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Page 1

 

Baltimore, Maryland
1800 hours

"Matt, where are you? We should have a visual by now."

"I'm going to have to make a detour. Some sort of demolition project. The
street and sidewalk are blocked. Was anything scheduled, Margo?"

"I'll check. We need to make visual contact with you." Margo was antsy
enough about this meet. Matt's detour just strengthened her bad feelings.

"CJ, I'm continuing one block further. Get into a better position for a
visual. Rico, can you move to cover me?"

"Roger that, Major." Rico, filling in for Chance on this op, picked up the
pace through the alley with his shopping cart collection. He preferred
playing the street person rather than being stuck idly sitting in a vehicle,
observing. He would intercept the Major's path in the next block. "Be there
in 60 seconds."

CJ started up the suburban.

"Black van slowly approaching from your six, CJ. License alpha, mary, jack,
niner, niner, niner." Something about the van made Benny Ray suspicious. He
surveyed the street from his sniper position on the rooftop. Everything else
was clear. CJ waited for the van to pass by.

"Major, the van is turning and heading straight for you. Major, do you copy
that? Major?" Benny Ray's suspicions now were confirmed.

The suburban squealed around the corner in pursuit of the black van. The
street was empty. "Bollocks, where did it go?" CJ couldn't believe they had
all taken the bait and been so easily distracted.

Matt slowly woke up feeling groggy and disoriented. He felt a wave of
dizziness and nausea hit him as he sat up. His left wrist was handcuffed
through bars of a makeshift cage to the right wrist of a middle-aged woman
lying on the cement floor of a large warehouse. Matt was sure he had seen
herstanding on the sidewalk looking in the window of a shop just before
everything went black. Who is she? Who had abducted them? Matt looked
herover for injuries the best he could through the bars. She looked to be fine,
just drugged. He found a small wallet in the back pocket of her jeans and
took it out. There was a Tennessee driver's license, some credit cards, and
an employee ID. Matt returned her wallet to her pocket.

Her eyes fluttered open. She reached for her head with her right hand;
quickly sitting up when she met resistance from the handcuff. Matt observed
the scared, startled look on her face followed by a grimace.

"You should move a little slower until that stuff wears off," Matt commented
sympathetically.

Erica looked around slowly.

"Hi, I'm Matt." Matt was glad to see that she was not panicking. She
obviously was giving him the once over and checking the place out but never
making eye contact with him. They were in some sort of warehouse with an
office just above them. Whoever was up there could see Matt and Erica, but
they couldn't see into the office. "I haven't figured out why we're here yet,
Erica. Obviously it isn't good, whatever the reason."

She looked at him inquiringly with just a hint of anger. Matt noticed her
hand brushing over her pocket where her ID was. She wasn't missing much. She turned her back to Matt and leaned against the bars. She hasn't said a word and she already has me on the defensive, Matt thought to himself.

The door to the office opened and two men started down the stairs. Matt made an attempt to stand, but could only lean over, still attached to Erica's
wrist. Erica looked up at Matt, noticing his intent stare at these men as
they approached. Matt gestured for her to stand up, which she did, turning to
face the men.

"Hello, Major Shepherd. We have a few simple questions for you and then you and your new friend here can be on your way. Let's get right down to
business. Who do you work for, Major?"

"Retired major, actually. What, no introductions? I like to know who I'm
doing business with since that is what I am; a businessman. I work for
myself. I own a hotel. I was here in this beautiful city of Baltimore on
vacation until you interrupted it." Matt figured it was worth a try.

The second man grabbed Erica's left arm, yanking her around to face Matt and forcefully knocking the side of her head against the bars, holding her there.

"If you do not help us, Major, the lady here is going to have a really bad
day. I don't think you want that to happen, now do you? Who do you work
for?"

Matt looked at Erica, who just stared at the ground. He had a bad feeling in
his stomach. Matt remembered the ordeal in the prison in Korea with Margo.
He didn't want to have to endure something like that again. He couldn't give
them the answers they wanted, but how was he going to protect Erica? Did the team have any leads as to their whereabouts or captors?

"You cage me like an animal and use a defenseless woman to hide behind. You call yourself a man? Why don't you come in here with me and go for it?" Matt had to try and divert their attention away from Erica. It may not work or
matter in the end, but he had to try or else he would never be able to live
with himself. "She has nothing to do with this. Just let her go. You've got
me. Let her go."

The two men glanced at each other. The one in charge nodded toward the door. The other one let go of Erica and unlocked the door to the cage, picking up a piece of pipe. Matt knew it would be difficult to defend himself hand- cuffed to Erica. Pipeman swung at him as Matt ducked away, landing a glancing blow off the back of Matt's shoulder. The pipeman swung again, connecting solidly across his back and then his side. Matt hung on to the bars to help keep his feet, fighting for air. The man left the cage, leaving the door unlocked. Matt felt Erica's hand slide gently over his handcuffed hand still grasping the bar.

"Now that I have your attention, Major, maybe you will cooperate?" The man in charge stood out of Matt's reach looking overly confident and smug. "Let's
try this again, Major. Who are you working for?"

"I already told you. Myself!" Matt responded through clenched teeth.

The man with the pipe hit Erica repeatedly until she slumped down on her
knees. The man in charge reached down to uncuff Erica. Matt grabbed his arm, but the other man was ready for him. He hit Matt on the side of the head and Matt lost his grip. They uncuffed Erica attaching that cuff to a bar and
pushed her into the cage, locking the door behind her.

The leader stopped and looked back through the bars. "Ma'am, it would be in
your best interest to convince the Major, here, to cooperate with us. He's not worth dying for."

Both men climbed the stairs and disappeared into the office.

Matt was dazed but ok. Erica was gasping for air.

"Try to relax and take slower, deeper breaths, if you can," Matt coached
gently, until her breathing became more regular. "Is that better now?"

"Yeah," she responded weakly while attempting to get up and crawl toward the bars next to Matt.

"So you can talk. I wasn't so sure earlier. Although your glares told me plenty," Matt said playfully, smiling at her.

Erica was attempting to turn and sit down against the bars, but stopped to
look over at Matt. "I can't believe you would have expected anything
different," she responded.

"Maybe you should let me take a look at those ribs." From her awkward moves and grimaces, Matt was fairly sure she had some broken ribs. She sat down with her back to Matt so he could check her.

"Typical man. Change the subject instead of admitting any fault." Erica was
trying to put up a good front, but she was scared to death. She had no real
choice but to trust this guy. She didn't know why, but she felt safe with
him. That, however, didn't mean she was letting him off easy.

"It feels like a couple of cracked ribs, nothing too serious. You would
probably feel better lying down."

"I'll stay right here, if you don't mind." She had turned with her back to
the bars, trying to get comfortable.

