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, wooden table was covered with several days' worth of newspapers. Rebecca circled another add with her marker and wrote the information on the notepad beside her coffee cup. She had job hunted for two weeks with little luck. Since her only experiences were retail and horses, it was hard to get into any other field.
Shelby came into the kitchen, her dark hair wet and combed against her skull. She passed Rebecca and poured herself a travel mug of coffee. “Mornin', darlin'.”
“Good morning.” Rebecca pushed the newspaper aside.
“Still can't find anything?” Shelby asked as she sat at the table.
Rebecca shook her head. “Most of the jobs out there want experience, and I can't get the experience without the job. It's driving me nuts.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. When I'd be healin' up from the rodeo, I'd try to find a job until I could go back. Not a whole lotta stuff out there for someone like me.”
“At least you have a good job, now.” Rebecca moved away from the table and opened the refrigerator. “Do you want me to fix you some breakfast?”
“Nah. I'm sure either Martha or Helen will have something ready.” Shelby cringed when her lover slammed the door closed. “Is that call from your Dad last night still botherin' you?”
Rebecca spun around and leaned against the counter, crossing her arms under her chest. “He practically called me lazy! Then he ranted about me not going to college, and how he was sure I'd be over this ‘fling' by now.” She just barely restrained from stomping her foot. “I told him that after all this time, he needed to get over it. I'm in this relationship with you for as long as you'll have me.” Looking at the floor, she added, “I thought I was doing the right thing by giving my hours to someone who needed them more.”
“Well, things are a mite rough everywhere, right now. He's just worried about you.” Shelby stood and stretched. “We'll get through this.” She moved closer to Rebecca and put her hands on the younger woman's hips. “Besides, I kinda like being the major breadwinner right now. It's my turn to take care of you.”
Resting her forehead on Shelby 's shoulder, Rebecca sighed. “I don't want to be taken care of. I like being equal partners.” She put her arms around Shelby 's neck. “I love you.”
“Love you, too,” Shelby whispered. “It's gonna be all right.”
Lex stepped out of the barn and blinked to adjust her eyes to the mid-morning sun. Not far from the house, one of the doors to the garage was open. “Which one of those dumbasses forgot to close it, this time?” she grumbled.
As she neared the open door, she realized the interior light was on as well. “Damn it. Those idiots need to be more careful.” Lex stood inside the doorway of the garage and glanced around, seeing the protective cover missing from Amanda's Mustang. The sixty-seven, powder blue car had been a gift from Amanda's grandfather, and was rarely driven. “What the hell?” Moving closer, Lex saw a familiar form slumped over the steering wheel. “Amanda?” She half stumbled, half ran the rest of the way to the car, to squat beside the open driver's door. “Hey.”
Amanda raised her head and looked mournfully into her wife's face. Her eyes were puffy and red and she had tear tracks down her cheeks.
“Aw, sweetheart. Come here.” Lex pulled Amanda from the seat and onto one her knee. “I'm so sorry.”
“He loved this old car,” Amanda whispered.
Lex kissed her hair as she continued to stroke Amanda's back. “He loved how much you loved this old car,” she corrected gently.
“I think you're right,” Amanda sniffled. She rested her cheek against Lex's chest. “I just can't seem to get over him being gone. I think I'm doing fine, then something just hits me and I realize I'll never see him again.”
“Yeah. I find myself picking up the phone to call and tell him a joke,” Lex added. “He always loved the ones I'd get from the guys at the bunkhouse.”
Amanda brushed her hand over Lex's smooth, cotton shirt. “Then Gramma would catch him relaying it to a friend and chew him out. He enjoyed that most of all, I think.”
Lex softly laughed. “Good thing I'd only pass along the clean ones then, huh?”
“Definitely. I think they both loved the game. God, I don't know how she's survived this. But when I call her, she tells me she's fine. And I know she's lying, but we both pretend it's okay.”
“I try to stop by any time I'm in town. But she runs me off pretty quick.” Lex shook her head and blew out a heavy breath. “Maybe we should see about getting her out here, at least for a while. I worry about her in that old house, all alone.”
“Good luck,” Amanda muttered. “She wouldn't even let me bring the subject up. Stubborn woman.”
Nodding, Lex whispered, “Family trait.” She didn't get the expected poke or slap, though. “Sweetheart, I think we're going to have to realize that she's a grown woman who knows what she wants, and she's not about to take any crap from us about it.”
“I know. But it's so damned frustrating.” When her seat wavered, Amanda realized the strain Lex was under. “I must be killing you.” She climbed off and helped Lex to her feet. “Thanks.”
“I'm glad I found you. I sure don't want you going through this alone.” Lex put her arm around Amanda's waist. “What caused you to come in here?”
Leaning against Lex, Amanda put both arms around her. “I don't know. After I saw the girls off on the bus, I just needed to feel closer to him.” She shook her head. “I sound like an idiot, don't I?”
“Not a bit. You both put a lot into this old car, it's only natural you'd feel closer here.”
They spent a few minutes staring into each other's eyes, Amanda easily getting lost in the love shining back at her. “You have very expressive eyes.”
“Yeah?” Lex grinned to lighten the mood. “Know what they're saying right now?”
