“All packed?” Steve asked Sam as she dropped a duffle bag on the living room floor.
“Yup.” Sam looked around for a moment. “Where’s Cassie? She was here a minute ago.”
“You know how she is,” Steve said, picking up the luggage. “Bathroom, I think.”
Sam opened the front door, letting her father through. She stood watching him as he loaded the rented van.
“You’re doing it again,” said a voice from behind.
Sam jumped, spinning around to face Cassie.
“Don’t do that!”
“He’s not going to disappear if you let him out of your sight for a few minutes,” Cassie said. Since her release from the hospital two days prior, Cassie noticed that Sam kept a sharp eye on her father.
“You don’t know that,” Sam said with a glare. “He only went to dinner that evening.”
Cassie hugged Sam the best she could with one arm in a sling. Sam gladly returned the hug, mindful of Cassie’s shoulder.
“Under normal circumstances, like now, he won’t suddenly go missing,” Cassie said. She let go of Sam before Steve returned.
“It still scares me,” Sam said, turning back to her father. She stood with her arms folded, as if trying to ward off a chill. “I don’t know what I’d do if I lost him.”
Cassie put a hand on Sam’s shoulder, looking out at Steve. “Neither would I.”
They scrambled out of the doorway, not wanting to be caught gawking as Steve headed up the sidewalk.
“There you are,” Steve said as he closed the door. His brow furrowed when he looked at Sam. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Sam replied, turning then walking away.
Steve looked to Cassie for help.
“I’ll tell you when we’re alone,” Cassie said quietly.
Steve shrugged, puzzled. “Okay then. Why don’t you get settled in the van while Sam and I get the last of the luggage.”
Cassie was more than willing to leave the remaining bags to her friends; packing had taken a toll on her shoulder and now she just wanted to rest.
Minutes later Steve locked the front door, having already checked the rest of the house. He and Sam tossed the last of the bags in the back of the van, and then climbed inside.
Having the whole backseat to herself, Sam pulled several books out of her knapsack, wanting to get her studies out of the way so she could enjoy herself without worrying about it.
Steve popped a cassette tape into the unit and backed out of the driveway. Putting the van into gear, he headed toward the closest interstate ramp, heading south for the next week or two.
After several stops to permit Cassie a chance to move around, the trio approached their destination by late afternoon.
Miles from the rental house, Sam started reading a leaflet of the amenities.
“Listen to this,” Sam said, getting the adults’ attention. “The three bedroom house sits on the edge of a creek, has a covered deck off the back and a yard with plenty of wildlife. Oh, and there is a Jacuzzi on the deck as well; a four-seater.”
“Sounds good to me,” Cassie said, thinking of relaxing against the bubble jets.
“The motel maintenance people keep the water level and chemicals in balance at all times,” Sam said. A slow smile crossed her face. “You needn’t worry. I’ll give the two of you plenty of time to be alone in the Jacuzzi.”
A glance passed between Steve and Cassie, both avoiding a smile. Steve cleared his throat. “Sam? Did I mention we’re going to my parent’s house for Thanksgiving?”
Watching the rearview mirror, Steve saw Sam’s eyes pop open wide while she turned pale. Putting down the leaflet, Sam picked up her book and continued reading.
In the front, Cassie carefully leaned over and whispered, “That was mean.”
Steve chuckled. “I’ve found it’s an effective way to get her to drop the subject of our relationship.”
“It’s still mean,” Cassie said, chuckling quietly.
Within the hour, Steve pulled into the motel parking lot.
Looking up from her book, Sam glanced around, seeing the motel for the first time. “Why have we stopped here?”
Steve turned in his seat as he opened the door. “The house is owned by the hotel. I’ll check in here then we’ll head for the house.”
“Oh, okay,” Sam said. She tucked her book back into the knapsack and gathered up the trash from the snacks she had packed.
“How are you doing, Sam?” Cassie said.
“Fine,” Sam said, slightly puzzled by the question.
“No, really. How are you doing? You’ve been fairly quiet since Steve returned.” Cassie had mentioned this to Steve, who had also noticed the change in his daughter.
Sam shrugged. “Okay, I guess. I still have nightmares of Dad not returning. I mean it’s not just this time. I think it has to do with his work in general.” Sam fidgeted slightly, uncomfortable with the subject. She dreaded the next time he would be called out on a mission.
“This was a very unusual situation, Sam. I’ve known your father for a long time. This is the first time he was actually detained and didn’t escape on his own,” Cassie said.
Sam shrugged again, looking out the window at a small fishpond. “He probably didn’t escape because of me, which means he could have been killed.”
“I don’t really think…” Cassie stopped, interrupted by Steve’s return.
Putting the car into drive, Steve did a u-turn in the parking lot, heading out for the street. “I picked up three keys so we don’t have to worry about someone being locked out.”
Sam returned to staring out the window, up at the mountains.
Minutes later they arrived at the house. Sam opened the door and hopped out, grabbing her knapsack before she closed the door. She stood staring at the two-story house with wood siding, and a huge bay window allowing a view into the living room.
“Sam?” Steve said, trying to get his daughter’s attention.
“Sorry Dad.” Sam slung her knapsack over her shoulder, and then grabbed a couple of bags, not wanting Cassie to carry them inside.
“I’ll unlock the door,” Cassie said, carefully navigating the flagstone path leading up to the front porch. Climbing the three stairs carefully, Cassie inserted the key and opened the door.
Stepping inside, Cassie slowly grinned. The front hall opened into a large living room with vaulted ceiling. A large fireplace dominated the wall at the far end of the room. The furniture was cozy looking; an overstuffed couch, a rocking chair, and a lounger. An end table sat between the rocker and the lounger while the couch was flanked with wooden tables and a coffee table in front. Sitting on one of the couch end tables was a lamp in the shape of a chicken. Cassie chuckled slightly at the sight of it. “That’s one ugly lamp.”
Sam bound up the steps and entered the house, standing behind Cassie. “Whoa.” She looked up to the overhead loft, which connects the two upstairs bedrooms.
“Hey, how about moving a little further inside,” Steve said, trying to wedge in the front door.
Sam and Cassie stepped into the living room, allowing Steve inside.
