True Colours, Part 2

Chapter 4

Paula ran lightly down the steps, all showered and changed after the water fight. Feels good to get out of those boots once in awhile. She headed to the kitchen, hoping Erin had some sandwiches ready. Paula had waited while Erin jumped in the shower first, because TJ would be waiting for her lunch, and that was Erin's responsibility today.

"Good girl." The dark-haired woman smiled as she entered the kitchen and saw two places set, with sandwiches and iced tea waiting. She sat down and waited for her friend.

Erin entered from the dining room, which was across the hall from TJ's office. "TJ decided to eat at her desk." Erin sat down at her place and started eating and Paula joined her. "Guess you have to change your plan about "kidnapping" her, there's not enough time for her to see Flag before you need to leave for the therapy session."

Paula nodded. "I'll just go in there and tell her she's going, or else. See what happens. She can see Flag later."

The two women ate quickly then Paula rose. "Maybe TJ's right about us treating her like a child. Let's see how far I get treating her like an adult."

"Lots of luck." Erin smiled sympathetically.

She knocked on the office door, then opened it and walked in. "Time for your session, TJ." She couldn't tell whether TJ had actually been conducting some business or was just hiding behind the computer screen. Her empty lunch tray had been pushed aside.

Inscrutable blue eyes looked up from under coal-black brows. "I told you I'm not going."

"TJ, you say you want us to treat you like an adult, but when we try to, you act like a stubborn kid." Paula walked over and half perched on the edge of the vast desk, her voice stern "You know, you set the tone around here. If you want us to think you're a grownup, then you have to start acting like one. Because, so far, you haven't been."

TJ's eyes shifted downward, then she turned her head and lifted her gaze toward the window. Her fingers found an ever-present pencil, picked it up and started a quick tattoo on the desktop. Paula was on tenterhooks, not knowing what to expect, or whether she was even going to get an answer.

The even tattoo became ragged, slowed and gradually stopped. TJ sighed. "Go get the van."

Surprised at her easy victory, Paula jumped up and moved swiftly to accomplish just that. "I'll pick you up at the porch," she responded unnecessarily as she went out, leaving the door open for TJ's easier access.

TJ sat for a little longer, still gazing out the window. Maybe if I go through the motions of cooperating, they will leave me in peace. This morning sure hadn't been peaceful. As far as TJ was concerned, the vet had been an intruder. An annoying one. Why didn't she just take care of Flag and mind her own business?

For some reason, TJ couldn't get her out of her mind. Maybe it was her unaccustomed brashness. Most people quailed in front of the Meridian power, but it didn't even slow the doctor down. TJ shook her head to release the short reverie and wheeled herself out to meet Paula.

Paula worked the wheelchair down the steps and over to the open door on the passenger side of the van. TJ's long arm easily reached the bar that had been installed above the doorway and she hoisted herself in and fastened the seatbelt. Paula folded the wheelchair, opened the sliding door and placed it on its side on the floor behind the front seat. Closing both doors, she jogged to the driver's side, got in, hooked her seatbelt and started up.

They drove for awhile in silence then it occurred to Paula that TJ would want to visit Flag. "I'll take you to see Flag when we come back, if you'd like. Erin and I have to give her some shots just about then and maybe you'd like to come watch us. We'll probably have to give her another bath, too."

"So it was Flag who got the bath today?" Paula's head jerked around for a quick glance at TJ, then came swiftly back to the road. But that glance had been enough to see the tiny quirk at one side of TJ's lips, a precious look that had been absent for too long.

"Why, TJ, I do believe you are teasing me." Paula automatically flicked the back of her hand at TJ's thigh then suddenly realized the woman couldn't feel that friendly gesture. Turning her head quickly to the left, Paula blinked rapidly and swallowed hard to arrest the unexpected tears that threatened to strike.

"I guess that means you saw us come out of the barn, dripping wet, huh?"


Paula had started to grin, but the yearning so evident in that one word cut it short. She was glad they were pulling up in front of the counselor's office building. She jumped out, got TJ back in her wheelchair and took her in for her appointment. She left TJ in the small waiting area when Peter himself came out and beckoned Paula into his office.

A few minutes later, Paula came out, wheeled TJ into the office and left. Peter came out from behind his desk and sat in a stuffed chair across from TJ. Mahogany shelving filled with leather-bound books rested in the L of the corner near his neat work space. Several large, signed abstract prints hung randomly about the buff walls, interspersed with framed diplomas, testifying to Peter's expertise. A couch and matching chair made a cozy nook against the far wall with green carpeting and soft overhead lighting completing the décor.

"Well TJ, Paula tells me you had some excitement this morning. With the vet?"

Peter was gratified to see that the usually cool blue eyes stirred a bit. "You could have asked me if anything had happened, you know. You don't need to have one of my own employees spying on me."

"Paula isn't spying on you. Actually, I just wanted to get her impressions of whether these sessions seem to be helping you any. She volunteered the information about this morning. You want to tell me about it?"

The counselor put his elbow on his chair arm and leaned his chin on the back of his hand. A man of medium height and build, Peter wore his light brown hair short and a darker mustache and beard graced his fair-complexioned face. Wire-rimmed glasses covered eyes that were, disconcertingly, of two different colors, one blue, one brown. It gave one the eerie feeling that two people lurked behind his personable face.

TJ shrugged. "Not much to tell. She came to take care of a sick horse and when she found out I was in the house, she came charging in and let loose a diatribe about my family ruining Meridianville. Old news."

"Did you get mad at her for running down your family?"

"No, what she said was right." The more I think about it, the more I think I admire her guts. She was wrong to burst in on me like that, but most people wouldn't even try.

"And did you feel responsible for it?"

"Me responsible for what my father did?" TJ shifted her shoulders in her chair. "Of course not."

"How do you feel about what your father did?"

TJ slammed her fist down on the arm of her wheelchair and exploded. "This is not about my father! Get that through your thick skull. I refuse to sit here and discuss him. We're supposed to be discussing my suicide attempt and what caused it, aren't we? That had nothing to do with my father. He's dead. D-e-a-d, dead. You got that?"

Peter tried to soothe TJ with a soft voice. "Don't you see, TJ, the reason you get so upset when I ask you about your father is because you have some unresolved issues about him. We need to get those out in the open to see what bearing they have on your attempt to end your life. You need to talk about him."

"Well, Peter, if that's the only way you think you can find what pushed me to try suicide, then we are both in trouble. I will not, I repeat, I will not discuss my father with you or with anybody else. Period. Go get Paula. This session is over." TJ leaned her head back against the chair and closed her eyes.

Peter could taste the bitterness of frustration. Such a beautiful, intelligent woman but she seems filled with self-hatred. How can I reach her? How can anyone reach her?

Peter knew from past experience that waiting for TJ to change her mind was a waste of time. "When you come next week, we won't talk about your father, TJ. We'll explore other avenues."

I won't be here next week, TJ wanted to scream, but knew she couldn't. The only thing standing between her and being committed to a mental hospital was the promise to attend these sessions. And I will not be put in a mental hospital. I will die first. TJ's eyes flew open, but Peter had gone to call Paula. I didn't mean that, I didn't mean that, she tried to convince herself.

Paula came in, wheeled TJ out to the van, and drove her home. Not a word came from the woman in spite of several attempts at conversation by Paula. Lord, she's worse now than before she went in. Are we doing the right thing? Let's hope that seeing Flag cheers her up; it's remarkable what that animal can do for her.


Some people woke up at the same time every morning, rain or shine. Mare had never been one of those people. The alarm clock had to drag her awake every day, that is on the days when she was asleep in the morning. Vets didn't always have that luxury. But this day the insistent clang pulled her from the depths and she sat up groggily. The last few days had been a hell of activity with so many heatstroke cases mixed in with the normal, everyday, sicknesses and injuries. And hell was the right word. If this heat doesn't break soon, I just might. Thank whatever gods may be for air conditioning.

