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DISCLAIMER: This story is written for the private entertainment of fans. The author makes no claims to the series' characters by the creation of this story. Fraser, Vecchio, Kowalski et. al. belong to Alliance, Paul Haggis, Paul Gross and all the creative genius who made this show so special. Jaelyn and other original characters are mine. I hope you enjoy them. No infringement of any copyrights held by CBS, Alliance, CTV, TNT or any other copyright holders of due South is intended. No money being made here. The boys just came over to play in my head again and have now returned from whence they came. I hope they come back to tell me the sequel!

NOTE TO THE READER: First, a ‘big thank you kindly' to my wonderful betas. Vicki was stolen from me by RL fairly early in my endeavors to write this section of the series, but she really helped me with all the hip replacement stuff, and I would have never had the courage to begin it in the first place if it wasn't for her. Jean, your knowledge about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has been invaluable. I have really appreciated the little pushes and debates we've shared as this was being put together. Lys, you and I share a brain where Ben and Frannie are concerned, even if I don't pair them up here! I've really appreciated the discussions, character insights and help with what works and what doesn't. Take a bow, ladies! --Thank you all most kindly!

I must also add here that my knowledge of American Sign Language is somewhat limited. We are told in the series (The Blue Line) that Ben knows ASL. Interpretation of advanced ASL is not a straight forward process. For instance, if I wanted to sign ^You are in grave danger^, I might sign ^You in danger, danger, danger.^ This is different from MSE, or Manually Signed English. For the sake of story continuity, most of my interpretations are based on what Ben, and others, are wanting to convey, and not necessarily exactly what they are signing --other times I do offer direct translation, depending on story requirements. No offense to the deaf or deaf community is intended.

This is story number three in an on going series and, although I have attempted to write it in such a way that it can be read as a stand alone piece, the happenings in the previous two stories, “Blood Red Serge” and “Silent Red Serge”, have more than a little bearing on this story line. It’s not strictly necessary, but you might want to read them first.

due SOUTH:
Fallen Red Serge

By: Janice R. Sager
E-Mail Me

Turnbull swallowed hard and stared at the empty visitor's chair beside his bed, forcing his mind elsewhere as the doctors poked and prodded, checking the wounds and catheters and chest tube. They conferred quietly as though he weren't there, all the while speaking in that specialized dialect of English known only to the medical profession. Normally, he might have been able to decipher what they were saying, but he found his mind drifted through most of it. He wasn't paralyzed and hadn't suffered a spinal injury, he could wriggle his toes; and so he didn't understand why they should be concerned with whether he could feel something or not. It had disturbed him the first time they came in, when he couldn't remember the shooting. The doctors had told him it was a common reaction: A combination of the drugs and his own mind's self-defense mechanisms at work. He'd been relieved when the amnesia had passed with only a few questions to jog his memory, even if the fog that now clouded his thinking seemed to have only gotten worse.

He blushed readily when their poking and prodding produced a giggle. He'd always been embarrassingly ticklish. Laughter was one thing, but tickling always produced a giggle. It was hardly a masculine sound! He was glad Miss Vecchio --Francesca, he corrected himself --wasn't there to hear it.

He kept thinking about her, and her visit yesterday. Was it yesterday? It could have been only hours ago --or last week. He found his sense of time was painfully distorted. He remembered her cradling his head in her lap as though it were but minutes ago, the tender worry in her eyes, and the reassuring smile when she told him her unborn babies were all right.

Babies. He was almost certain he must be remembering wrong. She couldn't actually be pregnant with --sextuplets?! Could she?

He could never have said how long the doctors' examination lasted: Five minutes or two hours. It was all a disconcerting blur. There was no pain. He knew they had him on a morphine drip, in addition to any number of other drugs they regularly insisted on adding to his IVs. He wasn't sure if it was just the morphine or the combination of pharmaceuticals that was destroying his ability to think and reason, but he didn't much like it.

Finally, the dressings were reapplied, the blankets brought back into place and new orders noted in his file. And he was exhausted. He'd done absolutely nothing, having been carefully positioned on his side so as to keep any pressure off the wound in his back as well as his hip. He'd been put into a specialized hip brace of some sort and there was a pillow between his legs. He was uncomfortable, despite the morphine. Oh, he could move; the doctors had tested the range of movement in his hip without causing any pain, but his subconscious mind told him he didn't want to move on his own. He knew Dr. West had explained the nature of his injury, and he remembered being somewhat alarmed by it, but couldn't remember why at the moment...

He felt a hand on his shoulder and blinked heavy-lidded eyes open to see the face of Dr. West smiling reassuringly down on him. "You're doing quite well, Mr. Turnbull," she informed her groggy patient. "Just try to sleep now," the woman continued and Turnbull frowned. That's what he'd been trying to do! "I'll be back to check on you later."

Turnbull sighed and silently wished he could... could roll to... He was asleep before the thought completed itself.

Jeanie watched in silent amusement as her friend, Jaelyn, frowned at her watch for the fifth time in as many minutes. Had Jay been capable of hearing her, Jeanie would have been teasing her unmercifully about having a schoolgirl crush on this Benton Fraser who was arriv--Well, twenty minutes late in arriving.

She'd heard about him on the news, of course, and seen his picture in the papers. She had to concede he was more than cute in that bright red uniform: Not as cute as James, she admitted to being biased, but there was no denying the man had a certain appeal. He'd been the one that had stopped that train bomb a couple of years ago. And apparently he'd been involved in stopping some kind of arms deal involving a Russian nuclear submarine too. The man was a walking hero and naturally the media had grabbed up the story when he was shot while standing guard duty outside the Canadian Consulate last month.

What the heck was a walking-hero doing standing guard duty, she wondered, and shook her head.

Jeanie grinned broadly as Jaelyn finally gave into temptation, moving to stare out the mullioned picture window that graced the front of the foyer in the old Bed and Breakfast Inn. The man had to be something special, despite her words otherwise. Jeanie had never seen her friend quite so nervous about anything before! Well, except maybe Nina's part--

Jeanie's smile instantly vanished and a shiver traced down her spine as she remembered that party. Why did she have to think about that now?

It was Jeanie who'd dared Jay into going in the first place. Jaelyn was one of those quiet as a church mouse types who never got out and never met anyone and didn't know what she was missing. She was quite happy being a church mouse. Jeanie on the other hand was a bit on the wild side, always had been, and it often surprised even her that two such very different people could be such close friends. She, Greg and Jaelyn had practically grown up together!

Greg. Dear god, she didn't need to think of him!

Jeanie shivered as she remembered the horror of having the police show her a hospital picture of Jaelyn after she'd first been found in an alleyway on the east side. She'd been missing for two days and they'd needed Jeanie to give a positive ID. She'd been told that her friend had been raped, beaten and stabbed repeatedly --and that no one was sure if she would even survive. Well, she had, ‘though barely. Jaelyn was now deaf because of that attack and Jeanie swore she'd never tease her friend about being a church mouse ever again. If she hadn't gone to that party, if she'd stayed a quiet little church mouse--Okay, Jeanie knew it would have made no difference. Greg would have kidnaped her out of her own bedroom, but still--

She forced her mind from such dark memories as she heard the distinct sound of tires coming up the blind curve of the driveway. That had to be ‘Ben' now. Jeanie had to admit to more than a little curiosity about the man. She'd never met a walking-hero before.

Jaelyn straightened sharply as a green car of some kind appeared from behind the trees at the head of the drive. Even at a hundred yards, she was trying to scan the faces and recognize Ben. Jeanie knew the instant she did. Jaelyn turned to her with a big grin. "It's Ben," she allowed and stomped firmly on the too broad smile. "You're going to love him. He's even cuter than James."

"No one's cuter than James!" Jeanie responded with a firm shake of her head, knowing that Jaelyn might not be able to hear the words but would know what she was saying just the same.

Jaelyn shrugged, a mischievous glint in her eyes. "We'll see!" was all she said.
Jeanie laughed. For Jaelyn, that was an extremely provocative statement. Jeanie shook her head and followed her friend to the door as the car drew to a halt directly in front of the walkway. She smiled as she noted how Jaelyn gave her off-white cable knit sweater an anxious little tug before sweeping the door open. Yep. This Ben must be something special. Jeanie hoped he knew what that meant...

Ben was a bit surprised as the Bed and Breakfast came into view. He would have whistled had he been capable of it. Ray did it for him.

"Wow," the wiry Italian whispered from in back, leaning forward between Ben and Elaine in order to take in the two-story redbrick Tudor mansion. It couldn't be called a house. It was too big. Ben counted four chimneys coming up from various locations in the tall gabled roof. Kowalski had tried to describe it the day before when he and Maggie were visiting, but his attempt had fallen short of the mark. The old growth forest flanking the magnificent structure framed the setting in the dark green of ancient pines, mixed with the red and yellows of oak, ash and maple clothed in their autumnal splendor. The gravel drive crunched loudly under the tires as they swept forward, past immaculate, thick lawns just turning gold with the approach of cold weather.

"You said it," Elaine agreed, arching her neck to view the place better even as she drew the car to a slow stop.

Ben had to admit he couldn't picture a more ideal setting in which to make his convalescence. He would have preferred if it weren't necessary even more, but if he was going to be forced into months of physical and speech rehabilitation --well, it wasn't home, but home wouldn't have worked either. This was as close as he was going to get.

Ben's attention was drawn to the front door as it swung open and Jaelyn stepped into the late afternoon sunlight. He was a bit intimidated by the knowledge that she called such grandeur home, but there was nothing pretentious or ostentatious about her. He watched as she turned to call over her shoulder and a young man dressed in a crisp white shirt, dark pants and white waiter's apron hurried past her and down the path toward the car. Elaine had already moved to the trunk as Ray used his good arm to push her seat forward and exited the backseat right behind her. Dief instantly escaped as well and quickly rounded the front of the car.

The waiter who'd been consigned to helping with the luggage came to an abrupt halt as the rather exuberant animal headed straight toward him. Fortunately, Dief seemed to sense the young man's mistrust and came to a sudden halt as well, sitting down and wagging his tail happily while yet only a few feet from the car. He looked back over his shoulder as if to say, ‘Hurry it up, already!'

"It's okay, David," Ben heard Jaelyn call, her voice just a little too loud for the distance. "He won't hurt you."
"Unless you're carrying a box of jelly donuts," Vecchio sang out from where he was making his own way around the front of the car. "Then there's no telling what he'll do!"

Ben rolled his eyes and leaned forward to award his friend an irritated glare through the front windshield.

What?" Ray asked in that ultra innocent tone he often affected when he felt he was being unfairly challenged. "I'm talking the truth here and you know it! If the kid were carrying pastries, that wolf of yours might lick him to death! Asphyxiation by doggy drool. Yuck!"

David had frozen again and eyed Dief with even more disquiet than before. "Wolf?" he squeaked.

"Half-wolf," Elaine answered from the trunk area. "The other half is all teddy bear. Ray, you wanna call him back? I need some help with this wheelchair."

"Dief!" Ray called and slapped his leg. "Come on, Elaine, it's not that heavy. You're the one that put it in there to begin with."

"Yeah, well," she grunted and the car shifted, "one of the front wheels--seems to have--twisted..." The car shifted again and Ben imagined she must have all but climbed into the trunk as she fought to free the chair. He was irritated by his own inability to go to her aid and frowned as the car bounced yet again. David quickly overcame his trepidation and hurried to her even as Ray swept by Ben's door toward the trunk as well, yelling at them both to be careful of the trunk liner.

Ben opened his door with a sigh and rotated his legs out, but sat waiting patiently for his friends. The simple road trip had tired him and he was under strict orders not to risk a fall. His sternum, or chest bone, was wired together and still healing. Add to that a high calcium deficiency and other chemical imbalances in his blood; and, well, he'd been warned a fall could land him right back in the hospital again. He could probably make do with the walker for such a short distance, but he knew it was under the wheelchair.

It was strange to Ben how drastically his life had changed in a little over a month, but then he really should be happy just to be alive. If it weren't for a number of very fortuitous factors, he wouldn't be here now. He shoved the whispered thought that he might yet wish he hadn't survived, back into the dark void of fear that occupied the farthest corner of his mind. The idea that he might never speak again was simply unacceptable. Dr. Martin assured him that with diligence and the proper therapy, he stood a good chance at a full recovery. He held onto that assurance like a prayer. The fact that he had yet to utter one intelligible word was discouraging, but not indicative of a permanent impairment.

Dief came to sit in front of him and put his head on Ben's knee, almost as though comforting the frustrated man. Ben sighed and scratched his friend behind the ears as he turned his attention back to where Jaelyn had moved to stand on the covered porch flanked on both sides by ivy-covered trelliswork.

A surprised smile tugged at his lips as he realized she was wearing an off-white cable knit sweater very similar to the one he'd chosen. It even looked to be handmade, although it was hard to tell at this distance. Beneath the sweater, she wore a full demin skirt and a pair of low-heeled half boots. Her dark hair had been left to dance about her shoulders and only a light touch of make-up graced the welcoming face. Over all, it was a very casual but feminine look, somewhat at odds with what one would expect from the owner of such a magnificent home and very different from the stretch slacks and short-sleeved cotton shirts she'd worn to their Communication Disorders Class in hospital.

He suddenly heard the wheelchair pull free and land with a slight bounce of the rear tires on the driveway. He heard further wrestling as it was unfolded and locked open, then Elaine appeared from behind the car and deftly positioned it beside him. Careful to use his legs to push upward and not his arms, he steadied himself on the car door and easily transferred to the thing, thinking once again how grateful he'd be when he was finally rid of it. He grabbed up the plastic bag of his personal effects from the hospital, including medications, and plopped it onto his lap.

"All set?" Elaine asked, leaning forward over his shoulder. He nodded and they turned to set off up the brick walkway. Ben glanced back to see Ray following with one of the smaller bags of his stuff that Maggie had packed for him. He wished his sister were here to see this, knowing the setting would evoke the same kind of memories of home for her as it did for him. She and Kowalski had promised to come up tomorrow after work.

"Like it?" Jaelyn asked quietly, pulling his attention back to his smiling hostess.

He paused to take a deep, satisfied breath of fresh air and awarded her a broad smile. ^Incredible!^ he signed readily.

She offered a wry smile and a shake of her head as she took in the sincere appreciation shining in his eyes. "I don't know that one," she admitted easily. The recent nature of her own injury meant that she was still learning Sign Language. "I take it, it's good?"

He nodded and turned his attention to the young woman who'd joined Jaelyn on the porch, suspecting this must be her friend Jeanie. Jaelyn had described her as being her complete opposite, but he hadn't known she was referring to physical appearance as well as temperament. Jeanie was quite tall and almost painfully slender. Her hair was cut quite short in a cap of wild blond curls, emphasizing the classic and angular features of her pixie-like face; and, whereas Jaelyn was dressed conservatively, Jeanie preferred --ah --well, a more daring wardrobe. The short floral skirt, form-fitting red sweater and matching go-go boots was rather reminiscent of the shock-attire Ray's sister, Francesca, had been known to favor a few years previously.

The other woman tapped Jaelyn's shoulder and gestured to Ben with a teasing grin. "So, you gonna introduce me to stud-muffin here or not?" she asked merrily.

Fraser felt a definite blush stain his cheeks as he glanced away. He'd heard himself described in many terms before but--

"What?" Jaelyn demanded, unable to hear the comment but easily noting Ben's reaction. She glanced from one to the other and narrowed her gray eyes at the other woman who in turn effected an overly innocent expression which sent both Elaine and Ray into sudden peals of laughter. Jaelyn frowned in confusion and glanced at Ben again.

There was no way Ben was going to translate it for her. Jeanie brought out a small pad and pen which she'd previously used for conversing with Jaelyn and quickly scribbled an answer.

"‘I was merely agreeing with you'," Jaelyn read aloud, frowning again when Ray all but doubled-over with laughter.

"Oh stop!" the Italian detective cried, holding his chest below the right shoulder as the sling that cradled his right arm jumped with his laughter. "Please! God, it hurts to laugh that hard!"

Jeanie shrugged innocently as Elaine wrapped a supporting arm around Ray, fighting her own mirth back. Jaelyn turned back to Jeanie with a truly suspicious glare and shoved the pad back at her. "What did you say?" she demanded quietly.

Jeanie shrugged again. Ben guessed that she finally wrote the truth when Jaelyn's eyes closed and her head fell forward in embarrassment. It jerked up again a moment later and she stared at him, clearly mortified. "She wasn't agreeing with me!" she claimed fervently. "I never said that! I swear!"

"But you thought it," Jeanie grinned from beside her.

Jaelyn, unable to hear the comment, didn't respond. Ben found himself more embarrassed for her sake than his own. ^I know,^ he signed. ^Your --friend --surprised --me.^

"That's putting it nicely," Jaelyn answered with a mock scowl for her friend.

"Nicely?" Jeanie echoed. It was her turn to frown in curiosity. "What did he say?" She glanced to Elaine and Ray for help only to receive shrugs. Neither of them knew Sign Language.

Jaelyn might not be able to hear her friend but it wasn't hard to guess what she'd said. She purposely ignored the question. "Ben, this is Jeanie Tallin, extremely aggravating and annoying at times, but still my best friend. Just ignore her more outrageous... comments. I do."

"You try to!" Jeanie teased in turn, then glanced at Ray and Elaine with a sigh. "It's so hard to bait someone when they're deaf."

Jaelyn noted the exchange and glanced at Ben again. "Do I want to know?"

He swallowed his grin and shook his head. Translating would only prolong the teasing and he was starting to get a headache. Jaelyn seemed to notice.

"You look tired," she offered bluntly. "I remember what I felt like the first day back. Let's get you settled and you can rest until dinner." She glanced up at Ray and Elaine. "You guys are staying, right? We begin serving in an hour or so. The menu's limited but it's five star. On the house of course."

"Hey, who's gonna turn down a five star meal?" Ray answered easily. "Elaine?"

"Sure," she agreed. "Thank you. You have a beautiful place here."

Again, Jaelyn had to glance at Ben who readily conveyed their acceptance and Elaine's praise.

"Thanks," she answered with a happy little glance around her. "I'm rather fond of it. The room's not far." She led the way through the front door and turned left to pass through the foyer, then around behind the front desk. Here, she opened a set of mullioned French doors draped in white gauze and stepped into an office. It was neither small nor large, but quite comfortable in size, decorated in restful tones of brown and peach. An old leather-topped desk sat centered in the room with two wing-backed chairs, in cream and peach, facing it. A printer, scanner and fax machine were over in one corner and a set of file cabinets in the other. A large painting of several horses took up most of the back wall.

Jaelyn turned to her left as a door there opened and David reappeared. "Your room is here," she told Ben. "Mine is over there." She pointed to the right where a matching door lay on the other side of the office.

"Right next to the office?" Ray offered. "How do you ever get any privacy?"

"It's a Bed and Breakfast," Jeanie answered in Jaelyn's stead, "not some corporate office. The real work takes place at the front desk. Only the really big wigs wanting to book multiple rooms for conventions or plan wedding receptions, that sort of thing, ever see this office. She says it's convenient." Jeanie shrugged.

The young waiter who'd carried in Ben's luggage paused to hold the door open for them.

"Thanks, David." Jaelyn gave him a friendly smile.

"This is my brother," Jeanie added and offered him a punch to the shoulder as they followed Jaelyn past. "He works odd hours here because he's in college. Watch out for him. He's a goofball."

"I'm the goofball?" the younger man echoed. "Look in the mirror again, Sis. You inherited the goofball genes." With a little laugh he released the door and scurried off back to work.

Jaelyn turned back to the others, having missed the short exchange, and gestured at the room. "This used to be part of the original kitchen. It was gutted and converted to a laundry in the early fifties, and then gutted and converted again when my dad decided to open the Bed and Breakfast in the seventies."

It was a large room, as bedrooms went. Ben estimated it at about twenty feet on a side. The entrance was at the southeast corner. In the west wall, there was an exterior door and window which looked out on several ornamental trees, cloaked now in fall colors, and a carefully tended rose garden, now fallen dormant with the changing seasons. He imagined it must be quite beautiful in the late spring. There was a tall hedgerow about twenty-five meters away closing the little garden away; and, beyond it, he could just see the end of the swimming pool Jaelyn had mentioned when talking him into moving in.

The room itself was done in dark tan and sky blue. The walls had been freshly painted in a soft khaki brown, quite dark actually; but the low, plank ceiling, the twelve inch base boards, the wainscoting and all the trim work had been done in a crisp white. The contrast, combined with the light blue that predominated in bedding, curtains, chairs and lamps kept the room open and bright. The furnishings themselves appeared to be antiques befitting the Tudor style of the house and a heavy area rug, again in blue and tan, protected the hardwood floor he saw around its edges.

"This don't look seventi-ish to me!" Ray offered as if reading Ben's mind.

"Until three days ago this was a glorified storage room," Jeanie answered Ray again in Jaelyn's stead. "Jay went into slave driver mode to get this thing done up in time."

Ben frowned slightly.

"Well, she did a beautiful job!" Ray exclaimed. "Sure beats the hell out of that Consulate office, huh Benny?"

^Is something wrong?^ Jaelyn asked, noting Ben's frown with a look of worry.

He quickly shook his head and offered a little smile. ^You --shouldn't have --gone --to so much --trouble,^ he answered with a shake of his head.

^Who said I did?^

Ben cocked his head to the side and glanced significantly at Jeanie who was leaning against the doorjamb and grinning as Ray and Elaine made their way to the window seat and gazed out on the autumnal splendor. ^She --called you --a slave driver,^ he answered simply.

^Exaggeration,^ Jaelyn shrugged. ^Christmas is coming. I got together with the staff and offered them a chance to earn a little extra money. This is a big place. There are always extra little chores to do. This was a big one. It got done, my people earned a nice little bonus, everyone's happy.^ She shrugged again. ^I do it all the time.^

He nodded, still feeling somewhat guilty about being the cause of so much obvious work. The fact that others had benefited helped mitigate it somewhat.

"You two stop flirting," Jeanie ordered merrily.

Jaelyn offered that teasing smile a dubious frown and glanced to Ben. He cocked a brow and translated for Jaelyn. Her frown became suspicious.

"I thought you said you didn't know Sign Language?" she challenged and put her hands on her hips.

Ben blinked sharply and was hard pressed not to give the game away. However, he determined to play along when Ray suddenly choked on a laugh. "Benny? Flirting?" he offered in disbelief. Ben, for some reason he couldn't name, found the remark almost insulting! Elaine tried, but failed, to subdue her own amusement at the thought, which didn't help.

^What did he say?^ Jaelyn asked, noting a slight stiffening in Ben's posture. It was as though he'd suddenly distanced himself slightly from everything.

Ben merely shook his head, dismissing it.

Jeanie had gone into an exaggerated ‘thinking pose'. "Well, I'm only guessing, but I think you two were talking about testing the bedsprings later tonight, right?" She grinned and glanced at Ben, knowing he would have to translate.

Ben knew the woman was only joking but he would never be comfortable with such overt sexual innuendo. Normally, he would simply diffuse the situation by changing the subject. Not being able to speak, however, and thus limited to either Jaelyn interpreting for him or trying to write something... His headache was becoming worse by the moment.


The sharp concern in Ray's voice jerked Ben's head back up. He dropped his hand from his forehead and quickly pasted a reassuring smile in place. ^Headache,^ he answered his friend's worried look and shrugged. He took a deep breath to clear his head as he heard Jaelyn translate.

"Ya need some medicine or something?" Ray asked, still concerned as he knelt beside his friend.

Ben shook his head, fighting to keep the smile in place. ^Tired.^ he signed simply. Again Jaelyn translated.

"How ‘bout we all get out of your hair so you can rest?" Elaine suggested and awarded the others a meaningful glance. "Ray and I can let Dief explore the place a bit and come get you for dinner in an hour or so." She was already ushering the others toward the door--except Jaelyn, who was frowning in confusion. Jeanie lifted the pad and pen she'd been carrying and quickly wrote a note. Jaelyn nodded and smiled at Ben as she allowed her friend to steer her out of the room.

The door closed behind them and, suddenly, Ben was alone. He offered a rather disconcerted sigh as he listened to their muted talk and footfall pass through the office and the door there close behind them. That had been quick. He hadn't meant to chase them off, but at the same time was grateful for the escape. He glanced around the room again, absorbing some of the soothing atmosphere that Jaelyn had managed to create for him. A lot of thought and work had gone into the room, no matter how lightly Jaelyn dismissed it. And he knew the design was hers. She seemed to have a real talent for it.

His headache reared its ugly head again and his hand automatically moved to message tight muscles at his shoulder. He was tired and tense and needed to relax. With a sigh he moved to the bed and locked the wheels of his chair before transferring to the mattress. He'd allow himself half an hour and then get up to change for dinner. It would feel good to change clothes after such a day. He closed his eyes, listening to the distant sounds of the kitchen and the little breeze that danced amid the leaves outside his window as he willed his physical tensions away.

He removed the earplug and contempleted the similarites between a fog bank and cigarette smoke as he flicked ash out the car window, then reached forward to turn down the gain. He'd had to turn it all the way up to hear the conversation in the Mountie's room from the bug he'd planted in the girl's office.

He really should have tried to get a miniature camera in there, he thought, and then shrugged. It wouldn't have done him much good as he didn't know Sign Language. The girl tended to talk rather than Sign anyway, so it was no big deal.

He took another long drag on his cigarette and turned his thoughts to the Mountie... Well, he was going to be a fuckin' pain in the ass but was still stuck in that wheelchair. The guy wouldn't be a problem, at least for a while yet. He'd have to take care of him sooner or later, he was sure, but there was no rush. No. He wasn't going to rush this one. Rushing things was what had messed up the job to begin with; that, and Manly and his friend who couldn't follow simple directions. The idiots had been able to beat and rape the girl, but they couldn't bring themselves to kill her!

Idiots. Doing the job halfway.

He had to admit to messing up as well. He should have made sure she was dead before he dumped the body. He'd wanted it to look like an amateur ob but--Yeah, he'd done an amateur job all right! It still amazed him that she'd survived. She'd bled like a stuck pig!

Well, there'd be no more mistakes. Manly and his fool of a friend, Dawson, were dead. So was Charlie. It was too bad about Charlie. The guy had been a great lay. Still, no loose ends.
He was going to do it himself this time. No partners to goof it up or split the take with. It might take a while before he could make his move. He still hadn't decided how to kill her but he wanted it to look like an accident this time. Too soon to decide. It had only taken him minutes to analyze the situation and spot the girl's weak point, but he had to make sure he played it right. If he moved too soon--No. No rush job this time. He wasn't going to risk letting ten million dollars slip through his fingers a second time.

A... scream?

Ben jerked awake and glanced around the dark room in momentary confusion, not sure if he had heard a scream or dreamt it. It took him a long moment to realize this was not his hospital room and to remember that he was now at the McKenna Bed & Breakfast. It was the middle of the night, he realized next. Pale moonlight streamed through the open curtains of the window, decorating the room with the dancing shadows of the trees outside as they swayed in a gentle breeze. He remembered laying down for a short nap before dinner, but apparently he'd slept through it. He must have been more tired than he'd thought.

Another scream pierced the night, and this time he identified it: Jaelyn!

Adrenaline answered the emergency and Ben was quickly on his feet. He ignored the wheelchair and half-ran, half-stumbled into the office beyond his room, grabbing onto the doorjamb to steady himself. It took his eyes a few moments to adjust to the dim light from the front desk and foyer as it spilled through the gauze curtains on the French doors. Shouldn't there be an attendant there to hear the screams and come running?

Ben heard a thump and another cry. Her room he realized and cursed his own physical weakness as he fought his way across the dimly lit office, grabbing onto the wing-backed chairs in passing. He reached her door and quickly flung it open. The only illumination came from a window similar to his own and what dim light spilled in from behind him. Despite the darkness, it only took him a moment to realize that Jaelyn was alone. She was tossing her head side to side and was apparently in the midst of a violent nightmare.

She screamed again.

Ben frowned in concern and hurried forward even as he heard someone else enter the office behind him, answering the screams. He had to wonder if this were a reaction to her rape. "Police! Police!" someone shouted. He turned automatically and was suddenly spun in place as something large and solid clipped his shoulder. He stumbled backward and fell heavily upon Jaelyn's bed, winning another scream from her as he jarred her awake. In the dim light from the door, he could see his attacker preparing to swing whatever he held again and Ben quickly attempted to roll off the bed, afraid that the man would hit Jaelyn. Instead, Ben suddenly found himself in a wrestling match as the man dropped his weapon and physically tackled him.

"You son of a bitch!" the man yelled. Jaelyn screamed again and shoved against them, pulling her legs free and cowering at the head of her bed.

Pain flared like a white-hot knife across Ben's chest as the other man got a firm grip on one of his arms and twisted it behind his back. He tired to jerk away only to have a knee planted firmly in the middle of his back, pressing him into the mattress and winning a cry of pain. "Lay still, you bastard," the other man hissed, shifting his hold so that the pressure threatened to break Ben's arm, "or I'll twist the damn thing off!"

It was quite clear that Ben's attacker was attempting to defend Jaelyn. Unfortunately, Ben could not explain the mistake being made, nor did he have the physical strength to defend himself.

The lights chose that moment to snap on as someone else finally answered the panicked screams and angry yelling.

"Call the police!" the man holding Ben ordered over his shoulder. He sounded older but he was still strong enough to keep Ben pinned.

Ben suddenly felt his other arm grabbed and was unceremoniously hauled to his feet. The resultant pain in his chest tore a scream from his throat and threatened to make him pass out.

Jaelyn pressed herself against the hardwood headboard and fought back the wall of panic that threatened her sanity. The lights were on now. She squinted against the sudden glare and realized that Kevin was wrestling with someone. Jason had joined his father and together they dragged the man to his feet, pinning both arms behind--

"Ben?" she whispered in surprise.

Kevin and Jason were both yelling words she couldn't hear, obviously thinking that Ben had attacked her. His face was a white mask of agony. "Stop it!" she screamed, jumping to his defense as she slowly realized what was happening. "Let him go! Let him go! Let him go!!!" She sprang out of bed and beat at Jason's arm. "Let him go!" she shrieked again. "You're hurting him! Let him go!"

Jason released his hold, more than surprised to have Miss McKenna fly at him, and watched as the man collapsed back upon the bed in obvious pain. "I'll hurt him a whole lot more if he tries anything," he growled quietly.

"Ben!" Jaelyn cried, obviously concerned as she came to kneel beside him, hovering over him as he curled in on himself. "Oh lord, Ben? Are you okay? Do you need an ambulance?"

Ben shook his head and rolled off the bed, winding up kneeling on the floor with his head pressed against the mattress thus hiding the grimace of pain he couldn't mask. It was all he could do to wrap his arms across his throbbing chest.

"Are you sure? Ben?" Her hands fluttered about his shoulders and head but did not touch him.

He managed to nod. The pain was receding, somewhat; and he was able to breathe again, somewhat. The last place he wanted to be was in hospital again!

"What in the world were you doing attacking him?" Jaelyn asked the two other men. "For that matter, what in the world are any of you doing in my room?"

"You were screaming," Kevin answered in exasperated confusion. "I came running and thought--"

Jaelyn waved his words away. "I can't hear you!" she reminded him. "Get a pencil and paper. ...Ben?" She turned her attention back to the man kneeling at her bedside.

"I can't write!" Kevin protested. Jaelyn knew he was illiterate but, again, she couldn't hear his reminder.

"I'll do it," Jason offered. He stopped on his way to the office and retrieved the baseball bat that his father had dropped, thrusting it back into the older man's hands with a warning glare for the unknown man beside Jay's bed. "The cops'll be here shortly." He spun on his heel and hurried to get pen and paper. "Are you sure you don't need an ambulance?" Jaelyn asked again, frowning in worry as Ben continued to kneel on the floor in obvious pain.

Once again, Ben shook his head and forced himself to sit back on his heels. ^I --fine,^ he signed painfully. He wasn't at all certain about that, but he wasn't going to ask for an ambulance until he absolutely had too.

"You're about as white as my sheets," she claimed, frowning in confusion and concern.

"Sign Language?" Kevin noted Ben's silent answer in surprise, although he hadn't understood it. "You're the Mountie guy that's supposed to be helping out here?"

"Can you tell me what in the world is going on here?" Jaelyn asked, kneeling on the bed directly in front of Ben, but still not touching him.

^I --heard --screaming--^


"Mountie?" Jason offered as he rejoined his father. "Him? And you thought he was attacking her?"

^Nightmare,^ Ben explained simply, ignoring the other two men and hugging his chest again.

Jason offered the pad and pen to Jaelyn who quickly scanned his written explanation. She put the two together easily enough. "Oh God," she sighed and bowed her head. After a long moment, she looked up again and explained. “I was having a nightmare, or more correctly a night-terror. I had a couple in the hospital. I didn’t think I’d-- Anyway, Ben heard me screaming and was checking on me.” She glanced at Ben, even as the three men heard the sound of approaching sirens. “Kevin thought you were attacking me.”

Ben nodded, already understanding the mistake that had been made. He bowed his head and closed his eyes, forcing his mind to other matters in an attempt to control his pain.

Kevin... He fought to remember the name. ...Ah, Jaelyn’s night-manager. She’d mentioned him before. And the younger man must be Jason, his son, although the two bore almost no resemblance to each other. Kevin was a small, barrel-chested man, only an inch or two taller than Jaelyn. His dark hair was cropped quite short in a military-style crewcut and only just starting to go grey at his temples. His face was rugged and seamed with the passing of years and Ben recalled Jaelyn saying he was in his sixties, but he carried himself with the strength and vitality of a much younger man. Jason, on the other hand, was quite tall, perhaps as much as a foot taller than his father, and slender. Ben estimated him to be in his late twenties or early thirties. His blonde hair was pulled back in a very neat and simple ponytail, giving him a rather scholarly look somehow. In fact, if not for the pale blue eyes that both men shared, Ben would have seriously doubted the existence of a blood relationship at all.

“But I heard him scream?” Kevin offered in confusion. “I thought he couldn’t talk?”

“It’s like a stroke,” Jason offered quietly in the background, having followed the story in the newspapers. “The voice works but the mouth doesn’t. I better go tell the cops we don’t need ‘em.”

“The guests are going to be in an uproar,” Kevin muttered. “God what a mess!”

Jason nodded and headed for the door, drawing away the two or three curious guests who’d come to investigate the commotion and closing the door behind him. Kevin stepped forward as his son disappeared and leaned over the man who still knelt beside Miss McKenna’s bed. “Ben, is it?” he asked, placing a gentle hand on the younger man’s shoulder. Ben glanced up and Kevin saw the pain he was fighting to hide as he nodded. “Sorry about... you know. ‘Didn’t mean to hurt ya.”

Ben nodded and closed his eyes, swallowing a laugh. The mere idea of laughing made him wince. There was no doubt in his mind that the man had meant to hurt him, but his reasons were understandable.

“Are you sure you don’t need a doctor?” Kevin asked in concern. “You don’t look real good.”

Ben didn’t doubt it but again shook his head. It had been more than five weeks since the shooting. The wound in his chest was fairly well-healed. He had no doubt that the wrenching action had resulted in some tearing of scar tissue and muscle but, given that his sternum was wired together, he doubted the abuse could have split it apart, despite the severity of pain he was suffering. He wasn’t bleeding, or at least he didn’t think so... A hand pressed against the area found it to be tender but he didn’t feel any wetness, and his ribs seemed to have survived the encounter intact. His shoulder was also quite sore, but was neither broken nor dislocated. Time would take care of both. He could wait until tomorrow before deciding if he needed to see a doctor. He was scheduled to see Dr. Brennan mid-week anyway.

“I gotta go help that boy with the guests,” the older man decided and offered, “Can I at least help you up or--”

“--Ben, are you sure you’re okay?” Jaelyn asked yet again, interrupting Kevin in clear concern.

Ben sighed in frustration. A few simple words on his part would have prevented most all that had happened. He nodded to Jaelyn and reluctantly signed a request for Kevin.

“He needs his wheelchair,” Jaelyn translated.

“Wheelchair?” Kevin glanced around in confusion. “He wasn’t using one.”

^Adrenaline,^ Ben answered but Jaelyn frowned.

“I don’t know that one.”

Ben found himself fighting back another wave of frustration and irritation. He had no right to be irritated! ^In -- my -- room,^ he offered, ignoring the question of why he hadn’t been using it when Kevin found him. He needed to get back in there and take some pain medication, as much as he hated to admit it.

Jaelyn translated and Kevin nodded. “I guess I hurt ya more than ya want to let on, huh?” The older man shook his head. “Now don’t go being pig-headed about needing a doctor. You sure you don’t want me to call an ambulance? Just maybe so they can check you over?”

Ben knew he failed to mask his irritation as he frowned and shook his head rather sharply. He was tired of being asked that! He just as quickly closed his eyes and shoved the emotion away. Mr. Clark only meant well and didn’t deserve such disrespect.

To his confusion, when he opened his eyes again it was to see the other man smiling. “Okay,” he offered, “I guess you’re old enough to know your own mind. Be right back.”

Jaelyn stood and moved away slightly, hugging herself in nervous concern. “This is all my fault,” she sighed, shaking her head.

Ben frowned again as he heard the guilt in her voice.

“I should have warned everyone about the night terrors,” she offered quietly. “That’s what the doctors call it.” She sighed again, glancing up at the ceiling. “They’re stupid really. I can’t remember them and don’t even know I’ve had one unless someone tells me.”

There was a knock at the door, interrupting anything Ben might struggle to sign. He realized immediately that Jaelyn couldn’t hear the knock.

“Miss McKenna?” someone called through the door.

It had to be someone who didn’t know she was deaf. Probably the police, Ben reasoned. ^There’s -- someone -- at the door.^

“Come in!” Jaelyn called out, with a little frown of confusion. This was another aspect of being deaf she hadn’t thought about before. Not being able to hear the phone was one thing, but a knock...

The door opened to reveal a uniformed police officer. “Hello folks.” He frowned as he saw Ben on the floor.

“Excuse me,” Kevin asked from behind him. The officer moved aside in surprise and watched in confusion as the older man wheeled Ben’s chair forward. Still perplexed by the situation, but wanting to help, he came forward and together the two men lifted Ben into his chair with a minimum of fuss.

“You okay?” the officer asked, quickly taking in Ben’s pale visage and the slight pinching of his lips as he wrestled with his pain.

Ben nodded, better able to keep his irritation with the question at bay when it came from a stranger who didn’t know what had happened.

The officer took his nod at face value and divided his attention between the injured man and Miss McKenna. “I just needed to check out Mr. Clark’s story. Someone called in a prowler and fight. Now he says it was all a misunderstanding?”

Ben nodded again and lifted his hands to translate for Jaelyn.

“Miss McKenna here was having a nightmare,” Kevin explained, but the officer only half listened to him. He was more interested in the silent exchange taking place in front of him and quickly made mental note of the young woman’s apparent disability. He also noted how slowly the man seemed to Sign. She must still be learning the language, he thought, and debated whether or not he should call in an official translator or trust this guy. He certainly didn’t look like he was in any condition to be attacking anyone. Besides, the old guy had already confirmed the story he’d been given at the front door.

Jaelyn glanced from Ben’s hands to the officer and noted that Kevin was speaking. She waited until he’d finished. “You explained, Kevin?” she asked, not wanting to repeat him.

The older man nodded but the officer frowned slightly. “I still need to hear it from you,” he decided. She was the victim after all and couldn’t hear the older man’s words. The man in the wheelchair translated again and the officer listened patiently while she summarized the events quite succinctly. Satisfied, he pulled out a notebook and pen. “Just let me get your names then and I’ll get out of your hair,” he offered.

Again Ben translated as Kevin gave his name. Jaelyn offered Ben’s as well as her own, or tried to. He had to correct her when she offered his full name as ‘Benjamin Fraser’. She only knew him as Ben.

“Benton?” she repeated. “That’s an odd name.”

So he’d been told. Repeatedly. Why did it bother him now? He glanced down to hide the irritation he felt again and rubbed a thumb along his eyebrow as he shoved it firmly away. It seemed everything irritated him lately.

“Benton Fraser?” the officer repeated. “The Mountie that was shot last month?”

Another stab of irritation. Another mental shove to repress it. He glanced up and nodded, wishing the man would just finish the paperwork and let him get back to bed. The headache he’d had earlier was returning with a vengeance. Combined with the pain in his chest, Ben was finding it very hard to be patient with anyone.

“I thought I recognized you,” the officer said. “Your picture was all over the news there for a while.” He cocked his head to the side and frowned, remembering how the other man had corrected Miss McKenna on his name. “You can’t talk?”

Ben shook his head and glanced down again, swallowing his frustration. It would be faster to simply endure the other man’s curiosity than to try and explain that he needed to take his medicine and lie down. Besides, it would only make Jaelyn worry again.

“Man, that’s too bad,” the officer offered sympathetically. “Any chance of getting your voice back?”

Ben nodded and allowed a tired sigh to escape, hoping the man would get the message.

He did -- sort of. “Do you need an ambulance Mister--uh, Constable Fraser? You’re not looking very good. That wrestling match you and the two Mr. Clarks had couldn’t have been good for those injuries of yours.”

Ben shook his head and this time lifted his hand to massage his forehead. The headache was getting really bad, actually over-powering the pain of his chest.

“Yeah, well you look like you need to get some rest, so I’ll leave you to it,” the man finally took the hint. With a nod and a polite, “Miss McKenna,” he took his leave and opened the door to go.

Dief suddenly slipped in around him.

Ben cocked his head to the side and awarded his lupine companion a significant frown. It was about time the wolf showed up! The wolf offered him an innocent look... but made the mistake of licking his muzzle, effectively telling Ben exactly where he’d been for the last several hours. Ben sighed, frustrated that he couldn’t give the wolf the lecture he so richly deserved and wondered just how soft the kitchen staff had been...

The police officer gave the animal a startled look but remembered reading about him in one of the articles on the Mountie last month. One glance at the other man’s face told him the dog was more than a pet... and that he was in deep trouble with his master. The officer shook his head and suppressed a grin as he made his exit. Somehow, he doubted that had the dog been present there would have been much of a ‘misunderstanding’.

Fifteen minutes later, having declined the senior Mr. Clark’s assistance, an exhausted Ben had painfully wrestled free of his clothing and lay on his bed in boxers and white tank-top. He debated hunting through his bags to find a pair of long johns, but only momentarily. The night outside might be cool but the room was well heated; and the simple thought of trying to open the window, as he might normally want, was enough to reawaken a deep throbbing pain in his chest. No, he definitely wasn’t going to try that.

He glanced to his left where Dief was relegated to a corner and pouting about it: Ben might not be able to give him the lecture he deserved, but he was perfectly capable of showing his displeasure. Tomorrow he’d write a letter to the kitchen staff warning them not to feed the dog. For now, however, he simply prayed for his medication to kick in and the escape of healing sleep.

Dr. Romano finished the internal exam and frowned pensively as she stepped back, removing her gloves. “You can sit up, Ms Vecchio.” She turned and retrieved the young woman’s file, although she had already memorized it. It was a very unusual case, after all.

“What’s wrong?” Frannie asked anxiously, reading more into the doctor’s expression than was there. “Something’s wrong, isn’t it?”

Dr. Romano regarded her in mild surprise for a moment and then awarded her a reassuring smile. “No, Ms Vecchio,” she answered, “at least nothing serious and nothing that wasn’t expected.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means that everything is progressing quite normally considering that you’re carrying six little people around in your womb,” the obstetrician answered easily and turned to fold the stirrups away. “You said you haven’t had any contractions? No back pain or cramping?”

“No,” Frannie answered quickly, her eyes overly large as she regarded the older woman and held her stomach in an unconscious act of protection. “Well, maybe a little back pain, but that’s to be expected, right? I mean, my center of gravitation has shifted and everything right?”

The doctor blinked in confusion and did a mental double-take on the word ‘gravitation’ but chose to ignore the strange faux pas. “Does it go away when you sit down or change position?”

Frannie nodded, still wide eyed. “Ma and Maria told me all about false labor pains, Braxton Hicks or whatever. I haven’t had anything like that. I mean it’s kinda uncomfortable and everything. The skin of my stomach is so tight. I’ve been rubbing in vitamin E like you said and that other stuff you gave me. But there’s been no real pain. And I can feel them kicking and you said the ultrasound was good--”

“--It was,” Dr. Romano again reassured the young mother-to-be with a smile and a nod. She turned and pulled up a stool to sit down, knowing she was going to have to work at keeping the young lady calm. Her very pregnant patient’s hormonal levels were undoubtably very confused and she was more than a little emotional. “You saw the ultrasound yourself,” she continued calmly. “You heard the fetal heart tones. The babies are fine.”

“But?” Frannie echoed the unspoken word anxiously.

Dr. Romano shook her head. “But,” she agreed with an encouraging smile, “you’re starting to dilate. Just a little. It’s all that weight. They’re growing fast and pressing on your cervix.”

“Oh no!” Frannie cried, clutching her stomach in fear.

“Nothing to worry about,” she quickly told the young woman. “Not yet anyway. I mentioned the possibility to you last week, remember?” The doctor reached out and squeezed her arm sympathetically. “It’s to be expected.”

“Okay, okay.” Frannie breathed deeply, trying to calm herself. “So, you’re going to want to do the ligament thing, right?”

“Ligation,” Dr. Romano corrected her gently. “Actually, the correct term is ‘cerclage’. Basically, we’ll be tieing the cervix closed, not only because you are dilating but because I suspect one of the placentas has grown over the cervix. It’s important that we secure the area or you could suffer a placental abruption and begin to hemorrhage. Again, it’s not something you have to be overly worried about. With six babies, we’re not talking about trying to do natural childbirth anyway. The cerclage will reinforce your cervix and hold it closed against the increasing pressure. Okay?”

“I’m not going to suddenly go into labor and lose all of them, am I?”

“Not if I can help it, Ms Vecchio,” Dr. Romano vowed firmly. “There are dangers. We’ve already discussed that. The human body is not designed to carry six babies at one time, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t. We simply have to be extra careful. You are actually doing quite well. Remarkably well, in point of fact. No signs of pre-eclampsia or hypertension or gestational diabetes. No swelling of the extremities or water retention, and I haven’t heard a peep out of you about morning sickness. But cervical incompetence and that placenta over the cervix is a bit of a danger, so we’re going to admit you to the hospital as soon as possible and get it taken care of. Okay?”

Frannie nodded, forcing herself to take a calming breath. The doc was right. So far her pregnancy was a breeze. The last time, she’d had-- Memories of that time swamped her mind as if it were only yesterday and she gasped with the remembered pain of Gino hitting her in a drunken rage.

“Ms Vecchio?” The doctor spoke her name in sharp concern as the young woman unconsciously clutched at her stomach to protect a child she’d lost long ago.

Frannie blinked, dragged abruptly back to the present by the doctor’s voice. “Sorry,” she offered, forcing herself to relax and brushing a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “I’m fine.”

“No pain?” the doctor asked, still frowning in concern.

“Bad memory,” she admitted reluctantly and pasted a carefree smile in place. She’d told Dr. Romano about her failed marriage and miscarriage when she’d taken her personal history. Frannie had no desire to walk down that road again and shoved the thought aside. “When do you want me to go in?”

Dr. Romano shrugged. “This afternoon?”

“That quick?” Frannie asked, concerned by the apparent rush.

Dr. Romano smiled reassuringly. “We need to get it over with and Friday afternoons are when I normally schedule surgeries. I want to monitor you for a day to make sure we aren’t getting any pre-term labor signs to go with the dilation but I seriously doubt that’s what’s going on. I’ll also want to keep you in for another day to make sure there aren’t any complications. There’s a slight risk the procedure itself could cause you to go into labor, but we’re talking very slight. About 1 - 5%. We should be able to stop it if you do. It’s a fairly simple procedure. You’ll be under an epidural and awake for the whole thing. Okay?”

“Oh, well,” Frannie hedged, suddenly nervous, “I --ah--”

“We really do need to do this, Ms Vecchio, or put you at greater risk of losing the babies,” the doctor explained gently, noting the young woman’s slightly panicked expression. She found setting concrete goals often helped. “I’ll tell the hospital to expect you before two. Okay? That way you’ll have time to get everything taken care of before I see you again at four.”

Frannie found herself echoing the other woman’s nod and told herself to relax. The woman said it was a simple procedure, it was a simple procedure. Nothing to get uptight about, right? “Okay,” she whispered. She closed her eyes momentarily, then glanced back up with a wry smile. “Thank God for medical insurance, huh?”

The doctor chuckled and patted her arm. “Don’t worry, they’ll cover it. I’ve dealt with the Police Insurance Fund before.”

A sharp but playful staccato knock suddenly sounded upon his door. Frowning slightly, Ben glanced up from the mirror he was using for his mouth exercises and set it aside. With another glance for the clock, 6:30 p.m., he rolled his chair to the door. It was probably Jaelyn come to tell him it was time for dinner. Instead, he was pleasantly surprised to see Kowalski and his sister standing outside his door.

“Hey there!” Ray sang out, returning Ben’s silly grin with one of his own. He went into a boxer’s stance and delivered a friendly punch to his partner’s shoulder. “Don’t look so sur--” Ray noticed his wince as he tapped Ben and immediately frowned in concern. “What happened to your shoulder?”

Ben shook his head and waved the question away before backing the chair up and gesturing them both inside.

Maggie gave him a sharply assessing glance and didn’t like what she saw. “We heard there was some excitement over here last night,” she offered with a frown.

Ben rolled his eyes. ^A misunderstanding,^ he told her simply. ^I’m fine.^

“Misunderstanding, huh?” Ray returned, frowning at Frase as Maggie finished translating. He’d heard as much through the grapevine, but he hadn’t known his friend was at the center of it -- though he should have. Trouble and the Mountie were practically blood brothers. Still, Frase wouldn’t have added the assurance if he didn’t think they needed to hear it... which meant Ray needed to question it. “You don’t look fine. Let me see that shoulder.”

Ben awarded him a patently irritated glare. ^I’m fine!^ he repeated with a snap to his wrists.

Ray lifted a brow in surprise, but he wasn’t that easily intimidated, especially by Fraser. “Grumpy today,” he noted.

“What happened to the shoulder, Ben?” Maggie demanded quietly, folding her arms across her red serge uniform.

Ben closed his eyes and obviously wrestled with his anger. Why wouldn’t anyone listen to him? Why did they have to question everything he said? He’d had enough of that in hospital. And last night had been just as bad. Now Ray-- He wasn’t a china doll, broken beyond repair. He was mute, not dumb. Dumb. Right, another word for mute. Why’d he have to think of that, and all the connotations and etymology behind the word? He shoved the thought aside and glanced up at Ray, pasting a patently false smile in place as he lifted his hands to sign: Time to change the subject.

“He’s asking us to join him for dinner,” Maggie translated.

Ray and Ben’s sister exchanged knowing glances.

“I guess we can hunt down McKenna and ask her?” Ray offered casually with a shrug. As he’d expected, Ben suddenly slumped and offered a defeated sigh.

He did not want them questioning Jaelyn. It had always been so simple to divert the conversation when he could speak. He signed something, but Maggie did not translate, merely shifted her weight to the other foot and waited. She wasn’t going to let him escape the question so easily. Signing made the attempt too obvious. With another sigh, he lifted his hands and offered a concise explanation.

“Jaelyn had a nightmare,” she translated. “He went to check on her and the night manager mistook him for a prowler. ‘It was nothing. I’m fine’.” Her tone of voice told exactly what she thought of his explanation.

“Yeah right,” Ray echoed, unconsciously mirroring Maggie’s body language as he crossed his own arms and frowned down at Ben. “I mistake someone for a prowler in the middle of the night, I holler, ‘Stop! Who are you?’ and wait for an answer.”

Maggie frowned harder. “Chances are the night manager was armed.”

Ray blinked at the thought and turned to glare at Frase. “I swear, if I find a bullet graze--”

Ben shook his head sharply, frowning in exasperation and frustration as he signed an answer.

“No gun,” Maggie translated.

“So what did he hit you with?” Ray continued. “A baseball bat?”

Ben suddenly ducked his head and ran a thumb over his eyebrow.

“A baseball bat!” Ray confirmed with an exasperated sigh of his own, easily reading Ben’s body language. “The guy hit you with a baseball bat?!”

Maggie stepped forward and sank to her knees beside Ben’s chair, her irritation with him supplanted by concern. “He could have killed you, Ben,” she noted quietly. “Did he hit you anywhere else, besides the shoulder?”

Her very real and obvious concern killed Ben’s anger and irritation as if someone had thrown water on a fire. He didn’t want her to worry about him. ^No,^ he assured her calmly. ^He’s --sixty-two. He --only --clipped me.^

Maggie didn’t translate but she did glance at his shoulder. “Let me see it,” she asked softly. “Please?”

It was the ‘please’ that did him in. He really didn’t want to show her the shoulder. He’d inspected the damage this morning before getting dressed. ^It’s not --serious,^ he tried one last time.

“Please?” she repeated simply.

With a sigh, he dropped his head in defeat and nodded. She wasn’t going to let it go until she’d assured herself he was all right.

^It’s --badly --bruised,^ he warned her and reached up to undo the buttons of his flannel shirt. She brushed his hands aside when she saw him wince again. A distant and professional mask settled into place as her fingers made quick work of the task. Ben glanced up to see that Ray had moved in to look over Maggie’s shoulder. The plaid material was gently pushed off his shoulder and the sleeve of his white undershirt lifted.

“Damn!” Maggie whispered in surprise.

“What?” Ray instantly questioned, unable to see anything because of Ben’s undershirt. “I used to be a boxer. I know about these things. Lemme take a look.”

Maggie reluctantly surrendered her spot as Ben lifted his hands and signed, hating to see the look of concern in her eyes.

^It looks --worse --than it is,^ he assured her staunchly.

“Hold still,” Ray admonished him, then lifted the sleeve to get a look himself. “Damn!” he echoed Maggie’s assessment.

Ben rolled his eyes. ^The shoulder’s --fine!^ he insisted. ^I’m calcium --deficient --so --I bruise --easily.^ He frowned as he was forced to finger spell ‘calcium’.

“Would you stop waving your arms about so I can check this out properly already?” Ray ordered firmly and closed his eyes to probe the surrounding area.

Ben again rolled his eyes as Maggie translated what he’d said for Ray.

There was another knock at the open door and they all looked up to see Jaelyn standing just outside. “Hi guys,” she greeted them with a smile. “What’s going on?”

