Just Once

By SouthernSlider
Originally posted at the JOC Fanatics BBoard.

PROLOGUE

Shell sat on the top step of the front porch, toes pointed inward, elbows on her knees, chin in her hands, just staring into the bright blue sky of mid-morning. Small white clouds scudded across the heavens, blocking the sun occasionally. Shell tried to see familiar shapes in them like she did as a child, but nothing was there. . . just like in her heart.

The screen door squeaked open and then slammed shut. Shell never moved as the figure approached her from behind.

"Shell, you cainít jest set there all day, ever day." said the woman.

"No, mama." was the only answer.

"You gotta get up and get goiní. Get some chores done." she continued.

"Yes, mama." she said robotically.

The large woman sighed, then continued. "Shell, you cainít just waste away the rest of yore life." She was unable to hide her irritation.

"No, mama."

"Youíre a young woman. You gotta lotta liviní to do yet. And you ainít the first woman that done had her heart broke over a man. And you shore as hell ainít gonna be the last!" she sputtered.

"No, mama." was all that Shell could seem to say in response. The woman then moved her ample body to sit down on the top step next to her daughter.

"Shell, look at me, hon." The woman had softened her voice. Shell slowly turned her head away from the clouds to gaze into her motherís eyes. "Jusí where do you thank me aní you would be today, ifen I had moped about like you when yore pa left us all them many years ago?" she asked, then continued before Shell could even try to answer. Not that she was going to. "Weíd be nowhere. I hauled my ass up off the ground and got to work. There ainít nothiní any man can do around here that I cainít do, and there ainít gonna be. We gotta good life here, jusí me and you. And itís the only one yore gonna have. So get up aní start liviní it! I donít wanna see you settiní out here no more!" And with that said, she hauled herself up and went back into the house.

Shell sat there until her mother was inside, then rose and walked toward the pond. She was numb, and had been for weeks. Empty. Would she ever feel again? Would she ever care? She wanted to cry, but the tears wouldnít come. Her mama wanted her to live her life. But how did you do that without a heart? Hers was shattered........into too many pieces to ever think about making it whole again.

CHAPTER ONE

Quinn pointed the timer and the swirling blue vortex opened just ahead of them. One by one they jumped in, headed for another world, another adventure. As Quinn watched each one enter, he hoped they would exit onto a world unlike this one. He was tired of strife and trouble. Just once, couldnít they land somewhere nice and serene, safe and happy. Just once, he thought. And he jumped in himself, sliding to another world.....one more time.

***

Shell walked along the edge of the pond letting the mud squish between her toes. She used to love that feeling as a little girl. But now, although she could see it oozing up, there was no feeling. Nothing she did, or saw, or said, had any feeling to it. Funny how even the littlest of things that used to spark an emotion in her, brought no response now at all.

She stopped and just stared. A frog made its way to the edge of the water and hopped in. It made a splash, then the ripples went out in concentric circles. They seemed endless. . . one after the other. Shell wanted to feel that. . . waves of emotion moving through her body. She wanted to feel it, but couldnít. Just once in her lifetime she wanted to be truly happy. Just once.

She continued to stare at the rings of water until there was a sudden wooshing noise behind her. It was such a strange noise. At least she had enough presence of mind to turn around to see what had caused it. Her eyes widened. Never before had she seen such a sight. A big, blue, swirling . . . hole in the air. It caused a stir of the leaves on the ground and a somewhat forceful breeze blew in her direction.

Remmy hit the ground running, then Maggie was spit out, keeping her balance also. Next came Colin; he fell to the ground and rolled against Maggieís feet. Last was Quinn. He tucked and rolled and came to his feet all in one motion. In his years of sliding, he had discovered that this was the best landing method of all. It didnít always work, but when it did, it was good.

Remmy held out a hand to Colin. "Farm-boy, are you ever going to learn how to land on your feet?" he said with a chuckle.

"It does not look promising, Remmy. I just can not seem to get the hang of it." Colin answered with a smile. He took the kidding good-naturedly as he grabbed Remmyís hand and was hauled to his feet.

Maggie begin to survey her surroundings. "Uh-oh, guys. Looks like weíre not alone." And she pointed to the girl standing at the edge of a pond , mouth open. When Colin turned to follow the path of Maggieís pointing finger, his mouth too, fell wide open.

CHAPTER TWO

Shell couldnít move. Four people had just materialized in thin air right before her very eyes. And two of those four people she knew--Quinn and his friend Rembrandt. How did he do that? And why was he here? Hadnít he hurt her enough? What was the point of returning now? Question after question swirled around in her mind.

He was staring at her. If he came toward her, she didnít know what she would do. She wasnít sure what she was feeling. She had been numb for so long, any feeling was strange. Suddenly, it felt like pain. Pain!? It was the first feeling she had had in weeks. Shell looked down and saw her fists balled up. When she slowly opened them, there were indentations in her palms from her fingernails. One was even bleeding. Anger? Is that what she felt? If he moved toward her, would she hit him? Was that why she had balled her hand up into a fist?

"Uh, guys, what are we going to do?" Maggie asked. "From the look on her face, Iíd say she saw us exit the vortex."

"Well," Quinn said, "I guess weíre going to try to explain what she just saw. Weíve got no choice."

"She looks a little scared to me." Remmy chimed in. "Think weíve got a chance to explain before she runs and tells this world that martians have landed?"

"Only one way to find out, guys." said Quinn as he took the first step toward the frozen figure. Maggie and Remmy started after Quinn, but Colin seemed to be as frozen as Shell. He just stood there staring at her.

Maggie saw that Colin didnít move and she grabbed his sleeve to pull him forward. "Colin, whatís with you? Come on. Weíve got to try and explain ourselves to this girl." Colin didnít take his eyes off the girl, but he let himself be pulled along by Maggie. He never said a word as they approached her.

As Quinn came nearer, Shell began breathng heavily. What was she going to do? She had never expected to see him again. Quinn didnít know exactly how to take this strange girl, but he felt a friendly smile might be the best tactic. He wanted to show her that he meant no harm. He walked right up to her and put on his best smile, then spoke.

"Uh, hi. I guess you just saw what happened back there." he paused to give her a chance to answer, but she said nothing, so he continued. "Well, there is a good explanation." With that, she drew back her right arm and before she even realized what she was doing, she had dt he quickly stepped forward and grabbed her arm.

"Uh, uh, girl. Iím not sure why you think he deserved the first one, but he sure as hell doesnít deserve another." Shell struggled against Remmyís grip, but to no avail. He held her arm tightly, not willing to let her repeat that scene.

Maggie decided maybe she should speak up. "Look, we can explain what you saw, and we mean you no harm. Just give us a chance to talk to you before you try to assault us." Shell never took her steely stare away from Quinn.

"Quinn Mallory, I donít know how you did what you just did, and I donít know why you left like you did two months ago." Shell spoke quietly, but sternly, "But if you think you are going to come back here all smiles and try to sweet-talk me, you donít know me as well as you thought you did."

Shellís knees felt like jello, but she wasnít about to let Quinn see how he was affecting her. She would put on the act of the century before she would collapse at his feet. She turned to Remmy, taking her eyes off Quinn for the first time since he fell from the sky.

"You can let go of my arm, Rembrandt. I wonít try to slap him again. He isnít worth it." Remmy was taken aback when she mentioned his name, but he slowly let go of her. When he did, she lowered her arm to her side and returned to look at Quinn again, exhaling slowly.

When Remmy had released her arm, Quinn stepped back out of firing range. He didnít want to take a chance that she might change her mind. Still rubbing his jaw when she spoke, he realized that there was a big misunderstanding.

"It seems there is a case of mistaken identity." he said. "We may look like someone you know, but I am not the Quinn Mallory you think I am. I have never laid eyes on you before. Iím not even from around here."

"Iím not going to listen to any of your fancy explanations, Quinn." she replied. "Your words have no weight with me anymore, so just save your breath." She continued to stare at him with emotionless eyes and her words were almost monotone.

Quinn didnít know what his double on this earth had done, but he did know that whatever it was, it had hurt her to the core. He hoped he could convince her that he was not the culprit.

CHAPTER THREE

Colin had been totally silent since first laying his eyes on Shell. To him, she was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. Her hair was long and blonde, much like cornsilk, and it blew softly in the breeze. Her eyes were a gorgeous, steely blue; unfortunately, they lacked life. The sadness he saw in them was almost overwhelming. He paid close attention to the conversation while observing her and knew that this worldís Quinn was the one that had caused it. He stepped forward.

"Excuse me, maíam. But what my brother says is true. He is not the one you are angry with." Colin said, quietly.

She turned and noticed this tall stranger for the first time. He had a remarkable resemblance to Quinn, but she had never seen them together before.

"And who are you?" she asked.

"Colin Mallory . . . Quinnís brother." he answered.

"Quinn doesnít have a brother." she told him, and then turned back to Quinn. "Or is that another little piece of information you chose to omit?"

"Your Quinn may not have a brother, but I do." he replied. "Look, until you really listen to our explanation of what is going on, you are not going to understand any of this. Please let us tell you who we are and what has happened." he said, getting frustrated.

Maggie stepped forward. "My name is Maggie Beckett. What is your name?"

Shell turned to look at the only woman in the group. This was not the woman that had been with Quinn two months ago, and this particular woman didnít seem to be Quinnís type, from what she knew of him. But what did she really know anyway? How could she trust anything he had said to her to be the truth? She looked at Maggieís outstretched hand, but couldnít bring herself to take it.

