Disclaimers: I don't know why I keep trying to disclaim these folks – goodness knows I've chatted with them/about them enough. So, I'll just say that all names, places, people, and situations I write about are fictional. They are not based on anyone or any place. Although Amanda would disagree, I do own these characters – so please, no stealing :-)
If you have anything to tell me, please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can also get the scuttlebutt on my website, www.CarrieLCarr.com . Drop by and say hello.
Big time thank you: To my chat group at Carrie's Crossing, who keeps me motivated. And to my awesome beta 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 children had been in bed for hours, yet Lex couldn't bring herself to go back upstairs. She had tossed and turned, unable to sleep. Although they had resolved Lorrie's issues with her family, Lex couldn't get the scene from the ice cream shop out of her head. She sat at her desk, staring at the video card game on the computer screen. Lorrie's angry words kept echoing through her mind. “You're not my real mother!”
Disgusted at the path her thoughts continued to take, she closed the program and stared at the picture on the desktop. It was one of her favorites. Amanda was seated on a hay bale in front of the corral, holding Eddie. Standing on the fence behind her were Lorrie and Melanie. All were smiling big for the camera. The portrait had been a birthday present from her family, and Lex treasured it. “You're not my real mother!”
“Damn it!” Lex shut down the computer. Her eyes burned and her heart ached as the words taunted her. She rubbed her face as if to wipe the words from her mind.
Light footsteps alerted her and she looked up to see her wife standing at the door. “Hey.”
“Yeah, I know.” Lex stood and moved around the desk. “Did I do something to wake you?”
Amanda held out her hand. “I missed you when I rolled over.”
“Sorry. I couldn't sleep.” Lex took her hand and kissed it. “I was trying to keep from disturbing you.”
“Honey,” Amanda led her into the living room, “don't you know by now that when you're upset, it disturbs me?” She tugged Lex toward the couch and pushed her to sit. She settled beside her and rested her head against Lex's shoulder. “Lorrie's going to be fine. And I'm going to have a talk with her teacher tomorrow at lunch.” Amanda looked up into Lex's face. “When are you going to tell me what she said today? All I know is that you were so upset you dropped the girls off, instead of coming into Gramma's.”
Lex put her arm around her and kissed the top of Amanda's head. “It's not important now. Lorrie's all settled, that's what matters.”
Amanda tugged on Lex's hair. “No, what matters is you.” She shifted until they were nose to nose. “And, as much as I love our daughter, she said something that upset you.” Her hand touched Lex's clenched jaw. “Please.”
In a soft, pained voice, Lex told Amanda what happened at the ice cream shop. When she was finished, she released a heavy breath. “Poor kid. She was so freaked out.”
“Poor kid? My god, Lex. I would have been tempted to smack her for yelling like that.”
“Yeah,” Lex huffed. “But I've never raised a hand to one of our kids, and I wasn't about to start in a damned ice cream parlor.” She rubbed her face. “Good god, I'm beat. Let's go to bed.” She got up and pulled Amanda up with her, embracing her. “Thanks for coming downstairs, sweetheart. I'd have probably brooded in the office all night.”
Amanda patted her on the stomach as they left the living room. “Ha. Like I would have let you,” she teased.
Saturday morning, once everyone was fed breakfast, Amanda took Lorrie into town. They were going to meet Jeannie at Anna Leigh's, since that's where most of Jeannie's things from her first marriage were stored.
Lorrie was silent until they reached the city limits. “Momma hates me.”
Amanda fought the urge to slam on the brakes. Instead, she pulled into the nearest parking lot. She took a moment to get her emotions under control before she shifted in her seat to give Lorrie her full attention. “You know that's not true.”
“She's not here, is she?” Lorrie crossed her arms over her chest and stared through the windshield. “At least she's related to Eddie. He's probably her favorite.”
Although she wanted to grab Lorrie by the shoulders and shake some sense into her, Amanda kept her hands in her lap. “Do you think she loves me?”
Lorrie's head snapped around. “Of course. She says it all the time.”
“And what did she say to you this morning, before we left the house?”
