The Road Back Home by Lynne Norris

The Road Back Home
by Lynne Norris

Part 1
Chapter One

Steam pulsed from the bright yellow kettle followed by a high-pitched whistle a second later, announcing that the water was boiling. The tall, shadowed figure pushed off the wall opposite the stove and quickly turned the gas burner off, silencing the noise. The woman grimaced, her chest muscles still protesting the strain, as she lifted the kettle and poured the water into two white, ceramic mugs. Silently, except for the occasional gentle click of the spoon on the sides of the cup, she stirred the coffee and stared at the wall in the kitchen of her lover’s home.

Lost in thought, Alex absently tugged at the neck of her oversized, white tee shirt draped over her strong, athletic form. Her body was almost masculine in its carriage except for the soft curves and full breasts that were hidden by the loose fitting garment. Whether the cotton was irritating the slightly raised, vertical scar that ran the length of her sternum she wasn’t sure, but she was distinctly aware of the sharp, intermittent stabs of pain that drew her attention to the area.

For a split second, she was back in the trauma room and the sickening, vice-like clamp around her chest was making it hard to breathe again. The panic slammed into her like a freight train and she gripped the edge of the counter hard, steadying herself against the sudden weakness in her legs. She fought the rising bile in her throat and willed herself to stay upright against the tide of uncontrolled fear. Seconds passed and the hollow, empty feeling receded, leaving her with an almost irrational sense of giddiness. She exhaled hard and cursed softly as the sharp, staccato report of the gun firing immediately followed by the searing pain in her chest replayed in her memory.

She tilted her head, hearing a murmur coming from the bedroom that was a short distance from the narrow galley kitchen. It was still early, only five o’clock in the morning, but neither Alex nor Regina had been sleeping well as the day drew closer for them to return to work. The tall dark-haired woman sipped the hot beverage, and then set the mug down on the counter, deciding to let it cool for a couple of minutes.

She was expected at a medical director’s meeting at ten. The fallout from Dr. Jameson’s drug scandal was far reaching, and the community was quick to register its mistrust; the overall admissions to the hospital were down a drastic ten percent overall. Alex sighed, knowing ten percent didn’t sound like much, but in this day and age with the hostile competitiveness of the health care environment, the other hospitals jumped at the opportunity to capitalize on Xavier’s very public humiliation. Having been the catalyst that thrust the dirty little secret out into the open, Alex was left in the awkward position of being both a savior to the staff in the ER who worked for Dr. Jameson and a traitor to the administrators who were personal friends of the doctor.

A distraught cry jarred her from her thoughts and she moved quickly out of the kitchen toward the bedroom. At the door, Alex heard Regina moan from the bed as she thrashed beneath the blankets. She stepped closer and listened intently, straining to hear what the blonde was mumbling in her sleep.

“Oh God,” Regina moaned. “No please … Oh God … Oh God … Oh-”

Unable to stand the tortured sounds as her lover struggled in her dream, her hands twitching as she clutched at the covers, Alex crawled onto the bed beside her.

“Regina?” Gentle hands shook the sleeping woman’s shoulders.

“Regina, hey, wake up.” Alex reached up and stroked Regina’s face, trying to rouse her.

The horrible dream slowly receded and Regina’s body relaxed slightly as the desperate feeling of dread faded. Her hands slowly released their grip on the blankets and the worried frown on her face eased. The tousled blonde head turned and green eyes blinked, slowly focusing on the worried face looking down at her.

Alex curled up beside Regina, propping herself up on one arm as she wiped the damp tendrils of hair back off her lover’s forehead. “Shh, you were having a nightmare.”

Regina’s eyes widened and she sat up throwing her arms around the dark-haired woman. She buried her head in Alex’s shoulder and held on tightly, scrunching her eyes together as she fought back the overwhelming sense of fear and loss.

“You’re here,” she finally whispered, still clutching Alex to her.

Startled by the intense reaction, Alex just held onto her, rubbing her hand over her back and neck and murmuring soft words of comfort to her.

“I’m right here, Reg. I’m right here.” She held back a grunt as she lowered herself onto her side and wrapped her body around the smaller one that was plastered to hers. Alex watched the young woman huddled against her and wondered what was haunting her dreams.

The blonde inhaled the warm, familiar scent of Alex’s skin, allowing it to calm her racing heart and ground her in the reality that her lover was alive and well and here, holding her tightly. Come on Reg. Get a grip. She’s here, she’s fine. Damn, why am I still dreaming like this?

“It must have been a bad one. You were crying out.” Alex brushed her lips against Regina’s forehead. “Do you remember what it was about?”

Regina shook her head and rubbed the bridge of her nose as she closed her eyes, trying to pull back the fragmented pieces that were rapidly fading into her subconscious the more awake she became. “No, no it’s gone now.”

The taller woman reached for Regina’s hand and squeezed it gently. “It’s ok.”

Inside she knew they were both suffering from the after affects of the whole traumatic ordeal, but neither had ventured to broach the subject, afraid of the floodgates of emotion it would unleash and unsure if they could withstand the repercussions from it so early on in their newfound relationship. Alex rested her cheek on Regina’s head and closed her eyes, taking solace in the knowledge that they had grown so close as friends before having plunged into the emotional and sometimes turbulent waters of being lovers. The woman she held in her arms knew more about her vulnerabilities than anyone else in this world and she hoped their friendship would sustain them because right now, she felt her control slipping and it frightened her.

Alex squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her lips against the soft blonde hair. “I love you, Regina,” she breathed. It was spoken as both a vow and a plea.

The blonde turned and reached up, encircling Alex’s shoulders with her arm. Her lips found their mark, and Alex tilted her head, prolonging the soft, gentle contact of their mouths as their lips joined in a kiss.

The contact created growing warmth down in her belly and Alex trailed her hand down Regina’s jaw, letting her fingers come to rest gently against the side of her neck. She felt the smaller woman ease up the contact and then pull back to look up at her.

“That was nice,” she murmured softly, rubbing her cheek against Regina’s, enjoying the slowly growing intimacy they were both beginning to feel comfortable with again. The first few weeks out of the hospital were miserable, leaving them both emotionally and physically drained during Alex’s recovery.

“Yeah.” Regina’s expression was wistful as she gazed back up at Alex. “I wish I’d stop having these damn dreams.” She watched as her companion swept her mane of long black hair back over her shoulder and peered at her from beneath her rumpled bangs. There was something about the way Alex looked at her that made her feel like everything would be right with the world if they could just stay right here.

“You don’t remember what they’re about?” Alex asked softly.

“Just bits and pieces, but nothing that makes any sense to me.” Regina rubbed her face, flopped back down onto the pillow, and groaned.

“Mm, you want some coffee?” Alex changed the subject, hearing the rising frustration in Regina’s voice.

Regina turned and snuggled closer to Alex. “Yeah, I’d love some. I feel like I have cobwebs inside my head.”

Alex chuckled and let one hand stray down Regina’s side and rub gently over the soft, smooth skin of her hip before she climbed out of bed. “Come on Doc, let’s get that coffee. No cobwebs allowed on your first day back.”

Regina followed the taller woman and grimaced as her feet touched the cold hardwood floor. “So, are you sure you’re definitely up for this?”

“Yes, Dr. Kelly released me yesterday,” Alex assured her as she walked barefoot into the kitchen and handed Regina the steaming mug of coffee.

The blonde sipped the hot liquid and studied the angular face of her lover. Even though six weeks of rest and eating well had made a world of difference in the physical appearance of the taller woman, Regina was still worried about Alex. She’d voiced her concerns about Alex returning to work so soon, but was met with stubborn opposition about suggesting that Alex take more time off.

“You certainly look like you feel better and you’ve gained some weight back at least.”

Alex smirked at this and wrapped an arm around Regina’s shoulder. “How could I not with the way you’ve been feeding me? I’m going to get love handles soon.”

Regina snorted softly and rubbed Alex’s belly, grateful not to feel the pronounced outline of her ribs anymore. “As if that would ever happen. Hey, doctor’s orders. Remember?” The blonde squeezed her waist gently, mindful of the pain that still frequently plagued Alex from the injury.

The brunette set her mug down on the counter and turned so she was facing the smaller woman, linking her hands behind Regina’s back. “You know, I am not going to break. You can squeeze me harder than that.”

In response, Regina tightened her arms around Alex’s waist slightly and tilted her head up to smile at her. “I know. I just don’t-”

Alex’s lips against hers cut off her sentence; Regina leaned against her, reveling in the sweetness of her lips, and the texture of her tongue as they gently explored each other. The taller woman ran her fingertips along the side of Regina’s cheek, letting them come to rest onto the sensitive skin of her neck before she broke off the contact and gazed down at the blonde wrapped in her arms.

“It’s ok. You’re not going to hurt me.” Alex slowly released her and leaned back against the counter. Her mouth quirked into a hesitant grin and she glanced down at the floor before she spoke again. “You still interested in coming over to my place after your shift tonight?”

Regina reached over and interlaced her fingers with Alex’s, surprising the taller woman. “Sure, I already packed my bag.” She squeezed the hand once, then opened the refrigerator and studied the contents, before deciding on making omelets for breakfast. “I assume we need to go shopping for food if we plan to eat anything,” the blonde glanced back up at her companion.

Alex pursed her lips and tilted her head, eyes flashing mischievously before she spoke. “I don’t suppose macaroni and cheese out of a box is going to cut it, huh?”

“Not even close,” Regina countered, tugging at the hem of her lover’s shirt. “Come on, if we don’t get a move on we’re going to be late. I have rounds with Dr. Timmons at seven.”

*******

After dropping Regina off at the doctor’s entrance so she could make it to rounds on time, Alex entered the medical center through one of the lesser-used entrances and walked down the back corridor to the linen department. She signed out a pair of large gray-blue scrubs and was almost out of the area when she heard a woman’s voice call out her name from behind her.

Alex turned around and looked warily at the petite, red-haired woman who worked in the linen department. This was exactly what she wanted to avoid when she came back: those first awkward interactions.

“Hello, Margarite.”

“It’s good to have you back Doctor Margulies.” The woman walked up to Alex and smiled tentatively. “You must be feeling better.”

The dark head nodded briefly. “Yes, I am feeling better.” Alex started to turn to walk away, but felt a touch on her arm.

“I am glad that you are the Medical Director. That other man is mean. He treated everyone badly.”

Alex looked down at her hands, not wanting to discuss her predecessor or anything having to do with him.

The tiny woman squeezed Alex’s arm. “My little boy still asks about you.”

Alex blinked, trying to recall the name. She had set the boy’s fractured arm last summer, that much she remembered. There were so many patients, their names and faces becoming blurs, and oftentimes she remembered them only by their diagnosis.

“Jose is seven now,” Margarite offered, quietly. “He still wants to be a doctor.”

Alex wasn’t sure why but she felt the subtle unease growing in the pit of her belly as she stood talking to the woman and desperately needed to be alone to get a grip on her emotions. “You tell him he’ll be good at whatever he wants to be.” Alex responded quietly, before she turned abruptly and walked away down the dark, narrow corridor toward the back staircase.

She slipped into her office, shut the door and quickly changed into her scrubs. For a few minutes she stood in front of the window, staring out the window at the helicopter pad two flights below. She blew out a breath, her expression pensive as she wondered if she could still do her job after what happened. There was a part of her that felt like she would be looking over her shoulder all the time. Gone were the battle-tested defenses that protected her from the daily onslaught of human suffering and the toll it took on her psyche. With one last look out of the window, Alex collected her thoughts and left for her meeting.

Dressed in her usual attire of scrubs and a lab coat, Alex entered the small, rectangular conference room and regarded the group of physicians briefly before she settled into her chair. The conversation around the table dwindled quickly until the last two people talking finally looked up upon seeing the tall, dark haired woman take the last remaining seat at the table. Even ten pounds lighter than before her injury, Alex’s tall, sinewy frame along with her sometimes sharp, hawkish demeanor was imposing to even the most callous of the medical staff.

“Gentlemen.” Her voice carried easily across the room and betrayed no evidence of the inner emotions she was struggling with. She knew all of the men sitting around the table, having worked with most of them throughout her career. She was the first woman to have been appointed medical director within the hospital and knew it would be the topic of discussion in the medical staff lounges until she either proved herself or failed. It seemed to be an ironic twist of fate that everything happened at once and knew without a doubt that she would be tested to the limits of her ability.

Dr. Timmons, the mild-mannered Chief of Pediatrics, raised his head from the pile of papers in front of him and offered a subtle nod of his head in way of acknowledgment. The rest regarded her quietly, and then Dr. Matthews, the president of the medical staff, cleared his throat.

“Dr. Margulies, I trust you are aware of the agenda here today, so let’s get down to business.”

Good to see you too, Frank. She expected the icy exchange, knowing that the doctor was a close friend of Dr. Jameson’s. Alex pulled the stack of papers to her and flipped through them briefly. “Certainly, our ER admissions are down ten percent and the rest of the hospital is operating at sixty percent capacity,” she replied without looking up.

There were a few coughs followed by an uncomfortable silence. The brunette raised her eyes and regarded the shocked looks coming at her from around the table. She settled her weight onto her elbows and looked at her colleagues. “What? It’s no secret. I’m sure no one here is surprised by it.”

“The question is what the hell we’re going to do about it,” Dr. Miller, a blonde-haired, lanky radiologist chimed in, looking plaintively around the table. “They cut my budget by another three percent in the past month. I can barely cover all the shifts with the staff I have.”

“We laid off two more techs in Endoscopy, yet they want us to increase our caseload by at least fifty more a week,” one of the other physicians complained.

Alex closed her eyes, steeling herself against a dull pain already starting in her chest and the vice-like headache that made her eyes feel heavy. So many times the problems became the sticking point in the meetings she filled in on, and the focus to find any worthwhile solutions were lost.

Not today. She was not in the mood for this bullshit and had better things to do, like treat patients. She needed to get her hands back in the mix of things and get over the nervousness that was more than beginning to annoy her.

As she listened to the complaints, she folded her hands together and rested her chin on her fingertips, going through the different options in her mind.

“Any suggestions, Dr. Margulies?”

Alex raised an eyebrow and glanced over at Dr. Matthews who was regarding her with a smug smile. Ah, let the games begin. You asked me to be here, Frank. Let’s see if you’re up to the task.

“We need to streamline what we do, make a fast track for those injuries in the ER that we can get in and out in less than an hour. It’s also time we update the computerized inventory system. We’re losing thousands of dollars a month because we’re not billing right.” She glanced over at the Chief of Surgery. “David, I don’t envy your job but you need to get your doctors on board. They need to stop fighting over primetime in the OR. You can schedule similar cases in blocks of time so the set up and break down of the OR rooms takes less time.”

The surgeon’s mouth set in a hard, thin line at the comment and his eyes darkened in anger. Several of her colleagues stared at her, having had the wind taken out of their sails. Good, Alex thought to herself, no need to let them get on a roll. We’ll be here all day and not accomplish a damn thing.

“Now as far as our reputation, I’ve had six weeks to read every bloody goddamn article the press has written about this drug fiasco.” Alex stared down the table meeting each and every one of the doctors’ eyes, daring them to utter one word against Jameson’s termination.

In some respects, doctors were much like police officers in adhering to the unwritten code of silence they upheld when covering for one another. Alex had broken that code and knew she could expect little to no support in her idea for the hospital to regain the community’s trust.

“There’s a clinic on the other side of town that the hospital used to staff with doctors on a rotating basis. We pulled out of there three years ago and left the community with no place to go to but the hospital for their routine care. It was a bad move and it’s time we get our butts back in there.” She spread her hands out on the table and waited.

“What are we supposed to do? Give our services away for free?” One of the directors complained loudly at the other end of the table.

Alex sat back in her chair, holding her temper in check against the lone skeptic willing to voice his opposition to the idea. The rest sat back in silent protest, staring down at the table in feigned interest. She learned a long time ago how to play the game with the boys. “We’re a non-profit hospital. Things like vaccinations, well-baby checkups are quick and easy to do. You forget, Bob,” she addressed the physician at the other end of the table. “Most of the people the clinic served don’t have insurance. We don’t have to spend a lot of time down there. A few hours a week from each of the specialties should do it.”

“We? You mean us? That’s a waste of our time. My department has research deadlines to meet.” Dr. Miller pushed back away from the table, shaking his head and grumbling loudly.

Alex leaned forward and fixed a dark, icy stare on each of the doctors. “Listen, we can either sit up here in the ivory tower and hope the community will forget about what happened or we can go out there and show them that we have an excellent group of medical professionals who actually give a crap about what happens to them. Just remember, the public doesn’t have to come here, they have other choices and I think they’re making them damn clear what they are.”

“I agree,” Dr. Timmons chimed in, casting Alex a quick glance in her direction. “We see twenty kids a week in the ER for things that if caught earlier would take fifteen minutes to diagnose and treat in a clinic. Instead, they come to the ER sicker, wait three hours before anyone sees them, tie up the residents, equipment and require expensive tests. I think it’s a good idea.”

“It has some merit. Why don’t the two of you put together a plan and we’ll talk about it at the next meeting.” Dr. Matthews looked between the two physicians then stood up and walked to the door, effectively ending the meeting.

The room quickly emptied and Alex met Dr. Timmons at the door. He smiled, briefly looking at her. “You look better than the last time I saw you. How are you doing?”

She studied his expression and relaxed her defenses, sensing his sincerity. “As well as can be expected.”

“I hope you’re ready to take on this horde of non-believers, Alex. This isn’t going to be easy for you.”

Alex straightened up and squared her shoulders as she gazed steadily at the pediatrician. “I’m ready. I have to be.”

The pediatrician nodded, knowing the open hostility some of the doctors expressed at what happened to Dr. Jameson. “As far as I know, the clinic was stripped clean when they closed it. I never understood why they shut it down in the first place.”

Alex shrugged, and then looked down at her beeper as it shrilled loudly at her side. “Politics,” she muttered as she picked up the phone next to her on the wall.

******

Her footsteps carried her quickly down the hallway and she weaved her way around a small cluster of administrators talking quietly among themselves. One of them separated from the group, moved toward the tall, dark-haired doctor, and reached for her arm. Alex recognized the characteristic straight nose, short, blonde, wavy hair and blue eyes that peered up at her cautiously.

“Alex, I didn’t think you were coming back … so soon.”

The doctor slowed her walk and glanced down at the Vice President’s hand that gripped her bicep. Vague recollections of a past conversation replayed in Alex’s head and she narrowed her eyes as she stepped away from the firm grip, her upper lip curling into a sneer.

“Your concern is overwhelming, Cassandra.” Her words had the intended effect as the woman shrunk away from her. “At one point, I thought you were my friend.” She snorted in disgust, angry at herself for being wrong about the Vice President’s loyalties. “I couldn’t have been more wrong.” Alex resumed her walk down the hall, having no intention of discussing anything else with Cassandra.

“Alex, that’s not fair. I always had faith in you.”

The doctor’s eyes darkened in anger, remembering what Regina told her about her conversation with the Vice President while she sat at her bedside. She whirled around, coming to within inches of the woman’s face and snarled. “You call interrogating one of my residents while I was in the intensive care unit, having faith in me?” Alex jabbed her finger at Cassandra’s chest. “You were willing to drag innocent people down, ruin careers, just to cover up what was happening right under your nose.”

Cassandra stepped back. “Alex, you have no idea what rumors were flying around. Jameson already had an attorney and was threatening a discrimination suit against the hospital by the time I talked to you. Jesus, there are medical records that are missing and you were the only person who had access to them while he was out. What was I supposed to think?”

“Did it ever occur to you that he had them? He had plenty of time to do damage control after I confronted him.”

“Alex, I didn’t know what was going on!”

“How could you not know what he was doing? You have to sign off on all the research that gets done in the departments,” Alex growled.

The Vice President’s face was scarlet as she let the accusation sink in. “I have twenty departments I’m responsible for. What I read in his preliminary report looked perfectly legitimate.”

“Legitimate?” Alex shook her head, incredulous at the Vice President’s response. “You were covering your ass, Cassandra. I can’t believe you let that slime pull you into his bullshit scheme! You knew what he was about a long time ago.”

A vicious light filled Cassandra’s eyes as Alex turned away and walked off toward the emergency department.

Alex felt her pulse pounding in her head as she fumed silently over what had happened. The whole thing had turned into one convoluted mess. Now that the lawyers were involved, God only knew how long it would take to sort out the who-knew-what and- when. In the meantime, Dr. Jameson was terminated and Dr. Mitchard still held her position, although the rumors were already flying that she might be resigning within the month.

The dark-haired doctor slipped through the double doors to the emergency department, careful not to jar her shoulders as the pain it would bring with it still took her breath away on some days. She inhaled the strong antiseptic smell for the first time since her discharge from the hospital and for a moment she held her breath, anticipating the overwhelming feeling of fear to soon follow. This time it didn’t come and with it the hope she could resume her work and put this episode of her life behind her. Well, Alex let out a small sigh, maybe this won’t be so bad after all.

Her eyes scanned the department quickly and a smirk crossed her lips. Some things never changed, she mused to herself, spying radiology’s portable x-ray unit standing in the alcove by the door. One of the housekeepers looked up from mopping up a spill and stepped back in surprise as he met the sharp blue eyes looking back at him.

She spoke to him briefly in Spanish and he smiled back, answering in his native tongue. “I transferred here two weeks ago, Dr. Margulies.”

“Good to have you, Jose.” Alex clasped his shoulder briefly and kept walking. Jose was a tall, rugged looking man with curly dark hair and hazel eyes that twinkled when he smiled. As fate had it they both started working for the hospital at around the same time and Jose’s warm and sincere personality endeared him to the often remote and callous attending. Alex chuckled to herself, remembering the night he showed up with a bag of crushed ice for her bruised hand, the same night she was suspended for being judge and jury to an abusive bastard who beat his son.

She heard Sandy’s exasperated voice as she neared the desk and smiled, realizing she actually missed the damned place.

“Guys can we take that off speaker phone? That noise is bloody annoying,” Sandy called out to one of the technicians. A brief hesitation followed as she picked up another line and put the caller on hold. “Hey, Thomas.” She pointed to the two boys sitting slumped miserably in wheelchairs on the other side of the desk. “I need that kid in the cast room and this one goes into the suture room.” The nurse set the phone back in the handset and rubbed her temples. “Jesus, this place is a zoo today.”

“Having a rough morning?” Alex deepened her voice as she leaned closer to the blonde haired nurse.

Sandy jerked her head up and gasped. “Oh shit, you scared the crap out of me Alex.” The curly blonde turned around and stared up at the tall, dark haired woman standing behind her. “You’re back!” She reached up and pulled Alex into a hug, whispering into her ear. “I’m making good on that rain check.”

The dark-haired woman gave a soft snort and brought her arms up around the blonde before she pulled away. “I think I would have passed out if you did that to me the day I was discharged from the hospital.”

“I know.” The nurse smiled up at her.

“So, what do you have?” Alex peered over Sandy’s shoulder at the board.

“We had a group of high school students that went skiing last night and thought it would be a neat idea to bring a couple of flasks of alcohol along.”

Alex shook her head and sighed. “How many?”

“Five. Two are three sheets to the wind, toxicology screens are pending on both. One kid has a tibia fracture and the other two have lacerations in various places. The parents are being called right now.”

Oh boy. “Do we have an x-ray on the tibial fracture?”

“Right here.” One of the residents walked up behind Sandy and slipped the film into the view box on the wall next to them.

Alex ran her finger along the well-defined black line that spiraled down along the shaft of the long bone. “Where is he now?”

“Prepped and ready for the OR. We’re just waiting for transport to bring him up, now.”

“Do we have a consent signed from the parents?”

Silence answered her question.

She turned around and regarded the round faced, rumpled looking resident. She read the name on the tag and inhaled before she spoke. “Dr. Tanner, do you have a consent from the parents for the surgery?”

“Uh, they’re not here yet,” he stammered, staring up at the dark haired woman who stood a full head above him.

“Get the consent before you send that kid up.”

“But they’re ready in the OR.”

“That’s not my problem. Get it! No surgeon is going to touch him without that consent.”

Alex turned away, angrily dismissing the resident with an irritated wave of her hand. “Sandy, where’s Jon? Is he on today?”

Sandy hesitated a moment before answering. “He’s in room three.”

Alex nodded her head and walked the short distance to the trauma room. She stood by the door, feeling the slight irregular flutter of her heart as she looked into the white tiled space and tried to ignore the significance of the room number. In a vivid flash of memory, she heard Regina cry out and remembered the sharp contrast of the cold tile on her body and the heat of her own blood pulsing from the gun shot wound in her chest. The brunette blinked her eyes rapidly, dispelling the image from her mind and blew out a breath. Come on, this is what you do, Alex. Deal with it.

“Jon, you need help in here?”

The dark-skinned physician stepped back, fumbling with the emesis basin as one of the drunken high school students leaned over the edge of the stretcher and vomited.

“Agh!” He held his arms away from his body and curled his lips in disgust as he stared down at the vomit that spattered his shoes and scrub bottoms. “Son of a bitch! If my kid ever does this I swear he won’t be able to sit for a month!” He turned around and smacked the intercom button, calling for one of the technicians to come into the room. Only then did the doctor stop with his back to Alex and stand still for a second before he finally turned around, his eyes widened in surprise when he realized who spoke to him.

A moment later, Thomas walked into the room, brushed past Alex and grunted in disgust when he looked at the mess on the floor. “Great, just great.”

Jon handed him the basin and pushed him in the direction of the stretcher. “Have fun, Ace, there’s plenty more where that came from.” The doctor stood quietly studying Alex and then a warm smile crept over his face.

“So, welcome back to the trenches, boss. You ready for this shit?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be.” Alex held the door open as Jon slipped past her into the hall.

“Good, let me change and you can splurge for a cup of coffee. Hell of a way to start the day off.” He nodded his head in the direction of the boy lying listless on the stretcher.

Alex reviewed several charts while waiting for Jon to return from changing out of his soiled clothes. Her back was toward the small consultation area of the emergency department but she still didn’t miss the sudden familiar fragrance of perfume that caught her attention and made her breathing quicken. Now why would she be down here?

Slowly, she turned around and saw Regina, standing a few feet away alongside one of the oncologists, both peering up at a view box studying an x-ray. Alex felt a rush of pride as she discreetly glanced in Regina’s direction. The young, blonde-haired woman, her lover and best friend, was no longer a resident but an attending doctor with staff privileges in the pediatric department. Wow, you did great down here, Regina. I’m going to miss working with you. We made a great team together.

Out of the corner of her eye, Alex saw Jon step out of the locker room and head in her direction, stopping briefly to talk to both doctors. Alex didn’t miss the pat on the shoulder he gave Regina. Everyone always did have a soft spot for you. Dressed in fresh scrubs, Jon finally walked over to Alex, shaking his head.

“Damn, I’m glad I don’t have to tell the parents the news on that one.”

“What is it?” Alex asked, her eyes focusing on the black film that was backlighted in the view box on the wall.

“Looks like it may be osteosarcoma. They have to run some tests to be sure, but the films don’t look good.”

Alex rested her arms on the counter watching as Regina walked away from the desk, carrying the x-ray films with her. She formed a mental note in her mind and concentrated on the petite figure.

The blonde hesitated outside the door her shoulders lifting slightly as she inhaled and then pushed the door open, disappearing from Alex’s view.

“How old is the kid?” Alex turned back to Jon.

“Fourteen. The family support isn’t great. The father’s out of work and the mother is a wreck.”

At the other end of the hallway, the double doors burst open with a resounding bang and Alex felt her body jerk in response to the loud noise of a stretcher bursting through the double doors. She stared down at the counter top, waiting for the sudden trembling in her legs to stop and hoped that Jon hadn’t noticed her reaction.

She felt her colleague move away from the desk but she grabbed his arm to forestall him. “I got this one,” she told him.

“Why don’t you start easy and take minor traumas? It’s not like you can’t. You are the medical director now.”

“No, this is my call. I need to do this, Jon.” She walked quickly down the corridor toward the trauma room.

Alex’s hands trembled slightly as she pulled on her protective gear before she walked into the organized chaos of the ongoing admission. She took a couple of deep slow breaths to calm her nerves. Being an ER doctor was not for the faint of heart, and she knew her every move today and everyday would be under careful scrutiny by all the staff, checking to see if she still had what it took to do the job and be the captain of the ship.

She squared her shoulders and stepped up to the stretcher, glancing over at the head nurse as she did.

“We’ve got a thirty-two year old female with an apparent drug overdose. Her blood pressure is one ten over fifty and her pulse is weak,” Bonnie reported.

“Nice and easy people. On my count,” Alex called out as they started to lift the injured woman onto the treatment table. “Let’s get a CBC, Tox screen and a blood gas,” Alex ordered. I need two large bore peripheral lines, make them 14 gauge. Run ringer’s lactate wide-open and get a catheter in her.”

Alex started her examination, as a technician and medical student hustled to carry out her orders. “Does anyone know what she took?”

“The paramedics found a bottle of sleeping pills half empty on the nightstand,” the nurse told her as she slapped electrocardiogram leads on the woman’s bare chest.

“Let’s get set up for a stomach lavage.” Alex glanced up at the monitor and watched the girl’s respirations. “Give me a number eight endotracheal tube. Her sats are dropping.”

It took twenty minutes to administer the sodium sulfate and pump the patient’s stomach contents out, but by the end it was clear that whether the woman appreciated their efforts or not, she was going to live to see yet another day.

Alex peeled off her gloves and tossed them into the garbage before turning to Bonnie. “Make sure you call psych for a consult and let me know when she starts to wake up.”
Chapter Two
The hours past by and day turned into evening. Regina raised her head and rubbed the back of her neck, working out a kink in her tired muscles. The blonde closed the journal she’d been reading and stared blankly up at the wall in the medical library, wondering how the young girl she admitted earlier to the oncology floor was doing.

She’d walked into that exam room dreading the words she knew had to speak to the family. Cancer. The word itself evoked images of something unholy and evil in most people’s minds. It was a silent enemy, once whispered in fear by some who held the superstition that the word itself would bring the scourge to one’s self or family. Today there was more hope for survival, but the simple fact remained that to society it was still a disease, a genetic defect, something that was somebody else’s problem until maybe one day it wasn’t anymore.

The girl’s father was a tall heavyset man with light skin and blonde, wavy hair. He stopped pacing as Regina entered the room, walked over to the view box on the wall, and flicked the light on. Thick eyebrows knitted together as he eyed her suspiciously.

“Christ, this one looks barely out of high school,” he muttered contemptuously.

Regina ignored the obnoxious comment about her youthful appearance and walked over to the stretcher where the teenage girl lay fidgeting with the frayed edges of the blue hospital gown. Terry was fourteen and in the throes of those awkward sometimes painful adolescent years. Her reddish blonde hair was pulled back into a ponytail and her face still held some of the youthful innocence characteristic of her age. The girl’s mother sat in the corner; one hand clutched the small chain around her neck and the other hand wrapper tightly around a plastic soda bottle that was half empty.

“The x-rays are back,” Regina told the family calmly, her voice belying the emotions she felt inside. She slipped the film up under the clip and stepped back to stand beside Terry.

“It’s not good is it?” the girl asked anxiously, looking up at the blonde-haired doctor.

“I’m afraid not, Terry.” Regina directed her words to the girl. “That spot on the bone may be a tumor.” Regina moved her finger in a circle pointing it out to them all. The mother stared up at the picture and said nothing.

“I want a second opinion,” the father announced from his corner of the room. “Some wet behind the ears doctor is not going to walk in here and tell me that my daughter has a damn tumor on her leg.”

Regina could feel the man’s animosity radiating from him. It was understandable given what she just told them and only added to the guilt she felt for having to deliver this news.

“Mr. Edwards, I’ve consulted with the Director of Oncology already but you can request another doctor look at the findings as well.”

“You’re damn right I can.”

“Dad, stop,” Terry protested, the girl’s face reddening as she sat there on the stretcher, staring down at her leg. She looked up at Regina as tears washed across her eyes and spilled over, falling down her cheeks. “A … are they going to have to c … cut my leg off?”

There was a muffled sound as the mother jerked her head up, focusing on her daughter for the first time since Regina walked into the room.

The young doctor looked the girl in the eyes and laid a hand on her thin shoulder. “I don’t know, Terry. After we have all the tests done, we’ll have a better idea of where we’re going with this. Right now we’re going to get you down to radiology and get a CT scan done.”

Regina left the family after answering a barrage of angry and fearful questions from both parents. It was an inauspicious start for her first day on pediatrics and she let out a heavy sigh.

“Hey.” A warm voice floated down, interrupting her heavy thoughts. The blonde looked over her shoulder at the dark haired woman standing at the head of the table, gazing down at her.

Alex lifted her leather bag off her shoulder, set it on the table and pulled out the chair next to Regina. She sat down facing the blonde, one knee lightly touching a firm thigh.

“Hi there.”

“Hi, yourself. You look beat,” Regina replied.

Alex tilted her head and gave a half smile. “We had five drunk high school kids in the ER this morning. One went to the OR for an open reduction of his shattered tibia and the other four are working off their well-deserved miserable hangovers on pediatrics.” She flashed a Cheshire grin at the petite blonde.

“Lovely. Rounds will be a blast tomorrow.” Regina shook her head in bewilderment. “Wait, you said they were drunk this morning.”

“Yeah, a couple of seniors thought it would be cool to bring alcohol with them on their skiing trip last night. We even had the police stop by since one of them was eighteen. What a friggin’ mess trying to convince them that he needed to stay until he was medically stable.” Alex caught the alarmed look in Regina’s eyes at the mention of the cops being there. “Easy, Derrick wasn’t there.” She reached out and touched Regina’s hand. “Rumor has it he’s on foot patrol now.”

The blonde sunk back in the chair, her head dropping forward onto her chest. “Great, one more thing he can be pissed off at me about.”

Alex leaned forward. “If he values his job at all he won’t come near you, Reg.”

“I know but he just makes me nervous. He’s not the type to just give up and go away.”

“What are you reading?” Alex changed the conversation and lifted the corner of the journal, reading the initials then glanced back up at weary green eyes. There was no sense trying to tell Regina that Derrick would stay away. The restraining order might help her piece of mind but it was not a guarantee of safety.

The blonde rested her head in her hands and rubbed her eyes. “I had a fourteen year old with an osteosarcoma on her tibia. I just wanted to review the different options for treatment.” Regina pushed the journal away from her. “Not that it will make much of a difference. The best chance for a cure might be an amputation depending on the biopsy and lab results.”

“Shit.” Alex folded her hands together and hung her head, knowing that it was a highly malignant tumor and if not treated aggressively could metastasize to the lungs quickly.

Regina nudged Alex’s leg with hers and tilted her head to look into the pale blue eyes. “How did your day go?”

The doctor shrugged. “Not bad, just weird getting back into the swing of things. Nobody quite knows what to say to me.”

Regina glanced up as an exhausted looking resident staggered blindly past their table toward the rear of the library. She remembered those nights when she was so exhausted that her whole body ached and the only thing that kept her going was the knowledge that each minute that ticked by brought her one step closer to going home to sleep. Once all was clear again, she reached out and squeezed Alex’s shoulder through her brown leather jacket, enjoying the feel of the well-worn soft leather beneath her hand. “You have no idea how proud I am of you, Alex. I don’t know if I could have come back if it was me.”

“Yes, you would have.” Alex lowered her head and stifled a yawn. “Besides, it’s the only thing I know how to do. Come on, let’s get out of here.”

******

Home. Alex drummed her fingers restlessly on the steering wheel as she guided the Jeep around a turn, squinting as the headlights from another vehicle illuminated the inside of the Jeep for a brief moment. The vehicle jostled over a bump at the beginning of the driveway and the blonde mumbled softly as she stirred in the passenger seat.

The dark haired woman glanced over at her companion and smiled wistfully. I think there are too many memories here for this place to really be home to me anymore. She reached over and touched Regina’s face after she turned off the engine.

“Wake up, sleepyhead.”

The young woman startled and opened her eyes, a fleeting look of confusion clouding them until she got her bearings.

“Oh, I fell asleep. Sorry, I guess, I wasn’t much company for the ride home.”

Alex smiled warmly at the slightly disheveled look Regina had from just waking up. “It’s ok. Come on, let’s go in.”

Regina pulled her bag out of the Jeep and met Alex at the front door to her townhouse. The fact that Regina practically slept walked to her car on the way out to the parking lot at the hospital earned her a ride in Alex’s Jeep. She waited as the doctor keyed the lock and pushed the door open. Inside the taller woman turned on the overhead light, walked over to the kitchen, and set down a bag of Chinese food they had picked up on the way home.

The blonde walked slowly around the first floor, and then poked her head into the kitchen to see what Alex was doing.

The taller woman looked over at Regina and motioned to the closet behind her. “Just hang your jacket in there. I’ll get some plates out and we’ll be ready to eat in a minute.” The Chinese food was a compromise to a full-blown shopping trip that neither of them was up for after their first day back.

Regina shrugged out of her jacket and glanced around kitchen. The floor was tiled in a white and blue diamond pattern and the appliances looked new. “Do you want some help?”

“No, I got it.” Alex reached up into a cabinet and pulled down some plates, wincing at a pain that shot through her chest.

Regina stepped back out of the brightly lit room, missing the look of pain on Alex’s face and opened the closet. She located a hanger and as she reached in to hang her jacket up she noticed the black guitar case shoved in the back corner behind the coats. Curious, she leaned closer and made out the initials A.M. etched into the black vinyl case.

Hmm, Alex didn’t tell me she played the guitar. She made a mental note to herself to ask Alex about the guitar later on. Straightening up, she shut the door and turned around.

There was an entertainment center with a large television at one end of the living room. A brown leather couch faced the TV and a top of the line stereo system filled the shelves. Always intrigued by electronics, the young doctor walked over to investigate the sound system.

A single picture on the third shelf, caught Regina’s attention and she stepped closer to see the youthful faces looking back at her from within the silver brocade frame. A much younger looking version of her lover stood with her arm draped casually over the shoulders of a teenage boy she was standing beside. They shared the same strong angular facial features, piercing blue eyes, raven hair and wiry athletic builds. There was no mistaking the family resemblance.

The blonde jumped as the floorboards creaked behind her.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.” Alex stopped a couple of feet from where Regina was standing.

The blonde looked up at the pair of wary blue eyes watching her. She folded her arms over her chest and smiled nervously. “You didn’t.” Regina turned around and looked at the picture. “Is this your brother?”

Alex glanced at the picture and nodded her head, avoiding Regina’s eyes. “Michael. Yeah, that’s him.”

*****Her mother had taken that picture outside in the backyard of the single-family house they were renting. Alex felt her heart rate go into high gear, remembering how the moment was shattered seconds later when her father burst through the backdoor, drunk and pissed off at the world. He was out of work again and his drinking always got worse during those times. He hated that his wife showered Alex and Michael with love and affection; hated it because he wasn’t a part of it.

His drunken anger guided his actions and he ripped the camera out of Anna’s hands and slapped her viciously across her face. There was no hesitation on Alex’s part when she let go of her brother and bolted across the yard, tackling him against the picnic table. Her father grunted in pain as he tumbled onto his back.

Alex found herself in a brief stranglehold and then was shoved facedown in the dirt. Overhead, her father’s gravelly voice broke through the momentary fog.

“Well, it seems your sister has a pair of balls, Michael. Good thing one of ya does ‘cause you sure as hell don’t,” her father sneered. *****

She felt a touch on her arm and looked down to see Regina peering up at her. “Are you ok? You looked a million miles away for a second.”

“Yeah, I’m fine, just hungry and tired.” Alex slipped an arm over Regina’s shoulder, guiding her away from the picture and the memories she wasn’t prepared to deal with yet.

“Let’s eat, then I’ll give you the nickel tour.”

Alex filled their plates with food and handed one to Regina. She glanced up at the blonde and tilted her head, as a wistful smile played across her lips.

“What?”

The smile faded and the brunette ducked her head, trying to hide the light blush coloring her cheeks without much success. “I guess I didn’t think the first time I brought you here with me we’d be having take out Chinese food for dinner.”

Green eyes sparkled and Regina set her plate down on the table. “Oh? What did you have in mind?

Alex pursed her lips and folded her arms over her chest. “Well now, if I tell you it won’t be a surprise anymore will it.”

Regina pouted and slipped into her the chair. “Fink.”

A moment of silence hung between them and the blonde felt her heart speed as she decided whether or not to pursue her earlier curiosity about what she found the in the closet. “Can I ask you a question?” Regina leaned forward, resting her chin on her palm.

Alex’s fork stopped mid-motion and she studied Regina for a second before she answered. “Sure,” she responded and then popped the noodles into her mouth.

“Do you play the guitar?”

Blue eyes widened briefly, Alex stopped chewing and nodded her head slowly. “Oh, you found that old thing,” she finally managed after she swallowed.

“It was in the closet,” Regina offered quietly, trying to read the perplexed look on her lover’s face.

“I … I thought I got rid of it with all of Lana’s things. I just forgot.” Just leave it, Regina. I really don’t want to go there right now.

“So … do you still play it?”

Alex dismissed Regina’s question with a wave of her hand. “No, not for a long time.”

The blonde toyed with her fork, feeling dejected by her friend’s response, but still wanting to know the answer. “Alex, I’m sorry. You just don’t talk a lot about yourself. I just want to know you better.”

Alex’s eyes darted nervously away from Regina’s gaze and she stabbed at the pile of noodles on her plate. What’s to know?

They sat across from each other at the wooden kitchen table eating in silence for a few minutes. Finally, Alex sighed and peered across the table at the blonde who was focusing on the food on her plate. Only you could bring her over and manage to get into a fight in less than thirty minutes, Alex.

“I think there’s a chance we may be re-opening a clinic downtown,” the brunette offered as way of a truce.

Regina lifted her eyes and focused on Alex. “Oh, was that what Dr. Timmons was so excited about?”

Alex swallowed some water and nodded her head, feeling her way tentatively. “Nothing fancy, just routine check-ups, giving vaccinations and treating bumps and bruises. It really helped those people that couldn’t get up to the hospital or didn’t have insurance.”

“So, why did they close the clinic?” Regina asked, trying not to let the disappointment come through in her voice.

“The hospital was losing money on it.” Alex shrugged. “Now with all the negative publicity that the hospital is getting the administration might go for it again and try to win some public support back.”

She’s trying, Regina give her a break here. “How convenient.” Regina leaned forward and slid a hand across the table to touch Alex’s hand. “I missed you today.”

“Me too.” Contrite blue eyes glanced back up at Regina. “I’m sorry, Regina. I didn’t mean to bite your head off before.”

Regina squeezed Alex’s hand and smiled.

For a moment, they stared at each other, in quiet contemplation both wondering what the other was thinking. Alex broke off her gaze first and rubbed her face, feeling the fatigue from the day starting to weigh her down.

The young doctor watched as Alex finished off the last of the chicken fried rice and quickly rose from her chair to rinse her plate off in the sink. There was an air of edginess around the dark-haired woman tonight and she wondered what was troubling her, beside the questions about the guitar.

The blonde rose out of her chair and carried her plate over to the sink. Alex turned around, colliding with Regina just as she reached out to put the plate on the counter. The smaller woman lost her grip on it and gasped as it crashed to the floor, shattering on the ceramic tile.

“Shit I’m sorry, Alex.” Regina knelt to pick the pieces up, then stopped and looked up when she realized that Alex hadn’t moved or said anything. “Alex?”

Blue eyes blinked and then slowly focused on her face. “I … I’ll get it. Don’t worry about it, Regina.” Alex took the pieces from Regina and quickly knelt to gather the rest from the floor.

The blonde stepped back, confused by the hollowness to Alex’s voice. Regina realized as she watched the taller woman that her hands were trembling as she picked the broken pieces up. “Alex, what’s wrong?”

The dark haired woman turned away from her and shook her head. “N … nothing.”

Regina frowned and walked up beside her. Bullshit. “Hey, look at me.”

Alex’s jaw clenched and she blinked several times before turning her head. She didn’t meet Regina’s gaze, just looked out into the living room over her shoulder. No … no not now. You can’t let her see you like this. A soft mewling sound escaped her lips and Alex shook her head, fighting back the tears threatening to fall.

Alarmed, Regina reached up and touched her face. “Honey, what’s wrong. Does something hurt?”

“It’s nothing … just a pain inside.” Alex tried desperately to brush it off. “Dr. Kelly said I’d have them occasionally.”

“This bad? You’re pale as a ghost.”

Alex allowed herself to be led to a chair and slumped into her it, praying for the sickening feeling to go away. The broken pieces of the plate were lifted from her hand and Regina knelt in front of her. She felt like a runaway car careening out of control down a dark, wet, winding highway and the wheels were starting to come loose from the undercarriage.

“Your pulse is racing and you’re soaked. Are you short of breath? Any chest pain?” Regina asked, as she took hold of Alex’s wrist, feeling her pulse.

The dark head shook slightly. “I … I’m ok. It’s gone now. Just caught me by surprise, that’s all.” Alex glanced up at Regina from underneath her bangs and forced a wan smile. “I think ten hours back to work took more out of me than I thought it would.”

The worried look on Regina’s face gave to mild displeasure as she studied her lover’s face. “Maybe it’s too soon for you to be back full time.”

Alex shook her head again and ran her hand up and down Regina’s arm reassuringly. “It’ll be fine, Reg. I just have to get used to it.”

“Well, if that’s the case then we can skip the nickel tour and get you straight to bed.”

Alex wrapped her arms around the blonde’s waist and buried her head between the smaller woman’s breast inhaling the warm, clean scent of her, glad that at least for now she had avoided any further questions about what was really bothering her. She glanced around at the kitchen quickly and decided that she could clean up the dishes in the sink tomorrow. The dark haired woman stood up onto shaky legs and pulled Regina into a hug.

“I’m glad you came over tonight,” she whispered into the blonde wavy hair.

Regina rested her head against Alex’s shoulder and held on to her tightly. “I’m glad you asked me to come over.”

Alex led the way up the stairs to the second floor of the townhouse, all the while holding onto Regina’s hand. A few photographs mostly landscapes, decorated the walls in the hallway. She stopped at the first door on the left, stepped into the darkened room, and turned the lamp on the nightstand on. She stood quietly, waiting for Regina to join her.

Everything was as she left it, weeks ago. The room had a Spartan like appearance to it, with bare hardwood floors and what looked to be an almost new coat of white paint on the walls. A few toiletries sat on the bureau in a silver tray and some loose change lie in a pile to the left of it.

“I, um … ” Alex ran a hand through her dark hair and blew out a long breath. “I got rid of a lot of stuff around here after Lana died. Most of it was hers anyway.” Her hands hung limply by her sides and she glanced nervously around the room. Christ, what is wrong with me? It’s not even the same room I shared with her.

Regina glanced up at the tortured blue eyes and rubbed her hand over the small of Alex’s back reassuringly.

“That had to be so hard; losing someone you … loved, I don’t know how you dealt with it.” Regina stopped, as a memory that haunted her subconscious sprang forward with a sudden harsh clarity, leaving her breathless until it slipped away.

“I didn’t.”

“What?” Regina blinked her eyes, focusing once again on Alex

“I didn’t deal with it.” Alex leaned over and pulled the maroon comforter back off the pillows. “It took almost eight months for me to make it back up to Provincetown to settle her will with Dana.” She shook her head and turned to the blonde. “You don’t need to hear any of this.”

Regina gabbed hold of Alex’s arm and pulled her back as the taller woman started to walk away from her. “Hey, it’s the first time you’ve been here … with me anyway, since she died. It has to feel strange somehow,” her voice faded away as she looked up into the blue ones cautiously peering back at her.

The dark head tilted forward and Alex rested her forehead against Regina’s, smiling into the green eyes. “Thanks,” she whispered.

The blonde pulled away, a pink blush coloring her face. “W … Why?”

“Because no matter what’s wrong, you always have this way of making me feel better,” Alex replied, softly brushing her lips over Regina’s cheekbones.

Regina slid her hands around Alex’s waist and pulled her closer. “Funny, you do the same thing for me.”

They stood quietly, just holding each other until Alex stepped back, breaking contact first. The brunette was aware of the younger woman standing pensively behind and she kicked off her shoes before she turned back around. “Thanks for putting up with me these past few weeks,” she whispered, gathering Regina into her arms and tugged her down onto the bed beside her. “I know I’ve been a bitch most of the time.”

“You were in pain, correct that, still are and no you haven’t been a bitch – not all the time anyway,” the blonde conceded with a smile. “I’m just glad you’re alive, Alex.” The smaller woman rested her head against the strong shoulder and sighed, letting her body relax into the comforting embrace. It felt incredible to be lying here on the bed curled against the tall, lean body of her partner, the strong, yet gentle hands massaging her arms and shoulders. “God that feels wonderful.”

Alex nuzzled her neck and turned the blonde’s head to plant a gentle kiss on her lips. She was exhausted and if the nagging pain in her chest wasn’t so obtrusive she would have gone farther, but she just wasn’t ready to.

