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Episode 11 – In A Heartbeat

December 17, 2013

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InAHeartbeat fireBasic edit – June 25 2015

DISCLAIMERS:

This romantic drama is an original story and all characters are created by me. All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental. The registered trademarks mentioned in this story are © of their respective owners. No infringement of their rights is intended, and no profit is gained. This story contains a scene of violence towards an animal. Any readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story. This story depicts a loving relationship between consenting adult women. If such a story frightens you, you better click on the X in the top right corner of your screen right away.

* * * * * *

So many thanks go to my beta-reader. Your help is very much appreciated and continues to be most welcome. And an extra thank you for helping me get this one out so fast! And thank you to all of my readers. Your feedback has been most helpful and encouraging. This is the next installment in my series, After Montana, which can be found at http://marshallcarson.wordpress.com

‘In A Heartbeat’ is part of a 3-episode story arc. To understand and enjoy the characters and situations fully, you should probably read them in sequence. Comments or opinions can be sent to stagefreakmusic@hotmail.com or left at http://marshallcarson.wordpress.com .

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Chapter 1

It had only been three hours since Mark and Jamie had come to the ranch house. It felt like three years to Kate. Receiving the news that her beloved wife was missing, presumed dead after her plane had crashed in the wilderness, had sent Kate into some sort of catatonic state. She still lay on the couch, and she hadn’t uttered a word. She gazed straight ahead and didn’t appear to register anything anyone said. It was like a nightmare, a horrid nightmare that she couldn’t wake up from. Even with people she loved around her, she still couldn’t bring herself to speak. Morning would be breaking soon. She would have to find a way to cope with the girls when they woke. Kate wasn’t sure how to snap out of the hell she was enveloped in, but she had to try for her daughters’ sake, didn’t she?

Jamie sat at the kitchen counter flicking mindlessly through the pages of a magazine. She had one eye on the pages and one eye on Kate, frantically trying to think of a way to help her through the day. The pale-green eyes that were fixated on the fireplace and had barely blinked in hours, worried Jamie to the point where she thought of calling a doctor and demanding a house call. As the clock ticked on, she became more agitated. Outwardly, she didn’t show it, but she needed to be doing something more than sitting on her stool, and she really wanted to go back to work. She had called Sam thirty minutes ago. The producer had taken the news as expected but had pulled herself together and was on her way to stay with Kate.

Kamali paced back and forth across the hallway, sensing something was terribly wrong with his family, and when Shannon came down the stairs in search of her parents he followed her into the living room before resuming his pacing at the central point of the house where he could see all occupied rooms at once.

Jamie was about to attend to Shannon’s needs when Kate suddenly sat up on the couch and opened her arms to her daughter. Shannon crawled onto the inviting lap completely unaware of the anguish her parent was trying to hide.

“It’s still dark, Mama.”

Kate just nodded and held her precious cargo whilst rocking back and forth to some unknown rhythm. They sat like that until Shannon dozed off again, and it broke Jamie’s heart to watch it. How were they going to cope in the next few days, weeks? How long would it be?

Mark had left to go back to his office, trying to find something, anything he could do to help find his agent. The relevant searches and alerts were already being put into action, but he still wasn’t satisfied. The local rescue services in Minnesota could only put one chopper out to search in the dark, but where would they even start? The area was so incredibly vast, and the last known location of the plane before it lost contact didn’t necessarily pinpoint the area it went down in. Mark had felt that this might be the first time he would be brought to tears at work. He felt utterly useless.

Getting up from her seat in the Carson’s kitchen, Jamie turned away from Kate and fought back the tears that threatened to spill again, knowing that it wouldn’t do either of her friends any good if she stood here and cried.

That’s it. Mark can fire me if he wants to. I’m going to find CJ’s body. A horrified look came across her graceful features. To find CJ, she corrected herself. Even if it meant disobeying orders, she was going to Minnesota.

* * * * * *

“Fuck!”

The curse left her mouth before she’d even opened her eyes. She could feel pain – actually pain was an understatement – she could smell fuel and something more familiar to her. Death, she thought morosely. Am I dead?

The stench tickled her nostrils as she mentally cataloged what she was experiencing. An excruciatingly painful left wrist, probably broken, a dislocated right shoulder making her arm feel like it had been ripped out of the socket, and that stupid, old ankle injury which blatantly made itself known with a tight throbbing inside her boot.

My throat… she thought while trying to swallow. It burns. She decided that if she could feel all these hurts, she had to be alive…for now. She didn’t know what she would see when she opened her cobalt-blue eyes, but she did know it wouldn’t be pretty. Her body was suspended by her seatbelt and hung limply to the left.

“The plane’s on its side,” CJ whispered hoarsely into the cold cabin. “Doug.”

She forced her eyes open, and the image that greeted her contorted her face into a severe wince. She had seen a lot in her time as a federal agent and could handle the moonlit sight of the pilot’s bloodied head split open in front of her. Still, it wasn’t something she welcomed. The plane’s exterior had been all but ripped to shreds. The pod that formed the aircraft’s protective body was battered into an unrecognizable shape, and it seemed the only thing that had saved her life was the fact that her seat was on the right hand side of the tiny cabin. She looked up to see that the right wing had disappeared, and she guessed it was most likely sheared off by the treetops on their rapid descent, sending the small aircraft spinning down to land on its left side. She also guessed that the thick canopy of treetops – now sporting a ragged and unnatural hole – had formed some kind of barrier that had somehow lessened the speed and impact. She also knew Doug was an experienced pilot and would have done everything in his power to land as carefully as he could during their hair-raising descent.

Glimpsing around her between blinks, she took in all she could before making her move. The cold, hard ground was literally a few feet away from her face, and jagged pieces of metal stuck up precariously close to her body.

Why am I alive? She pushed the cumbersome headphones off, letting them fall below her and slide into a gap behind the pilot’s seat. Releasing herself from the seatbelt was going to be a tricky move, but she had to do it. She had to get outside to find help somehow. Doug was dead. There was no doubt about that. CJ could see his skull, and she also had a feeling that the large piece of metal protruding from his belly would have ensured he wouldn’t survive. So sorry, Doug

She gingerly moved her right arm and stifled a squeal as the dislocated shoulder cried out in protest. Her left wrist was definitely broken, but she knew she had to use the arm to stop her from falling on the spikes below.

“Shit,” she muttered as she positioned her left hand above her head. Contorting to reach for the door post, she hooked the limb around it as far as she could to test her own strength and the rigidity of the beam’s support. It creaked but didn’t give way, and she ground her teeth together as she crossed her stiff right arm over to release the buckle, all the while praying she had no life-threatening internal injuries that would end up killing her anyway.

As the security of the strong belt loosened, she realized that her foot was trapped beneath the disfigured front seat, and she bit off a curse as she took the weight of her body on two painful limbs. Quickly twisting and untangling her boot, she pulled upward, and since the window was shattered, she was soon hanging her torso over the outside of the wreckage. The skies were dark now as clouds rolled across her only source of light, and with her feet still dangling inside the plane, she stupidly looked at her watch but couldn’t see a damn thing.

Where’d the moon go? Damn it, I need to find a flashlight…or a match.

Her tall, normally-powerful body went limp as she fell to the snow-dusted ground. The agony sent her wailing onto her side, clutching herself until the pain became bearable again. Finding her steely determination once more, she got to her feet and began to feel around in the opening that had been the nose of the plane to hopefully find a first aid kit or anything else that might come in handy. Her shoulder tightened with the activity, and she gave up after a few minutes of agonizing stabs. She limped over to the hole that she had emerged from earlier and stood on the curled piece of metal that vaguely resembled one of the wheel struts to elevate herself enough to reach inside the fuselage. CJ knew her bag was under her seat but wondered if it had stayed there throughout the ordeal.

“Oh, thank you,” she husked quietly as she felt the padded strap of her FBI-issue backpack. She ignored her screaming injuries to gently wiggle it free from its mangled pocket.

* * * * * *

Jamie flung the door open and grabbed Sam into her arms. Sam clung on for a few minutes, and they both held their breath as a myriad of conflicting feelings flowed through them. Worry and anxiety battled with love and compassion, and as they released one another, they locked eyes.

Jamie nodded at Sam’s unspoken question. “She’s in the living room. I just don’t know what to do, Sam.”

“Leave it to me, hon. Just do me one favor.” Sam focused on her partner’s eyes, willing her to understand. “Go find her…and bring her home.”

Jamie’s bottom lip trembled as she forced her tears back. “I will,” she promised, squeezing Sam one more time and striding out over the porch.

Sam clicked the door closed and padded quietly past Kamali through the doorway into the living room. Kate sat on the couch holding Shannon who slumbered peacefully in her arms. Sam almost cried at the empty look in Kate’s eyes. She crouched down into her line of vision and waited patiently until Kate acknowledged her presence.

A slight adjustment of Kate’s small, black pupils brought Sam’s compassionate face into focus. Kate continued to look at her but said nothing.

“Hey…” Sam whispered. “I’m staying with you, and there’s no point in telling me not to because I won’t listen. Jamie will find her, Kate, she’ll bring her back. No matter what has happ-”

“She’s not…dead.”

Sam barely heard the heart-wrenching declaration. “Honey, I know it’s hard to accept but-“

“She’s not.”

Sam’s deep inhale indicated to Kate that she did not believe her. Why would she? If a small plane crashes in a remote, freezing wilderness, and ten hours later the rescue services haven’t even found the location yet, chances are the passengers have no hope of surviving. But Kate could feel it. She had been sitting here since the devastating news had punched her square in the gut and ripped a huge piece of her soul asunder, thinking about her sickness and trying to understand why it had immediately disappeared. She was connected to CJ. She knew that, but this…this was something different. It was stronger still. She could feel CJ, feel her wife’s life flowing through her, but not knowing how to explain that she once again remained silent.

“Kate, I…I don’t know what to say to make this easier…”

“Then don’t say anything. Just be here.”

The words were so lifeless and devoid of inflection, it was almost as if Kate wasn’t present while saying them. She was such a warm, loving, and beautiful being, but Sam was having a hard time seeing that right now. Kate was calm – too calm – and her face bore no expression. Sam realized she couldn’t possibly imagine what Kate was going through or how she should react, so she just nodded and hoped this robotic, inhuman stage was temporary.

She gently squeezed Kate’s hand before standing up and heading to the coffee machine in the hope that the enticing aroma would encourage Kate to consume something. And to be honest, she really needed some caffeine herself before she called into the studios to tell them she wouldn’t be coming in for the next few days.

* * * * * *

CJ’s breath came in bursts against the chilled air as she held the cold piece of wood against her swollen wrist. She bound it to her arm with the long socks she’d gotten from her pack and let out a yelp when the fracture shifted under the pressure.

Damn it, that smarts. Using her mouth and other hand to pull the ends into a tight knot, she growled and bit down onto the cotton material before letting it go.

A wide yawn overcame her, and she looked to the skies to see dark clouds drifting past the half moon, giving and taking her natural light source as they saw fit. Trying to ignore the powerful ache from her splinted hand, she dug a little deeper into the bag with the other one and finally felt her Maglite with her fingertips. Pressing the button and finding it in working order, she mentally punched her fist in the air since she couldn’t do it literally.

Right. The dislocated shoulder… She looked around her using the blue-tinted flashlight and found a suitable sturdy tree trunk. This is gonna hurt, CJ.

With a slight wiggle and some extreme pain, she tried to figure out which way to slam the shoulder back into place. Guessing at the direction, she thumped her body against the solid wood and screamed out at the blinding agony that almost caused her to pass out. It receded quickly and left a comparatively dull ache down her right side. She clenched the muscles briefly and nodded when the arm was a little easier to move.

There. All better. But no firing guns anytime soon. With that thought, she reached under her thick coat while taking controlled, deep breaths to counteract the soreness brought on by the movement, and felt the reassuring shape of her Glock strapped to her ribs.

She smacked her dry lips together and reached up tentatively to touch her face, finding a mass of sticky goo running from her temple to her jaw. Placing the torch in her mouth and shining the light on her fingers, the deep-red color of the blood told her it was clotting.

CJ forced herself to look at the shadow of Doug Jensen’s body in the cockpit, realizing how incredibly lucky she was. How did I get out of this alive? Someone’s watching over me. As she shook her head gently in disbelief, she glanced at her watch and noted that she had been here for twelve hours. That is, if her watch was still working.

Raising her eyes to look at the sky, she sensed it would be getting light soon. She had hoped to see or hear some sign of rescue before now. Surely they would have helicopters here with night-vision cameras? Did they even know the damn plane had gone down? Did Mark think she was just taking her sweet time getting home?

She rummaged around in her pocket and found her cell phone. The glass front was destroyed, and it wouldn’t switch on. With uncertainty flowing through her, she fought back another face-splitting yawn and frowned. Her body was weakening beyond her control, and she dropped to the ground. Since she could feel the cold of the snow seeping through her cargo pants, she shuffled along on her butt until her body was under part of the wreckage before the exhaustion claimed her completely. As her mind fought with and began to lose the battle against sleep, she realized the last time she had rested was on her flight from Los Angeles. That was at least two days ago.

Well that was stupid, was her last coherent thought.

* * * * * *

At eight thirty AM, Pacific Standard Time, Kate rose wordlessly from the couch with Shannon in her arms and headed for the staircase. Sam watched her go then discreetly crossed the living area to follow her. As Kate ascended in a slow climb, Shannon awoke.

“Mama. What are you doing?”

“Morning, Shan. You fell asleep in my arms. Remember?”

“Um…oh, yes. I came downstairs.”

“You sure did. Now it’s time to get Lucy up too.”

Sam could still hear Kate’s voice, and she became concerned at the apparent chirpiness. Putting it down to Kate’s resilience and her need to protect her children from pain, Sam decided to head back to the kitchen to make a start on breakfast. She had to find some way to help, and this was it. She would carry out the daily, mundane tasks, and keep her eye on Kate as she did so.

Upstairs, Kate pulled some clothes from Lucy’s closet while Shannon skipped off to the bathroom. On her way back, Shannon began to hum a tune which woke Lucy. When she saw her sister come back through the door, she smiled dazedly.

“Shan…” Then Lucy turned her head and saw Kate. “Mama.”

“Good morning, precious girl. Did you have a good sleep?” Kate asked while leaning over and depositing a kiss on Lucy’s forehead.

“Uh-huh. I dreamed about a green bear.”

“A green one…?” Shannon inquired with surprise.

“Yes. Like a big teddy bear with a star on its tummy.”

The two children chuckled together, and Kate smiled, but inside her heart was breaking. The complete joy and love for her daughters was smothered fiercely with her devastation and emptiness at the loss of her soulmate. How could she keep this up? How was she going to tell them that Mommy wasn’t coming home until…until when? Would she ever come home again?

Yes. Yes, she will. Otherwise, I can’t do this. Kate blinked rapidly and concentrated on the conversation going on across the room. She had to keep on existing, keep on functioning, if only for her children.

* * * * * *

Jamie entered the Bureau building and strutted with a confidence she didn’t feel until she was standing outside Mark’s office door. Her heart was thumping rapidly with nervousness and everything else, and she prepared herself for a stand-off with the boss. When he shouted her in, she opened the door and went straight to the front of his desk making Mark look up and clasp his hands on the smooth, oak surface.

“Jamie,” he said, nodding once. “Who is with Kate?”

“Sam is there now, and Tony will be there soon. I just called him to let him know what’s happened.” Jamie took a deep breath to ready herself for a small war. “Sir, I need to go-”

Mark raised his hand sharply to stop her. “Save your energy, agent.” He got to his feet and reached around behind his chair, lifting an overnight bag and dropping it down on the desk. “I assume you’re coming with me?”

Jamie was confused for a moment until she realized he was thinking the same thing as she was. “You-You’re going? But what about the case? Our killer’s leaving us clues now. He’s not gonna stop until we catch him.”

“Agent Seamore will be here later today from Portland. He’s a top profiler and will be working the case with Ethan and Mikey until we get back. I know our guys can handle this, and I’ve cleared it with Deputy Director Mitchell…told him CJ was our priority. Actually, I was surprised when he agreed.” Mark paused and when he looked at Jamie, his eyes had softened. “I can’t stay here while CJ’s out there.” His voice began to falter, and his gaze dropped to the desk.

Jamie now knew he was feeling the loss too. “Yes. I’m going with you, Sir. I’ll grab my bag from the office. Gimme two minutes.”

Mark nodded and began shutting down his computer. He wanted to cry, but there was no time for that. The jet was waiting for them at LAX. He had no idea how he had managed to pull in so many favors, but he didn’t care how much this trip would cost the Bureau. He wasn’t going to come back without her, and he’d pay for it himself if he had to.

When he heard the familiar sound of the computer signing off, he grabbed his bag and threw it roughly over his shoulder. He met up with Jamie five minutes later, and they headed down to the parking garage together. Once the journey was underway, and Jamie showed no signs of talking to him, he pulled out his cell and dialed Kate’s home number. The reply was almost instantaneous.

“Hello?”

“Sam? It’s Mark. How’s she doing?” He waited until the rustling noise stopped and he heard the sound of a door closing.

“Sorry about that. I had to get some privacy. She’s…I’m not sure. She’s with the kids, and she’s acting normal…too normal.”

“She’s a strong woman.”

“Yes, but she told me CJ’s alive. You should’ve seen her face when she said it, Mark.”

“CJ might be alive, Sam. Don’t give up hope yet,” he answered a little abruptly. Do I really believe that?

Sam blew a sigh into the phone handset. “I won’t…for Kate’s sake.”

“Can you put her on the line, please?”

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”

“Please, Sam.”

“All right. Gimme a minute.”

Mark looked over at Jamie while he waited. “I need to let her know where we’re going.”

“She might not say a word to you, Sir.”

“I know that, but I have to tell her.”

Back at the house, Kate seemed reluctant to accept the call, but Sam put it down in front of her and she gave in.

The next thing Mark heard was a faint “Hello?”

“Kate, I’m just calling to let you know that Jamie and I are on our way to Minnesota.” Silence ensued, and Mark decided to continue anyway. “I won’t come back without her, Kate. I promise.” The silence loomed on, and he realized his tone was pretty brash due to the adrenaline rushing through his veins, so he deliberately softened his voice. “I care about you, Kate. Please look after yourself ‘til we get back.”

“Thank you, Mark.”

It seemed there was nothing else to say, and Mark was about to respond when Sam came back on the line.

“Hey. She just handed me the phone. Sorry…”

“No need for sorry, Sam. We’ll contact you as soon as we have some news.” When the call was over, Mark looked at Jamie as she glanced over at him wearing the same pained expression.

“I’m worried too,” she said quietly.

Mark nodded somberly before they both faced forward and tried to prepare themselves for the most important search of their lives.

* * * * * *

CJ woke up with a thumping headache. Her whole body ached along with it, and she muttered a few obscenities as she struggled to her feet. “Like I wasn’t suffering enough…”

She gradually became aware of the light and – still mentally grumbling at the situation – she scanned her surroundings anew, her eyes coming to rest on the mangled fuselage of the small plane. Her internal complaining came to an immediate halt. She backed away a few paces. “Oh, no.”

It looked much worse in the harsh glare of day, and Doug’s body resembled a scene from a gory, horror movie. The recent events combined with a view that normally wouldn’t affect CJ caused her to double over and hurl the limited contents of her stomach onto the white, snowy ground.

Standing upright again, she approached what was left of the cockpit and reached up – her arm shuddering halfway due to the pain – and respectfully closed Doug’s eyes. Eye? His head was a mess so it was hard to tell. With her dark brows permanently fixed low, she looked down into the plane and saw the corner of a green box.

The first aid kit.

There was a hole in the wreckage close to her feet, and she dropped heavily to her knees to reach in and grab the item she wanted. Struggling to free the plastic box and aggravating her shoulder in the process, she groaned with gratitude when it came loose and fell onto the oily dirt. She pulled herself and the box away from the unpleasant sights and found a few useful things to take with her when the time came for her to leave. She figured nobody could find the wreck as she had been here since the hours of darkness, and not a sound had been heard apart from the howl of a distant wolf and a faint, random buzzing from the dying aircraft. Still, she would wait a little longer, even if it was freezing cold.

CJ took two sachets of saline solution, knowing that they would make her even more thirsty but unable to resist the tempting feeling of fluid on her nipping throat. Downing them with some difficulty and a gurgled grunt, she stuffed the remaining sachet, some dressings, Band Aid’s, and a roll of medical tape into her pants pocket before spotting a dented, old, tin cup that Doug must have used during his longer flights.

“Maybe I’ll find a river,” she whispered hoarsely to the forest. The cup was carefully pushed into her bag using her right hand. The left one was completely out of commission and appeared to be slowly growing numb.