Amanda smiled as well. “I have a pretty good idea.” She kissed Lex's chin and squeezed her. “And for the record, I agree. I think a nap is exactly what we need.”
Lex gave her the lead as they left the garage. “I was actually thinking more of a morning ride.”
“Uh huh. What I think is that we can't be too careful with your health.”
“Really?” In one quick motion, Lex kept one arm around Amanda's shoulders and the other behind her knees to scoop her off her feet.
“Lex! Stop it!” Amanda squealed. “You're going to hurt yourself.”
“Open the gate,” Lex gently commanded.
Doing as she was asked, Amanda then put her arms around Lex's neck. “You're not planning on carrying me all the way upstairs, are you?”
“Nah.” Lex slowly navigated the sidewalk and steps. “Door, please.”
“Yes, dear.” Amanda pushed the door open. “Who did you pawn our son off on, today?”
Lex snorted. “I did no such thing. Helen needed a babysitter for Roy, and who better than a real baby?” She started breathing heavy before they reached the stairway. “I think this is the end of the ride, ma'am.”
Amanda landed nimbly on her feet. “Are you all right?”
“Yep.” Lex inhaled then slowly released the breath. “See? No cough.” She leaned closer and kissed Amanda. “Wanna race upstairs?”
“Nope.” Amanda loosely put her arms around Lex's waist. “Thanks for coming to get me, love. Sometimes I get so bogged down in everything, I forget what's really important.”
Lex cupped her cheeks and stared into her eyes. “You're the most important thing in the world to me, Amanda. I hope you realize that.”
“I do, honey. It goes both ways, you know.”
“Yep.” After a soft kiss, she ran her fingers through Amanda's hair. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.” Amanda smiled, feeling her heart lighten. “Come on. Naptime for cowgirls.”
The mid-afternoon traffic made downtown parking difficult, but not impossible. Rebecca found a space less than a block from the diner. She checked her hair in the rear view mirror before getting out.
As she walked toward her destination, she brushed her hands down her pressed, denim skirt. Along with the silk blouse she had borrowed from her mother, she felt completely overdressed and uncomfortable. She couldn't wait to get back to her parent's house and change into her jeans.
When she reached the entrance of the diner, an elderly man held the door open for her as he was leaving. He tipped his gray western hat, dusty and stained with age. “Thank you.”
“Miss,” he acknowledged, shuffling away.
Rebecca stood inside the door and took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. It was well-after lunch, yet there were still several booths and counter stools in use.
“Well, don't just stand there, honey. Come on in,” a buxomed blonde chided from behind the counter. Her platinum hair was too bright to be natural, and her lined face covered in makeup didn't hide her age.
“Um, thanks.” Rebecca took the nearest stool. “I saw your ad in the paper and would like to apply for the part-time waitress job.”
The nametag on the blonde's chest was faded and chipped. Francine stopped in front of Rebecca and scratched her head with the eraser of her pencil. “Why would you want to do that, hon? This old place ain't for someone as young and pretty as you.”
“I need a job,” Rebecca whispered. She shifted on the stool and leaned closer to Francine. “Please. I'll do whatever you need. Wash dishes, mop, anything.”
Francine glanced toward the window to the kitchen to make sure they wouldn't be overheard. “Trust me, you don't want to work here. The money's shit, the hours are worse and the boss,” she gestured over her shoulder, “is a sorry bastard.” She took a coffee cup from beneath the counter and placed it in front of Rebecca. “You ever done this before?”
Rebecca shook her head. “But I'm a fast learner.”
“Your husband leave you?”
“Hardly,” Rebecca snorted. “I worked at Carson 's, but business was slow.” She wrapped both hands around the empty mug. “I really need the work.”
Francine cocked her head and nodded. “I understand, sugar. But you won't get much here, I'm afraid. Rusty just wants some young thing with a nice ass and tits. Not that yours aren't nice, ‘cause they are. But you can do better.”
Rebecca blushed and barely kept from covering her chest with her hands. “Um, I don't…I mean—”
“Oh, hon. You're too cute,” Francine teased after she stopped laughing. “ Carson 's?”
“Yes.” Rebecca kept her eyes on the coffee cup. “I was an assistant manager, up until recently.”
The middle-aged man at the other end of the counter tapped his empty cup on the counter. “Francine, I could use a refill,” he hollered.
“Hold your horses. Why don't you go get rid of the first four cups, Earl? I'll be there in a sec.” Francine turned to Rebecca. “I've heard they need some counter help at the feed store. Don't you think that might be a bit more your speed, sweetie?”
“Really?” Rebecca placed her purse on her lap and opened it. “Let me pay for the coffee, then I'll go by and see.”
Francine covered her hand. “No need. You just tell ‘em Francine sent you, all right? And if that don't pan out, I think the Rocking W may be looking for help.”
“My partner already works there,” Rebecca answered then blushed. “Uh.”
With a saucy wink, Francine laughed. “Well, next time you see Lex, you tell her Francine said hello. Go on, now.” She turned away and took the glass coffee pot off its burner.