The blonde snuggled closer and pressed her lips to the base of the taller woman’s throat. “I love you, Alex”

In response, the brunette tightened her arms around Regina. “I love you too, Reg.” She struggled with herself over dinner whether to share the significance of that damned guitar. It was difficult for her to open up the doors to her past and share them with anyone. They opened up old festering wounds. Alex ran her hands over the soft blonde hair and sighed, letting her heart guide her decision for the moment. “The last time I played that guitar … was at Lana’s memorial service.” Another piece in her well-constructed defenses fell away and she clenched her jaw tightly.

A small noise came from Regina’s throat, her eyes filling with tears, knowing the pain that Alex went through during that time in her life. She reached up and stroked the dark haired woman’s cheek. “I didn’t mean to bring up sad memories for you, Alex.”

Alex shook her head, blinking her eyes to hold back the tears. “You didn’t know. I never told you before.”

“I’m glad you did. Please don’t shut me out, Alex. I couldn’t bear that, not after … .”

“Shh, it’s all right. I know,” Alex whispered, and squeezed the smaller woman tighter.

It wasn’t long before Alex felt Regina’s breathing deepen and slow as the young doctor started to fall asleep in her arms. She nudged her gently; smiling at the mumbled protest she received and thought better of waking her slumbering partner. Carefully, Alex rolled Regina onto her side and tugged the blonde’s shoes off, dumping them onto the floor.

Alex sighed as she stripped out of her clothes and pulled a clean tee shirt on over her head. The dark haired woman pulled the leather clasp of her barrette loose and shook out the thick French braid she was sporting, then crawled into bed beside the woman and curled up, spooning her body against Regina’s. The doctor lay quietly for a while watching her friend sleep before she leaned over and pressed her lips to Regina’s temple. “Sweet dreams, love.”

******

Derrick walked into the empty locker room and set his bag down on the bench in front of his locker. He had a few minutes before the rest of the guys from his shift would start arriving so he took his time getting ready. Part of the disciplinary action following his arrest and the subsequent fiasco at the hospital included being put back on foot patrol with a veteran, ‘so he could gain some perspective about what it is that cops do.’ As far as he was concerned he didn’t need a new perspective, but he kept that opinion quietly to himself knowing the Captain could make his life a living hell if he chose to.

He stripped out of his street clothes and changed into his neatly pressed uniform. Derrick inspected his reflection in the mirror that was glued to the inside of his locker door. His hair was cropped so short now it looked military style and accentuated his jaw line. He narrowed his eyes and looked down at his body. Since he was working out more in the gym over the past couple of months he had regained some of his bulk and definition that he had lost over the past year. Who needs her, anyway? All she did was mess with your head, man.

The door to the locker room slammed open and brisk footsteps rang out on the concrete floor. “Hey, Black. How do you like your new digs?”

It was Mark Reilly, one of the foot patrolmen on his shift. Derrick shrugged his shoulders, ignoring the snide remark. From the time they were in the Academy together, he never liked the younger officer and liked him even less now that he had to share a month worth of shifts with him.

He could see the smug look on the cop’s face and knew the kid was thinking that maybe his shot at a promotion within the department was looking better. Go screw yourself kid, one of these days you’ll realize its who you know that gets you where you want to go.

“What’s wrong? You’re think you’re shit doesn’t stink is that it?” Reilly persisted. “From what I hear you stunk up the whole detective division with your bullshit.”

“Why don’t you shut your trap, Reilly?” Derrick finished buttoning his shirt and then turned to face the ruddy faced man. The locker room door opened and several loud, rowdy voices announced the remainder of the officers arriving for their shift.

Derrick slammed his locker shut, spun the lock and stepped past the shorter and stockier officer, knocking him hard with his shoulder.

Reilly grabbed his arm and held Derrick fast for a moment. “Man, it must really piss you off, knowing your little lady ditched you for another woman.” Mocking laughter bubbled up from the man’s gut as he watched Derrick’s face turn brick red with anger.

The officer curled his lip and snarled, before he shoved Reilly back into the locker, rattling the whole row. “Go to hell, Reilly.”

The younger man threw an elbow up catching Derrick under the chin, snapping his jaw shut and splitting his lip.

“You little shit,” Derrick spat the words out, balled his fist and cocked his arm back to hit the officer in the face. Before he could unleash it, two other officers rounded the corner having heard the scuffle and forcibly pulled Derrick off of Reilly before a real brawl got started.

“Ok, break it up guys,” the taller of the two officers growled, pulling them apart.

“Derrick, you’re in enough trouble already. Keep it up and you’ll be behind the desk doing dispatch again,” one of the officers hissed.

Derrick wiped the smear of blood from the corner of his mouth and curled his lip, glaring menacingly at Reilly.

“Get off me,” he growled, pulling away from the man who was restraining him. “This isn’t over, Reilly.” Derrick grabbed his gun belt from the bench, shoved past Reilly and the other officers. Angrily, he yanked the door open and stormed into the hallway. Still muttering to himself on the way to the equipment room he walked right past his partner.

“You look like your shift is starting out in the crapper.”

Derrick glanced up at the middle-aged man standing behind him. His new partner, Ed Carrotta, was a twenty-year veteran on the force. Ed had salt and pepper hair, thinning on the top and an average build. He had a reputation as being a tough but fair cop on the street.

“Don’t you start in on me too,” Derrick snapped, defensively.

“Hey, its not my business what you do on your own time.” Ed raised his hands up to ward off the verbal attack, then tilted his head listening to the crackling static of the handset as the dispatch radioed in a report of a young male acting suspicious. “We’re on anyway, let’s go check it out.”

Since there was hardly any traffic, the ride through the darkened maze of side streets took less than fifteen minutes. Derrick peered through the passenger window of the police cruiser, silently brooding over the earlier confrontation in the locker room. His attention was drawn to a flash of movement in the shadows backlit by the overhead street light.

“There’s our guy,” he told Ed.

“It’s too dark. Let me get him with the light.”

The lone figure froze as the light blinded him momentarily and then bolted down the dark alleyway. Derrick cursed angrily and shoved the door open, his feet hitting the pavement as he jumped out of the cruiser and flicked his flashlight on. He heard Ed curse loudly, then call for backup before he started running down the alley between the two run down buildings.

Ahead of him he heard the sound of fleeing footsteps and the crash of garbage cans as the man he was chasing blindly knocked over whatever was in his path trying to slow Derrick down.

“Police, stop!” Derrick shouted and increased his pace. He hurdled a trashcan and quickly gained on his prey. The figure ahead of him grabbed hold of a railing and leapt over it, landing at the foot of the darkened stairwell.

Derrick redoubled his efforts, and chased him down the narrow concrete staircase. He grabbed the door jam at the bottom of the stairs, swinging his body through the opening ducked under a broken door hinge and raced down the narrow hallway following the echo of retreating footsteps.

The radio attached to his shoulder strap crackled and he heard Ed’s voice requesting his location. Completely focused on catching the suspect, Derrick ignored the request. His chest burned as he sucked the moldy, dank stale air into his lungs. On no you don’t, you bastard. You don’t get away that easily.

A dim light at the end of the narrow hall filtered onto the concrete floor as a door swung open. Derrick yanked the door open and lunged at the figure scrambling frantically up the steps. The police officer grabbed the man’s belt and threw him against the wall.

“Get off me, man. I didn’t do anything wrong.” To Derrick’s surprise, the voice was young and hardly sounded like that of a grown man.

“Yeah, then why did you run?” Derrick hissed into his ear.

“Cause you’re a cop,” he spat back at him.

“Wrong answer.” Derrick drove him to the floor with a vicious kidney punch. A sharp cry escaped from the boy’s throat as he curled into a fetal position. Across the street from the alley a dog started barking.

Derrick glanced up as he shoved his knee into the boy’s back pinning him to the floor.

“Teach you to run next time, you jerk,” the cop panted as he crouched over his quarry and roughly handcuffed his wrists together.

“Ow, they’re too tight,” the boy cried out, struggling beneath his captor.

“Shut up.”

Derrick’s radio crackled again, this time Ed’s voice was louder telling him to stop his chase, another unit having found the suspect in question.

“Son of a bitch,” Derrick muttered. Shit, shit, shit! I went after the wrong guy. A friggin’ kid, no less. God dammit all to hell!

“Did you hear that? You got the wrong guy, you bastard. Let me go.”

Derrick knelt on top of him, still panting as he considered what to do. If someone found out he would be screwed for sure this time. Across the street, the barking grew louder and more excited. He didn’t think the kid had gotten a good look at him and he intended it to stay that way.

“Must be your lucky day, kid.” He quickly unlocked the handcuffs, and then shoved himself roughly off of the kid’s back. Before the boy could roll over, Derrick kicked him in the head with his boot sending blood and spittle splattering across the cement floor. Without a second look back he slammed the door behind him and strode angrily back through the basement.

The boy curled up into a ball and clutched his head, moaning in pain. He could feel warm sticky blood dripping down his neck and the skin on the side of his face burned.

Somewhere above him, the boy heard a scrabble of claws as a large dog bounded down the concrete steps and circled around him curiously. A low growl rumbled deep from within the Shepard’s chest after he sniffed along the base of the metal door. In response the boy curled up tighter and rocked himself as he heard a snuffling noise come closer and then a cold, wet nose nudged at his neck.

“P … please d … don’t hurt me,” the boy pleaded before he started to slip into unconsciousness.

The dog cocked his pointed ears, wagged his tail and lay down next to the boy, whining a little as he pawed at the boy’s shoulder.

It was several hours before the large trucks with the flashing lights pulled back into the building across the street. He could hear his master calling for him, but instinct told the dog not to leave the boy’s side. The large Shepard raised his face to the sky and howled; a low, mournful sound that rose in crescendo and then faded into the night. Once, twice and three times he howled before the sound of running footsteps across the macadam told him that help was coming.

“Lucky? Hey, are you hurt boy?” A bright light swept over the stairwell and the Shepard raised his head, sniffing the air and identifying the familiar man’s scent.

“Ah shit. Guys we need help over here, now! We got a kid down here.”

The fireman climbed down the stairs and crouched beside the limp form. “You did good, Lucky. It’s ok. We got him, now.”
Chapter Three
Alex stood in front of the large, rectangular board the ER department used to log in each new patient with her hands planted firmly on her hips and her legs slightly spread apart. It was the first thing she did before the start of each shift. A quick perusal and she knew how many patients there were in the emergency department, where they were in triage and what doctors from each of the major specialties from within the hospital were on call for the shift. Satisfied with what she saw, she walked over to the desk and quickly reviewed the charts for all the patients.

It was ten minutes to the start of her shift and she knew all the vital information that she needed to know about everyone in her care. Down the hallway, Dr. Torres strode out of the lounge and headed in her direction, carrying a steaming cup of coffee. He was sporting a new haircut since Alex saw him last. It was cropped close to his scalp and had an even spattering of gray throughout. Alex acknowledged him with a quick nod as he leaned on the counter in front of her.

“Rough night?” she inquired, observing the dark circles evident beneath the normally sharp brown eyes.

“I’ve had worse.” He shrugged and stifled a yawn. “I hear you might be taking a trip downtown to restart the clinic they closed.”

Alex raised an eyebrow in response. “News travels fast. The administration is scrambling to do damage control. Full-page ads in a newspaper aren’t going to win any support in this case.”

“You’re right about that. I had two people refuse to be admitted here last night. They requested to be transferred to County General. Hey, let me know if you want help. I’d be willing to help out.”

An eyebrow crept upwards as Alex’s surprise at Alfonse’s offer registered. “Thanks.” Alex straightened up and winced at the sharp fleeting pain in her chest. “Shit.”

“You ok, boss?” Dr. Torres looked up into her face and stepped closer.

“I’m fine, Alfonse.” She let out a breath and braced herself on the counter.

He studied her for a moment. “If you say so. Just take care of yourself, Alex. No one expected you to be back this soon.” He hesitated, and then added in a quiet voice. “Not after what happened to you.”

She held up a hand to stop him. “Al, please let’s just … not go there. They’re not great memories and frankly I’m just trying to forget about them and move on.”

The physician pressed his lips together and was quiet for a moment, debating the risks of telling his new director just what he thought of that. “All right. I guess I’ll talk to you later then.”

Alex watched as her colleague walked away from her and for a brief moment wondered if she made the right decision in coming back when she had. The dark-haired woman dismissed the niggling doubt and looked around the department. It was quiet and Alex took the opportunity to go to her office and sort through the piles of inter-office mail and patient files that were sitting on her desk. Dr. Washington did his best while she was out to keep up with it all, making decisions and acting on some of the issues but there was still much that only Alex could make the final decisions on.

The medical director’s eyebrows arched as she listened to three different phone messages from directors who had been at the meeting the day before and all expressed an interest in their staff being able to use the clinic to provide services to the community. She tapped a pencil on the desk as she continued to listen and then shook her head in mild disbelief. Well, it seems as if some of the skeptics have broken ranks.

Alex turned her attention back to the remaining letters still sitting on her desk. One particular letter caught her attention and she sat back in her chair while she tore open the envelope. She blew out a breath as she read the contents that stated she would be required to give a deposition in the case of Dr. Jameson versus Saint Xavier’s Medical Center. Alex knew all along it would come down to this and hoped that a deposition was all that would be required and not a court appearance that would undoubtedly turn ugly with all parties present.

A knock on the door distracted her. “Come in.”

“Hey Alex.” Dr. Washington walked into the office and sat on the edge of the chair, his tall, lanky frame tensed as he looked around the office.

“What’s on your mind, Jon?” Alex asked, watching as her colleague settled back in the chair. She could tell something was bothering him from the expression on his face.

“Listen, I pulled your file the day … everything happened.” He leaned forward and frowned before he continued. “There was nobody listed as an emergency contact person.”

Alex looked down at her hands and absently rubbed a thumb along the palm of her other hand. “I know.”

Jon stared at her incredulously. “But why?”

“Jon, since my father died I haven’t spoken to anyone in my family,” Alex replied quietly.

“Alex, that’s been a long time.”

“Eight years to be exact.”

“Maybe … ” he started to say something, then, paused when he saw the grim expression on Alex’s face. “I guess it’s really none of my business.” He rose from the chair and left the room without a backward glance at his colleague.

“You’re right it’s not.” Alex whispered, listening to the click of the latch as the door shut behind the tall, lanky frame of the doctor.

By the time she extracted herself from underneath six weeks worth of accumulated mail it was late in the morning. Alex jogged down the stairs and walked into the emergency department. The overhead page system was blaring out a stat page for one of the surgeons to report to the ICU, several family members paced anxiously in the corridor outside the waiting room and the unit clerk at the desk was busy trying to locate a patient that was brought in hours earlier who was no longer on the unit.

The desk phone rang and the haggard looking unit clerk picked it up. “Emergency Department. Hold on, let me get the nurse.”

The young woman stood up and looked around the department then keyed the intercom to page for a nurse. “Sandy, I need you at the desk now.”

Alex watched as the nurse emerged from one of the trauma rooms and walked quickly over to the desk, pulling her unruly blonde hair back into a ponytail. Several doors down a technician ran out of an exam room and ducked into the supply room only to emerge a moment later with several sterile kits in hand. The nurse took the phone from the unit clerk, slid into the chair next to her and quickly scribbled a few notes on her scrub bottoms. She looked up at Alex as she hung up the phone.

“We’ve got a young male on the way, approximately sixteen years old, altered mental status, vitals stable.”

“Go ahead and get room four cleared out. I’ll take him,” Alex told the nurse.

Sandy stared at Alex for a second before she answered. “Why don’t you let one of the residents take it?”

“Why?” Alex snapped defensively, turning around to glare at the nurse.

Sandy recoiled then set her jaw, clearly annoyed at the doctor’s response. “Because you’re the Medical Director and you don’t have to take every case that comes through the door.”

Alex felt the sudden flare of anger fade, knowing she overreacted. She sucked in her lower lip and blew out a breath, staring down at the floor as she considered Sandy’s words. Sandy was right she knew, but her pride and desperate need to answer her own questions about her ability to come back and do her job prevented her from backing down.

“I’m taking it.”

“Fine.” Sandy abruptly stood up and walked down the hall, grabbing Bonnie as she came out of the locker room. “Help me clear out this room.”

Alex shrugged into a gown and pulled a plastic fluid shield mask over face as she walked quickly down the hall to meet the incoming stretcher. The paramedics were struggling to hold the patient down as they wheeled the stretcher along the floor.

“Blood pressure is one hundred over sixty. He’s been confused and combative since we found him.”

Alex grabbed hold of the stretcher while she listened and guided them into the trauma room. “What happened to him?”

“A couple of firemen found him lying at the bottom of some concrete steps in an alley,” the medic responded. “They don’t know how he got there. Maybe he fell, who knows.”

“Not likely. Looks more like someone kicked him in the head. Let’s get him on the table,” Alex ordered, still studying the dark purple bruise in the shape of a half moon on the boy’s cheek.

There was an air of tension in the room but Alex quickly dismissed it as she focused her attention on the patient. Four sets of hands grabbed the sheet and lifted the patient from the stretcher to the exam table. Sandy cut through his bloodied sweatshirt and slapped leads onto his chest as Bonnie and one of the techs quickly tied his arms down to prevent him from flailing his arms about.

As all this was being done, Alex pressed the diaphragm of her stethoscope to the boy’s chest, listening to his breath and heart sounds. She hesitated as a sudden wave of dizziness hit her and she broke out into a cold sweat. The doctor gripped the rail of the treatment table to steady herself.

“Alex, are you ok?” Sandy asked, when she noticed her leaning at an awkward angle over the table.

The tall doctor inhaled sharply and nodded before she spoke again. “His lungs are clear. Get a CBC, coagulation profile, electrolytes and toxicology screen. Type and cross his blood just in case we need any.” She looked over at the paramedic. “Does he have any id on him?”

The man shook his head, his eyes darting nervously over to Sandy and then back to Alex. “Nope, you’ve got yourself a John Doe.”

Alex glanced up as a resident ran into the room, tying a mask over his face.

“So nice of you to join us, Dr. Tanner,” she remarked snidely, remembering the resident from the day before. Her first impression of the resident was not a good one and showing up late to a new admission was not winning him any brownie points with her at the moment. She flicked her penlight in the patient’s eyes and ducked away as the boy grunted and thrashed violently on the stretcher. “What kind of IV fluid do you want to use Dr. Tanner?”

“Ringer’s Lactate,” the resident replied automatically.

“Wrong choice. You have an obvious change in his mental status; decreased blood pressure and you don’t have a diagnosis yet. Sandy, hook up a bag of hypertonic saline.” Alex looked over at the resident who was inserting a catheter into the man’s arm to set up an intravenous line. “If he’s got a bleed the hypertonic saline won’t elevate an already increased intracranial pressure. Remember it.” Alex stared at the resident as she finished her neurological checks. “Let’s get a CT scan and call Neurology for a consult. Dr. Tanner, you can baby sit him in radiology.”

Alex stepped back from the table and pulled her facemask off, tossing it into the garbage. She yanked her isolation gown from her body and tossed it into the linen basket as she walked past it. “Page me when you know what the results are, Tanner,” she ordered before she walked out of the room.

Out in the hallway, a door swung closed to a room and she could hear Jon barking out orders as another trauma patient was being triaged across the hall. Out of habit, she was already slipping into a clean yellow gown and pulling on a plastic fluid shield mask as she elbowed the door open.

“Do you need help, Jon?” The words echoed in her head and the sight of the bloodied patient lying helpless on the stretcher surround by a myriad of cables, lines and tubing brought her up short, her breath catching in her throat.

Jon glanced up from his work and shook his head. He stepped back from the table and glanced at the clock before pronouncing the time of death. The doctor pulled off his gloves and quietly thanked the nurse and resident for their help before he walked over to Alex. “There wasn’t much we could do for this guy.”

He put a hand on her shoulder as he stepped up beside her. “You ok?”

Alex blinked and turned to look at him. “Yeah, I’m fine. I just remembered I forgot to do something earlier.”

The tall, dark-haired doctor turned and walked hurriedly down the corridor dodging between visitors and stretchers. Alex slipped out the door into the cold winter air, sucked in a breath, stumbled over to the concrete steps and leaned against the metal railing.

The panic almost overwhelmed her; it was totally unexpected and she held her head in her hands. She felt another wave of dizziness and grimaced as the sour taste of bile rose in her throat. Her body started to shake, deep down in her gut and raced out until her arms and legs were trembling and she sat down at the top of the steps fighting for control.

Even in the cold, she could feel sweat trickling down her back as her body responded to the overwhelming emotions assaulting her. She knew all about post-traumatic stress syndrome and the symptoms that went along with it. Shit, what the hell is wrong with me? She gripped the edge of the concrete step beneath her, letting it bite into her fingertips, the pain somehow grounding her. Alex closed her eyes and rocked back and forth.

A moment later, she heard the outside door open from a few feet behind her. Alex pulled herself to her feet and turned away, attempting to compose herself. Tentative footsteps approached from behind.

Not now, please just go away.

“Alex, are you all right?”

She held her shoulders rigid as she continued to stare through watery eyes at the brick wall. She secretly wished the footsteps belonged to Regina but she knew they were not. “I’m fine, Sandy,” she ground out between gritted teeth, refusing to turn around and let the woman see her this way.

The blonde haired nurse frowned as she stood behind the doctor. Half of her wanted to press the issue; she was worried about Alex, but the professional side of her dictated that she respect the doctor’s need for distance. It was obvious that she didn’t want company but after her unusual behavior in the trauma room she felt compelled to check on her friend. Sandy took half a step forward, stopped and then raised a hand, her frustration evident on her face as she let it drop helplessly to her side.

“Alex, if you need anything let me know. Ok?”

The dark head nodded and Sandy slowly walked back into the emergency department, casting an anxious glance behind her before she let the door close. Alone out in the bitter cold, Alex exhaled and walked around the corner so she was out of sight from anyone passing by. Her breaths came in ragged gasps as she crossed her arms over her chest, hugging herself.

“Shit,” she cursed, fighting back the tears that welled up in her eyes. The entire time in the trauma room she had to fight back the urge to bail out of the case and run from the room. She knew her fear was irrational but everything she felt was complicated by the intrusive fragmented memories that kept haunting her from that day just seven short weeks ago, right up until the point that she had lost consciousness and the green eyes she’s been looking into faded from view.

No longer able to stand the cold, damp wind, Alex angrily wiped tears from her eyes, straightened her shoulders and forced herself to walk back into the emergency department to face her demons alone.

******

The cafeteria was nearly empty except for a few scattered people sitting at the different tables throughout the large room. Regina walked up to the large industrial refrigerator and regarded the prepared lunches. She wrinkled her nose at the meager selections, tuna fish or egg salad. Ugh, I have no idea what I want to eat. I guess this will have to do, for now, she thought morosely as she selected a tuna fish sandwich. On the way to the cashier, she spotted a small silver bag of Hershey’s Kisses and quickly snatched them up, knowing how much Alex enjoyed the tiny morsels of chocolate.

After paying for her lunch she walked out into the nearly cafeteria and scanned the few occupants for any familiar faces. There was no staff that she knew so she headed to the door, preparing to eat alone and catch up on finishing her charts from the afternoon.

Almost to the exit, Regina stopped, recognizing the middle-aged, red-haired woman who was the mother of the patient she had admitted with the leg tumor the day before.

From where she stood, Regina could see the woman was crying. The young doctor hesitated for a moment, wondering if she should just let the woman alone to deal with whatever was troubling her. A memory of a hot and humid day, a bottle of water and an offer of support that started a fledgling friendship changed her mind.

She had seen the results of the girl’s lab tests in the computer earlier in the day and knew that the oncology doctors would most likely try an aggressive round of chemotherapy to see if the tumor would respond to it before trying a more aggressive approach.

“Mrs. Edwards?” Regina spoke her name hesitantly as she approached the table where the woman was sitting alone.

Red-rimmed brown eyes looked up at her in surprise and the woman seemed to shrink back down in her chair. She covered her mouth with her hand and shook her head, trying to collect herself.

“I … I’m sorry. I just can’t believe what’s happening to my baby girl.” Her hands trembled as she folded them together in front of her on the table.

The young doctor sat down across from her and set the plastic container holding her sandwich down on the table.

The woman nodded and wiped her eyes. “I don’t know how she’s going to handle this. What if it doesn’t work and the cancer comes back?”

Regina sat quietly, listening to the woman’s heartbroken words. “Mrs. Edwards, if you can, try and take what’s happening with Terry’s treatment one day at a time.”

“I just … my husband lost his job and now Terry being sick, it’s too much.”

Oh dammit, she briefly closed her eyes. There was little Regina could say or do at the moment that would ease the mother’s worries. So little of what would happen in the next few months would be in the family’s control. The journey they were at the beginning of would be an emotional roller coaster and a positive outcome was far from guaranteed. The blonde reached across the table and squeezed the distraught woman’s hand. “The doctors will take good care of her, Mrs. Edwards.”

Terry’s mother wiped her eyes and nodded her head. “I know you’re busy, Dr. Kingston, but could you check in on her from time to time while she’s here? I know Terry liked you.”

Regina stood and rested her hand on the woman’s shoulder. “Sure, I’ll check in on her.” She made a mental note to check the computer to see what room the young girl was in. The blonde left the cafeteria, walked down the back hallway, passing several of the dietary and housekeeping staff whose departments were located along this back corridor.

Regina walked up the metal staircase, her footsteps echoing in the empty stairwell as she headed to the back entrance of the emergency department. All day she struggled with the urge to beep Alex several times today to see how she doing. She knew deep down Alex was worried about coming back to work even if she hadn’t voiced her concerns to Regina.

Several times while she was still recuperating, Alex brushed off her attempts to talk about the shooting and the blonde felt the unwelcome yet familiar walls starting to rise around her lover. Regina vowed she wouldn’t let Alex shut her out, especially now, not after everything they had been through.

The day shift was finishing up, signing off orders and giving report to the incoming nursing staff. A door banged open at the end of the hallway and one of the technicians pushed the portable x-ray machine through the entrance. At the nursing station, Regina spotted the curly blonde locks of her friend, Sandy. The nurse was bent over the desk, speaking to one of her colleagues and didn’t see the young doctor walk up to her.

When the nurse finally straightened, Sandy’s face lit up and she walked around the desk to pull Regina into a hug.

“Hey, stranger. I was wondering when you were going to make it back down to here to visit the trenches.”

“It’s been less than a week,” Regina defended with a chuckle, as she glanced around the busy department. A part of her missed the frenetic pace and the organized chaos that characterized a normal day in the emergency department, but she was very happy with her decision to work in pediatrics. It gave her the ability to treat a wide variety of patients and Regina knew she would have many opportunities to still work in the emergency department.

“How’s Pediatrics doing?” Sandy slipped out of her lab coat and slung it over her shoulder.

“Busy. We’ve got a bunch of kids with respiratory viruses and the flu.”

“I can’t believe you gave up the ER for Pediatrics,” Sandy replied, as she walked with Regina to the staff lounge.

The doctor gave Sandy a sidelong look and shook her head. “I didn’t give it up, Sandy. I’ll still have plenty of patients who’ll be admitted through the emergency department. What, do you miss me or something?”

“I said no such thing.” Sandy scowled, her face flushing red. “It … it’s not the same without you down here,” she whispered conspiratorially in Regina’s ear.

“I miss you guys, too.” Regina nudged the door open with her hip and motioned Sandy into the lounge, watching the pleased smile that crossed her friend’s face.

The nurse wrinkled her nose as she sniffed the half-day old brew, and then poured herself a cup of coffee. “Do you want some?” She held the pot up offering Regina a cup.

“No, I haven’t been sleeping well, so I’m trying to cut back to see if it helps at all.”

“Mm, I could drink a whole pot and still fall asleep after a day here.” Sandy sipped at the coffee and studied her friend closely. “Alfonse told me Alex is trying to reopen the clinic downtown.”

Regina nodded her head. “Yes, she is. It might help with all the non-emergent admits to the ER.”

“Mm.” Sandy sipped the coffee. “I’d be willing to help out if Alex needs any. So … how come you’re not sleeping?”

Regina folded her arms over her chest and her face took on a distant almost detached look as she stared at the tiled floor beneath her feet. “Would you believe nightmares?”

“About what?” The nurse frowned and leaned against the counter.

Regina moaned softly and rubbed her face. “I never remember them … clearly.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re dreaming about what happened to Alex.” Sandy offered, venturing a guess that Regina might very well be suffering from nightmares about the shooting.

“I don’t know. You’d think I’d remember if I were.”

“Maybe not, Regina. Have you two talked about it at all?” Sandy asked quietly.

The blonde shrugged her shoulders and slid her hands into her lab coat pockets. “A little. It’s not exactly a popular subject with either of us.”

“I can’t imagine that it is, Regina.” They both looked up as the door opened and Alex walked in with her lab coat slung carelessly over one shoulder. The taller woman hesitated when she spotted the Regina standing beside the nurse. Her eyes bore into Sandy. I hope you didn’t say anything to Regina about today. This is my problem and I’ll deal with it.

“There you are.” The tense expression on Alex’s face relaxed as her eyes met Regina’s. The affectionate smile she was rewarded with warmed something deep inside her and she let herself revel in the sweet feeling. “I was just going to page you to see if you were ready to get out of here.”

“Yeah, more than ready.” Regina couldn’t help the impish grin that crossed her lips as she reached into her lab coat and tossed the bag of chocolates to Alex.

The brunette’s pale blue eyes lit up and she snatched the bag out of the air. “Thanks.” She smiled conspiratorially back at the blonde.

“Ok, I’ll take that as my cue to leave.” Sandy grabbed her coffee and slipped past Regina, mouthing the words ‘talk to her’, as she walked by. “See you guys later.”

“Where are you going?” Alex asked.

“Home,” Sandy replied.

Alex watched the door close and then turned to Regina. “Everything ok?”

“Yeah, I’m fine, now.” Regina stepped closer and tugged at the bottom of Alex’s scrub top as she continued to look up at her blue eyes. The dark haired woman leaned closer and barely stopped herself from kissing the blonde as she inhaled the scent of Regina’s perfume that lingered on the collar of her lab coat.

What she really wanted to do was just go home and curl up alongside of Regina, but Alex knew if she wanted a chance at making the clinic a success she needed to get started on it and soon. “I need to run downtown and check out the clinic we might be opening. Do you want to come along?”

“On one condition.”

“What’s that?” A dark eyebrow arched.

“We pick up something to eat.”

“I thought that’s what these were for.” Alex shook the bag of chocolates, holding over Regina’s head.

The blonde snorted and poked Alex in the side.

******

The clinic was located on the first floor of a three-story, non-descript, brick-faced building that sat across the street from the fire department. The lights from the inside of the two open garages reflected in a half moon shape, casting Alex’s shadow over the macadam as she stepped out of the Jeep and waited for Regina to join her at the entrance of the clinic.

Alex spotted several kids lounging against the hood of one of the cars parked along the side of the street and studied them for a moment before she unlocked the front door and quickly keyed in the numbers to reset the alarm.

The taller woman stepped inside with Regina close behind her and turned on the overhead fluorescent lights. While Regina set down the brown bag filled with take out food from the local late night diner, Alex relocked the door.

“Here, you must be starved. I know I am.” The blonde held out the neatly wrapped egg sandwich that Alex ordered.

“Thanks.” The taller woman leaned in and wrapped an arm around the blonde as she took the sandwich from her. “Come on, let’s check this place out.”

The clinic itself was empty except for the reception desk that separated the waiting room from the treatment area. The curtains that hung from the ceiling, separating the four booths from each other, ruffled slightly as the two women walked past. Dust balls tumbled across the floor, stirred, as they walked across the room and several broken ceiling tiles lay on the floor unmoved from where they had fallen some time ago.

“Well, what do you think?” Alex asked as she gestured at the room. She rotated on her heel and stepped back a few paces, shrugging. “Besides the obvious,” she added quickly with a grin, seeing Regina’s arched eyebrow as she looked around the clinic.

“It’s smaller than I thought it would be,” Regina offered, before she bit into her sandwich.

“Yeah, but for what we would do here it doesn’t need to be big. Remember, we’re just looking to do follow up visits from the ER, in addition to baby check ups and pre-natal care. They’re quick visits but doing them here would save us a lot of time in the emergency department. All we need to do is rotate a doctor and a nurse down here three times a week for five hours at a time. Most of our non-emergency, walk-in visits come from right around these two towns.” Alex motioned with her arm as she talked.

“Who’s going to use it the rest of the time?” Regina asked, as she walked alongside her companion.

“The medical center is always looking for more space, especially for its medical training programs. I’ve had three directors call and ask about sharing the space with us.”

“That’s awesome!”

“Yes, it is. After the meeting the other day I wasn’t sure there would be a great response to do this.”

“Why did you think that?”

Alex bit into her sandwich and shrugged. “Regina, I ratted out a fellow doctor.”

“Who was a sleaze and abused his authority! Everyone knew it, Alex, but you were the only one willing to do something about it.”

“Some people might not think about it that way.”

“Then screw them,” Regina said, her voice rising in frustration.

Alex’s eyes widened in surprise and Regina blushed slightly.

“I … I mean it Alex. It took a lot of courage to do what you did.”

The brunette hovered over the smaller woman. Her fingers tilted Regina’s face up to hers. “You were the one with the courage my friend,” Alex said sincerely

Regina pulled her eyes away, feeling suddenly awkward and undeserving of the compliment. “Hey, did they leave any equipment here?”

“I doubt it. Dr. Timmons remembers the place being stripped clean of everything. If there’s any left its locked in the storage room. I think I may have the key.” Alex suddenly realized as she dug in her pants pocket, pulled out a ring of keys and started to walk toward the back of the building.

Regina turned around to look at the space again and let out a gasp when she felt an arm unexpectedly slip around her waist and pull her back into one of the booths. A low chuckle sounded in her ear and Regina let herself lean against the taller woman’s body.

“Come here, you.” Alex growled playfully and leaned back against a treatment table, plucking the half eaten sandwich from her hand. She pulled Regina between her thighs and wrapped her arms around the blonde, pulling her into a hug. After a moment, Alex slid her hands up underneath the blonde hair and cupped Regina’s face in her hands, her blue eyes searching the green orbs.

“What?” Regina caught the fleeting look of uncertainty in the blue eyes and linked her hands around the woman’s lower back.

Alex shook her head and brushed her lips against Regina’s, softly at first and, then, with more ardor as the smaller woman moaned softly into her mouth.

Regina braced a hand on the top of Alex’s thigh, and slid the other around the nape of her neck as they continued their long, slow kiss. A small cry escaped her as Alex’s hands lingered over the skin of her neck and then slid over her shoulders her thumbs lightly grazing the curve of her breasts on the way down to her hips.

After several minutes of gentle exploration, both women, their faces slightly flushed, eased up and gazed into the others eyes. Regina plucked at the top of Alex’s scrub top and leaned in to kiss the base of her neck. “Too bad we’re not home, huh?”

“Mm.” Alex quirked a smile and leaned back on her hands. Her eyes glanced down at the v-neck of her scrub top, where she could see the top of the reddish scar that ran down the length of her sternum. “Pretty ugly looking thing, isn’t it?”

The entry wound of the bullet had left an ugly, purplish red mark on her chest just below her left breast, from there it had glanced off a rib, torn through one of the major arteries in her chest and imbedded itself in one of the vessels that fed life giving blood to her kidneys. The seconds between her living and dying had been that close. A thin red line with railroad tracks as the surgeons liked to call the marks the staples left ran down the length of her sternum.

Regina felt a lump form in her throat as she followed Alex’s gaze and waited for the dark haired woman to look back up at her. When her lover finally raised her head the uncertainty Regina saw in her eyes made her heart ache. “All I see is you, Alex. You’re here and that’s all that matters to me.” The scars I worry about are the ones you carry on the inside.

Alex swallowed and looked away. “Thanks.” It was barely a whisper. “I know it shouldn’t matter but sometimes I look at it and it makes me feel … violated.” Her eyes blinked rapidly and she stared down at her feet.

The younger woman clasped Alex’s larger hands in her own. “Can I do anything for you?”

The brunette shook her head and leaned toward Regina, resting her head on her shoulder she closed her eyes and sighed. “Just hold me, please.” I hurt inside.

“Always.” Regina wrapped her arms around Alex and rubbed her hands over the taller woman’s back. “You don’t have to go through this all alone. Let me help you, Alex.”

Alex tensed as a sharp rapping echoed through the empty clinic as someone banged on the front door. “Oh, go away. We don’t want any,” she growled into Regina’s neck.

The blonde giggled at Alex’s comment and continued to hold onto her.

Another more urgent knocking broke the momentary silence.

“Shit,” Alex cursed and pulled reluctantly out of the warm embrace and stood up.

She walked to the front of the building and saw a man standing at the front door peering in through the glass. A large dog lay quietly at his feet, panting. Alex sighed inwardly as she unlocked the door and opened it partway.

“Sorry, but the clinic isn’t open, ” she said, as she partially opened the door. Underneath the streetlamp, she could see the man had dark curly hair with a light beard covering his jaw line. He wore a dark jacket with the fire department’s insignia embroidered over the left breast.

“Oh, no it’s ok,” the man replied. “I saw you walk in and just wanted to check on you. A kid got beat up pretty badly in the alley last night. If it weren’t for Lucky here, finding him he might not have made it.”

Alex glanced down at the German Shepard and felt her breath catch when she recognized the familiar markings.

“Hi,” Regina walked up next to Alex and glanced up at the fireman.

Brown eyes smiled back and the fireman reached out his hand. “I’m Todd. I work over at the station house.”

“Regina,” the blonde said and shook his hand.

“I’m Alex,” the taller woman followed reluctantly, giving up on her idea of getting rid of the guy quickly.

“Do you two work over at the hospital?”

“Yes, we’re both doctors,” Regina offered, ignoring the slightly irritated look she got from her taller companion.

“Hey, that’s right. I thought I recognized you,” Todd continued, looking up at Alex. “You work in the Emergency Department. I read about what happened to you. I guess you’re doing better, huh?”

Alex shifted uncomfortably. “I got a clean bill of health.”

“A bunch of the guys worked that accident. What a mess that whole thing was. That kid never had a chance. It took us forever to get the woman and her dog out of the car. He’s a lucky fellow.” Todd reached down and scratched between the dog’s ears. “He’s kind of adopted us, I guess.”

Regina glanced up at Alex, the realization of what the man was saying slowly sinking in. She held her hand out and the dog sniffed her fingers enthusiastically, and then practically sat down on her feet. She laughed as he lifted his head and whined quietly for her to pet him.

“We named him Lucky, well, cause he is,” the fireman announced as he bent over to ruffle the dog’s ears. I think he likes you.” Todd beamed like a proud parent.

“Alex, do you think this is Dana’s dog?” The blonde looked up at her companion, missing the admiring glance she was receiving from the fireman.

Alex cringed, hoping that Regina wouldn’t have recognized the dog. It wasn’t that big of a deal, but for once she just wanted her past not to come back and haunt her. “He certainly looks like it.” The taller woman looked down at the Shepard and reluctantly held her hand out. The dog nudged her fingers and gave them a friendly lick.

“You know him?” Todd asked cautiously, a worried look suddenly crossed his face.

Alex lifted her head and looked over at the fireman, her facial expression a mask of neutrality. “I know the woman who was his owner.”

“Oh, y … you don’t want him do you?”

Regina glanced up at her friend and smiled at her while she tilted the dog’s head to look up at Alex.

The doctor quickly shook her head. “Not home enough. It wouldn’t be fair to him.”

The blonde pushed out her lower lip in a pout as Alex returned her gaze then, rolled her eyes upward and emphatically mouthed the word, no, to Regina. She’d had enough of the social pleasantries and was feeling a growing annoyance at the appreciative glances that Regina was on the receiving end of and gave the bearded man her best ‘drop dead before I have to kill you myself’ look.

Todd glanced between them and shoved his hands into his pockets, sensing a distinct change in the taller woman’s demeanor. “Well, I just wanted to make sure you were ok over here. I won’t hold you up anymore. It was nice to meet the two of you. Come on, Lucky.”

Regina tilted her head as the fireman walked back across the street with the dog trotting along at his side. “He seems nice.”

Alex shrugged her shoulders and grunted before she quickly turned away to hide the jealous look she knew was plastered all over her face. “I’d say you just made a new friend there.” She winced inwardly as the words came out more sarcastically than she planned. Ooh, very nice Alex, you just leapt back twenty years in your maturity level. Are you planning on re-entering high school again maybe?

Regina’s eyes narrowed and she cocked her head, placing her hands on her hips. “What do you … oh, the dog? Yeah, he is cute.” The smaller woman lingered behind Alex as the taller woman strode through the door, appreciating the view then, walked up behind her friend, a knowing smirk growing across her face.

Alex blinked and turned around to look at her companion. “Regina … what … oomph … ” She found herself suddenly wrapped in a fierce hug. “What are you looking at?”

“You, love” Regina whispered before she pulled Alex’s head down into a slow, lingering kiss.
Chapter Four
Regina pulled the large, clear plastic clipboard across the chest high counter and studied the lab values for the patient in room ten. They guessed by his weight and body structure that he was approximately sixteen-years old. With no means of identifying him, he remained a John Doe and in the twenty-four hours since he was admitted to the hospital, there had been no frantic phone calls from parents looking for a missing child or family members to stand vigil at his bedside while his battered body hung tenuously in the balance between life and death.

His condition was critical and his prognosis guarded. Both would remain so until the

pressure from the swelling in his brain resolved. The neurosurgeons were successful in removing the large blood clot that formed on the outer sheath of his brain as a result of the blunt trauma to his head, but no one could predict what his neurological status was going to be until he woke up.

Since the boy was under seventeen he was assigned to the pediatric service and the doctors there would be responsible for coordinating his care and ultimate discharge from the hospital.

Regina stood outside the boy’s room in the intensive care unit, looking in at what she could see of him. A four-legged IV pole stood next to the bedside with three separate pumps stacked on top of each other continuously pushing a combination of electrolytes and antibiotics into his injured body. An intraventricular catheter was inserted through the boy’s skull into a lateral ventricle to monitor the pressure of the cerebrospinal fluid.

A decision was made that morning on rounds to begin weaning him off the drug called Norcuron that was being used to paralyze him. It was always a calculated risk to do this. The longer he stayed on the drug the more chance he had of permanent muscle and nerve damage, but if he was agitated and still confused when the drug wore off, all it would take was one frenzied attempt to free himself from the tubes and wires that would elevate his intracranial pressure and possibly cause more damage to his already traumatized brain.

The click and whir of the pumps was all but drowned out by the continuous whooshing and beeping of the ventilator. Quietly, Regina stepped into the boy’s room after donning an isolation gown, mask and gloves that would protect him from potential bacteria that his body was still vulnerable to.

As she ran through her standard series of neurological checks Regina talked softly to the boy. She had no sense of what he looked like yet, thick, white gauze was wrapped around his head hiding what would be left of his neatly shorn hair, his features were distorted by the facial swelling and mottle bruising to his skin from the injuries he sustained. She peered closer at his cheek, noting the sharp outline of horseshoe shaped bruise that ran up underneath the bandages.

“I don’t know your name my friend so I guess you’ll have to be John until you wake up and tell me what your real name is.” She slipped her fingers into the palm of his hand. The skin was callused and felt clammy in her grasp. Regina leaned closer over the bed rail. “If you hear me squeeze my fingers.”

Regina waited for a few seconds and got no response. “That’s ok, John. I know you’re in there. You just keep trying.”

She moved to the foot of his bed and lifted the sheets covering his feet. The doctor ran the metal end of her reflex hammer over the sole of his foot. The toes curled down in response to the noxious stimulus and Regina allowed herself a small smile. It was one small victory. The neurological tracts that controlled the movements of his muscles were still intact.

The blonde stepped back away from the bedside, wondering if he had parents and if so, did they even know he was hurt. It was no secret that patients with a supportive family presence faired better in these situations. Sometimes a touch, a familiar voice or soft words of comfort were the only things that could break through the coma and offer the patient a path to follow back to their life that had been so viciously turned upside down.

A sudden overwhelming sense of sorrow gripped her as she thought of Alex. Not once during the last eight weeks had the doctor heard from her mother or brother. She wondered if Jon was ever able to get hold of them. He never said and with all that was going on in those first few anxiety filled days, she never thought to ask him afterwards.

Regina quickly backed out of the room, stripped out of her gown and gloves and tossed them into the dirty linen cart by the door, fighting back a totally unexpected surge of anger.

Out at the desk, Regina sat and quickly scribbled a note in the chart, ignoring the banter of the staff going on around her. It wasn’t until she noticed a shift in the light above her and inhaled a vaguely familiar cologne did she glance up from her work.

Her eyes widened and she fought the urge to push away from the desk. There, standing in front of her dressed in his black police uniform was Derrick. His face was thinner and his hair was cropped close to his scalp. He looked as frightening to her now as he did the night he showed up at Alex’s house on the Cape. The memory of what followed was still fresh in her mind and she strangled a frightened gasp in her throat.

“Hello, Regina,” he drawled casually as if his presence should be no big deal to her.

Her mouth was suddenly dry and her heart was double-timing it in her chest as she struggled to form a coherent thought. “What are you doing here, Derrick?” She had no reason to believe he came here looking for her but she couldn’t help the defensiveness and fear that crept unbidden into her voice.

He must have sensed her discomfort because he crossed his arms and leaned on the desk, peering down at her through flat, emotionless eyes. “I’m looking for the John Doe that got brought in here last night.”

Regina stood up irritated with herself for letting him sense her unease and flipped the chart closed, handing it to the unit clerk who was sitting a few feet away. “Why?”

“I need to get the kid’s clothes and ask a few questions for the investigation.”

Was that a smirk she saw on his face? You bastard, Regina silently cursed, knowing Derrick was probably enjoying the irony of the situation. This was how their relationship started over a year ago. She turned to walk away. “Talk to the charge nurse, Derrick.”

“I’d rather have you answer the questions. You do a better job of it, anyway.”

The blonde turned and regarded him coolly. You have to be kidding me if you think flattery will get you anywhere, Derrick. “What do you need to know?”

“Was he awake when he was brought in?”

“Not enough to answer questions from what I heard.” Regina walked around the desk and stood at the doorway to the boy’s room her arms crossed over her chest and her jaw set. She felt a need to be by the boy’s room with Derrick so close; it was almost a sense of protectiveness that brought her there.

Derrick stood several feet away from Regina and cautiously peered in at the boy. “Any idea what happened to him? A fall, someone hit him. We don’t have anything to go on, not even a name, Regina.”

Regina frowned, hearing the uncharacteristic break in his voice. “Derrick, I think the head nurse can answer any questions you have.”

He stepped closer to the room and looked at Regina, ignoring her request. “Did they do a toxicology screen on the kid to see if there were any drugs in his system?”

“Ask his nurse I’m not discussing this with you anymore.”

“Hey, wait a minute.” He lowered his voice when several nurses glanced up at the two of them. “Can’t we, um, talk for a minute?” Derrick fingered his cap as he stood before her, looking penitent.

Regina stared at him for a moment. Talking was the last thing you were ever interested in doing and you expect me to believe that’s what you want now. “No Derrick, we can’t just talk. There’s nothing to say.” As she turned to walk away the monitor alarm sounded shrilly in the boy’s room, his heart rate suddenly spiking sharply.

A nurse darted around the desk and threw a gown over her shoulders, quickly joining Regina at the bedside. “I can give him another dose of Ativan. It’s not too soon.” She glanced up at the blonde haired pediatrician.

“Do it,” Regina ordered as she made a minor adjustment to the ventilator settings before she leaned over the bed and touched a gloved hand to the boy’s face. “John, can you hear me?”

The boy nodded his head ever so slightly.

“You hurt your head and you’re in the hospital,” Regina continued, watching as the nurse injected the sedative directly into the IV line.

His eyelids fluttered slightly and a single tear rolled down the side of his face.

“It’s ok, sweetheart, everything is going to be all right.”

“What’s wrong with him?” Derrick asked from just outside the door.

The boy grimaced and shook his head weakly side-to-side, straining against the restraints holding his arms down.

“Derrick, get out, now!” Regina ordered as she looked between her patient and her ex-boyfriend.

The nurse glared at the police officer over her shoulder and then whipped the curtain closed, blocking his view of the boy. Gradually, with the help of the drug and Regina’s soothing voice the boy ceased his struggles and his heart rate slowed its frantic pace.

Regina reached up to the head of the bed and checked the readout for his intracranial pressure. “We’re still ok with his pressure, but call the neurosurgeon and see if they want to keep him on the medication for another day.” Satisfied that her patient was in no immediate danger, Regina left the nurse at the boy’s bedside.

She was more than disappointed to see Derrick still lingering on the unit, obviously waiting for her. Dammit, just go away, Derrick, she pleaded silently. Reluctantly, she left the sanctuary of the nurse’s station and headed for the door leading to the hallway.

“Regina.” He reached out with his arm and blocked the door as she tried to walk by him.

The blonde held her hand up. “Back off, Derrick. You might be here for police business, but I still have a restraining order against you. Nothing’s changed. Don’t forget it.”

