I’m not dead. Camille pulled hard against the sensation of being pulled back.  Pulled to what, in her state, she did not know, but nonetheless she instinctively knew that the her present brand of pleasant, bland nothingness, with a soothing soundtrack, was better choice to whatever she had left in her previous existence.  Her annoyance seemed to engulf her when she felt the burning pain rush up her arms, something was making her feel again and she felt herself hurtling toward The Voices.  Sometimes she could catch the impression of people intruding into her solitude, the place where only The Music existed. Every time before she was able to push them away, burrow deeper into her quiet place.  Her mind was still whole enough to make the connection that the burning in her arm seemed to make the quiet haven unattainable. Something about sound seemed fuzzy, or far away, through a solid wall of cotton balls but she could still make out a voice somewhere above her.

  “Her vitals are within range.  I just gave her something that should help her come out of it.”

  “Jake, I think she is waking up, her eyes are fluttering.” She definitely did not care for that voice.

  “Camille, honey, squeeze my hand, if you can hear me?” Something about this other voice made her want to smile; its timbre prompted her to try to manage what it was asking her to do. She didn’t know if she had quite managed it but she felt excited movement around her before a wave of exhaustion took her under.

  Mal was right by Camille’s side and suddenly clasped her hand in between his and brought them to his lips, “Bonner, she squeezed my hand. It was slight, but she definitely squeezed my hand.” Malcolm brought his attention back to her, and then he leaned over her, his face just a whisper’s breath away from her’s, ready to coax Camille into full wakefulness.

  Jacob interrupted Mal from his efforts. “That is a good sign.  Now it’s important for us to let her rest.”  Dr. Bonner caught the eye of the nurse and quietly gave her instructions regarding the monitoring of Camille’s condition.  They were at The Pride and although monitoring of Camille’s condition could be done with more efficiency in a hospital, monitoring her at a private residence, not matter how many state-of-the-art machines Carrick had handy, was still tricky, that was part of the reason that he decided to go with everyone to The Pride, but he also had a few other private motives.

  “Mal, let’s leave so that Jacob can get her comfortable.” Jake threw Carrick a relieved look he watched the other man stand and try to stretch out the various kinks that resulted from sitting in a chair so long.  Carrick and Mal had been in the room since they had arrived the night before, catching light cat naps, but Mal sat next her while holding her had the entire time.  Jacob was considering drastic methods to dislodge him. The doctor still didn’t have a good idea of how everyone fit with everyone else, but luckily quality medical care didn’t hinge on whether those who cared about the patient had a soap opera quality about them.

  “Carrick, I think I should stay. She might wake up and not know where she is.” Mal responded.

  Carrick looked at Jake and received a subtle nod. “Mal, she is not going to fully wake up anytime soon, and if she does everyone knows to get us immediately.  You need a breather and we have some things to discuss.”  Carr reminded Mal.

  “Carr, I just don’t want her to wake up and feel abandoned.” Unspoken, was the word that everyone seemed to hear, Again.
  Carrick waited for his irritation and jealousy to flare and was mildly surprised when it didn’t.  It was hard not to see where Mal was coming from.  For the past few hours he had been with Mal, in the room, watching for her every regular breath. Even swaddled in bandages, bracketed in every conceivable way Camille looked utterly defenseless. Camille was finally unguarded. Before Carrick could not see past the secrets that were shadowed in her eyes and wanting to protect Malcolm from them.  Now, he saw a young woman, who was alone and needed help. “Mal, if there is even the slightest change in her condition; Jake will make sure we are notified. I promise.  She will not wake up alone.”  Carrick arched he eye at Jacob for confirmation.

  Jacob had been reading the complicated printout that was spewing forth from a nearby machine, but he looked up, “Mal, as soon as anything changes, either I or my nurse will make sure you know about it.  She should be resting comfortably until the morning.  I really don’t expect any changes.”

  Mal stood up from is chair and raised her hand to press a kiss into her palm.  “You are going to be fine lady. Ok?” Mal carefully replaced her arm to her side and stepped away from the bed and walked toward the door to leave.

