Disclaimers: I don't know why I keep trying to disclaim these folks – goodness knows I've chatted with them/about them enough. So, I'll just say that all names, places, people, and situations I write about are fictional. They are not based on anyone or any place. Although Amanda would disagree, I do own these characters – so please, no stealing J If you have anything to tell me, please let me know at email@example.com . You can also get the scuttlebutt on my website, www.CarrieLCarr.com . Drop by and say hello.
Dedication: This story is dedicated to the love of my life, my beautiful Jan. She's the reason for everything I do. Forever and always, my love.
Angst warning: I normally don't disclaim this sort of thing, but these first few chapters are heavy in the angst/sadness department. It does get better, I promise.
The quiet of the dark room was rudely interrupted by the sudden music from the clock radio. One long arm snaked from beneath the covers and slapped at the offending object, which continued to blare.
The song ended and a far too-cheerful voice took over. “Good morning! If you haven't looked outside already, better jump out of bed. We're a day late for a white Christmas, but it's beautiful anyway!”
Both lumps groaned and the blanket was flipped back to reveal two unhappy women. “What the hell?” Lexington Walters griped as she rubbed her eyes.
“Did he say what I think he said?” her wife, Amanda Walters, asked. Her short, reddish-blond hair stuck out in every direction, and her attempt at brushing it with her hands didn't help.
“I dunno.” Lex rose to a sitting position and adjusted her tee shirt. “Did we forget to turn up the furnace last night?”
Amanda mirrored her posture and donned her slippers. “Sure feels like it.” She stood and wrapped her thick, pink robe around her body and shuffled toward the nearest window. “Holy crap.”
“What?” Lex padded around the bed, wincing as her bare feet met the cold, wooden floor. She stood behind Amanda and peered over her shoulder. “Geez. Where the hell did that come from?” The area between the ranch house and Martha's home was lit by a large guard light. An even layer of white sat undisturbed, giving the yard an eerie appearance.
“The weather forecast said last night we had a slight chance of precipitation,” Amanda reminded her. She snuggled into the arms that wrapped around her, only to jump as cold hands crept beneath her robe. “Yeow!”
“Heh.” Lex kissed her wife on the neck. “Did they mention how long this ‘slight chance' would last?”
Amanda tilted her head to give Lex better access to her neck. "Mmm.” She reached back to tangle her fingers in her wife's hair and was about to make a suggestion when the phone rang. “Crap.”
Lex placed a final kiss on her shoulder. She walked around the bed and picked up the phone. “Walters.”
The voice of Roy, her ranch foreman, crackled on the line. “Hey, Boss. I know it's early, but—”
“Uh, yeah.” Roy sounded confused at the interruption. “I checked the forecast, and we could be in some trouble.”
All humor gone from her voice, Lex sat on the edge of the bed. “What do you mean?”
“They're talking about us getting at least a foot of snow today. Maybe more.”
“We never get more than an inch or two,” Lex argued. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah. The weather guy started spouting all sorts of gibberish about fronts and stalls, but from what I gathered, they're just as surprised as the rest of us.”
Lex ran her hand through her hair. “Damn it. And we've got a couple of hundred head in the south pasture. All right. How many guys do we have here?”
“Just the skeleton crew, boss. Not enough to move the herd quickly. The rest of the hands aren't due back until Monday.”
“Damn, damn, damn.” Lex stood and began to pace. “We've got to get those animals out of the low areas before they're buried up to their necks. Damned things aren't smart enough to do it themselves.”
Roy chuckled. “Yeah, I know. Listen, Helen volunteered to ride with us, so if we can get a couple of more, we should be okay.”
“A couple of more people. On the day after Christmas? Who the hell is going to come all the way out here and ride in this crap?” Lex stopped short when Amanda stepped into her path. “What?”
Amanda patted Lex on the stomach. “We can ask Martha and Charlie to watch the kids and I'll go with you.”
Lex nodded. “I'd like that.” At her foreman's laugh, she growled. “Shut up, Roy. I don't see you telling your wife no.”
“Hell, no. I'm smarter than that. We'll saddle up and be at the main house in less than an hour.”
The hand holding the phone slowly lowered as Lex looked into Amanda's eyes. “Are you sure about this? It's going to be cold and wet.”
Amanda took the phone away from her and tossed it on the bed. She wrapped her arms around Lex's waist and leaned into her embrace. “I'm positive. Will we be enough?”
“I'd really like at least one or two more people, but we can make do.” Lex kissed the top of Amanda's head. “I'd ask Charlie, but he's just getting over that nasty cold.”
“And Martha would kill both of you,” Amanda agreed. “Why don't you call Shelby?”
Lex closed her eyes and sighed. “She's got her own place to worry about, sweetheart. I'm sure she has her hands full right now.”
“Have you talked to her lately?” Amanda pulled back so she could see her wife. “I mean, really talked?”
“We saw them day before yesterday, remember?”
Amanda swatted her on the arm. “I know that, doofus. Did you talk to her?”
“Yeah?” Lex shrugged. “Ow.” She rubbed her arm where Amanda had slapped her, again. “What?”
“Rebecca told me that they haven't had any boarders for several months. She's been taking as much overtime as the store will allow her, but Shelby's going crazy trying to find work.”
Lex sat on the bed and tugged Amanda onto her lap. “Damn. Why didn't she say anything?”
“Really?” Amanda asked. “You know she's almost as stubborn as you are.”
“No, she isn't,” Lex argued. “Hey!”
Amanda laid her head on Lex's shoulder. “The point is, you need an extra rider, and Shelby is looking for work. It's a win-win.”
