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 :)
If you have anything to tell me, please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can also get the scuttlebutt on my website, www.CarrieLCarr.com . Drop by and say hello.
Big time thank you: To my chat group at Carrie's Crossing, who keeps me motivated. And to my awesome beta reader, Kelly – thanks for keeping me on the right track!
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 family had to wait until after New Year's before they could lay Jacob Cauble to rest. Once the temperature rose above freezing and melted the snow, it seemed as if the entire town of Somerville had come to pay their respects.
Amanda stood beside her grandmother at the front of the church, while the unending line of well-wishers passed and softly gave their condolences. While the funeral service was open to everyone, it had been decided that the interment would be for only the immediate family. She felt lost and wished she had taken up Lex's offer to accompany her and the children outside. To keep grounded, she glanced to the other side of Anna Leigh for her father. He looked years older as he spoke with each person who came up to him.
“Thank you,” Michael Cauble shook hands with yet another person he didn't know. He turned to his mother. “How are you holding up? Can I do anything for you?”
Anna Leigh kissed the cheek of a woman from the Ladies Auxiliary and accepted her commiseration. “I'm quite all right, Michael. Please don't worry about me.”
At the sound of someone clearing their throat, Amanda turned around. “Oh. Hi.” Two women stood in front of her.
Shelby Fisher, dressed in black slacks and black shirt, held out her hand. “I'm truly sorry for your loss, Amanda.”
“So am I,” Rebecca added quietly. She was wearing a simple black skirt and gray blouse. “If there's anything we can do for you, please let us know.”
“Thank you.” Amanda leaned closer. “There is something you can do. Would you mind going outside and checking on Lex and the kids?”
Rebecca nodded. “Sure.” She kissed Amanda on the cheek. “If you need any quiet time, we'd be more than happy to watch the kids for you.”
“I may take you up on that.” As the pair moved toward Anna Leigh, Amanda introduced them. “Gramma, these are friends of ours. Shelby Fisher and Rebecca Starrett.”
Anna Leigh gave them a genuine smile. “Thank you both for coming. Lorrie and Melanie have told us,” she caught herself, “me, so much about you.”
Shelby took her hand and squeezed it lightly. “Please accept our condolences, Mrs. Cauble. If there's anything that you need done around your house, have Amanda give me a call. I'll be honored to help.”
“Thank you, dear. I'll do that.” Anna Leigh studied Rebecca for a moment. “Forgive me, but have we met?”
“It's possible, Mrs. Cauble. I'm an assistant manager at Carson's Western Wear. Have you shopped there?”
Anna Leigh nodded. “Of course. I'm sorry I didn't place you.”
“No, that's all right. But if you need anything, please call me.” Rebecca shook her hand before following Shelby down the line.
“You have lovely friends, Mandy. The dark-haired one reminds me somewhat of Lexington. Although smaller.”
Amanda put her arm around her grandmother. “She's a lot like Lex. As a matter of fact, she's going to be working at the ranch. And Rebecca gives me another adult to talk to that's closer to my age. She comes over for coffee, and to spoil the kids.”
“Speaking of the children, where are they?”Anna Leigh noticed an empty space on the other side of her granddaughter. “I didn't think Lexington would leave your side.”
“Lorrie's been having some trouble accepting all this. Lex took the kids outside and away from the crowd.” Amanda gave a small wave to Shelby and Rebecca, who stepped out the side door of the church. “But I have someone going to check on them.”
Although the snow had melted days ago, the wind was cold enough to bring a chill down Lex's spine. Not for the first time, she wished she had worn her duster, instead of the light jacket she had on. She leaned against a tree in the church's playground, holding Eddie while her two girls played on the swings.
“Go, go!” Eddie bounced and pointed at his sisters.
“Sorry, son. You're not big enough to be on those swings. Besides, if I put you down, you'd find the first bit of mud you could. And then we'd both be in trouble.”
“Need a hand?” a gentle voice teased.
Lex turned and saw Rebecca and Shelby. “Hey.” She grimaced as Eddie's enthusiasm bubbled out as a screech when he saw the newcomers.
“Hello, handsome,” Rebecca cooed. She moved closer and held out her hands. “How about we give your poor momma a break?”
“Be my guest.” Lex relinquished her son and grinned at his excitement. She shook her head as Rebecca took Eddie to the slide and slowly guided him down the hard plastic surface.
Shelby tucked her hands into her coat pocket. “Kinda cold out here, ain't it?”
“Yeah. But the kids were getting antsy.” Lex turned to her friend. “Thanks for coming, Shelby.”
The smaller woman nodded. “Sure. Um, I'm really sorry for your loss. We saw Amanda inside.”
Lex looked at her. “Thanks. Is she all right?”