Maggie lifted her hands to sign but spoke aloud at the same time for Ray’s sake. “We’re checking out where your night manager hit Ben with a baseball bat. He’s got a hell of a bruise on his shoulder.”

Jaelyn came forward with an anxious frown. “I tried to get him to let Kevin call an ambulance last night, but he wouldn’t do it.”

“For his shoulder?” Kowalski asked, resuming his examination. Maggie translated.

“His chest I think,” Jaelyn offered and bit her lip. She didn’t join Maggie and Kowalski but kept a careful distance. “He was in obvious pain after Kevin and Jason manhandled him like that.”

Again, Maggie and Ray exchanged speaking glances before turning to glare at Ben. Five minutes later, Ray helped him wrestle the T-shirt off. He’d lost the fight over a further examination when the American had threatened to call Dr. Brennan and tell him what had happened. Ben had little doubt the doctor would demand to see him immediately -- even though he knew there was nothing wrong!

Ray tossed both shirts on the bed and Ben frowned as he realized that Jaelyn had vanished.

Ray frowned himself as he got his first good look at the long ugly scar that snaked from Ben’s collarbone halfway down his stomach. They’d split him wide open to save his life when Donnelly shot him, and it was obvious he wasn’t fully healed. The scar was still pink and shiny, now almost red in places, and it had obviously been badly stressed.

Ray shook his head and carefully probed the surrounding area, trying to make sure his friend didn’t have any broken ribs. He stayed away from the scar itself as it looked like it had been abused enough. Still, there was no sign of bruising or subcutaneous bleeding. After making sure his friend didn’t let out any major grunts of pain as he tested his ribs, Ray reluctantly agreed that there didn’t seem to be any serious injury.

“He’ll live,” he allowed, standing to retrieve Ben’s clothes and toss them at his friend.

“Thank you, Ray,” Maggie offered sarcastically. “I kind of figured that one out for myself.”

“Dr. Brennan’ll rip his head off for refusing that ambulance,” Ray predicted easily, folding his arms as he watched Ben struggle to put back on the shirts. It obviously hurt to move and stretch, but it served him right for trying to hide it from them.

With a shake of her head, Maggie batted Ben’s hands aside and deftly assisted him with getting back into his clothes. He might be irritatingly obstinate and too proud for his own good at times, but he was still her brother. She couldn’t just stand by when he was in pain. He awarded her a long suffering glare of his own for ‘mothering’ him but she only smiled in return.

Ray frowned as he realized that Jaelyn was missing. “Where’d McKenna disappear to?”

“She didn’t say,” Maggie answered, frowning as she remembered the young woman’s sudden disappearance.

Ray shrugged, dismissing it as unimportant. “So!” He slapped his hands together and rubbed them in anticipation. “What’s for dinner? I’m starved!”

Turnbull was still half asleep as he reached for the ringing phone at his bedside. “Hello, Bon Jour, Canadian Consulate, Consulate du Cana--” His mind finally shook the cobwebs of sleep aside as he realized where he was. “I mean... ah... Hello?” He must sound like a complete idiot!

Soft, feminine laughter greeted his ear. He recognized it immediately and felt a mortified blush rise quickly in his pale cheeks. “Sounds like they have you pretty well doped up yet,” the caller observed gently.

“Francesca,” he sighed, bowing his head despite the fact that there was no one around to witness his embarrassment.

“You sound really out of it,” she observed, her tone changing from amusement to concern. “Maybe I should call back some other time?”

“No!” he heard himself exclaim quickly, too quickly. He winced. “I mean, no, I’m fine. I was asleep but I’m glad you called.”

“I’m sorry!” she sounded contrite. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“No, no,” he quickly reassured her. “Don’t apologize please. It’s-- Holy Moly!” he exclaimed as he glanced at the clock. “It’s after noon!”

She again answered with an amused chuckle for his obvious surprise. “Well, it’s not like you’re going to be late for work, you know.”

Ren glanced around at his surroundings, acknowledging Francesca’s words with a sad little sigh as he sank back into his pillows.

“Hey, you okay?” she suddenly asked.

Oh dear. He hadn’t meant for her to hear that sigh! “Um, oh yes!” he again reassured her, but he couldn’t bring himself to tell a blatant lie either. “It’s... um... well, I’m just surprised. I’ve never been in hospital before. I’m not used to staying abed like this.”

“You haven’t?

“Well, no. I mean, I’ve been in hospitals before, visiting friends and colleagues, but I’ve never actually been in... admitted... before... myself.”

“You’re lucky,” Frannie told him. “I’ve been in them way too often. So,” she continued quickly before he could follow up on her last statement, “I wanted to call and see how you were doing. I’ll be joining you later today. Doctor wants me to go for some kinda litigation procedure. Supposed to be a snap.”

Turnbull frowned in confusion. “Litigation?” he echoed.

“Yeah, well, it’s like a woman thing, you know. Pregnant woman thing. Nothing serious. I’ll be out again the next day.”

“Do you perhaps mean ligation, Francesca?”

“Yeah, that’s what I said,” she answered. “It’s called cleavage or, no, ah... clevoge? Anyway, it’s no big deal. I’ll try and stop by your room after it’s done or something. Okay?”

“Ligation usually refers to tying something off,” he offered in concern. “What could the doctor-- Oh!” The answer to his own question suddenly clicked in his mind. There had been a heifer on the ranch once that conceived twins and he’d helped his uncle perform a cervical ligation in an attempt to secure both calves. “Oh! Um... oh dear!”

Frannie’s laughter trilled over the phone line. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone blush over the phone before, Rennie!”

Oh dear! He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.

“Anyway it’s no big deal,” she repeated easily. “Doc says they do it all the time. So, what are your doc’s telling you? Are you up and walking yet? My uncle Lorenzo had his hip replaced about ten years ago. He was up and moving the second day!”

“Well, um, apparently my surgery was a bit more complicated,” he offered diplomatically.

“What’s wrong?” Frannie asked bluntly, easily reading behind the careful words and over-reacting to what she didn’t hear: Reassurance. “Are you rejecting it? God, tell me you’re not rejecting it!”

“No!” he assured her quickly. “No, no, no, I’m not rejecting the prosthetic. Actually, that’s not possible, as they use-- Well, it’s not the same as if I had a transplant in which case I would be pumped full of medications to prevent rejection. But in any case, that’s not a concern, Francesca, I assure you.”

“Then what’s wrong?” Frannie insisted. “I know something’s wrong, Renfield Turnbull, so don’t go trying that Mountie... ‘I’m fine’... stowitasizm... on me!”


“Don’t change the subject,” she snapped. “You know what I mean. It’s been five days now. Why aren’t you out of bed yet?”

“Apparently, it’s because of the chest tube they have in my side,” he explained quickly. “The bullet in my back caught a piece of my lung.” As well as his spleen, stomach and large intestine, but she didn’t need to know that. “They’ll be getting me on my feet just as soon as they remove it.”

“Oh,” Frannie answered, feeling all her terror for his sake shrink like a suddenly deflated balloon. “That’s... you know. That make’s sense. Did they say when they’re going to remove it?”

“Either today or tomorrow,” he told her. “Ah. The doctor is here now Frannie. I need to go.”

“Oh! Oh, right!” she agreed. Why’d the guy have to have such poor timing. “Um, well. I’ll try to stop in and see you tonight or tomorrow then, right?”

“I’ll be looking forward to it,” Ren told her honestly, feeling another blush creep up his face as the doctor waited patiently for him to finish the call. It wasn’t like the woman had any idea who he was talking to but--

“Okay then,” Frannie offered with awkward cheerfulness. “I’ll see you then. Take care of yourself.”

“I will. Good-bye.” Regretfully, Ren hung up the phone and then turned his attention to the doctor who was frowning over his chart.

Vecchio hated hospitals: the smell, the overly soothing colors, the sterile artwork on the walls, the god-like attitudes of everyone and the pervasive feeling of dread he had whenever he was there.

The waiting was the worst.

He sighed and glared at the door of the exam room. He’d been poked and prodded, X-rayed repeatedly and even undergone a CT scan. Now he was finally dressed in real clothes again and wanting some answers. Why the hell couldn’t doctors ever do anything in a timely manner?

He bit his tongue when a knock finally came at the door and simply called a civil, “Come!” rather then muttering, ‘It’s about time!’ Dr. Brennan breezed into the room with Ray’s chart in hand and offered him a reassuring nod as he expertly hooked a stool with one foot and wheeled it where he wanted before sitting down to confer with his patient.

“Okay,” the younger man sighed, coming right to the point. “I’ve reviewed your history and the new tests we just did. We’ve pinpointed the exact position of the bullet. Or positions actually. It fragmented. There are three pieces, not the two I believe you were originally told about.”

“Three?” Ray repeated. “Someone needs to teach my first doc how to read an X-ray.”

“Reading an X-ray is not an exact science, Mr. Vecchio. According to your history, I doubt he even saw the X-rays until in the midst of your surgery. You were in critical condition when you were brought in and your surgeon’s first priority was to stabilize you, which is part of the reason they made no attempt to remove any of the fragments at the time of your injury. Most people can live a fairly normal life with a bullet in them.”

“Normal?” Ray echoed, exasperated. “He wrote me a Medical Retirement! Said I could never work again! That’s hardly what I call normal.”

“He said you could not physically exert yourself, Mr. Vecchio,” Dr. Brennan corrected him. “That’s not the same thing.”

“It is when you’re a cop!” Ray snapped. “I ain’t ready to retire, Doc. I want that bullet outta me!”

Dr. Brennan took a deep breath and nodded, ignoring the defensive reaction that the other man’s yelling caused. He understood his patient’s frustration but it didn’t change what he had to tell him. He looked up again and continued in a calm and professional manner, hoping to ease the other man’s anxiety.

“We can remove it, Mr. Vecchio,” he told him bluntly, “but there are a few things you have to be aware of first.”

“Can I get my old life back?” Ray demanded. “That’s all I need to know!”

“No it isn’t, Mr Vecchio, and if you don’t calm down and listen to me, then you can find yourself another doctor because I will not treat you without your full knowledge of all the risks involved. Am I clear?”

Ray had not been expecting the quiet bespectacled man to snap back like that and blinked in surprise. He had to admit he’d been acting like a jerk but-- But nothing. The man was doing his job and Ray was trying to steamroll his way to the answer he wanted. Well, he had his answer. Now, he had to listen to the dangers involved in getting what he wanted.

“Sorry, Doc,” he backed-down gracefully and ran a hand over his balding pate. He needed another haircut. “I’m just a little frustrated with all the run around, you know.”

“The run around is over, Mr. Vecchio,” the other answered. “I now know precisely where the fragments are and what it’s going to take to get them out of you. We’re not talking about an outpatient procedure here. You’ll have to be admitted and there are some rather high risks involved. There’s a chance of dying anytime a patient goes under, but your chances of doing so are quite a bit higher than average. Ready to listen?”

Ray heard him and forced a calming breath. The guy was right. He needed to know everything before he went forward with this. He wasn’t willing to kill himself trying to get back on the Force. He nodded.

Dr. Martin glanced around at the students as Karen resumed her seat. “Okay then,” she nodded. “Let’s break up into our assigned pairs and get some work done on those communication skills. Be sure to check the board if you’re not sure of your assignment. Gary? Why don’t you work with Sonya and Tom since Steve is missing tonight.”

The group Communication Disorder’s Class quickly moved about the normal routine of going from the group interaction aspect of a support group to the individual pairing Dr. Martin liked for skills practice. Ben turned around and glanced at the board behind him, not having taken the time earlier to note his pairs assignment as he’d hurried in, late.

Jaelyn had arranged for Jason to drive both into town for their Wednesday Communication Disorders Class. They’d come in a little earlier today than would be normal as both had appointments with their respective primary care physicians. Ben’s appointment had run a bit longer than anticipated.

Ray had been right. Dr. Brennan had not been happy with him and had given him a short but extremely effective lecture about not calling an ambulance before ordering a series of X-rays. Apparently, there was some danger of the wire holding his sternum together actually cutting into the bone. The doctor was concerned about possible weakening of the breastbone. Fortunately, the X-rays had shown little damage but the testing had made Ben late for the Communication Disorders Class -- which didn’t make Dr. Martin happy.

...And now he had to wonder if it was truly just chance that saw his name teamed with Susan Childs for tonight’s paired interaction exercises.

Ben offered the woman (who appeared rather quickly) a carefully polite smile as Marty, one of the assistants, opened a metal folding chair and she settled herself opposite him. It was their first time to be paired, but he wasn’t looking forward to it. The woman had made her interest in him quite clear from the first session he’d attended. He admitted that she was a handsome woman, with large blue eyes and long blond hair that she allowed to flow in gentle waves about her shoulders. Dief was certainly taken with her, but then he had always been fascinated with blondes. Unfortunately, Ben wasn’t. Quite simply, she made him uncomfortable.

He fought to ignore her rather suggestive smile and turned to see if Marty had any special instructions before they began. He merely offered the two of them an encouraging nod and leaned back against a folding table five or six feet away, effectively removing himself from their conversation. Suppressing a sigh, Ben turned his attention to the woman opposite him and hoped that he could get through the session with a minimum of embarrassment.

^Are --you --from --Chicago?^ he asked, signing slowly for Miss Childs’ sake. She had suffered through a case of meningitis which left her deaf and was still learning Sign. It was rather reassuring to realize that he actually had to slow down for her sake, rather than struggle to sign as quickly as possible.

“Georgia,” she surprised him by leaning forward and answering in a husky drawl. “I’m told I have a sexy Southern accent when I get the chance to use it.” She smiled invitingly. “Least ways, I don’t think I’ve lost it yet, have I?”

^You --haven’t --lost --it --Susan,^ Marty signed as he stepped forward in his role as referee. ^But --you’re --suppose --to --be --practicing --Sign,^ he reminded her.

Susan offered a little pout and glanced over her shoulder. “How come she gets to use her voice?” She jerked her head to indicate Jaelyn who was working with Terri tonight.

^She --has --practiced,^ Marty answered. ^When --you --can --sign --at --the --same --speed --you --can --speak, --you --can --do --the --same --thing. --Sign!^

Susan gave him a disgruntled moue, before turning a disquieting smile back Ben’s way and batting her eyes at him. He sat back further in his chair and pasted a carefully polite but oblivious expression in place. Hoping to get her attention back to the purpose of the class, he lifted his hands to sign again. ^Why --did --you --come --to --Chicago?^ he asked.

^--Looking --for --love,^ she answered with a smoldering gaze.

Oh dear, he thought, and fought the urge to run. It was going to be a long session.

“Hello, Renfield Turnbull speaking. May I help you?” he answered the phone with his normal polite aplomb.

“Consul Turnbull, your father,” the man on the other end identified himself briskly. “I understand you went and got yourself shot?”

Ren blinked sharply and fought to deal with the simple fact that his father had called him. He hadn’t spoken to the man for... was it four years now? He shook his head, shoving his shock aside. What was the question again?

“Not -- not on purpose, Sir,” he stammered defensively.

“I should hope not,” the elder Turnbull replied. “‘Though such dangers are part of the job. You’d have been safer joining the military, not that I would have approved that career choice either, but that’s an old argument. So, what happened?” he demanded tersely. “I understand that you saved some American woman’s life?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“And you were teamed up with an American Police Detective, correct?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Why didn’t he save the woman’s life?”

“He was in no position to do so, Sir.”

“But you were?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“I see,” the older man sighed and Ren could practically hear him suddenly changing mental gears as he moved onto the next topic for discussion. “The doctors told me they had to replace your hip.”

It wasn’t a question, but Ren answered it as one even so.

“Yes, Sir.”

“You’ll be forced to retire then.”

“Not necessari--”

“--Bull shit, Renfield,” his father interrupted him bluntly. “You have to pass the RCMP Physical Exam to stay on the Force. That’s not going to happen.”

Ren lifted his eyes to stare at the ceiling. This was why he hadn’t spoken with his father in four years, not that the two of them had ever been close. He’d been raised by his maternal Uncle while his parents pursued their diplomatic careers. Ren was quite certain his father was an excellent diplomat, but he seemed to forget those skills when dealing with his son.

“At least you were in uniform and on duty so you can expect to be retired with a small pension and benefits, whatever those might add up to,” the other man continued without any regard for Ren’s feelings in the matter. “How long have you been with the Force now?”

“Seven years.” He was not surprised his father didn’t know.

“Yes. Well, it won’t be much,” the older man stated curtly. “Still, there are other jobs to be had that are not as physically demanding. Better yet, go back to College and finish up you Political Science degree. I can pull some strings and get you into the Diplomatic Corps despite the--”

“--No Sir,” Ren interrupted forcefully. He was not about to let his father dictate the course of his life the way the man dictated a daily schedule.

“I beg your pardon?” Apparently Ren had managed to throw him.

“Should I chose to enter the Diplomatic Corps, it will be on my own merit and not your coat tails... Sir!”

It didn’t take much imagination to picture the elder Turnbull’s slowly stiffening posture and the lift of an imperious eyebrow. Ren wondered briefly if that brow was white now or if the man had his hairstylist re-touch it too? Knowing his father, he’d likely had a facelift as well.

“Pride is a sin, boy,” the man told him firmly, and Ren tried not to grin at such an admonishment coming from him! “Do you honestly think the Diplomatic Corps, or anyone else for that matter outside maybe the Service Industry, will give you the time of day? You’re handicapped!”

Ren ground his teeth in silent anger. He was not handicapped! People had hip replacement surgery all the time. He would walk again, and, if he had anything to say about it, he’d remain on the Force too!

“The Human Rights Act--”

“--The Human Rights Act be damned, boy!” the man on the other end of the phone snapped irritably. “You’re a public servant, employed at the pleasure of the Crown. The right to argue wrongful dismissal is based on the contract law of employment. You can fight the RCMP all you want, but they want to get rid of you, you’re gone. All they have to do is dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s within the parameters of the RCMP Act and Regulations. The civil laws don’t pertain to you. See Larry Alan Riabko vs. Her Majesty the Queen 1999. You really should keep up with these things.”

Ren closed his eyes and fought back a wave of fear which threatened to drown him. He was not at all surprised that his father should throw a fairly recent court action at him.

“I can get you a job where you can be something more than a statistic and figure head.”

“Thank you, Sir,” he responded in a tight monotone, “but no thank you.”

“Stubborn,” the older man grumbled. “Just like your uncle. You’ll learn better. The offer will still be there when your uncle’s idealistic notions slam up against the harsh reality of a prejudicial world. Your mother wants to talk to you. Please assure her you are not about to die. I need her here far more than you do, I’m sure.”

Of course he did, Ren thought, trying to picture his mother’s petite frame and failing: His father always had.

“Renfield dear?” His mother’s voice was the complete opposite of his father’s, soft and gentle--.

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Oh darling, why do you insist upon doing these things to me? Do you have any idea how terrified I was when the Ambassador called and told us you’d been shot in the line of duty? I was certain you were dead!”

--and rapid fire. He could easily imagine her making almost the exact same statement to any one of her socialite friends. He offered a silent sigh and bowed his head.

“Are they at least going to be transferring you to a Toronto Hospital? You deserve better than those money hungry Americans will give you.”

“My orthopedic surgeon is one of the best in North America, Mother,” he assured her. “I am in the best of hands.”

“Well, what about Europe?” she questioned. “We could always have you flown to France or England you know. I understand the English have been doing a lot of research into this sort of thing.”

“I’ll be fine, Mother.”

“Has Uncle Angus come down there to see you yet?” she asked, suddenly changing the topic. He doubted she’d even heard him. “Oh, he probably can’t get away from the farm right now, can he. Why did you ever accept such a terrible posting to such a dreadful city anyway? Beirut would have been safer than Chicago! All those mobsters running around... You’re father is telling me I have to go. This is an Embassy phone after all. Hugs and kisses, Love. Take care of yourself and remember your father’s offer. You could do much worse than to accept his help, you know. Bye, Dearest.”

“Good-bye, Mother,” he offered, but the phone on the other end had already been hung up.

She studied the house before her for a long moment before striding up the walkway and mounting the steps to the front door. It wasn’t much to look at. Just another two-story house on Octavia Street. Ah, but if those walls could talk...

She rapped smartly on the heavy wooden door, ignoring the doorbell in favor of the physical action, and swept a few stray blonde hairs behind her ear. She really ought to go back to being a brunette, she thought, but after the accident had left her with a new face... well, she’d decided to go the whole route and had her hair done too. After nearly a year of telling herself she didn’t like the effect, she still hadn’t gotten around to changing it.

The door finally opened and Detective Vecchio greeted her with a frown. “Yes?” he asked.

“Will the real Ray Vecchio please step forward!” she grinned and cracked her gum.

Ray narrowed his eyes at the woman in front of him and braced himself against the door. “King,” he sighed and shook his head. Didn’t he have enough to worry about without having this bitch dogging his tracks?

“The one and only, Vecchio!” she agreed with a little bow. “Long time no see. How ‘bout giving me an exclusive on the life of an undercover fed, huh?”

“How about I sic the feds on your every story from now on for just threatening my life?” he rejoined with a glare.

“You’re only making me hungrier, Vecchio,” she laughed. “You shoulda seen my face the first time I saw Kowalski and heard your name. You owe me for not digging deeper into that one. Or more like for not printing what I did dig up. That Mountie friend of yours has corrupted me. So, where’s that sister of yours? I’m here to see her, not you.”

“Frannie?” he echoed in sharp confusion.

“Yeah, Frannie,” King echoed sarcastically. “Your baby sister. Remember her? Tiny little thing, short dark hair, pregnant as all get out?”

Ray’s eyes narrowed in suspicion again. “What the hell do you want with my sister, King?”

“I thought I’d take her shopping for nursery furniture,” the flippant reporter rejoined. “She’s going to be needing it.”

“Yeah, right,” he snapped right back. “She don’t know nothing about my being undercover. You’re barking up the wrong tree.”

King laughed as he went to shut the door. “God, you’re conceited!” she told him. It was enough to make him pause. “I already know everything I need to know about ‘Armando Langustini’.”

Ray froze for a long moment and then offered her a dangerous glare before grabbing her arm and dragging her inside. He slammed the door behind them and shoved her back against it. If he had to get rough to get his point across, then so be it. The feds had taught him that as well.

He didn’t like to be threatened!

“You know nothing, King!” he hissed, getting in her face. “You understand me? Armando Langustini is dead. And so is your story!”

King smiled and cracked her gum in his face, refusing to be intimidated. “I’ll exhume them both,” she promised easily.

“And bury me,” he added angrily.

“You’re a big boy, Vecchio,” she shrugged. “I figure you can take care of yourself. Besides, whoever you crossed horns with must already know the story. Your friend Bent-O blew your cover big time.”

“They aren’t happy with me,” he admitted, “but they aren’t hunting me either.” He’d have been dead long ago if they were. “You start pointing fingers and embarrass the wrong people and I’ll be dead before the ink is dry on the contract they put out on my head. You print one word, and I swear to God there’ll be nowhere you can hide.”

“Threatening the media, Ray?” She cracked her gum again and smiled broadly. “I like it when you play rough. But as it happens, I’m not after you. I want your sister.”

Vecchio frowned sharply and pushed back from the door, glaring in confusion from a more comfortable distance. She was talking about Frannie again?

“What the hell’s so interesting about a pregnant woman?” he challenged her. “You got demoted to writing the gossip column or something?”

“Very funny, Vecchio,” the other woman responded, straightening away from the door. “I just happened to be at the OB/GYN waiting for my annual when I hear Frannie yelling about ‘Immaculate Conceptions’. I ask a few questions, do a little digging... Think about it Ray!” She stepped forward, the excitement of pursuing the story flaming like a fever in her blood. “Sextuplets! And she’s not even the biological mother! It’s the human interest story of the decade!”

Ray suddenly felt as if he’d been gut-punched. “Sextuplets?” he gasped and stumbled back until he was leaning against the opposite wall for support. He knew she’d gotten large very quickly but...

King took in his shocked expression and frowned in concern. Was he going to actually faint on her? “You didn’t know?” she asked in surprise.

Ray saw the look on her face and slammed a door on his emotions. He’d perfected that ability when he was undercover. “What do you mean ‘not the biological mother’?” he repeated, narrowing his eyes suspiciously as he sampled her words more objectively. “You’re talking yellow rag journalism here, King. I don’t think your reputation can take another retraction.”

“You didn’t know?” she repeated in disbelief and then laughed. “Damn! You really didn’t know!”

“I don’t like being laughed at, King,” Ray told her angrily, “so I suggest you start making sense here before I throw your sorry butt out the door and slap you with a restraining order to keep you away from me and my sister!”

“Sextuplets, Ray,” she repeated, “and no, there aren’t going to be any retractions this time!”

Fifteen minutes later, Ray had told King to take a hike and sworn to sic more than the feds on her if she printed a single word about Armando Langustini. She hadn’t been real happy, but that was nothing compared to what he was feeling. He sat quietly on the couch staring at his hands in disbelief. Sextuplets... and they weren’t even hers! Here he’d been trying to figure out who the scuzbucket was who’d knocked-up his kid sister, and he learned...

He knew Karen and Mike. Had known. He’d been Mike’s Best Man at their wedding and Frannie had been Karen’s Maid of Honor, oh what... it had to be six... seven years ago? Karen and Mike had always dreamt of having kids. He remembered them talking about it often. But apparently they’d learned Karen couldn’t carry a kid and Frannie had volunteered to act as a surrogate. A miracle had happened and instead of carrying one or two babies, she was carrying six. Now, her friends were dead, killed in a car accident two weeks before Ray got out of the hospital.

He remembered how he’d laid into her when he first discovered she was pregnant. How he’d suspected Fraser and then Kowalski. And how she’d told him off, telling him to think what he wanted because she just didn’t care. God, she’d been mad!

The baby wasn’t-- babies --weren’t even hers.

Well, they were now.

Damn! He glanced around the place without seeing it. Where the hell were they going to stick six bassinets?

Frannie stuck her head around the doorway and peered inside before offering a cheery, “Hi!” when she saw that Rennie had risen the head of his bed and was sitting up. He turned with a surprised start from the window he'd been staring out of and offered her a bright smile as she came up beside him. “I didn't wake you, did I?”

“Oh, no, no!” he assured her emphatically with a little shake of his head. His eyes swept her petite frame, taking in the smart blue jumper and bright floral jacket. “I thought... Weren't you supposed to be admitted to have a surgical procedure yesterday?”

“Done,” she offered with a smile and a shrug. “I wanted to visit you yesterday, but there was no way I was going to walk down the halls in one of those hospital gowns with my--” She paused and rolled her eyes suggestively, refusing to verbalize the thought. “--you know! The nurses wouldn’t let me change clothes.”

“You've been discharged already?”

“Uh-huh,” she answered. “I was only admitted overnight for observation because my doc is paranoid. The procedure went without a hitch. She wanted to keep me another day, but I promised her to be good and talked her out of it. Kinda uncomfortable and all but... Ah, well, you don't want to hear about that. Tell me about you. I see they finally got rid of that brace thing, huh?”

Ren glanced down at the covers that concealed his hips and legs and noted with pleasure that they lay smooth across his lower extremities. He nodded. “I'm quite happy to be rid of it,” he admitted. It had been really quite uncomfortable.

“And the chest tu— No, it's still there isn't it?”

“The doctor decided she wanted to give it another day before removing it,” Ren answered, not really clear as to why.

“And you're sitting up,” she noted with an even larger smile. “Renfield Turnbull, you look almost normal now! Although, you know, I don't think I've ever seen you out of uniform before.”

Ren felt a slight blush warm his cheeks at the clear compliment within her tone. “I do feel somewhat closer to normal,” he admitted with a shy smile. “If I might be so bold, you are looking most beautiful yourself, Francesca.” He quickly ducked his head downward in embarrassment.

It was Frannie's turn to blush under this much too sincere compliment. She laughed merrily and rubbed her rounded belly. “You're great for my ego, Rennie!”

“Oh, but I do mean it, Francesca,” he repeated, wanting to strengthen her self-esteem. “I've often heard how pregnant women are said to have a glow about them, but I've never seen it before. It's quite... beautiful.” The last word was forced from a too tight throat. He found himself staring at her, memorizing the planes and angles of her face, glowing with health and that secret something that only a mother-to-be possessed.

His words, and the deep sincerity that she heard within them, mesmerized her as well. There was a long moment of silence between them before Frannie suddenly blinked, realizing she'd been staring as well. They both gave a little start, and both tucked their heads downward in embarrassment. She hoped she didn't blush as readily as Rennie did!

God, he was such a romantic! How could she resist that innocent, ingenuous look of his? How could such a child-like man also be the same fierce and decisive protector who had saved her life last week?

She gave her head a little shake, forcing her embarrassment aside and donning the same shield of bright frivolity she always did when she was most uncomfortable. “Anyway, I came here to ask you something!” she announced a bit too quickly, and hid her wince in a bright smile, hoping she hadn't already made a fool of herself in front of him!

“You... you did?” he stuttered, clearing his throat as his voice came out too high.

“Remember, I said I wanted to name one of my little kick-boxers after you.” She smiled wryly and rubbed at a spot high on her left abdomen. “You were adamantly against Renfield, so... what's your middle name?”

“Oh dear, um, well, um...” Ren blinked and wrestled with this unexpected dilemma. “You, ah, really don't need to do that, Francesca. My middle name is just as bad as my first, you see, else I would have adopted it in place of Renfield long ago.”

“Renfield isn't that bad a name,” she argued, half-heartedly. “I mean... that is I assume... it's a family name or something, right? I mean your parents didn't--”

“--No,” he agreed quickly. “No. My mother had never read Bram Stoker's 'Dracula' and was unaware of the... connotations surrounding the name.” He again tucked his head downward, glancing away as he explained. “It is indeed, as you most astutely surmised, a family name. It’s traditional in my father's family for the first born son to be named for someone of prominence on the mother's side of the family.”

“Oh!” Frannie offered in understanding. “Well, that's cool... honoring the mother's family that way and all... but it still doesn't tell me your middle name?”

“I'm afraid my mother's family were poor immigrants who came to Canada to escape the Great Potato Famine of Ireland.” He glanced back up at her, and it was quite clear that he didn't want to answer her, yet felt honor-bound to do so. “The only person of note on her side of the family was her grandfather and... Um... Well, it is quite an interesting story,” he admitted and escaped in the tangent. Frannie merely smiled and lifted a brow as she listened, knowing he was only stalling.

“In the late 1800's, the Canadian government, and more specifically the Canadian Pacific Railway, was looking to establish an agricultural market in the great frontier of the west. You see, people were traveling west but the trains were returning empty. There were no indutries and few goods to be shipped back east. Between 1901 and 1905, 40,000 homesteads were granted in what later became Alberta, with the requirment that they stay on the land at least three years and break a certain amount of land each year. My mother's grandfather came after them, buying up the homesteads from those who were disillusioned by the hard life and who didn't feel that they had what it took. Unfortunately, what with the Great Depression, World War II, and bad investment by my mother's father, most of the fortune her grandfather managed to accrue is gone today. Well, except for the small ranch that my Uncle Angus still owns. Still my mother's name was strong enough to win my paternal grandfather’s attention. It wasn’t exactly an arranged wedding but-- She and my father were married within six months of their first meeting.”

“And the family tradition of naming first born sons continued?” Frannie prompted quietly.

Rennie winced slightly, having failed to distract her. “Could you just go with the tradition of naming the child after someone in your family? I would still feel quite honored!”

Frannie chuckled maliciously. “Oh no, Renfield whatever-your-middle-name-is Turnbull. You're not getting out of telling me now! Not after that kinda shaggy-dog-earred story! On top of which you're not the father so the tradition doesn't hold. Now, out with it. Come on!”

Ren rolled his eyes and blushed profusely.

“What?” she asked, dying of curiosity now. “Percival? Eustace? Priscilla?!” Frankly, she thought those would be preferable to 'Renfield' but--

“My great-grandfather's name was Renfield Willard Obernard Aloysius Jeremias Cornelius O'Seanus O'Donnell O'Flynn.”

The name actually tripped off Rennie's tongue with surprising ease, as though he'd said it many times in the... “Oh my God!” Frannie stared at him in surprise. “They stuck you with that whole thing?”

Rennie blinked sharply and actually smiled. “No,” he assured her. “The government forms for multiple names such as that are a bit complicated. I escaped that one at least.”

Frannie actually looked relieved to hear that. “Okay...” She drew the word out as she nodded to herself, holding onto her patience. This was a simple question. Why was she having to drag it out of him? “So your middle name is--?” She gestured with a rolling motion of her hand, hoping to mentally encourage an end to the game.

“--Aloysius,” he forced himself to admit in a whisper.

“Aloysius?” she repeated, with a frown and cocked her head to the side as she sampled it on her tongue. “What's so wrong with that? You could have always gone by Al?”

Renfield's head jerked upward and he suddenly looked as though he'd been hit. He stared at her for a very long moment... and then giggled. It was a true giggle: The kind that sneaks out of a person that they never thought could exist outside a cartoon. He put his hand to his mouth but the giggle was followed by a snicker. The sound alone was enough to make Frannie grin. Ren knew his face was flaming, but he could no more hold back his laughter than he could tear his eyes away from Francesca's smiling face.

It was contagious and Frannie soon found herself laughing merrily along with the injured Mountie, even though she had no idea what was so amusing! Rennie laughed until there were tears running down his face!

“What's so funny?” Frannie finally managed to ask as he fought to catch his breath.

“'Al'!” he repeated, wiping the back of his hand across his eyes. “I never even thought of that! It would have been so much better than 'Renfield' or 'Rat'.”

“'Rat'?” she repeated in confusion. She clicked on what he meant a moment later. “Oh! Your initials!”

“Whenever the other kids learnt my name.... Well, kids can be cruel without realizing it.”

“Oh, they usually realize it, Ren,” Frannie offered, thinking back on her own experiences in grade school. 'Francesca' had always been a mouth full and not all of the diminutives she'd been given were as polite as 'Frannie'. “They can be down right vicious when they want to be!”

“Yes. Well.” He cleared his throat and tucked his chin downward again. “I think you can understand why I really would prefer if you didn't name a child after me.”

“Yeah, well, um...” She lifted her head with a sudden smile and snapped her fingers. “There's nothing stopping me from giving one of them 'Turnbull' as a middle name! You know, something like -- Stephano Turnbull Vecchio?” She laughed.

“Stephano?” he echoed, surprised at such a pairing with his own name.

“Hey!” Frannie offered him a mock glare. “I have my own traditions to uphold too, you know! You don't go sticking an English name like 'Steven' with 'Vecchio'.”

“I love that frown.”

Ray blinked myopic blue eyes sharply and glanced up from the computer monitor to find a bright red uniform leaning over his desk.

Maggie smiled down at him. “You get these two little lines between your eyes and you stick out your tongue, just a bit.”

“I do not!” he objected sharply.

“Yes, you do,” she insisted lightly and smoothly stepped behind him to see the monitor better. “It’s cute. You look just like a kid who’s trying to cut out something but hasn’t used scissors before. --Greg Manly?” she read. “I thought that case was closed?”

“Basically,” he agreed, dismissing the question of his facial expression and resuming his hunt and peck typing. “Still haven’t got the ME report from Mort but that’s only a formality. ...And exactly how many kids have you watched try to cut out something before?”

“I said it was cute, Ray,” she told him, leaning forward to read the file. “Don’t get all defensive. Did ballistics get a positive match for all three shootings?”

“Uh-huh,” he confirmed, frowning at the monitor. “Turnbull, Dawson and Charlie Wickert. They tied Manly to them all in a nice little bundle.”

“A modified Colt .45 semi-auto pistol? Modified how?”

“There was nothing semi-auto about it.”

Maggie nodded, kicking herself for not figuring that out on her own. Boy, was she being dense today! She turned her attention back to the screen. “No model number?”
“Right,” Kowalski laughed. “I wasn’t quite that close.”

“I was talking about the ballistic-- Oh wait.” She frowned sharply at the screen. “This is your incident report of Turnbull’s shooting, isn’t it? Not the final report?”

“Yeah... I’m just reviewing the thing and cleaning it up,” he explained. “I wasn’t feeling particularly objective when I originally wrote it up.”

“Understandably. But didn’t you write this before you got the ballistic report on Manly’s gun?”

“Yeah, so?” He hit a couple of more keys and sent the thing to the printer.

“So how did you know it was a Colt .45 semi-automatic pistol?”

“I saw it, Maggie!” he offered in exasperation. What was with the nitpick questions today? First Welsh wanting to know where the report was and now her. --Damn. The printer would work a whole lot better if he turned it on first!

“You saw it?”

He turned and frowned at her. “Yeah, I saw it. Mounties aren’t the only ones who are trained to note stuff.”

“I know that, Ray.” She shook her head and stepped back as he made to stand up. “I’m sure your observational skills are quite excellent. It’s just that I thought Mr. Manly was right-handed, that’s all.”

He frowned in thought. “There was something in the preliminary death report about him being right-handed. The doc on the scene was anal. So what? Right-handed, left-handed, what does it matter?”

Maggie shrugged, trying to dismiss it but the inconsistency nagged at her just the same. “It’s just that if he were firing right-handed, he would have been firing across his body out the window and you shouldn’t have been able to see the gun.”

Ray frowned even harder, remembering the scene... The guy’s arm was clearly extended from the driver’s window and he was shooting with his left-hand. Ray sighed in frustration and swept a hand violently back through his hair. “An automatic weapon doesn’t need a lot of accuracy to hit it’s target. The guy sprayed the area. I don’t think he was worried about his aim.”

“True,” she admitted but there was still a little pensive frown on her face.

“Don’t!” Ray told her sharply, pointing a finger in her face to emphasize his point.

Her brows winged upward in surprise. “Don’t?”
“Don’t do this to me, Maggie!” he warned her. “I got a victim recovering from attempted murder, three dead bodies downstairs and Turnbull in the hospital. Everything says Manly did it and Manly committed suicide. Case closed.”

“I thought you said Mort hadn’t finished the autopsy yet?”

Ray fought back his irritation and laughed. The woman was just as frustrating and niggling about the details as her brother was! “No, he hasn’t,” the Chicago detective admitted. “He’s supposed to have it done later today but it’s only a formality at this point! Look, the guy drives off a bridge into the river. I don’t think anyone was in the backseat holding a gun to his head, do you?”

“Not likely, no.”

“‘Not likely’? How about not possible!” he rejoined. “Any psycho idiot who tried would have been killed along with Manly. The fact that he used his left-hand to shoot when he was right-handed means nothing! Nada! Zilch! Less than fly spit! Got it?”

“Got it, Ray.”

“Good!” he sighed and leaned forward to close down the system. “Cause I got other cases to think about. I don’t need you distracting me with whether or not Manly was right- or left-handed. Looks like we might have a lead on that Caruzo car-jacking. Gotta go downtown to interview a possible witness, wanta tag along?”

“That’s what I’m here for, Ray.” She deftly reached up and settled her Stetson firmly in place.

Jaelyn frowned at Ben as he trailed the new telephone line across her floor, making sure it was long enough to be bundled with the rest of the electrical cords that ran through a channel lock to her desk. Once there, it could be connected to a surge protector, then to a splitter, then to the computer, then to the regular phone and finally to the new TDD, or Telecommunications Device for the Deaf, which UPS had delivered that morning. Jaelyn was glad that Ben had obviously done this sort of thing before because she would have never dreamt of tackling the mass of cables and cords which connected all her office equipment into a cohesive system. The wires were normally kept neatly bundled and hidden away, but adding a piece of equipment meant undoing all those careful little bundles and re-securing them. She knew how it all worked; she was just afraid of winding up with a tangled mess!

She wasn't sure that he should really be doing so much... Well, he wasn't really walking, but climbing up and down from the floor to the desk again and again was probably harder. He claimed it was good exercise but Jaelyn found it exhausting just to watch him tracing all the stupid wires.

She turned and suddenly stumbled. She would have fallen but Ben automatically reached out and caught her. He let her go a moment later as she regained her footing. With a little smile, and a warning nod for the cables on the floor, he turned back to the desk and the task at hand.

Jaelyn, however, didn't move. She was-- oh God! Her breath caught in her throat as his hand crushed her arm. She couldn’t breathe! The rope-- He was--

She couldn’t even scream!

Ben turned back to see Jaelyn staring downward, obviously shaken by something. He frowned in concern as he noted that she was beginning to tremble. Her face had gone quite pale and her breathing had increased dramatically. He followed her gaze and realized she was staring at the computer cable in her hand. She dropped it as if it were a poisonous snake and backed away, still staring at it as she was involuntarily propelled against the wall of the office and could go no further. She gasped as she hit it and spun in place, her hands sweeping the wall in a desperate search for an escape that wasn’t there. With a tiny cry of unimaginable fear she slid down the unforgiving surface and sat huddled in a quivering, terrified heap, trying to make herself as small as possible.

Ben didn’t know exactly what had terrified her, but it had something to do with the computer cable. He quickly bent and grabbed up the cord, stepping to his bedroom door and tossing it within. He closed the door between the two rooms and turned back to Jaelyn, hoping that its removal would helped. She didn't seem to be aware of his action.

Concerned, Ben went to her. He knelt and reached out, hoping to calm her or at least get her to tell him what was wrong. She jerked from his touch with a terrified whimper, her head snapping up and-- He reeled back in surprise as the sheer panic in her gaze hit him like a physical blow. She wasn't seeing him, he realized. A moment later, her eyes rolled back in her head and she collapsed in a faint.

Ben quickly reached out and caught her, frowning as he tried to figure out what had just happened. It appeared to be a flashback or panic attack of some sort. He lifted his hand to her throat and quickly checked her pulse: strong and steady if a bit rapid, but it was beginning to slow down even as he checked it. Her skin was cold and clammy, but the color was returning to her face. He glanced around the room, unclear for a moment as to what he should do. He couldn’t call for help and didn't want to leave her. He wasn't sure it would do any good in any case, as he couldn't explain what had happened. Damn his mouth! He frowned as he watched her stir slightly. He had to wonder, what had triggered the attack? The modem cable? She'd been handling the computer cords for the past hour without...

He'd touched her.

Ben stared at the desk before him without seeing it as he remembered how she'd shivered when he released her. It was an innocent enough contact. It shouldn’t have caused any sort of reaction, but he also remembered how she'd always maintained a careful distance. He hadn't really thought anything of it. Given the nature of her attack, he'd understood that she was distrustful of men. It would take her time to recover from what had been done to her even if she didn't remember all of it. Now, he remembered that she'd also maintained the same careful distance even with Jeanie, her best friend.

It didn't explain her reaction to the cable but that might have been a secondary stimulus.

He bit his lip and decided to treat her for shock. If she didn’t wake within three minutes, he’d go for help. He decided against trying to wake her as anything he might do could well trigger a secondary attack when she woke and found him holding her... which was another argument against trying to get someone to help them. Anyone who found her would automatically touch her in an effort to revive her. Instead, he simply helped her stretch out and grabbed the light jacket she had draped over the back of her desk chair. He rolled it into a ball and put it under her feet. It didn’t elevate her legs very much but even a little would help. He checked her pulse again, to find it had returned to near normal, and quickly moved away from her.

It was almost two minutes before Jaelyn opened dazed eyes and glanced around to see Ben sitting on the floor at a little distance. Those eyes of his which had always been able to see far more than she wanted were twin mirrors of deep concern as he watched her every move. She frowned in confusion. What in the world was she doing on the floor? A feeling of dread suddenly came over her and she shuddered. She'd been helping Ben with the computer cables and had tripped. He'd caught her and--

Ben's hands. The cable. A rope...

She closed her eyes and shivered, shoving the ghost images away. They weren't real memories. Or, if they were, she could live without them. She shuddered again and forced a calming breath, then lifted her hands to brush her fingers across her face... but it was dry. She hadn't been crying. That was good, she guessed. It was disconcerting not to be able to remember one way or the other.

With a sigh, she rolled to her side and sat up. She noted her jacket wadded up in a ball where her feet had been and realized she must have been out a bit longer than she’d thought. She glanced up to see Ben still watching her anxiously as he knelt a short distance away. He licked his lips and lifted his hands. ^Are --you --okay?^ he signed, frowning.

"Yeah," she answered, embarrassed to realize that she’d apparently frightened him. With a shaky little laugh, she began to climb to her feet. Ben quickly gestured for her to stay down.

^You shouldn’t --get up --yet,^ he told her, but she waved his concern away.

She managed to force herself to her feet and brushed her pants clean. God, her legs were like wet noodles! She found she was trembling and fought to hide it, not wanting to worry Ben even more. She felt like such a fool! "Sorry 'bout that,” she offered with an apologetic smile. “I'm not sure what happened. I just... I got scared all of a sudden and... Well, I don't like to be grabbed." She gave a little shrug.

He nodded as he climbed to his feet also, having already made that connection. ^Has --this --happened --before?^ he asked, keeping his distance for fear of setting her off again.

She shook her head. "I, ah... well, I don't like to be touched, but I've never panicked like that before. Except, well, that time in the hospital. You know about that."

Ben nodded, remembering how she'd been upset by the removal of the police protection she'd been promised and how the doctor on call had only made the situation worse.

"It's... I'm still dealing with--” The word ‘rape’ rang in the silence of her mind, like a scream, but her mouth refused to say it. “--with everything,” she finally managed to choke out, glancing down again to avoid those discerning eyes, “you know?" She doubted the last came out as more than a whisper and winced at the thought. She must sound pathetic.

Ben merely nodded.

"I, ah..." she glanced around in confusion and quickly changed the subject. "Where's the modem cable? I thought I had it."

Ben explained and added. ^I can --finish this -- by myself --if you --prefer?^

"No," she answered firmly, pulling a still shaky hand back through her hair. "I'm fine. I'm not going to let those bastards steal anything else from me." She welcomed the anger the thought brought. She wasn’t sure she was going to be much help, however. She felt like she’d run a marathon race! The anger was replaced by guilt over all the work Ben was doing and her own inability to help him.

^Perhaps --you should --call --Dr. Vernes,^ he recommended and was awarded a scowl for mentioning her Psychiatrist.

"I'm not made of glass, Ben," she answered irritably. "I'm not going to break just because someone touched me."

He cocked his head to one side, not at all sure about that. The human mind could be a fragile thing and...

She glared at him harder. "I have an appointment with him tomorrow," she answered his questioning look. "I'll tell him what happened then, okay?"

Ben nodded. He really wasn't trying to tell her what to do; he was just concerned for her.

"So let's get this thing hooked up," she decided, turning to stare at the TDD that graced the corner of her desk. She'd be very happy to get all the computer cables buttoned up where they belonged again. Just looking at the tangle made her uncomfortable, but she wasn't going to let it stop her.

“I can’t believe I’m the last one to know,” Ray shook his head as he paced the living room in front of his sister, having confronted her with what King had told him the minute she came through the door. He really shouldn’t be surprised she hadn’t told him. She hadn’t bothered to tell him about going into the hospital overnight either for some pregnant woman type thing. ‘Pregnant woman type thing’, she’d said? Hell, he’d been here for all of Maria’s kids and she’d never had to go into the hospital overnight in the middle of the pregnancy! Who did Frannie think she was kid--

He abruptly stopped in his tracks and turned to stare at her proud and silent form. “Wait a minute!” he decided, frowning as a sudden thought occurred to him. “I’m not the last to know, am I? Ma’s not here. If you’d told Ma, she’d have hopped the first plane and been here the next day.” He stared at his kid sister in shock. “You didn’t tell Ma?!”

Frannie had the grace to duck her head.

“Why?” he whispered, his embarrassment at having King tell him the truth forgotten. He quickly knelt in front of Frannie, forcing her to look at him. Something had to be seriously wrong for her not to tell Ma. “Why, Frannie? Why haven’t you told Ma?”

“She’s got enough to worry about without me adding to it,” Frannie answered quietly.

“And you don’t think the neighbors aren’t going to notice and call her?” he asked with a frown... and then did a double-take. “What’da ya mean she’s got enough to worry about without you adding to it? Is there something going on that I don’t know about?”

“Yeah, Ray,” his sister sighed, “so what’s new with that?”

If looks could kill....

“They didn’t want you to know after you got shot and all,” she explained, returning his glare with an irritated look. She wasn’t about to let him intimidate her, but she did think it was about time he found out. “At that point, we weren’t sure about anything and your condition was touch and go. Ma said you needed to be stronger first.”

“Ma?” he echoed, feeling his heart skip a beat.

“She’s fine, Ray,” Frannie quickly assured him, then frowned and glanced away. “It’s Lucas that’s not so hot.”

“Lucas?” he echoed again, frowning in concern. His nephew? He hadn’t seen much of Maria, Tony or the kids while he was down in Florida. They were always off to Magic Mountain or someplace.

“He has a brain tumor, Ray,” Frannie offered gently and reached out to steady him as he suddenly went white.

“Oh my God,” he sighed and suddenly found himself sitting on the floor. Lucas? A brain tumor? The kid was only ten!

“He’s seeing a specialist down there,” Frannie continued. “They’re supposed to operate next month.”

“Oh God,” he repeated and rested his head in his hands, with arms braced on his knees. He hadn’t known. He’d been down there with them for two months and he hadn’t known! They hadn’t told him! He glanced up at Frannie who now knelt at his side and gazed at her with haunted eyes. “They didn’t tell me, Frannie. Why didn’t they tell me?”

“Ma didn’t think you were strong enough.”

“Strong enough?” he scoffed and quickly climbed to his feet, his anger rising again. “I was strong enough a month after we got down there! They shoulda told me, Frannie! They shoulda told me!”

“And what would you have done if they did, Ray, huh?” she wanted to know, climbing awkwardly to her feet to stand toe to toe with him. Her distended stomach actually forced him to take a step back. She poked a finger in his chest to emphasize her point. “You would have wanted to help somehow and you know it. But there was nothing you could do, Ray. Nothing! You would have just made yourself sick with worry and wound up right back in the hospital again.”

“They should have told me, Frannie!” he repeated emphatically, devastated that they hadn’t. She read the pain in his gaze as it overwhelmed his anger.

“I know, Ray,” she said softly. “Ma decided not to. No one argues with Ma. You know that.”

Ray closed his eyes and bowed his head in defeat. Frannie was right. If Ma decided something, no one questioned it. She’d probably considered finally telling him about the time Benny was shot. Ray hadn’t even stopped back at Aunt Cecilia’s place when he got the word. Then he’d been injured again while investigating the shooting. He shouldn’t be surprised that Ma had ordered Frannie to silence.

“They know I’m pregnant, Ray,” Frannie assured him, returning to his original question. “I got both Ma’s and Father Behan’s approval before going ahead with the surrogate number. But that’s all they know. And it’s all I want them to know until we know if Lucas is going to be all right or not. I’m only twenty-one weeks, Ray. There’s plenty of time to tell them.”

“Mackenzie King knows.”

“The reporter!” Frannie squeaked in surprise.

Ray nodded wearily. “She’s the one who told me,” he explained. “Apparently she was at the doctor’s office a couple weeks ago when you were screaming at him about Immaculate Conceptions and sextuplets. She heard everything.”

“Oh God,” Frannie suddenly sat down again. “If she prints it--”

“--It’ll get relayed to Ma faster than a speeding bullet,” Ray finished for her.

“We’ve gotta stop her!”

“No,” Ray decided firmly, knowing that was impossible. “We’ve gotta control her. We give her the exclusive and everything her little heart desires. In exchange, she agrees to keep quiet until we say.”

“What if she’s already told someone?”

“King?” Ray asked and offered a derisive smile. “The woman may be a gossip monger of the worst sort but she’s a closed-mouth gossip monger. No way is she going to risk letting someone else get her scoop. She thinks it’s the human interest story of the decade.”

“How do we know we can trust her?”

“We trust her because she’s a greedy little bitch. She breaks her word and we give the hospital coverage to someone else.”

Frannie suddenly gasped and grabbed her abdomen.

“Frannie?” Ray exclaimed, instantly at her side, helping her sit back down on the couch.

“Cool it, Ray,” she reassured him as she caught her breath and rubbed one particular spot. “I’m fine.”
“You don’t look fine!” he claimed, watching her anxiously as she relaxed back into the cushions.
“You try having a kid practice soccer on your ribs and see how good you look!” she rejoined irritably, then looked down at her stomach and smiled. “Or maybe gymnastics. Whatever it is, I’m going to be black and blue before they get out here!”

"I just don't like dead guys."

"Death is the inevitable conclusion to life, Ray," Maggie rejoined, following on the heels of the Chicago detective as he dragged said heels down the stairs to the morgue. "It's not something to fear."

"Fear?" Kowalski repeated and jerked his head to the right, giving his neck an audible 'crack'. "I never said nothing about fear. Who said anything about fear? I just think, you know, bleeck! It's gross, that's all. There's no fear here at all."

"Uh-huh," Maggie agreed noncommittally as Ray held the door for her. Her less than enthusiastic response was awarded a sarcastic smile as they both stepped into the room.

"Hello, Ray," Mort sang out as Ray instantly turned to one side, gazing intently at the medical cart positioned there. "Ah, Constable Mackenzie! It's good to see you again."

"And you, Dr. Gustafson."

"Mort, please!" he corrected her. "Everyone calls me Mort. And how is that brother of yours doing? Recovering, is he?"

"He is doing much better, thank you," Maggie answered, coming forward to join the older man beside a sheet-draped corpse. "He still hasn't spoken yet, but I'm sure it's just a matter of time."

"Excellent!" Mort agreed. "I am happy to hear it. The brain is a funny thing, you know. You can remove half of the cerebellum and still function normally, but damage the medulla oblongata and that's all she wrote. We really don't know nearly as much about how it all works as we'd like to make out."

"Welsh said ya had something for me, Mort," Ray interrupted sharply, wanting only to get this visit over with. The chit-chat could wait for some other time!

"Squeamish," Mort told Maggie in an aside that Ray couldn't miss. The older man moved toward a file cabinet and slid it open. "Well, Ray, yes I do. Mr. Greg Manly. Remember him?"

"Yeah, just waiting on his autopsy to close the case," Kowalski offered from across the room, where he was apparently still fascinated by the cart beside him.

"You may decide that's a bit premature after your read my report."

The younger man offered a soft groan and dropped his head to his chest. "No, no, no!" he moaned quietly. "Why can't anything involving Mounties ever be simple?"

Maggie smothered a smile for her American counterpart. "It's a conspiracy, Ray," she informed him. "A carefully orchestrated plan to drive you insane and take over Chicago. We're still working out the intermediate steps."