His eyes narrowed and he stepped forward. “Forget? No, I won’t. How can I?” Derrick growled.

“Derrick, back off, please.” Regina carefully skirted past him quickly and made her way down the hallway barely avoiding a stretcher as a transporter shoved it out of the elevator. Regina glanced inside the open door and recognized the young girl sitting slumped in the wheelchair. She looked over her shoulder warily then, ducked through the open door relieved to find that Derrick hadn’t followed her.

“Terry?” Regina touched the girl’s hand then, looked up at the orderly who was standing behind the wheelchair, looking incredibly bored at the moment.

The girl lifted her head and blinked several times as she looked up at the blonde haired woman standing in front of her. “H … hi.” She cleared her throat, grimacing at the foul taste the medicine she took for the test left in her throat.

“Where are they taking you?” Regina leaned against the rail with her hands tucked in her lab coat pockets and watched in relief as the doors slid closed.

“Uh, radiology, I think.” Terry shivered beneath the blanket and glanced up at the woman standing beside her.

“Do you want some company?”

Fearful brown eyes looked up at her and the young girl nodded her head eagerly, grateful for the offer since her mother was working and her father was looking for a job. “They have to put me in this machine to do a test and I hate closed spaces.”

“Oh, they’re doing an MRI.”

“Whatever.” Terry stared down at her hands and twirled the blue wristband around her wrist nervously.

The elevator stopped its descent and the doors opened. Regina followed the young man out and walked beside the wheelchair down the narrow hall that led into the radiology department. A large fish tank with several large angelfish floating in the blue tinted water sat next to the far wall.

A technician walked out and took the chart from the pocket in back of the wheelchair, then glanced down at the girl’s wristband. “Terry, we’ll all set for you. We can go right back and get started.”

“Great, the only time this place is ever on time is when I get to go into a dark tunnel.”

Regina walked with them to the door and squeezed Terry’s shoulder before the woman pushed the wheelchair into the testing area. “I’ll be here when you’re done, Terry,” the doctor reassured the young girl.

Terry stood up from the wheelchair and self-consciously pulled the faded blue hospital gown around her slender frame. The room was cool, and there was nothing but white walls in the expansive room. In the center stood the machine that would take pictures of her body to see if the cancer was anywhere else but the bone in her leg. The young girl swallowed hard and glanced nervously at the narrow bed she had to lie on that slid into the small tunnel like opening.

“I … I don’t want to do this,” Terry stammered softly, fighting back the urge to cry.

“I know you don’t, Terry, but your doctor ordered the test so we have to do it.” The red-haired woman pulled a blanket out of a wall cabinet and laid it over the hard mattress. “Now hop up here and lay down for me.”

Reluctantly, Terry climbed up onto the hard mattress pad and lay on her back. The table jerked as the technician unlocked the mechanism holding it in place. “You can close your eyes Terry. You might feel better if you can’t see the tunnel walls around you.”

The girl nodded her head and closed her eyes tightly just before the table started to slide into the machine. Already she was starting to breath faster and she squeezed her eyes shut tightly afraid that if she opened them she’d find the ceiling of the tube inches from her face.

Over the speaker that was in the tube she heard the woman’s voice. “This is going to take about forty minutes, Terry. I’ll let you know what we’re doing as we go along.”

There was silence followed by a loud, hollow knocking that went on and on. Oh God, please just get me out of here. I can’t do this. Her tears started to flow in earnest now as the loud knocking continued.

******

Alex finished writing an order to transfer two patients up to one of the surgical floors for observation. She rubbed a hand over her eyes and blinked as she looked up at the clock on the wall. The numbers blurred momentarily before her eyes adjusted to the distance and everything came clearly into focus. It was five o’clock and she knew Regina would be finishing up with her patients soon.

She drummed her fingers on the counter as she considered whether to page Regina or not. Since they had been back they had fallen easily into the routine of paging each other once throughout the day. Alex carried the charts over to the unit clerk and then headed into the staff lounge.

The tall, dark-haired doctor lifted the pot and sniffed cautiously at the bitter brew, then thought better about drinking the day old coffee. As she poured the stale coffee down the sink and pulled out a fresh bag of coffee grinds to brew, Alex shook her head mentally chastising herself for her foolish insecurities. Oh, who are you trying to kid? You know you want to talk to her, just get over it and call her already.

She picked up the phone on the wall and dialed the hospital beeper system, punched in Regina’s beeper number and the extension for her to call. Moments later as she was filling the now clean pot with cold water the wall phone rang.

“Hi,” Alex answered absently.

“You were mighty confident it was me calling you back,” Regina teased her on the other end of the phone.

“I knew it was you.”

“How?” Regina challenged, a smile playing on her lips as she looked through the window into the testing area.

“You have a distinct ring,” Alex answered dryly.

“Haha. What’s up?”

“I just wanted to say hi and see when you might be ready to go home,” Alex answered.

“Actually, I ran into a patient I admitted earlier this week. She’s down in radiology right now for a test and I offered to wait until she’s through.”

“Oh.”

The blonde brought her hand up to her face. “I’m sorry, Alex. I didn’t even think to look at the time,” Regina lowered her voice as the technician reentered the room and spoke to Terry over the intercom.

“Hey, no it’s ok,” the medical director answered quickly, pouring the fresh grinds into the coffee machine. “What test are they doing?”

“They’re doing an MRI.” Regina glanced through the window into the testing area. She heard muffled cries coming from over the speaker that was in the tube. “Hang on, Alex.”

Alex stared across the empty staff lounge, thinking about Regina and knowing that she was probably very worried about the girl if she had taken the time to go with her to the test. In the background she heard a voice and then Regina came back on the line.

“Damn.”

“What’s wrong?” Alex leaned against the wall and rubbed the back of her neck, working out a knot caused from the stress of the day.

“The kid is claustrophobic and the doctor didn’t order any sedatives for her. Listen, I’m going to go. Maybe if I talk to her over the intercom she’ll get through this better.”

The tall, dark haired doctor closed her eyes as a trickle of fear and anger swirled in her guts. She hated closed spaces and the mere thought of them made her break out in a cold sweat. “I’ll be here. Just call me when you’re done there.”

“You bet.”

Alex set the phone back in the cradle and sighed. A distant memory nagged her conscious thought and she grimaced trying to force it away while she walked back out into the department.

*****

“Dad, stop. You’re hurting him.” She felt the rush of air as the black leather belt sung through the air and whipped against her brother’s bare backside.

“You stay out of this Alexandra or you’ll be next. You hear me?” her father snarled at her, then turned back to her brother. “Teach you to lie to me about what you did with my liquor,”

Michael grimaced, refusing to cry out as the belt bit into his flesh again. It wasn’t the first time he took a beating so his mother didn’t have to, but this time his father had found out about him pouring his vodka down the drain and now they would all pay. Lord knew his mother already had. “Alex, be … ugh … quiet.”

The tall, lanky girl stood outside the bedroom door with tears running down her face. “You bastard, stop it!” She could hear her mother crying in the bedroom, helpless to do anything after he beat her moments before.

Alex felt the anger boiling up inside her as her father continued to hold her brother down as he whipped him again.

“I’m warning you girl. Keep your damn mouth shut!” A rush of air escaped his lips as a solid form slammed into him sending him tumbling to the floor. As he scrambled to his feet he saw his daughter pulling Michael from the room.

“Go! Get momma and go, now,” Alex hissed.

“You stupid bitch. This time you’re going to pay for what you just did.”

Alex stepped back and ducked under an errant swing of his meaty fist. She waited another second hoping her brother had enough time to get out of the house before she turned and sprinted down the stairs. Behind her, she could hear her father bellow her name. She bolted out the back door and ran around the back of the house away from the lights of the car in the driveway.

She needed to keep him away from them just long enough so they could get away. Her feet pounded across the wet grass and she skidded as she rounded the corner, losing her balance for an instant. As she stumbled, a blur of motion caught her attention and she realized as she closed her eyes and braced for the impact of the bat that she had unwittingly run right into her father.

It was hours later when she finally woke. Alone, hurting and scared she blinked her eyes trying to make out objects in the darkness around her. Tentatively she reached her hands out and inches from her face she felt dry, splintered wood. Frantically, she kicked her legs out and heard the echo of her shoes on the side of the wall.

Desperately she tried to calm her breathing and not panic. She felt around her, trying to figure out where he put her and realized as her hands ran over the sharp edges of wood that her father had locked her in the crawl space underneath the stairs.

By the time her brother snuck back home later that night, her fists were raw and bleeding from pounding on the walls and her voice was hoarse from shouting. As she lay huddled in Michael’s arms after he pulled her out of the crawl space she vowed she would never let her father beat any of them again. ******

She wasn’t out at the desk for a minute before the abruptly lights went out and she was bathed in darkness. Anxious cries from patients and families alike erupted from around the department.

Alex cursed softly and waited for her eyes to adjust before the emergency lights came on. She heard several of the staff around her as they moved awkwardly, finding their way through the maze of equipment and rooms in the darkness.

When nothing happened seconds later, Alex ran her hands along the back of the desk and found the flashlight they kept there for emergencies. Just as she turned it on the lights flickered and came back on.

“Figures,” Sandy muttered as she stepped up beside the doctor, holding another flashlight.

“I thought they fixed the emergency generator.” Alex turned to the nurse.

“Oh, they did. Can’t you tell?” Sandy remarked snidely and set the flashlight down on the desk.

Overhead the operator announced a code ten in radiology. “And that’s probably the new MRI unit that just crapped out again. Every time there’s a power surge it blows a fuse.”

“You’re kidding, right?” Alex turned and stared at the nurse.

“No, I’m not kidding, Alex,” Sandy replied.

An eyebrow arched up under dark bangs and Alex grabbed the phone quickly dialing radiology’s number.

A frazzled clerk picked up the phone. “What?”

“Is Dr. Kingston there?” Alex demanded.

“Yeah, but she’s busy. We got a broken unit and a patient is stuck in it.”

She didn’t even remember sprinting down the hallway or taking the stairs two at a time and bursting into the observation room. Inside she saw a technician and Regina desperately trying to pull the narrow table out of the tube. Two engineers and one of the biomedical technicians were already working on a panel at the other end of the unit.

“What happened?” Alex panted as she knelt beside Regina and looked at what she was trying to do.

Regina answered over the panicked cries of the girl, pleading to get her out of the machine. “The motor malfunctioned after the power surge. We … can’t,” she grunted as she pulled on the end of the narrow bed, “get it to release.”

“Let me see.” Alex crouched beside her and tugged experimentally on the end of it. It didn’t budge.

“Get me out of here,” Terry sobbed desperately from inside.

Regina stood up and leaned into the tube, touching the frightened girl’s ankle. “Terry, listen to me. We’re going to get you out. I promise.”

“Get me out, please! I … I can’t breathe.”

Alex sat back on her heels and tugged on the stretcher again. She glanced up at Regina and shook her head. “It’s jammed,” she whispered. “You think you can get her calmed down enough so that we can pull her out.”

“You can’t do that. You’ll damage it,” the technician protested loudly.

“News flash, it already is.” Alex glared at the woman and stood up, stepping past her and muttering angrily. “One million dollars they spend on this state of the art technology and a power surge does it in.” She walked over to the engineers and peered at what they were doing. “Any idea what’s wrong with this hunk of metal?

One of the engineers scratched his head and blew out a frustrated breath. “Yeah, it blew another fuse and short circuited the wires.”

“How long does it take to fix that?”

“We have to replace the wires and the fuse. It could be a couple of hours.”

“Is there a manual override for the bed so we can get this kid out now?”

“Not that I can see on the schematics,” the biomedical technician muttered angrily.

Alex moved back to the opening and placed a hand on Regina’s back as she leaned in next to her. She inhaled sharply as she peered into the tube. Oh God, that’s small in there. “Terry.”

“W … what?”

“I need you to lie very still. We’re going to pull you out, ok?”

“If you break this machine it’s on your head, not mine,” the technician spluttered from behind the two doctors.

Regina glanced up at Alex with a surprised look on her face. “Can we do that?”

“You take one ankle and I’ll get the other.” Alex closed her eyes and leaned into the small tunnel, reaching for the girl’s leg. “Terry, I want you to scoot toward the opening when we start to pull. Ok?”

“Ok,” her voice trembled and Alex could hear her sniffling.

“Here we go.”

It took them another ten minutes before Alex and Regina could finally extricate the girl from the machine. She clung to both of them as they lowered her carefully to the floor. Alex ducked her head and unwrapped the girl’s death grip from around her neck. She knelt beside her and draped a blanket that the technician handed to her over the traumatized girl’s shoulders.

She watched as Terry buried her head against Regina’s shoulder, holding on for dear life as her sobs quieted down to soft whimpers. The pediatrician rubbed her hand over the young girl’s back and raised her head, rewarding Alex with a heartwarming smile and mouthed the word, thank you, to the dark-haired doctor.

The medical director smiled back and helped Regina pull Terry to her feet. “Well, I think we’re done here for the day. How about we get our young friend here back to her room and give her parents a call? I don’t think they’re going to want to hear about this tomorrow morning.”

The dark-haired doctor waited outside the Terry’s room while Regina did her best to reassure the girl and her worried parents that what happened with the machine was a fluke.

“Thanks for waiting, Alex,” Regina offered when she walked out of the room some time later.

“No problem. Is she ok?” The medical director started down the hallway with the blonde walking beside her.

“She’s better now.” Regina glanced curiously up at her taller companion as Alex held the door open to the stairwell. “How come you came down to radiology? It wasn’t a medical emergency they announced.”

Alex avoided the green eyes peering up at her. “Sandy told me the problems they’ve been having with the new unit and when I called down the clerk told me what happened.”

Regina raised her eyebrows and tilted her head up at Alex. “Uh huh. That still doesn’t explain why you came down.”

Alex lowered her eyes and sighed. “It’s a long story and it doesn’t really matter. I just wanted to help,” Alex finished sheepishly and started down the stairs.

Regina recognized the defensive tone in Alex’s voice and sighed inwardly, knowing further discussion was off limits about the subject for now. The blonde decided on a different tactic and glanced quickly above to make sure no one was coming down the stairs, then reached out from the step above and grabbed the collar of the taller woman’s lab coat, halting Alex and pulling the taller woman back against her. “Even if you won’t tell me why, thank you, anyway,” she whispered in the taller woman’s ear and smiled when she saw the faint flush of pink against her tan skin. “When the electricity went off and the machine failed, I hoped you might come down.”

Alex tried not to let the smile break over her face but it was futile as her senses were momentarily overwhelmed in this sterile environment with the physical closeness of her lover and the warm clean scent of her body mingled with a hint of her perfume. She swallowed trying to control the sudden racing of her heart. “Regina,” she growled, drawing the woman’s name out.

“Problem?” the blonde asked innocently.

“You’re not playing fair,” Alex groaned when she felt Regina lean against her.

“Who said anything about playing fair?” Regina laughed and bolted down the stairs ahead of her.
Chapter Five
Alex leaned in close, brought her lips to the back of Regina’s neck and gently nibbled the silken skin as she waited for the blonde to unlock the front door of her condo. She chuckled, enjoying herself for the moment as her younger companion squirmed and pushed back against her.

“I’m never … going to get this door unlocked if you keep … oh, doing that.” Regina protested as her body reacted to Alex’s playful teasing.

Alex sighed dramatically and straightened up, allowing Regina the opportunity to unlock the door without any further distractions. She followed the blonde inside; watching curiously as Regina tossed some mail on the table and then glanced over at the blinking light on the message machine.

Regina felt her companion’s gaze penetrating her back and she turned, giving the woman a quizzical look. She waved her hand at the phone. “Ah, I’ll listen to that later.” Regina gazed up at Alex and smiled warmly. “Thanks for helping out today.”

Alex shook her head and stepped up to Regina slipping her arms around the shorter woman’s waist, pulling her close. She intently studied the sea green eyes that looked back up at her and lit up when a smile touched her lips. “Mm, you already thanked me once.”

“I know, but to that girl, you were a hero today. She was terrified when she got stuck in that machine.”

Blue eyes blinked and Alex ducked her head, hiding her discomfort with the label before she answered. “I’m not a hero, Regina.” I wonder how you would feel about me if you saw the way I ran out of the ER like a coward the other day.

The blonde snorted and ran her hands up over Alex’s shoulders, feeling the strength still evident there. “You think what you want, but I know better.” She silenced the protest rising on Alex’s lips with a gentle kiss, enjoying the soft, fullness of her lips as they returned the steady pressure in turn.

Since the accident neither of them had pushed the issue of being intimate with each other, they held hands, kissed and hugged often but that was the extent of it and Regina sorely missed the physical part of their relationship they had yet to regain. She knew part of Alex’s reluctance was because she was still in considerable pain at times, but there was so much going on behind those turbulent blue eyes that made the young doctor believe it was much more than that alone. What her dark haired companion wasn’t willing to discuss with her left Regina feeling anxious and unsettled about their relationship.

The taller woman slowly opened her eyes, pulled back from the kiss and then briefly brushed the back of her fingers over Regina’s cheek. “You must be hungry. Do you want to order something to eat?”

The blonde frowned and shook her head. “No, no more take out food. I can whip something up for us,” Regina replied, before she walked into the kitchen. “Let me see what I’ve got.”

Alex followed the blonde into the kitchen and casually leaned against the wall, watching as Regina rummaged through the cabinet and pulled out a box of linguine, followed by several cans of clams.

“Linguine and clam sauce, sound good?”

“Sure, but won’t that take awhile?”

The blonde’s shoulders shook as she snickered at the concerned expression on Alex’s face. “You really don’t cook very much do you?”

Dark eyebrows furrowed and Alex folded her arms over her chest. “Hey, I’ll have you know I can cook … ”

“Yes.” Regina leaned against the counter and folded her arms waiting for Alex’s answer.”

Alex’s frown broke into a sly grin. “Do hard boiled eggs count?”

Regina tilted her head back and let out an exasperated sigh. “You are too much.”

“So, I took wood working and metal shop in high school,” Alex protested good-naturedly.

The young doctor rolled her eyes, pulled a large pot out from inside the cabinet, and set it on the stove. “Well, get over here and fill this pot with water, Ms. Butch.”

“Hey,” the taller woman grumbled and then gave up, knowing she’d been pegged as Regina just smiled impishly at her and pointed to the pot. “Watch it. You are treading on thin ice, here,” Alex warned as she turned the water on in the sink and nudged the blonde with her hip.

“Ooh, I am so scared.” Regina waggled her eyebrows and tried not to laugh again. It felt good to tease each other and laugh like this; releasing some of the tension they both were feeling around each other of late. So many things had gone unspoken since the day Alex was shot and the more time that passed the harder it was to talk about what was bothering her. “Aah, hey,” she puttered as cold droplets of water suddenly splashed on her face. “Stop, that. Alex!”

The taller woman cupped her hand under the stream of water and flashed an evil grin. “Don’t mock my skills.”

“Ok, ok. Truce, please?” Regina pled as she wiped her face with her hand.

“I’ll consider it,” Alex mused, a smile tugging at the corners of her lips as she set the pot full of water on the stove.

Alex retreated back to the doorway and watched with interest as Regina quickly went about creating her clam sauce while the pasta cooked on the stove. Her talents certainly did not lie in this area and a rueful smirk crossed Alex’s face when she thought that most of her dinners consisted of cereal and milk when she was alone. It felt nice to have someone want to do this for her, but there was also another part that railed against having to depend on anyone for anything. She sighed inwardly knowing that the last two months she felt like she’d done nothing except rely on Regina for everything.

“You want any help?”

Regina shook her head, glancing up at Alex. “No, why don’t you go relax. This won’t take long.”

“Ok.” Alex disappeared into the living room and settled herself onto the couch. She let out a quiet sigh and pressed her hand against her chest, the contact offering a different sensation than the pain that seemed to be more pronounced when she wasn’t distracted. The brunette sorted though her experiences over the past two days searching for why she was having such a hard time adjusting to being back at work. Alex you’re a jerk, you get shot, almost die, have major surgery and are back in less than two months. She shook her head, slightly disgusted that it was affecting her this much. Get past it, dwelling on it isn’t going to help any.

She glanced down at her leather bag and then reached inside it, pulling out a folder. Work had always been a distraction for her and it was no different now as she opened the file and sifted through a pile of papers until she found the equipment list she was working on for the clinic and started reviewing it.

Alex made a note in the margin to ask Dr. Matthews for a requisition order to get equipment out of the warehouse that the hospital owned. It was convenient for the hospital to store old or unwanted equipment since the warehouse was located right next to the clinic, which was minutes away from the hospital. Once she found what she needed it would only be a matter of scheduling the movers to transport what they needed over into what would hopefully become the new community health center.

“Alex, come on it’s ready.”

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t hear you.” Alex pulled herself out of her thoughts when Regina set a steaming plate mounded with pasta and sauce down on the table a few feet away.

“Thanks,” she offered quietly and slid into the chair opposite Regina.

As the blonde haired doctor ate and watched her friend sitting across from her she sensed the dark cloud of uncertainty and doubt that seemed to plague Alex ever since the shooting, descend once again. Regina winced inwardly at the memory of it, all too aware that the outcome could have been unthinkable given a slightly different set of circumstances. They had been lucky that day.

“This is really good Reg,” Alex remarked in between bites.

Regina watched Alex quietly finish the food on her plate, her eyes hidden by the dark bangs. She thought of everything they had been through and all the things they had yet to experience and share together.

It came without warning and she found herself consumed by a flood of grief that choked her throat and brought stinging tears to her eyes. Without a word, the blonde shoved her chair back, fled into the bathroom, quickly shutting the door behind her. Her chest heaved as she covered her face with a hand and fought back a sob that threatened to burst out.

“Oh God,” she uttered and leaned heavily against the door. Through the tears blurring her vision, Regina studied her hands and clenched them tightly into fists to stop them from shaking. Images flashed through her mind and she pressed her clenched fists against her eyes trying to block them out.

******

There was blood everywhere and it quickly soaked through the front of Alex’s faded blue scrub top. “Oh God, Alex … Sandy! I need help in here, now!”

******

Her voice echoed in her mind, starting a cascade of memories she couldn’t control. Regina could see herself clamping her hands over the bullet hole in Alex’s chest and with a detached sense of horror watched as the blood stained her hands red.

Maybe if I listened to Alex when she ordered me out of the room that night, none of this would have happened, Regina thought and shook her head, staring up at the ceiling. “This is all my fault.”

Behind her came a soft knock on the door and she cursed softly, knowing she left Alex at the table wondering what in the hell was going on with her.

“Regina, are you ok?”

The young doctor swallowed the lump in her throat before she spoke. “Yeah, I … I’m fine. I’ll be right out.” She moved to the sink, turned the faucet on and splashed water on her face.

When she emerged from the bathroom a few minutes later, she glanced over at the table to find it empty and cleared of dishes. Across the room, Alex was standing by the window with her arms folded over her chest, staring into the darkness, a pensive expression on her face. I’m so sorry, Alex.

When the brunette heard Regina’s footsteps she turned her head and watched her approach warily. She spoke first, breaking the heavy silence between them. “You know if you want to talk about anything, I’m here, right?” Alex asked in a neutral voice, trying to mask the hurt that lay just beneath the surface.

Regina started to say that everything was all right, but something in the way Alex’s penetrating gaze captured hers broke the blonde’s resolve. In two steps she was wrapped in the taller woman’s embrace and holding onto her with all her strength.

“I can’t lose you, Alex. Please, not again,” she whispered into the fabric of her shirt.

The brunette tipped Regina’s head back and studied her face intently. “You’re not going to lose me, Regina. I’m staying right here.” Alex sensed Regina’s anguish and squeezed her tighter, whispering quiet reassurances in her ear. “Talk to me, please. Whatever it is, we’ll work it out. I promise.”

Regina closed her eyes unable to look at the pained expression in Alex’s eyes. I’m sorry, Alex. I just don’t know how to tell you that I just stood there and watched you slipping away. Everything I learned, everything you taught me, just flew out the window. I almost let you die in there.

“Hey, come on. It can’t be that bad,” Alex joked; Regina’s uncharacteristic silence unnerving her.

The younger woman sniffed and wiped a hand across her eyes. “I don’t even think I can put it into words right now.”

Alex frowned and tilted her head. “Why? Just tell me what’s wrong.” She glanced over at the couch, deciding that it might be better if they both were sitting because this sounded like it was going to be one hell of a conversation. “Come here.” She tugged the reluctant blonde over to the couch and sat, pulling Regina down beside her.

The younger woman curled her legs underneath her and leaned back against the corner of the couch, studying her hands, acutely aware of Alex watching her.

“Regina.” Alex turned and rested her arm on the back cushion, waiting. “Did I do something?” She felt her heart jerk erratically in her chest when she heard a muffled sob.

Regina shook her head vigorously, several strands of hair falling over into her face as she fought back the tears. “No, Alex. It’s not you. I mean I am worried about you. I know it’s got to be hard going back to work.”

The taller woman pursed her lips and then leaned closer to her younger companion. “No. This isn’t about me, Regina. You didn’t just bolt into the bathroom before because you’re worried about me. Maybe you don’t remember you’re dreams but I hear you every night. Something’s been bothering you and it’s eating you up inside.”

Regina’s eyes widened and for a moment she worried that she said something in her sleep that Alex might already know. “I … I don’t remember them,” her voice faded away as the pale blue eyes watching her darkened and Alex’s jaw muscles clenched briefly before she stared straight ahead.

“I don’t understand. Why won’t you tell me what’s wrong?” Alex asked in a small voice. Behind them on the table the phone rang shrilly. “Don’t … answer it,”

Regina pulled her hand back and cautiously glanced up at the dark haired woman sitting rigidly beside her. How did this conversation end up like this? We’re practically arguing with each over something I don’t even know how to explain. Then she heard her father’s voice over the speaker. Shit, this can’t get any worse, she thought and then it did.

“Hi, uh Regina, it’s your father. I guess you’re still not home.” Regina wrinkled her nose, realizing now who had left the message before. “Your mother’s birthday is coming up in a couple of weeks and um, I thought you might want to come up for the weekend. It might be a good way for us … I called your brother, Jeff and he’s uh, well, he’s thinking about it. I’ll tell you the same thing though. If you decide to bring your … friend with you, you should plan to stay elsewhere than at the house. I think it will be better … ”

Completely mortified, Regina reached out and grabbed the phone from the cradle. “Dad, shit,” she cursed when she heard her voice on the speaker and turned the volume off on the machine. “Hi, yeah, I’m home. No, I wasn’t screening calls.”

She glanced over at the brunette and cringed inwardly when she saw Alex slumped back against the couch with her head tilted back and eyes closed. “What weekend? Oh, ok.” Regina pushed several flaxen strands of hair back off her face and rested her elbows on her knees, wanting nothing more than to just crawl into a hole somewhere and hide. “Is Mike going to be there with his wife? Ah huh, yeah, great.” Her voice sounded more resigned now. “Yes, Dad, I’ll switch my schedule if I need to. I’ll talk to you later.”

Quietly, she hung up the phone and rubbed her face before she looked over at Alex and noticed her eyes were still closed and could tell from the erratic rise and fall of her chest that she was breathing irregularly, obviously more upset now than before.

“I’m sorry,” she breathed out, wanting nothing more than to reach out and touch the woman but the pang of her upset prevented her from doing so.

“What are you sorry about? It’s you’re parents prerogative who they want staying in their house.” Alex started to say more but bit back the sarcastic remark about knowing how Regina’s parents felt about her now. It wasn’t Regina’s fault and it would only serve to distance them further from each other, which they didn’t seem to need much help with at the moment.

She hadn’t meant for the conversation to go this way, but it seemed that no matter what she said only made Regina more anxious and determined not to tell her what was troubling her. The taller woman sighed, seeing the unhappy expression on her partner’s face. “Listen, it’s late and we’re both tired.” Alex reached over and tentatively brushed a lock of hair behind Regina’s perfectly shaped ear. “Why don’t we call it a night? When you need or want to, you can talk to me.” The brunette stood up and ran a hand through her hair, not sure of what else to say or do that wouldn’t make the situation worse.

“Alex?”

She turned around looking at Regina uncertainly. “What?”

“I was thinking that maybe it would be nice if we could get away for the weekend. You know, just so we could be together.”

The tall, dark haired woman pressed her lips into a thin line before she answered. “I wish I could Regina, but I planned to start work on getting the clinic set up downtown.”

“Oh, I didn’t realize it was going to happen that quickly,” Regina replied, trying unsuccessfully to hide the dejection evident in her voice.

Ah shit. Alex hesitated before she walked back over and sat down on the couch. “We’ll do something, I promise. Maybe after you go visit your parents we can take a few days off and go somewhere. Ok?”

Regina rested her elbows on her knees and stared off across the room. “I um, I was hoping that maybe, you would come with me … if you want.” She nervously clasped her hands tightly together, her knuckles turning white from the pressure while she stumbled over her words. “I … I’ll understand if you don’t want to.” She wanted Alex with her but the prospect of her mother meeting her lover, the same woman Derrick had badly maligned to her, was enough to make her stomach start doing back flips.

“Oh.” Alex coughed and cleared her throat, floundering in deep water at the unexpected invitation. “Of course, I’ll come with you Reg. I just wasn’t sure if that was what you wanted.”

“Why wouldn’t I want you to come with me?”

Alex blinked and looked back into questioning green eyes before she answered. “I know your parents gave you a hard time when you told them about yourself. I’m sure they think that I’m stealing their daughter away, corrupting you or something.” Alex tried to keep her voice light as if joking about it, but realized there was more truth in that statement than she cared to admit. “I … I just don’t want to make things any more difficult for you, that’s all.”

“Oh.” Regina sat back, considering this for a second before she glanced back over at her companion. “Alex, it would be more difficult if you weren’t there with me.”

“All right, then,” Alex responded still feeling a bit overwhelmed by the prospect of not just meeting Regina’s parents but being there for a weekend. No problem, right? You’ve been up to your ankles in blood and gore I think you can handle a weekend with her parents, Alex thought wryly. “I guess we’ll have to plan to take some time off then.”

A smile broke over the younger woman’s face and she leaned into Alex, placing a feather light kiss on her temple. “Thanks, Alex.”

“Your welcome.” Alex turned to face Regina. “Do you think you can get the time off so we can spend a few days together after we leave your parents?”

“I can switch some shifts around with some of the other doctors. It shouldn’t be a problem.”

“That would be nice. You’re right, we do need some time for just the two of us.” Alex slid her arm around the Regina’s shoulder and pulled her closer, wishing that for tonight both of them would sleep without dreams.
Chapter Six

It was late afternoon the next day when Alex was finally able to find a moment to walk over to Dr. Matthew’s office. It was located on the opposite side of the medical center, the farthest point away from the emergency department. The small rectangular room was cramped, overflowing with files, medical textbooks and journals.

The tall, dark-haired doctor waited several minutes as the President of the Medical Staff finished with a telephone call. The man was in his late fifties, with thinning, white hair and his doughy, poorly toned physique spoke volumes about his sedentary lifestyle.

Her interactions with the doctor were limited to one brief meeting ten years ago when she originally applied for her staff privileges. Since then, she traveled a much different path, working on the front lines, day in and day out, falling in love with the chaos and frantic pace of the emergency department.

Her counterpart moved up the administrative ranks, moving in political circles she had little use for. His was a world where decisions were made based on bottom lines and had little to do with how their impact might affect patients that were in need of medical care.

“So, Alex what do you have for me?” The doctor pushed his round, steel-rimmed glasses farther up onto the bridge of his nose as he stared distractedly at the piles on his desk.

“A list of equipment we’ll need to get the clinic up and running. Most of it is probably in storage in the warehouse next door.”

“Aren’t you getting a little ahead of yourself?” The doctor asked and then took a large swallow of coffee from the Styrofoam cup sitting on his desk.

Alex handed a thin file across to him, dropping onto his desk when he made no attempt to take it from her. “No. There are five medical directors who believe this is a good idea and will help them streamline each of their operations. I have a report from each of them summarizing the initial cost and the community benefits, which at this point I think far outweigh any of the risks involved with re-opening up the clinic.”

“You really think this will make a difference for the hospital’s reputation,” he commented, without looking down at the folder.

“If we’re sincere in our effort, yes. Anything less and the community will see it as nothing more than a transparent attempt to regain their trust.”

The white-haired physician tapped his forefinger against his lips a bemused expression forming on his face while he listened to the exotic looking woman standing before him. “All right, you can work on this, for now on your own time. I don’t want this taking away from anything going on at the hospital until I see that it’s going to be something viable for us.” He held her gaze confident that the fledgling idea would lose steam with any of the interested parties with the limitations he set. “So, if you’re still interested in doing this, I suppose you can go ahead with it.”

“If I didn’t think it was a good idea, I wouldn’t be here in the first place, Frank. I’ll be sure to let you know if I need any more help from you.” Alex smiled in spite of herself, knowing the sarcastic remark was not lost on the President. Without another word, the doctor turned and left the office.

Lost in thought, Alex hardly paid attention to her surroundings as she made her way back to the ER. She hadn’t expected much support from Dr. Matthews, but unfortunately, projects of this magnitude required the approval of the administration. Well, at least he didn’t nix it all together.

She walked into the emergency department and hesitated before she negotiated her way around two engineering carts and a dolly loaded with electrical wire. Directly in front of her, two engineers were perched precariously atop ladders, threading electrical wire through the dropped ceiling and Sandy, still dressed in a bloody isolation gown, holding several plastic sealed packages, was standing beneath them looking rather miffed.

“Can’t you guys find a better time to do this? You’re set up right in the middle of the hall,” the nurse protested loudly and then turned to the technician standing behind the desk. “Thomas, bring these in to Dr. Ortiz.”

“We’ve got to get this done before the end of our shift,” one engineer called back as he yanked another length of wire up through the opening. The large wooden bolt the wire was coiled around rolled several feet and bumped into one of the code carts lining the corridor.

“You can’t string that cable while we’re this busy,” Sandy insisted.

“Listen, I’ve got a job to do.” One of the engineers poked his head out of the ceiling. “You’re medical director signed the work order. Take it up with him.”

Sandy turned to Alex. “You didn’t, did you?”

The doctor folded her arms across her chest at this and then peered up at the two men half hidden from view in the ceiling. She caught Sandy’s exasperated look and pursed her lips together, then walked over to the wooden bolt that held the wire, tipped it on its side and planted her foot on it.

A loud curse erupted from inside the ceiling when one of the men tried to tug more wire up and felt the resistance from below. Alex tilted her head and flashed him a toothy smile at the man as he clambered down the ladder and turned to face her.

“W … what do you think you’re doing?” he blustered.

“I will not have you doing this during the middle of the day. We’re too crowded and someone is going to get hurt,” Alex advised him quietly.

“But, my boss told me to get this done. Dr. Jameson signed off on this two months ago.” The engineer walked toward the large, wooden bolt.

Alex shook her head and held her hand out to stop him. “Two months ago and you’re just getting to it now? That’s nice.” She observed with a slight raise of an eyebrow.

“Here look here’s the work order.” He pulled a wrinkled, grease-stained paper from his pocket and handed it to the doctor.

“I don’t care. You’re not doing it now so clear this stuff out of here! Oh, and for you’re information, Dr. Jameson doesn’t work here anymore.”

After the engineers cleared up their equipment and finally left, Alex pulled a pile of patient’s charts who they recently discharged and needed to call back regarding various test results that required follow-up to make sure nothing more sinister was going on.

“Hey, Alex. Sorry, about that.”

“It’s not a big deal, Sandy.” The doctor picked up the charts aware of the nurse’s appraising, dark, green eyes studying her from across the desk.

“How did the meeting go with Dr. Matthews?”

Alex shrugged and glanced over at the board, counting the number of patients on the unit as a momentary distraction before she answered. “Ok.”

“Well, what did he say?” Samantha leaned closer, lowering her voice as one of the residents walked by them.

“To go ahead with it but do it on your own damn time,” Alex replied matter of fact.

The nurse was quiet as she watched her friend studying the charts she was carrying in her arm. “So, I guess you’re going to need some help then.”

Alex raised an eyebrow. “If people want to volunteer, sure. Dr. Matthews isn’t going to approve any overtime for this, not yet anyway.”

“So what needs to be done?”

“Everything. The clinic looks like a bomb hit it and all the equipment we need is in storage at the warehouse next door.”

“I must be missing something.” Sandy grimaced scratched her head. “How does he expect the hospital to open a clinic if he’s not going to pay anyone to work there?”

“That’s just it. I really don’t think he wants this clinic to re-open at all.”

“Why? I thought the whole reason for doing this was to try and make this whole mess better.”

“Your guess is as good as mine, Sandy.” Alex straightened up. “I’m going to go there Saturday and see what I can accomplish.”

“Hm, Tina and I were going to go away but Labor and Delivery had two of its nurses resign last month so she got called in to work an extra shift this weekend. Maybe I’ll join you.” Sandy grinned at Alex’s surprised expression, then, tapped the desk in front of her with her hand. “Hey, before I forget, call Regina she was down here looking for you earlier.”

******

Regina felt the vibration of the pager that was hooked on her belt and glanced down at the narrow LCD screen as she walked through the hallway. It was the pediatric intensive care unit and she only had one patient there that was on the service right now. John Doe. She only hoped it was good news as she picked up the beige wall phone by the bank of elevators.

“This is Dr. Kingston. Someone paged me,” the blonde replied.

She waited on hold several seconds before another voice came over the line. “It’s JD, Dr. Kingston. He’s awake.”

“When?”

“About ten minutes ago when I checked his vitals. Everything’s stable but he’s agitated and trying to pull out his lines. I gave him ten milligrams of Ativan, but I need your ok to put restraints on him.”

“No,” Regina ordered sharply, then lowered her voice when she caught sight of several people stepping off the elevator. “I’d rather not put him in restraints if we don’t have to. The kid has been through enough already.”

There was an audible sigh on the other end of the phone. “I don’t have enough nurses on staff tonight to have someone sit with him.”

Regina shifted the phone and glanced down at her pager as it went off again. “Don’t do anything until I get down there. I’ll be right there.”

She hung up and dialed the ER, hoping it wasn’t another admission. The blonde smiled when she heard the deep voice come through the phone line. “Hi. I stopped by earlier but you weren’t around.”

“Sandy said you were looking for me,” Alex answered softly.

“I was, but I can’t talk right now. I’ve got to go check on a patient in ICU. Can I call you back when I’m done?” Regina twisted the phone cord around her index finger, wishing she could just go to Alex right now. She wanted nothing more than to just shut the door on the world and lose herself in the security of her lover’s arms.

“Sure, I’ll be up in the office.”

“Ok.”

The blonde hung up the phone, trotted down the stairs to the first floor and followed the stark white corridor into the intensive care unit. A red-haired nurse she didn’t recognize was sitting in a rolling chair with a tray table in front of her just outside the boy’s room.

“I’m Dr. Kinston. How is he?” Regina slipped on a yellow isolation gown, pulled a cap over her hair and slipped a mask over her face. She glanced down at the nursing flow sheets and quickly scanned over his last set of vitals.

“Better, for the moment. The neurosurgeon was in about an hour ago and he discharged the intracranial catheter.”

Brown eyes focused on Regina and followed her warily as she entered the small room and walked up to the bed. It struck her then, as she glanced around her how different this room was from all the rest. There were no cards with get-well wishes pinned up to the corkboard or balloons floating in the corner. The wall-mounted television wasn’t even on; the only noise was the beeping of the ventilator and the motors whirring in the intravenous pumps.

“Hello there,” Regina said, watching as the boy broke his silent observation of her and turned his head, staring out the window sullenly.

“How are his oxygen sats?”

“He’s been at ninety-eight percent all day, his blood gases are good and we’ve been able to decrease the setting on the vent without any problem.” the nurse replied as she slipped into a gown and stepped inside the room.

“So, what do you think about getting that tube out of your throat today?” Regina asked. A cold, stony silence greeted her in return as the boy continued to pointedly ignore her. She turned to the nurse. “What’s your name?”

“June,” the woman replied, as she pulled on a pair of gloves.

Regina looked back at the boy and tilted her head. “If I give you a pen and paper, will you write your name out for me?”

The boy continued to stare out the window.

“Well then, I guess we’ll have to forgo any formal introductions until after we take the tube out. I’m going to unhook this from the ventilator first.”

Regina started to reach over to unhook the tube but a hand reached up and blocked her. “What?”

The boy shook his head and motioned with his hand. “You want to write your name out?”

He nodded his head and looked away again. Regina took a clipboard and pen the nurse handed to her and set it on the boy’s lap. His hand trembled slightly as he picked up the pen and then dropped it on the mattress. The blonde handed it back to him and supported his hand as he scrawled two barely legible letters on the blank paper.

“BJ,” Regina said as she read the scrawled handwriting. The boy blinked and wrote another word out.

“I know, BJ.” Regina deflated the balloon that held the endotracheal tube in place in the boy’s throat. “BJ, I need you to take a deep breath and cough real hard for me, now.”

In a matter of seconds it was over and the boy stopped coughing and squeezed his eyes shut as he swallowed the first few times. “Good job, BJ. Regina laid a hand on his shoulder and squeezed him. “You can talk but just a little today. It’ll take a day for the soreness to go away.”

I … want to go … home,” the boy rasped in a weak voice.

Regina chewed on her bottom lip and considered what to say to him. It had been three days since he was admitted and they had heard nothing about the boy’s family. “BJ, can you tell me where you live?”

With that question the fleeting moment of open vulnerability vanished from the boy’s face and was replaced with a toughness that caught Regina by surprise. “BJ, there has to be somebody we can call.”

“I want … my clothes.”

“BJ, you can’t leave yet,” Regina reminded him gently.

“You can’t make me stay,” he protested and started to sit up from the bed.

Regina struggled to hold him down and was quickly reminded of the strength a sixteen-year old boy could possess. “BJ … stop. You’re going to hurt yourself. You’re in no condition to leave the hospital yet.”

“Let … me … go.” He tried to shove her away but a second set of arms pinned him to the mattress as the nurse held him down.

“BJ, if you don’t stop we’re going to have to give you something to calm down.” Regina pressed both hands firmly on his shoulders, holding him in place. “I don’t want to have to do that, but I will if you don’t stop.”

He glared back at her defiantly still not ready to back down yet. “I’ve got ten of Ativan, Dr. Kinston,” June interjected.

Regina glanced over at the nurse and then looked back down at her patient. “Can I trust you or are you going to give the nurses a hard time all night?”

His lip curled up in anger and he shoved against her one more time. “Fine, give it to him, June.” Regina stared into his angry brown eyes and waited as the nurse uncapped the syringe and injected the medication into the intravenous line.

“I hate you,” he hissed at the doctor.

Regina stepped back and pulled her gloves and mask off. “I’ll write an order in the chart for the Aitvan as needed, June.” It wasn’t what she wanted to do, but BJ had given her no reason to trust that he wouldn’t try to leave if given half the chance and she couldn’t allow that to happen.

The blonde finished writing in her patient’s chart and then walked off the unit. She stifled a yawn as a couple of residents walked past her in the hallway. All in all it hadn’t been a bad day but still she was feeling out of sorts mostly because of what happened last night and the conversation she had with Alex.

It was early evening and the hallways were quiet as she walked toward the medical offices that were housed on the first floor of the East Wing. The door to Alex’s office was shut and she knocked on the door before she opened it and peered inside.

Alex looked up from the papers she was reading and blinked, her eyes taking a second to focus on the slightly disheveled halo of blonde hair framing the youthful face. “Hi.” She smiled and leaned back in her chair and stretched, feeling several vertebrae pop back into place. “How’s your patient?”

Regina shut the door behind her, walked over and sat on the corner of the desk, facing the beautiful blue-eyed doctor. “He’s awake, angry and combative.” She toyed with one of the pens lying on the desk. “There’s still no word about any family. I’m beginning to wonder if this kid ran away or something.” She glanced over at Alex and sighed. “What are you reading?”

The taller woman edged her chair closer to Regina and shook her head. “Nothing earth shattering. I’m just going over the budget that the administration approved for the year.” She could sense the conflict the young woman was trying hard to disguise. Alex leaned forward and let her arms rest on her thighs, thinking and then looked up into her lover’s face. “Listen Regina, about last night-”

The blonde bowed her head and sighed. “No Alex, I hardly slept at all last night and I thought about this all day. I owe you an explanation.”

A wistful smile crept over Alex’s face and she shook her head. “You too, huh?” She laid a hand on Regina’s thigh and glanced over at the door. It’s late and screw the rest of the world, she thought. They needed desperately to reconnect and being back at work was leaving them little time and energy left to do so. “No wonder you have circles under your eyes.”

Regina chewed on her lower lip as she gazed back at Alex. “This is hard to say and I fought with myself all day about whether I should even tell you or not, because you probably don’t need this with everything you’re dealing with.” She rushed on when she saw the alarmed expression on her lover’s face. “Its just … there are times when I see what happened that day so clearly. I think about how close we came to losing … ” her voice faded away and she took a breath, trying to calm her racing heart. “I … I know it’s crazy but I get this feeling like if I close my eyes and open them again … you won’t be there.”

She swallowed the lump forming in her throat and held her breath against the need to cry. How many nights had she woken up with a start and reached out to wrap an arm around Alex’s body to reassure herself she was still alive?

A warm hand caressed the blonde’s cheek and slid around her neck, gently massaging the base of it. Regina felt the brush of air against her and then the solid bulk of the taller woman as she stood up and pulled her into a bear hug.

Alex pressed her face against the top of Regina’s head, rocked the smaller woman in her arms and brushed her hand over the soft blonde hair, whispering quiet reassurances to her. She remembered so little of what happened after she was shot. Most of it was a blur in her mind; odd bits of conversation, the excruciating pain she felt after surgery and the drugs that made her feel like she was on a bad trip.

All that, coupled with her driving need to put the experience behind her made it difficult for her to understand what her partner had gone through in those first few days. She’d seen the scenario played out day in and day out at work, but somehow her mind had, for the time being, neatly hidden those emotions away. “Regina, I’m here and I always will be. I promise.”

The smaller woman sniffled and nodded her head against Alex’s shoulder. “I know, I know. But I almost … ”

“Almost what?” Alex leaned back and furrowed her brow, looking into the troubled green eyes. What aren’t you still telling me, Reg?

Regina lifted her hand, brushed the dark bangs back off of Alex’s face and let them fall back as she trailed her fingers down the angular cheek. “Nothing … I … can we just go home?”

Alex ducked her head, hiding the hurt in her eyes and whispered into the blonde’s ear. “Sure.”

******

Across town Derrick escorted his prisoner out of the courtroom and down the long narrow corridor that led to the back of the courthouse. From behind it was hard to tell if it was a man or a woman. The bright orange standard issue uniform with large blue numbers stenciled across the back hung loosely over the thin body and hid any defining contours. Ed stood up as Derrick approached and fell into step on the other side of the woman they were escorting back to the jail.

“The judge was way behind today,” Derrick complained as he opened the door and walked down the stairs holding tightly to the woman’s arm.

“Pretty typical for Judge Sorenson. I’ve never gotten out of his courtroom earlier than six o’clock.”

“What’s wrong Derrick? Are you missing a hot date with your lover?” Dana purred seductively in his ear as he bent to open the door to the cruiser.

“Shut your mouth.”

“Oops, that’s right I forgot. She left you for a woman.” Dana cackled despite the pain in her ribs that was still lingering from where she hit the steering wheel in the car accident.

Dana smiled up at him and blew him a kiss before she ducked her head and flopped into the back seat. It was her first appearance in court since she was discharged from the hospital four weeks ago. So much for a speedy trial, she thought as she glanced down at the handcuffs that were locked around her wrists.

She scooted over to the passenger side so she was sitting behind him when he got into the car. Her lawyer seemed like he had half a brain and was able to capitalize on the fact that the boy driving the car she hit was just over the limit for driving while intoxicated. It wasn’t much but it shed some doubt onto whether she was completely at fault or not.

Ed glanced over at the woman as he settled himself behind the wheel. He studied her reflection for a second in the rearview mirror and shook his head at the uneven, bleached blonde, spiky hair that gave the woman a slightly crazed appearance. “Christ, I hope you didn’t pay anybody for that haircut,” he remarked as he turned the key in the ignition.

“At least I have hair to cut,” she quipped and settled back in her seat staring at the back of Derrick’s head.

The older cop ignored her and pulled out into the street. “I’ve got to stop at the Quick Check for a gallon of milk. It won’t take a minute,” Ed told Derrick, as he turned left at the next intersection.

“Ah, man every week your wife has you running errands for her.”

Ed laughed at Derrick as he pulled into the parking lot and turned the car off. “Hey, it’s not so bad. They’re plenty of perks that go along with it. You want anything while I’m in there?”

Derrick waved him off and turned his head to stare out the window instead. He caught the reflection of Dana’s face peering back at him and he shifted in his seat. “What are you staring at?”

“His wife has him wrapped around her little finger,” she laughed and tilted her head, regarding Derrick with interest. “Did Regina have you wrapped around her finger too, Derrick?”