"Shell. Shell McGregor is my name."

Maggie got through the awkward moment of having her handshake denied, then stepped closer to Shell, put her arm around her shoulder and started to lead her away from the guys.

"Shell, why donít you and I get away from them for a few minutes and let me tell you exactly what is going on. Then you can explain a few things to me. Would that work for you?" she asked.

Shell turned and looked at Quinn for a second and then to Colin. She almost felt something in that look, but pushed it away before it could really surface. Crazy fool!, she thought. She then turned to Maggie. Shell wanted to run from her too, but somehow just couldnít make her feet move. She reluctantly let Maggie lead her to the swing sitting near the edge of the pond, and warned herself mentally to be on her guard. Donít you dare let yourself be fooled again by a slick-talking stranger., she thought.

Quinn let out a small sigh of relief. He knew that his double obviously had wronged this girl somehow. He hoped Maggie could convince her that it was not him, and trusted that she could explain what Shell had seen without too much trouble. And he wondered how she seemed to know him and Remmy, but not Colin and Maggie. This was turning out to be a strange world already, and they had been here only a few minutes. Hopefully, Shell would come around and be their ally while they were here. He pulled the timer out of his pocket to check the numbers. 10 days!? Man, way too much time, he thought. But in looking around, it didnít seem like such a bad world . . . yet. So far, the only bad thing seemed to be his double.

He turned to Colin and Remmy. "Come on, guys. Letís take a load off over there on that fallen tree, while Maggie tries to clear things up with . . . Shell."

CHAPTER FOUR

Maggie continued her conversation with Shell for several minutes. Occasionally, Shell would look over her shoulder at the trio sitting some twenty yards behind her. She accepted what this woman told her, but it was so hard to look at this Quinn and not think of him as the one who had hurt her so. She thought the whole thing was bizarre, but she had seen their entrance with her own eyes, so she couldnít deny the possibility of what Maggie had told her.

Just as Shell would turn and stare at Quinn, so Colin took up his vigil at staring at Shell. He just couldnít seem to take his eyes off her. Remmy and Quinn had noticed the constant attention he paid her, and were kidding him. But he never heard their taunts, so entranced was he at this beautiful vision.

"Farm-boy, you better watch out. That girl packs a powerful punch, as old Q-ball can attest to. You cross her, you just might find yourself on the receiving end of her right cross." Remmy chuckled.

"Well, maybe Colin can pave the way for the rest of us. If he gets in good with her, she might be more receptive to us and help us out for the next 10 days." Quinn suggested.

Colin finally acknowledged their good-natured kidding with his patented crooked smile. "I do not think that she has it in for me, Remmy. My double is not the one who has wronged her. Hopefully that will give me an edge over my brother here."

"Whoa, Farm-boy! Youíre not thinking of making a move on her, are you? That might be dangerous." Remmy warned. Colin just smiled, then suddenly stood up. Maggie and Shell had finished their conversation and were headed in their direction.

Remmy and Quinn stood too as the girls neared. Shellís heart lurched as she looked at Quinn again. She kept telling herself this was not the Quinn that had hurt her so badly, but it was so hard to believe. This was really going to take some getting used to. She swallowed hard as she approached. He seemed to be staring a hole straight through her.

"I hope Maggie has set everything right for you, Shell, and that you realize that we mean you no harm, and that I am not the Quinn you have known before." he said.

His smile was so beautiful, yet disarming. She hated it now, because it was one of the things she could not resist about her Quinn. It had been like a beacon drawing her into his web and holding her there. She could never resist him when he smiled. Weeks had gone by and it haunted her in her dreams. Now it was here again, full of life and ready to mesmerize her all over again. She felt as if she couldnít breath. She grew light-headed and the trio of men before her began to get fuzzy. They doubled and she felt as if her surroundings were swirling around her. What was happening? Everything went black, and she fell to the ground at Quinnís feet.

CHAPTER FIVE

Colin was the first one to Shellís side when she collapsed. He brushed the hair back off of her face, then took his shirt off, folded it, and placed it beneath her head. The others came to kneel around her.

"Maggie, what did she say to you in reply to your explanation?" Colin asked.

"Not much really. I think she was more stunned at seeing Quinn than she was at seeing how we arrived. I donít know what her Quinn did, but it couldnít have been good. I couldnít get her to open up too much. She seemed to accept what I told her about sliding, but she had a hard time separating her Quinn and ours." Maggie explained.

"Look, why donít you two stay here with her," Quinn said, pointing to Colin and Maggie, "Remmy and I will scout around and see if we can spot a house or some other people. Iíll bet she doesnít live too far from here." He and Remmy rose and left. Maggie stood up and looked around. Colin put his arms under Shellís back and knees and lifted her up.

"I am going to take her over there under that big tree. She needs to be out of the sun." he told Maggie. She just nodded her head and watched Colin walk away. This is not good, she thought. That boy has got it bad.

Colin reached the tree and slowly bent to a sitting position with Shell still in his arms. He adjusted her weight and cradled her in his arms and lap, with her head resting on his naked chest. She felt so soft and warm against him. He leaned his head back against the tree and closed his eyes, wanting to daydream about this wonderful creature. Just then, he felt her stir in his arms.

Shell moaned, not fully aware, but realizing she was in someoneís arms. With eyes still closed, the corners of her mouth tilted upwards slightly. He was warm and strong. His chest hard and lean. Yet, she could tell the way he held her in his arms, that he was gentle and kind. He? Who was he? She struggled to open her eyes, to understand what was going on. Then she heard his voice.

"Shell? Are you okay?" Colin whispered. He heard her moan softly. "It is going to be all right. You just fainted -- from the shock of seeing us enter your world, I guess."

His words brought Shell out of her foggy state. She opened her eyes and saw that she was in his arms. No, not HIS arms, his brotherís! Then she noticed his naked chest. What the hell was he doing?! Colin saw the fright in her eyes. She jerked away from him and stood up. "How could you?!" she screamed and stepped back.

Maggie heard her yell and turned to see what the commotion was about. Colin was just standing up and when he did, Shell brought her arm back and hauled off another slap to the face. It was every bit as loud as the one she delivered to Quinn earlier. "Boy, that girl has got it in for the Mallory brothers." Maggie said aloud.

Then she heard Shell scream again, "How could you do this?"

"What?" Maggie said to no one. "What the hell did he do?" She started toward the pair. Shell let out a scream that scattered birds from the tree limbs above her and then started running. Colin started to go after her, but Maggie reached him and told him to let her go. First, she wanted to find out what in the world was going on.

Shell disappeared through a grove of trees and Colin buried his face in his hands. Maggie put her hand on his shoulder to comfort him. "I did not hurt her, Maggie." he said. "I was just holding her in my arms, so that she would not have to lay on the ground."

"Of course, you didnít hurt her, Colin. I donít have to be told that." Maggie answered. "That girl has got some real problems. When Quinn and Remmy return, maybe we should just high-tail it out of here, and find refuge somewhere else for the next ten days."

CHAPTER SIX

Shell ran until her lungs hurt. She was out of breath, but was scared to stop. He might be following her. Finally her legs gave out and she just fell to the ground. When she turned to look behind her, there was no one. The woods were quiet. She just lay there then, trying to get her breathing to return to normal. Tears were streaming down her face.

Why, oh, why, did I ever want to feel again?, she asked herself. It hurts so bad. Seeing Quinn again, just brought everything back to the forefront. Yes, she knew in her mind that it wasnít her Quinn, but her heart couldnít seem to grasp that notion. It looked like him, talked like him, smelled like him. How could it not be him?

And when she awoke! Feeling those strong, yet gentle arms around her. For a moment the world was right again and she was safe and happy. For one brief moment, she let herself feel content. What was she going to do? Thanks to these four strangers, her world was turning upside down all over again.

***

Quinn and Remmy returned to where they had left the others, but when they arrived, they saw that Shell was missing.

"What happened to Shell?" Quinn asked. He saw the pained look on his brotherís face and turned a questioning look towards Maggie. She pulled him aside and related what had occurred while he and Remmy were scouting around.

Quinn let out a heavy sigh. "Man, I donít want Colin getting tangled up with this girl. I know from experience how much it can hurt to get involved."

"Yes, youíre right, Quinn," Maggie said, "but, you also know how it can hurt not to get involved. Sometimes the heart just canít help it." She paused, then asked Quinn if they had found anything on their little hunting expedition.

"Yes," he replied. "There was a house some ways back. And a woman was outside working in a garden. I have no idea if sheís related to Shell. Remmy and I didnít think it would be a good idea to approach her. If they are related, she might know this worldís Quinn and Rembrandt too, and have the same animosity towards us that Shell did. And from the looks of her, I donít think we want any part of her."

"Well, we have to do something. We canít just wonder around in these woods for ten days." Maggie reasoned.

"Which way did Shell go when she ran away?" he asked. Maggie pointed in the direction of her flight. "Well, I think we should head that way too. Maybe weíll find her and then can try to straighten out another misunderstanding."

Quinn and Maggie approached Remmy and Colin. Remmy had tried to find out what was going on from Colin while Quinn talked to Maggie. He was having no luck trying to convince him to keep his heart out of the whole matter. Colin was hooked and no amount of words and reasoning could change it.

The four of them discussed the situation for a few minutes, and then headed out in the direction that Shell had run. Quinn hoped they found something before dark. He didnít relish the idea of spending the night out in the open.