He gave her an unamused smile over his shoulder. "After Fraser, Turnbull and now you? I believe it!"

She returned his sarcastic smile with an unabashed grin before turning back to Mort and forcing herself to deal with the issue at hand. "I take it Mr. Manly didn't commit suicide?"

"He had help," Mort answered, retrieving a file. He glanced over at the younger man and gave him an exasperated smile. "You can turn around, you know. There's nothing to see. I haven't even started on this one yet."

"Yeah, whatever," the blond detective mumbled in reply, sneaking an uncomfortable peek to confirm Mort's words before turning fully around. He still refused to get any closer to the dead guy though. "What kinda help ya talking about? You saying he was dead before everyone saw him drive off the bridge?"

"That's precisely what I'm saying."

Ray glanced down at his shoes and shrugged his arms to resettle his loose shoulder-holster. "Now I don't have a guy in the backseat holding a gun to his head, I have a guy driving the car and disappearing after the fact," he muttered to himself before glancing up again, folding his arms across his chest. "How you know he was murdered, Mort?"

"Three things," the other man explained, glancing through his notes. "One, his wrists bore evidence of having been tied."

"Tied?" Ray frowned and jumped on that, wrestling with it for a second. "Soooo, maybe the guy was like into kinky sex. What am I saying, we know he was into kinky sex!"
"He raped Ms. McKenna, Ray," Maggie interjected with a frown, "and then tried to kill her. That's not kinky."

"It's sick," he agreed. "There's a difference?"

"Of course there is," she rejoined. "Many couples practice and enjoy bondage and discipline games. It may not be a widely accepted or easily understood form of sexual interaction, but it is a part of most societies. This fringe culture, while being as you put it 'kinky', may be frowned upon by most but it is not, in its basic codes of conduct, criminal. As with any game, there are rules that must be adhered to. The fact that Mr. Manly bore evidence of being tied does not in itself indicate that he was into B & D."

Ray stared at her in open surprise.

"Not that I have ever tried anything like that myself, you understand," she frowned sharply, feeling a sudden blush threaten.

"No!" he agreed, literally shaking his head to clear it of the image of a half-clothed Mountie who enjoyed... He wasn't going to go there! "Nah! Of course not."

"Not that it would be any of your business if I did," she snapped irritably. God, what had she just said? She couldn't believe she'd just--No wonder the man was staring at her! Her face flamed but she refused to acknowledge it. Instead, she merely glared harder, warning him to get his mind back on the case right now!

"Right!" Ray quickly agreed, putting up his hands in surrender as he faced that icy stare. "None of my business. But that also doesn't mean that he was tied up and murdered." He turned to Mort to find the other man watching their little interaction with mild amusement. Ray glared in turn. "What was those other two things makin' you think Manly was murdered?"

"Blunt trauma to the back of the head--"

"--He fell in the shower or something."

"And track marks in the right arm."

"He was a druggie, so what?" Ray concluded. "A scuzball like that? Don't surprise me any. Kinda thin ice here if you ask me, Mort."

"Not if he was right-handed," Maggie frowned pensively as she sifted the evidence presented.

"Not that again," Ray sighed. "What's his being right-handed got to do with it, and I don't want to hear about the gun again!"

"If he was right-handed, the track marks should be in the left arm," Maggie explained.
"Excellent, Constable Mackenzie," Mort congratulated her. "You are absolutely correct. Further more, I found no evidence of prior drug use."

"Meaning what?" Ray asked. "That somebody knocked him over the head, tied him up, shot him full of som'ting and then let him loose behind the wheel of a car, hoping he'd go over the side of a bridge and make it look like an accident or suicide?"

"Quite possibly."

"Nahhhhh!" Ray shook his head. "It doesn't jive, Mort! Manly was a gambler. We know that. He had a big marker he paid off. Can't be the bookie after him. He's happy as a clam. Manly then tried to wack McKenna to get her inheritance or just to cover up the money he'd already stolen from her. Doesn't matter. He makes a mistake in the alley when he kills his buddy and shoots Turnbull. He knows the cops are closing in, so he panics. He decides to shoot up to calm down and he makes another mistake. Overdose, right?"

Mort nodded.

"I don't see no murder here."

"Heroin, Ray," the other man offered. "And no prior use? There was enough in him to kill three grown men!"

"Still doesn't prove anything. Maybe he decided to commit suicide by shooting up! Can you tell if he was ambi-dextrousious or whatever?" Ray asked, hopefully.

"'Ambidextrous', Ray, and no: Mr. Manly was quite definitely right-handed," Mort confirmed. "Wrist bones don't lie."

Ray glanced at Maggie in concern. "You're saying someone else shot Turnbull."

"And Dawson and Wickert, then killed Manly, framing him for it," she concluded.

"How does Wickert figure into it? He didn't even know Manly." The way the guy had gone on about being manly manly couldn't have been an act. He didn't fit into the pattern any way Ray tried to look at it.

"You're assuming all the murders are related to the rape and attempted murder of Miss McKenna."

"And you're not?"

"Possibly, Ray," Maggie allowed, "but without direct evidence, it's a dangerous assumption to make. There have been no further attempts against Miss McKenna's life. If this were related to her case, I would think she'd be the ultimate target, wouldn't you?"
"I have some fingernail scrapings from Miss McKenna, taken at the hospital after the rape," Mort suggested. "I can do a DNA comparison with all three men. See what I come up with?"

"No sperm samples?" Maggie asked matter-of-factly.

He shook his head. "I understand they were too busy trying to keep her alive to worry about a full rape assessment."

Ray and Maggie exchanged a speaking glance.

"Give us whatever ya can, Mort," Kowalski told him, turning to the door and drawing Maggie in his wake. "We got some digging to do."

“Drat it all,” Jaelyn frowned irritably as she read through the housekeeping inventory report. The laundry service had shorted them three dozen linen napkins and five table cloths. By itself it was only annoying, but apparently this was the third time in as many weeks they’d been shorted. Mrs. Tallaver had actually had to wash several pieces herself following the Edstedt wedding so as to be sure the dining room had a supply of spare linen sets for the next day. That was intolerable!

^Problem?^ Ben signed, glancing up from the repairs list he was perusing and trying to prioritize for Jaelyn.

“I don’t pay a laundry service only to have my Head of Housekeeping have to wash table cloths!” she grumbled. “What I wouldn’t give to be able to pick up the phone and give them a piece of my mind!”

Ben offered a raised brow and glanced at the phone, clearly wondering what was preventing her from doing just that.

“Going through the TDD operator just isn’t as satisfying. If I’m going to yell at someone, I want to do the yelling!”

A snort came from the doorway and Ben turned to see Jeanie leaning against the frame. “The only time I ever heard you actually yell was on the roller coaster!”

Jaelyn saw Ben’s smile and followed his gaze. She instantly jumped to her feet with a squeal of delight and rounded her desk at record speed. The taller of the two was suddenly enwrapped in a happy hug. Only Ben took note of how short it was and how Jaelyn quickly stepped back afterwards. He doubted she even knew what she’d just done. Still, he was glad to see Jaelyn reach out to someone.

Dief glanced up from his nap in the corner and offered an irritated ‘wuff’.

“Where in the world have you been, girl?” Jay exclaimed, finally pulling back enough to grin up at her friend. “I haven’t seen you...” She frowned in thought and glanced at Ben, remembering introducing the two. She’d seen Jeanie for a bit the next day, but then... “My god! It’s been a full week! I’d thought you’d gone and fallen off the planet or something.”

Jeanie laughed. “Just sailing around on cloud nine.”

Jaelyn glanced back at Ben who’d already put aside his folder so he could sign. He awarded Jeanie a welcoming smile even as he interpreted her words for Jaelyn.

“James?” Jaelyn asked, naming her friend’s latest beau... Well, somewhat more then a beau, she thought and grinned, wondering if Jeanie had realized she was in love yet?

The other girl nodded and suddenly danced into the room, swinging her arms wide as she performed a little pirouette and laughed. “I’ve never been swept off my feet before, Jay!” she exclaimed merrily and turned to face the two of them as Ben translated. He found himself smiling as well. Her happiness was quite infectious.

“What’s he done now, Jen?” Jaelyn wanted to know, trying and failing to subdue her humor at her friends exuberance. Jeanie didn’t seem to mind though.

“We went skiing last weekend,” she answered with a mischievous twinkle in her eye that Ben didn’t understand.

Jaelyn watched Ben translate and then broke into a laugh. “You don’t know how to ski!” she exclaimed, explaining Jen’s amusement.

“That’s okay,” Jeanie laughed. “We never left the cabin he rented anyway!”

Ben refused to blush as he translated the other woman’s words verbatim for Jaelyn. There was nothing to blush about, he told himself sternly. He was as happy for Jeanie’s good fortune as--

“I didn’t tell you where we went...” Jeannie continued teasingly. Ben again translated and thought on the matter. The nearest resort was Timber Ridge in Michigan, unless he was mistaken, but the other woman’s playful attitude would indicate they’d gone somewhere unexpected.

“He didn’t!” Jaelyn’s mouth dropped open as she stared at her friend in expectant surprise.

Jeanie giggled. “Aspen!” she confirmed her friend’s thought. “Hired a private jet and everything! God, it was romantic!”

Jaelyn offered a mock groan and shook her head in disbelief as Ben finished translating. “I don’t believe it! This is not fair.”
Jeanie laughed. “You ever want to sweep Jay off her feet, Ben, take her to Aspen. She’s been trying to get me to go for ages!”

Ben edited his translation of that one and added a question, hoping to divert the topic. ^You --ski?^

Jaelyn, probably because he’d added his own question on the end, translated his translation for Jeanie... which had the blush that had threatened a moment before now tinting Ben’s cheeks; because of course, Jeanie was very aware of his editing. Jaelyn however answered his question, oblivious as to the real reason her friend suddenly erupted with laughter.

“I love it,” Jaelyn answered, regarding skiing. “You?”

Ben ignored Jeanie’s continued laughter and nodded. ^It’s - been - years.^ he noted.

“Ever been to Aspen?” she asked... and awarded Jeanie a confused glance.

He shook his head, hoping Jeanie wasn’t going to embarrass him by explaining matters.

“It’s gorgeous!” Jeanie told them both. Ben translated, offering a silent sigh of relief.

“You never even saw the slopes!” Jaelyn teased her friend.

“It’s still gorgeous,” Jeanie replied. “Nothing’s stopping you from going, you know!”

“It’s no fun to go alone,” Jaelyn pouted, “and you always refuse to go with me.”

“I hate the cold,” Jeanie laughed, “unless there’s someone to snuggle with! Sorry Jay. You’re not my type.”

Ben had to grin at that one and forced himself to translate it verbatim.

“You could always take Ben!” Jeanie recommended as he finished and offered him a warning smile. “If I catch you editing, I’ll start carrying that pad and pen around again.”

That might not be a bad idea, but then Jaelyn would want to know why she was carrying it and-- Oh dear. He offered Jeanie a nod and translated her words verbatim.

“You blush so nicely!” she laughed and folded her arms, drumming her fingers across the light sweater she wore. Fortunately, Jaelyn was also blushing and didn’t catch the fact that her friend was looking at Ben before he translated.

Jaelyn shook her head and offered her friend a mock glare. “You’re incorrigible,” she offered.

“Just encouraging!” Jeanie corrected her friend with a flippant grin. “Where’s that brother of mine?” she asked, suddenly changing the topic. “I saw his car behind the pool house but he didn’t answer when I knocked on his door.”

Jaelyn glanced at her watch. “The kitchen probably,” she answered. “Lunch starts in less than an hour.”

“Think maybe you could spare him this afternoon?” Jeanie asked, reaching up to scratch her throat with a mischievous grin. “I’ve got something to tell him and it’ll blow his brains for the rest of the day.”

Jaelyn glanced back from Ben’s translation and shrugged. “We’re slow so I don’t see why...”

Her smile became a frown. Jeanie drummed her fingers at her throat again, teasing her friend with what lay there. Jaelyn suddenly gawked and leaned forward, grabbing at her friend’s hand and staring at the ring she wore.

“An engagement ring?” she squeaked in disbelief. “You mean, James...?”

Jeanie threw back her head in laughter. She nodded happily. “I was wondering how long it would take you to notice!”

Jaelyn didn’t look at Ben for a translation, merely squealed again with the nod and hugged her friend again. “I can’t believe this!” she exclaimed when she released the other again. “I knew you and James were an item, but I never imagined...”

Jeanie smiled down at her ring.

“Okay, so details, girl! Details! Did the guy actually get down on one knee, or did he blurt it out in the middle of--” Jaelyn suddenly glanced at Ben and her face took on a look that could only be described as horrified amusement. “--Oh heaven’s, Ben! You’re about to be trapped in a classic gossip session!”

He managed a small smile and shrugged a shoulder. If he were completely honest, he’d admit to being terrified at the thought! He’d never considered himself much of an authority when it came women and suspected he was about to get a lesson in female relationships he’d rather avoid, but he could see no escape.

Jeannie offered another amused laugh. “He’ll never survive! No man should be subjected to such abuse!” she claimed and moved to Jay’s desk where she picked up a pad and pen, waving them merrily. “Run, Ben, while you can!’” she repeated. “Or do you want to die of estrogen poisoning?”

He didn’t have to be told twice. Spinning on his heel and gripping his cane firmly, he headed for the door as quickly as he could.

“Ben!” Jeannie called after him and he glanced over his shoulder. “Think you could find that brother of mine and send him over this way? I’ll have your head if you tell him anything!”

Ben nodded seriously and, giving the two of them a wide-eyed look, stumbled out the door. Dief gave a sharp little whine to catch his attention and then scampered ahead of him, heading for the kitchen. Ben shook his head and closed the door to the office. He was going to have to have a long talk with Dief about his attitude when he finally got his voice back.

“The hip is what is known as a ball and socket type joint,” Dr. West explained, pointing to a picture in one of the many pamphlets she’d handed her patient. “The head of the femur, or thighbone, forms a kind of ball that rides in a cup-like socket, here, called the acetabulum. You with me so far?”

“I have studied anatomy, Doctor,” Ren assured her, frowning at the sheer amount of literature he’d been handed, most of which was extremely basic and unlikely to answer his real questions.

“Okay,” the woman continued. “When the bullet hit you, it did so at an angle. At a guess, I’d say you were running or curled in a ball. Your leg was raised, that much is obvious.”

Ren frowned pensively, figuring he must have curled around Francesca or been shot while lunging for her, but he still couldn’t remember all the details of the incident that had precipitated his surgery.

“It hit you here,” she pointed to a place on her own lower back, “passed through the acetabulum, into the head of the femur, and followed the interior of the bone down to about mid-thigh.” She folded her arms and frowned grimly. “It was a large bullet with a lot of energy. That energy had to go somewhere.”

Ren nodded and braced himself for the rest.

“The ball and socket were completely destroyed,” the doctor explained. “So was more than half of your femur. It was completely shattered. You only have about six inches of thighbone left. Given your height, that isn’t much.”

Ren closed his eyes and fought to absorb this. It was worse than he’d thought. Far worse.

“Normally, it wouldn’t be enough to do a hip replacement with,” the doctor continued when Ren opened his eyes once more. “The shank of the prosthetic has to be seated in the femur. Well, I guess I was being stubborn and didn’t feel like amputating. The blood supply to the leg wasn’t compromised so...” She sighed. “An orthopedic surgeon’s job is often half-inventor and half- mechanic. I’ve done a lot of hip replacements, Mr. Turnbull. No two of them are ever exactly alike, but yours is more unique than most. I don’t know how well it’s going to work. I’ve rebuilt the hip and acetabulum. I manufactured and gave you one of the longest shanked femur replacements that-- Well, I don’t think anyone’s ever tried to use one that long before. It’s seated as far as possible into your femur, pinned and cemented in place, with a collar at the junction to support it. I can tell you, that you won’t lose the leg. At this point, however, that’s about all I can tell you. Unless something goes very wrong, you should walk again. How well is the real question.”

“But I won’t be able to run?” Ren surmised, fighting tears as he saw his future in the RCMP being stolen from him. Unless he could run, the best he could hope for was a permanent desk assignment.

“I wouldn’t recommend it,” Dr. West frowned. “You were a Mountie, right?”

Am, Doctor,” he corrected the woman... and fought to hide his fear as the doctor shook her head regretfully.

“Not any more,” she told him bluntly. “I don’t know how the Mounties handle this sort of thing, but I imagine there’s a physical fitness test you have to pass. From what I’ve heard, the Mounties are a bit harder than our own police departments to satisfy and I can tell you for certain that if you were a Chicago cop you’d be facing mandatory retirement. Even under normal usage, the device can loosen. If it does, it has to be replaced. The average life span of such devices is only about fifteen years. You will have to have it replaced, sooner or later. The more gentle you are with it, the longer it will last. We normally don’t like to use cemented devices in young and active patients but there was little choice in your case. There’s just too little of your femur left. It’s going to have to support your entire body weight along a very small area now. The less often it has to be replaced, the better. Abuse it, and you could be on crutches or in a wheelchair for the rest of your life.”

Ren closed his eyes as his dreams for the future slipped irrevocably from his grasp. He allowed the tears to escape his control, not at all embarrassed that the doctor should see them.

The light above the office door flashed and both Jaelyn and Ben glanced up. “Come!” Jaelyn called out.

David stuck his head in the door. “Someone’s here to see Ben,” he offered before stepping in and holding the door for their visitors.

Ben immediately stood as he recognized Inspector Carruthers, the new Chief Liaison Officer at the Consulate. Maggie was standing behind him in dress uniform and offered Ben a silent nod. Her face was set in a rather grim mask, as if warning him of something. He had to wonder why she hadn’t called to warn him about this visit!

“Ah, Fraser,” the older man greeted him warmly and stepped forward to shake his hand. “You’re looking quite a bit better than last time I saw you.” He glanced at Jaelyn. “I hope we’re not interrupting something?”

Maggie, behind Carruthers, lifted her hands and interpreted before Ben could. Ben answered the mans question by merely shaking his head. He and Jaelyn had been discussing a formal complaint from a guest last week about the ‘disturbance’ in Jaelyn’s room and his request for a partial refund.

Ben lifted his hands as Maggie’s stilled. “Inspector Carruthers, I’d like you to meet Miss Jaelyn McKenna,” Maggie interpreted for him. “Miss McKenna, this is Inspector Carruthers, Chief Liaison Officer of the Canadian Consulate here in Chicago.”

“How do you do, Miss McKenna,” the man returned with a polished charm. “Constable Mackenzie has told me good things about you. I trust you’re taking good care of our boy here for us?”

Again Maggie fell into the role of interpreter easily.

“I’m trying to, Sir,” Jaelyn answered, speaking just a touch too softly. Carruthers’ had to lean slightly forward to hear the quiet words as he shook her hand. “Would you like me to leave?” she offered a moment later, obviously thinking they might like some privacy to speak with Ben.

“Oh no, no!” Carruthers assured her. “I’m sure Ben would want a friend here for this.”

‘This’? Oh dear, the visit was official then. Ben gave Maggie a look of confusion but schooled his features once more as Carruthers turned back toward him. The man gave his appearance a quick once over and frowned. “I’ve never tried to do this with the officer out of uniform before,” he observed, confusing Ben even further. He was on Indefinite Medical Leave and couldn’t be facing suspension or other disciplinary action....

“Ah, well,” Carruthers sighed and retrieved something from his pocket. “I guess you’ll have to put them on yourself later.”

Ben frowned as he took the narrow box from the Inspector and snapped it open. Inside were two sets of arm chevrons and epaulet tabs, one for his dress uniform and one for the brown. He glanced up in surprise.

“Congratulations, Corporal!” the Inspector offered with a broad smile. “ ‘Bout time those idiots in Ottawa approved your promotion. Thatcher put you in for it before she left.”

If Ben could speak, he’d have been speechless. He glanced up at his sister, who now grinned at him in unabashed pride, and returned her smile with one of his own. The little imp!

“You’ve been promoted?” Jaelyn asked, happily surprised for Ben’s sake. It was clear he hadn’t been expecting this. “Congratulations! That’s wonderful!”

Ben nodded and shook his head in wonder. He supposed that after seventeen years with the Force he shouldn’t be that surprised, but he had to wonder what Thatcher had put in her report as it had apparently been submitted at about the same time she’d set the media circus surrounding his shooting in motion. He could only hope it hadn’t been part of her master plan to keep him in the RCMP. He would hate to think he’d been given a promotion he didn’t deserve. Still, he didn’t think Inspector Thatcher would have lied about anything. Exaggerated perhaps, but--

“I think this is one time he’s glad he can’t speak,” Maggie offered and clapped him gently on the shoulder. “He doesn’t have to worry about making a speech!”

Carruthers laughed and Ben rolled his eyes, but found he couldn’t stop grinning. It had been a long time since he’d felt this happy about anything!


Ren jumped and glanced to the door of his hospital room in horror. The last person he wanted to see him right now was Francesca Vecchio! He quickly glanced away but it was too late.

“Ren?” she asked in sudden concern as she hurried to his side. He hastily wiped at his face, brushing the tears away as a mortified blush rose to sear his fair skin. Why did these things have to happen to him!

“Ren!” Frannie repeated, her voice a mixture of anxiety and demand.

He had to look at her. He had to... He clinched his teeth and forced a smile before lifting his face again. Oh god, if only the earth would open up and swallow him! ...No such luck.

“What is it?” she asked gently. “What’s wrong?”

It was the wrong question. He desperately wanted to be able to tell her ‘nothing’, but he’d never managed to learn the fine art of lying. Just thinking about everything was enough to crack the fragile facade of composure he’d tried to throw up with his smile. His face crumpled and he closed his eyes, turning his face away again as the emotions he’d fought to contain broke free once more.

“I... I... I must,” he stammered as he felt the tears begin to flow again. He forced the words out. “I must... resign from the RCMP.”

“What?” she exclaimed. It really wasn’t a question. “You mean... because of your hip?”

He nodded, fighting to swallow his anguish. “I could possibly transfer to a strictly administrative level position but--” He shook his head as the tears clogged his throat and closed down any further effort to explain.

Frannie gave his quaking shoulder a squeeze as she quickly scanned the papers scattered over his lap. The top sheet was a list of limitations and things he mustn’t do for the next six to eight weeks... Her eyes latched onto it and she quickly picked it up. “Wait a minute!” she exclaimed. “These limitations aren’t permanent. You don’t have to resign!”

Ren finally managed to blink back the tears again, terribly embarrassed to have fallen apart like that in front of her. She must think he was an absolute fool. “Yes,” he answered her and had to clear his throat. “Yes, I do. Those limitations are permanent, well most of them. The six to eight week initial recovery period is for a normal hip replacement. Mine wasn’t.”

“Why not?” she asked, frowning at some of the other papers. “I mean a hip is a hip, right?” They’ve been doing these kinds of replacements for years now. What’s so different about yours?”

Ren had to bow his head again, feeling incredibly weary and unable to meet her eyes as he forced himself to explain what Dr. West had told him. His father had been right after all: his life in the RCMP was over.

Frannie stared down in shock at the outline of the bandages beneath the blankets. “Oh, Ren,” she whispered in sympathetic horror. “I didn’t know it was so bad!”

“I will walk again,” he found himself reassuring her. “I just can’t run or--” Or a great number of other things he’d always taken for granted. He couldn’t voice the thought. Frannie understood and glanced at the papers in her hand. When she glanced up again, Ren was surprised to see tears in her eyes. “Oh please, don’t cry Miss Vecchio!” he implored, mortified by the thought of her pity.

“Oh, ignore me,” Frannie replied, brushing the tears away and forcing a smile. “Hormones and everything, you know.” There was a lot more then simple hormones behind her tears but she couldn’t tell him that. Logically, she knew it wasn’t her fault, but the man had been shot saving her life! ...And this was his reward? “And it’s Frannie,” she corrected him, changing the subject. “I thought we got beyond last names a long time ago... Ren.”

He welcomed the distraction. The smile that graced his face in answer might have been small but it was genuine. “Actually, I prefer Francesca,” he admitted shyly, “if you don’t mind?”

“You do?” she blinked in surprise.

“It’s a beautiful name... for a beautiful woman,” he explained and ducked his head as he felt another blush rise readily in his fair skin. He could not believe he’d been so forward!

Frannie managed a small laugh for his benefit and glanced down with a skeptical smile. “I’m hardly beautiful right now, Turnbull,” she scoffed, not even realizing that she’d reverted to using his last name to get some emotional distance. “I look like a beached baby whale!”

“You look beautiful,” Ren repeated emphatically, not at all happy to hear such self-derision.
Frannie stared at him, captured by the sincerity she heard in his words. “I am?” she asked... and shook herself free again with a little laugh. “I mean, gee! Thanks, Turnbull!”

“Ren,” he corrected her quietly and felt himself blush yet again under her warm smile.

“He, ah... didn’t take it well.” Jeanie frowned down at her hands and sighed.

“I was afraid he might not,” James sighed in turn as they sat on the verandah of Jeanie’s cottage watching the sun set. It was a very secluded and private little place, situated to the north of the McKenna Bed and Breakfast. It had in fact been part of the McKenna estate at one time but Jaelyn’s father had handed the deed to it over to Jeanie’s mother about the same time Jeanie was born.

“He just...” She threw her hands up in exasperation. “You’d think he was my father, not my baby brother!”

“That’s probably how he sees himself,” James replied. “How old were you when you lost your dad?”

“Dad walked out when I was ten,” she answered irritably, “but he was pretty much gone long before that. David was six, and yeah, you’re probably right. Mom always made a big deal of him being ‘the man of the house’ and all. He’s always watched out for me... or tried too!” She offered a mischievous laugh. “God, I sent him on some wild-goose chases when we were younger. He still has no idea of half the stuff I got up to!”

“Does he still think you’re a virgin?” James suggested with a wicked grin and wrapped an arm about her shoulders to draw her close to his side.

Jeanie laughed. “I don’t think he’s that innocent!” she answered, reaching up to run her fingers through his hair. He needed a haircut but she needed to talk him out of it. He always kept it perfectly combed but she liked it better when it got a little wild. He had just a touch of curl. She savored the silky fine texture and smiled as she watched it trail through her fingers like spun gold... “And I hope to god he doesn’t think I am!”

“Was it just Aspen that threw him for a loop, or your telling him we’re engaged?”

“Both,” Jeanie grumbled and sighed again as she dropped her hand back to his shoulder. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say he was jealous... but that’s just weird. I can’t figure out why he doesn’t like you?”

“You said it yourself: ‘he’s the man of the house’.” James shrugged lightly, caressing her arm in a lazy, slow motion. “He takes that seriously. Any man in your life is going to be a threat to him. I just have to work harder at winning him over.”

Jeanie offered a non-committal little grunt. “What do you think about Ben and Jay getting together? Eventually, I mean,” she suddenly asked out of the blue. “They make a good pair, don’t you think?”

James threw back his head and laughed.

“What’s so funny?”

“You are!” he managed to answer after a long moment.

“What?” she demanded with a little pout. “Jay’s hurting and upset. I can’t wish my best friend were just as happy as I am? It’s not like I asked you to help me play matchmaker--”

“--Smart girl”

Jeanie turned and gave him a mock-punch to the shoulder. He merely laughed and pulled her back into his embrace. “Changing the subject isn’t going to make the problem go away,” he told her as she snuggled into his warmth once more. “Do you think we should postpone the wedding? Give David a chance to--”

“--No!” Jeanie interrupted forcefully, sitting up abruptly to frown at the handsome man beside her. “We are not postponing! I love the idea of getting married at Christmas and I’m not waiting another year just because my brother is being a stick in the mud!”

“We could get married on Valentines’ ?” he suggested... and lifted her hand to kiss it. Instead, he suddenly turned it over and awarded the palm a playful nip.

“No!” Jeanie answered, jerking her hand from his grasp as his teasing awoke a previously unknown nerve ending that extended from her wrist to every erogenous zone of her body. “Stop that!”

“Stop what?” he asked innocently, capturing her hand again and tracing his fingers down her wrist, winning a tiny gasp. But she didn’t jerk away this time.

“Now who’s changing the subject?” she asked as his teasing touch kindled the fires of desire.

He chuckled maliciously. “You don’t want to talk about your brother any more?”

“Do I have a brother?” she laughed in turn as she melted against him.

He lifted her wrist back to his mouth and, exposing her inner arm, gave the already sensitized flesh what the two of them playfully called a ‘non-bite’: a slow nip that instead of using the teeth, used the merest brush of the lips.

Jeanie groaned as the afore mentioned nerve sent a shock of heat racing through her veins.
“Hmmm... you do have a brother,” he reminded her, continuing the game that he well knew was guaranteed to reduce her to a boneless puddle. “He’s not very happy with either of us, I’m afraid.”

“Fuck him,” she sighed, dismissing any thought of the argument she’d had with David.

“I don’t do boys,” he answered with a roguish grin, “but I did have someone else in mind...”

Jeanie closed her eyes, and leaned back, the world around her forgotten as all her senses became concentrated on where James was now flicking the tip of his tongue across her inner wrist.

He reversed his grip on her arm and feathered a caress slowly upward using the back of his nails. Her head fell farther back against the porch swing and he turned to award the inviting column of her neck a non-bite just under her ear where her jawline met her throat. She gasped and gave a little groan. He again turned his hand, curling it into a light fist and brushing the knuckles lightly across the underside of her breast.

“Any idea who I might be thinking about?” he teased her mercilessly.

She suddenly sat up and grabbed two fistfuls of shirt, bringing him into a lip-lock designed to take his breath away. “Get your ass in my bed, Mr. Elliot, before I rip this shirt off of you right here!” she whispered.

He gave a gasp of mock surprise. “Why Miss. Tallin, I didn’t know you were given to such acts of violence!”

“You suggest I think of some other woman in your bed again and you’ll see just how violent I can get,” she declared softly and released him with a little shove.

He stood with a chuckle and shook his head as he backed through the doorway, calling, “Promises, promises...”

“I’ll show you promises!” she growled and launched herself after him.

Ray frowned as he listened to Kowalski and Ben’s sister going over the Greg Manly murder investigation. So far, they’d come up dry.

“I’ve tried all my sources,” Kowalski offered. “I was wondering if you had any contacts from ‘back-when’ that weren’t in your file and that you might think we should give a try.”

“I can think of a couple,” he answered pensively.

“Good!” His blonde counterpart slapped the table between them. “Give me some names and me and Maggie’ll check ‘em out.”
Ray laughed. “Not so fast, Hot Shot,” he countered. “I’m not talking snitches here. These are some of the big boys. They’re not going to talk to a stranger.”

“You’ve been gone for more than a year,” Kowalski rejoined doubtfully. “What makes you think they’ll talk to you?”

“It’s a neighborhood thing,” Ray shrugged. “Besides, I’m not a cop at the moment.”

“All the more reason not to let you in on this, Vecchio,” Kowalski argued. “I shouldn’t even be talking to you about it. The Commander will ask for my shield if anything else happens to you.”

“Hey, I’m just a civilian doing my civic duty. No one’s gotta know that we even talked before I come to you with whatever I get.”

“You’re not going alone, Ray.” Maggie frowned at the lean Italian.

Kowalski did a double-take as he realized she wasn’t talking to him. It was quite disconcerting with him and Vecchio having the same first name but, he was starting to get used to it. No way was he going to switch to ‘Stanley’. He hadn’t used it since he was five and he wasn’t going to start now.

“Who’s going to stop me?” the other man asked and smiled smugly as he leaned back in his chair.

“Without official sanction, any evidence that you bring us could be questioned and declared inadmissable,” Maggie offered. “Anything gained thereafter would be subject to a ‘fruit of the poisoned tree’ ruling .”

“Canada has that too, huh?” Kowalski asked, curious.

“No, Ray,” Maggie answered and turned back to Vecchio without elaborating on the various differences between the two judicial systems.

Kowalski shrugged, dismissing it, and turned back to Vecchio, mirroring his body language as he leaned back in his own chair. “She’s got a point, ‘Raymundo’.”

“And you got an attitude, ‘Stanley’,” he snapped back, irritably.

“Gentlemen,” Maggie leaned forward and intervened before the conversation could degenerate further. “Why don’t we run it by the Leftenant?” she suggested. “He’s going to have to approve any civilian collaboration.”

Kowalski winced and glanced away. “The mayor and everyone else was happy with the outcome of everything, but the Commander had Welsh for breakfast when Vecchio here got shot in the raid on Donnelly’s place.”
“Well this ain’t no raid, Kowalski,” the older man rejoined. “I’m just letting you tag along while I visit with some old friends.”

Kowalski frowned unhappily, resisting the urge to respond to the caustic tone as he wrestled with his options. He really didn’t have any. Whoever the perp was, he’d covered his tracks well. “Let’s hope he goes for it,” he sighed. “Otherwise, this case is dead in the water.”

The doctor finished her examination and offered her patient an encouraging smile. “Everything is looking quite good, Mr. Turnbull. Are you ready to try standing?”

The young man glanced momentarily at the petite and very pregnant woman who stood to his right, lending him the simple support of her friendship. Dr. West understood that she’d come in earlier this morning and been present when they’d transferred him from the hospital to the Rehabilitation Center, which was little more than an annex of the hospital itself even if it was independent from hospital administration. The paper work had been taken care of the day before and it had been a simple matter of a physical transfer, but even that took time. It was now almost noon, but they finally had him situated in a room on the ground floor where he would have access to the pool, exercise room and outdoor area. Dr. West would have liked to have given him a few hours to adjust to his new surroundings, but she had three surgeries scheduled for the afternoon. It had been eight days since his surgery and, despite his other injuries, it was past time to get him on his feet.

The young woman at Mr. Turnbull’s side offered a bright smile and nodded at him. With a nod in return, he turned back to the doctor. “More than ready,” he answered with a nervous smile of his own.

“Okay,” Dr. West told him. “Remember, we’re taking this slow. You are not to try taking a step. You will be allowed to stand for as long as you can take the pain... and it will be painful. If your muscles start to spasm or tremble, take the weight off immediately and we’ll help you sit back down. Understood?”

Ren nodded, mentally bracing himself for the pain he’d been repeatedly warned about. He was still a Mountie. He could do this!

“All right,” the doctor continued. “Scoot yourself to the edge of the bed. And remember, keep the angle between your torso and knee greater than ninety degrees.”

“What would happen if he bent more than that?” the young woman at his side wanted to know.

“At this point, there’s a very strong possibility he’d dislocate the joint.”

Ren ignored the byplay and did as he was told, easing himself to the edge of the bed. It was painful and awkward but he managed to do it on his own. One of the orderlies carefully helped him swing both his legs around. Ren now sat with his toes just above the floor and the two assistants on either side of him. Frannie had moved to stand at the doctor’s left shoulder and awarded him a happy thumbs up as the doctor moved to the end of the bed and adjusted the height until the balls of his feet were resting on the cold linoleum. The woman nodded at her two assistants and they took Ren’s arms in hand, bracing him under the elbow on either side.

“Okay, I want you to keep all weight off your left leg as you stand up. Use your right leg and arms only. Remember, ninety degrees. Understood?”

Ren nodded and slipped another inch or two forward until his right foot rested fully on the floor. Lifting his left foot slightly, he carefully pushed himself upward, the orderlies to either side helping. It was rather awkward trying to stand without leaning forward, but he was up high enough that it really wasn’t necessary. He swayed and felt the room tilt as he came fully upright. The muscles in his right leg quivered slightly, having become weakened and lazy since the shooting and subsequent surgery despite the exercises he’d been put through daily. He forced the knee straight and managed to find his balance after a long moment.

“Dizzy?” the doctor asked, gauging his balance through the two orderlies. The left one caught his weight, but he was able to correct it on his own and brought himself back upright.

“Somewhat,” he admitted, “but it seems to be subsiding.”

“It’s to be expected after being in bed so long.” She frowned and cocked her head to the side. “I should have gotten taller assistants,” she joked, seeing that he dwarfed both of them. Little Robin gave her an amused smile. At just over five foot, she looked like a child next to him. The two of them would have a hard time catching him if he fell. “I forgot, you’re over six foot.”

“Had I injured both hips, you could have customized my height,” Ren offered with a small grin of his own. Being so tall was not always a good thing.

“Those hands and those feet on a short body?” Frannie quipped in reply and rolled her eyes. “Oh please! Not unless there were some way to give the inches to me. I hate having to get out a step-ladder every time I want something from the cabinets.”

“You’re the perfect size for getting down and playing with your children, Francesca,” he rejoined. “And at least your feet don’t hang over the edge of a standard-sized bed at night,” he added. He hated having cold feet in the morning. Then the image of Francesca, curled up in bed snapped into his mind and he suddenly realized what he’d said. Oh dear! He ducked his head and suddenly had to catch himself against one of the assistants again as the move threw off his sense of balance. He really wished he’d thought of some better analogy!

“Even had you injured both hips, Mr. Turnbull, we would have tried to maintain your height,” the doctor answered as she watched him correct himself again. “Doing otherwise would throw off your muscular coordination. You can put your left foot down and slowly shift your weight to it whenever you’re ready.”

He nodded and braced himself again for the expected pain before putting the foot down and allowing it to take some of his weight. He caught his breath as the muscles surrounding his hip protested the move.

Dr. West frowned as she watched her patient’s stubborn face. Mr. Turnbull was certainly a determined young man. She knew he would need to be if he were to make as complete a recovery as possible. His eyes closed in concentration and sweat instantly formed on his pale brow, now even paler as he wrestled with the pain of standing for the first time. Miss Vecchio stood off to one side biting her lip as she watched. Dr. West noted her obvious concern and simply hoped she’d have the sense to stay quiet.

The doctor watched him as he continued to shift his weight and quickly stopped him. “That’s enough, Mr. Turnbull. Don’t try to put all your weight on it just yet. You need to learn the feel of the new hip. It’s much smaller than the real thing and your center of balance on that leg will be different. The muscles are still healing. Shift your weight back and forth, but carefully. Remember what I said about not wanting the muscles to spasm. Don’t over exert them or you’ll do more harm than good.”

Ren nodded and closed his eyes again, concentrating to ignore the pain and feel the new hip as his doctor said. It did feel most strange, like it was in the wrong place, and he could feel the hip move and shift. He’d noticed it before when he did his leg exercises with the physio-therapist but it was far more pronounced with his weight on the limb. It wasn’t a grinding or anything like that, but a sense of... differentness.

After five minutes, the doctor called a halt and the two orderlies helped him back into bed. Ren was a bit surprised to discover just how much the simple exercise had taken out of him. He was actually trembling slightly as he blinked his eyes open and fought to catch his breath. The doctor watched him closely and checked the pulse points in both his feet before lifting the blankets into place once more.

She patted his shoulder, offering him quiet assurance and encouragement, but he wasn’t really listening. He was wrestling with the fact that he obviously had a very long recovery road ahead of him. Oh, he’d been told it could take upwards of a year or more for a full recovery, but he hadn’t been able to accept that. Now, the weeks and months stretched ahead of him, and he had yet to take his first step.

Frannie came up beside him and wrapped both her tiny hands about his much larger one, giving it a surprisingly firm and strong squeeze. He blinked in disillusionment and lifted rather sad eyes to her as the doctor went on about introducing him to the parallel bars tomorrow and how he had done quite well.

Dr. West was well aware she’d lost her patient’s attention as Miss Vecchio resumed her place at his side, squeezing his hand as though wanting to impart some of her own strength into him. She was a feisty little thing. Mr. Turnbull was going to need someone like her to help him through the difficult times ahead. Given her obvious condition, the doctor could only hope the pregnancy would strengthen their obvious bond rather than stress it. Dr. West didn’t know if the child she carried was his or not, but Mr. Turnbull didn’t need more stress at the moment. She offered the young woman a reassuring smile and said she’d check on him again tomorrow.

Ren blinked as the doctor’s words of parting slowly registered. Belatedly, he remembered his manners enough to offer her a parting nod and watched as she and the orderlies swept out of his room, leaving him and Francesca alone once more. He turned his attention back to the little spitfire who held his hand in such a fierce grasp and was surprised to discover she was crying.

“Francesca? What’s wrong?” he asked in alarm but he could guess at the answer. If he looked half as bad as he felt, he must have frightened her. “Don’t cry, please! I’m fine! Really!”

She offered a watery kind of laugh. “I know, I know,” she assured him. “It’s just I hate seeing you... like that, you know? I mean, it’s my fault! You were shot protecting me!”

Ren was quite surprised at the sudden depth of guilt he heard in her voice. She bowed her head, trying to hide the tears that threatened, but he’d already seen the crystalline evidence in those dark depths.

“Oh no, Francesca!” he exclaimed urgently. “No! This isn’t your fault! You mustn’t think this way!”

She shook her head, “I can’t help it.”

“Francesca, it wasn’t your fault,” he repeated, turning her hands so that he swallowed them in his own much larger grasp. He frowned up at her in quiet intensity as he whispered a kiss across the fingertips, trying to ease her obvious anguish. “The suspect could have grabbed anyone.”

“But he didn’t grab anyone, Rennie!” she exclaimed in a tight whisper. “He grabbed me! I know it doesn’t make sense. I’m sorry. It’s just... I don’t know! It’s not right! That’s all. You could have been killed protecting me! It’s not fair!”

“Would it have been fair if he shot you instead?” he argued and offered a patient smile that threatened to melt her heart as he shook his head. God, he had the sweetest smile! “Of course not. Life isn’t fair, Francesca. If it were, there wouldn’t be any need for Mounties or police officers. You’re Catholic, aren’t you?”

Frannie nodded and grabbed at the tissue box beside his bed.

“Then you know that ‘all things work to the good for those that love the Lord’.”

Frannie blinked tear misted eyes in utter surprise. “You’re Catholic?”

“No,” he answered and tucked his head in embarrassment. One thing that he’d learned long ago was to never discuss religion. His strong held beliefs always brought ridicule. “Lutheran, actually, which is similar.”

“But you’re... I mean...” She suddenly found herself blushing as she struggled with how to ask what she wanted to ask.

“Religious?” he suggested, sensing her trepidation. He smiled again as he realized she was as uncomfortable talking about it as he was. “Oh yes, Francesca. My Aunt and Uncle are devote Christians, as am I. I was always taught that everything happens for a reason. We may never know what that reason is, but we have to believe that it’s part of God’s plan and trust in Him when bad things happen.”

“Predestination? You’re saying it’s God’s fault?”

“Oh no, no, not at all! God is infallible. That’s his nature. We aren’t, but that doesn’t make any of this our fault.” Ren shook his head and frowned as he fought to explain a belief that he’d never actually tried to articulate before. “He has given us freedom of choice. What happened was the result of choices: Mine, yours, the suspect’s and the shooter’s. You and I did nothing wrong, Francesca. They did. Sometimes we pay the price for other people’s choices, but we have to trust that God will always be there to help us pick up the pieces.” He lifted her hand and kissed it again, capturing her dark eyes with his own intense regard and willing his own assurance into her. “It wasn’t your fault.”

Frannie sniffed and wiped her nose before surprising him by leaning forward to give him a gentle hug. “Thank you,” she whispered in his ear and kissed his cheek. She was not surprised to see a bright blush stain his fair skin as he offered her a shy smile and tucked his chin firmly against his chest again in embarrassment.

He really should stop smoking. He frowned at the cigarette in his hand, weighing the pros and cons: damage to his lungs versus the calming effect the simple act imparted. It wasn’t like he was a chain smoker or into two packs a day. He could stop whenever he wanted. As with everything in his life, he was in control of it, not it in control of him. Besides, he’d die when he died. He didn’t figure smoking would make much difference in the long run. And he did enjoy a good smoke.

He frowned and pushed the fast forward button on the tape recorder and listened as the silence hissed by. He regretted again not getting a camera in there. The girl had a habit of lapsing into sign language whenever that Mountie was in the office. He’d hear a door open and shut, and maybe a greeting or one or two comments that made little or no sense, and then silence again for a long time. He might not know sign but he’d have been able to get a feel for their relationship. He couldn’t afford to let them get too close.

He stopped and backtracked when he heard a voice appear. He listened for a long moment before he realized it was just Gaston with a complaint about the quality of that morning’s produce delivery.

With a sigh he clicked the machine off and sprawled back in his chair, taking another drag from the cigarette. Over two weeks. He’d learned nothing. Well, that wasn’t quite true. He’d heard one of the Mountie’s friends mention the Manly case back when he’d first installed the thing. There hadn’t been a peep since so he could assume that no one was questioning the suicide. That was good. Otherwise, the bug was useless. Getting a camera in there would be near to impossible now. With the Mountie handling her computers, he didn’t have an excuse to run cables for her like he had two weeks ago; and a self-contained unit would mean risking detection anytime he went to retrieve the film. No, a camera was out.

Too bad.

He crushed out his cigarette and leaned forward to again click on the tape recorder. Gaston continued to rant and rave about wilted lettuce and soggy pickles. A door opened and shut and the man calmed down enough to repeat himself to the Mountie who in turn translated for the girl. He closed his eyes and smiled, easily imagining her slightly flustered and frustrated frown. He didn’t need a camera to see this conversation.

Ben lifted his hand to the wall and paused in his slow progress down the hospital corridor. He was glad Dief wasn’t there to comment. God, he was out of shape! He’d been quite happy to be told he could start taking short walks with a cane, however he hadn’t realized exactly how short a walk he was capable of. A hundred meters was hardly what he considered far, but Ben was already feeling the strain. Fortunately, it wasn’t much farther. He’d be fine after he could sit down for a bit.

Then he had to make it back to the main-lobby where he was to meet with Jaelyn and Jason.

The thought was a bit daunting. So was the thought of having to ask for the use of a hospital wheelchair and help to get there. Or trying to ask. He sighed, dismissing the thought and deciding not to borrow trouble before it arose. It was quite possible that a small rest in Turnbull’s room would restore him sufficiently for the necessary trek. Perhaps not likely, he admitted to himself, but certainly possible.

Bracing himself against the wall, he continued his journey and soon reached his destination. He again paused a moment to catch his breath and then entered.

The first bed was empty. Turnbull sat in the far bed, with the head of the bed raised to support him and the bed table pulled across his lap. He’d allowed his head to fall back against the pillow with his eyes closed. He looked very pale.

Ben knocked softly on the wall, not wanting to wake his friend if he’d fallen asleep.

Bright blue eyes instantly snapped open and turned-- It was only then that Ben realized he’d been crying.

“Sir?” Turnbull jerked in the bed as he recognized Ben and quickly wiped at his face, trying to hide the traces of his pain. Not again, he thought! “Constable Fraser! It’s good to see you, Sir!” He offered a bright smile that the senior Mountie would have had to be blind not to see through.

Ben approached his friend with a frown of concern and happened to glance at the pad of paper in the center of the bed table. Turnbull’s handwriting had always been meticulously neat. The words there leapt out at him. The younger man slapped a hand across the letter but it was too late.

^You’re -- resigning?!^ Ben signed in shock.

Ren closed his eyes again and sank back into the pillows. Writing the letter was bad enough. Having Constable Fraser question him about it...

“I... have too,” he answered in a whisper. He kept his eyes closed and explained. There was no way he could have gotten through that while looking at Fraser standing beside him. When he finished, he took a deep breath and forced himself to face the man he’d always hoped to emulate. Constable Fraser sat in the visitor’s chair and now stared at the floor sadly. He shook his head slowly and looked back up. Turnbull looked away. That silent gaze was much too understanding.

Of course, Ren realized belatedly: Fraser was facing the possibility of mandatory retirement as well if he didn’t get his voice back! He understood what Ren was going through far too well. Ren was quite thoroughly abashed to realize what he’d done. He would give almost anything if he could turn the clock back and make sure his friend didn’t see the letter; or at the very least, didn’t catch him crying over it.

Ben sat back in the chair with a sigh and lifted his hands. ^You --don’t want --to transfer --to an administrative --position?^ he asked. Himself, he couldn’t see spending the rest of his career stuck behind a desk, but this was Turnbull and he was actually very good at that sort of thing.

Ren shook his head. “That’s not why I joined the RCMP,” he offered quietly.

Ben frowned pensively and cocked his head to one side. ^Why -- did you?^ he asked, realizing he had never inquired before.

Ren welcomed the distraction. “I had a friend who’s father was in the RCMP,” he answered quietly. “We didn’t see much of him but he was a large influence on both of us just the same. Peter idolized him, always planned to follow him into the Force one day. He was everything my own father wasn’t, everything that Uncle Angus tried to be but wasn’t.”

Ren leaned his head back and realized that he still remembered that summer eight years ago like it was yesterday. “My cousin was kidnaped,” he continued quietly. He’d told Ben about his family before. He knew about Tina, that she was deaf and that the two of them had grown up like brother and sister on a farm outside Red Deer, Alberta. Ren had never told him about the kidnaping. It wasn’t something he talked about. “It was when we were all in college in Toronto. The Ontario Police didn’t believe us. She was eighteen and there was a note. It said that she’d run off with her boyfriend and that they were going to get married.”

Ben frowned as he watched his friend recount the story, knowing there was a lot he wasn’t saying. And that it was bad. The normally animated and overly-expressive face was dead, devoid of all emotion. It was rather frightening to see. Yet, Ben knew also that Tina wasn’t dead. Turnbull talked about her frequently.

“Tina would never do something like that. Peter and I launched our own little investigation. We tracked her down to Winisk on the Hudson Bay. Peter’s father met us there. He’d been doing his own digging even though he didn’t have any real jurisdiction in Ontario. He was quite surprised to see us. The three of us compared notes and he said I should think about joining the Force.” Ren offered a little smile at the memory. “Said I had a head for details.”

That was very true, Ben agreed silently, waiting patiently when the other man fell silent. It was a full minute before he spoke again.

“He made me feel proud. It was something I hadn’t really felt before,” he admitted. With a little sigh, he dropped his head and finished. “We found Tina, but there was a shoot out. Both Peter and his father were killed.”

Ren cocked his head to the side as he remembered that time. “I found that Constable Vickers had given me something very special in those few hours before he died. I’d always tried very hard to please my father, to respect and obey my Uncle, but I never felt that I succeeded, never felt that they respected me. Constable Vickers and Peter both respected me, and I have never doubted that they died doing something they believed in. I don’t think either of them would have changed what happened that day, as terrible as it was. It was out of respect for them, and everything they gave me, that I decided to join the RCMP...”

Turnbull’s voice trailed off as he contemplated the necessity of now resigning and giving up his dreams. He didn’t say it aloud but Ben heard it just the same. It was little wonder that the younger man was upset.

Ben was very much like Turnbull’s friend Peter had been, but he could identify with the other man’s story as well. There was a very special sense of... He wouldn’t call it pride, more a sense of self-worth and significance that attached to the uniform and duties they were called on to perform, even if those duties were nothing more than standing sentry in front of a Consulate. There was an almost addictive sense of accomplishment when you knew that you’d helped another person in whatever way, be it solving a crime or rescuing a kitten. Ben could not imagine doing anything else.

And he knew he might have to... as much as he hated to think about it.
His empathy did not help the younger man however. ^Wait for the --medical --discharge,^ he advised stoically.

Ren blinked the memories away and frowned slightly. “Medical discharge?”

^Make them --kick you out,^ Ben advised dispassionately. ^You’ve only --been with --the force --seven years. --If you resign, --you’ll lose --your pension.^

Ren glanced down at the paper before him and realized Fraser was right. There was a big difference between being forced into mandatory retirement and resigning, even if the cause was the same. After a long moment he reached out and tore the letter he’d been composing from the note pad and crumpled it. With a deft toss it landed in the trash beside his bed, where several earlier drafts rested. Well, most of them anyway.

He glanced back at his friend with a little nod. “Thank you, Sir,” he offered quietly, more grateful for the quiet acceptance and friendship behind the other man’s words than his wise advice.

“Hey, Mort!” Kowalski sang as he saw the older man once again sitting quietly beside his desk as he and Vecchio entered the bullpen. “You know you’re supposed to just send a note up if you wanta see me. You don’t gotta come up here and wait for me. We keep meeting like this and people will start talking.”

“About what, Ray?”

Ray rolled his eyes and shook his head as he grabbed a chair, swinging it quickly around and plopping down opposite Mort. “Never mind. You got something for me?”

“Yes, I do. I got back the DNA comparisons of the nail scrapings taken from Ms. McKenna and the three suspects in her case. I think you’ll find the results quite interesting.” The older man glanced at the Italian beside Kowalski as he handed a file over. “Good to see you again, Detective Vecchio.”

“Can the ‘detective’, Doc,” the balding man told him with a tolerant smile for the mistake. “I still haven’t got my shield back... but I’m working on it.”

“Ah!” The other smiled easily. “That’s good to hear! Where is Constable MacKenzie this morning?”

“Working,” Kowalski offered shortly and frowned in confusion at the documents in his hand. “There’s nothing here, Mort,” he offered, glancing back up in question.

“Exactly, Ray,” Mort confirmed. “No match.”

“No match?” The significance of that fact hit both men like a blow. Vecchio slapped his hand against the back of Kowalski’s chair. “That confirms it. Someone else was involved in the McKenna rape and attempted murder.”

“Manly’s murder is part of the cover up,” Kowalski added.

“And Dawson and Wickert. Whoever killed Manly, killed them too. And almost killed Turnbull.”

Kowalski nodded. “Wickert musta been involved somehow. Him being dressed like Manly that day and then running couldn’t have been an accident, even if he didn’t know the guy. He was set up.”

“Our guy’s paranoid,” Vecchio decided. “He’s eliminating everyone involved with the crime. We need to warn Fraser. McKenna’s the only witness left.”

“That we know of,” Kowalski corrected with a pensive frown and turned the entire case over again in his head. “If he wanted McKenna dead, she’d be dead by now. It’s not like she’s in hiding or anything.”

“You’re thinking a friend of hers is hunting them down in revenge or something?” Vecchio asked, tossing the idea around in his own head.

“Maybe,” Kowalski allowed, and shrugged his shoulders to settle his loose holster as the answer refused to sit comfortably with him. He shook his head suddenly. “Nah, the fingernail scrappings were from someone involved in the attack.”

Vecchio shook his head. “It could still be about the money...”

“...And whoever it is ain’t in a position to collect?” Kowalski shook his head. “ ‘Course, he may have tried to kill her and we just don’t know it.”

“A convenient accident?” Vecchio surmised and shook his head yet again. “This guy doesn’t strike me as being that subtle!”

“It’s not exactly his trade mark. We still need to warn Frase.” Kowalski agreed and jerked his head toward the door, heading quickly for the exit. “Pitter-patter! Let’s get at her!”