“Hard to say. I mean, she wasn't falling apart or anything, but.” Shelby shrugged. “She didn't look great.” She stared at her partner, who was laughing at Eddie's antics on the slide. “You're a damned lucky woman, Lex.”
“Yeah, I know.” Lex noticed where Shelby's attention lay. “Have you ever thought about kids?”
The ex-rodeo rider laughed harshly. “Oh, yeah. I'm the perfect mother type.”
“Don't be so hard on yourself. Hell, look at me. I never thought I'd be in this position, but here I am.”
Shelby lowered her voice so she wouldn't be overheard. “I know you were kinda pushed into it, weren't you?” She spoke of how Lex & Amanda took over Lorrie's care from Amanda's sister, Jeannie. She had suffered a stroke during Lorrie's birth, and her husband had been killed in an automobile accident shortly thereafter. “I mean, you didn't really have much of a choice, did you?”
“Not at first, maybe,” Lex admitted. “But when we had the chance to adopt Lorrie, I couldn't sign the papers soon enough.” Once Jeannie had recovered, she realized that Lex and Amanda had been the only parents Lorrie knew for the first two and a half years of her life. As hard as it had been for her, Jeannie did the right thing for her daughter, and gave her up. “When Amanda told me she wanted another baby, it scared the hell out of me. But I'd do anything for her, and now I'm glad that I did. I couldn't even imagine my life without any of my children.”
“Huh.” Shelby rubbed the back of her neck. “I don't think I'd make a very good parent. Hell, I never had much of a role model.”
“You're a good person, Shelby. That's the most important thing.” Lex nodded toward Rebecca. “What does Rebecca think about it?”
Shelby snorted. “Hell if I know. It's not something that's ever come up. I mean, I see her with your kids and wonder if she wants one of her own. Not like I could do anything about it.”
Lex laughed at her expression. “There's ways around that, you know.” She patted her friend's back. “You might want to talk about it with her, sometime.”
“Yeah.” Shelby exhaled in relief when she saw Amanda leave the church and walk outside. “Here comes your better half—” her voice trailed off when she realized that Lex had stepped away the moment Amanda came out of the building.
Meeting her wife halfway, Lex embraced Amanda in the middle of the playground. She felt the smaller body tremble, which caused her to strengthen her hold. “I'm here, sweetheart.”
Amanda rested her face against Lex's chest and cried. The cost of holding her emotions in after the funeral service was too much.
For her part, Lex continued to slowly rock Amanda from side to side in an attempt to sooth her. “Hang in there, love,” she whispered.
“I…I…don't know if I can handle the cemetery,” Amanda sniffled. “But I want to be there for Gramma.” She looked down as she felt small arms around her hips.
Lorrie had seen Amanda come outside. Needing the comfort of both parents, she huddled close. She heard her mother's comment. “I don't want to go either,” she cried.
Lex kissed Amanda's forehead before she squatted beside her oldest child. “Come here, lil' bit.”
From a few feet away, Shelby cleared her throat. “Um, if you want, we can take the kids home with us,” she offered.
“Mom? Can we?” Lorrie asked, tears in her eyes.
Amanda looked at Lex, catching her slight nod. “Um, well. I wouldn't want to impose on Shelby like that.”
Shelby put her hand on Lorrie's shoulder. “Actually, I could use Lorrie's help. Rebecca's birthday is coming up soon, and I was hoping for some ideas.”
“Mommy! Momma! Look how high I can get,” Melanie demanded from the swing. “I can almost kick the sky!”
Lorrie wiped the tears from her face with her hand. “She's crazy.”
“Lorrie,” Amanda warned.
“Sorry.” The tween lowered her eyes and stared at the ground. “Can I,” she caught herself, “I mean, may I go with Miz Shelby and Miz Rebecca?” She raised her face and looked into Lex's eyes. “Please?”
Lex considered the question. “Go get your sister while we discuss it, all right?”
“Yes, ma'am.” Lorrie hugged Lex before she ran to the swings.
Amanda sighed. “Are you sure you're up to them, Shelby? Not that I don't appreciate the offer, but Lorrie's become a handful lately.”
“Oh? What's wrong?”
Lex stood and laughed. “Hormones.”
On her way to join the trio, Rebecca overheard Lex's comment. “Turning into a teenager early, is she?”
“Mommy!” Eddie yelped, reaching for Amanda.
“I see where I rate,” Rebecca laughed, relinquishing her little friend. “How are you doing, Amanda?”
“Okay.” Amanda hefted the toddler into her arms and kissed his cheek. “Did you have fun with Ms. Rebecca?”
Eddie patted her face and chin. “Gink.”
Amanda smiled and kissed his fingers. “I can take a hint.” She turned to Lex. “Did we bring his sippy cup?”
“Yep. It's in his bag, which of course, I left in the truck.” Lex sighed. “Be right back.” She jogged toward the church.