Caught in the trap, Lorrie lowered her face and stared at her knees. She mumbled something unintelligible.
“What was that?”
“She said to have a good time, and that she loved me.”
Amanda took one of her daughter's hands. “Have you ever heard her say something she didn't mean?”
Lorrie shook her head, but refused to look at her.
“I learned a long time ago that whenever I asked your Momma a question, I'd get an honest answer. Even if it wasn't the answer I wanted.” Amanda leaned closer and softened her voice. “If you want to watch her panic, take her clothes shopping and ask her opinion on a hideous outfit. She'll stumble all over herself trying not to hurt your feelings.”
Unable to help it, Lorrie laughed. She soon sobered when she considered the conversation. “Why didn't she come with us, then?”
Why, indeed. Amanda remembered asking Lex that very question before they headed downstairs for the day. Her wife, who had a thoughtful streak that not many knew about, had a very good reason. Lex told her that while she would love to be there for support, she believed that it would be extremely hard for Jeannie, and wanted to give them the time and space needed. “She knew it's going to be difficult for your Aunt Jeannie, and thought that the less people that were there, the better.”
“Oh.” Lorrie turned her head when she heard the pain in her mother's voice. “It's going to be hard for you too, isn't it?”
Amanda didn't bother to hide the tears in her eyes. “In a way, yes. Your father was my best friend and I loved him.”
“You did? How come you didn't get married, then?” When Amanda laughed, Lorrie blushed. “Oh. ‘Cause you're gay, right?”
“Right. And because, the minute I introduced him to Jeannie, he was hopelessly in love with her. Why, I don't know,” Amanda joked. She squeezed Lorrie's hand. “Are we good?”
Lorrie nodded. “Yep.” Once they were underway again, she sighed. “We don't have to do this, if it's going to make you and Aunt Jeannie cry.”
“We'll be okay, sweetie. But thank you. We should have done this years ago. Just wait until you see the wedding pictures. Momma laughed for days after seeing my hair back then.”
Rebecca came out of the barn with her saddle, blanket and bridle and almost dropped them all when she saw two new horses on the other side of the corral. She slowed her pace toward the corral, where Patches, Duchess and Morgan watched her with interest. “Who's your new friends?” she asked her horses quietly. She placed the saddle and blanket on a lower rung of the corral before climbing inside. Shelby hadn't told her of any new boarders over lunch. “Hey, guys.” She kept the bridle draped over one shoulder. “Where did y'all come from? Hmm?”
The nearest horse snorted at her and looked at her with distrust. Its reddish-brown coat was tangled with dirt and twigs, and its matching and mane were matted with burrs. Its ribs showed through the scruffy winter coat and it stomped one foot when Rebecca got too close.
“Easy,” she whispered. She peeked beneath the animal and could see that the mare had recently nursed. “Where's your baby?” She kept her distance while she studied the other horse. Its muddy coat may have once been white, but for now it was in as bad of shape as its companion. Also a mare, it trotted a wide circle behind the other.
Rebecca moved closer, knowing she was safe as long as she was not on their side of the fence. Patches followed behind, while her other two horses stood near the water trough and watched. Before she could get much closer, she heard Shelby on the front porch.
“Rebecca, don't even think about it!” Shelby jogged down the steps. The closer she got to the corral and fence, the slower she moved. “Where did they come from?”
“I thought you could tell me. They look half-starved, Shelby .”
Shelby joined her in the corral. “Yeah. I don't recognize the brand on them, either.” The marks on their hips were partially obscured by their coats, but a general outline could still be seen. It appeared to be a capital letter T rested on its side, enclosed in a circle. “Circle Lazy T, I think,” she mused. “I wonder if Lex has ever seen it?”
“Do you think she'd recognize the horses? I mean, she knows just about everyone around Somerville , doesn't she?”
“Maybe.” Shelby held out her hand for Rebecca. “Let's go back to the house and give her a call.”
Rebecca put her bridle in the outstretched hand and laughed at the look she received. “Shouldn't we feed them, or something? They look pitiful.”