“Yeah. Now I just have to figure out the best way to ask, without hurting her pride.”
“I have faith in you,” Amanda murmured, kissing Lex on the throat. She heard the sudden intake of breath her touch caused. “Think you can dial the number?” She laughed as she was flipped onto the bed and covered by her wife's body.
By mid-morning, the snow was already six inches deep. The fat, wet flakes fell heavily, making travel hazardous. A lone rider shivered and hunched lower in an attempt to get warm. Posted by the gate, their task was to allow the straggling Angus into the next pasture, without letting any escape. “I m…mu…must be out of m…m…my mind,” Amanda chattered softly. She blinked the snow off of her eyelashes and lowered her face. “S…st…stupid.”
She hadn't seen any of the black cattle for quite some time, making her wonder if she needed to stay by the gate. She considered taking her radio from her coat pocket, but didn't want to remove a glove to do so. She closed her eyes and decided to wait a while longer. The brightness of the snow was beginning to give her a headache.
The arrival of a large, black stallion and its rider caused her horse, Stormy to dance sideways. Amanda tugged on the reins to control her. “W…wh...whoa.”
“Amanda?” Lex held her powerful horse in place, although he snorted his displeasure. “Sweetheart?”
Lex edged Thunder closer. “No, you're not. Why don't you head for the house? I'll take over the gate duties.”
“I can d…d…do it,” Amanda forced out between her clenched teeth.
“I know you can, sweetheart. But sitting still for long makes it worse. Chet was supposed to relieve you half an hour ago. Have you seen him?”
Amanda shook her head. Her entire body started to tremble.
“Damn it.” Lex hurriedly dismounted. She waded through the snow and pulled Amanda off the paint pony. The rigid body frightened her, so she unbuttoned her duster and wrapped it around her wife. “I told you we should buy you something heavier for winter.”
“W…wa…waste of money,” Amanda stammered, snuggling as close as she could. “I'm n…n…not usually out…side, when it's c…c…cold.”
Lex growled and briskly rubbed Amanda's back. “Smartass.”
The echo of a gunshot startled both horses, Thunder stood wide-eyed while Stormy took off. Ignoring the fleeing animal, Lex tossed Amanda to the ground and covered her with her own body. She raised her head and carefully searched the area before she rolled off of her partner. “Are you all right?”
Amanda got to her knees and dusted the snow off her chest. “I was warming up,” she grumbled. “Was that a gunshot?”
“Yeah.” Lex stood and helped Amanda to her feet. “Sorry about that.” She solicitously brushed at her wife's torso.
“Stop it.” Amanda swatted Lex's hands away. “Are we going to go check it out?”
Lex put her hands on her hips. “We?”
“Well, duh.” Amanda mirrored her posture. “I'm not going very far without you, am I?”
“Guess not.” Lex laughed and climbed into the saddle. “Come on, Hopalong. While we're at it, maybe we can catch your ride before she makes it back to the barn.” She held out her hand and tugged Amanda up behind her.
“Hopalong?” Amanda jabbed Lex in the ribs. “What the hell's that supposed to mean?”
Lex shrugged. “I dunno. But you get pissed when I call you Red. Ow!” She felt the pinch on her thigh through her heavy jeans. “Behave, woman. Or I'll make you walk.”
Amanda laughed at her. “Sure you will. Besides, my hair's more blond than red these days.” She snuggled close and wrapped her arms tightly around Lex.
“Well, mine would be too, if I cheated like you did.” Lex grunted as her stomach was poked. “Hey.”
“I don't cheat.”
Amanda poked her again. “Do not.”
“You're not going to sit there and try to tell me that your hair just naturally went that light, are you?”
Shaking her head, Lex laughed. “Cheater.”
“Are—” Lex pulled Thunder to a stop.
Amanda raised her head and tried to look around Lex. “What is it?”
“Tracks. Heading down into that gully.” Lex pointed to the single set of tracks being quickly covered by the falling snow. She swung her right leg over Thunder's neck to climb down. “Stay here while I check it out.” When Amanda refused the reins, she sighed. “Amanda, please.”
“I think you've been kicked in the head by a horse too many times,” Amanda chastised, while she dropped to the ground beside her wife. “That's the only logical explanation for this bout of brain damage you've seemed to have acquired.” She patted Thunder's shoulder. “Lead on.”
Lex looked into the sky. “Give me strength,” she mumbled. The poke in her back let her know she was heard. “All right. Then at least stay behind me.”
“Sure. It's easier to walk in your steps, anyway,” Amanda cheerfully agreed. She dropped the reins to the ground, secure in the knowledge that Thunder was trained to stay in place. “Extra goodies for you when we get home, buddy,” she assured him.
“You've spoiled my horse.” Although she complained, Lex was secretly happy that Amanda loved the animals as much as she did. “He's going to get fat and lazy.”
Amanda laughed. “Yeah, right.”
Two more shots rang out, this time from the direction of the gully.
Lex immediately squatted and pulled Amanda down with her. “We're getting close. I don't suppose you'll let me go first to check it out?”
“Hell, no.” Amanda tangled her fingers in the back of Lex's coat. “You're not getting out of my sight.”
“I was afraid you'd say that. All right. Stick close.”
Amanda tightened her grip. “Like glue.”
They waded through the snow-covered brush, Lex doing her best to keep them upright. Their descent became more of a struggle as they went, the deepening snow making the walk more difficult. Lex stumbled and would have fallen if Amanda hadn't held her up. “Thanks.”
“Are you okay?”
“Yep.” Lex struggled past a large cedar and stopped. “What the hell?”
The man standing at the foot of the gully turned toward her voice. “Boss! I was hoping someone would hear the shots.”