But the barns weren't air conditioned and neither were the fields or ranges. Mare was out in the heat more than she was inside, and the heat drained her energy like a swift siphon.

As she almost sleepwalked through her shower, breakfast and restocking medicines and supplies in her pickup and bag, Mare's thoughts centered on her trip back to the Meridian ranch today. She wondered what her reception might be. She hadn't been especially tactful with either Erin or TJ Meridian, to put it mildly. Or Paula, for that matter.

She mused about the three women. Erin seemed pretty nice. Paula seemed pretty tough. And TJ? Mare wasn't sure how to categorize TJ or how she felt about her. Maybe mostly still angry with her as a Meridian, but also partly apologetic for bursting into her home and lambasting her the way she had.

Finally, bag and truck were restocked and Mare embarked for the Meridian ranch.

Mare saw the boy bicycling some distance ahead of her. He looked to be about 10 years old and she thought she recognized his shock of red hair. He pedaled furiously then heard her truck and turned to glance behind him. As he did, the bicycle swerved a bit, ran off the road, hit a large stone and catapulted the rider into the dry ditch that ran alongside. Mare slammed on squealing brakes, turned off the motor, grabbed her bag and ran to the boy's side.

Besides unfortunate, but relatively harmless, brush burns, he had received a nasty cut on one leg where it had skidded across a piece of broken glass. He sat up and was trying hard not to cry, but tears rolled from his pale blue eyes, down across his freckled cheeks.

Mare squatted down, checked to make sure there was no glass embedded in the wound and applied pressure to stop the spurt of blood from a damaged artery. "Aren't you Johnny Robertson?" Mare knew that speaking to the boy would help to ease his pain. She knew that he was one of the sons of George Robertson who owned a nearby farm. The boy nodded his head and sniffled.

"You'll be okay, Johnny. Just let me clean this up and get a bandage on it and I'll take you in to Dr. Samuels."

At the sound of hoofbeats, Mare looked up and saw TJ Meridian approaching on a sleek, black mare. The woman slowed her mount and guided it up to the fence near the accident scene, her cool blue eyes observing the boy's predicament.

Resentment momentarily locked Mare's tongue, but for the boy's sake she swallowed her pride and asked for assistance. "Miss Meridian, we could use some help, here. I have a cell phone in the pickup. Could you call for the ambulance? Then we'll try Johnny's family."

Mare saw unexpected compassion in TJ's expression as she looked at the youngster. She reached to the belt encircling her long, blue tunic and unclipped a cell phone that Mare hadn't noticed. When the blue eyes turned to Mare, the compassion had disappeared to be replaced by the usual cool disinterest. "9-1-1?"

"Yes, we have 9-1-1 here."

TJ made the call. "They're coming." Her terseness eased as she spoke to the boy. "What's your phone number, Johnny?" TJ punched in the stated number. "Sorry, there's no answer at your house."

The timbre of TJ's low, soft voice unexpectedly resonated with something in Mare's emotions, astonishing her.

She quickly returned her attention to the boy's wound. "If you would come down here and hold Johnny's leg, I could get a pressure bandage on it." When there was no answer, Mare looked up at TJ and caught the slight twitch that flitted across one side of her face.

"I… don't think so."

Mare strained to hear the soft voice and was dumbfounded when TJ turned the horse's head, clucked to it and trotted off, pulling the phone again from her belt. The trot soon changed to a gallop, and horse and rider rode out of sight.

I can't believe it! You'd think even a Meridian would want to help an injured child. But I guess I already knew they were a pretty heartless bunch. Mare turned her attention back to Johnny who hadn't taken his eyes off of TJ until she rode away. "That lady is beautiful!" he said almost reverently.

Mare smiled at the wonder shining from his eyes. "Yeah, she is." At least on the outside.

"Who is she?"

"She's a new neighbor, Johnny. She owns the ranch across from your farm."

Mare heard a vehicle approaching. Looking toward the sound, she saw a LandRover come toward them, then pull over to the side of the road right near them. Erin Scott jumped out and hurried to Mare's side.

"TJ called, said you needed some help." Erin squatted down next to the boy and smiled at him. "How do you feel?"

Johnny blushed at this attention from a stranger. "I'm okay. The doc's taking care of me."

"Erin, this is Johnny Robertson from one of the farms across from the ranch. Johnny, this is Miss Scott. She works for the lady who was on the horse."

"Glad to meet you, Johnny." Erin offered her hand to the boy and he sat up straighter and shook it respectfully. "I expect we'll be staying at the ranch for a long while, so I hope to meet your family one of these days."

Another pickup slowed to pass them, then zoomed to the side of the road and a big, redheaded man leaped from the cab. "Johnny! Are you okay?" He ran to the boy and grasped his shoulder.

"I'm okay, Dad. Doc Gillespie helped me." The man's eyes turned to the vet. "Thanks, Doc. What happened?"

Mare told George Robertson about his son's mishap. As she finished, the ambulance arrived and the EMT's took over. Mare picked up her bag and walked back to her pickup with Erin following her. "You on your way out to the ranch?" Erin asked.

"Yes, I was. I'll be right along." Mare turned to meet Erin's eyes and saw that she felt rebuffed by Mare's attitude. I shouldn't give her a hard time. After all, she's not TJ. "Thanks for offering to help." She smiled at the blonde and got a tentative return smile.

"TJ wouldn't help, but she sends you to. I don't get it. What motivates that woman?" She think she's too good to dirty her hands with us little people?

Erin looked earnestly at the vet. "As you get to know her, you'll find she's a very complex woman, Doctor. Many times even I don't know what motivates her. But I respect her. She has a noble heart."

"Humph! I doubt if I'll ever get to know her that well." Mare opened the pickup door and stepped in. "Shall we go take care of her horse?"

"I'll turn around and be right behind you." A sad little smile curved Erin's lips. "Give her a chance, Doc. You might be surprised at what you find."

"Right." Mare used one of her favorite words, but her derisive tone negated any sense of agreement. She turned the key and started up the pickup as Erin walked away.


After asking Erin to come and help the doctor, TJ spoke to Paula. "I'm coming in. Meet me at the barn." She closed the phone before Paula answered and concentrated on balancing herself on Ebonair's back. The straps that were connected to the front of the saddle came across her thighs and buckled to the back flaps. These gave her enough stability to ride with little difficulty if she went slowly, but on horseback TJ wanted to fly.

With Flag, TJ became such a unit with the palomino that Flag's legs became her legs and there was never any question of sliding off. Ebonair, however, wasn't Flag and TJ had to stay constantly alert when she galloped her. She slowed the animal to a walk as she got nearer to the barn, giving it a chance to cool down.

Finally, she reached the barn where Paula was dutifully waiting outside on the ramp, with the wheelchair next to her. A lift, made of a T-shaped piece of metal connected to a chain, dangled overhead from a makeshift roof. An electrical wire was threaded through the chain and ended at a 2-button box that was connected to the underside of the T-bar.

TJ pulled Ebonair alongside the ramp and Paula hooked the horse to a lead rope attached to the side of the ramp. Then she undid the straps on one side of the saddle while TJ worked on the other side. TJ reached up, grasped the T-shaped bar with both hands, and with sheer strength pulled herself up out of the saddle, swinging her upper body to free her legs. With one hand, Paula guided her friend's body and legs into proper position over the wheelchair. TJ thumbed one of the buttons on the electrical box and the T-bar slowly descended and lowered her into the chair. Ebonair skittered a little at the noise, but her rider was well out of harm's way.

"Why didn't you use the lift to pick you out of the saddle?"