“Maybe a little, until we can have a vet check ‘em out. I'd hate to make one of them sick, or worse.”
Lex fastened Eddie's diaper and slipped his tiny jeans up his legs. “Okay, buddy. Let's see if we can keep you clean at least until dinner time.”
“Momma, no.” Eddie kicked as Lex put socks on his feet. “No!”
“Yes,” Lex argued lightly. She swung him off the table and set him feet first on the floor. “Maybe you'll think twice before smearing grape jam in your hair.”
Eddie stomped and giggled. “Ha.” He grabbed her jeans at the knee and tugged. “Up.”
“I just put you down.” Lex walked carefully to the bathroom and washed her hands. “We need to start working on potty training with you.”
When he heard the word potty, Eddie went to the toilet and tried to open the lid. The safety latch foiled his attempt and he slapped at it and screeched. “No!”
Lex dried her hands and laughed. “I think you're gonna have to start a little smaller, kiddo.” She tapped him lightly on the head. “Wanna go see what Melanie is up to?”
“Meemee?”Eddie turned and grinned. “Go!”
“That's what I thought.” Lex held out her hand for him. When his little fist tightened around her index finger, a lump settled in her throat. It didn't matter which child she was with, the pure trust they gave her swelled her heart with pride. She never thought she'd feel this, the love of a child or the warmth of a loving home. But now that she had it, she'd fight to the death to keep it.
They walked down the hall and stopped by Melanie's partially open door. Eddie started to push inside, but Lex stopped him.
“Hold your horses. Gotta knock knock first.” Lex made a fist and tapped the doorframe.
Eddie laughed and mimicked her, beating on the wall. “Meemee!”
“Come in,” Melanie sang.
Eddie looked up at Lex.
“Well, go on,” she allowed.
“Naw naw,” Eddie crowed while he shoved the door open. “Meemee, naw naw.”
Melanie looked up from the dollhouse she was playing with on the floor. “Good boy, Eddie. You knock knocked.” She held out a male doll. “Wanna play with me?”
“Play, play, play.” Eddie took the doll and sat beside his sister.
Lex's cell phone buzzed on her hip. She leaned against the door and watched the kids play. “Walters. Oh, hey, Shelby .” She frowned as Shelby explained the two horses that showed up at their place. “Lazy Circle T? No, there's not anything even close to that around here. What? Uh, yeah, I guess I could. Y'all mind if I bring Mel and Eddie?” Lex laughed. “Great. I'll see you in a bit.” She clipped her phone onto her belt. “Hey, kids. Want to go see Ms. Shelby and Ms. Rebecca?”
Jeannie turned the page of the photo album and laughed. “Oh, my god. I'd totally forgotten about this.” She lightly tapped the picture. “Amanda?”
“Oh.” From Jeannie's left, Amanda giggled and shook her head. “Lorrie, this is your Dad and your Momma attempting to hang Christmas lights on Gramma's house.”
Lorrie, who sat to the right of Jeannie, leaned closer to the album. “Why is she holding his legs like that?”
“Because they thought it would be easier to hang the lights from above, instead of having to move the ladder. They took turns reaching over the edge of the house, while the other held their legs to keep them from falling off the roof.”
Amanda snorted. “Funny, that's the same thing Grandpa told them, right before your Momma sneezed and let go of your Dad.”
Lorrie's eyes went wide. “Did he fall?”
“Not exactly,” Amanda explained. “When he started to slide down toward the edge, Momma fell forward to catch his feet, tripped, and dove off the roof.”
Jeannie nodded. “Luckily, she fell into the very tall hedges by the living room windows.”
Lorrie cocked her head and squinted at her aunt. “There aren't any hedges there.”
“Not anymore,” Amanda added with a giggle. “Although she was very happy that Momma didn't hurt herself, Gramma was ready to kill both of them for ruining her hedges.” She tapped the page. “We should have taken pictures of them having to dig out all the brush. It took them two weekends to get it done.”
“Wow. Momma's never said anything about falling off a house.”