Amanda looked around Lex. “Chet?”
He waded through the snow and met them halfway. “Hi, ma'am. I didn't know what else to do, boss.”
Lex looked around him and saw the body of a horse. “What happened?”
“Found a hole and poor Shadow broke his leg. He was in such agony, I shot him.” The chapped and moist skin around Chet's eyes showed how hard he took the horse's death. “I didn't know how long it would take help to get here, and I couldn't stand to see him suffer.”
Lex patted his shoulder. “I'd have done the same. Why didn't you call out on your radio?”
Chet held up what was left of the device. “It broke when we fell.”
“Damn. All right. Get as much gear as you can, and follow us. We'll have someone meet us up there,” Lex pointed in the direction they came from. “Thunder can carry Amanda and me, but I think he'd balk at hauling you, Chet.”
He wiped his eyes on his sleeve. “Yeah.” He took a few minutes to get what he could from the fallen animal. “I feel bad leaving him like this,” Chet remarked, his hands full.
“Can't be helped.” Lex flinched as she was poked in the ribs. “As soon as the snow lets up, you can come back with a couple of guys and a trailer,” she offered, cutting her eyes at Amanda. “Okay?”
Amanda nodded. “Chet, give me your saddle bags, at least.”
Chet blushed. “No, ma'am, I can handle it.” He dropped the bags when he tried to pick up the saddle he had struggled to remove. When he bent to pick up the bags, his rifle scabbard landed in the snow.
“Not a good way to treat a gun,” Lex deadpanned.
“No, ma'am. I know.” Chet flipped the saddle bags over one shoulder and tried to dig the scabbard out of the snow. He shook the scabbard clean, which caused the saddle bags to drop from his shoulder. Again.
Lex sighed. “Chet, we're gonna turn into ice sculptures at this rate. Give me the gun, hand Amanda the bags and you carry the saddle.”
“Right.” He did as she suggested, and soon they were slogging uphill.
When they reached the crest, they were greeted by two riders: a bored-looking Shelby and Roy, who casually leaned on one arm against his saddle horn. He tipped his hat. “Hey, boss lady.”
Lex laughed. “Hey, yourself. Comfy?” She handed him the scabbard.
“Been worse,” he admitted. “We heard the shots. What happened?” The sight of Chet with the saddle was the only answer he needed. “Damn.” He raised his voice so that Chet could hear. “Just leave your saddle here and you can double up with me.”
Shelby spoke up. “I'll take the saddle, if you want.”
Chet looked relieved. “Thanks, ma'am.”
With a laugh, Shelby accepted the saddle. “I've been called a lot of things, but never that.” She nodded to Lex. “All the cattle have been moved and everyone else is on their way back.”
“Careful, Shelby. We'll make a ranch hand out of you, yet,” Lex teased.
“Had worse jobs.”
Roy helped Chet climb up behind him. “We'll see what you say in the summer when we have to clean the cattle pens.”
“Is that a job offer?” Shelby asked, looking from Roy to Lex.
“Would you take it, if it was?” Lex caught the slight nod from her foreman. “Shelby?”
Amanda had heard enough. “Really? Have you all lost your minds? I'm freezing my ass off out here, and you're playing word games.” She patted Shelby's leg as she passed. “I'm sure if you show up Monday morning, Lex will have all the paperwork ready. Go home and get warm. That's what I'm going to do.”
Lex followed her. “You heard the boss. Let's get out of this damned snow.”
The gas fireplace flickered brightly, warming the petite woman who reclined on the nearby sofa. The wind howled against the house, causing Anna Leigh Cauble to raise her eyes from the book in her lap and shiver in reflex. She glanced at the grandfather clock near the doorway and placed her book by her feet. “Goodness. It's almost three o'clock. Jacob must have gotten lost in his work, again.” Her socked feet slid into heavy slippers before she stood and wrapped a crocheted blanket around her shoulders.
She continued to grumble good-naturedly to herself as she walked through the house and out the door to the side yard. “Rushed right out this morning. Too busy to eat.” As was their usual custom, they had spent breakfast together in the kitchen. Her husband had barely touched his food, which she attributed to his mind being on new pieces. He had made Amanda a hand-carved laptop desk, and was thrilled at her exuberance on Christmas day over the gift. “I swear. That man would work past bedtime if I let him.”
The breezeway protected her from the elements and she opened the shop door and hurriedly entered. He had mentioned designing something for Lex, but hadn't said what it would be. “Jacob? You've worked past lunch again, my dear. And I was too busy dozing on the sofa to notice. Come in and we'll have an early dinner.” The blare of his favorite radio station made it impossible to hear if he had answered, so she headed toward the back of the shop.
Anna Leigh had to navigate stacks of wood as well as finished products, to get to where her husband spent the majority of his time. “Dearest? Where are you?” She tightened the blanket around her shoulders and stepped around a large dresser. “Jacob, darl—” her voice stopped when she noticed the still form on the floor, partially hidden behind a table.
Heedless of the dirt, sawdust and lacquer on the floor, Anna Leigh dropped to her knees beside her husband. He was lying on his side, his face away from her. She carefully rolled him over onto his back. He appeared to be asleep. “Jacob?” Her badly shaking hand touched the side of his neck, which was much too cool in the warmth of the shop. “Oh, my dearest. Why didn't my heart stop, as well?”
The man she had loved and lived with for almost sixty years was gone. Anna Leigh's heart, once filled with love and happiness, shattered as she lowered her face to his chest and cried.