CHAPTER SEVEN

Shell sat up, drying her eyes on her sleeve. She ran the events of the last few hours over in her mind. What was she going to do? She knew she hadnít seen the last of those four. They would probably wind up at her house sooner or later, and then what? Her mother would ask questions, and she would not be as accepting of the wierd story. She covered her face with her hands in confusion. To think a few hours ago she wanted to feel something . . . anything. Boy, was that a mistake! If she could only go back to being numb. She guessed the old saying was true -- be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

The crack of a twig brought her out of her thoughts. She turned in the direction of the sound and saw Quinn and his companions approaching. Too late to run again. Besides, running away was futile. They would keep finding her, and she couldnít run away from her feelings anyway. Now that they were back, she was stuck with them. Might as well face them.

Colin was the first to spot her and ran ahead of the rest. When he came within about ten yards of her, he slowed to a walk and called her name. "Shell. Please do not run. Let me talk to you." he begged.

She looked up at him from her seat on the ground. When he reached her, he held out his hand to help her up. She hesitated, but took it and rose to her feet. "Thank you." she said softly. Quinn gazed on the scene before him and held out his arm to stop Maggie and Remmy from going any closer.

"Letís wait right here, and give Colin a chance to speak with her. Maybe he might have some success in gaining her confidence." he said.

"If you had seen the slap she gave him, you might not say that." Maggie replied.

Quinn rubbed his jaw. "I didnít have to see it, Maggie. Iíve felt it. Remember? But she doesnít seem in the mood to slap him now."

Colin still held Shellís hand in his from helping her off the ground. Neither realized that the other had not let go. "Iím sorry I slapped you earlier." Shell apologized.

"It is alright." Colin replied.

"No. No, it isnít." she said hurriedly. "You didnít do anything to deserve it. I wasnít thinking straight. The events of this entire afternoon have me quite addled."

"I understand. I am sure our coming here has been more of a shock than your mind can deal with." he answered.

She looked into his eyes. "Colin, itís not just your arrival, or how you arrived. Itís who you are." she said. "Or rather, itís who your brother is. Thereís a very long story behind my relationship with your brother -- your brotherís double. And seeing this Quinn is just very hard for me to adjust to."

"I do understand. We have run into our doubles on other worlds, and each time, I find it very disconcerting." he said, then paused for a moment. "I gather your relationship with this worldís Quinn was not a very good one." She lowered her eyes and then her face to keep him from seeing the tears starting to form. Colin put his finger under her chin and gently lifted her face back to his. "You do not have to hide your tears from me. If you need to cry, I have a very good shoulder. If you want to talk, I have a very good ear."

His tender, caring manner was all it took for Shellís defenses to come tumbling down. The tears spilled over her lids, and the waves of emotion that she so desperately wanted to feel earlier, spread through her body at a rapid pace. Colin took her in his arms and held her close while she let the anger, hurt, and frustration pour from her heart. She cried an ocean of tears while clutching Colin in her arms; afraid that if she let go, she would collapse all over again. He had his arms completely around her, laying his cheek at the top of her head, stroking her hair and rocking back and forth, trying to soothe her aching heart. He so wanted to take away the hurt she was feeling. Hearing her sobs and feeling the dampness of his shirt from her tears ripped him apart inside.

Quinn, Maggie and Remmy continued to stand back from the pair. They felt a little awkward witnessing the tender, yet, heart-wrenching scene. Maggie knew that when Shell realized that her breakdown had been seen by others, she would be embarrassed. A woman needed to lick her wounds in private. She didnít want the world see her sink to the bottom, before she picked herself up and dusted herself off. And Shell would do that eventually. Maggie saw a strength in her, but she knew that strength wouldnít surface until Shell exorcised the demon within.

Maggie pulled at Quinnís sleeve. "Come on, guys. Letís give these two a little space. They donít need us at the moment." Quinn started to balk, but thought better of it. He knew deep down that Maggie was right. The trio turned and retraced their steps back to the clearing they had come from.

CHAPTER EIGHT

Quinn, Maggie, and Remmy sat on the log discussing their plans for the next ten days when Remmy saw Colin and Shell emerge from the trees, hand in hand.

"Well, it looks like Colin had a little success." Remmy observed. Maggie and Quinn turned to see the approaching pair. Colin almost glowed with contentment. Quinn could tell he had made progress with Shell, but when he looked at her and she returned his stare, Quinn saw the panic in her eyes once again. What the hell had happened between her and his double? His curiosity was about to get the better of him.

Shell felt at ease walking with Colin, but when she saw Quinn again, her heart fluttered inside her chest. She almost froze in her steps with all the past events of her and Quinn flashing through her mind in rapid succession. Then she felt Colin squeeze her hand. That small gesture brought her back to the present and she realized she had to be strong, and with Colinís support, she would be. It felt good to have an ally.

Maggie rose and headed toward them. "Are you okay, Shell?" she asked. She felt that a friendly showing of concern would put Shell at ease.

"I will be fine, Maggie. Thank you." she replied.

"Shell has offered to put us up for the time that we are here." Colin told them, as Remmy and Quinn walked up.

"It wonít be much, and you might have to contend with a few awkward moments with my mama, but I will handle her." Shell explained.

"Does she have a tendency to slap and ask questions later?" Quinn asked, rubbing his jaw again in mock pain.

All, but Shell, let out a chuckle at Quinnís small attempt to lighten the mood. His voice still caused ripples of pain, but within seconds, she recovered and managed a small smile of her own. "I am sorry about that . . . Qu . . . Quinn." she stuttered. It was so hard to even speak his name.

"Itís alright, Shell. I understand. I just hope in time you will be able to relax around me and know that I am not the same man that actually deserved that slap." he answered.

"It will be difficult, but I will try. I hope you will be patient with me." she said.

"Of course. Itís one of my strongest virtures." he teased. Remmy rolled his eyes, Colin coughed, and Maggie delivered a blow to his arm with her fist. They all laughed again, and Shell, for just a moment, relaxed a little, with a flicker of realization that maybe, just maybe, this really wasnít her Quinn.

***

Mary McGregor had just finished her work in the barn and was headed to the house to finish supper. She had Shell on her mind. She hadnít seen her since their little one-sided conversation earlier this afternoon, and she hoped Shell had enough presence of mind to come back home by sundown. Every day she seemed to retreat within herself a little more, and Mary was afraid she would soon snap. Damn, that Quinn Mallory! If he ever set foot in this territory again, sheíd run him through with a pitchfork and feed his body to the wolves. "That boyís gonna have a helluva time stayiní alive ifen he gits within spittiní distance of me." She stated this aloud with a lot of anger in her voice.

As she neared the steps to the porch, she saw movement out of the corner of her eye, and turned to see five figures emerging from the trees. She noticed Shell immediately and wondered who on earth she had with her. She put her hand above her eyes to sheild them from the setting sun and to get a better glimpse of Shellís companions.

"Hell, fire, and damnation!" she yelled aloud. "Quinn Mallory and that idiot, Rembrandt!" She ran back towards the barn. And as Shell and the quartet of sliders neared the house, they saw the woman emerge from the barn, pitchfork in hand. "She ainít got no brains, aítall!" she said to herself. "Ifen she aintít got no better sense than to let that varmint back into her life, after what heís put her through -- well, I ainít got no never mind about puttiní him under the ground!" And she stormed her ample frame toward the group, pitch fork extended, like a knight in shining armor with his lance in ramming mode.

Remmyís eyes widened as he saw the figure approaching. "My God, the devil and her pitchfork!" The entire group grew nervous.

"Oh, Lord, Mama." Shell exclaimed. "All of you, stay right here!" she told them and she went foward to try and ward off the oncoming attack. "Mama, itís all right!"

"Like hell, it is! Shell, I seen how you been these last two months." she yelled. "Quinn Mallory donít deserve no liviní! And Iím gonna take kere aí that, right now!" And she rumbled past Shell toward her enemy. Shell turned and ran to catch her.

"Mama, itís not Quinn." Please let me explain!" she begged. Mary stopped dead in her tracks. The sliders were frozen where they stood. No one could seem to find their voice.

"Shell, honey, you further gone than I thought." she spoke dejectedly. "Thatís Quinn Mallory as shore as Iím standiní here. Now I donít know what bucket load of horse shit heís sold you, but you cainít trust him, honey. You just let yore mama deal with him and itíll all be jusí fine." And she moved past Shell once more. Shell then ran to stand in front of Quinn to shield him from the imminent attack.

Mary stopped short with her daughter in the way. "Shell, honey. Now you jusí back away. Ainít no use in tryiní to pertect this scallywag!" she said, then directed a word towards Quinn. "Itís just like a candy ass like you to hide behind a womanís skirts!"

Quinn started to speak, but Shell stopped him. She knew that just hearing his voice would set her mother on fire even more. Then she answered her motherís nasty taunt.

"Mama, Iím not moving till you put that pitchfork down on the ground. I have got some things to explain to you, and you have to listen. I will not have you trying to harm these people. Now put down that weapon or I will turn and leave right now with them." Shell raised herself to her full height and jutted her chin out for emphasis. She had to make her mother see that she meant business.

Mary glowered at Quinn and then moved pleading eyes to Shell, but she could see it would do no good. Shell was stubborn when she got something in her mind, and Mary would have to humor her to get anywhere in this situation. She lowered the pitchfork to the ground, then rose and crossed her arms. She tried to look as stubborn as Shell. "Okay. You got yore wish. Now talk."