"Maybe we should try again with the introductions." Matt wanted to keep the
conversation light.

"Sure, let me start. We already know that you are Major Matt Shepherd who
owns a hotel. Or is it Major Matthew Shepherd. That's all that you told us.
Your turn," Erica responded crisply as she kept eye contact with Matt.

Matt noticed a hint of playfulness in her voice and eyes. He chuckled to
himself. "Actually it's retired Major Matthew Quentin Shepherd." That's all
he said, letting the silence hang in the air.

"Ok, since you aren't going to tell me anything about yourself, then you can
tell me a little bit about myself. And, since I have no idea, you could include why I'm stuck here in this cage with you," she prompted.

"You are Erica N. Everett," Matt started, emphasizing the N, "From
Murfreesboro, Tennessee. You are 40, married, and are some sort of
programmer/analyst. It appears that these people want to use you to get me to
talk. How's that?"

"Nicole"

"Whhaat?" Matt asked totally confused.

"You wanted to know what the N stood for. And I am a senior computer
programmer/analyst here in Baltimore to teach a class," she stated matter-of- factly, emphasizing the senior.

"Ok then, let's see what you've figured out about me, Erica." Matt suspected
that she would enjoy this and at the same time it would help keep her mind
busy.

"Now, why would you think I figured anything out about you?"

"Oh, let's just call it a hunch."

"Alright then, I would bet you live in a warm locale which would be the same
location as the hotel," she started.

Matt looked at her quizzically.

She gestured toward his jacket on the floor. "It's not cold enough here for
that jacket. You say you're retired, but you're too young, so something must
have happened to make you retire early. Oh, and I'll guess you retired from
the army. You're single, around 40. So, how's that?" she asked smugly.

"Not bad. I'm impressed." Matt was beginning to think it would've been nice
to get to know this woman better under other circumstances.

"Now for the hard part, Matt. These guys have gone to a lot of trouble to get
you here. I was just checking out that antique store on my way from the
airport. I'm certainly not important. Please tell me you are someone really
important and all this is worth it."

"CJ, left into the alley," Rico instructed into the comlink.

As CJ turned into the alley, he saw the black van with the driver's door open.
The crumpled front of the van with the radiator hissing steam was jammed
against a dumpster. Rico stood over a grocery cart covering a man whose upper torso disappeared into the cart.

"You find all kinds of garbage hanging around in alleys," Rico joked as CJ and
Margo quickly approached, checking inside the van as they passed by the door.

"My, my, my, look what we have here," CJ chuckled as he bound the man's hands behind his back. "I think you need to come have a little chat with us."

Rico, CJ, and Margo corralled the man into the suburban.

"Benny Ray, we have a present for you," CJ chimed into the comlink. "On our
way to pick you up."

"Sorry, Erica, I'm really not an important person. I own a hotel and that's
the truth."

"Well, I don't think hotel owners are abducted and beaten on a regular basis,
so something else is definitely going on." Erica tried to bait Matt, but he
just shrugged his shoulders. "You're not going to tell me anything, are you?"
Erica pouted.

"There is nothing I can tell you."

"Ahh, so you do know what is going on," Erica interrupted.

"Erica, all I can say, and hope, is for you to trust me and give me some time
to get us out of this." Matt hated doing this to her, but he could not risk
the whole operation or the lives of those on his team. Matt heard a door open
and two more men appeared. They climbed ladders to catwalks on both ends of the warehouse. Obviously these people were expecting trouble. Maybe the team would find them in time.

The office door opened and the leader and his thug, pipeman, returned to the
cage. Matt ignored them. They both entered the cage, each grabbing Erica by
an arm. Erica met Matt's desperate gaze. He saw fear in her eyes, but also
determination.

"One last chance, darlin'. What's it going to be?" the leader asked.

Erica tried to shake free. She stomped on pipeman's foot. His grip loosened
and she yanked that arm free. She turned and kneed the leader in the groin.
Pipeman recovered and started beating her with the pipe. Matt tried to get
loose but couldn't. He could only look on in horror as they beat her and had
their way with her. When they were finished, they drug her over and dumped
her in front of Matt, then left.

Matt checked Erica out again, stopping the external bleeding as best he could.
He felt so helpless. All that he could really do was comfort her. He covered her with his jacket and rested her head in his lap. By her ragged breathing, he was sure she had a punctured lung.

Erica opened her eyes and smiled weakly. She could see tears in Matt's eyes.
"I sure hope your hotel has better service than this."

He smiled back surprised at her lightheartedness. "It's not even open yet. I'm still renovating."

"Promise me something, Matt."

"Anything."

"Promise you'll get those bastards."

"Oh, you bet I will." Matt looked at her with determination. "I'm also going
to get you out of here." She gave him a disbelieving look. "I will get you out of here. Everyone comes home." Matt had to keep her from giving up until the team found them. "Erica, I'm curious about something. Why were you so
quick to trust me?"

"Your eyes."

Matt looked at her questioningly. "My eyes? You're kidding, right?"

"Hurts too much to kid." Her voice was getting weaker. "You have the eyes of
a man with a good heart. Besides, those men would have just killed us both,
if you gave them what they wanted." Erica could only get a few words out now with each breath. "Tell my husband I love him." Matt could barely make out what she was saying.

"Erica, come on now, stay with me," he pleaded as she closed her eyes. He
held her hand. "Don't you give up on me." He had to keep her fighting
somehow. "Focus, Erica. Keep breathing. Concentrate on breathing. Do you
hear me?" Matt was practically yelling at her now. "Erica, squeeze my hand
if you can hear me." Matt felt a slight pressure on his hand. "You stay with
me, Erica."

Matt heard an explosion at the far end of the warehouse.

"That looks like the place," CJ commented as he stopped the suburban.

The van driver had been more than willing to cooperate at Benny Ray's
insistance. He gave them the location where he had picked up the van. He had
been instructed to attract the team's attention and provide backup to the
abductors' getaway.

"I'll get to that window from the fire escape. That should be a good vantage
point." Benny Ray carefully made his way up the fire escape.

"See anything, Benny Ray? Do you see Matt?" Margo questioned impatiently.

"Matt is in a cage at the north end of the building. There's an office with
lights on right above him. Two confirmed tangos on catwalks on the east and
west sides of the building. I'll take them. CJ, there's a big door at the
southwest end."

"On my way. I'll set up a diversion." CJ moved out around the left corner of
the building.

"Rico and I will cover Matt and the office. Give us a minute to check out the
entrance." Margo and Rico moved out to the right.

"Matt looks to be ok. There's someone else with him. Doesn't look to be in
too good of shape, either," Benny Ray updated them through the comlink.

"The diversion is good to go." CJ waited for the ready signal.

"We're in position and ready to go," Rico confirmed.

"Blow it, CJ," Benny Ray instructed.