TJ shrugged. "Just felt like doing it myself."

TJ hooked herself into the chair, reached into a pocket of cloth hanging from the chair arm and pulled out a towel. Briskly, she scrubbed the perspiration from her face while Paula unlocked the wheels and maneuvered the chair into the tack room. Paula opened the fridge and pulled out a couple of the sodas. Handing one to TJ, she popped one for herself and sipped at it. TJ popped hers, tilted it back and drank it down without stopping.

Paula frowned at her. "You okay? I still don't think it was a good idea for you to be out in this heat."

"It's still early morning, Paula. I'm fine, just a little thirsty from sucking in all that dry air."

"What happened out there?" Paula tilted her head and frowned. "Erin goes flying outta here, then you come flying in."

"A boy from one of the farms fell from his bike and the doc was on the road and, apparently, saw it happen. She was taking care of him and needed some help." TJ dropped her head and a grimace gave a quick tug at her lips. She took a deep breath, then lifted her head and her ice-blue eyes swept up to meet Paula's nearly black ones. "But I couldn't do a damn thing except make a couple phone calls." The pained eyes moved away.

Paula's frown was still there, but her eyes softened and she grasped TJ's shoulder and squeezed it. "Hey, you did what you could, okay? Calling Erin was the smart thing to do." When there was no response from TJ, Paula walked behind the chair and started pushing her. "C'mon, let's get you in the house."

"And to the bathroom."

That wasn't meant to be funny, but Paula grinned. At least TJ had something else to occupy her for a little while. Might help take her mind off her latest bout with her disability. "And to the bathroom," she agreed.


Chapter 5

The bathroom that was part of her personal suite of rooms was the first place that TJ had ordered remodeled. It contained every contrivance she needed to take care of her own needs without assistance.

The second remodeling done was the wooden ramps: one into the sunken living room for convenience, and the one behind the barn to enable TJ to get on and off a horse. TJ was tall and solid and neither Paula nor Erin, alone, was strong enough to help her in mounting and dismounting. The ramp had been a life saver for her.

Once Paula was sure her help wasn't required, she went back to the barn to unsaddle Ebonair. She carried the saddle into the tack room and placed it on the saddle rack, then went back to remove Ebonair's bridle and replace it with a woven halter.

She looked into Flag's stall as she went by and thought how glad she was the doc was coming out today. TJ's pride and joy seemed a bit better, but she wanted to hear that from the vet.

Paula sprayed Ebonair off with a hose, then turned her into the corral with her own horse, a chestnut mare named Running For Fun, called Runny, for short.

Ebonair was Erin's horse and every time Paula saw her friend aboard the mare, she thought how perfect it was that the curly-headed blonde had chosen such a sleek, black horse. The contrast between the two made a gorgeous picture.

Paula took the bridle into the tack room and hung it on the wall. As she walked out, she heard two vehicles come to a stop outside the barn, one after another. Probably Erin and the doc. A short moment later, her guess proved correct as the two women walked side by side into the barn, chattering about the injured youngster.

They stopped when they saw Paula, who stepped forward and offered her hand. "Dr. Gillespie, I'm Paula Tanner. We…ah…weren't exactly formally introduced." A light blush warmed Paula's tanned cheeks as she recalled just how they did meet.

A slow, sardonic grin worked its way across the vet's lips as she noticed the blush. Maybe not so tough as I thought. "Glad to meet you, Paula." She held the taller woman's hand for a moment, lifting it up with hers. "I have to admit I like your hand better here than clutched around my arm."

"Yeah. Sorry about that." Paula spoke brusquely, a bit put off by Mare's sarcasm, and Erin lifted an eyebrow at her friend. "When TJ says jump, I jump. If you're the one in the way, you're the one I land on."

Erin spoke quickly. "Maybe we can get off to a better start, now that things have calmed down."

Neither the doctor nor Paula committed themselves, each eyeing the other warily.

Finally, Erin broke the silence that had fallen. "C'mon, Doc, take a look at Flag. She looks a little better, doesn't she?"

Mare went through the usual routine, taking Flag's temperature and checking her heart rate. "She does seem to be improving. Let me get some more Ringer's in her." Mare went to the truck to get what she needed while the other two waited for her in the barn.

"What's wrong with you, Paula? You about bit her head off." Erin poked her friend's ribs with her elbow.

"I'm not too happy with anyone who upsets TJ and she sure as hell did upset her. Mouthy little son of a bum."

"Whoa! Is this the pot calling the kettle black? You've done your share of mouthing off at TJ. You wouldn't have dared to say some of those things before her injury."

They could see the vet searching through the various compartments of the camper.

"Some of those things I've said purposely to get some kind of reaction from her. TJ scares me when she pulls that I-don't-give-a-damn act. I'm afraid it might become real."

"Well, her anger at the doc looked a lot healthier to me than that fury she gets into when she's frustrated."

Paula's face lost some of its sternness and her eyes changed from stubborn to interested. "You know, I think you might be right. I know the doc's words hurt her; I could see it in the way her jaw clamped together. But, later, when I took her in to her therapy session, she actually teased me about the bath we gave each other." Paula slowly nodded her head. "Maybe the doc woke something up in TJ. I sure hope so."

Mare came back in waving a drip clamp. "The darn clamp broke and I had a heck of a time finding another one. Guess I know one thing to put on my shopping list."

Paula put a lead on Flag and held onto her while Mare again put a catheter in Flag's jugular vein, set up the IV of Ringer's solution, and ran it in. "You have three beautiful horses here." Mare had gotten a better look at the other two today, especially the black one.

Erin smiled and nodded. "Runny, the chestnut, is Paula's, Ebonair is mine and Flag is TJ's." She reached over and patted Flag's flank. "TJ is crazy about this horse; she's like a member of her family."

Paula snorted. "Better than her family." Then she realized her indiscretion and clammed up.

"She's a jumper. That was a sight to see. Flag and TJ looked like they were one solid animal instead of two separate ones. TJ won a lot of medals with her, before…" Erin's reminiscence came to an abrupt halt and she seemed flustered. Mare gave her a questioning look. "Before we came here," she finished lamely.

"Why don't you write the doc's check, Erin, while she's finishing up?" Paula looked pointedly at her friend.

"I left the checkbook in TJ's office. We can get it when everything's finished here. Give the doc a chance to cool off, too."

Mare asked a question that had been bugging her all along. Flag was a valuable horse, yet it's owner hadn't stepped foot in the barn while Mare was here. "If TJ's so crazy about Flag, why isn't she out here?

Erin looked at Paula, who gazed placidly back but didn't say a word. "I think it bothers her a lot that Flag isn't well. Maybe she just can't stand to see her in this condition."

"Ummmm. So she lets you two worry about it." The sardonic smile was back.

"Look, Doc." Paula nearly growled. "You don't know a thing about TJ, so just keep your mouth off of her and we'll all get along a lot better."

When anyone attacked her with words, Mare's first inclination was to strike back. Her mind was quick and she had a wit that could turn a nasty phrase with the best of them. But something made her pause. Maybe it was the softness she saw in Paula's and Erin's eyes when they mentioned their employer. TJ obviously was not just their employer, but their friend. And for some reason, they both felt protective of her. It was a puzzle to Mare, and she loved the challenge of a puzzle. She determined that sooner or later she would discover for herself how TJ had been able to deceive two intelligent women.

Mare didn't answer Paula. She gathered the plastic bags emptied of their Ringer's solution, and unhooked the IV apparatus. She picked up her bag and walked into the tack room to clean the IV equipment out in the sink, tossing the plastic bags in the trashcan located there. More wide awake this time than when she had first been in here, she looked curiously around the whole room. Other than the table, sink, cupboards, and refrigerator she had seen on her earlier visit, she saw three Western saddles on racks, bridles dangling from wall hooks, a couple of space heaters stuck back out of the way, and a couple of fans standing out ready for use.

