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 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 readers, Kelly and Kay – 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.
** The chapter numbers have changed, due to some reworking of the original text. I apologize for any confusion – Carrie **
The small house's illumination was a beacon in the night to Shelby, who parked her truck close to the front steps. She shut off the engine and took a deep breath, trying to get up the energy for the short walk inside.
She was met at the door by Rebecca, who was wearing a pale green robe over her nightgown. “It's after ten,” Rebecca mentioned unnecessarily. She removed Shelby 's hat and hung it on the coat tree by the door. “Are you all right?”
“Darlin', I honestly don't know.” Following her partner the few steps to the sofa, she dropped onto her usual spot. “I don't know how Lex has done this all her life.”
Rebecca ran her fingers through Shelby 's hair. “That's probably how. She's had plenty of practice at it.” She kissed her on the cheek. “You were just kind of thrown into the deep end all at once. I'm so proud of you.”
Shelby leaned into the touch and closed her eyes. “Thanks. But I feel like I'm chasin' my tail most of the time, with no chance to catch it.”
“Sssh. You're doing fine. Did you get dinner?”
Shelby laughed. “Dinner, dessert, and coffee. Martha wouldn't let me go back to work until I finished everything on my plate.” She patted her flat stomach. “No wonder Lex runs non-stop. Eatin' like that every day would turn a body heavy in no time.”
“I think you're safe.” Snuggled up against Shelby , Rebecca sighed. “Unlike me.”
“Hey, now, darlin'. Don't be talkin' smack about my girl. I think you're perfect.” Shelby turned her head and kissed Rebecca on the forehead, then met Rebecca halfway and kissed her lips.
After a leisurely few minutes of getting reacquainted, Rebecca pulled away. “Would you like to take this to the bedroom?”
“That's the best offer I've had all day.” Shelby grinned as she was hoisted off the sofa. “I need to get cleaned up. I think I have half the barn on me.”
Rebecca lightly swatted her on the rear. “How about I help you? I can always get those hard to reach places.”
Shelby tugged on the bow that held her lover's robe closed. “This night just gets better and better.”
After staring at the clock for over an hour, Lex gave up trying to sleep. It was close to midnight, but her brain wouldn't shut off. Stifling a cough, she left the bed and headed downstairs.
The office light burned her eyes for a moment, but soon Lex was able to blink away the discomfort. She settled behind her desk and booted up her laptop, a recent Valentine's Day present from her wife. Although she had been out of the hospital for over two weeks, she still tired far too easily. The laptop was Amanda's way of helping Lex pass the time while she was ill.
She checked her email and then pulled up a favorite game. The squalling birds that destroyed whatever she aimed at had hooked her from the beginning. Lex lost herself in the game for over an hour, before closing it and logging on to the program she came downstairs to check.
With both her and Roy incapacitated, she had to lean heavily on Shelby 's assistance. While the ex-rodeo rider worked hard and never complained, Lex realized she had become overwhelmed trying to keep everything running smoothly. She wrote a few lines on a notepad. “I'll call Roy in the morning and see if he's up to a visit. Maybe the three of us can figure out some way to keep Shelby from working herself into the ground.”
“What are you doing up?” Amanda asked from the doorway.
Lex looked up and grinned. Her wife was adorably tousled, her short hair sticking up in every direction. She was wearing a long tee shirt, and, from the way the lamp from the living room backlit her body, nothing else. “Uh.”
“Well?” Amanda put her hands on her hips, causing the shirt to rise to an almost x-rated level.
Unable to speak, Lex shook her head. She started to cough, which brought Amanda into the office.
“Honey, are you getting sick again?” Amanda rubbed Lex's back until she was able to breathe.
“No,” Lex gasped, “I'm fine.” She spun the chair around and pulled Amanda into her lap. “I'm feeling a lot better.”
Amanda smiled and linked her hands behind Lex's head. “You are, huh?”
Leaning in close, until they were breathing the same air, Amanda whispered, “Then maybe we should go back to bed.” She gave her wife a light peck on the lips.
“Yeah,” Lex agreed, breathlessly.
“And,” Amanda nipped her chin, “get some sleep.”
Lex blinked and pulled back. “What?”
“Honey, you still tire too easily.” Amanda turned and pointed to the laptop, which still had the accounting program open. “And I know you're driving yourself nuts, not being able to do much right now. Don't think you've fooled me, rancher. I notice when the program has been updated.”
Amanda laughed. “Good try, though.” She caressed Lex's cheek. “Is there anything that I can help you with?”
“I was just trying to find a better way to run things, until Roy and I are back on our feet. Shelby 's doing a great job, but there's only one of her.”
“What about the other guys? Some of them have been here forever. Surely they can handle more responsibility.”
Lex closed her eyes and leaned her head against Amanda. “Chet has been here the longest. He's a great guy and does okay at handling instructions.”
“But he's not the best at thinking things through,” Amanda finished for her. “How about Jack? He seems pretty sharp.”
“He's not interested. Says he enjoys being stress-free.”
“That's kind of selfish of him,” Amanda muttered.
Lex shook her head. “He's a recovering alcoholic, sweetheart. He really doesn't want the added stress.”
“Tomorrow, I'm going to take Shelby with me to see Roy . Maybe we can come up with some solutions.”
Amanda opened her mouth to argue, but stopped when Lex's finger touched her lips.