Shelby put her arm around Rebecca. “Darlin', I offered to take the kids with us while Lex and Amanda go to the burial.”
“That's a good idea.” Rebecca turned to Amanda. “I noticed Lorrie was having an especially hard time.”
“She's been having bad dreams all week. Lex finally got her to admit what was bothering her. Poor thing is terrified of one or both of us dying.” Amanda brushed a stray tear from her cheek. “Melanie, of course, takes everything in stride. I think she's handling it better than any of us.”
Rebecca leaned against her partner. “Kids are so different. I don't know if I could be as good a parent as you or Lex.”
“Mommy, Lorrie said we have to leave. Can't we swing some more?” Melanie asked, tugging on Amanda's black dress.
“No, honey. But, Ms. Shelby and Ms. Rebecca asked if you'd like to go home with them for now.”
“But I wanna swing.”
Lorrie stood a few steps away, with her arms crossed over her chest. She was wearing black jeans, matching turtleneck and a dark green barn coat. “Quit being such a baby, Mel.”
Melanie turned and glared at her sister. “I'm not a baby.” She stomped her black patent leather shoe for emphasis. The navy-blue dress and matching overcoat had been a Christmas present from her Grandpa Michael and Grandma Lois. It was covered with tiny red birds, and she had begged to wear it to the funeral. “You're a grump.”
“Are not,” Lorrie argued.
“Girls, please!” Amanda shifted Eddie in her arms. “If you don't behave, I'll take you back to the ranch and you can spend the rest of the day in your rooms.” She looked at Shelby and Rebecca. “Are you sure about this? We'll keep Eddie with us, so you'll at least have a fighting chance.”
Rebecca laughed. “We'll be fine.” She held out her hand to Melanie. “Come on, sweetie. You can help me beat Shelby at Monopoly Junior.” She had bought a few children's games for the girls, who often came to visit with their parents. “How about you, Lorrie? Would you like to come home with us?”
Lorrie nodded, until a sharp look from her mother reminded her of her manners. “Yes, ma'am. Thank you.”
“Well, come on, then.” Shelby motioned for the sullen girl to come closer. “Remember,” she whispered, “I'm going to need your help.”
For the first time in several days, Lorrie smiled. “Okay.”
“Amen.” Reverend Hampton closed his Bible and raised his head. He crossed to Anna Leigh, who dabbed at her face with a handkerchief. “You don't have to be strong all the time, Anna Leigh. Let your family and your faith see you through.”
She nodded. “I will.” The sun cut through the cloud cover and glinted off the silver casket. Anna Leigh stared at the reflection. “It was a lovely service, Reverend. Thank you.”
“No thanks are necessary. Jacob was a good man, and an even better friend. He'll be missed by all that knew him.” The clergyman lightly touched her arm before addressing Michael, who stood beside her. “Michael. You're always welcome to services.”
Michael bit his lip in an attempt to keep from breaking down. “Thanks. I may bring Mom in the next week or so.”
Anna Leigh turned to her son. “I'm perfectly capable of taking myself where I want to go, Michael.” His solicitous behavior was already more than she could stand. “I'm not feeble-minded or made out of porcelain.”
“Mom, please. Let's not get into that here,” Michael gently argued.
Lois tugged on the arm of his jacket. “Michael.”
He jerked his arm from her and stomped away.
Lois gave her mother-in-law an apologetic shrug and followed him.
“He's going to blow,” Jeannie whispered to her husband.
“Should I go after him?” Rodney asked.
Jeannie shook her head. “No. When he gets like that, it's best to leave him alone. He'll calm down, eventually.” She kept a tight hold on Rodney's hand. “Can we pick up our kids? I want to spend the rest of the day with them.”
“Sure. It's going to be a madhouse at your mother's, anyway.”
On the other side of Anna Leigh, Amanda blew her nose and leaned back into her wife's body. “He's been driving Gramma crazy all week.” She glanced at the stroller in front of her. Eddie was sound asleep, covered with his favorite blanket.
Lex rested her chin on Amanda's shoulder and tightened her grip around her. “Yeah. He's trying to be helpful, but it's coming off as bossy. Maybe one of us should talk to him.”
“I've already tried. He about bit my head off.”
“He what? When?”
Amanda turned in Lex's arms so they were face-to-face. “Yesterday, on the phone. I called Gramma's house to see if she needed anything, and he answered. From what I could hear, he practically took the phone away from her.”
“Not good.” Her protective streak in full mode, Lex stared at the back of the retreating man. “Maybe I should see what I can do.”
“No, I think—”
Anna Leigh's voice cut into their conversation. “Are you girls ready to go? I'm certain that Martha and Charlie are tired of waiting at the house for us.” With so many people planning to drop off food and flowers after the funeral, she was thankful to her friends for offering to stay behind.