She didn't know how long she'd lain there, covered in sawdust and tears. Feeling emptier that she ever thought possible, Anna Leigh sat up and lovingly brushed her fingertips over the damp spots on Jacob's shirt. “I've made a mess of you, haven't I?” She sniffled and wiped her eyes with the edge of the blanket. “I have calls to make, dearest. But I don't want to leave you alone.” She shook her head. “Now isn't that the silliest thing you've ever heard?” Placing what she knew was the final kiss on his lips, she lovingly draped the blanket over Jacob's upper body and stood. “Wait for me, my love.”
The cold air didn't faze Anna Leigh as she trekked from the shop to the kitchen. Only while she dialed the wall phone did she realize that somewhere she had lost a slipper, and her left foot was soaking wet. She stared at the soggy wool sock as she waited for an answer.
Anna Leigh noticed the water she had tracked in from outside. “I'll need to get the mop,” she muttered.
“Mom? Is that you?” Michael asked.
“Yes, I'm sorry. I believe I'm going to need your help, dearest.” The cold finally hit and she began to shiver. “Michael? Could you please come right over? Thank you.” She hung up the phone without waiting for his answer. Her body continued to shake as she slid down the wall. “What am I going to do without you, Jacob?” She wrapped her arms around her waist and sobbed.
The two women bustled through the back door, giggling like a pair of children. They slid on the wood floor as they jockeyed for position by the coat rack.
“Lexington Marie Walters, don't you dare track that mud and snow through the house,” Amanda warned. She sat on the bench and removed her own nasty boots. “Sit.”
Lex grinned, but sat beside her anyway. “Woof.” She nudged Amanda with her shoulder and kicked off her boots. “I wonder where the monsters are.”
“Maybe upstairs, driving Martha crazy,” Amanda mused. She looked up as Martha stepped into the kitchen doorway. “Oh. Hi.”
Martha's face was blotchy and her eyes were red. “Amanda, honey, you need to call your grandparent's house.”
Amanda stood and crossed over to Martha. She put her hand on the older woman's arm. “Are you all right? What's wrong?”
“Yes, I'm fine. But you really need to make that call.” Martha squeezed her hand and released it. “Why don't you use the office?”
“Um, okay.” Amanda gave Lex a questioning glance before heading down the hall.
Lex put both pairs of boots on a mat near the door. “What's going on, Martha? And where are the kids?”
“They're with Charlie at our place.” Martha blinked the tears from her eyes and wiped her face with a handkerchief.
“Martha?” Lex took Martha by the upper arms. “What's wrong?”
The older woman shook her head and gestured toward the office. “You go on, honey. She's going to need you.”
“I don't understand.”
Martha gently brushed Lex away. “You will. Hurry.”
Lex stared at her for a moment before she jogged down the hall. Her socks slid on the floor as she turned into the den. She saw Amanda go into the office and quickly followed her.
Amanda looked up from behind the desk when Lex entered. “Hi.”
“Hey, there. Mind if I join you? Our kids are with Charlie.”
“Sure.” Amanda twisted the office chair toward Lex, who obediently sat. “Thank you.” Amanda crawled onto her wife's lap and picked up the phone. She dialed the familiar number, but was surprised at the answering voice.
“Cauble residence,” a woman gravely answered. Lois had been married to Amanda's father, Michael, for the past few years, and was more of a mother figure to Amanda than her real mother had ever been.
“Hi, Lois. This is Amanda. Martha told me I needed to call. What's going on?”
Lois cleared her throat. “Hi, honey. Um, let me get your father, all right? I know he's been waiting for your call.”
Amanda pulled the receiver away from her face and looked at it. “What on earth is going on?” She glanced at Lex, who shrugged. The sound of her father's voice brought her back to the reason she was calling. “Hey, Dad.”
Michael Cauble sounded tired. “Hi. Is Lex there with you?”
“Yes, she is. What's going on?”
Michael coughed, choked with emotion. “Sweetheart, it's about your grandfather. I…I'm not sure how to tell you this, but—”
“Is he sick?” Amanda asked. She felt Lex's arms tighten around her. “Daddy?”
“No, baby, he's not sick.” Michael's voice broke. “He's…gone.” There was a rustling as the phone was passed to Lois.
“No, that's not possible.” Amanda shook her head. “We saw him yesterday and he was fine.”
Lois sniffled. “I'm so sorry, honey. But your grandfather has passed on.”
“No!” Amanda handed the phone to Lex. “They're not making any sense,” she cried.
Lex took the phone. “Hello?”
“Lexington, honey. I'm so sorry. But Jacob passed away a short time ago,” Lois gently reiterated.
“Oh, god.” Lex used one arm to pull her wife close. “How is Gramma?”
“Numb, I think. Honey, I know the weather's dreadful, but—”
Lex cut her off. “We'll be there as soon as we can, Lois. Thank you.” She hung up the phone and wrapped both arms around Amanda. “I'm so sorry, sweetheart.”
“But we saw him yesterday,” Amanda argued. Big, heavy tears began to trickle down her cheeks. “He was fine.”
“I know, sweetheart.” Lex struggled to keep her own tears at bay. She used her fingertips to brush the moisture from her wife's face.
Amanda stared into her eyes for a long moment. “Gramma's going to need us.” At her partner's nod, she fell forward and buried her face against Lex's chest.
Lex parked their Ford Expedition in the Cauble's long driveway behind an older model Cadillac sedan and a black Nissan Pathfinder. She hurried around to assist Amanda from the SUV, keeping her arm around her wife's waist as they waded through the deep snow.
As they trudged up the steps the front door opened to reveal Michael, dressed in a pair of dark slacks and a red sweater. He opened his arms and embraced his daughter, who clung to him as if her life depended on it.