“I'll ask Shelby to drive, and we won't stay long. I promise.” Lex replaced her finger with her lips, leaving a soft kiss behind. “But I can't just sit around the house forever, Amanda. And I can't leave poor Shelby hanging in the breeze, either.”
“All right.” Amanda slid off of Lex's lap and adjusted her nightshirt. “In that case, shut down your laptop and let's go to bed.”
Lex quickly exited the program. “I thought you'd never ask.”
“To sleep,” Amanda stressed, as they left the office.
“I'm sure we'll get to sleep sometime,” Lex teased, pinching her on the rear.
The sun was barely over the horizon as Rebecca left the barn. She grinned as the back door to their home opened and her lover appeared. “Good morning, sleepy head,” she teased.
Shelby tipped her hat back on her head. “You cheated.”
“No, I made an executive decision,” Rebecca argued. She kissed Shelby and patted her side. “You needed the sleep. I'm perfectly capable of taking care of our horses before work.”
“Executive decision, eh?” Shelby put her arms on Rebecca's hips and pulled her closer. “And I have no say in the matter?”
Rebecca melded her body into her partner's and happily sighed. “Nope.”
They stood together silently, no words needed, as the rest of the world woke around them. Finally, Shelby kissed Rebecca one last time. “I need to get goin', darlin'.”
“I know.” Rebecca squeezed then released her. “I'm off today, so as soon as I get things finished around here, I thought I'd run over and see how Amanda's doing.”
“She'll like that, I imagine.” Shelby adjusted her hat and backed away, slowly. “Maybe I'll see you for lunch.”
“Maybe so.” Rebecca blew her a kiss and watched as the old truck lumbered out of the drive.
Amanda closed the back door and hung up her coat. Although she enjoyed the time with her children, she felt a guilty pleasure at seeing them off to school. At the sound of voices, she stepped into the kitchen. She kissed the top of Lex's head on her way to the coffee pot. “Good morning, Shelby .”
Shelby nodded. “Good morning, Amanda. Rebecca said she'd be over after while, if that's all right with you.”
“Mommy!” Eddie wailed from his high chair. He swatted the tray, which was covered with oatmeal.
“Sounds wonderful. Hello, handsome.” Amanda poured herself a mug and kissed her son on the head, quickly sidestepping his grimy hand. She sat beside her wife, who stopped feeding Eddie. “What are your plans today, besides talking to Roy ?”
Lex placed Eddie's spoon in the bowl in front of her. “Not much.” She gave Shelby a look, which Amanda caught.
“Uh huh.” Amanda stared at Shelby , until the other woman decided her coffee cup was more interesting. “Lex?”
Amanda turned in her chair. “What's going on?”
“What makes you—” Lex stopped at the serious glare she received. She rubbed the back of her neck, a nervous gesture that showed up any time she was caught doing something she shouldn't. “I'm going to ride with Shelby for a while today.” She hurriedly added, “In the truck.”
“Tuck,” Eddie parroted. He grinned at the adults, who were all too busy to look at him.
“I see.” Amanda got up and walked to the sink. She stared out the window.
Shelby quickly swallowed the last of her coffee. “I'll run check the horses in the barn,” she announced, leaving the kitchen as quickly as possible.
Once the back door closed, Lex wiped Eddie's face. He fussed until she gave him his spoon, which he immediately stuffed into his mouth. “That's right, buddy. Truck.” She moved to stand behind Amanda and rested her hands on her wife's hips. “I was going to tell you as soon as you got back from the bus stop.”
Amanda turned and leaned against the counter. She did a slow perusal of Lex's face. The dark circles from her illness were gone, although she was still too pale as far as Amanda was concerned. She held out her hands and waited until Lex held them. “Will you promise me something?”
“I mean it, Lex. You have to promise not to wear yourself out.”
Her lips twitched, but Lex was able to keep a serious look on her face. “I promise.”
Amanda brushed her hands along Lex's arms. “Don't get out in the cool air too much, please?”
“I have a bad feeling about this.”
Lex kissed her on the forehead. “I don't want you to worry. If we run across anything that needs handling, we'll radio the boys and have them take care of it.” She lowered her voice and looked directly into Amanda's eyes. “Sweetheart, that little stay in the hospital scared me, too. I don't plan on going back.”
“It was more than a little stay,” Amanda argued. “You were in intensive care, fighting for every breath. I don't want that to happen again.”
“It won't. I swear I'll be extra careful.”
Amanda rested her cheek against Lex's chest. She could hear the strong heartbeat, almost feeling it in her own body. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
“Momma!” Eddie cried, whacking his spoon on the tray. “Momma!”
Lex laughed and unbuckled him from the chair. “I love you, too, Eddie. C'mere, piggy.”
Rebecca was on her way out the door when her cell phone rang. She fished it out of her purse as she walked toward her car. “Hello? Oh. Hi, Mr. Carson. I wasn't scheduled to work today, was I?”
“No, Rebecca. But I do need to talk to you.”
She got into the car and lowered the driver's window. “Okay. Do you need me to come in?”
“Not exactly, no.” The store owner sounded tired and defeated. “Rebecca, I hope you understand that this is no reflection on you. But, as I'm sure you're aware, business has been very slow lately. And—”
“Oh, my god. Are you firing me, Mr. Carson?”