“Probably because it wasn't the first time,” Amanda muttered.
Jeannie stopped giggling and turned to her. “It wasn't?”
“Unfortunately, no.” Amanda realized they were waiting for more. “Um, maybe I shouldn't be telling—”
“Oh, no. You can't leave us hanging like that,” Jeannie chastised. “Right, Lorrie?”
Lorrie giggled. “Right.”
“Okay, but don't you dare tell Momma I said anything.” Amanda pointed to her sister. “Promise?”
Jeannie put her finger and thumb to her lips and pantomimed locking them.
Amanda swatted her. “Smartass.” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Let's see. The first time—”
“First time?” Jeannie exclaimed. “There was more than once?”
“First, second,” Amanda shook her head. “Martha told me that she fell out of the top of the hay barn when she was twenty and broken her ankle.”
Lorrie gasped. “That's a long ways down.”
“It is. And it would have been worse had she not landed on the trailer of hay. But her boot got caught and broke her ankle.”
“Ow. Poor Momma. Mine hurt bad enough when I jammed it into second base that time.”
Jeannie patted her leg. “You're a lot like your father, in that way. Frank would have sprains and bruises from playing football, but he healed pretty quickly. I, on the other hand, have to spend a week in bed for a cold.”
“That's okay, Aunt Jeannie. I don't like being sick, either.” She leaned into the hug she received. After her talk with her mom, she felt more secure in her familial relationships. “Mom, what else has Momma done?”
Amanda threw her head back and laughed again. “We don't have that much time, sweetie. Let's just say she's always been an accident looking for a place to happen and leave it at that, okay? Jeannie, let's go to the next page. Don't you have pictures of Frank playing football?”
“Pictures?” Jeannie asked. “I have video.” She closed the photo album. “Come on, ladies. There's another box in the storage shed that's full of scrapbooks and DVD's converted from video tapes, and Gramma has a DVD player in the den.”
Lorrie stood. “How come Gramma's not here?” She was surprised when her aunt had answered the door and not her great-grandmother, but was so excited about learning more about her father, she hadn't questioned it at the time.
Jeannie got up and put her hand on Lorrie's shoulder. “She's at the home improvement store with Lois, looking at wall paper swatches and paint samples. We might not see them until dark,” she joked.
“Oh, cool.” In a move reminiscent of Lex, Lorrie held out her hand for Amanda and tugged her off the sofa.
Amanda saw the recognition in her sister's eyes. While Jeannie may have given birth to Lorrie, the girl had become a carbon copy of Lex. “Thanks, sweetie.”
Lex drove her truck around the small frame house toward the barn. She cringed at Eddie's excited yelp from the back seat.
“Hossies! Momma, hossies!”
“Ooh, Momma, what's Ms. Rebecca doing?” Melanie asked, her nose pressed against her window.
A large practice arena was fenced separately from the corral and open grazing field. Three barrels were set out in a triangular pattern, and Rebecca zipped around them on her paint pony, Patches. Horse and rider moved in tandem as they gracefully took the last turn and raced for the finish.
Lex stopped the truck and turned off the engine, but waited until Rebecca had pulled Patches to a stop before she stepped out and unfastened Eddie from his safety seat. She kept him in her arms while Melanie jumped from her side of the truck and hurried around to catch up.
“Momma, what was she doing? That was so cool.” Melanie stayed close to Lex as she had been taught. “Can I go see Ms. Rebecca? I wanna ask her why she was riding so fast. Momma, how come you don't ride that fast? Why was they going in little circles?”
Shelby had turned away from the arena and walked to meet them halfway. She laughed as she overheard the questions. “Hey, squirt! I'm glad you talked your momma into bringing you.”
“Ms. Shelby! Did you see how fast they was going?” Melanie giggled as she was scooped up and swung around by Shelby . “Wheeee!”
Eddie didn't want to be left out of the fun. He outstretched his arms toward Shelby and grunted. “Me!”
Lex was barely able to hold onto him. “Settle down, Eddie.” She waited until Shelby returned Melanie to the ground. “I think my kids like you more than they do me,” she teased.