Shell took a step forward and reached down to retrieve the pitchfork. She didnít trust her mama for one minute at this point. She then flung it out away from the group.

"Mama, we are going inside for a talk. And you are going to listen to me." she said sternly. Then she turned to Quinn and the others. "There is a well over there if youíre thirsty. Mama and I will be inside, but you can come and sit on the porch while we talk. Iíll be out in a few minutes and then everything will be fine."

She looked at Quinn while speaking and her heart did flip-flops once more. Would she ever get over that feeling when she looked at this Quinn? She wasnít sure. She then glanced at Colin and he smiled his crooked smile, hoping he displayed a look of confidence in her. She returned the smile, then lead her mother towards the house. A deep breath of fresh air and a small prayer helped her find the strength to do what she had to do.

CHAPTER NINE

Shell had returned to the group after being sequestered with her mother for about 30 minutes. She was a little nervous, but assured them they would have no trouble from her mama. They were welcome to stay here as long as they would be on this earth. She then informed them that supper would be served in about ten minutes. When they entered the modest home, Mary McGregor was waiting for them with a defiant scowl. Her look never changed during the entire meal. Quinn hoped her mood would improve over the next couple of days, and prayed he wouldnít make any mistakes that would set her off.

After downing a great meal under very awkward circumstances, Quinn and Remmy sat in the rockers on the porch. Colin was sitting on the steps, and Maggie had stayed with Shell and Mary to clean up and chat. The guys unanimously agreed that it was possibly the best meal they had ever eaten while sliding, except for the way Shellís mother glowered at them.

As they sat outside discussing the last few hours, Shell and Maggie worked and talked inside with Mary. Mary thought Maggie seemed pleasant enough, and welcomed the female company for her daughter. She remembered how upset Shell had been when she found out that Quinn had been keeping company with another woman in town while he was wooing Shell out here. Quinn had tried to tell Shell that the woman meant nothing, that they were just friends, but Shell had seen them together in more than a friendly manner. Maryís blood boiled everytime she thought about it. She hoped Maggie would prove to be a friend to Shell. And she hoped, desperately that what Shell had told her was true. If this was their Quinn returning to pile more heartache on her daughter, he would not live to see his next birthday. She planned to watch him like a hawk.

With the remains of the meal put away and everything cleaned, Shell showed Maggie where she would be sleeping. It was a small room, but clean and neat. Maggie was greatful and told Shell so. They then went outside to check on the guys. Shell took them to the barn to show them their sleeping quarters. Although it was in the barn, it was a nice room off to the side that Mary and Shell had fixed up to house drifters that came and went and helped around the place. It too was clean and neat, and the guys assured Shell that it was a fine place for them while they were here. There was no need for her to be apologizing about it. They had slept in much worse places over the years.

She explained to them the routine that she and her mama had during the day. And she hoped they werenít late sleepers, because Mary would be out here before daylight with chores to do. The guys said it would be no problem; then she and Maggie left for the house. Colin hesitated for a moment, then followed them out the door.

"Shell. Could I speak with you for a moment?" he asked, then looked at Maggie with pleading eyes to leave them alone. Maggie took the cue, made the excuse that she was very tired and went on her way towards the house.

Shell was a little nervous. After the pain Quinn had put her through, she didnít even like to be around a man. She still felt sick to her stomach everytime she thought about what all had transpired. "Yes, Colin? Is something wrong?" she said shyly.

"No, not at all." he answered. "I just wanted to thank you for what you have done for us today and for letting us stay here. I know it must be hard having my brother around, but I am sure you will come to understand that he is not like your Quinn. If you give him a chance you will see he is a good man."

"I donít know how I am going to react on a day-to-day basis. In my mind, I know what is real, but in my heart, I cannot begin to fathom it all. I have been so numb all these weeks, and now that I am finally feeling something, it is hard to deal with." she tried to explain. Colin took her hands in his.

"I do wish you would talk to me, Shell. I think it would help." he said.

"Thank you, Colin, but I canít do that -- at least not yet. I just want to try and block it out." she replied.

"That is not good, Shell. You need to get it out in the open. Purge it from your heart and soul. You will feel much better, and then can move on with your life without it always hanging over you." he told her.

"I understand what you say, Colin, but I just canít do that right now. Maybe in time." she said, and looked down to hide the tears that were about to errupt. She needed to get away from him, before she lost control. Unfortunately, Colin was not going to let her off the hook so quickly. He still held onto her hands.

"Shell. Shell, please look at me." he whispered softly.

She slowly raised her head and the tears began to spill over her lids and stream down her cheeks. Her hands were not free to wipe them away. He was determined to hold onto her and keep her there with him.

"I realize that you have been hurt deeply, and that the pain will not soon go away. It may never go away entirely." he said. "But day by day, it will diminish -- I promise. And although you think that you can not, and will not, ever trust a man again, you can trust me. I will do everything in my power to earn that trust while I am here."

The tears flowed faster. There was no holding them back. She wanted to say thank you, but she knew if she tried to speak, the sound would just be heaves and sobs instead of words. He finally let go of one hand and reached up to wipe the tears from her cheeks. Each time he moved his thumb across, more tears replaced the ones he removed. He finally put his fingers under her chin and tilted her face up to his. She could barely see his face through the blur of tears, but she swore that there were tears in his eyes too. Before she got the chance to really look and see, he moved towards her and lightly placed a kiss on her lips.

It was, oh, so soft and gentle. Like a whisper in the breeze. His lips barely touched hers, and for only a second, but a rushing sensation went through her body from head to toe. A sensation she had never felt before -- not even with Quinn. But this kiss was nothing like Quinnís. And as he backed away from her, she noticed her tears had suddenly stopped, and he was smiling. She squeezed the hand that was still holding hers, and almost allowed herself to smile too.

She then slipped her hand slowly out of his, and turned toward the house. After a few steps, she looked back to see him still standing there -- the smile still on his face. They both just stood and stared for a few seconds, then Shell turned and continued on her way. Colin never moved until she had gone inside and closed the door. Then, and only then, did he allow himself to wipe the tear that slowly made its way down his cheek.

CHAPTER TEN

Shell lay on the bed in her room, her fingers laced behind her head. How could she even think about letting Colin kiss her earlier?, she thought. She must be out of her mind. Her life had just been destroyed by one man, and the instant another comes along and pays attention to her, she melts right in his arms. How could she be so stupid?! Well, it wouldnít happen again. The wall was being built as she lay there, and nothing or no one was going to tear it down!

Simultaneously, Colin lay on his cot, hands behind his head, identical to Shell. But his thoughts were much more positive. He felt like he had opened the door just a little tonight with Shell. Tomorrow he would help her around the place and make idle chit-chat, gain her confidence just a little more and maybe, just maybe she would begin to open up to him. He so desperately wanted her to pour her heart out over the heartache with his brotherís double. Then maybe she could start the healing process. The only problem was the fact that he would only be here for nine more days. Would she feel abandoned all over again when he left? If he got too close, and their feelings became stronger, that would be exactly the way she felt.

Colinís mood began to sour. He obviously had not thought this through very well. He was so enthralled by her beauty, and then hurt inside because she did, that he let his heart rule his head. Her Quinn had left her, that much he knew. And he would be doing the same thing in a few days. And he had told her that she could trust him! Trust him to do what . . . run out on her just like his brotherís double? The only thing he was accomplishing was to drive her further away from trusting men . . . further away from ever loving again. Disgusted at himself, he threw back the blanket, and rose to his feet. Maybe the night air would clear his head and he could think of a way to handle this mess he was making. As he made his way out of the room, he noticed the empty bed that Quinn had left behind.

Shell stood by the pond as she had earlier in the day, letting the mud squish between her toes. Sleep just would not come so she had made her way down to the pond to do some thinking. The full moon provided enough light for her to easily see her way. The frogs croaked, and the crickets chirped. It would be a perfect night for love, if there was any to be had. Why would she even let that thought come to mind? "Shell, you are such a glutton for punishment." she whispered aloud.

"Well, well, well. If it isnít my sweetness, Shell." said a voice behind her. Shell froze. Her heart stopped beating, and she couldnít seem to force her lungs to take in any air. My God, she thought. Only one man had ever said those words to her. It was the first thing he always said to her when he saw her. It couldnít be. Not again! She slowly turned to face him. Quinn! Her Quinn!

What a sight she saw. Quinn, standing there grinning, with arms wide open, as if nothing had happened. "Arenít you glad to see me, Shell?" he said arrogantly. There was no mistaking the fact that this was her Quinn returned, not the one that had materialized earlier in the day. Or was it? Maybe earlier he had purposely changed his manner, so as not to be detected until he wanted her to know. Maybe he wanted to get her all alone.

"Well, say something, Shell. Donít just stand there gawking!" he joked, as he started towards her. She wanted to scream at the top of her lungs, but nothing would come forth. She wanted to run, run like hell, but her feet wouldnít move. He was almost on her and all she could do was stand there like a stone statue. "Iíve been gone for two months, my sweetness. I would think I would get a little warmer welcome than this." he said as he came within inches of her.