He was quiet for a moment. “Uh, well.”
“You are!” Rebecca accused.
“No!” Mr. Carson softened his voice. “I'm cutting everyone's hours, Rebecca. It's either that, or layoffs.”
She considered her co-workers. They had slowly lost employees over the last few years until only a few were left. Mark, a part-time student who lived with his parents, showed up late most of his scheduled days. Susan, a retired schoolteacher that covered during holidays, didn't need the money. A couple of high school students that giggled more than they worked filled out the list. The other manager, Regina , was a single mother of two small children, who lived more paycheck-to-paycheck than Rebecca. “Even Regina ?”
“Of course.” He sounded insulted that she asked. “I don't play favorites.”
Rebecca closed her eyes and rested back against the seat. She hoped Shelby would forgive her. “Give her my hours, Mr. Carson. I'll try to find something else.”
“Are you sure? I mean, that's a kind sentiment and all, but what about,” he couldn't quite bring himself to say Shelby 's name, “your friend? Will she mind?”
“What's that supposed to mean?”
Mr. Carson had never understood why Rebecca had moved in with the surly ex-rodeo rider. “Well, she's the um, you know, uh,” he stammered.
“She's the what?”
He quickly changed the subject. “I'll be more than happy to write you a glowing letter of recommendation, Rebecca. And if more hours become available before you find something else, I'd be thrilled to have you back.”
“Thank you, Mr. Carson. I'll drop by next week for the letter. Goodbye.” Rebecca disconnected the call and tossed her phone toward her purse, which was open on the passenger seat. She grabbed her hair with both hands and pulled the strands in frustration. “Damn it! Shelby 's gonna freak.”
She sat in the driveway for half an hour, trying to figure out the best way to break the news to her lover. They had a small savings built, but certainly not enough to sustain them for any length of time. Shelby 's work at the Rocking W had been a godsend, allowing them to think about their future. “And now I've screwed that up.”
The enticing aroma of fresh-baked bread wafted through the house. Lex took a deep breath, but stopped when she heard Helen laugh. “What?”
“It should be out in another five minutes, Lex. Don't worry, you'll get a piece.”
Shelby snickered into her coffee cup, but didn't offer anything verbal.
“Now you understand how I'm gaining weight,” Roy admitted, with a fond glance at his wife.
Helen glanced around the table. “Would anyone like more coffee?”
“Stay put. I'll get it,” Lex offered. She was up and into the kitchen before Helen could argue with her.
Roy leaned over the table toward Shelby , so he couldn't be overheard. “She's doing better, isn't she?”
“Yeah. Although Amanda threatened to skin me if she overdoes it today.” Shelby grinned. “And I'm not about to cross her.”
“No one ever does.” Roy sat back in his wheelchair as Lex returned. “Ain't that right, Boss?”
Lex refilled everyone's mugs before placing the coffee pot on a wooden trivet in the center of the table. “What's right?”
“ Shelby was just tellin' us about your boss,” Roy teased. “I think Amanda has put the fear of god into your new foreman.”
“She has a tendency to do that.” Lex dropped into her chair and stretched out her legs. “While we're on the subject of foremen, we need to figure out a few things around here.”
Roy nodded. “I'm supposed to be whittled down to a walking cast in the next couple of weeks, so at least I'll be more mobile. But the doc has already warned me against riding until I'm fully healed.”
Helen poked his arm and cleared her throat.
With a roll of his eyes, Roy added, “The doc also told me I needed to start taking it a little easier. Said I'm not getting any younger,” he scoffed. “I told the old,” here he glanced at his wife, “so-and-so that none of us are.”
“He also said that you have high blood pressure and hypertension.” Helen looked smug. “No more fried foods for you, hon.”
“Welcome to the club.” Lex turned to Shelby . “How about you? Does Rebecca keep you on a short leash, too?”
Shelby snorted. “Nope. We pretty much eat healthy all the time, though. Don't bother me none.”
“Just wait,” Roy warned. “One of these days, you're gonna wake up and find out that too many years have passed without warning.”
“Yeah, you're such an old fart,” Lex joked. But then she took a moment and looked at him. Somewhere along the way, Roy 's blond hair and mustache had turned silver, and the creases in his bronzed face had deepened. With a start, she realized he was over sixty years old. “Damn.”
He frowned. “What?”
“Nothing.” She tapped the table. “So, once you're more mobile, do you want to ride along with Shelby and give her some pointers?”
“Sure. Sound okay to you, Shelby?”
The ex-rodeo rider nodded. “Yeah. Rebecca will be glad, too. Between her work and mine here, we don't see each other as much. It'll be nice to get home before dark-thirty.”
The oven timer buzzed, causing Helen to get up and heed its call. “No one go anywhere,” she warned. “I'll bring some fresh bread and butter right out.”
Once she had left, Roy leaned closer to Lex and Shelby . “Once I'm on my feet again, we'll pack up.”
“I'm sure you'd want Shelby here on the property, since she's going to be doing my job. Even with therapy and all, my days as foreman are over.”
Shelby cut Lex's reply off. “Like hell I will. Look, I've got a nice little spread of my own, Roy . I enjoy working here, but you can keep the title of foreman and the house. I ain't got enough schoolin' to be in charge.”
“I sure as hell can't do it anymore. And all I have is a high school diploma. You've got what matters, which is common sense. This job isn't that complicated, just busy. Right, Boss?”