One of the saddles, partially blocked from view by another, appeared to have extra leather straps attached, possibly for decoration. Or maybe to attach extra saddlebags. That one's so fancy I would guess it's TJ's. A closed can of saddle soap with a rag lying next to it was sitting on the rack as though its user had been interrupted in the midst of attending to one of the saddles.

Mare finished her cleaning, set out some more supplies on the worktable for Flag's continuing care, put new medication in the fridge, and went out of the tack room. Erin stood there alone. "Paula just went up to the house to get the checkbook. I’ll help you with your stuff."

"I left the same supplies for you as last time. Flag's care will remain the same and I'll come back again in a couple of days to check her again. If she gets any worse, call me."

Paula entered the barn. "TJ says would you please come to her office. She will pay you for your services, but she wants to speak with you about Flag."

This is different. Usually an owner cares enough to come to the barn and watch me treat the animal. But this one can't be bothered; I have to go to her. Just about the time I think, well, she isn't her father, maybe I'm being too hard on her, she pulls something arrogant like this. Mare took her bag and IV apparatus outside and dropped them off at her camper then followed Paula and Erin into the house.

Paula stayed in the kitchen, while Erin escorted Mare to the office. Erin knocked on the closed office door then, after a slight hesitation, opened it and walked in. Mare's eyes met a pair of blue eyes that reflected her own noncommittal attitude. The woman certainly does exude power, and not just from her manner. You can see it in her eyes and feel it from the deference of her two friends.

Erin motioned Mare to a seat in front of the oversize desk. "Would either of you care for some iced tea?" She looked from one to the other but both women declined.

In a calmer mood now, compared to her first visit, Mare took closer notice of the office. The room was large, with a random hardwood floor of a slightly darker shade than the honey-oak furniture. A large, square, deep-blue rug held the desk, its attached computer wing, and several comfortable chairs covered in milk-chocolate-colored leather. The desk was bare except for the usual caddy of pens, pencils, paper clips and rubber bands; a telephone with built-in intercom; a console covered with labeled buttons; an appointment book and two pictures. One picture was of a young man, with the same black hair and unforgettable blue eyes as TJ's; the other was of Faithful Flag.

Broad, arched, floor-to-ceiling windows graced two sides of the room. Wide, vertical, jalousie-style shades made of ecru cotton covered the windows, enabling one to adjust the light streaming through them and adding an airiness that complemented the eggshell walls. Honey-brown drapes, woven to simulate burlap, hung to each side of the windows to provide room darkening if desired.

There were two other doors. One, in the wall to the left, probably went to another part of the house, or possibly to a bathroom. The other, wider, door apparently gave egress to a screened porch which could be seen through one window.

One set of bookshelves stood immediately behind the desk. Another, more informal looking set, stood in a corner to the left of the door Mare had come through. In front of it, a couch, two stuffed chairs, and a television sat atop a dark blue and cream oval rug. The juxtaposition of the ensemble, complete with reading lamps, made a cozy nook.

A giant television screen covered part of the wall directly opposite the honey-oak desk. In the two corners of the wall behind the desk, Mare saw the oak cabinets that displayed trophies, medals and ribbons. On one shelf of the right-hand cabinet lay a hat, quirt, and white gloves.

To the right of the entrance door, a five-tiered corner shelf fitted snugly against the walls and held framed photographs. Without turning around, Mare wasn't able to see whom the photos depicted.

On the eggshell walls, several painting rested, overhung with display lights. Outdoor scenes, featuring at least one horse, were accentuated with various shades of blue skies and burnt sienna earth tones.

"Do you need us for anything else, TJ?"

"No, just one of you stay by the intercom. I'll call you when we're finished."

"Sure, enough." Erin patted Mare on the shoulder as she turned away, a friendly touch that brought an answering smile from the vet.

The smile still lingered as she brought her attention back to TJ. "Hi. You had some questions about Flag?"

This time TJ picked up a pen to play with. Her checkbook lay on the desk, unopened. She seemed uncomfortable, shifting several times in her chair. A jacket hung on the back of the chair, just as before.

Mare realized that because she had blown off steam the first time they met, TJ probably wasn't sure of Mare's attitude now or how to start the conversation. Never one to sit quietly unless she was concentrating on her job, Mare spoke up. "Flag's coming along very nicely. I expect she will start sweating by tomorrow or the next day; that's usually the course of heatstroke. One more visit, day after tomorrow, will probably be enough. Erin and Paula have done their job well."

TJ cleared her throat. "Erin and Paula always do a good job. They've been keeping me apprised of Flag's care and recovery." She hesitated, took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I thank you for that." The remarkable eyes dropped to her fiddling hands. "I've had Paula and Erin asking around about you. By all reports, you're a very competent vet." The eyes swept back up and locked on Mare's.

Great gods, woman! Those eyes are a weapon, aren't they? This time, a little miffed, Mare didn't say anything and the silence drew out. Asking about me, huh? I could have given you references. I refuse to say another word until you do. I will sit here forever, if I have to.

As they sat there staring at each other, Mare saw something flicker in the depths of TJ's eyes. Is that amusement? One dark brow barely twitched. Finally the dark-haired woman spoke.

"I'm planning on making Meridian ranch a working cattle ranch again and eventually re-opening the meatpacking plant. That should give a shot in the arm to the economy around here. I'm going to need the services of a good vet and I'd like you to think about accepting a retainer to take care of the livestock, both horses and cattle."

Mare still didn't answer. Think I'll let her stew for awhile. She knows I'm the only vet within 50 miles of this place. She'll be in dire straits if I say no. Of course, I will be, too, since I'm just barely providing for myself as it is now.

TJ waited, but when Mare didn't answer she opened the checkbook and riffled back to the previous stub for the vet. "Paula said your fee for today would be the same as last time?" She looked up again, and Mare nodded. TJ wrote the check and handed it toward Mare. Mare stood up and accepted the payment, folding it and stuffing it into the breast pocket of her gold-and-brown-plaid shirt.

"Will you think about the retainer offer? If you decide in favor of it, we can discuss remuneration on your next visit."

Remuneration? Holy Hannah! The word alone ought to be worth a hefty price. Trying not to let her expression give away her thinking, Mare kept a blank face and nodded. "I'll let you know."

TJ picked up the phone, pushed a couple of buttons and asked the one who answered to come to her office. She reached out her hand and Mare shook it

The large hand engulfed Mare's smaller one but there was no undue display of strength, just a firm grip that hinted at it. "Thanks again."


Erin came in and walked Mare to her truck. The taller blonde looked down at the doc. "Thanks."

"Taking care of Flag is part of my job." Mare patted her pocket. "My fee is thanks enough."

Erin grinned. "I meant thanks for being nicer to TJ. Paula and I were kind of nervous about it, but you two actually looked civilized this time."

Mare laughed. "You suggested I give her a chance and I decided you were right. I'm going to give her plenty of rope and see which one of us gets hung."

Erin shivered dramatically. "That's not a very pleasant figure of speech."

The vet threw back her head and laughed again. "Maybe not pleasant, but probably appropriate!" She got in the truck. "See you day after tomorrow."

"I'm looking forward to it." Erin waved as Mare closed the door, started the engine and left.

Erin went back to TJ's office. Paula had just brought in some iced tea and the two women sat down. "Well, how did it go?" Erin inquired after she took a sip of tea.

"She's going to think about the retainer and let me know when she comes back out."

"TJ…" Erin said firmly, feigning exasperation. "I meant how did you two get along. Paula and I were nervous wrecks."