His hand reached out and stroked her cheek. Then he grabbed her behind the head and around the waist, forcibly bringing her body against his. She could do nothing. His breath wreaked of alcohol, and he mauled her with his hands as his mouth tried to pour slobbery, wet kisses on her lips. She was going to be sick. How could she have ever loved such a wretched soul!? And why couldnít she see him for what he was all those months ago? She came to her senses just enough to know that she couldnít stand here and take this. She started trying to fight him, but his grip was strong. There was no way to get out of the hold he had on her.

He was obviously drunk as well as just plain obnoxious. If she could just figure out a way to hurt him enough to distract him. She wiggled around just a little while he tried to bite her neck. She started screaming right in his ear. It startled him, and he jerked back just enough. Now, she thought. And her knee came up perfectly to catch him in the groin. He doubled over and slumped to the ground. Shell just stood there watching him writhe on the ground, moaning loudly.

She started shaking violently and sobbing. Then the sobbing turned to all-out crying, and then she began to run. Not looking where she was running, she ran straight into Colin. It scared her so, that she let out a scream. Colin shook her to try and get her to come to her senses.

"Shell, it is me . . . Colin. What is wrong? I heard you screaming. What happened?" he asked shakily.

Shell couldnít seem to find any words. She just sniffed and sobbed and shook. Colin tried once more. "Shell, please. Tell me what happened!"

She continued to shake, but finally managed between sobs, "Qu . . . Qu . . .. Quinn." And then she pointed toward the pond. Colin looked shocked.

"Quinn is down here?" he asked. She shook her head up and down. "And he tried to hurt you?" he asked again. She repeated her nod. Then Colinís face grew stern and the blood drained from it completely. He loosened his grip on Shell and turned toward the pond. When he let go, she immediately began to run away. Colin didnít even try to stop her. All he had on his mind was getting to his brother and choking the life out of him.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

When Colin reached the edge of the pond, there he saw Quinn doubled over on the ground. He was still moaning and groaning. It didnít take a genius to figure out what Shell had done. Good for her, he thought. Then he ran up to him and pulled him up by the shirt. Colin held him up, and his face was only inches from Quinnís. He could smell the alcohol on his breath, and wondered for a second what had gotten into his brother.

"What the hell do you think you are doing?" he said through clinched teeth. He drew back his fist to let his brother have it right across the jaw. Before he could connect, Quinn said something that made him stop his fist in mid-air.

"Who . . . who . . . the hell are you?" Quinn asked haltingly. Colin let him drop to the ground, shocked at his words.

"I am your brother! Are you so drunk that you do not even know your own relative?" he asked, just a little unsure.

Quinn was on his knees still feeling the effects of Shellís well-placed punch. He was winded, in pain, and a little tipsy, but he knew he wasnít crazy. He looked up at this man and said, "I donít have a brother. What are you talking about?"

Colin was stunned. Could this be the Quinn of this world . . . Shellís Quinn . . . the one that had broken her heart? Colinís blood boiled even more at the possibility. He jerked Quinn up by the shirt once more and landed a blow across his face that spun Quinn around and knocked him out almost before he knew what hit him. Colin shook his hand and grunted. He had never hit a man before with his bare fist. But if this was Shellís Quinn, he deserved it ten times over. Colin just stood staring at the limp, pathetic figure laying on the ground.

He heard footsteps behind him and turned to see Quinn running toward him. "Colin, whatís going on? I heard screaming." he said, trying to catch his breath.

"Quinn? Is it really you?" Colin asked.

"What do you mean, is it really me? Whatís gotten into you, Colin? And whoís that on the ground? I heard a woman screaming a minute ago." Quinn was confused. The figure on the ground appeared to be male, and there was no woman around anywhere.

"Thank God." Colin replied and related the events of the last few minutes to his brother. "Did you not see Shell as you came this way?" he asked as he finished his explanation.

"No, I saw no one until I saw you standing over this form. Saw no one, and heard nothing after the screams." answered Quinn.

"I have got to find her. She was not in very good shape when I met up with her. I was so upset at what she said, I came here immediately to take care of her attacker. When I did, she disappeared on me." Colin said, very nervously.

"And you thought her attacker was me." Quinn said dryly.

"I am sorry, brother. I noticed your empty bed when I left the room and when she said ĎQuinní -- well, I had no idea that her Quinn would be here." Colin apologized. "I should have known you would never do something like that to a woman. Again, I am sorry."

"No need to apologize, bro. I understand." Quinn told him. "Right now, we need to do something with this Quinn and find Shell. Maybe she headed back to her house."

They both went over to the unconscious Quinn, lifted him up and then each put an arm over their shoulder. "Somehow, I do not think so, Quinn. I just have a gut feeling she has run away." Colin said worriedly.

"Look, weíll get this guy back to the barn and tie him up. Then I think we have no choice but to wake Mary and tell her what has happened, if Shell isnít there. Maybe she can give us a clue as to where her daughter may have gone." Quinn suggested. "I just hope we can keep her from killing this guy. She was none to happy when she thought I was their Quinn. When she finds out what this one has done, there will be hell to pay."

CHAPTER TWELVE

The sun was just coming up over the rise. Quinn, Colin, and Remmy were having no luck in finding any sign of Shell. Earlier, they had tied Quinn2 up in the barn, and gone to tell Mary what had occurred. Her reaction was just as Quinn thought it would be. It was all they could do to restrain Mary and keep her from committing cold-blooded murder on Quinnís double.

Eventually, they persuaded her to stay there with Maggie while the three men went out to scour the countryside. They appealed to her logical side by telling her that Shell would need her if she wandered back home while they were out looking for her. Colin hadnít wanted to upset Mary anymore than she already was, but he had to tell her what state Shell was in to get her to listen to reason.

They had pretty much stayed within spitting distance of each other during the night hours, but now that it was daylight, Colin suggested they spread out more to cover more ground. Remmy agreed, so they did as Colin said and went in different directions. Mary had given each one of them a rifle, so they could signal each other if someone found something.

Although the morning air was cool, Colin was sweating profusely. He was so worried about Shell. Given her state of mind, anything could have happened to her. She might not even be aware she was in danger, if she had happened upon some wild animal in the night. If he didnít find some trace of her soon, he was going to go crazy.

The search continued for hours and no sign of Shell ever surfaced. The guys eventually met up again about lunch time and decided to go back to the house. Maybe Shell had turned up at home. Colin wanted to believe that, but he wasnít too confident.

Upon arriving, Colinís fears were confirmed. No sign of Shell. "We have to keep looking." he said. "We can not just sit here and wait for her to return, at least, I can not." He picked up his rifle and headed for the door.

"Colin, you havenít had any sleep or anything to eat." Maggie told him. "You arenít going to do Shell any good if you collapse out there somewhere. Mary has some food on the stove. Eat, and then try to rest for a bit. Then you will be refreshed and can do a better search."

Colin wanted to argue, but knew that Maggie was right. He wasnít even hungry, but he knew he needed to eat something if he was going to head out searching the woods again. He placed the rifle against the door and sat down at the table, rubbing his hands over his face. Quinn and Remmy shared concerned looks and then joined him. Maggie and Mary served their plates, then sat down also, and all ate in silence.

Meanwhile, out in the barn, another Quinn was loosening the ropes around his wrists. A myriad of thoughts was going through his head as he worked. He ached from top to bottom and knew that if Shellís mother ever came out to the barn, she would inflict more pain on him. He didnít need this. He had to get away. Shell was a great girl, but she wasnít worth any physical pain on his part.

He knew that she had fallen madly in love with him, but he didnít share that love for Shell. He guessed he was just drunk on the idea of someone loving him so completely. When he, Remmy, Wade, and the professor had slid two months ago, Quinn2 knew he would miss Shell and her devotion to him. He couldnít resist a return visit to see if she had gotten over being mad about Wade, but something was wierd. Why had that guy said he was his brother? That didnít make sense. Well, he wasnít going to dwell on it; he was just going to get loose, and get the hell out of here before anyone came to check on him. Just then, the barn door creaked open, spilling bright sunshine directly on the area where Quinn2 was untangling his ropes.

"And jusí what the hell do you thank yore doiní?" Mary said, as she glowered at Quinn trying to undo his ropes. She held a rifle pointed right at his head. He knew the slightest move or maybe even a remark would cause her to pull the trigger. Quinn froze and just stared at her. "Ifen you thank yore gonna get away from here a second tim, -- well, you just ainít very bright, boy." she told him. "I donít cotton to no two-timiní gigolo messiní with the affections of my girl." She raised her rifle and took aim.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

"Guys? Whereís Mary?" Quinn asked as he looked around the room. He looked towards the door and noticed the rifle Colin had propped there earlier was missing. "Colin, have you moved the rifle since coming inside?"

"Uh, no. I have not touched it." he answered.

Quinnís eyes grew wide, and he rushed towards the door. "I think we had better go check out the barn, guys. NOW!!" He was out the door and down the steps in a flash. The others followed, moving just as fast. Quinn didnít need to put his thoughts into words. They all knew what he was thinking.

Quinn ran across the yard, noticing the barn door was open. He knew he had closed it after depositing his double and tying him up. Please donít let me be too late, he said to himself, as he rushed through the door. There stood Mary, rifle in hand, aiming right at his doubleís head.

"MARY!" he screamed. "Donít do it! You canít kill him!"

Mary froze at the sound of Quinnís voice. Her index finger had already squeezed the trigger about half way. She eased it back, but didnít lower the rifle or take her eyes off the Quinn that was paralyzed in front of her.

"And jusí what makes you thank I cainít kill Ďim?" she growled.

