Beyond Always

By Carrie Carr

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 . You can also get the scuttlebutt on my website, . 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.

Chapter Seven

Along with the slam of the back door, Lorrie's excited voice echoed in the hallway. "Then Kim pushed him right into the mud puddle! It was so funny."

"Well," Shelby drawled as she removed her coat, "I reckon that boy will think twice before he picks on her again."

"He told Mr. Nicks that he tripped. I think Jesse was embarrassed being knocked down by a girl." Lorrie hung her coat next to Shelby's and followed her into the kitchen. She stopped short when she saw Martha at the stove and Rebecca at the table, watching Eddie eat. "What are y'all doing here?"

Martha turned and put a hand on her hip. "Lorrie! That's not very nice."

"Um, sorry?" Lorrie hugged Martha and went to the refrigerator. "When's dinner?"

"Lorraine Marie Walters. I know you were raised better than that," Martha scolded. "Sit at the table and think about what you said."

Eddie waved a grubby hand in the air. "Leelee!"

Lorrie grumbled under her breath, but did as she was told. She stared at the placemat in front of her. "I said I was sorry."

Shelby covered her mouth with her hand to hide her grin. She kissed Rebecca on the cheek and sat in the chair next to her. "Hey, darlin'. How's Mister Eddie doin' today?"

"Ha!" Eddie crammed a bite of soggy graham cracker into his mouth. He pointed his grimy fist at Shelby, who used a napkin to wipe it clean.

"Thanks, buddy. I think I'll pass." She laughed at the look on his face.

"No," Eddie told her while he picked up a new cracker and proceeded to gnaw on it. "Mmm."

Martha brought Shelby a cup of coffee. "Here. You look a bit chilled."

"Thank you, ma'am." Shelby sipped the coffee and peered at her lover over the rim. "Not that I'm complainin', but what brings you out here today?"

Rebecca glanced at Lorrie, then back to Shelby. "Umm, well. Martha was sharing her stew recipe with me, and I wanted to make sure I got it right. I think I can cook it without poisoning you."

"May I be excused?" Lorrie softly asked.

Martha put a tray in front of her. "Why don't you take this hot chocolate and cookies to the den, and share with your sister? Dinner won't be for a while, yet."

Lorrie's frown disappeared. "Yes, ma'am." She got up from the table. "I'm really sorry for how I acted." She took Martha's smile as forgiveness and carried the tray out of the kitchen.

With a heavy sigh, Martha sat in the vacated chair. "I swear, that girl gets more like Lexie every day."

"Aw, she's a good kid," Shelby defended.

"Oh, I know. But she's as temperamental as an old brood mare in the spring. Hormones are a terrible thing for young girls to go through." She lowered her voice. "I'm guessing you don't know what's going on."

Shelby cocked her head. "Uh, no. Lorrie and I just got back from the barn up at the bunkhouse. She was helping me check the shoes on the horses."

"Are the boys back?"

"No, ma'am. But with the weather being like it is, they're all out in trucks. Why?"

Martha turned to Rebecca. "I know he probably doesn't understand much, but would you mind taking Eddie to the den to play with his sisters?"

"Sure." Rebecca unfastened the belt that held Eddie in the chair. "Come on, handsome. Let's get you cleaned up so you can play."

"Pway!" Eddie cheered as he wrapped his grubby arms around Rebecca's neck. "Go!"

Shelby stood with Rebecca. "You sure you don't want one of these?"

Rebecca grinned. "I think I'll stick with spoiling everyone else's kids." She kissed Shelby lightly on the lips before leaving.

"Alright." Shelby sat beside Martha, "what's with all the secrecy?"

Martha patted her hand. "It's a bit of a long story. I'm hoping to hear some news from Amanda at any time. She, Helen and Charlie took Lexie and Roy to the hospital earlier today."


"The last I heard, Roy's leg is broken, and Lexie," Martha shook her head and closed her eyes. "Lexie hurt her arm. She didn't think it was too serious, but Amanda put her foot down and made her get it checked out."

Shelby chuckled. "I can just imagine how well that went over. Bet Lex is chompin' at the bit, by now."


Lorrie sat in front of the fire and sipped her hot chocolate. She tried to keep her surly attitude going, but when Melanie directed Eddie during their "tea party", she couldn't help but grin.

"No, Eddie. You have to hold the cup like this." Melanie held out her pinkie finger as she lifted the plastic tea cup.

"Mine!" Eddie pounded his cup on the small table. "Yum!"

Melanie dramatically sighed. "Eddie, that's not right. Do you want to play tea party, or not?"

"Ha! Potty!" Eddie waved the teacup over his head. When he heard the pretty lady on the couch laugh, he did it again. "Potty!"

"It's par-tee, not potty," Melanie corrected.

"Potty, potty, potty," Eddie chanted. "Meemee potty!" His version of Melanie's name was amusing to everyone except Melanie.

Rebecca turned around and winked at Lorrie. "I think she has her hands full."

"Yep." Lorrie got off the hearth and walked around the sofa to sit next to Rebecca. "Do you know where my mom is?"

"Um, yes. I do." Rebecca lowered her voice. "She and Charlie went to help your momma and Roy. They had some trouble while repairing the fence by the creek."