TJ looked down at her hands, which were quiet for a change. A small lift of one side of her lips made Paula surreptitiously stick her elbow into Erin's ribs.

"She has a mind of her own, that's for sure," she said as she looked up. Seeing the tiny seed of amusement that struggled to sprout in her eyes warmed the hearts of both of her friends.

"She sounds perfect, then, TJ." Paula surprised Erin with her quick endorsement of Mare. "You wouldn't want anybody working for you who didn't have a mind of her own." Paula grinned wickedly. "Would you?"

The small lift of her lips turned into a bona fide lopsided grin. TJ shook a finger at her pesky friend. "You're gonna get it one of these days…"

"Yeah, promises, promises," laughed the audacious Paula while Erin blushed and hid the grin that came unbidden to her lips.

"Get out of here, you two, and let me get some work done." TJ waved her hands to shoo them out, but the grin stayed on her face. "Come get me when supper's ready."

The two women got up and left the office. "Yesssssssssssssss!" Paula threw her fist in the air. "I knew that little doc was having a good influence on her. I don't know what it is, but I hope it keeps up."

"Yeah, Polly, and you even got a smile out of her." Erin's eyes were bright and shining. She grabbed her friend's shoulder and shook it as they entered the kitchen.

"She's even going to join us for supper instead of sitting there by herself in that office eating off a damn tray. I tell you, Erin, I am one happy camper. I'll even help you make supper!"

This earned her a quick kiss from Erin. "Offering to cook? You must be happy!" The two friends laughed and started preparing the meal.


Chapter 6

Mare entered her kitchen, tossed her bag on the floor next to the door, and grabbed a soda from the fridge. Drinking it quickly, she examined the contents of the fridge for dinner possibilities and decided on cold, sliced ham and the potato salad still left from the weekend. But first, a shower. Rinsing the empty can and tossing it in the recyclables container, she headed for liquid refreshment for the outside of her body.

After her shower and dinner, Mare went into the sitting room and sat at the piano. Everyone else would call this a living room, but Mom always called it a sitting room and that's what it will always be to me. With little conscious thought, her fingers ran up and down the keyboard for a few minutes of loosening up then leaped of their own accord into George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.

The strong chords, intricate melodies and fast fingering spoke for the disturbance within her and she lost herself in the music. "Why am I disturbed?" she finally asked herself, aloud, when she finished the composition. For a long moment, she truly puzzled over what had caused a strong enough impression on her to lead her to the keyboard for solace. Then the title of the piece smacked her brain and immediately conjured up a familiar pair of blue eyes.

She replayed the rhapsody, thinking this time of the woman sitting in the office of the ranch and reliving their words and actions from their first meeting. Finally, her fingers finished and came to a rest. Yep, that's her all right--a rhapsody in blue.

Why can't I get her out of my mind? The fascination of this woman has awakened my thoughts in a way nothing has ever done before. I have to find out more about her and the Meridian family. Maybe once I have all the facts I can lay the mystery to rest.

Mare got up, went into the kitchen, and checked her appointment book. Nothing on my schedule for tomorrow that can't be put off one more day. I'm taking tomorrow off and going to the library in Sharlesburg on a fishing expedition. Fishing for information about TJ Meridian and her family. Maybe that will help make up my mind about the retainer, too.

At first the offer of a retainer had sounded repugnant to Mare, coming from the daughter of the reviled Thomas Meridian, and her inclination had been to refuse. Then Erin had told her that saying about giving someone a fish or teaching him to fish and her resolve had wavered. Then today, TJ herself had recounted her intention of rebuilding the town by rebuilding the ranch and meatpacking plant.

If she does as she plans, that would pick this town right up. And if she builds up her cattle herd, she will need a vet, so, by helping her I would also be helping the town. I'll make sure that rebuilding the town is spelled out in the retainer agreement.

The doctor nodded to herself, satisfied that signing a retainer with the Meridian ranch would help the town as well as herself. She got herself another soda and sat at the table to finish it. Another thought sprung into her mind and she had to chuckle at the persistence of whatever had touched her subconscious. If you sign a retainer, you'll get to see the mysterious TJ more often.

Mare turned and spoke to her reflection in the wall mirror. "Get yourself to bed, Doctor, and give your soppy brain a rest."

The golden-haired vet did go to bed, but her brain wasn't cooperating with the idea of rest; it wouldn't shut down. Mare couldn't get TJ out of her mind. Something just didn't ring true, and it nagged at her. Okay, look at this like you are trying to diagnose an illness. What do you know that doesn't seem to fit? First, here's a powerful, independent woman with two employee/friends who watch over her and are as protective of her as mother hens with their chick. They're the ones looking after the horse she's so crazy about, but she hasn't been out to the barn to check on Flag either time that I've been there.

Second, she stops at an accident, seems concerned, makes phone calls, but doesn't get off the horse to help. Something started to work its way from the back of Mare's mind. Matter of fact, except for the one time on the horse, at the accident scene, I haven't seen her outside of that office. She's never moved from behind the desk. I've never seen her on her feet!

Mare bolted straight up in bed and tucked her legs up close to her body. Her long, pale-yellow, cotton t-shirt draped in soft folds against the tops of her thighs. Images of two ramps and a saddle with extra straps leaped to her mind. Of course! How stupid I've been. The ramps are for wheelchair access and those saddle straps aren't decorations, they hold her on the horse. TJ Meridian can't walk.

The vet sucked in a breath as though someone had kicked her. She tapped fisted hands against the sides of her head, none too gently, as another image came to mind--TJ's expression when Mare first burst into her office. She had no expression. Her face was pale and those gorgeous eyes were lifeless, dejected. What on earth has happened to her? Maybe I can find out tomorrow at the library.

Remembrance of her heartless remarks landed on Mare's conscience like a load of building stones, each one pelting her with guilt. I feel so bad. I judged where I shouldn't have and I judged with a mean spirit. Why didn't Erin tell me?

But Mare guessed the answer to that was pride--TJ's pride. She's afraid people will feel sorry for her. Then Mare had another insight into the mysterious woman's feelings. Somehow, she's slipped into feeling sorry for herself. That seems so out of character, she must be tearing herself up. I wish I could help her.

Nearly exhausted by this emotional upheaval, Mare lay back down, mulling over that last thought. Get real, Mare. TJ Meridian has everything money can buy. Just how the heck can a vet from the sticks help her? Only thing I know how to take care of is animals.

Finally, mind and body gave up and she drifted to sleep.


Mare got out of her pickup and stretched. Today had been a long day. Old man Thomas had phoned her at the ungodly hour of 4:30 a.m., saying some of his cattle had been spooked and got caught up in some barbed wire and could she come out and patch them up. That took the better part of two hours. Although the cattle weren't seriously injured, they had still needed suturing.

She got home just after seven and didn't see the point in returning to bed. Her morning clinic was unusually busy, with several of the local children bringing in their pets. That finished up just before lunch, allowing her to grab a bite to eat, then she was on to her rounds of the local farms and ranches. Now it was late afternoon and she had saved the Meridian ranch for her last call.

Mare still had mixed feelings about this place and its owner, but the research she had done at the main library in Sharlesburg had given her a new perspective on TJ Meridian. And, yes, she had to admit to herself that she had been a little harsh in her assumptions.

It was likely that this would be her last trip to the ranch. Flag was well on the way to recovery. It would most probably be safe to let her back out into the corral, either this evening or tomorrow. But now that she had some facts, Mare was sorely tempted to take the retainer that TJ had offered for care of the livestock, once it arrived. Reaching back into the pickup, she grabbed her bag and headed into the barn.