CJ knew the longer she hung around at the crash site, the more likely it was that her injuries would not fully heal. How would anyone find her? Communication with the ground seemed to be lost way before the impact, so that and the hostile terrain would make any search much more difficult. She needed medical assistance, and soon. But looking through the murky cloud cover, she guessed she was nowhere near civilization. Would she die here? It was her last, morose thought before she collapsed backwards onto the snow and into another irresistible sleep.

For almost an hour, she drifted through a vast plain of nothingness before she dreamed. As she sank deeper and deeper, Kate’s mischievous face floated boldly in front of her, rippling teasingly out of her grasp. A tiny smile tugged at the sides of CJ’s mouth when Kate’s lips moved, and as the mirage began to fade, CJ knew it was telling her to come home. She reached out in an attempt to keep the beautiful sight with her, but it fizzled out until there was nothing but blackness.

A sharp and decidedly cold intake of the mountain air brought CJ back from her subconscious. She sat up and let out a cry when the move reminded her promptly that she was not in good shape. Her stiff, freezing limbs and the dusting of snowflakes on her black clothing brought her to the conclusion that she just couldn’t wait any longer, and she clambered to her feet to begin a slow limp down the valley, hobbling over the rough land and white, patchy terrain, very thankful for her heavy work boots and warm jacket. She tightened the collar – with some difficulty, since her arm wouldn’t allow much movement – and gulped back her fear at how lost and injured she appeared to be. The vision of Kate suddenly surrounded her once more, sending the pain to a distant corner of her mind. The vision drifted through a break in the trees, and CJ followed blindly. She was going to get home, somehow.

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Chapter 2

It was a crisp, sunny Thanksgiving morning in Los Angeles, California. Tony arrived at the Carson residence with his heart on his sleeve, and when he saw Kate, tears sprung to his brown eyes. She was pale and withdrawn. He couldn’t believe she already looked like a shadow of her former self.

When Kate noticed his presence and the fact that he was wiping his eyes, she approached the man who had come to mean so much to the family. “Tony.” Her arms slipped around his neck, and he could do nothing but return the embrace.

Kate released him and whispered, “Don’t worry. She’ll be back.”

When Tony pulled away, he frowned. “Kate-”

“Please, don’t. I need to believe she’ll be back soon. The alternative…I just can’t…”

“But they said she-“

Kate raised a hand to stop him. “Don’t say what everyone else is thinking, Tony. Please just believe me, OK?”

Tony had witnessed the great love between his bosses many times. They had an irrefutable and mystical tie that bound them that he would never be able to figure out, and with that in mind he nodded slowly to Kate. “OK, but I want to help you out until she comes back. I’ll go take the girls with me when I walk Kamali. How’s that?” he asked as he soothingly rubbed her shoulder.

Those kind words should have sent Kate into floods of tears, but instead she simply nodded. It felt like her body and mind were there playing the role of Kate Carson, but her soul and her spirit were off somewhere else doing a job she wasn’t even aware of. But she wouldn’t ask herself questions, trusting that whatever was happening, it was valid and true.

Just as Tony headed toward the back door a short while later with the two girls in tow, Shannon stopped in front of her mother, and when Kate crouched to her level, she placed her small hands on her cheeks. “Today’s Thanksgiving. Where’s Mommy? She promised she’d be home.”

Kate’s heart stalled as she felt her body go rigid. An irrational anger forced its way through her, but when she realized it was Shannon who had spoken to her and she looked at the innocence on her young, curious face, the anger turned to agony. “She…Mommy’s…”

Tony saw the war going on inside of Kate so he bent down to speak to Shannon. “She’ll be late, Shannon. She couldn’t help it, but we’ll be waiting when she gets back, won’t we?” he suggested with a smile to try to make it believable.

“But…” Shannon began to protest.

Tony took her hand and gave a tiny nod to Kate. “Let’s go. Kamali’s already at the back gate with Lucy. We need to catch up.”

Kate plastered a somewhat fake smile on her face when her daughter looked at her. She didn’t know what to say, so she offered nothing but a goodbye.

With a sigh, Shannon turned toward the door. “OK, Tony. Race you.”

As she took off running outside, Tony followed, and Kate bit her lips in frustration. How was she going to explain it to them? How could she even say the words? She shook her head in despair, not sure she would ever be capable.

Kate wandered through the room to sit on one of the bar stools at the island counter. She leaned her elbows on the surface and dropped her face into her hands. Trying to concentrate on regulating her breaths and wondering why she hadn’t cried yet, she rubbed her eyes vigorously before sitting upright once more. Her heart suddenly raced when she saw CJ standing opposite her, leaning one hand on the backrest of another stool.

“You’re doing fine…” CJ seemed to say.

Kate closed her eyes in an attempt to erase the sight from her mind, knowing it just couldn’t be real. She opened them again and frowned when CJ remained. She wasn’t going to encourage this type of mental instability, so she stayed quiet.

“Not gonna talk to me?”

“I…no.”

“Hmm. All right. I just wanted to tell you you’re going to be OK.”

Kate shook her head vehemently. “OK? How can I be OK when I’m talking to a…a…what are you anyway?”

The CJ vision shrugged. “I’m…just here.” It touched where its own heart would be and began to fade. “Right here.”

Kate stared straight through the space where CJ had stood. She considered that she might end up in a white, padded cell pretty soon as she fell into a trance and gazed at the same spot for an indeterminate amount of time.

* * * * * *

By the time Mark and Jamie reached Minneapolis International Airport they were itching to get started with the search, but knew they still had a long way to go before they would get the chance. They were puzzled when a tall, young man in a suit stood outside the arrivals area holding up a piece of paper in his hands displaying the words, MULRONEY, GREEN.

When Mark approached confidently, the man held out his hand. “Sir, I’m Special Agent Tim Dalton.”

“Apparently so…” Mark said, checking the badge that was flashed at him. “But how did you even know we were on this flight?”

“Sir, as you know, I was working with Agent Carson when she was here. I knew you would send someone now, and I’d been checking the flight manifests after I called your office and was told you were out of contact for the foreseeable future. When I saw you were traveling with another agent, I wanted to come pick you both up.” Tim fidgeted slightly since he felt he’d been a little presumptuous and had perhaps rambled a little too long. He waited nervously for the assistant director’s response.

Mark’s nod was of obvious approval. “Good to meet you, Dalton. This, as you already know, is Special Agent Jamie Green.”

“Agent Green.” Tim offered his hand to Jamie who shook it accordingly.

“Dalton. I’m…we’re anxious to get up there.”

“Yes. Yes, of course.” He finally let go of the gorgeous woman’s hand. Jesus. Do they all look like this in LA? Shaking himself out of the unbidden thought, he tilted his head to signal the way. “There’s a Black Hawk waiting for us not far from here. It will fly us direct to International Falls. I’ve set up a base at Jensen’s Aviation.”

Mark blinked. “You are organized, Dalton. Do we have troops up there already?”

“They’re gathering now, Sir. Bureau personnel, local cops, even a couple of US Air Force volunteers. The local mountain rescue chopper had no sightings during the night, but we’ve got two Black Hawks now, three 530 Little Birds, and possibly a Chinook coming in to rendezvous with them at the airfield. Some local pilots have volunteered to take us up in their lighter helicopters too, but I wanted to leave that decision up to you since they’re civilians an’ all. I saw you already had an incident room set up at Washington. I’ve contacted them to make sure they have my number, and to tell them to notify me immediately if they get any new information. I’ve told our team not to release a single word about this to the press. Doug Jensen has a safety record that’s second-to-none, and I want to know why his plane fell out of the sky before the speculation starts.”

Both Jamie and Mark were surprised at the ferocity in Tim’s voice, and as they walked beside him, Mark analyzed his expression. How close had Tim gotten to CJ? Did he know who her family was? He decided to dig a little.

“I don’t want the press knowing either, Dalton. CJ’s partner doesn’t need that right now.”

“I agree, Sir. I can’t imagine the stress Kate will be going through, and I’d hate for her to hear some dumb broadcaster spouting inaccurate news about her wife, especially in her line of work. The press would have a field day.”

Mark now knew that Tim was aware of CJ’s situation and really seemed to care about both his agent and her wife. Good guy, he told himself.

As they walked, Jamie realized that her best friend affected many people profoundly, and this young agent was no different. “I’m very glad to have you on board, Dalton.”

“I’m glad to be able to help,” Tim replied. “It’s this way,” he added with a gesture towards a waiting cab. He lifted his chin with determination and updated Mark and Jamie further on their short drive to the helicopter.

* * * * * *

On her way down a steep slope, CJ’s feet slid on the shifting earth beneath her. Every bone in her body seemed to pound doubly hard every time her boot hit the ground. Trying to support herself on her weakened right arm, she pushed off the soft dirt, keeping her feet side-on to the incline to avoid further mishaps. Whilst turned to her side, she spotted a tiny, dripping waterfall as it slithered down the drooping grasses into the ravine below, making her smack her dry lips together. She dropped down, and using her backside and feet she shuffled across the unyielding terrain. With the battered, tin cup in her good hand, she watched as the drips tap-tap-tapped their weight onto the hard surface then began to plop when the receptacle gathered more nourishing liquid. Not able to resist any longer, she brought the cup to her mouth and took a hearty gulp, choking herself in the process and angering her burnt throat.

Must have been those stinkin’ fumes, she mused after the gritty coughs subsided.

CJ’s entire being just wanted to lie down and surrender to the hostile environment, but the lingering thought of Kate and her children waiting at home boosted her to her unsteady feet. Re-adjusting the strap of the backpack on her left shoulder, she resumed her slow and careful descent to what she hoped would be civilization.

* * * * * *

In a darkened room, Kate walked between two small columns of stone. On top of each one was a flamboyant vase carrying an impressive plume of red and black roses. She kept moving forward, passing the massive gray flagstones on the floor without realizing her feet weren’t touching them. Her head began to back away from the black casket in front of her, but her torso continued to pull like a magnet, forcing her to look inside the space left by the half-opened lid. In stark contrast to its foreboding exterior, the casket was fully lined with luxurious silk, bright as the purest snow. Nestled in its clutches and resting on a matching pillow, was her beloved CJ. A choked gasp caught in her throat. It couldn’t be true. She couldn’t go on if it was. CJ lay there in one of her white work blouses, looking like she was simply taking a nap. Kate couldn’t stand it and tried to turn away, but some unseen force stopped her and held her to suffer at the disturbing view.

“I can’t! This has to be a nightmare. Just a nightmare!” she yelled. The body in the casket opened its eyes, and Kate froze.

CJ looked at her and parted her lips to say, “Yes, just a nightmare.” Her eyes closed again, and a burning, white light emanated from her chest.

The brighter it got, the more panicked Kate became. The light was blinding her now, and her eyes began to burn in their sockets. “No, no! Please no!” At that moment, Kate screamed and found herself waking up suddenly in Sam’s arms. “Oh God…”

“Sh, sh, you’re OK, honey. It was just a bad dream,” Sam soothed while rocking Kate’s trembling body back and forth.

“I-I’m OK, Sam.”

When Kate tried to pull away, Sam didn’t release her. “Hey. You don’t have to go through this on your own. I’m right here. Let me hold you for a bit.”

Deciding that she didn’t have the strength to argue, Kate tried to relax her tense muscles. She couldn’t get the image of CJ’s corpse out of her mind and shivered at the memory. But she wasn’t dead. She spoke to me. Just a nightmare… She opened her dry eyes. “She’s not dead,” she whispered.

Sam heard her but chose not to respond. How long could her friend deny what was obvious to everyone else?

Mere moments later, the noises of Tony, Shannon, and Lucy returning from their walk effectively ended the embrace. Sam got up to leave, and Kate swung her legs over the side of her bed. Trying to take a nap had not been such a good idea after all.

* * * * * *

His cell phone rang for the third time in an hour, but he could answer it now. Using his ill-gotten police scanner, he’d listened to their broadcasts and confirmed that this part of his job was over. “Hey, man…”

“Is it done?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure the target’s dead?”

“There’s no way she walked away from what I just did.”

The caller was silent for a few seconds. “OK. Get back to LA. We have a little more to do before we get the big bucks.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. I’m headed back to the airport now,” he said, rolling his eyes and sipping his coffee. He ended the call without a goodbye, and after emptying the cup he left the roadside diner to get back into his rental car. In his sick and greedy mind, the next part of the plan should be fun.

* * * * * *

Assistant Director Mark Mulroney stood with his hands leaning on the large table in front of him. It was covered in maps, lists, weather reports, and various other necessary pieces of information that they would need for their upcoming task. He was overwhelmed by Tim Dalton’s determination and connections. Jensen’s Aviation staff were buzzing around him, making sure that every member of the huge team who had assembled here in hangar one were fueled for their journeys. Water, coffee, sandwiches, and other snacks were laid out on another table against the wall.

He scanned the space around him and looked out the massive hangar doors when another helicopter engine could be heard. A few moments later, the Chinook rolled into view and stopped just south of the building. Once the noise died down, three mountain rescue personnel in bright-red jumpsuits strode toward him, stopping when Jamie spoke briefly to the leader and redirected them over to where everyone else was now standing in an enormous group. The amount of people here was quite incredible since over a quarter of them were actually off duty and volunteering their time for free. Gruffly sniffing back a pang of emotion, Mark puffed out his cheeks as a burst of air left his lungs. He cleared his throat to prepare himself for the briefing he now had to give, and after a sly glance at his watch, he began.

“Good evening, all of you. First of all, I want to thank everyone for being here. I did not expect such a generous turnout, and your assistance is more than appreciated. As you know, we are here to search for the plane that went down in the Voyageurs National Park just south of Kabetogama Lake, approximately thirty nine hours ago. The overnight search team had no luck, and had to return to base after the weather turned. So, the aircraft we are looking for is a Cessna Skyhawk displaying the Jensen’s Aviation livery, which I believe is two thick, red stripes on a white background.” After a nod from one of the airfield’s staff, Mark looked back at his eager troops. “The plane was carrying two passengers. Pilot, Doug Jensen, and Special…”

He briefly faltered, but only Jamie seemed to notice as he covered it well with a cough. “And Special Agent CJ Carson. You all have your designated search areas. Do not deviate from them unless you have prior orders and have clearance from the control tower. Hangar four here at the airfield is the refueling point, and we’ll come in for breaks in shifts. I want at least three units in the air at any given time while the daylight holds. The current weather conditions are going to make this difficult. Cloud cover is patchy and low, and there’s the threat of more snow to come. The size of area we need to cover and the type of terrain dictates that we simply cannot do a ground search. This national park is full of lakes and bogs, not to mention mountains. Each aircraft will have their pilot, co-pilot, one federal agent, and one air-support-trained police officer. Some units will also carry a medic where space allows. Keep your eyes sharp and look out for anything unusual. I need you to report back to me at regular intervals, so I’ll check in with each call sign periodically. My call sign will be Zulu One, and I’ll be on one of the Black Hawk choppers with Special Agent Green and two NTSB agents.”

The normally-calm man felt a rare nausea fill his belly and gulped it back before continuing. “I will proceed immediately to your location if you spot the downed aircraft. If…when you find it, do not risk your lives to get down there. Search the surrounding area and find a safe place to land before going in on foot. I know most of you know this, but I have to be clear on that point. I don’t want to lose anyone else in there. This is hostile terrain. Don’t forget that.”

Mark took a deep breath as the nods and murmurs from his audience settled down. “We know where the Cessna lost contact with air traffic control, but we do not know what path the plane took thereafter. It could have gone off course during its descent. Our experienced rescue team in the Chinook will be searching what we think will be ground zero, and will move out to assist others if they find nothing. We only have a few hours of daylight left, so let’s get out there. Good luck.”

When the people began to disperse and ready themselves to leave, Jamie approached her boss. “You OK, Sir?”

Mark looked up at her and blinked a few times. He knew she was concerned about him, so he attempted a partial smile. “Yeah. Thanks, Jamie. Now let’s move.”

“Yes, Sir.”

* * * * * *

Kate was in the crèche coloring a picture with Lucy. She was barely cognizant of what she was doing and wasn’t really paying attention. But Lucy was, and she was quick to chastise her mother when she went outside the lines.

“Mama! You made the face all purple. Look.”

“Oops, sorry. I’ll need to try harder, huh?”

Lucy nodded profusely and continued with her artistic creation before Tony finished fixing the movie into the DVD player and called her over. As he settled down with both children in the giant beanbags, he signaled to Kate to see if she wanted to join them. Kate declined with a head shake and made her exit.

She walked through the kitchen and into the living room where Sam was hovering by the fireplace. Sam had been like her shadow since she’d arrived at the house, and it was starting to get to Kate. Added to that was the fact that Cecilia Carson had turned up a couple of hours earlier – no doubt notified of their situation by Mark – and was drifting around the house clearing up after the kids and generally loitered in case Kate needed her.

Kate had begun to feel suffocated. All she needed was CJ, and she couldn’t have her so she wanted to be left alone to suffer in silence. “I’m going for a walk,” she said abruptly to Sam.

“Do you need some company?”

“No!” Kate retorted a little too sharply. Her bottom lip trembled at her outburst, and she rushed through the hallway and out the front door alone. She jogged frantically away from the house, and when she reached the end of the jetty that stuck out over the lake, she finally stopped running and tried to breathe. A gut-wrenching wail left her throat as she collapsed onto the wooden boards beneath her.

She sat there with no clue where her life would go if her CJ didn’t come back, and she had no idea how her broken heart would ever mend. She would exist. Of course she would. Their children were so important to her, and she would never leave them, but there was nobody else in the world that could complete her like CJ could.

I’m not strong enough to survive without her. At that realization, she let her eyes slip out of focus as she gazed at the surface of the lake.

“Yes, you are.” CJ appeared beside her, casually swinging her long legs next to Kate’s.

Kate’s body stilled as a chill swept through her bones. She trembled and dared not look at the vision that she sensed was watching her. “You’re not here,” she whispered, wondering the whole time why she couldn’t cry to release her pain.

“I’m always here,” the vision said, reaching out to cover Kate’s heart.

Kate leapt to her feet before it made contact and spun around without looking at what her imagination had conjured up again. Focusing her eyes on the house, she broke into a run and didn’t look back.

* * * * * *

CJ sat on a rock and couldn’t shift a delusionary image of her wife from her mind. Kate was rushing away from her. She vaguely wondered where she was going, and she bit her bottom lip as she tried to remember Kate’s touch. The memory came to her easily, and her body seemed to react as her heart pumped stronger, and a fiery, determined look swept across her weary eyes. Hissing some cold air through her teeth and slowly reaching up to her head, she also remembered how she came to be sitting here. After tripping over a fallen branch, she had tumbled to the ground, thumping her head on the very rock she was now perched on. She put her daydreaming – including what happened next – down to her most recent injury.

CJ raised her eyes as a pair of black, leather boots came into view. She gawked at the man who leaned lazily on a nearby tree trunk and carved pieces of his apple with a strange-looking dagger. “Jack?” she asked, not even realizing yet that she was seeing a dead man. “What’re-?”

“What am I doing here?” he said nonchalantly. “Just waitin’ for you.”

“Huh?”

“I said, I’m just waiting for you. Clearly, you’re not gonna make it, so I’m just waitin’…”

CJ blinked and finally figured out what he meant. “Fuck off, Jack! I’m going to get home, and I’m not going to die!”

“Hmm. Ya look kinda pathetic sitting there on your tush. If you were goin’ home, you’d be up an’ walkin’.” He took another piece of apple to his mouth, holding it between dagger and thumb, and it was then that CJ noticed his clothing.

“What the hell are you wearing?” She was so confused.

“You like it?” Jack asked, tugging on his tunic that was adorned with silver studs and swirling patterns. “I always thought it looked hot. Black leather an’ all.”

“If ya like that sorta thing.”

“And I see by your face that you don’t,” he jested, waving the dagger in her direction.

“Like I said before, fuck off, Jack.”

“You do realize you’re not making a sound, don’t you? Lost your voice? I mean, I can still hear you, but no one else can. And I don’t mean to be nasty, but you look like you were just dragged through Tartarus.”

“You’re making no sense to me. Go away.”

“OK, but I’ll be around. Ya know, waitin’? See you soon. Ciao.” And with that, he disappeared.

Jesus, I’m completely losing it. CJ got to her feet, groaning and hissing as she did so. Her injuries were many, but at least only a couple seemed serious. Unfortunately, the two more serious ones were both her arms, and she never realized how much she’d used the damn things until she couldn’t. She walked forward, feeling the pressure in her old ankle injury as it continued to inflate against the inside of her boot. May as well keep walking while I still can.

.

