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Forbidden Fruit

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Forbidden Fruit
by Sue Kelley

 

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"Explain to me again, Sandburg," Jim Ellison said to his roommate. "Who is this woman and why does she have to see *your* test?"

Blair Sandburg slid down in bed until only the tip of his reddened nose could be seen over the mound of blankets. "Dr. Murray is the new Head of Anthropology," he said drowsily. He propped his eyes open with an effort. "Are you sure you don't mind taking the test over there, Jim? 'Cause if you do, I'll--"

"You'll do nothing, Chief, except stay in that bed and get well," Jim ordered. "This is your health we're talking about. You already have the flu. It's 39 degrees out there, and pouring. Do you want pneumonia or hypothermia or worse?" He stalked out of the room.

Blair thought about arguing--after all, Jim would hear him from anywhere in the loft --but changed his mind. He really did feel lousy. The new strain of flu plaguing Cascade was brutal. The police department--like the University--had less than a third of the staff reporting to work. Blair had staggered home from school early in the afternoon, already burning up with fever and too sick to meet Jim at the station as he'd promised, to find a message from Dr. Stacey Murray on the machine.

Jim came back into the room carrying a bottle of aspirin. He put two tablets in Blair's hand and then lifted a glass of water from the table beside the bed. "So why does the new Department Head want to see your test? Doesn't she have enough to do?"

"Jim, do you ever listen to me?" Blair regretted the testy tone as soon as he heard the words. He held up a hand in apology, cutting off whatever his roommate would have said. "Sorry, man, I didn't mean that. Blame it on the headache. Anyway, Dr. Murray is very... hands on, I guess you could say. She started reading the tests that were given last semester in the Intro to Anthropology classes, and decided that some of the questions were too detailed. It is an Intro course; a lot of students take it to satisfy a GE or Humanities requirement and they have no plans to ever take another course in the field again. She just thinks that maybe the Teaching Fellows have forgotten that, so she wants to read the midterms before we give them." He yawned again, then forced his eyes open to look at the clock. "And, Jim, I did tell her you'd be there by six thirty. She's really into punctuality, and I'm really into sleeping right now, so could you please just go?"

*** ***

Jim Ellison drove slowly along the rain-drenched highway, Sentinel-sharp eyes seeking the turn-off that Stacey Murray had indicated in her directions. Heavy darkness had fallen early, a combination of the storm and the shortened days of fall. He spotted the road, marked by a huge, split oak, and braked sharply to make the turn. Neglected asphalt soon gave way to hard-packed mud. Jim frowned. 'Just my luck this woman lives out in the middle of nowhere!' he groused to himself.

The directions indicated he should be looking for another road. Jim spotted it, made the turn and flicked on his high beams. This was a forest--pines and redwoods-- with a lot of scrub growth. Still, the road showed signs of recent travel, and soon enough it widened out into a gravel road that abruptly terminated in front of a two-story cottage, built from local gray flagstone. Lights beamed a welcome from arched windows and smoke puffed from the chimney.

So this was where the famous Stacey Murray lived.

Blair was wrong when he accused Jim of not listening to him. Jim always listened, even though sometimes he didn't understand half of what the younger man was babbling about. But Blair had been surprisingly reticent on the subject of the new Department Head. Now, Jim conjured up a picture of what she looked like. Tall, he mused as he parked behind a new-looking Plymouth Voyager. Big boned, dressed sensibly (mentally he clothed her in flat shoes and a droopy tweed skirt). Short, salt and pepper hair, cut simply. This was not a woman who would want to waste a lot of her time in a beauty parlor.

He knocked on the heavy double-doors. Waited, then knocked again, as there was no doorbell.

The door opened.

Jim knew he'd never before seen the woman who stood in the doorway, but he was stunned by the odd sense of familiarity, rocked with the force of the connection he felt when his eyes locked with her dark blue ones.

Silence. Jim could feel his heart beating rapidly.

"Detective Ellison?" The woman spoke finally, sounding as shaken as Jim felt. "Blair's friend?"

Another silence. Jim became aware he was staring, and he shook his head, trying to pull himself together. 'God, am I zoning? Zoning never felt like this before.' "Uh, yeah," he stammered, then recollected himself with an effort. "Dr. Murray? I'm Jim Ellison" 'and you look nothing like I imagined you,' his mind added.

The woman hesitated, then stepped back, allowing him entry into the cottage. "Please. The weather is so awful, I'm sure you could use some coffee or a drink or something. It's such a long drive."

Numbly, Jim stepped into the oak-floored entryway, his mind automatically sorting out smells: lemon polish and wood smoke, and "Is that meat loaf?"

Dr. Murray blinked. Jim couldn't blame her. Hell of an opening remark. But the smell was delicious, and his stomach, suddenly reminded that it hadn't had anything since coffee and a bagel at six a.m., set up a clamor.

The woman smiled suddenly, showing a flash of even white teeth and dimples at the corners of her mouth. "Yes, it's meat loaf." She gestured to the fireplace. "Please, sit down. I've got to check something on the stove, but I'll be back in a moment." She vanished through a white paneled door. Slowly, heedless that he was dripping all over shining wood floors, Jim stepped down three steps into a small, cozy room, drawn to the cheerful warmth of the blazing fire in the fireplace.