It was quiet, which was unusual. By now, normally Paula, Erin or both, would have come out to greet her. She had a quick look through the barn and the tack room, just to be sure they weren't around. All three horses were in their stalls, out of the heat of the day and relishing the coolness the fans provided. Mare put her bag down and stepped inside Flag's stall, giving her a brief check over. Flag was sweating easily now and her breathing had stabilized. Satisfied with what she saw, she decided to look for Erin and Paula up at the house.

Leaving her bag behind, she left the barn and walked toward the house. She noted that both cars were still parked by the side of the house. From her previous trip here, she knew that Erin and Paula could likely be found in the large kitchen when they weren't in the barn. She was debating with herself whether to use the side entrance or go around to the front when she heard a loud crash emanate from the kitchen. She ran the last few feet and bounded up the steps, opening the kitchen door and going straight in.

At first, she couldn't see what had caused the commotion, then she heard TJ cursing from behind the island.

"Hello? TJ? You okay?" she inquired, not really wanting to startle the woman by just appearing in front of her.

TJ froze as she heard the vet's voice. She was sprawled on the floor, her chair tipped over on its side where it had fallen when she had reached into the cupboard above her. "I'm fine," she hurriedly replied, pulling herself over to right her chair.

"You sure? I thought I heard you fall." Mare stepped closer to the island.

Ah hell, she's going to come in. TJ was starting to feel a little panicked. "I said, I'm fine. Would you just leave me alone?" she snapped.

Mare was leaning on the island now, and could see TJ's legs and her fallen chair. So do I call her bluff or do I let her get away with it? She might have hurt herself. She hasn't fallen far, but she wouldn't be able to tell if she'd broken something. Taking a deep breath, not sure how she was going to be received, Mare walked around the island. "You look fine, as well. I take it that studying the kitchen floor from such close range is one of your normal pastimes?"

TJ closed her eyes, not wanting to see the pity in the vet's eyes, and struggled to push herself into a seated position. She felt hands on her arms, and she froze. "I can do it by myself." Her voice sounded full of anger.

"I'm sure you can, but I'm here, so why not let me help?" Mare kept her voice gentle. From what she had read, TJ Meridian had once been an excellent all-around athlete and superb horsewoman. Seeing her in this condition, after the video footage she'd watched of her and Flag, was shocking. Still, if she let the proud woman know that, there was no way she'd accept her help. Mare's hand was batted away as TJ opened her eyes.

"I'm not asking; I'm telling you. Leave me alone." TJ's body trembled with the effort of trying to rein in her anger and fear. She hated anyone seeing her in her chair, but to have this woman discover her on the floor, so helpless, was more than she was willing to take.

Mare let go and stood back, staying quiet, but keeping a close eye on the woman. When she got herself into a seated position, TJ grabbed hold of her chair and pulled it towards her, setting it upright. She checked the brakes, making sure they were set, pulled the footrests up, then pushed herself in front of it. She powered down on the armrests and levered herself upwards.

Mare, seeing the sweat break out on the woman, stepped forward to help but narrowed blue eyes held her in place. "Stay back," TJ reinforced with words.

A creak of the door turned Mare's head. Paula and Erin walked in and stopped, staring at her. "Dr. Gillespie." Paula nodded at Mare in greeting. Both sets of eyes then turned to TJ who had pushed herself back into her chair and was pulling her legs onto the foot rests. "TJ, you okay?"

TJ didn't answer, just turned her chair around and wheeled out of the kitchen.

"What happened?" Erin stepped around her partner and placed a bag of groceries on the island.

Mare let out a shaky breath, still worried that TJ may have hurt herself. "Came out to check on Flag, but couldn't find either of you in the barn, so thought I'd come over to the house. I heard a crash as I got near the door, came in, and TJ was on the floor. Somebody really ought to go check if she's all right. She didn't fall far, but this floor is hard. She might have hurt herself." Erin and Paula looked at each other, then Erin left the kitchen, following TJ.

Paula stared at Mare intently. "You already knew, didn't you?"

"Yeah, I did," replied Mare softly.

"How did you find out?" Paula walked over to the fridge and brought out a pitcher of iced tea.

"It was a few things really: her saddle with the extra straps, the way you and Erin keep an eye on her, the ramps--one in the barn and another in the living room. The day she saw me helping Johnny Robertson and refused to get off the horse. I began to put two and two together." Mare hesitated briefly, running Johnny's accident through her mind, remembering the wrong conclusions she had jumped to about TJ.

"Then someone in town said they thought that all the Meridians were dead. I was in Sharlesburg the other day and thought I'd check it out. So, I went to the library there, pulled up some back issues of several newspapers on the computer, and read all that I could find about the Meridian family."

"I guess you know everything you need to know, then."

Paula handed Mare a glass of iced tea and indicated that she should sit. "So, what did you find out?"

Mare blew her hair off of her forehead. "Where to start? I found out that TJ went to Harvard and graduated summa cum laude. From there she went on to work in one of her father's companies and eventually took it over, but she never worked directly for her father. In fact, Business World magazine reported that she personally financed the campaign to turn the land--that he'd wanted to develop into a leisure complex--into part of the national park. Now that took guts, and plenty of money." Mare took a sip of the chilled tea and looked up at Paula who was grinning.

"Oh yeah, I remember that. Boy, was he pissed at her. Even more when he realized that she had convinced the board to sponsor the park, and that he'd paid for most of the publicity. Still, he'd signed the company over to her; couldn't even get his buddy boys to vote her out, their stock options had shot up so much."

Mare just stared at her. "You're kidding, right?"

"Nope. She can be unbelievably devious when she wants to be."

"Considering who her father is, that doesn't surprise me," Mare replied tartly.

Paula felt the smile slip from her face, then quickly replaced it. Well, at least that is one thing she didn't find out. "So, you found out that TJ doesn't follow the work practices of her father. Does that mean you're willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, now?" Mare shrugged, not yet willing to admit to anybody but herself that maybe there was more to TJ Meridian than met the eye. Paula sighed. "Did you find anything else out, or was that it?"

"No." Mare drew the word out. "I found out she is... was… an excellent athlete who excelled in track and field and equestrian events. That four years ago her parents were killed in a car accident and that she took over her father's holdings. And if Business World can be believed for a second time, she pissed a load more people off then. Then, eighteen months ago, she and her brother were mugged as they left a charity event. Her brother was killed and she was seriously injured. There wasn't much more information available."

"There isn't that much more to get."

"I know a lot more than I did. I still don't know everything. But you and Erin were right; she isn't her father."

"TJ was a complex person before her injury, now she has more twists and turns in her psyche than a mountain road. Time bombs just waiting to go off. It will be days before we get her over you seeing her in the chair; it will be ten times worse because she'd fallen."

Paula took a drink of the tea and looked over at the vet, wondering how much to tell her. There seemed to be something between the vet and her enigmatic employer, but she wasn't sure how far that went. Maybe Erin will have a better idea how much the doc should know.

"Days? Ten times worse? It's hard to believe that someone like TJ would get that upset." Mare looked skeptical but sounded as though she were pondering it rather than arguing about it. She sure sounded upset, though. She scooted out of here as fast as she could, hardly even looking at me… and too proud to let me help her.

"What do you mean 'someone like TJ?'" Paula made an effort to keep the naturally blunt edge from her voice. She was seriously trying to gauge the doc’s reaction.

"You know. Beautiful, rich, intelligent, top of the world. She could have almost anything money can buy. Unless this is one of those 'the bigger they are, the harder they fall' kind of things." Maybe it is. Could be that everything important to her was snatched away in seconds. Except the money; and that won't keep you from hurting.

"Might be, Doc. Money can't replace what TJ has lost, and it can't buy what she needs."