Chapter 3

After the fourth day of searching, Mark sat in his motel room and tried to keep his eyes open. He had barely spent a few hours in it so far, but right now he was scrutinizing maps of the national park on his laptop. Scoring off yesterday’s search areas, he began to draw lines and section off the stretches of mountainous land to the east of the Cessna’s flight path that they would focus on today. The maps were soon attached to an email and sent to Deputy Director Mitchell.

Ten minutes later, Mark couldn’t sit still and got up to take a shower before Jamie called him to say she was ready to leave again. They had managed five hours of broken sleep last night after the search teams were beaten into submission by high winds and zero visibility.

There had been no sightings of the plane, and every moment that passed chipped away at Mark’s resolve. He had to admit to himself now that it wasn’t a rescue mission anymore. It was recovery. But at least if he recovered the body of his agent, she could be laid to rest.

Less than two hours later, the choppers were in the air again, and Mark was scanning the horizon as his aircraft came about to start their new search zone. His headphones sparked to life with the broadcast he had been waiting to hear. Charlie Six, one of the Little Bird helicopters, had spotted a wreck that matched the Jensen Cessna’s description and were now looking for a place to land. Once they’d received the grid reference, Mark’s pilot turned their chopper around and headed in the direction of the site.

Mark suddenly felt sick. Jamie sat beside him with a desolate expression covering her pensive face. What were they going to find?

* * * * * *

They don’t look poisonous, CJ thought as she picked a few tiny, red berries from a nearby bush. As she placed one in her mouth, her face scrunched into something rather unattractive as she swallowed the bitter taste of the fruit. She didn’t feel like eating, but her body had gotten pretty ravenous as the days passed, and she’d decided that if the berries were going to affect her health, she just didn’t care anymore. She downed the last of her water – gratefully gotten in the early hours of morning when she came across a small stream in the valley – before she looked up between the two mountain peaks that now faced her. Every time she thought she was going to find something different over the next rise, it ended up being the same old scenery: mountain, valley, mountain, lake, valley. Eyeing the lowest point between the giants, she gathered her courage and the remainder of her dwindling strength, and stood up only to fall back down again when her legs gave way.

“Ready to go?” a soft voice quipped behind her.

Her head spun to see another vision appearing between the shrubs. She was getting used to them now, which was not necessarily a good thing. “I…I can’t get up.”

“Of course you can, honey. I know you have more left in you,” Kate said while moving towards her using a long stick to prod the wiry branches out of her way.

CJ’s eyebrows drew together at the weird costume Kate was wearing this time. “I swear I’m going crazy.”

“Nope. You’re not crazy, but you are suffering from exhaustion and exposure. Maybe I’m just here to help you focus?”

“So you can hear me talking, right?” CJ asked, remembering what Jack had told her.

“Yeah, but you’re not using your voice. Just as well, ‘cause your throat’s a mess.” Kate stood leaning on her pole like she had always carried it.

CJ just got more and more confused, shaking her head because her sanity just didn’t seem to matter anymore. “Why are you guys wearing these strange clothes?”

“You don’t like it? I’m quite partial to the red velvet.”

CJ was quite partial to it herself, had she the mental ability to really think about it. The short skirt and tailored, decorative sports bra were very appealing. “I do like it, yeah. And your hair…”

“Nice, huh? What do you think?” Kate said, ruffling her short, shaggy locks with her hand.

“It’s different. You look…beautiful.” CJ was ripping apart inside. She missed the real Kate so much, and it was painful to see her here and not be able to hold her. “But really…what’s with the outfit?”

The Kate vision looked down at her own body. “I know it’s confusing. I’m not really sure why if feels so right on me, but it does. Anyway, I’m here to help you. See that cave in the rock face up there?”

“Yeah…”

“You need to head over that ridge.”

CJ immediately whined. “But that one’s so much higher than the one I was going to cross.”

“Ah, but what you don’t know is that there’s a huge lake on the other side of the one you were gonna try. This place is filled with water…bogs and swamps and rivers all over the place. So it’ll get you out of here faster if you go my way. I want you to get home, Xe-” The mirage etched a cute frown on her face and blushed a little. “I want you to get home, CJ.”

Now CJ was completely baffled by this woman who looked exactly like her wife but acted…differently. “Uh, OK. Help me up?”

“I can’t. I’m not really here, remember?”

“Right.” CJ looked down and attempted to pick up her cup using her right arm. It would only move from the elbow down now, but she kept putting up with the pain just to make sure the entire thing didn’t drop off completely. When she looked up to say thanks, the vision had disappeared.

“I’ll end up in an asylum at this rate.” She decided not to try to speak out loud again when her raspy whisper brought on another bout of coughing: painful coughing.

* * * * * *

As each passing hour dragged on, Kate lost more and more of her confidence. Mark hadn’t called in days. Jamie had only called Sam to say they were no further forward in the search, and Kate knew it didn’t look good. She knew CJ was probably the toughest person she’d ever known, but even tough people can’t fight fatal injuries. When Shannon suddenly appeared in front of her, Kate struggled to recollect where she was at that moment. Oh. The back yard.

“Mama?”

“Yes, Shan?”

“My hair is really long now.”

Kate paused for a moment to process the random comment. “It is. And it’s beautiful, sweetie.”

“Can I get it cut?”

“If you want to. Why don’t we go today, huh?” Kate suggested, thinking it would keep Shannon from asking more questions about her mommy.

“Could we? Me and you?”

“Sure. I’ll ask Tony if he can drive us, OK?”

A tight hug was Kate’s response, and she held her breath to stop herself from screaming out her agony. She desperately wished CJ could be there to hug them too.

Three hours later, Lucy slept in her car seat after she and Tony had enjoyed a burger and a play in a giant ball pit. Tony was close to dozing off too, but his jaw dropped when two familiar females walked out of the hair salon and headed toward the car. Shannon had certainly had a trim, and her brown hair hung loosely at shoulder length, but Kate? Kate had cut all her hair off. A short, choppy and – he had to admit very beautiful – hairstyle adorned her head. It was somewhat feminine and completely changed her look, but she was still as stunning as ever.

When they both got into the car, Tony turned to stare. “You guys look incredible.”

Shannon was bursting with excitement. “Look at Mama’s hair! Isn’t it pretty?”

“It sure is, Shan. You both look really beautiful.”

“It was my idea. I just told Mama to get it short, and she did it.”

“Wow. Cool, huh? Well, I’m so happy to be driving such gorgeous ladies home.”

“Thank you, Tony,” Kate said quietly. “Here, Shan. Color in your book.”

Shannon nodded and happily filled in the gaps with her stubby crayons. “I can’t wait ‘til Mommy sees us,” she said without lifting her eyes from the page.

Tony almost saw the metaphorical punch to Kate’s gut as she convulsed slightly at the innocent words. He spun around and started the engine, knowing he couldn’t really do anything for Kate except take her home, and pray that CJ would come back in one piece.

* * * * * *

Jamie’s heart was racing as they carefully hiked along the ridge and into the small valley. The wreckage was up ahead, and she suddenly hated her job. Mark strode a few paces in front of her and was the first to greet the men of Charlie Six who were already on-site.

A tall, burly man walked over to them and reached out his hand. “Agent Bishop, Sir. It’s definitely the Jensen plane.”

“Bishop. Have you located the bodies?”

“One body, Sir.”

“I don’t understand. Was Agent Carson not confirmed as being on this flight?”

Jamie heard Mark’s voice rising and delicately placed a hand on the back of his shoulder, out of sight of the others. Mark didn’t seem to respond to the touch at first, but his body slouched a little soon after.

Agent Bishop licked his cold lips and bit them to get the feeling back. “Sir, Agent Carson survived the crash.”

“What? How do you know that?”

“Um, she left a note, Sir.”

Jamie gasped. “A note?”

“Yes. Sorry, we haven’t met. I’m Agent Bishop,” he said, shaking her quivering hand.

“I’m Agent Green. Can you tell us where this note is?”

Agent Bishop smiled. “See the belly of the plane there? It’s at a forty-five degree angle to the ground-”

“And…?” Mark interrupted, getting a little agitated.

“She must have been sheltering under there, Sir. She wrote it on the fuselage.”

Mark had to see this with his own eyes, and after a nod of thanks to Agent Bishop, he walked over the snow to the remains of the Cessna. Before he got down on his knees, he saw a dark body-bag lying on the ground. “Is this Doug Jensen?” he asked somberly.

“Yes. He’s been identified, and the plane’s serial number confirmed,” Agent Bishop replied before moving away to assist his colleagues.

Jamie knelt down on one knee next to Mark when he shuffled to lie under the belly of the plane. What he saw almost made him laugh. He read it quietly to Jamie.

“About time you showed up. Couldn’t wait any longer. Almost frozen to death. Headed downhill. Could use some help. CJ Carson.”

Jamie was stunned. “I can’t believe she survived. Kate was right.”

Mark shook his head in disbelief and looked at Jamie from his awkward position. “Seems like it, but we haven’t found her yet. There’s no way she could continue on a straight path in this landscape, so finding her will still be a challenge. I have no idea how we’ll be able to see one individual from the air.” He touched the scribbled words tenderly. “And I think she wrote this in blood. She’s probably seriously injured.” When he stood up, both he and Jamie stepped away from the mangled wreck, and Jamie put her hand to her forehead.

“I just can’t believe she survived that.” She turned to hide her face from the other rescuers as she tried to choke back a cry of anguish.

“We’ll find her,” Mark tried to reassure. “Or, knowing CJ, she’ll find us.”

Jamie half-smiled at that. “We can’t call Kate yet, Sir.”

“I know. No point in giving her false hope. Let’s go.” He spoke briefly with the others about removing Jensen’s body before returning to his chopper to begin planning the recovery of the plane. Once he’d given out the orders, they took off once more and commenced their next search. If they had no luck on this run, they’d have to wait until morning, but it was getting dark out there, and heavy snow clouds were threatening.

* * * * * *

CJ had made it to the cave a few hours later, but her body had given up immediately after she’d sat down, so now she surrendered to her weariness and cowered under its shelter as the snow began to fall. She left the cup outside to fill up, aware that when it was full she could put it inside her jacket to melt the flakes. Sniffing away the cold drip that was constantly trickling from the end of her nose, she thought about her wife. Kate had been through this kind of hell before, and CJ had a new, deeper respect for the woman she knew she’d love forever.

Kate hadn’t had boots to shield her feet, and she hadn’t had a thick, bomber jacket to cover her chilled skin. She had traversed this type of terrain in this type of weather without anything but a ripped-up blanket and her pajamas.

CJ started to feel like a weak idiot. God, she’s tougher than me. I don’t know why I’m surprised. I always knew that.

Of course, CJ had survived a plane crash first, but that didn’t make much difference either. Kate had been beaten for a week before she had escaped into the wilderness.

Why do we keep going through these things? Why is our life always like some kind of action thriller?

“It’s a pain in the ass, isn’t it?”

When the Kate vision leaned against the opposite wall of the cave mouth, CJ appraised the recurring mirage that she now welcomed. “Kinda…”

“But would you really want a dull, boring life anyway?”

“I can’t imagine my life would ever be dull or boring with you in it.” CJ almost cried at Kate’s beauty when she smiled in response. She looked at the vision’s short hair again and smiled herself, trailing her eyes over the familiar body. “Hey, I like your coat.”

“Thanks,” Kate said while brushing her knuckles down the tan hide. “I do too.”

“Are you going to help me again?”

“Well, you haven’t climbed over the ridge yet. I’ll wait ‘til you’ve gone further. You’re on the right track.” Just then, CJ was startled when a wolf sauntered in and curled up at Kate’s feet. She stared at the creature with its fair coat and bright-green eyes until she heard a chuckle from Kate.

“You look like you’re about to have a heart attack.”

CJ shook her head shyly. “No, no, not at all. It’s just…”

“She’s awesome, isn’t she? We’ll guide you, CJ. Trust us.”

And with those words Kate and her wolf disappeared, leaving CJ completely baffled once again. But this time, she got the strange feeling it wasn’t just Kate who was trying to help her. It was her great-grandfather too.

* * * * * *

Kate tried to hide from everyone in the study after the children had gone to bed. Tony had yet to leave and was doing his best to keep out of the way, Sam wouldn’t leave and was constantly tailing Kate as she moved through the house, and Cecilia was never going to leave since she was still clearing up after dinner – and the dog – to make sure there was absolutely nothing left for Kate to do.

Kate knew they all loved her and wanted to be of service, but it was driving her a little insane, and she simply didn’t feel like interacting with anyone. She needed to be alone and have some time to herself to think, time to figure out why her wife would leave her, and time to…grieve? She could never blame CJ for this. How could CJ ever predict that her plane would crash? She wasn’t psychic. And yet still, Kate couldn’t help but remember CJ’s many promises that they would never be apart.

Anger, hurt, confusion, and heartache fought with one another inside Kate, and her mind ran in tighter and tighter circles until she couldn’t keep up with it anymore. She needed quiet.

“Kate, would you like some tea before I go for the night?” Cecilia said gently as she popped her head around the door to the study.

“No, thank you.”

“I could make up something for you to eat later, if you want.”

“No. Please, Cecilia, just head home.”

Cecilia knew Kate was hurting, but if she didn’t eat she was going to waste away to nothing, and that would affect the children eventually. “Kate, please let me-”

Kate rose abruptly and stormed over to the door. “I need some time. Will you all just go?”

The others heard her uncharacteristic words and emerged from the living room carefully.

With Sam, Tony, and Cecilia now standing in the hall looking at her with sad eyes, she held her head in her hands as her voice continued to rise. “Just get out and leave me alone. Please!” All her energy seemed to drain out of her, and she finished in a mere whisper. “Please.”

Sam and Tony went to collect their things, and Cecilia approached to give Kate a hug. Kate returned it, but she let go when the others headed toward the door.

“Thank you.” Once all three had left, Kate apologized to the empty room. “I’m so sorry.” She slumped down on the bottom step next to Kamali, feeling totally and utterly lost.

* * * * * *

The frosty morning bit at CJ’s fingers as she attempted to move the stiff digits. She hadn’t slept as such, but she had drifted in and out of consciousness throughout an extremely cold night. Shifting her eyes to the side, she saw that the previous night’s visitors hadn’t returned and wasn’t sure if she was happy or sad about that.

She sat up and looked around for a second to get her bearings before she mustered the will to move. She had to get home. Her body was saying forget it, but her heart never could. It’s time to go.

A while later, she finally reached the top of the ridge above the cave, and her face fell when she saw nothing but a long, long way down a gradual slope into the next valley. Some of the fluffy clouds were floating below where she stood, blocking her view and showing just how high some of the ridges were. Following her gut, she began her unsteady descent, wishing with everything left in her that she didn’t have much more of this to do.

How about a helicopter ride home? No? OK, I’ll keep walking…if you can call this walking, she chattered inside her head. She decided that her wish for a helicopter was a bit of a stretch and settled on just finding some decent water to drink. She’d given up on eating since all she’d come across so far was the occasional berry bush, and even those small treats were agony to swallow now. She would be starting to lose weight from her severe lack of nourishment over the past week, and she silently cursed herself once again for not eating properly when she was hunting down a murderer.

As she continued on her trek, she wondered how much longer her body could sustain itself without fuel. The reason the plane had crashed popped into her head, and she smiled humorlessly at the irony.

* * * * * *

Forty-eight hours later, Kate lay completely still in her bed, her blank eyes staring at the ceiling as usual. She had managed the children on her own the last two days, and with only three phone calls from Sam to check up on her, she felt like she could breathe a little better. Tony had come into the house yesterday and filled up the kitchen cupboards and the fridge, which meant Kate didn’t have to leave the house, and that suited her just fine. She hadn’t been answering calls either, but seemed to recall a message on her voicemail rescheduling her audition. To when, she didn’t know.

Sleep had eluded her for a week now, and she felt like her soul had been fully ripped out, never to be restored. Every moment that passed without CJ increased the pain inside, and her heart crumbled a little more every day when no news came of her beloved being found. In a fit of fury and agonizing frustration, she had yelled at Mark on the phone yesterday morning and forced him into telling her everything he knew. He had explained that CJ had survived the crash, but that they hadn’t located her yet, and amid their heightened emotions and angry words, he was quick to point out that she had most likely succumbed to the elements after this amount of time.

Kate had also discovered that the recovery crew was having problems bringing the plane down from its remote plateau which gave her an idea of just how inhospitable the area was, and how much trouble her wife was really in. She had been completely numb after the call and had cared for Shannon and Lucy the best she could, even though she felt like a brainless zombie. She knew it was starting to affect them now, and she also knew she would have to tell them something soon to explain their mommy’s extended absence. December was now upon them, and both girls had mentioned CJ, asking if she would be home before Christmas. Kate hadn’t answered them, but had neatly diverted their attention onto something easier for her to handle. She also hadn’t sent them back to school yet.

Kate sighed and rolled over, blinking to alleviate the dryness in her tired eyes. She still hadn’t cried since the day CJ went missing, and her spirit had gone into hiding to try to cope. She grabbed the T-shirt she had previously pulled from the laundry basket and held it against her cheek, inhaling CJ’s faint scent. An agonizing squeeze on her heart should have made her cry, but the tears just wouldn’t come. She closed her eyes again and tried to think back over the past week, vaguely remembering Mark sitting opposite her and telling her that CJ’s plane had gone down in the Voyageurs National Park. She remembered the distant darkness that had swooped in and engulfed her being, suffocating her insides. It seemed like yesterday that he’d told her, and she struggled to bring into focus everything that had happened since then.

Hearing a floorboard creaking somewhere outside her door, she expected to see Shannon coming into the dark room. The children had not been sleeping very well, and it worried Kate. She just wished she could make it better for all of them. When neither Shannon nor Lucy appeared, she held her breath to listen again. A deep and penetrating fear filled her when she heard Kamali growling low and long.

Kate bolted upright, and a freezing, cold chill traveled down her spine when the growling did not stop. As her heartbeats tripled in speed and power, she shoved CJ’s T-shirt between the pillows and shot out of bed, heading to the closet with her stomach in a multitude of burning knots. She unlocked the safe and pulled out the Colt .45, loading the clip like a professional. She stood up and held the weapon at her shoulder with both hands pointing upwards, just like CJ had taught her.

Kamali was still growling so she swiftly moved to the bedroom door and peeked out into the upper hallway. She saw him standing on the landing with his front paws at the edge of the top step. His head was hung low as he looked toward the front door, and his lips were peeled back in a vicious snarl. His growls came in waves, and his sharp fangs glistened in the moonlight that ricocheted around the space from the various windows. He reminded her of a wolf about to defend its territory as he inhaled a scathing, rough breath between the chilling rumbles.

Kate had never seen him like this, and it terrified her – not because she was afraid of the dog, but because she was afraid of the reason he was acting this way. She knew that nobody was inside the house otherwise Kamali would be barking or attacking the intruder, but something was definitely wrong, and she padded along the upper hallway until she reached the end of the wall where it met the railing.

“Kamali,” she whispered.

The big canine was silent for a few seconds when he turned to look at her, but he soon whipped his head back around to continue his warning, sending a low and definite growl down the staircase. Kate followed his gaze and saw that the alarm box above the front door was still lit a solid red, meaning the perimeter of the house had not been penetrated, but an especially loud growl was heard from the dog just as her eye caught a dark shadow moving quickly across the ground in front of the porch outside.

Taking deep, deep breaths in an effort to slow her racing heart, she refocused her attention, and since the intruder was going left to right, she immediately thought he was heading to the barn…for what, she didn’t know. There was nothing of value in the large building.

Leaving Kamali to guard the stairs, she moved swiftly back to the master bedroom to look out the window. She heard a faint, distant squeal but couldn’t understand where it came from until the horses suddenly bolted across their field in fright. She could barely see through the darkness, but suddenly a human figure dressed all in black, except for some dirty white sneakers, entered the barn. He looked to be carrying something, but again, she couldn’t make it out.

Kate’s pounding heart was working its way up her throat, and she desperately wished CJ was with her right now. Barely a moment later, flames licked their way out of the barn doors, and when Kate saw the intruder running from the building, her fear turned to anger. She bolted down the stairs – glad when Kamali stayed to guard the children’s bedrooms – and pressed the alarm code into the keypad to unlock the door. Flicking the safety off the gun and swinging her aim to the left, she poked her head momentarily out the door before drawing it back in, again, just like CJ had taught her. She saw nobody on the porch and repeated the process to the right. Then the black figure came sprinting past the front of the house, and Kate lifted the Colt to take aim. She fired a shot at the ground behind the man’s feet as he sprinted away from her home which resulted in a loud “Fuck!” before the intruder disappeared faster into the blackness of night.

Kate watched with angry, piercing eyes until she could no longer see the retreating figure. Her heart was still racing as she backed up over the threshold to lock the door before heading to the phone. Kamali had stopped growling, and Kate looked up at him as she dialed 911.