“It’s huge,” Cassie said, wandering into the attached dining room.
“Sure is,” Steve said, “but I figured we could use the space.”
Sam had dropped the bags near the couch then wandered to the kitchen. Spotting a few rabbits grazing in the back yard, Sam quietly stepped out onto the back porch. Leaning against the rail, she watched the wildlife for several minutes before heading back inside to help unpack.
“Hey Dad! There’s a stream out back,” Sam said. “Think there’s any fish in it?”
“Maybe,” Steve said. “We’ll have to get a fishing license.”
“What do you think you’re doing?” Steve said to Cassie, quickly taking the suitcase from her.
“I’m not an invalid,” Cassie insisted.
“I know you’re not, but the doctor said for you to take it easy,” Steve replied. He carried her bags into the master bedroom. “You’ve got the downstairs bedroom. Sam and I will fight over the rooms upstairs.”
Upon hearing her father’s comment, Sam bolted out of the kitchen, around the corner and up the stairs. She quickly checked out both rooms, selecting the small one at the top of the stairs.
“I’ve got dibs on this room,” Sam yelled down to Steve.
“You snooze, you lose, 34,” Cassie teased her Blue Eyes.
Steve’s lopsided grin appeared. “I’m not about to argue,” he said.
Cassie leaned in close to Steve. “We need to talk later while Sam is out of earshot,” she whispered.
Steve gave Cassie a puzzled look, starting to say something but was hushed by Cassie when held a finger over his lips. “Later,” she insisted.
Steve grabbed his bags, heading upstairs. He couldn’t figure out what Cassie wanted to discuss, but figured it had to do with Sam’s recent behavior.
He poked his head into Sam’s room. “Not bad,” he said, glancing at the queen size bed.
“Not bad at all,” Sam said. “It’s small, but cozy. I can open the window and listen to the stream.”
“It’s a little cool at night, so you might want to reconsider,” he said.
Leaving Sam to finish unpacking, he wandered down the hall to the second bedroom, which contained two single beds, pushed together for one bed. He chuckled knowing it as Sam’s doing since the pictures clearly showed this room had two beds. After unpacking, Steve wandered downstairs to help Cassie finish unpacking.
“It’s a good thing you’re still mending or I’d put you upstairs,” Steve said, spotting the king sized bed.
“Oh? You would do that?” Cassie said, raising an eyebrow in Steve’s direction.
“Yeah. Your feet won’t hang off the end of the bed,” he teased.
“Are you implying I’m short?” Cassie said, advancing on Steve.
“Short? No. Just shorter than me, that’s all,” he said, taking a step backward, finding his way blocked by the wall.
Cassie took one last step forward, pinning Steve against the wall. “Let me make one thing perfectly clear. I’m just the right height. You’re too tall. Maybe we can have Rudy take six inches or so off your height…”
“I don’t think so,” Steve said. He planted a quick kiss on the top of Cassie’s head, and then sidestepped out of the room, running into Sam.
“You weren’t eavesdropping, were you?” Steve said, chuckling.
“Me? Not me,” Sam said, shaking her head vigorously. “I wouldn’t eavesdrop.”
Leaving Cassie to unpack her personal belongings, Steve took Sam by the shoulders, guiding her into the living room. “Sit.”
“What’s up?” Sam said.
“I should be asking you that,” Steve said.
Sam stood and walked away. “I’m fine.” She headed out the back door out onto the porch steps.
Back in the living room, Steve sat shaking his head. Cassie entered a moment later. “Where’s Sam?”
“Outside,” Steve said. “I tried to talk with her.”
“What did you say?”
“She asked me what’s up and I said I’d should ask that of her,” Steve explained.
“You really need to work on your communication skills 34,” Cassie said. “Let’s worry about it later. Give Sam a chance to relax. Maybe she’ll be willing to talk in a few days,” Cassie said.
“You said you wanted to talk to me about something?” Steve said.
“Yeah, it’s about Sam. Like I said, we’ll talk later,” Cassie said. “I’m hungry. What’s our option for dinner?”
After a wonderful dinner at a local restaurant, the trio retired to the house for the evening. They all sat snuggling on the couch, Steve in the middle, Sam on the right, and Cassie on the left. The fireplace crackled, warming the room and giving off a gentle glow. The movie was just about over when Sam fell asleep, snuggled into Steve’s arm. After the movie ended, Cassie pulled herself off the couch while Steve woke Sam.
“Come on, sleepyhead. Time for bed.”
Sam grumbled something unintelligible, snuggling deeper into Steve’s side.
Not wanting to bring her to full wakefulness, Steve carefully helped Sam off the couch and up the stairs. Since she had changed into a sweat suit earlier, Steve helped Sam into bed, pulling the covers up to her shoulders. He leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. “Good night sweetie.” Steve left the room, closing the door quietly. He turned on a small lamp sitting on a table in the hallway.
Steve headed for his bedroom, quickly changing into a red bathing suit. Grabbing a towel from the bathroom, he headed downstairs and out the door to the hot tub. After placing the towel on the rail, he removed the hot tub cover, turned on the jets and climbed into it, sitting on the lowest level. He leaned back against the headrest, closing his eyes, enjoying the water.
Steve opened his eyes as he heard the French door open. As Cassie stepped out onto the deck, a slow grin played across Steve’s face.
Cassie closed the door then struck a sensual pose. “You like?”
“Very much,” Steve said, ogling his partner. She wore a skimpy purple two-piece bathing suit that shimmered in the light. Cassie had pulled back her hair so it wouldn’t get wet. “I’ll rate you a nine out of ten.”
Cassie dropped the pose, placing one hand on her hip. “What do you mean a nine?”
Steve chuckled. “I would have given you a ten, but the sling and bandage on your shoulder detracts from the overall presentation.”
Cassie rolled her eyes. “Oh sure. Use my battle wound against me. Just remember I got it while saving your butt.”
Steve stood, climbing out of the hot tub. Standing in front of Cassie he said, “I remember.” He bent over and gave Cassie a friendly, but lingering, kiss on the lips. When he pulled away, he saw Cassie blushing. “I had never properly thanked you.”