Lex loosened her hold on Amanda. “Only if you're ready, Gramma.”
“Yes, I believe so.” Anna Leigh stepped forward and placed her hand on the casket. “Would you give me just a moment, though?” As soon as they started toward the cars, she knelt. “My darling. This is not what we agreed on, was it? I wanted to fall asleep in your arms for the last time, not be here without you.” She covered her mouth with one hand and lowered her head, allowing her tears to take over.
At their SUV, Michael stopped pacing and glared at his wife. “I don't appreciate you dressing me down in front of everyone, Lois. This is a family matter.”
Lois stopped and tilted her head. “Wait a minute. Dressing you down? A family matter? We've been married for years, Michael. Do you not consider me part of your family?”
“Don't twist my words. That's not what I meant.”
Amanda left the stroller beside Lex and stood next to Lois. Since his father's death, Michael ceased acting like the man they all loved, and more like the man who had run a large corporation in California. “Daddy, this isn't doing anyone any good. Let's all calm down.” She put her arm around Lois' waist. “You know as well as I do that Lois was only trying to help.”
His face turned red. “So, you're turning against me, too? That's just fine.” He loosened his tie. “I have to take care of her now. My father would expect nothing less.”
When Amanda began to move toward him, Lex stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. “Dad.” At his angry look, she softened her voice. “Michael, come on. I know you're hurting. We all are. But let's not say anything we might regret later, all right?”
“Excuse me? Don't you dare talk to me that way.” He pointed a shaky finger at Lex. “You have no idea what I'm feeling.”
“I lost my father a few years ago, D—Michael.” Lex stepped around the car and lowered her voice. “So I think I do.”
His laugh was bitter. “Oh, yes. A man you barely knew, who only came home when he was dying.” He turned away from her. “You know nothing.”
“That's quite enough, Michael.” Anna Leigh tightly gripped the used handkerchief she held. “I'm going to ride with the girls. Why don't you go home and get some rest?”
Michael spun around. “No. I—” he noticed the no-nonsense look in his mother's eyes. “You're right.” Turning to Lex, he shook his head. “I'm sorry, Lex. I didn't mean what I said.”
She nodded. “I know. It's all right.” She embraced him. “We'll get through this,” she promised softly.
“Yeah.” Michael gave her a final squeeze before he stepped away. “Mom, I'll call you later?”
“Of course, dearest.” Anna Leigh climbed into Amanda's Expedition and closed the door.
Jeannie exhaled heavily. “Are you okay, Slim? Daddy's upset, but you know he loves you.”
“I know.” Lex hugged her and kissed her cheek. “I guess we'll see you at the house.”
Rodney patted Lex on the back. “Actually, we've decided to pick up our kids and go home.”
She gave him a one-armed hug. “I don't blame you. Hopefully we'll be able to do the same, soon.”
Two hours later, Lex was beginning to think the well-meaning crowd would never thin out. She wandered through the house, feeling out of sorts after telling Martha and Charlie goodbye. Her arm was caught by a claw-like hand that pulled her to a stop near the kitchen.
A wizened old woman peered up through thick, black-rimmed glasses. “Lexington Walters! It's so nice that you're here for Anna Leigh. She and Jacob have always said nice things about you.”
“Um, thank you, ma'am.” Although familiar, Lex couldn't remember the old lady's name. She tried to gently remove the woman's grip, to no avail. “There isn't anything I wouldn't do for either of them.”
“Good, good.” The old woman grinned, showing nothing but gums. “Have you seen Chester?”
Lex glanced around. “Chester?”
“My great-nephew. He was supposed to rinse my teeth and bring ‘em back. I can't find the little turd anywhere.” She released Lex's arm and slapped her hard on the back. “Bet you wouldn't have runned off and left me hangin', would ya?”
“No, ma'am. Of course not. Would you like me to find him for you?”
Laughing, the old lady tucked her arm around Lex's. “What I'd like is a nip from my purse, but Chester took that, too. But I'd be mighty beholden to you if you'd help me find a place to rest my weary old bones.”
“Of course.” Moving slow in deference to the smaller woman, Lex escorted her toward the living room. “There's an empty chair by the fireplace, ma'am. Would that be all right?”
“I suppose.” The old woman groaned as she sat. “Thanks, honey. Now, if you see Chester, tell him to move his lazy arse. I may be ninety-two, but that doesn't mean I'm senile. I can't eat half the stuff here without my choppers.”
Lex coughed to cover up her laugh. “Yes, ma'am. I sure will.” She stumbled out of the room, chuckling. She had to stop to keep from running over the slender woman in front of her. “Oh! Hi, Gramma.”
“Lexington. Are you all right?”
“Yes, ma'am. I just,” Lex pointed to the room she had just vacated, “I mean, well, she—”
Anna Leigh peeked around Lex and smiled. “I saw you helping Nellie Fowler. She's something else, isn't she?”