The blooming trees along the residential street dropped their green buds on Michael's windshield, leaving behind a powdery yellow mess. He grumbled and used his wipers to clear the debris away, only to be hit again as the brisk March breeze knocked more free. He was on his way to his mother's before work. A daily ritual since his father passed away, he would often try to discuss her bills or expenses, although Anna Leigh didn't always seem to appreciate his input.
He frowned as he pulled into her driveway. Jeannie's SUV was taking up two spaces, and he had to park behind a rusty, beat-up truck that he'd never seen before. He slammed his car door and stomped up the walk.
As he ascended the steps to the porch, the front door opened. Two people carried a large, oak dresser. “What's going on here?”
The person closest to Michael backed into him. The man stopped and was shoved when his partner kept moving. “Hey, watch it.”
“Oh, hey, Mr. Cauble,” Kyle greeted as she peered over the furniture. “Could we squeeze by you? This thing is heavy.”
He stepped off the porch and stared at them as they carried the piece to the truck.
“Michael, hello,” Anna Leigh called from the door. “I'll put more coffee on.”
“What are they doing?” he asked as he followed her inside.
Anna Leigh continued to the kitchen as if she hadn't heard his question. “I believe there's enough coffee left for one more cup, but I can always start another pot.”
“Don't bother, Mom.” Michael stood beside the table with one hand on the back of a chair. “I've got an early appointment this morning, anyway. Where are they taking the dresser?”
“To the VFW pavilion.” She turned from the coffee pot and brushed her hair away from her eyes. She hadn't been to her hairdresser since before her husband died, and her usually short style had grown out. There were more lines in her face than before, and dark shadows beneath her eyes that not even a week's sleep could erase.
He heard a thump from upstairs. “What's going on?”
“The high school needs new band uniforms, and they're having their annual rummage sale this weekend. Jacob always donated a few pieces for them.” Another thump caused Anna Leigh to look up at the ceiling before taking a seat at the table. “Jeannie is cleaning out two of the rooms for me.”
Michael shook his head as if to clear it. “Excuse me? Why is this the first I've heard about this? And just how much stuff are you giving to them?”
“I don't care for your tone, Michael. Please sit so we can discuss this rationally.”
He angrily shoved the chair away from the table. It tipped over and landed on the tile floor with a loud crack. “My tone? I've done everything I could for you since Dad passed away!”
“Um, excuse me. Is everything all right?” Kyle stood in the doorway, her friend right behind her.
Anna Leigh nodded. “We're fine. Michael was just leaving.”
“We'll get the bed from the back bedroom, if that's okay.” Kyle waited for the older woman's nod, before giving Michael a pointed look. “If you need anything else, just holler.”
“Thank you, Kylie.”
Once they were alone, Michael picked up the chair and resettled it. “I'm sorry, Mom. I just want to help you.”
“Yes, but taking over my life is not helpful. I'm fully capable of making my own decisions.” She rested one hand over the other on the table and stared at them. “And one of those decisions has to do with this house. I can't stay here any longer.”
Michael dropped into the chair he had righted. “You're selling it?”
“No, dearest. I'd like to give it to Jeannie and Rodney.”
“I see.” He rubbed his face and stood. “If you're sure about this, I'd better let Lois know. We'll need to clean out and paint the guest room, maybe install a new sink in the hall bath.”
It took a moment, but Anna Leigh finally understood. “I'm not moving in with you and Lois, Michael.”
“Of course you are. Where else would you go? To the ranch? Nothing against Lex and Amanda, but you'd never get any peace if you stayed there. No, our place is perfect.”
Anna Leigh had heard enough. She slapped the table with the flat of one hand. “I've made my plans, Michael. And that does not include becoming a burden to my family.”
“A burden? What are you talking about?” He sat next to her and put his hands over hers. “Mom, please. You've obviously distraught. Now isn't the time to be making these sorts of decisions. It's only been three months.”
“I know exactly how long it's been.” She gentled her tone. “Darling, you must understand. I'm not feeble, nor overwrought. But this house is far too big for me to stay in alone.”
“But, where will you go?”
She patted his hands before sitting back. “I've found a lovely little duplex not far from here. It's perfect for my needs and has recently been renovated.”
“All right. Then I'll,” Michael was stopped by her steely glare. “Uh, is there anything I can do to help, Mom?”
“Not yet. But thank you.” Anna Leigh graced him with a real smile for the first time in months.
The ringing phone brought Amanda out of her pleasant dream and she fought her way out from beneath the covers. She glanced at the clock, relieved she still had over an hour before the school bus dropped off the girls. As she stretched across Lex, her lover opened her eyes.
“Hey,” Lex rasped, her arms automatically circling Amanda. “Aren't you tired?” The phone rang again. “Oh.” She laughed and quickly kissed her wife and reached for the phone. “I'll get it. Walters speaking.”
“Lex? This is Michael. Is Amanda nearby?”
Lex sat up and grinned at her equally naked partner. “Uh, yeah. She's right here. Hold on.” She handed the phone to Amanda. “Your dad,” she whispered.
Amanda covered herself with the sheet and accepted the handset. “Hi, Daddy.”
“You need to talk to your grandmother,” he ground out. “The more I think about it, the madder I get.”