Shelby grinned at her. “Can't blame ‘em much. I'm such a ray of sunshine, ain't I?” She shook Lex's hand then held it out to Eddie. “Well, c'mon, range rat. I ain't got all day.”
Eddie squealed and dove toward her, laughing as he was swung around in the same manner as Melanie. “Ha!”
“Hang on, young'un,” Shelby told him, as she raised Eddie to her shoulders. “How's that?”
“Go, go!” Eddie ordered, kicking his feet her chest, while his hands gripped Shelby 's shirt collar. He bounced and kicked as they headed for the corral. “Ha!”
Melanie skipped beside Shelby and hung onto one of her belt loops. “Ms. Rebecca was going so fast. Was she scared?”
“You'll have to ask her yourself.” Shelby 's grin softened as Rebecca left Patches by the barn and walked toward them. “Hey, darlin'. I think you have a new fan.”
“I do?” Rebecca winked at Melanie. “Did you like it, honey?”
Melanie moved away from Shelby to take Rebecca's hand. “It was so cool. You were going so fast and I was afraid you'd fall off, but you didn't and you kept riding, and then you went whoosh around that barrel, and—”
Lex stopped her by a light touch to her head. “Slow down, kiddo. Take a breath.” She nodded to Rebecca, tipping her hat. “That was quite a ride.”
“Thanks, Lex. Where's Amanda and Lorrie?”
“They had some business in town.” They followed behind Shelby, who led the way to the other side of the corral. “Picked up a couple of strays, I hear.”
Rebecca swung hands with Melanie. “I'm sorry we dragged you out here on a Saturday. I'm sure you had better things to do. But we have no idea where they could have come from, and was hoping you could tell us.”
“I'll try. And you didn't hurt a thing, calling. It's nice to get the kids out.”
“You don't have to have a reason to bring them over,” Rebecca told her quietly. “We love having them.” She let go of Melanie, who quickened her pace to rejoin Shelby . “As much as she pretends differently, Shelby really enjoys being around the kids.”
Lex nodded. “They do grow on a person, that's for sure.” She stopped so that they were out of earshot of the others. “Y'all thinking about having one or two of your own?”
“Oh, my god, no,” Rebecca hurriedly answered. “I mean, we love your kids, but I don't think either one of us are the parenting type. I'm very happy being just the two of us, and I know Shelby is, too. Maybe a dog someday, but that's about as close to a little one as we want.”
“Yeah, that's just about exactly what Shelby has said about it. I'm glad y'all are on the same page about it, though. She seems really happy with the way things are.”
Rebecca watched as her lover interacted with the children. Shelby had confided that she loved feeling like an aunt to the Walters' kids, but it didn't make her want any of her own. She was perfectly content to spend her life with just Rebecca as her family, although the circle had grown to include Lex, Amanda and their offspring. “She's very happy, and so am I. But you've always got free babysitting, anytime you need it.”
“I'll surely keep that in mind, thanks.” Lex looked ahead to the horses that were nosing their way through some hay that had given to them. “Damn, they look bad.” She softened her voice as they moved closer. “That mare has a little one somewhere.”
Shelby stood beside her, holding onto Eddie's legs. “That' what I thought, too. She's filled up since this morning.”
Lex nodded. She took her cell phone from the holster on her belt. “Hi, Helen. Could you have Roy send a couple of guys over to Shelby 's? Yeah. Have them bring my horse and their own, please? Thanks. We've got a stray to find.” She put the phone back and winked at Rebecca. “Think I could talk you into watching my kids? Eddie's not real good on horseback just yet.”
As it turned out, Helen drove the truck while Roy and Jack rode along. Chet stayed behind to keep an eye on things at the Rocking W.
Once the big rig had stopped, Lex and Shelby unloaded the two horses, Mac and Coco . Roy limped to the back of the trailer. “Sure wish I could go with you.”
“You'll be back in the saddle in no time,” Lex assured him, as she checked Mac's cinch. “I'm glad you're here, though. Maybe you could make some calls and see where our strays may have come from.”