“Good boy.”

Once she had summoned the police and fire department, there was nothing else to do but get the girls out of the house, just in case the fire spread over the distance between the buildings. It was highly unlikely, but Kate would never take the chance. The horses were outside so she wasn’t about to risk anyone’s life to try to quell the blaze herself. Instead, she ran upstairs past the dog to get to her children, and as she entered Shannon’s room, she saw her already awake.

“Mama. There was a loud bang.”

“I know, honey. Don’t worry about it, but we need to go out into the car, OK?”

“But it’s dark.”

“Shannon, please just do as I say. Come on. We need to get Lucy now.”

They both went to collect Lucy from her room, grabbing a couple of blankets to stave off the chill in the car. Once outside, Kate was confused to see the Dodge Ram parked behind her car.

When did that get here? She looked at the keys she had grabbed from the hall table and realized they were CJ’s spare set. Tony…he must have picked it up from LAX. He really does think of everything. She felt terrible for sending Tony away, but she didn’t have time to wallow over her mistakes right now.

Kate bundled Shannon and Lucy into the truck with their blankets and loaded the dog into the front passenger seat of the vehicle before jumping in herself and reversed away from the house to wait for the emergency services. With the truck doors locked and the gun on her lap – with the safety back on – she picked up her cell phone with shaky hands to call her father. It was time for him to come visit.

* * * * * *

“Thanks, Dad. I’m sorry I woke you.”

“No apologies, Katie. I’ll get a flight as soon as I can.”

“I love you,” Kate said as she rubbed her hand through her short, blond hair.

“I love you too. Just hold on ‘til I get there.”

“I’ll try. Bye, Dad.”

“Bye.”

Once Kate hung up the call, Shannon pulled herself forward by grabbing onto the front seat. “Are you OK, Mama?”

“Yes, Shan. I’m sorry about earlier. I…I was a little scared.” When Kate had been sitting in the car for a few minutes, she’d realized the fear that had encompassed her was all for her children. It had jolted her roughly out of her mind-numbing, catatonic state.

“Is Grandpa coming?”

“He’ll be here once he gets someone to look after the restaurant. Grandpa Jeffrey can’t do it because he’s sick.”

“What’s wrong with him?”

“Just a bad cold, hon.”

“What’s that?” Shannon asked, pointing to the smoke billowing from beyond the house.

“The barn’s on fire. But don’t worry because the firefighters will be here soon.”

The moment she said it, sirens could be heard in the far distance. Shannon and Lucy both watched the dark driveway to see if the flashing lights were visible yet while Kate scanned the area around them constantly, watching for the return of the intruder who had invaded their haven. There was no reason for anyone to come all the way out here to set fire to a barn, and it increased her worry the more she thought about it. Had she prevented the intruder from doing something more by shooting at him? Had there home been targeted? Or had someone specifically wanted to hurt her? Kate’s mind was reeling with questions as she watched the trucks approaching her home in the darkness. Her words came out in a whisper.

“CJ, I need you.”

.

Chapter 4

There was a rustle in the nearby undergrowth, but CJ couldn’t move. She’d just relieved her bladder, and using her arm to undo her cargo pants was getting more and more difficult. She sat ruminating over her various injuries, supporting her broken wrist with her failing right arm. She was shivering and didn’t want to budge from the protective huddle she was now in, but when a twig snapped she had to look up into the moonlit clearing.

“Not again…” she mumbled, realizing with startling clarity that she’d only thought the words and wasn’t actually speaking.

“What? You want me to leave?” the vision asked.

“No, please don’t. I just…seriously, am I losing my mind? Or am I just dead and don’t know it?”

“Neither of the above,” Kate chirped as she sat down about two feet in front of CJ.

“Where’s your wolf friend?”

“She’s around. I wanted to come and talk to you.”

CJ quickly checked the vision’s outfit this time, and it seemed that this was definitely Kate. She was sitting casually with her legs crossed like it was the middle of summer, wearing faded, blue jeans and the black, halter-neck, sleeveless shirt CJ loved.

Once she had finished her assessment, she lifted her gaze to find the cutest grin on Kate’s friendly face. “What?”

“You’re staring.”

“Oh, uh sorry. What did you want to talk to me about?”

“The man you saw at Jensen’s airfield.”

“What man?”

“The one that gave you a strange feeling in your belly.”

“Oh…the mechanic guy?”

“Yes.”

“What about him?”

The Kate vision looked at her seriously. “Had you seen him before?”

“I…I don’t think so. I…” CJ’s stomach re-enacted the flip-flop it had performed that day. “Oh, no. I…it was him on the plane.”

“What plane?”

“The flight from LA. He was the guy who was watching me when…when I spoke with the old lady. But why…?”

Kate shrugged. “I don’t know, but don’t you want to find out? You’d better get home, CJ.”

The shrubbery began to appear through the vision, and CJ knew Kate was fading away. “Hey, wait!” But it was no use. She was alone again. Damn it.

Testing her flashlight and seeing it shining bright, she got up onto her knees and attempted to stand. She knew her boot was the only thing preventing her ankle from exploding, but she had to keep moving, even if it was the dead of night.

For the next twenty hours, she pushed herself beyond her limits and covered a fair amount of ground. To the national park, it was barely a blip on its landscape, but to CJ it was an arduous trek across the world.

* * * * * *

He finally met up with his partner in crime at a downtown bar in Los Angeles. They had to continue with the plan, and their next move was to do more damage at the Carson house to scare that blond woman out of her wits. His problem was going to be explaining to his buddy that he didn’t want to do it.

“Hey, man…”

He looked up at the recognizable voice. “Sit.”

“So what’s the next move?” Mr. Electronic-Tabs asked as he slid into the booth.

“Not sure yet, but I am sure about one thing…”

“What?”

“I ain’t doin’ it.”

What?”

“She fucking shot at me, man! I didn’t sign up to get killed. She ain’t no easy target. She’s a crazy bird.”

“You listen to me, and listen good. You will do it. We’ve got two hundred kay’s each riding on this, and if you don’t follow through, I’ll fuckin’ kill you myself.”

“If you want the money, you do it!”

“I’m the brains of this outfit. You’re the brawn.”

“Hey!” he protested. “I got brains too. I did the job on that damn plane, after all.”

His partner laughed. “Yeah, but I had to tell you how to do it.”

“Well, I ain’t gettin’ killed. No point in workin’ for all that money, and then dying before you see any of it.”

“She’s just one chick, and I’m sure she won’t shoot ya. Probably can’t even aim straight.” Mr. Electronic -Tabs snorted and growled when some phlegm got caught in his throat. “Just get the next part done, and do it right or I’ll hunt you down.”

He looked down into his glass and shook his head. There was no way to get out of it, and he did really want all that cash. He supposed if he was smart, she wouldn’t even see him this time. He had no idea that Kate Carson had deliberately aimed at the dirt that night. They both had no idea who they were dealing with.

* * * * * *

Mark thumped his fist down on the table. “They want to do what?” he bellowed at a startled Jamie.

“Uh, they’re calling off the search, Sir.”

“No way!”

“But Sir, it’s been over a week. We’re never going to find one person in thousands of square miles of wilderness. It’s impossible.” Jamie knew she was being defeatist, but she was exhausted, and her brain felt like mulch.

“We are not giving up, Agent,” Mark bit off sharply.

“I don’t want to give up, Sir, but how can we continue without the backing of the Bureau?”

“There are volunteers here…and we’ll fund the rest somehow.”

At that moment, Tim Dalton came running into the hangar. Mark had thought he was taking a nap in his motel room, but little did he know his colleagues had been hatching a plan after the depressing news about the search had come down through Tim’s boss.

“Assistant Director. Oh, hi, Jamie. Uh, I’m not sure how, but we managed to get another few days. They’ll continue to retrieve the wreckage, but we only have half our search team. Your idea worked, Jamie…” Tim said with a nod to Jamie. “My deputy director caved…kinda. The Black Hawks are leaving, and one of the Little Birds has been called away, but asking him to cut the workforce rather than call it off altogether, and well…begging. It worked.”

“Dalton, Green…” Mark felt a swell of pride for the two agents. “Well done. Call the Black Hawk in. I think he’s still out there. Let’s take a couple of hours rest until we get organized, then it’s back to it.”

When Tim had moved away, Mark turned to Jamie. “Hey…sorry.”

“Sir, you don’t have to apologize to me.”

“Yes I do, Jamie. I know we have to remain professional in public, but this situation is…unique. We both love CJ, and I shouldn’t have snapped at you. I know you want to find her just as much as I do.”

His declaration was not lost on Jamie, and her opinion of her unusual boss rose higher than it already was. “Mark,” she chanced, “It’s OK to lose it. That is your job, after all. You’re the assistant director, and you can shout all you want. But thank you…and apology accepted. Our girl will turn up. I just know she will.”

Mark nodded and pulled his bottom lip between his teeth. “I’m not gonna be able to rest, but I think we should go to the motel and at least freshen up.”

“I’d have to agree.”

Once the helicopter landed, and its crew was relieved of duty, Mark and Jamie left the hangar. They needed food and a power nap since they knew they couldn’t continue to work on fresh air and no sleep, much as they’d like to.

* * * * * *

The flames were extinguished efficiently after the fire crews arrived. The police were also there in force. Three marked LAPD cruisers had arrived, and when an older man with a balding head got out of the last car, Kate vaguely recognized him. It seemed her call about the fire and the intruder on her property had caught the attention of a certain officer who remembered Kate Marshall.

When he approached her, he held out his hand. “Miss Marshall. I wish we could meet again under better circumstances, but, nature of the beast, I suppose.”

“I’m sorry. With everything that’s been going on recently I can’t remember your name.”

“Lieutenant Johnson, ma’am. I dealt with the threat letters you were receiving at the studios a few years back.”

“Oh, gosh. Yes. Thank you for coming out so fast, Lieutenant.”

“Please, call me Callum. Shall we go inside now? The fire chief has cleared the house.”

“Of course. I’ll just need to bring the girls in,” Kate said as she reached for the truck’s door handle.

When she let Shannon out and lifted Lucy into her arms, a female officer stepped forward to offer her assistance with Kamali and the blankets. She wrapped the fleecy cover around Shannon’s shoulders, getting a sleepy “thanks” as her reply.

Kate called out Kamali’s name as he was being released to try to keep him close, but he was desperate to check out the remains of the barn and guard his humans from the many people around the house. He began to leap away, but a stern command from Kate made him come to heel. Once she had wrapped her fingers around his collar, she forced a smile.

“Thank you for your help, Officer…?”

The woman with the spikey, black hair smiled back. “Daniels, ma’am…and you’re welcome.”

The small group walked into the farmhouse, and once Kate got both the children settled into her bed in the master bedroom – just for tonight – she headed back along the upper landing, pausing at Kamali who was standing on his spot wondering where his two buddies were.

Kate crouched down beside him. “Lie down. They’re right there, in my bed.”

Kamali relaxed a little, no doubt due to the wonderful fingers scratching along the hair under his collar. When he slouched onto the carpet, Kate kissed his head and stood up before continuing on down the stairs where she found the two police officers still standing looking around the living area.

“Oh, please sit. I apologize for-”

Callum shook his head. “No need for apologies, Miss Marshall. You’ve been through quite an ordeal.”

“It’s been an awful night,” Kate agreed.

“You have a lovely home.”

“Thank you.”

“I’ve spoken to the fire chief. He believes it was arson, and I’m sure they’ll be confirming that soon. You mentioned on your call that you saw the perpetrator running away?”

Yes. I shot at him to scare him off.”

“Shot at him?”

“I wasn’t aiming to hurt him, Lieutenant. I merely wanted to make sure he wouldn’t stick around,” Kate said rigidly.

“I understand. I assume the gun is-”

Kate shook her head with agitation. “Yes, it is registered. It belongs to my wife. She’s a federal agent.”

“Oh, I didn’t realize. Is she on her way home? Someone should really be here with you.”

Kate gulped back her bitter, reactive response. “She’s…missing. The FBI is looking for her. I’ve called my father.”

“Ah…” Callum wanted to delve deeper since something more was definitely going on here, but he decided to go back to his office to do that. This woman looked like she was ready to break, although he did remember Kate Marshall having a stubborn and fiery attitude back in the day. He had wanted to put a protection detail on her seven years ago, but she wouldn’t allow it, telling him she wasn’t going to let a sick crackpot win and force her into hiding.

Looking back, he knew he should have pushed the issue, and he shook his head again while he made a few notes in his book. “We’ll leave a patrol car out here for the next few nights until I can get a better picture of what’s going on.” When Kate looked like she was about to protest, he raised his hand. “I won’t back down this time, Kate. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

Kate inhaled deeply and let the air out in a gust of defeat. “OK. I’ll show you out.”

As they left, Kate thanked them and looked out to see that the fire trucks had left after cordoning off the barn, but she knew the investigators would be back. The lieutenant spoke with one of his officers before he got into his cruiser and drove off.

Rubbing her forehead to alleviate the tension, Kate pushed the door closed and locked it before she set the alarm and crawled upstairs to get into bed beside her children. Lucy had grabbed a hold of CJ’s T-shirt, and Shannon was holding her sister’s hand while they slept. Kate knew that somewhere in their subconscious, the girls sensed that something was terribly wrong.

* * * * * *

In the middle of the night, somewhere deep within the Voyageurs National Park, the temperature was falling to a few notches below freezing. CJ opened her nipping eyes and wondered when she had fallen face down onto the rough and very uncomfortable ground. Her flashlight lay in front of her, producing an eerie glow over a patch of snow and casting strange shapes and shadows all around her. Her shallow breaths caught in her throat when she saw the black wolf standing in front of her, its blue eyes fixated on her prone body, and saliva dripping from its dangerous fangs. The wolf’s head hung low, and it growled angrily at her before she saw two feet standing next to it. Doing her best to lift her head, her eyes traveled up the strong, human body until they met with familiar green orbs. But those beautiful eyes were filled with rage this time, and CJ gulped back her apprehension. The wolf stood loyally by the vision’s side. CJ knew they were both hallucinations, but they still made her feel…something. Kate had taken on a fierce look – not like all the times before – and she stood with her hands on her hips.

“Shit. She’s really angry,” CJ mumbled from her place in the dirt.

“Look at the state of you,” Kate growled out, accompanied by a growl from the wolf.

“I’m doing…the best I can. Don’t-”

“The best you can? The best you can? That’s bullshit, and you know it. Don’t you want to get home to us? Don’t you love me enough to get back on your goddamn feet and try harder?”

CJ’s eyes narrowed in pain at the accusation. “I do love you…more than life. You know th-”

“No,” Kate interrupted. “I don’t know that. Look at you. You’re pathetic. Now get up off the ground, Agent Carson, and quit whining. Move!”

CJ pushed herself up on her good hand, but the action made her shoulder ache and her newly acquired cuts – gained during a slip-up earlier with a thorny bush – sting like crazy. Frustration rose within her as she tried to get to her feet…with no help from her supposedly loving wife.

“Get up. Get up now!”

“I’m fucking doing it, Kate! Damn it!”

Kate’s next words were punctuated by toe kicks to CJ’s leg, which she was sure she could actually feel. “Get. The. Hell. Up!”

CJ was livid now, and from her sitting position she tried to swipe a punch at the hallucination’s legs, but Kate moved too quickly. “Leave me alone!” As soon as the words were out of CJ’s mouth, the vision’s face was directly in front of hers.

“Is that what you really want? You want to be left alone? To die? I thought you’d never leave me, CJ. I thought you would be there for me forever. You have the chance to get home to me and our daughters, and you’re lying here in a pool of self-pity.” Kate rose up to her full height once more and stepped back. “If you want to be left alone, so be it. I’ll just give up on ever finding you again.” And with that, Kate disappeared.

CJ cried out in agony at the new stab through her heart, and it echoed across the wilderness around her. “No. No, no, no…”

CJ’s throat tightened again after she forced the sound out, and she tried to swallow against the burning lumps that threatened to close it up completely. She somehow found the energy to stand, and once on her feet she twisted around to look in all directions. No sign of her beloved wife. No way to apologize for her lack of effort.

I do want to go home. She took the last drips of dirty water from her trusty cup and wiped her hand across her brow, making the dislocated shoulder scream out in protest yet again. She numbed herself to its newest stream of constant nagging while noticing the dirty streak on her hand. Ugh. I’m filthy.

CJ tried her best to move one foot in front of the other, and as she moved off, she whispered, “Come back, Katie. Please. I need you. I’ll always need you.”

* * * * * *

At ten AM, a smaller team of recruits bustled about in the hangar at Jensen’s Aviation preparing to leave. Morale was low, and they all knew their task was like finding a tiny needle in a giant haystack. Searching from the sky was a nightmare, even with the heat-seeking camera they had. All they’d found with it so far were wild animals.

Mark climbed into his chopper and strapped on the seatbelt while Jamie wrestled with her cumbersome headphones. He was losing confidence by the minute and felt sick at the thought that they might have to leave CJ’s body out there. How could he leave her to die after she’d managed to survive the crash? He couldn’t even think about the possibility that he wouldn’t find her.

Little did they know, they had covered the area CJ was in, but the camera wouldn’t have locked on to her that night as she had been dozing inside the mountain cave. With a loud whir, the helicopter came to life and lifted off the ground to commence another long day above the Voyageurs National Park.

* * * * * *

Meanwhile in California, Kate was getting more than a little concerned for her mental health. While she was getting ready in her room, she looked over to the bathroom and saw CJ leaning against the doorjamb swirling a metal hoop around her finger.

“Um. What are you doing?” Kate asked since she figured if she didn’t say anything, the vision was just going to stare at her all day.

“Just watching over you…”

“I’d prefer if you didn’t watch me get dressed.”

“You don’t want your wife to watch you get dre-”

“You’re not my wife,” Kate interrupted, but she then faltered and dropped her gaze to the floor. “She’s…”

“How do you know I’m not your wife?”

Kate pointed to the metal hoop. “For one thing, she wouldn’t have one of those.”

CJ shrugged and stopped twirling the item, grabbing it by its edge and looking at its reflective surface before she began to fade. “Maybe…but listen to your heart.”

And with that, Kate was alone in the bedroom again. Listen to my heart? I always listen to my heart…and it’s dying right now.

She shook her head to refocus and wondered how she was going to get through another day without going completely out of her mind. “The children,” she said aloud. “That’s how I’m going to get through it.”

* * * * * *

Later that night, Mark sat eating a cheeseburger at a roadside diner near his motel when his phone began to ring. Jamie looked up from the other side of the table with her mouth full of fries as he answered the call.

“Mulroney.”

“Assistant Director, this is Tennison. I’m afraid I have to shut you down. There’s a major incident here in Minneapolis, and I need my troops. I’m sorry to cut your search short.”

“Sir, I need to keep looking-”

“No, Mulroney. After nine days, I can’t justify prioritizing your case over one that can actually save lives.”

“With all due respect, Deputy Director, I have an agent out there, and I’m going to find her.”

“Not on the Bureau’s nickel, you’re not. There’s nothing else I can do.”

“I see.” Mark didn’t even offer a goodbye as he slapped the phone angrily to end the call. “No way are we quitting.”

“Is he calling it off after all?” Jamie asked around a half-chewed fry.

“Yes. Funds are needed elsewhere,” Mark mimicked sarcastically.

Jamie reluctantly swallowed the fry and prodded at the food on her plate. She sighed heavily and dropped her fork with a clatter. “I hope Dalton didn’t get any hassle from this. I pushed him into approaching the DD.”

“Not your issue, Jamie, and Tim can take care of himself.”

Jamie nodded sadly. “Sir, we’re going to keep looking, right?”

“Yes. We’ll appeal to the volunteers. They’ve been great so far, and I think we could keep one chopper in the air…even if I have to dig into my own pocket.”

Silence descended on their table as they pretended to finish their meal. Jamie felt the fight leave her body, but when she looked up at Mark his dark eyes were full of fury, and she knew he was on the verge of throwing the rule book right out the window.

* * * * * *

“Hey,” Kate said as she hugged Tony.

“Hi. I was surprised to hear from you this morning. Are you…OK?”

“OK is such a subjective word, Tony, but yes I’ll be OK. I wanted to get the children’s routine back to something resembling normal, so Alice is here today, and I hoped you would just…stay for a while?”

“Oh, Kate, I’d love to, you know that. I didn’t want to leave you before but…”

“I know. I’m sorry about how I acted-”

“Whoa. Don’t you dare say sorry. I…I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”

Kate sighed. “Well, you’re here now, and I need to update you. We’ve had news.”

“About CJ?”

“Yes. They found the plane, and she survived the crash, but…” Kate continued with some difficulty. “She’s missing. The agents are searching for her.”