“Sounds like something Fraser would say to Dief,” Vecchio muttered as he spun to follow the other man. “I take that back: Fraser has more respect for the dog than that!”

“You’re welcome, boys!” Mort called after them.

Kowalski spun on a heel and called, “Thank you, Mort!” before spinning back around and hurrying out of the bullpen without even breaking stride.

At three in the afternoon on a rather blustery October day, the small restaurant in downtown Chicago was fairly deserted. Just the same, the four of them had chosen a table off on the east side. The window to their left looked out over Lake Michigan and part of Lake Shore Drive. James and Jeanie had driven Ben and Jaelyn in earlier for their respective doctors’ appointments. After, the four of them had agreed to a late lunch before heading back to the Bed and Breakfast.

Jeanie smiled as James reached over yet again and took her hand. It appeared to be an unconscious need on his part, as if he thought she might vanish if he wasn’t touching her. “I wouldn’t think there would be very many criminals in such an environment?” James noted, continuing the conversation Jeanie had begun, asking after the Yukon territory and what it was like being a Mountie.

Ben offered a silent sigh and set his fork aside again. It wasn’t a question he could answer with a simple yes or no.

Jeanie suddenly laughed and shook her head. “Oh god, Ben!” she exclaimed. “James, we’ve been so busy talking that the man hasn’t been able to take two bites!”

A quick glance at their respective plates demonstrated the truth of her words. The three of them were almost done and his plate was hardly touched. Eating and signing were not compatible.

Jaelyn offered a surprised laugh as well as she followed her friend’s gaze and realized what they’d done... and suddenly choaked. She fought it for a moment in surprise before tasting panic.

Ben frowned as Jaelyn coughed... and then failed to cough. He quickly lifted his hands to his throat in question as he realized she was having difficulty. The look of fear that came over her face was his answer. He moved to react as soon as he realized she wasn’t breathing.

James moved faster.

Ben was brushed aside before he could get behind Jaelyn and James smoothly lifted her out of the chair, talking to her in a calm and steady voice she couldn’t hear as he positioned his hands on her upper abdomen.

A quick, sharp thrust.



Ben could see her lips turning blue and fought the need to intervene. James was doing it right. There was nothing he could do to help.

Another. This one lifted her from her feet.

A large piece of melon shot from her mouth as it was forced from her throat. Jaelyn coughed violently and all but collapsed in James’ arms, gasping for breath as her body demanded the oxygen it had been denied. Around them the other patrons and wait persons, drawn to the emergency, offered applause for the successful rescue.

And then Jaelyn suddenly realized that James was holding her, one hand on her back, the other on her elbow as he helped her sit down once more. Ben saw the awareness hit her like a blow and knew instantly what was about to happen. She gasped sharply and jerked from James hold, sending her chair crashing backward and winding up sprawled on the ground, staring up at a surprised James in blind terror. Ben grabbed at James before he could compound the damage but missed. James wasn’t the only one reacting. One of the waiters and several other guests had come over in concern. He saw disaster looming and was powerless to stop it.

“Arggggshhh!” Gibberish answered his need to shout ‘no!’. What came out wasn’t even remotely recognizable as speech. He shook his head in warning, desperately trying to gesture them away but he was awarded only confused frowns in answer.

Jaelyn screamed and lashed out violently, catching James a glancing blow along the jaw that had him reeling back more in shock than injury. She screamed again, a sound of unimaginable pain and terror, causing them all to step back in fear and confusion; and then she suddenly closed her eyes and curled into a tight ball, trembling like a leaf. A moment later, the trembling became violent shaking as she went into all out convulsions.

“My god!” Jeanie whispered in dismay.

“Call an ambulance!” someone else shouted.

James reached out to try and help her again but this time Ben was able to grab his shoulder and pull him back. He again shook his head, firmly.

“What?” James demanded, confused, and shook himself free. “She’s not contagious! She needs help!”

“Wait, James!” Jeanie stopped him as she saw the desperate frustration and urgency mirrored on Ben’s face. “Ben? Do you know what’s wrong with her?” she guessed.

Ben nodded sharply, knowing that the knowledge was useless if he couldn’t voice it! God, he’d never felt so completely helpless before!

“Does anyone here know Sign Language?!” Jeanie called out over the shocked and muttering crowd. They glanced amongst themselves but no one answered her desperate plea.

“Is it epilepsy or something like that?” one of them called, hoping to help but only adding to Ben’s sense of frustration.

With a growl for his own inability to speak, he suddenly stood and grabbed a pen and order pad from the waiter beside him. Two or three words, that’s all he needed! Quickly, he started to write... and immediately realized he was in trouble again. All he managed to produce was a scribble.

Six months ago he would have taken charge of the situation, would have prevented it from even happening. He was worse than helpless! He couldn’t write! He doubted he could even sign at the moment. With an almost animalistic growl of frustration and anger he tore off the top sheet of the order pad and tossed it aside, starting over.

Jeanie stood behind his shoulder and frowned in concern as she watched his silent struggle. He was shaking like a leaf and breathing like he’d run a race as he glared at the paper in his hand.

His legs suddenly went out from under him and he would have fallen if Jeanie hadn’t shoved him toward his own chair as he collapsed. He found that he was trembling, violently, and frowned sharply in confusion as he realized that he was sweating as well. It only took him a moment to understand what was happening. His sense of frustration and helplessness were so extreme that they were manifesting physically and interfering with his ability to communicate. He closed his eyes, forcing himself to calm down. He had to get control of himself before he could hope to help Jaelyn. What had once been accomplished without second thought was now quite beyond his reach. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, concentrating on blanking out everything but the words he needed to write.

Someone in the crowd asked about drugs.

He shook his head sharply, knowing the gesture meant less than nothing. He had to write. He had to tell them what was wrong. He could write. He’d done it before. He just had to calm down. He closed his eyes and fought to suppress the fear and anger that threatened to overwhelm him. He slowed his breathing and then his heart rate, relaxing his muscles in studied and practiced succession, drawing on techniques he’d learned long ago to focus his energies where they were most needed. He had to calm down and concentrate on neatness. That was the last thing he wanted to concentrate on but it was the only way he was going to get his message written!

He managed to produce a ‘P’. His hand jerked but it was legible. He continued, painstakingly slowly, one letter at a time. Jeanie had not left his side and read the scrawl over his shoulder as he forced it onto the paper. He heard the ambulance arriving by the time he managed the short note. The urgency of the situation made it nearly impossible.

“P...T... S...D?” she read slowly in confusion.

James glanced up suddenly. “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?” he translated. “She’s done this before?”

Ben nodded, feeling suddenly exhausted.

“Oh, god,” Jeanie sighed as she put it together. “The rape! She told me--” She gripped Ben’s shoulder sharply and he knew she was referring to the episode in Jaelyn’s office. “She can’t stand to be grabbed!”

“Oh, shit,” James offered bluntly and glanced down at where Jaelyn had subsided into the occasional twitch. “How the hell do you do the Heimlich Maneuver without grabbing someone?”

“Clear the way! Clear the way!” someone bellowed from behind the crowd as the paramedics hurried forward. James handed one of them the barely legible note and explained what had happened while the other bent and quickly began taking vitals. Ben bit his lip and fought a renewed sense of frustration as he watched the medic. He was reduced to merely hoping that Jaelyn wouldn’t wake to find the strange man bending over her, knowing that if she did it could well trigger yet another flashback episode.

He grabbed the pad and pen back and swallowed his raging emotions yet again, needing to make sure the paramedics understood that she was deaf, and therefore that her arms must not to be restrained in the ambulance.

“What happened?!” Kowalski demanded, racing up and skidding to a halt in front of Ben. Vecchio rolled his eyes as he followed more slowly. He knew Ben couldn’t answer. And then he recognized the man at Ben’s side, who could answer... and did.

“Choking?” Kowalski repeated, looking at Ben for confirmation. “So you’re sure it was an accident, right? Nobody tried to poison her or anything?”

“Poison?” The man beside Ben echoed the surprised thought so eloquently expressed on the Mountie’s face. “Who’d want to poison Jay?”

Kowalski looked at the man for the first time. He was tall, about 6'2", short blonde hair that had been finger-combed too often and was starting to curl, eyes of crystal blue and classic features that rivaled Ben’s for simple beauty. Two of them side by side was just too much to handle. “Whoa!” he exclaimed, stepping back slightly. “Who are you?” he asked in the next breath.

“James Elliot,” the other man answered readily. “I’m a friend of both Ben and Jaelyn’s.” He awarded Ben a confused frown. Kowalski recognized Jaelyn’s best friend, Jeanie, as she joined the other man and he put an arm about her shoulders. “Who are you?”

“Kowalski,” he answered simply. “Detective, Chicago P.D. This is my partner, Vecchio.”

James nodded at Vecchio, having met him before at the Inn, then frowned at Kowalski. “What’s the police’s interest in Jaelyn? I thought her case was closed?”

“They’re friends of Ben’s,” Jeanie explained.

“Then why did he ask if Jay had been poisoned?”

“Paranoid,” Vecchio offered smoothly with a saccharine smile. “You know how cops are. Benny, great to see you out of the chair! Think we could talk to you a minute?” He nodded his head to the side, indicating he wanted it private.
James didn’t miss the move. “We’ll... just wait over here,” he allowed unhappily and lead Jeanie back to the waiting area.

Ben frowned at his two friends as they closed in on him. It wasn’t like either of them to be so impolite. Well, at least not usually. All right, he thought, so it wasn’t that unusual but--

“So,” the Italian declared happily, swinging his arms and bringing his hands together absently as he watched James and Jeanie move away, “they finally let you graduate to a cane, huh? That’s great!” He eyed Ben’s form, privately thinking his friend still had a ways to go before he’d be chasing the bad guys again.

“Yeah, Frase, that’s great,” Kowalski echoed, his mind obviously elsewhere. He had no patience for chit-chat. He leaned closer and lowered his voice. “There been any other little accidents around the McKenna place lately that maybe weren’t so accidental?”

Ben frowned sharply, knowing very well that there was more than paranoia behind the question. Had they discovered that Manly faked his death somehow? That wasn’t easy to do when one drove off a bridge, Ben thought. It shouldn’t have taken long to identify the body. He supposed a look alike was possible, but even that shouldn’t have withstood forensic examination this long...

He turned his mind to the past three weeks at the McKenna Bed and Breakfast. He’d been working closely with Jaelyn as she and her staff adapted to the fact that she was now deaf. There had been a couple of minor accidents: A guest had tripped, resulting in a banged shin and a cook had burnt his hand through inattention. And of course Jaelyn had tripped on the computer cable.

He shook his head and waited for the explanation he knew was coming.

His two friends exchanged a glance and it was Ray Vecchio who took the lead, quietly explaining that Manly had been murdered. “...Combine this with the fact that a DNA match of your girlfriend’s fingernail scrapings and the three suspects turned up nothing, and it all equals a forth person involved in her rape and attempted murder.”

Ben frowned, taking momentary offense at the ‘girlfriend’ remark before the import of what his friend was saying registered. He glanced away, staring into space as he contemplated the information. Several questions he couldn’t voice sprang instantly to mind.

“No need to panic or anything yet,” Vecchio continued. “We have no evidence to suggest he’s after the girl. Right now, we figure he got paranoid when McKenna fingered Dawson and he decided to kill off his compatriots to keep them quiet. He’s got to know McKenna doesn’t remember anything else or he would have gone after her first. That might be enough for him.”

And it might not, Ben thought, feeling his own paranoia rising.

“This guy is good, Frase,” Kowalski answered the easily read look on his friend’s face. “Quite frankly, if he wanted McKenna dead, she’d be dead. Lord knows he’s had plenty of opportunity while we were thinking Manly committed suicide.”

“We just wanted to let you know to keep your eyes open,” Vecchio added. “The guy might figure McKenna remembered something if he gets wind that we’re onto him.”

Ben lifted his hand and rubbed his fingers together.

“The money?” Kowalski interpreted easily and nodded. “Yeah, we thought of that. Either Manly didn’t tell him or he’s biding his time. Has McKenna figured out exactly how much he stole from her?”

Ben could only shake his head and shrug. He’d have to ask her.

“Manly may have had another marker out there we don’t know about,” Kowalski offered, thinking aloud. “I’d like a better idea of how desperate the guy was.”

“Ben--ton Fraser?” They turned as one toward the voice that called Ben’s name. A male nurse stood at the treatment area entrance with a clipboard in hand. “Corporal Benton Fraser?” he repeated.

Corporal?!” Vecchio echoed in surprise.

Ben glanced at his friend and nodded, offering a slight shrug for the fact that he couldn’t explain. He had neither the time nor ability at the moment.

“You don’t think it about time he got a promotion?” Kowalski offered, waving Ben to the nurse. “I’ll explain. You go check in with Mr. Medic over there and see how your girlfriend’s doing.”

Ben frowned and rolled his eyes again at the ‘girlfriend’ remark.

“And stop looking at me like that!” Kowalski ordered the Mountie as the nurse called out Ben’s name once again, loudly. “Over here!” the detective lifted his arm and pointed to Ben.

Ben shook his head and turned from his friends, making his slow way toward the waiting nurse.

“Corporal Fraser?” the nurse asked, coming forward to meet him halfway. Ben answered with a simple nod. The nurse quickly took in his use of the cane and the strain about his mouth. “Do you need a wheelchair, Sir?”

Ben shook his head.

The nurse frowned slightly, accepting the refusal with obvious doubts, but he didn’t voice his thoughts. “Miss McKenna is becoming agitated and is asking for you. We have a Sign Language Interpreter on the way but it’ll be a few minutes before she arrives. The doctor would appreciate any help you could give us.”

Ben nodded, knowing Jaelyn was chaffing at the need to be in hospital. He gestured the other man forward and followed him through the treatment room doors.

Jaelyn frowned, fighting tears of frustration and simple anger. She held onto the emotions tenaciously. It was either that or admit she was afraid. She did not want to wind up being admitted to the hospital again. She’d been there for forty-one days after her attack. She’d been out for only twenty-two. Three weeks and one day. Less than a month. It wasn’t enough.

God, she could not spend another night in this place!

Movement at the end of her curtained-off little cubical of the emergency room drew her attention. She was never happier to see anyone in her life than she was to see Ben at that moment. She gave a little gasp as she felt her throat close up and tears actually well in her eyes at the simple sight of a friendly face.

The nurse who accompanied him quickly grabbed up a nearby stool for him and positioned it beside her bed. Jaelyn reached for Ben’s hand as he sat down. He glanced at her in surprise but took her hand in a firm grasp even as the nurse said something Jaelyn couldn’t hear and could care less about. Both men looked at her in obvious concern and she forced a smile, fighting to control her emotions. Her emotions were what had landed her here to begin with!

“Ben!” Jaelyn sighed gratefully. “Would you tell these idiots to let me out of here already? I’ve been laying here an hour and have yet to see a doctor! I’m fine and I want to go home.”

“A doctor was in earlier,” the nurse told Ben. “I think she mistook her for a nurse. We tried writing for her, but she’s... um... not being very patient. We’re kinda busy at the moment. Always gets this way on a full moon. Today’s starting early for some reason.” The nurse shrugged as he glanced at the various monitors arrayed around Jaelyn. “I know it must be confusing and frustrating for her, but we are doing everything we can to find out what’s wrong. The paramedics said she--”

“--I want out of here, Ben!” Jaelyn interrupted forcefully. “I hate hospitals. Get me out of here!”

The nurse offered Jaelyn a patient and reassuring, if somewhat harassed, smile. “The doctor was in earlier, Ms. McKenna,” he offered, speaking clearly and slowly but without the kind of exaggerated mouth movements Ben had seen others use when they learned Jaelyn was deaf. “She ordered some tests.” Jaelyn glanced at Ben, reluctantly releasing his hand so he could sign. The nurse paused as Ben interpreted what he’d said so far.

“I haven’t seen a doctor yet!” Jaelyn even interrupted Ben in her frustration, repeating what she’d already stated. “Just a bunch of nurses poking and prodding me like a piece of meat. I’m sick of it! If they don’t let me out of here right now, I’m calling my lawyer! They can’t keep me from discharging myself. I know my rights!”

The nurse spoke to Ben as it was obvious the patient was making no attempt to read his lips. “She cannot discharge herself until the Sign Language Interpreter arrives and we can be sure she understands the possible ramifications of her decision. Do you think you could calm her down for me? I have a bunch of questions I need to ask her.”

Ben nodded and frowned at Jaelyn, knowing it wasn’t going to be an easy task. He cocked his head to the side as he regarded her.

“What?” she asked belligerently, reading the look and not liking it.

He cocked his head to the other side. ^I’m waiting,^ he offered.

His blue-gray gaze was fixed firmly on her. It wasn’t the nurse or doctors he was waiting on. “For what?” she asked in exasperation.

^I can’t --force you --to listen,^ he explained.

Jaelyn offered a short, unamused laugh and slammed her head back against the pillow in frustration. He’d said the same thing once about a month ago, when she’d been in the hospital and threatened to discharge herself after the DA pulled her police protection.

It felt like a lifetime ago.

She also remembered how Ben had stayed at her bedside until she was ‘ready to listen’, actually falling asleep in the stupid visitor’s chair when he should have been in his own hospital bed. She knew she was outclassed when it came to being stubborn!

“I want out of here, Ben,” she told him firmly, but calmly. The only way she was going to get what she wanted was by staying calm and ‘listening’ like he wanted.

He repeated the nurse’s comment about not being allowed to discharge herself until the Sign Language Interpreter arrived. Jaelyn sighed in frustration, knowing that they meant ‘Certified’ Sign Language Interpreter, which Ben wasn’t. So much for threatening to call her lawyer!

^The nurse --wants to-- ask you --some questions,^ Ben added, when her gaze swung back toward him.

Jaelyn closed her eyes. She wanted to scream. She wanted to cry and stomp her feet and throw a right royal temper tantrum! Something right out of ‘The Exorcist’ maybe. She knew it would do her absolutely no good, but God it would feel great to let go. She fought the temptation aside and glanced back at Ben, surprised to find a little amused smile hiding in his eyes.

“What?” she asked again, even more surprised to find a smile pulling at her own lips.

The look vanished from Ben’s face. ^What?^ he repeated.

Jaelyn narrowed her eyes and lifted her hands. She wasn’t going to embarrass Ben in front of the nurse, but she wasn’t going to let him play innocent either. ^You were laughing at me,^ she accused him. ^What’s so funny?^

Ben frowned in apparent confusion. ^I --didn’t laugh.^

^But you wanted too!^

“Are we ready?” the nurse asked, interrupting the exchange. Jaelyn couldn’t hear what was said but saw the expectant look and clipboard in hand.... It wasn’t hard to figure out what the man had said. Ben obviously welcomed the distraction and nodded.

Jaelyn laughed. “You aren’t getting out of it that easy, Benton Fraser!” she warned him.

He awarded her his best innocent look. ^I wasn’t --laughing --at you,^ he assured her, but it only made her laugh again.

“Hello!” a young woman in bright floral scrubs called in greeting as she swept past the curtains and into the room. “Sounds like someone’s in a better mood here.”

“Not another one!” Jaelyn exclaimed in exaggerated exasperation. “They’re ganging up on me, Ben! Save me!”

There was no mistaking the joking tone and the woman smiled readily. “Corporal Fraser seems to have worked a miracle for us,” she glanced at the nurse and then back at Ben. “Air force or Army?” she asked curiously.

Ben glanced at Jaelyn and signed clearly.

“R.C.M.P,” she translated for him, fighting back a renewed wave of frustration as it was obvious the newcomer was making small talk, trying to set a relaxed and pleasant atmosphere before turning to business -- either that or flirting with Ben. Jaelyn narrowed her eyes as she waited to see which it was.

“R.C.M.P?” the woman asked, glancing between them in confusion.

Ben glanced at Jaelyn who read the look before he even started to sign. “Royal Canadian Mounted Police,”she explained readily.

“Wait a minute. I knew there was something about you nagging me. You’re the Mountie that was shot last month outside the Consulate, aren’t you?”

Ben sighed, closed his eyes and nodded, letting his head drop forward as he tasted frustration of his own.

“Not exactly the kind of notoriety you want, huh?” the doctor chuckled, reading the man’s body language too easily. “My husband works at the twenty-seventh. David Gross. He’s mentioned you before.”

Ben quickly shoved his irritation aside, sat straight and donned a carefully pleasant but unreadable mask. He nodded, placing the name. He and Detective Gross hadn’t really met save in passing but he was aware of the man. He saw Jaelyn frown in confusion beside him.

The woman offered a pensive frown for the situation. “You’re mute? And you’re deaf? Is that right?”

Ben nodded.

“When am I going to see a doctor and get out of here?” Jaelyn asked, her frustration beating out her curiosity as to what the woman’s game plan was.

“Right now,” the woman answered and offered her hand. “I’m Dr. Karol Gross. We’ll get you out of here as soon as we can, I promise.”

Jaelyn shook the woman’s hand in polite confusion as Ben translated her words. She blinked in surprise, taking in the rather ‘cheerful’ scrubs again. “No white coat?” she asked.

The woman winced. “Head on collision with some hot chocolate. Major casualty. Should survive though. It and my blouse are both soaking in cold water in the doctor’s lounge.” She paused to let Ben translate. “I understand you had a bit of a run in with your lunch too? Choked on some melon?”

Jaelyn sighed as she read Ben’s signing. “I’m fine. James did the Heimlich maneuver. Unfortunately that triggered a flashback and I fainted. Which seems to have panicked everyone else, but I’m fine, really! I’m seeing a psychiatrist for them and have an appointment with him on Wednesday. So can I get out of here now?”
The doctor folded her arms and frowned. “You did more than faint, Ms. McKenna,” she explained. “According to witnesses, you went into convulsions.”

“--I don’t know that one.” Ben had to finger spell the word. “Convulsions?” Jaelyn repeated in surprise. “Did I do that last time?”

Ben shook his head.

The doctor frowned as she listened to the one-sided conversation. “You were there the last time she had one of these episodes?” Ben nodded. “No convulsions?” He shook his head. “Can you describe her convulsions this time for me, give me some idea of how bad they were? Was it merely a little shivering or more violent?”

The doctor soon fell into a yes / no question mode, which only served to add to Jaelyn’s frustration because she couldn’t hear the questions!

Suddenly, the curtains were swept aside again and someone wheeled yet another device into the room. Jaelyn recognized it as a portable EKG machine.

”Those convulsions have me a little concerned,” the doctor explained and paused as Ben translated. “They can be funny things. It might be nothing more than a particularly bad PTSD episode, severe depersonalization can cause convulsions... or it might be something more serious. Do you remember anything about the episode? Vivid memories, that sort of thing?”

“No,” Jaelyn shook her head, “that’s not how it works for me. I have partial amnesia. Some of the memories are real, some aren’t. My mind gets triggered on something and it tries to fill in the missing pieces, at least that’s what my doc said. I don’t tend to remember anything after an attack.”

“You’ve suffered both organic and traumatic memory loss?” the doctor qualified. Ben paused to finger spell the more difficult words. “Is that right?”

Jaelyn nodded.

“Failing to remember what happened within an episode isn’t unusual in cases like yours, especially this soon after the initial attack. Do you have night-terrors too? Dreams where you wake up screaming but can’t remember what frightened you?”

Jaelyn nodded again. “I’ve been through all this with Dr. Vernes,” she sighed impatiently. “My mind is struggling to sort out... everything. Frankly, I don’t care if I eventually remember or not. Right now, all I want to do is go home and forget about all of this!”

“Understandably, Ms. McKenna,” the doctor offered sympathetically. “But as I said, those convulsions have me worried. The fact that you haven’t had them before bothers me. Given your medical history, we need to check it out. This technician is going to hook you up for a quick EKG, so we can take a look at your heart a bit better.” Again she paused to allow Ben time to catch up with her. “I don’t expect to find anything, but we’re going to do it anyway, just to rule out any cardiac involvement.. I’ve also ordered an EEG to make sure we don’t have any more synaptic brainstorming going on; a few head and chest X-rays to make sure you didn’t aspirate any of that melon or hit your head when you fell, and a complete blood work-up. It’s all standard stuff in these situations.^ She offered her patient a reassuring smile as Ben finished translating.

Jaelyn frowned more and more as she read Ben’s slow signing, not at all happy with what she was being told. The doctor read the look easily enough.

“I know it’s frustrating, Ms. McKenna, but we really need to check these things out You suffered a near fatal stabbing less than three months ago. Convulsions could be indicative of restricted blood flow in the brain or an impending aneurysm; your blood chemistry may be out of whack causing damage to your brain and other vital organs; or you may have a systemic infection of some sort, of the meninges perhaps which surrounds the brain and spinal cord. There are a number of possible causes for convulsions. Most of them are benign. Some can prove fatal. I want to rule out the worst ones, that’s all. Isn’t your life worth a couple of hours to be safe?^

Jaelyn sagged in defeat as she watched Ben struggling to sign the doctor’s words as quickly as possible, which was not very fast, but far better than it had been two weeks before. There were a lot of signs in there she didn’t know, but she didn’t interrupt him. She got the message without knowing exactly what was said.

“Two hours?” she asked, unhappily, even as she watched the technician hooking her up to the EKG monitor.

^Hopefully less,^ Ben again translated. ^We’re kinda --busy, so --if you’re not sick --I’m going to --kick you out --of that bed --as quickly --as I can. --That’ll make us --both happy. --Deal?^

Jaelyn sighed and nodded as Ben finished the signing and the doctor stood waiting for her answer. She knew she could refuse the testing but one look at Ben’s face told her he wouldn’t be happy if she did; she’d rather endure a couple hours of frustration. A pouting Mountie was not something she wanted to deal with. Of course, she didn’t want to deal with the next couple of hours without him either! Being hauled around and poked and prodded without explanation was no fun.

“Can Ben stay?” she asked.

“Sure,” the doctor nodded readily, then turned and offered Ben a pensive frown. Her gaze narrowed after a moment. “Drop the act, Corporal,” she told him bluntly. “I’m sure it works great with your superiors and distracted diplomats, but it doesn’t belong in here. You’re tired and in pain. I didn’t see the pain before but I do now. Do you need to take some medication?”
Ben frowned and shook his head. The doctor folded her arms and cocked her head to the side.

“Do you have your medicine with you?”

Ben shook his head and glanced away.

“You missed taking it, didn’t you.”

It wasn’t a question but Ben answered anyway. “ ‘I’m fine’?” Jaelyn translated for him in confusion. “What’s going on?”

The woman said something that caused Ben to frown sharply. He actually glared at her! It wasn’t a look Jaelyn was used to seeing on his face. Clearly the doctor had irritated him. “I am not being... what?,” Jaelyn translated his rather crisp signing, and suddenly giggled as she belatedly got the finger spelling. “Macho?!”

Ben glared at her in turn before once again donning his mask and continuing his signing.

“Your incorrect use of the word would indicate that you are referring to ‘foolish male pride’,” Jaelyn interpreted for him, fighting hard to suppress her mirth. “I am male, I may be proud, but I do not consider myself a fool. I am quite capable of asking for help if I need it. I don’t. Thank you for your concern.” She lifted a brow and fought not to laugh again. She couldn’t suppress the grin.

Ben’s carefully masked gaze was not happy.

“I’m sorry,” she shrugged. “You are being macho!” A giggle escaped.

“Look, I don’t care if you want to be macho or not,” the doctor told him, waving his irritation aside like a pesky fly, “but I don’t want to end up with another patient on my hands. You want to stay with Ms. McKenna, you do it in a wheelchair. Carl?”

The nurse nodded his understanding of the unspoken order and stepped out of the room. He reappeared a moment later with a wheelchair. Ben continued to look more than irritated but silently took the seat without comment. The doctor merely ignored him and turned to the EKG technician.

Six hours later, Ben sat with Jaelyn in the back of James’ car and fought the tendrils of exhaustion that were slowly wrapping themselves about his thoughts. Blast, but he hated being so weak! At the moment, however, he admitted it had its benefits. James and Jeanie had asked only a few questions before noting how tired he looked. The questions then ended and he hadn’t been required to interpret further. The two of them now talked quietly in the front seat but it was small talk, having nothing to do with himself or Jaelyn. The woman at his side was almost as tired as he was and sat in irritated silence, watching the night fly by her car window. Ben didn’t have the energy to ease that irritation. The doctors had found nothing wrong, despite all their poking and prodding. He had seen her getting more and more frustrated as the tests went on. It was over now, but the emotion remained. Hopefully, she would settle her mind on something else and it would pass by the time they reached the Bed and Breakfast, but in all honesty Ben couldn’t care.

That wasn’t true, he frowned at the thought: He did care. He probably cared too much, but there was nothing he could do about it. ‘It’ being either caring too much or Jaelyn’s present irritation. Well, there were things he could do about the irritation, he admitted as he turned his eyes to the sweep of buildings beyond his own window. He could simply distract her, get her mind off of the last several hours and onto something else. There was the big ‘Harvest Festival Dance’ she’d mentioned the other day that the Inn always hosted... but just the thought of signing made his arms and chest ache.

It would be such a simple matter if he could speak... but he couldn’t. The incident at lunch had made that very clear. He hadn’t felt that helpless since he was a child. He was surprised to feel tears well at the thought and he swallowed them with a glare for the city beyond the glass. He must be more tired than he’d thought. Being physically weak was one thing, but being emotionally weak was unconscionable.

Unfortunately, the thought that he would feel such helplessness again could not be so easily dismissed. He had to face the fact that he might never speak again, despite Dr. Martin’s optimistic outlook. It was a possibility that he kept ignoring. He knew it was there the same way he knew there was always the danger of his sister being killed in a car accident or one of his friends from the twenty-seventh being killed in the line of duty. It was a dark possibility not to be entertained or acknowledged.

However, the possibility that he might never speak again was beginning to look more real as every day passed and he continued to see no improvement. Once again, he shoved the dark and forbidden thoughts of ‘what-if’ behind a mental wall, knowing they would come out to haunt him in his dreams. Despite how tired he felt, he did not look forward to sleep this night.

With a sigh he forced himself to sit straight and lift his hands as he turned to Jaelyn. Conversation, painful though it might be, was preferable to succumbing to the lure of sleep. If he were lucky, exhaustion combined with his medication would be enough to keep the nightmares at bay.

“They’re talking about putting me in the hospital,” Frannie frowned as she sat beside Rennie and watched him pick at the unappetizing food. She often thought hospital food was so bad because the doctors figured most Americans needed to go on a diet anyway, but that certainly wasn’t true in Rennie’s case. He was looking downright gaunt! She frowned in concern as she studied him in the morning sunlight. “Are you sure you’re feeling okay, Ren? You don’t look good.”

He lifted his brow in surprise. “The doctors assure me I am doing quite well, Francesca,” he answered readily and glanced back at his plate. However, what the doctors said and what he felt were two different things. “I’m just a bit tired from all the exercises,” he excused whatever physical appearance had drawn the question to begin with. He was more than a bit tired, but the exercises were necessary. He had to push himself, prove to himself if not to the RCMP, that he was every bit the man he’d been before the shooting.

He’d been doing quite a bit of reading on hip replacement recipients and other handicapped individuals in general. That was not to say that he considered himself to be handicapped, though he knew the RCMP would classify him as such in short order. He’d been quite inspired to learn of one young man, a Sgt. Dana Bowman of the US Army Golden Knight Special Forces, who’d lost both his legs in a severe accident while performing aerobatic parachute maneuvers. The man had actually fought his way back into the military and back onto the elite squad of paratroopers he’d been with. He’d later left the team and become a commercial helicopter trainer. It was quite amazing actually.

Not that Ren thought he stood a snowball’s chance in hell of fighting his medical retirement from the RCMP when it finally came down. Canadian law and governmental regulations, though similar to their American counterparts, were quite different in many ways as well. The Americanism of ‘You can’t fight City Hall’ became even more of a truism when contemplating such an endeavor against the Queen and her representatives. Oh, they could be fought. The mechanics of it were actually quite simple and straight forward, but the chances of winning were considerably less.

He was a bit surprised to realize he was even entertaining such thoughts!

He realized suddenly that he’d allowed his thoughts to drift and forced them back to his visitor. “I’m sorry, Francesca,” he apologized with a little start and mild blush as he glanced back at her. “You said your doctors were contemplating putting you in hospital? Why?” He frowned in sudden concern. “Are the babies all right?”

“The babies are fine,” she answered with a sigh and rubbed her distended abdomen with an impatient frown. “I’m fine. My doctors are being more over-protective than my brother!”

“Ah!” he rejoined, somewhat reassured. “You know, Francesca, multiple births such as yours do have their risks. The doctors do have reason to be over-protective. I’m quite sure that they only have your best interests, and those of the babies, at heart.”

Frannie sighed and shifted in the chair yet again. Getting comfortable was becoming a big challenge lately. “I know,” she admitted, “but I’m barely twenty-four weeks. Dr. Romano’s been pushing to admit me for the last two and says if I start to dilate there will be no choice. Of course if I start to dilate there’ll be no choice. Like I don’t know that? God, I hate hospitals!”

Ren’s brows had lifted again in surprise at her impassioned little speech. He cocked his head to the side and started to ask why she hated hospitals so much, especially given that she visited with him everyday, when a familiar blonde head appeared at the door.
“Hey guys!” Kowalski sang out as he strode into the room. “Geez, but this hospital is big. ‘Just got my morning workout looking for you. The nurse up on two said you’d been transferred down here; but all them stupid colored lines and arrows and all, they take you everywhere ‘cept here! So...” he sighed expansively and came to stand beside Frannie, “how you doing? Christ, Frannie, you look like you’re going to explode on us! You sure there’s only six in there? You’re growing faster than a goose egg!”

“A goose egg?” She rolled her eyes. “I assume you mean a bruise and not an actual egg? You come up with some of the strangest sayings, but at least it’s better than saying I look like a ‘beached baby whale’ or ‘The Titanic’ which is what Ray calls me!”

“Titanic?” Kowalski repeated and smirked. He quickly swallowed the look as Frannie glared up at him. “What does Ray know! You’re beautiful, Frannie. Ain’t nothing more beautiful in this world than a mother-to-be, ain’t that right, Turnbull?”

“Absolutely, Ray!” Turnbull agreed enthusiastically. “I was trying to tell her that just the other day, but I don’t think she believed me.”

“And you believe your brother instead?” Ray rejoined, offering Frannie an amused frown. “The man hasn’t got a romantic bone is his body! Besides, he’s your brother. Brothers aren’t allowed to notice how gorgeous their sisters look.”

Frannie snorted. “Yeah, right! I’m about as gorgeous as a pregnant elephant on roller skates!” she scoffed.

Ray’s frown deepened and he suddenly got serious as he read the emotions behind the simple little quip. He surprised her by taking her hand and sinking down on his knee beside her. “You are beautiful, Frannie,” he told her emphatically. “You’ve got six little blessings growing inside that belly of yours and all that blessing is shining out of your face like a beacon screaming, ‘See how special I am?’ Your brother is a blind man not to see it. Don’t let anyone, including yourself, ever tell you differently.”

Frannie stared in surprise at the earnest man before her and suddenly blushed. Rolling her eyes again she punched him in the shoulder. “Gee, Kowalski! You’re almost as good for my ego as Rennie here!”

Ben sat on the edge of his bed and sighed in frustration. He was not surprised to see a frown on his face as he gazed down at the mirror he held and fought to put the emotions aside. It was getting more difficult to do every day. What his mind told his mouth to do, and what it then did were two totally different things! Chewing the gum, he could do. He could even think about it, in a off-hand manner, and get it right.

But he could not blow a bubble.

He glanced at the clock beside his bed: 10:34 am. He’d done his required half hour and then some. With another sigh, he set the mirror aside and spat out the gum. He didn’t particularly like bubble gum anyway.

Dief appeared at his side and offered a little whine. He wanted to get out, and he wanted Ben to go with him.

Ben automatically opened his mouth to answer him... and snapped it shut when gibberish poured forth. He closed his eyes and dropped his head forward, offering a bitter laugh that this was one lesson he simply seemed unable to learn! It didn’t matter how many times it happened. He was always tempted to try and answer Dief.

He glanced up at the wolf again, who’d cocked his head to the side in clear confusion as he listened to Ben. He was the epitome of patience, waiting for his pack-mate to speak. Ben turned his gaze to the sun dappled garden beyond his window and acknowledged that it was going to be a beautiful day.

But he had absolutely no desire to be out in it.

He nodded his answer to his canine companion and rose on stiff legs to open the back door. Dief paused just beyond to give him a questioning look over his furred shoulder. ‘Aren’t you coming?’ that look said.

^Later,^ Ben signed simply, wondering if Dief would eventually manage to pick up Sign the same way he had lip reading.

The wolf gazed at him for another long moment in confusion but seemed to realize that, once more, his pack-mate wasn’t going to speak. He seemed to give a wolfish shrug and then turned to disappear across the garden and around the hedgerow at it’s border.

Ben watched the dancing shadows for several moments before closing the door with yet another weary sigh. The serenity of the forest called to him, but he was simply too tired to answer it’s siren lure. Last night had been a particularly bad night. Not only had he endured some rather unpleasant dreams which had robbed him of the rest he needed, but Jaelyn had suffered another ‘night-terror’.

She hadn’t suffered one since that first night he’d been here, and he knew it was the post traumatic attack episode and hospital which had triggered this one. He’d half expected it. At least now that he and the rest of the staff knew what they were, they could handle the situation with a minimum of fuss.

And Ben didn’t have to worry about being mistaken for a rapist.

He had awakened her with gentle efficiency and sat ‘talking’ with her as Kevin reassured those guests whom her screams had roused.
“I’m going to have to sound proof my room if this keeps up!” she had joked, running a hand through her tousled mane. “It’s bad for business.” She had further claimed to remember bits of the dream, which was quite unusual for her, but nothing that was particularly frightening or that would have caused her to scream at the top of her lungs as she had. She’d apologized repeated for disturbing him, and he’d changed the subject to the Harvest Festival coming up in a couple of weeks. After a few minutes, she’d been yawning as the adrenaline rush faded.

The incident had reminded him of what Ray had told him in the hospital: That Greg Manly had been murdered. The existence of a forth person involved in Jaelyn’s rape and attempted murder had come as an unwelcome surprise. He had debated whether or not he should tell her and finally decided to hold off until he was able to question his friends further. He didn’t want to frighten her unnecessarily. The PTSD attack and night terror had shown him that she was still wrestling with enough demons without adding the burden of another.

With yet another sigh, he decided to track Jaelyn down. He was rather tired and stiff from yesterday and last night, but he needed to keep a closer eye on her if there was even the slightest possibility that someone might still be seeking to harm her.

It would also give him something to focus on besides his continuing failure to make any kind of progress in his struggle to speak again.

“Hey ya, Burt!” Vecchio sang out as he entered the barber shop.

“Ray!” the jolly little barber who owned the shop greeted him merrily. “Long time no see!” He gave Kowalski beside him a friendly grin and once over. “You bring me a new customer, Ray? Don’t know that I can do much with that hair!”

Kowalski blinked in surprise and took a defensive step backward.

“Nah, Burt,” Vecchio answered, giving Kowalski an amused grin. “He likes it that way. Sticks a finger in an electric socket once a month and he’s happy as a clam.”

Kowalski rolled his eyes. “Can we get on with it?”

“Hold your horses or I’ll start calling you Stanley again. Burt!” He turned to the smaller man with an open smile. “We need your help again.”

“Again?” the other man echoed with a laugh. “You misplaced some more chickens?”

It was Vecchio’s turn to roll his eyes as he was reminded of the Buxley case in which a chicken farmer had tried to sue Canada for something Fraser didn’t do. It was also the case in which he’d lost a twenty-five thousand dollar lottery ticket. He could do without the reminder.

“Not this time, Burt,” he allowed. “I was hoping you could tell me something about Greg Manly.”

“Manly?” Burt repeated in amused surprise and ran a comb through the hair of the client he’d been giving a trim to as Ray came in. SNIP! “He’s dead. What more is there to tell?”

“I heard he was in big and dirty with someone? You know who?”

“Dirty?” Burt echoed, working easily as he talked. “Nah, not Manly. Not big, not dirty. Twenty grand is peanuts to someone like Fat Eddie. Besides, Manly paid off his marker, couple months before he decided to take a swim with his car. You telling me he was whacked?”

“Maybe,” Vecchio answered with a disinterested shrug. “Just crossing our I’s and dotting our t’s. You know how it is.”

Burt laughed easily. “The Feds make sure you double check everything, huh?”

Vecchio froze, for just an instant, and then two years of constantly watching his every facial expression and gesture kicked in. He smiled. “Feds?” he echoed in confusion. “I work for the city, Burt. You know that.”

Burt chuckled. “You can relax, Ray,” the older man told him. “The Iguana’s aren’t mad at you. In fact, word on the street is you did ‘em a favor!”

“Favor?” he echoed, really confused now.

“You think they wanted to get mixed up with some fruitcake selling a nuclear submarine?” Burt offered in a stage whisper. “Not real good for business, no matter how much the take is. Besides, with the way that your cover was blown, they had plenty of time to find all your notes and transfer most of the money you were tracing to other off-shore accounts. The people the Feds got were people the Iguanas wanted them to get. You helped them get rid of the dead wood.” He laughed again merrily. “I’m surprised they haven’t sent you a thank you gift!”

Ray stared at the little man in absolute shock, too numb to know what he should feel about it. On the one hand, he was free and clear of the danger of winding up on someone’s hit list. On the other, two years of his life had been totally wasted! The Fed’s thought they’d made a major bust, even with his cover blown the way it was. Burt was telling him it was a carefully organized house cleaning and that the Iguanas had used him to take out the trash.

He didn’t remember leaving Burt’s. One minute he was staring at the bookie and the next he knew he was sitting in the passenger side of the Riv and Kowalski was driving.

“Hey!” he suddenly snapped, causing the younger man to start violently. Fortunately Kowalski recovered and kept the car on the road. “Pull it over!” Vecchio ordered sharply. “Now!”

Kowalski blinked in confusion and awarded the older man a confused frown as he obeyed the barked command. “What is it?” he asked. “Forgot to ask Burt something?”

Vecchio didn’t answer. As soon as the car was stopped he reached over and jerked the keys from the ignition. “You don’t ever drive this car, you understand? Ever!” He glared at the other detective with enough heat to make Kowalski wonder if he was about to get decked. “The last time you drove a car of mine, you managed to turn it into a rolling fireball and drive it into Lake Michigan! After letting the insurance lapse!”

“Hey,” Kowalski defended himself, “that happened less than a week after I took your place. I was busy with other things and didn’t have time to be going through your mail! Why the hell didn’t you take care of it before you left?”

“I was busy with a few things myself, Hot Shot,” Vecchio snapped. “Now get outta my car!”


“I’m driving!” Vecchio snapped. “Out! Now!”

“You okay to drive?” Kowalski asked, concerned, even as he opened his door and slid out. He wasn’t arguing with the man, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to get back into the car either, what with the way Vecchio had freaked out earlier and all.

“Yeah, yeah, shut up and get back in,” the Italian detective sneered. “Burt just surprised me. We gotta hunt down Fat Eddie.”

Ben cocked his head to the side and frowned as he made his way toward the kitchens. Someone had been playing Pachelbel’s Canon on the piano at some remarkable speed... and had suddenly brought the piece to a crashing, discordant halt. He frowned and turned from his objective. There had been an enormous amount of anger and frustration in the music, and even more in the jarring and abrupt ending. Carefully, Ben made his way between the white draped tables of the dining room, deserted at two-thirty in the afternoon, and glanced through the archway where the music room was situated.

He wasn’t really surprised to see Jaelyn sitting before the piano, one hand smashed in a fist against the keys as she lay with her head on her other arm, draped across the music holder, and wept. Sheet music had been scattered in an angry sweep over the floor around her. Ben all too easily understood the pain and anger he’d heard earlier. She must have practiced for years to be able to play so beautifully, and even more, she must have loved music in order to want to practice so much.

Now, it was gone.

He nearly turned around and left her to her grief. Such pain screamed for privacy -- but he couldn’t. He empathized too much. He had loved to sing and that too was gone. He’d be lucky if he could carry on a stuttered conversation ever again, let alone carry a melody.

At least he could hear the music.

He glanced back at her, pensively, and wondered if he could give her back some of what she’d lost...

A shadow passed over her and Jaelyn glanced up in surprise to find Ben moving awkwardly around the room, carefully picking up the sheet music she’d so violently flung from her. She hastily wiped at her tear-streaked face and glanced at the archway, mortified to think anyone had seen her in such a state. The double door there had been slipped shut. No one else had apparently witnessed her falling apart. Thankfully. She glanced at Ben again, who continued his task without a single look her way, and she wasn’t sure what she felt.

She was utterly humiliated to have him, or anyone else for that matter, catch her crying! God, she hoped she’d at least managed to be quiet about it. Had one of the kitchen staff heard her and fetched Ben before she was discovered by a guest? She shuddered at the possibility and redoubled her efforts to swallow the pain that still clutched at her throat, even as she wiped again at her face. She’d managed to regain her control before Ben had finished picking up the scattered sheet music.

“My father always used to make me clean up my own messes when I was little and threw a temper tantrum,” she offered, hoping her voice came out clearer than if felt. She cleared her throat.

Ben glanced up and cocked his head to the side. One hand came up to sign something -- but she didn’t understand. ^S-h-o-u-t-i-n-g....^ he finger spelled calmly.

Jaelyn had specifically requested Ben to tell her if her voice became too loud when talking. She couldn’t hear herself, and what had once been instinctive now required work. She pressed her lips together and bowed her head. Shouting. Lord, she could scream at the top of her lungs and it wouldn’t make any difference to her.

She gave a small start as Ben came and sat beside her on the piano bench, replacing the music she’d strewn about the room. She watched as he closed the keyboard cover and... She frowned as his fingers began to dance over the rich wood, as though he were playing, yet the keys were covered. She glanced up at him in confusion, but his eyes were closed. His fingers drew her attention again. They were rather nice hands she thought. Rather broad and square, lightly callused and roughened, but graceful, almost sensual as they continued to dance over the wood. He was playing a definite melody, she realized, but it wasn’t Pachelbel’s Canon. She frowned as she concentrated on the movements, her mind easily transposing the careful positions and timing into sounds she could only remember now.

Amazing Grace.

The melody was joined by the descant in her mind. The notes lifted in harmony, haunting the simple elegant phrasing. Did Ben have any idea what he was doing to her, she wondered? Even when she closed her eyes, trying to shut it out, the music followed her and a voice she’d never heard whispered the words through her thoughts.

She found herself on the verge of tears again and opened her eyes, needing to escape, only to discover that Ben’s hands lay still on the wood of the keyboard cover. She glanced up at him to see a quiet understanding shining from his eyes.

^Music --is --more than --sound,^ he signed slowly. ^It’s --words --and rythmn --and meaning. Music --without --heart, --is nothing --but sound. Sound --without --meaning, --is nothing --but noise.^

Jaelyn bowed her head again, refusing to give into tears yet again. She knew Ben meant well. She knew that what he said was true. She also knew that even noise was precious to her... and lost.

She felt him stand again and looked up. Part of her wanted to be left alone, to wallow in self-pity, but a larger part was afraid.

^Come,^ he signed with a slight smile. ^I want-- to show you --something.^

Ben led her back through the dinning area and down the hall to his room. His progress was slow and by the end of it he was breathing rather heavily. She remembered her own recovery and how easily she was exhausted when they finally let her start walking again. Ben had been stuck in that wheelchair a lot longer than she’d been. She also knew that he didn’t want her to comment on it.

“Going to show me your sketches, Ben?” she joked as he held the door open for her. She was a bit surprised she was able to make such a joke, but... this was Ben.

Ben frowned in mild confusion. He shook his head, then dismissed the thought that there was some unknown meaning to her words as she smiled and entered his room. If she wanted to see sketches, than he supposed he could draw something for her. It would likely be good exercise for his mind and writing skills anyway and it was nice to see even a small smile on her face, but it would have to wait until later.

She turned and waited patiently as he made his way across the room, then followed him as he led the way to the back door. He opened it and gestured her through. “Are we going to the pool?” she asked, curious as to what he was up to and what it had to do with music. Or maybe he was just trying to distract her.

Again he shook his head and closed the door behind them, then led the way to a small bench and sat down, leaving plenty of room for her to join him if she wanted.

She didn’t. The thought of sitting so closely with him... She cleared her throat and glanced around, uncomfortably. It was too secluded, too romantic a setting, even with the roses barren and the trees dropping their leaves. The ground was a carpet of color, dappled in afternoon sunlight. She shivered, and it wasn’t because of the nip in the air.

Ben made no request that she join him on the bench. Instead, he gestured around them at the semi-private little garden. ^What -- do you-- see?^ he asked her, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees.

Jaelyn frowned in confusion and glanced around. Okay... so this wasn’t the set of a seduction scene. She was a bit relieved and, strangely, disappointed. She shoved the inconsistent reaction away and tried to concentrate on whatever it was Ben wanted to show her here.

She’d been in the garden before, several times. It was a favorite little escape when the pressures of everyday got to be too much. She’d even played here as a child occasionally, exploring her imagination as she dreamt of King Arthur or Robin Hood.

“I see a garden in need of raking,” she answered with a quirk of her lips.

He shook his head. ^You’re --only --seeing --noise,^ he told her.

Noise? She frowned and glanced around again, beginning to realize what he was trying to tell her. She glanced up at the trees, searching for birds. She noted a couple, but she couldn’t hear them, even if he could. There was no music here, not for her. Oh, she could imagine the bird song, the sound of the sprightly little breeze that danced among the leaf litter, the wind that gently rustled the dry leaves overhead before bringing them down in a slow motion sprinkling of color... but she couldn’t hear it. All she heard was silence.

“I see birds and leaves and--” She sighed painfully and looked down at her feet. Ben meant well, she was sure, but this was only making her feel worse. “I can’t hear it, Ben.”

He waited until she looked up again. ^What --do --you --feel?^ he asked.

“Depressed,” she answered bluntly.

He nodded, accepting her words without judging them. There was no pity or sympathy in his regard, just a patient need to make her understand something. He launched into a story about Inuvik, and a blind boy he’d once known. He explained that his grandparents had been traveling librarians but that they didn’t have any Braille books. ^It --didn’t matter. The --boy’s mother --would check out --ten --or twenty --books --at a time, --to read to him. --She always --came by with --a small --red sled, --every Monday, --like clockwork. One Monday, --she didn’t --show up. --On Tuesday, --my grandmother --and I --went --to find out why. --She --was sick. --It --wasn’t serious --but --she’d lost her voice --and --couldn’t travel. --My grandmother --sent us --outside --to play --while she --helped --tend --his mother. --He --asked me --to read to him, --so I did. --About --halfway through --one of the --stories --he interrupted me --and --said --I was reading it --wrong. --I’d been --describing --a sunset, --and words --such as --red --or gold --or twilight --were --...nothing but --noise. --I had to --see --with my ears, --before --I could --describe --a sunset --he --could ‘see’.^

Jaelyn closed her eyes and wrestled with everything he’d told her... and everything he hadn’t. The analogy was simple enough. Ben had learned to see with his ears. She must learn to hear with her eyes. She nodded and glanced around her again. Was it possible to ‘see’ music?

^Listen --with --your heart,^ he told her silently. ^--Not --your --eyes.^

Again she nodded. ‘Music without heart is nothing but sound,’ he’d said. ‘Sound without meaning is nothing but noise.’ Like the noise of meaningless words to a blind boy. How would she describe music to someone who’d never heard it before?

That mischievous little wind that insisted on swirling through occasionally might be a piano. The dancing leaves within its play, the notes that rose and fell in time to the slow metronome of the sun passing overhead. The shadows from the trees as they blew in the wind were the brass section and the clouds were the strings--

Jaelyn suddenly felt like she was reinventing ‘Peter and the Wolf’, but in reverse!

^What --do --you --see?^ he asked her again.

This time he was answered with a smile. She gazed around her again and inhaled deeply. ^I see memories,^ she answered silently, unconsciously switching to sign language as well. ^I smell home. I feel -- peace.^

^Do you --hear --the song?^

Jaelyn actually giggled and for once didn’t care how it sounded. “What do you ‘hear’?” she wanted to know.

Ben smiled and glanced at the wind that swirled by them once more, refusing to describe the sounds around him in the conventional manner. ^The breeze --is telling --a story --about --how you --once --climbed --this tree,^ he told her instead, hooking his thumb at a low-limbed tree to their left.

She laughed again and Ben didn’t think he’d ever heard a more beautiful sound.

“I did!” she confirmed the wind’s story. “I also fell out of it when I was ten and broke my arm!”

Ben winced in sympathy but the memory didn’t seem to trouble Jaelyn. She was too caught up in the ‘music’. She ‘listened’ as the wind continued its tale, now remembering the snowball fight she and her father had once had. She came and sat down beside Ben, ignoring him as the ‘music’ played around her. He sat still and silent as she explored the gift he’d given her. “I feel like I’ve been blind all my life,” she whispered at last.

^Just --near-sighted,^ he answered with a smile.

She didn’t understand his signing, but she didn’t need to. She returned his smile with one of her own, then leaned forward to award him a small kiss on the cheek. “Thank you, Ben,” she whispered. “You could give that Psychologist of mine a few lessons.”

Ben blushed and ducked his head. He hadn’t done that--

A voice calling his name suddenly broke the ‘song’ around them. He sat up straight and glanced toward his bedroom door.

“What?” she asked, confused.

^David,^ Ben answered, easily identifying the voice.

She sighed and glanced at her watch. “Wanta bet the kitchen just discovered we’re out of a minor but very necessary ingredient for one of tonight’s scheduled offerings?”

Ben grinned and shook his head. When it came to anticipating the many little emergencies that arose at the Bed and Breakfast, Ben wasn’t about to second guess her!

Frannie was not a happy camper. Oh, she put up a good front and joked with the nurses, but the last place she wanted to be was in the hospital. Unfortunately, she had little choice in the matter. Twenty-five weeks into her pregnancy and she’d started to dilate. Well, not dilate, what with the clavage... cervage... whatever-the-hell-it-was-called, she couldn’t dilate but she was effacing or something: it amounted to the same thing according to her doc. Her body was preparing for labor and it wasn’t time yet.

Doctor Romano had gone over all the dangers of a multiple pregnancy again, emphasizing the fact that Frannie would have been in the hospital for a month already if she’d had her way about it, and ending any argument Frannie might have before she could voice them.