He looked around, soaking up the atmosphere. Lots of bookcases, true, but they were filled with an eclectic collection of well-worn hardbacks and paperbacks. Mysteries, science fiction. One whole shelf of kids' books: Grimms Fairy Tales. Hardy Boys. Laura Ingalls Wilder. Not new, though, these were the most well-worn of the lot. A lot of the books were in other languages, but they sure didn't look like the 20-pounders Blair was always packing around. He did spot a copy of "Anthropology News" on the antique trunk that apparently served as a coffee table. There was an impressive computer set-up on the corner desk, but other than that there was nothing to indicate that the owner of the room was anything other than an extraordinarily-well read person.

'Well, so much for my precognitive abilities,' Jim thought, mildly amused. His hostess entered the room again bearing two mugs of steaming coffee and murmuring vague apologies. He took the cup with thanks, trying not to stare.

Stacey Murray was almost a complete opposite from his preconceived notion of what she would look like. For one thing, she was much younger than he had imagined; Jim doubted she was even as old he was. Slender--almost too thin, really--her petite frame clothed simply in blue jeans and a bright yellow sweater. Lots of dark, glossy brown curls swirling about her shoulders, and those impossibly blue eyes. Jim had thought her pale when he'd first seen her in the doorway but now her cheeks were softly flushed as she seated herself on the sofa. "I'm sorry, I just assumed you took it black."

It took the detective a minute to realize she was talking about the coffee. "Oh, that's great, perfect." He took a hasty gulp, belatedly appreciating the brew. He sipped the second mouthful appraisingly, then tilted his head. "Hazelnut?"

She smiled again. "Very good." She held out her hand. "It's good of you to drive all the way out here. Is that the test?"

Jim looked at the envelope in his hand, only then remembering why he was there. "Oh, yeah." He handed it to her. "Sandburg was sorry he couldn't bring it himself--"

She waved her hand, dismissing his apology. "I thought this morning he didn't look well at all. This flu bug is really terrible." She placed the envelope next to the magazine and gave Jim a rueful glance. "The grad students in the department haven't been receiving that much supervision, apparently; none of them are very happy with me right now for asking to see the midterm questions."

Jim said the first thing that came to his mind. "Well, I know Sandburg worked hard on the test." Safe bet. Blair had been up until all hours recently.

"Actually I'm not too worried about his test, but I couldn't ask to see everyone else's and not his." Murray curled one foot under her body, daintily, like a cat. "So, how did you two meet? You must be good friends to drive all the way out here for him."

"He's my partner," Jim replied, wondering again when that had become so natural to say. The woman looked surprised, then thoughtful.

"Detective Ellison. Of course, how stupid of me. I know he does some work with the police department." An odd light dawned in the blue eyes as she studied her visitor. "You're the one he observes?"

Jim felt suddenly uneasy. He knew--because Blair had assured him it was so--that only Sandburg's actual advisor knew any of the real details of his Sentinel study and even he had no idea who the "anonymous subject" really was. It had never occurred to him to wonder how Blair explained his work with the police department to others at the University. Around Major Crimes, Blair babbled that "Thin Blue Line" crap--or at least he had in the beginning. Now, after two years, he was simply accepted as "Ellison's partner," and most of the time, Jim quite simply forgot that Blair had any agenda other than being his Guide.

Murray was still studying him and he felt he had to say something. "Sandburg helps me a lot," he muttered lamely. "My paperwork, and research..."

"I'm sure he does." Her words were interrupted by a faint "ding" from the kitchen. Jim started. "It's just the meatloaf," she said, standing.

Jim stood too. "I don't mean to interrupt your dinner--"

A flash of something like dismay swept across the woman's expressive face. "Don't," she started, then flushed even pinker. "That is, could I persuade you to stay for dinner? I made too much, meat loaf and mashed potatoes and salad and all, but I was really in the mood for comfort food tonight."

There was something so lost and forlorn in her voice when she said the words. Jim felt everything nurturing and protective in him rise to the surface. "I'd like to stay."

*** ***

Jim stayed later than he meant to. Dinner was excellent: the meat loaf and a big bowl of mashed potatoes were accompanied by steamed carrots garnished with fresh mint and a colorful salad with a variety of ingredients; Jim couldn't even name them all.

After dinner was over, they took fresh cups of fragrant coffee and thick slices of cheesecake back to the living room. Stacey (they'd become on a first-name basis over dinner) regaled Jim with a hysterical reenactment of the latest Anthropology department meeting. She had a wicked sense of humor and a real gift for mimicry. Jim had met some of those people at different times when he'd been at the University, and he really enjoyed Stacey's story. He couldn't stop laughing.

"So, Jim Ellison," Stacey murmured, leaning back against the couch. "Tell me about you."

Caught off guard, Jim shrugged. "What's there to tell?" he asked easily. "I'm a cop."

Stacey waited, then raised her eyebrows. "That's it? I don't believe it! There's got to be more to you than that."

"Like what?"

She gave him a look. "Oh, let's see. Are you married?" She looked at him closely and then shook her head. "No."

"Divorced," Jim confirmed. It no longer hurt to talk about Carolyn or their failed marriage. His ex-wife was happy with her new life in San Francisco.

"Hmmm. Any pets?"

Jim laughed shortly. "Just Sandburg."

"Oh, yes, Blair Sandburg. So tell me about that? How'd the two of you even meet? Somehow I can't see Blair walking into Police Headquarters and saying, 'Hey, man, like, I want to do some paperwork for some cop who is like, diametrically opposed to me. Got anybody in mind?'"