“She sure is. Um, have you seen a fella by the name of Chester? She said he has her teeth.”
Unable to help herself, Anna Leigh laughed. “I'm glad I caught you. That's one of her favorite things to do at a gathering.” At Lex's confused expression, she explained. “Nellie doesn't have a great-nephew. As a matter of fact, she doesn't have any family left at all. I think she got one of the ladies from the Auxiliary to bring her by today.”
“What about her, umm, you know?” Lex pointed at her mouth.
“They're probably in her purse. She loves the attention.” Anna Leigh's face slowly lost the smile, replaced by a weary resignation. “How horrible would I be if I started chasing people out? All I want to do is spend some time alone.”
Lex put her arm around her. “Why don't you let me help you upstairs, and I'll take care of everything.”
“Oh, Lexington. I couldn't ask that of you. No, these people were kind enough to come over, the least I could do is be a better hostess.”
“Pardon my language, Gramma. But…bullshit.”
Anna Leigh's eyebrows rose, but she didn't argue as Lex led her toward the stairs.
“Most of these folks are just here to gossip and eat. They can do that anywhere.”
“Well, I suppose,” the older woman deferred. “Where's Mandy and Eddie? I haven't seen them for a while.”
Lex kept her arm around Anna Leigh as they ascended the staircase. “In a guest room. Eddie's napping and Amanda's fighting off a migraine. I sent them up about an hour ago.”
“Poor thing. You should take them both home.” Anna stood in front of her bedroom door and touched Lex's cheek with the palm of her hand. “I know I don't say this often enough, but you are a beautiful gift to our family, Lexington.”
Her emotions getting the best of her, Lex felt tears burn in her eyes. “This family has been the gift, Gramma.” She had to clear her throat. “I'm so damned sorry about Grandpa Jake. If I can do anything for you—”
“Thank you, dearest. The best thing you can do for me is to take care of my granddaughter and my great-grandchildren. Which I know you will.”
Lex nodded. “Yes, ma'am. I surely will.” Lex kissed her on the cheek. “Are you sure you don't want to come out to the ranch with us?”
“I'll be fine, here.” Anna Leigh bit her lip. “I have to be. It's something I need to become accustomed to.” She stepped into her room and turned around. “I'll call you tomorrow.”
“All right.” As the door closed, the bleak expression on the older woman's face broke her heart. Unable to hold them back any longer, Lex finally allowed the tears to fall.
Once they picked up the girls at Shelby and Rebecca's, Lex talked Amanda into letting her drive them home. She knew the migraine was most likely caused by the stress of the past week and she didn't want her wife suffering any more than she had already.
“And then, Miz Rebecca showed us a picture of Miz Shelby bull riding! It looked so scary,” Melanie related, her eyes wide. “Momma, did you ever ride a bull?”
Lex glanced in the rear view mirror to make eye contact with her youngest daughter. “Uh, no. Can't say that I have.”
“Your momma did face off against a bull once, though,” Amanda shared, a wicked grin on her face. “Remember that, honey?”
“Faced off, oh, crap. That wasn't a face off.” Not long after they had gotten together, Lex and Amanda had come across a large Brahma bull. Lex had tried to get their jeep out of the mud, and the bull walked up to her and bumped her with its nose. They found out later that it was their neighbor's pet, and had a good laugh about the situation once they were safely home.
Amanda quickly related the story. “But I don't want you girls to ever think about getting that close to a bull, all right?” She looked back at Lorrie, who was staring moodily out the side window. “Lorrie? Did you have a nice time this afternoon?”
Lorrie shrugged. “I guess.”
“She sat on the couch and read magazines,” Melanie shared. “She wouldn't even play Monopoly with us.”
“I didn't feel like playing a stupid old game. Miss Rebecca said I could read her horse magazines, so I did.”
Melanie wrinkled her nose. “You're just an old grump.”
Lex had heard enough. “Girls, stop the arguing. Melanie, leave your sister alone. Lorrie, you should—” She slammed on the brakes and caused the vehicle to slide to a stop. “Damn it!”
Amanda released her grip on the dash and turned to the kids. “Is everyone all right?”
“Haaa!” Eddie shook a fist. “Go!”
Melanie held her nose. “Mommy, Eddie pooped.”
“We're almost home.” Amanda squinted through the windshield. “What kind of idiot dumps a box that size on the road?”
Lex shrugged. “I dunno. But I might as well put it in the back. We can get rid of it when we get home.” She removed her seat belt and opened the door. “Be right back.” She walked in front of the truck and bent over to get the box. She suddenly jumped back and almost fell.
Amanda rolled down her window and stuck her head out. “Lex? Are you all right?”
“Yeah. Hold on.” Lex opened the box and looked inside. “What the hell?”