Lorrie stuck her lip out and frowned. "How come they didn't come and get me? I coulda helped."

Rebecca put her arm around Lorrie's shoulder. "Well, honey, it was kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing. Since the weather's so rotten, they really wanted to get out there in a hurry."

"How come they're not back yet?"

Lowering her head so that she could speak quietly into Lorrie's ear, Rebecca said, "All I know is they had to take Roy to the hospital for a broken leg. Your mom is supposed to call when they have some news, and we'll know more, then."

"They treat me like a little kid. I'm old enough to know stuff, too." With her arms crossed over her chest, Lorrie unintentionally belied her comment. "Miz, I mean, Shelby said I could call her just Shelby. That proves I'm older, right?"

"It sure does. But, you know that even grownups have to do things we'd rather not do." Rebecca playfully poked her in the ribs.

Lorrie giggled and squirmed away. "Like babysit them?" she asked, pointing at her siblings. Another poke caused her to laugh. "Hey, stop!" Her laughter wound down and she turned serious again. "Was Momma okay?"

"Leelee!" Eddie squealed. Tired of playing with Melanie, he noticed that his favorite sister was nearby. He tossed his teacup on the floor and toddled to the couch. With another happy scream, the toddler tried to climb next to her. "Leelee!"

Rebecca caught him and pulled him up between them. "Careful there."

"Eddie! Our tea party isn't over," Melanie whined. She stood and stomped her foot. "Come back here."

"Potty," Eddie chirped. He grinned up at Rebecca as she laughed. "Potty."

Rolling her eyes at her little brother's charming smile, Lorrie shook her head. "It's par-tee. Can you say par-tee?"

Eddie waggled his head back and forth comically. "Parrrrrrteeeeee," he sang.


In the hospital waiting room, Amanda handed Charlie a steaming paper cup. "I'm not guaranteeing how good their coffee is, but it's all I could find." She handed Helen a can. "This was the only diet drink they had. I hope it's okay."

Helen accepted the offering gratefully. "I'm sure it's fine." She rested the chilled can against her thigh and stared at the closed doors to the emergency room.

"Still no word?" Amanda asked, as she sat next to Charlie.

"Not a damned thing," Charlie grumbled. They had been waiting over two hours and no one had come out to speak to them. "I realize they're busy, but still." He sipped from the cup and made a disgusted face. "Good god. This is nasty."

Amanda patted his leg. "Bet you never had to wait like this when you were sheriff, did you?"

"Never." He set the coffee cup on the table beside him. "I think that coffee is how they keep business going. Stuff would kill a normal human."

They all turned toward the gray-haired man who stepped through the emergency door. "is there someone here for Roy Wilson?"

Helen stood. "I'm Mrs. Wilson. How is my husband?"

Slender, with a pressed lab coat covering faded blue scrubs, the doctor glanced at the tablet in his hand. "We can step into the other room, if you'd like."

She shook her head. "We're all family. Please, how is he?" She leaned against Charlie, who stood beside her and put his arm lightly around her back.

"We'll be prepping him for surgery first thing in the morning." He went on to explain how they would have to operate to repair the damage to his lower leg, and that the healing time varied from twelve to sixteen weeks. After answering several questions, he led Helen through the door to see Roy.

Amanda turned to Charlie. "Poor Roy. It sounds like he's in for a long recovery."

"Poor Helen," Charlie contradicted. "She's the one who's going to have to put up with him at home for that amount of time. If he's half as bad as some others I know, but refuse to name, she's in for a rough few months."

"I didn't even think about that." Amanda chuckled, but soon sobered as she thought about her wife. She understood how it would take a lengthy amount of time to run tests, but not being able to be with Lex was driving her mad. "I wonder how she's doing?" She had been sent to the waiting room when they took Lex to radiology.

Charlie rubbed her back. "She's probably giving the nurses fits. You know how she can be. Why don't we call the house and see how the kids are doing? You promised Melanie that you'd check in from time to time."

Amanda continued to stare at the door, as if willing it to open. "I know. But I'd hate to call with nothing to say. That would only upset her more." She frowned and started walking toward the door at the same time it opened.

An exhausted and disheveled Lex slowly walked into the room. Her right arm was in a sling, and her muddy clothes had been exchanged for a pair of ugly green scrubs. She held a plastic bag full of her clothes in her good hand, and her hair had dried in wild disarray.

Meeting the disheveled woman halfway, Amanda carefully embraced Lex in the middle of the waiting room. "I'm so glad to see you." She took the bag from her, but kept one arm around Lex's back. "You look like you're about to collapse."

"Thanks. I think I did that an hour ago," Lex muttered. "Has there been any word about Roy?" She allowed Amanda to lead her to a chair.

"The doctor just took Helen back to see him. They're supposed to do surgery in the morning on his leg."

Lex leaned her head against the wall and closed her eyes. "Damn. Bad break?"

"Bad enough." Amanda used her fingers to try and comb Lex's hair. "What did the doctor say about your arm?" When Lex didn't answer, she caressed her cheek. "Honey?"