Jim was aware of that uneasy feeling again. He shrugged, moved a little farther away from her on the couch. "I was working on a case," he finally said, carefully choosing his words, "and I needed some help. Some expertise. The word got around, somebody gave me Blair's name, and I went to see him. The observer thing, that came later." Although technically the truth, the story was close enough to a lie that Jim felt uncomfortable. He got up and busied himself putting another log on the fire. "What about you? I saw the wedding ring; is your husband an anthropologist, too?"

There was such an extended silence that Jim turned around, surprised. Stacey wasn't looking at him; she had raised her left hand and was watching the firelight play on the narrow gold band. "I'm a widow," she told Jim, never looking at him. "Kevin, my husband, was killed last year."

"I'm sorry." Jim felt like kicking himself. "I didn't know, Sandburg never mentioned it."

"I doubt he knows. I don't talk about it much." She sighed. "Dr. Keene was my mentor at UCSD. He knew us, Kevin and I. We kept in touch. After Kevin died, I... well, I had a hard time coping. I was trying to write a book and--well, it was just a bad time. Dr. Keene knew his health was failing. He talked me into moving up here so that when his position came open, I'd be on the spot." She raised her eyes to meet Jim's. He found himself entranced by them; deep pools of blue... Jim pulled himself back, shaking his head violently. He'd come very close to zoning.

"Jim?" Her voice was uncertain.

"Sorry," the Sentinel apologized. "I just got distracted. You have the most beautiful eyes."

Stacey's hand jerked suddenly, spilling the coffee on the carpet. "Oh, great. I'm such a clutz," she muttered shakily, slipping to her knees on the floor and scrubbing at the wet spot with a napkin. Jim reached down to capture her hand, then drew her chin up so that she was facing him again.

He stared at her, losing himself in the blueness of her eyes, opening his senses to her, the softness of her cheek under his hand. The silky feel the dark curls that twisted around his fingers. That faint scent, floral but somehow spicy and exciting, that overlaid fainter smells he couldn't identify. He could sense her longing somehow, sense the arousal and the need she was struggling to control. Then his own needs flared, and he bent low to capture her lips in a kiss.

The first touch was tentative, searching, and gentle. Jim lightly teased her lips, silently requesting them to part, then they did, and his tongue slipped into her delicious mouth. Heat exploded in his senses, tightening his loins in a way that reminded him of how long it had been since he had last enjoyed a woman like this.

Rational thought shrieked inside his head, driving him to disentangle is tongue from hers, to pull his head away. "We shouldn't do this," he groaned. "We barely know each other."

"I've known you my whole life," she whispered. "Don't you feel that, too?"

Jim stared at her, hearing the truth in her words. He struggled to regain control, but a fire was burning in his veins and he had to quench it. He tangled his hands in her hair and bent to capture her mouth again.

*** ***

Jim parked his truck in the usual spot in front of the building. Flicking on the dome light, he scrubbed the faint traces of Stacey's lipstick off his face with a Kleenex. His reflection stared back at him from the mirror.

His body was tired--a good, sated tiredness. His mind, however, was alive with thoughts of Stacey Murray and the time they had spent together. He hadn't felt this enthralled with a woman in so long, maybe forever. He'd sure never been attracted to Carolyn like this when he'd first met her. It was more than just desire. Sure, a part of him had wanted to clutch the woman in his arms and bear her to the nearest bed or alternative horizontal surface, but it was more than that. He just felt so connected to her.

Before their kisses in front of the fire had led to something else, Stacey had stopped him. She'd taken his hand and led him to the greenhouse at the back of the house. They had walked among the plants, Jim inhaling deeply of the different scents. She'd told him of her research into ancient healing practices; her book on natural herbal remedies. He'd nibbled at fresh parsley and mint; drank a cordial of her making, the sweet light taste dancing over his tongue. He'd pulled the flowers from a jasmine bush and sprinkled them in her hair. Then he'd buried his face in her neck, overcome by the faint spicy scent of her perfume. There was jasmine there too, and other things he couldn't identify. He tried to sort them out the way Blair had taught him but he couldn't. The scent rose around him, surrounding him, stealing into his mind until his senses were full of her.

They'd laughed when it was over, when they lay together on the hard floor, the sweat of their lovemaking cooling on their bodies, their clothes discarded around them. Couldn't even make it to the bed, she had laughed breathlessly. Next time," he'd murmured, pulling her soft hair into his sweaty neck...

Jim jerked himself back from almost zoning again. God, what was wrong with him? He'd barely made it home; driving took every bit of concentration he could muster. His head felt as thick and muddled as if he'd been on a drunken binge, but the only alcohol he'd had all evening was the amaretto in the cheesecake.

He wished he could blame it on being drunk. What the hell had he been thinking? Sex with a woman he'd just met, one of Sandburg's teachers, for Pete's sake! They hadn't even used protection. Jim was less concerned about that than he probably should be; he knew he was safe and he suspected he'd been the first since Stacey's husband had died. But still-- he couldn't honestly say he regretted what had happened, though. It had been awhile, too long, since Laura... Jim shook his head, banishing the thought of that whole pheromones incident. What he felt for Stacey was nothing like the irrational lust he'd had for Laura.

Suddenly aware of the cold, Jim got out of the truck and headed for his building. As he mounted the stairs he tuned his hearing ahead to his own apartment, sensing Blair's heartbeat almost immediately. Rapid. Frowning, Jim unlocked the door and stepped into the darkened room. He knew at once that his roommate was awake: there was a light on in the kitchen and he could hear the sounds of drawers and cabinets being opened and closed.