“Gramma? What do you mean? I talked to her yesterday. She seemed okay to me.” Amanda met Lex's questioning look with a shrug. “Is she all right?”
“I think she's finally lost her senses,” he snapped. “Did you know she wants to move?”
Amanda dropped the sheet and slid out of bed. “What? Since when?” she held the phone to her ear with one shoulder as she reached for her robe.
Lex gave a low whistled as Amanda bent to pick up her robe from the floor. She waggled her eyebrows at the look she received, then sighed as Amanda covered up.
“How the hell should I know? I went over this morning, like I always do, and she was donating furniture to some rummage sale. Furniture that my father spent a lot of time building. Can you believe that?”
“Daddy, they've always,” Amanda trailed off as Lex got out of bed and stretched. She covered the mouthpiece of the phone. “Stop that!”
Lex gave an exaggerated yawn and stretched again. She staggered backward as a pillow hit her in the chest. “Brat.”
“Are you listening to me?” Michael asked.
“What? Oh, um, yeah. Sorry.” Amanda shook her finger at Lex, who waved and disappeared into the bathroom. She replayed the conversation in her mind. “Wait. Gramma actually told you she wants to move?”
Michael sighed. “She's already got a place picked out, and said she's going to give the house to your sister. Haven't you been paying attention?”
“I'm sorry. But when did she decide this?”
“This morning was the first I heard of it. And I'm the one that's been taking care of everything. She didn't even bother to consult me first.”
Amanda rolled her eyes. “Okay. I'll give her a call and see what's going on. But if she's made up her mind, there's not much anyone can do about it. And I can't say that I blame her. That house is far too big for her to stay in alone.” At the sound of the shower starting, she removed her robe. “I have to go, Daddy. Lex is,” she blushed. “Lex needs my help with something.”
“Fine. Could you call me, later?”
“Uh huh. Love you, bye.” Amanda turned off the handset and tossed it on the bed. She hurried into the bathroom and opened the glass shower door. “Starting without me?”
Lex tugged her inside. “Never.”
Mid-afternoon, Shelby received a call to return to Roy 's. As she drove toward the house, she tried to figure out why. Going through the last few days of work in her mind, she couldn't come up with anything she did wrong, but the summons still worried her. She enjoyed her job at the ranch, and now with Roy able to move around more, she feared he had changed his mind about retirement.
To Shelby , the few short months she had been here were the most rewarding of her professional life. She found a place that felt right, and a job that seemed to have been tailor-made for her. She respected her boss and had even made a good friend in the process. “Damn. I didn't want to lose this job.”
She parked between the house and the corral, so she could spend a few minutes with the horses before what she thought was her last day of work.
Unable to put it off any longer, Shelby trudged up the steps to the house. She was met at the door by Roy, who shook her hand.
“Come on in, Shelby . Hope you weren't too busy when I radioed you.”
Shelby wiped her boots on the mat and removed her western hat before following him inside. “No, not really. Just checkin' the south pasture for strays. The guys seem to be taking care of their responsibilities just fine.”
“That's great. Let's go into the office.” Roy led the way, his walking cast making a loud thump on the wood floors with every step. He waited until she sat in the visitor's chair before he closed the door and took his own seat. Clearing his throat, Roy leaned back in his chair. “The boss and I had a pretty long talk this morning about you, Shelby.”
Her face flushed, but she didn't look away. “I figured as much.”
“Yeah? Well, we've both noticed you coming in before dawn, and leaving after sundown just about every day.” He straightened up and looked her in the eyes. “Is there really that much work to do around here? ‘Cause while I know this ain't no nine-to-five job, I wasn't aware of enough things going on to warrant you working yourself to death.”
“I don't log any overtime,” she argued. “You can double-check my book, if you need to.” Shelby carried around a small, spiral notebook in her shirt pocket, where she posted her work times as well as any notes or questions for Roy.
Roy shook his head. “I'm well-aware of the time you clock. If anything, we owe you a lot of back pay, for the hours you haven't logged.” He rested his elbows on the desk and sat forward in his chair. “Damn it, Shelby . Lex is just now getting back on her feet. I don't want to see you end up in the hospital, too.”
“Listen, I admire your dedication to the job. But you're gonna run yourself into the ground at this rate, and then where will you be?”
Shelby 's anger flared, but quickly died when she realized she wasn't losing her job. “Wait. You're not firing me?”
Roy 's laughter echoed off the paneled walls of the small room. “Are you shittin' me? Good lord, no. Where on earth did you get that idea?”
“Well, you've been gettin' around better, and with Lex feelin' up to snuff again, I figured.” She shrugged. “I reckon I figured all wrong, huh?”
He slapped the desk before he stood. “Hell, yes. You figured totally wrong. I love this ranch as if it were my own. But I'm getting too damned old to ride all over the place. No, I'll leave that to you young-uns.”
Shelby stood and sighed. “I don't know about the young-un's part, but I appreciate it, Roy . Some days I feel older than the hills.”
“And that's why you're going to start coming in after the rooster crows,” he added. “As a matter of fact, why not take the rest of the day off? I'm sure Rebecca would like to see you before dark-thirty.”