Quinn stepped forward just a little, motioning for the others to stay where they were. "I know you can kill him, but you know that you shouldnít. It would be murder. Think of your daughter. Shell couldnít handle that. Sheís already on the edge now. She needs you here with her. Not in jail and standing trial for murder."

Mary flinched at Quinnís words and after a couple of seconds, she lowered the rifle, but still never took her murderous eyes off of the figure on the floor. Quinn moved beside her and slowly slid the rifle out of her hands.

On the floor, witnessing this reprieve, was a very confused Quinn Mallory. At first he had been stunned by Mary and his eminent death, but now, it was the man before him that had his attention. It was . . . himself! He blinked several times to adjust his eyes. He knew he had had a little to drink last night, but surely not enough to cause the hallucination of seeing his own image.

"Maggie, take Mary back to the house." Quinn said. "And keep her there!" he added. Mary let herself be led from the barn without incident, just with tears streaming down her face.

Quinn followed the two with his eyes until they disappeared out the door, then he turned to his double. Colin and Remmy came to stand beside him. "Youíre a lucky man. Iím not sure you deserve it, but you were lucky just then." Quinn said, quietly.

Then Colin spoke up. "Yes, very lucky. If it had been me instead of my brother, I am not so sure I would have stopped her." he said with a shaky voice. Remmy put his hand on Colinís shoulder. Quinn turned to look at his brother, a little surprised at the cold-blooded words he had heard.

The Quinn on the floor finally found his voice. "Would someone tell me what the hell is going on? First I wake up to find myself tied up in this barn; I have a swollen jaw, and various other aches and pains; and then thereís a rifle shoved in my face. And to top it off, myself saves me from getting my head blown off! Who the hell are you?"

Quinn lowered himself to eye level with his double. "I am Quinn Mallory, just like you." he started. He then proceeded to explain himself and sliding, but he was interrupted almost immediately.

"You donít have to waste your breath. I know all about sliding. Iíve been doing it for about a year now." he said, irritated. "But I didnít know there would be doubles of me on other worlds."

Quinn, Remmy and Colin all looked at each other, stunned. Then Quinn turned to his double. "You mean you are not from this world originally?" he asked.

"Hell, no! This hick place? I slid here about six months ago. And wouldnít you know it, we were stuck here for four months!" he explained. "Slide to paradise and the timer gives you three minutes. Slide to hicksville, and youíve got four months!"

Colinís blood was rushing to his head. He was ready to belt this guy all over again. "Well, if you are not from here and you left two months ago, what are you doing back here?" he asked, trying to be calm.

"I came to see my sweetness, Shell. I assume you have met her. Where is she, by the way?" he said nonchalantly. "And why the hell am I tied up here?"

"Do you not remember the events of last night?" Colin asked.

Quinn hesitated. "Sorry, I guess I had a little too much to drink. Nothing is coming to me." he answered.

Colin then bent next to his brother and stared angrily into the doubleís eyes. "You attacked someone."

"Well, hell, that doesnít mean you have to tie me up. The way I feel right now, I think someone attacked me, too. They threw a pretty good punch." he said, rubbing his jaw. "And they hit below the belt, too."

"You can thank me for your jaw, and the one you attacked for the other." Colin said solemnly. He didnít even want to mention Shellís name to him.

"Look, Iím sorry for whatever I did. Just untie me, how about it." Quinn2 said, not sounding the least bit remorseful.

Colin stood up. "I do not think so. You need to stay right where you are for now. We have more important things to take care of at the moment, but we are not through with you." and he turned to leave.

Quinn checked and secured the ropes on his double, and then left, behind Remmy and Colin. They heard Quinn2 shouting as they walked back towards the house.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Three whole days had passed since Shell had disappeared. Everyday Quinn, Colin, and Remmy would head out into the woods, while Maggie stayed to console Mary, and to keep an eye on the Quinn double. Everyday, they returned empty-handed, and a little more weary. Especially Colin. His face was drawn and pale. He tried not to show his concern in front of Mary, but he wasnít having much success.

"She ainít never gonna be found, is she." Mary said to Colin as she sat down on the step next to him. "Sheís gone fer good, and Iím gonna kill that no-account Quinn Mallory, ifen itís the last thang I do! There wonít be no stoppiní me the next time."

Colin didnít feel he had the strength to bolster Maryís hopes about Shell, but he knew he had to. "We will find her, Mary. And she will be all right." he said, taking her shaking hand in his. "Maggie and I were talking last night. She said that Shell just needed some time; that she was probably off hiding in a very familiar place until she could come to grips with this situation. She said a woman had to lick her wounds when she was hurt, and then she would be okay." He tried to sound as if he believed what he was saying.

Mary looked at him with a weak smile. "Who you tryiní to convince? Me or you?" she asked. Colin returned her weak smile with one of his own and squeezed her hand, but said nothing.

Mary stood up and walked away from the porch a few feet. She stretched, putting her hands to the small of her aching back, and pondered the conversation Colin had had with Maggie. Hiding in a familiar place to lick her wounds. Hiding in a familiar place . . . "Well, hit me with a switch!" she said loudly, slapping at her thigh. Then she turned to Colin, face glowing. "Why ainít I done thought aí that afore! Sheís down at that olí minerís shack lickiní them wounds!"

Colin jumped up and ran to her side. "A minerís shack? Do you really think she would go there?" he asked with excitement dancing in his eyes.

"Aí course, I do. She used to love to play Ďhouseí in that olí shack when she was agrowiní up. Donít know why it never came to mind." Mary told him.

"Iíll leave now." Colin said. He had been waiting for Quinn and Remmy to get ready, but with this new information, he would leave whether they were ready or not. He did not want them with him anyway if Shell really was at that shack. He bounded up the steps to get the rifle and to tell them what he was going to do.

"Farm-boy, you donít need to go trapsing off by yourself in those woods. Q-ball and I will go along with you." Remmy said adamantly, after Colinís explanation.

"No, Remmy." Colin replied. "Mary gave me good instructions. I have the rifle; I will be fine. You just stay here. I will give a signal if I find her. Two shots if I find her and I need help; three shots if I do not. Please. She does not need a lot of people around her."

Remmy heaved a disgusted sigh. He knew Colin was probably right, but he worried for his friend, as well as the girl. Quinn slapped him on the back and then headed out the door with Colin. Mary headed for the kitchen with a spring in her step. She just knew Shell would be at that shack. And she and Colin would be starving when they returned. Pots, pans, and utensils began to fly around the kitchen as Mary went to work.

Outside, Quinn had a brotherly chat with Colin about what state he might find Shell in. He didnít want Colin to go into this blind. Colin assured him he could take care of Shell, however he might find her. If you find her, Quinn had warned him. He knew that the possibility of that shack being empty had never entered Colinís mind. He didnít even want to think about what it would do to his brother if that were the case.

They gave each other a silent hug, then Colin turned and headed in the direction Mary had told him to go. No wonder they had never happened upon it. The shack was on the other side of the pond, deep in the woods, in the opposite direction that Shell had run that night. Colin shook his head at their limited thinking in their search as he disappeared into the trees.

Quinn offered up a prayer that his brother would find her . . . and find her in good condition, then he turned to go back into the house to wait with the others.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Colin trudged foward through the underbrush of the forest. A knot was forming in the pit of his stomach. How on earth would she have found her way through here during the night? Especially as upset as she most assuredly was. He was beginning to let his confidence wane as he wandered around playing dodge ball with the trees.

Maryís directions had been clear enough, but it was still pretty rough going. There really were not that many landmarks for Colin to follow. He had been told the amount of time it should take him to walk to the shack, and he was coming up on that deadline now. He stopped, rubbing his hand over his face, to gather his thoughts. He looked at the map one more time, shoved it in his pocket, and started out once more.

He came to a small clearing that had been indicated on the map. Okay, he said to himself, I should almost be there. He took a deep breath and headed north. And then he saw it.

A small wooden shack sitting among the trees. Maybe, just maybe, he had finally found her. Please, God, let it be so, he prayed, as he walked up to the door and pushed it open, holding his breath. He exhaled a sigh of relief and looked upwards to say Ďthank youí when he saw her limp form laying on the make-shift bed. His eyes filled with tears.

Colin tip-toed softly over to her sleeping form. He then pulled a stool from the corner of the room up to the side of the bed and sat down as he took her hand in his. His eye caught the rise and fall of her chest in a steady rhythm. "She must be exhausted." he whispered, as he raised her hand to his lips and kissed it softly. This action prompted movement from her.

Shellís eyes fluttered open, and Colin could see the red, swollen puffiness in them. When she focused on him, she started shaking; her lower lip quivered, and the tears began to flow endlessly. She said nothing; and Colinís heart broke into a million pieces, all over again.

He arose from the stool and slid onto the bed next to her, taking her into his arms and holding her tight. Her arms came around his waist and she held on to him as if her very life depended on how close she could get to him. He held her head against his chest, caressing her upper arm gently, and let her cry as much as she needed to. Not a word was spoken by either of them for over an hour.

When the sobbing and sniffling and whimpering subsided, Colin lifted Shellís face up to look into his. Very quietly he spoke, "Shell, it is going to be all right. You are going to be all right. But I must ask you to do one thing for me, before I take you home."

She was still shaking, but she looked up into his eyes and managed to speak. "I know." she whispered. "You want me to talk."