“Shut up.”

“Ooh a little defensive about that, huh? I guess it must sting a little to know that it’s Alex keeping her bed warm at night and not you.”

Derrick looked at Dana through the cage and snorted. “I wouldn’t talk, Dana. Who keeps you warm at night, Blondie?”

She edged forward in her seat and ran her fingers down the grate, staring at him with a look of raw, sexual hunger. “Oh honey, whoever I want.” She ran her tongue over her lips and flashed a toothy grin. “Tell me something, Derrick. Are you really content to just let Regina go?”

He blinked and stared back at her.

“I mean after all she made you look like a fool.”

“The only fool I see is the one sitting across from me, Dana.”

Dana rocked back and let out a high-pitched cackling laugh. “Oh that’s sweet, but not as sweet as the revenge I know you desire.”

As the door opened, Derrick gave Dana one last look before he turned around to see Ed sliding back into the driver’s seat. The older officer glanced between the two of them.

“Everything all right in here?”

“Just ducky,” Dana replied saucily from her seat.
Chapter Seven
Regina rolled over and reached out from underneath the warm covers to wrap an arm around Alex. She fell asleep late last night curled against the taller woman’s side, listening to the sound of her rhythmic breathing and the deep, resonant beating of her heart.

She woke now, in the darkness to find the bed empty but the sheets beneath the blankets still warm. Startled, the blonde quickly sat up in bed and turned the lamp on. Did she leave? No, no she wouldn’t have left. She probably had another nightmare and didn’t want to wake me up.

Regina pulled the blanket from the bed, wrapped it around her shoulders and walked into the living room where she found her lover sitting on the couch with a medical journal lying open in her lap, reading or at least trying to. She hugged her arms around herself, studying Alex’s sculpted profile for a moment before she said anything.

The older doctor looked up, feeling curious eyes studying her. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you up.”

Regina walked over and sat down beside her on the couch. “Couldn’t sleep?” She asked, shivering a bit since the heat hadn’t come up yet.

“No … not too well,” Alex confessed, while she straightened her back and grimaced at the gnawing sense of fatigue she felt. Vaguely, she recalled the nightmares and restless tossing and turning as her mind raced off in a million different directions all night long.

Regina curled her legs underneath her and scooted closer, resting her head on Alex’s shoulder. She ran her fingers through the long, unruly raven hair and curled it around her fingers tips. “Alex, why don’t you come back to bed? It’s early and we don’t have to be at the warehouse for a few hours yet.” Regina glanced out the window at the light coming in from the streetlamp and guessed they still had several hours left before the sunrise.

Alex tilted her neck back and closed her eyes, considering the tempting offer. Before she knew it, she heard the rustling of pages and felt the weight of the journal being lifted off her lap, and then, two warm hands curled around her wrists and tugged her forward to the edge of the couch.

“Come on, I’ll give you a back rub.” Regina leaned back on her heels, pulled the taller woman to her feet.

Alex complied, allowing Regina to lead her back into the bedroom.

The blonde grinned as her taller companion sprawled out on her back and stretched, kicking her feet up and down on the bed in a brief flurry of activity. Regina crawled in beside Alex, snuggled up beside the woman and started to rub her hand in slow circles over the taut belly.

The dark head lifted and blue eyes watched the smaller woman in quiet regard, widening slightly when Regina looked up and graced her with a warm smile. The smaller woman leaned forward, brushed her lips against Alex’s. She moved against her carefully and positioned her thigh over the taller woman’s legs, pinning her to the bed.

“What are you doing?” Alex grumbled, looking down into sultry green eyes.

Regina chuckled softly and lightly ran her fingers up across Alex’s collarbone. “Touching you.” She gazed up into blue eyes, recognized the look of uncertainty there and slowed her advance. “Are you ok with this?”

Alex lay her head back down on a pillow, closed her eyes and nodded once. Dammit, when did I get this insecure about her touching me? “Yeah … yeah, I am.”

She swallowed then took a deep breath, forcing her body to relax under her lover’s wandering touch. She really did miss making love with Regina, but the absolute nakedness and vulnerability of the act were too much of a risk for her fragile psyche just now.

It’s just a scar; she fought with herself. Lord knows I have enough old nicks and scrapes on me. It’s just one more. What Alex was afraid to admit was that this one ran deep and touched upon many of the others, opening old wounds and fears that threatened to overwhelm her during those quiet moments when she was alone and undistracted.

“Regina?”

The blonde looked up from gently tracing a pattern over the taller woman’s neck and shoulders. “What?”

“I know you didn’t sign on for any of this.”

“What are you talking about?” Regina propped her head up on the palm of a hand and studied Alex’s tense expression in the soft glow of the yellow lamplight.

Alex sighed heavily and stared off at the far wall, refusing to meet the sea green eyes she knew were observing her intently. None of this had been easy. It was six weeks before the cast was taken off Regina’s right arm, from having slugged Derrick and fractured a bone in her hand the day Alex was shot.

Tending to oneself with one arm out of commission was difficult enough, add an ornery, obstinate and a sometimes very emotionally, vulnerable patient was another story altogether. She knew she hadn’t been an easy patient to deal with and yet Regina had managed to tend to her every day with a quiet determination.

“Come on, Reg. You know what I mean – you’ve been my nursemaid, cleaning up when I got sick from the medication, doing my dressing changes … hell, nobody’s wiped my butt since I can’t remember when.”

“Hey.” Regina slid a hand up Alex’s neck and cupped her jaw. When her attempt to turn the older woman’s face towards her failed she pulled herself up and knelt over her companion. “Alex, look at me … please.”

Alex rubbed her thumb and forefinger over the bridge of her nose. “I … I just … I don’t want you to feel … obligated, Regina.”

“Obligated?” She furrowed her brow and then wrapped a hand tightly around Alex’s arm, her voice trembling with anger. “Don’t … you say that; don’t you dare think you’re going to get rid of me that easily, Alex Margulies.”

She sat back on her heels and ducked her head, the flaxen hair falling forward and hiding the tears that blurred her vision. The strong outward veneer she struggled so hard to maintain the whole time she was caring for her lover finally cracked. “Please … Alex … . this has been hard enough … ” she swallowed, her breath coming in short gasps. “Don’t … push me away … not now. I … I can’t imagine my life without you.”

The shadowed, blue eyes filled with tears. “I’m sorry, Regina” the taller woman whispered hoarsely. “That’s all I’ve done lately is push you away. I’m so sorry.”

A warm hand found Regina’s and she clenched her fingers around it tightly. “I know, Alex. It’s just … I miss you, us … making love … being together.” she murmured softly.

Alex opened her mouth once, twice, then, clamped it shut and just looked up at the most honest and open expression on Regina’s face.

You weren’t expecting me to say that, were you? The blonde thought as she lay down beside her and pulled Alex into her arms, tucking the dark head under her chin. Arms and legs wrapped around each other as they twined their bodies together, each seeking and finding strength from the other.

“I’m not going anywhere, Alex. We’re in this together.”

“Promise?” Alex buried her face in Regina’s neck, wishing she could rid herself of the fear she felt gnawing inside.

“I promise,” Regina breathed and hugged Alex tightly.

******

Sandy stretched under the covers and yawned loudly. She picked her head up and watched with half open eyes as her lover sauntered into their bedroom still naked from the shower. Tina was medium height with auburn hair and had an athletic build from her years of playing sports in college.

“Is it that time already?” the blonde-haired nurse managed to ask in a voice thick from breathing the smoky air and drinking a little too much alcohol from the bar they had gone dancing at last night.

Tina chuckled and arched a dark eyebrow as she pulled on a pair of faded blue jeans. “Ooh, you sound good.”

Sandy ran her hands through her curly blonde locks and groaned. “You almost killed me last night.”

“Hardly, we just need to practice it more often.” Tina waggled her eyebrows, knelt on the foot of the bed and crawled seductively up her lover’s body.

“I meant … dancing,” the woman underneath the blankets shrieked and tried to squirm away from the teasing hands. It was a futile attempt as Tina straddled Sandy’s hips and pinned her arms down to her side.

“Gotcha,” she giggled and leaned over, kissing the smaller woman on the lips. The kiss lasted longer than she expected and Tina lowered herself onto her elbows aware of the tightening she felt between her legs. With a sigh, she pulled back, cocked her head to one side and ran her fingers down Sandy’s cheek. “I wish I didn’t have to go to work.”

“Oh sure, start something you’re not going to finish,” Sandy pouted.

Tina dipped her head and kissed the nurse one more time. “Later, I promise. Besides, you need your strength if you’re going to go hunt through that warehouse for equipment with Alex. I can’t believe you told her you would do that.”

“What? It’s better than staying home and being mad about not being able to go away this weekend.”

“I suppose.” Tina stretched and then quickly swatted the hand reaching up for her breast. “Behave or I’m really going to be late.”

“Well, then get off me and get dressed,” Sandy quipped.

Tina complied, then grabbed a tank top from the dresser drawer behind her and slipped it on over her head. “How’s Alex doing anyway? I haven’t seen her since she came back last week.”

The blonde-haired nurse swung her legs over the edge of the bed and stared down at her bare feet, wiggling her toes. “I don’t know, Tina. I’m really worried about her … and Regina.”

“I don’t know how Regina held it together that whole time.” Tina turned and sat down beside her lover and wrapped an arm around her shoulder, her playful demeanor suddenly sobering. “I don’t know what the hell I’d do if something happened to you.” Her voice cracked on the last few syllables.

“Hey! Why are you crying?” Sandy inquired, alarmed by her usually stoic partner’s sudden display of emotion.

Tina wiped her eyes quickly and sniffed. “Shit, I don’t know. I just remember you telling me what happened and how freaked out everyone was by it. That could have been any of you guys down there.”

“I know,” Sandy replied quietly, rubbing the back of Tina’s neck. She could still see Alex lying on the stretcher, deathly pale and covered in her own blood. “It was so weird the next day. It was like business as usual and no one talked about it … at all.”

“So, is Alex ok? You didn’t say.”

“Honestly, I don’t know, Tina.” Sandy looked over at her lover. “She’s not the same, there’s this uncertainty about her, like she’s second guessing herself all the time.”

“Have you talked to her at all?”

“I’m not sure I want to be the one to tackle that issue.” Sandy looked down at the floor and shrugged. “I know she’s getting a lot of pressure from the administration about getting the ER’s reputation back on track. I’m afraid she might think we’re ganging up on her.”

“She trusts you Sandy. I think she would listen if you bring up your concerns as a friend and a colleague.”

“Maybe.”

Tina turned and drew a leg up underneath her and looked down at her hands. “I know one thing, that toughness she walks around with is a defense she’s cultivated over the years. Anyone who’s that tough is usually pretty sensitive inside.”

Sandy leaned closer and lifted Tina’s head with her hand. “Mm, sounds like someone else I know.”

Tina closed her eyes feeling a blush rising up from her neck. “And you know how hard it was to get through to me.”

“Yeah, I practically needed a sledgehammer to break through the wall you put up.”

******

Alex unlocked the metal door and stepped inside the warehouse, followed by her younger companion. The taller woman felt along the wall and turned on the panel of switches to her left. Overhead, fluorescent lights flickered momentarily and then bathed the large room in bright light. The inside of the building was one large rectangular room with large metal shelving units lining the walls. Small medical equipment and boxes that could fit there filled most of the shelves, while the larger items were crammed carelessly together on the floor.

Light streamed through the windows overhead, illuminating swirls of dust particles and as if on cue Regina sneezed loudly.

“My God, I had no idea they had all this stuff stored here.” She could see her breath forming as vapor in front of her as she spoke. Another sneeze started to tickle her nose and Regina covered her face trying to stifle it unsuccessfully.

“Bless you,” Alex replied and reached over to brush several strands of flaxen hair out of Regina’s face. “Are you going to be ok in here?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine. There must be several hundred thousand dollars of equipment in here,” Regina remarked, still getting over her shock at how much was jammed into the warehouse.

“Probably closer to a million or more if anyone ever bothered to keep track of it,” Alex mused as she stepped around an old Stryker frame and looked around her.

Regina blinked and stared up into deadpan blue eyes. “Do I dare ask how we’re supposed to find anything in here?”

“Seek and ye shall find,” Alex remarked with a wry chuckle.

Regina groaned and covered her face with a hand. “How did I know you were going to say something like that?”

A slow, sideways smile crept up Alex cheek and she winked at her lover.

Minutes later, the door swung open behind them and Sandy stepped into the open room, her face brightening into a smile when she spotted her two friends standing a few feet away.

“Have you guys been here long?”

“No, we just got here,” Alex replied, watching as the nurse strolled up to Regina and embraced her.

She released Regina and peered up at Alex. “So why don’t you tell me what you want to retrieve from this place.”

Alex dug a copy of the list she made out of her pocket and handed it to Sandy. “The smaller stuff we can load up and bring over to the clinic today. We’ll tag any equipment we can’t carry and I’ll schedule the movers pick it up this week.”

“They’ll do it that quickly?” Sandy asked while studying the list in her hands.

“They need the space for all the furniture from one of the billing offices they closed last month. Until they clear everything out of the building it was in, the hospital has to pay rent on the space.”

“There doesn’t look like there’s too much order to this place,” Sandy remarked dubiously as she looked around at all the boxes shelving units. “Do you think anyone keeps track of what’s in here?”

Alex shook her head. “Why do you think they call this the ‘black hole’ for? If something goes into to storage you can pretty much kiss it goodbye. Come on, let’s just start to look and see what we can find.”

After a couple of hours they had accumulated two portable electrocardiogram monitors, several ophthalmoscopes, a couple of storage carts and other small pieces of medical equipment that would serve to help make the clinic functional.

The tall, dark-haired doctor watched in amusement from across the room as Regina and Sandy rummaged eagerly through several boxes they dragged off the shelves. “Both of you are like two kids in a candy store,” she teased.

“What’s wrong with that?” Sandy retorted as she pulled down another box off the shelf and set it on the floor by her feet. She waved her hand in front of her face, clearing the dust away that exploded up from the floor.

Alex shook her head and settled her hands on her hips. “Nothing, nothing’s wrong with that. Just remember we’re not opening another emergency room, just a walk-in clinic.”

Sandy stared down at the unopened box and nudged it with the toe of her boot. “Fine,” she muttered, “Go ahead burst my bubble here. I’m taking a break.” The nurse hopped up onto the three-drawer filing cabinet and leaned back on her hands, surveying the rest of the room while Regina opened the box on the floor and sorted through it.

Alex ducked her head and sighed, then, walked over to the blonde. “Sandy, look I … agh! Why you … ” she shook her head and wiped the water off her face that the nurse had squirted at her with a large syringe. “Where did you get that?” Blue eyes flashed angrily then softened as Sandy spun around and slipped off the other side of the file cabinet, doing her best to look contrite.

“Nailed,” the nurse snickered and winked at Regina.

“And to think I was going to apologize. You little … ” Alex’s voice trailed off and she walked over to a shelf that Sandy had been rummaging through earlier. “Oh, you are in serious trouble my friend,” she cackled wickedly.

Sandy shrieked when she saw the bottle of sterile water that Alex pulled out of the box at her feet.

“That’s it go ahead and run away, you chicken.” Alex walked back over to Regina and held her hand out. “May I?” She took scissor that Regina was using to open the boxes and punched a hole in the bottom of the plastic container.

“Regina, don’t help her!”

The blonde shrugged and shook her head. “I’m staying out of this.”

Alex grinned and handed the scissors back, holding the bottom end of the bottle up. “Pay backs are a bitch aren’t they, Sandy?” She climbed over the desk and advanced on the nurse weaving her way in and out of the equipment until she saw that she had Sandy cornered.

“Alex, please don’t. This is Tina’s shirt. She’ll have a fit.”

“And that would be my problem, why?” She tilted her head and smirked, then squeezed the bottle hard, sending a stream of water that splattered over Sandy.

The nurse ducked away avoiding most of the water and then stuck her tongue out at Alex.

The doctor snickered and walked back to Regina who was watching and shaking her head at the two women. “You are so bad, Alex.”

“What? She started it,” Alex replied and winked back at Regina when she motioned with her hands that Sandy was coming up behind her with another syringe filled with water. She turned and aimed the rest of the bottle at Sandy.

“Ok, enough you two.” Regina intervened and grabbed the water away from Alex before she could completely soak the nurse.

“I thought you were my friend,” Sandy pouted, glaring at Regina.

“I am. I didn’t let her dump the whole bottle over your head.” She glanced up at Alex who feigned an innocent look and smiled cheekily at Sandy.

“I have a sweatshirt in my trunk, Sandy,” Alex offered.

Sandy glared up at the taller woman and then broke into a smile. “You’re lucky I like you, Margulies.”

Alex rolled her eyes before she left to retrieve the sweatshirt.

“You’re crazy, Sandy,” Regina laughed, watching Alex disappear out the door.

“Nah, we just needed something to make this more fun.” Sandy wiped her face with her hand. “Did you two talk at all?”

“A little.” Regina stared down at the floor and shook her head. “I can’t keep from thinking that if I hadn’t told her not to go after Dana, none of this might have happened. Maybe that boy might still be alive and that family wouldn’t be devastated.”

“Regina, you can’t blame yourself. Dana’s crazy. There’s no telling what she would have done if Alex had gotten her alone.”

The door opened a moment later and Alex walked back in. She tossed the gray sweatshirt to Sandy and settled herself on to one of the file cabinets. The nurse slipped the garment over her head and hopped up on a desk across from Alex, giving her a wry smile.

“Are you two going to be around next weekend?”

“No,” Regina replied, sitting down beside Alex. “We’re going up to my parents for my Mother’s birthday.”

Tina rocked back on her hands and looked at Alex. “Oh Lord, a visit to the in laws. Tina’s mother hated me the first time we met.”

Alex pursed her lips and raised an eyebrow. “As I recall, she discovered the two of you in a rather compromising position.”

Sandy bit her bottom lip and stifled a laugh. “Tina didn’t think they were coming home so early.”

“Yeah and whose idea was it to go skinny dipping in their pool in the first place?”

“Sandy!” Regina dissolved into a fit of giggles and leaned against Alex’s shoulder.

An arm slipped around her waist and she found herself being pulled down into her partner’s lap. “I don’t suppose your parent’s have a heated pool now do they, Reg?” Dark eyebrows waggled up and down suggestively.

“No and if they did it’s just a tad bit cold at the moment,” she managed to get out in between her laughter.

“Funny, Alex.” The nurse averted her eyes and looked around the warehouse, wondering what other hidden treasures they might find hidden among all the equipment. “Hey, what’s that over there?” Sandy pointed toward the middle of the room, slid off her perch and slowly picked her way through the maze of boxes.

Regina looked up at Alex and smiled at her. “How are you doing?”

Alex shrugged and made a non-committal grunt. Her insecurities seemed lost for the moment and she was trying very hard to convince herself they would not return to plague her later. A nudge at her side, made her glance down at the blonde snuggled up against her. “I’m all right.”

Not believing her, Regina tilted her head and arched an eyebrow. “Try tired, that might be closer to the truth.”

“Guilty as charged,” she whispered, pulling the blonde back up into a sitting position. For a moment, everything faded away around them and she felt herself getting lost in the green eyes looking back at her from close range.

Regina leaned in and stole a kiss, chuckling softly as Alex’s eyes widened in surprise. “Are we almost done here?”

“I think so.” Alex turned her attention back to Sandy and changed the subject. “What is she looking at over there?”

In response, Regina shrugged and slipped off of Alex’s lap. She reached out and took the taller woman’s hand, tugging her off the cabinet.

“Hey guys, check this out,” Sandy called to them. “Someone’s been camping out in here.”

“What did you find?” Alex and Regina walked over to the nurse, letting go of each other as Sandy looked over at them.

“Here, look for yourself,” Sandy lifted the backpack up and handed it over to Alex. Underneath the hospital bed, she found a brown bag filled with some candy, a Swiss Army knife and an apple.

Regina looked on as Alex unzipped the blue backpack. She reached in and pulled out two pairs of jeans, a couple of sweatshirts and a stuffed Tigger which her taller companion took from her and studied with a curious look on her face.

Alex ran her thumb over the worn orange fur of the stuffed animal she held in her hand and shook her head. “Odd assortment of stuff.”

“I’ll say,” Regina replied. “Looks like somebody ran away from home.”

“What should we do with it?” Sandy stood up and brushed her pants off.

“Is there any identification in it?”

Regina dug into the pack again, her fingers brushing against something cool and hard. The sound of a tiny chain links and metal clinking together caught her attention and she curled her fingers around the item and pulled out a pair of dog tags.

“Hey, listen to this,” she said as she read from the metal tags she held in her hand. “Jonathon Brooks Taylor; RA34650097; T 43; o pos, and there’s a capital C down at the lower right hand corner.”

“Let me see those.” Alex reached over and took them from Regina, letting her fingers mingle against the smaller hand for longer than she needed to. Her eyes moved back and forth as she studied the worn metal tags. “These are real. RA is the regular army service number; the ‘T’ refers to a tetanus shot and the year it was given, 1943. ‘O pos’ is the blood type, O positive and the person was Catholic.”

“How do you know all that, Alex?” Sandy asked skeptically, looking on with her hands on her hips.

“My grandfather served in World War II. He gave me his tags before he died.”

“Oh,” Sandy commented.

Alex fingered the chain, her eyes getting an unfocused look in them when she spoke. “I couldn’t get enough of the old war movies and listening to him tell stories. He landed on the beach at Normandy on D-Day.”

“Huh.” Regina glanced up at Alex in surprise. Seldom had she heard Alex speak of her family and she tucked the piece of information safely away.

“So, what do we do with this stuff?” Sandy asked, glancing over at Regina.

Alex scratched her head and stared down at the backpack Regina was holding. “We need to call the police and report this. Shit, we’re not going to be able to move anything out of here now.”

“We could just say we found it after we move all the stuff we need. No one would know,” Sandy offered quietly.

Alex shook her head. “We would.” She gave the nurse an apologetic look. “Sandy, why don’t you take off? You don’t have to hang around here while we wait for the police.”

“Are you sure?”

Alex nodded her head and waved her on. “Yeah. Go on. Thanks for helping out, Sandy.”

“No problem. You know where to find me if you need any more help. I’ll see you both later.” Sandy shrugged into her jacket and headed for the door.

Alex dropped her arms to her sides and looked over at Regina. “You’re right, it does look like some kid ran away from home.”

“I know.” Regina pointed at the stuffed animal and smiled. “You like that little guy, huh?”

Alex snorted and tossed it at the blonde, who fumbled to catch it. “What was it that Tigger did?” She shoved her hands in her pockets and bounced on her toes a couple of times in front of the blonde.

Regina tilted her head back and laughed, the sound echoing throughout the warehouse. Her shoulders shook and she doubled over, holding her sides.

“It wasn’t that funny,” Alex deadpanned, then, found herself laughing in spite of herself.

“Oh, yes it was.” Regina reached out, grabbed Alex’s arm pulling herself up and leaning against the sturdy frame of the taller woman.

Blue twinkled as Alex lowered her head and pressed her lips against Regina’s. She pulled away and blinked. “Thanks.”

“For what?”

Alex shrugged and lifted an eyebrow. “Thanks for putting up with me.”

******

Regina looked up as the door to the warehouse opened, letting in a sudden gust of cold air. She shivered and huddled inside her winter coat, watching warily as a police officer entered the building. An audible sigh of relief escaped her, when she realized she didn’t recognize the face or the walk of the middle-aged man as he approached her.

“I’m officer Carrotta. Did you call about a possible missing person?”

“I did,” Alex spoke as she stepped up beside the blonde-haired woman and held the backpack out to the officer. “We found this with some clothing in it and some old dog tags.”

The officer slipped off his cap and tucked it under one arm as he took the pack from the dark-haired woman and unzipped it. “Where did you find it?”

“Over there.” Alex pointed over to the hospital bed where Sandy found the pack earlier.

The officer keyed the radio on his shoulder. “Derrick, get in here so we can get this done.” There was a moment’s hesitation and then a static filled voice acknowledged the transmission.

Regina cursed softly under her breath and unconsciously stepped back toward Alex.

“Easy, I’m here. Nothing is going to happen.” Alex whispered and rubbed her hand against the smaller woman’s back.

Ed glanced between the two women. “What’s the problem?”

Alex thought briefly about not saying anything and then thought better of it as she watched the color literally drain from Regina’s face in reaction to her ex’s close proximity to her. “She has a restraining order against your partner.”

The officer frowned and then his eyes widened in surprise. “Oh, you’re that Regina.” He seemed to consider the situation and then looked over at the blonde. “Sorry, about that. I’ll make sure we’re out of your way quickly.”

“We’d appreciate that,” Alex replied.

A moment later, the warehouse door swung open and the younger officer walked inside. Derrick’s eyes narrowed, but his steps didn’t falter as he walked toward the three women standing by his partner. “What’ve you got Ed?” His eyes moved over the three of them and he lifted an inquiring eyebrow as he met Alex’s gaze.

“Ah, not much. A backpack with some clothes in it.” The older officer looked around the warehouse. “What I want to know is how the hell whoever is sleeping here got in here in the first place.”

“There’s a loading dock in the back,” Alex offered, glaring openly at Derrick as his eyes roamed over Regina. “Maybe you should go check it out,” she said and then turned to the older officer. “Do you need us for anything?”

Ed glanced up at Alex, shook his head and then started to walk toward the back of the building. “No, I’ll find you if we have any questions.”

“Good, then we’ll be leaving now,” Alex growled and ushered Regina away from Derrick.

The younger cop glanced back at his partner who was already walking to the loading dock. “Leaving so soon, Regina? Why don’t you stay a while? Come on, we can catch up on old times.” Derrick hooked his thumbs in his belt loops and leered at the blonde as she quickly walked past him.

Alex stopped and whirled around, her upper lip curling into a snarl. “Maybe you’d like if I stayed awhile and we caught up on old times, Derrick.”

His face froze for an instant and he stepped back away from the menacing look. Alex looked him up and down once, then, quickly caught up to her partner.

Regina stepped out of the warehouse and covered her mouth with her hand, breathing hard and trembling as she turned around on the sidewalk. “Oh shit. I didn’t know what it would be like … to see him again. Alex … ” she took a breath and looked up at her taller companion. “He scares me.”

The brunette wrapped her arms around Regina and pulled her close. “I know, I know, Reg.” She closed her eyes, wondering what in the hell it was worth to have restraining order for since it seemed like Derrick’s work was destined to cross Regina’s path. Alex clenched her jaw, feeling somewhat helpless given the circumstances. “Hey, are you ok?” She tilted her head and looked down at Regina.

The blonde nodded her head and looked up at the taller woman. “I think so.” She pulled away from Alex and fixed an angry gaze on the door to the warehouse. It was the most awful, vulnerable feeling knowing she had been involved with him and that even now his mere presence brought back the sickening sense of being terrified of him.

“Hey, I didn’t think I’d see you two back here so soon,” a gruff, male voice called out from the garage of the fire department.

Both women turned and watched as the fireman they met several nights ago gave the large Shepard standing beside him a hand signal. The dog backed up a couple of steps and reluctantly lay down on the concrete. He kept a watchful eye on his master as he jogged across the street.

Regina lifted her hand and waved at him as he approached them.

“Hi, Regina.” His eyes lit up when he smiled at the blonde. “Alex, how are you?”

“Fine,” she answered simply. I’d be a whole lot better if you’d wipe that friggin’ smile off your face and get a clue. “So, are you a volunteer fireman?” Alex asked, deciding she had no good reason to alienate the man.

“No, I do it full time – search and rescue, training the newbies. I love it,” he enthused, jamming his hands into his pockets to keep them warm.

The door from the warehouse opened and the three of them looked over as the two officers walked out. Ed, the older of the two men, carried the blue backpack in his hand as he walked down the stairs in front of Derrick. He turned and handed his partner the pack and walked over to the small group.

“We’re all set. There’s not a whole lot to do at this point unless someone files a missing person’s report. The dog tags might give us a place to start.”

Todd glanced over at Alex as the officer was talking to her. “What did you find?”

“Some clothes and a set of dog tags from World War II,” Alex replied and then blew into her cupped hands, warding off the chill.

A beeper shrilled and they all glanced down, checking their pagers simultaneously. Regina pulled hers off her belt and squinted as she read the number. “Alex, can I use your cell phone?”

“Sure. Where’s yours?” The brunette asked, as she unclipped it from her belt and handed it to the smaller woman.

“Home, I left it on the dresser,” she replied sheepishly and took the phone from Alex. She stepped away from the group and dialed the number that she was paged to.

Across the street, the Shepard stretched and stood up, his tail wagging as he watched the blonde-haired woman. Regina glanced up and down the street, which was devoid of any traffic for the moment as she listened to the phone ring and waved at the dog, smiling mischievously.

That was all the invitation he needed to trot over to her. He pushed his head against her thigh and grumbled a deep-throated hello to her as she scratched his ears.

“Hi, this is Dr. Kingston. Someone paged me to this number.”

She listened as one of the nurses in the ER explained to her that a young girl she admitted last week to the oncology service was being brought in by ambulance and they needed Regina to come in and examine her.

“Where’s her oncologist?” Regina asked.

“Out of town and we can’t get in touch with the doctor who’s covering for him.”

“Then have one of the residents examine her.”

“I wish it was that easy Dr. Kingston. Her mother doesn’t want anyone but her oncologist or you to look at her.”

The blonde cast a wary eye over at Alex, not relishing the fact that she now needed to make an unplanned trip over to the hospital. This day was definitely not going as planned and it was obvious that Derrick’s presence had upset her lover as well.

“I’ll be there in ten minutes,” she replied and then turned off the phone. Regina bent down and ruffled the scruff of fur around the dog’s neck as she spoke softly to him. “You’re a good boy, aren’t you?” She was aware of Derrick walking back toward Alex and Todd who were standing several feet away from her.

With a sigh, she stood up and walked back over to Alex. “I’ve got to go to the hospital.” She looked up at the brunette and gave her an apologetic smile.

A cold nose nudged her hand and she looked down at the dog, which lifted his head for her to pet again.

“I see you made a friend,” Alex commented with a wry smile as she looked down at Regina stroking the top of the Shepard’s head.

“I’m a sucker for a cute face.”

Todd laughed and walked over to them, taking hold of the dog’s collar. “Come on, Lucky.” He tugged the dog forward and was stopped short when the Shepard suddenly planted his feet. A low, threatening growl rumbled from deep within his chest as he fixed his dark, brown eyes on Derrick. “Hey, knock it off,” Todd admonished, watching uneasily as Lucky’s hackles rose up along the dog’s back.

“You oughta have that dog on a leash,” Derrick pointed out, quickly stepping away from the snarling animal.

“Sorry, he usually doesn’t do this,” Todd replied and pulled Lucky away from Derrick as the dog continued to growl menacingly at the other man.

Alex jingled her keys and raised an eyebrow when Regina glanced up at her. “I’d say that’s one smart dog. You ready?”

“Yeah, let’s go.”
Chapter Eight
Regina strode into the brightly lit emergency department and made her way to the nurse’s station. All twelve beds were filled and there were several stretchers lining the wall with patients that were still being triaged. One of the technicians walked hurriedly by her pushing two IV poles and carrying a warming blanket in his other arm.

“Geez, are they giving something away?” she asked the harried looking unit clerk as he hung up the phone on the desk.

“It’s been non-stop since the minute I walked in the door this morning. It must be a full moon or something,” the young man replied and snatched the phone up again as it started ringing. “Emergency Department.” He listened and then squeezed the bridge of his nose and shut his eyes. “Sir, you have to call 911 if it’s an emergency. No, sir we don’t pick patients up. Sir, I have to put you on hold.” The unit clerk looked up at Regina and gave her a cheeky smile. “Tell me again why I do this.”

Regina just smiled back at him. “I’m looking for Terry Edwards.”

“Thank God. Her parents have been driving me crazy. Her Oncologist is out of town and they wouldn’t agree to let anybody else see her. She’s on the third stretcher in the corridor off to the left.” He handed the chart to Regina and leaned over the desk to point out the stretcher.

“Thanks,” Regina replied as she opened the chart and read the nursing admission sheet. Fourteen- year old female presents with fever of a hundred and two, nausea and vomiting for past twenty-four hours. Great! That could be anything. On her way to the girl, Regina ducked into a supply room and grabbed several items from the shelves, including an IV kit and a bag of Ringer’s Lactate solution.

The blonde walked over to the stretcher and looked down at the sleeping girl. “Terry?” She touched her shoulder and watched as red-rimmed brown eyes blinked and slowly focused on her. “Hey, kiddo.” Regina glanced around looking for the girl’s parents but didn’t spot them.

Terry grimaced and curled up on her side. “Everything hurts.”

“When did it start?”

“Day before yesterday,” she whispered and licked her dry lips.

“Have you been able to keep anything down?”

“No, I can’t eat.”

“Let’s take a look.” Regina pulled a pair of gloves from a box on the wall next to her. “Say, ah.” She ripped the paper off around the tongue depressor and flashed a small beam of light from a flashlight at the back of the girl’s throat. “Looks good.”

“Does this hurt?” she asked as her fingers gently probed the lymph nodes along the girl’s neck.

“It hurts a little.”

A movement to her left caught Regina’s attention and she looked up to see Terry’s father walking toward them. His expression as he stared at Regina was filled with nothing less than contempt.

“Hello, Mr. Edwards.”

He nodded and averted his eyes, choosing instead to focus on his sick daughter. “Do you know what’s wrong with her?”

“Not yet. I need to run some tests first.” Regina peeled off her gloves and stepped back tossing them into a wastebasket by the nurse’s station.

“Tests,” he spat the word out. “That’s all you Goddamn doctors know how to do is run tests.”

“Tim, stop,” his wife pled as she stepped up beside him, giving Regina an apologetic look.

Regina regarded the adolescent girl as she lay on the stretcher drifting in and out of a restless sleep. “Terry, I’m going to start an IV so we can get some fluids in you,” she explained as she slipped the rubber band around the girl’s bicep and felt for a vessel.

Expertly, she slipped the catheter into a vein, piggybacked the IV tubing to it and taped it securely in place. In response, the girl murmured something and clutched feebly at the blankets covering her fever-racked body.

Regina turned to Terry’s parents and motioned them to follow her. She walked purposely down the hall, pushed a wheelchair out of the way that was blocking the small consultation room available for families and then held the door open for them to walk through. She closed the door behind her and faced the distraught and frightened couple.

She chose her words carefully and spoke in a quiet but firm voice. “Mr. Edwards, I understand you being angry. I would be to, but it’s not going to do Terry any good to see you get this upset about what’s being done for her. She needs to have confidence that what the doctors plan to do will help her get better. What chance do you think she’ll have if she doesn’t believe in what we’re doing? Think about that. She needs you to be strong for her right now.”

Regina waited for a moment and then reached for the doorknob. “Stay here if you need to take a minute before you go out to see her. I’m going to go write the orders for the tests I need to run for your daughter. The results will determine what we do from here and if we need to admit her to the hospital.”

******

Alex parked her Jeep in the doctor’s lot after she let Regina out by the Emergency room entrance. They had agreed on the drive over to the hospital to meet in the cafeteria after Regina was finished seeing her patient. She debated whether she wanted to just sit and listen to the radio in peace or venture up to her office and wade through the paperwork she knew was sitting on her desk.

An educated guess told her Regina’s consult would take the better part of an hour if not longer. Alex turned the Jeep’s engine off and stepped out of the vehicle. Paperwork be damned, it would be there on Monday. What she needed right now was food

She stopped in the cafeteria and purchased a bottle of water, some frozen yogurt and a banana. Her breakfast was long since gone and her stomach rumbled in protest at the lack of food.

Since it was Saturday afternoon the cafeteria was relatively quiet so Alex drifted to one of the back corners of the room and settled into a booth where she ate half the banana and then cut the rest of it into her yogurt. With her concentration focused on her task, she didn’t hear the footsteps approaching her until a shadow fell over the table and she glanced up in surprise.

“Hello, Alex. Mind if I join you?” the petite, platinum blonde psychologist asked with a smile.

“No, go ahead.” Alex motioned with her hand and leaned against the back of the booth as she continued to eat her chocolate yogurt.

Patricia Burke was thirty-nine and had been on staff at the hospital for over fifteen years. Alex knew her professionally having referred several patients to her over the years that needed counseling.

“It’s good to see you again,” Patricia commented as she settled herself in her seat and smoothed her skirt out over her shapely thighs.

Alex’s gaze met the psychologist’s briefly. “Thanks.”

The woman shook her head. “Frankly, I’m amazed you’re back. Are you working today?”

Alex swallowed a mouthful of yogurt, before she spoke. “No, I’m waiting for a friend.”

Patricia smiled and titled her head, hoping that her instincts were right. “Someone special?”

The brunette stared at the psychologist and then allowed a small smile to cross her lips. “I should know better than to talk to you about this.”

The psychologist rested her elbows on the table and folded her hands together, resting her chin on them. “I think anyone who knows you Alex, saw something different in you over the past few months.” She hesitated, before she spoke again quietly. “Before you got shot, I mean.”

Alex set her Styrofoam cup down and rested her arms on the table, folding them in front of her. “After … Lana,” she took a breath, surprised to feel a tightening in her chest when she said her name. “I had pretty much resigned myself to being alone.”

“Ah, but we’re so much better when we’re with someone we love, Alex.”

Alex felt a warm flush on her cheeks and rolled her eyes. “Enough about my personal life.”

“Ok, then. You’ve been back for what – about a week now?” the psychologist asked and then sipped her coffee as she continued to study the blue-eyed woman sitting across from her.

“Yeah.” Alex opened the bottle of water and took a long swallow, feeling the coolness trickle down her throat as she swallowed the clear liquid.

“So how has it felt to be back?”

The brunette shrugged and twirled her spoon in the yogurt, making a well in the center of it. “Physically, it’s been a challenge to keep up with the pace. It’s not the most user friendly environment to work in.”

The psychologist smiled at her remark. “No, I don’t imagine that it is. Are you still taking pain medication?”

Alex cast a sharp glance at Patricia as she began to wonder if she was here on just a friendly visit. “Just ibuprofen to take the edge off. The narcotics make me feel like I’m in a haze all the time.”

Patricia nodded in understanding. “How are you doing otherwise?”

“I’m surviving.” Alex frowned at the question, feeling a little defensive at the implication.

“Surviving?” The woman leaned forward in her seat and folded her hands on the table. “Alex, you had more than just a close call – you almost died.”

“Thanks for the reminder, Patricia.” Alex closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead in frustration, trying to hold onto what little self-control she still had at the moment. Come on, Regina. I wish you were done already so we could get the hell out of here.

Undaunted by Alex’s reaction Patricia continued speaking. “Alex face it, you are right back in the same environment where you got hurt. You can’t convince me that you haven’t thought about that and probably had some second thoughts about being back here at all.”

The remark was right on target and stung her sharply. Alex hung her head. “Listen, can this be between just you and me, Patricia?”

“Absolutely.”

She fiddled with her spoon nervously before she looked up. “Everyday I ask myself if I can still do this. Honestly, I don’t know if I can anymore. I’ve been sleeping like shit and it’s starting to wear me down. I’m afraid I’m going to make a mistake and I can’t afford that to happen.”

“I think that’s pretty normal, considering what you’ve been through, Alex. Do you want something to help you sleep? I can write you a prescription.”

“No, no.” She shook her head emphatically, remembering all to well what happened when she took sedatives the last time she was having difficulty sleeping. It almost cost her career and she was not about to walk down that path again. “That’s not a good idea.”

“You need to take care of yourself, Alex. I know the medical profession well enough to guess that nobody’s bothered to ask you how you’re really doing. They’re all just sitting back waiting to see how you handle the stress of your job and if you fall, you can be damn sure you’re going to have an audience there to watch.”

“I’m well aware of that.” Alex was irritated that she had allowed herself to be drawn into this conversation at all.

The psychologist leaned back in her chair and sighed. “I’m sorry, Alex. I don’t mean it any other way than as a friend who’s concerned about your well-being. I guess it’s just hard for me to know what you went through and not think that there aren’t some lasting affects that are lingering inside waiting for an opportunity to ambush you.”

“Gee, thanks for the vote of confidence,” Alex snapped, her eyes flashing in anger at the doctor sitting across from her.

“Alex, it’s great that you’re back to work, but that’s just one part of who you are. You need to be able to take back the rest of your life. Whoever you’re involved with, personally and professionally, is going to take their cues from you and how you feel about yourself.”

The dark-haired woman laughed sarcastically. “Save it, Patricia, I’m not one of your patients. If I need to have my psyche examined I know where to find you.” She stood up abruptly and took two steps away from the table almost bumping into Regina before she realized the blonde was walking toward her.

“Whoa.” Regina held up her hands and danced out of the way at the last instant to avoid colliding with the taller woman.

“Sorry, I didn’t see you,” Alex said, her eyes darting nervously away from the intense scrutiny of Regina’s gaze.

“Are you ok?” The younger doctor reached out, touching Alex’s arm in concern. She glanced back at the blonde-haired woman who sitting at the table, wondering what had transpired between them just before she arrived in the cafeteria.

“I’m fine. Dr. Burke and I were just finishing our conversation,” Alex replied stiffly and squared her shoulders back, trying to reign in her conflicting emotions. Damn you and your probing questions Patricia!

Regina tilted her head as she was finally able to place where she knew the woman from. “Patricia Burke from psychology?”

The doctor smiled up at Regina. “In the flesh.”

“Hi, I’m Regina Kingston. I just referred two kids to you that are up on pediatrics.”

“Ah, so you’re Dr. Kingston. I saw your name on the list of new attending physicians last month. It’s nice to meet you. Congratulations on joining the medical staff here.” She held out her hand and Regina returned the warm handshake.

“Thanks.” Regina turned back to Alex, swaying slightly as she did. “Sorry, it took so long. I … um.” She hesitated and rubbed her forehead with the fingers of her right hand. “I had to talk to the parents and it took a longer than I expected.”

“It’s ok,” Alex replied, her voice softening slightly.

Regina suddenly reached out and grabbed Alex’s arm, steadying herself as a wave of lightheadedness gripped her momentarily. “Ugh, I think I need to eat something,” she moaned and clutched her forehead.

“Here, sit down.” Alex guided Regina to the table. “You haven’t eaten anything since this morning have you?” she chastised her gently.

She knew from past experience when Regina didn’t eat regularly her blood sugar sometimes plummeted and her normally cheerful and easy-going lover could turn cranky and irritable within seconds. “What do you want to eat?”

Regina shrugged and made a face as she slumped into the booth. “Anything they’ve got that’s edible and a Coke, please.”

“You got it. Be right back,” Alex said, relieved for any excuse to be away from Patricia’s prying questions for the moment. They stirred unpleasant memories for her, ones that she wasn’t prepared to deal with, let alone confront head on.

Regina watched Alex walk away and then regarded the doctor sitting across from her. “That’s what I get for not eating enough,” she offered with an embarrassed smile.

“I know.” Patricia waved her hand. “It happens to me all the time. So tell me about the two kids you referred to me.”

Without thinking, Regina untwisted the top from Alex’s bottle of water and took a sip, unaware of the amused expression on Patricia’s face.

“The boy is sixteen. He suffered a closed head trauma and needed surgery to remove a blood clot. He’s awake but very withdrawn and isn’t being very cooperative with the nursing staff. As of now, we’ve had no contact from any family members.” Regina glanced up and shrugged, feeling badly for the boy. “The girl is fourteen and has a malignant tumor in her leg. She’s not responding well to the chemotherapy and I just re-admitted her today with dehydration and a fever. She’s depressed and her parents are struggling themselves.”

“Sounds like quite the pair,” the psychologist remarked. “I’m not sure if I will have time today but if I do, I’ll go introduce myself today before I leave.” She paused and then spoke again. “Did you do your residencies here?”

Regina glanced up and nodded. “I did four years of residency here with my last six months on the ER rotation. That’s where I met Alex.”

Patricia sat back in her chair, regarding the young doctor with interest. “You must be quite special to have survived six months with Alex and managed to become a friend of hers as well. She has quite the reputation among the residents as being a consummate hard-ass.”

“Her bark is worse than her bite. She demands a lot from her staff but when you’re making life and death decisions you have to expect people to give a hundred percent all the time.” Regina smiled as Alex approached and handed her a sandwich in a plastic container along with a bag of potato chips.

“Here.” The taller woman slid in beside Regina, opened the can of soda for her and slid it over in front of the blonde. Her eyes met the psychologist’s across the table and she gave her a stony look.

“Thanks,” Regina said, as she opened the clear plastic container and picked up the ham sandwich.

“You’re right Regina, it is an awesome responsibility in the best of situations to make life and death decisions on a daily basis.” Patricia looked at Alex as she said this and then stood up. “Well, I must be going. It was nice to meet you, Regina. Make sure the good doctor here takes care of herself.”

The two women sat quietly for a moment after Dr. Burke left the table. Regina broke the silence growing between them first, sensing Alex’s disquiet. “Is everything ok?”

“Yeah, fine.” Alex turned her head and blinked trying to refocus her thoughts as she gazed back at Regina. She could see the wheels turning while the younger woman processed what she had walked into minutes earlier. The last thing she wanted to do right now was to get into any kind of discussion about it and to her dismay she knew that was exactly where Regina was heading.

Regina raised her eyebrows and pressed her lips together, absorbing the stilted reply in silence. Oh boy, something set her off. “So fine that you were practically tripping over yourself to leave the table when I showed up.”

“If I wanted her advice I would have asked for it.” Alex rested her head in her hands and rubbed her temples, trying to ward off the headache she could feel starting behind her eyes.

The blonde turned and rested her arm over the back of the booth. “Alex, there’s nothing wrong with talking to someone about what happened to you.”

“I don’t need to talk to anyone.” The brunette stared off across the cafeteria, her jaw muscles clenching and unclenching in reaction to Regina’s words. She waited until an elderly couple walked slowly past their table before she spoke again. “I can take care of my own problems.”

“Alex, I’m not saying you can’t. Sometimes it just helps to have an objective outsider listen.”

She started to speak, then, stopped herself and shook her dark head. “Reg, I really don’t want to have this conversation here.”

“Fine, let’s get out of here then,” the blonde offered, unwilling to let the conversation stop at this point.

The taller woman nodded and stood up from the table, waiting as Regina gathered her jacket and soda. “Are you feeling better?” She slid her hand down over the blonde’s waist and followed her out of the cafeteria.

“I am. Thanks for the food.” Regina looked back over her shoulder and smiled up at Alex.

Damn. Alex grimaced, knowing with that one glance she had just let herself be reeled in. The two of them walked in silence out to Alex’s Jeep. The taller woman held the door open for Regina and then walked over to the driver’s side, opened her door and slipped into the seat.

She could have let the Jeep drive itself to Regina’s home. She knew the route by heart and hardly paid attention as she drove out of the hospital.

Regina shifted uncomfortably in her seat, aware of the tension between them. “Dr. Burke really upset you didn’t she?”

Alex rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Yeah, I guess she did. Nothing about this week went like I thought it was going to.”

“Why?”

Alex shot her a sharp glance and grasped the steering wheel tighter, causing the skin over her knuckles to blanch.

Regina could feel a gulf opening up between them and the knowledge gnawed at her gut, an unfamiliar trickle of fear running through her.

The doctor shrugged, still lost in thought. She pulled into Regina’s driveway, put the vehicle in park and turned the engine off.

When it was obvious she wasn’t going to get an answer to her question, Regina opened her door and started to step out. She stopped when she realized Alex was still sitting behind the steering wheel, staring straight ahead.

“Hey, are you ok?” Regina leaned back into the Jeep and brushed her fingers against the soft skin of Alex’s cheek.

A slight nod of the head was all the response she got. “Come on, let’s go in. It’s cold out.” Regina let her head fall forward and sighed in exasperation before she stepped out and shut the truck’s door.

Alex walked slowly behind the smaller woman to the front entrance, then, waited as Regina unlocked the door and stepped inside. She followed her, shrugged out of her black leather jacket, draped it over the back of a chair and flopped down into the seat with a sigh of frustration.

Her earlier conversation with Patricia left her feeling weary and vulnerable. She was tired of everyone thinking they knew what she was feeling inside. At the moment, she felt a dark emptiness that seemed to be threatening to swallow her whole lately.

Regina walked over to the brunette, laid both hands on her shoulders and started a gentle massage, feeling the tense muscles beneath her fingers. Her hands moved up to Alex’s temples and started a slow circular motion that elicited a groan from the dark-haired woman.

“Feel good?” she whispered in Alex’s ear.

Alex straightened her shoulders and grasped the hands that were massaging her temples. “Reg, please, stop. I just … ” She stopped not knowing how to explain without causing her more pain, that because she was feeling rather lousy about her own self-image at the moment, the thought of any physical intimacy was out of the question.

Dejectedly, Regina stepped back and let her arms drop by her side. “Ok, fine.” The hurt was plainly evident in her voice. She pulled out a chair, sat down across from Alex, and rested an elbow on the table. “Would you please tell me what’s wrong?”