“Thanks, I think I will.” She shifted her hat to her left hand and extended her right. “I'll see you tomorrow, boss.”
Roy shook her hand and slapped her on the shoulder. “Not too early, though. I don't want Lex chewing me out for overworking you.”
“Right.” She laughed and settled her hat on her head. “I'll try to keep you out of trouble.”
“It feels great to be behind the wheel again,” Lex admitted. She navigated her truck through the residential streets of Somerville with ease.
Amanda laughed at her. “Let's see how you feel about it around July. By then, you'll be begging for another break.”
“Probably. But for now, I'm gonna enjoy it.” As she rounded the corner, she slowed the truck. “What the hell is going on over there?”
The long driveway of the Cauble house was overrun with vehicles. Two old pickup trucks, Anna Leigh's Cadillac, Jacob's Suburban, Jeannie's SUV and Michael's SUV. A flat-bed tow truck was on the street, the driver nowhere in sight.
“Good lord. I bet poor Gramma is about ready to pull her hair out.”
Lex parked behind one of the pickups. “Are you sure you don't want me to stay? I can run interference.”
Amanda patted her thigh. “No, go on and get the girls from school. You deserve a fun afternoon.”
“I already had that,” Lex teased, taking Amanda's hand and bringing it to her lips. “But ice cream does sound like a nice way to top off the day.”
“You,” Amanda declared, touching Lex's nose with the tip of her finger, “are dangerous.” She stretched across the seat and kissed her. “Try to stay out of trouble.” She hopped out of the truck and headed up the sidewalk, turning around once to wave.
Lex returned the wave. “Stay out of trouble. Ha. She's the one who's walking into a war zone.” Once Amanda went inside, she backed the truck into the street. “It's not like I go out looking for stuff,” she grumbled. “Just happens.”
It wasn't long before she parked near the elementary school. Lex checked her watch before she left the truck. “Ten minutes early. Perfect.” She needed to check in with the school office before getting the girls, so they wouldn't be expecting them on the bus.
The single-story, brick building was the same elementary school that Lex had attended. Once inside, she tapped on the doorframe to the office. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Clevens.”
At the main desk, an older woman raised her head from the paperwork in front of her. She was Martha's age, and kept her gray hair cut in a short, attractive style. “ Lexington , come in. To what do I owe this pleasure?”
“I had to be in town today, and thought I'd pick up the girls.” Lex scribbled her signature on the clipboard placed on the counter for that reason.
Mrs. Clevens removed her reading glasses, but let them hang on the beaded chain around her neck. “It's good to see you up and around again, dear. You had more than a few people worried, that's for sure.”
“Thanks. I'll admit to being a little worried, myself.” Lex tucked her hands in the front pockets of her jeans and tried to ignore the blush that covered her face. “And thank you again for the cornbread and chili you brought to the house. Everyone loved it.”
“My pleasure. I know Amanda had more than enough on her plate while you were sick, without having to worry about cooking all the time.”
Lex laughed. “We've still got a freezer full of food that Martha put up for us. I doubt she'll have to cook for at least another month.” And that didn't include the meals that Martha disposed of, including some woman's sardine meatballs, which she threatened to bury in the adjoining county.
“That's wonderful.” Mrs. Clevens turned her chair and quickly entered something on the computer. “I've notified the teachers that you're here, so Melanie and Lorrie won't get on the bus.”
“I appreciate that.” The school bell cut off any other comment Lex might have made. “Guess I'd better get outside, before the stampede starts.”
The older woman left her desk and stepped around the counter. “Take good care of yourself, Lexington . Those little girls need you.” She took Lex's hand and squeezed it. “Be good.”
Fighting off a blush, Lex nodded. “Yes, ma'am, I sure will. Thanks.” She escaped outside, moments before a dozen little bodies descended from the first grade classroom.
Lex ignored the looks of disdain she received from two women standing nearby. Her jeans and long-sleeved western shirt were clean, as were her boots. When one of the women kept staring, Lex winked, causing her to quickly turn away. “Ha.”
“Momma!” Melanie cried, dodging two boys who were playfully shoving each other.
“Hey there, kiddo.” Lex took the backpack from her daughter. “How was school?”
Melanie latched onto Lex's hand and swung it back and forth. “Good! Are you not sick no more?”
“Nope. I'm fine.”
“Yay! How come you're here? Is something wrong?”
Lex noticed Lorrie walking slowly through the doors and waved to her. “No, nothing's wrong. I just thought I'd take you girls for some ice cream. How does that sound?”
Melanie cheered again. “Hey, Lorrie! We're going for ice cream!”
“Yippee.” Lorrie headed for the truck.
“She's an old grump,” Melanie observed.
“Be nice,” Lex warned, although she secretly agreed. “Come on. Let's go get that ice cream.”
With Roy in a walking cast and able to supervise more, Shelby found herself driving up her own driveway in broad daylight. She parked beside Rebecca's car and stretched after she got out of her truck. Several of her vertebrae popped, including a few new ones. “Ugh. I hope Rebecca doesn't want to do anything tonight, I'm beat.”
She trudged up the steps and barely got the door open, before she was embraced by her lover. “Hey, darlin'.”