“I'll be glad to. Bice's property backs up to this one, doesn't it?”
Helen joined them, while Jack silently adjusted the saddle on Coco . “I'll head on to the house and relieve Rebecca, so she can join you.” She kissed her husband's cheek. “Don't be too long.”
Lex continued to check her gear. “I called him before y'all got here. He said his fence is secure, and he isn't missing any horses.”
“All right. I reckon I can check with the feed store and see if they've heard of any missing animals. Then I'll contact the sheriff.” Roy shifted his weight off of the walking cast and leaned against the trailer. “Did you try the vet? Maybe Ronnie knows the brand.”
“Nope. Didn't think about it.” Lex ran her hands down Mac's legs and checked his shoes. She usually rode Thunder, but didn't want the older stallion out in unfamiliar territory. Mac was her second choice, but since she had been ill, she hadn't had a chance to check him on a daily basis.
Shelby brought Patches and Duchess over when she saw Rebecca jog from the house. “We've only got about ten acres, so it shouldn't take too long to search. And I'm ashamed to admit I haven't checked our fence for a while.”
“Not like you've had much time, since you started working with us,” Roy told her. “But things are settled down a bit, so you'll have more time for your own place.”
She handed Rebecca the reins to Patches. “We're not complainin', are we, darlin'?”
Rebecca settled into the saddle and patted her horse's shoulder. “Not at all. Thank you all for coming over and helping.”
“It's a nice day for a ride.” Lex nodded to Roy . “We'll keep in touch through our phones.”
“Right.” He started toward the house as the four riders left. When he reached the back steps, he grinned.
Melanie held the door open for him. “Ms. Rebecca is gonna show me how to race barrels when they come back.”
“Really? That sounds like a lot of fun.” Roy ruffled her hair as he passed her. He removed his western hat and hung it on a peg beside the door. “What do you think, Helen? Reckon Mel has a chance of being a barrel racer?”
Helen bounced Eddie on her knee, where he sat gnawing on a toddler cookie. “If she works hard at it, I'm sure Melanie can do whatever she puts her mind to.”
“That's what Mada always tells us,” Melanie said, as she sat next to Helen at the table. “I use ta think horses were stinky, but they're fun, too.” She dunked her graham cracker into a coffee mug of milk. “Ms. Rebecca said she's taught girls my age to race and they even get to win ribbons and trophies.”
Roy sat beside her and propped his injured leg on the empty chair. “There's a lot of work involved before you can do that, though. We'd have to find you a barrel horse, since your little pony isn't trained.”
Melanie shrugged her shoulders. “I guess, but Ms. Rebecca said I could start with Patches. She's a big horse, though.”
“Hossie!” Eddie added. He grinned up at Helen and waved the soggy cookie. “Mmm.” He aimed it for her mouth, which she gracefully moved away.
“Thank you, sweetie. But you eat it.” Helen glared at her husband, who couldn't hold in his laughter. “Watch it.”
He held up his hands in defense. “Sorry.” But he didn't sound contrite in the least.
Eddie laughed and swung his gooey hands. “Ha! Yum.” He looked at his sister and grinned. “Yum!”
Melanie rolled her eyes. “Boys are so gross.”
Anna Leigh stepped into her living room and saw her coffee table covered with scrapbooks and photo albums. She smiled at the trio on the sofa. “My goodness, girls. You've certainly been busy.”
“Hi, Gramma,” Jeannie greeted. “Lorrie wanted to learn more about Frank, and all of this was in your storage shed. We've already watched his football highlights.”
Lorrie hopped off the couch and crossed the room to hug Anna Leigh. “We were just about to look at the wedding album, Gramma. Would you like to see it, too?”
“Thank you, dearest, but no. Lois is waiting in the car for me. I only dropped by to get a fabric sample from my bedroom.” She kissed Lorrie's forehead. “I should be home in another hour or so.”
Amanda noticed the mess for the first time. “We'll be sure and have it all cleaned up, Gramma. I'm sorry about the mess.”