Alex looked down and spread her hands palm down on the table. “Nothing.” She turned her head and let her eyes roam over the room restlessly. “Listen, maybe this wasn’t a good idea for me to come over tonight.”

Regina arched an eyebrow and gnawed her bottom lip for a moment, the sudden change in Alex’s mood making her uneasy. “Alex, ever since you’ve been back to work, it’s like there’s this wall that you’ve put up between you and everybody else. Even Sandy’s noticed.”

When Alex didn’t respond, Regina continued talking. “I … I just feel so disconnected from you and I hate that.” She wiped her eyes and stared out the window aware of Alex studying her from across the table.

“I’m not sure what I can do to change that right now.”

“H … how can you say that?” Regina stared at her incredulously. “Don’t you see what this is doing to us?”

Alex sat stiffly in the chair and clenched her jaw as she forced herself to count to ten, which did little to stem the tide of anger that welled up inside her. “Dammit! I am so tired of everyone trying to tell me they know how I feel and what I should be doing. Hell, half the time I can’t make heads or tales of all the crap going on inside my head.”

Regina recoiled, feeling the sharp sting of Alex’s words. “I … Alex, wait!” She scrambled out of her seat as the brunette scraped the chair back and leapt to her feet.

“You have no idea what it’s been like.” Alex walked over to the window, staring at her reflection in the dark glass.

“How can I if you won’t talk to me about it, Alex?” The younger woman raised her arm and let it fall to her side in a gesture of frustration.

“Talk to you about it?” The brunette whirled around angrily. “Like you’ve talked to me about your bloody nightmares.”

“That’s not fair,” Regina whispered, trying not to choke on the words.

“Isn’t it?” Alex walked back over and stood directly in front of the blonde, her ice, blue eyes flashing angrily as she looked down at her. “You say I’ve shut you out, well you’ve been doing the same to me!” She stepped around Regina without looking at her and grabbed her jacket off the chair.

“Alex, don’t leave. I know we need to talk, I just, I don’t know where to start.” Regina pled with her to stay, laying a hand on the taller woman’s arm.

Alex stopped at the door, her hand on the doorknob as she stared down at the floor in quiet desperation. She hated arguing and here she was taking her anger and frustration out on the one person who deserved it the least. Her rational mind told her she shouldn’t leave like this, that all she was doing was hurting Regina and their relationship, but her stubborn, bull-headed pride won out instead.

The angry and hurtful words tumbled out of her mouth without warning. “Well, maybe you should figure that out first.”

Regina felt her heart lurch as Alex slammed the door behind as she walked out. The sound reverberated loudly in her ears. Frozen in place, she covered her face with a hand and leaned heavily against the door. Her lower lip quivered and hot tears rolled down her cheeks. “Don’t leave. Please don’t leave,” she whispered to the empty room

She squeezed here eyes shut, when she heard the rumble of the Jeep’s engine and then the sound of it faded as Alex backed it out of the driveway.

Despondent, Regina walked to the window, folded her arms over her chest, and stared bleakly out the window, wishing she could have the last few moments back to do over.
Chapter Nine
At the bottom of the hill, Alex pulled over to the curb and stopped the Jeep. The radio was playing Elton John’s, Can You Feel the Love Tonight, softly in the background. For a moment, she listened to the words and unexpectedly felt a lump rise in her throat.

There’s a time for everyone

If they only learn

That the twisting kaleidoscope

Moves us all in turn

There’s a rhyme and reason

To the wild outdoors

When the heart of this star-crossed voyager

Beats in time with yours

Angrily, she switched it off, then, tilted her neck back, and rested her head on the headrest and closed her eyes. Go back, just go back and tell her. Tell her what? Tell her that you’re sorry? How hard is that to do?

After a moment of battling her conscience, Alex shook her head and slammed her fist against the steering wheel in frustration. “Shit!”

The headlights of a car reflected brilliantly off her side view mirror and she glanced over, her breath catching for a second, half hoping it was Regina. It wasn’t. Obviously annoyed at where she was parked, the driver veered sharply in front of her, turned onto the main road, and drove off into the darkness.

With a sigh, Alex put the vehicle in drive and pulled out onto the road, following the red taillights for a couple of miles before the car turned off on a side street. Several times, she almost turned around and drove back to Regina’s but she couldn’t seem to gather the courage she needed to do it. Instead, she decided to just go home.

She was in her driveway in less than twenty minutes. Dejectedly, the brunette slid out of the Jeep and trudged up the path to her home. Alex opened the front door, bypassed the living room, leaving it in darkness and walked into her kitchen. She pulled a bottle of water out of the refrigerator, twisted the cap off and nudged the door closed with her foot. Angrily, she flung her jacket onto the back of the couch.

Her footsteps carried her up the stairs and down the hallway into her bedroom where she unclipped her beeper and set it on the nightstand followed by her bottle of water. She stripped her clothes off, dumped them in a pile on the floor of the bathroom.

Reaching in she turned the shower on, and then, stepped in after the water warmed up. The stream of hot water soothed the dull ache she felt in her body as she let it pound on her back. Her skin was red by the time she was finished lathering and rinsing her body.

Tendrils of steam drifted and curled their way up to the ceiling after she shut the water off and stepped out of the shower. She wiped the steam off the mirror with a towel and studied her reflection. Alex frowned, running a fingertip down the length of the scar on her chest. She’d seen worse over the years but it still bothered her. Patricia was right, she let what happened to her begin to affect her confidence and how she felt about herself.

The brunette shook her head in disgust and turned away, the numbness she felt on the ride home was starting to fade only to be replaced with a feeling of emptiness deep inside her.

She pulled her robe from the hook on the back of the bathroom door, wrapped it around herself and walked over to her bed. With a sigh, she sat on the edge of the mattress and stared down at the floor. A glance at the answering machine told her she had no new messages. Did you really think she would call you after what you said to her? Coward, Alex berated herself angrily.

She reached over, picked up the phone and started to dial Regina’s number. She stopped and then quietly set the phone back down. The silence in the room was deafening. She’d fought with Lana on several occasions but never experienced the awful, sinking feeling she was experiencing in her chest like she was now.

Alex returned to the living room, settled into the corner of the brown leather couch, pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them tightly. Her chest felt hollow, like someone had punched her in the gut and she couldn’t catch her breath.

Turning her head, she rested her cheek on her knee and closed her eyes. She’d been doing this ever since she could remember, following the same modus operandi. It was safe to allow herself to fall in love, as long as the game was played by her rules. If she could control the level of intimacy and shield her heart and soul from being too vulnerable it was safe.

The injury had brutally torn away any semblance of safety, leaving her more exposed than she had ever been before. It was too much, so she lashed out like a cornered animal, the angry words pouring out of nowhere, and now it was too late to take them back. She remembered the look of confusion and hurt on Regina’s face when she walked out, leaving the blonde standing at the door.

She needed to talk to her, now. Looking over at the glowing red light of the clock on the VCR she cursed silently. It was eleven o’clock and Regina was pulling a double shift tomorrow so she could get four days off to visit her parents the following weekend. It would be impossible to talk to her at work and frankly she wasn’t sure Regina would even want to talk to her at all.

“Nice job, Alex. You really fucked this one up.” The best thing that’s happened to you in years and you manage to throw it away.

It seemed as if everything that happened over the past year came crashing down on her all at once. There were so many things she wished she could do over, not the least of which was the senseless argument she had with Regina earlier in the evening. With that last thought, the tears she’d been struggling to hold back finally overflowed.

******

Alex stepped out of the trauma room, walked over to the sink and stepped on the floor pedal. It was Monday and she was just starting her ten-hour shift. She held her hands under the stream of lukewarm water and soaped them, while she mentally calculated the amount of medication that needed to be titrated based on her patient’s body weight.

After she dried her hands off, she walked over to the nurse’s station and found her patient’s chart amid the pile of other recent admissions that morning. Stifling a yawn, she rechecked her calculation using a calculator and nodded, satisfied that with her original decision.

Her beeper vibrated on her waistband and she checked it, half hoping it might be Regina but knowing it probably wasn’t. She paged Regina on her beeper once on Sunday and got no answer. She didn’t try again, figuring the younger woman was more than justifiably angry with her and just wanted to be left alone.

A grimace crossed her face and she reluctantly reached over the desk and dialed the number. She barely slept Saturday night and ended up dozing on and off most of Sunday.

“It’s Dr. Margulies. Someone paged me,” she said, doing little to hide the irritation in her voice.

“Doctor, I’m Doug Marsh’s assistant, the attorney doing your deposition.”

“I know who he is.” She flipped the binder open and rested her head on her hand as she leaned over and wrote the order in the chart, while she listened.

“We have a slight problem. The charts are missing from medical records.”

“What do you mean they’re missing? All of them are missing?” Alex closed her eyes and shook her head, incredulous at what she was hearing.

“They’re not there and there’s no record of them being signed out.”

“Talk to medical records about it.”

“Well, unfortunately the Office of Investigations is sending someone down to review the records and the billing that was done. So we need to find those charts as soon as possible.”

She didn’t think it was possible, but the day had already gone from bad to worse with a single phone call. “Fine, I’ll see what I can do.”

“Thank you, Dr. Margulies. Doug will be calling you to set up another meeting when the time comes.”

Alex hung up the phone, listening to the overhead intercom as the hospital operator paged one of the surgical teams. Finished with her orders she pulled up the order tab and handed the chart across the desk to the unit clerk. She noticed Sandy coming out of the fracture room down the hallway; her blue scrubs splattered with wet, white globs of plaster used to make casts.

“Nice fashion statement there, Sandy,” Alex remarked sarcastically as the nurse walked up to her.

“Ha, ha. What’s up with you today?” The nurse regarded the medical director critically, the haggard looking expression not lost on the blonde.

“Nothing,” Alex answered curtly and slipped her pen back into her scrub pocket. She walked over to the board with all the patients listed on it and erased two names, then, studied the remaining list to see which doctors were assigned to the rest of the patients. Still holding the eraser in her hand, her vision blurred slightly and she let out a breath, wishing her shift was over and she could try to repair some of the damage she had done.

“How long are you going to stand there and read that list?” Sandy stepped up beside the taller woman.

Alex arched an eyebrow and glared down at Sandy. “Is something wrong that I don’t know about?”

“I think I should be asking you that. Is everything ok? You look like you lost your best friend today.”

Fumbling, she dropped the eraser she was holding and bent to pick it up. “I’m fine, Sandy. I’m just pre-occupied with some things.” The words were a thin-veiled excuse and she knew it.

Disgusted with herself, Alex set it on the tray and walked into the medication room where she keyed in her identification number and removed two ibuprofen tablets. The headache she had since Saturday had taken hold and stubbornly refused to let go. She glanced up as Sandy entered the room after her and stood just inside the doorway watching her. “What?”

The nurse glanced behind her as one of the technicians cleared his throat from out in the hallway. “I need to get something.”

“Go ahead.” Sandy waved him into the room, watching as he rummaged through several bins until he found the right tubing he needed. He glanced nervously between the nurse and the steely eyed medical director before he scurried out of the room to safer territory.

Sandy shut the door and stared at Alex as she popped the two pills and swallowed them. “You’re in a fine mood today.”

“Do you have something you need to say to me, Sandy?” Alex leaned an elbow on a shelf and regarded the nurse coolly.

Sandy stepped closer and looked up at the doctor. She had wanted to ease into this conversation but the doctor’s mood was making it impossible. “Alex, are you sure you’re ready to be back here?”

Alex’s eyes darkened as she stared at the nurse. Ah, this is the last thing I need today. “Are you questioning my ability to do my job, Sandy?”

“No, I’m questioning whether you’re ready to be back here. I saw how upset you were when you walked out of the trauma room the other day.”

Alex folded her arms over her chest and shifted her weight on her legs. “I don’t need you’re opinion, Sandy.”

Sandy sighed when she heard the knock on the door. “What do you want?” She opened it and waited for the medical student to tell her what she needed. “Trauma room five has extra catheters. Get them there.” She turned back around after she firmly shut the door. “Alex, don’t give me your pompous doctor act.”

“You know, I don’t need to hear this crap.” Alex started to walk toward the door but Sandy stood her ground, blocking the taller woman’s path.

“Move.” Alex tried to step around the smaller woman.

“No.” Sandy held her hand up. “Maybe you don’t want to hear it, but you’re going to listen to me anyway. You’re trying to act like this hasn’t affected you, but it has. It affected every single person here on this unit, and you’re walking around trying to act like nothing happened.”

Alex stepped back, her pupils dilating as her anger built. “What do you want me to do? I’m the Medical Director, it’s my job to run this department.”

“Alex, haven’t you figured out after all this time that you’re no good to anybody else unless you’re able to take care of yourself first?”

“Back off, Sandy. My life is none of your damn business,” Alex growled, feeling like she was being hammered from all directions.

“Your wrong. It is my business, because you’re my friend and so is Regina.” The nurse gestured angrily.

“That’s it. This conversation is over!” Alex pushed past Sandy and stormed to the door.

“Whether you’re willing to admit it or not Alex, you need your friends and you’re shutting all of us out.” Sandy blurted out the words as the doctor yanked the door open.

She watched as the broad shoulders shuddered and for a moment, she thought Alex was going to breakdown, but then the doctor seemed to gather herself and walked out of the room without looking back.

******

Terry sat in her bed glumly flicking through the channels on the television that was suspended up on the wall across the room from her bed. She was bored out of her mind and scared – very scared. Her blood tests came back positive for some weird kind of bacteria that was in her blood and she had been admitted so she could get intravenous antibiotics. That was two days ago and she still had a fever that seemed to get worse at night and left her feeling drained and empty during the day.

The bed closest to the window was raised up as high as it would go and neatly made with fresh linens. Her roommate was discharged and until another one arrived she would have the room to herself. With a sigh Terry scooted to the edge of the bed, stood up holding onto to the metal IV pole and gingerly walked over to the window. She rested her hand on the sill and peered outside.

“What a view,” she muttered to no one in particular.

The hospital room window looked out onto the roof of the floor below and if she craned her neck enough, she could see into the patients room that were off to the right and several floors down. She looked up at the clock on the wall and made a face. It was eleven o’clock in the morning and her parents wouldn’t be able to visit with her until late in the afternoon.

Her mother was working two jobs now to cover the rent and their other expenses while her father spent his days going on interviews in the hopes of landing another job. The whole situation sucked.

Her parents were arguing more and most nights Terry just ate dinner, then, escaped to her room and turned on the radio to drown out the angry, frustrated voices shouting at each other down the hall.

A noise in the hallway caught her attention and she turned around catching a fleeting glimpse of something dark blue speed by her room. Curious, she walked to the door, rolling her IV pole along with her and peered out into the hallway in time to see a boy pop a wheelie in a wheelchair and spin around on two wheels.

“BJ, you can’t whip up and down the hallway in a wheelchair! You’ll hit someone,” one of the aides yelled from the nurse’s station.

Terry watched as the boy whipped the wheelchair around, bringing it to an abrupt halt in front of her. An ugly purplish bruise was beginning to fade into yellow and green streaks underneath his left eye and his head was shaved bald revealing a half moon scar running from front to back over his left ear.

“Hi.” Terry smiled down at him in amusement as a surprised expression came over his face followed by a faint flush over his fair features.

“H … hi,” he stammered and wheeled back away from her unexpectedly bumping into the dirty linen cart behind him.

Terry stifled a giggle as she watched him fumble with the wheels. She thought he looked small and vulnerable sitting in the wheelchair with nothing but a blue hospital gown and faded green scrubs that were too long and pooled around his bare feet as he sat in the chair.

“I’m Terry,” she offered, leaning against the doorframe as she secretly studied the bruising on his face.

“B … J,” he spoke his name softly, working hard to get the syllables out.

Terry took a breath, suddenly feeling her energy plummet as if someone had just sucked it out of her. “I need to sit down. You can come in if you want.” She turned and walked back to the bed and flopped down onto the mattress, her limbs feeling like rubber once again.

A moment later BJ wheeled slowly into the room and peered cautiously around the curtain at her. “What’s wrong … with you?”

Terry lifted her head and regarded him with a serious expression before she answered. Usually she would have been defensive and angry if someone asked her that but for some reason his question didn’t bother her. “I have cancer. It’s in my leg.”

“Does it hurt?” BJ rolled closer and turned the wheelchair so he was sitting parallel to the bed.

Terry shrugged. “Not in my leg. Sometimes I’m just really tired, like now.”

“Oh.” He seemed to consider this before he spoke again. “Do you want me … to leave so you can go to sleep?”

“No, it’s ok.” Terry pulled her legs underneath her, suddenly self-conscious that she was only wearing a hospital gown and quickly pulled the sheets up around her waist. “What happened to you?” She brushed her hair back behind her ears and glanced over at him again.

BJ blinked and he raised his left hand absently running his fingers over the scar that marred the surface of his head. He could feel the soft down of hair that was just starting to grow back on his scalp. “The doctors said I … I hurt my head.” He glanced up at the wall and frowned, wrinkling the skin on his forehead. “I don’t … remember much.”

“BJ?” A woman’s voice called out from just beyond the door to the room.

He slumped down in the wheelchair and stared morosely at his hands. “Yeah.”

Regina walked into the room followed by a slim, blonde-haired doctor dressed in an impeccably tailored black pantsuit. “Hi, Terry.” She forced a friendly smile at the teenage girl, then introduced the psychologist to her other patient. “BJ, this is Dr. Burke.”

“I know one of the … nurses told me a … a shrink was looking for me,” he spoke hesitantly, but the anger and resentment were in his voice.

“Hi, BJ. I’ve been looking for you,” Dr. Burke told him.

“Great, well … you found me.”

“I’d like to speak with you for a few minutes.”

The boy curled his lip up and frowned. “Fine.” He jerked back on the wheels, sending the wheelchair flying backwards and then wheeled himself quickly out of the room.

Regina met Dr. Burke’s gaze for a moment and exchanged a knowing glance with her before the psychologist followed her patient out of the room.

Regina turned back to the girl. “How are you feeling?”

The girl shrugged her shoulders and glanced down at the bed linens gathered up around her hips. “Ok,” she whispered.

Regina sat down in the bedside chair and tilted her head so she could look at Terry’s face. “Scared?”

Terry shook her head once and then her lower lip started to quiver slightly before tears started to roll down her cheeks. She pressed a hand to her mouth, squeezed her eyes shut fighting to maintain her composure because she desperately didn’t want to cry in front of the doctor.

“Oh, Terry.” Regina leaned forward and wrapped an arm around the girl’s shoulders. “It’s ok to be scared. I would be to.”

“I … I think my parents are … ” she hiccupped through her crying, “mad at me because I got sick.”

“What makes you say that?” Regina pulled some tissues from the box sitting on the hospital table next to the bed and handed them to girl.

“I heard them arguing last week and my … my Dad said this couldn’t have happened at a worse time.”

Regina pressed her lips together; remembering how many times she heard her parents argue when she was a kid and how sometimes she thought it was her fault they were arguing. Knowing that Terry was carrying this around with her made her along with all her fears made Regina chafe with anger. “Terry, I’m sure your parents aren’t mad at you. They love you very much.”

The young girl laid her head on Regina’s shoulder and sniffled, wiping her eyes after she eventually cried herself out. “I’m sorry, Dr. Kingston. I didn’t mean to cry.”

“It’s all right. Sometimes it makes you feel better.” The words sounded hollow to her. Regina shed plenty of tears over the weekend and couldn’t say that she felt much better for it. She squeezed the girl’s shoulder and stood up. “Time for me to go and finish up some things. Stay out of trouble.”

Terry nodded and gave the young doctor a wan smile.

Regina kept up her professional demeanor all the way to the staff bathroom by the cafeteria. The last forty-eight hours had been hell. Hurt, confused and angry after her argument with Alex, she avoided thinking about it and delved completely into her work.

Now with a few minutes to herself she stared into the mirror, wondering how they had been so blind to what was happening over the past few weeks. Turning on the faucet, she let the cold water run, cupped her hands underneath the stream and splashed her face with it.

Regina wiped the excess water off with some paper towels, then, leaned on the sink and ducked her head. “All right, Dr. Kingston, let’s get some food before you pass out.”

******

Alex entered the cafeteria and quickly weaved her way through the growing crowd of staff and family members. Rarely, did the doctor bother with the cafeteria, usually bringing some nuts and fruit from home to snack on during her shifts. Today she just couldn’t be bothered and found herself ravenous by noontime. Just get in and get out.

At the yogurt machine, she filled a Styrofoam cup with a large helping of vanilla and topped it with chocolate syrup and nuts. She paid for her food at the register and procured a spoon at the island where all the utensils and condiments were stored.

Behind her, she heard a familiar outburst of infectious laughter and froze for an instant. Regina. Damn, I would know that laugh anywhere. Alex turned and glanced in the direction of the sound and sure enough there in the cashier line behind her was the young doctor, talking with one of her colleagues.

She must have felt someone looking at her because the blonde head turned and Alex felt herself riveted to the spot when the green eyes met hers. She could almost feel the blood drain from her face as she stood there. Stay? Go? She could hardly breathe let alone find the motor control to move her feet.

Regina made the decision for her and stepped out of the line, leaving her food and walked over, standing a few awkward steps away, looking up at the taller woman. The brunette’s hair was pulled back into a loose braid that hung down to her shoulders. The younger woman realized as she studied the taller doctor that Alex looked like she had lost weight again and most likely hadn’t eaten since she last saw her on Saturday.

Alex pressed her lips together, broke eye contact first and stared down at the floor. When she met Regina’s gaze again, the pain she saw in them was enough to make her legs feel like they would suddenly no longer hold the weight of her body. Please, don’t tell me I’m losing her. “I … I, can … ” she stepped out of the way, letting two doctors who were deep in conversation pass by them. “Can I talk to you … later, please?”

She was sure if Regina said no she would have begged on her knees if she needed to. Don’t walk away, Regina.

Clear, green eyes stared back at her and for a moment she thought she was going to have to hit her knees. Her beeper blared loudly and she jumped, forgetting she’d taken it off the vibrate setting that was beginning to annoy the hell out of her. An overhead page followed it, and she heard her name announced with a stat call to the Emergency Department.

Shit! “Regina,” she pleaded, needing to hear an answer before she left.

The blonde nodded once, stepping toward her hesitantly, then stopped, suddenly self-conscious of the growing crowd of people in the cafeteria. “Go on. They need you.”

Alex ducked her head and shoved a hand into her lab coat pocket. “I’ll call you after I’m done?”

“I’ll be home after my shift,” Regina responded quietly then turned and walked back to the cashier to pay for her food.

Alex blew out a breath and closed her eyes for a second trying to find some kind of calmness to the emotional storm that was brewing inside her. Her appetite gone, she took a step back and chucked her yogurt into the wastebasket behind her.

Their stilted conversation did little to ease the vise like pressure she felt growing around her heart all day, but at the moment she had little to choice as to her immediate course of action. She walked quickly out of the cafeteria, breaking into a run when she reached the hallway.

When she entered the Emergency Department she headed straight to the desk, where Sandy was bending listening to the radio dispatch calling in. She leaned over the desk and caught the last couple of sentences crackling over the static.

“We’ve got a four year old with severe hypothermia. He’s unresponsive, blood pressure is ninety over sixty, can’t get a pulse. Core temperature is eighty-five degrees.”

Sandy keyed the microphone. “Xavier to Medivac one we’re cleared for both patients.”

The nurse straightened up and looked over at Alex. Her earlier conversation with the doctor echoed in her mind and she sorely wished that it had been less confrontational. “We’ve got two boys that fell through the ice walking across a lake. The firemen aren’t sure how long they were in the water before they got to them. The first helicopter is five minutes out.”

“What were they doing out on a frozen lake?” Alex rubbed her forehead in frustration. “We’re going to need heated blankets and fluids on standby for the first one. Where’s Jon?”

“He’s in trauma four finishing with another patient.”

“Ok.” Alex glanced at the board. “Sandy, you’re with me on the first kid. Tell Jon he’s got the second one.” She started walking down the hallway and quickly ducked into the locker room to retrieve her coat. On her way past one the supply carts, she grabbed an isolation gown, which she hurriedly pulled on, followed by her leather jacket.

The doctor stopped one of the technicians as he ran out of an exam room. “Thomas, we’re going to need heated blankets and IV fluids on standby.”

“I’ve got to get something for Dr. Washington,” Thomas replied, stepping around her.

“Fine, you’ve got five minutes to get it here.” Alex snapped in irritation, then, walked down the hallway and climbed the stairs to the helicopter pad.

She opened the door, walked out onto the rooftop and stood in the corner of the building, waiting for the sounds of the first in bound chopper. The sky was crystal blue, with cold winds ushering the white cumulus clouds along overhead. Shivering, she cupped her hands together and blew into them to keep them warm.

A moment later, she heard the doors of the adjacent elevator slide open and Sandy joined her carrying a portable cardiac monitor. “Damn, it’s cold out here.”

“Where’s your coat?” Alex frowned at her colleague.

“I didn’t think I had time to get it.” Sandy shrugged and turned her back against the cold wind that cut through the cotton scrubs and isolation gown she was dressed in.

Alex glanced up at the empty sky, impatiently waiting for the helicopter to appear. The sound of chattering teeth drew her attention. “Here.” She shrugged out of her jacket and draped unceremoniously it over Sandy’s shoulders despite the nurse’s feeble protests.

“Alex, no. Keep it.”

Blue eyes narrowed and glared back at the nurse, silencing her. Alex turned away, hearing the rhythmic sound of the helicopter blades and the whine of the engine as the aircraft came into view over the tree tops several hundred yards away. Minutes later the helicopter was circling and coming in for a landing.

The doctor’s gown whipped around her legs and she turned away from the windstorm as the helicopter started its descent. After it settled down over the large, painted, white cross on the rooftop, the blades slowly ceased their revolutions, then, both women ran toward the chopper.

The doors opened and a flight nurse stepped out pulling the stretcher toward her. Alex grabbed the other side of the stretcher, helping to gently lower it to the ground. While she listened as the woman shouted the vitals to her over the roar of the engine, Sandy quickly hooked the EKG leads to the portable monitor.

“We intubated him at the scene. His blood pressure is ninety over fifty and he’s had one run of ventricular fibrillation, which we controlled with Bretyllium. His core temperature is eighty-five and he’s still unresponsive. He’s got one unit of warm crystalloid fluid going in.”

“Ok, we got him.” Alex jogged alongside the stretcher, pulling it toward the elevator that stood next to the door leading to the stairwell. Sandy squeezed the ambu bag, rhythmically filling the boy’s lungs with oxygen.

She saw doors slide open and Jon standing inside, holding the elevator for them. “The next one’s on its way.” She motioned with her hand overhead, indicating the next helicopter.

“Ok!” He shouted as the chopper started to lift off and bank away. “Thomas has a room all set for you.”

Alex nodded her understanding and hit the button to close the doors after Jon stepped out. “Slow it down, Sandy. I don’t want this kid hyperventilated, we’ll trigger another run of ventricular fibrillation.”

The nurse nodded, adjusting how fast she was ventilating the patient’s lungs. On the ride down to the Emergency Department, Alex listened to his heartbeat with her stethoscope while keeping a watchful eye on the cardiac monitor.

When the elevator stopped and the doors slid open, they pushed the stretcher out into the hallway, narrowly missing a man walking beside his wife. Maggie, another nurse, joined them and helped rush the stretcher sown the hall.

The cardiac monitor shrilled loudly as another run of abnormal heartbeats was picked up on the monitor. “Alex, he’s in V-fib again.”

“Start compressions,” she ordered, boosting Sandy up on the stretcher, while Maggie took over ventilating the boy.

Glancing back at the monitor Alex pulled harder on the stretcher, steering it through the hallway, neatly avoiding patients and staff members that were walking in the corridor. “Thomas, what room?”

Hearing his name the technician looked up from what he was doing and pointed directly in front of him. Together, Maggie and Alex wheeled the boy into the trauma room. Inside Thomas and a medical student quickly joined them.

Sandy scrambled off the stretcher and pointed at the medical student. “See if you can get some information on who the parents are.”

“On my count people,” Alex directed, and on her count four pairs of hands easily lifted the boy onto the treatment table. She reached over Sandy, who started pumping on the boy’s chest again and grabbed a syringe from a box along with an ampule of the Bretylium.

Quickly, she drew up the medication into the syringe and injected the dosage she needed into the IV line while she barked orders out. “Make sure he’s on warm, humidified oxygen. Get a set of labs and a trauma panel, now.”

As Alex was doing this, Sandy quickly hooked the EKG leads up to the wall monitor, while the technician turned on the ventilator and hooked up the endotracheal tube. Maggie stepped around Alex and pulled the crash cart over with the defribillator on it.

“Here.” She flipped the switch, charging the machine.

The doctor stepped back and reached for the defribillator. “Set it for 2 joules.” Alex leaned over the boy, waiting as the technician unbundled him. “Clear.” She brought the paddles down and depressed the buttons watching the small body convulse briefly as the current shot through it.

“It worked, you’ve got a normal rhythm Alex,” Sandy observed excitedly.

“He’s not out of the woods yet. Someone get me two left-sided, thirty-eight French chest tubes. I need normal saline in three liter bags heated to forty-one degrees celsius.” Alex ordered, as she quickly tied a fluid shield mask behind her head and then pulled on a pair of gloves.

Sandy quickly shrugged out of Alex’s jacket and pulled on a mask and gloves. She grabbed the requested kit from inside a cabinet, tore off the packaging, and draped a sterile towel over the boy’s stomach before she set the kit down on the field she prepared.

Alex looked over at the medical student who had returned to the room and was standing at the foot of the stretcher. “What year are you?”

“Fourth,” the young man replied.

“Good. Get over here and get a catheter in him.” She glanced over at Thomas who was setting up another IV line. “Thomas, where’s the heated solution?”

“Right here.” He hung the IV bags on the pole.

Sandy, I need the thoracic lavage to exchange two liters of fluid every ten minutes until his rectal temperature is up to thirty-five degrees Celsius.” Alex glanced up, hearing the wheels of another stretcher rattle by the room. She caught sight of Jon and his team wheeling the other boy into the room next door. “Okay, roll him onto his right side.”

While Thomas rolled the patient over, Maggie squirted betadine on the boy’s chest and then draped sterile towels over him. Alex reached into the kit, retrieved a syringe and quickly filled it with Lidocaine. She anesthetized the area below the third rib in the intercostals space, then, did the same to the skin.

Sandy handed Alex a surgical blade, which she used to make a quarter inch incision through the skin. “Give me a Mayo clamp.” Alex switched instruments with Sandy and with steady pressure created an opening down into the chest wall. Discarding the instrument, Alex reached out and grabbed the tube that Sandy was already holding out to her.

Carefully, the doctor inserted the chest tube with gentle pressure through the lining of the chest wall. Satisfied with the position of the tube she began suturing it in place. She repeated the same process, inserting a second catheter below the first one that would suction the fluid back into the collection bottle. When she was done, she looked over at the monitor and then spoke to Sandy. “Go ahead and hook it up to the suction.”

Alex stepped back and looked up at the monitor, watching the boy’s heart rate. Now it was a game of waiting and watching. The warm fluid that was being circulated would bathe his heart and lung gradually bringing his core temperature up to normal. She’d done all she could for now. The rest was up to the boy.

“All right, call the pediatric intensive care unit and tell them that we’re sending up this patient.” She peeled her gloves off and dropped them into the medical waste container. “Does anyone know if the parents have been notified yet?”

“I’ll find out,” Sandy walked out of the room.

While she waited, Alex wrote her admitting note and orders for her patient. She looked up as Dr. Torres walked into the room. “You’re here early,” she commented.

The doctor shrugged and glanced over at the patient lying on the table. “Nah, got paperwork to catch up on. Sandy said to tell you the parents are on the way.” Dr. Torres set his hands on his narrow hips and tapped his foot on the floor. “Why don’t you head out? I’ll talk to them when they get here.”

Alex set her hands on her lap and stretched her neck. A week ago she would have bristled at the offer, considered it a sign of weakness to leave and go home like this. Today, she just didn’t have the energy or the resolve to dispute the offer. “I think I will, thanks.”

The brunette stood up, handed the notes to the doctor, and walked out of the room. For a moment, she stood in the brightly lit corridor, watching and listening to the hectic activity around her. Two paramedics walked past, rolling a stretcher between them, a technician ducked into the supply room farther down the hallway. The voices around her, the sound of the phones ringing and the overhead page system all seemed a cacophony of noise.

She looked over her shoulder as Jon walked out of a trauma room. “How did it go?”

“That’s one lucky kid in there. How’s the kid you worked on doing?”

“We’re raising his temperature with warm fluid.” She shrugged and stared down at her bloody scrubs. “It’s up to his body now.”

Jon tilted his head, studying the medical director. “Alex are you ok?”

“Yeah, I think these ten hour days are taking more out of me than I expected. “Listen.” She stepped closer to him and lowered her voice a bit. “I need you to cover for me at the end of the week. I need a couple of days to take care of some personal things. I was planning to spend those days down at the clinic so there won’t be any extra work to cover here – just put out any fires that might start.”

Jon nodded his head. “Alex, take whatever time you need.”

“I’ll be back the following Tuesday and you have my long distance pager if you need to get a hold of me.”

He waved her off. “Don’t worry about it.”

With an odd feeling of detachment she walked into the locker room and sat down on the bench. She took her time changing, giving herself time to think about what she wanted and needed to say to Regina.

Alex closed her locker, rested her elbows on her thighs and sighed. She used her cell phone to dial Regina’s number and waited. After two rings, she answered.

“Hi, it’s Alex.” She tugged the elastic from around the end of her braid and ran her fingers through her hair. “You ok?”

“I don’t know, Alex. You tell me” Regina replied, her voice sounding tired and resigned.

The doctor splayed her fingers out over her forehead and winced inwardly. She’d run out of Regina’s house the other night like a coward, not wanting to deal with what was standing between them.

She heard the blonde’s voice on the other end of the phone sounding hesitant and a little scared. “Alex, I’m sorry. I didn’t want to tell you anything,” she paused, muffling a sniffle.

The sound echoed in Alex’s head as she realized that Regina was beating herself up over the fight they had. She turned around and looked over her shoulder when she heard the door open. Sandy was standing in the doorway holding her leather jacket.

Regina’s voice came through the line again. “Alex, are you still there?”

She held her hand out and reached for the jacket as Sandy walked over to her. “I’m still here, Regina.”

A worried look crossed Sandy’s face as she handed the coat to the doctor. She stepped back, retreating to the door and slipped out of the locker room aware that she had walked in on a private conversation.

“The whole time I kept thinking about what you said and why I didn’t tell … ” Regina’s voice cracked.

Alex pinched the bridge of her nose. Her palms were moist and her stomach churned bile as she listened. “Can I come over so we can talk?”

“I … I wasn’t sure you’d want to after what you said the other day.”

Touché.

“I do.” Alex slipped an arm into the sleeve of her jacket and stood up, switching the phone to the other hand. “Regina?” She pulled it on the rest of the way, struggling to get her other arm in.

“Come over.”

“Ok, I’ll see you in a few minutes.” Alex clipped her phone back onto her belt and walked out of the locker room.

She saw Sandy standing behind the desk. The nurse walked toward Alex and fell into step alongside her. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to walk in on anything.”

The taller woman shot her an annoyed look. “How do you know you did?”

Sandy shrugged. “Instinct. Experience. Whatever, it doesn’t matter. Alex, about what I said earlier, I don’t want you to think … ”

The doctor shook her head, stopped walking and faced the nurse. “No, Sandy. You were right and you’re the only one here with the balls enough to tell me to my face.”

Sandy raised her eyebrows and blushed slightly. “I meant what I said about you and Regina being friends. You are.”

Alex ducked her head and let a half grin creep up the side of her face. “Thanks. I’ve got to go.”

“Oh and Alex?” The nurse put her hand on Alex’s arm, stopping her.

“What?” The taller woman stiffened at the unwelcome touch.

“Roses always help.”

The doctor arched an eyebrow and looked away blinking back tears that unexpectedly brimmed in her eyes. “Sandy, go back to work,” she spoke hoarsely.
Chapter Ten
The ride over to Regina’s house seemed interminably long. With each passing moment, Alex felt like she was returning to the scene of a crime. The light was on over the front door when she pulled into Regina’s driveway. With a nervous sigh, she slid out of the Jeep and half-heartedly strode up the walkway.

After pressing the doorbell, Alex jammed her hands into her pants pockets and hunched her shoulders forward. Her stomach chose this moment to viciously cramp and she leaned her body against the doorframe, fighting back the nausea that assailed her.

Moments later, the blonde opened the door and gazed up at the Alex hesitantly. “Hi,” Regina uttered quietly, as she stood just inside the doorway.

The older woman studied the floor at her feet intently, feeling guilty and awkward at the same time. “Can I come in?” Alex peered back up at her lover.

Regina stepped back and waved a hand out in front of her.

The doctor walked through the doorway and stood in the middle of the living room, her hands still buried in her pockets. Warning bells went off in Alex’s head as she watched Regina shut the door and walk quietly across the room, staying well out of arms reach. Oh, this isn’t good.

The younger woman slumped down on the couch and buried her face in her hands. She finally lifted her head, ran her fingers through her hair and sighed, looking at the brunette through red-rimmed eyes.

The silence between them was deafening and for a long tense moment they stared at each other.

Sensing Regina’s need for physical distance, Alex stepped back and reluctantly sat down across from her in the reclining chair. Sadly, the doctor recalled the night she fell asleep on the younger woman’s couch and woke to find the blonde sound asleep in this very chair.

They both had been emotionally and physically exhausted after working in vain to save a young boy who was savagely beaten by the mother’s live-in boyfriend. Following the first real conversation between them since they met and drinking a couple of beers, Alex drifted off to sleep, lulled by the luxurious feel of Regina’s hands massaging a muscle spasm from her back.

She remembered lifting her head after she woke and studying Regina, wondering what it would be like to get to know the young woman better. Even then, she couldn’t deny that she was irresistibly drawn to the strong-willed and fiery resident who had walked into her life.

Sandy was right. She did look like she’d lost her best friend today, because that was what it felt like since their argument on Saturday. Please, please give me a chance Regina.

Alex rested her elbows on her knees and rubbed her hands together nervously. She’d never been good at apologies in the past, but the thought of losing the one good thing in her life was enough to make her feel like her heart was breaking. “Regina, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said what I did. You didn’t deserve it.”

Regina looked away and breathed out hard, trying to control all the feelings she was struggling with at the moment. “Maybe I did deserve it,” she whispered hoarsely.

“No, you didn’t.” The doctor looked at the blonde expecting to see anger reflected back from her eyes and instead saw all the pain and anxiety the young woman harbored deep inside over the past several weeks.

Regina spoke unsteadily her voice betraying her emotions. “We came … so close to losing you that day. Every night I dream, I see it happen all over again … but it’s too late and I can’t help you.” Her eyes welled with tears again.

The distraught voice ripped through Alex’s heart. Two steps brought her in front of the younger woman. “Regina, look at me.” Alex knelt down on the floor in front of her and laid her hands lightly on the blonde’s knees. “Look at me. Please?”

Tearful green eyes met hers and Alex reached up and cupped her jaw in her hand. The brunette pressed her lips together and blinked back fresh tears. “Oh God, I’m so sorry I put you through all this,” Alex whispered, her eyes darting back and forth nervously as she studied her lover’s face.

“When I saw you get shot -” Regina’s hands trembled as she looked down, remembering Alex’s crimson blood that oozed over them while she tried to stop the bleeding in those first few frantic minutes. “It was like someone stuck their hand inside my chest … and was ripping my heart out when I watched you fall.” Regina brushed a tear from her cheek. “God there was so much blood. I froze. I … I couldn’t remember what to do.”

Alex made a choking noise and closed her eyes. The subtle realization finally began to sink in that they had both been denying the one thing they both desperately needed to heal more than anything: the rift that had grown between them since the day of the shooting.

Regina pulled away from Alex’s touch. “Maybe if … I didn’t stop you from going after Dana, none of this would have happened.”

“No!” Alex scooted up to sit on the couch beside the younger woman and gently grasped her shoulders. “Regina, listen to me. You are not responsible for anything that happened to me – not Dana, not anything. The only thing you’re responsible for is being there to bring me back, because you did, in more ways than you know.”

Regina’s shoulders started shaking. Tears rolled down her cheeks and her body sagged in relief against Alex’s side. The words were a soothing balm to the guilt that had been festering inside and torturing her subconscious since the day of the shooting.

Stroking a hand over Regina’s hair, Alex attempted to re-assure Regina again. “You didn’t freeze in there or forget anything. You did exactly what you needed to do when it had to be done. Don’t think for one minute, I don’t know that.”

Alex sighed, as Regina remained silent, staring vacantly across the room. Boy, what a pair we are. I’ve been so intent on getting past this and moving on, I didn’t even see that she was carrying all this around with her.

“I’m so sorry, Reg.”

“So am I,” the younger woman admitted, burying her face against Alex’s jacket. The scent of the well-worn leather mingled with the doctor’s perfume soothed Regina’s senses. “Alex?”

“What?” She tilted her head and cautiously met Regina’s gaze.

“I feel like we just got started and then all this crap happened.” Closing her eyes, she pressed into the doctor’s body aware of the softness of her breasts pressing against her.

“I know, baby.” Alex kissed the top of Regina’s head and wrapped her arms around the smaller woman. “You’re the only thing in my life that makes sense to me right now, Regina. I love you, please don’t doubt that.”

Regina shook her head and looked up at her. “I don’t Alex, but I need all of you … ” She hooked two fingers into one of Alex’s belt loops and tugged hard on it, “not just the pieces you think I want or need.”

Alex raised her hands and cupped Regina’s face, wiping the tears off the fair-skinned cheek with her thumbs. She mustered a weak smile, then, lowered her gaze and dropped her hands into her lap.

“Alex if you won’t talk to me about it, at least talk to someone else about what’s going on.”

The older woman leaned back against the couch and turned her head to stare out the window. Shit. “Remember, when I told you my father was an alcoholic?”

“I do.” Regina reached over and rubbed Alex’s arm with her hand. She wondered where this was leading and if she was prepared to hear what her normally reticent lover was obviously trying to work through in her mind.

“When things got really bad, my mother told him she wanted him to go for counseling or she was leaving and taking us with her.”

The older woman’s voice was strained as she tried to disconnect herself from the bitter the childhood memories. “He just laughed and told her that he didn’t need any damn shrink telling him what his problems were. When she insisted, he started yelling that this was the only counselor anyone in his house needed.” Alex raised her arm and balled her hand into a tight fist in front of her face. “He beat her so badly that night, she ended up in the hospital for a week.”

A small noise escaped Regina’s throat as the sickening reality of what Alex was telling her sunk in. “He had no right to do that to any of you.”

“I know, but he did. More times than I care to remember,” Alex replied bitterly. “I forgot what it was like to feel so vulnerable until this happened. Ever since I woke up in the Intensive Care Unit, I keep remembering things that happened to me when I was a kid.” She looked over at the smaller woman and pursed her lips. “Things I haven’t thought about in years.”

Regina leaned closer and brought Alex’s hand up to her lips and kissed the skin over the knuckles. When she looked up at her, she could see tears glistening in the corner of Alex’s eyes.

“Alex, you were shot. You know most people who go through an injury like that have an excellent chance of getting Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.”

The doctor closed her eyes and sighed. “I just didn’t think … ”

“It would happen to you?” Regina finished her sentence when Alex stopped talking.

“Yeah.”

“It makes perfect sense.” Regina watched a multitude of emotions flicker over the taller woman’s face. “There’s nothing wrong with talking to a psychologist if you need to.”

Alex shifted in her seat and looked pensively at Regina. Her voice was quiet and flat when she finally spoke. “I know. But I’d rather just deal with it myself.”

“God, you are so stubborn!” Regina flopped back against the cushions and squeezed Alex’s hand. How much more do I dare push her? Studying the tense profile, the younger woman let out a breath and gently increased the pressure on the hand she was holding.

“Hey, is everything ok in there?” Regina felt her own heart catch as teardrops spilled from Alex’s eyes and wet her cheeks. “Come here,” she implored and felt utter relief when the taller woman sank into her arms and allowed herself to be cradled.

Regina ran her hand over the raven hair, whispering quiet words of comfort and reassurance as she rocked Alex in her arms.

The broad shoulders started to shake and for the first time since she was discharged from the hospital, Alex finally let her guard down and allowed herself to cry in front of Regina, mourning all the losses over the past year.

Regina just kept her arms wrapped tightly around her lover, listening to the muffled weeping. She felt a pain deep inside that tore at her own soul; the sting of tears blurred her vision as she absorbed the intense emotions that rolled off the bereaved woman in waves.

With an irritated swipe of her hand, the brunette wiped her eyes and tried to pull away but Regina held her fast. “I … I’m sorry.”

“Shh, don’t apologize. You are allowed.” Regina pressed her lips against Alex’s head and laid her cheek against the silky tresses. She wondered how her partner managed to keep all the emotions bottled up inside without breaking down before now.

After a while, Alex turned so she was laying on her back in the blonde’s lap and looked up at her. A light, wistful smile touched her lips. “Regina, have you ever thought about what you would do if you weren’t a doctor?”

Regina cocked her head and frowned thoughtfully. “No, I always knew that I wanted to be a physician.”

Alex sighed in reflection. “I have. I’ve been afraid since I came back that I’ll screw up and make the wrong decision about something.”

Fingers swept the dark bangs off to the side and Regina leaned over, placing a gentle kiss on the woman’s forehead. “Alex none of us are perfect. We do the best we can each day.”

“What if my best isn’t enough anymore, Regina?”

Her hand strayed over to Alex’s waist and pulled her closer against her. “Why are you questioning yourself so much?”

The doctor shook her head and closed her eyes, remembering the admission earlier in the week. “I had a young kid come in with a head trauma on Monday. I barely made it through the admission without getting sick. Do you know the last time that happened to me?”

Regina shook her head, listening.

“The first day of cadaver dissection in medical school. I made it as far as the nearest waste basket.”

“Oh, no.”

Alex grimaced. “Oh yeah. The instructor made a point of telling everyone right then and there that if we couldn’t handle gross anatomy that we sure as hell weren’t going to make it through the first year of medical school.”

“What a jackass,” Regina offered angrily. “What happened to you on Monday must have shocked you a bit.”

Alex rolled her eyes in response. “It was all I could do to make it outside without puking. Sandy followed me. I guess she sensed something was wrong. I don’t know if I can do this anymore. I feel like I’ve lost my focus in there and I’m not sure if I know how to get it back.”

Regina leaned in closer drawing her hand up along Alex’s jaw and brushed her thumb over her bottom lip. The realization that part of why Alex was so afraid was that without her job she would be losing, in her own mind, her identity.

So much of who they were, was tied up in what they did everyday. It defined them. “I don’t think you know what’s going on inside you right now or how you’re going to react in any given situation, Alex. You’ve been through something very traumatic. Maybe you just need to give yourself some more time.”

Alex sat up and scrubbed her face with her hands, then, shrugged out of her leather jacket and tossed it over the arm of the couch before settling back against the cushions. She held her arm out and was rewarded with Regina cuddling up against her. “I’m afraid if I do it’ll be harder to come back to this. This is all I’ve known. It’s what I do.” The idea of not being able to work in the ER had been haunting Alex for weeks and the events of the last week had shaken her confidence badly.

“Alex, do you remember what you said to me the night Justin died?” Regina glanced up at her questioningly.

The brunette shrugged. “Yeah.”

“Those defenses you talked about having so that you don’t let every case eat at you aren’t as strong as they used to be. You’ll get them back, but you can’t beat yourself up over the fact that one trauma affected you so much.”

“But … ”

“But, nothing,” Regina interrupted her. “You’re human just like the rest of us. There are always going to be cases that come along that will shock and affect you. It’s normal.”

Regina shifted her body and reached up, running her fingers through the dark locks of hair, layering them back over Alex’s shoulders. With a sigh, she leaned in and rested her head against the strong shoulder. “Alex, no matter what you decide to do, I’m here. I know things are hard right now, but let me help you. Don’t carry this all by yourself.”

The taller woman arched an eyebrow and looked down at the blonde head resting against her shoulder. “Regina?”

“Mm, what?” The blonde stirred, feeling emotionally drained and in a daze. The past several weeks she’d been afraid they were drawing closer to a point of no return, neither able to reach past their own inner turmoil to help the other. Now at least it felt like they broke through the walls they were both hiding behind and acknowledged what it was they were afraid of.

The timbre of Alex’s voice washed over her tantalizingly. “Only if you promise me the same, my friend.”

Regina looked up and smiled, seeing warmth in the depths of the azure eyes she hadn’t seen in weeks.

There was no denying how she felt about this woman. She loved everything about her; all the things that made Alex who she was – her strength and courage, her outright stubbornness and sometimes stark, vulnerability. Regina offered her a pinkie and they linked their fingers together. “I promise,” she avowed.