  Carrick watched Mal as he departed, then turned to the doctor. “Jake, if anything changes, no matter where we are, or what time it is, please come get us. Ok?

  Jacob smiled with reassurance, “Don’t worry, no matter who are monitoring her, everyone has strict orders to find both of you, if anything changes in her condition. Take a breather; make sure Mal gets something to eat. Neither of you will be any help to her if you run yourselves down.”

  When Carrick stepped into the vast hallway, outside Camille’s room, he saw that Malcolm was leaning against the wall, only a few steps from the door. It took Carrick only a moment to reach Mal as he pulled him into his arms and held him tightly.  “Mal, it’s going to be alright.  You’ll see.”

  Carrick stepped back from Mal and squeezed his shoulders. “I’ll do the trip to China.” When Mal was in Florida in the exam room with Camille he had received a call from their offices in China.  It was apparent that some important deals with the country were in jeopardy and he would need to make a trip immediately.  It was pretty apparent that resolving the issue would require at least two weeks and he would have to leave that evening.

  Carrick’s offer was sweet and uncharacteristic, but would cause more problems than it would solve. Mal placed a soft kiss on Carr’s lips.  “The fact that you would even make that offer after all the drama we’ve been through these few weeks is amazing.” Mal pulled Carrick close and then thoroughly kissed him, searching out the sweet spots that he loved so much about Carr’s mouth.  After they pulled apart he continued, “If you went on this trip, you know our Chinese partners would get the wrong idea.  Having the CEO of the company attend these meetings would make them believe that this deal is more important to us than it is.  It would truly screw around with our negotiations and as your number two I can’t have that.   I have to go.  With me attending, you send a clear message that this deal is fairly important to the company, but we are not handing out any advantages.  Also, your Mandarin, Chinese is pretty pathetic, o.” Mal offered with a slight smile.

  “I just don’t want you to be worried about her the entire time you are away.” Carrick soothed, tracing Mal’s jaw with his thumb.

  “I have the man I most trust in the world looking after her. That will make this so much easier.” Malcolm touched Carrick’s hand then threaded their fingers together.  They looked into each other eyes and saw the trust that had always been evident between the two.

  “Sir?” One of the house’s staff interrupted.

  The moment was weighted with the interruption when Malcolm spoke, “Did I mention that for an enormous house, it offers absolutely zero moments of privacy.  This place is crawling with people.” Mal offered Carrick a smile that clearly stated that if they were alone, Carrick could probably expect a bit more than hand holding from his lover.

  “Yes.” Carrick turned, as he responded,-the slight tingle of is arousal adding an unintended bite of his acknowledgement of the staff person.

  “There is a car at the gate, the occupants have identified themselves as the FBI. They are requesting the opportunity to talk to you.” John, a member of the staff that had been a house assistant for years, was too well trained to convey any emotion about the nature of the guests.

  Carrick turned and gave a marginally wide eye look to Malcolm.  “Please show them to the Blue Room. Let them stay there about twenty minutes and then show them to the library. Also, inform all our guests, including Dr. Bonner, to meet Malcolm and I in the library, immediately.”

  “Certainly sir.” The staff person confirmed and quietly let himself into bed suite beside them to begin to perform as instructed.

  Carrick turned back to Malcolm and noticed small changes in him at the news of their guests. Mal was on guard. There was a small furrow in the center of his forehead.  After living a few years with Mal, Carrick instinctively knew that Mal was doing the math-working out all contingencies before they even stepped into the arena.  That is why, even if he wasn’t in love with him, Malcolm would always be a huge part of his organization. Mal’s ability with strategy is second to none.

  Carrick appraised Mal with an arched eye. “Well this certainly promises to be interesting.”

  Carrick and Mal began to walk toward the library, with a score of Carrick’s ancestors watching them, framed on The Pride’s walls.  In what Carrick always considered Malcolm’s “office” voice, Mal provided Carrick with a full scope analysis of the situation. “Initially I think we can be concerned about this visit from the FBI on three fronts…”  Mal made suggestions regarding how the FBI should be handled, knowing full well that Carrick would consider his input and the situation, then make this meeting uniquely his own.