"Huh? Oh, yeah. Sorry." Lex yawned and opened her eyes wide, as if that would help her stay awake. "The bone in my upper arm is fractured. They put a plastic sleeve-like splint on and told me to come back in a couple of weeks for a regular brace. And I'm supposed to use this blasted sling until then, too." She glared at the contraption. "How the hell am I supposed to run the ranch, wearing this stupid thing? With Roy laid up, we're going to be short-handed enough as it is."

Amanda's hand traced along Lex's good arm until she was able to grip her hand. "We'll figure it out," she assured her wife with a squeeze. She looked at the heavy bandage on Lex's right hand. "What did they say about your hand?" She remembered all too well the mangled mess that had been hastily wrapped with a bandana.

"Not much. Gave me a tetanus shot and some stitches."

"Lex," Amanda sighed.

"What? Seriously, that was it. They cleaned it up, asked how it happened, and then gave me a damned shot."

Amanda leaned against her wife. "I'm sorry. I was hoping they'd tell you if there was any permanent damage."

Lex rested her head on Amanda's. "No, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have snapped at you. But the doctor seemed more worried about his cancelled golf game than anything with me." All she wanted to do was get a hot shower and sleep. She sniffled and tried to fight off the headache that continued to grow. "Do you have any idea how long Helen will be?"

"Why don't you two go on home, and I'll stay here with Helen," Charlie offered.

While Amanda wanted to be available for her friend, her first concern was for Lex's welfare. "Thanks, Charlie. We'll send someone back to get you." She slowly stood and held out her hand to Lex. "Come on, honey."

"I feel bad, leaving Helen like this. And I was hoping to see Roy." But while she spoke, Lex allowed herself to be pulled to her feet. She held back a sneeze, not wanting to give Amanda any reason to keep her in the hospital.

Amanda's arm immediately went around Lex's waist. "I'm sure Helen will understand. And from the way the doctor spoke, Roy isn't up to visitors. We'll come see him after his surgery."

Lex grumbled under her breath, but her exhaustion soon won out. "Not like I have a lot of choice, is there?"

"Nope." Amanda winked at Charlie. "See you later."


It was after eight o'clock at night by the time Amanda had Lex clean and settled in bed. She knew she needed to go downstairs and reassure their children, but all she wanted to do was sit beside her wife and watch her sleep.

Between her exhaustion and the pain medication, Lex barely made it through the shower before she fell asleep. Her face still showed signs of tension, even as deeply as she slumbered. Amanda lightly rubbed her wrinkled brow in an attempt to sooth her.

A light knock at the door turned her attention away from Lex. She smiled at their oldest, who stood in the hall. "Come in, honey."

Lorrie frowned and looked uncertain. "I just wanted to see about Momma. Is she okay?"

"She's sleeping," Amanda said softly. "But she'll be just fine." She held out her hand. "Come here."

Taking her time, Lorrie cautiously edged into the room. She stopped a couple of feet from her parents. "She doesn't look very good."

Amanda turned and glanced at Lex. Dark circles were under her eyes, along with a few small scratches on her face. The sling her right arm was in was above the covers, and her hand was heavily bandaged. "It was a long day." She patted the bed beside her. "Have a seat."

"Are you sure?" Lorrie asked, even as she sat beside her. She lightly placed her hand on Lex's knee. "It's just her arm and hand, right?"


Lorrie traced the quilt pattern with her finger. "Mada said that we'll probably all have to pitch in now, since Momma and Roy can't work. Does that mean I have to help check fences and stuff?" She appeared panicked at the words that came out of her mouth. "I mean, I don't mind helping, really. But riding the fences is really boring."

"No, honey. That's not what Mada meant. Since Helen will be busy taking care of Roy, Martha will most likely take over cooking at the bunkhouse. But you and your sister can be a big help, too."


Amanda put her arm around Lorrie and kissed the top of her head. "I'm going to need someone to help with your little brother, while I try to keep your Momma from going crazy."

Lorrie giggled. "Momma does like to work."

"I don't think she likes it as much as she knows someone has to do it. And she's more than likely to get pretty cranky when she can't do as much as she wants." An indignant squall from downstairs caused her to shake her head. She noticed that Lorrie didn't look like she wanted to leave. "Do you think you can keep an eye on your Momma while I go see what Eddie's so upset about?"

"Sure." Lorrie looked around the room. "Can I go get a book out of my room? I've got to finish two chapters before tomorrow."

Amanda stood and gave a final glance to her resting partner. "Of course. Why don't you get your pajamas on and get comfy on my side of the bed? I'll be back in a little while." She kissed Lex, then Lorrie on the forehead. "Thanks." She waited until Lorrie returned before she gave them a final glance and stepped from the room.

At the sound of footsteps, Amanda paused at the top of the stairs and waited. She shook her head at Melanie, who was trying to outrun Freckles. "Mel, you know better than to run on the staircase."

"But, Mommy, Mada wanted-"

Amanda held up a finger, which immediately silenced Melanie. Even Freckles slowed down and slinked past her. "Now, what were you saying?"

"Mada needs clean pajamas for Eddie. He had an accident." Melanie stood on the step below her mother. "Is Momma feeling better?"

"She's asleep. But if you're quiet, you can go in and see her for a little while." Amanda ruffled Melanie's hair. "I'll take care of Mada and Eddie."

Melanie gave her a quick hug. "Thanks, Mommy." She skipped down the hall toward her room, with Freckles bouncing along beside her. "Come on, Freckles. Let's get my markers and go see Momma."