Tony took her gently by the shoulders. “That’s amazing news, though. I’m sure she’ll make it. She has a lot to live for.” He pulled his boss into a hug, and when they parted Kate gave him a tentative smile.

“There’s something else. Last night, the barn burned down.”

“What?” I didn’t even notice when I came up the drive.”

“Well, you wouldn’t have been looking for anything like that, and it’s not really visible from the driveway. But Tony…someone deliberately set it on fire.”

In a move that was quite bold for Tony, he put his arm tightly around Kate’s shoulder and led her into the kitchen as he spoke. “You think they targeted you?”

Kate just gawked at him as she stood next to the island counter. “What made you say that?”

“I don’t know. It’s just kinda far from…well, everywhere out here, and if it was just some crazy arsonist, they’d have plenty of places to pick without going on a fifty minute drive to find an empty barn.”

“You’re right, Tony. I’m just amazed that you thought the same thing as me,” Kate said, running her hand through her short hair and frowning when the strands ended before she expected. “Wow, I haven’t gotten used to this new style yet.”

Tony caught the look and grinned. “You look beautiful, Kate.”

“Are you kidding? With these dark bags under my eyes…?”

“You’re still beautiful, and when CJ gets back you’ll get some rest.”

“You sound pretty confident of that.”

“I have to be. I believed you when you said she was alive, and it turns out she survived the crash. You were right, and she’ll be home soon,” he nodded while taking a nervous, shaky breath.

Hearing him say that with such conviction made Kate realize how silly it really sounded. She had been saying to her friends that CJ was alive from the start, but how could they ever believe that without feeling what she felt inside? The crash was bad enough, but now CJ was out there in the middle of nowhere in god-knows-what condition, and it had been ten days now. Was CJ dead? Was she kidding herself?

“I have to have faith in her, Tony.”

“I know. I do too,” he replied, covering her hand on the cool counter surface. “Coffee?”

“Yes, please. And thank you. You’ve been great, and I’d love it if you’d stay with us today. Maybe take the girls to school tomorrow?”

“Of course. I’d love that too. Where are they, by the way?”

“They’re with Alice and the twins in the crèche. Come to think of it, they’re all very quiet. Must be watching a movie.”

Tony felt like crying. Alice was here, he was here, and it seemed like Kate was coping a little better. He was so relieved. The heavy burden bearing down on her shoulders remained obvious, and her eyes still bore a huge amount of pain, but that almost super-human inner strength she possessed was asserting itself again. It was a good sign. He watched as Kate popped her head around the crèche door and turned to nod at him.

As she crept back towards him, he asked in an exaggerated stage whisper, “Did you call your dad?”

“Yeah. He’s coming to visit today. He had trouble getting cover for the restaurant, and Jeffrey’s sick, so it took him a while to organize.”

“Do you want me to go pick him up?”

One side of Kate’s mouth curled upward. “Would you? He gets into LAX in…” She turned to look at the clock. “Two hours.”

“No problem.”

That was the last decent conversation anyone had with Kate. While Tony was away collecting Eddie Senior, she had gotten a call from Mark to tell her that the Bureau was calling off the search for CJ. Mark hadn’t managed to secure a helicopter and was still looking for a way to continue, even going so far as to ask his own deputy director for help. But it wasn’t looking good, and he felt terrible for letting Kate down: for letting CJ down.

Kate hadn’t taken the news well, and she had clammed up once again as she went about the rest of her day in a haze and automatically said goodbye to Shannon and Lucy as they left for school the next morning. It had knocked her spirit into its dark abyss once more. She wasn’t sure how much more bad news she could take.

.

Chapter 5

Special Agent CJ Carson crumpled to the ground, but at least this time it was planned. Just a teeny break, she assured herself as the dusk slowly settled over the mountains on her eleventh evening in the unforgiving wilderness.

She reached into her pocket for a Band Aid since her right palm looked like it was becoming infected. She forced the hand to her mouth to suck off all the dirt before she spat it onto the snow. Drying it on her jacket seemed to defeat the purpose of cleaning it, but she had to make the Band Aid stick, and once she’d done that, she talked herself into getting back up. Just as she was about to move, a gruff roar made her freeze like a statue.

The bear was standing on all fours about thirty feet in front of her. He watched the human and twisted his head to the side to analyze her when she moved her arm slowly and steadily. CJ wondered if he was real, but quickly decided she should just assume that he was. She reached for her gun and prayed the bear wasn’t as hungry as he looked. With another roar, he was standing tall – about eight feet tall – on his back legs.

He dropped down again with a thud and made a move towards her, so she cocked the pistol and took aim into the sky, hoping to scare him without having to kill him. Heck, shooting him would probably just piss him off. With a loud bang, the Glock let out its warning, halting the huge beast in his tracks. A string of curse words ran through CJ’s mind at the shattering pain the backlash of the gunshot caused in her body. The bear grunted and stuck his bottom lip out at her, making him look really stupid when in actual fact, he was pretty fierce and was probably wondering if she might taste good enough to fight for. A few tense seconds passed before the giant chose to avoid this dangerous prey and look elsewhere for his lunch. When he disappeared through the trees, the gap he left twinkled.

CJ was still a little stunned as she let her eyes glaze over to stare at it. Bringing her mind around full circle and slowing her pounding pulse, she refocused, and it dawned on her that the twinkle was a light.

A light…not a star…? She got up and grimaced at her body’s protestations. Another hallucination, she thought grimly.

“Nope.”

CJ felt the vision of Kate standing right behind her. “Not a hallucination?”

“It’s real. Looks like you’ve found civilization, honey.”

“What’s the catch?” CJ queried, still not truly believing she would ever get out of the wild alive.

“Catch? Hmm. Well, it looks to be a million miles away, but I’d say you could be there by dinner time tomorrow.”

“Don’t talk about food. I’m not sure if the thought makes me want to throw up, or if I want to eat until I throw up.”

Kate chuckled. “Just go home, CJ, before we both die of heartbreak.”

At those words, CJ turned her head to look into Kate’s beautifully familiar face. “Is she…I mean, are you…?”

“Existing, yes. Living? Definitely not.”

“Oh, Katie. I need to be with you so bad.”

Kate nodded to show the feeling was mutual. “Then head for that light and don’t stop until you get there.”

In an instant, Kate was gone, and CJ turned back to what she hoped was a street lamp, in a town…with a phone, and maybe a doctor. With a new surge of hope and energy she never knew she possessed, she put her Glock back into the holster and started her trek home, making sure to keep her tired eyes open in case the bear decided to try again.

* * * * * *

Eddie Marshall Senior folded the book closed and kissed both his granddaughters goodnight. As usual, the story had sent Lucy to sleep. She never concentrated on the words so much as the soft voice that sent her off into the land of nod.

But Shannon was still awake as she curled into her grandpa’s arms. “Is Mama sad?”

Eddie had pretty much been on the verge of tears since he’d arrived. He had seen the state of his daughter and heard what had happened to CJ, and now he held back his emotions for the sake of this fragile and sensitive child. “She’s a bit sad, yes, sweetheart. But you know what?”

“What?”

“You and Lucy make her feel better, and I know she’ll be fine soon.”

Shannon lifted her head and rubbed her eyes. “Is it because of Mommy?”

“What did your Mama say about that?”

“Just that Mommy couldn’t get back as soon as she hoped. She’s still far away, and she’ll be home soon.”

“I’m sure she will be home soon, Shan. Mommy’s…lost, and her friends are trying to find her and help her to get home.” Eddie didn’t quite know how to explain everything, and he sighed as she gave Shannon a gentle squeeze. “I bet she’s back way before Christmas, though.”

“I hope so, ‘cause look,” Shannon said, pointing to Lucy who had Barney the bear tightly in her grasp. “She hasn’t wanted Barney since we first came home to live here. I think she’s sad too.”

“Oh, Shan, you’re such a clever girl. Listen, how about I take you and Lucy and Kamali for a fun picnic after school tomorrow? We could go out into the field, take a little dinner, and maybe play with your sister’s ball too. That might cheer her up, huh?”

“Oh, yes, that would. She likes to play ball.”

“Good. Now you lie down here and stay close to Lucy, and I’ll go stay close to your mama, all right?”

“OK, Grandpa. Night-night.”

“Goodnight, precious girl. See you in the morning.”

Eddie tucked them both in and dulled the nightlight to a peep. Leaving the door ajar, he wandered down to find Kate, side-stepping a relaxed Kamali at the foot of the stairs. He found Kate on the couch, staring at her cell phone on the coffee table. As he approached, he saw her press a button on the handset and lean back to listen to the message CJ had left before she got on the ill-fated plane.

“Oh, Katie. Don’t torture yourself,” he said softly as he sat down.

Kate didn’t break her trance while the message played. CJ’s warm tones finished the message with, “See you all soon. I love you more than you’ll ever know…always. Bye, Katie.”

Only then did Kate look into her father’s eyes. “I’m not torturing myself, Dad. I need to hear her voice.”

“But you’ve been listening to that all day,” Eddie continued, making sure he made physical contact to let her know he was concerned. “I just don’t want to see you drive yourself insane with-”

“I would go insane without it…without her.”

Kate collapsed into Eddie’s embrace. He held her while he stifled his heartbreaking cries, but what worried him most was that Kate couldn’t shed a single tear.

* * * * * *

The sun had set in Los Angeles, and Kate sat out back on the swing-seat with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. She could hear CJ’s voice in her head after listening repeatedly to the message all day, but she really needed to see her too. She just wanted to cry, and a bout of frustration kicked its way through her when her entire being simply refused to let the tears fall. I’m a damn robot, she thought after slouching further into the seat.

“Never a robot,” said an achingly familiar voice right next to her.

This time, Kate wasn’t so freaked out by the vision. She sat up rigidly and turned to see her beautiful CJ glowing beside her. “Please tell me what you are. I mean, you’re not here, and they stopped looking for you. I can’t…”

“So they called off the search. So what?”

“Well, I need you, and-”

The vision of CJ held up a hand. “And what about me? I need you too. I’ll make my own way back. I told you, Katie, I’ll always come home to you.”

“Then come home,” Kate pleaded.

CJ didn’t commit to coming home or not, but instead pointed to her own cheek. “Touch my face.”

“What?”

“Just touch my face.”

Kate hesitated but slowly did as CJ asked. When her hand met the space where the face hovered, she wanted to pull back, but CJ seemed to grab her wrist and hold her there. A mild heat grew in Kate’s palm, and for a moment she felt so calm she almost released a few tears. It scared her a little, and she looked at CJ beseechingly. “I need to let go.”

CJ nodded somberly. “Just don’t let go of me, of your hope, of your belief. I’ll be home.”

As the vision faded, Kate’s hand flew to her mouth to muffle a painful wail. Her spirit was broken, her soul shattered. She took a few recovery breaths before she leaned back in her seat and listened to her racing heart as it forced her blood around her body.

“I’ll always believe,” she whispered. She hadn’t felt any physical being when she’d touched CJ’s face. It was haunting, but at the same time, the energy she had felt seemed real. Always.

* * * * * *

CJ’s adrenaline was pumping furiously around her body. She could see the light getting closer now, and it boosted her speed. She couldn’t seem to feel the pain in her right arm anymore as she cradled her broken wrist while she strode down the path. Path?

She stopped and looked down at the gravel. It was definitely a pathway. A path for hikers…

It couldn’t be more than a day’s walk now, and she realized her Kate vision had been right. Could she be there before dinner time? According to her watch, it was four AM now.

I’m gonna make it, she told herself with confidence. She picked up the pace a little more, even though her ankle was not-so-subtly hinting she should slow the hell down. “No more resting,” she whispered roughly. “I can rest when I get home.”

* * * * * *

A massive yawn split Jamie’s face as she slurped down the mediocre coffee provided for them by Jensen’s Aviation. She was waiting for Mark who was arguing with his boss on the phone again. She has been very impressed with Mark’s unwillingness to back down. She knew it was procedure for the Bureau to call off the search after so many days, and trying to find a lost agent in a remote area about the size of Singapore was practically impossible anyway. A loud cough heralded Mark’s arrival and broke her out of her thoughts.

“Let’s go,” he said gruffly.

“Did Mitchell give in?”

“No. I told him I’d pay for the damn thing myself. He was not amused, but I’ll deal with it when I get home.”

Jamie nodded and followed Mark out of the hangar. They had one helicopter and one pilot. It was going to be a very long day.

* * * * * *

CJ could see a house. Yes, it was still miles off, but she could see it. She might not have made it by dinner time, but she was unbelievably grateful that there was no snow down here and she was still able to follow the path that had been neatly laid out for the past…she wasn’t sure how many miles. Just up ahead, her man-made way home split off in two directions.

Aw crap. Once she was standing at the fork in the road, she looked into the distance to see if she could fathom which one would lead her to civilization quicker.

Her eyes slowly fell to the grass at the side of the gravel where two wolves stood side by side. They were too calm to be real, and she looked deeply into their eyes. The dark wolf had blue eyes, and the lighter one had green. A small, nasal laugh escaped her as she presumed her overtired mind had conjured up the canine equivalent of her and Kate. The two beasts turned and sauntered off down the path that led to the left. She shrugged then drew cold air between her teeth in a wince when her body chastised her for doing so.

I need to quit movin’ like that.

CJ stood for a moment as she gradually came to the realization that she was going to get home, before she followed her four-legged friends and focused on the building that would hopefully be the end of her nightmare.

I’m coming back, Katie.

* * * * * *

Six and a half hours later, as the darkness threatened to fall on Ash River Trail, CJ knocked wearily on the front door of a ramshackle, little farmhouse. Her breaths had suddenly shortened. The knowledge that she didn’t have to walk any further had flooded through her aching body, and she was about to collapse for the final time. It seemed like forever before the door opened, but when it did the friendliest-looking, old lady smiled warmly at her. The smile soon disappeared when she took in the state of the gaunt and battered agent.

CJ couldn’t talk, but Mrs. Chapman didn’t think twice about accommodating her. She encouraged CJ to walk forward and enter the living room where she guided her to an old armchair.

“Oh, what’s happened to you?” Mrs. Chapman said gently, but CJ had slumped down into the cushioned heaven of the chair and was verging on unconsciousness.

After a few seconds, CJ tried to moisten her throat, even while her eyes rolled around in their efforts to force her to sleep. A raspy whisper finally left her mouth. “Call…medic.”

“Oh, of course. Immediately. You wait right there, and I’ll get you some water too. You look like a ghost.”

Mrs. Chapman bustled out of the room, called 911, and grabbed a glass of cool, fresh water for her anonymous visitor. But when she got back to the living room, CJ was out cold.

The next thing CJ remembered were the ceiling lights flying down in front of her as she was wheeled rapidly along the hospital corridor on a gurney. She had been transported by air ambulance to the town of Cook, and it seemed there was some urgency to start her treatment.

“Stop…” she croaked as the nausea overwhelmed her. The lights continued to flash by, and she felt the inevitable motion sickness take hold. She hurled quite violently, and was immediately moved onto her right side where her shooting shoulder pains made the sickness even worse. She figured it was either suffer that pain or drown on her own vomit. She’d take the pain.

The gurney continued to move until a curtain was whipped around her cubicle. Someone began to remove her clothing, and she used every molecule of energy left in her body to somehow croak louder.

“Wait!” When the hands stopped moving, CJ tried to look at the nurse. As a fuzzy human shape came into her line of vision, she whispered. “Need FBI. My gun…you can’t…”

A reassuring voice cradled her as she fought against the unconscious bliss that would not desist in its attempts to drag her back under.

* * * * * *

Meanwhile, in the skies above the national park with their eyes glued to the camera screen, Jamie and Mark scrutinized every color change that the hi-tech equipment highlighted. They had been staring at it for way too long, and Mark was just about to rub his eyes like a tired child when he whipped his head around to gawk at Jamie. They both listened intently as the message came through.

“Zulu One, Zulu One. Are you receiving? Over.”

This is Zulu One. Go ahead, control,” the pilot answered.

“Please be advised, Special Agent CJ Carson has been airlifted to Hook Trauma Center. I repeat, Special Agent Carson has been located and is at the Hook Trauma Center. Over.”

Before Mark or Jamie could process the information fully, the pilot was requesting clearance to redirect his aircraft. “Roger that, control. Confirm we are clear to attend. Over.”

“That’s affirmative. Remain at your current altitude and proceed. The hunt is over, Zulu One.”

“Ah, roger that, control. Report condition of Special Agent Carson. Over,” the pilot requested, seemingly reading Mark and Jamie’s minds.

“She’s alive. A little beaten by Mother Nature, but alive. Over.”

“That’s good to hear, control. Zulu One attending. Over and out.”

Mark nodded at the pilot when he looked over at him to make sure he had heard the conversation. Jamie felt a stream of tears leave her eyes, and she turned her face towards the window to rub them away discreetly. The helicopter swooped sharply to the right, and it wasn’t long before they were landing at the trauma center in Hook, Minnesota.

* * * * * *

Two power-walking federal agents flew along the hospital corridor after a receptionist had given them CJ’s location. She had been put in a room and was asleep, having been hooked up to a monitor while they pumped fluids, sedation, and painkillers into her. Surgery on her broken wrist was scheduled for seven o’clock the next morning, and her shoulder – which was now safely cradled in a sling – had been reset correctly. Her left ankle had been drained of excess fluid and was elevated, wrapped in a bandage, and surrounded in a big, blue, Velcro-strapped support slipper. Her belongings were bagged and secured in a cabinet at the nurse’s station.

“Excuse me,” Mark said to the petite nurse behind the counter while he simultaneously flashed his badge. “I’m Mark Mulroney with the FBI. I’m looking for CJ Carson. She was brought in by air ambulance…”

“Oh, yes, I know exactly who you mean,” the nurse said with a grin. “She was fighting to go home as soon as she got here. Never seen anyone so determined, even though she was throwing up and couldn’t string two words together. I assume you have the number for Kate? That was the main thing she kept trying to say. Poor her…she has no voice right now.”

“Yes. Yes, I have the number. I need to see CJ to confirm it’s her.”

“It’s her. I have her belongings right here.”

Mark tried to smile. “I still need to see her. Please.”

The nurse took in Mark’s shining eyes before she nodded once. “All right, but if she wakes, don’t get her all riled up. I’ll give you five minutes.”

“Thank you.”

Through all of this, Jamie was silent. She felt that if she spoke she was going to bawl like a baby, so she decided to shut up and follow behind the pair as they walked to CJ’s room.

Mark blew out a breath, and Jamie audibly gasped when they saw their friend and colleague lying on the bed. It was CJ all right. But the powerful, confident CJ now looked so helpless that Jamie knew her eyes were welling up again. This time, she didn’t try to stop it. She sniffed loudly as she approached the bed while Mark stood silently at the door and thanked whatever unseen force he could think of for his agent’s safe return.

“Hey, DM…” Jamie whispered as she leaned over the battered woman. “You have no idea…how glad I am to see you.”

CJ’s eyelids flickered when a strand of her hair was gently pushed aside, and she husked out a response. “Penfold?”

“Yeah, it’s me. You rest now. We’ll be right here when you wake.”

“We?” CJ whispered.

“Yeah. Mark’s here. We never stopped looking for you, honey.”

CJ’s nipping, blue eyes opened a little. “Th-thanks.”

“Shh now. Rest, OK?” Tears were streaming down Jamie’s face as CJ tried to voice to her main concern.

“Katie…”

“Mark’s gonna call her right now. I promise. Sleep, DM.”

The heavy sedation and the knowledge that her colleagues would tell Kate she was all right made CJ happy to comply, and she dozed off into a dreamless sleep.

* * * * * *

Kate lay on the sumptuous couch and closed her exhausted eyes. She knew she wouldn’t sleep. She hadn’t managed it since that horrible night, and now on top of that she had her snoring father on the large armchair and a cop car outside, reminding her of the situation she was in. Every night since the fire, the LAPD had sent one patrol car to sit outside her house. The intruder hadn’t returned, and the confirmation from the fire chief that it was indeed an arson attack had left her feeling even more unsettled.

Lieutenant Johnson had called to say he was investigating the situation, and that they had gathered evidence from the scene. A half-burned canister thought to have contained jet fuel had been recovered, and Kate was getting more and more suspicious due to the apparent link to CJ’s ‘accident’. Had the culprit left her a clue on purpose? Were they trying to taunt her, to terrorize her? She wanted to speak to Mark about the whole thing, but to even think about him right now reminded her harshly of her lost love.

She hadn’t been out to see the carcass of the barn yet, leaving it to Tony to check on the horses in the field. Tony had been doing so much for her and was working long days to make sure Kate had everything she and the children needed. She wouldn’t ever be able to thank him for his generosity and kindheartedness.