“I called the ranch and they told me you were already on your way home. Are you all right?” Rebecca stepped back and gave her a long look. “Are you feeling okay?”
“I'm fine.” With her arm around Rebecca, Shelby walked to the sofa and sat. “Just tired.” She couldn't help but notice the sparkle in her lover's eyes. “What?”
Rebecca jumped up. “Wait right here.” She raced to the bedroom, returning quickly with a dark green polo shirt. Holding it up to her chest, she asked, “Well? What do you think?”
“It's a good color for you, but,” Shelby paused and noticed the print above the right breast. “McAlister's Feed Store? Wait. Really?”
“Yes!” Rebecca tossed the shirt on the end of the sofa and dropped beside Shelby . “I had gone to the diner to apply for the part-time waitress position, and the woman there told me about the feed store. Tom, the manager, recognized me from Carson 's. I start work Monday. And it's full-time!”
Shelby laughed as Rebecca crawled onto her lap facing her. “That's great, darlin'. Do you think you're gonna like it there?”
Rebecca rested her arms on Shelby 's shoulders and looked into her eyes. “Yes. And, I get a ten percent discount on everything. Isn't that great?”
“It sure is.”
“How tired are you?” Rebecca asked, as she softly traced the edge of her lover's ear.
Shelby grinned and released the top button of Rebecca's blouse. “Funny you should ask. I don't feel a bit tired, at all.” Between her talk with Roy and her lover's news, a renewed energy surged through Shelby . She continued to work the buttons, until the shirt was completely open. “I like that.” Her hands gently cupped the white, lacy bra. “Nice.”
“Oh.” Rebecca leaned into the touch and closed her eyes. “M…maybe we should move into the bedroom,” she suggested. The clasp on her bra was unfastened and those same hands now covered her breasts. “ Shelby , please.”
“I'm pretty comfortable where I am.” Shelby lowered her head and placed a few tender kisses on her lover's skin. “Mmm.”
Rebecca moaned as she suddenly felt herself lowered to the couch. She tangled her fingers in Shelby 's hair as the older woman kissed a trail down her stomach. Her last conscious thought before the cool air hit her thighs, was that she'd have to wash and iron the new work shirt she could feel against her back. She no longer cared when Shelby 's shirt flew across the room.
Lex sat across from the girls at the ice cream shop. She tried to feign interest in the rambling story being told by Melanie, while keeping a covert eye on her oldest child.
Lorrie used her plastic spoon to stir the strawberry topping around her half-eaten sundae. She ignored her sister's chatter, until Melanie tapped her on the arm. “What?”
“Don't you like your ice cream? I thought strawberry was your favorite? How come you're not eating it?”
“I'm full.” Lorrie pushed the red plastic bowl away. She looked up at Lex. “Is Mom home with Eddie?”
Lex rattled the ice in her cup to see if it was truly empty. “No, she's at Gramma's. Aunt Helen and Uncle Roy are watching Eddie.”
Lorrie perked up at the mention of Anna Leigh. “Can we go see Gramma, too?”
“Uh, sure. Do you have any homework?” Lex asked, gathering the assorted used napkins they had tossed on the table.
“I don't,” Melanie chirped. “Mrs. Cooke said she wants to watch us do our work. I think it's ‘cause she thinks Hunter's mom does his.”
Lex tried to keep from smiling. “Why don't you go wash up before we go, sweetheart? You have chocolate on your face.”
Melanie licked around her lips. “Did I get it?”
“No, dummy. On your face,” Lorrie snapped.
“That's enough, Lorrie,” Lex warned. She lightened her tone. “Go on, Mel. We'll wait for you.”
“Okey doke!” Melanie scrambled from her chair and skipped to the back of the shop, where the rest rooms were located.
Lex stretched across the table and lowered her voice. “That was uncalled for. When she gets back, you owe your sister an apology.”
“She's not my real sister, and you're not my real mother!” Lorrie jumped up and stomped out of the shop.
Ignoring the stares from the others in the room, Lex took their trash and dumped it. When Melanie came out of the rest room, Lex held out her hand. “Are you ready to go?”
“Yep! Are we going to Gramma's?”
“Sure.” When they got to the truck, Lorrie had lowered the tailgate and swung her legs from where she sat. Lex unlocked the doors. “Get buckled up, Mel.”
Melanie looked at her sister, who was staring at the ground. “Is Lorrie in trouble?”
“Not yet,” Lex muttered. After Melanie closed her door, Lex leaned against the truck. “Is there something you'd like to talk about, Lorrie?”
Lorrie continued to swing her legs, but didn't answer.
Silently counting to ten, Lex stepped around to the back of the truck until she was standing directly in front of her daughter. “Lorrie? Look, I don't know what burr got under your saddle blanket, but we're not going anywhere until you talk to me.”
Lorrie raised her head and wiped the tears from her face. “Can I talk to Mom?”
Although it broke her heart, Lex nodded. “Sure. Get in the truck and we'll head over.” She squeezed the edge of the tailgate before slamming it closed.
The moment Amanda stepped into her grandmother's home, she could hear her father's angry voice in the living room. She closed the door behind her and followed the noise.