Amanda started to call out to her to slow down, but decided against it. She knew that Lorrie would take her job as Lex's protector seriously, and wouldn't allow her sister to be a disturbance. With a heavy sigh, she slowly descended the stairs.

By the time she was at the last step, Amanda could hear Martha in the kitchen.

"I ought to put your little rear in the kitchen sink, mister," Martha scolded good-naturedly.

"Ha!" Eddie countered.

Amanda peeked around the kitchen door and had to cover her mouth with her hand.

Eddie stood on the counter, wearing only a diaper and a very satisfied look on his face. His hair was plastered to his head by what appeared to be oatmeal, which also liberally coated his chest and belly. He patted his stomach and giggled. "Pbbbbttt."

"Don't talk back to me, young man," Martha ordered playfully. She wiped at the mess on his head with a wet paper towel.

"No, no no," Eddie argued, shaking his head. He tried to dance away from her, but Martha had a firm grip on his diaper. He swatted at her hand. "No!"

Martha stopped what she was doing and pointed a finger at him. "I know you didn't just hit me, did you?"

Eddie gave her his most charming grin. He patted the congealed mess on his stomach. "Uck."

"That's right, young'un. Uck. Now stay still and let me get you cleaned up."

Amanda stepped into the kitchen. "Need a hand?"

"I could use more than two, I think," Martha agreed.

"Mommy! Uck!" As Amanda stepped closer, Eddie tried to jump toward her. "Mada!"

Martha put both hands around him. "You're not going anywhere until we get some of this goop off of you. Maybe next time you'll think twice before playing in your dinner."


Amanda grimaced. "How about I take him upstairs for a bath? I think you're fighting a losing battle."

"Are you sure you're up to it? I can always bathe him down here and take him home with me for the night."

"No, that's okay." Amanda took a clean dishtowel and put it between her shirt and her son, who she picked up and held close. "Are you ready for a bath?"

"Yay!" Eddie started wriggling. "Go!"

Martha laughed as she wiped down the counter. "Looks like his majesty has spoken." She turned and kissed Eddie on his cheek. "Be good for your mommy."

"Muwah." Eddie blew her a kiss and giggled. "Mada, Mada, Mada," he sang. "Go!"

Amanda tightened her grip. "Thanks for everything today. I don't know what we'd do without you." She blew out a shaky breath and leaned her head against Eddie's, not caring if the oatmeal transferred to her own hair. "I have a feeling it's going to get worse before it gets better."

"Don't you worry about a thing." Martha removed her apron and draped it over a chair. "There's enough folks around here to handle just about anything. I'm going to take over cooking for the hands, and Charlie's going to help Shelby get a handle on what Roy does." She hugged Amanda with one arm as they walked from the kitchen. "You take care of Lexie and the kids, and we'll keep an eye on everything else."

Amanda's laugh came out as a half-sob. Martha's matter-of-fact attitude reassured her more than any words ever could. "You've got it all figured out, haven't you?"

"Darn right. I've been on this ranch for a lot of years, honey. Ain't nothing we can't fix, if we put our minds to it." She stopped at the back door. "If you need anything before morning, just give me a holler." She bundled a heavy scarf over her head and buttoned her coat. "I've left a breakfast casserole in the fridge for tomorrow, so you won't have to cook."

"Thanks, Martha. Have a good night."

"Mada, Mada!" Eddie added gleefully.

"I'll see y'all tomorrow." Martha headed out into the cold and wet evening, leaving a bemused and grateful Amanda behind.


Once Eddie was clean and in warm pajamas, Amanda kissed his head and tried to put him in his crib.

"No," he argued weakly. His eyes wouldn't stay open, but he refused to go to sleep. "Momma."

"Honey, Momma is asleep. You'll see her tomorrow, I promise." Amanda tucked a blanket over him, which he promptly kicked away.

"Momma, Momma, Momma," he cried. He pulled himself up and stood, rubbing his eyes with one hand. "Momma."

The battle had been lost, Amanda knew. She gathered his blanket and raised Eddie out of the crib. "I can't really blame you," she told him, as she carried him across the hall to the master bedroom. "We might as well," her voice trailed off as she stopped inside the door. "What I wouldn't do for a camera."

The king-sized bed that had been a gift from her grandfather was covered with sleeping bodies. Lex was peacefully stretched as she had left her, with a couple of additions. Melanie had snuggled against her side, while Lorrie was near the foot of the bed, her head pillowed on Lex's shin. Both were covered with the quilt that belonged to Lex's grandmother.

Amanda tucked Eddie near her wife's left shoulder. He immediately rolled over and tangled his fingers in Lex's sleep shirt, his eyes closing instantly. "At least they left me some room," Amanda mumbled while she removed the coloring book, markers and Lorrie's book from the bed.

After brushing her teeth and changing into her nightgown, Amanda crawled beneath the covers and rolled over to watch Lex and the children. The long day finally caught up with her and she felt tears burn her eyes. She brushed Lex's hair out of her eyes and wasn't surprised to feel overly-warm skin. "I knew you'd get a cold out there," she whispered.

Lex opened her mouth and inhaled, releasing the breath in a deep snore.