The explosion blew in the big door. At the same time Benny Ray broke the
window. He took aim on the tango nearest him and fired. He quickly got the
other tango in his sights and took him out.

"All clear up top," Benny Ray said into the comlink.

"All clear so far," CJ informed as he moved the length of the building toward
Matt.

"I'll cover the office from here," Benny Ray updated Margo and Rico.

Margo cautiously made her way toward the cage. Shots rang out from the
office. Benny Ray located the tango in the office and nailed him. Margo made
it to the cage door with Rico covering them. She quickly picked the lock and
opened the door. Rico quickly got to Matt while Margo covered him.

"There were four tangos. Did you get them all?" Matt asked concerned. "Can
you get me undone here?" Matt showed Rico the handcuff.

"Margo, can you get this handcuff off while I check them out?"

"CJ, cover us." Margo moved to undo the handcuff while CJ arrived to provide more cover.

"Benny Ray, the Major said there were four tangos. Can you confirm that?"
Rico started checking over Matt.

"Tell the Major that I can only confirm three," Benny Ray said looking through
his sights for any movement.

"I'm ok, Rico. Check on her. She's lost a lot of blood. Most likely a
punctured lung."

Rico quickly looked her over. "We need to get her out of here fast. Who is
she?"

"Just someone in the wrong place at the wrong time. She saved my life." Matt
gently picked her up. "Let's get out of here."

"Benny Ray, we're coming out. Cover us," Rico said into the comlink. "Major,
Benny Ray only confirmed three tangos." Rico knew the news would not sit well with Matt. Rico heard Matt curse under his breath.

"I've got point. Let's go." Margo started retracing her steps to the door.

"I've got your six, Rico." CJ followed Rico, who covered Matt as they
exited.

"CJ, cover me. I'm coming down." Benny Ray slid down the fire escape rail
and made a beeline to the suburban.

Margo secured the suburban and got in to drive. Matt laid Erica down on the
back seat where Rico tended to her. CJ and Benny Ray climbed in the back and Margo took off.


Hermosa Beach, Ca
Saturday 1000 hours
11 months later

A heated volleyball match raged at the sand volleyball court by the pier. The
raucous bantering between the competitors left bystanders wondering if this were a game or a war. Matt, Chance, Margo, and Nick pitted their skills against Benny Ray, Deke, CJ, and Rico. Margo set the ball to Chance who smashed the ball down the line untouched. The ball rolled toward the pier where a woman, looking out of place on the beach, picked the ball up and tossed it back to Benny Ray. Rico noticed Matt intently gazing past the court to the woman standing under the pier with a suitcase sitting in the sand at her feet, nervously smiling back at Matt. She looked vaguely familiar to Rico, but he couldn't place her face right away. Benny Ray tossed the ball to Matt for the next serve. The ball bounced off Matt's chest knocking him out of his trance.

"Oh, sorry. Would you guys excuse me?"

Matt approached the woman, picking up a towel to use on the way. They
embraced and kissed.

"Hey boss, I don't know what's going on, but I do know you can't quit this game. Not now! We have these guys on the ropes," Nick challenged, breaking everyone's silence as they stood watching this drama unfold in front of them.

With his arm protectively around her shoulders, Matt guided the woman toward the group. "Everyone, I want you to meet Erica. How about taking a breather and I'll be back in a few minutes." Matt picked up Erica's luggage and they headed for the Silver Star arm in arm, without giving anyone the opportunity to talk to her.

"I'm sorry for putting you in such an awkward position with the team. I wouldn't have come if I knew you had planned an alumni get-together." Erica had already been nervous about meeting the team without interrupting their social time. It had been two months since Matt and her had seen or heard from each other. Matt had been perfectly clear when he left after his last visit that the next move was hers. She had thought long and hard about the decision to enter Matt's world. She had expected the entrance to be much less obvious and certainly not so intrusive.

"Don't worry about it. I couldn't be happier about your visit. Now is as good a time as any to meet the team." All that Matt knew was that in the instant he had recognized Erica tossing the ball back to Benny Ray, he had felt like the luckiest man in the world. Their last encounter left him with little hope of seeing her again, especially since two months had passed with no contact.

They arrived at the Silver Star where Matt showed Erica into his office. He took her in his arms and kissed her passionately. The mood was interrupted by a quick knock as the door opened.

"Trout, you're supposed to wait for an answer to the knock. And, as usual, your timing stinks," Matt chastised as he released the obviously embarrassed Erica.

"From the looks of this, if I hadn't barged in, you would never have answered the door," Trout explained.

"You're probably right. Why don't you get a drink at the bar and I'll be out in a minute."

"Excuse the interruption, Ms. Everett. I'll be waiting, Matt." Trout put the case he was carrying on the floor and left.

"I wonder how many awkward moments can be stuffed into one day. I guess I
shouldn't be so surprised that he would recognize me on sight." Erica felt out of place and overwhelmed already and it hadn't even been an hour since arriving.

Matt laughed. "It could get much more interesting before this day is over. Do you mind if I go back and finish the volleyball match?"

"No, not at all. In fact I would enjoy watching. Why don't you go on ahead? I'll change into more appropriate beach attire and be out shortly."

Matt gave her a quick kiss and left. Erica changed clothes and went out to the bar.

"Can I get you a drink, Ms. Everett? By the way I'm Xavier Trout."

"Thank you, Xavier, a lemonade would be good. You can call me Erica. Hey, why don't you accompany me out to watch the volleyball match? It has the potential to be quite entertaining."

"I'm not really dressed for the occasion."

"Oh, just take your jacket and tie off, roll up your sleeves, and you're good to go." She thought he looked like he needed to loosen up anyway.

Trout figured this was a perfect opportunity to get to know her, so he did as she suggested. Then they headed out to the beach.

"Does anyone have a clue as to what that was just now?" Margo couldn't believe Matt had been seeing someone secretly.

"I believe the term is love," CJ responded smartly.

"How long has Matt been seeing her?" Chance asked curiously but approvingly.

"Didn't know he was seeing anyone." Benny Ray couldn't believe Matt had never mentioned her.

"If you ask me that looked pretty serious." Nick was surprised but still impressed with Matt's deception.

"I think we should give him the benefit of the doubt and save this discussion for Matt." Deke believed everyone deserved their personal freedom.

"I agree," Rico said supportively. "Do you guys realize who she is?"

"What do you mean? She's obviously someone after Matt and she has him
hooked." Margo felt real uneasy about the whole situation.

"She's the woman from the Baltimore incident," Deke stated smoothly.

"You weren't even around then, Deke. How would you know, even if it were true?" Benny Ray whipped back at him.

"I have my sources." Deke wasn't going to reveal too much.

"That's where I saw her before," Rico confirmed.

"The last report I heard, she had brain damage and was in a coma," CJ brought up.