“Jeannie, I realize you're getting the deal of a lifetime, but have you really thought this through?”
“Daddy, if you'd just listen to me for a second, you'd—”
Michael threw his hands in the air and spun away, only to be met by his other daughter. “Oh. Amanda, hi.”
“Hi. I could hear you from outside,” Amanda told him. “What's going on?” She exchanged looks with her sister while she linked arms with Michael and sat on the nearest loveseat. “Where's Gramma?”
Jeannie perched on the arm beside her. “She's upstairs, showing them the stuff to take.”
“How much stuff?” Amanda looked at Jeannie, whose red-rimmed eyes belied her flippant attitude. She put her hand on her sister's knee. “Daddy told me a little about it, but—”
“If you wouldn't have brushed me off when I called, I'd told you more,” Michael muttered. “Amanda, you need to talk to Mother. Maybe she'll listen to you.”
Amanda turned to him. “I didn't brush you off. But you were ranting and not making much sense.”
He lurched to his feet. “I was not ranting! I was asking for your help but you had more important things to do. And now, my mother is upstairs, giving away anything that's not nailed down! The woman has totally lost her mind.”
“That's enough, Michael,” Anna Leigh ordered from the doorway. Her hands were on her hips and her tired eyes sparked with anger. The navy blue track suit she wore had spots of dust on the knees and belly, but she still held herself with grace. “I thought we finished this discussion this morning. If you have nothing useful to say, you're welcome to leave. I'll need you to move your vehicle so that the tow driver can get to the Surburban.”
“Now, look. I'm just trying—”
“To run my life,” Anna Leigh finished for him. “Which I don't need you to do.” She smiled at her granddaughters. “Girls, would you like to join me in the kitchen? I've made a fresh pitcher of tea.”
Michael sputtered and shook his head. “All right.” He stopped in front of his mother. “I only want what's best for you, you know.”
Her anger faded. “I know, dearest.” She held out her hands, which he took. “It's quite all right. As long as you remember I am fully capable of making my own decisions. Your father's truck is worth more as a donation than anything else. It will help the church in so many ways.” She kissed his cheek and whispered into his ear. “It's going to be fine, Michael.”
“Uh, yeah.” He held her tightly to him for a moment. “I love you, Mom. Call me if you need anything, okay?”
Michael murmured his apologies to both daughters before leaving.
Once the front door closed, Jeannie heavily exhaled. “Thank god.” She looked at Amanda, then to Anna Leigh. “Gramma, are you sure you won't stay here with us? There's plenty of room.”
Anna Leigh put her arm around Jeannie's shoulders. “I truly appreciate the offer, but no. As much as I love this house, I cannot live here without Jacob. It's too hard.”
Amanda moved to her other side. “I understand, Gramma. I couldn't stay at the ranch without Lex.”
The front door opened and closed, followed by two sets of feet. “Gramma!” Melanie called.
“In here,” Amanda answered.
Melanie came into the room and hugged each woman. “Mommy, we had ice cream! Guess what I had?”
Amanda wiped at a smudge on her daughter's cheek. “Chocolate?”
“How did you know?”
Jeannie laughed at the earnest question. “Moms have secret powers, Mel. It happens when they're pregnant.”
From the doorway, Lorrie scoffed. “Yeah, right.” She pushed away from the wall and walked into the room. “If you'd learn to wash your face better, no one would have known.” She stared at Jeannie before asking Amanda, “Can I talk to you?”
“Lorrie! You're being very rude.” Amanda put her hand on her daughter's shoulder. “You owe everyone an apology.”
Looking as if she'd argue, Lorrie took a deep breath. “Sorry.” She raised her head and tried to keep her voice from cracking. “Please, can we go talk?”
Amanda nodded. “Sure. Let's go upstairs.” On her way out of the room, she stopped beside Melanie. “Where's Momma? Didn't she bring you?”
“Momma said she had to pick up some stuff, but would be back later,” Melanie answered. “I was supposed to tell you.”
“Okay, thanks, sweetie.” Amanda followed Lorrie into the hallway, but stopped as two people carried a queen-sized oat headboard downstairs. She waited until they had fully descended before speaking. “Hi, guys. I see Gramma's kept you busy today.”
Kyle took a handkerchief from her back pocket and wiped her face. “All for a good cause.” To Anna Leigh she said, “I heard from Ellie a few minutes ago. She'd like to come over after work and help you with the sorting of the linen closets, if that's okay.”
“That would be wonderful, thank you.” Anna stepped around them. “I'll pour you some fresh tea. Please join us in the kitchen when you two come back.”
Tony, who used to live with Kyle, sighed happily. “Thank you, Mrs. Cauble. Kyle seems to forget I'm a chef, not a moving man. An iced tea sounds fantastic.”
“I'm saving you a trip to the gym,” Kyle teased. “Come on, Muscles. Let's get this thing out to the truck.” She ruffled Lorrie's hair before picking up her end of the headboard. “Good to see ya, kid.”
Lorrie scowled and brushed her hand through her hair to straighten it. She started up the stairs, not bothering to answer Kyle.
“Aunt Jeannie, where's R.J.?” asked Melanie. Also known as Rodney Laurence Crews, Junior, R.J. was eleven months old and Melanie's new favorite playmate.