Frannie had capitulated for the sake of her children. She knew that she wasn’t going to carry them full term, not six of them. Dr. Romano had made that very clear. But the longer she could carry them, the better off they would be. Thus she was to be put on strict bed rest, a special diet, intervenous vitamins and minerals and a couple of other medications whose names she couldn’t pronounce.

Her brother had been a bit upset when Frannie told him, but he’d been attending Lamaze classes with her for a couple of weeks, (well, he’d made one of them) and didn’t have the stomach to question her about it. He too shoved his worry and concern aside, and donned a supportive and carefree mask. His questions and fears would do absolutely nothing but add to Frannie’s. At this point, they had little choice but to trust the doctors and pray for the best. He’d driven her straight to the hospital from the doctor’s office and promised to bring her a bag of her own stuff after work.

She shuddered to think of the selections he’d make!

“Hey, Little Miss Momma!” an overly happy and friendly voice called out. Frannie glanced up from where the nurse was taping the IV into place to see MacKenzie King skip into her room. “You ready for visitors yet?”


A picture.

Frannie groaned and offered a glare for the obsequious cameraman who seemed to follow King around like a second shadow. “God, did you have to take my picture? I must look like hell!”

“You look great, Frannie,” MacKenzie countered easily and turned to the nurse. “Hi! I’m MacKenzie King, reporter. We’re doing an article on Miss Vecchio’s sextuplet pregnancy and birth. Can we have permission to use your picture in it if we want?”

The young woman blinked, a bit disconcerted by King’s blunt approach. She recovered quickly, however, and straightened to stand forbiddingly between the brash reporter and her target, the instinct to protect her patient coming to the forefront. “I’m sorry,” she stated firmly, “only family and friends are permitted in the maternity ward.”

“It’s okay,” Frannie assured her. “She’s a friend. Kinda.”

“We’ve got permission from the mucky-mucks up top,” King added, digging into her over-sized handbag to pullout a paper of some kind. “It’ll be great exposure for the hospital. We’re working with your PR department too.” She offered the paper to the nurse. “So, can we use your picture here with you helping to get the mother-to-be all settled in? I need you to sign this release if we can. It’d make a great intro for the hospital section of the piece. Time is interested in doing a serial type thing. Dr. Romano has already signed aboard. How ‘bout you?”

Time?” Frannie squeaked. “Time magazine?”

“I ain’t talking Greenwich here,” she answered with a grin. “I told you this was big stuff. You might even make the cover. So, how you doing?” She changed the subject abruptly as the nurse frowned down at the paper in her hand. King wasn’t worried whether she signed or not. The reporter had the hospital’s permission to shoot and if push came to shove, she’d win in a legal contest. Still, it was always nice to make sure there were no loop holes. She dug in her purse and produced a pen, holding it out for the nurse but keeping her attention on Frannie. She knew the nurse had her own pen but taking one from King was tantamount to agreeing. “It’s just the routine legal mumbo-jumbo,” she assured the other woman off-hand and frowned at Frannie. “Why didn’t you call me to say you were going into the hospital? I thought we had a deal here.”

“We do!” Frannie agreed. “You haven’t printed anything yet, right?” she asked, knowing that her nephew was even now undergoing some heavy testing. “You haven’t signed anything, right? With Time or whoever? If you print one word before I say, I swear Ray and I will sue you till... till... there’s no forever! You understand me?”

“ ‘Like there’s no tomorrow’,” King corrected her easily. One could judge exactly how agitated Miss Vecchio was in direct proportion to how badly she fractured the English language. “Or ‘till the cows come home’. Whatever, but no, I haven’t signed anything yet. Time wants to wait until you’re further along before they offer a contract. I’m just putting out a few feelers at the moment. Very careful feelers. Don’t worry, I’m not going to let anyone steal this story.”

“Yeah, well, you better be more than careful,” Frannie warned her. “One word gets back to my mother and the deal is off. Capish?”

“Yeah, I ‘capish’, don’t worry,” King answered and smiled at the nurse as she took the signed document back and folded it in two before stuffing it in the side pocket of her purse. “And a grasi to you too.” She glanced at Frannie. “Did I say that right?”

“ ‘Grazie’,” Frannie corrected her accent by rolling the ‘r’ properly. “Stick with English. You massacre that enough as it is.”

“Most Americans do!” King answered with a broad smile.


“Damn!” Frannie sighed with an irritated glance at the photographer. “Can’t you at least wait for me to be smiling?”

“We’ll get all the smiles we want after the kids are born,” MacKenzie answered in his stead and then shrugged. “What the heck. Smile!”

Frannie obediently smiled at the camera and...


...Well, it had to be better than most of the shots they’d taken of her over the last ten days!

“Hey!” Maggie snapped irritably and offered the offending man a glare as he paused in the process of frisking her. “Watch where you put your mitts!”

He offered her a suggestive wink and smile as he resumed the pat down.

“Now, Nicky, is that anyway to treat a lady?” the man behind the man asked sarcastically. “You’ll have to forgive his clumsiness, Constable,” he continued, glancing to where Vecchio and Kowalski were also being patted down... but not quite so thoroughly. “I had a broad pull a gun outta her bra on me once. ‘Course that wouldn’t be real easy given all them buttons and belt on that uniform and all but... Can’t be too careful you know. I’m not particularly fond of wires either.”

“I’d still tell your pal to back off, Eddie,” Kowalski suggested as the goombah man-handling him straightened. “Maggie’s like the north sea. Slow to anger, but when she does... Watch out!”

“A woman of quiet passion, huh?” Eddie laughed. “Sounds like my kinda--” He froze as he met Maggie’s glare. “Whoa! I just felt an arctic breeze!”

Fortunately, Nicky had finished his search and straightened. She transferred her glare to him and he had the sense to step back. “She’s clean, boss,” he announced, fighting to hide the sudden wariness the woman’s glance evoked.

“We’re all clean, Eddie,” Vecchio announced as his own searcher finished. “You think I’m stupid enough to bring a piece or wire to a meet like this?”

“Why not, Vecchio?” the scrawny man answered and waved them to follow him over to a table. “I’ve had to deal with cops who were a lot smarter than you are. So,” he changed the subject abruptly, not wanting to taunt the man too far. “What brings you snooping around my backyard, huh? You think I’m going to turn stoolie for you?” He grinned and his men laughed softly at the joke.

“Nah, Eddie,” Vecchio replied easily, dripping the charm and confidence that would make the other man more relaxed, “I know you won’t turn stoolie. That’d be bad for business, right? When it comes down to it, that’s what you are, right? A businessman? You know about what’s good and bad for business, right? And murder... especially of a sucker that paid you off... that’s not good, is it?”

“Matters who the sucker was,” Eddie shrugged. A maid in full black and white regalia suddenly appeared at his side bearing a tray of four glasses of chilled chardonnay. Eddie lifted one free and lifted a questioning brow at his ‘guests’ as they hesitated. “You’re not on duty, right?” he offered genially. “This is a little social call.”

The two men took the hint and lifted a glass. Maggie shook her head. “I don’t drink. Thank you.”
Eddie clucked his tongue. “Your loss,” he decided, sipping at his glass. “A little vino once in a while is good for the heart. Maybe some soda or tea instead? Isabella, we have some of that herbal stuff Mama likes so much?”

“Iced peppermint,” the woman answered softly. “I brew it from fresh leaves every morning.”

“Sounds excellent,” Maggie agreed appreciatively.

A simple nod had the maid scampering away to fetch a glass. “Good, good!” Eddie said. “A friendly visit, a friendly drink. We can forget the social barriers for a time and remember when things were different, huh, Ray!” He laughed merrily. “Like the time Frankie Zuko hung a full length center fold picture of a Playboy Bunny of the Month in the map in Old Man Martenelli’s Civic’s class? The guys, we all went crazy like and Old Marti goes red in the face as he apologized to the girls. And Frankie’s sister, Irene, blows it off saying she sees the same thing in the mirror every day!” He laughed merrily at the memory. “She always was smarter than he was. I bet she made him pay for that one later though. Poor Frankie. Never was as strong as his father, but you really ruined him the day you beat him up. Word got around quick on that one, whether you or he wanted it to or not. I was proud of you that day, Vecchio. That took some real machismo. And then all that stuff with Irene...” The man paused to sip his drink and nodded at the memory. “You showed some real class that day.”

“That’s not a day I care to remember, Eddie,” Ray offered quietly, staring down into his glass.

“Ah, of course,” the man responded. “I’m sorry. You had a thing for Irene, didn’t you, even back in high-school.” It was impossible to determine if the man was being sincere in his expression of regret or purposely needling Ray where it would hurt the worst. “I had a thing for Frannie back then too,” he admitted with an elbow nudge. “She was a real spit fire. I hear she’s about to become a mother. When she’d go and get married?”

Ray ground his teeth, knowing with that last comment that Eddie was testing him, trying to draw blood. It was a game with him, one he’d been playing since high-school. He’d known every one’s weak points and would push them right to the breaking point. Why the hell he hadn’t gotten the snot kicked out of him more often was beyond Ray. Still, the idea had never been to pick a fight: It was to get a rise. The only way to win Eddie’s game was to ignore the taunts.

“She didn’t,” he answered off-hand, knowing Eddie already knew that. Ray refused to give him anything further however. “You remember Greg Manly, don’t you?”

“What? The guy that raped that McKenna chick then drove himself off the bridge a month later when you guys got too close?” Eddie rejoined. “You saying he did your sister too?”

Ray had to clench his fists and shove them into his pockets as the man purposely played stupid. Hell, Ray thought, maybe he really was that stupid! The thought helped take some of the steam off his anger. “Nah, Eddie,” he corrected the other man, slipping the mask he’d worn as Armando Langoustini firmly into place as he offered a light chuckle. “Change of subject, buddy. Stay with me. Greg Manly was a patsy of yours. He paid off 20 big ones, remember? Good business, right?”

“Not bad,” Eddie answered with a shrug. “He liked the horses, so?”

Isabella returned then with Maggie’s tea and it was Kowalski who answered Eddie. “So someone whacked him: Bad business.”

Eddie frowned in obvious confusion and turned to Vecchio, who was very casually sipping his wine. “Manly was whacked? Murdered? The papers all said he committed suicide.”

“That was before anyone finished an autopsy,” Vecchio answered, staring out the window and not even glancing at Eddie. He knew a few mind games of his own. Eddie hated to be ignored.

“And so you think I did it?” the other man asked, unconsciously moving himself back into Ray’s field of vision. He threw up his hands expressively. “Hey! You said it yourself: Bad for business. Me whacking a guy who paid me off don’t make any sense.”

“I know,” Ray answered with a sympathetic nod. “I was hoping you could steer us in the right direction, you know?”

“You’re thinking he took out a marker to payoff my marker,” Eddie surmised but was surprised by Vecchio’s shaking head.

“Nah. There wasn’t enough time between the time he paid you off and the time he was killed for him to have angered anyone. No one ever came by to lean on him, break his legs or anything, you know?”

Eddie was frowning pensively now. “Yeah, that don’t make no sense. ‘Can’t collect no money from a corpse.”

“Exactly,” Ray agreed. “But you know, as soon as word gets out that he was murdered, it’s gonna look like you did it, whether you did it or not, you know? The rest of your customers might not like that.”

“Bad for business,” Maggie added with a smile over the rim of her tea glass.

“Exactly,” Ray agreed again with a nod. “Whereas if you help us catch the man who really did murder him, well, that would be good for business. You following me here, Eddie?”

“Yeah, yeah,” the man nodded seriously. “So what’s youse wanta know?”

“We’re thinking Manly had a partner,” Vecchio told him part of the truth, leaning in conspiratorially as he spoke. “Actually two of them. We know he didn’t do McKenna alone and Dawson was killed before Manly. That means there’s gotta be another one right? You ever seen Manly hanging out with anyone? Other than Dawson? Or maybe someone else made the big payoff for him, hum? Do you remember?”

Eddie frowned in deep thought as he wrestled with the question. “Manly paid me off in person. Cash, all small bills. Just the way I like it. I was quite happy with the man.”

“I’m sure you were, Eddie,” Vecchio nodded again and wrapped an arm around the other man’s shoulders, “but it ain’t gonna look that way to the rest of your friends, is it? We gotta catch this guy, Eddie, and you’re the only one that can help us.”

“I’ll put out some feelers,” the other man promised. “Drop back by in a couple of days and I’ll let you know what I learn.”

“That sounds great,” Vecchio agreed, knowing they weren’t going to get anything else out of him. It was quite clear he didn’t know anything personally. However, Vecchio also knew he had ties that could dig up stuff on Manly that Vecchio would never see other wise. “I really appreciate it, but, ah, one favor, ‘kay?”

Eddie gave him a questioning glance.

“Don’t go acting on anything you might learn or leaning on anyone,” Ray advised. “We need to find this guy clean like, you know? The only way to clear the stink of Manly’s murder off you is to make sure the right guy goes to jail: Nice and legal and public like. Understand?”

Again Eddie nodded as Vecchio patted his shoulder and released him. “Hey, I ain’t stupid. The more public the trial the better.”

“Exactly,” Ray agreed again. “And I’ll make sure it’s very public.” A jerk of his head had Kowalski and Maggie setting their glasses down. The two men shook hands and Ray turned to the door, calling over his shoulder as he went. “So, I’ll see you again in a couple days, right? You know where to find me if you learn anything major before then.”

They were halfway out the door when Eddie suddenly called out across the room. “Hey, Vecchio!” Ray turned with a surprised look. “You never did tell me who the father of Frannie’s kid is?”

Yeah, he’d been fishing all right. “No, I didn’t, Eddie,” he called back. “Or who the mother is either!” And with that confusing statement he let the door swing shut and beat a hasty retreat to the Riv, scrubbing the palm of his hand against his pants as if to remove a stain. “God, I hate that weasel,” he muttered.

It was the sharp squeak of a wheelchair entering the room that woke Frannie from a light dose. She turned sleepy eyes to the door and offered Rennie a big smile. “I was hoping you might stop by.”
He offered her one of his goofy grins that was far happier than it rightfully should have been and quickly wheeled himself beside her bed as she reached for the controls, lifting the head of the bed to a somewhat more upright position. She couldn’t say a more comfortable position. She was now at that point in her pregnancy where comfortable didn’t exist and she didn’t think it ever would again. She ran a hand lightly over her face in an unconscious gesture to remove the last traces of her nap. At the same time she knew she must look a mess; but for some reason, with Rennie, it didn’t matter.

It wasn’t that she didn’t want to look good for him, but... It wasn’t like they were dating or anything. Although they had dated. Well, she’d made sure to state that it wasn’t a date, you know: that she was allowing him to ‘show’ her what made country music so special. And he’d been mooning over that stupid singer anyway. Not that she’d been that much better after Benton had come out on stage and sung backup for the woman. He’d looked almost as goofy as Rennie usually did as he stood so correctly in the spotlight, fighting not to grin... and failing utterly.

“Happy thoughts?” Turnbull’s quiet voice brought her back to the here and now with a little start.

He was still smiling at her, in that naive-trusting-conspiratorial way he sometimes had. She felt a stab of guilt to realize she’d compared him to Fraser again. It was kinda strange how this time she’d compared their similarities, rather than differences. She shoved the thought aside and admitted it with a grin, “I was remembering our date.”

“Date?” he repeated in apparent confusion, but it only lasted a moment. Then he was suddenly blushing and tucking his chin firmly against his chest, glancing up at her with an embarrassed smile. “I thought you said it wasn’t a date, Francesca?”

“Yeah, well, I said that but I didn’t... I mean...” She struggled to find the words she wanted and gave up. Why not admit it? “It was a date!” She shrugged. “You picked me up, you took me to dinner, we went to the show...” Again she shrugged. “What’s not a date about it? You wouldn’t even let me pay for my own dinner.”

“Well, I did manipulate you into going to the concert when you really didn’t want to go,” he pointed out, remembering the discussion they’d had concerning the question at the time. “You were doing me a favor. It only seemed right that I should pay your way.”

“As I remember it, Rennie, it was you who did me the favor by coming up with a song that had a donkey in it.”

“Actually, it was a mule,” he automatically corrected, “but I was quite happy to be of assistance, Francesca. I really shouldn’t have put a price tag on my help.” He glanced away, blushing again with guilt. “That was quite ungentlemanly of me.”

“It was quite charming,” Frannie rejoined, feeling herself blush slightly at the memory. She might not have been particularly interested in Rennie back then, but his attention had been terribly flattering! Now... Looking back, she couldn’t understand why she’d been so blind to the man’s better qualities.

“Charming?” he repeated with hesitant hope.

“Yeah,” she nodded, embarrassed to find herself complimenting him. She’d never thought she’d be doing that! But what was so wrong with it, she wondered? It had been charming! Embarrassing as hell, but still-- “And that lunch you made for me....”

“Tagliatelle al cartoccio con pomodori e basilico da fiera mosca.”

“Right...” She fought to get her mind around the fact that he could say that so smoothly. The only other person she knew that could do that was her mother! He even got the accents right... Well, acceptable anyway. “That was romantic as all get out, Rennie,” she admitted and suddenly cocked her head to the side. “Why didn’t you ever ask me out again?”

“Well, um,” he cleared his throat, “um, you told me not to, Francesca.”

“I did?”

“Your exact words were, ‘That was cool, Turnbull, but don’t ask me out again, ‘kay? I don’t want anyone getting ideas about... you know’?”

“Oh... yeah,” she muttered, remembering her stupidity back then. “That wasn’t very nice of me.”

“Oh no, Francesca, it was perfectly all right!” he quickly reassured her in his bumbling way. “I mean it wasn’t... That is, you know I knew you had a... I mean, I know I’m not... Constable Fraser is... Oh dear. This isn’t coming out well!”

He was suddenly blushing brighter than neon. Frannie offered a smile to cover her own embarrassment. “Was I really that obvious?”

“No,” he answered quickly. Too quickly. Unfortunately, he couldn’t maintain the deception. “Well, I mean, not... ah...” Frannie’s smile became a grin. Giving up pretenses, Rennie leaned forward and whispered, “To be perfectly honest? Yes! It was more than obvious.” He sat back again in his wheelchair and shrugged, trying to don a nonchalant mein. Unfortunately, it didn’t fit him very well. “I understood,” he claimed. “I mean, it is your right, of course. And... and he... I mean, I can see why you would be attracted to him. He’s handsome and polite and chivalrous and... Well, I mean even I think... Not that I’m attracted to him of course! Oh no! I’m not... Not that I’m prejudiced or anything. It’s just that I... That is, I... I knew I couldn’t compete with him.”

He glanced quickly away, now not only embarrassed but completely mortified as he realized that he had just admitted, in a rather round about way, that he had been attracted to Francesca. But then, he suspected he’d been just as obvious in his infatuation as she’d been. Only she’d been too blinded by her own desires to see his. He’d actually been grateful for that in retrospect, but now he’d thrown that away. Oh dear...

Frannie’s laughter trilled forth like a bird’s song announcing the return of spring. He glanced at her uncomfortably, half-grateful he’d been able to make her laugh and half-terrified that she was laughing at him!

“God, I was obvious!” she exclaimed and he realized she was laughing at herself. She lifted a hand to wipe away amused tears. “I mean, I know I was! The guy wouldn’t give me the time of day! What was I supposed to do? But... He never even saw me, did he? I mean, he liked me enough, I guess. We were friends and all... I actually threw myself at him once. Oh, a long, long time ago, even before I met you. I showed up at his door in this leather--” She suddenly seemed to realize what she was about to say and to whom she was going to say it! “Not that we... He’d been badly beaten by Frank Zuko’s goons and we didn’t... Not that he would have anyway! I musta been dreaming. God, that was embarrassing! Well, you’d think I’d take the hint wouldn’t you? I was such an idiot.”

“Oh no, Francesca!” he corrected her quickly, wincing again as he heard her refer to herself in such a disparaging manner. “No! It was Constable Fraser who was the--” He only just caught himself at the last moment as he realized he was about to call a superior officer and good friend an ‘idiot’! “--I mean, I just...” Once again he brought the thought to a sudden halt before he could voice it. It would hardly be diplomatic to say that Constable Fraser simply hadn’t been attracted to her, which only led him back to the fact that his friend was blind as well as an idiot!

Frannie offered another relaxed chuckle. “Don’t worry, Ren,” she assured him with a big smile. “I won’t tell him you almost called him an idiot!”

“Oh dear!”

She laughed again merrily while Rennie felt his face burst into flame yet again and tried to reassure himself that he hadn’t actually uttered such a terrible faux pas!

“It’s okay, Rennie!” she assured him when she could speak again. “I gave up on Frase a long time ago. Well, I guess not that long ago, but I finally realized that he wasn’t going to ever see me, not that way anyway, you know? And that’s okay.” She gave a small shrug. And suddenly, for the first time, Frannie realized... it was true! It was okay. She’d said it before to herself, many times, but for the first time, it was true. She offered Rennie a truly dazzling smile as she suddenly felt... free!

Rennie, on the other hand, was seeing his world crash inward. It was the smile that did him in. Any lingering doubts that he might have harbored about his feelings for Miss Vecchio were firmly erased. He was falling for her, and falling hard. “Oh dear....”

Gaston was not a happy man. And when Gaston was not happy, no one was happy.

“How am I supposed to cook in such a place!?” he complained for the tenth time in the last five minutes. “I tell her! I tell her: She needs to get new stoves! Does she get new stoves?” he asked rhetorically, pacing through the crowded kitchen, weaving his way amongst the other cooks and checking their work even as he continued his tirade. “Yes, she gets new stoves! But do they work? NO!”

David sighed and shook his head as he worked, tuning out the man’s infernal complaints.

Kevin followed Gaston as best he could, trying to placate the man. “It’s one stove, Gaston,” the older man pointed out. “David’s working on it. You’ve got three others.”

“Three others? Three others! Mon Dieu! Do you hear this imbecile?” the man continued his rant. He reached around a hapless assistant and grabbed the bowl he was working with. “Idiot!” he cried. “The copper bowl! The copper bowl! You always whip egg whites in the copper bowl! That’s what it’s for! Moron! I am surrounded by morons!”

Kevin echoed David’s sigh as the bowl went crashing into the sink and the required copper bowl was thrust into the hands of the cook’s assistant.

“The annual Harvest Festival Charity Ball is tonight. Tonight! We will have over five hundred guests in attendance here. Five hundred!” the man cried, moving onto the next unfortunate in line, busy slicing fresh papaya. “Thinner! It is a garnish, not the main ingredient! Ms. McKenna, she expects me to impress her guests, yes? She expects me to produce the finest of cuisines to tempt the most jaded of palates. She wants only the best: But of course she does! That is why she hired me! But how am I supposed to accomplish this miracle if a quarter of my kitchen is taken away from me? Three others?” He scoffed. “Sacre Bleu! The man has no concept of what he is saying!”

The chef marched over to where the stove in question had been pulled away from the wall and David half-sat, half-lay checking the old gas line fittings and trying to figure out where the break was, a how-to book propped up beside him. “And this one? He thinks he is so smart. He goes to college and leaves me to juggle his impossible schedule. Now, he reads some books and thinks he is a plumber. Merde! He’s a waiter! And not a very good one at that! Why don’t you read some books on that while you are at it? Qui?”

Oh yeah, Gaston was in high form this morning, Kevin decided! He only hoped the Frenchman didn’t wake any of the guests with his shouting. But then the walls of the kitchen had been well insulated years ago to shield the rest of the house from the noises of the large and constantly busy kitchen. The older man bit his tongue as Gaston went on and on with his complaints.

It was four o’clock in the morning! What did the chef expect Kevin to do? Their normal repair man was out on vacation and there was no way he was going to call in an unknown at this ungodly hour if he didn’t have to. The cost would be exorbitant! The guy would take one look at the antiquated pipes and question whether they were up to code or not. They were, Kevin knew, but only just. Their regular man was well acquainted with the system, and a new man... Kevin had neither the time nor the patience to go through the kind of inspection he’d likely insist on. Their pipes might be old, but it was up to code and it did work. Usually.


Kevin glanced over his shoulder and saw David standing up again, brushing himself off.

The younger man glanced up and caught his harassed expression, returning the hopeful look with a broad smile. “It’s fixed,” he claimed. “Just a loose coupling. I tightened it up and added some duct tape to be safe. It needs some plumber’s dope but I’m out. It’ll hold ‘til Monday when George can get out here.”

“Genius!” Gaston exclaimed sarcastically. “So get out of there and help push the stove back into place. I can’t cook breakfast and get tonight’s specialities ready with only three stoves!” He shot Kevin an irritated look. “Three stoves, phargh! Get out of my kitchen! I have work to do.”

It was the chef who’d demanded his attendance to the task in the first place! Kevin threw his hands up in the air and made a hasty retreat. Thank god they had someone like David. The boy had a head full of useless little details like ‘pipe dope’ and an endless supply of patience with the temperamental chef. Well, that last wasn’t surprising, Kevin admitted to himself: after all the poor boy had to put up with that flighty sister of his, Jeanie, everyday! He’d learned patience the hard way.

Ben was amazed at the transformation that had been wrought in the dining area in just a matter of hours. Normally, the area held twenty to twenty-five tables, each seating four people. However, there were three adjoining rooms that were normally reserved for conferences and wedding receptions. Now, the pocket doors that normally closed off the other areas had been swept open, expanding the dinning room by more than five times. A large, central section of the second room had been cleared of tables and would act as a dance floor. The normal pristine-white tablecloths were now accented with runners of green and blue tartan, shot through with gold thread. The same material graced the accent rods of all the windows and archways. Several waiters and waitresses, provided by a temporary employment agency Jaelyn always used for such functions, moved smoothly between the tables, arranging place-settings of fine bone china, crystal stemware and faux-gold flatware at each. A florist whom Jaelyn favored was also maneuvering a cart between the tables, following on the heels of the wait persons and accenting each table with maple leaves, dried twigs, berry branchlets and large golden mums. An assistant pulled a second cart through the French doors that opened onto the large patio area beyond the dance floor to attend to the tiki poles and tartan garlands that had been set up as it promised to be a beautiful night. When the chandeliers overhead were adjusted to the proper gentle glow, Ben knew the effect would be quite dazzling.
He glanced at his watch: 2:00 pm. Jaelyn had said the guests would start arriving as early as 5:00 pm, although the gala wasn’t scheduled to begin until 7. The McKenna Inn had been hosting the annual ‘Harvest Festival’ fund raiser for the American Breast Cancer Society of Greater Chicago since Jaelyn was four, the year before her mother had died of the devastating illness. Jaelyn’s father had sworn to continue it until a cure was found and Jaelyn had chosen to honor his wishes after his death in an automobile accident two years ago. Despite the invitation-only, five-hundred-dollars-a-plate set up, they still managed to fill the reservation list each year. Ben knew the cost of the dinner itself came out of Jaelyn’s pocket. One hundred percent of the proceeds, some two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, went directly to the American Breast Cancer Society.

One of Ben’s primary jobs for the last two weeks had been to oversee the security requirements that such a gala required. A State Senator, as well as the mayor and several foreign diplomats from various consulates in the area, including the Canadian Consulate, would be attending; not to mention a large number of local philanthropists, corporate officers, and prominent doctors, most accompanied by their spouses or dates. Ben had helped plan and oversee such security details before. True, few of the soirees the Consulate had hosted were even half as large as this, but his experience held him in good stead. He had reviewed the policies of the Security Service that Jaelyn had chosen and found them to be somewhat slack on their hiring standards. He’d asked Jaelyn about the choice and been told that arranging security for the Harvest Festival had always been Greg’s job.

Ben hadn’t missed the momentary pain that flashed in her eyes as the memory of the man she’d thought of as a brother clashed with the simple fact that he’d tried to kill her. The pain was instantly squashed, swept into a dark recess of the mind to be dealt with later, and Jaelyn had managed a tight little smile. “Get rid of them,” she’d told him simply. “I don’t care if they have a contract or not. Break it. Find someone else.”

He had, but it hadn’t been easy on such short notice. The company he’d chosen understandably wanted a substantial fee for the last minute arrangements. He’d approached Jaelyn for approval and been given carte blanche in his choice. He wasn’t happy with that, given that he didn’t plan to be here next year and felt that Jaelyn really should take a more active part in the matter, but she wasn’t ready to deal with it. Not yet.

He’d kept his own counsel and made the necessary arrangements via TDD. One of the company’s representatives actually knew sign language and had come out with their head strategist to go over the place and Ben’s requirements. He was satisfied after the meeting that they were quite professional and would provide more than adequate security for the function. Given what the Rays had told him, he wanted it to be extra tight.

The two friends had come out last Friday and given him the details that there’d been no time for at the hospital when Jaelyn had choked. Ben did not like what he’d learned and was quite concerned. He’d promised to keep a closer eye on Jaelyn and had decided it was time to warn her. Unfortunately, he had yet to find the proper opportunity to do so. He was very much afraid that the information would send her into another flashback episode. He wanted to tell her in such a way that he could minimize the shock and control the situation if she fainted again.

So he kept silent and found excuses to stay close.

Today, he needed no excuse. The staff was starting to adjust to the fact that she was deaf, but with all the temporary help that was about, Ben was needed for quick translations. As Jaelyn put it, he was ‘more than earning his keep’.

At the moment, she was on the TDD trying to find out why the large shipment of wines she’d ordered hadn’t arrived yet. She’d sent Ben off to do a quick walk-through to make sure preparations were going smoothly. It seemed to be going remarkably well, except perhaps for the kitchen. He’d taken one step inside and been promptly thrown out. The Chef was a very high strung Frenchmen and was very protective of his domain. Ben had dealt with him before and had been told never to trespass when the man was on the rampage. Ben had shaken his head and watched for a few moments through the glass window to assure himself that the frantic activity within didn’t signal an impending disaster; but it was quite clear, despite the yelling and gesticulating, that the Chef was in his glory.

Now, Ben tucked the notebook he’d taken to carrying with him everywhere back under his arm and turned from the dinning area back to Jaelyn’s offices, leaning a bit firmly on his cane. There were still areas he would have liked to check, but he’d already been gone from her side longer than he liked with so many strangers around. There was nothing ‘quick’ about such a walk-through for him. He was already feeling a bit tired by the exertion, and he had several hours yet to manage. He had to pace himself, he knew, or he’d be useless if an emergency did arise. He’d simply have to have Jason check upstairs and that the pool area was properly roped off, as well as check that all the exterior lighting was working properly...

And somewhere amongst it all, he had to contact his doctor’s offices. They’d done some more blood work on him the other day and the man had said they would be adjusting his medications. The thought of which reminded him that he was late taking the afternoon dosages. The pain pills he had no compunction any more about skipping. He only took them as needed. The others however were a necessary evil to help speed his physical recovery.

Okay then, first the pills and then Jaelyn. He pushed the thought of his exercises aside. There simply wasn’t going to be time today. He’d have to make up for it tomorrow.

Frannie smiled in silent amusement as Rennie sat at her side, his eyes screwed tightly shut and his head averted. He was so cute, like a little boy, as he waited nervously for the doctor to finish the preparations. Frannie squeezed his hand. “You can look now,” she told him.

His sky blue eyes popped readily open and quickly took in the fact that her belly was fully exposed, even if nothing else was. A definite pink tinge raced to his cheeks as his eyes darted back to her face and stayed there. He offered her a shy little smile.

Frannie had been through several ultrasounds over the past few months. This was her fifth or sixth. She couldn’t remember which. She was now at six and a half months -- and looked like ten, she thought! She was quite used to the routine by now and had even gotten to a point where she could actually read the screen without having to have every arm and leg pointed out to her. It was always amazing to see. And it was something she’d decided she wanted to share.

She knew it should be her brother here at her side. He was her Lamaze partner after all but he was always too busy. Frankly, she was amazed he’d only missed two of the classes but he’d been quite faithful in attending them with her. He might have closed his eyes during some of the movies they’d been shown and called them ‘gross’, he might have joked about how stupid it all was and that women had been having babies forever; but he really was a good brother, and he didn’t want Frannie to have to go through it alone.

But he could never seem to find time for one of these ultrasounds.

In a way, she was glad. It gave her an excuse to share it with Rennie. Ray would have joked about her size or made some off-the-floor remark about ‘crowded living conditions’ or something! She knew Rennie wouldn’t. Rennie would understand how special this was. He’d understand the magic and be just as awed by it as she was.

“Thanks for coming, Rennie,” she smiled warmly... and ignored the doctor who was busy slathering on the lubricating jelly. Yuck, she hated the feel of that stuff!

“Thank you for inviting me, Francesca,” he answered her seriously. “I’m quite honored to be here.”

“Ready for the show to begin?” Dr. Romano asked, smiling at the two and thinking they made a cute couple. She didn’t wait for an answer but nodded at her assistant who flipped the light switch and plunged the room into relative darkness. The small screen of the monitor became the center of attention as she brought the head of the scanner into contact with Miss Vecchio’s distended abdomen and reached over to adjust the depth control. There on the screen suddenly appeared a tiny, but very distinct, foot.

“Oh my!” Ren exclaimed in amazement. He sat holding Frannie’s hand but his attention was transfixed by the images on the screen as the doctor began to pan the device slowly over her patient’s stomach. Frannie’s attention was divided between the screen and Turnbull’s fascinated expression. It was amazing to watch his reaction every time a hand or foot appeared. He listened quite intently as the doctor pointed out a face or internal structure of one of the babies. He even dared asked about the umbilical cords, concerned that they might get tangled.

“Well, except for the two sets of identical twins, that isn’t a worry,” the doctor explained easily. “It’s one of the things I’m checking on here but you have to remember there are four separate amniotic sacs in there. This keeps each baby and umbilical cord separate. It’s only those twin sets that share an amniotic sac that are in danger of tangling. Generally, the babies seem to sort themselves out. At this point in the pregnancy, there isn’t a lot of shifting going on. There simply isn’t enough room.”

The doctor frowned at the screen and reached forward to do something with the equipment.

“Is something wrong, doctor?” Ren asked in sudden concern.

“No,” she answered without looking at him, still frowning but he could now tell it was simply in concentration. “Just taking some measurements. Everything looks fine so far.”

Ren nodded at the information and turned to give Frannie one of his shy little grins. She simply could not call it a smile. It lit up his entire face.

“Are you doing all right, Francesca?” he asked solicitously. “Would you like me to get you some water or anything?”

“No, Rennie,” she smiled. It was sweet of him to ask. “I’m fine. Oh look!” she said suddenly, pointed at the screen. “One of them is sucking her thumb!”

Rennie’s head whipped around to the screen once more. “Oh my!” he exclaimed. “You’re right! She is! There’s her hand and her nose and-- Oh! Oh my! I do believe it’s a little boy, Francesca!”

“You have sharp eyes, Mr. Turnbull,” the doctor confirmed the observation with a grin of her own. “One cannot always tell if they are boys or girls, but that one-- Yep! It’s definitely a boy!”

Turnbull blushed but was too amazed by what he was seeing to duck his head and look away.

Alonso Turnbull Vecchio Frannie thought, and offered the tiny miracle on the screen a wave. He even looked a little like Turnbull, even though she knew that was ridiculous. Long skinny arms and big hands. He’d be a strapping young boy, she was sure. Heck, he was probably the one who’d punched her in the ribs the other day! She laughed at the thought and Turnbull awarded her another of his radiant grins.

Yes. She was suddenly very glad she’d invited him to share this with her.

The evening seemed to be a great success, Ben noted as he glanced around the crowded dining room. The keynote speaker had been entertaining as well as informative, a couple of large grants and the expansion of a cancer wing at one of the hospitals had been announced, and an award for breakthrough genetic research had been given out. Once the business of the Charity Ball was concluded, dinner had been smoothly and expertly served. It was now after ten and the atmosphere had smoothly devolved into that of an elegant party. Wait persons still moved with graceful efficiency between the tables, clearing dishes or replenishing drinks as the guests mingled contentedly or rose to enjoy the dance floor. According to Jaelyn, it was in such a setting that the real work regarding upcoming research allocation and funding was often done. He was well acquainted with such political maneuverings, having witnessed the same at Consulate functions in the past.

He caught sight of Jaelyn, dressed in a simple but elegant turquoise gown as she nodded a greeting to someone or other and continued to make her way between the tables back to the table she and Ben were sharing with Jeanie and James. She gave a little sigh as she slipped back into her chair. “Fender-bender out front,” she explained why she’d been called away. “Nothing serious. Kevin’s handling it.”

“So you’re done for the night, Miss Perfect Hostess?” Jeanie teased her over the rim of her water glass. Ben lifted his hands, translating for her. “Are you going to finally stay put long enough to enjoy yourself like you promised me you would?”

“Yes, Miss All-work-and-no-play-makes-me-a party-pooper,” Jaelyn answered with a relaxed smile of her own. “Barring a true emergency, Kevin and Jason are now in charge: Happy?”

Jeanie gazed toward the ceiling in contemplative silence and tapped a bright red fingernail against her chin for a long moment before glancing back down and giving Jaelyn a wide grin. “Good,” she declared, then suddenly jumped up and grabbed her fiancé’s hand. “Come on,” she grinned, “I want to dance!” James rolled his eyes but was given little choice in the matter as Jeanie dragged him onto the dance floor.

Jaelyn frowned as she considered her friend. “What’s she up too...” she wondered aloud.

^I --beg your pardon?^ Ben asked, confused.

Jaelyn shook her head. “I know that look. She... That little twit!”

Ben cocked a brow in surprise and warned Jaelyn to lower her voice.

“Sorry,” she offered and switched to sign. ^She’s playing Match-maker.^

^Between us?^ Ben asked in surprise.

Jaelyn nodded. ^I’ve seen her do this before,^ she explained. ^We used to double-date. By disappearing she forces me and whomever to get better acquainted.^ Jaelyn rolled her eyes.

^We are --already --well acquainted,^ Ben pointed out. ^I don’t see --that her simple --disappearance --can be perceived --as match-making --in our case.^

^Uh-huh, and what’s the conversation been like while I was gone?^

^Wedding plans--^ Oh dear!

Jaelyn laughed at the look that crossed Ben’s face. ^She’s not subtle is she?^

Ben tilted his head to the side as he forced himself to re-evaluate the conversation objectively. Miss Tallin hadn’t really been blatant either. He hadn’t read anything into the conversation before Jaelyn pointed it out. ^She and Mr. Elliot have just become engaged. It’s natural that they should want to discuss wedding plans.^

^And natural that they should ask a bachelor acquaintance for advice?^

Ben frowned as he considered that.

^Do you feel up to dancing?^

He glanced up in surprise. That was probably what Jeanie wanted. He would have thought Jaelyn would try to dissuade her friend, not encourage her.

^If we don’t throw her a bone and at least make her think the plan is working, she’ll only press the attack. Believe me,^ Jaelyn allowed with a sigh, ^ you don’t want to see that! It gets embarrassing.^

From what he’d learned and seen of Miss Tallin before, he was quite sure she was capable of a far more blatant attempt at throwing them together, if that really was her aim... Still, whether it was or not, he had to admit that the idea of dancing with Jaelyn was rather appealing.
^Are you up to it?^ he asked with a concerned frown, remembering her dislike for close contact. He didn’t want to trigger another attack such as had happened when James held her after doing the Heimlich Maneuver.

She misunderstood. ^I’m deaf, not crippled,” she laughed. “I used to love dancing -- of course you’ll have to lead,^ she allowed, ^but if we’re close to the band I should be able to feel the beat through the dance floor. One dance should do it. She knows you’re still recovering.^ Jaelyn reached out and took his hand, but waited for him to make up his own mind. It wasn’t a hard decision.

He smiled and stood, drawing her with him as he led the way between the other couples and the band started another slow number. He definitely wasn’t up for one of the faster pieces yet. It had been a while since he’d danced. He’d attended several Consular functions that required dancing over the years and he’d done his duty at them, but the last one he’d attended had been over six months ago. Still, it wasn’t something one forgot.

He watched Jaelyn closely as they joined the dancers and she stepped into his embrace. He was careful to keep his touch light and let her define the distance between them, which was surprisingly close. She seemed to be quite at ease with him and he was leery of doing anything that might upset that feeling of trust and contentment.

“Relax Ben!” she hissed in his ear. “I don’t bite. You may not want to dance with me but Jeanie’s never going to buy this if you don’t hold me!”

Not want to dance with her? Ben frowned in frustration at his inability to correct the assumption and filed the comment away to be corrected as soon as the dance ended. He dared pull her closer and gazed down into her eyes, offering a contented smile of his own and hoping she could read the truth of the matter in his face. Her eyes questioned what she saw. He shook his head in amusement. She was a very desirable and beautiful young woman, but given everything she’d been through he wasn’t surprised that she would fail to consider that. He was surprised no one else had asked her to dance. He wasn’t sure she would accept a dance from anyone else and worried slightly about the possible repercussions if she did. He hoped that her therapist was helping her deal with the source of her attacks....

He thought it likely when she laid her head upon his chest. She was a rather small woman, but he found that she fit within his arms perfectly. It was the most natural thing in the world for him to rest his chin against her hair. The scent of her shampoo wafted teasingly to his nostrils. Vanilla, he identified easily. A clean and simple scent. He detected no perfume to clash with it.

Ben was used to carrying on a light conversation when dancing, but now he couldn’t. It was rather a strange feeling. He was far more aware of Jaelyn and the feel of her as she moved in his arms then he’d been with other dance partners. He knew the dance would end all too soon and closed his eyes, determined to enjoy himself while he could. He allowed himself to get lost in the music and the feel of her.

He was surprised when she suddenly stumbled. In the next moment, he realized she was trembling. His contentment was shattered as fear reared its ugly head. He quickly stepped away, regarding her in concern. Had he somehow over-stepped her bounds, triggering another flashback episode?

She was pale and shaky, but he saw more confusion in her eyes than fear. She managed to force a smile for him. “I’m okay, Ben,” she assured him in a whisper. “I just-- I need some air. Excuse me.”

And she ran.

No, he admitted as he watched her escape, she wasn’t running, but there was no doubt she was fleeing... something. The music had drawn to a close and he glanced around the room, spotting Jeanie happily concentrating on James. At least she hadn’t noticed her friend’s sudden departure. After a long moment, as the band started a new song, Ben followed Jaelyn, worried that despite assurances otherwise she was in the grips of another flashback. It really wasn’t something she could control.

He saw her slip out onto the patio and hurried to close the distance, lest he lose her. He paused a moment as he stepped out into the night, letting his eyes adjust to the dancing light of the many tiki poles that framed the area. He caught a hint of movement to his right. Glancing that way, he saw Jaelyn’s skirt just disappearing into the shadows. She was moving quickly now that she was outside. He followed as best he could, his concern growing as he heard her break into a run. She was headed for the forest. He knew, or at least suspected, that she was very familiar with the area. She’d grown up here after all. Still, one did not go running through the forest in the middle of the night!

Fortunately, she slowed as she reached its edge. He was further reassured when he discovered she was using a well worn path. She wasn’t running off blindly then. He debated whether he should continue to follow her or not. She was obviously seeking privacy. Did his concern give him the right to violate that? It was apparent now that she wasn’t suffering a major flashback episode; but he wasn’t sure how safe these woods were, especially at night. He knew that coyotes and bobcats were both native to Illinois. He hadn’t seen any signs of them in the area, but then he hadn’t had time to explore the surrounding forest either. Dief hadn’t mentioned any on his frequent forays... but then he might not. He was easily distracted and still not happy with Ben for curtailing his kitchen privileges. Jaelyn hadn’t mentioned it either and, if there were a problem, he would have expected there to be posted warnings for the guests. That didn’t negate all danger, he knew, and Jaelyn was deaf, which made her even more vulnerable. Nor was she dressed for such an escapade. Her gown, while being classically elegant with multiple rhinestone spaghetti straps crossing at her neck and back, offered no protection against the chill night air. And a simple mis-step in her heels could result in a broken ankle...

He had entered the forest while he debated what he should do. His decision was made for him when he heard her crying.

He found he couldn’t see very well even though there was a full moon. The canopy overhead was quite dense here. Still, he followed the sound, wincing at the crushing of the floor litter beneath his shoes... until he remembered that she couldn’t hear it anyway.

The clearing came suddenly as he followed the path around a rock outcropping. Jaelyn stood beside a little bench next to a stream, wrapped in pale moonlight. She gave a start as he stepped into the open and Ben winced, chagrined to have made such a mistake. He really didn’t want to intrude; he just wanted to make sure she was safe.

“Ben?” she gasped in surprise, then hastily wiped at her cheeks.

It was too late to turn back. The damage was done. Instead, he fished out a crisp white handkerchief and came silently forward to give it to her.

She was clearly mortified to have been caught crying. “Oh God, I wish you hadn’t followed me!”

But he had. She took the handkerchief and turned her back as she quietly blew her nose. And then gave a little shiver. Ben quickly shrugged out of the dark gray suit coat he wore and gently draped it about her shoulders. She held it closed about her shoulders and turned to him once more. “Thanks,” she whispered.

^The dance,^ he began awkwardly and then shook his head. ^I didn’t mean to --frighten you.^
“You didn’t. I mean you did but--” She paused and offered a weary sigh. “I’m fine. It wasn’t you.”

^It was --being held?^ he guessed easily, thinking that talking about it might help her.

“No,” she answered, shaking her head. “It was--” She gazed at him with pale eyes shadowed in pain, then glanced away in apparent embarrassment. Obviously it was beyond her ability to explain. Instead, she reached out and took his hand, bowing her head as she fought a new wave of tears. “God, this is stupid!”

^No,^ he answered and gently took his hand away so he could sign. ^It is not stupid --to be in pain. --I’m sorry --if I hurt you.^

“No, no!” she offered again and reached out to run her fingers along his jaw in a strangely reassuring gesture. “It’s not you. I mean, it is you, but it’s not your fault. It’s me! I didn’t know I could... I mean that you... Oh God. This is embarrassing!”

Ben could do nothing but take her hands in his and wait for her to explain. He wanted to help.

She closed her eyes in the face of that incredible gaze that saw too much, that was saying too much. She was seeing things there that might not exist, and even if they did... She bowed her head and forced the words out, giving him the truth and hoping he wouldn’t laugh in her face.

“I just... I never thought I’d be attracted to a man again,” she whispered, wondering if there were any sound to accompany the breathy feel of the words on her lips. “My own emotions frightened me, Ben. Not you.”

She kept her head bowed and eyes closed, so she didn’t have to see the surprised humor she imagined would answer her words. Or worse -- pity!

Ben stared in surprise at the bowed head before him and frowned in confusion. He had only barely been able to hear her words. He supposed it did make a strange kind of sense. She’d been raped. And he also remembered that she’d said she’d been a virgin at the time. That had to make it worse -- if such a violent crime could be graduated in such terms. He wasn’t sure it could. There was a point at which the word ‘worse’ lost all meaning. In any case, he could understand why she might think herself incapable of feeling... desire. At least for a time. If he remembered correctly, her attack had taken place about two weeks before he was shot, which meant just under three months ago. He was not surprised that she had night terrors or flashbacks or avoided physical contact.

That she should be attracted to him was a definite surprise. That the feelings had sent her running in fear, wasn’t.

He wasn’t sure how to respond. Frankly, and he didn’t think it was mere male vanity, he was pleased. He was attracted to her as well. She had a gentleness of spirit that seemed to have been crushed out of all but a lucky few in the city. And a resiliency as well. She’d been through hell and back, but he had no doubt that she would eventually recover, if not physically than emotionally and spiritually. She’d been frightened and resistant when he’d first approached her about testifying against her attacker. He remembered the angry fire in her eyes. But in the end, her heart had overcome that fear. He respected her more for that than perhaps anything else.

He reached out and cupped her chin, forcing her head up so that she met his eyes. Her face was pink tinged in embarrassment and streaked with new tears. He gently wiped one away. She bit her lip and he found himself leaning forward, as though the simple move were a magnet. She drew back slightly in surprise and he froze, afraid of frightening her again. Her breath caught in her throat and resumed at a somewhat more erratic pace. Then she leaned forward as well. Just slightly. He licked his lips and fought the pull his own desire exerted, debating how wise this was. The last thing he wanted to do was hurt her, but he could no more resist the need to kiss her than he could stop the sun from rising in the morning.

Jaelyn closed her eyes and gasped as she felt his lips feather across hers. He froze and pulled a hair’s breadth away. No! God she didn’t want him to stop! She leaned forward and brought their lips together once more, feeling a violent shudder shake her as her heart thundered in her chest. Surely he could hear it. Fire coursed through her veins, made her giddy and faint--

No, she told herself, forcing a breath through an inexplicably tight throat, she would not faint. She refused to faint. It wasn’t fear she was feeling. No sense of panic came to overwhelm her. No, what she felt was far more intense, more demanding and unquenchable. She felt alive. For the first time in months, she felt completely and totally alive!

Ben let Jaelyn take control of the kiss and what was happening, if indeed either of them were capable of controlling it. Only the strongest act of will kept his hands at his sides. He wanted to sweep her up, crush her to him... but no one had to tell him how disastrous that would be. Their only link was their lips, the touch gentle and tentative, no more then the brush of a bird’s wings across the still night air. Her breath shuddered across his lips as she remembered to breathe.

He drew back, afraid of going too far too fast. He was going to pay for this with a cold shower later as it was. He wasn’t sure how Jaelyn would feel about what had happened and he didn’t want her to avoid him in confusion and fear. He knew she would if her feelings were anything on a par with his. He had to take this slow. He swallowed convulsively and forced a deep breath as he fought to reign in his passions.

Jaelyn too was fighting for control as reality came crashing back in on her and she realized what had just happened. She was not ashamed or embarrassed, though a part of her insisted that she should be. She’d wanted it too badly to feel anything but happy about it. She watched Ben as he ran his tongue over his lower lip before biting it. It was an unconscious gesture she’d noticed before and it only made her want to kiss him again. But she didn’t think she was ready for the consequences if she did. She watched in fascination as the pulse point at his throat thundered in echo to her own heartbeat. No, she definitely wasn’t ready to face the consequences of more than that kiss. She thanked God he was a gentleman and had the sense to end it himself, because she hadn’t been capable of conscious thought at the time! She shuddered as she imagined him enfolding her in his arms, holding her firmly and--

The mere thought sent a tremor of fear up her spine. It was like being hit with a bucket of ice water. She quickly glanced away from him and hugged his coat more tightly about her as she felt herself shiver.

A gentle hand reached out and touched her chin, the lightest of touches lifting her face to his gaze again. She had to wonder if she’d imagined his reaction? Had she seen what she wanted to see? Had she just made an absolute fool out of herself?

^Are you okay?^ he asked in gentle concern. She saw no disgust or pity or laughter in that gaze, only a gentle understanding that seemed to reflect a shared experience.

She offered a nod, not trusting her voice.

^I wanted --to dance --with you,^ he told her solemnly.

“You did?”

He nodded and traced a finger along a still damp path upon her cheek. He offered her a gentle smile and cocked his head to the side. ^Jeanie --is probably --worried.^

Jaelyn grinned then suddenly threw back her head and laughed. The feeling caught her by surprise but she had to admit it felt good. Her earlier tensions and fears melted as she thought of Jeanie’s smug face. “She’s in match-maker heaven!” she claimed.

Jaelyn’s laughter took Ben by surprise as well, but he recognized it for what it was: A cathartic release of emotion. He stood silent, enjoying the sound as he waited for it to pass before offering her his hand. Together they made their way slowly from the forest and back across the immaculate lawns.

Jaelyn paused in the shadows on the edge of the dancing light from the tiki poles surrounding the patio area and handed him back his jacket. He slipped it back on and offered his arm but she paused again as a thought struck her. “Oh darn,” she hissed, glancing toward the patio. “I can’t go in that way. My make-up must be a mess!”

Ben stopped her from turning aside. A quick glance around assured him that the few couples on the patio were mingling at a safe distance. He pulled Jaelyn a bit more into the light where he could see better and took his handkerchief back from her. He regarded her critically and lightly gripped her chin as he quickly removed the last traces of her tears. They’d walked slowly enough that her eyes had lost their puffy look. When he was done, she’d lost a bit of the heavier coloring she’d applied for the evening but he doubted anyone would notice. He stepped back with a nod... and stumbled.

“Ben!” Jaelyn reached out and helped steady him as he quickly recovered. He found that his legs were rather shaky. He smiled his thanks and signed, ^I need -- to sit down.^

“I imagine so,” she agreed, knowing he’d done far more walking in the last few hours than he had since he was shot. She quickly slipped her arm in his, offering support while not appearing to do so. “Let’s hope James has kept Jeanie too distracted to note the time, or we’re going to be in for the third degree.”

Turnbull couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t an unusual phenomena. He’d been told restlessness was one of the possible side effects of the various medications he was still on. He shifted uncomfortably. His hip was healing nicely, so he was told, but it ached. He had medication to take for that as well but he preferred not to. The idea of mixing so many chemicals in his body was disquieting. He had heard somewhere that, after about three medications, doctors didn’t really know what all the drug interactions were. He didn’t like that idea at all.

He gave up his quest for sleep and he shifted yet again, debating his other options. He could watch TV. There might be an old western or mystery on. However, he now had a roommate to consider. The older man was recovering from an amputation of his left hand due to an industrial accident. He needed his sleep.

Ren glanced to his left where several books and magazines rested. Unfortunately, he was an extremely fast reader and had already gone through all of them. There were one or two he might want to reread more slowly... but he wasn’t really in the mood right now.

He glanced at the pad and pen on the lap desk. He could write a letter, but as he had only just spoken with his aunt and uncle earlier in the day, and had already written thank-yous to everyone who’d sent him flowers. That left only his mother and father. He was putting that letter off. Writing them required too much... attention to detail. He was always quite guarded in his letters to them, making sure they only heard of the good and none of the bad. It was emotionally draining.

He continued to frown at the pad and pen as another thought struck him. He could draw something.

He’d always enjoyed drawing, even if his family considered it a frivolous waste of time. He’d argued that it honed his powers of observation and hand-eye coordination, and thus been permitted to take a few classes. He was quite good, if he did say so himself, and he found it quite relaxing. He also knew that it took quite a bit of concentration and that he could soon get lost in the picture, thus forgetting his hip and other discomforts.

He quickly reached out and adjusted the head of his bed upward, ignoring the complaint of his hip, and then pulled the lap desk toward him. Reaching up, he turned on the privacy light above him, hoping it wouldn’t disturb his roommate too much. The curtain between their two beds was pulled outward, so it shouldn’t.
Now, he thought as he picked up the pen and tapped it lightly against his lips. What to draw...