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Shell sat at the small table in the one-room shack, nibbling on a biscuit that her mother had sent. Before going outside to send the 3-shot signal to the others, Colin had told Shell that he had found her Quinn, and that he was presently under "house arrest" in her barn. Shell was surprised that her mama had not shot him, and Colin informed her that it wasnít for lack of trying. That brought a slight smile to Shellís lips, which in turn did the same for Colin.

As he re-entered, he stopped in the doorway to observe Shellís still-shaking form. Her elbows were on the table, and her hands covered her face. He battled to fight the tears that wanted to form.

Shell felt, rather than heard, Colin at the door. Somehow, she knew when she turned to look, he would be standing there -- staring. She lifted her face and turned to see through blurry, stinging eyes that she was right. He came forward at her notice of him and put his hands on her shoulders.

"Did you get enough to eat?" he asked.

"Yes, plenty. I guess Iím just not very hungry." she answered.

Colin moved to help Shell from the chair and ushered her over to the edge of the bed. She sat down slowly and he moved in beside her, placing his arm around her shoulder. He was anxious for her to begin her story, but knew that he could not press. She fidgeted, her head bowed, staring at her fingers, for what seemed to Colin to last forever. He labored to keep silent, and then she finally spoke.

"Are you sure you want to hear this?" she asked. "It could take a while."

"I do not have any pressing engagements. You take all the time you need." he answered. She rocked back and forth, hesitating to begin. Colin propped the pillows up on the headboard, leaned back and took her in his arms.

"Hold me tight, Colin Mallory. Donít let me go for a single second." she whispered through the sobbing that had begun anew.

"That is one thing you do not have to worry about." he told her. She lay her head on his chest and brought her arms around his waist. It took a few minutes for her sobs to subside, but when they did, she began her story.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

It was a gorgeous day outside, the sun being the lone occupant in the sky. Shell decided to go into town early and take advantage of the weather. Her mama said storm clouds were brewing past the horizon and would be here by nightfall, and Shell knew better than to challenge her mamaís weather sense. She had never known her to miss a forecast.

The long walk was slow, and uneventful until she reached town. It seemed some newcomers were gathering attention in the town park. A rather rotund older man was standing on a park bench, talking rather persuasively to the crowd about . . . some nonsense. It was way out of Shellís league, she could tell, so she didnít pay much attention.

What did catch her attention was the younger man standing next to the older one. He was tall, well built, with sandy brown hair and gorgeous blue eyes. And when Shell caught his eye, he flashed the most stunning smile she had ever seen. Her heart jumped. When he began to move through the crowd towards her, she forgot to breath.

"Well, hello there, sweet thing." he said as he approached.

"He . . . hello." Shell replied shyly.

"Quinn Malloryís the name. Iím fairly new around here and sure could use a guide." he told her.

Shell smiled, told him her name and offered to show him around. They started walking away from the crowd and Quinn began his sweet talk. He told her he and his friends had come to this fair town to possibly settle down. They wanted to check out the locals to see if this really was to their liking. Shell tried to oblige in showing him everything he asked about.

After a thorough walk through the town, Quinn suggested they stop in at the local cafe and get something to eat. Shell agreed and led him to Barberís Cafe. The waitress seated them immediately and took their order.

The conversation between the two then continued. "You said you and your friends. How many are here with you?" Shell asked. She could only assume the older man she had seen earlier was one of them.

"Well, thereís me, my friend you saw outside speaking to the crowd. His name is Max. Then thereís Wade and Rembrandt." he told her. "Weíve been in the area about a month now. Why have I never seen you?"
"Oh, I donít get into town very often. I live on a farm out aways with my mama. We have too much to do there. Coming into town only happens about once a month, for supplies and such." she said, her fingers playing nervously with her napkin.

"You mean you donít come into town on the weekend for a little relaxation?" he asked.

"No, Iím afraid thereís not much relaxing in my life. Too much work to do." she said.

"Well, now that Iím here, weíre just going to have to remedy that." and he flashed his smile at her once more. He had a small scar above his lip and that just seemed to enhance the smile. Shell was flattered to no end that this handsome man was paying attention to her.

The day wore on into the afternoon and Shell told him she had to finish her shopping and get back home. Her mama was probably already worrying about her. Quinn insisted that he help her and walk her home. It was the least he could do for occupying her for most of the day and making her return home late. After a little light-hearted arguing that got her nowhere, she finally relented.

When Shellís house finally came into view, she saw her mama standing on the porch, arms crossed. Shell took a deep breath, hoping the confrontation would not embarrass her too much in front of Quinn.

To her surprise, Quinn walked right up to her mama, introduced himself and apologized profusely for keeping her away from home so long. He sweet-talked Shellís mama like she had never seen before. Shell just stood in the yard amazed. The end result was a guest for supper. Shell was stunned.

After supper, Quinn insisted on helping with the dishes, winning hands down against Maryís protestations. Then the three of them retired to the porch rockers for a little chat and to watch the lightening display from the distant storm that Mary had promised earlier. Quinn entertained them about an hour with some stories pertaining to his travels and some places he had seen.

As he rose to leave, he told Mary he would love to come out more often and help around the place. He loved to work outdoors, he insisted, and he wouldnít mind visiting with her daughter, if she didnít have any objections. He was so slick, there was no way Mary would refuse. In fact, she insisted that he stay the night. It would probably start raining before he could possibly get back into town. And there was a nice room in the barn he could sleep in. He could walk back into town tomorrow. Quinn didnít even put up an argument.

And that was the first step into Shellís heart. He was all smiles and politeness. Quinn was the epitomy of the perfect gentleman. And Shell was on her way to falling in love.

Days stretched into weeks and with the rise of each new sun, Quinn surprised her at every turn with something. He was thoughtful and kind, loving and caring. She had never had a man in her life and didnít know it could be so wonderful.

He would come early in the morning and work a good bit of the day. They would often take long walks by the pond. He listened to her girlish daydreams of the future, and never once laughed them off or told her she was foolish. He would hold her hand gently and look at her as if she were the only thing in the world of value. Shellís world was like walking on clouds.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

As weeks became months, Shell and Quinn became inseparable. His world seemed to revolve around her, and vice versa. Mary had never seen Shell so happy and content. Maybe the Lord was repaying her for the life of loneliness she had led so far.

One day, a strange figure came walking up the road. Quinn was in the barn, Mary down at the pond and Shell in the garden. She didnít see him approach, so it startled her when he spoke.

"You Shell McGregor?" he said loudly. Shell jumped and turned to see a tall, dark-skinned stranger.

"Yes. How do you know my name?" she asked.

"Iím a friend of Quinnís. Is he here?" was the clipped reply.

Shell relaxed a little. Surely a friend of Quinnís would pose no problem, but she couldnít help but be a little leery. He seem to have no personality at all. Certainly not friendly and charming like Quinn. There was no smile, and he was very short and blunt in his words. She pointed to the barn and told him he would find Quinn in there, then asked if he would like a drink of water. The answer was a short no, and then he headed to the barn.

Shell observed the stranger with a frown as he made his way. Not the type of friend she figured Quinn to keep company with. Very strange indeed. She remembered Quinn talking about two other friends that first day. He really didnít speak of them much since then. He always seemed to keep the conversation on Shell. This one never said his name. She wondered if he were Rembrandt or Wade.

When Shell finished gathering the tomatoes from the garden, she noticed that neither Quinn or his friend had exited the barn. Maybe Iíll just go in and Quinn can introduce me, she thought, and maybe invite him for supper. Quinn might like to have his friend stay. As she approached the barn, she heard a somewhat heated discussion between the two.

"Well, you can just tell her to get over it, Remmy. Iíll come back into town when I get good and ready. And Iím not ready right now." Quinn shouted.

"Look, Q-ball. Wade ainít takiní kindly to you beiní gone all day everyday." Remmy replied. "Yeah, she knows you seek out the pretty women on every world you go to, but youíve never been with one this long. And Wadeís gettiní lonely. Youíre practically ignoring her."

"Well, sheís free to go out and find herself a man anytime she wants to, Remmy. You donít see a wedding ring on either one of our fingers, do you?" he retorted and held up his left hand, wiggling his ring finger.

"She says all the men around here are just rednecks. She donít wanna have anything to do with any of them." Remmy argued. "Now you know how she can be when she gets on her high horse. If you donít get back into town and pay her some attention, sheís gonna give you hell, and make all our lives miserable for months, with her whining and complaining."

Quinn let out a disgusted sigh. "All right, all right. Tell her Iíll be home tonight, and that I will be staying for a while. Iíll lavish some attention on her for a few days and sheíll be okay."

Remmy dug his index finger into Quinnís chest. "Yeah, well, you just be sure you do that. Me and Max are gettiní tired of her nagginí. And we still got another month in this place!" And he turned on his heels to leave without waiting for Quinn to respond.

Shellís face had drained of all itís blood. She had assumed that Wade was male, but apparently not. And she was not just a friend, but a girlfriend! Then what was all this talk he had been having with her? And what did he say about seeking out all the pretty women on every world they visited? Every world? She must be hearing things. And they were here for another month? Did that mean he was leaving? Shell suddenly felt ill. She turn and ran towards the house before Quinnís friend saw her.

The screen door slammed shut. Shell was at the sink splashing water on her face. "Well, well, well. If it isnít my sweetness, Shell." he said, his standard greeting for her everytime he saw her. Suddenly what had been music to her ears made her feel like wretching. "Look, Iím gonna have to leave and go back into town for a few days. The guy that was just here? That was my friend Remmy. He said Max needed some help with something heís working on, and I seem to be the only one that can bail him out." he lied.