“Hey, Dad.” Lex joined them and put her hand on Michael's shoulder. “I'm really sorry about Jacob.”
“Thanks, Lex.” He kept his arm around Amanda and led them into the house. “Lois is in the kitchen with Jeannie, and Mom's upstairs, resting.” Her pulled Lex into a hug and kissed the side of her head. “Thanks for coming.”
Lex nodded, unsure if her voice would work. She cleared her throat. “Where's Rodney?”
“He's finishing up at the clinic. The kids are at the Skimmerly's.”
Amanda wiped her eyes. “Wanda and Dirk? That's sweet of them.” She looked at the staircase. “I should check on Gramma.”
“Do you want me to go up with you?” Michael asked.
“No, thank you. But maybe we could talk, later?” Amanda held her hand out to Lex, who immediately grasped it. “Will you be okay down here?”
Lex kissed the back of her hand. “Don't worry about me, sweetheart.”
“I always will,” Amanda whispered, cupping her wife's cheek. Belatedly, she realized her father had witnessed their little scene. “Um, I'll just head upstairs.” She turned away, slightly embarrassed.
Michael studied Lex, easily seeing the weariness in her features. “Cup of coffee?”
“Yeah, that would be good, thanks.” With a final glance toward her wife's ascent, Lex followed him to the kitchen.
Upstairs, Amanda's senses were overloaded with familiar sights and smells as she walked the carpeted hallway. Her childhood summers were spent in this house. The faint aroma of vanilla tickled her nose. She was never certain where it came from, but it soothed her frazzled nerves.
At the end of the hall, she stopped in front of the open door to her grandparent's room. It was here she had been cuddled on Saturday mornings, comforted from bad dreams and protected from the real and imaginary monsters she faced growing up. She saw her grandmother, the woman whose strength always held the family together, curled in the middle of the king-sized bed like a child.
Anna Leigh was lying atop the covers with a colorful quilt draped over her. She was wrapped around a pillow and appeared asleep, but opened her eyes when she felt her granddaughter's presence. Without speaking a word, she held out a hand and beckoned Amanda inside.
Amanda rushed to the bed. She sat beside her grandmother and put her arm around her. Unable to express her grief in words, she found herself held closely while she sobbed in Anna Leigh's embrace.
“Ssssh, dearest,” Anna Leigh soothed her. She brushed her hand down Amanda's hair.
“I can't believe he's gone.”
Anna Leigh kissed her head. “Neither can I.” Her tears fell into the soft hair beneath her cheek as she held Amanda close. “I keep expecting him to come in, covered in sawdust and varnish.” Her voice turned wistful. “You were such a gift to him, Mandy. We missed so much of Jeanne Louise's first years, and we were not about to make that mistake a second time. We flew out to Los Angeles the moment your mother went into labor. I remember, not hours after you were born, when Jacob held you. He was so smitten,” she lightly laughed. “Those big, strong hands were so gentle.”
“When,” Amanda took in a shaky breath, “when I would stay here in the summer, I used to pray at night for you and Grandpa to be my parents.”
“We would have loved that. Your visits brought such join into our life.” Anna Leigh sat up and wiped her cheeks as Amanda did the same. “Your mother was determined for you to have the ‘best' education, and she refused to believe that you could have received that here.”
The bitter laugh from Amanda was loud in the dark room. “Right. Not to mention the fact that she wanted both her daughters under her thumb.”
Anna Leigh touched her knee. “I'm sure it was here way of showing her love for you.”
“Yeah, right. My mother only loved one thing, and that was herself.”
There was a soft tap at the door. “Uh, excuse me.” Lex stood in the hall, looking uncomfortable.
“Come in, Lexington.” Anna Leigh patted the bed. “Join us, please.”
“I didn't mean to intrude, but Reverend Hampton is downstairs to see you.” Lex edged into the room, but remained standing. “I'm so terribly sorry for your loss.”
The older woman crooked a finger at her. “Lexington, come here.”
Looking like a chastised child, Lex trudged to the bed. “Yes, ma'am?”
“The loss is all of ours.” Anna Leigh held out her hands, which were immediately grasped. “Thank you for being here.”
Lex faintly smiled. “No other place I'd be, Gramma.” She grunted in surprise as she was hauled onto the bed and pulled into a group hug.
The snow had stopped earlier, but visibility was still a problem due to the winds that swirled and kicked up what had already fallen. Lex peered through the windshield, the headlights barely cutting through the mess. They had stayed until after sunset, stuck until they could find the owners of the vehicle that had blocked them in.
“Maybe we should have stayed.” Amanda saw the white-knuckled grip her wife had on the steering wheel. “It's just that I really wanted to get home to the kids.”
“I know, sweetheart. And to tell you the truth, that house was filling up pretty quick. Where did all of those people come from?”
Amanda sighed. “The Historical Society, the church, and I think the Ladies Auxiliary. I didn't realize Somerville had that many people in it.”
“Neither did I.” Lex cursed as the Expedition skidded toward the right side of the road. Although the snow covered the ditch, she knew the drop off was dangerous. “Damned black ice.” She carefully got the vehicle under control. “I was half-tempted to bring Gramma back with us. I think the good intentions of the town were beginning to get to her.”
“I tried,” Amanda admitted. “She promised that she'd let Dad run everyone off if it got to be too much. But you know how she is.”
“Polite to a fault.”
“Mmm hmm.” Amanda breathed a sigh of relief as Lex turned onto the road to the ranch. It had been freshly graded and was much easier to navigate. “Looks like Roy's been busy.”
Lex nodded. “He called me earlier. Said Chet was out the door the moment the snow stopped.” She stretched her arm over the center console and held her wife's hand. “How are you holding up?”