Kate’s thoughts were rudely interrupted by a cell phone buzzing loudly on the coffee table. When she looked over she could see that it was hers, and with a deep sigh, she picked it up to answer when she noticed it was Mark’s number on the display.

Time slowed almost to a halt as she felt an especially strong heartbeat vibrating in her chest. It thundered in her ears, through her bones, and seemed to last for an eternity. It was like vertigo, like falling off a cliff with no way to stop it, and Kate had to bring her mind back from a moment of pure clarity and uncertainty combined. Everything’s about to change, she thought as a pain swept through her soul like it was on one last rampage before it had to leave. She didn’t dare hope. Mark’s voice pulled her into real time again, and she blinked repeatedly at the powerful swell of feeling she was experiencing.

“Kate? Kate? Are you there?”

“Yes. Sorry, Mark. I…I’m not sure what happened just then.”

“It’s OK. Listen, is there anyone with you?”

Oh, please, not more bad news, Kate thought, panicking at his question. “Yes. My father‘s here,” she said, looking over at Eddie Senior slouched in the chair.

“Good. Kate, we have CJ. She’s alive.”

Kate’s mouth fell open, and her breaths shortened to tiny bursts as her heart constricted violently. “What?”

“CJ’s alive, and I’ll bring her home to you as soon as she’s strong enough.”

“Oh. Oh…I can’t…you found…”

Eddie awoke with a start at the rising volume of Kate’s words. “Katie? What’s wrong, sweetheart?”

Kate didn’t answer him, and when he came to perch beside her for moral support, she struggled to regroup and listen to Mark’s soothing words as he tried to cushion the shock.

“…keep her in for observation and re-assess her condition tomorrow after the surgery-”

“For what?” Kate blurted suddenly.

“Just her wrist. She’ll be fine, Kate. Jamie and I are staying here at the hospital, and we’ll bring her to you. Please, I know it’s hard, but try to get some sleep?”

“I…I will, Mark.”

“Good. I’ll let your wife know. Are you gonna be all right now?”

“Yes. Yes, I think so.”

“OK. Bye, Kate. Speak soon”

“Bye.” Kate was dumbfounded at the news she had just received, and as she got up to walk through the living room, blindly putting the phone down on the island counter, Eddie watched her with a grave expression distorting his sleepy features. Kate pressed a couple of buttons on the coffee machine and placed two mugs next to it. Her father waited nervously until she brought the beverages to him and sat down. She stared blankly ahead, but her eyes held something new. When he tried to ask her what was wrong, she didn’t answer him. She didn’t seem able to speak, and Eddie feared the worst.

Kate was in shock – yet again – and she didn’t really have the presence of mind to check if she was still breathing. Mark had said CJ was alive and she was going to be fine?

CJ’s alive…she’s alive…she’s alive, she silently chanted. Even though it was what she had felt in her heart, she still couldn’t believe she had been right not to give up. In that single heartbeat, all her silent wishes had been granted, changing her entire future once more. “She’s alive,” she whispered aloud.

Eddie barely heard the soft-spoken words. “Katie, I can’t hear you. What happened?”

“They…she…they found her. She’s alive,” Kate croaked as her dry, red-rimmed eyes closed for a second. The dark circles under those eyes and the fact that she had lost some weight due to her complete inability to eat for the past thirteen days, showed clearly that Kate had been through almost as much as CJ.

Eddie silently moved closer to Kate’s side and put a comforting arm around her shoulder. “Wow,” was all the normally chatty man could gasp.

Kate didn’t know how to express her previous devastation, and now, her overwhelming relief. She wasn’t able or ready to smile yet, but her heart felt a tentative surge of hope that she would see her soulmate soon…and not just in visions and dreams. As she slowly moved back into the large couch cushions and curled up into the fetal position, Eddie let her go and stood up to get a nearby blanket. After covering his daughter with the warm, soft-knitted throw, he headed for the downstairs toilet to blow his nose and clear his tears before settling into his armchair to watch over her.

He knew she still wouldn’t sleep, even though it was the middle of the night, and as he analyzed Kate’s face, he knew he’d never seen her look so incredibly exhausted. It brought to the fore just how important CJ Carson was to his precious daughter’s well-being. With a self-deprecating eye-roll, he corrected that thought: he knew how important they were to one another’s well-being.

* * * * * *

A little after ten o’clock the next morning, Mark opened his eyes and grumbled at the hard, plastic chair that pressed against his right buttock and thigh. It took him a few seconds to realize he was leaning to the side, and his head was resting on a rather comfortable cushion. Cushion? He sprung upright and turned to see Jamie grinning and rubbing her eyes.

“Don’t worry, Sir. It was just my shoulder.”

“Oh, right. Good.”

Jamie didn’t think she’d ever seen her boss blush before, but being with him on this assignment had given her new insight into the reserved man’s personality, and as he stood up and stretched to hide his embarrassment, she decided to ease up on him. “Want me to go grab a couple of coffees?”

“Hmm, yeah. Have you heard from the doc?”

“Nothing yet.”

“Did you sleep?”

“Not really. Chairs are too damn uncomfortable.”

Mark sat back down and sighed. “No kidding.”

“Sir, you do know that when she wakes up, she’s going to sign herself out of here?”

“Yes. I figured she would try that. I’d imagine home has been the only goal in her mind since she found herself in that damn wreck.”

Jamie nodded. “And home is Kate and the children.”

“Oh, I know that, Jamie. I know that. To be honest, I don’t think anyone will be able to stop CJ from leaving. She’ll go AMA.”

“I know. I’ll just have to make sure I rat her out to Kate when we get back. If anyone can convince CJ to take medical advice, it’s her.”

The doctor came towards them, effectively cutting off the conversation. “Mr. Mulroney?”

“Yes. How is she, Doctor?”

“Fine, fine. The wrist is set, and she’s coming out of the anesthetic now. She’s not going to have the use of either arm for a while, and she may never regain full strength in that left wrist. Do you know if she has help at home?”

Jamie spoke up. “Yes, full time help at the moment.”

“Good. I’ll let the patient decide which arm she wants the sling on. With her injuries, I’m not sure two of them would be an option. Let’s see…” He glanced at his notes. “She’s suffering from pretty severe exhaustion, and going by what has happened to her, I’m not surprised. Looking at her injuries, I would never have suspected she’d been in a plane crash.”

“I know. She’s been incredibly lucky. Quite frankly, we can’t believe she’s alive,” Mark said while shaking his head.

“Indeed. Well, I see no major or permanent problems. She has a nasty bump on her head, but that seems more recent. Not from the crash. Her voice will come back. It’s likely the fumes, the prolonged exposure to freezing temperatures, and her lack of nourishment have aggravated her throat. The cold also caused some circulatory problems, but with some decent care, they will soon be remedied. I’ll write prescriptions for everything she needs, and a letter will go home with her detailing care and exercise instructions for her arms.”

“When can we see her?” Jamie asked anxiously.

“Give it another hour to let her head clear.”

Mark bit his lips. “Uh, Doctor? When will you be releasing her?”

“I’d like to keep her for observation for the next forty-eight hours, if not more. Why? Do you need her to leave with you?”

“She won’t stay here for that long. I can tell you that for certain.”

“Well, she’ll be going against medical advice then.”

“I know. I just wanted to warn you.”

“Noted. I do have to go now, but if there’s anything else you need to know, call for the nurse and she’ll beep me.”

“Thanks.”

When the doctor left, Mark and Jamie simultaneously plopped back down on the chairs and sighed. But they didn’t have to wait too long to see their colleague. An hour later, CJ was awake and lucid: tired, but lucid. Since Jamie had gone to call Los Angeles with an update, Mark stood over her now with a goofy smile on his face.

“So, I got your note.”

If CJ didn’t feel so bad and wasn’t so anxious to get home, she might have laughed. A forced half-smile would have to do for now. “Good,” was her only whispered response.

“Doc says you’ll be fine. Might take a while, though.”

“I need…to go home.”

Mark bit his lip. “Yeah. I already knew that, CJ. Give yourself some time to get over the op, will ya?”

“No…”

Mark sighed just as Jamie came in the door. She headed straight for the side of the bed and leaned down to kiss CJ’s forehead.

“Hey, DM.” When CJ opened her mouth, Jamie chastised her. “No. Don’t speak. It’ll be better for your throat if you rest it. Now, I called Kate. She knows your surgery went well. She told me she wants to come to you, but I said she should stay with the children until we get you home.”

CJ nodded her approval and ignored Jamie’s advice about not talking. “I’m going home…now.”

“No, CJ,” Mark retorted.

“Now!” CJ rasped as loudly as she could.

Mark grasped the bridge of his nose between his fingers. “OK, OK. Don’t bust anything. Let me see what I can do.” And with that, he left the room to accommodate his rebellious and very stubborn colleague’s wishes.

* * * * * *

Five hours and a lot more fluids later, the nurse reached around to CJ’s back to untie the hospital gown and get her dressed to leave. She was stopped by a quiet “No” that made her step back and purse her lips at her difficult patient. “No? But you can’t do this by yourself.”

“Jamie…” CJ whispered with a head-tilt toward the door.

The nurse shook her head, grumbled a little, and left soon after. Not even two minutes had passed when Jamie came into the room and found CJ trying to remove the garment by herself.

“Whoa. Stop right there. Did I hear that nurse right? You want me to do this?” she asked, splaying her hand out towards CJ’s lovely attire.

CJ pinned her lips together and nodded.

“Are you sure?” Jamie said with a rather pronounced eyebrow wiggle. “There’s nothing underneath the gown.”

CJ rolled her eyes and nodded again. “Quit it and help…”

“Ooh, I love this whole half-husky, half-whisper thing you got goin’ on,” Jamie teased, but she relented when CJ scowled at her. “Sorry. I was trying to be funny, otherwise I’m gonna cry my eyes out, and I’d just as soon not do that here.” She looked at the clothing she had managed to acquire for CJ. “OK, we got Bureau-issue hoodie, sweatpants, and a clean winter field jacket…”

CJ’s expression spoke volumes. The jacket had ten-inch-high letters on the back, emblazoned in yellow, and she wasn’t in the mood or the condition to be advertising the fact she was FBI.

Jamie shrugged at her. “It was all I could find, and anyway, you won’t be in public. And when you are in public you’ll be in a wheelchair, so no one will see it.”

Now CJ’s eyes opened wide and burned into Jamie’s head like a hot tendril of fire. Well, the drugs she was currently on probably dulled the fire to a peep, but Jamie felt her ire.

“I’m not gonna argue with you. You have no option on this one…Bigfoot,” Jamie said, continuing with her one-sided, verbal conversation anyway.

CJ wanted to smile. She really did, but there was just too much pain, too much to process, and all she could think about was what her Katie had gone through in the past two weeks without her. Wow, it’s been that long?

Once Jamie had worked the sweatpants around CJ’s support shoe, she tugged them gently up her legs until they were in place. Now she had to take off the sling and gown, and somehow get the hoodie on without angering CJ’s painful shoulder.

A few moments later, CJ perched on the side of her hospital bed, topless, watching as Jamie tried to avert her eyes. Somewhere under all her turmoil, she found a small, inner giggle. She was impressed with Jamie’s professionalism and lack of flushed cheeks, but a shy smile came her way once the dressing was complete. The painkillers had done their job admirably, and CJ was soon ready to go without too much discomfort.

Jamie had been very careful too, which had helped immensely. She looked into CJ’s eyes now and spoke with such a loving voice that CJ almost cried. “You’ve lost weight, hon. Time to get home and let Kate take care of you. You two need one another. That much is very clear.”

Feeling the words deeply, and the tender emotions toward Jamie bubbling under everything else, CJ simply nodded her head for fear of breaking down. She wanted to go to Kate now. That was all she needed, and she waited a tad impatiently while Jamie rolled the wheelchair over to her bedside.

.

Chapter 6

After a silent, four-hour ride in the Bureau jet, Mark and Jamie escorted a pale and ghostly-looking CJ the rest of the way to her house. When their vehicle came to a halt in front of the porch, Mark unfolded the wheelchair and put it beside the open car door. CJ slipped gingerly out of the SUV and looked directly at him and shook her head, leaving no room for misinterpretation. There was no way she was going into her home in a chair. Mark threw his hands up in the air, but smiled wanly before putting the contraption near the front door for later.

When the doorbell rang, Kate was standing in the backyard looking at the stars, so Eddie got up to see who was there. When he pulled the door ajar, a puff of air escaped his lips as his eyes opened wide in shock. He hadn’t expected them so soon.

Mark, Jamie, and CJ stood stock still on the porch. CJ gaped in bewilderment at the sight of a welcome, familiar face that now had tears streaming over its cheeks. As much as she loved Eddie, this was not the face she desperately needed to see.

Eddie put his hand out, but quickly adjusted his aim when he saw the plaster-cast on CJ’s wrist. He touched her good hand and guided her gently over the threshold. CJ’s dark hair was unkempt, her face still held a large, visible bruise, and her other injuries were obvious, but Eddie knew CJ would not have wanted to stay away any longer than necessary.

At that moment, Kate came through the living room wearing an expressionless, drawn, and gray face. She saw the vision of her one and only love standing full height in the doorway and tried desperately to figure out if it was real or not.

When she saw Mark and Jamie, she couldn’t possibly imagine why she would be seeing them in her hallucinations. Kate’s legs were going to buckle, and CJ immediately sensed it. She limped rapidly over to her wife. She couldn’t speak, and due to her injuries she couldn’t help Kate either so she silently pleaded to Mark who had already made his way across the hallway.

While Jamie closed the front door and consoled an emotional Eddie, Mark supported Kate and took her to the couch. Once she was reclining safely on the large cushions, he backed away and watched as CJ dropped to her knees on the rug right next to where Kate lay. Shifting onto the side of her thigh, CJ waited silently until they were both able to communicate.

Both Jamie and Mark discreetly went into the kitchen to talk quietly with Eddie, but also to enable them to keep a caring eye on their two lost friends. They were worried about the bewildered condition of both Kate and CJ.

Kate’s eyes had remained open the entire time, and CJ sat there wondering if she had even truly seen her. Maybe Kate thought it was a dream. CJ couldn’t believe it either, and through the haze of her painkillers she gawked fuzzily at the perfect image before her.

Her hair…it’s the same as the visions. CJ was desperate to speak, but it seemed no words would come forth from her hoarse throat. She knew it would take time, and she knew they were both in shock.

It was only about five minutes later when Kate blinked herself out of her stupor and saw her life-partner sitting on the floor, her side leaning against the couch just like that first time in Montana. CJ suddenly felt two needy hands clawing at her arm and her still-aching shoulder, willing her to come onto the couch. She immediately crawled up and stretched her long body out beside Kate, mindful of the harsh plaster-cast. Motioning Kate up with her good hand, she slipped the left one under her head, and then, with the offensive cast up against the backrest of the couch, she pulled Kate to her.

Kate gripped CJ’s body fiercely, not believing she could actually feel it in her hands. CJ was here, solid, real, alive, and pretty much in one piece.

Neither of them was ready to shed a tear yet, their bodies not even remotely recovered from the shock of enforced separation. When Kate’s head was held tighter against CJ’s breast, she heard the familiar, steady heartbeat echoing and vibrating pleasantly through her fatigued body. A gradual warmth began to return – a unique feeling only CJ could bring – and her soul, the soul she thought couldn’t be saved, began to mend. She could feel herself breathing again as the air blew from her nostrils and deflected off CJ’s neck. The tension that had taken up a seemingly-permanent residence in her muscles began to fade away. Finally, her eyes closed, and the overwhelming exhaustion claimed her. And she allowed it, knowing she was truly back where she belonged.

CJ held onto Kate with every ounce of energy she had left. Her breath drifted across the beautiful, short blond hair under her nose, and she inhaled the most welcome scent of her Katie. She couldn’t speak and couldn’t really think clearly, but at last she could feel. She could feel her beloved wife clinging to her. She could feel the relief gradually winning the fight against the stress, pain, and heartache. And she could feel the tension leaving Kate, a tension that mirrored her own. When Kate sank deeper into the couch cushions and deeper into CJ’s body and heart, the strong agent finally succumbed. She was home, and for the first time in three difficult and treacherous weeks, the reunited pair fell deeply into slumber under the watchful eyes of two federal agents and a loving father.

* * * * * *

“They both look hellish,” Jamie said just above a whisper after Eddie had headed upstairs to rest.

Mark nodded sadly. “No wonder. I don’t know how CJ managed to survive the cold, never mind the wilderness.”

“I do,” Jamie said. When Mark looked at her questioningly, she smiled. “She’s lying right there beside her, Mark.”

A wistful smile appeared on his face. “They really are something. I’ve never seen anything like the bond they have.”

Looking at Mark now, Jamie gauged his mood and chanced a personal question, even though she was technically still on duty. “Is there anyone special in your life, boss?”

Mark glanced at her before returning his mug to his mouth. After taking a sip of his coffee, he narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. “I have been seeing Cecilia. It’s been pretty infrequent, though, and I suspect my job interferes too much.”

“CJ’s aunt?”

“Yes, Jamie. CJ knows about it…I think.”

“Oh, well, I hope it, uh, continues.”

“Thank you. How are things with Sam?”

“Yeah, they’re good, thanks. I seem to live at her place more than mine, so I guess it’s just a matter of time before we move in together.” She gave a little nod, thinking she owed him a little information in return.

“Good, good. Well, I’ll get home and let you settle for the night. Keep your eye on them both, will you? And take a couple of days off, Jamie. You deserve it.”

“But the killer…”

“I’ll see how the guys are getting on with the case when I get to the office in the morning.”

“Then so will I. Don’t worry. I’ll sleep for the next few hours and be fresh as a daisy tomorrow.”

“A daisy, huh? All right. I could use your help.”

“That’s settled then. Oh, and Sir, the stuff that went on here at the house…”

“Stuff?”

“When I spoke with Eddie on the phone, he said that the barn out back was burned down deliberately. It seems now that jet fuel was used to start it.”

“CJ and Kate’s barn?” When Jamie nodded, Mark frowned deeply. “Jet fuel?” After another nod in response, his stomach gave a little lurch. “That’s too much of a coincidence.”

“I agree. And the fact that there are cops posted outside just backs up what we’re thinking.”

“Cops?”

“You didn’t see them, did you? If the LAPD thinks they need to put a car outside every night, there must be something to this. I’ll ask CJ and Kate if I can stay…just overnights, and only until CJ gets a little stronger.”

“Good idea.”

“I’ll keep my firearm with me at all times and report to you in a more personal way so as to keep it off the record, so to speak. When they’re feeling stronger and throw me out, I’ll defer to the agent that you’ll no doubt put on duty, and he can take over on a perimeter detail.”

“I knew you were a great agent,” Mark said with a knowing grin as they headed into the living room on their way to the front door. “I just never figured you as a mind reader.”

Jamie returned the grin and locked the door behind him. With Kamali following, she tiptoed silently back through the living room and let the dog out for a final time before setting the alarm with the code CJ had told her many moons ago. Kamali went to his bed right after a pat on the head, and, deciding she couldn’t wake her slumbering friends, Jamie strolled into the crèche and collapsed in a heap on one of the large beanbags. She was completely exhausted. It had been one helluva holiday season so far.

* * * * * *

After three hours of solid, deep sleep, CJ opened her eyes and immediately remembered where she was. She pressed her lips against the short strands on Kate’s head, and a murmur escaped Kate’s mouth in response.

“Mmm…”

CJ smiled since she knew Kate was still asleep, but she desperately needed to see her beautiful eyes and hear her gentle, sleepy voice. Even though CJ’s arms ached and her head felt like it was splitting open, she wasn’t going to move from this spot for a very long time if Kate stayed in her embrace, and as she lay there enjoying the feel of Kate beside her, she thought about how to wake her. Since her voice was no use, she nudged Kate’s head with her lips again, this time pressing a little harder. The next murmur was accompanied by a sudden tension in Kate’s body.

That tension left just as quickly as it came when Kate gradually remembered what she was holding onto. Her eyes shot up to seek out CJ’s face, and a few long, surreal minutes passed with Kate staring at the flesh and blood person lying in her arms.

Her hand reached up tentatively to touch CJ’s cheek, and when she felt her warm skin on her palm, her eyes filled with moisture. “You’re…you’re really here.”

CJ craned her neck a little and pressed her mouth against the dry, full lips of her love. When she pulled back, Kate was crying. “I’m here,” she whispered as her own eyes began to glisten.