"What was the Baltimore incident?" Nick asked frustrated at being in the dark
again.

"About a year ago, Matt was abducted along with that woman. She was severely beaten. We rescued them, dropped her off at a hospital, and that was, we thought, the end of it," Margo recapped for everyone.

"The Major and I did visit her the next day before her husband arrived. She was in a coma. The doctors feared she had suffered permanent brain damage from severe blood loss resulting from her internal injuries." Rico was unaware of the Major keeping tabs on her.

"She better not assume Matt owes her too much." Margo knew Matt would be an easy target, if this woman wanted to use his guilty feelings to her advantage.

"Well, it's obvious the Major is the only one that can clear this up," Benny Ray said with finality.

"Speaking of the Major, here he comes," Chance warned them.

Matt noticed all the questioning looks as he approached the volleyball court but decided to ignore them for now. "OK, everybody ready? Well then, let the games begin again," Matt said cheerily. Matt ran back to the service line and waited for everyone else to get ready, then served the ball.

It wasn't long before Matt spied Erica and Trout heading for the beach chairs he had set up. Matt chuckled to himself knowing that it wasn't Trout's idea to be on the beach. It was just an opportunity to talk with Erica privately and Trout just couldn't pass that up.

The game continued a little more subdued than previous to the break, but the
competition had not wavered at all. It wasn't long before CJ went down with a
sprained ankle.

"Come on CJ, it can't be that bad," Benny Ray encouraged.

"Let me take a look at it." Rico checked it out. "I'd say he's done for the day."

"Too bad guys. Looks like you'll just have to play with three. Or you could go ahead and forfeit to us." Nick just couldn't resist needling the others.

Rico helped CJ over to the sideline where Erica and Trout sat. "Erica, would you like to fill in?" Rico figured this would be a good way for her to break the ice.

Erica looked Matt's way. He nodded ever so slightly in a way that said 'go ahead if you want to'. "Sure, if it's ok with everyone else. I think you should know, I haven't played in a long time." No one opposed it, so Erica headed for CJ's spot in the rotation between Deke and Benny Ray.

On the very first play, the ball was headed up by the net right for Erica. She yelled, "I got it." Benny Ray jumped in front of her to hit the ball, bumping her out of the way.

"Come on, Benny Ray, give me a chance to screw up before counting me out," Erica challenged as calmly as possible.

Benny Ray just shrugged his shoulders. Matt chuckled to himself, pleased that she had not backed down from Benny Ray. Benny Ray hadn't accepted Margo until she stood up to him. Matt figured the same was in store for Erica.

The next rotation was Erica's turn to serve. She punched the ball over the net with no spin and watched it float like a knuckleball toward Nick. Nick ended up hitting the ball out of bounds.

"Come on Nick, pay attention," Matt criticized.

"How'd ya do that? The ball wobbled back and forth," Nick complained.

Erica shrugged innocently, "Luck, I guess."

She served two more times. Matt's team had no success in returning them.

"She's a ringer, Matt. I can't believe you brought a ringer into the game," Nick whined.

"I didn't ask her to play."

"Quit whining, Delvecchio, and just play," Benny Ray yelled over the net at Nick.

The next serve grazed the net; side out to Chance. Erica handled the serve nicely and Benny Ray smashed the next hit over the net. Erica anticipated Matt's block, lunging quickly for the ball keeping the play alive. The game continued two more rotations, placing Erica up by the net across from Matt. The ball came toward the net where Erica was ready. Erica went up after it like she would spike it, but just dinked it over Matt's outstretched arms. The ball fell harmlessly to the sand. Rico, Deke and even Benny Ray ran over, giving high fives to Erica. Erica went back to her position across from Matt and winked at him.

"What kind of lame hit was that?" he asked.

"You scared me, looming over me like that," she teased right back.

The ball barely cleared the net, down the line on the next play. Matt came flying over to block with his body angling toward the line slightly. Erica spiked it, connecting pretty solidly, but the ball went straight into Matt's block, coming back over the net and falling out of bounds. Erica looked over at Matt with a twinkle in her eye. "Our ball. Sorry!"

"You know what Erica, I could learn to really hate playing against you," Matt said disgustedly.

"Maybe this is just beginner's luck," Erica taunted.

"Somehow I don't really think so."

The match ended with Erica's side winning two games to one for Matt's side. CJ hobbled over to congratulate his side and gave Erica a cheerful hug, much to her surprise.

"You can fill in for me any time you want," CJ commented excitedly.

Erica headed over to help gather up all the belongings. "So, did you enjoy the match?" she asked Trout.

"I have to admit, it got much more interesting after you started playing."

Matt ran over to join them, picked up the chairs and started to walk back to the Silver Star.

"I wasn't sure if I was going to survive after the first couple of plays," Erica commented and laughed while taking a good look at how Trout awkwardly
maneuvered in the sand. "You know, Xavier, you should invest in some decent shoes for your beach escapades."

Matt burst out laughing. "You might as well save your breath. I told him that a long time ago. I am impressed though. The tie and jacket are missing."

Trout laughed along with them, then waved good-bye and headed for his waiting car and driver.

Everyone made their way into the Silver Star and claimed the team's favorite
corner. Matt got everyone a round of drinks, then sat down next to Erica. He
reached over and took Erica's hand in his.

"Hey Erica, I thought you said you weren't any good at volleyball. From what I saw you could teach us a thing or two," Chance said.

"I never said I couldn't play. I said it had been a while."

"You played some volleyball in college, didn't you?" Deke brought up.

"Ahh, you've done your homework, haven't you," Erica said surprised, but not
disapproving.

"Erica, I've got to ask. How long did the coma last?" Rico couldn't wait any
longer.

"Three months with another month of rehab before getting back to work."

"That's amazing. Those doctors had written you off. You sure showed them just like you showed us out on the volleyball court," Rico responded excitedly.

"From the reports I heard, you were married at the time," Benny Ray wanted
this cleared up fast.

Erica felt Matt tense. She squeezed his fingers trying to signal him to let
her respond to them. She did not want Matt getting caught in the middle or
having to take sides.

"I was."

"What, you dumped him to chase after Matt?" Margo interrupted before Erica
could continue.

"No," Erica paused to choose her words carefully, "and I would hope none of
you ever have to experience this. My husband of fifteen years, was killed in
a wreck when a dump truck ran a red light and broadsided his car four months
ago."

This news shocked everyone into an awkward silence. Erica sat staring at her
and Matt's hands, fiddling with his fingers.

"I'm really sorry for your loss, Erica," Chance said sympathetically.

"Thanks, I appreciate that," Erica responded softly.

"The bottom line here, people, is that I initiated the relationship with Erica." Matt let that soak in. "Is anyone up for lunch?" He wanted to keep things moving.