He wasn’t surprised that Francesca should be the first thing to pop into his mind. Her face was well-memorized. He’d drawn her before and had several portraits in charcoal and pastels at his small apartment. He had put them away after she’d told him not to ask her out again for he found it just too painful to imagine what might have been. Now, he realized, he was daring to dream again.

He wanted to do something different, however, not a portrait. Something... The thought of Francesca in a classical Rubenesque style, tempted: Laying on a couch, nude, with only gossamer sheer draperies hiding her tantalizing secrets....

He suddenly shook his head and swallowed convulsively. A blush instantly raced to his cheeks. Where had that thought come from? Oh my, if Francesca ever knew-- Oh no! He certainly couldn’t draw that!

But the thought remained, evolving from the lithe figure of his early fantasies to the beauty of mother-to-be. Could he capture that, he wondered? Could he hope to capture that glow, that mysterious something that shone out of her in the smallest of smiles? The look of hope and contentment and love waiting to be expressed for the children she bore?

Did he dare try?

Once grasped, it wasn’t a challenge he could put down. He flipped several pages over so he would have something to hide the picture with if needed. Then, biting his lip, he dared begin to sketch.

The snow was a constant veil, shifting and dancing before him, the song of the wind thrumming a warning through the soles of his boots. Ben was pushing hard again. He didn't bother to cast about for Victoria's trail--

No! his mind shouted, not Victoria. He frowned in confusion and turned in place. This was Fortitude Pass. This was the storm that had nearly killed them--


Jaelyn! He’d kissed her and she’d run. He turned toward the voice and saw her huddled in the same crag he’d found Victoria in so many years before, only Jaelyn wasn’t dressed for the elements. She was still in the turquoise gown. She’d die in minutes out here!

Ben suddenly realized that his foot had become wedged in an ice crack. He struggled for a long moment, knowing he had to get to Jaelyn. She called out again, but it was fainter now. Hypothermia was taking her.

A new voice suddenly called from behind him. “Ben! Where are you?” It was Kowalski.

Ben opened his mouth to shout for help, but nothing came out. He remembered the shooting ... and the hospital. He was mute!

Jaelyn didn't have time to wait for a search party to be called out. The big wet flakes of yesterday had given way to a smaller, lighter form indicating that the temperature was dropping rapidly. He had to call out or Ray wouldn’t find them in time!

A sudden explosion shook his world, overpowering the roar of the wind around him. Reality and dream collided as Ben tumbled to the floor, thrown from his bed by the blast. He sat up with a jerk, his heart pounding as his eyes scanned the dimly lit room. Plaster fell in a light rain from the ceiling. The wall beside him had a huge crack and a dull roar, not unlike the wind in his dream, could he heard from the other side.

Dief appeared at his side, his ruff standing on end as he faced the wall, prepared to meet some unknown threat.

Ben coughed amidst the plaster dust and grabbed up the pants on the chair behind him. His mind raced with possibilities as he jerked them on over the long johns and slipped his feet into his boots, unsure of exactly what he might face beyond his room.

The shrill scream of a smoke detector joined the distant sound of panicked guests and running feet.

He knew that the cracked wall of his room was adjacent to the kitchen. The explosion must have happened there -- but was it the result of an accident or was someone trying to kill Jaelyn? All of Kowalski’s and Vecchio’s speculations about a ‘fourth man’ ran through Ben’s thoughts as he stumbled toward the door.

That, and the simple fact that Jaelyn could not hear the fire alarms now shrieking their strident warning throughout the Inn.

The lovers paused in the midst of their languid exploration of each other’s bodies and frowned. “Thunder?” Jeanie asked, knowing it was the strangest thunder she’d ever heard, if that’s what it was.

“Explosion,” James answered pensively. “Maybe a fuel-tanker on the highway.”

“If it crashed?” Jeanie asked. They were both still frowning. “Would it be loud enough for the sound to carry all the way back here?” They were a good two miles from the highway.

James suspected it would be, but he wasn’t sure it would be so... so deep throated. This was-- It was big, whatever it was. He didn’t answer Jeanie but rolled off her and strode to the window. “Maybe a plane went down...” he offered, still wrestling with what they’d heard. He frowned out on the star spangled night and moonlit meadow which surrounded the small cottage. It was hard to tell... but the sound seemed to have come from the west. He spun on his bare heel and strode into the living room, ignoring the slight chill of the small house and his own nudity. He flung the drapes open and frowned out on the night, scanning the horizon. Jeanie’s little cottage was surrounded by meadow and trees, so he wasn’t sure what he expected to see. Of course, if it were a plane he supposed there would be one hell of a fireball and they’d be able to see the glow of it even if it were several miles distant. The tree tops were all dark.

What bothered him most was that the McKenna Bed and Breakfast was to the west.

Jeanie came up behind him and slipped her arms around his waist, pressing her naked body against his and cuddling close to his warmth. “See anything?” she asked, even as she leaned around him to gaze out the window herself.

“Nothing...” James answered with a frown. He didn’t like it when he couldn’t explain things. There was something about... Something was nagging him.

“Jaelyn has trouble with hunters some times,” Jeanie noted. “Someone could be spot-lighting deer, but that didn’t sound like a gun to me.”
James shook his head. That had been no gun. “Sonic boom maybe...” he allowed.

“Sonic boom?” Jeanie repeated. “I’ve never heard one before. I didn’t think the hot-shot jet-jockeys were allowed to do that sort of thing close to cities?”

“They’re not.”

“Sounds like someone’s gonna get in trouble then.” Jeanie shrugged. “Let’s go back to bed. I’m getting cold.”

James chuckled and turned in her embrace. “I think I can help fix that,” he suggested with a lewd grin.

“Really?” she smiled up at him, and draped her arms around his shoulders, letting their bodies mold together once more. “Exactly what did you have in mind, because you know, I really am so very, very cold.” She offered a mock shiver and was rewarded with a lascivious leer.

“Well, you know they say shared body heat is the best cure for hypothermia,” he answered, and allowed his hands to trail up and down her back in a firm motion. She arched her neck back and he took advantage of the position to swoop down on the exposed column of flesh, his mouth winning a groan of pleasure from her.

They were interrupted by a second, smaller ‘boom’ that was still very distinct given the isolation of their little cottage. They frowned in surprised confusion and glanced back out the window. It had definitely come from the west.
“That’s weird...” Jeanie offered.


“I can’t see the House.”

“Of course you can’t see the House,” James answered. “It’s--”

The lights. That was what had been nagging him. He hadn’t been able to see the soft glow of the lights of the Main House over the tree tops. Now, as they stood and watched, a soft glow was born, but it wasn’t the cold, white-light of halogen and incandescent lighting. It was red and gold and danced...

“Oh my God!” Jeanie gasped as her mind put it together.

“Call 911!” James ordered, racing for the bedroom and his discarded clothing. Damn, damn, damn, he thought furiously. Must have been some kind of gas explosion or-- Jeanie’s brother, David, had said something about fixing a gas leak. Damn! The fool must have flubbed it! James flung on his clothing and grabbed up a pair of heavy boots, knowing there would be little if anything he could do, but he had to try.

“I’m coming with you!” Jeanie cried even as she finished calling in the emergency and slammed the phone down.

James rolled his eyes but forced himself to wait as she grabbed up a pair of jeans and slipped a sweater over her head. She’d never forgive him if he left her here and Jaelyn was in danger. As soon as she slipped her shoes on, he grabbed her hand and caught up her coat, tossing it at her even as he hauled her toward the door, not even waiting for her to put it on.

Brother or no brother, James would kill David if the explosions hadn’t done so already!

His dimly lit bedroom was now dancing with firelight. Ben paused at his door and glanced back over his shoulder. His cane... He’d placed it next to the dresser which was against the cracked wall. The area was now covered in plaster dust and chunks of ceiling. He caught a glimpse of the cane where the blast had knocked it aside but didn’t waste time in trying to retrieve it. He was gripped with a sense of urgency. There was no time to spare. A glance out the window told Ben that he was lucky to have survived the original blast. The old brick wall that helped enclose his private little garden, and which was little more of an extension of the wall that separated his room from the kitchen, had been literally blown out! He could not see where the wall had been; but he could see where the debris had blasted the small garden, actually toppling a small fruit tree and setting the leaf litter, barren trees and bushes ablaze. The light of the fire where the kitchen had been danced in macabre power, casting too bright a light over the fire that consumed the garden.

Smoke was already starting to seep through the crack in his wall. The fire was quickly becoming an inferno. It would spread rapidly through the old timber framing of the house. He quickly ran through the layout of the house in his head. The area above the kitchen was used for household storage and was filled with sheets, blankets, table clothes and the like. Perfect fodder for the hungry flames. Above that was the attic. The kitchen had a fire suppression system, as required by code, but the explosion must have overwhelmed it. This was no stove fire. The entire mansion was in danger of burning to the ground.

His primary concern was with the guests on the second floor. Fortunately, he knew none of them had been located in the kitchen wing. He also knew that none of the guests were handicapped. All the rooms had exterior doors leading to a shared balcony that had four descending stairs. All the ground-floor rooms had a similar set up. Only Jaelyn’s room didn’t have an exterior door. She had a window but, like his window, it looked out onto the burning garden. He cursed himself for not thinking to install a strobe-light smoke detector in her room. She was likely sleeping peacefully right now. He had to get to her and get her out!

He turned back to the door leading to the office, and quickly opened it, hunching over so as to stay low but allow for quick movement. The dark office beyond was relatively clear of smoke, but he could see it beginning to seep in around the poorly sealed French doors leading to the reception desk area. Dim light flickered and danced distantly through the gauze curtains that lined the doors. One of the interior walls must have blown out as well if he was seeing firelight and smoke was already filling the interior hallways.

Dief was understandably upset and frightened. He hurried around Ben into the office, then turned and hurried back. Ben stumbled his way forward and tripped as the wolf appeared before him again. He grabbed at the wing-backed chair nearest him as he went down but missed, landing hard and sending pain screaming across his still healing chest.

There was an ominous creaking behind him and then he heard something in the kitchen give way, a support beam or the ceiling, he couldn’t tell, but something structural failed. The distant rage of the fire became a deafening roar as the wall of his bedroom collapsed inward. A gust of hot air washed over him from the doorway, sending smoke billowing across the office. He glanced over his shoulder and squinted fiercely against the raging firelight as flames began to devour his room. He quickly scrambled back to the door and slammed it shut. It wouldn’t hold long against such an inferno, but right now every second was precious.

Dief was at his side again with a frightened whine. The wolf was not at all happy and about as close to panic as Ben had ever seen him, but he stayed at Ben’s side rather than try the French doors which Ben knew he could open. If Ben were able to speak, he would have told Dief to go. He couldn’t concentrate on him and Jaelyn both... but he had too. Ben had to make sure Dief got out too.

He coughed and hugged his protesting chest as he fought to re-orient himself in the now smoke-filled room. What had been a dim room was now cloaked in darkness, the distant but growing light from beyond the French doors reflecting and dancing off the bottom of the slowly descending cloud of smoke that filled the small area. Ben’s eyes stung and watered as he fought to see. He had to get to Jaelyn and get out of here fast! Staying on his hands and knees under the smoke, he quickly started to crawl toward her room, knowing Dief would follow.

He was startled as he heard her door swing open with a sudden bang. “Ben!” she cried out and immediately started coughing. He couldn’t see her but knew she was standing upright.

“Jah!” he automatically tried calling back. He needed to tell her to get down, but there was no way he could get the words out! And then he remembered she couldn’t hear him anyway. Stupid. He coughed again.

“Ben?” she called, gasping as she choked on the thick smoke. “Wha-- Dief!”

Ben realized Dief had hurried forward where he couldn’t. The wolf found her and, from the sound of it, had the sense to knock her over. “Ben!?” she called again, still coughing and fighting to breathe.

He hurried toward the sound of her voice, grabbing the collar of his long johns in a futile attempt to protect his mouth and nose as he too fought to breathe. And then, finally, he found her. He touched her leg and she screamed. God, he prayed, don’t let her go into a flashback! He’d never get them out in time.

“Ben? I can’t-- ((cough)) I can’t see!” Blind and deaf, panic tinged her voice. “My God!” she gasped, rubbing a hand across her smoke-blinded eyes to no effect. “What-- ((cough)) The house is on fire!”

Ben ignored the obvious statement as Dief offered another worried whine. He had to get them out of here but first he had to try and calm Jaelyn. He didn’t know if he was capable of carrying her out if he had too. His chest screamed from the fall he’d taken and he knew he’d torn newly healed muscle yet again. He grabbed her hand and put it to his face, nodding understanding and assurance. He didn’t know if she could understand, but it was the best he could do. Placing her hand next on his shoulder, he curled her fingers into the fabric of his long johns; then, deciding his best course of escape, headed for the French doors. The light beyond the gauze curtains was much brighter now. It wasn’t directly outside but it was too close for comfort. His escape route flashed through his mind: Around the reception desk, through the lobby and out the front door. It was only a hundred feet or so, but they had to hurry!

A secondary explosion caught them halfway there, blasting Ben’s door open from their right and nearly knocking them from their hands and knees. Jaelyn screamed as plaster from the ceiling of the office rained down on them. The fire was now licking at that broken surface, hungry flames dancing in the black cloud overhead as it began a fatal descent toward the floor of the enclosed space and searing heat began to build. It wouldn’t take long for the room to reach flash over.

Nothing survived flash over.

He turned back to the French doors just as something crashed to floor on the other side in a shower of bright sparks. Flames licked upward against the glass panels, turning them instantly black.

“Ben?” Jaelyn cried, clutching his shoulder in near panic. She could feel the vibrations, the heat, the smoke, even if she couldn’t see or hear the roar of the flames that overwhelmed her near scream.

Ben was coughing almost uncontrollably now, fighting to breathe as he caught Jaelyn up in his arms, adrenaline giving him the strength he needed. He ignored his chest and ran with her to her room, kicking the door shut behind them and dropping back down to the floor.

God, he couldn’t breathe! If he passed out, they were dead. There was no question about that. Dief nudged his face with his nose. Dief! Thank God. Ben hadn’t checked to make sure he got through the door before he kicked it shut.

He managed to find a breath of relatively fresh air from somewhere and fought to hold it as he lunged at the bed and the covers there. He might have excess lung capacity, but even after almost four years in the city, they were more accustomed to the cold, clean air of the Northwest Territories. The smoke was overwhelming him faster than it was Jaelyn.

And then he realized that Jaelyn had fallen to the ground and was trembling violently. She was caught in another flashback and there was nothing he could do about it. He wasn’t sure what had triggered it, the fear of the emergency or his grabbing her up as he had. Whatever, it didn’t matter. He grabbed her up once more, sweeping the heavy comforter about their shoulders and heads as he juggled the fabric and lifted her into the cradle of his arms. At least she didn’t go into convulsions. He prayed she wouldn’t. He knew he’d never be able to hold onto her if she did. Kicking his feet clear of the blanket, he grunted in effort and pain as he made it to one knee.

There was only one avenue of escape left: Out Jaelyn’s window. He was wracked with coughing again and nearly dropped her as he glanced through tear-misted, sweat-blinded eyes at the flames that ate the garden beyond. He told himself it wasn’t as bad as it looked. The garden was small. They’d run through it, wrapped in the blanket, fall to the ground beyond and roll to put out any flames...

It was an appalling plan but the only one available. He didn’t even have time to open the window. The door behind them creaked under the staggering assault of heat as the room beyond raced toward flash over in which every combustible in the room, even the air itself, would burst into flame in a moment of spontaneous combustion.

He offered a quick prayer that he didn’t knock himself out or land them in a flaming hedge, then forced himself to his feet with Jaelyn in his arms and sent them crashing out the window even as the office behind that fragile door exploded.

He groaned irritably and buried his head under the pillow, attempting to shut out the insistent clamor of the phone. Who the hell would be calling him at-- As much as he didn’t want to, Ray Kowalski shoved his pillow aside again and glanced at his bedside clock. 3:14? Someone was calling him at 3:14 in the freaking morning?!

His answering machine picked it up after the forth ring and he shoved his head back under the pillow. The recorded message was audible even so. He shoulda turned the volume down. “...and I’ll get back to you. (((Beep)))” This was followed by a loud dial tone before the machine automatically clicked off. Whoever it was had hung up before leaving a message. Probably a wrong number or some stupid crank call. He threw the pillow aside and blew out a heavy sigh. God, he hated the middle of the night--

His cell phone started to ring.

He lifted his head with a confused frown. No wrong number or crank then. Someone was trying to get him. It had better be damned important to warrant a three a.m. wake up call. Shaking the sleep from his head, he quickly grabbed up the cell, flopped onto his back and snapped it open.

“Yo!” he answered, scrubbing his free hand across his eyes. “This better be good.”

“Good? I doubt it,” someone answered. It took Ray a long moment to recognize Detective David Gross’s voice and remember that he and Keeley had pulled the night shift this month. “There’s been an explosion of some kind at the McKenna Bed and Breakfast. I thought you’d want to know.”

“The McKenna Bed and Breakfast?” he repeated, jerking himself upright as his sleepy brain put two and two together and snapped fully awake.

“I didn’t hear myself stuttering, Kowalski,” the other man answered. “Someone called it into 911, and someone somewhere put it together with the Mountie. Not sure who called it in to us, but I thought I should pass it on.”

“Yeah!” he snapped, trying to think. “Right! When?”

“They didn’t bother to say,” the other man answered.

Of course not, he thought. “They bother to say anything?” he asked irritably even as he jammed the phone into the crook between his ear and shoulder and reached for the wrinkled pants he’d discarded a few hours earlier.

“No, well, except that it was big. That’s it.”


“I gotta ‘nother call,” the other declared quickly. “Call dispatch for anything else. Good luck.” And he hung up.

“Shit!” Ray hissed, tossing the phone aside to jam his legs into the pants and jump to his feet, spinning in place as he tried to spot where he’d tossed his shirt. Other side of the bed. The dresser was closer. He grabbed up a clean T-shirt and threw it on. Grabbed back up the phone. Grabbed his holster, gun and badge. Wallet was still in his pants pocket. Keys-- Beside the door. Wait! Coat. It was going to be cold. He’d put it on later. He was halfway down the hall before his door finished slamming shut.

Ben’s head, shoulder and back, protected by Jaelyn’s comforter, took the initial impact. Glass and wood shattered in an explosive, dangerous halo as he fought to twist in mid-air, keeping his own and Jaelyn’s faces protected as they hurtled into the garden.

He landed hard, his left shoulder taking the brunt of their fall as he fought to protect Jaelyn. Pain seared his other senses to nothing and threatened oblivion as he curled around the precious burden in his arms, rolling with the impact. Adrenaline and sheer stubborn will power kept him from succumbing. He and Jaelyn were instantly tangled and trapped in the heavy fabric he’d wrapped about them. Jaelyn was a rigid, terrified shell in his arms, curling into the fetal position and unable to help even herself. He twisted back the way they’d rolled and kicked his legs, the emergency giving him the strength he needed, combined with reversing direction, to break the suffocating cocoon enough so as to rise again with Jaelyn still cradled in his arms.

He found himself surrounded by flaming trees and bushes. Hot cinders and ash rained down upon them. Smoke and light assaulted his eyes, threatening to blind him as he fought to orient himself. He was forced to breathe, forced to cough, gasping--

There! Jaelyn’s shattered window. He used it to reorient his mental map of the garden. Spinning on his heel, he stumbled forward to where the break in the hedge at the south side of the small garden and the end of the kitchen should be. The wall where the kitchen had been was now a gaping maw from which flames leapt twenty to thirty feet into the air, roaring in furious anger as they sought to destroy the once proud edifice. The once smooth path that had meandered in the small garden was littered with shattered brick, wood and debris, causing Ben to trip and nearly fall. He only just caught himself and kept running. Part of the wall had collapsed across the opening in the hedge, forcing Ben to leap blindly through hedgerow and the flames that ate the tangled wood. Beyond should be a wide grassy verge, then the cement of the pool, then the pool itself...

He landed hard again, ignoring the protest of shoulder and chest as he curled around Jaelyn once more and rolled them across the grass. He felt the cement surrounding the pool long before he thought he would. They mustn’t fall in the pool, not still trapped in the blanket! He released the fabric and fought to reverse their direction, but his arms were trapped within the thick comforter. Their momentum carried them over again and his lower legs splashed into the water. The fabric twisted about his legs and was instantly drenched, instantly weighted down--

He threw his head and shoulders back, fighting the inevitable, but Jaelyn’s dead weight continued the roll...

The drive over to the mansion was done at break-neck speed. They ignored the bumps and jostling of the narrow dirt lane, fear and horror growing the closer they got to their destination. Glimpses of the raging fire could be seen through the trees, the flames leaping twice the height of the mansion into the sky.

“Oh my god...” Jeanie whispered.

James said nothing, merely concentrating grimly on getting there. The sound of sirens carried across the night air, growing louder as emergency vehicles raced to the scene by the front road.

Lights were suddenly coming at them and James had to swerve dangerously off the road to keep from being hit. The other vehicle swerved as well and wound up in a shallow ditch on the left of the road. James brought the jaguar to a dirt-spitting stop and sat breathing hard for a long moment before glancing at Jeanie. “You okay?” he managed to ask.

She nodded mutely and turned her eyes back to the sky to their left, where flames were shooting above the tree tops. They were only about five hundred yards from the Inn.

“Damn it,” James hissed angrily, throwing the car into park as he frowned at the other vehicle where it had gone off the side of the road. Probably someone in a damn panic, should have known better than to get behind the wheel of a car-- A car accident was the last thing he had patience for but he didn’t have a choice in the matter. It didn’t look like either vehicle was really damaged but he still had to check on the other driver and any passengers. Angrily, he threw open his car door and mentally ordered himself not to beat some sense into the idiot.

“James!” Jeanie grabbed at his arm. “What if he set the bomb?”

“Bomb?!” he echoed in surprise and glanced back at the mansion. Damn, it could have been a bomb, he realized...

The door of the other vehicle swung open and the shaken driver climbed out. A moment later he collapsed in the grass, deciding the situation for James.

“Damn,” he hissed again. “Get in the driver’s seat and be ready to floor it if anything happens,” he told Jeanie, then paused a second to give her a quick kiss before climbing out of the car and sprinting across the private lane.

“Be careful!” she called after him.

He ignored her and approached the injured man tentatively, scanning the other car for passengers and finding none. The other man offered a slight groan and struggled to rise even as James knelt beside him. Had he hit his head when he brought his car to a sudden halt or something?
“Easy,” James suggested, ready to pounce if the guy reached for a gun or something.

The man lifted his greying head to stare at James in obvious fear and confusion. “Shay blew ith up!” he mumbled. “Irag-- iragies... blew ith up!”

James jerked away as the stale smell of the man’s breath assaulted him. Shit. A drunk! That’s just what he needed to deal with right now!

Ben felt himself being pulled over yet again by their momentum, rolling over Jaelyn as the wet blanket about his legs sought to drag him into the pool where they’d drown if he couldn’t fight free of the heavy material. He kicked frantically, adrenaline adding strength to his desperate fight but the heavy comforter bound his legs tighter than rope! He took a quick, deep breath. Maybe when they were in the water, he could manage to--

He was surprised to feel his shoulder hit cement as he continued over Jaelyn. He’d expected to find himself sinking into the watery depths but suddenly realized they must have rolled over a corner of-- His hip hit the tiled edge and his legs dropped into the warm embrace, the water instantly soaking the heavy fabric and pulling his legs downward. They could still wind up in a watery grave! Now he had to fight to continue the roll, throwing his legs upward in an effort to break the water’s deadly grasp. His hips slipped over the edge as he fought to twist away--

He felt his butt bounce on the top of the interior sweep of steps that descended into the shallow end of the pool. He froze as he felt himself settle onto the step, the corner cradling his lower back. Slowly, his legs drifted downward, air bubbles escaping from between the many layers wound about them like a cocoon to rise and break the surface of the dark pool. Struggling now would only dislodge him from his precarious perch. After a long moment, his feet hit bottom and his position was more secure. He was now sitting in the water up to his waist, Jaelyn still trembling and unconscious in his arms, but neither of them in immediate danger of drowning.

Dief offered a whine from his left and nudged Ben’s shoulder. Ben offered a sigh of relief he hadn’t even been aware of holding for his friend. He could have easily lost him in the raging maelstrom. Right now, he could use Dief to fetch other help, but was unable to even gesture a command let alone speak the necessary words.

As relieved as Ben was that his lupine companion was unharmed, he had to concentrate on saving himself and Jaelyn. They weren’t out of danger. He could feel the adrenaline rush starting to fade, could feel the pain and shock beginning to creep back. He could well collapse and he mustn’t do that while still sitting in the pool trapped in Jaelyn’s comforter. For all he could tell, it might be about to catch fire. Having been plummeted with ash and flaming debris, there could well be small places that were smoldering away. Only the bottom half of their cocoon was wet. A glance around told him that there was no one to help them. No, it was up to him to get them out of the pool and out of the blanket. And he needed to do it while he still could!
The fire behind them was a raging monster. Its dancing light lit the back meadow, pool and pool house like a set from hell. He should be able to hear shouts and screams, people racing to safety or looking for loved ones and friends, but all he could hear was the demanding roar of the inferno. Dief nudged his face again, offering a worried and relieved lick.

He smiled but shook his head. Not now, he thought, and forced his legs to work.

Moving slowly, he planted his feet, still bound in the water-logged fabric, as firmly as possible on the third step and pushed, praying his feet wouldn’t slip as he forced himself back up the step he now sat upon. His hips caught on the lip of the tile, but it was smooth and he was able to shove himself over the slight impediment and atop the ledge surrounding the pool.

He lifted his legs again, slowly so as not to drag himself back in, and planted his feet on the next step up. He pushed again, scooting backward and hugging Jaelyn to him as he leaned back, making sure neither of them would slip back into the pool as the comforter, heavy with the weight of water, protested his efforts, trying to pull him back down.

Freed from the pool’s deadly grasp, he scooted further away from its edge before falling backward, rolling them onto the grass in the direction they’d come, the opposite direction of that which had wrapped the heavy comforter about them. The wet fabric tried to twist about his feet again but he kicked it free as they rolled. That about his head and shoulders opened easily, freeing them of its tight embrace.

He sat up with Jaelyn in his arms and froze again as he suddenly realized that she was awake. She blinked up at him, still immobile with unremembered fear and confusion, but she was back. He frowned down at her anxiously, concerned that she might succumb to a second PTSD episode, and gently stroked a hand across her cheek. She surprised him by turning her head slightly into his touch and awarding his callused palm a tiny kiss, while not breaking eye contact.
Jaelyn focused on Ben’s face, anchoring her reality in the concern, pain and exhaustion so easily seen in his tear-streaked, soot-stained, dirt-smeared face. “I’m okay,” she whispered, or hoped she whispered. She wasn’t sure there was any sound to accompany the effort, but the words were true. His grabbing her in the office may have sent her into a flashback, of which she remembered almost nothing, but he hadn’t been one of the men that attacked her, and ultimately, her unconscious mind recognized that. She could lay enfolded in his embrace and feel the fear retreating.

After all that had happened to her, she’d thought she’d never be able to trust a man again, but she trusted Ben. It didn’t make a lot of sense to her, but... she did.

She swallowed and forced herself to look beyond him, forced herself to take in the sight of her home being consumed in flame and the death he’d saved her from. She wondered if Ben could hear sirens, or if the firefighters were already out front starting to set up? How long had she been trapped in the nightmares of her past? But she didn’t ask. That one look was enough to assure her that the house was doomed. She closed her eyes and felt a single tear trace down her cheek as she offered a silent prayer that everyone else had gotten out safely too.

Kowalski knew it was bad even before he rounded the blind curve of the drive. The dancing light of the fire lit the billowing column of smoke disappearing into the night sky with an inner demonic glow, competing with the flashing strobe lights of police, fire and ambulance vehicles scattered about the lawns. People ran purposely from place to place, or stood frozen in shocked and immobile groups, all silloetted against the inferno that devoured the Inn.

There wasn’t a chance in hell of saving it.

A uniformed police officer ran towards him, waving him off the side of the driveway. He was still some distance from the Inn, but he knew he wouldn’t be allowed any closer. He drove the GTO well off the roadway onto the grass verge and quickly swung out of his car. Sprinting forward, he flashed his badge as he reached the police line and asked the officer who’d challenged him if he knew where the owner of the Inn was. It was a good bet that wherever Jaelyn was, Ben would be as well.

“No idea, man,” the other replied succinctly. “Try the west lawn. That’s where they’re grouping everyone. Captain should be over there. He’d know.”

“Any idea what started the fire?”

“Some kinda explosion, ‘parently. Damn but it musta been big. Ain’t no way they’re gonna save it. Shame. I brought my wife here last year for our fifth anniversary.”

“Yeah,” Kowalski agreed perfunctorily. “Thanks!” He gave the other cop a nod and then turned to quickly trot across the drive and parking lot, now turned into a sea of confusion and carefully organized chaos.

Ben and Jaelyn, both wrapped in heavy blankets, sat on the bumper of an ambulance and watched the small army of firefighters as they continued to fight the blaze that had once been her home. Neither of them had been injured but the firemen who’d found them out back had insisted they be checked out. Ben now held an oxygen mask in place at the paramedic’s insistence but turned his attention to Jaelyn as the other man moved away to assess a small burn on a firefighter’s neck.

She sat in contemplative silence, staring at the dancing reflection of firelight in a puddle not too far distant. It took her only a moment before she felt his eyes upon her and lifted her own to meet his concerned gaze. There was so much in his quiet regard that words weren’t necessary. A tired smile pulled suddenly at her lips and she lifted a hand to wipe a solitary tear away. A smear of clean skin was left in stark contrast to the soot and grime that otherwise stained her face.
“I’m alright, Ben,” she assured him softly, wondering if the words would be drowned out by the noise she knew must surround them.

Ben’s concern became a quiet kind of confusion as she gazed back at her home. There was no sense of irreconcilable heartache or anguish about the loss of her home, no hysteria or uncontrollable sobbing, only a few quiet tears. He suspected she was still in shock. Her reaction, or lack there of, worried him. He glanced at the busy paramedic and dared set the oxygen mask aside so he could sign. He touched Jaelyn’s shoulder to get her attention. ^You can --rebuild,^ he assured her.

She smiled again; and, he realized, that while part of what he saw was indeed shock, a larger part was simple acceptance. “I can,” she answered and he had to read her lips as the emergency radio beside them squawked forth a series of instructions from the Fire Marshall, organizing and directing the battle to defeat the fire, “but I won’t.”

He frowned in deeper concern but she simply turned again and leaned her head upon his shoulder. He automatically shrugged his arm free of the blanket he held about him, reaching out to hold her, but froze before he completed the action, not sure if--

“Hold me, Ben,” she asked softly, not taking her eyes from the death throws of her home. His arm settled readily about her shoulder and drew her close.

It was only moments later that Jeanie, James, and Ray found them like that. Ray had discovered Jeanie and James as they were giving a statement about their accident, having handed the unnamed drunk over to the nearest medic. The trio had then started scanning the confused and frightened survivors. It had been Kevin who’d directed them to the farthest ambulance. Sure enough, they’d spotted Dief sitting patiently beside the rear wheel.

“Jay!” Jeanie cried as she hurried forward, rushing toward them in concern.

Ben glanced up at the call and directed Jaelyn’s gaze to her friend as she joined them. Jeanie was shocked by the calm mask and tranquil smile she received. “Oh god, Jay!” she offered in deep sympathy for the pain she knew her friend must be going through. “We heard the explosion over at the cottage and came as soon as we could! I’ve been looking for you everywhere. Is everyone okay? This is so terrible!”

Ray ignored the other woman’s babbling and reached out to squeeze Ben’s shoulder, meeting his tired gaze and scrutinizing the filthy face in concern. “You look like death warmed over, buddy,” he offered quietly. “You okay?”

Ben offered a weary smile and nodded, turning his own gaze back to the woman he held. She had not heard Jeanie’s words but she didn’t need Ben’s signing to know what she was saying.

“We’re fine, Jen,” she assured her friend. “Kevin says he thinks everyone got out alright. Some smoke inhalation and minor burns, but it doesn’t look like anyone was seriously injured.” She paused as Ben interrupted with a short, barking cough.

“You two don’t look too hot,” Kowalski offered seriously. “What happened?”

“Excuse me,” the paramedic turned and interrupted firmly. “This is not the place for a power meeting. Get that oxygen mask back on. I didn’t give it to you for no reason. I want to take another listen to your lungs.”

James, Jeanie and Ray were all forced to step back as the man came forward once more, lifting and stretching the elastic band of the oxygen mask into place around Ben’s head since he was so inclined to set it aside. He also gave Jaelyn another pensive frown. “You still doing okay?”

Ben released Jaelyn and offered a quick, one-handed translation while still holding the blanket firmly about his wet form against the chill night breeze. Jaelyn nodded.

“No shortness of breath? No tightness or chest pain?” the paramedic insisted on asking her again, even as he stuck the stethoscope back in his ears and slipped the other end inside Ben’s long johns and against his chest, ignoring his attempt to sign around him.

“My throat’s a little dry, but that’s all,” she answered with a shake of her head.

The paramedic nodded and turned his attention back to Ben. “Deep breath.” He moved the stethoscope about Ben’s chest and then his back. He nodded to himself after several long moments and draped the stethoscope back around his neck. “You’re clearing up. You should still go in for an x-ray. Just let the docs check you out.”

Ben frowned and shook his head.

“Smoke inhalation can be a lot more dangerous then most people think,” the paramedic frowned in turn, “and sometimes it takes a day or two for the symptoms to show up. You know what kind of poisons are in smoke in a fire like this? Carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, hydrogen cyanide, hydrochloric acid, phosgene... We’re talking nasty stuff here.”

Ben sighed, frustrated by his inability to assure the other man that he knew perfectly well the dangers of smoke inhalation but that he didn’t think he’d suffered that significant an exposure.

“You were in pain and wheezing a little when I got to you,” the paramedic continued. “I know you say the pain was muscular but I still don’t like it. The wheezing ain’t that unusual but it does tell me you went into bronchospasm. You got some gunk in your lungs they didn’t like. And I also don’t like the fact that you had major chest surgery not that long ago. You ever have any kind of asthma or anything? Chronic bronchitis or pneumonia?”

Ben fought not to sigh again as he shook his head. He was fine! He reached up and removed the oxygen mask despite the medic’s obvious disapproval.

The man continued to frown at him and shook his head. “I can’t force you to go in,” he admitted what Ben already knew. “Do me a favor though, huh?”

Ben did sigh again and rubbed a hand across his forehead. He was utterly exhausted and had a major headache on top of everything but wasn’t about to tell the medic that.

“If you’re still in pain or still coughing a lot? Or if you get to feel tight in the chest or start wheezing again at all... you call 911, you hear me? Whether it’s tonight, tomorrow or the next day. And you make sure you tell your doctor about this next time you see him,” he continued. “He’ll bawl you out a lot better than I can.”

Ben had the grace to wince slightly, knowing that both Doctor Martin and Spears would have something to say about it. He still wasn’t going to the hospital. Instead, him simply nodded, agreeing reluctantly to the request as he offered a rather curt sign.

“I’m fine,” Jaelyn translated for him.

The paramedic nodded and took the oxygen mask back. “Why don’t you just sit here a while and see how the night air effects your breathing. I’d like to listen to that chest of yours again in about five minutes or so.”

Ben rolled his eyes but Ray’s hand on his shoulder kept him from rising. “You’ll have to excuse the Mountie,” his friend offered conspiratorially. “He thinks he’s superman. The hospital kicked him out ‘cause he was such a bad patient. --Sit!” he added firmly.

Ben offered his friend an irritated glare but relented as the paramedic turned his attention to Jaelyn and insisted on listening to her lungs again too, ‘just to be safe’. Jeanie voiced several anxious questions, needing reassurance that both of them were going to be alright. Ben was simply glad the paramedic didn’t enlist her in his fight to send Ben to hospital.

“He shouldn’t be alone tonight, guys,” the paramedic told Ray and James both. “In case he goes into bronchospasm again. I don’t think he will but smoke inhalation can be tricky stuff.”

“They’re not going to be alone after this, man,” Ray frowned pensively. “Don’t worry about that.”

Jaelyn merely frowned in confusion at the conversation going on around her and shook her head in frustration as Ben failed to translate. She knew it probably didn’t have anything to do with her, but it was still frustrating. Jeanie offered something more, giving her a smile. Ray, however, shook his head in answer. James added something but, again, Ben’s friend scuttled it. Whatever Ray said next was quite firm and long and had her friends regarding her in guarded concern. And then suddenly James was launching into Ray, obviously demanding some kind of explanation.

“What?” she demanded, losing all patience with her own inability to hear what was being said. She knew Ben was more than tired, but she needed to know what was going on!

^They are --trying to decide --where we are going --for the rest of the night,^ Ben answered.

“Oh, god,” Jaelyn sighed wearily. “I’ve gotta make sure all the guests have places to stay tonight.”

“Kevin and Jason’s already working on it,” Jeanie quickly assured her and Ben translated.

The paramedic interrupted whatever it was Ray and James were arguing about, shooing their group away from the ambulance if the two of them were going to be fighting.

“I don’t see what all the fuss is about. We’ll just go to a hotel,” Jaelyn interrupted the fight before it could resume. “Tomorrow, we’ll open up one of the guest cabins that isn’t in use and--” She closed her eyes and shook her head. “Quite frankly, I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do next.” She opened her eyes and gazed beyond James’ shoulder to where the fire was finally starting to die.

Jeanie followed that look, taking in the stark blackened outlines backlit by fire. “Oh god,” she sighed again. She turned back to her friend and reached out, squeezing her shoulder in sympathy. “You can rebuild,” she offered, over-pronouncing her words.

Jaelyn frowned distantly as she wrestled to put meaning to her friend’s exaggerated lip movements and then glanced back to Ben. He deftly translated one word: ^Rebuild.^

Jaelyn smiled again, warmed by her friend’s concern and desire to comfort her, but shook her head. “Why?” she offered and they had to strain to hear the gentle words. “When you come right down to it, it was only a building. The love and memories that it contained can never be destroyed. I’ll build another home, and I’ll build new memories, but I won’t rebuild. It would be too painful to even try.”

She bowed her head and fought a new wave of tears that threatened. She felt Ben slip his arm back around her shoulders and turned into his embrace, but she refused to give into the tears. She closed her eyes, shutting out the dancing firelight and shadows, the faces of her friends and -- and everything. For once, she was glad she couldn’t hear. She concentrated on Ben, on the feel of his arms around her, the strength and security he offered while demanding absolutely nothing in return; on the feel of his chest rising and falling beneath her cheek... She blocked the rest of it out, unwilling to deal with it just yet.

“I think we need to get her outta here,” Ray decided, frowning in concern for the young woman in Ben’s arms.

“She should be with people she knows, Detective,” Jeanie began her argument again.

“Look, Ms Tallin, Jeanie,” he corrected himself. “I know you mean well, but it ain’t happening. I already told you: this mighta been a bomb. Until I know otherwise, she ain’t leaving my sight.”

“You lied to us at the hospital,” James accused him quietly. “When you asked about whether she’d been poisoned, you weren’t just being paranoid. You think someone’s after her. But you still haven’t said why! Greg Manly is dead. Who else has any reason to--” He suddenly seemed to reel backward in surprise. “Jeanie?” he asked in disbelief. “You think Jeanie is trying to kill Jaelyn?!”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You didn’t have to!” James barked in return, putting a protective and comforting arm around Jeanie’s shoulders as she starred at the two men in shock. “Manly was after his half of Jaelyn’s inheritance. Jeanie is the other half of that equation. Now, you don’t want her to help take care of her life long friend? Real hard to figure out, Detective!”

“Look, I admit she’s a suspect, I can’t help that, but she ain’t real high on my list. Frankly, despite the Will, I don’t see much of a motive. And a bomb ain’t exactly a woman’s style, you know? There are a hell of a lot of other things to consider before I start pointing fingers.”

“Like what?” he demanded. “You still haven’t said why you think someone else is after her! You got any evidence to be scaring us all to hell like this?”

“Yeah, we got evidence,” he said curtly. “Greg Manly didn’t commit suicide, he was murdered, and that’s all I’m going to say right now. Look, arguing about this isn’t going to help Jaelyn. I think we can all agree that she needs to get some rest. Ben too for that matter. I’m slapping her into protective custody and, all questions of Jeanie as a suspect aside, I don’t know nothing about this cottage of yours and don’t want to have to try and figure out security on the fly. They’re coming with me to my apartment where I know the layout and that’s all there is to it. Like it or lump it, I really don’t care.”

“Are you married Detective?” James asked pointedly.

“No. Why?”

“A bachelor pad.” James nodded to himself and continued sarcastically, “Jaelyn’s really going to like that.”

Kowalski offered him a smile that was half-sneer and which said exactly what he thought of that comment. “Look,” he snapped. “It’s after four o’clock in the freaking morning! These two are about ready to fall over. Stop your yapping and help me get ‘em to my car so I can get ‘em to bed. Your friend won’t even notice where she is for the next twelve hours. By then, I’ll have something else on line.”

“Shh, guys!” Jeanie suddenly hushed them with a concerned frown for Jaelyn. “I think she’s asleep.”
Ben glanced down at the woman he held, noting her relaxed and even breathing. She was still supporting most of her own weight, so he knew she wasn’t completely asleep, but she was very close.

Kowalski rolled his eyes at Jeanie. “She’s deaf!” he reminded her. Jeanie blinked in surprise and, had the lighting been a bit different, he had little doubt he would have seen her blushing.

James glared daggers at him and pulled his fiancé closer. “It’s easy to forget that when you’re talking about someone you’ve known most of your life!” he hissed angrily.

Ben managed to catch Ray’s eyes before he could retort and merely shook his head. A jerk of his head to the side indicated Ben’s desire to simply end this and get them to the apartment. Ray had to agree and quickly tamped down his anger.

“Whatever,” he offered instead. “You two gonna help me, or you wanta get lost? This ain’t open for discussion.”

James frowned irritably but then shifted his gaze to Jaelyn. The anger disappeared, replaced by pensive concern. He glanced up at Ben. “You want me to carry her?”

Ben offered a frown of his own and glanced down at her. He didn’t think carrying her would be a good idea, not given how she’d reacted in the midst of the fire. He suspected he might be able to get away with it, if he were very careful, but he wasn’t up to it and didn’t want to risk it with anyone else. She didn’t need to be sent into another flashback episode. He shook his head and reached up to stroke her cheek, frowning as he tried to assess exactly how asleep she was.

“Don’t wake her up!” Jeanie protested, but Jaelyn was already opening her eyes and blinking at Ben. The other woman let out a disgusted sigh and rolled her eyes. Ben ignored Jeanie, knowing waking Jaelyn was for the best but unable to explain his reasons.

^We’re going,^ he signed simply with one hand.

“Going?” she repeated, but she wasn’t really awake and so simply closed her eyes and nodded, resting her head back on his shoulder and not questioning the decision. She was awake enough that Ben knew he could guide her as they walked. He glanced over at Ray and nodded.

“Wait a minute!” Jeanie exclaimed even as Ray spun to lead the way to where his car was parked. “What’s your address and phone number? Aren’t the police and fire marshall and all going to want to know where she is? And what about Kevin and Jason? She can’t just walk out of here, can she? I mean--” She gestured helplessly toward the mass confusion and battle still being waged behind them.

“‘--Course she can,” Ray answered, resuming his walk again. “Anyone who needs her can just call me, via the station. You can help by letting everyone know that.”

Jeanie opened her mouth in confused protest but James hushed her, promising her that everything would be okay. Ray suspected that she simply didn’t want to give up her fight to protect her friend, but he still filed her insistence on knowing where they were going in his paranoid cop / suspicious acts mind-box, and promptly ignored it.

“Look, I’ll let her call you sometime tomorrow and let you know she’s okay, all right?” he relented. “Just don’t go expecting it ‘til late in the day. They’ll probably both sleep the clock round.”

Ben glanced irritably at Ray. He didn’t appreciate being spoken of in the third person that way.

“What?” Ray asked, catching the look but not understanding it. Ben merely looked away and shook his head, dismissing it. “You don’t think you need a good rest?” Ray guessed. “Hell, then you can get up in a couple of hours to tackle Welsh and I’ll sleep in!”

Ben rolled his eyes and ignored the temptation to smile, knowing perfectly well his friend was merely trying to manipulate him into sleeping late. Ben admitted that he probably would, but it certainly wouldn’t be for the entire day! He wasn’t at his best at the moment but he also wasn’t as weak as his friend seemed to think. He’d been through far worse before, and he had no intention of ‘sleeping the clock round’! He was getting very tired of being treated like an invalid.

He chose that moment to step in a rut hidden in the grass and very nearly tripped. Ray was right there to catch him. “Steady there, buddy,” he offered with a firm grasp on Ben’s arm, all teasing gone. “It’s not much farther.”

“What?” Jaelyn asked, the sudden move having jerked her awake.

Ben shrugged his arm out of Ray’s grasp to reassure Jaelyn with a simple gesture and shake of his head. He gestured ahead to where the car waited in the grass and Ray sprinted ahead to open the door for them.

“Where are we going?” Jaelyn asked, fighting sleepy cobwebs aside and glancing around, taking in where she was and then seeing the flashing emergency lights and still burning ruin of her home in the distance. “Oh god,” she sighed. It somehow seemed even worse from far away than it had up close, which was crazy because she’d already known it was a total loss. She looked away, burying her head back in Ben’s shoulder and trying to block it all out once more.

Ben gave her shoulders a slight squeeze and continued to direct her forward. James helped hand her into the car, holding the passenger seat forward as Ben directed her into the back seat and followed her. Dief surprised Jeanie’s fiancé by jumping up on the front seat as James released it. The wolf paused to glance over the seat back to assess his humans before offering a sneeze and turning to watch Kowalski get in.

The blond detective gave the wolf an assessing look of his own and decided to forgo comment about hair on his upholstery. “What about the wolf, Frase?” he asked instead, craning his neck around so he could see his friend. “Think he needs to see a vet or anything?”

Ben paused a moment to consider his companion. Dief was as susceptible to smoke inhalation as he was, and certainly could have been burnt. He was as filthy as Ben knew himself to be, covered in soot and ash. There were a couple of places where it looked like the wolf had gotten his fur singed a bit, but Ben didn’t see any signs of distress in his friend. He’d keep an eye on him for the next couple days or so, especially if he started to sneeze regularly, but he didn’t think Dief had suffered anymore than he or Jaelyn had from their experience. He shook his head and turned his attention to making sure Jaelyn was buckled in.

“Okay then,” Kowalski sighed and turned around to start the engine. “Let’s get this show over with already.”

James wrapped his arms around Jeanie again as they watched the taillights on the car round the bend and disappear into the night. “She’ll be okay,” he promised and kissed her neck more in reassurance than anything else.

“But a bomb--”

“We don’t know it’s a bomb,” James corrected her. “The guy’s being a paranoid yutz, but I guess that’s what our tax dollars pay him to be.”

Jeanie turned slightly to frown at him, then glanced at the remains of the grand old house. “What the hell else could it have been?”

“Gas explosion?” James suggested. “David said he fixed a leak earlier, didn’t he?”

“David?!” Jeanie suddenly went pale and glanced around frantically. “Where is he? I haven’t seen him, have you?”

James frowned for a moment and then shook his head. “Didn’t he say he was taking a friend back to town after the party?”

Jeanie relaxed. “That’s right. Jody whats-her-name. I ought to call and see if he’s still there.”

“I don’t think he’d appreciate his sister checking up on him at four in the morning,” James smiled. “Look, it’s gotta be close to freezing out here. Let’s get you back to the cottage and I’ll track down your brother for you, okay? I’m sure he’s fine, wherever he is.”

Jeanie glanced back at the scene of destruction behind them. The flashing lights and spots from the emergency vehicles were starting to overwhelm the light from the fire as it quickly began to die. Darkness crept in from all around to hide the worst of the damage. Jeanie was glad she couldn’t see more. “We basically grew up here. This is going to devastate him. He loved this old place.”

“Yeah, well, if it turns out this was his fault because he was doing something he didn’t know how to do, I’m going to wring his scrawny little neck so he won’t have to worry about feeling devastated anymore. How’s that sound?” he asked teasingly.

“James!” Jeanie rejoined in mock affront. It wasn’t something to joke about, even if she knew he was only trying to make her feel better.

“Sorry,” he offered and kissed the side of her neck again. “How about if I only wring his neck a little bit? No? Still don’t like that, hmmm...”

“Oh, shut up!” Jeanie gave him a little tap on the arm, smiling despite herself. She knew James couldn’t hurt a fly if he wanted to. Well, she amended, enjoying the way his jacket hugged his upper arms, he could; but he wouldn’t.

“Come on,” he decided, giving her a little hug before taking her hand and drawing her along after him, “let’s get you home. Then I’ll find your brother and carry the bad news to him. And I promise I won’t wring his neck. --Can I break his nose?”

Jeanie giggled despite herself, remembering an old running joke between herself and her brother. “Nah, his head is too hard. You’ll only break your hand.”

Ben’s irritation and anger at his own weakness, as well as his adrenaline rush, had fairly well dissipated by the time they made it to Kowalski’s apartment complex. He might not be as weak as Ray seemed to think, but he wasn’t as strong as he’d like to think he was either. As much as he hated to admit it, even to himself, he was exhausted, plain and simple. His head was pounding, his chest ached, and all he wanted to do was collapse -- bed, couch, floor; it didn’t matter. He drew upon his reserves of determination and sheer stubbornness to mask the worst of it.

It was simple necessity had kept him guiding Jaelyn down the halls. She was no better that he was, little more than a rag doll that walked blindly at his side. Had he not been so tired himself, he might have been able to better appreciate the total trust she displayed as they finally came to a stop. She lay her head against Ben’s shoulder, eyes closed, as they waited for Kowalski to unlock his door.

“Okay, here we go guys,” Ray told them softly, just hoping to keep them both awake long enough to make it through the door. Dief was the first through, brushing quickly around him. Ray shook his head and ignored the dog, waving Ben forward and then, after a quick scan of the hall to make sure they hadn’t been followed, closing and locking the door again.

He turned back to his two swaying guests, deciding his next course of action. He needed to make some phone calls. He was due at work in a few hours and he wasn’t going to leave Ben and Jaelyn here alone. It might have been smarter to take them to an anonymous hotel but they were such a mess, both physically and emotionally, that he simply didn’t want to. Ben was pulling his typical super-Mountie number and acting like he was good to go, but Ray knew better. He’d seen the slight tremor in Ben’s hands when he reached up to brush Jaelyn’s hair out of his face at one point. His eyes were more closed than open. The guy was done in. He just refused to admit it.

“Okay,” Ray sighed, running a hand through his spiky hair and dealing with more immediate problems. He quickly lead Ben through the main room to the door of his bedroom, talking as he went. “No offense, guys, but you two stink. The bathroom is there.” He pointed. “I don’t expect you two to take a bath or shower or anything, but you’re going to at least strip outta those clothes and let me dig you up something clean to sleep in.” He was going to have to strip and wash the bed tomorrow in any case, but maybe he could keep his mattress from being permanently smellified with smoke. Sheets and blankets he could replace: the mattress was a bit more expensive. He frowned pensively at the half-asleep Jaelyn even as he moved to his dresser. “Think she can manage on her own, Frase, or you wanta help her?”

Ben lifted an irritated brow, but quickly dropped it as he realized his friend was being quite serious and not making some ill-timed off-color joke. He regarded the woman at his side, noting (not for the first time) that Ray was right: They both reeked of smoke and-- he sniffed --chlorine from the pool. The combination, with simple sweat and dirt, was not pleasant. He paused a moment to wriggle his toes inside the sopping wet uniform boots and offered them a decided grimace. He would most likely have to replace them. He could handle the water, but the chlorine... He’d have to consult a cobbler first thing tomorrow and see if there was any hope at all of salvaging them.

He returned his attention to Jaelyn and lifted his hand to stroke her cheek again, hoping he didn’t have to try and help her change. He could certainly do it if he had too. It was simply of matter of mind-set and necessity. He was quite capable of controlling his baser emotions, even now shoving several inappropriate thoughts aside. However, he was quite worried about how she might react. It was quite possible, even likely, that such an attempt would send her into a violent flashback. No, she really needed to do this on her own.

She responded readily enough, blinking red-rimmed, tired eyes at him in question. He let her go and lifted both hands to sign.

Jaelyn frowned as Ben withdrew his support and blinked in confusion as he started to sign. She shook her head, forcing her sluggish and not-quite awake thoughts to get themselves in gear. “I’m sorry, Ben,” she apologized, interrupting him. Her voice felt raspy and she paused to clear her throat. “Could you repeat that? I didn’t quite catch it.”

Ben nodded and started the short sentence over. ^You need to -- change -- clothes,^ he repeated as Kowalski came up beside him, offering a folded bundle of something or other. The other man smiled congenially and shrugged, offering something she couldn’t hear. ^’It’s not silk -- or nothing, -- but it’s clean’,^ Ben translated for her. ^’We’ll see about -- getting you and Ben -- some other stuff -- tomorrow -- but this will do --for tonight.’^

She nodded and took the offered clothing. “Thank you.” Ben pointed out the bathroom and with a nod, Jaelyn turned to disappear within.

“Now, let’s see if I can find anything to fit you.” Kowalski frowned as he turned back to his dresser. He and Ben might be close in height but he had little doubt that most of his clothes would be too small for the other man. It took him a couple minutes but he finally found an old pair of sweats and a Hawks jersey that would do for now. Ben gave the jersey a definite ‘look’.

“Hey, I’m not a Leaf’s fan, what can I say?” Kowalski answered with a grin.

Jaelyn frowned as sleep slowly eluded her grasp. Reality, along with a number of aches and pains, slowly forced itself upon her awareness. She had none of the confusion or momentary blissful amnesia that sleep sometimes brought to block the memories of the previous night. Instead, she remembered all too clearly the horror of the fire and everything that had happened. With an irritated sigh, she forced her eyes open and blinked in mild surprise to discover another head not far from hers.

Had the face been turned away from her, she might well have screamed and had one of her stupid flashback episodes. Well, maybe not. She seriously doubted she’d seen the back of anyone’s head during her rape and attempted murder, at least laying next to her on a pillow, but it would have panicked her. As it was, her initial surprise was followed by a smile.