With a sigh of relief, Alex wrapped her arms around the blonde and stretched her legs out in front of her. We’re still together. The knowledge buoyed her spirits and she smiled broadly, squeezing the younger woman to her gently.

Alex closed her eyes and nuzzled the soft, flaxen hair with her face, inhaling the fresh herbal scent of Regina’s shampoo. “I … um … I didn’t mean to dump all that on you tonight,” she admitted softly.

Regina pulled away and held Alex with a stern look. “I don’t consider that dumping. We needed to talk.”

With a sheepish expression on her face the blue-eyed doctor nodded. “I know.”

A tender smile tugged at the corners of Regina’s mouth. “I’m glad you told me.” She leaned in and touched her lips to the corner Alex’s mouth, tasting the saltiness left by the tears. God, I miss touching you, she thought as she let a hand stray over the older doctor’s thigh.

The ebony haired woman closed her eyes and gently rubbed the smaller woman’s back. “Me too,” Alex whispered huskily.

Regina pulled back. She could feel the warm flush over her skin and swallowed, not quite meeting Alex’s eyes. Good grief, I already need a cold shower.

Alex’s gentle but insistent massage of her lower back was not helping her libido and the fair-haired woman extracted herself from her partner’s arms. “Oh boy,” she exhaled and combed her hair back with her fingers.

“Reg?” Alex’s voice was uncertain. There were so many times over the past few weeks where she had shunned Regina’s attempts at intimacy. At first it was the pain, but as time went on she feared the intimacy and the physical vulnerability more. Her sudden injury had forced her into accepting a level of weakness and helplessness she’d never experienced and it had upset everything in her world.

“I’m ok. Just … horny … being this close to you after all this time … I think everything is in overdrive.”

“Sorry, I guess that’s my fault. I haven’t been too interested, I know,” she acknowledged quietly.

“I … I wasn’t sure you wanted … ” Regina closed her eyes and her voice faltered. She felt a heated flush creep up her neck. “I knew something was wrong but I didn’t want … I was afraid to ask.”

“It was never you. Everything has been messed up in my head since I got out of the hospital.” Alex reached over and clasped one of Regina’s hands in hers, wanting her to understand that it was her and not Regina who was the problem here. “I don’t want you to be afraid to ask me anything.”

Both women stared at each other for a few quiet moments.

Regina felt herself being drawn into those wonderful, blue eyes. “Kiss me?”

Alex tilted her head slightly, her lips curving into a smile. She leaned closer, her eyes riveted on Regina’s, closing just before their lips touched. It was a light caress at first and then with gently increasing pressure as she felt Regina open to her cautious advances. Her heart hammered against her ribs as her tongue explored the smooth textures of the younger woman’s mouth. I’ve missed you, Reg.

Tentatively, the blonde moved one hand up to rest on Alex’s chest between her breasts. Regina’s fingers curled, pulling at the soft, cotton fabric of the shirt the taller woman was wearing, her other hand traveled lower and rested on one muscular thigh.

The contact drew a muffled groan from Alex’s throat.

Regina wanted nothing more than to crawl up into her partner’s lap and make love to her right here on the couch, but she followed her partner’s lead, letting her explore without feeling pressured.

She could feel her own breathing go ragged as Alex slid a hand up and caressed the side of her face as they continued their kiss. Her hands moved of their own accord slowly rediscovering and exploring the lean body against her. Moving across the firm stomach and up over the doctor’s ribs Regina felt the raised scar from where the bullet tore through Alex’s skin.

Alex broke off the kiss and pressed her forehead against Regina’s.

“You doing ok?” the blonde asked hopefully.

“Yeah,” Alex breathed and peered into the green orbs at close range. “You?”

“I’m going to be in trouble if you keep kissing me like that.”

“Like this?” Alex captured Regina’s mouth in a soulful kiss, letting her tongue tease its way between her lips. She felt her own anxieties slipping away as her lover melted into her.

Alex’s hands slid around Regina’s waist, then, slowly tugged the shirttails from her pants and slid a hand underneath. She splayed her fingers over the firm belly before sliding up to caress a soft breast. Her lips sought Regina’s again and then traveled lower, where she gently kissed, sucked, and nibbled the soft flesh, sending waves of pleasure through her core.

A faint ‘oh’ escaped from Regina as she leaned into erotic the touch.

Oh sweet Jesus, what was my problem with this? Alex could feel Regina’s breathing quicken along with her own as she continued to leisurely explore the supple curves beneath her hands.

Regina’s smaller hands found their way beneath the taller woman’s shirt. She wanted to feel the skin, warm and soft beneath her hands. “Alex … I want … ” she whimpered as moist lips tugged at her ear lobe and she begged, her voice thick with desire. “Take your shirt off.”

“Okay,” Alex replied quietly. She hesitated momentarily and glanced into Regina’s eyes. Encouraged, Alex pulled it over her head. She held the garment in her hands, her breathing quickly becoming unsteady as she observed Regina watching her intently.

The blonde arched a golden eyebrow and hooked two fingers underneath her bra. “This comes off too.”

Wordlessly, Alex complied and removed it.

Regina’s shirt landed beside it and she leaned forward, nuzzling the soft skin below her lover’s ear before she nibbled an ear lobe teasingly with her teeth. Her fingers traced the outline of her lover’s ribs and circled a breast before dipping down to her pants. “I never stopped wanting you.”

Alex groaned in response to the throaty voice. She ducked her head, kissed the exposed collarbone, and trailed her lips and tongue up to the pulse point just beneath Regina’s ear.

The contact sent hot electric currents through Regina’s body and she arched against the larger woman, consumed by her desire.

Alex wrapped Regina in her arms, her long fingers nimbly unclasping Regina’s bra, exposing her perfect breasts. “I’ve missed you … ” she whispered to the woman as she pulled away and ran her fingers over the unmarred flesh.

“Alex, I want you on top of me.”

She heard the urgency in Regina’s voice and breathed, “Back,” through a kiss as she guided the smaller woman down onto the cushions beneath her.

With their bodies barely breaking contact, Regina slid back along the couch, pulling Alex along with her. She let out a small gasp as the weight of the taller woman settled against hers and her body responded with a rhythmic ache between her legs. Regina’s hands ran over the strong shoulder blades, and then slid down to the narrow waist, insistent fingers slipping beneath the waistband of Alex’s underwear.

Alex pressed into Regina, feeling the younger woman arch against her to increase the contact of their heated bodies. “Oh, sweet Jesus.” The friction as they moved against each other was intense, maddening, and exquisite all at the same time.

Clutching the woman to her tightly, Regina locked her thighs around one of the taller woman’s legs and continued to arch her back and move her hips, meeting her partner’s fervent rocking motion.

Breathless, Alex broke off the passionate kiss and buried her face against her lover’s neck. “Reg, oh God.” She worked a hand between them, unbuttoned Regina’s pants and tugged the zipper down.

“Alex, you don’t have to … ” her protest was cut off by a passionate open-mouthed kiss. Alex reached up and grasped one of Regina’s hands interlacing their fingers as she lifted the arm over the smaller woman’s head.

With her hair falling over her face, Alex peered down at Regina. I need you so badly, right now. “I want you,” she rasped, holding the intense, heated gaze of the women beneath her.

She didn’t realize how close to the edge she was until Regina elevated her thigh and pumped with lustful determination between her jean-clad legs. Her dilated, blue eyes closed and her mouth slacked open in response as she rode hard against the strong thigh.

Her hips jerked and she felt her abdomen spasm as the first waves of her orgasm erupted hot and wet. Her mantra as she came, was Regina’s name, over and over again.

With her skin glistening from perspiration, Alex breathed hard and rested against her lover’s body. Moments later, she lifted her head and looked at the younger woman, realizing, “Can you breathe? I must be crushing you!”

“I’m good,” Regina replied calmly, holding Alex in place, basking in their closeness. When Alex shifted and her thigh brushed against the blonde’s center, Regina inhaled sharply.

“Mm, I think there’s something I can do for you,” Alex whispered, seeing her lover’s raw desire. She ducked her head and teased the now hardened nipples with her mouth, while she tugged Regina’s pants down.

The younger woman gutturally cried out when she felt Alex’s fingers reach her damp curls and slowly stroke between her wet folds. Oh, inside, yes! Regina arched her back and tipped her hips up, increasing the contact and finally drawing the long fingers inside of her.

Alex propped herself up on an elbow and kissed the younger woman’s mouth hungrily, displaying her raw, overwhelming, love and desire. She filled the blonde with her fingers, steadily increasing the smooth motion of her hand as she stroked her thumb over Regina’s engorged clitoris.

“Yes, Alex! Oh God, please don’t stop!” Regina pled breathlessly as she was driven higher by the husky voice encouraging her to come. Her hands clutched Alex’s back tightly as she tumbled over the edge into ecstasy.

Breathing heavily, Regina curled onto her side and clasped Alex’s arm to her. The doctor spooned against her, cradling the blonde’s head in the crook of her arm as she ran her fingers through the disordered hair.

The coolness of the night air chilled the brunette’s skin and she pulled the half naked woman closer, savoring the heat of the smaller body against hers. She fumbled behind, seeking the blue and green checked afghan. When she found it, she pulled it down over their bodies and tucked it in around the dozing woman’s shoulders.

“I want to make love to you,” Regina pouted sleepily.

Alex chuckled and seductively pressed her hips into Regina’s backside. “Later, after you sleep. I’ll hold you to it,” she whispered, kissing the golden blonde hair and wrapping her securely around the smaller woman’s waist.

******

Shit! I can’t believe the alarm is going off already! Regina thought hazily, and then, swatted her arm across what she thought was the bed. She jerked herself awake as she almost rolled off the couch, had it not been for Alex grabbing her around the waist. “What the?”

Disoriented she blinked and looked around the darkened room. “Ah, man who the hell is calling here at this hour?”

“I don’t know but they’re dead,” Alex grumbled from behind her.

Finally, on the third ring Regina picked up the phone, answering gruffly. “Hello.”

“Well, hello there sister.”

“Jeff, ugh, do you know what time it is?” Regina struggled to sit up and finally made it with a little assistance from behind. In the darkness, she felt her open jeans and exposed chest, realizing she’d fallen asleep, half undressed after Alex made love to her.

“It’s nine o’clock over here,” Jeff replied blithely, bringing Regina back to the present.

“Which means it midnight here,” she grumbled as she tugged her underwear and jeans up over her hips and squirmed feeling the evidence of their recent lovemaking. She sat back down on the couch, smiling as Alex kindly draped the afghan over her shoulders and caressed her back affectionately.

With a groan, Alex stood up, pulled her shirt on, and staggered over to bathroom still feeling a little weird from being woken out of a sound sleep.

“Somebody else there?” Jeff asked through the phone.

Groggily, Regina answered. “Alex.”

“Ooh! Is that the same Alex that you called me about in a panic last fall?”

Regina rolled her eyes. “We’ve been together for a few months now. Agh,” she groaned and blinked her eyes as Alex flicked a light on and walked back into the room.

Well, I guess that explains why you fell off the face of the earth,” Jeff snickered.

“Jeff, back off. Alex was shot two months ago. She almost died.”

Alex arched an eyebrow as she settled onto the couch beside the younger woman.

There was silence on the other end of the phone, then, he spoke again. “I … I had no idea, Regina.”

“I know. I’m sorry Jeff.” Regina ran a hand through her tousled hair and looked back at Alex who gently started to knead the blonde’s shoulders. “I didn’t mean to dump it on you like that but it’s been hard for both of us.”

“So do Mom and Dad know about you and Alex?”

Regina’s voice was subdued, recalling the night she told her mother about herself. “Yes, they do.”

“I gather it wasn’t well received,” Jeff offered quietly, recalling his own experience with his mother’s blatant homophobia.

“Of course it wasn’t.”

“Did you get a call from Dad?” Jeff changed the subject.

“Yes, he called me. Are you going to go up for the weekend?”

“That’s why I was calling you. I don’t want to be ambushed without company. Are you going?”

“Yeah, we’re going,” Regina replied absently as Alex leaned against her side and rested her head on Regina’s shoulder. She reached across and ran her fingers through Alex’s disheveled hair, smiling when the older woman sighed contentedly and relaxed against her even more.

“That should be interesting.”

“Aren’t you bringing Darryl with you?” Regina glanced over at the sable head buried against her shoulder and wondered if she made the right decision about asking Alex.

“No way! Not after the way they treated him.”

“Jeff, how many years ago was that?”

“I don’t care. Why after all this time do they want me there and why have us both come at the same time?”

“Dad wanted us to be there for Mom’s birthday.” She remembered that she needed to get a gift and asked, “Have you thought about what you might get her?”

“No. I haven’t,” Jeff groused, annoyed at his sister’s question.

“Jeff,” Regina sighed in exasperation.

“Hey, why should I? They haven’t sent me a card or called once for my birthday since they kicked me out!” he snapped defensively.

Alex lifted her head, hearing part of what was said.

Regina tapped her foot on the floor and shrugged. “Jeff, come on. Don’t make this harder than it’s going to be.”

A long silence ensued before he relented. “All right what did you have in mind?”

“Do you remember the locket Mom used to wear? It had our pictures in it.”

“Yeah.”

“I remember her saying she lost it a couple of years ago. Why don’t we get her a new one?”

“Are you serious?”

“Of course, I’m serious. I bet she would like it,” Regina replied softly, feeling like she was starting to reconnect with her brother after all this time.

“I guess she would. You probably know her better than I do.”

“Jeff, they’re your parents, too,” Regina insisted.

“It hasn’t felt like it in a long time.”

“Well, maybe it’s time to try to change that.”

“Whatever. Listen, I’m flying into Boston at seven on Friday night. Let me give you the flight number.”

Regina looked around and saw a pad of paper and a pen on the table across the room. She motioned to Alex and the doctor nodded, and retrieved the objects for her. Regina wrote down the information her brother gave her for his flight and where he was staying. “All right, Jeff. I’m going to call and make a reservation for us. We’ll drive up Friday after work and meet you at the hotel”

“Yeah, don’t forget your armor, Regina. You’ll need it!” he warned ominously.

“I hope not, big brother,” she replied, and then after saying goodbye, set the phone down on the table. She closed her eyes and tilted her head up, releasing a nervous and tense sigh.

She didn’t want another confrontation with her parents and hoped that Jeff would be able to set aside some of his anger. What she really wanted was just an opportunity to start to mend all the hurt they caused each other as a family.

Anxiously, she crossed to the window and stared out at the dark street, pulling the afghan tighter around her shoulders.

Alex followed her aware of the nervous energy she was exuding. She stood behind the blonde, barely touching but close enough to feel the warmth emanating between them. “You all right?” she asked with concern.

Their reflections stared back at them. A study of contrasts, Alex standing almost six feet tall, her dark hair framing her angular face with Regina in front of her with her flaxen hair in a rumpled halo around her head. “If things get too intense while we’re at my parents Alex, you just say the word and we’re out of there. Ok?” Regina made clear.

She felt the slightest touch of the taller woman’s breast against her shoulder as Alex leaned in closer. “Reg, they invited you and your brother there. If they weren’t ready, I doubt your father would have even made the phone call.”

“I hope so.”

“Come on. Let’s get you to bed.” Alex took her hand and started to walk to the bedroom.

“Will you stay?” Regina pulled her to a stop.

Alex glanced down at her rumpled clothes. “I didn’t bring a change of clothes with me.”

“I’ll throw them in the laundry,” Regina offered quickly.

Alex pretended to think for a moment before she flashed a bright smile, pulling Regina to her. “Deal.” She kissed the shorter woman gently. “Besides I’d like nothing more than to wake up with you tomorrow morning.”

Regina pressed against Alex’s body, nuzzling the soft swell of the taller woman’s breasts through the cotton shirt. Her hands found their way underneath, wandering leisurely up to fondle and caress them. She was rewarded with a deep sigh and felt some of the tension drain from Alex’s body. Tilting her neck back, she fixed her cerulean-eyed lover with a sultry gaze. “I want to make love to you, now.”

Hearing the emboldened words, Alex felt a fire start in her belly. She fingered the afghan draped over Regina’s slender frame and eased the fabric back, baring her shoulders. With her gaze riveted on the fiery green eyes, Alex captured Regina’s mouth in a deep, honest, soulful kiss. She could feel the firm body molding to her and she trailed her fingertips over the flushed skin of Regina’s face and neck. I love the way you make me feel. A smile tugged at her lips as she pulled away and felt Regina lean heavily against her, eyes still closed.

Regina blinked and moistened her lips with her tongue. “Wow.” Her hands moved over Alex’s strong back and then down to her buttocks squeezing them suggestively. “Where did that come from?”

Alex smiled and pulled her lover into the bedroom. Regina followed willingly.

Her hands went to Alex’s shirt and quickly tugged it over her head. She ran her hands through the thick, dark mane. “I want to taste you,” she whispered huskily.

Alex groaned and they collapsed onto the bed. Regina rubbed her cheek over the taller woman’s stomach, then, kissed the tender flesh. She made quick work of the button and zipper on Alex’s black jeans.

She needs this … everything, Regina thought as she slipped her fingers downward, teasing her way through the damp curls, then withdrew and slipped her finger into her mouth, sucking the essence off with her lips.

“Regina … ”

“Be patient,” the blonde teased, as she kissed the skin above the waistline of Alex’s underwear.

“Oh!” Alex gasped as Regina tugged her pants down and pulled her shoes off impatiently.

I want you so badly, Regina thought as she inhaled the scent of her lover.

“Take me, please,” Alex begged, lifting her hips up toward Regina.

Blonde eyebrows arched and Regina nibbled her lower lip before she quickly removed her panties. Slowly, she crawled back up Alex’s body, allowing her breasts to graze sensitive flesh during her ascent. She paused over the red scar and gazed up into her favorite blue eyes.

Alex watched her closely, still wary of her reaction to her body. Regina smiled reassuringly and kissed her way up along the scar, before she captured the full lips beneath her. “God, you are beautiful,” she whispered, kissing her again, their mouths melting together.

Alex opened her mouth to younger woman’s advances, letting herself be cradled in Regina’s arms.

The denim of Regina’s pants brushed the inside of Alex’s thighs as she shifted her position. Her mouth and lips began a slow, languid exploration over the taller woman’s breasts before dipping lower.

Alex ran her fingertips through the golden blonde hair, encouraging her to keep going. She closed her eyes, feeling the scorching touch of Regina’s fingers between her wet folds. “Oh … don’t tease.”

“Never,” Regina breathed, gliding inside and meeting the thrusts of her lover’s hips.

Alex felt the smaller woman’s other hand touching her stomach and thighs before she gathered her hips in her arm. “Oh, Reg. Please, oh yes … ” she gasped, as she felt all the love Regna channeled into giving her this pleasure.

She felt like Regina was touching every nerve in her body, bringing her higher until her body felt like it would burst into flames if she didn’t release her soon.

Sensing her lover’s desire, her lips and tongue caressed the tender flesh, drinking her lover’s passion as the older woman succumbed willingly to her touch.

Alex cried out Regina’s name breathlessly, reaching down and pulling the smaller woman up to her. “Hold me,” she murmured, her body collapsing into her lover’s arms.

“Always,” Regina replied, spooning up against Alex. “I love you, baby.”
Chapter Eleven
Sometime during the night, they managed to cover their naked bodies with the down comforter from Regina’s bed. Cuddling together, the two women made love again, slowly, and with a tenderness born of their newfound intimacy.

They awoke, limbs tangled together just before daybreak, with the bed covers in complete disarray around them. Alex stretched and wriggled her feet before she curled herself around the smaller body snuggled up against her side. She sighed contentedly, feeling free from her worries about Regina and their relationship for the first time in weeks.

Regina stirred beside her, lifted her head from beneath the nest of blankets, and blinked. “Mm, morning.” She smiled sheepishly, feeling bruised and swollen from their long night of lovemaking. Once they crossed that particular bridge, their bodies seemed insatiable.

Alex kissed the tip of Regina’s nose and smiled down at her. “How do you feel?” She playfully ruffled the tousled blonde hair.

“Wonderful,” Regina murmured and rubbed up against Alex’s lean body. “Although, I think I may need a day or two to recuperate.”

Alex’s brow instantly creased with worry. “I didn’t hurt you? Did I?” she asked, aware of the exuberance with which they rediscovered each other.

“Absolutely not.” Regina assured her as she nuzzled her neck and affectionately nipped at the sensitive skin below her ear. “I couldn’t get enough of you.”

Alex rolled over and pinned the blonde beneath her. “We seem to be having the same problem,” she growled, kissing her gently on the mouth. Her eyes twinkled and her lips curled into a lopsided grin. “I need a shower … a very, cold shower,” she announced with a rueful shake of her head as she slid out of the bed, trying her best to avoid Regina’s wandering hands.

Regina sat up in the bed and watched the sway of Alex’s hips as she walked away. “Ooh, I’ll come with you.”

Alex stopped at the door and peered back at her incredulously. “That is not going to help either of one of us.”

“Please?” Regina crossed her arms and pushed her lower lip out into a pout. She burst into laughter at the comical expression that came over Alex’s face, before the taller woman finally surrendered with a wave of her hand.

“Hurry up and finish laughing before I change my mind and use all the hot water myself,” Alex quipped and darted into the bathroom ahead of the blonde.

******

After showering, Regina washed Alex’s clothes as promised and then together they made breakfast.

“Do you want some company when you go shopping for your mother’s gift?” Alex asked, in between bites of French toast.

“Ooh, that would be great fun,” Regina exclaimed, obviously very pleased by the unexpected offer.

Alex couldn’t help smiling at the younger woman’s barely contained excitement. “Hey, come here.” She crooked a finger at the blonde.

“What?”

“Just come here,” Alex repeated, leaning closer. Her lips captured the corner of Regina’s mouth. “Mm, you had syrup on your lip,” she whispered, as she pulled away.

“Oh.” Regina touched her mouth and blushed as her body reacted to her lover’s touch, remembering the sweet caresses from the night before. I am so in trouble.

“Problem?” Alex arched an eyebrow and pursed her lips, enjoying the affect she was having on the blonde.

The young doctor brushed her golden blonde hair back behind her ears in an effort to compose herself. “Do you have any ideas about what you’d like to do after we visit my parents this weekend?”

The taller woman sat back in her chair and considered the possibilities. “Well, the Cape is only a couple of hours away … if you wanted to go back there.” She had a fantasy that she created in her mind of the two of them walking on the beach at Race Point, holding hands. They would chase the waves as they ran out into the ocean and scramble back up the sand as the water raced back in.

Oh what a dumb, stupid idea. Alex’s mind reeled as she recalled what a disaster the whole week had been at Provincetown the first time. She managed to embroil Regina in her problems with Dana. The poor kid had gotten horribly sick, and she still couldn’t shake the memory of what Derrick had intended to do to Regina if she hadn’t gotten there in time to stop him. “That was a bad idea. We can do something else. Anything, Reg.”

“Actually, I think that’s a great idea! We could stay at your place.”

Alex lifted her head and gaped at her in surprise. “Are you sure you want to do that? I mean, you can’t have very good memories from the last time you were there.”

Regina tilted her head. “No … especially what happened with Derrick, but … ” she smiled disarmingly. “I fell hopelessly in love with you that week.”

“Bu … how … what?” Alex stumbled pitifully over her words, her voice cracking. “That week?”

“Mmhm.” Regina nodded and leaned toward her lover. “Do you know what I remember?”

“I’m afraid to ask,” Alex groaned in dismay and lowered her head into her hands, hiding her face.

“Stop,” Regina chided her gently. “I remember you holding me in your arms that night after we kissed on the couch.”

“Reg, oh God, I made you cry.” The doctor folded her arms on the table and dropped her head onto them in embarrassment. “Is there a hole I can crawl into?”

“No, you didn’t make me cry. I wanted to make love to you, but when I thought about what we were doing I couldn’t, not without knowing the results of the test first.” Regina insisted. She grasped the woman’s arm and shook it. “Alex, you rescued me from Derrick.”

“I was pissed of and I beat the crap out of him, Regina.” Alex shook her head back and forth, her face still buried in her arms.

“You took care of me in the hospital when I was sick. No one’s done that for me since I was a kid.”

The doctor turned her face toward the blonde and blinked. A pink flush highlighted her normally tan skin. “We have very different memories from that week.”

Regina’s expression sobered as she brushed Alex’s hair back off her face. “I know that if all that didn’t happen the way it did, you and I might not be sitting here today having this conversation.”

Alex lifted her head and grazed the back of her fingers over Regina’s cheek, remembering the phone call that came out of nowhere. “I think we found each other at just the right time.”

“Kind of like fate.” Regina turned her face and pressed her lips to the back of Alex’s hand.

“Yeah, something like that,” Alex offered quietly.

******

Several hours after Alex dropped her off at the hospital, Regina walked hurriedly down the hallway toward the offices that housed the Psychology department at Saint Xavier’s Medical Center. She received a cryptic message from Dr. Burke almost as soon as she finished rounds up on the Pediatric floor. There’s something you need to see, now, the psychologist told her urgently over the phone.

She walked into the unassuming waiting area and stood in front of the receptionist’s desk, waiting for the red-haired woman to finish her phone call. Water stained boxes filled to overflowing, lined the floor behind the desk.

“Can I help you?” Brown eyes smiled up at her.

“I’m here to meet with Dr. Burke,” Regina replied, aware of the woman giving her a cursory once over. “I’m Dr. Kingston.”

“Oh, yes. Dr. Burke is waiting for you. She’s the third office down on the left.”

“Thanks,” Regina replied and negotiated her way through the maze of boxes. She poked her head in the door and saw the petite doctor sitting behind her gunmetal gray desk, scribbling furiously in a chart.

“Patricia?”

The platinum blonde head snapped up and the psychologist waved her into the office. “Sit, please. Thanks for coming down here so quickly.” She stood and crossed the office and shut the door. “Sorry the department looks like a bomb hit it.” She walked back behind her desk and reseated herself in her chair. “We’re situated right below part of the Infusion Center and they had a flood last night. Poor Dr. Andrews’ office was a disaster this morning.”

“What happened?”

“I think a toilet or something overflowed.” Patricia shrugged, giving the woman sitting across from her a rueful smile. “At least we’re not underneath the Operating Rooms. All that medical waste.” The doctor wrinkled her nose in distaste. Anyway, I wanted you to see these. I had a very interesting session with your young man, TJ. He’s quite the character.”

Regina leaned forward and took the sheets of white, copier paper the woman handed to her. The thick, heavy-handed strokes of blue and black crayon caught her attention first. She frowned and looked back at the psychologist. “Sorry, but I’m not sure what I should be seeing here.”

“No worries. I should explain some things first. TJ is very distrustful of any authority figures. Needless to say, trying to engage him in a conversation was next to impossible. I gather from the little he admitted, that he has been in and out of foster homes since a very early age.” Patricia folded her hands and rested her elbows on the desk. “Some were good and some were not so good.”

“Did you find out if he has a legal guardian?”

Patricia shook her head. “I wish I got that far with him. I found out he likes to draw, so I scrounged up some markers and crayons for him. I made him promise that he would let me look at the drawings when he was done. This is what he created so far.” She indicated the drawings Regina held in her hands.

“They’re all so dark.”

“Absolutely. The color choices tell us a lot. He doesn’t have a lot of self-esteem and his outlook on life in general is one of hopelessness.” Patricia walked around the desk and dragged one of the office chairs next to Regina’s. “I was an art major before I got my doctorate in psychology so I find this all very intriguing. Look at this picture.”

One well-manicured, polished nail outlined the shape for Regina. “That’s someone’s knee being driven into another person’s back. Do you see that?”

Regina peered closer at the blue and black shading used to outline a muscularly defined thigh and bent knee being pressed into another’s figure’s back. She could make out two arms being held at an awkward angle behind the person lying face down in the drawing. “So what does it mean?”

Patricia turned the paper over and pointed into the lower left hand corner. Scrawled in black ball-point pen that left an indentation in the thin paper were the words, abuse of power.

Regina felt a chill run up her spine. “How old is he again?”

“I think we estimated his age at fifteen or sixteen since we don’t have any birth records. Look at this one.” She flipped through several of the sheets until she found the picture she was looking for.

It was a drawing of a misshapen box. A light from somewhere above created a shadow of a small, dark figure sitting huddled in a corner. All around the box was a blossoming puddle of maroon color that was spilling out from the sides of the box.

“Sweet Jesus,” Regina whispered. “What has this kid seen?”

“Your guess is as good as mine. I think he’s repressing some very traumatic events. They maybe recent or further back in his past. Either way, I need some time with him Regina. Our dear friends from Quality Resource Management have already been down to review his chart and want to know about what out discharge plan is for him.”

Regina sighed and rubbed her forehead in growing frustration. “It figures QRM would already be sniffing around. It’s not their fault. They’re under the same pressure we all are. Get everybody out faster.”

Patricia laid a hand on younger woman’s forearm. “Regina, we can’t afford to let this kid get shuttled off into another foster home without some kind of follow up care set for him. I know you don’t want him becoming another statistic that nobody gives a shit about.”

“How much time do you need?”

“I wish I knew. I don’t think I can make a case that he’s a danger to himself or others. If I could, I’d be able commit him involuntarily.”

Green eyes regarded at her sharply. “Are you sure you’d want to do that to him? That’s a pretty drastic step.”

Patricia pressed her lips together in a thin line. “My gut tells me this kid is a time bomb waiting to go off.”

Regina sat back in her chair and stared down at the pictures. “He’s had another set of blood tests done today. Let me see if I can find something that will give me a reason to hold him longer.”

“Thanks, I appreciate it Regina.”

She wasn’t sure what she was going to be able to come up with that would justify holding in the hospital longer. The boy had been recuperating nicely since he was discharged from the Intensive Care Unit.

The young doctor returned to the Pediatric wing to check on Terry and TJ. On her way to their rooms, she stopped at the nurse’s station and pulled the boy’s chart. She flipped through the pages until she came to the most recent set of lab values she was looking for.

It wasn’t the red flag she was hoping to find, not that she wanted the kid to be sick but she needed something to justify keeping a couple more days. His white blood cell count was slightly elevated compared to the day before but everything else was normal. Well, Dr. Timmons might not agree with my decision but I have to do this. I’ll pay for the damn test myself if I have to.

She quickly wrote an order for CT scan to the boy’s head to rule out a sinus infection. It was a reach, but it wouldn’t be the first time an infection lay dormant in the sinuses only to flair up and cause serious problem later. With a sigh, she signed her name and set the chart down by the unit clerk and went off to look for her two charges.

She found Terry sitting cross-legged on her bed playing solitaire. Across from her, head bowed forward over a pile of papers was TJ. Scattered around him on the rumpled blanket were a myriad of crayons and pencils.

Regina hesitated at the doorway, taking the opportunity to study both of them curiously. The two kids seemed to have struck up a friendship borne out of their tough circumstances. She furrowed her brow, wondering if Patricia was right and TJ was a time bomb just waiting to go off. I hope you’re wrong Patricia.

Terry looked up first, her eyes darting nervously from the doctor to TJ.

“So, this is where you’re hanging out today TJ.” Regina walked around to the foot of the bed, casually glancing down at the drawing he was working on. “You’ve got quite a talent there,” she observed.

He finished scratching his pencil across the paper before he looked up at the blonde-haired doctor. The corner of his mouth twitched almost allowing a smile to form, before he ducked his head and resumed his sketching.

“You’re hair is growing back fast,” Regina commented, aware that Terry had stopped playing cards and was watching her intently.

The boy ignored her and continued to work on his sketch.

“Are you drawing that from memory TJ?” The young doctor studied the roughly drawn sketch of a city skyline in the distance.

He let out a sigh and put the pencil down. Without a word he slipped off the bed and hastily gathered his papers together.

“TJ, don’t go,” Terry whispered in a hoarse voice.

“I’m not answering a … anymore stupid questions. Leave me alone!” he shouted and angrily shrugged away from Regina as he walked to the door.

“TJ,” Regina lowered her voice, trying not upset him more.

“No! I’m not going back there,” he cried and ran down the corridor back to his own room.

“You made him mad,” a quiet voice spoke from behind her.

Regina turned and watched as Terry picked up all the crayons and pencils and placed them in a washbasin on her bedside table.

The doctor followed her instincts and sat down in the chair next to the girl’s bed. “Terry, I’m trying to help TJ.”

“He doesn’t need your help,” Terry stared down at her hands.

“Did he tell you where he doesn’t want to go back to?” Regina leaned forward and studied the girl’s youthful profile, wondering what secrets the two shared with each other.

The ponytail waved back and forth as the girl shook her head and fiddled with the cards lying in front of her.

“Terry, if you know anything, please tell me.”

“He didn’t tell me anything,” she insisted.

“Okay.” She didn’t know why but she didn’t believe the girl was being completely truthful with her. Regina dug into her lab coat pocket and pulled out a piece of paper and a pen. “Terry, I’m not going to be around for a few days. If you need to talk to me about anything, you can call this number and they’ll page me.” She finished writing down the Pediatric Service’s number and handed it to the girl.

“You’re not going to be here?” Terry asked anxiously.

“No, I’m taking a few days off to spend time with my family.” How benign it sounded coming from her lips, but the mere thought made her gut suddenly twist into a knot.

“I … I’ll miss you,” came the whispered response.

Regina smiled back at her young friend. “I’ll miss you too, kiddo.”

******

Alex walked into the Medical Records Department, her eyes surveying the room. The large office was filled with cubicles and a floor to ceiling filing system that moved on floor tracks. She watched as several clerks went through the tedious process of logging in charts. Dozens of piles of medical records, lay in teetering stacks on desks and chairs all in varying stages of being categorized.

Usually it took a day or two to get the charts that were requested, but in her case, she knew the department head and right now she needed to call in a favor. “Hi Madeline,” she greeted the older woman sitting behind one of the desks.

“Hi Dr. Margulies. I haven’t seen you down here in awhile,” the older woman replied, her fingers still dancing nimbly over the computer keyboard. “What can I help you with?”

“Is Robin here? I need to talk with her.” Alex glanced in the direction of the open office door.

“She’s in her office.”

“Thanks,” Alex tapped the desk with her hand and walked down the carpeted hallway. She spotted the brown-haired willowy shaped woman and smiled disarmingly at her when their eyes met.

“I thought I heard my name.” Robin leaned against the doorframe of her office, watching the doctor approach. “Alex, as I live and breath. I can’t believe it’s you. How are you?”

Alex shrugged and offered a crooked grin in response to her question. “Hello, Robin. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen you. How’s your father doing?” Alex asked, remembering the nasty fall the man took when he fell off his roof two summers ago.

“Better, although he’ll always have a limp from his leg being broken so badly. What brings you down here?”

“I need a favor. There’s a case I have to give a deposition for and I need these charts. Somehow they seem to have all disappeared.” Alex dug in her lab coat pocket, pulled out a piece of paper, and unfolded it.

Robin nodded. “I’ll see what I can do. We’ve been getting ready to send out all of the two thousand medical records for microfilming. It’s possible they’re just sitting in a pile somewhere.”

“I’ll be out of town for a few days, so just have someone leave them in my office. Security can unlock the door for you.” Alex handed her the list of patient names.

The woman nodded her head as she read from the list. “Somebody must have requested these recently because I know some of these names.” She looked up, Alex’s words registering. “Away on business?”

“No, not business.”

“Oh, well, maybe when you’re back, you’d like to get together sometime … for a drink or something.”

Alex regarded the woman from beneath a furrowed eyebrow. The indentation from her wedding band was still evident on the fourth finger of the woman’s left hand.

She was surprised when she heard from Sandy that Robin was getting married to one of the surgeon’s on staff. That was less than a year and half ago. Back in action and playing the field again, huh Robin?

The woman leaned closer and ran her tongue over her lower lip. “I’d make sure you have a good time Alex,” she whispered conspiratorially.

The doctor let out a low chuckle and shook her head. “Direct and to the point as always Robin.”

“Well, being subtle never got me anywhere with you,” the woman demurred.

Alex drew herself up to her full height. “Well, if you really want to go out for a drink, I’ll introduce you to Regina.”

Shocked eyes blinked back at her. “It’s true then? Oh, I was hoping it was just a vicious rumor.”

“Definitely not a rumor. So do you think you can find those charts for me?”

Robin pressed her lips together and tilted her head. “I’ll find them. Now go, so I can mend my bruised ego.”

******

Several hours later, after two meetings and treating several patients Alex sat in her office finishing up some paperwork. A few keystrokes and she submitted last month’s statistics for the Emergency Department to the management team and a projection for the next to quarters.

She picked up the phone and dialed the nurse’s station in the department. “It’s Dr. Margulies. I need to speak to Dr. Washington. Is he there?”

“Let me check.”

She got put on hold and found herself listening to some classical music. With a sigh, she leaned back in her chair and waited.

“Alex?”

“Hi Jon. I have a request into medical records for some charts. They’re going to drop them off in my office when they find them. I want you to take a look at them if you have some time while I’m gone the next few days. They’re for the deposition on Jameson’s case.”

She heard an audible groan on the other end of the phone. “Not a problem. I’ll take care of it.”

“Thanks.” She looked up when she heard a knock on her door. “Come in,” she called out and smiled when Regina walked in and shut the door behind her.

The younger woman was dressed in a pair of light, sea green linen pants and an off white turtleneck. A simple gold chain hung from her neck. Alex reached her hand out and guided the younger woman around to the corner of the desk.

“Alex?”

“I’m still here. There shouldn’t be anything else you need to worry about. All the monthly reports are done. If you need me, you have my long distance pager.”

“I do, but I don’t plan on using it.”

She snorted and shook her head. “All right. I’ll talk to you when I get back Jon. Thanks.”

“Done?” Regina inquired after Alex hung up the phone. She leaned forward with her hands planted on her thighs.

Blue eyes twinkled and Alex reached over and lifted one of Regina’s hands to her lips. She rubbed her face against the soft skin and then proceeded to leave a scorching trail of liquid heat with her lips and tongue on the palm of Regina’s hand.

She smiled as she felt the younger woman squirm and moan softly at the suggestive contact of her lips. “I though about you all day … and yes, I’m all done.” Alex stood up, letting her hand cup Regina’s face affectionately.

“You’re a fiend,” Regina chuckled as she leaned heavily against the touch.

“I can’t help myself,” Alex teased and squeezed Regina’s shoulder. You ready to go find that gift for your mother?” She could feel the ripple of tension in the muscles beneath her hand.

“Yeah,” Regina breathed heavily and stood up.

There was a subtle edge to Regina’s voice that was not lost on the taller woman. “What’s wrong?”

Regina folded her arms over her chest and turned away, feeling suddenly very self-conscious. “This is stupid.”

Alex stood behind her waiting anxiously. What happened between then and now? What is she upset about? “What’s stupid?”

“I’m scared about seeing my parents.” Regina buried her head in her hand. “I’m worried about how they’re going to react when we get there.”

Alex put her hands on the shorter woman’s shoulders and turned her around. “Reg, slow down. Listen, you can’t control how you’re parents are going to react.”

“I know. I just have no idea what to expect and there’s so much emotion tied up in Jeff coming home after all these years.”

“Come here.” Alex wrapped her arms around her, thankful that it was the end of the day and that her office was tucked away at the end of a long hallway that saw little traffic even during the day. “You know what I think.” She tilted Regina face up so she could look in her eyes. “Your parents are just as nervous as you are. They’re going to see their son after how many years?”

“Seventeen,” Regina supplied quietly.

“And if that’s not enough their daughter is bringing her lesbian lover home. I don’t know where all this ranks in that list of life’s most stressful events but I’m sure it’s up there.” Alex let both her arms slide down behind Regina and linked her hands behind her waist. “What I mean is, just be you, Regina. You’re their daughter and they love you. Whatever their issues are beyond that, they’ll have to deal with them as they’re able to.”

Regina sighed and laid her head on Alex’s shoulder. The nervousness was still there but some of the tension slid away at her lover’s comforting words. “Where did I find you?”

“Um, in the Emergency Department.”

“Brat!” Regina poked her affectionately in the side and then, rose up on her toes to kiss Alex lightly on the lips.

The brunette smiled and wrapped her arm around Regina’s shoulders. “Let’s go so we can find this locket for your mother.”
Chapter Twelve
Regina stepped down out of Alex’s Jeep and shut the door. “Whose brilliant idea was this again?” she muttered, testily as she walked around the vehicle and joined Alex by the street corner.

“Yours, my dear,” Alex draped an arm over her shoulder and squeezed her affectionately while she watched as several cars sped through the busy intersection. After having no luck at two jewelry stores, Regina’s spirits tumbled, as did the chances of finding the kind of locket that the younger woman was looking for.

A brisk, damp wind whipped down the street and ruffled the tails of Alex’s long, leather coat as she stood beside her companion. After the traffic light changed, they jogged across the street and ducked underneath the awning of the corner jewelry store.

“I’m sorry I dragged you all over the place tonight,” Regina sighed as she pulled the door open. Bell chimes announced their arrival inside the store. She knew shopping was not one of her partner’s favorite past times and Alex had been patiently trying to help her find just the right locket.

“Don’t apologize,” Alex replied as she followed Regina through the door. An older, white-haired man with a hawkish profile was standing behind the glass display helping a young woman pick out a pair of earrings.

The thick, pile carpet muffled their footsteps as they walked over to the glass counters. Alex studied Regina as the younger woman peered down at the array of shiny gold chains and bracelets. One particular necklace caught Alex’s eye. Hmm, I’d bet that necklace would look really nice on you.

Alex wrinkled her brow and tossed the idea out after considering it for a moment. Neither of them wore any jewelry to speak of except for an occasional pair of earrings. Between constantly washing their hands during the day, and changing protective garb in between patients it was more of a hassle to bother wearing anything of value at work.

“I’ll be right there ladies,” the man spoke to them from across the store.

Regina sighed and looked up at Alex. “I don’t see anything.”

“Wait, maybe he has something in the back that’s not on display,” the dark-haired woman replied softly, hearing the discouragement in Regina’s voice.

“What can I help you with?” The white-haired gentleman with startling gray eyes asked as he walked over and stood behind the glass counter.

“I’m looking for a locket that opens up and holds pictures inside,” Regina described.

“Hmm, I know what you’re talking about. I don’t think I have anything here but let me check the items that we offer as part of our silent auction. We get some pieces like you described every now and then, that people want to sell.” He glanced at the door and gnawed at his lip for a moment. “Let me just lock the front door. I’m the only one here and it’s almost closing time anyway.”

Regina glanced up at Alex doubtfully.

“What have you got to lose? Maybe he’ll have something.”

They followed the man around the corner and down the carpeted stairs to another room that was occupied with small, circular display cases. He made a sweeping motion with his arm as he stepped back away from them. “Take your time and look around. I’ll check in the back to see if there’s anything that came in today that you might be interested in.”

Alex’s eyes followed the jeweler as he disappeared behind a dark green velour curtain. She shook her head and returned her attention to Regina. “Why is it all jewelry stores are decorated alike?”

The blonde shrugged as she peered into the different cases, looking for that elusive locket. “I don’t know. Hey, look at this.” She pointed at a gold band engraved with a Celtic design.

Alex arched her eyebrow as she peered over the blonde’s shoulder. “I thought you were looking for a locket.”

“Tch,” Regina looked up at Alex and rolled her eyes. “I am. I just like the design.” She moved away and looked down at another display case.

Alex glanced after her and then peered down at the ring curiously, recognizing the rope design, like vines weaving together forming an intricate never-ending circle. She tucked Regina’s comment away in her memory and turned around when heard the curtain rustle behind her as the older man walked back into the room.

He stopped for a moment at the case she was standing by and inspected the rings briefly. “Those are some beautiful wedding bands in there.”

Alex gave a non-committal grunt and stepped back away from the display case.

“What do you think of these?” He walked over to where Regina was standing and set two rectangular black boxes on the counter in front of her.

Alex joined her, waiting as Regina picked up the first locket and held the delicate chain in her hand, examining the clasp that held the locket closed. “Let me see the other one.”

“Ooh, Alex, look at this one,” Regina exclaimed, as she took the other necklace from his hands.

Alex glanced down at him briefly, aware of his keen eyes studying the two of them with interest. What’s going on behind those eyes of yours, she wondered, then, dismissed the thought, and turned her attention back to Regina.

The oval, gold piece had a delicately etched design on its cover. Regina’s fingers easily opened the clasp and two circular frames unfolded from within. “Ooh, Alex, look at this. It’s perfect.”

The taller woman leaned closer, inspecting the gold locket. “You like that one?”

Regina nodded her head eagerly and then looked over at the elderly man with a hopeful look in her eyes. “Is this piece part of the auction?”

“It is but I think I can make an exception. I know the person who is selling this piece,” he explained. “If you can wait a few minutes I’ll make a phone call and we’ll see what we can work out.”

Regina touched the sleeve of Alex’s leather coat. “Do you mind? I feel badly, dragging you all over the place like this.”

“It’s fine,” Alex re-assured the younger woman and then turned watching the older man walk back up the stairs. “I’ll be right back.” She trotted up the stairs after him. She was curious about who he was calling and the more cynical side of her wanted to make sure he wasn’t going to try and take advantage of Regina’s eagerness.

The man smiled at her when she entered the main part of the shop upstairs. “That piece is my sister-in-laws.” He shook his head, looking suddenly distracted and lost. “It’s my brother’s really, since his wife died last year. I am helping him sell the things he does not want anymore. They bring too many memories he can not bear anymore.”

Alex hung her head, feeling rather foolish for her misgivings about the man. “Sometimes the most cherished memories become the most painful when we lose someone we love.”

“It sounds like you speak from experience,” he replied, watching the azure eyes darken with the changing emotions on the woman’s face.

She wasn’t quite sure where the swell of emotion was coming from but it caught her completely off guard. “I do. It’s been almost two years. I still miss her, but the pain is not so unbearable now.” The words escaped unbidden from her lips and Alex squared her shoulders and prepared herself for the worst. Instead, it was an odd sense of comfort she felt as she met the penetrating gaze.

The jeweler looked down at his hands, his face flushing as he realized her meaning. “It looks like you got another chance though,” he offered quietly, looking over her shoulder at Regina as she appeared in the doorway by the stairs.

Leaning forward, he motioned Alex to him and spoke softly in her ear. “You don’t know what life holds ahead of you, my friend. Keep it special. Bring her flowers just one at a time, it means more that way.”

His words were totally unexpected and left Alex speechless. She nodded her head, silently processing the meaning before a warm smile crept across her face. “I will,” came the very quiet and wistful response when she was able to get her mouth to start working again.

The blonde glanced up between the two of them as she approached. “Everything all right?”

“Fine,” Alex swallowed and turned away, feeling the unexpected sting of tears in her eyes. Damn, why did I have to remember that, now? She walked over to the window and peered out at the street, waiting for the lump in her throat to ease.

******

“Happy birthday, baby.” She placed a chaste kiss over the mound of damp curls and crawled back up to lie on top of Lana.

A fine sheen of perspiration covered their bodies, as they lay tangled amid the satin sheets on Lana’s bed. “Let … let me catch my breath,” the woman panted, her body still quivering from Alex’s touch.

The brunette smiled and reached into the drawer of the nightstand where she hid the black box earlier that evening. “Close your eyes.”

“What?” Lana struggled to sit up but got pressed back to the mattress by Alex’s hand.

“Down. Close your eyes.”

She complied with a small pout.

Alex shook her head, smiling down at her lover. Lana had no idea what she’d gotten her and after many hours of looking for just the right one, Alex finally chose a gold band inlaid with a row of diamonds.

Carefully, she opened the box and pulled out the ring.

*****

Alex jammed her hands into her coat pockets and closed her eyes, blocking the rest of the bittersweet memory out of her mind.

The blonde’s brow creased in confusion for a moment as she watched the dark-haired woman’s movements from across the room. “Um, did you get a hold of the person who’s selling the locket?”

The man cleared his throat and looked around the counter he was standing behind. His calloused and worn fingers trembled as he pulled a pen from his pocket and wrote a figure down on a receipt pad. “Here.” He tore the paper from the bound stack and folded it in half before he handed it to Regina.

Hesitantly, the Regina took the paper from him and glanced briefly at Alex’s somber profile before she unfolded it. She watched the hunched shoulders rise and fall with a deep breath. When the taller woman gazed in her direction she motioned her over.

She felt the warmth of Alex’s presence as the doctor walked up and stood close behind her.

“I think you should get it, Regina,” Alex told her quietly as she read the price written on the paper. The taller woman met the jeweler’s gaze and they shared a secret knowing smile.

Afterwards, Alex busied herself browsing through the brightly lit glass displays while Regina paid for her purchase.

“Are you ok?” Regina walked over to the doctor, carrying the neatly wrapped box in a small bag the jeweler gave her.

One dark eyebrow arched and Alex regarded her with a well-practiced mask of neutrality on her face. “Yeah, I’m fine. Do you want to grab something to eat?”

“Sure,” Regina agreed amiably as they walked out of the store. That will give me some time to figure out what happened to you in there.