“He's at the church daycare. I was afraid of bringing him over today, with all the commotion.” Jeannie accepted Mel's hug. “Let's go see if Gramma has anything good to drink. I think I saw some grape juice in her refrigerator.”
“Yum, grape juice!”
Jeannie mouthed, “Good luck,” to Amanda and followed Melanie into the kitchen.
With a heavy sigh, Amanda walked up the stairs. She found Lorrie in the nearest guestroom, which had been completely emptied of furniture except for a queen-sized mattress and box springs. Lorrie stood at the window, staring at the cars below.
“Why are they taking Gramma's furniture?” Lorrie asked, as she turned around.
Amanda sat at the foot of the bed. “She's decided to give the house to Jeannie and Rodney, and buy a smaller place for herself. Since she doesn't need the extra furniture, Gramma has decided to donate it to the high school band for their rummage sale.”
“But why does she want to move? I like visiting her here.”
Patting the spot beside her, Amanda put her arm on Lorrie's shoulders once she sat down. “I don't think she feels she can take care of the house all by herself. And you can still visit, since your Aunt Jeannie and Uncle Rodney will be here.”
“Not really,” Lorrie mumbled.
“What's that, honey?”
Lorrie stood and moved away from Amanda. “They're not my aunt and uncle. You're my aunt! And Rodney's my,” her face scrunched as her mind worked, “step-dad. We're studying genealogy in class this week. Do you know how hard it is to figure everything out?”
“I know it's a little more complicated than having a mother and father, like a lot of kids in school. But we've discussed this. A lot.”
“ Taylor 's dad was a baseball star in college. She has a lot of pictures of him playing ball. And Jessie's dad was in the Army, and she brought his uniform shirt to show.” Tears formed in Lorrie's eyes. “I don't have anything from my dad! I don't know that much about him, and I don't have any memories of him. It's not fair!”
Amanda got up and stepped toward her. “I know it's not, honey. Believe me, if we could change things, we would.” Just seeing Lorrie's tears caused Amanda's eyes to well up. “Your father was a wonderful man that we all loved very much. We've shown you pictures and told you about him.”
“But I don't know him, M—” Lorrie stopped. “I don't know what he sounded like, or what his favorite color was, or if he liked the things that I like.” Her hands went to her head and pulled on her hair. “This sucks!”
“Sweetie, it's all right.” Amanda tried to embrace Lorrie, only to be pushed away. “I'm sure Jeannie has some things that you could show at school. We could ask her.”
Lorrie swung her arms and kicked at the air, totally out of control. “Why don't I have stuff of his? Damn it!”
Having stood outside listening as long as she could, Lex hurried in and wrapped her arms around Lorrie. “Calm down, sweetheart.”
“No! I won't!” Lorrie struggled to break free. She was openly crying, her words coming between huge sobs. “You…can't…make…me.”
Lex refused to let go, holding on tighter. “It's going to be okay, Lorrie.”
“Noooo!” Lorrie collapsed to the floor, bringing Lex down with her. Amanda dropped beside them and held on as well. “Every…thing is…chang…ging,” Lorrie sobbed. “P…pl…please,” she begged. “M…make it stop.”
Amanda looked over Lorrie's head, to see a similar sadness in her wife's eyes. “We'll get through this together, Lorrie. I promise you.” Her words were directed toward their daughter, but her eyes never left Lex's.
After Lorrie stopped crying, she wiped her eyes with the handkerchief Lex handed her. She looked into the sad eyes of the woman who she had adored forever. “I'm sorry about what I said at the ice cream place.”
“I know, sweetheart.” Lex touched her cheek. “Did someone give you a hard time at school? About your family?”
“Who was it? I'd like to have a talk with them,” Amanda asked.
“Just some of the kids. Mrs. Moore took care of it.” Lorrie sat cross-legged between them and rested her chin on her upraised hand. “I want to know more about my dad,” she lowered her voice, “and my real mom.”
At the pained look on Lex's face, Amanda reached behind Lorrie and touched her wife's back. “Honey, you're always welcome to learn about the rest of your family.”
“Of,” Lex had to clear her throat. “Of course, lil' bit.” She pasted a grin on her face. “We've got a very unusual family, but a good one.”
Lorrie looked up. “But, you're not related to me, right? Not really my mom.” She seemed very sad about the prospect.
“Excuse me for saying this,” Amanda growled, “but that's bullshit.”
Lex startled at the venom in her wife's voice. “Amanda!”
“Hold on, honey.” Amanda put her hand under Lorrie's chin and forced the girl to look into her eyes. “To begin with, when we adopted you, we both signed enough paperwork and legal forms to fill this room. That means that as far as the law is concerned we are your parents. Period.” She gentled her tone. “And we're your parents by choice, Lorraine Marie Walters. And we're not going anywhere.”
Shaking her head, Lorrie said, “You can't promise that. Things happen and people die.”
Lex finally found her voice. “That's true. But while we're here, we'll always love you.” She put an arm around Lorrie and hugged her close. “And that's a promise we can keep.”
To be continued in Part 7
Return to the Academy