Amanda wiped at her damp cheeks with her free hand. “I think I'm still in shock.” She turned to Lex. “I keep having all these ‘what-ifs' go through my mind.”
“Yeah. What if we'd asked Grandpa and Gramma to spend an extra day with us at Christmas? What if he hadn't gone to work in his shop? Would he still be alive?” Amanda started crying again. “I can't even remember if I told him I loved him on Christmas.”
Once they crossed the old bridge, Lex stopped the SUV. She unbuckled her seatbelt and exited, slipping a couple of times before she made it to the passenger side. She opened Amanda's door and pulled her crying wife into her arms. “He knew you loved him.” She whispered words of love and comfort, until a cold gust of wind blew snow into the vehicle.
“You're going to freeze,” Amanda sniffled, tugging at Lex's shirt. “Get back in here.”
“Yes, ma'am.” Lex gently kissed her on the forehead.
Once they arrived at the ranch house, Lex turned to her wife. “Why don't you go inside while I run get the kids? No sense in both of us being out in the cold.”
Amanda shook her head. “I'll go with you. I…I really need to see them.”
“All right.” Lex took her duster from the back seat of the SUV and put it on while she walked around to help Amanda. She grinned as Amanda kissed her hand. “Ready?”
“I think so.” Amanda took a deep breath and got out of the Expedition.
Holding hands, they walked along the cleared driveway toward the bungalow that Martha shared with her husband, Charlie. The guard light was on, causing the undisturbed snow around them to sparkle. “It's so beautiful,” Amanda commented quietly.
Lex turned her head so that she could see her. “Absolutely stunning.”
“Well, it's pretty, but,” Amanda realized where Lex's eyes were. “Lex.”
The rancher shrugged. “I stand by my statement.”
“Not a bit.” Lex stopped and gave Amanda her full attention. “Would you like to know what I see when I look at you?”
Amanda blushed, but nodded.
Lex took off her gloves and cupped Amanda's face. “I see the most beautiful woman I've ever known, an answer to a prayer I never realized I needed.” She kissed her lightly on the lips. “You are the mother of my children and the reason my house is a home. And the one reason I wake up every morning and thank God I'm alive.” Her next kiss was more involved, but just as gentle.
Once she could breathe again, Amanda said, “I spent the first couple of years trying to get you to say more than a word or two, and now you've turned into a poet.”
“Nah, just stating the obvious.” Lex put her arm around Amanda. They both turned their heads when the door to Martha's home opened.
“I was beginning to wonder if you were going to come in or sit out there and moon over each other all evening,” Martha teased from her doorway.
Lex snorted, but didn't move her arm. “You're just jealous,” she muttered, as they landed on the porch. “How are the kids?”
“They've been little angels.” Martha swatted Lex on the rear as they passed her.
“Ow! Are you sure you're talking about our kids?”
Martha ignored the snarky remark and hugged Amanda. “How are you doing, sweetie?”
Amanda closed her eyes and absorbed the love from the older woman. Her eyes misted over as she felt the light kiss on her cheek. “I'm all right.”
“Well, come on inside and get out of the cold.” Martha kept her arm around Amanda as they moved down the short entry hall to the living room.
On the far wall, the gas fireplace flickered, sending shadows across the toddler stretched out asleep in the floor. The adjoining wall held a flat screen television which played an animated movie. Across from the television, Charlie sat in the middle of the floral-patterned couch, a napping girl on each side. His head was tipped against the back of the sofa and his eyes were closed.
Lex stopped a few feet away and grinned. “I see their pawpaw is enjoying the movie almost as much as the kids,” she whispered to Martha and Amanda.
“Hush.” Martha poked Lex in the ribs. “Why don't you let them stay the night? I can see how exhausted you both are.”
Amanda shook her head. “No. I mean, thanks, but—”
“It's okay, honey. I totally understand.” Martha chuckled as Lex knelt and scooped Eddie and his blanket in one movement. “He finally crashed about fifteen minutes ago, so he may be down for the night.”
Lex kissed a small blemish on the toddler's forehead. “Took another tumble, little man?” she whispered. At fifteen months, he had mastered walking and was impatient to explore the world around him. Unfortunately, his enthusiasm exceeded his agility.
“You'll find a matching one on Lorrie's chin,” Martha explained. “She tried to catch him and didn't quite get there.”
Amanda sat beside Lorrie and brushed her hand across her head. “Hey, sweetie.”
“Mom?” Lorrie blinked her eyes opened and yawned. She curled into Amanda and closed her eyes. “Is it morning?”
“No, honey. Let's go home so you can sleep in your own bed, all right?” Amanda laughed as Lorrie mumbled into her shoulder. “Just like your Momma.”
Lex handed Eddie to Martha. “If you'll hold him for a minute, I'll wrestle with Melanie.” The seven-year old was almost impossible to wake once she fell asleep.
Charlie opened his eyes and looked around. “Uh, hi there.” He straightened his glasses and sat up. “When did y'all get here?”
“A few minutes ago.” Lex raised a limp Melanie into her arms. “Mel, sweetheart. You need to wake up.”
“Mmm.” Melanie put her arms around Lex's neck. “Don't wanna go to school,” she mumbled.
The adults all laughed and Charlie stood. “Do you need any help getting them home?”
“No, we'll be fine.” Amanda kissed Lorrie's head. “I'm afraid you're too big to carry, honey.”
Lorrie opened her eyes and grinned. “Bet Momma could carry me.”
Amanda pinched her lightly on the nose. “Only if she wants to get in trouble with me,” she teased. While Lex's back had healed from the injury of the previous year, Amanda was still very protective of her.