The kiss sent pleasant chills down Cassie’s spine. Looking up into Steve’s face, she noticed his lopsided grin. “You enjoy torturing me, don’t you?”
Cassie sighed, “Well, as torture goes I think I can survive your brand.” A slight breeze sent a chill through Cassie. “Shall we?” she said, motioning toward the hot tub.
Steve helped Cassie into the warm, soothing water, helping her sit on the highest ledge so the bandage would stay dry. Steve helped remove the sling, and then placed a towel over her shoulder’s to keep them warm. He draped the remainder of the towel on the outside of the tub so it would stay dry.
Steve slipped back into the warm water, sitting across from Cassie. “Feels good, doesn’t it?”
“Oh yes,” Cassie said, sinking as low as possible while keeping her shoulder dry. “In another week I’ll be able to submerge completely.”
They sat quietly for several moments, listening to the flowing stream and hooting of nearby owls. Cassie broke the silence when she noticed Steve grinning at her with a devilish gleam in his eye.
“A penny for your thoughts, 34?”
“I was just thinking that if we weren’t just good friends, I could have what you call a bathing suit off in mere seconds,” Steve said.
“Is that right?” Cassie said. “I’ll have you know that if we weren’t just good friends it would take me less time to get that skimpy suit off of you.”
Steve shifted to the other side of the hot tub, as close to Cassie as possible. Looking up at her, “You’re right. It’s a good thing we’re just good friends…”
Cassie started to reply when they heard a blood-curling scream coming from upstairs.
“It’s Sam,” Steve said as he bolted from the hot tub, heading inside, leaving Cassie sitting in the hot tub.
Forgetting the soles of his feet tend to be slippery when wet, Steve came close to hitting the floor upon entering the house. Catching the edge of the refrigerator, he steadied himself then carefully exited the stairs.
He took the stairs two by two, arriving at Sam’s door in mere seconds. The screaming had subsided to whimpers and sobs. Entering the room, he saw Sam lying on her side, hugging her pillow.
Steve sat on the edge of the bed, stroking Sam’s hair. “Shh, it’s okay, I’m here.” With a little coaxing, Steve managed to get Sam to sit up so he could hold her, rocking her gently, trying to calm her.
Several minutes passed before Steve spoke. “Sam? Do you want to talk about it?”
Still sniffling slightly, “I dreamed you had died. It was so vivid. You had gone on a mission and was sent back in pieces.”
Steve shivered at the thought. “It was just a dream. I’m here and in one piece.”
“It was so real. You had been gone for only a couple of days. A large package was delivered to the house. It was you. They had mailed you to the house.” Sam began crying once again, unable to control herself.
Steve was horrified, but knew it was Sam’s subconscious trying to deal with recent events and doing a lousy job at it. He continued to rock Sam, talking to her in a soothing tone. Steve heard the downstairs door open then close and moments later, Cassie climbing the stairs.
Cassie peeked into the room, taking in the scene. She leaned against the doorway, trying to get Steve’s attention without speaking.
A moment later, Steve looked over to Cassie.
“Can I get you anything?” Cassie asked quietly.
“A damp wash cloth would help,” Steve replied just as quiet. Turning his attention back to Sam, “Calm down, you’ll make yourself sick.” He continued to rock Sam as the cries turned into sobs.
Cassie returned with the washcloth, handing it to Steve. “Anything else?”
“Not yet. Thanks.”
Cassie stepped out of the room, walking to Steve’s room instead of heading back downstairs. Climbing the stairs had started her shoulder throbbing. She sat on the edge of the bed, eavesdropping on the father and daughter.
Steve used his free arm to gather some pillows and prop them against the headboard. He then gently urged Sam to lie back on the pillows.
She reluctantly pulled away, not wanting to give up the security of her father.
Steve dabbed Sam’s forehead with the washcloth, continuing to talk soothingly to her. He wiped her tears with the washcloth. “Feel any better?”
“Not really,” she sniffed. The images of the dream wouldn’t go away no matter what she did.
Steve reached over and turned off the overhead light, letting the hallway light filter into the room. He pulled the covers up; covering Sam, then retrieved a spare blanket from the closet. “I know it’s a little chilly outside, but I’m going to crack the window slightly so you can hear the stream. Focus on the sound of the stream. Think about all the fish that’s waiting to be caught.”
Steve seated himself on the edge of the bed once again as Sam turned onto her side, snuggling into the covers. He sat holding her hand until he heard Sam’s breathing slow to an even rhythm.
Slowing rising off the bed, not wanting to disturb her, Steve left the room, leaving the door open. He walked to his room to find Cassie lying on the bed asleep.
He let loose a little chuckle while retrieving a blanket from his closet and placing it over Cassie.
He considered sleeping downstairs on the couch, but he wanted to be close to Sam. Grabbing a sweat suit, he retired to the bathroom for a quick shower and change of clothing.
Returning to his room, Steve slipped into bed on the far side of the room. He lay awake for some time, thinking about Sam’s dream. It took some time for him to shake off the images before he could fall asleep.
As the sun rose over the mountains, Steve awoke as a ray of sunshine hitting him in the face. Shielding his eyes, he opened them and glanced over to Cassie who was still sound asleep.
Steve climbed out of bed, trying not to disturb his sleeping friend. Grabbing his bathrobe, he left the room, closing the door.
He then peeked in on Sam, finding her still asleep as well. The difference between his two favorite girls is that Sam’s bed sheets were twisted in knots while Cassie’s was neat. He quietly pulled the door closed, then headed downstairs.
Steve refrained from putting on the coffee, not wanting to wake anyone with the aroma, at least not until he finished his phone calls.
Taking a seat at the small writing desk, Steve first placed a call to Rudy. He quickly explained the incident from the night before.
“Any suggestions?” Steve finally asked.
“First, let me say that I’m not surprised. She wasn’t sleeping well in your absence. Both Cassie and I would hear her wandering the apartment at night,” Rudy said. Sitting at his desk in the Virginia facility, Rudy quickly scribbled some notes in Sam’s file.
“Any nightmares?” Steve said.
“No. At least I don’t think so.” Rudy started thumbing through his address file, looking for the name of a psychologist he once used with Steve.