  A few minutes later, Carrick looked at his assembly of friends. Malcolm was beside him.  Behind him was a huge fireplace, richly ornate, mahogany fireplace, big enough to roast a large bison. It was a focal point that easily identified the house. When permission is given to allow architectural magazines to do a piece about the home they always zoom in on that piece of old world ingenuity and craftsmanship. The Pride has always been the crown jewel of all the Caudwell’s considerable holdings.  When there are guests in the house, the staff would usually light the fireplace in the evening so that it could cast a warm glow throughout the large room.
  The house had an office, several in fact, but the main one was an animal wholly unto his mother. She must have paid Laura Ashley a fortune. He was always drawn to the library, funny that it used to be the domain of his father; it was essentially homage to the times where men used to retire, after a sumptuous dinner to smoke and drink.  The expansive space was darkened from years of expertly lit fires, filled with substantial pieces of furniture and books that were as old as the Caudwell name itself.  Somehow it gave Carrick renewed purposed that his forefathers had perused some of the same titles and thumbed their pages.  The cycle will always continue and Carrick’s precision and performance in managing the family’s holdings only assured that the cycle would only grow stronger, not weaker, as the mighty transitions in the world continued.  Who could count the number of strategy meetings and secrets that were buried in the history of the old room?  It only seemed fitting that Carrick would gather his friend    to the vast room to design yet another plan.

    Storm, his best friend, had met them at the house once they arrived from Florida.  He had made sure that all the equipment ordered was set up and ready for Camille when they arrived.  He was standing next to the deep leather chair in which sat his wife, Dr. Lisa Weston.  Julia, Storm’s ex-wife, seemed to be closely studying the volumes of books that lined the far side of the library.  That in itself would not have been too startling, but it seemed like she was trying to put as much physical distance between herself and Dr. Bonner.  Every few minutes, Jake would flick his eyes in her direction, tracking her slow progress around the room. Carrick glittered with amusement.  Note to self: What the hell is that all about? Carrick looked over at Storm, and Storm gave a slight smile-confirming he saw the same interplay as well.

  During their trip to The Pride, Carrick and Malcolm had stuck to the uncomplicated version of why they were helping Camille. She was a friend and she needed their help. Now, Carrick knew that he had to treat everyone to more extended version of the events of the prior weekend. For the FBI, he wanted to make sure everyone had their mask in place and they would back Malcolm and him up.

  “So why do you have us all gathered in the Library, Miss Marple?  I say it’s Miss Scarlet, with a candle stick, in the Billiard Room.” Storm smirked, as he moved toward the beverage tray a pour his wife, and them himself, a glass of juice.

  “Well. now that we know what Storm was really doing on Friday nights in college, he wasn’t releasing young ladies from the bondages of their virginity.  No, he was in his apartment playing Clue and watching Agatha Christie adaptations on Masterpiece Theater.” Julia moved to join Storm at the cart as she playfully razzed him. Unwittingly, her eyes strayed to Jacob and were caught by the intensity of the look he was giving her. So, Carrick what’s going on?” Julia managed to ask, while clearing her throat and taking a sip of water.  All of the sudden she felt a rush of heat; somehow she doubted it had anything to do with the huge fireplace that took over one side of the room, especially since it hadn’t been lit yet.

  Carrick watched as a faint smile pass Jake’s lips, as he noted her reaction to him.

  Storm had a twinkle in his eye that always spelled danger ahead. “Ah! So now I know how you passed Mrs. Charles’ English literature exam, God knows you didn’t read the books. The answer to the conundrum can be found in Public Television. Before this I would swear you thought that Charlie Rose was a flower.” Storm couldn’t hold back his laughter as he walked from the tray and handed his wife her glass.  Then he saw that his lovely wife was giving him the “Evil Eye.”

  Julia thought a warning was in order.  Storm knew she despised dumb blonde jokes. “I am surprised you know there is a channel thirteen.  When we were married you were only familiar with the Playboy channel.  Lisa must have taken on the arduous task of broadening your horizons.”

  “Ouch!” A voice exclaimed that sounded a lot like Malcolm’s.