“Ha!” Lorrie hopped off the couch and stood in front of Lex. “You're afraid of Mom.”
“You betcha.” Lex ruffled Lorrie's dark hair. “And if you're smart, you would be, too.”
Amanda stood and wrapped Eddie in a blue flannel blanket. “Thank you, Mada.”
“Sure thing, hon.” Martha touched her lightly on the shoulder. “You let me know if there's anything I can do for you, or your family.”
Unable to answer without breaking down, Amanda nodded.
Lorrie stared at her for a moment. “What's wrong?” She turned to Lex. “Momma?”
“We'll talk about it when we get home, all right?” Lex gave her what she hoped was a reassuring smile. “Can you gather up your brother's stuff for me?”
“Okay.” Lorrie looked into her eyes, which were red-rimmed. “But—”
Lex shook her head. “I promise, when we get home.”
“Yes, ma'am.” Doing as she was told, Lorrie quickly gathered the few toys that Eddie had scattered around the room. She tucked them in the blue, striped diaper bag and hefted it over her shoulder.
Martha handed Lorrie her coat. “Don't forget this.”
Lorrie set the bag down and put on the coat. “Thanks.”
“You're welcome, honey.” Martha bent down and cupped Lorrie's cheek. “You're such a wonderful young woman, Lorrie. I'm so proud of you.”
The girl blushed and tried to lower her head. Lorrie had recently turned twelve, and the accompanying hormones were confusing and hard to handle. She mumbled something incoherent and picked up the diaper bag.
Once the goodbyes were said, Lex and Amanda took their little family home.
Lorrie led the way, while each adult carried a sleeping child. She held open the gate and had to fight off a very excited Freckles. The dog danced around her, nipping at her jacket. “Freckles, no!” She closed the gate after her parents passed. “Silly dog.”
When Freckles barked, Melanie raised her head from Lex's shoulder. “Momma?”
“It's all right, sweetheart.” Lex opened the door for Amanda and held it for Lorrie. “Let's get upstairs and into our pajamas.”
Melanie kept a tight grip around her mother's neck. “Where were you today? Mada said you had business in town.” She looked at Amanda as she passed through the door. “Mommy went with you, right?”
Lex set her down and stretched. “Yep. You're growing too fast for me, kiddo. I don't think I can carry you around much longer.”
“I'm getting big,” Melanie agreed. “One of these days I'll be as tall as Lorrie.” She yawned. “I'm sleepy.”
“So am I, kiddo. Come on.” Lex turned her around and gave her a light pat on the rear. “Let's see who can get ready for bed first.” She held out her hands to Amanda. “My turn.” She kissed Eddie's head before she rested him against her shoulder. “You're getting big too, little man.”
Melanie grinned, her earlier fatigue, gone. “I'll win!” She took off toward the stairs, her older sister on her heels. “Come on, Lorrie, hurry!”
With a long-suffering sigh, Lorrie glanced at the adults before she followed. “Yeah, yeah. Whatever. Let's go, Freckles.” The dog barked and raced up the stairs beside them.
Amanda tucked her arm around Lex's waist as they followed at a more leisurely pace. “Are we going to survive their teen years?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
Halfway up the stairs, Amanda stopped. “Do you think we should tell them tonight?”
“Let's see how they're doing. I think they're both old enough, especially Lorrie.”
Amanda led them up to Eddie's room, which was across the hall from their own. She turned on the lamp beside his crib and adjusted the bedding. “We're going to have to convert this to a toddler bed pretty soon.”
“Yeah. He's growing way too fast.” Lex had him on the changing table, giving him a dry diaper. Eddie smacked his lips and stretched but didn't wake. “Think he'll be comfortable enough in this?” she asked her wife. The denim overalls were soft, as was the red undershirt covered in reindeer.
“I think so.” Amanda tugged his matching red socks up as high as they would go. “Maybe these will actually last all night.”
Lex snorted. “Yeah, right. He doesn't like socks any more than you do shoes. Good luck with that.” She carried Eddie to the crib and tucked him in. “Sleep well, buddy.”
They stood over the crib and watched their son. Amanda leaned her head onto Lex's arm. “Grandpa was looking forward to teaching him how to build things.” She wiped her eyes. “I'm going to miss him so much.”
“I know, love.” Lex turned and held Amanda in her arms. “So will I.” They stood together quietly, each accepting the love and support the other offered. Once she was able to get her emotions under control, Lex gently kissed her wife. “Let's go check on the girls.”
“Good idea.” Amanda kept close as they walked to the far end of the hall where the girls' rooms were located. “Too quiet.”
Lex nodded and stopped at the first open door, which was to Melanie's room. “Aw, look at that.”
Their youngest daughter had made it as far as her bed. She fell asleep fully dressed. Melanie was stretched face-down across the foot of the twin bed, her most recent doll clutched in one hand.
“Plays until she drops,” Amanda murmured, stepping into the room. “Do you want to check on Lorrie while I get her ready for bed?”
“Sure.” Lex leaned over the bed and lightly kissed Melanie's cheek. “Sleep well, Princess.” She passed through the bathroom the girls shared into Lorrie's room. Their oldest was sitting cross-legged on her full-sized bed, already in a pair of navy blue pajama pants and matching tank top. “I figured you'd be asleep, too.”
Lorrie shrugged and lowered her eyes to the sports magazine in her lap.
With a silent prayer to protect herself from tween hormones, Lex sat on the foot of the bed. “What's wrong, lil' bit?”
“Mom looks really sad,” Lorrie commented quietly. She closed the magazine and set it on the floor beside her bed. “And you do, too.”
Lex nodded. “That's true. It's been a pretty rough day.”