“I really don’t know what to do, Rudy. Should I try to talk to her? Should you? I don’t want to make it any worse than it already is.” While waiting for Sam to fall asleep, Steve had tried thinking of what he could do, but never came up with an answer.
“Don’t push her today. If she wants to talk, fine, but don’t push. The best thing you could do today is tire her out. She’ll stand a chance of sleeping tonight. Where are you anyway?” Rudy knew they had gone on vacation, but Oscar had never mentioned their destination.
“The mountains of North Carolina; well, a valley in the mountains. It’s a small tourist town not far from Cherokee,” Steve said. “Hold on a second.” Steve stopped; listening to what he thought was footsteps coming from upstairs. Convinced he was wrong, he returned to the call. “Sorry about that. I thought someone was up.”
“No problem. As I was saying, tire her out. Go out hiking or something. I know Cassie is limited in her activities, but you really do need to get out with Sam.”
“I think I can do that,” Steve said.
“Now as to whether you or I should try talking to her, well, I don’t know. I’m going to consult with a psychologist today. You may remember him, or may not considering your mood at the time. I had him meet with you during your recovery,” Rudy said. During one particular dark time while Steve was between surgeries, Rudy had to call in another doctor to help Steve. Rudy felt he was too close to the situation and needed an outsider’s opinion.
“I vaguely remember him. Aaron, wasn’t it?” Steve’s memories of his recovery, prior to getting on his feet, was hit and miss. Some memories were perfectly clear while others were quite dim.
“After talking to him, should I call you or do you want to call in the morning”
“I’ll call either tonight or in the morning. I’d prefer for Sam to be asleep at the time,” Steve said. “Okay, so today’s assignment is to wear out Sam. I appreciate your help, Rudy. Now I need to give Oscar a quick call. He’s not going to like what I’m going to tell him.”
“You’re not resigning, are you? If so, please tell me so I can head farther south. You have no idea what I go through when you thoroughly tick off Oscar.”
Steve laughed quietly. “No, I’m not resigning.”
“Alright then. I’ll wait for your call.”
Steve said goodbye, hung up the phone for a moment then called Oscar.
“Goldman,” Oscar said, leaning back in his chair, resting his eyes. He had already been at the paperwork for two hours and still had more to complete.
“Hey Oscar, it’s Steve.”
“Steve? Calling already? You just left,” Oscar chuckled.
“Yeah, well, you’re not going to like the reason for my call,” Steve said, trying to slide into the subject.
In Washington, Oscar sat upright in his chair. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong, Oscar. Well, okay, yeah, something is wrong. It’s Sam. She’s not coping very well with everything that happened. Actually, she had one hell of a nightmare last night that even scared me when she shared the details,” Steve said.
“What can I do to help?”
“You’re not going to like it…”
Oscar sat quietly for a moment. “Hey, um, Pal? You’re not thinking… of resigning… are you?”
“The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind, until Rudy asked the same thing. Now that you mention it,” Steve said. He could hear the tension building, “No Oscar, I’m not resigning. Relax, will ya? I have almost a year’s worth of vacation built up. Resigning, no, but I am taking the rest of the year off.” Steve waited for the explosion.
“What? That’s… that’s….”
“Two months and three weeks, Oscar,” Steve finished. “I think you can live without me for that long. I need to get Sam out of Washington and spend time with her,” Steve said. He heard a heavy sigh on the other end of the line.
“What if I really need your help?”
“Call Jamie or reactivate Barney. Contrary to what you may think, you can live without me. You’ve done it before and you can do it again,” Steve said, leaving no room for discussion. “I’ll come back to work in January.”
“Oscar, I’m not giving you a choice. Sorry but I need to do this.”
Oscar sighed, knowing he wasn’t going to win the argument. “Alright, alright, you win… for now. You will return Cassie to us prior to heading to parts unknown?”
“I suppose…” Steve said. “If I have to…”
“Yes. You have to bring her back. Understood?” Oscar knew that Cassie had just as much time built up but didn’t want to loose her for all that time either.
“All right, all right, but you get to tell Cassie she has to go back to work,” Steve said. Hearing noise from upstairs, he cut the call short. Hanging up the phone, he wandered into the kitchen and started the coffee. While toasting a couple of English muffins, he heard Cassie come down the stairs and close her bedroom door. By the time he finished putting breakfast together, Cassie had finished with a shower and changed into shorts and a tee shirt.
“Whom did you call this early in the morning?” she said, carefully sitting in a dining room chair. She had noticed Steve’s phone book sitting on the writing desk and thought it odd that he’d have to look up a number. A quick glance told her he had called Rudy at the Virginia facility; a phone number he would not have memorized.
“Rudy first, then Oscar. Rudy is going to consult with a psychologist today to see how we should handle Sam. He also said that I should tire her out today so she’ll stand a chance of sleeping tonight. I hate to do it, but I think you’ll need to stay here,” Steve said, sounding apologetic.
“Not a problem,” she said. “The ride yesterday did a job on my shoulder. I’ll just relax in the recliner, watch TV or read a book. You need to spend time with Sam.”
“Thanks for understanding.”
“What did you call Oscar about?” Cassie said, starting to nibble on a muffin.
“I told him I’m not going back to work until January.”
Cassie almost choked on the muffin. “You told him? You mean you asked him, right?”
“I told him, leaving no room for discussion. I did, however, promise that I’d bring you back to Washington first,” Steve said, waiting to see how Cassie would react. Thankfully he was sitting on the opposite side of the table.
“You what? You mean you didn’t tell him that I’m taking the rest of the year off too?” Cassie cast an evil glare in Steve’s direction, then gave him a wink.
“Sorry… I’m sure if you pushed, though, you could get the rest of the year off too. Of course, both of us taking the same time off will no doubt start the rumors flying,” Steve said jokingly. Rumors were already flying about the couple and have been for quite some time.
“Let the rumors fly. We know the truth,” Cassie said.
Steve excused himself for a moment, going upstairs to change. Returning to Cassie, he planted a quick kiss on her cheek. “I’ll be back in a few minutes. I’m going over to the motel office to get some tourist information so I can figure out what to do with Sam.”