Lex crossed her arms over her chest and watched the two argue back and forth. “Oh, so now you want my opinion?” When Roy blushed and Shelby lowered her gaze, Lex laughed. “Damn it, Roy , I don't want you to go anywhere. There's more than enough work around here for all of us. As a matter of fact, I thought it would be nice if we set you up with the accounting program that I use to keep track of the cattle. That would free me up to do other things, while Shelby handles what you can't.”
“Sounds good to me,” Shelby agreed. “ Roy ?”
“Yeah.” He blinked and cleared his throat in an attempt to cover up his emotions. “I'm happy here.”
Amanda handed Rebecca another tissue, as the redhead continued to cry. Rebecca had shown up on her back doorstep not long after Lex and Shelby had left, her face splotchy and her eyes swollen from crying. It took over fifteen minutes to calm her down enough to find out what was wrong. “I don't think Shelby is the type to get angry over something that was out of your control, Rebecca.”
“No, she's not. But I don't know how she's going to take me giving up my job completely.” Rebecca blew her nose then added the used tissue to the large pile on the coffee table. She watched Eddie quietly play with his wooden blocks on the floor nearby. He seemed unaffected by her emotional display. “Even a few hours would have been better than none.”
“Not necessarily. You would have spent all your check on gas. Why don't you think of this as an opportunity? I was devastated when we had to shut down the real estate office. But now I wouldn't have traded all this time with my kids for anything in the world.” Amanda patted her hand. “Is there something else you've always wanted to do?”
Rebecca took a cleansing breath and leaned back against the sofa. “I've never really thought about it. Work was just a way to bring home money. It wasn't something that I really enjoyed.”
“And now you have a chance for something new.” Amanda took a drink of her iced tea. “I know you love horses and competing. What else?”
“You'll probably laugh.”
Amanda handed her another tissue. “I doubt that. Here.”
“Thanks.” After wiping her face, Rebecca stared at the coffee table. “Being with your kids, made me realize something.”
“It has?” Amanda looked at Eddie. “You want to have a baby?”
Rebecca's head snapped up. “Oh, no! I mean, I love kids, but not for myself. I love being just a couple with Shelby . She's the only one I need.”
Amanda finally laughed. “Don't look so panicked. Luckily, I don't think you have to worry about becoming pregnant any time soon. Although you can sure have fun trying.”
“Oh, my god.” Rebecca buried her flushed face in her hands. It took her a minute or two to get her embarrassment under control. She pointed a finger at Amanda. “You're evil.”
“I've lived with Lex for too many years. She can still make me blush. So, what is it you realized?”
Rebecca laughed. “You also have a one-tracked mind.”
Amanda tapped impatiently on Rebecca's thigh.
“Okay, okay. I realized that while I don't want children of my own, I love being around them. While I know I don't have the business sense or the money to start my own daycare, I'd love to work in one. Maybe teach the little ones things they need to know before they start school.”
“What a wonderful idea! You're a natural teacher. Have you ever thought of going to college to get your teaching certificate?”
Rebecca shook her head. “I didn't make very good grades in school. And I couldn't afford to go, even if I wanted to.” She laughed. “Trust me, I hated school almost as much as I love horses. It drove both my parents crazy for me to refuse college after I graduated.”
“Not everyone needs college to be successful. You should do what you feel is best.”
“Thanks. Would you mind talking to my father? He still bitches at me, all these years later.” Rebecca blew her nose and wadded the tissue. “But in all seriousness, I would even take a few child education classes if I had to.”
Amanda gave her a hug. “If there's anything we can do to help, let us know. I think you'll be great. Now, do you want to run over to Martha's with me? She's got a couple of pies that are due to come out of the oven anytime.”
“You are such a bad influence on me, Amanda Walters.” Rebecca stood and picked up Eddie. “Lead the way.”
Shelby stopped the truck and pointed to the west. “Is that what y'all were talkin' about, Lex?”
“Yep. See how those damned vines totally cover that part of the fence? We've tried just about everything. It'll die off for a while, then come back again with a vengeance.”
“Damn. And it's so heavy it breaks the posts?”
Lex nodded. “For some reason, the guys have to be told to check this fence at least once a month, especially in the spring.” She rubbed her chest and frowned.
“Pretty much.” Lex checked her watch. “It's close to lunchtime. Why don't we head back to the house? I promised Amanda to take it easy today.”
“Sure.” Shelby turned the truck around and started down the dirt road. “You and Amanda have been together for quite a while, haven't you?”
“Yep. Close to thirteen years.” Lex turned to her. “And she's everything to me. Why?”
Shelby tapped her thumbs on the steering wheel. “Well, I know she took your name. And y'all had a ceremony—”
“Have you ever thought about going someplace and doing it, legal-like? You know, get a license and all?”
Lex thought about the question for a moment. “Nah. I don't need a damned piece of paper to tell me what's already in my heart.” She shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe someday we can do it in Somerville .”
Shelby laughed. “Oh, yeah. I can see that happenin'. Probably ‘bout the same time it snows in July around here.”
“Stranger things have happened. So, you and Rebecca ever going to have a ceremony, or anything?”
The truck lurched to one side. “What?”
“You heard me.” Lex laughed at her panicked look. “It's not that bad, Shelby . Hell, y'all have been together for a few years, right?”