Sandburg was standing on a chair, rummaging about the top shelf of the cupboard where kept some of his exotic herbal preparations. Jim scowled at the sound of the younger man's wheezing. "Sandburg, what the hell-- Blair!" he jumped forward to grab his roommate as the younger man started and lost his balance. Jim supported him until his feet were securely on the floor, then gently pushed a hand against his chest until Blair sat down in the chair. Jim kept his hand where it was, sensing the increased heart rate and the heat from the fever. He let go and stooped to pick up a couple of boxes that had been jostled from the cupboard. "What are you doing up?" he asked, trying not to yell.

A little color was coming back to Blair's face now. "Cripes, man, don't sneak up on somebody like that!" His voice was raspy.

"Sorry." Jim cocked his head to one side. "How do you feel?"

Blair made a face. "Don't ask." He shot a look at the clock on the stove and then turned back to look at his roommate. "Where have you been? It's after two!"

Jim felt the heat rising in his cheeks and was grateful that his partner didn't have Sentinel senses. He turned to pull a mug from the cupboard as Blair continued, "Did you have car trouble? No, of course not... no car would ever dare stall on you. Was there an accident on the highway or something?"

Jim filled the mug with water and then put it into the microwave to heat. He rummaged through the various boxes and canisters in the cupboard until he found a tea he vaguely remembered Blair forcing on him the last time he'd had the sniffles. "I've been at Stacey's," he answered.

"Stacey?" Blair questioned. Then his eyes widened. "You mean Dr. Murray? Oh man! You've been there all this time? What were you two doing?" Then he caught himself and his cheeks, already flushed with fever, burned even more red. "I mean, well, I didn't mean to... I mean--"

Jim laughed affectionately at his partner's well-meaning floundering. "Drink your tea, Sandburg," he responded lightly, "I'm sure your imagination can fill in the details of why I'm so late getting home." He tousled Blair's already mussed hair as he headed toward the bathroom. A long, hot shower was definitely called for.

*** ***

Left alone in the dimly-lit kitchen, Blair reluctantly took a sip of the tea. It was good, but his throat was so raw and swollen it was hard to force it down. His head was pounding as he tried to make sense out of this. Jim and Dr. Murray--! Had they--? 'Well, of course they did,' he chastised himself. He hadn't seen that particular cat-ate-the-canary look on Jim's face in months. But Stacey Murray? They'd just met!

It wasn't that Blair disapproved of his roommate having a sex life. But the though of him getting involved with Stacey Murray made him oddly uneasy. He closed his eyes against the pounding in his head, trying to think.

Stacey Murray had a world-wide reputation as a brilliant anthropologist. Her most recent book--on the healing practices of North American Natives--had been read by thousands of people who'd never even of the field of anthropology and had been Oprah's "Book-of-the-Month". Blair had been as excited as anyone when he heard she was taking over for the retiring Dr. Keene.

But now--barely a month into the semester--Blair shook his head, biting his lip as the action intensified his headache. It wasn't that Dr. Murray played favorites; she didn't, but her whole attitude was "my way or the highway". No other options. She expected 110% from everyone on the staff and Blair didn't have a problem with that because she gave it herself. But he had received the strong impression from her that his "extracurricular" work with the police department did not meet with her approval. His remark that the work was integral to his dissertation had been met with the icy comment "I fail to see how following a detective around doing his paperwork for over two years can be of any assistance at all in completing your dissertation in a timely manner." Short of actually telling her about Jim's sentinel abilities--

Sentinel abilities.

Blair's thoughts screeched to a halt. Sentinel senses... there was something there. Some connection between Dr. Murray and his Sentinel studies. It made him uneasy. I need to talk to Jim... Forgetting that his roommate was in the shower, the anthropology student struggled to his feet, ducking his head in a vain attempt to avoid the increased pounding. He gripped the side of the table as dizziness swept over him, willing it to go away. Instead it increased. Blair felt cold sweat break out all over his body. He sat down hastily, but missed the edge of the seat and sprawled awkwardly on the floor. "Damn!" escaped through clenched teeth as white hot knives of pain lanced his eyes.

The shower turned off in the bathroom and he could hear a door open. "Sandburg?" Jim appeared in the kitchen, still dripping and in the act of knotting a towel around himself. "Are you-- Blair!"

Blair opened his mouth, tried to say something. But before he could form words the clouds of black swirling around the kitchen overtook him and he slid into the darkness.

*** ***

It was well past noon by the time Jim made it into Major Crimes. His boss, Captain Simon Banks, was getting a cup of coffee from the communal coffeepot. He took one look at his star detective and handed him the mug. "Here. You look like you need this."

Jim took a gulp, wincing. "Brown made the coffee again." It would have made a good cleaning solvent. Jim sighed and glanced at his boss, who had poured himself another cup of the noxious brew and was regarding it with a singular lack of enthusiasm. Simon was something of a coffee-holic and enjoyed trying out new brands and flavors, but a week before the night cleaning staff had dropped the coffeemaker in his office, damaging it beyond repair. Banks would have replaced it the next day but for the intervention of his son. Darryl wanted to buy him a new coffeepot for his upcoming birthday. He was so excited that there was something that he could get his dad that Simon would actually use and enjoy that the captain couldn't find it in his heart to disappoint him. Unfortunately, Simon's birthday was still two weeks away.