Everyone decided to get cleaned up and go to lunch together. Matt grabbed
Erica's luggage and took her upstairs to his place.

"Well that turned out better than expected," Matt told Erica, chuckling at all
the events of the day.

"That was plain 'ol exhausting."

"Don't worry, you're doing fine."

"It didn't feel like I was doing fine when Benny Ray was knocking me around."

Matt smiled mischievously, "I thought you handled him pretty well. You
certainly haven't disappointed me."

"It just really ticks me off to be dismissed before having any chance at
all."

Matt took Erica in his arms. "I sure have missed you. Watching you handle
all the situations today just makes me want you even more."

"Lunch, remember?"

"Yeah, yeah, ok. Why don't you lie down and rest while I take a quick
shower."

"So Erica, I would assume the Major swept you off your feet," Chance pried as everyone ate lunch.

"Yeah, the poor grieving widow needing a shoulder to cry on," Nick added as
Benny Ray lightly backhanded the side of Nick's head in disgust. "Hey, we
have to be able to picture the scene."

"I'm sure glad I wasn't expecting any sensitivity from this bunch," Erica replied jovially. "Go ahead and start this off, Matt. I'm sure they'll enjoy your perspective."

"Are you sure?" Matt knew he was going to have to feed them more details than he was really comfortable with. But this was a very unusual situation and he really wanted the team to accept Erica.

"Yeah, might as well be your version, rather than waiting for these guys to
come up with one."

"I went to Tennessee and found Erica's house. I was about to knock on the
front door when I heard a commotion inside. The inside door was open and I
was standing on the outside of a screen door. A box came tumbling down the
steps into the entryway, spilling all over the floor. I heard someone cursing from up the steps. Next thing I know, there's Erica, kicking the daylights out of that poor box. After she was sure it was lifeless, she sat down next to it, obviously upset."

"See, here comes the crying on the shoulder part," Nick throws in.

"Shut up!" Benny Ray and Deke yelled simultaneously at Nick.

Matt continued. "I asked if I could give her a hand. She slowly turned her
head around and looked at me, then turned away from me. I waited for some
response. When she said nothing, I said that I had come to offer her my help.
She stood up and walked to the door with a very confused look on her face. I
assumed she hadn't recognized me, but then she said my name. Nothing else,
just my name. She looked at me like she had seen a ghost."

Everyone looked Erica's way for an explanation. "Well, I was confused.
Everything involving Matt and the coma were just dreams to me. Matt was
standing in front of me talking, therefore he definitely wasn't a dream. But,
five minutes earlier, he had just been a dream. I was having a little trouble
sorting things out. In that instant I wasn't sure which memories were real and which were actually dreams."

"So what happened next? You obviously didn't throw him out." CJ wanted
more.

"No, she opened the door and let me in, stared at me for a little while longer, then finally asked if I would help carry boxes to the garage." Matt laughed along with everyone else.

"I needed time to make sense out of my thoughts, so what better way to stall
than keeping him busy. But then he went and made it even more awkward. I
mean there I was, still not convinced that my husband was not going to come
walking in that door any second and what was the first thing Matt did." Erica
paused for effect. "He took his shirt off."

Now it was Matt's turn to go on the defensive. "She was putting me to work.
I didn't want to get my shirt all sweaty. Besides, I still had a t-shirt
on."

"So did things heat up then," Nick asked deviously as only Nick could do.

"Right, Delvecchio. We were carrying boxes containing all of Erica's recently
deceased husband's belongings. That was a real mood setter."

Everyone seemed to enjoy or at least be interested in the story.

"Matt was the perfect gentleman. He invited me to dinner."

"Which she declined," Matt added quickly.

"What?" almost everyone responded in unison, looking at Erica.

"Hey, I wasn't comfortable with the idea of dating so soon after the funeral.
Matt convinced me that he just wanted to talk and make sure I was ok, then he would be out of my life."

"Good line, Major," Chance said laughing and giving him a thumbs up.

"So how did he get in the door the second time?" Rico asked.

Matt gave Erica a look like 'got you on this one'. Erica blushed. "You really did play me quite well, didn't you?" Erica smiled and threw a wadded napkin at Matt. Matt just shrugged. "Find the weakness and move in for the kill. I should have seen that one coming, since that is what you do best."

"Is someone going to fill us in or just sit there making faces at each other?"
CJ asked in anticipation.

"She likes to play golf. I just offered to caddy for her and she consented.
Eagerly, I might add. I picked her up the next morning, she played a round of
golf, and we spent the day together."

"Golf?" Deke couldn't believe it.

Erica looked around the group. "Why is that so hard to believe? Just like
Benny Ray cleans his weapons, I play golf," Erica responded defensively.

Matt winced knowing that comment would not go unnoticed, or unchallenged.



Hermosa Beach, Ca
Saturday 1400 hours

Matt and Erica went for a walk after lunch. Erica's reference to Benny Ray had set off a chain reaction of opposition and questions. Matt reminded them this was not the place for this discussion and set up a meeting for everyone to
meet back at the Silver Star at 1500 hours.

"I'm not so sure now that I should have come to L.A."

"What do you mean? I think things are going well."

"That is a tough crowd you run around with. They'll never trust me. And I'm
sure not going to be able to get them to believe what has happened. I can't
believe you convinced me that I could."

"Come on, Erica. You're a fighter. I've been a witness to that. You're not
giving up that easily. Benny Ray and Margo are hard sells, I'll admit that. If you can get them to respect you for now, the trust will come later."

"We have no proof of my story. Nothing to back up the whole thing. You have to admit, you were pretty easy to convince."

"Not that easy. I checked you out every way I could. Trout did too. And it
sounds like Deke did some checking of his own. Probably did that while he was checking me out before joining the team. I believe you, and I trust you. That has to count for something."

"I told you before, they have no reason to believe me. They have more reasons not to believe me. Obviously, they will assume your judgment has been impaired because you're sleeping with me."

"Stop worrying so much. Trout and I are both on your side. From what I could tell, I think you already have Rico and Deke leaning your way. You can't give up before you even try. Besides, now you've made a strategic mistake." Matt smiled victoriously at Erica.

Erica glanced at Matt mischievously and took off running down the beach. He
chased her down and applied a bear hug. She laughed while lightly struggling
to break free.

"Don't let it go to your head, Major, sir," she said toying with him. "I came
out here for my benefit. To see if I had any chance of fitting into your world. Not to let you think you could control me."

Matt put his hands up in the air submissively while smiling back at her. "Oh,
you don't have to worry about that, ma'am. From the moment we first met, and that first glare, I knew I would never control you. But, by you coming to
visit, I now know positively that you do care about me. So there's no way I'm
letting you easily get rid of me."

Hermosa Beach
Silver Star basement
1500 hours

"I thought it would be a good idea for everyone to have a chance to clear the
air a little. So here is your opportunity." Matt opened the conversation.