For the next twenty minutes, in the middle of the night, lying on the couch in their warm, inviting home, the two Carson women finally cried a river. Kate’s tears ran onto CJ’s sleeve, and CJ’s tears soaked through Kate’s short hair, but they didn’t care. Their souls rejoiced, and their hearts beat powerfully as one. All the anguish, pain, heartache, stress, agony, and longing of the past two weeks came out in those tears, leaving a lighter place in their hearts and breaking up the heavy cloud that had befallen them. They clung desperately to one another, and CJ did well to hang on, but she finally had to give in to the pain, releasing her tight embrace and breathing out a groan.

Kate sniffed loudly and lifted herself up on her elbow. “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry. You’re hurt, and I-” Kate was silenced when CJ raised her hand like a little kid in school. “What, CJ?”

The hoarsest, deepest whisper Kate had ever heard grated its way through CJ’s throat. “I’ll take any and all pain if you’ll just stay in my arms. I don’t want to let you go.”

“I’ll be in your arms every second I get the chance, but I want to take care of you.”

CJ placed her fingertip under Kate’s eye and wiped away a few droplets before resting the digit on her graying skin. “This. No more of this. I want to take care of you too. You…” A constricting cough broke her words, but she recovered well. “You haven’t been sleeping.”

Kate dropped her gaze and touched CJ’s neck…anything to keep as much contact as possible. “No, I haven’t. How could I? You were…oh, CJ, I couldn’t cope without you.”

“I was nothing without you, Katie, but we’re together now.” CJ took in the sights and smells she knew so well, and relished in the simplest of touches from Kate’s hand. Her eyes fixated onto Kate’s for long moments before she analyzed the rest of her. When she came to the top of Kate’s head, she stretched up to finger a cropped piece of hair. “I love this.” CJ’s finger moved onto Kate’s nose. “And I love this.” Next, CJ slid her fingertip over Kate’s lips. “Love these.” When CJ looked back up into Kate’s eyes, the slightest smile creased her own lips. “I love you, with everything I am.”

Another flood of tears rolled down over Kate’s cheeks. “I love you too, more than you’ll ever know.” She sniffed again, trying to at least stop crying for a second.

“I do know, Katie.” CJ’s whisper was disappearing now, and Kate decided they had spoken enough.

“Rest your voice now. I want you to regain your strength and get well.” Kate couldn’t stop even more tears from falling at the thought of CJ going through the crash and surviving the subsequent hellish journey. “I…I thought I was gonna lose you. I can’t lose you, CJ. I can’t.”

CJ put a gentle pressure on Kate’s back with her right hand to bring her closer against her body. When Kate’s head nestled in her favorite spot under her chin, CJ’s own tears renewed themselves. She tickled her fingers through Kate’s hair. “It’s you and me forever, remember? And before I stop talking, I have to tell you that…the new style is very sexy.”

The small vibrations throughout Kate’s body told CJ that her wife actually chuckled. She couldn’t wait to see and hear her laugh out loud again, but she guessed it was still a little too soon. The shock was wearing off now, but they were still totally overwhelmed with emotion and tiredness. CJ vaguely wondered what time it was and if she would see her daughters soon, but sleep knocked her out before the thought was complete. Kate followed her into the land of nod, and in the kitchen Jamie cried her eyes out. But these tears were of relief, happiness, and love for her friends.

Once CJ and Kate were both snoring lightly, Jamie went to sit on the window seat, and as she looked out over the lake she saw it was almost morning. Checking her watch and wiping her eyes on her sleeve, she got up to restart the coffee machine and prepare breakfast for her two favorite children.

* * * * * *

“Mommy’s home?” Shannon squeaked as she leapt from her bed.

“She sure is. She’s snuggled up on the couch downstairs with your mama right now,” Eddie Senior said, taking Shannon into his arms as she rubbed the sleepiness from her eyes. “I want me and you to go get Lucy up, and then I’ll talk to you both about how careful we need to be with Mommy.”

“Did she get hurt?”

“Yes, sweetheart, she did, but she’s going to be fine. We’ll just have to be extra gentle with her until she gets better, won’t we?”

Shannon nodded as she was led by the hand along the upper hallway by her loving grandfather. It took them a few minutes to rouse Lucy from her super dream about giant cupcakes, but once she was up and had listened to Eddie’s instructions, they all headed quietly down the large staircase followed by the ever-devoted Kamali.

Jamie had heard some faint noises and decided to meet them in the hallway. “Hey,” she said quietly, “I was just about to come and get you three up.”

“Morning, Jamie. How are they doing?”

“They’re fine. Fell back to sleep a while ago, actually. They didn’t let go all night.”

Of each other, Eddie added silently for her. His eyes showed his lingering sadness at what had happened, but his smile said it all. He was so overjoyed that his two daughters were back together, and his fear for their safety and health began to dissipate. He wiggled his hands, both of which were joined onto two smaller ones, and took a deep, calming breath. “OK, beautiful girls. Let’s go and see your tired parents.”

When the two children were standing next to the couch, they both scanned their eyes over their mommy’s body, noticing the sling, the plaster cast, and the strange footwear right away. Eddie gently shook Kate awake while Jamie headed back to the kitchen to finish her preparations.

“Katie. Katie, honey. The girls are here to see you.”

“Hmm, oh.” Kate turned her head. “Hey, you guys. Good morning,” she said in a calm, soft tone. She checked on CJ and saw she was still sleeping in her arms. “Mommy’s real tired, but I’ll wake her now. She can sleep while you’re at school, and she’s been desperate to see you both.”

“I’m awake,” came CJ’s whisper from deep in the couch cushion. “Help me up, Katie?”

Kate carefully maneuvered CJ until she was in a sitting position. “Girls, Mommy has a very sore throat, so she can’t talk too much.”

Shannon sat down beside CJ and placed her small hand on the gray sweatpants covering CJ’s thigh. “Grandpa said you were sore in your body, but can we hug you, Mommy?”

“Oh, Shan, of course.” CJ felt her throat drying again and asked Kate with only a glance if she could help her out.

“Come around here, Shannon,” Kate instructed gently. “You too, Luce. On this side, Mommy has this cast to help her hand get better. It was hurt quite badly.”

“How did it get hurt?” Shannon asked. Lucy stood right beside her and changed her security blanket – in the form of Barney the bear – into her other hand so she could feel her mommy’s plaster cast with her little fingers.

CJ watched as Kate told her story in the simplest terms possible. “And when she was away, Mommy was in a terrible crash.”

“Like Tony was?” Shannon asked.

“Kind of the same, yes.” Kate didn’t want to terrify the girls about planes falling out of the sky, so she left her explanation at that. “So, if Mommy puts her hand back on the couch there.” She looked at CJ. “Put your hand back on the couch there, Mommy.”

CJ belatedly realized she was supposed to do something, and with a quick grin to Kate she moved her hand, feeling the sting from the surgery and resulting stitches. “Sorry. There we go.”

“Thank you,” Kate said with a little smile. “Now, you guys can come in here and give her a big hug and a kiss.” Both girls did so, and it actually made CJ feel so much better.

Shannon’s hug didn’t last too long since her curiosity was bursting to be unleashed as she scrutinized CJ’s foot. “That’s a funny shoe.”

CJ looked down at it. “It sure is, but it’s helping my ankle to feel better,” she croaked.

“It got hurt too?” Shannon asked dramatically. After CJ’s nod, she continued. “And there too?” she said, pointing at the sling.

“Yep.”

Lucy patted CJ’s knee. “A lot of sore bits, Mommy. Maybe Barney can help.” She thrust the teddy bear into CJ’s lap and kissed the knee where her hand was. “I don’t need him anymore. You can have him.”

CJ almost bawled. “Thank you so much, Luce. I’ll keep him right here.”

Kate realized just how much her daughters had worried about CJ, even though they didn’t know she was in danger of losing her life. A wave of guilt washed over Kate as she started to understand that she had been so lost when CJ was missing, she had barely engaged with them. Even though she had cared for Shannon and Lucy, and loved them as much as always, she still hadn’t known how to tell them the awful truth about what she was going through. It seemed they had sensed it anyway, and she shook her head slowly at how they had instinctually picked up on her stress.

Shannon wedged herself between Kate’s knees and looked closely at her face. “Mama…the sparkle came back.”

“Sparkle?”

“Your eyes are all sparkly again.”

Beside Kate, CJ’s smile grew with every word, and Kate looked curiously at Shannon, wondering what would come out of the sensitive child’s mouth next.

“Are they not always sparkly?” she queried as she nudged CJ softly for her throaty half-laugh.

“Not when Mommy was lost. But now they are.”

Kate lifted Shannon onto her knee. “Do you know that you are the cleverest seven-almost-eight-year-old that I have ever known?”

“Really?” Shannon squeaked, raising her eyebrows in a perfect CJ impression.

“Really.”

“Wow.” Shannon lolled her head onto her mama’s chest and looked decisively at CJ. “We’re going to help you get better, Mommy.”

CJ reached over with her right hand and yanked it back when the pain shot up through her shoulder. “Oof!” she husked.

Shannon’s hand immediately landed on the offending joint and rubbed gently. “Do you need medicine for it?”

Kate bit her lips between her teeth to stifle the emotion she was feeling. “I’ll get Mommy her medicine after you two wonderful girls have breakfast and get to school. Now scoot!” she said, wobbling their giggling daughter off her knee. Lucy was already skipping through to the kitchen chanting, “Auntie Jamie, Auntie Jamie,” on her way making Eddie chuckle at her impromptu song. He gave CJ and Kate a little wave to let them know he would take care of everything, before he told Shannon to come sit next to him at the island counter and lifted Lucy to fly through the air onto her stool. With some happy noises coming from the kitchen, Kate leaned back on the couch and rested her cheek against CJ’s good shoulder. She would be happy to remain there for the rest of her days.

* * * * * *

Eddie had done his grandfatherly duties admirably, and once he’d sent the children out the front door with Tony, Jamie left too. She told CJ and Kate she had to talk with them later, and they organized for her to bring take-out for dinner to save any effort being made that night.

Eddie strolled into the living room to find his daughters sitting quietly on the couch. “Well, what a day so far, and it’s only eight o’clock in the morn. I don’t know about you tough girls, but I’m totally exhausted with all this excitement! Oh! I’m going to pop upstairs and make a few calls before I take a nap.” He never gave CJ and Kate the chance to respond as he continued with his little speech. “I’m just so glad you’re home, CJ. Oh! I love you both so, so much, and, well it was hard to see Katie without her big, bad FBI agent by her side. I’ll hear all about it when you feel ready. Oh! Now I’m gonna cry again.” He sniffed as he turned to leave. “I’ll get out of your hair now, and you two can have a much needed cuddle! Come on, Kamali. Let’s leave them in peace for a while.” He enticed the dog into the hallway and up the stairs.

CJ and Kate heard a distant, “Oh you’re such a handsome boy,” and Kate chuckled.

“He’s back to his crazy old self.”

When she turned around with the smile still on her face, CJ watched her with besotted eyes. She leaned in and kissed Kate on the temple, the cheek, and finally on her soft lips before pulling back a few inches to speak. “You’re my life. You and the girls.”

Kate let out a gasp and felt her heart skip a beat. “And you’re mine. I still can’t believe you’re home, CJ.”

“Believe it. Believe in us.”

“I do.” Kate studied CJ’s stunning face. Apart from one nasty bruise on the side of her cheekbone, CJ’s skin was as flawless as ever. “You were so lucky. We were so lucky. I…I…”

“Hey. I told you. I’ll always come home to you.”

And with that, Kate burst into tears again, unable to hold back in expressing her relief and love for her partner. Long moments later, her cries came to an end, and her stomach gurgled loudly making CJ tremble with silent laughter.

Kate wiped her eyes and looked at CJ sheepishly. “I guess since everyone else has eaten breakfast, maybe it could be our turn now, huh? Wait. Don’t answer that. No talking.”

“Am I gonna have to learn sign language?” CJ rasped.

“Hmm, maybe.”

“I don’t know that you’ll be able to shut me up, Katie. There’s so much I want to say to you.”

“There’ll be time for that…lots of time. I won’t be working for about eight months, so plenty of time for me to take care of you.” When CJ tried to get up and follow Kate, she waved a chastising finger at her. “And it starts now. Stay right there.”

“I, uh, have to pee,” CJ whispered, utilizing her very cutest pleading face.

“Oh…”

CJ figured she could read Kate’s mind as she stood there trying to figure out some complicated problem. She knew what Kate was pondering almost immediately. “And I think I’ll need help,” CJ added, knowing she had read Kate right when she nodded her response. “And I really love your hair.” The smile Kate gave her then was worth all the pain in the world, and once she was on her feet…foot…she managed to touch Kate’s head without being held back by her upper body injuries. “When did you get this done anyway?”

“Um, I can’t remember the day. My mind was mush, and Shannon was very persuasive,” Kate murmured, her eyes closing at CJ’s wonderful touch. She kept them shut when two perfect lips covered her own, making her weak in the knees. She opened her mouth at the request of CJ’s probing tongue and sunk into her heavenly kiss. When it was over, Kate looked lazily at her sensual wife. “You really do like my hair, don’t you?”

CJ did not miss the teasing look and nodded seductively…well, as seductively as she could in her condition. She was so happy to see Kate recovering from their ordeal. She knew Kate would have suffered as much as her, if not more. Kate hadn’t known CJ was alive. That would have been complete torture for CJ, had it been the other way around. “I love you, Kate Carson. I know I keep saying it, but I need to say it right now.” She blew out a nervous breath. “Now, help me pee.”

Kate let out an emotion-filled giggle as she moved to support CJ across the hallway. “You’ll have to do the peeing part yourself. The rest, I can help with.”

“Good, ‘cause I don’t think I’ll manage to, um…”

“I know. And you know I don’t mind doing all that for you. At least you have pants on that are easy to pull down.”

CJ wiggled her hips to bump them with Kate’s. “You can strip me later.”

They both smirked at the inference. It would be a long, long while before that sort of stripping would be going on.

* * * * * *

While Kate worked on breakfast, CJ sat on the couch and realized that even three minutes without her beloved spouse in her sights was too long. With a swallow to prepare herself for the pain, she rose to her feet and hobbled through the double doors into the large diner. A troubled-looking Kate was lost in a daydream and stood with her hand resting on a tray laden with breakfast goodies. CJ approached slowly but still managed to startle her.

“Oh! Hey…”

“What’s wrong?” CJ grunted.

“Wrong?”

“Yeah. You looked worried?”

“Oh, no, I was just reliving the last few days. It’s been a rollercoaster ride.”

CJ forced a smile. “Do you need to talk now? I mean, really talk?”

“I…I don’t think I’m ready yet, honey.”

“Me neither, so stop thinking about it, and let’s try to enjoy this food, huh?”

Kate blew out a breath. “OK. Only if you stop talking and let your throat rest.”

CJ narrowed her eyes. “Bargaining with me at this early hour?”

“You’re still talking.”

“You’re still thinking.”

Kate’s laughter was the most incredible thing CJ had heard in weeks. It was husky and filled with true mirth. “You…” Kate tried to catch a breath. “You’re just full of mischievous wit, my darling wife. What’s going on?”

“I’m happy. I know I may not look it most of the time, but I really am. See?” A giant toothy smile momentarily lit up CJ’s stoic face.

Kate smiled and cupped CJ’s cheek in her palm before trailing her fingers down her jaw line, a motion that caused CJ’s tired, blue eyes to roll closed in bliss. Kate stared at the face opposite her and couldn’t help but bite her lips to stop the ridiculous amount of tears she still seemed to have left. “I’m happy too. You make me happy.” When CJ’s eyes opened, Kate grinned. “And what will make me even happier is if you’ll eat something now, then we could maybe let you soak in the tub?”

A low moan left CJ’s hoarse throat. “Sounds heavenly.”

“It’s settled then. Now carefully go sit down and be a good little patient.”

CJ’s dark eyebrow curled to let Kate know that might be the most unlikely scenario of the decade. Another laugh followed CJ as she shuffled back into the living room. Her self-imposed mission right now was to hear that laugh as much as possible, so she would try to continue her goofy antics until they were ready to discuss the plane crash and everything else. Then she would probably go back to the goofy stuff, simply because she felt like it.

* * * * * *

It seemed they had managed to consume less than half of what Kate had prepared, but at least it was a start. Neither one of them was ravenous, which was surprising considering they hadn’t been eating properly – if at all – since CJ left for Minnesota.

“A decent attempt, I’d say,” Kate chirped around her last mouthful.

CJ nodded and watched her go into the kitchen to pick up a sheet of paper from the countertop.

Kate read it for a few seconds before she returned to CJ’s side with a dark-brown bottle and a spoon. “Time for your medicine.” She gawked at CJ as the normally tough, taciturn federal agent pressed her lips together harshly and pouted out the most ridiculous frown she had ever seen. Keeping the frown in place, CJ shook her head from side to side like a petulant toddler.

“You need to take this goo three times a day, CJ. It says so on that list the doctor sent with Jamie. Now, open up.”

CJ shook her head…a little too hard since she suddenly felt slightly dizzy.

“CJ,” Kate warned with an admonishing head-tilt.

“Stop looking at me like I’m a naughty child,” CJ rasped out, still holding her eyebrows down low.

“Stop acting like one.”

“I wasn’t.”

“You were.”

“Not.”

“Were too.”

CJ held in her mirth, but she was desperate to belt out a hearty laugh. Since she knew her body would admonish her severely for doing that, she pretended to be easily defeated and opened her mouth begrudgingly. The spoonful of sticky, smelly liquid went in, and she almost gagged at its flavor. It did immediately cool the roughness in her throat, but she wasn’t going to tell Kate that: the Kate who was now strutting off to the kitchen with a satisfied smile on her face.

.

Chapter 7

Mark Mulroney sat reading through the initial report he had been emailed about the parts of the plane recovered so far. The operation was ongoing, but most of the fuselage was now in a huge hangar that had been temporarily appropriated by the Federal Aviation Administration and NTSB investigators. When piecing together everything they had recovered, they had found an unidentified substance on the fuel lines and electronic cables. The substance had been sent for analysis, but initial suspicions were that it was some kind of acid.

Sabotage. Mark jumped when the door to his office was knocked loudly. “Come in.”

“Sir…” Jamie said gravely.

“What did you find out from the LAPD?”

She sighed and flicked open the pages in her hand. “The fire at Kate’s was definitely arson. We have the official findings now. Jet fuel was the accelerant, and they also found a knife near the entrance to the barn with blood on it. That part is confusing, but they’ve sent the blood sample to the lab just in case it was our suspect who cut himself.”

Mark shook his head. “Did you get the analysis of the fuel he used?”

“Yes. Right here.”

“Good. Take it down to our guys and have them compare it to this,” he said, handing her the note he had requested about the Cessna’s fuel. “I don’t know that it will be the same type of aviation fuel, but I think it’s safe to assume that this guy, whoever he is, will go back to CJ and Kate’s house. If my gut feeling is right, he’s pretty clever and calculating, and is trying to send Kate a message. I need you to continue to be at the house at night until further notice, Jamie.”

“What’s your plan?”

Mark gulped back the acidic taste in his mouth. “We need to be smart about this. If this guy sees a manned car sitting outside the house, he’s not gonna come close. I want to catch him, Jamie, and I think our best chance to do that is with you inside the house. CJ and Kate aren’t really fit enough to defend themselves right now, so…”

“I understand, Sir. Bring him in alive, perhaps a bullet hole in the leg?”

“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.” Mark forced a cough. “But, yes.”

Jamie gave her boss a single nod to confirm her agreement. “OK. I’ll get down to the lab with this, then I need to go help the team with this killer. Our case is going at a snail’s pace.”

“I know. The clues aren’t exactly easy to decipher, though.”

“Tell me about it. Maybe we should let CJ have a look,” Jamie said as a joke.

But Mark perked up at that. “Maybe…”

* * * * * *

As Kate bent over the tub to check the temperature of the running water, CJ limped through their large bedroom. She could feel the healing energy swirling around her, and she couldn’t believe how amazing it felt to be back home. The light streamed in from two of the three windows: one on the back wall – the adjacent one that looked out towards the barn had its drapes closed for some reason – and the one facing the lake at the front of the peaceful farmhouse. It was when she looked out of this window that CJ saw a marked police cruiser at the top of their long driveway. The driver and his partner seemed to be just sitting there. CJ’s face twisted in confusion, and when Kate came out of the bathroom, she turned to look at her.

“Katie, why is there a cop car outside?”

A small grimace crossed Kate’s features, but she recovered well, although she did wonder why the police were there during the day. “Uh, why are you still standing?”

“I asked you first.”

“And I told you to get off that foot until I drew your bath.”

“OK, Nurse Strictly. I bet Aunt Cece has a better bedside manner than you,” CJ whispered loudly. Her ‘not talking’ plan just wasn’t working.

“Aunt Cece doesn’t have to put up with you as a patient,” Kate retorted.

CJ conceded and grinned at Kate. “Good point.”