Simon shuddered as he tried to drink the coffee without tasting it. "How's Sandburg?" Jim had called from the hospital to explain why he'd be late.

"They let him go home, with the agreement that he stay in bed at least until the weekend." Blair had refused to be admitted to the hospital, a diagnosis of severe bronchitis notwithstanding. The doctor had reluctantly released him with prescriptions for antibiotics and cough suppressants, decongestants and God only knew what else. Over two hundred dollars worth of drugs; Jim knew because he had stopped on the way home get the prescriptions filled.

Jim leaned over his desk to snag the pink message slip someone had left for him. A "Stacey" had called around ten a.m., just wanting to say "thanks."

Jim smiled, then the expression changed to a frown as his conscience nudged him uncomfortably. He'd meant to call Stacey Murray this morning, but Blair's collapse and the subsequent trip to the hospital had banished other thoughts from his mind. He should call her. He wanted to call her. Besides, she needed to know about Blair.

He knew that really wasn't necessary. He'd called the university earlier, around eight, telling the department receptionist about Blair's illness and the need to find someone to cover for him for the next several days. The secretary had just sighed. The flu was hitting everybody so hard. But she had promised she would take care of everything.

Jim suddenly flipped through the Rolodex until he found the number of a florist near the University. He grinned. Sandburg had stuck the card in there while he was dating another student who got her feelings hurt when he had to keep canceling dates. That relationship--like most of the younger man's romances-- hadn't lasted long.

The number was busy the first few times he tried but he finally got through. The girl on the other end of the line assured him that the roses he ordered would reach Stacey Murray in just a few hours. Jim almost gasped aloud when she cheerfully told him the total amount of money that would be charged to his credit card. It had been a long time since he had bought red roses for anyone-- his first anniversary with Carolyn, to be exact. Shaking his head over the rate of inflation, Jim turned back to the pile of paperwork on his desk.

*** ***

She called as Jim was getting ready to leave for home. "Roses this time of year? My goodness, the man's a romantic, besides his other good qualities!"

Jim grinned at her teasing tone. "And what other qualities are those?" he bantered back.

"Hmmm, well..." Stacey dragged it out. "I'm sure you have tons of redeeming qualities, but I must admit I was thinking of your prowess in the bedroom." He heard her laugh. "Not that we made it to the bedroom!"

Jim quickly glanced around to make sure no one was within earshot. "Maybe next time?"

"I'd like that." Her voice was throaty, almost a purr.

It excited Jim. He swallowed carefully. "I'm looking forward to it. This weekend, maybe?" Sandburg will be better by then and I won't have to worry about leaving him--

There was a pause before she answered, "This weekend? Well, yes, I guess that's okay." Her voice was flat, just a bit reproachful. Jim thought about questioning it, but decided not to. Instead he asked,

"You got the message about Sandburg?"

"You mean that he's sick? Yes, I got it. Took most of my afternoon just trying to cover his responsibilities. More than half this department is out sick; I was really depending on him."

She sounded irritated and it made Jim uncomfortable. "He didn't get sick on purpose. And he is really sick."

"I didn't say he wasn't. But out all week? For the flu?"

"He has bronchitis," Jim protested. "His temperature was pretty high when I took him to the ER. And--"

"You took him to the ER?" Stacey's voice was surprised. "How did--are you the one who called in for him? The message I got just said he'd be out sick until Monday, I didn't get any other details."

"He'll be out at least until Monday," Jim corrected, emphasizing the "at least". "He's supposed to go back to the doctor Monday morning for a recheck. But they said he's pretty run-down, and it may take longer."

"I'm not surprised. Graduate students have no resistance." There was no mistaking the irritation in her voice now. "They don't seem to understand that we have to be able to depend on them. Blair, for instance, did you know he's been hospitalized three times in the last eighteen months? At least that's what it says in his personnel file. I'm rather surprised his fellowship wasn't in jeopardy."

Jim's conscience gave him a swift kick. "Why would it be?" he demanded. "Yeah, it was three times but he had absolutely no control over what happened. All three of those times something happened to him because if his involvement with the police department." With me, his mind added. I should have protected him from Lash, and from Quinn. As for the thing with the Golden, well, anybody in Major Crimes that day could have eaten the pizza. He shivered as the memory of holding Blair in his arms, feeling his heartbeat slow and falter, his breathing become more and more shallow. Praying that the ambulance would arrive before it ceased altogether. The sound of the respirator pumping oxygen into the young man's lungs. The look on the doctor's face when he admitted Blair was failing, that he might not ever wake up...

"JIM!"

Jim blinked. Simon was holding his arm, shaking him lightly, his face concerned. The Sentinel belatedly realized he was still clutching the phone so tightly that the bones showed white through the skin. He put the phone back to his ear, was greeted by the sound of the recorded message, "We're sorry, but your call cannot be completed as dialed. Please hang up and try your call again... We're sorry--"

Jim hung up the phone. He glanced at the concerned face of his captain. "Thanks, Simon. How long was I zoned?"

"I'm not sure," his captain responded, shaking his head. Relief crossed his features. "But I wasn't sure you were going to come back. I must have yelled at you three or four times." He took a rather unsteady breath. "Sandburg makes that look so easy," he complained.

Jim quipped, "He's had more practice than you," but he and Simon both knew it wasn't a matter of practice. There was a link between the Sentinel and his Guide, one that only seemed to grow stronger as time passed.