"Where's Erica?" Margo asked.

"She's upstairs. She'll be down after while."

"Matt, it seems to me that she is just too familiar with us. How is that? I keep telling myself that you would never breach security like that, so what is going on?" Margo started with the question on most of their minds.

"I'm going to let her brief you on the details. I will tell you that I have not breached security. Trout and I have both checked her out very thoroughly."

"I've done some digging, too. She checks out," Deke added.

"With all due respect Major, I just don't buy it. If no one has leaked
information to her, then how does she know so much. You never even introduced us to her and I get the distinct feeling she knows a lot of details about us." Benny Ray was a little agitated.

"You know Benny Ray, even if I knew nothing about you, I would still assume
you were a jarhead just by looking at you." Rico joked to everybody's delight. "It's not that big of a leap to your favorite past-time."

"Benny Ray, you remember when I ended up ordering you and Margo to wear full wrap-around vests for that one mission?" Matt asked.

"Yeah, I remember thinking you were off your rocker if you were that paranoid. The mission didn't call for it, but I did it. It saved my bacon, too. I had a dandy bruise, but I survived. You never did explain that one."

"We were too busy trying to get out of there and no one brought it up later."
Matt grinned. "I sure was glad about that."

"So why did you give us that order, sir?" Benny Ray asked officially.

"The first weekend that I went to visit Erica, she gave me a note. All that it said was if we went on a mission to a government installation looking for evidence of chemical weapons, Benny Ray would be seriously injured from a
bullet which penetrated around the edge of his vest. Sure enough Benny Ray,
you would've been in a lot of trouble."

"Ok boss, are you trying to tell us she has a crystal ball? Can she tell me
which babe is hot for me out on the beach?" Nick asked excitedly.

"Like I said before, I'm going to let her explain. She doesn't have a crystal
ball and you're on your own with the babes, Nick."

"Matt, I'm really concerned if you're seeing straight on this one. You know
that none of us would ever allow a friend to get too close to our operation.
Have the rules changed because it's you this time?" Margo knew this was
touchy, but she had to ask it.

"That's a fair question. I can't explain everything, at least not in absolutes. Her intel has helped this team in ways we may never fully understand. After she tells her side, you can choose to believe or not. I will tell you this, I personally owe her a lot." Margo started to interrupt, but Matt cut her off. "This team will continue to benefit from her intel. Margo, she's the reason I found my father."

"Major, you really found your father?" Chance asked incredulously.

Matt flashed a smile of pride and relief. "Yes. Erica knew he was John
Jones, a Chinese agent, code named White Dragon. He had been brain- washed and was being controlled by the Chinese. We dug up enough intel to locate and extract him by staging a fatal accident, so the Chinese wouldn't come looking for him."

"So he's here?" CJ was happy for Matt.

"Yeah! Actually he's in Michigan. He went through a lot of deprogramming but
is doing good. All court-martial offenses have been dropped, since they
realized it wasn't his fault and he was under the Chinese' control. Mom and
he decided to give it a try again." Matt looked to be about as proud and
happy as a son could be. "All I ask is for you to listen to Erica. Try to
understand and, if possible, believe her story. When you've heard what she
has to say and you still doubt her, well, we'll worry about that then. Give
her a chance. With all she's been through, we owe her at least one chance to
explain."

Matt's phone rang. "Excuse me." He answered the phone, "Shepherd." He
smiled. "I'll be right up." He turned nervously to the group. "That was Erica. I'll bring her down."

"I have no idea what Matt has told you. You are the only people that I will
ever tell about this. You're probably the only people I have any chance of
convincing." Erica was so nervous she didn't think she could possibly stand
up through this ordeal. She went over to the equipment table and, with Matt's
help, hopped up to sit on it.

"I'm going to start this out by saying that I am not an overly religious person. I do believe in fate. This sounds like Star Trek; fate, the final frontier." She chuckled. "That day in Baltimore was fate. I believe that now with all my heart. I was on my way to my company's Baltimore office to teach a class. I arrived the night before the class and happened to see the sign for an antique shop, so I stopped to check it out. I was looking at the stuff in the front window. That's all I remember until I saw Matt in that cage."

"Just seeing him probably scared you to death," Chance joked. Matt picked up a football and threw at him.

"After I woke from the coma, I had a lot of different memories and thoughts going through my mind. The time in the coma was like one long dream, but then the images became more real. Usually a dream just fades from your memory, but these kept invading my thoughts again and again. I finally decided to create a journal just hoping that I could get these over- riding thoughts out of my head. Normally I repeat whatever it is I want to remember over and over in my mind so I don't forget it, or until I write it down. I thought maybe if the details were recorded, then my subconscious would let it go, and I could continue my recovery so I could get back to work sooner. In the process I lumped everything about Baltimore and Matt into that dream. I guess subconsciously, it was easier than dealing with their reality."

"The dream covered the rest of Matt and my lifetimes together. Each lifetime
started in the same place, then always ended in someone's death. Then a new
lifetime story would start. The repetition occurred four times. Some
experiences in each lifetime were the same, while others were just similar.
Still other experiences were unique to just one lifetime. Events seemed to
change in subsequent lifetimes because decisions changed, based on lessons
learned in the previous lifetimes."

"Before the dream started, I was in this quiet perfect place. It was bright and cheery, but I can't say there was actually any scenery or anything to catch your attention. It was just so peaceful. This older couple met me there, like they were expecting me. They reminded me of my grandparents, but they weren't mine. They sat with me and talked. I felt so happy to be with them. It's hard to describe, it was so comfortable. Sometimes it seemed like they talked in riddles. They warned me. No, it wasn't a warning. It was more like a plea to learn as much as I could from the lessons yet to be revealed. I had no clue what they wanted me to learn. This was just part of the riddles. They did introduce themselves, but at the time for some reason, I didn't understand the connection."

"What a way to get a man's attention on your first date!" CJ interjected.

Everyone got a kick out of that. "Actually, I waited until his second visit. He received it about as well as you can all imagine. That does have me a little puzzled. You aren't even making faces at me. Did Matt hypnotize you or
something?"

"Nope, didn't do a thing to them. She really did tell me on my second visit
and I really did pretty much just laugh in her face. On the third visit, I brought along a bunch of pictures of elderly couples. She picked my grandparents out with no problem."

"So you're telling us this couple in your dream was Matt's grandparents?"
Margo was having a little trouble swallowing this.