Shell never looked at him, but just kept splashing water onto her face. Quinn walked up to her, patted her butt, and said, "Iíll be back in a few days, sweetness." He then turned and left, never even noticing that she didnít answer him. Shell threw up in the sink as the screen door slammed shut.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

It had been four days and Shell had not seen or heard from Quinn since the day Remmy had paid him a visit. When her mama had questioned his absence, she just told her the lie Quinn had offered up when he left. That seemed to satisfy her and she had not dwelled on it.

Shell had decided it was time to go into town and see for herself. Supplies were getting low anyway and it was a perfect alibi. But now that she was close to town, Shell was second-guessing herself. What was the point? She knew Quinn had lied. It didnít make any sense to torture herself by getting a glimpse of the couple together. She slowed her pace, but town was just ahead and there was no turning back now. Besides, she really did have to get some things for the farm.

She went to several shops and completed her list in each, but as yet, had to see any sign of Quinn or any of his friends. Maybe they had a place outside of town. She really didnít know that much about him. He never really told her too much. But just as she left the last store, there he was, coming out of Barberís Cafe -- the place she and Quinn had first dined together. And his arm was around a petite, brunette. They were laughing and talking . . . and kissing. Shell couldnít bring herself to move. She just stood there staring.

Quinn and Wade continued on down the street oblivious to the fact that they were being closely watched. They stopped at "The Wishing Well" at the end of the street and Quinn threw in a coin. They held hands, closed their eyes, and Shell saw Quinn say something. Wade then turned, put her arms around Quinnís neck as he put his arms around her waist, and they embraced in a passionate kiss, right there in front of God and everyone. Shell wiped an errant tear from her cheek, lifted her chin, and started down the road towards home.

The next day, Shell was down by the pond playing yesterdayís scene over and over in her mind. She had had no sleep the night before. "Well, well, well. If it isnít my sweetness, Shell." came a voice behind her. She froze.

"Your mama said I would find you down here." said Quinn as he walked up behind her. He put his arms around her waist and started to hug. But he felt her stiffen in his arms. "Shell, whatís wrong?" he asked as he turned her to face him. He was met with a lifeless stare.

"Shell?" he repeated. "Tell me whatís wrong, sweetness."

"Get the hell off of my property . . . and get the hell out of my life." She spoke softly, but without feeling. Quinn blinked in surprise.

"Shell, what are you talking about?" he asked innocently.

"I am not in the habit of sharing my man with another woman. Tell Wade she can have you free and clear." she replied.

"Oh, Shell, sweetie. Wade and I are just good friends. We travel together, along with Max and Remmy, because of our jobs. Sheís not my girlfriend." he tried to explain. It cost him a slap in the face.

"Leave now or I will have you arrested for trespassing." she said nonchalantly, and headed back towards her house.

Shell never saw him again. Three weeks later, she returned to town and Mr. Watson handed her a letter addressed to "My sweetness, Shell". She ripped it up without ever having opened it. Mr. Watson had told her that the letter was given to him by a young man that told him to give it to her as soon as she came into town. He said he was leaving town for good because of his job and didnít have time to deliver it himself. He was gone, and that was all Shell wanted to know.

CHAPTER TWENTY

Shell finally stopped talking, but the tears wouldnít subside. How could one small woman have so much water in her?, Colin thought. He had held her in his arms for hours as she related her story. There was talking, then silence, then tears, and then talking again. She never asked for a comment from Colin, and he never gave one. But he said plenty to himself. ĎThat bastard!í was the most common silent comment. He wanted to leave right now, return to the barn, and strangle that Quinn with his bare hands. How could he be so callous and cold!? And why did he come back?, Colin wondered.

Shell raised her head and looked into Colinís eyes. Although her eyes still glistened with tears and her face was streaked, she had a smile on her face. "You were right. I do feel better already." she whispered.

Colin raised his hand to her cheek and kissed her forehead. "I knew you would. You just needed to get it out of your system." he replied, paused for a moment, and then continued. "Shell? I hope you know that all men are not like that Quinn. There are some very reliable, honest ones out there, just waiting for a reliable honest woman to love them."

"I know. I will not give up. My Prince Charming will come someday. I am down, but not out. And Iím not dead. Mama always says ĎWhat donít kill ya, will jusí make ya stronger. Donít never fergit that, Shell.í" she said in her best impersonation of her mama.

Colin released a small laugh, and Shell followed with her own. It felt so good. It was the first time she had felt laughter inside her in months.

"Well, I guess you are going to be one strong lady after this." Colin told her.

"Youíd better believe it. Thanks to two totally opposite men. Both of you have opened my eyes in different ways for different reasons. I owe you a lot, Colin Mallory." she said. "I donít guess youíll be staying around long enough for me to repay you, though."

Colin lost his smile. He so wanted to stay and see what might develop with this wonderful woman, but he had others to think about. And he had a mission to carry out first. Then and only then could he embark on another one.

"I wish I could stay Shell, but I am afraid some other duties are holding me hostage right now. I hope you understand." he said.

"Of course, I do. And I wouldnít want you to be any other way. Commitment is important. Whether itís to another person or a goal that you have set for yourself." she answered, and rose to sit on the edge of the bed. "Say, you wouldnít happen to have one of those doubles on this world, would you?"

Colin moved to sit beside her and smiled. "You never know, Shell. He might be around here somewhere, and might just walk into your life one day."

Shell stood up and took Colinís hand. "Letís go home, Colin. I have some living to do."

EPILOGUE

Shell and Colin returned to her house as the sun was setting. Mary came bounding down the steps to embrace her daughter and Quinn, Maggie, and Remmy ran to Colin, handing out high fives and pats on the back. They ate a spectacular meal together that evening and laughed at the enormous amount of food Shell was able to put away. Mary teased her about getting to be as big as her mama one day if she didnít watch out. Shell laughed and Mary cried at seeing that wonderful smile on her daughterís face once more.

The next day, after the first good nightís sleep she had had in months, Shell went to the barn to see Quinn2 still tied up where the others had left him. She told him she held no animosity towards him any more, and she thanked him for opening her eyes. She knew he would be justly rewarded someday for the way he treated others, and as far as she was concerned, he was just a lesson learned. He tried to sweet-talk her all over again, but she just shook her head and laughed as she walked out of the barn.

Quinn and Colin decided to let the abhorrent excuse of a man leave, but just to make sure he didnít return to this world to bother Shell, Quinn erased the coordinates of this world before returning his timer to him. Quinn handed him the timer, saying it made him sick to know that a double of himself could be so sleazy. Colin walked up to him, said a few choice words that his brother wasnít even aware that he knew, and then leaned back and threw a punch at him that knocked him backwards on his ass and bloodied his nose. He then reached down, picked up the dropped timer and opened the vortex. Colin jerked the obnoxious Quinn2 up off the ground and threw him into the swirl with a flourish.

"Way to go, Bro!" Quinn yelled and slapped him on the back.

The next day, the four sliders said their goodbyes among smiles and tears with Mary and Shell. Maggie thanked Mary for the warm hospitality, and Mary thanked Maggie for her friendship. She then thanked Quinn and Colin for all their help in taking care of Shell. Colin had taken Shell down to the pond a little earlier to say goodbye to her in private.

"Shell, I am going to miss you. But I know that you will be strong and good things will happen for you." he said.

"I will miss you too, Colin. You take care, and I do hope you find what you are looking for." she answered, paused, and then looked at him shyly and said, "You know just once I would like to know what it feels like to kiss a real gentleman."

He took her in his arms, stared momentarily into her blue eyes, and then brought his lips to hers. The kiss was soft at first, but deepened after only a few seconds. When they parted, they both harbored a few tears in their eyes, but they knew that they were not tears of sadness anymore. They turned and walked hand in hand back to the others.

Quinn hit the timer and once more they were faced with the swirling vortex. Maggie and Remmy jumped in, followed by Quinn. Colin reluctantly let go of Shellís hand and jumped in last. A few seconds later, the vortex closed leaving the sky and Shellís heart just a little empty. Mary put her arm around her daughterís shoulder to lead her towards the house.

As they turned they saw a figure coming up the road. He had a back pack slung across his shoulder. "Well, lookís like we might be haviní us some more compíny." Mary said. "Looks like another drifter, and heíll moreín likely be hungry. Iíll go set a plate and you see whatís up with him." Mary instructed.

Shell walked towards the road as he came toward her. Her heart skipped a beat. "I canít believe this!" she whispered to herself. She just stood there waiting for the man to reach her, with her hand at her throat.

"Excuse me, maíam." said the stranger. "They said in town that you and yours might have some work I could be doing around here. I just arrived from over near Crossbow and need to find some way to earn my keep. I am a really good worker. Strong and honest as the day is long. I would not be causing any trouble whatsoever."

Shell just smiled, and the stranger returned it shyly. Finally she found her voice.

"I think we probably could use you, sir. And there is a room in the barn you could stay in until you find your own place. My name is Shell McGregor." and she held out her hand to him.

"That sounds just great maíam. I am Colin Mallory. Very pleased to make your acquaintance." he said, and offered her his hand also.

When they touched, Shell knew. She knew that this was her Colin. She had always wished at "The Wishing Well" that just once, her knight in shining armour would come out of the blue to rescue her and make her happy. Now it had happened just twice.

THE END


Alternate Earth 117
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