Amanda chuckled and pulled the blanket up over Eddie, who had squirmed closer to Lex. "I wonder if I can get Rodney to make a house call tomorrow." She kissed her fingertips and then touched Lex's lips. "Goodnight, love."

Chapter Eight

Ellie parked in the driveway and turned to her partner, who sat in the passenger seat of the old Corolla. "Have I thanked you for taking today off?"

"Several times," Kyle assured her. "I'll have to admit, when you first asked me to take Valentine's Day off, I thought your plans would be a little more romantic." She rubbed her hands together. "At least it's warmer today." In deference to the warmer temperatures, Kyle was wearing a tight, black tee shirt with her faded jeans instead of a denim shirt.

"Yeah." Ellie turned off the car. "I'm not sure how long this will take, but I'll be glad to take you out to dinner afterwards."

Kyle put her hand on Ellie's thigh. "Babe, don't worry about it. I was kidding." She squeezed her lover's leg. "Neither one of us is the candlelight dinner and flowers type. And I'd rather show you every day how much I love you, instead of making it once a year."

"You're a lot more romantic than you let people think." Ellie leaned across the car and kissed her lightly on the lips. "Come on, hot stuff. Let's get this over with."

They got out of the car at the same time and walked toward the house side by side. Before they reached the front porch, the door opened.

Anna Leigh waved as they drew closer. "Come in, girls. I have some coffee and ice tea prepared, whichever you prefer." She gave them each a hug as they crossed the threshold.

"Mrs. Cauble, you didn't have to go to any trouble," Ellie said.

"Please, call me Anna Leigh. I thought we've talked about that before," Anna Leigh teased. "It was so nice of you and Kylie to come clean out the workshop. I was afraid Lexington would try, and I know she's not up to it." As she did with Lex, Anna Leigh used Kyle's proper name, much to the younger woman's embarrassment. She led them to the kitchen and directed them to a chair. "Now. Coffee or iced tea?"

Kyle waited until Ellie was seated before taking the chair beside her. "Ice tea would be nice, ma'am."

Anna Leigh poured them each a glass. "Do you have any special plans for this evening?"

They looked at each other and laughed. Ellie shrugged. "We were just talking about that in the car. But no, we don't."

"I see." Anna Leigh joined them at the table and sipped on her coffee.

"Neither one of us thinks it's right, to celebrate on just one day," Kyle explained. "That's like saying I only love you when I'm told to. And I don't like that at all."

Anna Leigh patted her hand. "You sound a lot like my Jacob. He used to grumble about all the holidays that were invented by card companies." Her smile faded. "I have an entire drawer full of little notes he'd written to me, just because he felt like it." She cleared her throat and straightened in her chair. "Well, you're not here to listen to the musings of an old woman. Let me show you to the workshop."

Ellie shot a panicked glance at Kyle, who nodded.

Kyle covered Anna Leigh's hand with her own. She had come to regard the older woman as a family member, especially after seeing her at different family gatherings. "Anna Leigh, we're here for you, however you need us. I can only hope to have that kind of long-lasting love."

"Thank you, dearest." Anna smiled again. "I would have to say that you both are off to a very good start." She stood and brushed off her slacks, as if to brush away her painful memories. "I've already had someone from the high school come by and gather all the projects and leftover wood, so all that is left is to go through the tools and pack them up."

Ellie stood and gave the older woman a hug. She didn't say anything, content to just hold Anna Leigh and give her whatever comfort she could.


Humming to herself, Amanda swept the small pile of dirt and "dust bunnies" into the dustpan. She glanced around the kitchen, satisfied that the floor was as clean as it was going to get. With the girls in school and Eddie spending the morning with his Pawpaw Charlie, it was the only time she had to get housework done. She turned to take the broom and dustpan to the hall utility closet and screamed when she saw someone in the doorway. "You scared the crap out of me," Amanda scolded. "What are you doing down here?"

Lex leaned against the door frame. Her face was pale and her pajamas hung loosely on her. "It's too quiet upstairs, so I thought I'd come down and see what you were doing." Her voice was soft, as if every breath was difficult.

"Honey, you should have called. I would have helped you." Amanda leaned the broom against one of the kitchen chairs and walked to her wife.

"I've been out of the hospital," Lex coughed and held onto the door to keep from falling. She took a moment to catch her breath. When she spoke again, her voice was just over a whisper. "I've been home for almost a week." Today was the first time she had even felt like getting out of bed. Now she wanted to get her strength back and forget about the last couple of weeks.

Amanda put her arm around Lex's waist. "And you spent a full week in the hospital with pneumonia. Forgive me if I worry about you."

"Nothing to forgive." Lex leaned against her and kissed the top of Amanda's head. "But if I don't start moving around some, I'll never get my strength back." She held back another cough, pressing her left hand against the pain in her chest. "Damn."

"Come on, tough stuff. If you want to stay downstairs, let's get you comfortable in the den."

"Tough stuff, huh?" Lex grinned as she was led to the front of the house. "I could probably walk by myself, you know."

Amanda poked her in the ribs. "Don't ruin my fun."