"Yes. They introduced themselves as Mr. and Mrs. Shepherd and they had a son named Quentin." Erica let all this sink in for a moment. "When Matt showed up at my door, my mind went into an instant whirlwind. His presence meant that a lot of my dream may not have been actual dreaming after all. I couldn't sort through everything fast enough. That's why I didn't believe that he was real. He had to be a ghost or something, but he wasn't. There was so much information from the dream. I needed to find out if any of it was true or
real. I decided to give Matt a note about one thing that happened early in each of the lifetimes. I gave it to him at the last possible moment before boarding the plane so he didn't have time to discuss it with me. I certainly didn't trust my thoughts on the whole subject and neither would he, but I needed some sort of proof."

"That was cruel, Erica. You left the Major with a whole lot of doubts for that long ride home. He should've been able to sit back and bask in the warm
memories of the weekend, instead you knock him for a loop. By the time the
plane landed, you were probably ready to kill her, right sir?" Chance
empathized.

"I'm really surprised there ever was a second weekend in this relationship."
Margo added.

Erica looked to Matt for some kind of support. Matt shrugged as if to say
'told you', then came to her rescue. "Actually it guaranteed a second visit. I had to find out what was going on. But before I could even talk to Erica,
Trout needed our help with, you guessed it, exactly what her note stated. By
the time I did call her, I just decided to make plans for another visit and deal with her in person."

"Ooo, now we get to the juicy part," Nick said in anticipation.

"If I didn't know better, I'd think you guys were much more interested in the
gossip surrounding our relationship than you were in getting to the bottom of
a potential security breach," Erica said looking around the room at everyone
as the smiles disappeared. They seemed ready to get back to business.
"Suffice it to say, yes Matt was angry when he visited the second time. But
hey, a relationship needs bumps in the road, otherwise you have no reason to
make up. And the making up part afterwards can be a lot of fun." She winked
at Matt. There was an uproar of consent and 'at-a-boys' to that one. Matt
just stood with his arms crossed, smiling and slowly shaking his head back and
forth in disbelief.

"OK, moving along." Erica looked a little sheepish as she waited for everyone
to quiet down.

"After Matt's second visit, I painstakingly reviewed my post-coma journal. If
the dream had prevented Benny Ray from being hurt, then what else was it
trying to tell me. I also concentrated on remembering more details of what
Matt's grandparents were trying to get across to me. The only conclusion I
came to, was a possible common theme in all the lifetimes depicted in the
dream. The theme was that Matt's life, or his desire to continue with his work, would end prematurely if something didn't change. So I decided to try and figure out what needed to change."

"Why would you think you could tell how best to change something that you had no experience dealing with?" Margo was concerned about decisions made on her behalf.

"I read her journal. Besides gleaning specific names and events from it, I
couldn't really come to any conclusions. She showed me her conclusions. I
was astounded at the insight her conclusions proved she had. They were good
conclusions, I just couldn't easily follow the logic to her conclusions. I think part of the fate here is that she has the mind to absorb all this information and do something with it."

"The conclusion for Benny Ray and I to wear full vests was a no-brainer, Matt. How could this be so hard?" Margo continued.

"Wearing full vests was my reaction to her intel. She never suggested how to
fix the problem. Tell them about my father, and Debbie," Matt instructed
Erica.

"I believe that Matt's father eventually would have surfaced whether Matt went after him or not. In the dream he was part of a Chinese plot to kill one of
their own leaders while in France and make it look like a heart attack. The
French found a fingerprint from Matt's father and traced it to his MIA records. The team went after him and caught him. He eventually entered the witness protection program. Each lifetime pretty much depicted this same scenario. The events after that changed all the time. The stress of the lonely life and guilt caused Matt's father to die of a heart attack within six months. Other times the Chinese tried to use either Matt or I as leverage to find his father. And still another time, they made it look like Matt was killed in an explosion, just so they could abduct him and try to brainwash him as a replacement for his father. The cycle had to be broken. Matt's father had to be brought back before his mission in France, and in a way that the Chinese wouldn't look for him. Only then would the Chinese leave Matt alone."

"Another situation was a conspiracy to force Matt's team into extinction.
The Russians sold intel on his team. You were a threat to them and they needed money. They planted Debbie in the bar and Jody Frost in Trout's office to gather information that they could sell and to keep tabs on all of
you. The man that abducted Matt and I in Baltimore was one of the buyers. Somehow the Russians were selling the information in a way to make the buyers paranoid enough to think you were after them. The Russians wanted to take your entire operation down, all the way to the top, with nothing being traced back to them. All the while they were getting rich and getting you
guys hurt, maimed, or killed. Matt's life became more and more complicated and painful because of all those people gunning for him. At one point he was in jail after being set up and put on trial for a terrorist attack that killed over 100 people with a virus. He was beaten nearly to death once. Another time he was left floating in a raft on the open ocean for days with no supplies. Repeatedly, he was left thinking I had been killed. Debbie and Jody had to be exposed along with their accomplices to break this cycle. Then you had to be sure no one else sneaked in, so you also needed to be aware of the buyers' identities."

"I have to admit, I had selfish reasons to alter these cycles. I personally got hurt, emotionally and physically, quite often. I will not enter Matt's life under these conditions. So I summarized what must change and why, then passed it on to Matt on his third visit."

"All these things have already taken place. You still could be part of the
conspiracy to take us down. How can we know for sure?" Benny Ray
questioned.

"If you're looking for a black and white answer, you're going to be
disappointed. I'd like to have one, too. Benny Ray, you have a son named
Billy. There was a boy named Billy in all the lifetimes who was always
connected with the Herrera family in a Mexican drug cartel. In the first two
lifetimes, Billy was Herrara's 9-year-old grandson, killed by a land mine on
grandpa's property. In the last two lifetimes, Billy was your son, Benny Ray;
abducted by the daughter, Katrina Herrera. Granted your Billy was not killed
in the dream, but things always change in the subsequent lifetimes. Because
the first two Billy's died, I think it is likely that your Billy will die."

The entire group had become very somber. Erica looked around the room
concerned at the change in the group.

"Major, did you know about this?" Benny Ray asked, starting to get agitated
again.

"No, Benny Ray, I must have missed that one."

"Matt, what's wrong? Don't tell me you're the reason Katrina and her father
are in prison?" Erica knew a major chord had been struck, but wasn't sure
what it was.

"I'm sure you noticed the scars on Matt's legs. Katrina just about killed him," Margo clarified.

"She came close to taking out the whole team," Matt added. "Is there anything
you can tell us to help narrow the timeframe?"

"All I know is her father dies in prison and she gets out somehow after that.
She shows up here and kidnaps Billy to bring Benny Ray to her. She wants to
take out the whole team, but decides Benny Ray is first."

"When does her father die?" Benny Ray demanded.

"I don't know. I wish I did." Erica was afraid everything was going to fall
apart now.

Matt was already dialing his phone. "I'll alert Trout to monitor the situation. We'll know the status of Herrara soon enough."

Benny Ray walked over to Erica, still sitting on the table, and put his .50
caliber bullet against her chin. "I'll ask again. When is Katrina getting out of jail to kidnap my boy?"

