”

Alex lowered her head and took a long breath. She turned to Regina on the bench and took the smaller hands in hers. “I want us to make this official, Regina.” She looked at the shocked expression on Regina’s face and plowed ahead before she lost her nerve. “I need you. I need us to be a family. Do you want that?”

Regina looked at her and raised a trembling hand to Alex’s face. “Every day and every night of my life, Alex, forever.”

A relieved smile lit up Alex’s face. She reached into her pocket and withdrew the ring she’d tucked safely away before she left the house hours earlier. It sparkled now as she turned it in her fingers. She swallowed and closed her eyes before she continued. “Reg, you’ve got my heart and soul.”

Regina linked their hands together and kissed the back of Alex’s hand. “You’ve had mine all this time.”

A sense of sweet peace invaded Alex’s heart replacing the empty ache she’d grown almost numb to. She’d spent too much time just existing the last few years. It was time for them to live. She took Regina’s hand and slid the ring on her finger.

Regina wrapped her arms around Alex and held her close. She imagined she could hear her heart beating through the thickness of her coat and smiled against Alex’s chest, knowing this was home.

 

 

The end
Thank you all for taking the journey with me.

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