Ben was a mess. He’d made some effort to clean up before collapsing last night. His face had been scrubbed but not perfectly. There was a smear of black beside his mouth and patches of grey along his hair line. He needed a shave. His hair itself was a tangled, dull matte of almost-curls. She suspected he’d used a wash cloth to scrub at it as well but had been too exhausted to do more. It was more than she’d done.

Her scalp itched just at the thought of last night, and her face... She didn’t even want to look at the pillow she was laying on and made a silent promise to see the bedding replaced, if not the whole bed. She really should have taken a shower last night but could only vaguely remember changing her own clothes. Ray had been more than generous in bringing them here. She’d have to find someway to make it up to him.

Her felt her stomach give a sudden and, she suspected, very loud gurgle. She glanced down with a frown. Stupid thing. It hadn’t been that long since dinner, and she’d certainly eaten enough at the party that it had no right to be complaining yet. Of course, she wasn’t at all sure what time it was other than ‘daytime’. She offered another little frown and glanced around, lifting her head and taking in the room for the first time.

It was a rather typical apartment bedroom, a bit smaller than her own had been. Damn, but she hated to think about having to replace all her clothes and-- She was overwhelmed for a short second as she realized that she’d basically lost everything: clothes, furniture, belongings...

She shoved the shock of it aside. It wasn’t like she was destitute! Others suffered house fires and lost far more than she had. She was alive and uninjured. She had several, well not several, but she had more than one way to get a roof over her head: one of the guest cabins, or a hotel or an apartment. She didn’t have to worry about where her next meal was going to come from or how to put clothes on her back or pay the never-ending bills. She had the means with which to replace what had been lost. There were others who suffered through such fires only to truly lose everything they had, including their lives...

No, she had no right to feel sorry for herself.

She literally shook her head to dispel the image of the scarf her father had given her for her high school graduation being devoured by flames. She seriously doubted it would have survived, but other things would have. The memory of her mother’s cameo locket flashed into her mind. It had likely survived, she hoped, buried somewhere in the blackened rubble. She wondered vaguely how one went about sorting through the debris of such a fire? It was just stuff, she told herself, refusing to acknowledge the tears that stung the back of her eyes. She was being stupid. She should be grateful she was alive, not mourning inanimate objects!

She flung the cover off her, intending to rise and get on with life. She had a lot to do, first of which was to make sure everyone else was alright, both friends and guests alike. Again, she told herself, most of them had suffered far more than she had. She’d seen Kevin and Jason last night but it wasn’t as if Kevin could just go out and get another job; not that he really needed one, but he was a proud old man. It wasn’t going to be easy to get him to let her help him. She’d also seen Jeanie and James and knew they were fine; but she hadn’t seen David, not that his absence was anything to worry about per se. And there was the rest of the wait-staff and household-staff to worry about. Especially Joe and Marguerite. They should have both been home at the time of the fire, but Jaelyn could only imagine their panic and confusion when they heard about it this morning. Marguerite was five months pregnant with their first child.

She had to contact her lawyers and the insurance people. And she needed to have someone go to the site and get everything out of the vault. It was fire proof, so the contents should be okay. There were all the computer backups and important files and legal documents. And she had to make sure that anything any of the guests had entrusted to it was returned to it’s proper owner--

A pair of smokey blue eyes snagged her attention and arrested her breath as she went to swing her legs off the bed. He was frowning, bringing her racing thoughts to a screeching halt. Damn, but she hadn’t meant to wake him!

“Hi,” she forced herself to offer. What was one supposed to say when you woke up in bed with a handsome man? She suddenly realized she was wearing nothing more than an oversized T-shirt, now ridden clear above her hip, and some rather skimpy panties and felt a blush stain her face as she jerked the shirt down, tucking it under her leg.

At least the frown had disappeared, not that he seemed to be laughing or anything. He didn’t seem to have noticed her, ah -- He just seemed relaxed. He probably hadn’t been awake enough to notice or-- It wasn’t like she wasn’t wearing underwear, she chastised the heat that graced her cheeks! Besides, she probably resembled a scarecrow at the moment.

He answered her little ‘hi’ with a little nod, seemingly quite content to just lay there and watch her. Or he would have been if Dief hadn’t jumped on the bed just then.

The sudden unexpected appearance of the wolf beside her had Jaelyn jumping to her feet and Ben scowling in displeasure. The dog took no notice, merely wagging his tail and announcing that it was about time they thought about getting up. Ben offered an irritated groan and simply shoved him back off the bed with a glare. Jaelyn couldn’t help giggling. It was more than evident that Ben thought Dief was misbehaving and needed a good tongue lashing. Even Dief knew it and was clearly taking advantage of the fact that Ben couldn’t deliver.

Ben turned his frown on Jaelyn, but couldn’t hold it. He really didn’t see anything funny about the situation, and was quite annoyed by his own inability to correct the animal, but Jaelyn’s smile was contagious. If she found it humorous, then he supposed it wasn’t that bad.

Jaelyn saw him glance suddenly to the door. He lifted his hand and knocked in the air. Oh! It must be his friend coming to check on them. “Ah, come in!” she called out, sitting down on the edge of the bed and quickly tucking the edge of the T-shirt under her leg again. Heavens but she didn’t know why she felt so embarrassed! It wasn’t like the thing was exactly form fitting. She showed a heck of a lot more skin anytime she went swimming! Besides, she was a mess. She lifted a hand to her hair and cringed. No, there was definitely nothing very alluring about her at the moment! Not that she wanted to be alluring or--

She was surprised to see Ray Vecchio, not Kowalski, stick his head into the room.

“Hey there, sleepy heads!” he sang out, swinging the door open and entering fully as he saw it was safe and they were both up. “I was beginning to think you were both going to sleep ‘til sunset.”

Ben translated and two pairs of eyes quickly searched the room and found the clock on the night stand to their left: 4:16 pm. Two pairs of brows winged upward in surprise.

“Kowalski should be back in a couple hours, I guess,” the other man continued. “Maggie will too, I’m sure. She dropped off some clothes for Jaelyn to use. Might be a bit big, you’re more Frannie’s size, but I didn’t think to grab any of her stuff when he called me this morning. Benny, I got your stuff washed, no way you’d fit into Kowalski’s jeans, but you’ll have to borrow one of his Ts. Good thing he likes ‘em large. You two hungry? I got up some soup ‘cause I wasn’t sure when you’d be waking up. I hope that’s okay?”

“Fine. Thank you,” Jaelyn translated Ben’s additional sign, adding her own nod of appreciation and a smile.

“Okay, well ah--” He gestured to the bathroom. “I think the clothes for Jaelyn are in there and, Benny, I’ll get yours, though you probably both want to take a bath first, yeah?”

They glanced at each other and nodded. Jaelyn resisted the urge to pull a hand through her hair even as Ben gestured her to go first. She accepted with a nod and saw Vecchio wave Ben to follow him. The enticing scent of fresh-brewed coffee was explanation enough as she skipped quickly into the bathroom, the mere thought of coffee making her hurry.

The back to back reports came into Kowalski’s desk just after noon. The fire, although still under investigation, was being ruled an accident. The other report--

“Ah no...” Ray whispered as he read the name.

“Problem, Ray?” Huey asked, pausing en route to his own desk.

Ray glanced up and then back down at the folder before him. “Autopsy report,” he answered and slapped it shut. “The McKenna fire.”

“Yeah, I heard ‘bout that,” the other detective nodded pensively. “ ‘Didn’t know anyone was killed. Fraser okay?” He knew Ray would be more than a little upset if the Mountie had been hurt.

“Yeah,” Ray confirmed. “He’s fine. So’s Dief.”

Huey frowned as he considered the obviously depressed man before him. “Welsh mad and making ya pull Notification Duty?” he guessed. Notifying family members of deaths was never an easy thing to do.

Ray just kinda shrugged. He hadn’t been assigned the painful task but he knew he was going to do it. “I knew him,” he admitted and immediately corrected himself. “That is I met him, once, a couple weeks ago. Ben probably knew him better.”

“And Fraser doesn’t know yet?”

“I don’t think anyone knows yet,” Ray sighed. He closed his eyes and rotated his neck, trying to loosen overly tight muscles.

Huey clucked his tongue in sympathy. “Nasty one, Ray,” he commented sadly.


“Any luck on the Manly murder?” Huey asked, changing the subject abruptly.

“Yeah,” Ray answered again. “Bad luck. Fat Eddie took off on some kinda vacation a couple weeks ago and nobody’s heard from or seen him since.”
“Vacation?” Huey echoed. “Since when does a weasel like Fat Eddie take a vacation?”

“His nephew is running the show now and he ain’t talking to no one.”

“Sounds like a ‘hostile take over’,” Huey quipped sarcastically. Ray nodded. Very hostile. The guy was probably fish food at the bottom of Lake Michigan.

A flash of red caught his eye and he glanced up, his frown vanishing.

“Maggie!” he exclaimed, jumping to his feet. “Hey, it’s about time you started doing some more of that liaisoning stuff. I was beginning to think they shipped you back up to Inuktitut or somethin’.”

“Inuktitut is a language, Ray, not a location,” she corrected him, awarding Huey a smile in greeting. Huey quickly excused himself but turned to give Ray a wink before going to his own desk. If Maggie saw it, she chose to ignore it. “Did I hear you mention something about Fat Eddie?”

“He’s still off vacationing somewhere,” Ray answered, turning to grab up his jacket. “I don’t think we’re ever going to see him again.”

“How much do you think his nephew knows?” Maggie asked, following like a shadow as he moved smoothly around desks back the way she’d just come.

“ ‘Bout his Uncle?” Ray asked. “Too much. ‘Bout Manly?” He shrugged. “Hard to say. He’s not talking in any case, not even to Vecchio.”

“What kind of pressure can you bring to bear on him?” Maggie wanted to know. “Raid his business? Have squad cars drive by more frequently to disturb his patrons? Set a stake out that is all too visible?”

Ray paused to stare at her. “ ‘You sure you’re related to Fraser?” he asked, knowing her brother would have considered such tactics harassment. He frowned as he remembered the Warfield incident from a couple of Christmas’ ago. Fraser had gotten himself beaten to a pulp for using exactly those kinds of tactics. Maybe Maggie wasn’t that different after all.

“I’ve inherited the same genes for stubbornness,” she pointed out. “Fat Eddies’ nephew?” she redirected the conversation and they set out once more.

“Bruce the Brick,” Ray offered the man’s identity. ‘Brick brain’ he thought. “We’re doing everything you just named and then some. Vecchio is calling in some markers now, hoping to get some dirt we can use for leverage.”

“So what are we doing, Ray?” she asked as he paused to hold the door to the parking lot for her. He didn’t even seem to realize he’d done it, which only made the gesture more appreciated.
“Going to see Miss Jeanie Tallin,” he answered.

“Jaelyn McKenna’s friend,” Maggie nodded, placing the name readily.

“Yeah,” Ray answered. “Her brother died in the McKenna fire last night.”

“Oh no....”

“You don’t have to come with me if you don’t want to,” he quickly told her, realizing he’d taken her presence completely for granted. Notification duty was not part of the liaisoning package.

“I take it she doesn’t know yet?” she asked even as she removed her Stetson and swung smoothly into the car.

“I didn’t even know anyone had died ‘til I got Mort’s preliminary on my desk,” he sighed, joining her. “‘Musta dug his body outta the rubble after I left the scene last night.”

“Oh, I forgot to thank you for calling, Ray,” she offered as the engine roared to life and they headed out of the parking lot. “I would have panicked had I seen it on the morning news.”

“I panicked enough for both of us when I got the call,” he told her. He’d been certain Ben would do something stupid like running back into the fire to save someone’s gold fish! Super Mountie was far from super at the moment, but he tended to forget that if someone was in trouble.

“Have they determined the cause yet?”

“Gas explosion in the kitchen, they think,” he answered, frowning again. “Preliminary is calling it an accident, but I’m still not happy.”

“You don’t agree with the report?”

“Let’s just say I’m being paranoid and leave it at that.”

“Where have you been?” Jeanie asked, rounding on James the minute he stepped in the door. She rushed over and enveloped him in a tight hug, her actions completely counter to the angry sting in her voice. She released him a moment later to frown up at him. “I was worried! I haven’t heard from David yet. Did you manage to find him?” she demanded.

“No,” he answered with worry of his own. “That’s where I’ve been all day. Trying to track him down. He hasn’t called?”

“No,” Jeanie answered, obviously upset, “and I’m getting worried. I’ve called all his friends I can think of, and-- and--”

She seemed to choke on her words and James frowned in concern as he saw her face go even more pale. He reached out to steady her. “--And?” he prompted hesitantly.

“And... the news just said they found a body in the fire!” she admitted, her voice breaking.

James straightened in surprise and drew her close. “That doesn’t mean it’s him,” he argue, trying to reassure her. “David disappears like this all the time. You told me that yourself.”

“I know, I know!” she hissed, trembling in his arms. “Especially on the weekends. But he should have called! I can’t believe he hasn’t heard about the fire by now. He wasn’t at Jody’s?”

“He did take her home,” James confirmed with a frown. “The doorman saw him, but Jody wasn’t much help. Last night is a bit of a blur from what I gather.”

“But he was there?” she asked, hopefully. “During the fire?”

James looked uncomfortable and shrugged. “It looks that way but I’m not sure,” he admitted, raking a hand through his blonde hair. “The doorman didn’t see him leave, but he wasn’t there when Jody woke up this morning and she swears she didn’t sleep with him; ‘though given how vague she was about everything else, I can’t see how she can be sure of anything.”

“Then he could have been at the Inn! I mean, what if--”

“Shhh!” James comforted her, reaching out to pull her close again and stroking her hair. “Don’t say it. We don’t know yet. The police would have called if it were him. There are a lot of people that work at the Inn. It could have been any of them.”

“Oh god,” she whispered brokenly, clinging to James as she cried in fear and worry.

The sound of someone driving up the gravel road to the cottage caught their attention. Jeanie broke away to run to the window, dashing her tears away with the back of her hand. “If that’s David, you have my permission to go ahead and wring his neck for worrying me like this!” she claimed as she pulled the drape aside.

James came up behind her as she frowned. That wasn’t David’s car. She didn’t immediately recognize the black GTO as it pulled to a stop next to James’ Jaguar, not until she saw Detective Kowalski and a woman in a red serge Mountie uniform and dark blue peacoat climb out of the car.

“That must be Ben’s sister,” Jeanie told James, having missed her the few times Jaelyn said she’d visited the Inn. “Jay said she was a Mountie too. They must be here to tell us what’s going on. He promised to have Jay call this morning, remember? But she never did.”

“I doubt he owns a TDD,” James excused the lapse.

“She could have used the operator,” Jeanie groused, ignoring the knowledge that her friend hated to do that. She shoved her worry for David aside and shook her head in frustration as she moved to open the door. “Detective Kowalski,” she greeted him briskly even as he stepped up onto the porch. She pasted a smile in place and shifted her gaze to the young woman who trailed him. She didn’t look much like Ben. “And... ‘Constable’ is it?”

“Constable Mackenzie,” she agreed with a nod and small smile as she shook the proffered hand. “I’m Ben’s sister.”

The two were waved inside and the door closed on what was promising to be a rather blustery fall afternoon. James came up behind Jeanie as she turned from the door and wrapped his arms around her. There was something about the two visitors that made him think they were here for more than a simple hello from Jaelyn.

“So, how’s Jay?” Jeanie asked immediately, either not catching their rather dour attitudes or ignoring it. “She didn’t call like you said she would,” she accused the blonde detective.

“Oh!” he frowned at the reminder. “I forgot to tell Vecchio about that.” He glanced at his watch. “They’re probably still asleep.”

“You haven’t moved them somewhere else or come to tell us what’s happening?” Jeanie asked with a frown.

“Ah, no,” Kowalski answered with an uncomfortable glance at Maggie.

“I’m afraid we have bad news, Ms. Tallin,” Maggie warned her gently. “You may want to sit down.”

Jeanie gasped and paled visibly as she clutched the arms around her. James held her more tightly as he felt her begin to tremble. “David,” she guessed in a hiss. “Oh dear god--”

“He’s been missing since last night,” James answered Kowalski’s inquisitive glance.

“Yeah,” he nodded grimly and glanced downward. God, he hated this part. There was no easy way to say it, so he said it fast, forcing himself to get it over with. “I’m sorry to have to inform you that your brother, David Tallin, was killed in the fire last night.”

Jeanie sagged in James’ arms and turned in his embrace, clutching him as her worst fears were perfunctorily confirmed. James enfolded her in his embrace and glared at the man for being so curt in his delivery, though he supposed it really didn’t make much difference. Kowalski glanced away uncomfortably, obviously wishing he hadn’t needed to deliver such sad news. Constable Mackenzie glanced down at the hat in her hands, giving the two of them a few moments of privacy as they dealt with the shock of the news.

James stroked Jeanie’s hair and comforted her as best he could. “Are you going to tell me you suspect Jeanie killed her own brother, Detective?” he hissed angrily over her head.

Both Ray and Maggie blinked in surprise at the unexpected accusation.

“You did say you thought it was a bomb and that Jeanie was a suspect?” he reminded them.

“At this point, the fire is being ruled an accident,” Ray answered quietly.

“Gas explosion?” James guessed. “In the kitchen, right?”

Kowalski frowned but nodded.

“David said he fixed a leak earlier in the evening, but I doubt he knew what he was doing.” James shook his head in belated anger.

Ray nodded again. That explained some things... and added to Ray’s suspicions. He frowned sympathetically as he regarded the weeping woman in the other man’s arms. Even if she had set a bomb, which he doubted, she certainly hadn’t meant to kill her own brother with it. He doubted she’d have risked such a thing and moved her further down his list of suspects. Not that he had many on his list. David, on the other hand, had shot to the top. His body had been found in the kitchen, where he’d had no business being at three in the morning even if he did work there. The excuse of fixing a gas leak gave him opportunity. It was quite possible that David had done something wrong while trying to plant a bomb and gotten caught in the blast. And, as the brother of the only beneficiary of Jaelyn’s Will, he also had motive, depending on how generous he expected his sister to be. Or he and his sister could have conspired together... with Manly. They’d both known him. Opportunity, motive and association. Yeah, David was a prime suspect even if he was dead. But Ray wasn’t going to tell the young couple before him that.

Jeanie fought to compose herself and pulled away from James. Lifting a hand to shield her face, she turned from them. “Excuse me!” she gasped and made a hasty exit for the bedroom. The three watched her escape and made no comment as the door swung sharply closed behind her, knowing she needed some privacy for her grief.

“You’re going to stay with her?” Ray asked her fiancé, knowing that she shouldn’t be left alone right away.

“Of course,” the man answered, bringing his own worried thoughts into order. “The body?” he forced himself to ask.

“It’s at the city morgue,” Kowalski answered and glanced away again. “I’m afraid... They had to identify it by dental records. It’s probably best to contact a mortuary and let them handle... everything.”

James nodded grimly and gestured to the door. There was nothing else to be said, after all.

“Right,” Kowalski sighed. At least it was over. Maggie led the way as they stepped back into the windy afternoon sunlight.

“We’re very sorry, Mr. Elliott,” Maggie paused to add her condolences. “If there’s anything we can do to help...”

The man merely shook his head. “Thank you,” he said quietly and closed the door behind them, wanting to get back to Jeanie. Ray and Maggie exchanged silent glances. They still had to tell Jaelyn and Ben.

Ren reached for the phone beside the hospital bed and tried the Consulate first. Constable Mackenzie would surely know if anything had happened to her brother. Unfortunately, he got the answering service. At 6:25 p.m. he’d known the Consulate to be closed except for emergency requests but had been hoping someone might still be there. He frowned at the television as they finished the sports segment and prepared to conclude the evening news broadcast. Given the personal nature of his call, and the unpleasant thought of Inspector Curruthers being disturbed to answer it, Ren didn’t feel it appropriate to leave a message. Frowning, he hung up and pondered who to try next.

The name of the victim had not yet been released, pending notification of next of kin, so he couldn’t simply call the city morgue to find out. He could try checking admissions at the various hospitals, but that was assuming Ben had been injured. It would not tell him if his friend was the victim referred to in the news broadcast, or if he’d escaped unharmed. Ren knew that if it were Ben, someone would eventually call to let him know, but he didn’t want to wait and worry.

He bit his lip as he considered calling the twenty-seventh district police station. Someone there would surely know something, but he didn’t know many of the detectives personally and knew how difficult it was to get a hold of them. And Lieutenant Welsh had almost certainly left for the day. It would be far simpler to call Ray Kowalski directly. Unfortunately, Ren could not remember his cell phone number.

He normally had an incredibly sharp mind for such details, but given his current condition and the various drugs he was on, he found little things hard to recall. It irritated the hell out of him! He shook his head and picked up the phone. He was going to have to call Francesca for the number. He was quite certain she had it memorized. With luck, she hadn’t seen the same news report or he’d almost certainly find her in a panic!

“Kowalski’s number?” Frannie repeated and shifted the phone to her other ear. “Yeah, sure it’s-- Did you just see that news report? Don’t tell me they didn’t call you and tell you about it!”

“Then Ben is all right?” Ren asked, knowing that Francesca would be very upset if the news were bad.

“Oh yeah! Yeah!” she quickly assured him. “He and Jaelyn are both fine! My brother’s babysitting them over at Kowalski’s. He called me a couple of hours ago to make sure I wouldn’t panic or anything. I guess he kinda forgot about you though, or maybe he thought I’d tell you. Geez, Ren, I’m so sorry! Things got a little crazy around here after Ray called. My doc suddenly decided to hook me up to all kinds of machines and IVs and everything, and I simply didn’t think to make sure someone had called you. I bet you were upset when you saw the news, huh?”

He had been, but easily dismissed it now that he knew Ben was all right. Instead, he frowned as he considered what else she had told him. “Machines and IVs, Francesca?” he echoed. “Is everything all right?”

“Oh yeah,” she repeated her earlier words and added a longsuffering sigh. “Apparently, I tried to go into labor. Geez! I’m not even twenty-seven weeks yet, but they’ve got me on some stuff now to prevent that. I’m sorry I didn’t think to call you about Benton.”

“Oh no, Francesca, that’s quite all right,” he assured her. “I understand. The babies must come first. You’re sure that everything is all right? Are they merely delaying things a bit or....”

“No, no,” she answered. “The emergency seems to be over. The babies are fine, I’m fine, we’re all... fine. Just bored out of our skulls being stuck in bed and all. They won’t even let me up to go to the bathroom! And that means I can’t come down and visit you like I always do.”

“That’s quite all right, Francesca,” he quickly told her again, hearing the frustration in her voice. Given what she’d just said, he certainly didn’t want her trying to do so. “How about if I pop up there instead? I’m getting quite good with this wheelchair and I somehow imagine the walls in the maternity wing aren’t quite so uninspiring to look at as those in the Rehabilitation Center.”

“That would be great!” she exclaimed and automatically lifted a hand to check her hair. Oh god, but she must be a mess! Still, it wasn’t like he’d seen her at her best lately anyway. Another thought stopped her. “Will they let you?”

“Hmm... it’s seven-thirty. Visiting hours end at eight. I won’t be able to stay long but I think I can manage to whip up there and try to put a smile on your face.”

Frannie felt herself blushing at the image his words conveyed. It seemed like a long time since anyone had worried about ‘putting a smile’ on her face. “Are you sure you won’t get in trouble?” she asked in concern. She’d hate to see him restricted to bed or something stupid for breaking curfew or whatever it was hospitals had.

“I don’t see why,” he answered, “as long as I’m back before the shift change at nine. I don’t think they’d like me missing then. And I will have to tell the Charge Nurse where I’m going. Still, it’s not like I’m a prisoner here, Francesca. I am often allowed to roam the grounds and hospital. It’s even encouraged.”

Frannie found herself smiling again simply over the way he said her name. Ben had always called her ‘Francesca’, but there was something special about the way Ren said it. “Okay, well, as long as it’s okay with the nurses then sure, Ren, I’d love to see you!”

“Excellent. I’ll be up in a jiffy!” he promised and hung up with a smile. He was quite certain he knew just how he could brighten her day. The thought of the sketch he was doing flashed to mind but was instantly dismissed. He wasn’t quite brave enough to show her that yet and, besides, it wasn’t finished. No, his other thought was much better.

He’d been by the gift shop earlier, just needing to get out of the Center and wander about a bit. There in the front window he’d seen the latest in the ‘Sword of Desire’ series being put out on display. It was number seven: ‘Chains of Honor’.

He’d seen Francesca reading the first one at the station some months before. He’d even picked up a copy himself in the desperate hope of engaging her in conversation concerning something she so obviously enjoyed. Besides, he’d been somewhat curious as to what women found so fascinating about such novels. He’d been quite surprised at the explicit nature of the material. And while the plot was painfully predictable, the subplots and character development were really quite well done. True, they were written almost exclusively from the female point of view, but it was still fun to picture himself in the role of the perfect hero... especially when he pictured Francesca as the damsel in distress.

He’d given into temptation and picked up the second one in the series when it came out. While he would never admit to enjoying them as much as he did James Bond or Sherlock Holmes, they weren’t the fluff he’d always thought they were. Yes, he knew Francesca would enjoy it, and perhaps he would admit that he’d ‘looked’ at a few of them himself. He’d decide how much more to admit depending upon how Francesca reacted to that.

He only hoped no one else had already purchased it for her.

Jaelyn sighed and frowned at the dinner, finding that she had absolutely no appetite. “I wonder if I can find a hotel with TDD service?” she mused aloud. She didn’t notice the two men eating with her exchange sharp, pensive frowns.

Ben touched her arm, drawing her attention. ^You --can’t go to --a hotel.^

Jaelyn smiled. “Sure I can,” she shrugged. “Your friend was more than kind to bring us here last night, but I don’t want to impose. I’ll find a place tomorrow. There are a ton of things I have to do: Contact my lawyers and the insurance people and--”

Interrupting, Ben reached out and touched her arm again, shaking his head and silencing her with a solemn gaze. ^There’s something --we need to --tell you,^ he signed.

Jaelyn frowned in confusion and glanced at the grim-faced Italian sitting opposite her. He said something to Ben who nodded in answer but never took his eyes from Jaelyn. “What?” she asked, instinctively knowing it was bad news.

^The fire --may not have been --an accident.^

“Not a--” She glanced at Ray. “The police think it was arson?”

Ray answered and Ben translated. ^They’re --not sure.^

Jaelyn frowned. “But why would--” She shook her head in confusion, and dismissed it. “It doesn’t matter. The men who tried to kill me are all dead. I’m not going to run and stick my head in the sand unless you have something more than a ‘maybe’ to offer me.”

The two men exchanged pensive glances.

Jaelyn sat back and offered the two a dark glare. Being deaf had certain advantages: one being that she was getting very good at reading facial expressions. She didn’t like what she saw. “What aren’t you telling me?” she demanded softly.

Ben sighed and glanced downward, pausing a long moment to run a thumb over his eyebrow as he debated how best to explain the situation. He really should have told her sooner, but regretting past decisions did not change them. He glanced up again, weighing his choices... It really didn’t matter how gently he tried to phrase it. Jaelyn would see beyond the attempt and react exactly the same regardless of his choice of words. Prevarication would only serve to irritate her further. She was going to be mad enough as it was.

^Manly was -- murdered,^ he told her bluntly.

Jaelyn’s frown again became confused. “He drove off a bridge into the Chicago River,” she protested. “How can you say he was murdered?”

It was Ray who answered, Ben translated. Jaelyn sat back, unable to believe what they were telling her. She just... They were being paranoid! She folded her arms and argued with them. Then Ben mentioned the DNA evidence taken from under her fingernails. One of the few memories she had of the attack was of trying to keep from being stabbed. She’d made a terrified grab at the man’s wrist and missed, but her nails had raked his inner arm even as the knife...

Ben cursed silently as he watched Jaelyn suddenly gasp and shudder violently. Her eyes snapped shut and her face went white. For a moment, he thought she would scream. Instead, she suddenly slumped to the side. He reached out awkwardly to catch her even as she started to slip to the floor.

“Damn,” Vecchio snapped, shoving his chair back and racing around the table. “This one of those flashback/panic things you told us about?” He was at her side now. He helped brace her as Ben shoved his own seat back. “What do we do?” Ray asked.

Ben frowned at his inability to answer but managed to convey his thoughts with a nod of his head and a glance. Together they got her lying on the floor and then Ben waved Ray away, stepping back himself.

“What now?” Ray asked in concern. “We just leave her like that?” He was more than a bit surprised when Ben merely nodded. “You knew this was going to happen, didn’t you?” he continued. “That’s why you didn’t tell her before.”

Ben nodded again, grimly, watching Jaelyn and debating whether they needed to call an ambulance. She wouldn’t appreciate it and, as he understood things, there wasn’t much they could do for her physically. At least she didn’t go into convulsions.

“You tell her about the Tallin boy, or just Manly?”

Ben answered with another frown and a single raised brow.

“Sorry.” Ray heaved a sigh and ran a hand over his close shorn pate. “Manly?”

Ben nodded.


Ben shook his head.

“Greeeeeat.” Ray had to wonder if they were going to be facing another fainting spell when she learned that. “These things last long?”

That was a subjective question. All Ben could do was shrug but it was less than a minute before she began to stir again. She blinked her eyes open in confusion and then turned her head to frown at Ben. The confusion vanished to be replaced by irritation. “I did it again, didn’t I?”

Ben nodded and stepped forward to offer her his hand, knowing she didn’t want further comment.

“You okay?” Ray asked in concern from where he’d resumed his seat at Ben’s suggestion.

Jaelyn stared at Ben’s hand for a long moment and felt a shiver pass through her. She couldn’t help it. It took her a long moment to shove the images that flashed to mind away. She forced herself to grasp the proffered hand and permitted him to pull her to her feet. She released it at once, stepping away slightly to brush off her jeans. “Thanks.”

Ray watched the two of them pensively, knowing he wasn’t going to get a direct answer to his question. She seemed a little shaken and... ‘false’ for lack of a better word. The facade of normalcy was a thin veneer at best. It was obvious Ben wasn’t going to disturb that. “Well, I think dinner’s over,” he offered with a sigh. He stood to clear the dishes. “Want I should make a pot of coffee or anything?”

Jaelyn took the facade and put it firmly in place, donning it like a suit of armor. She put her hands on her hips and faced Ben with a scowl. “That was fun,” she said sarcastically. “What else haven’t you told me, Ben? I take it you think that whoever killed--” She stumbled on Greg’s name and decided to simply skip it. “--set the fire?”

^Possibly,^ Ben answered. ^We --don’t --know.^

“But you think someone might still be after me?”

^Possibly,^ he repeated.

“And you didn’t think I needed to know that.”

It wasn’t a question. Ben glanced down uncomfortably. He’d known she’d be upset when the truth came to light but he hadn’t expected this.

“I don’t need a bodyguard for my emotions, Constable Fraser,” she snapped quietly. Ben winced under the lash of the more formal address. “What else haven’t you told me?”

Ben and Ray exchanged glances. “My turn,” Ray decided.

Ben frowned and shook his head.

“Hey!” Ray stopped him from turning back to Jaelyn. “My jurisdiction. My job.”

Ben sighed and shook his head again. This had nothing to do with jurisdiction and professional courtesy.

“I mean it, Benny,” Ray insisted. “Kowalski asked me to tell both of you, not to have you pass it on. Besides, she’ll get over her snit faster if she has two targets to aim at. Divide and conquer.”

Jaelyn wasn’t having a mere ‘snit’ and Ben knew it. He’d broken trust with her, even if he’d done it for her own protection.

“Gentlemen?” Jaelyn insisted quietly, in clear impatience.

“Just act as translator,” Ray told Ben. He offered Jaelyn a sympathetic look.

^You may --want to --sit down, --Miss McKenna.^

Jaelyn offered the two men a suspicious frown. It was obvious that Ben was translating directly. He had another ‘think’ coming if he thought that would keep him from being blamed for keeping another secret from her! “Out with it,” she ordered, folding her arms, “both of you.” She focused her frown on Ben, concentrating on her anger and ignoring her fear.

“Sit down,” Ray insisted in turn, taking her by the arm and leading her over to the couch. “I don’t feel like having to catch you again. You better be translating this, Benny, or you’ll have both of us angry at you!”

Jaelyn jerked out of Ray’s hold and turned to Ben, reading his signing. ^Sit down,^ he said simply.

“What’s he mad about?” she jerked a thumb at Ray and awarded him an angry glance of her own.

“Sit down!” She didn’t have to hear to know he’d raised his voice.

^He’s not --mad,^ Ben answered. ^Just --insistent. --We have some --bad news.^

“Bad news?”

Ray lifted an eyebrow at Ben but refused to say anything more until Jaelyn was seated. Then he squatted down before her and, despite the fact that she could not hear his voice, proceeded to break the news as gently as possible. Ben stood behind him, translating.

“David?” she echoed in shock, feeling the blood leave her face. “And this is connected somehow with... with Greg... and...” She closed her eyes and buried her face in her hands, blocking out Ben and his friend. There was no faint or ‘episode’ to escape into this time. David... She suddenly looked up. “Does Jeanie know?”

Again, Ray answered, then Ben translated. ^Ray and --Ben’s sister --were going --to tell her.^

“Oh god,” Jaelyn sighed. “I’ve got to go to her. She can’t be alone after something like this.”

Ben shook his head, touching her shoulder and forcing her back to the couch as he took a place beside her. ^You can’t,^ he told her. ^You’ll only --be putting her --in danger.^

“Danger?” she echoed. “Because I’ve got some psychopath after me? It doesn’t make sense, Ben! Greg wanted his share of the inheritance, but why would anyone else want me dead?”

“Kowalski thinks he panicked when we first ID’d Dawson and has decided to eliminate anyone who knew about the attack,” Ray answered. It took Ben a long moment to pass it on.

“But I don’t remember anything!” she protested. “He’s got to know that!”

“Why? How would he know that? Just because you haven’t ID’d him yet?” Ray asked. Watching with a pensive frown as Benny slowly repeated his words. “Besides, there’s no guarantee that you won’t remember.”

“If I were going to remember, I’d have done it by now, don’t you think?”

^Not necessarily,^ Ben offered, but Jaelyn had bowed her head and buried her face in her hands again.

“I can’t believe this is happening to me,” she cried softly. “I thought the nightmare was over. Haven’t I been through enough?”

Ben reached out and forced her head up, forced her to look at him. ^We are --not --sure that it was -- a bomb,^ he told her emphatically. ^--The fire could be -- nothing more than --a tragic accident. --We’re just being --cautious.^

“But what about the fourth attacker?”

^He may have --simply --fled the state.^

“After taking the time to kill Greg and make it look like a suicide?”

“Maybe,” Vecchio answered, automatically pausing as he watched Ben translate. “Maybe not. We don’t know yet. But we don’t want you running around until we do. Look at it this way: he’s already killed three, maybe four people. You wanta put your other friends in danger if someone is after you?”

Jaelyn frowned pensively over that and turned to stare at Ben for a long moment before she lifted her hands and signed something, forgoing speech.

Ben looked away uncomfortably for a long moment before answering. She shook her head in disgust, stood up and walked into the bedroom without a single word, slamming the door behind her. Ben dropped his head in defeat.

“What?” Vecchio asked. It was frustrating only hearing half or, in this case, none of a conversation.

Ben shook his head. She’d asked when he’d found out... and had not liked his answer. He picked up the pen and paper he and Ray had been using earlier while Jaelyn was in the shower and simply wrote, ~She’s angry, Ray.~

“Really?” Vecchio sighed sarcastically. “I would’ve never guessed!”

“Turnbull?” Ray did a double-take shortly after leaving Frannie’s hospital room three days later. Sure enough it was the injured Mountie, dressed in the same dark blue RCMP sweats Ben had favored while in the hospital, making slow but determined progress toward him with the aid of a walker.

Ren paused in his journey and glanced up as he heard his name, surprised to discover Francesca’s brother bearing down on him. “Oh dear!”

“Turnbull!” he repeated with a pleasant smile as he came up on the other man. “You’re walking! That’s great!”

Turnbull felt his face pale and stared at Ray for a long, panic stricken moment, remembering the portrait he’d only recently finished of Francesca and instantly terrified that somehow her brother had learned of it! Ren knew it was impossible but still felt a guilty start upon seeing the other man. Besides, he wasn’t at all sure how Ray would feel about him visiting Francesca.

Ray’s smile vanished to be replaced by a look of concern. “You don’t look too hot,” he noted, placing a steadying hand on the taller man’s arm. “You need to sit down or something?”

“Oh, ah, no!” Ren answered awkwardly, forcing his thoughts forward once more. “I’m fine, Ray, thank you. It’s... This is my first attempt at such a distance with the walker. I’m just a little tired.”

“You on your way to Frannie’s room?”

“Ah, yes, actually,” Ren answered, feeling another stab of fear as he considered Ray’s possible reactions. He knew very well how protective of his little sister the Italian detective was.

“We just got back from one of those Lamaze classes,” Ray confided. “They showed us a Caesarean today. Man, are those videos graphic! I still can’t believe Frannie’s having sextuplets. We’re going to have to hire a nanny just to help change all the diapers.”

That would probably be a good idea, Ren thought, at least for the first few weeks until a schedule could be worked out.

“Anyway,” Ray continued, “you sure you’re all right? You need any help getting down there?”

The room was only another twenty-five meters down the hall. The last thing Ren wanted was for Francesca to see her brother having to help him. “No, thank you, I’m fine,” he repeated. “I was simply pushing myself too hard. I just need to slow down.”

Ray frowned pensively as he considered Turnbull’s apparent physical condition, but his skin tone had returned to normal and he was breathing okay, so Ray took him at his word. “All right,” he nodded. “I’m running late for a meeting at the station anyway. Do me a favor, would you?”

“Certainly,” he agreed, secretly surprised by the request. “How may I be of service, Ray?”

“I just chased MacKenzie King outta Frannie’s room,” her brother explained and glanced at his watch. “She had to come to the Lamaze class and get pictures of us. God, it was embarrassing! The woman is talking nonsense and asking stupid questions; everything from Gerber baby food endorsements to what Frannie is planning to wear for the C-section. I finally had it and threw her out. Make sure she doesn’t come back while you’re visiting my sister, okay? Frannie needs a break.”

“Ah!” Ren returned with a serious nod, wanting to prove himself to her brother in even so small a matter. “You can count on me, Ray. I’ll make certain that your sister is not further disturbed by Miss King while I am here. Leave it to me.”

“You’re a good man, Turnbull.” Ray slapped him on the shoulder and turned on his heel to hurry away, calling back a quick, “Thanks!”

Ren shook his head and smiled to himself as he watched Detective Vecchio disappear into the elevators. Apparently, Ray either didn’t mind his attentions toward Francesca or, as was more likely, completely failed to see him as a possible suitor. Given Francesca’s maternal state, Ray probably thought that wasn’t something he had to worry about. Ren was quite grateful for his apparent blindness.

Jaelyn frowned down at the mix of pills in her hand. Three tablets twice a day was nothing compared to what she’d been on. Maggie had been very kind to arrange refills for both her and Ben through Dr. Martin so that neither had been without their medications for even a full day, but she would be very happy when the day came that she could toss the last prescription bottle in the trash! Unfortunately, that wasn’t today. She popped the pills in her mouth and washed them down with her coffee.

“Am I under arrest here?” Jaelyn asked, carefully controlling her volume and pronunciation as she finished up her breakfast.

“Of course not,” Maggie answered, translating her own words into sign.

“Have the police found any evidence of a bomb at my estate yet?”

“No,” she answered, glancing at Ben on the other side of the table.

Jaelyn gave a small, decisive nod. “Then it’s time for me to go.”


“If someone wanted me dead, Ben, they would have had a hundred chances to kill me before the night of the fire and wouldn’t have had to resort to a bomb to do it,” she argued. “It’s been four days. You’ve all given me a nice scare but, frankly, the more I think about it, the less I believe it. I’ve got things I’ve got to do. David’s funeral is today, and I’m going. That’s that. I’m not putting my life on hold while you guys figure this out!”

“Fine,” Maggie agreed, and sat back with a little frown. Ben glanced at her in surprise but was reassured as she straightened her shoulders in clear determination. “Let’s compromise. There’s no need to toss all security out the window. Where do you want to go?”

“I’ve decided to use one of the cottages at the estate until I figure out what to do about the main house.”

Maggie shook her head firmly. Her signing became quite clear and crisp, as no nonsense as her words. “No. You’re too isolated out there. Later, if there are no more incidents or we find no further evidence of this fourth man, you can press your case again. Until then, pick somewhere else.”

It was Jaelyn’s turn to frown. Ben watched silently as the two women squared off.

“I appreciate the concern, Maggie,” Jaelyn rejoined, “but I can make these decisions on my own.”

“Ah,” Maggie nodded, donning her professional mien. “I see.”

“What?” Jaelyn frowned suspiciously as she saw the cool detachment settle over her friend’s face.

“You ‘appreciate’ the concern, but it doesn’t matter to you. Your friends are worried about your safety, but you’re going to ignore that and do what you want anyway.” She cocked her head to the side. “That’s rather selfish, don’t you think?”

Jaelyn sighed. “There’s no need to be worried.”

“Someone else wanted to rape and kill you, Jaelyn,” Maggie told her bluntly, her signing taking on a definite snap. “DNA evidence proves that. Three men have been murdered with the same weapon, two of whom we know were involved in your attack. Chances are, the crimes are related. Chances are, he’ll come after you too. There’s only one phone line out there, one road, no neighbors, no fence, no security system, the police are a good five minutes away,” Maggie enumerated the dangers. “The only thing standing between you and anyone who might want to kill you is a simple dead lock, that’s assuming of course that the cottages ‘have’ deadlocks...”

Jaelyn glared irritably.

Maggie glanced at Ben and shrugged. “And we’re not supposed to worry.”

“All right!” Jaelyn snapped. “You made you’re point.”

Maggie fell silent and sat back to quietly sip her coffee, letting Jaelyn mull over the situation. She was a proud young woman and it wasn’t easy for her to accept the fact that she needed their help, whether she wanted it or not.
Jaelyn glared at Ben. “She’s as bad as you are!”

Ben glanced at Maggie, carefully keeping an inscrutable mask in place. He was actually quite proud of the way his sister had handled the situation. He glanced back at Jaelyn and offered a simple, acknowledging nod. Yes, Maggie was just as stubborn as he was and Jaelyn might as well learn that now.

“What about The Manilow Suites Harbor Towers?” Jaelyn asked, naming one of the most expensive corporate apartment complexes in the city without batting an eyelash. “High rise, high security, downtown Chicago. I can get a business suite. Computer, fax, and probably even TDD. At least I’ll be close to my lawyers and what-not.”

“If Ben stays with you.”

“I don’t need a bodyguard!”

Maggie merely cocked her head in the other direction and lifted a brow.

“Fine,” Jaelyn relented and offered Ben another glare. “I haven’t fired him... yet.”

“Since when does one fire a friend?” Maggie rejoined curtly.

“He should have told me what was going on!”

“Maybe,” Maggie nodded. “They say hindsight is twenty-twenty. He was only trying to protect you. Are you going to stay angry with him because of it? How many times does he have to apologize?” Ben bit his lip and glanced downward, running a thumb over his eyebrow as he suddenly found himself the center of conversation.

Jaelyn closed her eyes and let her head fall back, blocking out the arguments for the moment. She sighed wearily, knowing she couldn’t win! Maggie was right, damn it. Did they give Mountie’s some kind of specialized training in combat logic techniques? Ben had made a bad decision and, as much as Jaelyn felt hurt and betrayed by his lack of trust in her, he’d made that decision with her best interests at heart. It wasn’t right to hold it against him forever.

She opened her eyes and glared at him. “Don’t keep me in the dark like that again,” she warned him firmly. She couldn’t handle it if he did that to her again.

He offered her a very serious gaze and nodded firmly. It wasn’t a mistake he would ever repeat.

Jaelyn frowned into his eyes and saw the promise and regret. It was impossible to stay angry at him. She sighed and turned back to Maggie. “Fight over,” she decided. “I need to make some phone calls - and don’t even think about trying to talk me out of going to the funeral!”

Dr. Brennan was a good man, a mite over cautious maybe but that wasn’t something to fault in a doctor, he thought. Vecchio had been rather frustrated at the end of their last meeting because he’d refused to immediately discuss surgery. He had required that Ray make a second appointment and think about his options in the mean time.

Options. There weren’t many. Either he had the surgery or he didn’t.

The bullet had hit a rib and fragmented, which was why the docs hadn’t tried to remove it; well, that and the fact that he’d been bleeding to death and too unstable for them to go fishing around for the various pieces. They’d simply patched him up and hoped for the best.

There were three pieces: one in the pleural cavity between his right lung and chest wall, one tucked behind the aortic arch just above and behind his heart and, the last one, tucked behind his pancreas.

He was damn lucky to have survived and Doc Brennan made sure he knew it. To get back on the Force, all three pieces would have to be removed because all three posed a potential hazard to his health within the physical demands of the job. Yes, he could live with them, and hope he wasn’t in a fight or accident that might see any of them shift. The body would encapsulate them in scar tissue, thus making shifting more unlikely over time, but there was no way he’d get back onto the Force.

He frowned down at the paperwork the doctor had given him. Any surgery held risk but given that the doc would have to go into three separate regions of his body (and especially around his heart) he was considered ‘high’ risk. He was going to have to fight the insurance to cover it, but it didn’t matter if they did or not. He’d decided to go ahead with it anyway. At thirty-nine years of age he wasn’t ready to retire just yet.

He’d joined the Force to make a difference, to give back to the community in a way his Pop never had, to fight users like Frankie Zuko and the drug dealers that killed kids like Marco and Vinnie... He couldn’t just sit back and watch someone else fight that battle in his neighborhood.

He clicked the ball point pen open and quickly scrawled his signature in all the appropriate boxes. He’d decided to wait until after the holidays. It was a long wait, about two and a half months, but by then, hopefully, Lucas would be on the road to recovery and Frannie would have had her babies. He didn’t want to put any extra stress on the family right now. No, January would be soon enough. He’d tell everyone then, and enjoy a couple extra months of paid vacation in the mean time.

He handed the paperwork over to the nurse with a smile and tucked his pen back into his pocket. A glance at the clock on the wall told him he’d been thinking too much. He’d have to hurry to make it upstairs to the Lamaze class. Frannie would kill him if he were late!

“Ben,” Dr. Martin greeted him with a smile as her secretary ushered him into her office. “I’ve been looking forward to seeing you today. The hospital administration’s been keeping me too busy with paperwork lately. I heard about the fire out at Jaelyn’s place. That must have been terrible.”

Ben merely nodded as he took the chair opposite her desk and resisted the urge to sigh as he waited for her to give him his evaluation report.

She cocked her graying head to the side and pursed her lips as she regarded his stoic expression. “Are you simply tired or is the fire something you don’t want to talk about?” she asked bluntly.

Dr. Martin was never one to pull her punches. It was one of the things Ben liked best about her. It reminded him of his grandmother. ^Both,^ he answered truthfully.

She nodded and sat back in her chair. “Cindy says you’re getting depressed again.”

He frowned sharply and shook his head. Depression was one emotion he refused to tolerate within himself. ^Frustrated,^ he corrected the absent assistant’s diagnosis.

“With your apparent lack of progress,” Dr. Martin nodded again and sat forward. “Say ‘map’,” she ordered.

Ben closed his eyes and offered a momentary sigh. He’d been through this routine before. He couldn’t say it. He knew he couldn’t say it. But he also knew she wouldn’t back off until he tried. He opened his eyes and gave her what she wanted. It was easier than arguing. “Mmmm... mah...ck.”

She nodded. “Pale.”

He glanced downward, not wanting Dr. Martin to see exactly how frustrating this was for him. Cindy had put him through the evaluation test last week. He didn’t see the purpose in repeating it! He raked a thumb over his brow and forced the emotion aside. “Brrrrahg,” he offered half-heartedly.

She shook her head. “Don’t be lazy. Try,” she insisted.

Lazy!? He glared at the desk before him, masking his emotions as best he could. He couldn’t help but take offense at the accusation. He’d been very diligent about doing his mouth exercises, often devoting extra time at the beginning and end of each day. He concentrated fiercely, giving Dr. Martin the full benefit of all his exercises. “Paaaaa...athg!” It made no difference.

“Better,” she nodded.

Better? He glanced up at her in irritated disbelief, glancing downward again just as quickly.


“Bay...baaay... koh.” Ben lifted a brow in surprise at himself. That had been fairly close.

“Excellent!” Dr. Martin exclaimed and sat back with a smile. “You still don’t see the improvement do you?”

Ben frowned pensively. Improvement? Because he’d come close to a single intelligible word? He doubted he could repeat the performance, so no, he shook his head, he definitely didn’t see any change in his condition, despite all his efforts. He was beginning to fear he never would.

“You were able to reproduce the initial sound of each word, Ben,” the doctor told him. “‘Mmm --Pah --Bay’; these are some of the primary consonants sounds children first learn when they begin to speak. And when everything is said and done, that’s basically where you are, relearning what you learned when you were young, unfortunately it gets much harder after about age twelve. Don’t ask me to explain that or we’ll be here all day. Still don’t think there’s been any progress?”

Ben frowned as he considered it. He supposed she was right, there was progress, but it was certainly minimal.

Dr. Martin again frowned and regarded him pensively. “You have some sort of deadline in your head, don’t you?” she guessed, reading his too expressive face. He knew his frustration was showing and tried to mask it. “Don’t you?” she repeated insistently

He sighed and lifted his hands. ^I have an --RCMP --Medical --Review --Board --hearing in --less than --ten months.^

Dr. Martin nodded stoically. “And if you fail, you’re out, is that it?”

Succinctly put. Ben nodded grimly.

“Would that be the end of the world, Ben?”

He frowned. For him... it would come damn close. He couldn’t imagine doing anything else with his life. The thought that he might have to...

“I don’t want you to give up hope here, Ben,” she told him seriously, “but I told you when we started that it was going to be a long, hard fight. You’re going to be in ‘recovery’ from this for the rest of your life. I’m not going to feed you sunshine and roses and tell you that you’ll make that ten month deadline... but you might. It’s too early to tell. Let me explain a little something about what’s going on in that head of yours - physically that is.

“You’ve still got a wound up there. No, you didn’t hit your head but you might as well have. The loss of blood and lack of circulation to certain areas caused the same kind of damage and your body is still trying to repair it. Think of it like a bruise. When you hit your arm or shin, capillaries and surface veins are destroyed and there’s a loss of blood into the surrounding tissues. The area swells. The body reacts by sending platelets and white blood cells to the area, sealing off the leakage. Then it has to remove the blood from the surrounding tissue. The area turns black and blue, and eventually the swelling goes down as the dead blood cells are dissolved and carried away.

“The same sort of thing is going on in your head. When your brain first found itself starving for oxygen, it reacted as if it were bruised. It swelled, expanding the capillaries and arteries in a desperate effort to get the oxygen it needed. The problem is that the brain is enclosed in the finite space of the skull. There are internal structures that allow for a certain amount of swelling but those areas of the brain that are most important to life are going to swell more than others and those that aren’t as important to life, are sacrificed. By the time normal, or at least acceptable, circulation was restored, some of those areas had suffered irreversible damage; and yes, they were bruised, quite literally. Capillaries and small veins were torn and broken, tissue was destroyed. Platelets and white blood cells were sent out, stopping the leakage. There was also a very complex cascade of physiologic, vascular, and biochemical reactions involving the formation of oxygen-free radicals; changes in neuropeptides, electrolytes such as calcium and magnesium, excitatory amino acids, arachidonic acid metabolites and-- “ She frowned as she realized she was getting too technical.

“Suffice it to say, they only made the damage worse. It’s called ischaemia. As the rest of your brain recovered from the original edema, the damaged area had room to swell in turn. Now, your body is dealing with ‘that’ bruise, removing the dead blood cells and tissues, but it takes time. In the meantime, the area is putting pressure on surrounding tissues and interfering with the process of trying to reroute all those electrical impulses that really don’t know where to go while you’re trying to relearn how to speak. As time passes, it’ll sort itself out. The swelling will go down and the various synapses will figure out new pathways to get the information from one area of the brain to another.

“I’ve told you before, we generally see at least some spontaneous improvement in cases such as yours in about three to four months after the initial trauma.” She sat back with a sigh. “It’s only been ten weeks, Ben. If you still can’t say a single intelligible word after six months, then I’d suggest making plans that don’t include the RCMP. Until then... Your long term prognosis is still very much up in the air. The odds aren’t good, I’ve told you that, but that doesn’t mean you can’t beat them. I’m quite pleased with the progress I’ve seen so far, minimal though you might think it to be.”

Ben frowned pensively and glanced downward, wrestling with her words and his own sense of self-worth. He had never considered himself to be a vain man; but he did, or he had, taken pride in his various skills, including language. He spoke three languages fluently; English, French and Inuktitut, well four if you included Sign; and could get by in another handful including Chinese, Mandarin, FuChow, German, Russian... and none of that mattered now! He’d always taken the knowledge and skills of communication for granted and now he couldn’t even sign without ‘stuttering’!

Time. God, he was tired of always....

He knew how important exact understanding in certain situations could be. Six months and she hoped he could say one intelligible word? One? He reached up and ran his thumb over his brow yet again. He knew she had to be exaggerating that somewhat. He’d never pass the--

Actually, he would. Physically, he was recovering quite nicely. And, if he were realistic about accepting Dr. Martin’s evaluation, he could expect to speak again... barely. A speech impediment, even a severe one, would not be enough to see him forced into early retirement. The powers that be would simply stick him behind a desk somewhere where his lack of communications skills wouldn’t matter.

He thought of Buck Frobisher and how frustrating the last few years before retirement must have been for the highly decorated and proud man, and Ben knew that he was facing the exact same fate. The same frustration. The same-- It was a bitter pill to swallow: acknowledging one’s own limitations and weaknesses; trying to rationalize the importance of even the mundane jobs such as filing and evidence logging into the larger scheme of--

He shoved the thoughts aside. Realistic though they might be, they were not particularly constructive and he didn’t want to walk down the emotional path they lead to. At the moment, the doctor was telling him that--

He would not accept a clerical job were it offered. It was that simple. He’d ask for that early retirement first. He wasn’t sure what he’d do in that eventuality, and he really didn’t want to think about it; but it was a possibility that he needed to face and give serious consideration. The doctor was holding out no false promises. He might recover. He might not. He’d suffered brain damage. It was an injury that would never simply heal and ‘go away’. And all his stubborn determination and pride could not change that simple fact.