“Hurry back,” Cassie said. “If you’re not here when she gets up, Sam may panic.”
“I know. I thought about it. Hopefully she’ll sleep for a while longer.” Steve headed out the door, keys in hand.
Cassie returned to her breakfast, all the while looking out the back door, watching the rabbits, chipmunks and squirrels forage for food.
Within a couple of minutes of Steve’s departure, Cassie heard Sam moving about. Moments later, the shower started so she hoped Sam would be busy for a little while longer.
As Cassie poured a second cup of coffee, Sam wandered through the kitchen out onto the deck without saying a word. Cassie looked out seeing Sam sitting on the steps, holding her legs and resting her chin on her knees. Wondering whether she should approach Sam, Cassie’s thoughts were interrupted when Steve entered from the front.
Steve walked into the kitchen and stood behind Cassie. “How long has she been up?”
“Not too long. Sam just went out there a few minutes ago. She didn’t say a word.”
Steve leaned over slightly, resting his chin on Cassie’s shoulder. “I really don’t want to take you back to Washington. You’re good for both of us.”
“Thanks for saying it. I feel comfortable around you both. I wonder how much of an argument I’d get if I wanted to take time off as well,” Cassie said. Since Steve said he was taking the rest of the year off, the idea of going back to work looked less appealing to Cassie.
Steve stood and turned Cassie to face him. “Should you decided to take the time off, you be sure to tell Oscar that I did not twist your arm.”
“No problem, 34,” Cassie said. “I’ll make sure I tell him you threatened to drop me in the middle of the Cherokee forest without a compass or map.”
“Oh fine,” Steve said, chuckling. He planted a kiss on her forehead, then headed outside.
Steve sat on the stair next to Sam, looking out at the stream. Several minutes passed before Sam leaned against her father. Steve placed an arm around her shoulder, giving her a comforting hug.
“Feel any better this morning?”
“Did you sleep any?” Steve suspected she had a rough night from the dark circles under her eyes.
“On and off,” Sam said.
“What would you like to do today?”
Steve stayed quiet, waiting to see if Sam would finally answer. If became apparent she wasn’t going to say another word, so he broke the good news. “I’m not going back to work until January.”
“Really?” Sam said in a flat tone.
“I talked to Oscar this morning. When we leave here, we’ll go back to Washington long enough to drop Cassie at her apartment and then leave.”
“Where will we go?” Sam said.
“I haven’t decided yet. California maybe. I haven’t been back to the ranch for a while and I think it would be good for both of us,” Steve said. He planned on speaking with his parents in advance; asking them to stay away until he felt Sam was ready to meet them.
Sam fell silent, stiffening slightly. The thought of meeting new people terrified her, family or not.
“I know what you’re thinking, Sam. You don’t have to meet the family yet. We can spend time alone. Do you like horses?”
Sam shrugged. “Never been around them.”
“I’ve got two horses, Thunder and Lightening. I think you’ll like them. Despite their names, they are very gentle,” Steve said. “I’ll teach you to ride and to take care of them. There’s also a lake on the property with lots of fish and plenty of room to camp.” Remembering the skills Sam demonstrated during one of the tests at the lab, he figured she might like to try camping since she seemed interested in the assignment.
“You need to get out for a while today; get your mind on something else. How about if we go and explore Waynesville? It’s the city we passed on the way into the valley,” Steve said. From the information he received at the motel registration desk, he found there to be plenty of places in the old fashioned city that may be of interest to Sam.
“Do you think they have any hobby stores?” Sam asked, brightening slightly.
“A couple of them. I already checked. The downtown area is like a town out of the 1950’s. The storefronts are old looking and close together. We’ll be able to walk through the area,” Steve said.
“What about Cassie?”
“Cassie said she’s going to stay here today and wants the two of us to get out for a while so she can read her book in peace and quiet,” Steve chuckled. “Actually, the ride down here yesterday irritated her shoulder so she wants to take it easy today so she can go out and about with us tomorrow.”
“I feel bad leaving her behind…”
“Don’t. Cassie will quickly kick you out the door if she has to do so. You don’t mess with her,” Steve chuckled. Looking down at Sam. “Hey, is that a smile? Do I see a smile on your face?”
Sam grinned slightly, not responding.
“I thought so. Have you eaten breakfast yet?”
“Let’s get Cassie and go over to Joey’s Pancake House for breakfast. I’ve been told they make the best pancakes in Eastern North Carolina,” Steve said. Without waiting for an answer, he urge Sam to stand and guided her into the house.
Once Cassie changed into pants and a long sleeve shirt, they headed over to get some breakfast. Both Steve and Cassie urged Sam to eat, finally relenting when she had finished half of the breakfast. “It is a lot of food,” Cassie said, realizing she wouldn’t be able to finish her own breakfast. The admission was to make Sam feel better, but the truth was the English muffin and coffee had helped satisfy her hunger.
After a filling breakfast, Steve dropped Cassie back at the house then headed toward Waynesville with Sam sitting quietly, looking out the window. Steve wanted to talk to Sam about her dream but heeded Rudy’s advice.
Finding a parking spot in a lot near a hobby store, Steve and Sam took out a map and placed it on the hood of the van. Within minutes they had plotted their course, ending the day at the nearby hobby store. Heading toward Main Street, they started their day of exploration. As the day wore on, Sam’s spirit lifted, which pleased Steve immensely.
Cassie took advantage of the quiet to call Oscar. Having expected her call, Oscar tried to put his foot down on Cassie’s request. By the time she finished the call, he had not only given her the time off but had also wished her to have a good time and feel free to call if she needed anything from him.
She was still chuckling as she headed for the living room. Settling into the lounge chair, Cassie grabbed the remote control and turned on the TV. Finding a channel to generate background noise, she picked up her book and started to read. A short while later, she fell asleep in the chair.
Steve and Sam headed toward the van as the sun began to set over the Smokey Mountains. They enjoyed the day, doing a bit of shopping along the way. Sam found a bookstore where they spent a good amount of time browsing the shelves. Once finished, Steve made sure they spent a good amount of time walking through the shops, hoping to tire Sam.