"Yes, ma'am." Lex shuffled along beside Amanda. By the time they reached the den, she was breathing heavily. "This is ridiculous," she panted, as she dropped onto the sofa. When Amanda sat beside her, she put her left arm across the back of the sofa. "I'd ask if you'd like to fool around, but I don't think I'm up to it."

"You're not?" Amanda scooted to the opposite end of the sofa and patted her lap. "How about you stretch out and catch your breath?" When Lex didn't move, she gave the stubborn woman a glare. "Let me rephrase that. Lie down and put your head in my lap."

Lex grinned. "Is that an order?"

"Let's just say it's a forceful request," Amanda answered. "Come on. If you don't, I'll have to get up and do more housework."

"Well, we can't have that, can we?"

Amanda kicked off her shoes and turned, so that her legs were on the couch. "I forgot that you're not supposed to lie flat. Scoot over here and lean against my chest."

"The things I have to endure," Lex sighed dramatically, but did as she was told. As she rested against Amanda, she felt the security and comfort of her wife's arms around her. "This is nice."

"Sure is." Amanda kissed the back of Lex's ear. "How's your arm?" After returning from the hospital, Lex had removed the sling, since the most strenuous thing she did was go from the bed to the bathroom.

"A little achy, but not bad." While in the hospital, Lex had been fitted with a smaller brace for her upper arm. She slowly clenched her right hand into a loose fist. The stitches had been removed before she left the hospital, and she was determined to get the full use of her hand as soon as possible. When she began to cough, Lex felt Amanda's arms tighten around her. After she was able to breathe again, she closed her eyes and relaxed. "Thanks."

"You don't have to thank me, love. But I hate to see you suffer like this."

Lex turned her head so she could see Amanda's face. "What? No 'told you so' because I was out in the rain and sleet for hours?"

"Not this time. It's not like you did it out of spite. You had work to do. That's different. Besides, the doctor said you were already coming down with something before you were out in the elements."

"Ah." Lex kissed Amanda's arm. "Maybe you could talk to Martha, then. She gives me grief at least once a day."

Amanda giggled and squeezed her. "Poor baby. Is big, bad Mada picking on you?"


"Aww." Amanda kissed the top of her head. "Bless your heart."

Lex pitifully nodded, then realized what Amanda had said. "Hey!" When Amanda nuzzled her hair, Lex closed her eyes. "Feels nice," she mumbled.

"Ssssh." Amanda rested her head against Lex's. "Rest."



They had been working for hours without a break. Ellie glanced over at her lover, who was clearing out a lower cabinet. Kyle was covered with sawdust, but seemed completely at ease with the task before them. Unlike Ellie, who had almost immediately broken out into a sweat, and was slower due to not wanting to get dirty.

"Hey, cool!" Kyle crawled from beneath the cabinet and raised a wooden item. "Check it out, Ellie."

Ellie wiped her hands on a paper towel and stepped over a pile of rags. "What is it?"

"An old toolbox." Kyle held the box with the reverence usually reserved for a priceless artifact. "Isn't it awesome? My great-grandfather had one."

Wrinkling her nose, Ellie shrugged. "Uh, I guess." She cocked her head and studied it. The lower part of the wooden box was rectangular, with a piece of wood across the top for a handle. It was empty, but she could tell that it had been used for many years before being retired. "Wouldn't the tools fall out?"

"Nah. It's deep enough to hold them, but not so deep that you can't find anything." Kyle grinned. "I wonder if Anna Leigh would let me buy it from her?"

"Absolutely not," a voice echoed from the door. Anna Leigh carefully stepped through the shop.

Kyle set the box down. "Hey, no problem. I was just-"

Anna Leigh held up her hand. "What I meant was that you won't pay me a cent, Kylie. I want you to have the tool box." She picked the box up and smiled. "This was one of the first things Jacob made, you know. I think he'd be thrilled that it would go to someone who would enjoy it." She handed it to Kyle.

"Thank you, Anna Leigh. I'll treasure it. Maybe when Eddie gets older, he might like it. I'll take good care of it for him."

"I know you will, dear." Anna Leigh made a show of looking around. "It appears as if you girls are almost finished. Why don't you come in for lunch?"

Both women looked at each other and shrugged. Kyle was the first to speak. "I'm going to have to do some serious washing up before I'd even think of joining you inside, Anna Leigh. I think I have years of sawdust on me."

"There's a washroom in that corner," Anna Leigh said, pointing to their left. "I'm sure there are enough clean towels. Jacob was always afraid of bringing in half his work with him, so he had it built years ago. Come inside as soon as you're ready. I have huge pot of chili on the stove." She smiled at them and turned to walk away.

On her way to the door, Anna Leigh paused and looked at a bare spot on the floor. No longer surrounded by pieces of furniture, the surface was eerily clean. Unaware of her audience, she said something softly under her breath and slowly moved away. Her shoulders were slumped, and she shuffled along as if she felt every one of her years.

Once they were alone, Kyle walked to where Anna Leigh had stood. "I wonder what that was all about?"

Ellie stepped next to Kyle. "She came out to get Jacob, and found him on the floor. I guess this must be the spot." She felt a cold chill and wrapped her arms around herself. "How horrible, to come in and find him like that."