“So? Why not take that extra step? Show her what she means to you.” Lex paused. “Um, unless you don't think—”
“No, you're right. I'd love to do that,” Shelby admitted. “But her family barely tolerates me now. I don't even want to think about how they'd act if I asked her to marry me.” She frowned. “Her brother still threatens to hire someone to get rid of me, just about every time I see the little piss ant. And her folks are nice enough, but I know they still give her grief about us.”
Lex tipped her hat back and sighed. “That sucks. I guess family gatherings are uncomfortable, huh?”
“Oh, yeah. We don't even sit next to each other anymore. Her brother would get his knickers in a bunch and start making a scene, and all it did was cause trouble.”
“Damn.” Lex could see that Shelby was upset by the conversation. “Well, if you ever want to have a ceremony, you're welcome to do it here at the ranch. I can take the little brother out behind the barn and teach him some manners.”
“I'd pay good money to see that.” Shelby parked the truck by the barn and turned off the motor. “Thanks, Lex. I may take you up on your offer, someday.”
Lex got out of the truck and walked to Shelby 's side. “Anytime, my friend. Now, let's go see what Martha has for lunch. I bet you five bucks that Amanda and Rebecca are already over there.”
“What makes you say that?” Shelby asked, as they headed toward Martha's.
“Pecan pie. Martha was gonna make a couple of them today, and they're Amanda's favorites.”
Shelby laughed. “Martha might end up being a referee, then. ‘Cause Rebecca loves ‘em, too.”
“We'd better hurry, then, before they're all gone.” Lex sped up her pace, laughing along with Shelby .
Before they made the steps to the porch, Martha opened the front door. “What on earth are you two up to?”
Lex walked by her and swatted her on the rear. “Not a damned thing,” she teased.
“ Lexington Marie!” Martha squawked. “I'm gonna tan your hide with a spoon,” she threatened.
Shelby paused and removed her hat. “Afternoon, Martha.”
Martha sighed and shook her head. “Good afternoon, Shelby . I hope you kept Lexie out of trouble today.”
“I did my best, ma'am.” Shelby held the door for Martha before following her inside. “It's a tough job, though.”
Lex ignored them and headed for the kitchen. She found Amanda and Rebecca at the table, talking quietly. “Hey. I hope y'all saved some pie for us.”
Rebecca looked up and saw Shelby standing behind Lex. Her eyes filled with tears and she popped up from her chair. “ Shelby !” She rushed across the room and fell into her lover's arms. “I'm so sorry.”
“Um, darlin'?” Shelby automatically embraced her and looked to Amanda for clues to Rebecca's behavior. “What's wrong?”
Amanda stood and put her arm around Lex's waist. “You look worn out.”
“Nah. I'm fine. Ow!” Lex rubbed her ribs where Amanda poked her. “Bully.”
“Have a seat at the table, and I'll get you something to eat. Then we're going home so you can get a nap in before the girls get home.”
Martha pushed Lex into a chair. “ Shelby , why don't you and Rebecca go into the living room? Since Charlie and Eddie are napping in the bedroom, you should have plenty of privacy.”
“I appreciate that. Thank you.” Shelby turned to lead Rebecca away. “C'mon, darlin'.”
Lex turned to Amanda. “What was that all about?”
“Rebecca lost her job. Carson 's business is so slow right now that they had to cut everyone's hours.”
“Damn. That's rotten.” Lex brightened when Martha placed a piece of pecan pie and a cup of coffee in front of her. “Thanks.”
Martha patted her shoulder. “You're too blasted skinny, girl. And pale, too.”
“It's winter. I'm always pale this time of year.”
Amanda choked on the sip of iced tea she had taken. “Martha, how have you let her live this long?”
The older woman handed her a napkin. “It hasn't been easy.” She pointed a finger at Lex, who appeared to be considering a snarky retort. “Not one word, Lexie.”
Lex grinned and stuck a forkful of pie into her mouth.
Shelby led Rebecca to the sofa and sat beside her. She kept a grip on her lover's hand. “Okay, darlin'. What's got you so upset?”
“I feel so stupid,” Rebecca sniffled, as she wiped her eyes with a crumpled tissue. “I mean, I know it's not the end of the world, and I'm sure I can do something about it soon, but—”
“Slow down. You're not makin' a whole lotta sense.”
Rebecca took a deep breath and looked into Shelby 's eyes. “I think I've really screwed up.”
“You ain't pregnant, are ya?” Shelby asked with a chuckle. When she didn't get an answer, her eyes grew bigger. “No.”
“No! Of course not!”
Shelby blew out her breath. “All right, good. I didn't think so. We haven't really ever discussed it, and I know you like Lex and Amanda's kids.”
“I lost my job,” Rebecca whispered.
“What? How did that happen? I thought being a manager was more or less a secure spot.”
Rebecca shook her head and squeezed Shelby 's hand. “Mr. Carson called me this morning and said he was going to cut everyone's hours. Even Regina 's.”
“That's a hell of a lot different that firing someone.”
“Mr. Carson didn't fire me. I quit.”
Shelby pulled her hand away and stood. She tucked her hands in the back pockets of her jeans and walked to the fireplace. “You quit your job?”
“I thought it was the best thing to do.” Rebecca got off the couch and stood behind her lover. “Could you turn around, please?”