******

They ended up in a small, cozy, dimly lit Italian restaurant on the edge of town. Inside, a large painted mural of ancient Rome decorated an entire wall. A young man with jet- black hair and bronze-colored skin escorted them back to one of the empty booths in the back of the restaurant.

Regina slipped into the vinyl-covered seat across from the brunette and waited for the young man to hand them the menus before she spoke. “You seemed distracted before at the jewelry store.” She moved a candle off to the side of the table and leaned forward on her arms.

Alex looked up as the waiter returned with two glasses of water and smiled down at the two of them. “Distracted?”

She sipped the clear liquid, stalling for some time to compose some kind of an answer that would satisfy the blonde’s curiosity. Her hands automatically reached for the menus, but Regina slid them away out of her reach.

The younger woman leaned closer and spoke in a low voice. “Alex, I hope by now you’d realize that you can trust me.”

The doctor shifted in her seat uncomfortably and ran her fingers over the outside of her glass. “What are you talking about?”

The waiter re-appeared at their table a moment later. “Are you ladies ready to order?”

Regina sat back and looked expectantly at Alex, then, shook her head. You know what I’m talking about. “I think we need a few more minutes.”

“No problem. I’ll come back,” he replied and walked away from their table.

“Here.” The blonde handed the menu over to the brooding woman and opened her own.

Alex glanced briefly at the menu and then closed it, unable to concentrate on what’s she was trying to read.

“Don’t tell me you already know what you’re going to get.” Regina tilted her head and raised a questioning eyebrow.

“Penne and vodka sauce,” Alex stated and downed the rest of her water in two nervous gulps.

For the second time tonight, she found herself in unfamiliar territory. She made it a practice to never divulge personal information to a stranger and had done just that not less than an hour ago … Christ, what is wrong with me?

The blonde nodded absently and went back to studying her menu in silence.

“The lobster ravioli is really good here,” Alex offered quietly. She folded her hands together, set her elbows on the table, and rested her chin on her knuckles. Trust? Of course I trust her, she knows more about me than anyone else in my life.

“I guess you’ve eaten here before.”

Alex nodded and then sat back against the booth. “A few times.” I can’t believe I ended up bringing her here, of all places. Stop it! Her rational mind clamored. It’s close to where we were and the service is good.

The waiter walked back over and stood at the end of their table. “Ladies?”

“Ready?” She looked over at Regina and got a nod. “I’ll have the penne and vodka sauce and … ”

“I’ll have the lobster ravioli,” Regina added, handing the menus over to the waiter.

“Both excellent choices. You’ll get a salad with that. What kind of dressing would you like?”

“Raspberry vinaigrette,” Alex stated.

“Mm, make that two,” Regina echoed, then, sat back against the booth and ran her fingers along the edge of the napkin nervously.

Alex watched one of the waitresses walk by carrying a tray, heavily laden with food, over one of her shoulders, before she drew her attention back to the woman sitting across from her.

She could tell by the far away expression on Regina’s face that she was lost in deep thought about something. I can see the wheels turning inside you’re thinking so hard. You’re always analyzing and talking things through. It’s just not that easy for me. Long, tapered fingers twirled the glass around in the puddle that was left from the condensation gathered around its bottom. “Why don’t you think I trust you?”

Green eyes blinked and refocused on her. “I didn’t say that I don’t trust you me, just that I hope you know you can.”

“Of course I trust you.”

“Then why is it so hard for you to tell me what’s bothering you?” Regina laid her hand down on top of the napkin and looked across the table at her companion.

Alex sighed and looked away. “I grew up not talking about things that happened. It was just better that way.”

The blonde reached over and placed her hand over Alex’s. “Who was it better for Alex?”

Oh God, why does she do this so well? The doctor smiled thinly and looked down at the table. “I think you missed your calling, Dr. Kingston.”

“Really, what would that be?” Regina tilted her head to catch Alex’s downcast eyes.

“Psychology.”

The resident laughed and shook her head. “Oh no, I don’t want to sit around all day and listen to people’s wounded psyche’s. I have enough of my own baggage to carry around.”

“Well, you’ve done a pretty good job with this one.”

Regina continued to hold her gaze a smile playing at her lips. “That’s only because I’m quite fond of yours.”

“Oh, you are?” The doctor raised a teasing eyebrow as the conversation took a lighter turn.

Green eyes twinkled back at her and Regina leaned closer to the taller woman. “Actually, your psyche is only one of a few things I’m rather fond of.”

Alex closed her eyes and swallowed hard. “I think we need to talk about something else.”

“You’re blushing.”

“I am not,” Alex growled.

“Yes you are.” Regina smirked and looked up as the waiter appeared at their table with their dinners.

******

“I wish you’d let me pay for that,” Regina told her as she slipped her jacket on and buttoned it up before they walked out of the restaurant into the cold night air.

“You can pay for the next dinner we have.” Alex pushed the door open and held it for Regina so she could walk through it. “Besides, it’s the least I can do after the last couple of months.”

“Stop saying that. You don’t owe me anything,” Regina replied, and threw her arms up in exasperation.

Alex stuck her hands in her pockets and walked beside her in silence for a few steps. They passed several other couples strolling along the sidewalk, all engaged in their own conversations oblivious to the world around them. “I’m not used to having anybody want to do things for me, without wanting something back in return.”

Regina stopped walking and just stared up at the dark-haired woman when she turned around. “Alex, I’m not them, whoever they are.”

With her hands still in her pockets, Alex closed the distance between them and leaned in close enough to inhale the light fragrance of her perfume. “Regina, I know you’re not. It’s just hard to get over a habit that I’ve spent half my lifetime cultivating into a fine art.”

Regina tilted her head up and stared into the depths of the anguished blue eyes as if searching for something. I know you’ve been hurt before and you’re afraid to let me in but Alex, please, believe in us. “I know, but all I want is the chance to be in here,” she replied slowly.

“After everything you know, what makes you think that’s such a good place to be.” Alex straightened up and glanced over Regina’s shoulder.

She watched a white car round the corner and slowly roll down the street in their direction. Her lips pressed together in mute irritation as she made out the outline of a familiar set of lights on top of the car. Perfect and let me just guess whose slowing down to get a good look at us.

“It wasn’t that long ago that you started to let me inside all those defenses.”

Alex met the steady gaze of her lover and tried to ignore the police car as it drove past them. “I know what’s inside.”

“So do I. It’s what made me fall in love with you in the first place.” The blonde moved closer and slid an arm under Alex’s coat and around her slim waist.

The doctor draped an arm over the smaller woman’s shoulder and pulled her close. “We have an audience you know.”

Regina sighed and shook her head. She saw the police car pull in to the space behind Alex’s truck. “Derrick?”

“Probably,” Alex breathed out and squeezed her reassuringly.

“Do you know what I’d love to do to him right now?”

“What?”

“Shove a banana up his tailpipe,” Regina stated matter-of-factly.

Alex snickered as they walked toward her Jeep. “There’s a grocery store across the street. You could go get a bunch, in fact, hey, they’re on sale.”

The driver’s side door opened and Derrick stepped out. He slid his nightstick into the loop that held it in his belt and curled his lip when he looked at Alex. Leisurely, he strode around the doctor’s vehicle inspecting it and then walked up to stand in front of her. “It grieves me so much to tell you this Alex, but you didn’t put money in the parking meter.”

The doctor glanced over at the meter and shrugged. “So is this what they have you doing now, handing out parking tickets?” She felt Regina stiffen against her and she rubbed her fingers over her shoulder instinctively.

Derrick sneered. “Let me see your license and insurance card.”

“You don’t need that for a parking ticket,” Regina snapped.

“Actually, this vehicle is overdue for inspection.”

“Bastard,” Regina muttered under her breath. She stepped away as Alex dug in her wallet and pulled out her license. Fine Derrick. Be that way. “I’ll be right back, Alex.”

The doctor jerked her head up. “Where are you going?”

“I just remembered I need something from the store. Besides I don’t want to be around him.”

Alex opened her mouth to protest and then thought better of it. She took her time rummaging through the small glove compartment as she looked for her insurance card. With an air of complete boredom, she handed over the documents to Derrick. Warily, she kept an eye out for Regina. She knew her lover’s dander was up and she wasn’t sure what the blonde was planning to do.

By the time, Derrick called her information in and finally got around to writing out her tickets, she spotted Regina walking back across the street with a brown bag in her arms. Oh, Derrick whatever it is she has planned, you are in trouble.

“Can I have your keys?” Regina held out her hand and took them from Alex with a sweet smile before she disappeared around to the other side of the truck. The alarm chirped as she disarmed the Jeep and then opened the door.

Derrick watched her and then looked back at Alex. He tore the tickets out of his book and waved them in front of her. “Here.”

Alex plucked them out of his hand and crumpled them into a ball up before she shoved them in her coat pocket. Come on Regina, whatever you’re doing hurry up!

Derrick snorted at her insolent display. “You’ll still have to pay them.”

“We’ll see,” Alex replied.

“That druggie friend of yours has her trial date coming up. She might just get lucky and get off on probation.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Just what I said. It turns out the kid may have been drinking as well.”

“She’s got other charges against her.”

He shrugged. “That’s for the State of Massachusetts to figure out.”

Much to the doctor’s relief, Regina walked back around the truck and handed Alex her keys. “Are you quite done Derrick?”

He folded his arms and stepped back away from the two women. “For now.”

Regina rolled her eyes and opened the passenger side door of the Jeep.

Alex walked around to the other side and hopped in behind the steering wheel. “Please tell me you didn’t do what I think you did,” she hissed as her cohort pulled the door shut.

Regina looked out the window and watched as Derrick walked across the street and stopped to talk to a group of kids that were congregating outside one of the stores. “Don’t worry I didn’t shove a banana up his tail pipe.”

“Good.” Alex glanced over at the blonde as she started the engine and pulled out of the parking spot. “What’s so funny?”

Regina giggled and hugged her arms around herself. “Just go, please.”

“Regina,” Alex lowered her voice and tried not to let herself get caught up in the infectious laughter. “What did you do?”

“I used a potato instead.”

“Regina!”

“Alex, don’t be mad. Besides, he’s lucky I didn’t have more time. I could have put sugar in his gas tank or spread Super Glue under his door handles or … ”

“Okay, okay.” Alex waved her hand. “I don’t want to hear anymore. Since when do you have such a devious side to you?”

“Since he decided to hassle you tonight.”

At the next stoplight, Alex put the Jeep in park, leaned over the console, and surprised the blonde with a deep, soulful kiss. It would have last much longer if the driver behind them had not been so impatient and started honking his horn.

“What was that for?” Regina finally asked after coming out of her daze.

“Just because I’m lucky enough to have you in my life.” Alex smiled and winked at her before she drove through the intersection.
Chapter Thirteen

Alex walked up behind Regina and lightly rested her hands on the blonde’s shoulders. “Are you almost ready to go?” Her fingertips started a light massage over the bulk of the tense muscles at the base of Regina’s neck.

The last two days went by quickly and with each passing hour she could feel Regina’s anxiety increase palpably about their impending visit with her family.

The blonde tilted her neck and rested the back of her head against Alex’s chest. “Mm, as ready as I’m going to be.” She closed her eyes and relaxed into the comforting touch. “That feels good.”

The doctor wrapped one hand around Regina’s neck and caressed her jaw. “Where are your bags?” Alex whispered, as she bent and softly pressed her lips against her temple.

“They’re in the bedroom.”

“Go on. I’ll meet you outside.” The taller woman released her after one more lingering kiss and then walked into the bedroom to retrieve Regina’s two duffel bags. She hefted one bag onto her shoulder and let out a surprised grunt as the weight of the other bag strained her arm. I think we’re going to have to talk about how much you really need to pack, Reg.

The brunette walked outside, opened the back of the Jeep, and set Regina’s bags alongside hers. She looked up when she heard the front door shut and smiled at Regina as she walked toward the vehicle. “Did you pack your mother’s gift?” she asked as she shut the back hatch.

“Yeah, I have everything.” Regina stepped up into the passenger seat and settled herself in. She brushed her hair back and let out a nervous sigh.

Her stomach was in knots. She was glad Alex was coming with her but at the same time she worried about what it would be like when the entire family reunited for the first time in fifteen years. God, has it really been that long since Jeff left home? It seems like it was another lifetime ago.

The young doctor looked over as Alex climbed in behind the steering wheel and started the engine.

“They’re some CD’s in the console between us. Take a look and see if there’s anything you’d like to listen to,” the older woman told her.

A sweet smile crossed Regina’s lips as Alex turned and set an arm over her seat as she backed the Jeep out of the driveway.

“What?” She arched an eyebrow at the cheerful expression.

“This is our first road trip together; our first planned one anyway.” Regina glanced down at her hands pensively before she looked back up at Alex. “I’m glad you’re coming with me.”

“Me too, Reg.” The doctor smiled at her and then turned her attention to the road as she pulled out into the street.

They drove almost straight through, stopping once to grab a bite to eat at one of the rest stops along the highway.

“Welcome to Massachusetts,” Regina remarked as they sped by one of the interstate signs announcing their entrance into the Bay State.

Well’s now is as good a time as any, Alex thought and reached over to turn down the volume on the CD player. “So, give me some insight here. You have two brothers. Right?”

Regina nodded. “Yeah, Jeff is the oldest. He was sixteen when he left home.” She snorted derisively at her description. “To be accurate he was thrown out by my mother.”

“Has he been home since then?” Alex glanced up into the mirror and switched lanes to get out of the way of an oncoming tractor-trailer. She gripped the wheel tightly as the Jeep shuddered slightly as the eighteen-wheeler sped by on the left.

“Once or twice he came back to visit but it always ended up with Mom and him having a knock-down, drag-out fight,” Regina replied bitterly.

“Your brother must be pretty nervous about coming back home again after all this time,” Alex offered. She knew the next couple of days were going to be hard for Regina and she wanted to understand some of the dynamics about her family before they arrived.

“I think he’s very angry and bitter about all the time they’ve shut him out of their lives.” Regina turned her head and looked out the window. “It wasn’t just them, we all did.”

Alex heard the catch in Regina’s voice as she said this and cast a wary glance over at her friend. “How old were you when your Mom threw him out?”

Regina rested her elbow against the window and rubbed her fingers against her forehead, trying to fight back tears. “I was eleven.”

“You were just a kid, Reg. There’s not much you could have done to prevent what happened back then.”

“I know. I used to write him every week.” She felt her throat constrict at the sudden flood of memories and wiped tears from her cheeks. “I probably bored him half to death with all the mundane details of what was going on at home.”

“I doubt it.” Alex smiled at her and squeezed her shoulder affectionately. “Do you want me to stop peppering you with questions?”

Regina shook her head and sniffled. “No, it’s okay, really. I don’t mind.”

Alex let her hand drift down and tucked one of Regina’s hands into her larger one. “What’s your other brother’s name?”

“Michael. He’s the youngest of all of us. His wife’s name is Rachel and they have a baby named Zachary.”

“Oh.” So, you’re an Aunt. I didn’t know that. “How old is the baby?”

Regina scrunched up an eyebrow as she did the math. “He’s almost a year old. I haven’t seen him since he was born last spring,” she sighed regretfully. “One more thing my mother can be pissed off at me about.”

Alex frowned at the comment. “What do you mean?”

“You forget, I was supposed to get married and give them their first grandchild, instead … ” her voice trailed off as she thought about all the choices she made over the past year that brought her to this point. “I followed my heart,” she stated with quiet resolve.

A glance to her left revealed the quiet and pensive profile as the taller woman focused her gaze on the road ahead. Regina studied her for a moment before wary blue eyes met hers briefly. The apprehensive look jolted something deep inside her and she squeezed Alex’s hand reassuringly. “I would do it all again in a heartbeat if I had to.” She brought the taller woman’s hand to her lips.

Alex’s shoulders relaxed noticeably. “Sorry. I guess meeting your family has me more on edge than I thought.”

I wish they would just accept me … us. I mean, how can loving someone be a bad thing.” Regina stared out the window bleakly.

“You know it’s not, Reg. Sometimes it’s just outside of the boundaries of what people are comfortable with. They don’t know any other way to deal with it than to lash out, because they’re afraid.”

Regina glowered angrily at the passing highway signs. “I have a hard time believing it was fear that made my parents throw Jeff out of their house.” With a sigh, she shifted in her seat and closed her eyes.

******

“Ma’am there’s only one bed in this room. Would you like me to change your room to one with two beds?” The man behind the counter looked at Regina expectantly from across the chest high counter.

Alex drew in a breath and then pressed her lips together as she watched a blonde eyebrow creep upwards in response. Oh boy, that’s not the question you should be asking her right now. Their conversation about Jeff and Regina’s parents left her lover in a defiant and prickly mood.

“That won’t be necessary,” Regina stated in a clipped tone. She stared right back at the clerk, daring him to make a comment.

Luckily, he had more sense and retrieved the card key for their room in prudent silence.

“Thanks.” Regina took the key from the hotel clerk. “Can you tell me if Jeff Kingston has checked in yet?”

After a few keystrokes, the clerk behind the counter looked over at her. “Yes, he is. Would you like to leave a message for him?”

“No, I’ll call him when we get to our room.”

“No problem, ma’am.” The clerk’s eyes followed the two women as they walked over to the bank of elevators.

After checking in, Alex and Regina rode the elevator up to the sixth floor of the Marriott. It was a Thursday night and aside from the small crowd they saw gathered in the Sports Bar downstairs the hotel seemed relatively quiet.

Alex followed her smaller companion to their room and waited as Regina unlocked the door. She smiled to herself when she saw the king size bed that dwarfed the rest of the room with its size. It was a typical suite with a small sitting area off to one side, a color television complete with cable, and a selection of paid movies to choose from.

The blonde glanced at her watch after she set her bags down on the floor. “I’m going to call my brother’s room and see if he’s in. How do you feel about having dinner with him?” she asked hopefully.

The taller woman set down the room service menu she was reading and regarded Regina for a moment. “I’d really like that Reg, unless you want some time to reconnect with him alone.”

Regina stepped up closer to Alex and shook her head. “No, I want you there with me.”

“You got me,” the taller woman murmured and leaned in closer to taste the sweet lips. The gentle exploration lasted longer than Alex planned and when she slowly broke from their embrace, she watched as her lover swayed slightly from the intensity of the exchange.

Regina chuckled softly when she finally refocused on the pretty gray blue eyes regarding her affectionately. “That was some kiss.”

“Just something you can remember if things get too intense over the next couple of days.” Alex brushed her fingers idly through the golden strands of hair while she gazed at her intently.

“That sounds like a deal,” Regina whispered back as she snuggled against Alex. A warm smile crossed her lips as a deep, tender feeling of affection flowed through her and she felt herself falling deeper into a love that she never imagined she would feel. The rest of the world faded away as they stayed like that for several moments, snug and secure in each other’s arms.

Three sharp raps interrupted their quiet reverie and Alex lifted her head from Regina’s shoulder.

“I bet that’s your brother,” Alex whispered in her ear.

“Mm,” Regina mumbled and stepped away from Alex reluctantly. She wasn’t sure why she was so nervous; of all her family Jeff was the one she had the most in common with and despite their long estrangement they managed to keep in touch with each other over the years.

She opened the door expectantly and let out a squeal when she found herself lifted off the floor and engulfed in a bear hug. “Oh my God! Jeff!” Regina buried her head against his shoulder as the room spun around her.

“Ah, my little sister. Let me see you, woman.” He set her down on her feet and held her at arms length. “You look just like I remembered you.”

Jeff glanced over her shoulder and was captured by the intense gray blue eyes regarding him intently from a few feet away. He swallowed getting the sensation that in the few seconds he was in the room every infinitesimal detail about him had been studied and neatly tucked away for future reference.

“That’s Alex?” he whispered, biting his bottom lip in appreciation as he took in the swarthy, wild appearance of the taller woman.

Regina blushed and glanced back at her lover who was standing behind her. Alex’s hands were tucked casually in her pockets and the brown leather jacket hung open, framing her muscular, firm body. “Alex, this is Jeff.”

“So I gathered.” The brunette stepped forward and extended a hand to Regina’s brother. “Hi, Jeff.”

A broad grin appeared on his face and he returned the gesture in kind, shaking her hand heartily. “So, you’re Alex. It’s nice to meet you, finally.” His eyes gleamed mischievously as he cast a sidelong look at his sister. “So, who’s hungry? I don’t know about you all, but I’m starved.”

Alex bumped her hip against Regina and chuckled. “I see that runs in the family.”

“As do many other things,” he quipped, giving his sister an affectionate squeeze.

Regina’s sea green eyes twinkled softly as she looked him over, studying his features. Their faces had a similar bone structure with rounded cheeks and a slightly upturned nose. Both had green eyes, although Jeff’s had a more solemn look to them now than Regina remembered.

With an impish grin she reached up and ruffled his spiky hair. “So what’s with the buzzed hair cut?”

“What? You don’t like it?” He pouted and ran his hand over the closely cropped hair that showed the faintest hint of scalp as it tapered down close to his neck. “I had it done special for my homecoming.”

Regina dropped her head into her hands and groaned. “Oh Jeff.”

He threw his head back and cackled wickedly. “Hey, I might as well have some fun if I have to be here.”

The three of them left the room and rode down to the lobby in the elevator. They received several curious glances from other visitors at the hotel as their boisterous laughter filled the lounge.

By mutual agreement they ended up at a Mexican restaurant a short ride away from the Marriott Hotel. On the way over, Jeff sat in the back seat, neatly perched between the two front seats so he could talk with his sister.

Alex smiled to herself as the two siblings bantered amiably back and forth. It was obvious Regina’s older brother had a great deal of affection for her and it made her hopeful that the next two days would not be as difficult as her lover was anticipating.

The restaurant had a bit of an authentic appeal to it with the earth tone tiles on the floor and the bright multi-colored tiles adorning the walls in a Southwest design. After a short wait at the bar, they were escorted to a booth by one of the waitresses.

Regina slid in beside Alex and took the menus from the woman as Jeff settled himself across from the two women.

His hazel eyes sparkled mischievously as he regarded his sister and her lover. “Okay, so spill it. I want details.”

“What are you talking about?” Regina asked innocently, despite the snicker she heard coming from Alex.

Jeff rolled his eyes and leaned forward across the table. “How did you two meet?”

“Oh that? I did my last residency in Emergency Medicine. Alex was the Chief Attending at the time.” Regina offered.

Jeff eyed her suspiciously. “Somehow I know there’s more to it than that. I seem to remember a panicked phone call I received at some ungodly hour of the night when you two got suspended last year.”

“Jeff!” Regina threw a napkin at him across the table and buried her head in her hands, completely mortified.

“Mm, at the time she mentioned an Alex, but of course she left out one important detail.”

“What was that?” Alex turned and regarded her embarrassed partner who was still trying to regain her composure.

“Oh, just that she was head over heels in love with a woman.”

Regina lifted her head and glared at him. “I’m going to have to hurt you,” she growled, her ears burning from the heated flush.

“What? It’s the truth. Isn’t it?” He sat back in the booth and folded his arms across his chest. He winked at Alex. “Well, if she does hurt me at least I know I’m in good hands. I bet you have some good stories from working in the Emergency Department.”

Alex leaned back against the booth and draped an arm over the back of it and Regina’s shoulders. “Plenty, but none you would want to hear while you’re eating.”

Their waitress reappeared with a bowl of chips. “Can I get you any drinks here?”

“How about a pitcher of Margarita’s?” Jeff suggested enthusiastically.

“You two go ahead. I’ll stick with water for tonight.” Alex glanced down at Regina, hoping that for tonight her friend could relax and enjoy the time together with her brother.

******

Two margaritas later, Regina held onto the table and laughed until tears rolled down her cheeks. Across from her Jeff was slumped against the booth still gasping for breath.

“So, let me get this straight.” Alex leaned forward and looked between the two of them, incredulously. “You climbed over a barbed wire fence in the middle of the night, walked through a pasture, and then tipped over a sleeping cow?”

“Oh God, my stomach hurts.” Regina guffawed and sunk lower in her seat. “Yeah, you know cow tipping.”

“I can’t say I’ve ever had the pleasure of doing that.” Alex shook her head and plucked another cheese-laden nacho from the plate in front of her. “I bet that cow was pissed off!”

Jeff hooted and slapped the table with his hand. “Ah shit, you should have seen Regina run, when a bull came barreling down the hill, snorting and shaking its head. I swear it looked like something that got released from the gates of Hell itself!”

“As I remember, I managed to climb the fence and not leave the backseat of my pants and other parts that will remain unnamed, attached to the barbed wire,” Regina snorted and started to laugh again.

Jeff sobered and shifted uncomfortably in his seat as he remembered having to explain the nasty cut he suffered as he scrambled frantically over the fence just in the nick of time. He could still see the large Black Angus Bull stomping its hooves and pawing the ground furiously at the indignity of having one of its mates toppled during his watch.

“Whose brilliant idea was this?” Alex’s eyes glinted as she turned and regarded her partner expectantly.

Regina pointed across the table at her brother. “He dared me.”

Alex laughed heartily, enjoying the rare glimpse into Regina’s youth. She had a hunch that the brother and sister were nothing less than two little terrors when they were younger.

“I couldn’t sit down for a week,” Jeff grumbled and threw a napkin back at his sister.

“Sit?” Regina squawked. “You could barely put on your underwear let alone walk for a week!”

“Thanks, Reg.” Jeff shook his head ruefully. “I’ll be sure to remember some or your more dubious escapades before the weekend is out.”

The laughter died down and Regina stood up from the booth. “I’ll be right back.” She took an unbalanced step and grabbed the back of the booth to keep from stumbling. “Uh oh, I think I had too many of those.” She pointed at the empty pitcher and made a rueful face.

Alex glanced up at her and touched her arm. “Are you okay?”

“Yup, just fine,” Regina informed her cheerfully and then put her full attention to walking back to the restrooms.

“She’s been nervous all week, anticipating what it will be like to have her whole family together.”

Jeff leaned forward and looked over at Alex, his eyes boring into hers. “You know she’s the only one in my family who’s kept in touch with me all these years.”

The doctor nodded her head soberly in understanding. “She told me about what happened with your parents.” Alex watched as he fiddled with the napkin in front of him. “I can’t imagine what it must have been like, having to leave home like that.”

She marveled at how alike the Regina and her brother were. Between the physical similarities and their own idiosyncrasies, they might have passed for twins if they were closer in age.

“I don’t know that I can ever forgive them for what they did.” Jeff shrugged and tossed the napkin aside. “I think once I realized that I could survive without them, it was almost easier for me. I didn’t have to worry about whether they would accept me or acknowledge my relationship with Darryl.”

He stared at the doctor for a moment before he continued. “I made my own family, Alex. I hope that Regina can have that too, she doesn’t need to be hurt again.”

“I’ll take good care of her, Jeff.” She knew he was playing the role of the protective big brother and surprisingly it didn’t bother her.

“Take good care of who?” Regina dropped into the seat beside Alex and gave her a Cheshire grin.

“You.” Alex draped an arm over her shoulder and glanced around at the thinning dinner crowd. “Speaking of that, we should get out of here so we can get some sleep.”

“Yeah, so like maybe I don’t wake up with a hangover tomorrow.” Regina grumbled disconcertingly.

******

A short time later, back in their hotel room, Alex pulled on a pair of gray cotton boxer shorts and then slipped a tee shirt over her head. On the other side of the king size bed, her companion groaned audibly as she stood up and got her bearings.

The doctor shook her head and chuckled softly at the drunken sailor walk Regina seemed to have perfected as she shuffled into the bathroom. I think that last Margarita did you in, sweetheart.

She dug into her duffel bag, pulled out a small, plastic container, and popped the lid open. Shaking it, she dropped three pills into her hand, closed the bottle, and set it back into her bag.

Alex met Regina at the door of the bathroom and extended her open palm. “Here, this might help to ward off the evil hangover spirits.”

The younger woman squinted and peered down at the pills. “Ah, a multi-vitamin and two ibuprofen. You’re a lifesaver.”

“Nah, just prepared.” She dropped the pills into Regina’s open hand. “Believe me, I’ve been there enough times to know.”

“Mm.” Regina shook her head, feeling a little embarrassed that she’d gotten drunk. “I guess I got carried away tonight. Sorry.”

The doctor shrugged. “Don’t apologize. You were having fun and you haven’t seen your brother in a long time. No harm done.”

Regina moved closer and slid her hand underneath Alex’s tee shirt, grateful that her partner wasn’t upset that she indulged a little more than she would normally have done. “I wish I didn’t feel so yucky, because I know what I’d like to do right now.” Her fingers danced lightly over the silky skin of the taller woman’s abdomen.

Alex squirmed and slipped away from the teasing fingers. “What’s that saying? The spirit is willing but the body is weak.” She captured the smaller woman’s hand and wrapped her arm behind the Regina’s back. “Hey, drink some water so you can take those pills.”

“No fair.” Regina pushed her lower lip out in a pout and bumped Alex with her hips.

The brunette grinned and touched Regina’s nose with a finger. “Hurry up, and get into bed. Then we’ll talk about what’s fair.”

She pulled back the covers and stretched out on the clean sheets. A moment later, she felt the mattress shift as Regina crawled in next to her. “Come here,” Alex growled in a husky voice. She slipped an arm underneath the blonde’s waist and pulled Regina over on top of her.

Lying beneath her, Alex shifted so Regina’s hips were settled down snugly between her muscular legs. “You doing okay?”

“Yeah, just a little fuzzy.” Regina folded her arms over Alex’s chest and rested her chin on her hands. She gazed into Alex’s blue eyes, reveling in the gentleness she saw there. “What did you think of my brother?”

She closed her eyes and smiled as gentle fingers brushed the golden bangs off her forehead.

Alex tilted her head as she considered her answer. “I think he’s a good man. I get the sense he had to grow up quickly and that’s what you see when you look in his eyes.” She slid her hands down over Regina’s shoulders and linked them behind the blonde’s narrow waistline.

“Yeah,” the blonde sighed quietly. “When he was young Jeff was always joking around, playing pranks on people and having a good time. I still see that part of him but he’s changed too.”

“You two sound like you were quite the pair growing up.”

Regina ducked her head, hiding the blush that crept over her features and made her blonde eyebrows stand out more. “I’m sure Jeff will do his best to corrupt your image of me this weekend.”

“I doubt that. He seems rather protective of you.” Alex stroked the younger woman’s back, smiling as she elicited a low moan from Regina.

“Oh, that feels wonderful.” Regina shifted so she could rest her head on Alex’s shoulder and draped a leg over the taller woman’s thighs. “We both knew we were different growing up so, we spent a lot of time together. Neither one of us had a lot of friends at school. I think Michael was jealous of how close we were and felt left out a lot of the time.”

“How much younger is Mike?”

“He’s three years younger than me and always wanted to tag along with us.”

Alex nodded her head understanding a little of what Regina was trying to tell her. “Do you think he was resentful of your relationship with Jeff?”

“I think so.” Regina looked up at her partner. “He never really got mad when Jeff got kicked out. I think he hoped we would get closer and that never really happened. I was so mad at my parents for what they did and I couldn’t understand why Mike wasn’t as upset as I was.”

Alex let out a sigh and hugged Regina to her. “Your whole relationship with your family completely changed after that.”

The blonde nodded in agreement. “I wonder what things would have been like if all that didn’t happen,” Regina replied sadly.

“I don’t know Reg.” Alex gazed down at her lover and realized the younger woman was dozing off in her arms. Maybe tomorrow you’ll all get the chance to start over again. With a smile, she reached down, drew the covers up over both of them, and then closed her eyes, waiting for sleep to take her.
Chapter Fourteen
“I’m surprised Jeff didn’t want to come with us,” Regina remarked softly from the passenger seat of the Jeep. She watched the road curve to the right and shifted in her seat to accommodate the motion of the vehicle. “The driveway is the next right Alex,” she informed her companion.

Regina folded her arms across her stomach and slumped a little lower in her seat as she felt her stomach respond to the nervous jitters that began when she woke up and had been intensifying ever since breakfast.

Alex glanced over at the blonde and shrugged as she turned the vehicle into the gravel driveway. “I think he’s right. It might be a little overwhelming if we all showed up on your parent’s doorstep at the same time.”

The younger woman suddenly reached over and grasped Alex’s arm. “Stop the car.”

“What?”

“Stop the car.”

The Jeep lurched to a stop and Alex stared incredulously at her partner. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Just come here.” Regina reached up, curled one hand around Alex’s neck, and pulled her closer.

The taller woman turned in her seat, reached down, and quickly shifted the Jeep into park.

Regina’s lips brushed the softness of the brunette’s mouth briefly and then lingered when Alex wrapped an arm around her and drew her closer. She slowly increased her pressure as she felt Alex relax and give in to the gentle probing and tasting.

A sigh escaped Alex’s lips when her eyes fluttered open and she finally focused on the green eyes that were gazing back at her.

“May I ask what brought that on?”

“Thanks. I just needed to remember.” She pulled back and brushed her fingers through Alex’s bangs. “I’m scared,” Regina admitted, fighting back tears.

“Do you want me to drive around for a little bit?” Alex’s brow creased with concern.

“No.” Regina shook her head and wiped tears from beneath her eyes. “Let’s get this over with.”

Alex parked the Jeep by the large, two-story barn. Her eyes roamed over the area as she studied the details. Off to the left, sat a white Cape Cod, with shutters that matched the brick red color of the barn.

The swirling wind carried the scent of horses in the air and she heard the squawking and clucking of chickens emanating from somewhere behind the barn. A large bay, flicked its ears at her from behind the fence as it munched contentedly on tender blades of grass.

“Is that the famous barbed wired fence?”

Regina looked over to where the doctor was pointing and made a rueful face. “That would be it.” A curious look crossed her face and she turned to the taller woman. “Do you like horses?”

Alex studied the large animal for a moment. “Yeah, I guess so. I haven’t been around any in years.”

Encouraged, Regina smiled broadly and practically skipped over to the open barn door. She turned the corner and found the well-worn metal bucket that held a daily supply of green apples. Reaching in she retrieved several of the round, tart fruits and walked back across the driveway to where Alex was standing, waiting for her.

“Here.” She tossed one of the fruits at the taller woman and strode over to the fence. Regina whistled to the horse. In response, it lifted its head and whipped its tail across its hindquarters, studying the two women with mild curiosity.

Regina snorted and shook her head. “You realize she assessing whether it will be worth her while to walk over to the fence or not.”

Alex chuckled and leaned against a fence pole, resting her elbow on its rough surface as she watched Regina wave the apple out to the mare. “How old is she?”

“Eighteen.” Regina glanced at her, a wistful smile crossing her face. “I remember the first time I rode her. She was so tall. All I could think was that it was a long way down to the ground. Ginger, come here girl. I know you want this.”

The horse whickered softly and shook its head, then, trotted up to the fence and butted Regina in the chest with her head. “Oomph. Yeah, I’m glad to see you too, Ginger.” She scratched the velvety skin over the horse’s snout as it took the proffered apple and munched happily on it.

“She’s beautiful,” Alex said, admiring the red-brown color of the mare’s coat. She held her apple out and was rewarded with a curious snuffling before Ginger quickly consumed it. A minute later, the horse finished off its third apple and then trotted back up the small hill with a self-satisfied snort.

Regina sighed and glanced up at her companion. “I’m glad you’re here with me.”

“Me too.” Alex smiled and laid a hand on Regina’s shoulder.

“Come on, we might as well go in. I’m sure my mother’s wondering what we’re doing out here.”

“How does she know we’re here?” Alex glanced across the driveway to the house that sat catty-corner to the other side of the barn.

“Believe me, she’s probably looked out the window a half a dozen times by now,” Regina replied with a knowing expression on her face.

Their footsteps crunched on the gravel as together the two women walked across the driveway to the house. Alex fell a step behind Regina as they climbed the wooden steps of the front porch. Through one of the windows, Alex could make out the shapes of a wing back chair and a couch in the living room.

All right, I’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain. Right? Alex mused to herself and softly blew out a breath as Regina opened the screen door and pushed the inside one open.

“Hello?” the blonde called out as she stepped through the front door.

“Regina?” She heard her mother’s voice from the kitchen. “I’m in here.”

The blonde glanced up at Alex and gave her a fleeting smile. Ok, worse thing s have happened in your life. This is not going to be that bad. Get over it, Reg. She shrugged out of her coat and hung it in the hall closet along with Alex’s

With the taller woman behind her, Regina felt more confident walking into her mother’s kitchen. Anxiously, she forced herself to stand by the table watching her mother stir something in a pot on the stove.

“Hi mom.” She waited, holding her breath as her mother turned around, wiping her hands on a checkered dishtowel.

The smile that welcomed Regina faded into a mask of barely contained distaste as the brown eyes looked over at her companion.

“Mom, this is Alex,” Regina swallowed and introduced her partner, hoping her voice didn’t betray the nervousness she felt inside.

“Hi, Mrs. Kingston.” Alex stepped forward and offered her hand to the woman. She could feel the woman’s icy, cold gaze cut through her. Ok, she obviously thinks she just met her worst nightmare.

The gesture wasn’t returned as Regina’s mom continued to wipe her hands with the towel and gave the taller woman a cursory once-over. “Hello, Alex,” she replied curtly and turned back to the sink. “Regina can you get me the potatoes out of the pantry. I need to start cleaning them.”

The blonde’s shoulders stiffened in anger, and she walked over to the small area off to the side of the kitchen where she retrieved the mesh bag of potatoes for her mother. Still seething at her mother’s obvious dislike, Regina set them on the counter and retreated to stand beside her partner.

“What time are Mike and Caroline coming?” she asked, making a feeble attempt at polite, small talk.

Her mother glanced up at the kitchen clock. It was early, only one o’clock in the afternoon. “They should be here around two.”

Regina shifted nervously on her feet and glanced up at Alex. Blue eyes regarded her patiently, but she could see the edginess lurking there, behind the cool façade. I’m sorry, Alex. Maybe Jeff was right and I shouldn’t have asked you to come up with me.

“Is Dad around?” Regina asked hopefully.

The sound of running water in the sink as her mother turned the faucet on almost drowned out the older woman’s sigh. “He forgot to get the wine. He should be back in a little bit.”

“Oh.” Regina rolled her eyes at the comment. No, he was just smart enough not to be around for the initial onslaught. Smart man. “I’m going to show Alex around. We’ll be back.”

Before her mother could respond, she grabbed Alex’s arm, spinning the taller woman around and pulled her quickly out of the kitchen. “Do you think it’s warmer out here? She looked up at Alex. “I think it is.”

The brunette pressed her lips together. “Well, that wasn’t too bad, Reg.”

“As compared to what Alex?” Regina ground out through gritted teeth. “I’m sorry you had to experience that.”

“I’ve dealt with much worse.” The doctor shrugged, keeping her expression neutral as her emotions roiled beneath the surface. Mrs. Kingston’s reaction left Alex with no question about how the woman felt about her. Ok, so she’s a little intimidating; just remember the first time I had to tell a family their loved one died or the first trauma code I ran. Come on, Alex. She tried psyching herself up for the remainder of the visit. It’s all, relative. Besides, I’ve got news for you lady. I’m not going anywhere!

“It’s okay,” Alex stated quietly. She knew Regina was nervous enough about this homecoming and didn’t want to add to her worries. “What did you want to show me?”

With a hasty, glance back toward the kitchen, Regina grabbed Alex’s hand and led her companion up the stairs.

Alex climbed the carpeted stairs, studying the pictures of Regina and her brother as children. She stopped on one of the steps acutely aware of two rectangular spots on the wall where the paint was less faded and knew without even asking that they were Jeff’s pictures that were missing. The taller woman shook her head and joined Regina at her bedroom door.

“Hey,” she whispered and let her hand rest on the blonde’s shoulders.

Regina glanced up at Alex, feeling the warmth of the comforting weight on her shoulder. She was mildly surprised that her room was untouched since her last visit. “It looks like it did when I left last time.”

“Did you think it wouldn’t be?”

Regina shrugged and stepped through the threshold of the room. “I wasn’t sure after what happened with Jeff.”

The soft, pale blue walls still held her assorted plaques from high school and college. Most of them were scholastic awards but there were a few trophies interspersed between her books, on the wooden, built in shelves, from her days of playing softball. Off to the left, beneath a dormer, lay a double bed that was covered with a multi-colored, down-filled comforter.

Alex stood behind Regina with her hands tucked into her pants pockets as she studied the room with keen interest. “How does it feel?”

“Huh?” Regina blinked and looked up at her taller companion, coming out of her momentary daze of nostalgia. “Oh. I guess it’s kind of weird, seeing all this stuff again. It brings back a lot of memories.”

Alex stepped around Regina and examined one of the plaques. “I didn’t know you used to write,” she exclaimed in wonder.

“Yeah, when I was in high school, I used to love to write short stories,” Regina replied with a slightly embarrassed look.

“I think that’s really great.” The doctor beamed proudly at the younger woman. “I couldn’t write to save my life. God, how I hated Creative Writing.”

Green eyes glinted devilishly. “Mm, I seem to remember something about wood and metal shop being more to your taste.”

“Yeah, I was your typical non-conformist. I used to drive my guidance counselor absolutely crazy with my choice of classes.”

Regina snickered and poked Alex in her ribs with her fingers. “Somehow that doesn’t surprise me.”

The taller woman grabbed her hand and pulled Regina to her playfully. “Oh, it doesn’t?” She wrapped an arm around Regina’s shoulders and squeezed the blonde full-length against her body. “I’ve got to get this in now, since it’s going to be off limits later.”

“I wish this wasn’t so hard. It’s not fair.” Regina sighed regretfully as she leaned against Alex’s body. “If you wanted to leave right now, I wouldn’t blame you.”

There was a moment of silence as Alex considered Regina’s words, then, she turned the younger woman around and embraced her tightly. “No, I don’t want to leave. I know this is important for you, Reg.”

Outside they heard the slam of a car door followed quickly by another. Regina stepped out of Alex’s arms and peered curiously out of her bedroom window.

“Mike and Caroline are here early.” She watched as her sister-in-law reached into the back of the care and extracted their son from the child seat.

“Oh my God, Zachary got so big!” She cried out as she watched her nephew try and balance himself on the gravel driveway. He clutched at his mother’s pants leg as he teetered on wobbly legs and then sat down with a surprised expression on his face. “Come on, let’s go help them.”

******

Alex followed Regina as she trotted down the stairs and out the front of the house. The blonde walked up to her sister-in-law and tapped on her right shoulder, then, deftly scooted over to her left side.

“Wha … hey! Mike didn’t tell me you were going to be here!” Andrea threw her arms around the mischievous woman and hugged her fiercely when she caught sight of her.

Regina glanced over at her brother in surprise. “Didn’t Dad tell you he invited Jeff and I up for Mom’s birthday?”

“He might have mentioned it in passing,” he mumbled, suddenly finding the color of his shoes more interesting than his wife’s fiery gaze.

“More likely, it got told to him while he was glued to some sports program on television,” Caroline snapped irritably and shook her head in disgust.

“Hey, Regina.” Mike walked over and stood in front of his older sister, holding a diaper bag and a backpack. He was a head taller than Regina and his hair was a light brown with a few gray hairs sprinkled along his temples.

“Hey, little brother.” Regina rose up on her toes and gave him a perfunctory kiss on his cheek. “Did you really forget to tell her?” Regina whispered in his ear.

“Not you too, Reg,” he groaned miserably.

Regina shrugged and motioned to the taller woman standing a few feet away. “Mike, this is Alex.”

The doctor strode forward and shook Mike’s hand after he shouldered the backpack. “Nice to meet you, Mike.”

“Hi, Alex.” He eyed the dark-haired woman suspiciously, then, shook his head as his wife cleared her throat. “I’m going to go in and say hello to Mother,” Mike grumbled, ruffling his son’s hair affectionately.

“I’m Caroline and this is Zachary,” his wife chimed in cheerfully. “Don’t mind him, Alex. He’s still trying to figure out how he’s going to talk his way out of why he forgot to tell me you were all coming up here this weekend.”

Regina knelt down and held out her hands to Zachary. “Look at you!”

The blonde-haired boy studied her and promptly plucked a small stone up from the driveway with his pudgy hands and started mouthing on it.

“Oh no, no, no, Zachary. Yuck.” Regina gently extracted the stone from her nephew’s mouth.

Caroline sighed and scooped her son up in her arms. “Ugh, everything goes into his mouth these days.”

The boy laughed and flailed his arms, trying to squirm out of his mother’s arms. Caroline shook her head and rolled her eyes as she struggled to hold onto him.

“He looks like he’s a handful,” Alex commented, as she stepped closer to Regina.

“Ha! You don’t know the half of it. Here, hold him for me while I get his toys out of the car.” She lifted the boy up and held him out to Alex.

Blue eyes widened in shock and Alex looked over at Regina for help. “Um, I … Regina, why don’t you take him?”

“Oh, go on he doesn’t bite, at least not yet, anyway.” Caroline winked at Regina after she had her son safely settled in the taller woman’s arms.

Zachary stared wide-eyed at the tall, dark-haired woman and gurgled happily as she held him gingerly in her hands.

Caroline stood up and shoved the door closed with her hip. “Don’t worry, you won’t break him, Alex,” she teased jovially and walked ahead toward the house with an arm draped around Regina’s shoulder.

She leaned over toward the blonde and whispered conspiratorially. “Ooh, girlfriend. With looks like that, Alex might just get me to bat for the other team.”

Regina inhaled sharply and felt the tips of her ears get hot. “I can’t believe you just said that!”

Andrea snorted and let out a deep raucous laugh. “Don’t worry, I won’t tease you too much.”

She glanced back at her son who was snuggled up against Alex with his head resting on her shoulder. “That kid is such a flirt,” she said, as Alex caught up to them at the top of the porch steps.

Regina looked up and squeezed Zachary’s leg. “How’s the weather up there champ?”

He gurgled his answer around his wet fingers. “Just fine, and so is the view, thank you very much,” Alex answered for him, eliciting a giggle from Regina.

Regina held the door for Caroline and Alex to walk through and then followed, shivering from a gust of cold air.

“Where’s my sweet boy?” Mrs. Kingston’s voice floated through the air from the kitchen.

Regina’s mother stopped in the hallway. “Oh,” she exclaimed, as she eyed the taller woman who was holding her grandson.

“He’s making new friends, Alice.” Caroline smiled up at Alex and winked at the doctor.

Well, you certainly like to play with fire, Caroline, Alex mused. “Here, I’m sure you want to hold him.” Alex stepped forward and held the one-year old out to Regina’s mom.

“Ah, come to Grandma, little man.” She took hold of the boy, carefully avoiding having to touch Alex’s hands.

Caroline turned to Regina. “So where’s Jeff? I thought you said he was coming.”

“We ate dinner with him last night. I think he should be here shortly,” Regina answered, acutely aware of her mother standing there listening to their conversation.

“So, Alex what do you do?” Caroline asked as she walked into the living room and flopped down onto a couch. “You’ll have to forgive me, but I don’t get to sit too often with Zachary. He’s just starting to walk and he’s into everything.”

Alex followed the woman into the room and sat across from Caroline in a chair. “I’m a doctor.”

“What kind?”

“Emergency Medicine.”

Caroline leaned forward and smiled at Regina who walked in and stood beside Alex. “So how long have you two known each other?”

“We met last June,” Regina told her, wondering how much her mother revealed to her sister-in-law about her relationship with Alex.

From the hallway, Regina’s mother cleared her throat loudly. “Oh finally, your father’s back. Regina will you go help him?”

The blonde nodded and walked dutifully into the hallway, stopping as her mother grabbed her arm tightly before she walked out the door. “I will not have you talking about this … whatever you call it, that you have with this woman in my house,” her mother hissed.

Regina shook her arm free defiantly and glared at her mother. “Dad invited us here, Mom. If you have a problem with the conversation, talk to your daughter-in-law. She’s just being polite, which is more than I can say for you, right now.” She leaned forward and kissed the top of Zachary’s head. “Sorry, kiddo.”

With that Regina walked outside and met her father by the car.

“You came out to help your old man. Huh?” he teased Regina as he handed her two bags of groceries.

“How are you, Dad?”

“Fine.”

She peered into the bags and looked back at her father. “I thought you were just getting wine.”

“I decided we needed a couple of things for you kids. Jeff’s not here yet.” He observed as he hefted a cardboard carton from the trunk and started to walk toward the house.

“Not yet, but he’ll be here,” she called over her shoulder.

“Good grief, Robert. How much wine did you buy?” Alice shifted Zachary in her arms and eyed the box her husband was carrying as he walked through the front entrance with Regina behind him carrying a large bag of groceries.

He shrugged and grinned sheepishly. “Six.”

“Here, Mike. Take this.” He held out the box to his son, trading the wine for his grandson. “Every time I see this little guy he’s bigger.”

“Hi, Robert.” Caroline sauntered into the room, stroked her son’s head lovingly, and leaned in to kiss her father-in-law on the cheek.

A moment later, Alex walked into the hallway and joined Regina by the door. She didn’t miss the furtive glance that passed between her companion’s parents.

Robert maintained his composure and turned toward the taller woman. “Oh, hello, Alex. I’d say you made a good recovery since the last time we met.”