*** ***

Stacey called again after nine thirty. Jim was already in bed, although it was too early for him to sleep. He was reading the latest Higgins novel, shaking his head tolerantly over the idiotic way law enforcement was portrayed, when the phone rang. He grabbed it on the first ring, even though he knew there wasn't much chance it would disturb Blair. The younger man seemed a bit better, his breathing wasn't quite as labored and his fever lower. He'd been asleep for hours. The ER doctor had warned Jim that the cough medicine he'd prescribed would knock Blair out. Rest was the best thing for him.

"Did we get cut off earlier?" Stacey asked. "All of a sudden there was nothing. I tried to call back but your line was busy, then I had to go to an emergency staff meeting."

Jim didn't enlighten her to what had happened. Stacey went on, "Jim, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to sound like I was bitching about Blair. It just was a bad day. We've had to dismiss one of the other teaching assistants and I was rather counting on Blair to take over his class load."

"You dismissed one?"

Stacey hesitated. "Oh, I shouldn't say anything about it, at least not yet, but, well--it really upset me. We met all morning on it, then I got back to my office and found the message about Blair. I was just stressed out."

"Who was dismissed?"

"Well, don't tell Blair. At least, not for a day or two. The department head and I plan to meet with him... We had to dismiss Jerry Bryson. And it looks like Scott Margolis will probably have to go too."

Jim was less surprised about Bryson than Margolis. He knew both young men, not well but he'd met them and Jerry Bryson had just never impressed him. He knew there wasn't a whole lot of love lost between Bryson and Sandburg, either. But Blair and Scott were friends. "What's going on?"

He heard the sigh. "I can't really say. Not yet. But Jerome Bryson has been expelled from the University... oh, it's such a mess, Jim! There's a possibility of a lawsuit, maybe more than one. It's just awful." She sounded as if she were going to cry. Jim wanted to help her but he didn't know what to say."

"Can I--" he started.

Stacey interrupted him. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to bother you with this. It's just, most of the administration is out with this flu, and this happens. There are five classes tomorrow with no instructor. It's a mess." She calmed. "I will need to talk to Blair before Monday... I could come over there to see him. Tomorrow, do you think?"

"Do you need him to be coherent?"

Stacey emitted a choked laugh. "It'd help."

"Then you'd better come day after tomorrow. He's on some medicine that just puts him in lala land, but the doc only wanted him to take it for the first 48 hours. Tell you what, you come over after I get off work and then maybe the two of us can go out for dinner."

"I'd like that."

After a few more comments, Jim said good bye and hung up the phone. His mood was much improved. He went downstairs for a glass of water, letting his hearing tune into the sound of Blair's breathing. Still raspy but easier now. The young man was obviously deeply asleep. Deciding not to wake him for another dose of cough medicine, Jim went back upstairs and read for a short time until he fell asleep.

*** ***

Stacey Murray turned on the kitchen lights, glanced in the refrigerator for supper ideas. She pushed the chicken aside impatiently. Early this morning, before she had left for work, she had been hoping Jim Ellison might join her for dinner and she had taken the poultry from the freezer. But that hadn't worked out, and she was too tired to think about cooking now. There was a little meatloaf left. Not much--Jim had really enjoyed it the night before--but enough for a sandwich. She spread mayonnaise on wheat bread, then poured a glass of milk. Turning off lights as she walked through the house, she balanced the sandwich and glass in one hand and picked up her briefcase with the other. She'd spread out these notes and things on the bed. Looked like she'd have to teach at least three of the Intro classes this week and with midterms coming up it would be unfair to the students if she didn't know what had been covered and what had not. She already knew Blair Sandburg's sections were the farthest ahead, Jerome Bryson's were almost two weeks behind. Scott Margolis's two sections were a week behind and Debra Miller's were right on schedule. Unfortunately, Miller's midterm test was awful; apparently the girl had no idea how to phrase a multiple choice question clearly and concisely.

The roses caught her eye. She had placed them on the entryway table so that their fragrance could perfume the whole house. One of the secretaries had found a plain glass vase for them. Stacey frowned; the vase didn't suit the beauty of the flowers or complement the antique cherry table. Her Waterford vase would be perfect...

The Waterford vase was packed in a box in the spare room.

Stacey shuddered. She hadn't stepped a foot inside that room since the movers had delivered everything. Another moment of indecision, then she placed the sandwich and milk on the bottom step and slowly went up the stairs.

Past her bedroom, the bathroom. Her hand on the doorknob, Stacey took a deep breath, steeling herself for memories she was about to unleash, then turned the knob and let herself into the room, switching on the overhead light.

The weekly cleaning woman was doing a good job. All the boxes were neatly stacked three deep, and not a smidgen of dust marred the floor. The antique white trunk, brass lock gleaming, stood under the window. Kevin's favorite chair--that huge old overstuffed monstrosity his grandmother had given them for their first apartment--was in one corner. She closed her eyes, remembering those three tiny rooms; remembering how the chair took up so much room they didn't have any place for a couch. Nor any need for one as they would both curl up in the chair together. The chair had been given a place of honor in every place they'd lived. She'd been sitting in it, knees drawn up to her chin, arms wrapped around them, when they'd come to tell her Kevin was gone. Come to tell her her life was gone. Come to tell her what she'd already known.

Stacey's eyes snapped open. No. She wouldn't remember.

The vase. Get the vase and get out of here. Unerringly she walked to the box where she knew it was packed, opened the lid, pulled out the treasured piece, securely wrapped in layers of newspaper and scraps of a worn-out blanket. It was bound to be dusty. She'd go downstairs and wash it before she put Jim's roses in it.