Lowering her head, Shelby slowly turned. She closed her eyes and stayed silent, with her clinched fists by her sides.
“ Shelby , I know I should have probably at least talked to you before I—”
In a low voice, Shelby cut her off. “Remember when I thought about going back on the circuit?”
“Of course. But—”
“And do you remember that big fight we had?” Shelby opened her eyes and stared into Rebecca's. “All because you told me we were partners, and partners discussed things before any big decisions were made.”
“I know. And I remember how mad you got, because you said that you were a grown woman, and could make up your own mind.”
Shelby opened and closed her hands several times in an effort to calm down. She kept her voice soft. “You read me the fucking riot act for even thinking about going back to the rodeo. But you can quit your damned job without even mentioning it to me?”
“ Shelby , wait. It's not like that.”
“Six years, Rebecca. Don't you think I deserved a little consideration after six years together?” Shelby held up her hands and backed away. “I need to take a walk before I say something I shouldn't.” She left the living room, closing the front door quietly behind her.
Two days later, Lex looked out the kitchen window and saw Shelby go into the horse barn. She placed her coffee mug in the sink and turned to her wife, who was feeding Eddie his lunch. “I'm going to the barn.”
“Hossie!” Eddie kicked his feet and grinned. “Hossie!”
Amanda wiped his face. “We'll go see the hossie's later,” she promised. To Lex she asked, “What's wrong?”
“ Shelby ,” was all that Lex had to say.
“Honey, maybe we should stay out of it.”
Lex ignored her and stepped into the hall to get her hat. “I won't be long.”
“Momma, hossie!” Eddie pounded his fists on his high chair tray. “Momma.”
Amanda grinned as Lex returned to the kitchen. “You're the one who started taking him to the barn with you.”
“I know. But I really want to check on Shelby .” Lex kissed them each on the head. “Be good for your mommy, and we'll see the hossie's later,” she promised Eddie.
“Momma.” He reached for her, fingers covered with spaghetti sauce.
Amanda caught him before he could grab Lex. “Are you sure you want to get in the middle of this?”
“We're already in the middle,” Lex reminded her. “Or don't you remember Martha's house guest for the last couple of days?” After Shelby left Martha's, Rebecca had become inconsolable. Only Martha's gentle mothering and room offer could calm her down. “And no offense to Rebecca, but I can only handle a woman crying her eyes out for so long, before I feel the need to step in.”
“She's not crying her eyes out,” Amanda argued. “She's just upset. Wouldn't you be, if I walked out on you?”
Lex grinned. “I'd follow you, sweetheart. Then we'd probably get into a discussion in the yard, and Martha would have to hose us down.”
“Sounds about right.” Amanda stood and kissed Lex on the cheek. “Don't be out too long, okay? The wind is still chilly.”
“Yes, ma'am.” Lex tipped her hat, causing Eddie to giggle and clap. “Be good.”
“Good,” Eddie agreed, using his fingers to wipe up the spaghetti sauce. He stuck them in his mouth. “Mmm.”
Lex laughed and waved before she stepped out onto the back porch. A gust of wind ruffled her long-sleeved, denim shirt. “Why is she always right?” she grumbled while she walked through the yard.
As she approached the barn, she could hear Shelby inside. Lex slowly opened the door.
“Damned mess, I tell ya,” Shelby griped, as she cleared out a stall. “Was I askin' too much? Hell, no. Sometimes she still acts like a damned kid.” She shoveled out more dirty straw.
Lex leaned against the opposite stall. “You're both acting like kids, if you ask me.”
Shelby dropped the shovel and yelped. “You scared the shit out of me!”
“Better clean it up, then,” Lex deadpanned.
“Funny.” Shelby stepped out of the stall. “Amanda let you off your leash?”
The smile left Lex's face. She pushed away from the stall and got in Shelby 's face. “Let me make something perfectly clear.” Her voice lowered as she leaned over the smaller woman. “You can yell at me, tease me even cuss me out. But don't ever say anything about my wife, you got me?”
“Yeah, I got ya.” Shelby picked up her shovel and started back into the stall. “You come in here to bust my balls?”
“Nope.” Lex relaxed against the stall gate. “I came in here to see how you were doing.”
Shelby stopped her shovel. “You think I can't do this job?”
“What?” Lex fought the urge to shake her. “I'm talking about how you're doing since Rebecca's been at Martha's, you pig-headed idiot.”
“Oh.” Leaning on her shovel, Shelby scratched beneath the band on her hat. “I'm okay.”
Lex snorted. “Right.”
“Hey, I am. I can do just fine until she comes to her senses.”
Shelby glared at her. “Yeah, really. I took care of myself for a lot of years before she came along, you know.”
“Did you wear your shirts inside out very often?” Lex asked as she tried to keep from laughing.
“What?” Shelby looked down at the gray shirt she wore. “Hell, no wonder I couldn't get the damned thing buttoned right.” She peeled off her shirt, just as the barn door opened.
“Lex, Martha asked me to—” Rebecca paused when she saw her partner standing in the stall, clad only in her sports bra. “What's going on in here?”
Shelby hurriedly put her shirt back on, correctly this time. “Not what you're probably thinkin', that's for damned sure.”
“I believe my wife is calling me.” Lex tipped her head to Rebecca as she left the barn.