Kyle put her arms around her lover. "Yeah. I don't know how she's survived." She lowered her voice. "How could you function, after losing the person you'd spent sixty years loving? God." She rested her head on Ellie's shoulder and closed her eyes. She had only known Ellie for a year. Just the thought of losing her made her weak. "I couldn't handle it," she whispered.


When Lex awakened, she was alone and the house was silent. She sat up and realized she had been resting on a large pillow that Amanda had sneaked behind her. She blinked and checked the clock over the fireplace. "Almost four? Damn, I didn't realize I was that tired." With a yawn and a stretch, she stood. Seeing Freckles sound asleep, she quietly walked past the dog bed.

Lex cautiously inhaled, pleased when she didn't go into a coughing fit. When her stomach growled to remind her that she had missed lunch, she headed for the kitchen. Halfway down the hall, she saw the back door open.

"I win!" Melanie yelled. She charged through the door and tossed her back pack near the bench it belonged on. "Ha! I kicked your hiney, Lorrie." She skidded to a halt when she saw Lex. "Momma! You're all better!"


Melanie raced toward her. She pressed her cheek against Lex's stomach and hugged her with all her might. "I'm so glad."

"Me too, kiddo." Lex stroked the blonde curls.

A happy bark came from the den and Freckles sprinted down the hall. She danced around Melanie, before turning toward the back door.

Lorrie came into the house much quieter than her sister. "Hey, Momma." She laid her back pack on the bench and hung her denim jacket on one of the hooks above. "I guess you're feeling better?" She absently scratched Freckles behind one ear as the dog kept up with her.

Lex nodded and walked forward with Melanie hanging onto her. "I decided I goofed off long enough."

"Mel, quit hanging on Momma. She's been sick," Lorrie ordered.

"Hey, I'm fine." Lex held her hand out to Lorrie. "Come here."

Lorrie shrugged. "No, that's okay." She leaned against the wall and crossed her arms over her chest. Freckles obediently sat next to her, staring up at her kid with an adoring look.

Lex just barely refrained from rolling her own eyes at Lorrie's attempt at being cool. "Where's your mom?"

"She went to get Eddie at Pawpaw's," Melanie answered. "I got to sit in the back seat of the bus today. It's fun, 'cause you can bounce high when it hits bumpy spots."

"That's great, sweetheart." Lex patted her back. "Why don't you run see if your mom needs any help?"

"Okey dokey." Once her back was turned toward Lex, Melanie stuck her tongue out at Lorrie. "See ya."

Lorrie glared at her, but didn't say anything. She pushed away from the wall, intent on leaving.

"Hold up, lil' bit. What's going on?" Lex moved closer and put her hand on Lorrie's shoulder.


Lex touched Lorrie's chin so that she'd raise her head. "It's got to be something, to make you so surly." The tickle in her chest couldn't be ignored and she began to cough.

Worried, Lorrie stepped forward and held her mother until the cough subsided. "Maybe you should go back to bed."

"No," Lex wheezed, using her good arm against the wall to hold herself upright. Truth be told, she didn't think she could walk that far. "Let's go to the kitchen and wait for your mom."

"Are you sure that's a good idea? If Mom comes in and sees you, she's gonna be mad."

Lex chuckled. "Nah. She'll be fine."

Once they were both seated with a glass of milk for Lorrie and juice for Lex, and a plate of Martha's brown sugar cookies between them, Lex tapped the table. "Now, it's just you and me. Want to tell me what's got your britches in a bunch?"

"I dunno." Lorrie nibbled on a cookie. She ignored the plaintive whine from beneath the table and stared at the cookie plate for a long moment. "Momma?"


Unable to look Lex in the eye, Lorrie stacked the cookies in a neat pile, then changed it to a circle. When her mother covered her hand, she finally looked up. "Before you met Mom, did you have a best friend?"

"No, not really. I didn't have time to make many friends, because I had to help my dad with the ranch. Why?"

Lorrie turned away. "Al's been my best friend forever. We've always done everything together, you know?"

Not sure where the conversation was headed, Lex scooted her chair closer. She put her hand on the back of Lorrie's chair. "Yep."

"Since Jerry's come back, we've all been hanging out together. And that's cool. But now they're doing stuff without me." Lorrie looked up at Lex and there were tears in her eyes. "When I ask Al, she just makes excuses." She blinked the tears away, impatiently wiping them off her cheeks. "How come she doesn't like me anymore? What's wrong with me?"

Lex sighed. She didn't think she was ready for this talk. She rubbed the back of her neck, praying for a relapse. "Well, it sounds like Ally and Jerry like each other in a different way from being just friends. That's probably why you're not included."

"Different way?"

"Yeah. You know, as boyfriend and girlfriend. That doesn't mean they don't like you anymore, but they want to spend time together as a couple."

Lorrie put her elbow on the table and propped her chin on her upraised hand. "You think Al likes Jerry that way? Eww."

Lex laughed. "I know, kiddo. But you can't choose who to love. It just happens."

"Love? Momma, that's really gross. I think I liked it better when I thought they didn't like me."

The back door opened and Melanie raced into the kitchen. "We're back!" She got into the chair on the other side of Lex and stood on her knees. "Mada was there, and she said you'd better behave, or she'll take a spoon to you," she happily shared with Lex.

Amanda came in with Eddie, who struggled out of her grasp. "Melanie, go put your back pack where it belongs." She kissed Lex on the cheek. "I see you two are enjoying a snack."