Chapter 7

Erin hurried through the house, looking for TJ. She wasn't in the living room, and a quick glance in her office didn't yield the woman. She walked further up the hall until she reached TJ's room and knocked on the door. "TJ?" She got no reply, but she could hear movement behind the door. "TJ, can I come in?" Still no reply, though the movement stopped. "TJ?" Erin rested her head against the cool oak door and made her decision. She dropped her hand to the knob and pushed the door open.

TJ heard the door open, and Erin enter, but refused to turn around and face her, eyes fixed pointedly on a framed photograph of her brother. What would you think of all this, Lance? Would you be sitting here if it were you?

She felt a hand gently squeeze her shoulder then Erin's face came into view as she knelt in front of her. TJ tried to turn her head, but Erin moved her hand to her cheek and wouldn't let her. "You okay?" her friend asked. TJ clenched her jaw and just nodded. "I need to check your legs and hips to make sure you didn't hurt yourself." Pulling her head away from Erin's cupped hand, TJ pushed herself away from the woman.

"I told you, I'm fine."

Erin sighed quietly and dropped her head. She knew this was hard for TJ; her back injury meant that some bodily functions had to be taken care of with tubes and bags. TJ was highly self-conscious about it and refused all help in that area of her care. For Erin to insist on inspecting her lower extremities would mean exposing the equipment and TJ's pride.

"Honey, you can't know that. I need to check. Come on. The quicker you let me see, the quicker it will be over with." Erin got to her feet and stepped up behind TJ, wrapping her arms around the proud shoulders, pulling her into a hug, and kissing the raven hair. "Please, TJ, don’t make this hard; it's only me." She felt her friend let out a long sigh. TJ's shoulders slumped even more and she nodded her head. Erin hugged her tighter for a few seconds, then stepped back to give TJ room to maneuver herself around to the frame that allowed her to pull herself in and out of the bed.

TJ had refused to sit back and allow people to do anything for her, even after she had attempted to take her life in the hospital, which was why everyone was so shocked that she even made the attempt. To the outside world, TJ had come to terms with her injury remarkably quickly. Not even her closest friends knew what was going on in her mind. The doctors, unable to unearth the reasons for her attempted suicide, had made her therapy sessions a condition of her being released from their care.

Erin watched as TJ raised one of the chair arms out of the way, grabbed hold of a grip attached just above the bed, and lifted herself out of the chair and over onto the bed. Erin moved the chair and waited for TJ to loosen her jeans, then pulled them down, taking care not to dislodge the catheter bag or the tubing that was strapped to her leg.

TJ, still avoiding looking at Erin, had her hands clasped behind her resting head. "So, what’s the prognosis? Will I survive?"

Erin continued her exam. TJ had a nicely purpling bruise about the size of her fist on her right hip. "Well, you have some excellent bruising but I don’t think you’ve done any serious damage. Still, it might be worth getting an x-ray done on it."

TJ felt her stomach rolling at the idea. "Uh-uh, no way." She pushed herself up onto her elbows so that she could see Erin. If she thinks she’s getting me to go to the hospital, she has another think coming. If there is the slightest chance of having to stay at that place, I’m not going. Hell can freeze over, first.

"And I thought you liked Dr. Hamilton. Or was it his assistant you liked? She was kind of cute." Erin raised her eyebrow and smothered a grin. She knew TJ hated the local hospital. Dr. Hamilton had been recommended to take over TJ’s care, and even TJ had to admit that he was an excellent doctor. But he had taken a shine to TJ the first time he’d laid eyes on her and he pestered her every time she went in for her checkups and physical therapy. For some reason the good doctor wouldn’t take no for an answer, no matter how glacial TJ acted.

Still, if TJ had fractured something in her fall, she would have to be admitted but it would take all of hell's horses to achieve that feat.

TJ just scowled at her friend. "No way."

"Okay, I’ll make a deal with you. You’re next physical therapy session is two days away. Let me bring it forward to tomorrow, and if Sacha says it’s okay, then we won’t go see Hamilton. But if she says you need an x-ray and it shows something, then you have to behave and do as the doctors decide. Otherwise, I’ll go get Paula and maybe Doc Gillespie to give me a hand and we’ll take you up now."

TJ’s heart thudded in overtime. She’ll do it; you know she will. And do you really want to embarrass yourself any more in front of Dr. Gillespie? Wasn’t it bad enough that a woman who obviously detests your family saw you sprawled on the floor like a child? Think of the field day she is going to have when she gets back into town and gets to tell them all that TJ Meridian is a cripple. "Okay, if Sacha says it needs an x-ray I’ll have one."

"And follow doctors' orders if there is anything wrong." Erin stared hard, letting TJ know she wouldn’t get away with anything less than full cooperation.

Blue eyes looked up from beneath raven bangs, gauging how far she could push but the determined look on Erin’s face assured her that it wouldn’t be worth it. She nodded, feeling tears come to her eyes but blinked rapidly to prevent them falling.

"Good. Let's get you dressed again. Are you going to come out and join us?" Erin already knew what the answer would be but hoped for a different one, nonetheless.

"I’m a little tired. I think I’ll stay here and have a nap," TJ replied, knowing that she was avoiding seeing the vet again and that Erin knew what she was up to. Erin nodded and helped TJ pull her jeans back into place, then gently pushed her hair off of her forehead and kissed her softly before leaving.


Erin walked back into the kitchen and made straight for the fridge and a cold drink, before sitting across from Paula and Mare at the island.

"How is she?" Mare asked as Erin sipped her drink. The blonde looked over at Paula who nodded.

"About how I expected her to be, a little withdrawn."

"Has she hurt herself?" This came from Paula.

Erin shrugged. "She has a nice bruise on her right hip which should most probably be x-rayed just to be on the safe side. But a tank couldn’t drag her to that hospital today."

Mare was shocked that TJ’s friends weren’t more concerned. If the woman had hurt herself then shouldn’t they make her go to the hospital and get it checked out? "Are you just going to leave it?"

Erin smiled and chuckled. "No, but if I pushed, TJ would just dig her heels in and refuse. Even if we got her to the hospital, she’d refuse there and it would be a wasted trip. You have to know how to deal with her to get anything done."

"So, what are you going to do?" Mare was curious now. Both of these women had obviously learned how to take care of TJ well and experience had taught them harsh lessons. It seemed to Mare, though, that Erin and Paula were just as devious as TJ when it came to getting their way.

"TJ is due in physical therapy in two days' time. Her therapist, Sacha, is about the only person in the medical world that TJ will listen to. So I’ll phone Sacha and move the session up to tomorrow and if Sacha thinks it needs an x-ray, TJ will get it done."

"Yeah, but getting her to stay in, if there is a fracture, is going to be hell," remarked Paula.

"Nope, I settled that; if the doctors think she needs to stay, she will."

"And just what did you bribe her with to achieve that?"

Erin glanced over at the vet before looking back at Paula. "I didn’t exactly bribe her. Besides, TJ is an intelligent woman and although she may be belligerent at times, she knows what’s best."

"Come on, there is more to it than that."

A small grin appeared on Erin’s face. "Well, I did threaten to get you and the doc here to help get her dressed and to the hospital if she refused."

Paula raised both her eyebrows and smiled. "Yeah, that would have done it. On the more serious side, though, how is she?" Paula knew that TJ was very adept at hiding her feelings, but Erin had developed a sixth sense about what was going on with her.

"And why would Paula and I, helping get her to the hospital, be a threat?" asked the vet. Mare leaned forward, placing folded arms on the island surface.

Erin and Paula looked at their drinks, avoiding the vet's gaze for several seconds before Paula spoke up.

"Let's just say that TJ understands that some people, especially in this area, would have great pleasure at knowing that one of the Meridians was less than capable."

"You mean she thinks that I’m going to go running back to town and announce to them all that she is a cripple? Like it was something to ridicule her for?" Mare was angry at the thought that the two women would actually believe she’d do that.