He straightened in his chair and gave an unconscious nod, acknowledging the worst that fate might have to offer without yet giving in to it. There were other things he could do with his life outside the RCMP if he had too, and he would explore them; but he wasn’t giving up the fight. Not yet. He returned his gaze to the doctor and lifted his hands.

^Thank you --doctor,^ he signed as smoothly as he could. ^Is there --anything else?^

“No,” she sighed, regarding him pensively. “That about covers it. You know it’s perfectly normal to be frustrated and depressed by all of this, Ben. I think you should let me set up an appointment with Dr. Carter again.”

Ben did not particularly like Dr. Carter. He was certain the younger man was quite skilled (or at least well-schooled) in his profession, or Ben dared assume so. He’d only met with him once while he was still an in-patient. Unfortunately, the man projected an air of... over-abundant sympathy that struck Ben as being entirely false. Besides, Dr. Carter might be the only psychologist within the hospital who knew sign, but his signing was atrocious.

Ben shook his head. ^Thank you --no.^

“Have you been having any trouble eating or sleeping lately?”

Ben cocked his head to the side and awarded the doctor a mildly amused and reassuring smile for the transparent question. ^I am fine --Dr. Martin.^

“No, you’re not,” she corrected him, “but I think you’re dealing with everything as well as can be expected, so I won’t push it. I just don’t want you to be too proud to ask for help if you need it.”

He nodded his understanding and rose, offering another reassuring smile as he shook her hand. Jaelyn, who was waiting for him in the reception area, rose as he exited the doctor’s office. She and Dr. Martin paused to exchange greetings before the doctor had to turn to the next patient on her schedule. She promised to see them both at the communication disorders class in a couple of hours. Silently, the two of them turned and headed for the elevators, having already decided to spend the time they had left visiting Ren, and maybe grabbing a lite dinner in the cafeteria if time permitted. Ben doubted it would as he still had to use the cane and pace himself rather slowly for such distances. The cane also interfered with conversing but Jaelyn didn’t seem to mind. The two of them walked the too familiar corridors in silent companionship, as they had often done in the past, Jaelyn matching his slow stride without a second thought.

“I don’t see any obvious signs but let’s do a test for amniotic fluid anyway,” the doctor told the nurse as she lifted the blankets back in place. She took a moment to gauge her patient’s mental and physical state as she waited for the current contraction to pass. Ms. Vecchio was on the verge of panic and needed to be distracted. The doctor also took in the man sitting at her side. “I don’t believe I’ve met your friend here, Mister....”

“Turnbull,” he offered readily, but the majority of his attention remained on Ms. Vecchio. “Renfield Turnbull.”

“Ah!” the doctor recognized the name. “The hero Mountie who saved your life?”

Rennie flinched slightly at this rather embarrassing but concise description of himself. He forced himself to ignore the blush he knew must grace his face and instead concentrated on calming Francesca. The contraction was passing now and he lowered the hand that he had pressed to his face, giving the frightened woman a reassuring smile.

“Yes,” Frannie answered the doctor when she could spare the breath again. She turned to gaze at Rennie with adoring eyes, taking in his embarrassed blush and... His eyes captured her attention. There was something... She’d never had anyone look at her quite like that before. It was as if he were seeing someone else entirely, someone to cherish and... She blinked as the nurse bustled about on Rennie’s side of the bed, breaking his attention and lifting the blankets again.

She must be imagining things! She turned her attention back to what the doctor was saying.

“I’ve heard a lot of good things about you, Constable Turnbull,” she offered as she picked up the five feet of printout that lay in front of the monitor at Frannie’s bedside. “I got that right, didn’t I? It’s Constable?”

“Not anymore,” he answered quietly, and offered Frannie’s suddenly concerned frown another reassuring smile. “I’m no longer with the RCMP.”
“Oh, Rennie!” Frannie sympathized with the pain she knew he must be going through. Was this why he’d come to visit her at such an odd hour? To tell her he’d finally gotten his discharge orders?

“I’m quite all right, Francesca,” he assured her, lifting her hand to kiss it. “I’ve been expecting it.” She searched his sky-blue eyes, expecting to see pain and disillusionment... and finding none. His assurance wasn’t mere words meant to comfort her.

“Ah, medical retirement? I understand you were shot protecting our girl here?” the doctor continued the conversation but her attention was obviously elsewhere. She’d taken out her fetoscope and was listening to Francesca’s stomach.

“Yes, ma’am,” he answered, awarding the woman only a glance.

The woman nodded, her concentration on what she was hearing as she shifted the instrument over Frannie’s exposed abdomen.

Frannie suddenly realized exactly how exposed she was and shot a glance at Rennie. His attention was fully on her face, awarding only an occasional glance to the doctor and nurse, completely oblivious to the fact that she was more than half-naked. Not that she was exactly desirable or anything at the moment, but she knew he’d be blushing scarlet if he’d noted that fact!

“Okay, Frannie--” The doctor turned back from the nurse with an obvious decision of some sort.

And another contraction chose that moment to rear its ugly head.

“Breathe, Frannie,” she instructed her patient calmly, moving to Frannie’s right side and taking up her other hand. “Try to stay relaxed. Let your body do the work. Relax. Relax... that’s it.”

It was a full minute before the doctor continued with what she’d wanted to say. “These kids of yours are anxious to get out here,” she informed them with a smile. “You about ready to get this over with Frannie?”

“You can’t stop it?” she asked again anxiously.

“No,” the doctor shook her head, projecting an air of assurance and expertise. “The amniotic test was positive. One of the sacs is leaking; not much, or you’d be sitting in a pool of waters.” She smiled in amusement. “However, once one breaks... Let’s just say someone is going to get very uncomfortable in there with all his brothers and sisters. Don’t tell me you’re not ready to get this over with!”

“But I’m only twenty-seven weeks!”

The doctor leaned close and became serious in the face of her patient’s near panic. “Twenty-seven weeks is damn good for sextuplets, Frannie,” she repeated firmly. “I’m surprised we got you this far along. You’re doing fine. Weight gain is normal. Blood analysis normal. No complications. No fetal distress, and all fetal heart tones are good. Heaven’s woman, I wish all my deliveries started out this well!” She leaned back and folded her arms. “Do you have anyone you want us to call for you? A Lamaze coach or level headed family member who’s been through this sort of thing before?”

“My brother, Ray,” Frannie answered, biting her lip as she fought to stay calm, “but I wouldn’t exactly call him level headed. Oh! And King. MacKenzie King. I agreed to let her do a story on--” Her words were interrupted by another contraction.

“I know,” the doctor assured her and nodded at a nearby nurse. “We’ll make sure they both get the word.” The doctor smiled and glanced at the man beside Frannie’s bed, holding fiercely to her patient’s hand. “How about you, Mr. Turnbull?” she asked, taking in his obvious concern and support for the young woman in the bed. “Are you up to sticking around for the big event?”

“If Miss Vecchio wants--”

“Would you, Ren--” she gasped as the contraction peaked and gripped her with it’s full force. “Ray’s going to be worthless!” she managed to force out around the pain.

Ren stroked her brow as he gazed into her anxious and fear-filled eyes. “I would be honored to help you in anyway I can, Francesca,” he assured her calmly and again kissed the back of her hand, ignoring the white knuckled grip that threatened to crush his own hand.

“Have you ever been in the delivery room before, Mr. Turnbull?” the doctor interjected, causing him to glance from Frannie again before she could fully fathom what it was she saw in the depths of his eyes.

“No, ma’am,” he answered, “but I am trained in emergency medical procedures, including delivery. I was also raised on a ranch and often helped my uncle birth cattle and horses.”

The doctor laughed. “Cattle and horses don’t tend to grab you by the throat and threaten to castrate you if you don’t do something about the pain right now! But I’ll be quite happy if you don’t turn green and faint on me.”

“I think I can manage not to do that, Doctor,” he assured her and gave Frannie a smile as the grip on his hand relaxed once more.

“Well, things are going to get a lot more confusing around here than they did on that ranch,” the doctor assured him. “We’re going to be moving kinda fast. Your job, Mr. Turnbull, is to help keep Miss Vecchio calm. Frannie, don’t hold your breath when the contractions hit, and tensing up only makes them worse. First thing we’re going to do is give you a spinal block to take care of that pain, then we shift to the operating theater, so--” She glanced at Turnbull. “--You’re going to have to put on some scrubs. As soon as the spinal is in, ask the nurse to show you were to change. Any questions?”

The two exchanged nervous glances but shook their heads.

“Let’s get this show on the road!” the doctor announced with a nod and turned to the nurse to issue the necessary orders.

Ben glanced over to Jaelyn as they pulled around the blind curve of the Inn’s driveway and the blackened husk of the once proud mansion came into view. She stepped gently on the brake, slowing to a stop. The Jaguar and Riviera they were following had slowed as well but their drivers continued to the employee parking area behind the Inn.

He bit his lip, wishing there were something he could say, but he knew words were empty at a moment like this. Yes, he knew she had known what to expect, but nothing could prepare her for the actuality of seeing her home reduced to a charred ruin. The once perfect landscaping was torn and broken where the tires of the emergency vehicles had sped into place. The roof was gone, as was most of the second floor. The old brick walls had collapsed in several places, scattering debris everywhere. Only one of the four chimneys still stood, sticking upward like a sword plunged into the blackened skeleton of burnt and fallen timbers...

He watched as she suddenly glanced downward and a single tear escaped her control. “One hundred and five years old,” she commented quietly. “You know... I couldn’t rebuild if I wanted to. You can’t get real wooden beams and floorboards that size anymore.” She glanced up and her eyes were dry. After a few more moments, she set the pain and memories aside and put the car in gear once more. She followed in the other cars’ paths and rounded the driveway to pull up beside James’ Jaguar. James leaned against his car with his arm wrapped comfortingly around his fiancé’s shoulders. Ben’s friend, Ray Vecchio, and his sister, Maggie, came over to join them as Jaelyn pulled to a stop.

Ben and Jaelyn quickly joined them and, together, the six friends turned to face the necessity that had brought them here in the first place. Jeanie brushed a hand across her eyes and offered a slightly embarrassed and self-conscious smile. “You don’t need to do this, you know,” she offered for the third time that day. However, none of them missed the slight shudder that passed through her as she happened to glance beyond their group to take in the pool house that had been her brother’s home for the last five years. The untouched, single-story, brick building was jarringly out of place amidst the backdrop of the destruction which had once been the Main House.

Ben translated Jeanie’s words for Jaelyn, but she was shaking her head and turning back to Jeanie before he was half finished. “Hey, we’ve been through this before, remember?” she chastised her friend and grabbed up her arm to hug it. “Five years ago, when my dad died?”

Jeanie glanced downward and bit her lip in memory.

“The last thing I wanted to do was go through his bedroom and office. Remember how you bullied me into letting you help? And David and Kevin and Jason and--” She stumbled to a halt before saying ‘Greg’. She tossed the emotions aside that even thought of his name evoked. Somehow, David’s name didn’t hurt as much, but she suspected it would after the shock of everything had worn off. Instead, Jaelyn concentrated on her friendship with Jeanie. She rolled her eyes as she remembered that day. “I won’t call it a happy day, but the five of you made it bearable. I was able to go through his stuff and smile at the memories, rather than fall apart and wallow in self-pity. He wouldn’t have wanted that, and neither would David. There’s no way I’m going to let you do this without me.”

Jeanie let go of James on her other side to reach up and brush tears away as she offered a brittle little laugh. “I’m still going to be a maudlin mess!” she claimed.

Jaelyn shook her head, not needing the words to know what her friend had said. “I did my share of crying that day, too. I think you told me it was healthy, so don’t worry about it. Come on, we’ll make some sandwiches for everyone and then us girls will attack the kitchen. We’ll let the guys handle the bedroom. You can go through the personal stuff later.”

Frannie fought to give Rennie a smile as she sat on the edge of the operating table and blinked back the tears that threatened even as the contraction began to ease. She was more grateful than she could say for his simple presence and the tight, unfailing grip of his hand holding hers. His summer-sky eyes gazed steadfastly into hers as he knelt before her, willing strength and reassurance into her.

When the doctor had said that things were going to happen quickly, she hadn’t been kidding. The IVS that were designed to stop Frannie’s labor were quickly changed out; with what she didn’t know or particularly care at that point. A nurse and Rennie had helped her move to a gurney and she’d been swept down the halls to the operating theater where once again she had to shift from the gurney to the table. A small army of nurses and specialists seemed to converge on her. It was like being swept up in a storm or something! One nurse was checking her dilation, another was asking her questions, another was adjusting the IV, others were wheeling incubators into place about the room, checking equipment, conferring and joking... The only constants that made sense to Frannie were the pain of the contractions and Rennie at her side. He kept his attention firmly fixed on her, gently sweeping the hair from her eyes and offering quiet encouragement, refusing to be distracted or swayed from his duties.

She was sitting up now, on the edge of the table, leaning forward and rounding her back as much as she could, which wasn’t much. She felt a cold wash of something over her lower spine and could easily imagine the orange/brown tincture of betadine being painted across her skin. “Oh god!” she pleaded fearfully as she felt another contraction rearing its ugly head. “Hurry it up!”

“Breathe,” Ren reminded her. “Relax. Relax...”

“Shut up!” she shouted, forgetting everything but the pain and her white knuckled grip on Ren’s hands. “Breathe, he says! How (gasp) in the hell (gasp) am I supposed to-- (gasp) --breathe!” She was hunched over, the babies jammed up against her diaphragm and the idiot expected her to breathe?!

“So, which do you think is more dangerous now, Mr. Turnbull?” Dr. Romano asked with a soft chuckle as she appeared at Frannie’s side and reached up to gently rub her between the shoulder blades. “Cows or your girlfriend here?”

Frannie blinked, taking in Ren’s rather surprised expression even as it softened into an amused smile. Her distraction, and the relief if brought lasted less than a moment. How dare he find anything about this-- Oh god, it hurt! “Hurry up!” she ordered.

Dr. Romano urged her to stop leaning forward. “We have to wait for the contraction to pass,” the doctor told her soothingly. “Listen to your coach here. He’s got the right of it. You need to relax. Breathe, that’s it....”

Frannie dared straighten and leaned back, concentrating on the breathing techniques she’d been taught in Lamaze class. Concentrate, concentrate-- One thousand one, one thousand two-- Concentrate. Focus. Visualize her focal point. Visu-- “Shit...” she groaned. Straightening didn’t really help because the overly crowded babies just shifted with her, still pressing against her diaphragm and making any attempt at a deep breath impossible!

She blinked in confusion and jerked back as something was brought over her face. Jerking was not a good thing, she realized. Why was she laying down? How was it possible for the pain to keep getting worse? God, the contractions were getting longer! How the hell did Maria get through this three times? Dr. Romano was telling her something. Frannie gave up any attempt to concentrate on her focal point and fought to understand her words through the haze of pain.

“Breathe, Frannie!” the woman was ordering firmly as she adjusted the mask over Frannie’s face. The doctor glanced off to the side. “Set it for five liters.”

Oxygen mask, Frannie realized belatedly. Had she almost passed out? God, if only she could! Where was Rennie? “Ren!” she cried through the mask.

“I’m here, Francesca.” He suddenly reappeared on her other side, her hand still held tightly in his. He hadn’t let go. He brought it to his lips and kissed it as he gazed down at her in a mixture of worry and encouragement. “I’m here,” he repeated.

“Let’s roll her on her side,” the doctor was saying. “I wanta get that spinal in.”

“She’s what!?” Vecchio exclaimed into his cell phone. “Oh my, God! I’m on my way! Tell her I’m on my way!” He quickly flipped the phone closed and swore. “Shit!”

Ben and James had stopped what they were doing and frowned in confusion at the first exclamation. The frowns only deepened as Vecchio spun in place, searching for the coat he’d only just discarded.

“Frannie’s gone into labor!” he offered even as he grabbed up the coat and thrust his arms through the sleeves. “She’s not supposed to go into labor yet! We haven’t even finished the Lamaze classes! Why the hell did I have to volunteer to be her birthing coach?” He was searching for his keys now. “Like I haven’t been a detective long enough to know you never, ever volunteer for anything?” He found them and spun to spear James with a desperate look. “You’ll make sure Ben and Maggie make it back to town?”

“Go!” James waved him off. “We’ll figure something out.”

“Right,” Ray nodded. “Sorry, guys, duty calls!” And with that he spun on his heel, sprinting out of the bedroom, through the main room (nearly running Maggie over in the process) and out the front door.

Maggie appeared at the bedroom door with a confused and surprised look on her face. “Did I hear right? Frannie’s in labor?”

James nodded. “That’s his sister, isn’t it? Jeanie tried to tell me she was having sextuplets or something!” he laughed.

“She is,” Maggie answered, much to his surprise, and glanced back at Ben reading his pensive frown. “I hope she’s all right?”

Ben could offer little more than a shrug and shake of his head. ^He didn’t --say.^

Maggie frowned in turn. “I don’t think she’s even six months yet.” They all turned they heads toward the front door as they heard Vecchio spin his tires as he raced out of the driveway. “I wonder if he should be driving right now,” she added belatedly.

Probably not, Ben acknowledged, but it was too late to change that now.

“Well, I guess he’ll call us when he knows something,” Maggie sighed. “I better get back. Maybe this’ll help distract, Jeanie.”

Ben nodded, knowing that any distraction would be of benefit. He and James turned their attention back to the bedroom and packing up David’s clothes. Jeanie wanted to donate all of them to Good Will.

“Oh shit,” James exclaimed softly a moment later. Ben glanced up to find him staring down into a dresser drawer. He seemed shocked by something and glanced up at Ben, before glancing at the bedroom door in obvious concern, making sure no one was there. “Ben, you better take a look at this...” he decided softly, stepping back from the dresser. He moved to the door and, offering the women beyond another nervous look, quietly shut it.

Ben frowned and quickly went to the dresser, immediately realizing what had upset James.

James leaned against the door and turned back to the room. “Please tell me that’s not what I think it is?” he asked just above a whisper.

Ben frowned grimly and also glanced at the door nervously. This was the last thing Jeanie needed right now...

“Ray would be late to his own funeral, if God let him,” Frannie groused from behind the oxygen mask. Ren knelt at her side, offering her a slight smile for the joke and kissing her hand again as the doctors and nurses hurried about setting up the drapes and other equipment prepatory to surgery. Frannie was just glad the pain was gone. All she wanted to do was get this over with now, or so she told herself, shoving her fears and concerns for the babies aside. It was all in God’s hands now. There was nothing more she could do.

The man at her side reached up and once again gently swept several sweat-drenched strands of hair from her face. “I’m glad he’s not here,” he admitted serenely. “I wouldn’t let him take my place, if he were.”

Frannie giggled and felt herself blushing. What had they put in her IV’s? Ten minute earlier, she’d been the reincarnation of the Wicked Witch of the West; now -- she was giggling? She couldn’t believe he’d said such a sweet thing! Even more, she knew he meant it.

“How y’all doing back here?” Doctor Romano asked, peaking over the framework at Frannie’s chest.

“Oh, he’s busy charming her socks off,” the anesthesiologist quipped with a big grin as he checked his equipment over.

Ren felt his face heat and quickly ducked his chin against his chest, while offering Frannie an embarrassed smile.

“Oh shut up!” Frannie ordered the other man. “Ignore them, Rennie. I wouldn’t let Ray take your place either -- for which they should be grateful!” She offered the anesthesiologist a glare. “He’d probably turn green and vomit all over the place.”

The other man merely smiled. “Like I haven’t seen that before?” he rejoined and reached over to move a large pink wastebasket closer to hand. “Aim for this, please.”

“I said my brother, you bozo!” Frannie told him indignantly.

“I take it the Spinal is doing its job,” the doctor noted and reached up to put her facemask in place. “We’re going to do a couple of tests, Frannie, so I need you to pay attention for a minute here...” She disappeared back on the other side of the sheet-covered framework. “Tell me if you feel anything.”


“How about here?”



“No.” Frannie smiled at Ren and held his hand tighter, knowing they were about to start.

“You do any steroid treatment?” someone else interrupted what the doctor was doing.

“Betamethasone, three days ago,” Dr. Romano answered succinctly.

“Good girl.”

The doctor peeked over the drapes at Frannie again. “Now?” Dr. Romano asked again.

“No. --Yeah, wait! I felt that.” She frowned. What were they doing up on her rib cage?

“That’s fine,” the doctor assured her. “You were supposed to. Just checking the demarcation line. What about now?”

“Umm-- it’s like your pulling on something?”

“Yeap,” the doctor agreed and reappeared. “You’re going to feel a lot of tugging and pulling here in a minute. I mean a lot; and a lot of pressure. Don’t let it worry you. There’s going to be a lot of activity going on up here very fast. We’ve got six babies to take care of, as well as you. There are three pediatricians standing by and an army of assistants ready to do whatever they need to. Things are definitely going to get exciting. So if you hear us raise our voices or snap out orders over each other, don’t pay any attention, okay? Remember, I’ve done this before. Ready to get started?”

Frannie bit her lip and squeezed Ren’s hand tightly before forcing herself to nod.

“Mr. Turnbull,” the doctor swung her gaze to Ren. “Your job is to keep our girl here calm and happy. You keep your eyes and attention focused on her. I don’t have the time to be worrying about scraping you off of the floor, okay?”
Ren could only see the doctor’s eyes but it was obvious she was smiling. He nodded sharply. “A most serious and important assignment, doctor,” he agreed staunchly. “Rest easy. I will attend to my duties most assiduously.”

“I thought ‘assiduous’ was a type of tree?” Frannie frowned.

“Ah! I believe you mean ‘deciduous’, Francesca,” Ren corrected her lightly. “Meaning trees that lose their foliage in the fall or winter, as compared to evergreens which retain their needles year round. ‘Assiduous’, on the other hand, refers to work that is performed with diligence and tenacity.”

“You mean like a kiss?”

“A kiss?” he echoed in surprise, finding himself suddenly disconcerted by the question. “A kiss. Oh! Well, I don’t -um- I suppose-- One could describe a kiss as, well, the kissee perhaps -ah- that is, his attentions as -um-...”

“Or like when you cooked me that lunch at the station?”

“I -- ah....”

The doctor smiled behind her mask and quickly turned her attention back to the task at hand. She didn’t think she’d ever had one of her patients flirt during delivery before, but as long as it kept Miss Vecchio happy.... “Okay, people, let’s get this show on the road!” she called out. “Scalpel.”

Frannie blinked sharply, the sudden tightening of her grip, betraying the fear she sought to mask behind her teasing. Ren instantly recognized her strategy and embraced it as his own.

“Or my love for you,” he told her, knowing the boldly declared statement had to distract her from what was happening. “I’d definitely call it-- Well, I’m not sure ‘assiduous’ is the correct word, but most definitely ‘tenacious’... and ‘inescapable’.”

“Inescapable?” she echoed, staring at him. Had he said--

“For me -- yes,” he answered truthfully and ducked his head with a shy smile as he felt his face heat yet again. “I tried, you see,” he continued before his courage deserted him entirely. “To escape it. --I couldn’t. Every time I saw you, I--” He suddenly remembered the anesthesiologist and glanced at the man self-consciously.

Frannie offered the man an easily read glare: if he offered so much as one word, he’d be singing soprano for the rest of his life! Her gaze darted back to Ren, still unable to believe what she thought she’d heard him say. “You... you love me, Ren?” she asked incredulously.

“Oh, very much so, Francesca,” he assured her earnestly, holding the back of her hand to his cheek as if wanting to impart part of what he was feeling even now. He glanced away shyly, but forced himself to continue. He’d gone too far to stop now. “I know I’m probably not your ideal of -- male... That is, I know I’m -- well, most people find me to be a bit --ah-- intense? Ah, odd? Peculiar?”

“I love you, too!” Frannie declared softly, forcing the oxygen mask aside enough to pull Ren’s hand to her mouth and giving it a kiss much as he had hers earlier.

He blinked in surprise. It was his turn to be disconcerted by this bold statement. “You... you do?”

She nodded, blinking back tears and ignoring the anesthesiologist who insisted on replacing the stupid oxygen mask. “How could I not love you? You’ve been with me every step of the way here. And even before. You’ve been my friend ever since we met, always willing to help me and cheer me up. When you learned I was pregnant, you didn’t judge me like everybody else did. I know it hurt you, Ren. I didn’t know it at the time, but I remember the look on your face now. I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you about Mike and Karol right away. And you swallowed that pain and still congratulated me. You even offered to help me paint the nursery!”

“I... would have done anything to be near you, Francesca,” he admitted shyly. “I... just wanted you to be happy.”

“Even if it was with someone else,” she added knowingly.

He glanced away again, knowing his face to be flaming. She made him sound so noble... but his feelings about it hadn’t been so self-sacrificing as she thought. He’d been jealous as hell of, well, no one as it turned out, but--

She gave a sharp gasp, drawing his attention back to her instantly as her grip on his hand suddenly jerked tight. She’d gone slightly pale.

“Relax, Miss Vecchio,” the anesthesiologist frowned up at her vitals monitor.

“Here comes number one...” the doctor told the room. “Wait. We’ve got the identicals first here. Get the cord there. It’s wrapped around the other’s neck.”

“Oh God...”

“It’s all right, Francesca,” Ren quickly reassured her, resuming his responsibilities as her coach. Her knuckles turned white, she was gripping his hand so hard. He said nothing, merely returning the pressure with a carefully equal force. “Think of the color yellow!” he told her firmly, knowing she’d read the same psychology book he had. He’d loaned it to her to begin with. She stared at him as he closed his eyes and breathed deeply, hoping she would emulate him. “Breathe... Hee hee whooooo. Hee hee whoooooo.”

“I -- I can’t!” she gasped. “They’re -- pressing --”

“You’re going to hyperventilate, you keep that up,” the anesthesiologist commented lightly, even as he reached up with a frown to readjust the oxygen flow to Frannie’s mask.

“Careful! Support the head-- Damn, it’s tight in there.”

Frannie gasped again as the doctor’s efforts shook her entire body.

“If she doesn’t relax and breathe, she’s going to faint on us,” the anesthesiologist commented softly.

“We need to open her up more.”

“No time. Here. Clamp the cord and cut it. We finish getting this one out and we’ll have more room to work with her sister.”

Frannie’s eyes were large with panic and fear as she listened to the doctor’s words. Ren knew he had to distract her, and distract her now! “Marry me!” he suddenly blurted.

“What?” she gasped.

Ah, that did it! He suddenly had her complete and undivided attention. As distraction techniques went, he certainly couldn’t have planned better. Still, he tasted panic for a long moment as he realized just what it was he’d said! Had he really-- But, it wasn’t just a distraction. He’d meant what he said.

“Ren?” she questioned, gasping again but ignoring what the doctors were doing as she waited for him to explain, unable to believe what she thought she’d heard.

The fear vanished as he gazed into her startled brown eyes and brought her white knuckled hand to his lips again. He smiled gently. “Marry me,” he repeated quietly.

“You’re just (gasp) trying to (gasp) distract me!” she claimed.

“Do you really think I’d ask you if I didn’t mean it, Francesca?”

A tiny but robust cry suddenly rang out over the operating room. “Girl number one,” the doctor sang out. “Get me some suction here.”

“Aren’t you a little cutie?” another voice said. “Let’s get some blow-by on her and I want x-rays stat.”

“You don’t have to answer now, Francesca,” Ren told her, seeking to distract her again, but also speaking from his heart. “In fact, you probably shouldn’t. I don’t think my timing could possibly be any worse. I don’t even have a job right now! Oh dear, I hadn’t even thought about that. I do have a sizable trust fund and my father has said he’d help me get into the diplomatic corp if I wanted but--” Ren couldn’t even believe he was contemplating accepting his father’s offer; but, quite simply, he’d do anything for Francesca.

“Hello there number two. Clamp it off...”

Frannie bit her lip and felt a tear escape her control as she took in the sincere love that was shining from Renfield’s eyes. She’d been such a fool not to see what was before her eyes all this time!

“Francesca?” he asked in sudden concern as he saw the tears. “Are you in pain? Is the block wearing off already?”

“No,” she shook her head. “I’m fine. I’m--” She let out a watery laugh. “--I can’t believe this is happening! If I say yes, you’ll probably regret asking me tomorrow!”

“Never,” he answered without hesitation.

Another tiny, mewing cry cut across the busy room.

“But you really do need to think about it, Francesca,” he added with a concerned frown. “You would make me the happiest man on Earth if you said ‘yes’, but... I’m still recovering from the shooting and... I can barely even walk, let alone--”

Frannie uncurled her hand and quietly slipped a single finger over his lips, silencing his words. “Yes,” she told him quietly. “You are the best thing that has ever happened to me, Renfield Turnbull. I would be honored to be your wife.”

“Are you sure, Francesca?” he whispered fearfully. “I don’t think I could take it if you were to change your mind later.”

“Me?” she laughed.

“Apgar score of one: let’s get her intubated. Laryngoscope. How’s number one doing?”

“I got it.”

“Mild retractions. Sat level still 90 though.”
“We’re going to go with surfactant for all of them under 1250.”

“Where’s the silver nitrate?”

“We can worry about that later.”

Frannie bit her lip again and fought to ignore the multitude of confusing orders being called back and forth across the room. Instead, she smiled at Ren. “You’re the one who’s going to hear six screaming babies and suddenly hightail it back to Canada!”

“And let you name one of them after me?” he smiled broadly. “Not a chance!”

Ben ushered James out of the room, closing the door behind him, and turned to find Maggie. She took one look at his grim face and knew something was very wrong. “Ben?” she asked with a worried frown.

^Call the police,^ he signed stoically. ^Don’t touch --anything else. --Get everyone --out of the house.^

Maggie frowned in confusion. “You found something?”

Ben sighed and nodded, watching as James hurried to Jeanie’s side. “We need to talk,” he told her softly.

“Police?” Jaelyn echoed Ben’s silent words.

“Police?” Jeanie echoed in turn.

“I’ll explain outside,” James said quietly, leading the confused and alarmed woman out the door.

“Ben?” Jaelyn asked as he came up, grim faced, gesturing her in the wake of her friends. She wasn’t going to budge.

“Why do you want the police, Ben?” Maggie asked, pausing as she lifted the phone. She needed to give them a reason.

Ben glanced uncomfortably at Jaelyn, but there was no gentle way to explain what they’d found. ^Drugs,^ he signed for Maggie. ^We need --forensics.^

“Forensics?^ Maggie asked, knowing there must be more than drugs involved.

Ben turned his attention to Jaelyn. She’d made him promise not to keep anything from her, but he knew beyond a doubt that this would send her into one of her episodes.
Jaelyn braced herself as she met Ben’s guarded and concerned gaze. She didn’t know what was coming, but she knew it was bad. “Tell me,” she ordered curtly.

^We found --a knife,^ he answered.

A knife. Jaelyn frowned and considered that. What was special about finding a knife? She assumed it was a big knife. No one would think anything about finding a pocketknife. Still, even a hunting knife shouldn’t be enough to make Ben want to call in the... Blood, maybe? And with the drugs...

There was more. She saw it in Ben’s eyes. And he knew it was going to hurt her.

“Out with it, Benton Fraser,” she ordered, tired of being treated with kid gloves. “What aren’t you saying?”

He sighed and glanced downward for a moment before lifting his hands and forcing himself to offer the last bit of the puzzle, knowing that though her mind was fighting the truth that it couldn’t escape the conclusion he’d already drawn. He heard Jeanie’s cry of disbelief from outside as James explained it to her, but Ben doubted the other man had understood the full significance of what they’d found.

“A piece of --black --lingerie.^

Maggie put it together instantly and paled. “A camisole.”

Ben glanced at her and nodded, then turned back to Jaelyn, waiting for the inevitable reaction.

“Black lingerie?” she repeated, not having heard Maggie’s words. “Not men’s? You mean, like....” Her face paled dramatically as Ben saw understanding dawn. “No...” she gasped. “David wouldn’t--”

Jaelyn felt her world closing in on her, her vision tunneling, her chest tightening-- ‘No!’ she wanted to scream. She knew the symptoms. She’d suffered them enough. She closed her eyes and fought for calm, concentrating on her breathing. She wasn’t going to faint. She refused to faint. But she couldn’t draw a full breath. She couldn’t--

The knife. She saw it descending toward her again. Saw the blood that already coated it. Her blood. She felt the black silk against her skin. Felt the warm wetness of where he’d already stabbed her. She saw herself raise her hand to ward off the blow, felt herself try to scream--

Ben held himself ready as he watched Jaelyn struggle against the knowledge he’d given her. Her emotions were plainly etched on her face as she lost the battle and the flashback episode took her. She lifted eyes filled with stark terror, her left hand coming up awkwardly to shield herself even as her knees buckled. It was a look that Ben had seen once or twice before. It wasn’t a look he ever wanted to see again, especially in Jaelyn’s eyes.
She jerked in his hold as his arms reached out and caught her. It was almost as if he could see the blow she was reliving. He glanced up at Maggie, but there was nothing his sister could do to help either. He wanted to wrap Jaelyn in his arms and hold her tight, murmur soothing words to her and stroke her hair. He wanted to wake her up and comfort her like a child from a nightmare. But holding her would only make it worse. Nor did he have any words to offer even had she been capable of hearing them. He gently laid her down on the area rug of the living room and moved away, helpless to do anything but watch as she jerked a second time and then lay still.

It was a long moment before she drew a shallow breath. Ben could understand why her attacker had thought her dead. He bowed his head and fought the emotions that raged within him as he heard Maggie finish the call, requesting an ambulance as well.

She was going to kill him!

“Frannie?” Ray called tentatively as he forced himself to step into the doorway of her room and then froze, trying to judge his reception. He was too late. He’d been told as much when he came racing in, exclaiming that his sister was having sextuplets and he was supposed to be her coach. Apparently the birth was already the talk of the hospital.

Frannie and Ren glanced up from the baby name book at Ray’s voice and the cameraman snapped another picture. “Perfect!” MacKenzie decided and only then glanced at the door. “‘Bout time you showed up, Vecchio,” she chided him. “You missed all the fun!”

Ray almost asked what the hell she was doing there, until he suddenly remembered the agreement they’d made and bit his tongue. Instead, he ignored her and hurried forward. “Frannie!” he repeated, “God, Frannie! I’m so sorry! I was out at the McKenna estate helping the box up David’s stuff. I wasn’t expecting-- I came as fast as I could!” He stopped beside the bed and grabbed up her hand, praying she’d forgive him. The idea of her having to go through--

He was absolutely shocked when she smiled at him! “It’s okay, Ray,” she told him gently. Then turned her smile upon the shy Mountie at her side. “Ren did a better job anyway.”

“Oh, Francesca,” Turnbull replied, obviously embarrassed. Ray was not surprised to see the man duck his head and blush. He was surprised at the warmth of Frannie’s smile for him...

Nah, Ray had to be imagining things!

“Turnbull?” he echoed in mock surprise, unable to resist teasing the man. “First you go and save my sister’s life, and now you save mine?”

“Take the picture!” MacKenzie hissed.

“I can’t!” her assistant replied. “The man’s blushing for heaven’s sake. It’ll look like he’s gotta rash or something!”

This only made the blush worse.

“Smooth move, King,” Ray laughed lightly. “How about you and Mr. Flash take a hike. You got your story. Now let us have some privacy, huh?”

King laughed in turn and shook her head. “No way, Vecchio! Not until after they’ve told you the big news. I wouldn’t miss that for the world!”

“Big news?” he repeated with a confused frown. “The babies are all right, aren’t they?” he asked in sudden concern.

Frannie smiled and shook her head. “They’re fine, Ray,” she assured him and then corrected herself. “Or well, not fine! Sextuplets and twenty-seven weeks and everything, you know, but the docs say they’re doing surprisingly good. It’s kinda early to tell for sure, but-- I got three boys and three girls, can you believe it? A perfect mix. I was expecting four boys and two girls, if you remember, but given that many babies I guess the ultrasounds are a bit hard to read. Maybe someone got their hand in the way. I don’t know--”

“--Frannie!” Ray interrupted her ramblings impatiently. He was quite glad to hear that the babies were all doing well, but it didn’t explain what King was standing off to the side grinning about. “What news?” he asked pointedly.

Frannie turned and grinned up at Turnbull, who in turn surprised Ray by becoming suddenly serious and standing. “Ah, Ray?” he asked nervously. “Might I... ah... have a word with you in the hall, please? In private?”

“Ren?” Frannie asked with a surprised laugh, tugging on the hand she’d refused to let go. “You’re not going to actually ask him for my hand, are you?”

“Well,” Ren blinked nervously. “In the absence of your father, he is--”

“--HAND?!” Ray echoed in disbelief. “As in ‘hand of marriage’ type hand?!”

“Don’t bother, Ren,” Frannie smiled up at the now suddenly pale man. “He’ll only say, ‘no’. Then what will you do?”

“Well, I --ah--”

“--I don’t need his permission to get married, Ren,” she told him firmly.

“No,” he agreed quickly. “I realize this isn’t the eighteenth century, Francesca. You are your own woman and he should respect--”

“--Hand!?” Ray repeated yet again. “I can’t believe I’m hearing this! You proposed to my sister?”

“I --ah--”

“--Okay, so it’s just a formal thing, right?” Francesca questioned, wanting to make sure she had Ren’s intentions clear. “I mean, if you were serious about asking permission, the one you’d have to talk to anyway would be my Ma, not him.”

“Oh, dear!” He looked rather disconcerted by the thought.

“Hey!” Ray interrupted, demanding both their attentions. “I am the man of the house! He talks to me first, then he talks to Ma.”

“You haven’t been here for the last two years, Ray,” Frannie sighed in exasperation.

“Well, I’m here now!” he returned firmly. Frannie marrying Turnbull? This couldn’t be happening! “This is serious, Frannie. You want a repeat of Gino?”

Frannie’s eyes suddenly narrowed and Ray knew he’d made a strategic error. “Renfield Turnbull is nothing like Gino Cipriani, and you know it!” Frannie rejoined angrily. “No one grilled Gino before, or after, he proposed. No one tried to scare him off or send him packing! You have no right to pull the big brother routine now, so just chill!”

“You were pregnant, Frannie!”

Frannie’s eyes flashed fire. “Yes, I was, Ray,” she answered in a very soft and dangerous voice that had Ray regretting he’d ever mentioned her ex-husband’s name. “I made a mistake. I made a bigger mistake by marrying the bastard. And you know it.”

Ray swallowed around a suddenly dry throat, knowing she was right. He was one of the few people who knew exactly how big a mistake it had been. Gino Cipriani had been a carbon copy of their Pop.

“It’s all right, Francesca,” Ren drew her attention from her brother and lifted her hand to kiss it as he smiled reassuringly down on her. Ray was surprised at the quiet transformation that seemed to have come over the man. Gone was the shy stammering Mountie. Instead, a quiet and self-assured man who knew what he wanted stood at Frannie’s side. “Your brother loves you. It’s understandable that he wants to protect you. I won’t let him scare me away.”

“You promise?” she asked quietly.

He smiled confidently. “He doesn’t stand a chance, Francesca.”

Frannie lowered her gaze to glare at Ray in clear warning as Turnbull lowered himself back into his wheelchair and deftly made his way around the foot of the bed toward the door. Ray frowned and turned to his sister in real concern. “He can’t even walk, Frannie!” he hissed.

“He’s just tired, Ray,” she answered with a roll of her eyes. “He’s been on his feet, or knees, for the last two hours!”

“I have every intention of dancing with my wife at our wedding,” Turnbull informed Ray seriously and gestured for Ray to precede him out the door. What, Ray thought, did all Mounties have bat ears? “Mr. Vecchio?”


Damn! Ray had forgotten all about King and her cameraman. He turned to glare at both of them. “Do that again, and you’ll be eating it!” he warned quietly.

The man had the sense to quickly lower the device and lift his hands in surrender. King just rolled her eyes but Ray ignored her. Instead, he turned his gaze back to Frannie.

Seeing the genuine concern in his eyes, she offered a little sigh and took pity on him. “I love him, Ray,” she told him softly, too softly for King to hear, but there was no mistaking the sincerity of her words. It was then Ray knew he had no chance. “Be happy for me?”

Ray bit his lip and bowed his head, wishing to God he could be! But--

“Besides,” she joked. “Ma will kill you if you blow this. Where else am I going to find someone who’s willing to take on sextuplets?”

He met her teasing gaze and actually managed a small smile. The joke wasn’t that far from the truth! He turned again and regarded the man who’d agreed to assume such a responsibility. Wheelchair notwithstanding, Turnbull had already demonstrated that there was more to him than met the eye. With a soul deep sigh and a shake of his head, Ray stood and headed for the door. “Okay, Turnbull,” he decided, seriously considering the possibility of him as a brother-in-law for the first time, “let’s talk.”

Ben easily recognized James and Jeanie as he made his way down the hospital corridor. Jeanie's eyes were red rimmed and it was obvious as she leaned on James for emotional support that she'd been crying. She glanced away in apparent embarrassment as they approached. The two men merely nodded at each other and the young couple continued on their way with no further attempt at conversation, which was just as well. Ben knew that Jeanie was still struggling against the revelations concerning her brother. It was bad enough to have lost him in the fire. Learning only a week later that he had tired to brutally murder her best friend had to be devastating for the young woman. She was lucky to have James who would most certainly offer more comfort than any empty words Ben might struggle to express.

Ben found Jaelyn sitting in one of the visitor's chairs next to the window, staring out at the grassy quadrangle without seeing it. Ben had to wonder what Jeanie had said to her given that the other girl had been crying when she left. At least Jaelyn didn't appear to be upset. He moved to her left side and entered her peripheral vision, waiting for her to notice him. She blinked a couple of times before turning to stare through him. It seemed to take conscious effort on her part to focus on him and he had to question his first assessment that she wasn't upset.

"Hi," she offered softly, her voice little more than a monotone whisper.

^Hi,^ he answered with a worried frown.

She sighed. "Are you going to tell me it'll all work out too?" she asked wearily.

Ben cocked a brow in surprise and turned to pull up a second chair before answering. He sat and lifted his hands. ^Is that what -- Jeanie said?^ He found it difficult to believe that the other woman could be so philosophical so soon after her brother's death.

"James," Jaelyn answered. "He was trying to cheer us both up."

Ben nodded. That made more sense. ^I just saw Turnbull," he signed, deciding a change in subject was in order. ^He and --Ray's sister, --Francesca, --are engaged.^

"Engaged?" Jaelyn frowned in mild confusion. Had she read his sign correctly?

^He proposed --during --the delivery and --she accepted. --They both --seem --very happy.^

Jaelyn nodded distantly and offered a shadow of a smile, winning another frown of concern from Ben who'd expected a much stronger reaction than that.

^Are you --all right?^ he found himself asking before he'd really thought about it.

She offered a distant, pensive frown. "Define ‘all right'."

Ben lifted his brow again and cocked his head in the opposite direction in clear concern. She was avoiding the question and that wasn't like her.

"I'm pumped so full of anti-depressants right now that I don't know what I am," she sighed and paused for a long moment in thought. She shook her head in obvious self-deprecation. "First Greg, now David. I sure know how to pick 'em, don't I?"

Ben watched her as she turned to stare out the window again, understanding all too well what she was feeling. It was a long minute before she brought her eyes back to him and saw the concern which was all too evident in his gaze.

"Please," she asked, "don't give me a load of bull or say you understand. Right now, I wish those idiots had killed me... and I don't care how crazy that sounds."
Ben bit his lip and glanced away, nodding. The truth was, he did understand. Far more than she knew. He glanced back up and lifted his hands. ^Victoria Metcalfe.^

She frowned in confusion. "I beg your pardon?"

^There was --more than once --that I too --wished --she'd simply --killed me....^

Jaelyn offered a distant frown and Ben knew she would never accept such a generalized statement without explanation. He sighed and glanced downward, pausing as he fought to gather the courage he would need to tell his story. It wasn't something he liked to think about, let alone share, but Jaelyn needed to know she wasn't alone.

Jaelyn watched Ben drop his head and run his thumb over his eyebrow. Her first thought as she had read his slow finger spelling of the name had been of a love relationship that had gone sour; but there was something about the distant pain that suddenly shadowed his features that told her there was far more to it than that. It was as though a ghost had just walked into the room. "What happened?" she felt her voice asking, her own pain and fear temporary forgotten. She didn't want to believe that anyone could understand what she was going through, she sincerely hoped Ben couldn't, but what she was seeing...

^September --1984,^ he began. ^I was sent out --to investigate --a possible --plane --crash...^

It took Ben almost an hour to explain, during which time Jaelyn did not interrupt. She wasn't certain Ben would have heard her if she'd tried. There were things he was obviously leaving out but the story that emerged was one of incredible tragedy and pain even so. The woman hadn't tried to kill him; she'd tried to destroy him. She hadn't raped his body; she'd raped his very soul!

^...I don't --think --I ever --thanked Ray --for shooting me...^ The sentence drifted into the room, sounding as crazy as her earlier statement, but needing no explanation.

Ben suddenly closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath, holding it for a long moment as he forced himself back from wherever his dark memories had taken him.

"Did they ever catch her?"

Ben opened his eyes and simply shook his head, offering a little relieved sigh at the thought that it was over. He'd managed to tell her... more than he'd intended, he realized. ^I --do --understand,^ he told her silently, wanting to make sure she understood the purpose of telling her. ^If you need --to talk --I'll listen.^

Jaelyn glanced down, wrestling with the implications of everything that Ben had told her... and why. She knew instinctively that it wasn't something he ever willingly talked about; that like her, it was something he kept buried and tried not to think about. There'd been a lot he'd obviously left out, but he hadn't sugarcoated anything or downplayed his own mistakes and regrets. He'd entrusted her with his pain... and she knew just how hard that sort of thing was to do.

She glanced back up, both honored and a bit frightened by such an incredible gift. "Thank you," she whispered and nodded. She wasn't ready to talk, not yet; but, when she was, she knew Ben would be there: she knew that she too could trust him with her pain.

Ben nodded in turn and glanced down. He'd revealed a part of himself he wasn't very proud of and really didn't know what Jaelyn thought about it. He could only hope she didn't think he'd been-- Well, he had been a fool; but he hoped Jaelyn didn't hold it against him.

"What did you do afterwards?" she asked quietly, breaking the overly intimate silence that had settled between them.

He glanced up, swallowing around an inexplicably tight throat and shoving his rather raw and tender emotions aside. Dredging up the old memories had been harder than he'd thought. ^I took --a vacation,^ he answered simply.

"Now that sounds like a good idea," Jaelyn smiled. "Just let it all go and escape for a while..."

Ben nodded, returning her smile.

"Want to come to Aspen with me?" she asked impetuously, the smile becoming a grin.

He lifted a brow in surprise and leaned back in the chair. He knew she hadn't meant that as any kind of... sexual invitation, but he couldn't help remember Jeanie's account of her and James' trip. The thought of being snowed in alone with Jaelyn in a mountain cabin... He shifted in his seat uncomfortable, knowing she wasn't ready for any of the things going through his rather unruly mind. He shoved the fantasies aside.

^I don't think --either of us --are up to --skiing,^ he commented instead, and realized immediately that it could be taken the wrong way. Fortunately, Jaelyn's mind wasn't as depraved as his seemed to be. She merely laughed. It was good to hear.

"There are other things to do in Aspen," she claimed and Ben again had to shove the answering images away. "We could take out a snowmobile or just go walking. We can probably even rent some horses as long as the snow isn't too bad. And there's this guy over in Snowmass, that's kinda next door to Aspen, that specializes in storytelling. Oh man, he's good. I remember Dad taking me as a kid and we'd all sit around the fire, roasting marshmallows as he told us ghost stories or about real adventures in the mountains. Last I heard, he was still doing it. 'Course I can't hear him anymore, so I'd need someone to translate for me." Her grin became downright mischievous as she blatantly played on Ben's more chivalrous feelings. "There are art galleries and a little museum and all kinds of shops. You know a woman's favorite slogan: 'shopping's good for whatever ails you'." She shrugged. "I've decided to renovate one of the cabins on the estate. Now that--" She frowned as reality intruded on the fantasies dancing through her head. "--Now that... everything's over, there's no reason I have to stay in town. I'm afraid I'm not much of a city girl, really, but I do like my conveniences. I could use some help picking out stuff. It's no fun to do it alone and--"

She suddenly bit her lip and frowned at him. "--I don't know how you're going to take this. I mean, I don't want it to sound like--" She glanced away again, struggling to find the words she wanted to say. Ben cocked his head to the side in mild confusion and gave her the time she needed. She glanced back up and bit her lip again. "I'd... like you to move in with me, Ben," she said bluntly.

His mouth literally dropped open.

"Not --you know, um, sexually or anything," she quickly specified as she saw his look of surprise. She glanced down and he watched her face blush slightly even as he chastised his unruly mind for thinking she was speaking of anything other than a strictly platonic relationship. Still looking at the floor, she quickly forced herself to continue. "I mean, maybe... um... later. I--"

He found that the collar of his T-shirt had shifted upward and he gave the uncomfortable tightness a quick tug.

She abruptly changed her line of thought. "--I don't know what you were planning to do now, what with the Inn being gone and all, and the danger over, I...ah..." She glanced back up and paused to take a deep breath, slowly letting it out again as she continued to struggle to find the words she wanted to say. "I like you, Ben," she declared boldly. "I... like you a lot. I don't want to lose that. I'm not ready for anything--" She glanced down again, blushing again.

Ben found that he'd overcome his own surprise enough that he could sympathize with what she was going through... and appreciate the courage she'd needed to confront him. He reached out to lift her face so he could sign.

^I understand,^ he said simply. ^I like you, too,^ he continued, knowing it was far too soon for the word 'love'. But the word ‘like' didn't really seem to fit either... ^We might--^ Might have something special? Might become more than friends? All true, but none of it sounded right. What he felt for Jaelyn was special... and nothing at all like what he'd felt for Victoria. He wasn't really sure what that meant, but he didn't want to lose it either. ^I'd like to see --if we could be --more --but --we'll take it slow --at your pace.^

"You'll do it then? Move-in with me?" she asked hopefully... and again blushed. "I mean-- Gosh, that must sound forward!"

Ben laughed lightly. ^No,^ he assured her. He understood exactly what she was asking him. ^And yes --I'll move-in.^ He cocked his head to the side with a slight frown. ^Do you think --we can --talk the doctors --into letting us go --to Aspen?^

"Who cares?" she answered with a smile and a shrug. "I'm going to tell them, not ask them. They aren't my parents."

True enough, Ben thought, and nodded. What was the worst that could happen? He might get a lecture or have to look for another doctor when he got back; but he doubted it. He suspected they'd welcome the idea.

He offered Jaelyn a teasing smile. ^I should --warn you,^ he told her, ^--Dief snores.^


He lay in bed and smiled up at the ceiling. It was after three in the morning, but he couldn't sleep and didn't care. Everything was going perfectly. Well, almost perfectly. Actually, he couldn't believe how perfectly it had all worked out!

He grinned now as he remembered watching the Inn burn. He'd been quite upset at the time, until he heard that Jaelyn was all right. He remembered watching one of the brick walls as it gave way with a loud crash, sending a shower of angry sparks high into the night sky to dance with the stars. It had been an incredible old mansion but not his style. No, he had no dreams of running a Bed and Breakfast. Still, she really hadn't lost anything. Not anything that he wanted anyway. He knew the place had to have been heavily insured. She might have actually gained a bit.

He also remembered watching her and the Mountie as they leaned against the ambulance in each other's arms and he frowned. He was going to have problems there. The two of them were getting far too cozy. The relationship at the Inn had progressed along quite platonic lines but he was seeing evidence of developing attraction there. A bit surprising really, considering that she'd been raped and almost killed less than three months ago. He knew a little about psychology. Any decent con artist did. He'd have thought she'd swear off men longer than that. The Mountie must be something special to get through all the self-defense mechanisms her mind must have thrown up.

It wouldn't do at all if they were to get married.

He needed to take care of that quickly-- No. No, he corrected the thought. He wouldn't rush. There'd been too many strings left dangling the last time. The police had gotten close. Too damn close. If David hadn't so conveniently taken himself out of the picture and set himself up as the perfect patsy, he didn't know what he would have done. Luck. That's all it was. Sheer luck, and he didn't like trusting to luck.

At least all the evidence was gone now. Most of the evidence. He needed to do something about the car he'd used to transport the body; well, he'd thought it was a body. Despite heavy cleaning, he knew a good forensics team would find traces of blood in the trunk if they looked. Hell, a fluoroscope would probably light it up like it was painted in neon! He'd been very careful to make sure they had no reason to look, but he still needed to get rid of it. Permanently.
It had been easy enough to plant the rest of the stuff in the boy's bedroom. There shouldn't be anything else left to point to him... Damn, but he hated not knowing for sure! The police had accepted it readily enough, putting two and two together and coming up with the sum he wanted. He wouldn't rest easy, however, until the case was 'officially' closed. His contacts at the DA's office seemed to think it would be very soon.

Soon, he thought. A nice little accident. Maybe he could arrange something with the car? Take out both the girl and the Mountie in one fell swoop? Hmm... Too earlier to plan yet. And the Mountie really wasn't a target until he actually proposed to Jaelyn. Actually, not even then unless the wedding date was set too soon

But he mustn't get ahead of himself, he decided. One step at a time. First, his own wedding. That way, no one would even think to suggest a prenuptial agreement. Then Jaelyn. David had done him another favor by bungling the gas repair job. There wouldn't be anyone left to contest his inheriting everything that Jeanie inherited. His soon-to-be-wife had no other relatives to lay claim to anything after he got tired of her and became a grieving widower.

Actually, things were better than perfect, he thought, and chuckled lightly. He couldn't have orchestrated it better if he'd tried! Jeanie stirred at his side and he turned his attention to her, deciding he felt like celebrating. He still missed Charlie. He'd been a fool to confide in his lover. He'd been forced to kill the guy when everything started to fall apart. Still, no loose ends.

Jeanie turned to him with a little growl. "Insatiable," she purred. He wrapped her in his arms and pressed his body to hers, remembering his other lover as he swooped down to plunder her willing mouth. Charlie had been much more fun to play with, but the woman was sufficiently adventuresome to be a satisfactory substitute... for now.

The End

Continued in RSS#4: Angry Red Serge