By the time they approached the van Sam was drooping slightly.
“Do you want to pass on the hobby store? We can come back another time,” Steve suggested, knowing the answer.
“No way,” Sam said, depositing her shopping bags into the back of the van.
“I didn’t think so,” Steve said, chuckling.
They spent the next hour browsing through the shop. Sam found a small model to work on during the evening. She had put together a small kit prior to leaving Washington in hopes of finding a store.
As Steve paid, Sam grabbed the bags and waited. “We better get back,” Steve said. “I’m sure Cassie is starving by now.”
“I’m a little hungry too,” Sam said. As if on cue, her stomach rumbled.
By mid-evening Sam was ready to fall asleep on the couch. Steve urged her to head upstairs and get ready for bed. Although Sam didn’t want to go to bed, afraid of having another dream, she complied with her father’s wish.
Within an hour Sam was sound asleep, dreaming of model airplanes.
After waiting another hour, Steve and Cassie changed into their suits and headed for the hot tub. Cassie seated herself in the same spot as the night before while Steve slid close to her, snuggling close.
Once settled, Steve looked up to Cassie and said, “Now where were we?”
Steve woke early with the sun in his eyes once again. He shifted slightly on his empty bed, then laced his fingers together and placed them behind his head. His mind drifted to the previous evening, cuddling with Cassie in the hot tub. They talked of their earlier years together and how their friendship grew to the point that people wondered are they or aren't they. A smile played upon Steve's face, remembering the times Oscar tried to get an answer out of either one of them, failing on each attempt.
As midnight approached, they had both decided it was time for bed. Steve helped Cassie out of the hot tub then put the cover back in position. Once inside they said goodnight, Steve heading up to his room while Cassie went to hers.
Lying in bed alone, Steve now wished she would at least sleep in the same room. Although nothing had happened the night before, he enjoyed waking to find her in his bed. He contemplated asking her about it, but was afraid of ruining their friendship.
After a while he decided to get up, needing to call Rudy before Sam woke. Having taken a quick shower before bed, Steve simply threw on a pair of jeans and a clean tee shirt. Padding into the bathroom, he ran a comb through his hair, all the while staring at his image, thinking that he wasn't getting any younger.
Cassie lay awake in her bed, staring at the ceiling. 'What is happening?' she asked herself. She and Steve had been friends for a long time, having enjoyed each other's company without any strings attached but now something was different. She felt different in his company and missed him when he left her presence.
She considered talking to him about her newfound feelings; choosing not to since she didn't want to risk their friendship. A moment later she heard Steve walk past her bedroom door, heading for the living room, knowing he had to call Rudy. Once her shoulder began to ache, Cassie decided to sit up and read a book, giving Steve sufficient time for his phone call.
"Wells," said the voice on the phone.
"Hey Rudy," Steve said. He managed to stretch the phone cord to the couch, allowing him to sit comfortably during the call.
"I had figured you'd call last night," Rudy said.
"Well, I was a little busy," Steve said in a light hearted tone.
"With anyone I know?" Rudy knew better to ask about the relationship between his two friends, however he enjoyed teasing them about it.
"As a matter of fact, yes." Changing the topic, "So did you talk to Aaron yesterday?"
"Yes I did. I filled him in on Sam's family background, as well as the current situation. He asked if Sam appeared to be well adjusted and seemed surprised when I said yet. I told him that she has her quirks, but so does every other teenager. In regards to the dream, I'm afraid he wasn't much help," Rudy said, sounding slightly disappointed.
"Why not?" Steve felt this was a situation only he alone could handle, but he at least wanted some guidance.
"Sam's subconscious is the problem. She is extremely intelligent and at night her subconscious begins a problem solving routine, going over situations that arose during the day. I learned of this while she was at the lab," Rudy said. It had taken him a while, but he started to notice that if Sam got into a situation she couldn't handle, by the next day she would have a solution. Rudy put his theory to the test with a series of complicated tasks. The results the following morning was always correct. When asked about it, Sam said she would dream the answers.
"I wouldn't call the nightmare an attempt at problem solving," Steve commented.
"Neither did Aaron. Dreams are generally a way for the brain to release the stress from the prior day. With some people, dreams are simply playtime. With others, like Sam, dreams are used for problem solving. The trouble is that Sam's brain appears not to be capable of putting a situation into perspective. So instead of learning how to deal with the dangers of your job, the brain produced a nightmare of horrific proportions." Rudy had spent the prior evening reading up on brain function and the dream state. He quickly learned, from what he knew of Sam, that she was in a difference class.
"So Aaron didn't have any suggestions?" Steve said, disappointed.
"Not really. He said for you to continue giving her support, like you have been, and being patient. When she's ready to talk, she will. I think your taking an extended vacation will do her a world of good. Where are you going?"
"Home. California. I've already promised her that she needn't meet my family until she's ready. Sam's okay with it," Steve said. Chuckling, "So did you catch grief about my vacation?" Steve could imagine Rudy rolling his eyes.
"Of course I did," Rudy said. "Then I got it again when Cassie decided to take the time off as well."
"What?" Steve said, surprised.
"Oh. Um... she hadn't told you about that yet?" Rudy said hesitantly.
"No, she hadn't mentioned taking additional vacation time."
"Well, the cat's out of the bag. Yeah, she called Oscar yesterday afternoon and had an hour-long conversation with him. By the time they finished, Oscar had agreed to her taking time off until January and that he won't be calling you unless the world was about to end, at which time he'd be calling to say good-bye." Rudy had been stunned by the revelation. He had yet to figure out the power Cassie held over Oscar but definitely admired her for it. "Did Sam sleep through the night?"
"I think she did. If not, it wasn't because of nightmares. She's still in bed for that matter," Steve said. He went on to explain their trip into the city and all the places they visited.
"I suppose there was a hobby shop somewhere in the trip?" Rudy said.
"Hobby shop and book store," Steve said.
The two men continued to talk for a few minutes longer until Steve heard Sam moving about upstairs. He said goodbye, promising to stay in touch, then hung up the phone. Steve wandered into the kitchen, preparing breakfast.
By mid-morning, everyone was up and moving. Sam joined Cassie and her father at the dining room table after raiding the kitchen for her breakfast.