"I have no way of telling what the timelines are in the dream. I wish I did, I really do. I'm still trying to figure that out."

Matt hung up the phone and came over to stand right next to Benny Ray.
"That's enough, Benny Ray."

Benny Ray still faced Erica and kept eye contact with her. "No sir, it isn't. She either fesses up to the source of her intel or she has no business being here."

"Benny Ray, back off. That's an order."

Benny Ray walked away from Erica and Matt.

"If I had dug into the team like you obviously assume that I have, then
wouldn't I have known about Matt being shot? I'm not the enemy." Erica was
close to losing control. She jumped down off the table and quickly headed out
the tunnel.

Matt followed her to the tunnel. "Erica," he pleaded. He knew he couldn't
follow her and leave the team just then. He turned and approached the team,
but looked back toward the tunnel with indecision and concern in his eyes.

"I'll go after her, Major." Rico headed in the direction of the tunnel.

"She threatened my boy, Major, and she threatened me," Benny Ray said sharply, face to face with Matt.

"Benny Ray, the dream may have been threatening to you, but she did not
threaten you, herself." Chance tried to diffuse the situation.

"This dream thing is like voodoo. The power of voodoo is whether you believe in it. The fear it creates is all a state of mind. You're letting her voodoo
get inside your heads," Benny Ray countered still in Matt's face.

"Voodoo or not, what if her intel is good? Can we afford to ignore it?" CJ
brought up.

"So what do we do now?" Matt threw it out to the team breaking eye contact
with Benny Ray and moving to the center of the room.

"She knows too much. We have to protect ourselves and our interests. Matt,
I'm really sorry, but we've simply got to know more about her and her
motives," Margo said sincerely, seeing the hurt in Matt's eyes. "What would
we do if she was anyone else with this kind of unknown access to the team?"

Matt didn't like where this was going, but he had little choice. The team had
to come first. "Keep her under tight surveillance and gather intel," Matt
answered, sighing heavily. "CJ, you and Nick sweep the place; everything.
Margo, gather all the intel you can find. Poke some holes in her story."
Matt started to walk away.

"Sir, you're forgetting something," Chance pointed out regretfully.

Matt lowered his head and ran his hand through his hair grasping the back of
his neck while slowly turning back toward the team. "Yeah, I know. Will you
leave the surveillance to my discretion?"

Margo's eyebrows raised as she looked at Matt questioningly. "Can we?"

"Yes," he answered, feeling beaten. "I'll update you tonight on my plan."

"What about checking out her place?" Nick asked just to be safe all avenues
were covered.

"Deke and Chance can cover that." Matt figured they would be the most
discreet. "Benny Ray, go through her journal," he added, picking the journal
up from the desk and handing it to Benny Ray. "Does that cover everything?"
Everyone nodded in agreement. "Let's move, then. Rico and I will stay with
Erica."

Rico ran out the tunnel after Erica. He saw no sign of her in the alley, so he headed for the beach. He scanned the beach, finally spotting her jogging
toward the water. He took off after her. When he caught up with her, she was
sitting on a rock, peering out over the water.

"Can I join you?"

She wiped the tears from her face. "If you're not afraid of being labelled a
sympathizer."

"They mean well, even though it may not seem like it."

"I told Matt this would happen."

"Did you know it would happen this way?"

"No. It always happens differently, but the results are always the same; Margo and Benny Ray make my life miserable," she said dejected. "Matt was so sure this way would work."

"It was working."

"Yeah, if I just hadn't picked the Billy story."

"If something is really going to happen to Billy, then it was an important story to bring up."

"I should've waited until Benny Ray was more comfortable with the whole thing, but, for Billy's sake, I didn't dare wait." She paused. "Do you believe me, Rico? Do you believe any of it?"

"In my line of work, I've seen just about everything. I believe it could be
possible."

Erica and Rico sat in silence for a while watching the waves.

"They're going to tear my life apart now, aren't they?"

"Probably."

"What would you do if you were in my situation?"

"I think you're just going to have to trust in that fate you told us about. Be patient and let the cards fall where they may."

"I should just have gone on with my life without Matt."

"It sounds to me like you're trying to do the right thing and make things better. That's what the team is all about, too. I would think Matt and your relationship would be worth a fight."

"I'm going to sit here for a while, Rico. I'm ok. You don't need to babysit me."

"Alright. I'll let the Major know you're here."

"Yeah," she chuckled bittersweetly. "He's probably got his hands full." Rico
headed back to the bar. "Rico?" He turned back toward her. "Thanks."

"It will work out ok." He felt sorry for her. She had been through a lot in such a short time, no matter what her motives.

Matt was sitting on the patio outside the bar when Rico returned. He looked
up at Rico expectantly.

"She's ok. She's out at the rock outcroppings. How did it go?"

"Not good." Matt filled him in.

"She's expecting this. It must've happened before. Do what you must, Major.
I'll be around if you need me."

Matt headed out to get Erica. He walked out to the water and headed up the
beach. He could see Erica sitting on a rock in the distance. He also saw a
man purposefully running straight for her. The man ran over to her and leaned
back against a rock facing her. Matt started double timing it. Erica and the
man walked together a short distance in the opposite direction from Matt, then
the man took off running again. When Matt caught up with Erica, she was
carrying her shoes and solemnly walking, watching the trailing water swirling
around her feet.

"Hi," Matt said as he slowed to match her stride.

"Hi." She continued watching the sand in front of her.

"Who was that?"

"Chad, an off-duty lifeguard out for a jog."

"What did he want?"

"He wanted to be sure I knew it wasn't safe to stay by the rocks with the tide
coming in. Are you going to chase him down now and interrogate him?" she
asked cynically.

"No. Actually I was more concerned for your safety than suspicious."

"Sure.... There's always that ever present seed of doubt, isn't there. Tell me, was that two percent or forty-eight percent suspicion?" she asked crisply.

"I told you before, I do trust you."

She stopped and faced him. "And I told you before, this wouldn't work. There
was no sense in me coming to L.A. and no chance of fitting into your world.
But no, you, the forever optimist, convinced me to take a shot at it. Well
guess what, Matt. Stupid me can't even get on a plane and go home now, can
I?" She walked away from him.

He knew she had every right to be angry, but there was nothing he could say to make it better. He wanted to make it up to her somehow. "Hey, come on, let's go," Matt said as he caught up with her, grabbing her hand and pulling her
toward the boardwalk. "We can at least have some fun tonight while everyone
else is busy." She looked at him like he was crazy. "Come on, it'll be fun
and a good distraction. We can forget all of this until tomorrow," Matt
coaxed.

She continued resisting his tugs while she considered. "Alright, I guess."

He offered her his arm and she took it. They headed for the boardwalk trying
to forget their troubles.



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