“Thanks, Mr. Kingston. I have.”

“What happened?” Caroline studied Alex curiously.

“It’s a long story,” Regina looked away from her sister-in-law.

Alex leaned closer to the blonde and spoke softly into her ear. “Is that Jeff who just drove up?”

“Oh, yeah it is. I’ll go meet him so he doesn’t feel like he’s on display.” She took a breath and squared her shoulders back before she walked out of the house, leaving Alex to her own devices. She wasn’t concerned, knowing her stalwart friend was more than capable of handling herself among her family members.

The amiable chatter faded to an uncomfortable silence as one by one the family realized who Regina had gone out to meet.

Interesting, Alex mused as she watched everyone’s reactions from the corner of the hallway. I wonder if Jeff realizes just how nervous they all are at the moment. He probably doesn’t, poor guy.

Alice promptly retreated to the kitchen, while Michael followed carrying the case of wine.

Mr. Kingston handed his grandson back to Caroline and watched through the glass door, observing as his two oldest children strode back toward the house with their arms linked affectionately.

“I haven’t seen my son in over seventeen years. I’m not quite sure what to say to him.” He rubbed his hands together and glanced over at Alex.

“Welcome home might be a good start.”
Chapter Fifteen
“What took you so long to get here?” Regina demanded, as she trotted across her parent’s gravel driveway to Jeff’s rental car. Remnants of the autumn’s fallen leaves skittered over the frozen ground as a cold wind swirled around them. She slid her hand through her brother’s arm and huddled close to ward off the cold breeze that penetrated her thin, cotton shirt.

“I just drove around town, trying to figure out if I really wanted to come here or not.” Jeff jammed his free hand into his coat pocket as he walked alongside her. He looked up at the house and sighed. “Is everybody here already?”

“Yes.” Regina glanced over at her brother, hearing the nervous rasp in his voice.

“Crap, I need a drink.” He ducked his head sorrowfully. “Do you think Mom really threw all my stuff out, Reg?”

Regina brought a hand up and ran her hand through her hair. “I don’t know. Jeff, everything will be fine. Just remember, Dad asked you to come here. That should mean something.” Regina squeezed her brother’s hand and then let him go as they approached the house.

“Yeah, but what?” Jeff trudged sullenly up the porch steps, then, turned around to look back down the steps at Regina. “Should, is the operative word, Reg.”

“Jeff, maybe he just wants us to be a family again?”

“Ah, come on, after everything that happened how can you say that? Take the rose-colored glasses off, Regina.” Jeff opened the storm door and swept his arm out in front of him. “After you.”

Regina offered her father a hesitant smile as she stepped into the house and walked past him. She touched Alex’s arm and guided her out of the hallway. “Let’s give them some time alone.”

Alex brought her lips close to Regina’s ear. “How’s Jeff?”

“He’s a nervous wreck and suspicious as hell. He can never take anything at face value. I guess that’s why he makes such a good lawyer.” Regina walked through the living room and led the way into a small den. The room was lined on two walls with bookshelves that were overflowing with books.

Alex watched Regina lower herself into an overstuffed, leather chair.

The blonde glanced up at her companion and offered her a half smile. “This is my father’s favorite chair to read in,” Regina commented absently.

The taller woman tilted her head and folded her arms over her chest as she observed the emotional strain showing on Regina’s face. “How are you holding up?”

The younger woman ran a hand through her hair and pushed several renegade strands behind an ear. “Eh, got any Valium I can take?”

Alex snorted and let her arms drop to her side. “Nope, only the Haldol I need to keep my alter ego in check.”

Regina frowned and then buried her head in her hands as a heated flush crept up her neck. “Oh Lord, I did tell you that didn’t I?”

A low chuckle emanated from deep inside Alex’s chest. “Yes, you most certainly did, my friend.”

Alex crossed the room to where Regina was sitting and leaned against the arm of the chair. She cast a wary glance out to the hallway before she stroked the blonde’s face and let her fingers slide down to affectionately scratch the nape of her neck. “I knew I met my match that day.”

The blonde leaned into the caress and closed her eyes, awash in the security of the loving touch. “Can we just stay here, away from everyone else for the rest of the weekend?”

“I’d love to Regina, but I don’t think that would go over to well with the rest of your family.” Alex tilted the blonde’s neck back and placed a feather light kiss on Regina’s lips.

“That was a nice kiss,” she murmured into Alex’s shoulder. With a sigh, Regina peered up into gray blue irises that steadily returned her gaze.

“Just nice?” The brunette nuzzled Regina’s neck, inhaling the warm scent of her perfume. Oh you are so bad, Alex chided herself as a thrill of danger coursed through her. Knock it off. She doesn’t need her family walking in here with you hanging all over her.

“You know what I mean.” Regina poked her playfully in the ribs.

“Uh oh, I think I hear your brother.” Alex lifted her head and listened as Jeff’s voice got louder, and then faded away only to be replaced with his brother’s a moment later.

Regina stiffened when she heard the angry voices coming from across the hallway. “Damn, I can hear Mike and Dad arguing.” She stood up from the chair and shook her head. “Let me go talk to them so this doesn’t get any worse.”

******

“So, you actually made it. I wasn’t sure you were going to.” Robert eyed his son warily, realizing that a lifetime of betrayal, missed opportunities, and bitter memories stood between the two of them.

The early afternoon sunshine coming in through a window cast their long, narrow shadows along the floor and halfway up the side of the wall.

Jeff shrugged out of his coat and draped it casually over his arm as he spoke. “I probably wouldn’t have bothered if Regina didn’t come.”

“I kind of figured that.” His father stepped forward and reached out for the garment. “Here. Let me take your jacket, son.”

“I can do it.” Jeff deftly avoided his father’s hand and walked to the closet, where he deposited his coat on a hanger. “See, after seventeen years I still remember where things are in this house. Surprised?”

“No.” Robert ignored the insolent remark. “Your mother’s in the kitchen.”

“Christ, give me a few minutes before you throw me to the wolves.” Jeff turned around and glared angrily at his father.

“Watch your mouth, Jeff,” his father warned him. “No matter what you think, your mother still cares about you.”

“I don’t get it.” Jeff waved his arms out in front of him. “Why after all these years, did you invite me out me here, Dad?”

Robert’s jaw worked several times before he finally uttered a word. “Sixteen years is a long time. How long do we have to wait to be a family again?”

Jeff turned away with his arms folded tightly over his chest, his brow furrowed in aggravation.

“I put the wine in the … refrigerator.” Michael walked out of the kitchen and stopped in his tracks when he saw his older brother standing in the hallway. “Oh, I didn’t know you were here already.”

Without a word, Jeff walked into the dining room, refusing to answer his brother. Son of a bitch! He focused on the room, noticing that his parents had it repainted since … it seems like forever, Jeff thought.

His mother’s china cabinet still sat against the back wall of the house and the liquor cabinet was right where he remembered it, in the corner next to the bay window. If Mom only knew how many times we raided their liquor supply, he mused.

Jeff walked around the oval table, counting seven place settings. Well, I guess they really did plan on me coming out here. He opened the liquor cabinet. “Do you want one?” He lifted a bottle of Scotch toward his father, sloshing the liquid in the half-filled bottle.

“No thanks.”

“Suit yourself.” Jeff shrugged and pointedly ignored his brother. He poured the tawny colored liquor into a glass tumbler. “You didn’t want me to be part of the family sixteen years ago.” He took a swig of the alcohol and grimaced as it burned its way down his throat. “I’m still gay. So what changed your mind?”

“Bloody hell if I know. As far as I’m concerned you could have stayed gone!” Michael growled at Jeff from the hallway.

“Michael, enough!” his father snapped at him.

“Don’t hold back, Michael.” Jeff returned his brother’s fiery stare. “Tell us how you really feel about me.”

Michael looked away and shoved his hand in his pockets. “You know, I really didn’t think you were serious about this, Dad.”

“I see you haven’t changed much. Nice to see you too, Mikey,” Jeff retorted and tossed back another swallow of Scotch before he stalked out of the dining room.

Robert glanced down at the hardwood floor and sighed. Well, I guess that answers how they would get along. “Michael, please don’t make this weekend any harder than it’s going to be.”

“You’re the one who decided to ask him to come home, not me!” Michael snapped. “We could have had a nice quiet dinner to celebrate Mom’s birthday, but no, you had to go and invite them all back.”

“Don’t you think we’ve all suffered enough?” Robert spread his arms wide and implored his son to be reasonable.

Michael threw his arms up and then jabbed a finger at his father’s chest. “Don’t you dare blame me for what happened!”

“Nobody is blaming you. How can you say that?”

“Jeff was always your favorite. You couldn’t stand it when you found out he was a queer.”

“Michael, your mother and I did what we thought was best for the family.” Robert turned his back to his son and stared out the window with a forlorn expression on his face. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.

“Go ahead. Turn your back and pretend I’m not here. That’s what you did to me after Mom threw Jeff out. That’s why I know you blame me, you bastard!”

Caroline walked into the room, carrying Zachary in her arms. “Hey, you woke the baby.”

The boy’s face was burrowed in his mother’s chest and loud sobs hiccupped from him.

“What’s all the shouting about in here?” She wiped the tears from her son’s face, then, looked at her husband and raised a questioning eyebrow.

Michael rubbed his forehead in agitation. “Nothing hon, just an old disagreement.” He walked over and lifted his son from his wife’s arms. “Sorry, Tiger.” He turned away from his father. “Are you coming, Caroline?”

“Yeah, I’ll be right there. Your mom needs help in the kitchen with the roast, Michael.” With a worried expression on her face, she watched her husband leave the room and then turned to her father-in-law. “Robert, is everything okay?”

“Everything’s fine, Caroline.” Robert swallowed and looked away as the echo of ancient memories that haunted his soul.

******

“Alice, what are you yelling about?” Robert looked up from reading a book as his wife stormed into his office.

“Your son! Do you have any idea what he was doing out in the barn?”

“Which one Mike or Jeff?” Robert pulled his glasses off his face and frowned at his wife. He knew it had to be something bad, her nostrils were flaring with every breath, and her face was beet red.

“Michael just told me, he saw … ” Alice’s face paled and she took several gulping breaths. “He just saw Jeff in the barn with another man.”

“Oh, Tom? They’re cleaning out the horse stalls for me.”

“Robert, how can you be so blind? They were, oh God.” She clutched her hand over her mouth and shook her head. “Get him out of here! Get him out of here, now!”

“Alice! Get a hold of yourself. What are you talking about?” Robert stood up and glanced out the window at the wooden structure across the driveway.

“They were doing things to each other.”

“No! Jeff? No way.” Robert threw his book down in the chair behind him and walked hurriedly out of the room. “Michael?”

At the front door, he looked toward the barn and in that instant his world stopped. There in the driveway, he saw Jeff desperately gripping one of Michael’s arms. The smaller boy was flailing his limbs trying to scramble away from him.

He opened the door and stepped out onto the porch. “Jeffrey!”

Michael broke loose from his brother’s grasp as Jeff snapped to attention and stared helplessly at his father. Jeff’s usually neat attire was hopelessly rumpled and what Robert saw in his son’s eyes, damned him more.

“Dad, please.”

Michael screamed something at Jeff, ran past his father into the house, and raced up the stairs.

Robert cringed as he heard the bedroom door slam from an open window. “What did you do, Jeff?”

“Dad.” It sounded more like a moan from a wounded animal.

“Look at me, son. What were you doing in the barn?”

Jeff staggered toward him and glanced anxiously up at his brother as he opened the window and hung his head out. “Please, Dad. Don’t listen to Michael.”

“Jeff’s a faggot!” Michael screamed at the top of his lungs from his bedroom window.

******

After many bitter arguments, he relented and finally gave into his wife. He could still hear his wife’s angry voice ringing in his ears. “What kind of an influence is he going to be on Regina and Michael? Do you want them exposed to that lifestyle?”

He did after all have two other children to worry about and they lived in a small town, where everyone knew everybody else’s business. He convinced himself that they had made the right decision, but as time passed and he watched Regina withdraw from the family and Michael get involved with the wrong group of kids at school he regretted the decision more and more.

Looking back now over a decade later, he wondered how his family might have been different if Jeff was allowed to stay.

******

Jeff wandered down the hallway toward the kitchen. Behind him he heard Michael’s angry voice as he argued about something with his father. Crap! Why did I bother to come here?

He snapped his head around when he heard his mother’s voice from the kitchen.

“Caroline, can you help me with this?”

Silently, he cursed his cowardice. He dreaded this meeting with his mother ever since his father called him a month ago. What the hell do I say?

He took half a step toward the front door and stopped as he felt a surge of anger. No, dammit! You chased me out of the house once; I’m not going to let you do it to me again.

Jeff swallowed nervously, as the short walk to the kitchen felt it took like forever. He saw her from the doorway and stopped, absorbing the image of the woman who stood before him. She seemed smaller and less imposing than he remembered but all the same his heart still raced in his chest.

Her silvery hair was shorter and hung limply about the base of her neck as she bent over the open door of the oven. She struggled with the large roasting pan as she pulled it out and for a moment it teetered precariously in her arthritic hands.

“Caroline can you help me with this?” Her voice wavered as she struggled to control the weight of the pan as she lifted it from the oven rack.

“I got it.” Jeff walked over, slid his hands around the potholders, and took the pan from his mother. Gingerly, he set it on the stove and then quickly stepped back away from her. “Hello, mother.”

The emotions that crossed her face when she looked up at him were unreadable. The silence between them stretched on interminably.

“It’s you,” she finally uttered, her face paling as she leaned heavily against the counter.

Jeff struggled between going to her and the memory of her outright rejection of him as her son so many years ago.

******

“Mom, why can’t you understand? I love him,” Jeff pleaded.

“Love! You’re seventeen. What do you know about love?” She walked away unable to look at her son and reconcile the vile images she had been torturing herself with since she learned the truth about him. She stopped at a closet door, pulled out a broom, and carefully started to sweep the floor at her feet.

“I know that it’s the best feeling I’ve ever known.” Jeff followed her down the hallway. He stopped short when she whirled around and shouted at him.

“Why can’t you just be normal?” She shook a finger at him angrily. “It’s unnatural!”

“This is the most natural thing I’ve done.”

She turned away and continued her sweeping. “Just go. I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

******

The moment passed and his mother turned away to pull a platter out of a cabinet.

“Your father said he called you.”

Jeff couldn’t help feeling defensive, wondering, if his mother wished he hadn’t shown his face here today. “He asked me to be here.”

“I know.” She nodded in response as she went about the task of lifting the roast out of the pan. “You came alone,” she commented quietly.

“I barely got myself here. Why would I want to subject Darryl to this?”

“Regina brought her friend with her.”

He watched her shoulders stiffen at the remark and cringed at the harshness of her voice.

Jeff laughed and shook his head. “That’s how Regina is, Mom.” She was always braver than I was.

“Darryl?” She glanced briefly over her shoulder at her son. “I thought that boy’s name was Tom.”

Jeff leaned against the wall and closed his eyes. I’m surprised you even remember his name. “It was. Tom died ten years ago.”

“Died? She finally turned and studied the young man standing in front of her. “He was so … young.”

He saw the questions reflected back in her eyes and folded his arms. “Tom liked to live fast.” ‘Die young and leave a good-looking corpse.’ It was Tom’s favorite come back whenever I asked him to stop using drugs and frequenting the baths.

“I … I’m sorry,” she struggled to get the words out. “What happened to him?”

Jeff shrugged. You didn’t want to know about my life then, why should I allow you to have those pieces back now? “It’s a long story.”

“I don’t mind.”

With a sigh, Jeff spoke the words quickly, afraid that if he didn’t blurt them out he never would. “Tom was diagnosed with HIV a few years after we met.”

His mother’s expression sobered as a heavy weight of uneasiness settled in her chest. Her voice trembled. “Jeff, before you say anything else, please, tell me you’re not positive.”

Hazel eyes blinked and he stared down at the floor. “I wasn’t the last time I got tested.”

His mother choked back a sob of relief and covered her mouth with a hand. “I’m sorry,” she whispered and turned away from him. Still reeling from what he told her a moment ago, she clutched the edge of the sink with her hands.

Jeff stood at the table unable to approach her. What are you sorry about? You weren’t there. “Tom didn’t die of AIDS Mom. He took an overdose of drugs so he wouldn’t end up like some of his friends did.”

“He killed himself?” Alice wiped her eyes and blew her nose loudly before she faced him again.

“We talked about it as he got sicker. It was what he wanted.” Jeff glanced over at the hallway as Regina appeared in the doorway.

“Hi.” She looked questioningly between her brother and mother. “Are you okay?”

Jeff blew out a breath and shrugged. “I was telling her about Tom.”

“Oh.” Regina stepped hesitantly into the kitchen and walked up beside her brother. She wrapped an arm around his waist and squeezed him affectionately.

“Did you know about him?” Alice looked at her daughter, realizing now, as she watched her two oldest children how little she knew about their lives.

Regina nodded her head. “I flew out to California for the funeral.”

Their mother sighed heavily, her gaze somber as she regarded them. “I don’t pretend to understand your choice of lifestyles.”

She wasn’t sure she could ever accept it. At moments when she least expected it, the words, ‘I’m gay’, still crushed her. Her own hypocrisy haunted her, knowing she had become in one moment of all-consuming and powerfully destructive rage, ‘one of those people’ who ostracized and condemned her own son.

By the time the magnitude of what she did finally broke through her ironclad defenses it was too late. The one time she spoke to Jeff on the phone it quickly spiraled down into an exchange of heated and angry words. The words ‘I hate you!’ followed by the dial tone of the phone, still woke her in the middle of the night.

“It’s not a choice, Mom,” Jeff quickly protested.

His mother held a hand up. “I’m not going to debate what it is or is not. I just … I went through life believing that things would always be a certain way. I learned the hard way that they’re not.”

“Mom,” Regina whispered. She dropped her arms to her sides and gnawed on her lower lip as she watched the anguish in the older woman’s eyes.

“Don’t you think that if you weren’t … gay that you would be happier?” their mother stammered as she wrung her hands together, still keeping her distance from them. “Both of you?” She looked desperately between the two of them.

“No. I’d be miserable if I tried to act straight. Besides, if I did do that, I’d be lying to everyone, including myself.” Jeff glanced anxiously at Regina. Feel free to jump in at any time, Sis.

“You didn’t teach us to be that way, Mom.”

“I sent you away.” She looked at her son and her lower lip started to quiver slightly.

Jeff ran his hands through his hair and looked away from her. He couldn’t bear to see his mother cry. “I told you to fuck off and die.” His eyes met Regina’s and he swallowed nervously. “No, don’t you dare cry.”

The blonde shook her head and covered her mouth with the back of her hand. “Too late.”

“Damn you, Regina.” Jeff acted on impulse and put his arms around his sister. They held on to each other not saying anything. He turned his head and stared at his mother through his own tears, then, slowly, he reached an arm out to her.

“I’ve missed you,” she whispered as she walked toward them and wrapped her arms around her children.

Regina sagged into the embrace when she felt Jeff’s shoulders shudder as he let out a long held sob.
Chapter Sixteen
Regina stepped back out of her brother’s arms, content to let him stand there in their mother’s embrace. It had been so long, she started to believe that she would never see the day her brother would come home and be part of the family again. Not, that things would be normal after this brief interaction; there was so much damage that had to be undone from all the years of separation.

She watched as Jeff pulled out of his mother’s arms and cleared his throat, obviously uncomfortable with the parental display of affection that had been absent from his life for so many years. “Um, isn’t there something you have to do with the roast before we eat? I already hear Regina’s stomach growling.” He flashed an evil grin at his sister who smacked him in the arm in return.

Even after being apart for so long it was easy for them to fall back into their old habits of teasing each other mercilessly.

Alice sniffed and looked over at the counter. “I need to make the gravy. Regina tell your father to come help me in here.”

In that single moment, the rare glimpse of the woman who her mother truly was slipped away. Her emotions efficiently reigned in and back under control.

Regina felt that if she breathed or blinked she would wake up and what she just experienced would be the quickly fading tendrils of a dream. Something she couldn’t grasp or hold onto to prove to herself that it was real. She wasn’t sure what she expected to happen but somehow this wasn’t exactly it.

Quietly, she left the kitchen and went in search of her father. I should be really happy that Mom was finally willing to have Jeff come home. So why do I feel this way?

“Dad?” She found him standing in the living room with a glass of scotch in his hand.

He cleared his throat before he answered her in a gravelly voice. “What?”

“Mom wanted you to come into the kitchen and help her.”

He nodded and set his unfinished drink down on the bar. “I guess we’ll be eating soon. See if you can find Michael. I’m not sure where he went off to.”

Regina sighed as her father walked out of the room. “Michael can find himself,” she muttered irritably. She found herself suddenly miffed with him. Why didn’t he tell Caroline we were going to be here? What is that all about?

She felt someone watching her and raised her eyes to look out into the hallway. Alex was standing in the foyer with both hands tucked into the pockets of her denim jeans. There was concern etched in those incandescent, blue eyes as they studied Regina intently.

For all they had been through over the past few months, it was simple moments like this when Regina would find herself tumbling deeper in love with this woman.

Questioning eyebrows arched beneath dark bangs and the taller woman tilted her head slightly in response to the quiet smile that graced Regina’s features. “What’s happening?”

Regina had to shove her hands into her pockets to keep herself from wrapping her arms around Alex and indulging in a desperately needed hug. Her soul craved the contact but for now she let the gentle, reassuring voice fill the void.

“Everything and nothing.” Regina tucked several strands of flaxen hair behind her ear, an unconscious gesture of her nervousness. “I think dinner is almost ready.”

Alex stepped closer, watching the conflicting emotions warring in Regina’s eyes. She heard the angry voices before Regina left her father’s study and wondered what battle lines were being drawn between the family members.

“Regina?” Her mother’s voice coming from the kitchen broke the quiet reverie they shared.

“Yeah, Mom?” Regina’s eyes glanced nervously towards the kitchen.

“Come help Caroline carry these dishes out to the table.”

“Be right there.” Quickly, she stepped closer to Alex, took hold of her hand, and squeezed it. “Thank you for being here.”

“Your welcome,” the taller woman whispered back and brought the blonde’s hand to her mouth, briefly brushing her lips against the soft skin before she let her go.

******

Regina and her sister-in-law brought out the garlic, mashed potatoes and green beans while Jeff uncorked two bottles of wine in the kitchen.

“Here, Alex.” Jeff walked over and held out a bottle of red wine for the brunette to take. “Sit by me an I promise to keep your glass full all night.”

Alex gave him a wry, sidelong glance and shook her head. “Who drinks red wine?”

“Dad and Mike do.” Regina took the bottle of white wine from her brother and started to fill the wine glasses on the table.

“So is it really going that badly?” Alex tilted her head closer to Jeff as she poured the burgundy liquid into the two remaining glasses on the table.

He caught sight of his younger brother walking toward them, carrying Zachary in his arms. “Let’s just say Mike would be just as happy if I fell off the face of the earth and died.”

“Actually, it would have been fine if you’d stayed in California.” Michael sauntered past his older brother and handed Zachary to his wife. He continued past her, pulled a highchair out of the corner, and set it down at the corner of the table.

Caroline set her mouth in a straight line of disapproval. “Michael it’s your mother’s birthday. Can’t you set your feelings aside for one day?” She settled Zachary into his seat and buckled him in. She lowered herself into a chair next to where Alex was standing on the other side of the table.

With a frown, her husband walked over to where Alex was standing and gave her an expectant look.

“Alex stay there. Michael you can sit across from me,” she spoke firmly, without looking up at her husband.

Alex traded surprised glances with Regina as Michael walked stiffly to the other side of the table and pulled the chair out to sit down. The blonde shrugged her shoulders slightly when Alex continued to hold her gaze.

“It might be nice if you sat with your brother and sister since they are here.” Caroline’s eyes bore steadily into his.

Michael started to retort but fell silent when Regina’s father carried the platter of meat into the dining room and set it in the middle of the table.

As if on cue, Zachary pounded his fists on the plastic tray in front of him and pointed at the food on the table.

“Spoken like a true Kingston,” Jeff replied. It broke the tension in the room and even elicited a chuckle from his younger brother.

“Does mom need anymore help?” Regina offered quietly, stepping away from the table.

“No, she’ll be right here.”

Jeff grabbed her sleeve and nudged his sister forward so that she was seated across from Alex and next to Michael. “I am not sitting next to him,” he hissed fervently when Regina frowned up at him.

“Does everyone … have everything they need?” Alice walked into the room and hesitated as she took in the seating arrangements.

“Sit down, Mom. You’ve done enough already. It’s your birthday,” Michael urged her.

“Nonsense. You know I like to cook,” she responded, sitting at the head of the table across from her husband. Hesitantly, she let her gaze settle on her three children and took a deep breath before she spoke. “Well, I’m not sure I ever believed I would see all three of my children back home again.”

Michael gave his father a dark, sidelong glance before he stared back down at his plate. “I don’t think any of us did, Mom.”

Mercifully, the conversation faded as everyone filled their plates and began to eat. Only Zachary babbled on in blissful ignorance of the uneasiness in the room.

“So, Alex, do you watch any of those television shows about trauma or that one called ER?” Jeffrey asked in between mouthfuls of food.

The brunette swallowed and shook her head. “Not usually.”

“How come?”

“They’re not entertaining to me.” She sipped some wine and set her glass back down on the table.

She knew Jeff was trying to break the icy chill that seemed to have settled over the room and willingly obliged him in his efforts. “I see these people on the screen and my brain automatically starts to think about what’s wrong with them, the course of treatment and what is going to happen to them. Whether they’ll live or die.” She gave him a wry smile. “I do that all day. I don’t want to have to worry about it when I go home.”

“I didn’t think about that way.”

Michael cleared his throat and looked at his sister. “So Regina, what happened with Derrick? Last I heard he was going to propose to you.”

Regina almost spewed out the wine she just sipped from her glass and set her fork down on her plate. “Well, now that’s a quick way to kill my appetite, Michael. Thank you.”

“Didn’t you say Derrick was going to ask her to marry him, Dad?” Her brother leaned forward and looked at their father.

“Michael, stop it.” His father glared at him from the head of the table.

“Christ, would you have more couth, Mike?” Caroline hissed from across the table.

“What? I just want to know what happened.” He shrugged and looked at her with a hurt expression on his face.

I’m so glad you all knew his intentions before I did. Regina glanced over at Alex who fixed her steely gaze on the blonde’s younger brother. “Derrick was a mistake,” she stated.

“What do you mean a mistake?” Michael turned and put his hand on the back of her chair.

Regina’s father shook his head and stood up from the table. “Does anyone want more wine?”

Regina heard her mother sigh from her end of the table before she spoke firmly, trying to get him to back down. “Michael, I don’t want to get into this now.”

Michael started to protest and then jerked in his chair. “Hey! What did you do that for?” He glared at his wife and reached down to rub his smarting shin.

“I can’t believe you’re behaving this way,” Caroline stood up and unbuckled Zachary from his highchair.

“Where are you going?”

“He needs his diaper changed. I don’t suppose you would want to help. Would you?”

Regina took advantage of the opportunity, shoved her chair back, and quickly stood up. “I’ll go with you.”

Caroline laughed. “Oh good, I’ll pawn the job off on you or maybe, Alex.” She smirked and bit back another snort as the brunette coughed loudly and stared up at her in unabashed horror.

Michael rolled his eyes and sighed. “I don’t understand why women are so enthralled with this.”

Regina smacked Michael in the arm. “Bite your tongue or I’ll tell Caroline how many times you woke up with a -”

She didn’t get a chance to finish the sentence as her brother’s hand clamped over her mouth. “Don’t you dare!”

Regina disengaged herself from her brother and stuck her tongue out at him. “You forget, I used to change your diaper.”

Caroline smirked and then nudged Alex. “Come up with us.”

I’m not getting out of this. Alex wiped her mouth with her napkin and shrugged as she looked across the table at Jeff. “Guess I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“No you won’t,” Jeff sulked, knowing he was losing his one ally at the table.

“Lovely.” Mike grumbled, as he watched the brunette saunter out of the room. “My son is up there with a couple of Lesbians.”

“Michael, one of them happens to be your sister or doesn’t that count for anything?” Jeff snapped.

“Caroline doesn’t have a problem with it, but if it was just my decision I wouldn’t have them near him.”

“God, you are such a bigoted pig!”

Alice looked at her son gravely. “Michael, it would suit you well to display some more temperance around your brother and sister.”

With a look of irritation, her youngest son slumped back against his chair. “How can you say that after all the pain Regina and Jeff caused you?”

Jeff poured himself another glass of wine and drained half the glass in one swallow. Oh and I guess you never did anything to disappoint them! Did you?

With a thoughtful expression on her face, Alice rested her forearms on the table. “Zachary is barely a year old. Right now, he’s your ultimate joy and he’ll be the source of your greatest pain during your life, but you won’t ever stop loving him; no matter what he does.”

There was silence for a moment, followed by the sound of a chair scraping back on the hardwood floor. Alice’s eyes followed her eldest son as he abruptly stood up, grabbed the bottle of wine, and hastily retreated from the dining room.

After a moment she stood up and sighed. “One day you’ll understand that, Michael. Hopefully, long before I did.”

*******

Regina giggled as she stumbled up the stairs behind Caroline. “Oh, I think the wine went straight to my head.”

Alex snorted and reached out a hand from behind to steady her lover. “You’re a little, lightweight aren’t you?” She straightened a picture the blonde had accidentally nudged out of place on her way up the stairs.

“I am not!” Regina declared as she turned around on the step and stared at Alex indignantly. “Actually, I think I’m just glad as hell to be out of that room,” she continued in a softer voice as blue eyes widened slightly.

You can say that again. “Ditto,” Alex whispered back.

She welcomed the brief respite from the turmoil that was brewing between Regina’s family members. Even though she knew Regina was quite capable of handling her brother, it still took a considerable amount of effort on her part not to reach across the table and smack Michael across the face for his obnoxious comments.

“Well, I have a rule,” Caroline announced as she reached the top of the stairs with Zachary curled up in her arms.

“Rule?” Alex looked up at Regina’s sister-in-law. “Don’t you know rules are made to be broken?”

“Not this one.” A smirk crossed Caroline’s face.

Alex arched one eyebrow and pursed her lips. “Why do I know that I’m not going to like this?”

“Regina you’re not changing Zachary’s diaper.”

“B … but, hey!” the blonde complained loudly.

“I think Alex should do the honors.” Caroline leaned against the wall and smiled cheekily at the taller woman.

“Oh no!” Alex pivoted and started back down the steps only to be grabbed from behind by Regina. “You’re the pediatrician, not me,” the brunette protested loudly.

“What’s wrong, are you afraid of a little baby?” Regina teased her.

“Regina Kingston, you are in so much trouble.” Alex twisted around to face her. ” Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve changed an infant’s diaper? It’ll probably end up around the kid’s neck!”

“Too bad.” Regina leaned forward and kissed the tip of Alex’s nose. “This, I have to see.”

Alex tried one last ditch effort to plead for mercy. “Caroline, she’s not drunk. Honest. Besides, I do not do children.”

“Well now, no time like the present to learn, is there doc?”

“Shit,” Alex muttered in defeat as Caroline disappeared around the corner. With a resigned sigh, she trudged up the stairs, letting out a startled grunt as Regina smacked her playfully on her buttocks.

“Watch it.” She turned and wagged a finger at the blonde.

“Oh, I am,” Regina retorted and winked saucily at her.

Good thing your mother isn’t around. You might just give her a heart attack, Reg. Alex smacked her forehead in mock exasperation before she trotted up the remaining stairs to escape Regina’s wandering hands.

She stopped short just inside the doorway to Regina’s bedroom as Caroline held a diaper up in front of her. Alex stepped back and then stopped as two hands pressed firmly against the small of her back.

With a groan, Alex stepped into the room and looked dubiously at the blonde haired boy sitting cross-legged on the floor.

Ten minutes later, Alex sat sprawled on the carpeted floor of Regina’s bedroom with both her long, muscular legs stretched leisurely out in front of her. A self-satisfied smile graced her features.

“I can’t believe you did that!” Regina complained as she worked to undo the buttons on her shirt.

“Hey, you’re the one who leaned over when I was changing him.” Alex’s blue eyes twinkled while she watched her partner strip off her cotton shirt and then tug a green sweatshirt over her head. I am in so much trouble, but I have to admit, it was pretty funny. She failed miserably, trying to stifle a snicker.

Regina turned and glared at Alex with her hands firmly planted on her hips. “Not one word, either of you.”

Unable to resist the temptation, Alex gave Regina her most innocent look and gestured at herself. “What did I do?”

The blonde snatched a pillow from her bed and threw it across the room at Alex who deflected it easily. “Brat!”

Caroline cackled as she lay on her back on Regina’s bed, with both knees bent and Zachary perched, in his freshly changed diaper, on her lap. “Guess she forgot about what cold air does to little boys. Right, Zachary?”

In response, he raised both of his hands over his head and squealed in delight when his mother tickled his stomach.

Caroline looked at both of them and sighed. “I’m sorry Michael is being such a schmuck to both of you.”

Regina waved her off and sat down on the floor next to Alex. “You shouldn’t be the one apologizing, Caroline. He’s known most of his life that Jeff and I were different. I guess I never realized how much of a problem he still has with us.”

Her sister-in-law shrugged, her expression sobering. “Honestly, Regina, and I hate to say this because I love him to death. I think he’s afraid that if your parents accept Jeff back he’s going to lose the relationship he’s had with them.”

“That’s insane. Why would he think that?”

Caroline crossed her legs and tilted her head back. “Regina you haven’t been home since you went to college. Michael never left. We got married two years after he graduated high school. He’s had your parents to himself all these years.”

“Doesn’t he understand that after this weekend Jeff will go back to California? How much can change if he’s all the way on the other side of the country?”

Caroline rolled onto her side and cradled her son in the crook of her arm as she slipped off the bed and joined them on the floor. “I don’t know, Regina.”

Zachary crawled over her legs and gurgled contentedly as he rocked back and forth on the floor as he decided what to do next. Intrigued by the shoelaces moving on Alex’s sneakers as she jiggled her feet, he began to creep toward her.

“Ga!” He tried several other variations on the sound, announcing his intentions to his audience.

Alex arched an eyebrow as Zachary stopped in front of her and knelt at her feet. He swayed slightly when he tried to stand up. With his arms spread wide he teetered and then lurched forward as he lost his balance and landed in a tangled heap on her ankles.

Brown eyes gazed up at her seriously and his lower lip quivered slightly.

“Yes, that would be gravity at work.” Alex leaned forward and carefully lifted him off her legs and set him on the floor between Regina and herself.

With a displeased look on his face, Zachary shook his head and promptly crawled back up onto Alex’s lap.

“He likes you.” Regina smiled as she watched her nephew climb over Alex’s legs. Zachary watched the blonde-haired woman as she reached over, and walked her fingers up his leg and then tickled his belly. He tilted his head back and giggled.

The taller woman snorted and folded her arms as the boy straddled her thighs, peering up at her curiously.

It was rare for her to feel comfortable around people she just met but Caroline had made her feel at ease since she met her out in the driveway. Maybe it was just the simple fact, that Regina’s sister-in-law seemed to take her relationship with Regina in stride and was unaffected by their obvious affection for each other.

She glanced over at her lover, feeling guilty about being at least partly responsible for getting Regina’s shirt messed up. She leaned in closer and whispered in her ear. “I’m sorry about your shirt. Don’t be mad at me. Please?”

Regina tilted her head back and arched an eyebrow as she gazed up at the sorrowful expression on her lover’s face. “Keep groveling.”

The blonde tried to ignore the slumped shoulders, focusing instead on Zachary. When Regina caught the pout from the corner of her eye she knew she was done for. Penitent blue eyes met hers and a smile twitched at the corner of her lips. “I couldn’t stay mad at you even if I wanted to.”

Alex gave her a relieved smile and draped one arm over Regina’s shoulders.

The three women looked up as the floorboards creaked outside the bedroom and Regina’s father peered into the room. He cleared his throat, his face coloring slightly as he took in the sight of his daughter leaning comfortably against Alex. “Ah, I thought this is where you all might be. Come downstairs so we can give Mom her presents.”

“Okay, Dad we’ll be right down.”

Caroline stood up and gathered Zachary in her arms. “Come here, little man. Let’s go get grandma her present.”

Regina and Alex followed Caroline out of the room. At the landing of the stairwell, Regina hung back, waiting for her sister-in-law to disappear around the corner. When she did, Regina turned around and wrapped her arms snuggly around Alex’s waist. Her eyes closed and a smile touched her lips as strong arms embraced her and she rested her head against Alex’s chest.

“Mm, I needed that,” she whispered, listening to the strong, rhythmic beating of Alex’s heart.

“Anytime,” Alex replied and pressed her lips against Regina’s hair. “We should get down there before someone comes looking for us.”

Regina squeezed her tightly, eliciting a small grunt from the taller woman. “I can’t wait until we go to Provincetown. I just want it to be you and me, Alex. No one else.”

“That sounds wonderful,” Alex replied and then ducked her head to kiss the blonde lightly on the lips.

Slowly, they released each other and walked down the stairs and into the living room where the rest of the family was already gathered.

“Where’s Jeff?” Regina asked, noting her brother’s absence.

“I think he went out for a walk after you girls went upstairs. I couldn’t find him,” her mother replied quietly from her seat on the couch.

“I’ll see if I can find him.” Regina glanced over at Alex and motioned her to come with her.

She was halfway to the front door when it swung open and her brother stepped through into the hallway, carrying an empty wine bottle with him. “Hiya, Reg.” He waved the green bottle in her direction.

“Jeff, are you all right?”

“I’m fine.” He weaved slightly as he walked towards the kitchen. “Hey, Alex. Where’d you go? I thought I was going to keep your wine glass filled all night.”

“We went upstairs for a bit.” Alex reached out and rescued the wine bottle before Jeff lost his grip on it as he staggered against Regina. “Whoa, easy there, Jeff. What did you have to drink?”

“Ah, let’s see. I had some scotch and some wine. Lot’s of wine.” He squinted as he looked over at the brunette. “Wow, you have really beautiful, blue eyes.”

Regina covered her eyes and groaned as her brother continued his best impression of a babbling idiot. “Jeff, you’re drunk.”

“Well, I should hope so. I drank enough.” He turned completely around, staggering against Alex as he lost his balance. “Did you get her the locket?”

“Shh, not so loud. I’m right here Jeff,” Regina told him. Together the two women guided him into the kitchen.

Alex pulled out a chair and gently pushed Jeff into it. “Sit.”

“Did you get Mom the locket?”

“Yes, I told you I was going to,” Regina replied as she opened a cabinet. She pulled out a glass filled it with water, and handed it to her brother. “Drink this,” she ordered, looking over her brother’s head at Alex, who was standing behind him with a wry expression on her face.

After a swallow he handed the glass back to Regina and pressed his head against her stomach. “I’m drunk,” he slurred.

“No kidding, Jeff.” Alex rolled her eyes and pulled Jeff against the back of the chair as he started to slump heavily against Regina.

“Jeff, are you going to be all right if I leave you for a few minutes?”

Her brother opened his eyes wide and then blinked several times, trying to focus on her. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“I’ll stay with him,” Alex offered.

“Thanks.” Regina smiled at her gratefully before she left the kitchen.

Jeff swayed and leaned back in the chair, oblivious to the fact that his sister left the room. “Shit, I didn’t mean to get drunk. I’m sorry, Regina.”

Alex patted his shoulder and pulled a chair out from the table so she could sit beside him. “Drink some more water.”

Jeff took the glass that she held out to him and sipped the clear liquid. “Where’s Regina?”

“I think she went to give your mother her birthday present.”

He frowned and struggled to stand up. “No, no she can’t do that.”

“Jeff, sit down.” Alex reached out to steady him as he staggered away from the table.

“You … don’t understand.” He licked his lips and wiped his mouth as he braced himself against the doorframe. “Mom didn’t lose that … locket. Michael stole it from her jewelry box and smashed it to pieces with a hammer.”

Alex stood up and walked over to Regina’s brother. “When did that happen?”

“I found him in the basement trying to put it back together the night I left home.” Jeff looked away from her as he sucked his lower lip in and scowled, trying to hold back the tears that brimmed in his eyes.

******

“Mikey?” Jeff slowly walked down the basement steps, letting his eyes adjust to the dim light, coming from the single light bulb attached to an overhead rafter. “What are you doing down here?”

“Leave me alone.” His brothers snarled from over by his father’s workbench.

“Mike, I just … I came to say goodbye.”

His brother didn’t look up as he stepped closer. He could see him bent over the worktable trying to glue something back together. “What are you trying to do?”

“Nothing. Just go away, Jeff!” His brother whirled around and tried to push him back.

“Mike, isn’t that Mom’s pendant?” Jeff asked, as he caught the glitter of shattered glass and gold pieces spread out on the table. “What did you do?”

“Go away! It’s all your fault.”

“Jeff, hurry up your ride is here!” his father called down from upstairs. “What are you doing down there?”

“I’m just saying goodbye to Mike.” He glanced down at the fearful look in his brother’s eyes and put a finger over his own lips to tell him to keep quiet. “I’ll be right up.”

“Don’t tell them. Please?” Michael’s eyes filled with tears. “I didn’t mean to do it.”

“Mom is going to be pissed off.” Jeff shook his head and stepped up to the table, using a rag to wipe the pieces off into his hand. “Don’t worry, Mike. I won’t tell them, ever.”

He slipped the broken pendant and chain into his pants pocket. “Stay out of trouble and don’t touch your sister’s stuff. She’s still big enough to kick your butt.” He punched his younger brother lightly in the shoulder before he turned away and slowly climbed back up the steps.

******

“Jeff that was years ago.”

In frustration Jeff slammed his fist into the wall. “We all chipped in to get it for her as an anniversary present. He’s going to think I’m trying to get back at him for getting me kicked out of the house.”

“Do you think he’d honestly remember after all these years?” Alex walked over to him and stood by the doorway.

“I don’t know. I guess I should go in there.” He looked sheepishly at Alex.

“I’m sure Regina would like you to be there with her.” She clasped a hand on his shoulder as he turned and took several faltering steps toward living room. “Easy. Just lean against the wall.”

In the doorway, they watched as Regina’s mother opened the rectangular box while Zachary sat cradled in her lap, playing contentedly with the wrapping paper.

“This is from both of you?” Alice asked in amazement as she removed the layer of white cotton and peered inside. “Oh … ” She lifted the delicate gold chain up, watching as the locket spun slowly around in the air. “Oh, my.” Her eyes darted between Regina and Jeffrey as her face flushed red with excitement.

“Well, look at that.” Robert leaned forward and peered at the necklace, obviously pleased for his wife. “We never did figure out what happened to that locket.”

“It’s beautiful.” Alice handed Zachary over to her husband and awkwardly stood up, reaching out to embrace Regina. “Thank you,” she whispered in Regina’s ear as she hugged her.

Jeff stared down at the oriental carpet as his mother turned and walked over to him. “Thank you, Jeff. It means so much to me.”

The dark look he received from his brother as their eyes briefly met, answered his question about Michael’s obvious recollection. He closed his eyes as his mother embraced him, offering a silent prayer that his brother would keep his temper in check at least while they were in their parent’s house.

“Your welcome,” he replied as he let her go and shoved his hands into his pockets. He leaned against the wall, fighting off a wave of lightheadedness, as his mother stepped away and walked back to her seat.

“What did you get Mom, Michael?” Regina’s question broke the awkward silence in the room.

“They’re going to stay at our place out on the Cape for a week in the fall.”

“That’s a great time to go,” Alex offered. “The weather is still nice but it’s not so crowded.”

“Have you been out to there before, Alex?” Caroline asked, as she leaned over and picked up scraps of wrapping paper that Zachary had shredded.

“I own a small house out in Provincetown. That’s where Regina and I are going tomorrow.”

“Oh, I remember going out there a couple of times with some friends when I was still in school.”

“You never told me that!” Michael exclaimed as he twisted in his seat to stare at her.

“Yes, I did. You just don’t remember,” Caroline laughed at his shocked expression. She reached over and squeezed his thigh. “Don’t worry, I only looked Honey.”

“Oh, thanks a lot, Caroline.” Michael stood up abruptly and walked out of the room, rudely shouldering his way past Alex and Jeff.

Caroline sighed and shook her head. “I guess I should go apologize to him.”

“Apologize for what, bruising his delicate ego?” Jeff asked as she walked toward him.

“It’s a touchy subject for him. I guess I pushed him too far, joking about it.” She patted Jeff’s arm as she walked past him to go find her husband.

Alice cleared her throat and stood up. “Does anyone want some coffee?”

“I don’t.” Regina glanced over at Alex who shook her head.

“What about you, Jeff?”

“Huh? He lifted his head when he heard his name through his alcohol-induced fog. “No, that’s all right. I’m going to get some fresh air.”

Jeff walked over to the closet and retrieved his coat. He struggled to shrug into it as he fumbled to open the front door.

“Here, let me get that.” Regina walked over and opened the door for him. “Are you okay?” She laid a hand on his back and peered up into his glazed over eyes.

“Fabulous, Reg.” He gave her a sidelong glance. “I just need to go outside.”

“Give me your keys.”

“What? I’m not going to drive anywhere,” Jeff protested.

Regina held her hand out. “Don’t argue with me. Just give me your keys.”

“Fine.” Reluctantly, Jeff dug in his coat pocket and dropped them into her hand. “Feel better?” He pushed the outer door open and escaped outside.

Outside, he groped in his coat pocket for a pack of cigarettes. He found them, tapped one loose from the package, and captured it between his lips. He cursed softly at the nervous trembling in his hand as he tried and failed to get his lighter to work.

Behind him, Jeff heard the front door open and soft footsteps approached. “Need a light?” Alex asked as she walked toward him. She struck a match and cupped her hand around the fragile flame, protecting it from the wind that threatened to snuff it out.

“Thanks.” Jeff sucked greedily on the end of his cigarette and inhaled deeply. “I keep trying to quit but I just can’t do it.” He glanced back over his shoulder. “Where’s Regina?”

“She’s inside playing with Zachary.”

“I’d offer you one, but it’s my last one,” Jeff told her, as he crumpled the pack in his hand and shoved it into his jacket pocket.

“It’s all right. I used to smoke, but I try not to anymore.”

“Lucky you. All this family stuff is making me crazy. You know?” He took a drag from the cigarette and puffed out two perfect rings. “I come home for the first time in seventeen years and they want to pretend like nothing happened.”

Jeff held onto the railing as he made his way down the steps to the driveway.

“You think so? It seemed pretty awkward to me in there.” Alex followed him and looked up at the dark expanse of sky.

Jeff swayed slightly as he stood, gazing out across the field. Alex’s ears picked up the crunch of gravel as someone walked along the edge of the driveway, coming from the corner of the house.

“See, Regina still wants to be a part of this family and that’s great. Me -” he tossed his arm up and waved his hand dismissively. “I don’t belong here. I haven’t for a long time.”

Alex raised her eyebrows as he turned and looked up at her with a sad expression on his face. “Do you want to?” She watched as he flicked ashes from his half burned cigarette onto the gravel.

Before Jeff could answer another voice spoke up. “You’re right. You don’t belong here, Jeff.” His brother stepped out from the shadows and stood on the edge of the driveway, half-hidden in the shadows.

“Where’d you come from?” Jeff frowned irritably at his brother.

Michael shrugged indifferently. “I didn’t feel like listening to Caroline, so I went for a walk.”

God, I like you less every time you open you open your mouth, Alex thought as she looked back and forth between the two brothers. “I imagine you want to talk. I’ll leave you guys alone.”

“You do that,” Michael sneered at the taller woman.

The doctor shot him a dangerous look before she turned and climbed back up the stairs.

Michael watched the door close and then walked over to Jeff. “So did coming home live up to your expectations, bro?”

“I didn’t have any expectations, Michael.” Jeff threw his cigarette on the ground and ground it out with the toe of his shoe.

“Sure you did. That was a nice touch with the pendant. I have to hand it to you, Jeff, you sure know how to manipulate Mom, even after all these years.”

Jeff laughed caustically. “I knew you’d say that.”

“Just go back to California. Nobody wants you here.”

“No, you’re the one who doesn’t want me here, Mike.” Jeff drew himself up taller and glared down at his brother.

“You’re right.” Michael stepped closer and put his face inches from his brother’s. “I don’t want some faggot around my son.”

Jeff stepped back away from his brother’s intimidating glare. “Don’t worry, we don’t start recruiting that young.”

The vicious punch came out of nowhere and doubled Jeff over. He coughed and clutched his side as he tried to catch his breath. “Ah, Jesus,” he groaned. “What the hell … did you do that for?”

His answer was another searing, blast of pain in his face and the metallic taste of blood that filled his mouth. Tears blurred his vision and he was aware of everything fading away as he stumbled onto his knees.

“That’s for coming back home.” His brother’s words rang in his ears until he slumped forward in a heap on the cold ground.

 

Continued in Chapter 17

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