She closed the door on the room once more.

*** ***

"Damn!" Blair Sandburg groaned aloud. im is absolutely going to kill me. Dead. Slowly. He conjured up the sight of his big, compulsive roommate, jaw bulging in his cheek as he contemplated this latest screw-up on the part of his Guide and erstwhile friend, and groaned again.

It hadn't really seemed that big a deal at first. Jim was at work, and Blair had been feeling better. So much better he'd decided to sneak down to his office on campus and try to get a jump start on the coming week. There wasn't much chance he'd run into anyone; the morning paper had been full of the story about how the University had closed down for only the second time in history because so many students and teachers were out sick. Classes were expected to resume Monday morning, and Blair intended to be there, doing the best he could for the department recently caught in scandal.

When Dr. Murray had come over the night before to tell him what was going on he'd been stunned. Jerry Bryson and Scott Margolis changing grades on the computer in return for sexual favors from both female and male students? He couldn't believe it! Well, actually, he could believe it of Bryson: the guy was an arrogant son of a bitch who thought the whole world should drop down and worship him just because he was good-looking and rich.

But Scott? That didn't even make sense.

After Jim and Dr. Murray had left for their dinner, Blair had tried to call Scott with no luck. He had reached Debra Miller though. The only other remaining teaching assistant was as stunned as Blair, and in a panic. Five-and-a-half months into what was proving to be a difficult first pregnancy, she was overwhelmed at the thought of the increased workload and terrified and intimidated by Dr. Murray. "She said my midterm test was totally incoherent and way above the Intro level!" she'd sobbed.

In all likelihood that was quite true. Debra was passionate about anthropology. That enthusiasm carried through in her lectures: she could and did hold classes of eighteen and nineteen-year-old college freshman spellbound. But her written communication skills were terrible. Her dissertation outline had been rejected three times so far and she was incapable of formulating test questions that were less than thirty words long.

Blair shivered, pulling his jacket collar closer around his neck as protecting against the cold rain. Better stop worrying about Debra or Scott,he chided himself, And start worrying about yourself! Of all the places to have car trouble-- He looked around the deserted area, desperately searching for a pay phone. Luck was with him for a change; the phone he spotted outside an abandoned gas station proved to be working. Mentally bracing himself for the lecture he knew was coming, Blair fumbled some coins into the slot and punched in Jim's cell phone number.

*** ***

Jim and Stacey Murray wandered around The Port, a small area of exclusive shops. They'd met for a late lunch at a small fish restaurant near the docks, and then just strolled around, enjoying the weather. After a week of almost ceaseless rain, Nature had seen fit to bestow upon Cascade one of those matchless blue and sunny days. The wind was a little chilly and it seemed natural for Jim to put his arm around the woman as they window-shopped. A little voice nagged at him that he should get back to the station, but he was in no hurry to return to the mountain of paperwork and besides he was enjoying the woman's company. 'After all,' he thought, 'I did run out on her last night.'

Their dinner the evening before had been interrupted before it had even begun when Jim had overheard a vicious argument at another table. The middle-aged woman who had been on the receiving end of her companion's vituperative utterances had left the table in tears. Instinct had prompted Jim to leave when the man did, and the detective arrived in the parking lot in time to stop the woman from being stabbed with a steak knife the man had swiped from his table setting.

As if her thoughts had run along the same lines, Stacey looked up at Jim. "How is that woman from last night?"

"I checked before you called this morning. They kept her at the hospital overnight for a sedative; she was pretty hysterical. He's in the hospital now, too, for psychiatric evaluation. But their kids were going to fly in today, so she won't be alone."

"What caused him to..." Stacey's voice trailed off and she made an expressive gesture with her hand.

Jim shook his head. "Nobody seems to know; she says he was fine until they left for the restaurant, then he started picking on her about the dress she was wearing, and it just went on from there, until he accused her of having an affair with his business partner. She says she wasn't; the partner says they weren't." Jim shrugged, then added the part that seemed to him the most poignant, "They were there celebrating their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary."

A shadow crossed the woman's face and she turned away. Jim's senses picked up her increasing heartbeat and the catch of her breathing. Concerned, he put an arm around her and turned her face until he could see the tears sparkling on her long lashes. "Hey, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have brought it up."

Stacey shook her head, brushing the teardrops away impatiently. "You didn't bring it up, I asked. I'm sorry about the tears. You must think I'm a fool. I didn't even know them!"

Jim pulled her close against his chest. "I don't think anything like that." He paused, running his hand in slow soothing circles on her back. He didn't know why he added, "Is your anniversary coming up?"

He felt Stacey stiffen in his arms, then she crumpled against him. "The end of the month," he heard her whisper.

Noticing that other people in the shop were starting to stare, Jim steered his friend to the door and out into the cold crisp air. There was a bench across the street looking out over the ocean. No one was nearby as Jim guided the woman there, holding her in his arms as she cried.

Finally Stacey pulled away, fumbled in her purse for tissues. "Don't look at me," she protested weakly as she dabbed at her smeared mascara. "I never could cry without making myself look horrible."

With a sudden surge of tenderness Jim realized he'd never thought a woman more beautiful. He drew her closer and pressed his lips to hers in a kiss, tasting the salt of her tears.