“Sleep any better?” Steve asked. He hadn’t heard any noise coming from Sam’s room during the night, so he hoped it was a good sign.
Sam shrugged. “I guess.”
“You guess?” Cassie said, raising an eyebrow at Sam.
“My dreams are still waking me, but they are nothing like the one the night before,” Sam said. Having finished slicing the pancakes and drenching them in syrup, she started to eat, hoping to avoid any further questions.
“More coffee?” Steve asked, taking the empty cup from Cassie.
“Please,” she said. A moment later, Steve placed a full cup of coffee, black, in front of Cassie. “Thanks.”
Steve returned to his seat, taking a sip of the hot beverage. “Any thoughts on what to do today?”
“I’d like to stay here today,” Sam said. She wanted a chance to just sit and relax, possibly start on her model and try out the hot tub.
“Not a problem,” Cassie said.
“Sounds good to me,” Steve said. “I’ll head up to a department story, pick up three fishing rods, fishing necessities and license. We’ll be set to fish whenever we want.”
“Sitting on a boulder, next to the creek, fishing rod in one hand, a beer in the other. Sounds good to me,” Cassie said.
“No beer. You’re still taking medicine for your shoulder,” Steve said, giving her a stern look. “Coke or Pepsi.”
Cassie pouted. “Alright then, make it a Pepsi.”
Steve looked to Sam, trying to determine if his daughter were listening to the conversation or was off in her own world. It appeared to him that the latter was true.
Sam looked up at her father. “Yes?”
Turning his attention to Cassie, “I believe Cassie has something to tell us. Don’t you Cassie?”
Cassie gave him a puzzled look, and then realized Rudy may have mentioned her vacation. “Oh, yeah, I forgot to tell you. While you were gone yesterday, I called and had a long talk with Oscar. I’ll be on vacation until January.”
Sam brightened at the news. “Really?”
Cassie nodded. “Work would be too boring without your father around so I didn’t see any reason to go back anytime soon.”
Sam smiled for the first time since their arrival. “Dad?”
Steve was already ahead of Sam. “Cassie, we’d both like you to join us in California, if you think you can put up with us.”
“I don’t know. Sam’s not a problem, but you? Well, I suppose so. Someone needs to keep you in line and I doubt Sam can handle the task by herself,” Cassie said. Although she knew Steve would invite her, Cassie’s heart leapt for joy at the invitation.
“Great. You do realize you’ll have to fend off my parents,” Steve said teasingly.
Cassie explained for Sam’s benefit. “Helen, Steve’s Mom, is forever trying to get him married. I think it’s her life’s work to be sure her son settles down to live a normal life.”
“What’s normal?” Sam asked. “One person’s normal is another person’s insanity.”
A glance passed between Cassie and Steve. “I’ll bite,” Steve said. “What makes you say that?”
Sam shrugged. “Think about it. Our language has been defined by people of ages ago. Suppose the person who defined the word ‘normal’ was a raving lunatic?”
“Good point,” Cassie said.
“Normal, for my Mom, is for me to settle down on my ranch, get married and work at the closest Air Force Base in a regular 9 to 5 job,” Steve explained. “What she doesn’t understand is job or not, my life will never be normal, and I’m not referring to my bionics either.”
“You’ve been to the moon,” Sam said. “How could you ever live a normal life after that experience?”
Steve stared at Sam in disbelief. He has always had to explain himself yet Sam picked up the reason in mere seconds.
“Once you meet Helen, I think you need to explain this to her. Steve’s tried until he’s blue in the face and has yet to succeed,” Cassie said to Sam. She was amused by the look on Steve’s face.
Finishing her breakfast, Sam excused herself, taking her dishes into the kitchen. After loading them in the dishwasher, she headed upstairs to retrieve her model supplies.
By the time Steve was ready to leave the house, Sam bounded down the stairs, arms loaded with materials. Stopping on the landing, “Dad, could you pick up a small dictionary for me?”
“Sure thing,” Steve said, heading out the door.
“Got one,” Steve announced, snapping the rod back as the trout exploded out of the water. He expertly reeled in the fish, holding it up for Cassie to see.
“Nice,” she said. “Five pounder?”
“Feels like it,” Steve said. After dislodging the hook from the fish, he tossed it in the cooler. Glancing back over his shoulder, he spotted Sam stalking a rabbit, camera in hand.
Cassie followed his gaze. “Looks like she’s finally starting to relax.”
Returning his attention to the pole, “Thankfully. I had no clue how traumatic the situation was for her.” Affixing the bait to the pole, he cast into the stream once again.
“She was beside herself while you were gone,” Cassie said. “Nothing Rudy or I could do would calm her. She even endured Oscar’s presence when she didn’t have to do so.” Feeling a slight tug on the pole, Cassie popped it back with her good arm and started reeling in the fish. Steve waited patiently, giving Cassie the chance to land the fish itself.
Cassie held up the fish. “Looks like mine is bigger than yours,” she teased.
“It’s not the size that counts,” he teased. “Looks like six or seven pounds.” Steve dislodged the hook and placed the fish in the cooler with the others. “Want to try again?”
Steve baited the hook then cast, hanging the pole back to Cassie. “Want another drink?”
Steve popped open the other cooler, pulling out two cans. Opening them, he handed one to Cassie.
For the next hour, they continued fishing, only catching another two trout. When they packed it in for the day, Steve spotted Sam sitting on the ground, near the house, watching the rabbit as it grazed. He smiled at the sight, knowing it took a great deal of patience for her to get so close.
Cassie headed inside to start dinner preparations while Steve set about cleaning the fish.
The following days were quiet and enjoyable. The trio stayed close to the house, venturing out occasionally for a meal or some gift shopping.
By the end of the week, Cassie was ready to get rid of the sling. She located a nearby doctor, filling him in on the situation. Once he made a call to her physician in Washington, he agreed to treat her.
Within the hour Cassie was free of her stitches and the sling. Still a little sore, Cassie knew should would have to endure the discomfort to get it back into shape.
“A nice, long soak in the hot tub tonight will help,” she commented.