Her curiosity getting the best of her, Amanda turned to the girls. “Stay in here and keep an eye on your brother.” She hopped out of the Expedition and hurried to her wife's side. “What's going on?”
Lex straightened and pointed. “See for yourself.”
“What?” Amanda cautiously lifted the edge of the box and peered inside. “Is it alive?”
Amanda put her hands on her hips. “Well?”
“We can't just leave it here.”
Lex shook her head. “Oh, no. Uh-uh. There's no way in hell I'm taking that thing back to our ranch. Ain't happenin'.”
Amanda cocked her head and frowned. “Pick up the box, Lexington.”
Seriously considering her options, Lex paused. “Amanda—”
“Don't.” Amanda held up her hand. “Get the box and put it in the back of the SUV, Lex. We'll argue about it later.”
Like a petulant child, Lex lifted the box and carried it to the Expedition.
Once they were both buckled in, Amanda noticed the look on her wife's face. “Don't say it.”
“What was it, Momma?” Melanie chirped. “That box looked heavy. Was it heavy? Why did you put it in the back?”
A sound emanated from the rear of the vehicle as they began moving forward.
Melanie tried to twist in her seat to see behind her. “What is that?”
“The bane of every cattleman's existence,” Lex muttered darkly.
Lorrie, for the first time since they'd picked her up, appeared interested. “A lamb?”
“Almost as bad,” Lex answered. “A freakin' kid.”
Melanie's eyes almost popped out of her head. “A boy or a girl? And why is it in a box, and not buckled up like us?”
“A baby goat,” Lorrie snorted. “They're called kids.”
“That's silly.” Melanie leaned forward as far as she could and tapped Lex's headrest. “Momma, is she making that up?”
Lex shook her head. “Unfortunately, no.”
Lorrie held the back door open for Amanda. “Why does Momma hate goats? I think they're kind of cute.”
Freckles raced down the hall, yipping. She bounced around Lorrie, who absentmindedly scratched the dog's head.
“Thanks, honey.” Amanda carried Eddie inside and struggled to take off his puffy jacket. “Stay still, mister.”
“Mommy, bad!” Eddie twisted and fussed. “Noooo!”
Amanda laughed while she hung up his coat. “See? You survived.” He always threw a fit when she tried to put the coat on, or take it off. No one was sure why, but it was a source of amusement for his parents. She removed her coat and hung it beside Eddie's. “Lorrie, your poor, disillusioned momma seems to think that mixing cattle and goats are bad luck. Why, I don't know.”
“Because the little devils ruin the grazing land,” Lex grouched as she brought the box into the house. She raised the box higher as Freckles tried to see what was inside. “Freckles, down! As for goats, they pull up the grass, roots and all, so nothing is left to grow back. I wish Ronnie wasn't sunning himself on a beach in Mexico. I'd take the damned thing to the vet's office. Ow!”
“Watch it, rancher,” Amanda warned. “Lorrie, lock Freckles in the bathroom until we get the goat settled, please. Lex, honey, let's put the poor thing in the laundry room.”
Lex grumbled but did as she was told. “Where the hell would a baby goat come from, anyway? I don't know of any goat farms nearby.”
“Me, either.” Amanda handed Eddie to Lex before she opened a cabinet and took out a fluffy towel. She folded the top of the box open. “It's so tiny.” She turned to her wife. “How old do you think it is?”
“I haven't a clue. Few weeks, I'd guess.” Lex sighed as she watched Amanda carefully wrap the small, white Nubian in the dark blue towel and cradle it close to her.
Melanie edged closer to her mother and pinched her nose with her fingers. “It smells.”
“Well, duh.” Lorrie stood beside her. “It's dirty. Once we clean it up—”
Lex shifted Eddie so he was on her hip. “Oh, no. I'm taking it to town first thing tomorrow. We aren't going to bathe it.”
“Her,” Amanda corrected.
Amanda giggled as the kid nibbled on her dress. “It's a girl. And I think she's hungry.”
“Mama mama mama,” Eddie chanted while he rocked back and forth. “Down.”
Lex turned to their oldest. “Lorrie, would you mind taking your brother to the living room? Mel, please go with them while your Mom and I figure out what to do with,” she pointed at the bundle in Amanda's arms, “that.”
“Lex,” Amanda warned.
Lorrie looked from one parent to the other. “Are you going to fight?”
“No, sweetheart, we're not,” Lex assured her. She lowered Eddie until his feet touched the floor. “Your mother just has to remind me sometimes that I need help in making the right decisions.” She winked at her wife. “If you'll let your brother walk to the living room, I'll go out to the barn and see about getting something to feed the little critter.”
Melanie held out her hands. “Can I walk Eddie? I'll go slow.”
“All right.” Lex grinned as Melanie chattered to her little brother while they left the laundry room.