Rebecca stared at her lover until Shelby couldn't stand it anymore. “What?”
“I've missed you,” Rebecca admitted softly.
Shelby noticed the tears in her eyes and moved quickly across the barn. She stopped in front of Rebecca. “You've ignored my calls.”
“What? No, I haven't. My phone's been silent for two days,” Rebecca countered petulantly. She crossed her arms over her chest. “I've kept it with me this entire time.”
“Where is it?”
Rebecca dug it out of her back pocket. “Right here. See?” When Shelby held out her hand, she passed the phone to her.
“Rebecca,” Shelby asked gently, looking at the display, “when was the last time you charged your phone?”
“Just the other—” Rebecca stopped. “It's dead, isn't it?”
“Yeah.” Shelby tucked it into her jeans. “I'm sorry, darlin'. I shouldn't have gone off on you like that.”
Rebecca frowned. “Did Lex tell you to say that?”
“No, she did not.” Shelby removed her work gloves and tossed them on the floor. “I know the wonderful Lex Walters is fuckin' perfect, but I can make up my own mind on things without her help!”
“Hey, no. I didn't mean it like that.” Rebecca held out her hands and smiled when Shelby accepted them. “And I don't think she's perfect.”
Shelby snorted. “Yeah, right.”
“She's too tall, for starters,” Rebecca teased. “I'd get a crick in my neck if I had to be around her all the time. I feel sorry for Amanda.” She pulled Shelby closer.
Rebecca let go of Shelby 's hands so she could grab her hips. “And her eyes? They're so dark blue you can't tell what she's thinking. Spooky. I like my women more my height, with simmering brown eyes.”
Shelby laughed at that. “Simmering? Have you been reading your mother's books again?”
“Good god, no.” Rebecca ran her hands up Shelby 's sides until they were locked behind her neck. “Are we okay?”
“Yeah, we're good.” Shelby closed the distance between them and kissed her. “Wanna go check out the hay barn?”
Rebecca giggled. “Sure, as long as you don't think your boss will catch us.”
“Nah. I have a feelin' we won't be seeing her for a while.” Shelby took her hand and led her through the back door of the barn.
Lex hung her hat by the back door and peeked into the kitchen. It was empty, so she stood quietly for a moment and listened. A thump from upstairs told her where her wife and son were, so she grinned and followed the sounds.
She found them in the master bathroom, both soaking in a tub full of bubbles. “Well, what do we have here?”
Amanda laughed as Eddie squealed and splashed. “I gave up trying to get us both clean with a washcloth.”
“I see.” Lex rested against the sink and smiled fondly. “I guess that explains the spaghetti in your hair, then.”
“What?” Amanda reached for her head until Lex started laughing. “You are such a brat.”
“Bwat,” Eddie parroted.
Lex laughed and moved to kneel beside the tub. “You think so, little guy?” She flinched as she was splashed. “Oh, yeah?” with just her fingers, she splashed him back, causing a fit of giggles from the toddler.
“You proved my point.” Amanda leaned back and relaxed while Lex bathed Eddie. “How did things go in the barn?”
“Before or after I threatened to kick her ass?” Lex asked quietly. “Good grief, Eddie. How did you get sauce on the back of your neck?” Her sneaky grin was hidden from Amanda. “Or maybe after Rebecca came in and saw Shelby topless?”
Eddie fought the washcloth. “No!”
“You did what?” Amanda grabbed Lex's hand. “ Shelby was topless?”
“Well, yeah. That's what usually happens when someone takes off their shirt.” Amanda's splash hit Lex in the face. “Thanks.”
Amanda laughed. “Serves you right. Would you mind taking him? He's getting pruny.” She wiped the water from Lex face. “And don't think this gets you out of explaining yourself.”
“Yes, dear.” Lex lifted Eddie and wrapped him in a towel. “Let's get a diaper on you before you give me another surprise.”
Lex held him close and kissed his forehead. “Yes, sir. Right away, sir.”
“I'll be out in a minute,” Amanda called after them.
“Take your time,” Lex answered as she carried him through their room and across the hall. “It's more fun to make your mommy squirm, right?”
“Mommy,” he sang, rocking in her arms. He laughed when he was put on the dressing table. “Ha! Momma, go!”
Rolling her eyes, Lex quickly diapered him and dressed him in a white shirt and green overalls. “I need to talk to your Aunt Jeannie about color choices, don't I?”
“Pbbbbsstt. Go, Momma.”
“Almost done.” The socks she added wouldn't last long, but Lex knew better than to not put them on him. “All right, buddy. Ready to check on Mommy?”
“I thought so.”
When they entered the bedroom, they met Amanda, clad only in a towel. Lex grinned and playfully covered Eddie's eyes. “Howdy.”
Amanda allowed the towel to drop to the floor. “Howdy? That's the best you can do?”
“If we didn't have little eyes and ears nearby, I'd do a heck of a lot better,” Lex promised. She let Eddie down carefully, unsurprised when he headed directly for Amanda.
“Mommy,” he cried, wrapping his arms around her bare leg. “Uck!” He patted her damp skin.
Lex took mercy on her and carried him to the bed and stretched out beside him. “How about you help me take a nap?”
Soon Amanda was dressed and on the other side of Eddie. “Okay, I think I've been pretty patient with you, Lexington .”
“You usually are,” Lex agreed, being purposely dense.