In the backseat, Sam sat smiling, knowing they had been spending a good amount of time in the hot tub when they thought she was asleep.
“If you want me to, I’ll massage the shoulder afterward,” Steve offered.
“Sounds good to me,” Cassie said, smiling inwardly.
Steve glanced in the rear view mirror and caught Sam glancing out the window, grinning ear to ear. “Just what are you grinning about young lady?”
“Nothing,” Sam said, trying to suppress her grin. “Nothing at all.”
After an elegant meal at a local restaurant, the trio engaged in several games of Scrabble with Sam winning every game.
“I didn’t know we’d be playing with a walking dictionary,” Cassie commented. She swept the tiles toward the edge of the table, then carefully into the bag.
“Neither did I,” Steve said, casting a glance in Sam’s direction. “I think we should have a handicap the next time we play.” He placed the board into the box, along with the trays.
Cassie dropped the bag of tiles into the box, then the score pads. “Or you and I should play against Sam.”
Sam placed the lid on the box, smiling. “Either way you want to play is fine by me. Do you think a handicap of 100 will help?”
The dictionary sailed through the air, narrowly missing Sam, having dodged to the right. Picking up the book, she returned it to the table. “Sore loser, Dad?” she teased.
Sam dashed out of the room and up the stairs with Steve in pursuit. Seconds later Cassie heard peels of laughter floating down the staircase, followed by a loud ‘UNCLE!’
A moment later Sam leaned over the railing, yelling down to Cassie. “Goodnight Cassie. My Dad says to get your suit on and meet him outside. Have fun in the hot tub!”
Sam headed to the bathroom and prepared for bed.
“What’s happening between us?” Cassie said before taking a sip of wine. She and Steve had been soaking in the hot tub in silence for almost a half hour, snuggling.
“What?” Cassie said, giving Steve a puzzled look.
“Sam is happening between us,” he said. Steve continued to stare at the foam generated by the jets.
“I don’t understand.”
Steve finally looked at Cassie. “Prior to Sam’s arrival, we both did our own thing, spending time with each other without commitment, keeping our friendship platonic. I know that Sam has made me realize there is more to life than what I’ve had.”
Cassie sat quietly, thinking. She hadn’t thought that Sam was causing the change between she and Steve, but now that he vocalized it, Cassie believed it to be true.
“She does bring out the best of us,” Cassie commented. “She’s made me realize that family is just as important as friends.”
Steve nodded. “When I was in that cell, I could only think of Sam, no offense.”
“I knew I couldn’t do anything foolish. If I did, I could have been killed which would leave Sam without family again. It was at that point I realized my life had changed forever. I now have someone else to care for, someone who needs me. It wasn’t until I realized I would be killed that I decided to escape.”
“I didn’t know what Sam or I would have done if something happened to you,” Cassie confessed. “When we got the break and found the hide out, I knew I would be the one leading the team. I don’t think there was any question that I would leave the rescue team. I had to find you.” Cassie snuggled closer to Steve, resting her head on his shoulder.
Silence fell between them once again, both afraid to say what’s on their minds.
Steve finally turned to face Cassie. “How do you feel about the change taking place? It scares me, but not in the way that I’d run away.” He searched Cassie’s face for a hint; all he saw was the look of deep thought.
Minutes passed before she answered. “I must admit that I’m scared too, yet intrigued. Let’s face it; we’ve known each other a long time. We’ve only stayed friends because that’s what we were comfortable with at the time. Although we’ve teased about it in the past, neither one of us has said we’d never take the next step.”
Steve nodded. “I’ve had similar thoughts.” Steve leaned back against the hot tub, allowing Cassie to resume snuggling into his shoulder.
“Sam is forever dropping hints about us. Do you think she’s seen something we didn’t?” Cassie said.
“Sam has her quirks, especially when it comes to meeting new people. She was comfortable with me after our first meeting. I never really noticed that she took to you instantly,” Steve said. “I guess I expected her to get along with you because you’re my friend.”
“Oscar’s your friend too and she’s never taken to him,” Cassie commented.
“Exactly. Thinking about it now, Sam should have had the same reaction with you at first, but she didn’t. I think that once she got to know you, Sam did see something between us, something we never pursued.”
“A 14 year old matchmaker,” Cassie chuckled. “She may succeed where your Mom has failed all these years.”
Steve grinned. “Sam the Matchmaker. Not exactly what I would have expected from her.”
“So where do we go from here?” Cassie said, venturing into unknown territory.
Steve sighed. “Well, we didn’t become friends overnight. Why don’t we just let nature take its course?”
“Sounds good to me,” Cassie purred. After another half hour of sitting quietly, she looked up at Steve. “Now, about that massage?”
The week passed swiftly. The trio spent most of their time fishing, hiking and shopping. By Friday, Steve suggested they pack as much as they could and get the placed cleaned up so they could have Friday evening to relax.
As the sun started to sink behind the mountains, they donned their jackets and headed out the door.
"Are you two sure you want to walk?" Steve asked as they headed up the inclined driveway.
"It's only a mile," Cassie said.
"Yeah Dad, it's not that far," Sam added. She jogged ahead slightly, giving the adults a little privacy. Sam had noticed a change between Cassie and her Dad, so she decided to help them along when possible.
A short way down the road, Sam discretely looked back at the couple, pleased to see them walking hand in hand.
As the evening progressed, Sam headed for bed early. "Night Dad, Cassie," she said, heading up the stairs.
Cassie case Steve a quizzical look. "It's only 10PM..."
"On our last night here," Steve said. "Sam's on to us."
"Then let's not disappoint her," Cassie teased.
They bolted off the couch to their respective bedrooms, donning their swimming suits. Within minutes they were comfortably seated in the hot tub, enjoying the cool breeze that swept across the deck.
"I'm going to miss this," Cassie said, snuggling closer to Steve.
"Miss what? Me or the hot tub?"
Cassie glanced up at Steve, spotting the lopsided grin. "The hot tub, silly. I know where to find you."
Their eyes locked, both not sure what to do next. A moment later, they leaned closer and shared a long passionate kiss. When they finally broke Cassie purred, "Care to share my bed with me tonight?"
Steve's eyes sparkled. "Most definitely."