“I know it was.” This new type of interaction was most welcome to Kate. She could see CJ’s eyes twinkling with mischief and welcomed the lightheartedness, but the question of the police car lingered with her. She went over to where CJ now sat on the edge of their large bed and crouched down between her knees. “Explaining to you why there is a cop car outside means we have to talk about that stuff we’re not ready to talk about yet. How about I tell you in bed tonight? I’ll give you details of what’s been happening here while you were away. You can just listen for now, and when your throat starts to ease up you can tell me everything you went through in Minnesota.”

CJ took Kate at her word since she couldn’t see any concern in her eyes. “OK.”

“Good. Now let’s get you into that soothing water.”

“Pants first,” CJ said, lifting the only limb that wasn’t painful.

Kate stood up. “I need to take them over your hips first, honey. Stand for me.”

“Anything for you,” CJ whispered, sneaking a kiss as she rose.

“Quit that, or I’ll start bawling again.”

“Bawl all you want.”

Kate looked up into CJ’s hypnotic eyes and let a couple more tears fall. “I love you so fucking much, CJ.” When CJ’s long arm slipped around her waist and a delicate kiss was planted on her neck, she inhaled a quivering breath and returned the gesture, pushing up on her tip-toes to kiss CJ’s sore cheekbone. After a few breaths to slow their hearts, Kate rubbed her chin. “OK, what was I doing?”

CJ fought back her grin and pointed to her pants.

Kate rubbed her forehead. “Right. Yeah…bath.”

CJ’s sweatpants came off with relative ease. Kate tried to ignore the fact that her wife had no underwear on, but CJ’s smirk at the flushed face in front of her showed Kate she hadn’t been successful. That same flushed face gasped aloud in horror when Kate lifted the bottom of CJ’s hoodie. A thick, angry line of black, blue, purple, yellow, and all the colors in between, straddled CJ’s hips, running just below her navel.

Kate’s shaky inhale was long. “Oh, honey…”

“Seatbelt,” CJ rasped.

“I guessed. But is everything OK in there?”

“Yeah. Doc cleared me.”

Kate nodded silently, and after completing the arduous task of undressing her injured spouse – and removing her sling, bandages, and support shoe – she helped her to hobble into the bathroom. When they were both standing at the side of the tub, CJ scrunched her mouth in thought.

“I guess it would be too much to ask for you to join me, huh?”

Kate looked at her adoringly. “For now? Yes. I would love nothing more than to be in there holding you, but I’d definitely hurt you if we shared. Now get in, and I’ll pour some nice, hot water over your hair. Use this stool to rest your cast on. You’re getting pampered for however long it takes you to recover, and I won’t take no for an answer.”

Just as CJ was about to come back with a witty retort, a melodious voice called out from the upper hallway. “Everything all right in there?” the newly-awakened Eddie shouted. “Need my assistance, do you?”

Kate’s happy voice floated through to him from the bathroom. “No, thank you. We’re doing OK, Dad!”

“Fabulous! Just remember I’m here for a little longer if you need me to do anything. I’ve seen it all before, you know,” he teased when he heard a splash.

Kate rolled her eyes. “Thanks, Dad, but I’ll manage. How about cooking us up something appetizing for dinner tonight?”

“Ooh, I’ll get started on the prep ASAP! Oh! It’s going to be so super tasty. Now no hanky-panky in there while I’m distracted. Oh!”

Kate smiled at CJ who was now standing in the water. “He was so worried about you.”

“I know. He hasn’t said much, but I can see it in his eyes,” CJ whispered. She tested her balance on one foot and gingerly lowered herself down, guided by Kate’s strong, helping hand. “Oh, and some pampering sounds fine, by the way,” she croaked as a few stabs of pain reminded her of her current weakness. As Kate knelt at the side of the tub and began scooping water up and over her shoulders and head, she smiled lazily. “Sounds very fine indeed.”

* * * * * *

In bed that night, CJ reclined against three soft, plump pillows, and inside, she was floating on a heavenly cloud. That feeling could have been helped along by being heavily laden with food, painkillers, and throat medicine. Kate approaching the bed just added to her fuzzy, warm feeling, and she drunkenly smiled at her gorgeous partner. “I’m gonna say it again. I love your hair.”

Kate slipped under the blankets and lay on her side to face CJ. “I’m so happy you like it. I didn’t get the chance to be apprehensive when I first saw you, but I know you loved my long hair too.”

“I did. I love your hair any old way. It’s you who makes you stunningly beautiful, not your hairstyle.”

Kate blushed and ran her hand through the cropped locks. “Thank you,” she whispered bashfully.

CJ turned on her left side and positioned the offensive cast against her body. “You’re welcome, Katie.” She focused on Kate’s face for a few seconds. “Hey, your eyes. They’re blue?”

“Uh, nope.”

“They look much, much more blue tonight.”

Kate took in CJ’s dazed face. “Hmm.”

“Blue-green?” CJ offered.

Kate laughed quietly. “Whatever you say, beautiful. Now, would you like me to explain a few things, like why we have cops camped outside?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Are you sure you’re up to this? I mean, you look kinda drunk.”

CJ snickered. “I’m totally lucid, Katie. The only thing I’m drunk on is you.”

“You’re so damn cute, do you know that?”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“OK. Tell me things, please.”

Kate snuggled down under the duvet and lay as close to CJ as she could, bringing their heads together if not their bodies. “Promise not to get stressed or freaked out?”

CJ held her breath while she thought about that. “I…promise.”

“Well, the barn was burned down last week.”

Was burned down? As in, somebody burned it down?”

“Yes, honey. It was deliberate. The fire department confirmed it was arson.”

CJ’s nostrils flared as a flash of anger washed through her. “Were you and the kids here at the time?”

“Yes. Kamali started growling in the middle of the night, and I was already awake.” Kate shrugged at her total insomnia while CJ was away. “Anyway, the dog alerted me, and I got up immediately. He had never growled like that before, so I knew something was really wrong. I went straight into the closet and got the forty-five before I went along the hall and saw the guy running past the front porch. When I came back to the bedroom, I watched him running out of the barn, and then I saw the flames. I was furious by this point, and I rushed down to the front door and shot at him as he ran away.” Kate stopped at the shocked look on CJ’s face.

“Did you get him?”

“No, CJ. I didn’t aim to hit him, just to scare him off.”

CJ nodded her relief. Even though she would have liked the guy caught and jailed, she knew if Kate had shot someone in the back as he ran off, it would be her who would end up behind bars. “As long as you and the girls are safe. I just don’t understand why someone would come all-”

“The way out here to start a fire,” Kate finished for her. “I know. Tony and I thought the same thing.”

CJ saw the pensive expression deepen on Kate’s face, and she reached out her hand to touch her reassuringly. “We’ll figure it out together, Katie. Try not to worry about it.”

“I’ll try. You look really tired now. Let’s talk more tomorrow, OK?”

“Seems like my body wants to catch up on all the sleep I missed.”

“You didn’t rest at all on your…trek?”

“Sleep wasn’t really possible. All I could think of was you, Katie. I’m only here because of you, you know.”

“Me?”

“Yeah. I saw you a lot, when I was lost.” CJ watched Kate’s expression change and hurried on. “But I’m not crazy, I swear-”

“I know you’re not crazy. But, you saw me?” After a nod in response, Kate pinched her lips and thought back to her visions. “Um, I saw you too.”

CJ’s dark eyebrows shot upward. “Tell me…”

“Well, I really thought I was going crazy. You appeared to me a few times.”

“Where were you?” CJ whispered as her breath almost mingled with Kate’s since they were lying so close to one another.

“A few times in the house, and once out by the lake. You…you kept coming to me at my worst times, when I felt I wasn’t coping. You told me I was doing fine.”

“Oh, Katie. I’m so sorry you went through all this.”

We went through all this, CJ. But you’re here now, for real.”

CJ inhaled Kate’s scent and acknowledged that Kate was here for real too. She pushed her forehead forward onto Kate’s before she asked her next question. “This might sound weird, but…what was I wearing when you saw me?”

Kate smiled. “I was pretty freaked out a couple of the times, so I didn’t take note of your clothing,” she said with a snort, “but the rest of the time, you were wearing your Bureau combat gear.”

“Hmm. Nothing more unusual?”

“What do you mean?”

“Like, was I wearing any strange clothing that looked…ancient?”

“Ancient? No, I don’t think so. Why?”

“When I saw you…and I saw you a lot…you were wearing a kind of, uh, revealing outfit. It was like you were a fighter or a warrior from a different age.”

“Wow. Did I look cool?”

CJ chuckled silently. “You looked amazing, but what was more amazing about it was that I saw your short hair.”

Kate’s eyes widened. “No way.”

“Way,” CJ replied with a head bob. “I loved it then, and I love it now. There’s something really freaky going on with us, Katie, and I’m really, really very fine with that.”

“I’ll say. I think what we share is incredible. So I was a warrior, huh?”

“You sure looked fierce, especially the time you came to me and you were so pissed. Oh boy…” A small cough silenced CJ until she composed herself.

“Why was I angry with you?”

“To be honest, I think it just manifested like that because I was never gonna get back up otherwise. You called me Agent Carson. Ooh, you were maaaad.”

Kate grinned at the husky whispers coming from her chatty partner. “Well, I do have to keep you in line. But tell me, did it work? Me being angry, I mean?”

“Of course it did. I’m here, aren’t I?”

“Well, duh, yeah. Man, I think I need sleep too.”

CJ drifted on. “I saw Jack. Just once, and that was enough.”

“Jack?”

“Yeah, he was wearing weird shit too, and he said he was just waiting for me to die.”

“Eww. That’s not a very nice thing to hear.”

“I know. He was dressed like a warrior, but different from you. Are you sure I wasn’t wearing anything strange when you saw me?”

Kate thought carefully about her visions while gazing into CJ’s eyes. She blinked to break the trance when she remembered something. “Actually, there was one thing I was puzzled about. One of the times I saw you, you were twirling this…thing around your finger. It was round and made of metal. You know, like a hoop? I thought it was maybe a toy, but I never understood why you would look at it like you did.”

“How was I looking at it?”

“Like it was a treasure or something important to you. It was a part of you.”

“That is strange.”

“Maybe we’re both just losing our minds, CJ.”

“Or maybe we’ve just been here many times before. We’ve always felt that anyway.”

“True. Let’s not speak about it to others, or we’ll definitely end up in straitjackets.”

CJ snorted a laugh then spoke around an unexpected yawn. “Deal.”

“Sleep?”

“Yeah, but can you do me one more favor?”

“What?”

“Move closer. I can lie the cast on that pillow over there, and you can take your usual spot. I need to feel you.”

“I’d love that,” Kate murmured before they moved into position. She pushed her nose into CJ’s neck and inhaled deeply before curling into her usual place under her chin. “Now I’m home.”

Since CJ had just performed the same deep inhale at Kate’s head, she nodded slowly. “Me too.”

* * * * * *

Around four PM the next day, Shannon and Lucy arrived at the house with Tony and pranced excitedly into the living room to tell their parents all about their day at school. Lucy suddenly changed direction when she realized she really had to pee, and Tony waited outside the downstairs shower room in case she needed help to flush.

Shannon continued on and found CJ in her comfy spot on the couch. She was eager to begin her account of the day’s events, and once she had greeted her mommy she scooted over the soft cushions until she was about two inches away from CJ’s arm. “Is your hand getting better, Mommy?” she asked, touching the plaster cast.

“Sure, Squirt. It’s healing every minute.”

“When will the thing come off?”

“The cast will be there a while until the bone heals properly.”

“Oh.” Shannon thought about that for a minute, but then seemed to accept CJ’s words.

“So tell me about your day…”

“Oh, well…” Shannon’s voice chirped on as she gave CJ a shortened rundown of her school escapades, but CJ stopped her when she heard her say that Sian’s mom works with Mama now.

CJ was a little puzzled. “She works with your mama?”

“Yes. Sian was very excited about it.”

“Oh.”

“Can I have a cookie?”

“Hmm, I’m not sure. Mama’s in the kitchen. Go see what she thinks,” CJ said with a hint of proper vocals. When Shannon got up to leave, CJ called her back. “How about a kiss for me first?”

“OK.”

Once the request was fulfilled, Shannon skipped away only to be replaced by Lucy. “Me too, Mommy.”

CJ laughed and leaned forward again. “Mmm, thank you for these kisses. They make me feel so much better.”

Lucy scratched her cheek. “I could kiss your hand too.”

“Maybe not the hand because it’s covered up, but how about this shoulder right here?”

Lucy climbed up beside CJ and very loudly kissed the shoulder. “Mwuh! Better?”

“Yep.”

As Lucy disappeared, CJ glanced to her right to see Tony standing in the doorway looking at her. “Hey, man.”

“CJ,” he said faintly in greeting. “I…” Poor Tony couldn’t stop his tears from falling, so CJ waved him over to sit beside her. When he finally made eye contact, she curled her eyebrow in the usual fashion.

“No kissing, but gimme a hug.”

Tony laughed through his muffled cries and hugged her very carefully. “So glad you’re home. So glad.”

“Me too. I’ve been hearing how amazing you were when everything went to shit.”

“Oh, uh, you have? Well, I…just did all I could to help.”

“I know, and that’s what was amazing, Tony. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” He looked at the small pile of letters he had deposited on the coffee table. “I brought in the mail. I’ll just put it with the bundle in the study. You guys have a lot of letters to open…and a package.”

Tony walked away leaving CJ’s mouth hanging open. She just remembered what the package was, and she wondered if Kate had even remembered ordering it. Her eyes narrowed playfully as she filed the information away for later. When Kate came into the room followed by a couple of children nibbling on a cookie each, CJ tilted her head in question. “Sian’s mom is working with you?”

Kate’s surprise was fleeting before she let out a tiny laugh. “I see the grapevine is working splendidly. Yeah, she’s my new agent. I’ll tell you all about it later.”

“It’s a good thing, though, right?”

“Oh, yes. She’s a wonderful woman.” Kate nodded, and when CJ’s eyebrow climbed higher than ever, she laughed out loud. “Not as wonderful as you, my love. No grown-up is as wonderful as you,” she said, mindful to keep the children included in her conversation. “And no person on this entire planet is as wonderful as my three girls.”

As Lucy chuckled to herself from her spot next to Kamali, Shannon looked bashfully at her mama. “Four wonderful girls in this house, and one wonderful dog,” she said with a snicker.

CJ and Kate laughed at that, but the laughter soon changed to ooh’s and aah’s when the oven started wafting out the delicious scents of dinner. CJ was pleased to discover that she was beginning to have an appetite. She knew it was simply the astonishing healing power of her family’s love, and she was glad she had insisted on getting home as soon as possible.

.

Epilogue

Eddie Marshall Senior muttered as he put his bag in the hallway. His flight home was leaving LAX in a few hours, but he knew his family were fine now that they were all reunited, and he was happy to get back to work. It was seven fifteen PM, and Jamie had arrived at the house a short time ago. Eddie approached her now as she stood in the living room talking to CJ and Kate.

“Now, Jamie, no more couch for you. I’ve changed the linens in the guest room. It’s all yours, you lovely thing!”

“Aww, you didn’t have to do that, Mr. M.”

“Nonsense! Anything I can do to be useful.”

“Dad,” Kate called out. “You’ve been an incredible help. I couldn’t have done it without you.”

“Oh! Sweetheart, my place is by your side anytime you need me. Oh, I love you people so much!”

CJ smiled from her armchair. “We love you too, Dad.”

“Oh, that gorgeous voice is coming back. I just know it!” He rushed over to kiss and hug CJ goodbye, and she returned it, feeling a tad emotional at his leaving.

“Come and visit soon, huh? Preferably when I’m a little healthier…”

“I will, CJ. Oh, I spoke with Eddie Junior. He sends his love and will call to arrange a visit. He was worried about you, but I told him to give you all a little more time before he sprung Sasha on you!”

Kate and CJ laughed at that, knowing Sasha Amoretti was rather clumsy when she was in the vicinity of one of her idols, Hollywood actress Kate Marshall.

A shout came through the hallway from Tony who was on the porch after putting the bags in the car. “Eddie! Time to go!”

“All right, all right!” Eddie sung out. “Katie, I’ll call you tomorrow after I’ve averted any impending disasters at the restaurant.”

“Sounds good, Dad. And thank you so much for being here.”

“Like I said, anytime, sweetheart.” He kissed his daughter goodbye and waved to all as he left.

Jamie went to greet the kids and settle them in the crèche in front of a movie for the next hour or so. She had something she needed to tell their parents, and she didn’t want young ears hearing it. When she returned to the living room, only CJ was there. “Where did Kate go?”

“Oh, she just went to get a clean dressing for this cut.”

How appropriate, Jamie thought, knowing what she had to tell them as soon as Kate returned. She sat down on the edge of the coffee table to wait. “How’s the infection?” she asked, taking CJ’s hand delicately in hers and examining the wound.

“Closing up nicely.”

Kate walked in and sat beside CJ which gave Jamie the opportunity to say her piece.

“I have some news for you guys.” She winced when CJ and Kate looked up quickly at the same time.

CJ tried to read her friend’s face. “Go on…”

“We got the results back on the bloody knife that was left in the barn.”

CJ tried to recall if she knew about a knife. “I think Kate told me about that.” A look from Kate told her she had.

“Well, the blood on it was found to be equine.”

Kate’s brain ticked over as she thought about the horses and tried to recall something important. “Oh. Oh no…”

“What, Katie?” CJ said, taking her hand.

“Tony told me at one point that Nevada had cut herself on her chest, but we thought it was just from the fence or maybe a branch in their field. He treated it, and she seemed fine. I never really thought about it again. Oh shit…”

“It seems like this guy was trying to hurt them, but don’t worry. I’ll be staying here every night from now on to keep a watchful eye.”

“But Jamie, you’ll need to sleep sometime. You can’t work all day and then stay awake here all night.”

Jamie was glad they hadn’t refused to let her stay, but she had to agree with Kate’s statement. “I’ll think of something, OK?”

“We’ll think of something,” CJ corrected.

Little did they know that as dusk fell outside, a lone figure had approached the horse field from the other end of the property armed with a juicy apple and another sharp knife. Once the horses were standing next to him trying to pry the apple from his closed fist, he plunged the blade into Idaho who let out a squeal as she tried to move away. The squeal sent Nevada sprinting across the field and over the fence in her panicked but instinctual flight response. The big, golden mare split the top rail in two as her powerful hooves clattered against the wood. She took off across the plains, disappearing into the distance until she was but a tiny dot on the horizon, leaving the evil man to retreat into the night once more.

.

To Be Continued…

©2016 StageFreak Productions

AM In A Heartbeat wolves

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17 comments

  1. I enjoy your work. Looking forward to the next episode.


    • Thank you, Trina 🙂


  2. Really enjoy this series…hope ep11 comes soon😃!


    • Thanks, Kathy!
      In A Heartbeat is in the final writing stages.
      🙂


  3. Damn it Wendy, you made me cry! Thank you for that! I think it is fabulous when a writer can evoke that kind of emotion from a reader! Keep up the great work!


    • Glad I could make you feel something! It’s nice to be able to achieve that from time to time 😉 Thanks for your continued support and your feedback!!


  4. Please, have Mommy dearest meet a painful and lingering end. Pretty please.
    Love the series and look forward to each episode.


    • ? I think you are the first person to want her to meet a painful end!
      Glad you enjoy the series 🙂


  5. I have loved this series from the very first paragraph. Thank you for sharing such a wonderful story with us:) Oh and if mommy dearest is Kate’s mother then go ahead and put us out of our misery oops I meant her lol


    • Glad you are enjoying the series, Jasper.
      Next episode is in the works 😉


    • Ah yes, Rox’ comment makes more sense if mommy dearest is Elizabeth… however she hasn’t been mentioned in a while so……… 😉


  6. Great Series, I get mad every time I get to the end of one because I don’t want it to end yet. Looking forward to the next.


    • Thanks, LLR 🙂
      Glad you are enjoying the series!


  7. I have been binge reading this series for the last week and I was elated to find this second part b/c I was devastated at the end of the first Part. This series is fantastic, already one of my favorite uber couples. Keep up the great work, looking forward to reading more!!!!!


    • Thank you, Tanya… warms my little heart to know you’re enjoying it 🙂
      More to come…


  8. Whew! So glad CJ is home and things seem to be on the mend. It will be very satisfying for everything to come together finally and I’ll get to see if my suspicions are correct. I loved the dream sequences and the references to past lifes. This series is very well written and full of all types of emotions…but I do think this last chapter is the most emotional and best you’ve written to date. Thanks so much for sharing your talents with us!


    • Thank you for your continued support and feedback, Stacia. Quite an emotional episode, huh? Next one is in the works 🙂



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