  “Ok, no blonde jokes,” Storm agreed as he felt the subtle pressure of his wife’s stiletto heel deftly ferret out one of his metatarsals in warning.  Storm’s startling blue eyes positively danced-he couldn’t help himself. “Jules, you are so much more fun when you are getting laid regular. With all the help that Carrick’s got roaming around in this place, I am sure we can find someone to take one for the team.”

  Storm gave a sharp cry as he wife’s heel hit home with an accuracy that U.S. military should definitely look into. “Damn. Lisa!”

  Julia threw a dirty look at Carrick as she addressed Storm.

  “Hey! Don’t look at me I am not any part of this.” Carrick raised his hands in protest as he settled in and enjoyed the show.

  Julia didn’t buy what he was selling for a minute, “You both really make me sick.” Julia voice fairly dripped with venom. Julia could feel Jake’s warm brown eyes nailing her between her shoulder blades as she spoke. She was fluctuating madly between extreme embarrassment and her intent to kill her ex-husband. “Really Storm, you are a bastard.  I don’t know why everyone is so wrapped up in my sex life-seems you lost that privilege several years ago?”

  Storm was contemplating a killer comeback, but his wife’s heel’s attempting to do surgery on his foot, while it was still in his shoe, made him reconsider his need to egg Julia on.  But Julia knew him and saw that he was considering actually responding.  Julia went ice-cold dangerous.  “I swear, if you keep playing with me, I will make what Lorena Bobbitt did to John Wayne look like a paper cut.”

  Every male in the room winced.

  Lisa sighed and shook her head.  After the divorce it had taken them all a long time to find their footing, largely because Storm and Julia were so close.  Everyone involved, trying to find some emotional distance, had been a tricky thing. Now, Storm and Julia’s relationship had turned more into a sibling one.  Unfortunately, they quality was more like teenage siblings. “Okay everyone, can we harness our re-emerging adolescent and discuss why Carrick and Malcolm brought us together?”  It was amazing act of multitasking, Lisa’s calm voice smoothed out everyone’s ruffled feathers, as her serene smile exuded cool calm professionalism, all the while her heel dug into a tender part of Storm’s foot.
  “Honey, the foot?” Storm pressed a kiss to his wife’s temple, simultaneously trying to extricate his foot.

  “Are you going to behave?” Lisa arched an eye at her husband.

  “Do I have a choice?” Storm asked hopefully.

  Storm swore his wife added a little extra pressure before she removed her foot. “You better watch it.  I still haven’t forgotten your little foray into my panty drawer.” Lisa reminded him.

  Carrick couldn’t help it; he felt a smile break though.  He loved each person in the room.  But damn, they were crazy.

  Malcolm casually coughed into his fist as he leaned in next to Carrick.

  Carrick caught the hint. “Okay children, if we can put this episode of the” Beverly Hillbillies” to rest, I need your help and cooperation.”

  That sobered everyone up and within seconds. Carrick and Mal had their friends’ complete attention. “The FBI is currently sitting in my drawing room cooling their heels. I am pretty sure that they will be asking about Camille and it doesn’t take Nostradamus to realize that Camille is in a mess.”

  “Carrick what do you need from us.” Lisa asked, attempting to ignore her husband and his wandering hands.

  Carrick turned to Julia and Storm. “I need you all to follow my lead. I need to figure out a way to provider her some protection, but I need the full story and I need to create leverage with the Feds. Jake and Lisa, I may need support in providing these agents with the basic information regarding Camille’s condition, at least, enough to ensure that they won’t think of moving her.” Carrick smiled at everyone as he finished. “I believe I can do the rest.  Any questions?”

  “Of Course” Julia was the first to respond. “I have plenty, but they can wait until after we stonewall “the man.”

  Storm took on a look of a man severely put upon, while he shook his head in defeat, while his wife redirected his southerly roaming hands. “We are really going to have to monitor her television.”

  There was a muffled curse; Carrick guessed that Lisa had reintroduced Storm to her heel.

  Carrick continued, “Storm and Julia, I need you to go now and stay in the room with Camille.  Just watch over her and make sure there aren’t any uninvited guests trying to trespass.”

  Storm and Julia looked at each other, “We can handle that.” Julia replied, as they both rose and walked out the door of the library.