It started out gentle but rapidly intensified. Her lips softened, parted, allowing his tongue entrance. Jim was lost in the sensations, the flavors of her mouth, her perfume, that light floral fragrance that seemed so much a part of her, wafted into his nose, entwined through his senses. Heat rose between them. Stacey's arms came up around Jim as he pulled her tighter into his embrace.

A ringing noise came from inside Jim's jacket.

At the second repetition, Jim shuddered, then pulled himself away from the woman, reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. "Ellison," he managed through tingling lips.

"Hey Jim, it's me."

"Sandburg?" Jim put his arm around Stacey again and she cuddled into his side. "Something wrong?"

"No. Well, yeah, kinda." Then all in a rush, "Jim don't be mad but I went to the University I had to start on all this new work and I was feeling better but then the car died and I'm stuck and there's nothing open around here and I'm really sorry to bother you but I'm getting kind of wobbly and--"

"Sandburg! Breathe!" While his partner caught his breath Jim closed his eyes and prayed for patience. "Now," he went on, trying to keep his voice very calm, "Where are you?"

A short, unhappy silence. Finally Blair answered in a very small voice, "Umm, on Portage. Between Romany and uh, Victoria Street."

"You're where?" Jim exclaimed. "Sandburg, that is the absolute worst area in Cascade. And it's not even remotely on your way home from the University!"

"Not normally. But Dillon Road is all torn up with construction. It was either this way or the freeway, and this time of day--"

Jim cut him off. "OK, we'll discuss this later. Go back to your car and lock yourself in, do you hear me? I'm on my way." He clicked the cell phone closed and looked at Stacey. "I have to, well, that was Sandburg. He's had car trouble and I need to go get him before something worse happens," he explained, apologetically. "I'll walk you to your car."

Stacey looked at him, an unreadable expression on her face. Finally she said, "No, that's okay. You go on. I think I'd like to look around a few more of these shops." Her voice was carefully neutral, but Jim sensed her irritation.

"I need to be getting back to work anyway," he said. "I'll call you, this evening?"

A small smile brightened her face. "I'd like that."

*** ***

It was a good thing traffic was light because Stacey Murray's mind was not on her driving.

Jim Ellison was a Sentinel. She was sure of it.

Her mind drifted back to the first time she'd learned of Blair Sandburg and his Sentinel research...

Such a hot day. The Santa Ana winds had been blowing inland for a week. Even this close to the ocean the heat was oppressive, the smog hanging dirty and heavy in the sky. Not weather for packing. No, a day like today would be better spent immersed in the ocean itself.

Which was where Kevin was. Surfing. He'd wanted her to come along but one of them had to do the packing. The moving van would come in less than seventy-two hours.

God, she was dreading this move! Washington DC, of all places. Hot and muggy and crowded in the summer; cold and dreary in the winter. But it wasn't the weather she despised as much as the thought of the job Kevin was taking.

'Oh, be fair,' she chided herself. He thinks he can help more people this way. Setting up emergency response teams on a national level, procuring federal funding so that existing groups would be able to get equipment and support. It still pained him that the New Mexico group he'd founded had had to disband.

But damn it, it was an administrative post! That wasn't Kevin at all. He was no politician. He was made for action. He was a Sentinel.

Impatiently she pulled books off the shelves, wrapped her few treasured ornaments in layers of newspaper. They hadn't even been back in San Jacoma long enough to get everything out of the storage unit...

Sweat trickled down her back; her cotton shirt and ragged cutoffs dampened and clung uncomfortably. She needed a break. Sitting cross-legged so long had made her foot go to sleep; she favored it as she walked into the tiny kitchenette for a glass of ice water. The ice cube trays were almost empty and as she filled them she succumbed to the temptation to stick her head under the faucet, gasping a little as the cold water streamed through her hair. It felt so good! Twisting the mass into a coil atop her head, she secured it with a clip. Rivulets of water trickled down her neck.

She flipped on the computer. Kevin was making noises about packing it up tonight so this would be her last chance for awhile. She logged on and started checking various bookmarked sites, then frowned as she caught site of the icon in the upper left hand corner of the screen. Response to a search? What was that all about? What search? Then her face cleared and she hastily pulled up the document to discover it was--as she surmised--a reference to some Sentinel research. She'd forgotten about that permanent search command, it had been over a year since it had turned anything up. She scanned the information eagerly.

Three articles published out of Washington State by somebody named Blair Sandburg, MA. The notation at the bottom of the last article mentioned that the information was a compilation of resources utilized by Mr. Sandburg in the course of completing his Master's thesis.

Stacey skimmed the articles quickly, then, getting more comfortable, she pulled up the first article and read it more slowly, nodding occasionally. He was good, this Sandburg; thorough. His writing style was interesting and energetic. He obviously loved the topic; what was equally obvious, at least to Stacey, was that it was all theory. He didn't have any evidence that Sentinels actually exited in modern-day society. He did make reference to a couple of articles published in the early 1980s that purported to describe the development of a modern Sentinel, but explained in a footnote only two monographs in a series of five had been published and that he had been unable to locate them. Stacey smiled in delight; those had to be her articles--the two she'd published before she and Kevin had decided it was too risky to reveal any more information to the world at large. If anyone ever suspected the truth... Stacey had switched her area of emphasis away from Sentinels entirely. Thereafter her Sentinel research was done on her own and separate from her academic work.

Stacey blinked and shook her head, realizing that she was approaching the turnoff to the house. Banishing other thoughts for later, she forced herself to concentrate on the road