“We'll play with your trucks and my dolls, Eddie. If you're really nice, maybe we can have a tea party later. You like to play tea party, don't you?”
“Haa!” Eddie agreed.
Lorrie put her hands in her front pockets. “Since Mel's with Eddie, can I help you?” She got as close to Amanda as she could, her eyes rarely leaving the little animal. “Please?”
“Sure, honey.” Amanda's face took on a wicked smile. “Sit here beside me and you can hold her, while your momma and I get some supplies.”
“Cool.” Lorrie sat cross-legged near the dryer, a genuine smile on her face as she was handed the kid. “It's a lot tinier than the calves I've seen.” She stroked the small, white head and giggled when the goat sucked on her fingers. “That tickles!”
Amanda stood and brushed off the back of her dress. She patted Lex on the rear as they stepped out of the laundry room. “I'll see if I can find an old baby bottle, while you get some hay.”
“Very sneaky, Amanda,” Lex whispered. “But we're still not keeping that thing.”
“Of course we're not,” Amanda agreed. She turned and pointed at their daughter. “But it's good to see that something finally pulled Lorrie out of her depression, isn't it?”
Lex shook her head. “Amanda—”
“No, no. You're right. A cattle ranch is no place for a goat.” Amanda kissed Lex on the cheek.
As her wife walked away, Lex knew that she had lost the battle. But the war had only begun.
After Amanda did a quick Internet search, she sent Lex to the barn for a bucket of high-protein horse feed. While her wife was gone, she found one of Eddie's old bottles and cut a larger hole in the nipple. “This should do until we get a better bottle at the feed store, tomorrow.” She filled the bottle with milk and warmed it.
Lorrie looked up when Amanda brought in the baby bottle. “Do I do it just like a calf?”
“Try and see,” Amanda answered, squatting beside her.
The goat instinctively knew what to do when the bottle was presented to her, greedily attacking it. “Mom, look!” Lorrie laughed, even as the warm milk dripped down the kid's chin and onto her shirt.
As she came in the back door, Lex heard her daughter's laugh. She quietly stood in the doorway of the laundry room and watched. Unable to stop herself, Lex smiled tenderly as the once-sullen girl transformed into the sunny child she remembered. She brought the bucket into the room. “We'll put a bit of this in the box, in case she gets hungry, later.”
“Momma?” Lorrie raised her head. “Remember that project I'm supposed to start in February?” She was a member of the Junior Farm Club at school. Their spring project was to take care of an animal and write reports on their progress.
One look at the hopeful face and Lex's reservation's vanished. She had lost the battle, and the war. “Decided against a calf, huh?”
“Is it okay?” Lorrie looked at the bundle in her lap. “I'll do all the research tonight, so I'll know exactly what to do. And you won't have to do a thing, I promise.”
Although she was already agreeable to the idea, Lex knelt in front of Lorrie and Amanda. “What do you plan to do with her once she's grown?”
“The same thing I was going to do with a calf. Sell her at the fall auction.”
Lex nodded. “And you'll feed and clean up after her? We'll have to build her a pen inside the fence, to protect against predators. Will you help with that, too?”
“I must be out of my mind,” Lex muttered. “All right.” She stood. “She doesn't have a mother, like a calf would. So she's going to need a lot of extra attention for a while. That's going to cut into your spare time.” She put her hands on her hips. “If your grades go down, we find her a new home. No arguments.”
Lorrie grinned. “Yes, ma'am. Can I sleep down here with her tonight? I don't want her to be scared.”
With a quickly mouthed, ‘thank you' to her wife, Amanda stood. “What do you think, Lex?”
“I don't think so. The laundry room will be too cold tonight.” As if in deep thought, Lex rubbed her chin. “But, since I don't think she can get out of the box, how about the two of you camping out in the living room.”
“Really?” Lorrie practically glowed. “Thanks, Momma!”
Lex held up one hand. “Only for tonight. Tomorrow, we'll get her a stall set up in the barn until it gets warmer.”
Amanda stopped Lorrie. “She's right, honey. The goat will be fine in the barn. Now, run upstairs and get in your pajamas, while we find a good place in the living room for your little friend. Oh, and take Freckles with you and leave her in your room. We'll introduce her to the goat tomorrow.”
“Yes, ma'am.” Lorrie gently placed the kid in the box. “Thank you, Mom.” She hugged Amanda and turned to Lex. “Thanks, Momma.” As she squeezed Lex she said, “I love you.”
Lex put her hand on Lorrie's back. “I love you too, sweetheart.”
After their daughter left, Amanda sidled up to Lex and put an arm around her waist. “Thank you, for bending on this one. I believe this is just what Lorrie needed.”
“Yeah.” Lex kissed the side of Amanda's head. “Guess I'm getting soft in my old age.”