Laughing, Lex rolled onto her side and faced Amanda. “What do you want to know?”
Amanda mirrored her posture and lightly rubbed Eddie's stomach, causing his eyes to close. “You said you and Shelby got into a fight?”
“No, not exactly a fight. She just said something that pis, ah, made me mad.” Lex lowered her voice when she realized their son was lightly dozing. “But everything's okay now.”
“How did she lose her shirt?”
Lex kept her face neutral. “She took it off.”
Amanda looked toward the ceiling and growled. “And why did she take it off?”
“Cause it was inside out.”
Carefully reaching across Eddie, Amanda grabbed her wife's ear. “Spill it, woman.”
“Ow. Okay, okay.” Once her ear was released, Lex continued. “She told me she could take care of herself just fine, and I asked if she was used to wearing her shirt wrong.” She tapped Amanda on the nose. “That's why she took her shirt off. Unfortunately, Rebecca came in right after that.”
Lex nodded. “Yeah, oops. I'm just glad there wasn't a pitchfork nearby, or I might have gotten my butt kicked.”
Amanda giggled. “I would have loved to have seen your face.”
“I'm sure it was hilarious,” Lex agreed dryly. “Anyway, when I left, they were at least speaking to each other.”
“You're such a chicken!”
“No, I'm not.”
Amanda laughed at her. “Yes, you are.” She lifted herself over Eddie and kissed Lex. “But that's okay. You're my chicken.”
“Geez.” Lex rolled off the bed and picked up Eddie. “Just for that, he's going to nap in his room, so we can nap in here.”
Amanda closed the door to her SUV and watched the girls race for the back door. She gave up a long time ago asking them not to run. Instead, she followed at a more sedate pace. She heard Freckles' welcoming bark before the door closed behind her children. As she reached the porch, she met Rebecca and Shelby coming up the walk. “Hi.”
Rebecca released Shelby 's hand and embraced Amanda. “Thanks for everything,” she whispered in her ear. She stepped back and added, “Do your girls ever slow down?”
“Not often. Lorrie promised to show Mel something on the computer, so I'm sure they're already upstairs in her room.” Amanda smiled at Shelby . “How are you doing?”
“A lot better, thanks.” Shelby put her arm around Rebecca. “Sorry for any problems I might have caused.”
Holding the door open, Amanda gestured for them to precede her. “As long as you two are okay, we're okay.” She stepped into the kitchen, surprised to see Lex at the table alone. “Where's Eddie?”
Lex looked up from the newspaper. “Isn't he with you?”
Amanda dropped her keys on the table. “No. He was here playing with his truck, when I left.”
“Are you sure?” Lex folded the newspaper and set it on the table. “I don't remember that.” Before her wife could totally fall apart, she tugged her onto her lap. “Calm down, sweetheart. I was just messing with you. Charlie showed up right after you left and stole him.” She grunted as she was elbowed in the stomach. “Ow.”
“I swear, one of these days,” Amanda didn't finish, since both Shelby and Rebecca were standing in the doorway, laughing. “Come in and make yourself comfortable.”
Rebecca sat across from them, but her partner remained standing. Shelby had removed her hat and held it in her hands. “Lex, can I have a word with you?” She tipped her head toward the door. “Outside?”
“Sure.” Once Amanda was in her own chair, Lex stood. “This gonna take long?”
Shelby shrugged. “Most likely not.” She led the way out of the kitchen.
Once they left, Amanda asked Rebecca, “What's going on?”
“Did Lex tell you what happened today?”
“Yes. She told me that Shelby had said something to make her mad, but they worked it out.” Amanda frowned. “Why? Is Shelby still angry?” She started out of her chair, but Rebecca stopped her. “If she asked her outside so they could fight, I'll—”
“No, I don't think so. Shelby 's not a fighter. Although I know she'll probably think twice before making Lex mad, again.” Rebecca released her grip on Amanda's arm. “She's a lot of things, but stupid isn't one of them. Lex could probably take her out with one swing.”
Amanda shook her head. “Lex has mellowed a lot over the years. But she's just now getting over that bout of pneumonia and isn't at full strength. Maybe I should go out there and make sure they're okay.”
“We could always peek out the window,” Rebecca countered.
Lex followed Shelby to the swing set and leaned against the slide. “I think we're far enough from the house. What's up?”
“You know, I didn't much appreciate the way you talked to me in the barn today.” Shelby kicked a pebble away from the swing. “And I sure as hell didn't like how you threatened me.”
“Yeah?” Lex put her hands in the front pockets of her jeans. “Trust me, it wasn't a threat.”
Shelby stared at her for a moment then burst into laughter. “You're a tough son-of-a-bitch, you know that?”
Lex grinned. “So I've been told. Look, you hit a nerve when you mentioned Amanda. I probably shouldn't have snapped like that.”
“No, I don't blame you a bit.” Shelby walked forward and held out her hand. “I was an asshole. It's a bad habit I have. Truce?”
“Hell, so do I.” Lex shook her head and slapped her on the back. “Truce. Now let's get back in the house so our partners can step away from the window.”
Shelby laughed. “Nosey, ain't they?”
“Yep.” Lex walked beside her toward the house. “We could always get into a wrestling match to freak them out.”
“Damn, you're evil,” Shelby chuckled. “I like that.”
To be continued in Part Six
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