"Momma! Up!" Eddie demanded of Lex.

She looked down at him. "What was that?"

"Pease?" he asked, adding his most charming grin.

"I thought so." Lex raised him to her lap. She caught Lorrie's eye. "Okay?"

Lorrie nodded. She finished her milk. "May I be excused? I need to go check on Snow."

"Leelee," Eddie called, reaching for his sister when she stood. He swatted Lex's shoulder in an attempt to get Lorrie's attention. "Leelee!"

After rinsing her glass and placing it in the dishwasher, Lorrie stopped long enough to ruffle Eddie's hair. "I'll be back in a little bit," she promised. She snapped her fingers, and Freckles pranced along behind her as they left the kitchen.

"Can I have cookies, too?" Melanie asked. When Amanda gave her a no-nonsense look, she amended, "May I? Please?"

"Mmm," Eddie agreed. He reached for the plate that Lex had passed toward Melanie. "Mine."

Amanda filled two glasses with milk, and Eddie's sippy cup with the same. She took Eddie from Lex and put him in his high chair, along with a toddler cookie and his cup. "Enjoy." She gave Melanie her milk and sat in the chair Lorrie had vacated. "How are you holding up, honey?"

"Great." Lex frowned as Eddie tipped his cup enough to get milk on the tray, then smeared his cookie across it. "Ugh."

Eddie grinned at her. "Yum." He picked up the cookie and chewed on the soggy end. "Yum, yum, yum."

Melanie laughed at his antics and dipped her cookie in the top of her milk. She bit off the end and nodded. "Eddie's right. It's good."

"Don't encourage him," Lex teased her. "Like he needs the encouragement."

Amanda nibbled on her own cookie. "We won't mention who taught everyone how to dip their cookies in milk."

"Kids have to learn skills," Lex reminded her. Unable to hold it back, she covered her mouth with a paper napkin and coughed. Once she was able to breathe again, she wadded up the napkin and held it in her fist. "This is driving me nuts."

"Honey, Rodney explained that the cough would take the longest to get over. I'm surprised you're even well enough to come downstairs."

Lex didn't want to tell her that halfway down the stairs, she had thought about turning around and going back. Amanda had spent enough time worrying about it as it was. "Nothing to it."

Amanda shook her head and glanced at Melanie. "Do you have any homework tonight?"

"I have spelling words to practice." Melanie turned to Lex. "Will you help me with them, Momma?"

"Sure. Why don't you finish up your snack, and we'll work on them after dinner?"

Melanie shoved a full cookie into her mouth. She chewed as fast as she dared, wanting to go upstairs and play. She tried to drink the last of her milk, only to have it spill from her lips and go down the front of her shirt. After she swallowed, she looked at her parents. "Can, I mean, may I be excused?"

Lex covered her mouth to keep from laughing, while Amanda tried to appear stern. "You have to go upstairs and rinse the milk off of that shirt, before it dries. Maybe next time you won't be in such a hurry," Amanda gently scolded. She pointed at her wife. "Not one word."

"Thank you!" Melanie moved quickly, rinsing her glass and placing it in the dishwasher before hustling out of the kitchen.

Amanda sighed, but couldn't help but laugh at Melanie, who seemed to have a never-ending supply of energy. "I wish I could understand Lorrie as well as I do Mel."

"Melanie's an open book," Lex agreed. "And I'm sure we'll figure Lorrie out by the time she's twenty."

"Good lord, I hope it's sooner than that. She was so quiet on the drive home today. I just don't know what to do with her." Amanda reached across and cupped Lex's cheek. "You look exhausted. I think we need to get you upstairs, and we can talk more about this, later."

Lex stood and pushed her chair toward the table. She put an arm around Amanda's waist and kissed her on the cheek. "Lorrie's feeling the age old, 'third-wheel syndrome'. Her two closest friends have hooked up, and she's feeling left behind."

"Her two," Amanda stopped at the foot of the stairs. "Allison and Jerry? You're kidding me."

"Nope. We discussed it before you came in. She thought something was wrong with her, since they were leaving her out of their plans." Lex began the slow ascent toward their room, glad to have Amanda's arm keeping her steady. "I explained to her that they weren't mad at her, but needed some time for just the two of them."

Amanda tightened her grip as she felt Lex tremble. "How'd she take that?"

Lex's laugh turned into a cough. She paused at the door to their bedroom and leaned against the frame. "She thought it was gross, and liked it better when she thought they hated her." Trying not to pant as she crossed to the bed, Lex sat on the edge to catch her breath. "Damn."

"Honey, take it easy. It's just going to take time." Amanda sat beside Lex and carefully leaned against her. "I know it's rough on you, but I'm kind of enjoying spending all this extra time with you."

"Yeah, that is a bonus." Lex turned and kissed her lightly on the lips. "Thanks for taking such good care of me, even when I'm a grump."

Amanda put her arms around Lex's neck and looked into her eyes. "You're cute, even grumpy." She kissed her on the nose, giggling when Lex countered by nibbling on her chin. "Better get your strength back soon, Slim. I've got plans for you."

Lex leaned back, bringing Amanda with her. "Lucky me."

To be continued in Part 5


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