Amanda laughed and patted her on the stomach. “You've always been soft,” she teased.
“I noticed you didn't argue about me being old.”
“True.” Amanda squealed when she felt a light pinch on her rear. “Watch it.”
Lex swatted the spot she had pinched. “Turn around and I'll be glad to watch it.”
“I'm going to get you,” Amanda growled.
“And I'll let you.” Lex jumped away. “As soon as we get our kids settled.” She winked.
Amanda rolled her eyes. “That was baaaaad.” She laughed at the look on her wife's face. “Gotcha.”
“You'll think, ‘gotcha', when I get through with you.” Lex lifted the box and settled it in her arms. “Lead on, Maaaameee.” When Amanda threatened to swat her, she raised the box. “Careful. Don't want to make me drop this little critter.”
“Any more of your goat jokes or imitations and I'm going to have to think of something wicked to do to you,” Amanda teased.
“Promises, promises.” When they walked into the living room, the first thing Lex noticed was the silence. “Should we be worried?” she whispered to Amanda.
“I don't think so.” Amanda pointed at the quilt spread on the floor in front of the dark television.
Lying amongst toy cars, wooden blocks and dolls, were their two youngest. Eddie was on his stomach, drooling on his fist. Melanie, who was stretched out on her side across from him, had a naked doll clutched firmly in one hand.
Lex left the box near the fireplace before she moved to stand beside her wife. “That's too cute.” She picked up their son and handed him to Amanda. “I'll give you the lighter one, this time.”
“Ugh.” Amanda adjusted her hold on Eddie, who was dead weight. “He won't be the lighter one for long, at this rate.”
“Yeah.” Lex dropped to one knee so she could lift Melanie without too much effort. “But at least by that time, this one will be too big to lift, too.” She groaned as she stood. “What have we been feeding them?”
Amanda snickered. “Fertilizer, I think.” She took the lead and they trailed upstairs. “All three are growing like weeds. It won't be much longer before Lorrie's taller than me.”
“Don't say it,” Amanda warned.
Lex grinned. “Say what?”
“You know damned good and well what.” Amanda carried Melanie into her room and laid her on the bed. “No short jokes.” She expertly traded Melanie's clothes for pajamas and tucked her under the covers. “Sleep well, baby girl.” After kissing Mel goodnight, Amanda followed Lex to Eddie's room. She picked out his sleepwear while Lex undressed him and changed his diaper.
“Whoa!” Lex coughed and discarded the diaper. “Toxic waste has nothing on him. How can such a sweet little guy leave such a nasty mess?” she muttered, cleaning him up.
Amanda laughed. “Sometimes I wonder the same thing.” She rested her cheek against Lex's upper arm and watched as her wife got him ready for bed. They took turns placing kisses upon his soft, black hair after settling him in his crib. “He's really starting to look like his momma,” Amanda mused quietly.
“Poor little tyke,” Lex teased. “Hopefully he'll take after his mommy.” She gave him a final rub on the back and escorted Amanda to their bedroom.
“Why would you say that?” Amanda asked, while she took off her dress and changed into her nightgown.
Lex switched into her flannel boxer shorts and tee shirt then joined Amanda in bed. “Do you seriously have to ask that?” She rolled over so that they were face to face. “The Walters' side of the family is not known for their mild temperament.” She touched the tip of Amanda's nose with her finger. “You, on the other hand, could give Job lessons in patience.”
“You obviously don't spend much time around me during the day, when I have to take care of the kids,” Amanda laughed. “Because our two girls could drive a saint to drink.” Her face sobered as the day's events caught up with her.
“Yeah, there is that,” Lex agreed. She cupped Amanda's face and brushed her thumb along the dark shadow beneath her eye. “Long day.”
Amanda turned her head and kissed Lex's palm. “Yeah. My heart aches for Gramma. They were together for sixty years. Just the thought of losing you kills me.”
“I'm not going anywhere for a long time, love. I promise.”
“You can't promise that, Lex. Things happen.” Amanda began to cry.
Lex pulled Amanda over until she was safely in her arms. “I'm planning on at least sixty years with you. We'll be surrounded by our great-grandkids, and I'll still be trying to chase you all over the house. Of course, by then you hopefully won't make me run too far, since I'll be so damned bowlegged from horseback riding.”
The mental image of an ancient, bowlegged old woman chasing after her changed Amanda's tears into giggles. “Will you have spurs?”
“If you want me to.” Lex took a breath and began to sing, “I've got spurs…that jingle, jangle…wheeze.”
Amanda totally lost it and laughed as hard as she had been crying. “You're completely warped, you know that?”
“Yep.” Lex kissed her on the forehead. “Get some sleep, buckaroo. We'll be goat herders tomorrow. And those critters are more devious than cattle.”
To be continued in Part 3
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