“Are you,” Lorrie sat back against the wooden headboard and crossed her arms over her chest, “are you and Mom getting a divorce?”
“What? No!” Lex held out her hand for Lorrie to take. “Whatever gave you that idea?”
Lorrie looked at the gray and blue striped bedspread. “You were in town all day without us, and we didn't know why.” She started to cry. “Emily said when her parent's started being all secretive, they were splitting up. She's hoping to live here with her mom, but her dad's being a butt about it.”
Lex didn't bother calling Lorrie on her language. Instead, she tugged on their joined hands. “Come here.” Although their oldest swore she was “too old to be babied”, Lorrie quickly complied and crawled into her mother's lap. “I'm sorry we didn't tell you anything, sweetheart. But I promise you that your mom and I love each other more now than ever.” She made a quick decision. “Your mom got a call earlier today. It was about your Grandpa Jake. He, um, passed away.”
“What?” Lorrie looked up into Lex's watery eyes. “But he was fine on Christmas. Was he sick?”
“We don't really know, but we think it was his heart.”
Lorrie rested her cheek on Lex's shoulder and started to cry. “It's not fair.”
Amanda came into the bedroom and sat beside them. With her arms around both Lex and Lorrie, she cried as well.
Hours later, the house still and quiet, Lex was sleeping soundly with Amanda snuggled against her side when a soft voice woke her. “Hmm?”
“Momma?” the voice was accompanied by a light touch. “Are you awake?”
Lex opened her eyes and turned her head toward the sound. “Mel?” She carefully moved Amanda and glanced at the clock. It was close to three in the morning. Luckily, her wife never stirred. “What's the matter?”
Melanie's eyes were large in the muted light coming from the alarm clock. “Lorrie's crying, but she won't let me come in.”
“She's what?” Lex scooted to a sitting position. She wiped a hand across her face and rubbed her eyes.
“I had to go to the bathroom and I could hear her crying. But her door was closed and she told me to go away.” Melanie looked as if she was about to cry as well.
Lex opened her arms. “Come here, sweetheart.” She pulled Melanie into her arms. “It's all right.”
Amanda stirred and rolled over. “What's going on?”
“Mel heard Lorrie crying,” Lex explained.
“Damn. I was afraid of that.” Amanda rose and turned on the lamp beside her. “I'll go check on her.” She put on her robe and finger-combed her hair. “Do you want to,” she gestured to their daughter, “explain?”
Lex nodded. “Sure. Go ahead.” She hugged Melanie as Amanda left the room. “Mel? Lorrie's sad, but she'll be okay, I promise.”
Melanie looked up. “How come she's sad? Is she in trouble?”
“No, baby.” Lex leaned against the headboard. “It's about your Grandpa Jake. He passed away today.”
Unable to speak, Lex nodded.
“Then how come Lorrie's sad? Grandpa is in Heaven, isn't he?”
“Umm, yeah. But she's sad because she'll miss him, honey. That makes you sad, doesn't it?”
Melanie thought for a moment. “Uh-huh. But it's good, too.”
Now Lex was completely confused. “It is?”
“I remember when Grandpa Travis died, even if I was a little kid then,” Melanie explained. “I was worried that he'd be alone in Heaven and wouldn't have anyone to play with.”
The conversation was beginning to make sense. No matter how long she tried, Lex decided she'd never really quite understand the mind of a little girl. Especially this one. “And now he does, right?”
“Yeah. I know that Gramma will be sad, but we'll make her less sad. But now Grandpa Travis has his friend with him.”
Lex hugged her daughter. “You're very smart, Melanie Leigh. I'm so proud of you.”
At the end of the hall, Amanda knocked lightly on their eldest child's door. “Lorrie?” When she didn't get an answer, she opened the door and peeked inside. What she saw broke her heart.
Lorrie was curled beneath the covers of her bed, stuttering sobs the only indication that she was awake.
Amanda walked to the bed and sat. She pulled the covers back far enough to see her daughter. “Oh, honey. Come here.”
Lorrie crawled onto her mother's lap and wrapped her arms around Amanda's waist. She cried so hard that she began to hyperventilate. “Ev…everybody's…dy…dy…dying,” she sobbed.
Trying to hold herself together, Amanda continued to stroke Lorrie's dark hair. “Sssh. It's going to be okay.”
“Honey, slow down and try to breathe.” Amanda tugged on Lorrie's arms and helped her sit up. She continued to hold her, but now the girl was against her chest. “That's it. Slow breaths, in and out.”
Lorrie coughed, gasped and finally inhaled deeply. When she felt her mother wipe her face with a tissue, she took it and blew her nose. “T…th…thanks.” She was able to release a shaky breath and wipe her eyes. “Why does it hurt so much? I didn't feel like this with Grandpa Travis and he lived with us.”
“We can't control how we feel, honey. There's no right way or wrong way to grieve.” Amanda wiped her own cheeks free of tears. “But part of the hurt could be from you growing up. Remember that talk we had?”
“Uh-huh. Is that why I cry at stupid things?”
Amanda smiled. “It's part of it. But don't worry, things will get better, I promise.”
Lorrie didn't look too convinced. “If you say so.”
“Yes?” Amanda brushed the hair away from Lorrie's face. “What is it?”
“Can I, umm,” Lorrie looked down, unable to meet her mother's gaze. She wanted to be independent, but desperately needed comforting, too. “Can I come sleep with you and Momma? Just for tonight?”
Amanda hugged her. “Of course you can. You never have to ask that, honey.” She slid off the bed. “Come on. I have a feeling it's going to be a slumber party tonight.”
To be continued in Chapter Three
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