"Bluntly?" asked Erin. Mare nodded. "Yes, that is exactly what she believes."

"But I wouldn’t do that. I haven’t even told anybody yet that TJ was here at the ranch. I may not like the woman but I don't get any pleasure out of her condition. Ridiculing anyone because of a disability is not in my nature."

"Well, the people that TJ is used to associating with would think nothing of it. Most of the people in this town would think nothing of it. You assume that she is like her father and the rest of his kind, why shouldn't she assume the same about you?"

Mare already had her next hot protest ready when the pure logic of this statement left her dumbfounded. She suddenly realized her mouth had gaped open and she closed her teeth with a click. Sitting back in the chair and sighing, she looked at each woman and a self-effacing smile wound its way onto her guileless face. "That makes such perfect sense, you've stopped me in my tracks."

The expression on Mare's face and in her eyes so obviously attested to her sincerity that it was Erin's and Paula's turn to be surprised. Here is a genuinely caring, thinking person. Maybe that's the spark that has ignited TJ's interest. Erin's liked her from the start, too, and she's usually a pretty good judge of character. Paula glanced toward her friend and smiled in answer to the smile on Erin's lips.

"But, please," Mare continued with pronounced earnestness, "be assured that I would never, ever do that. I couldn't, even if I hated someone. TJ doesn't have to worry about me. Convince her of that for me, would you?"

"We'll try." Erin wasn't too sure of how convinced TJ would be, but she knew she would make the attempt.

Mare stood up. "Look, TJ and I were supposed to have a talk today about retaining my services. I don't want to bother her after this… unsettlement, but tell her I will stop back tomorrow morning."

Paula stood, too. "Wait a minute, I'll get your check."

Mare waved a hand. "That's okay, I'll pick that up tomorrow, too."

The vet moved to the door and Erin accompanied her out to the barn to pick up her bag, then they walked to her truck. Opening the door, Mare tossed her bag in then turned with raised brows as Erin put a hand on her shoulder. "In the world of big business, sincerity is in short supply. I apologize for not recognizing yours."

Mare's attractive eyes crinkled and her lips turned up. She reached up and patted Erin's hand. "No problem. I didn't exactly cut any of you a break, either. We were strangers and it's just taking us a little work to get to know each other."

Slipping her hand from the doc's shoulder, Erin grinned. "Well, I, for one, am beginning to think it's worth the effort."

"Me, too." Mare got in the truck and nodded to the friendly woman. "See you tomorrow, first thing." She started the motor and reached for the gearshift.



"You might have some trouble getting to see TJ tomorrow. Just wanted you to know that you might be on a wild goose chase."

Mare snorted. "You get her in that office and leave the rest to me. I'm an expert at catching wild geese."

With a chuckle and a wave, Mare took off.

Erin stood watching, a smile stealing its way onto her lips. I wonder…? She seems feisty enough to do it, but how would TJ react? The smile stayed in place as she returned to the ranch house to let Paula in on Mare's last remark.


CRASH! Erin's eyes flew open as her dreams disappeared, to be replaced by visions of TJ lying on the floor. "TJ!" The woman's curly-blond head lifted from the pillow and she leaped from the bed, grabbing a robe and putting it on. As she reached the doorway and hunted for the light switch, Paula caught her arm.

"No lights," she growled. "And put your shoes on." Another loud crash sounded, then another, and another. Erin realized that it wasn't TJ who had made the first noise; someone was breaking windows. Erin could barely see her shoes. She stuck her feet in them and followed her partner.

"What's going on?" Erin whispered as the two of them ran down the steps to the first floor to check on their friend.

"You deaf? Someone's breaking the damn windows." Paula's snarl was enough to cut off any other questions Erin might have asked.

They reached the bottom of the stairs as several more crashes were heard. "Go see if TJ's okay." Paula ran toward the enclosed gun rack that stood in the living room. Erin heard her curse as she stumbled over the ramp and she was torn between checking on TJ and staying with Paula to make sure she didn't do anything rash. Her friend's nasty mood didn't bode well for the trespassers. But TJ might need her.

Erin raced to TJ's door, rapped and opened it at the same time. "TJ, you all right?" TJ had managed to pull herself to the headboard and was sitting up against it.

"Yeah, I'm okay." TJ's voice sounded dejected. The light sheet that still lay over the bottom half of her legs was covered with glass. A large rock had been flung through the deep-set window in the wall across from one side of the bed. Erin picked up the sheet, dropped it onto the floor, and got TJ a new one. In the dim light, she saw a piece of paper had been fastened to the rock and she untied it.

"Take it in the bathroom and read it." The flatness in TJ's voice worried Erin, but she did as directed. When she came back out, being sure to turn out the light before opening the door, TJ asked, "What did it say?"

Erin hesitated, but she knew TJ would have to be answered. "Something to the effect of telling the effing Meridians to go back where they came from."

Erin heard a puff of breath being expelled from TJ's nose. "Guess our little doctor didn't waste any time telling them who was out here and siccing them on us."

"TJ, she wouldn't do that, she…"

"Who the hell else knew, Erin? All the utilities, the post office…everything's in your name." TJ's reasonable tone worried Erin more than an explosion would. She was hurt and it showed. But she's right, no one else knew a Meridian was here. It's a darn shame; TJ seemed to like the doc. So much for trust.

Just then a shotgun was heard firing several times. There were shouts, then a motor revved up and moved away, its sound diminishing down the road toward town. A few minutes later, a patrol car pulled in, siren dying as it came to a stop.

"Go see what's up, Erin, and see if the horses are okay. Come back and let me know."

TJ sounded so woebegone that Erin put a hand against her face and kissed her cheek. "I'll be right back. Be careful of the glass, there might be some in the bed."

Erin hurried out to where she saw Paula speaking with an officer. "Erin, this is Sheriff Jackson. The alarm company called him. Sheriff, Erin Scott. " Erin and the sheriff shook hands. The sheriff was a tall, heavy-set man in his fifties, with graying hair.

"Paula, did you see if the horses are all right?"

"The lowlifes did knock down the corral, but they left the barn alone, so the horses are okay. We just can't put them out till the corral is fixed."

"We heard some gunshots."

"Yeah." Paula sounded disgruntled. "I shot a couple of barrels over their heads to scare them off, then I put a load of buckshot into the side of the pickup they were in."

All the outside lights had been broken, too. The sheriff had left his car lights on so he could see to write in his notebook. "That should help identify them, Miss Tanner. I'll just take a look around, if you'll accompany me?"

"I'm going back in with TJ." Erin got a nod from Paula and she left.

"T. J.?" The sheriff looked up from his note-taking. "T. J. Meridian? I thought he was dead."

"He is. This is his daughter, Taylor Jade Meridian. She's called TJ."

"So, the news was right; there really is a Meridian out here." The sheriff's jaw clenched. He stopped writing and put his notebook in his breast pocket. His face looked like he'd smelled a polecat.

"Yeah, there is." Paula's voice grated. "But last time I looked, our laws protect everyone."

"That they do, Miss Tanner, and I'll sure check this out. If we can find the vandals, they'll be made to pay for the damage they've done." Somehow Paula wasn't reassured, but she figured getting on the wrong side of the local law wasn't a good idea, so she kept silent about it.

"You know a glazier who might fix our windows?"

Sheriff Jackson hesitated for a minute, then gave a slight shrug. He pulled his notebook back out and wrote a name and number on it. "You might try this fella, he's kinda new in these parts, never knew the Meridians. He's got a big shop in Sharlesburg, but lives out here and runs a small operation from his house."

"Thanks." Paula stuck the paper in her pocket. "C'mon, I'll show you the rest of the damage."

To be continued in Part 3.

Please send comments to:

Karen A. Surtees or PruferBlue