Anna Leigh waved off the apology. “Please. Enjoy yourselves. This old house has been far too quiet and still.” A faraway look settled onto her face. “It's nice to have you here.”
“Maybe we should—” Jeannie stopped when Amanda poked her in the leg. “What?”
“What?” Amanda asked.
Their antics took away Anna Leigh's sad face. “You girls,” she laughed. “Lorrie, would you make sure they don't fight?”
“We wouldn't—” Amanda cut her sister off. “We'll behave, I promise. Right, Jeannie?”
Jeannie grinned at her. “Speak for yourself.” A well-placed pinch stopped her. “Ow!”
“And with that, I will be on my way. Lorrie, don't let them get you into any trouble.”
“Yes, ma'am.” Lorrie hugged her again before Anna Leigh left to head upstairs.
Amanda laughed as glared at her. “Teach you to pop off like that, brat.”
“Turd.” Jeannie patted the empty cushion beside her. “Come on, Lorrie. Let me show you how silly your Mom looked at my wedding.”
“It wasn't that bad.”
Lorrie plopped down next to Jeannie. Her eyes tracked to the cover of the album, which Jeannie absentmindedly caressed. If things had been different, the woman who she knew as aunt would be her mother. For a moment, she tried to imagine the changes in her life. A life in California would be without horses, going to school far away from Somerville . She wouldn't know any of her friends, have her dog, Freckles, Eddie or even her annoying sister. As much as she complained about Melanie, she loved her. No, as sad as it was, she knew she was where she was meant to be. She was brought out of her thoughts as Jeannie opened to the first page. “You looked pretty, Aunt Jeannie.”
The eight-by-ten photo was of the bride and groom, lovingly looking at each other and not the photographer. Frank Rivers was tall and handsome in his dark gray tuxedo and had his hands on his bride's hips, while her arms were loosely clasped around his neck.
Amanda put her arm around her sister and leaned her head on her shoulder. “Are you okay?” she asked in a whisper.
Jeannie nodded and turned the page. The next pictures were of the wedding party that included her Maid-of-Honor, Amanda, who sported a particularly atrocious hairstyle.
“Oh, wow. Mom, what's wrong with your hair?” Lorrie asked, between giggles.
“It's not that bad.” Amanda sighed as her sister's laughter joined Lorrie's, then looked closely at the photo in question. She wore a deep purple, knee-length dress with short, puffed sleeves. Her hair was bleached almost white, permed in tight ringlets that somehow rose four inches on top of her head, while also cascading along her shoulders. “Okay, so it was hideous,” she agreed at last.
Lorrie rolled off the sofa and onto the floor, holding her stomach as she continued to laugh. “You looked like a cartoon cat that got scared,” she wheezed.
“Hey,” Amanda growled, before she too broke into laughter. “Behave, Lorrie. Or you'll get the same hairdo.”
“That's a vicious threat,” Jeannie scolded as she wiped her eyes. “Don't worry, Lorrie. I'll protect you from your mom.” After she said it, she realized that it was true. She hadn't thought of Lorrie as her daughter in quite some time. The girl's uncanny resemblance to Lex had helped, especially as Lorrie had gotten older.
Lorrie got up and returned to her spot on the couch. “Thanks, Aunt Jeannie. But I don't think she'd really be that mean to me.” She giggled at the mock glare she received from Amanda. “Hopefully.”
Shelby took Jack, while Rebecca rode with Lex. Although they spent time together often, Rebecca was still a little uncomfortable around the taciturn woman. She struggled to find something to talk about, but everything she thought of seemed ridiculous to her. The only sounds were the singing of a nearby blue jay and the steady clomp of their horse's hooves along the dirt path.
“Nice little spread y'all have here,” Lex offered, as if sensing Rebecca's unease.
“Um, thanks. It's nothing like yours, but it's plenty big for us.”
Lex turned to look at her. “Are you all right?”
Rebecca nodded, but played with the reins in her hand. “Honestly, you scare the hell out of me.”
“I do? Why? Have I done something to you?”
“Okay, maybe scared isn't the right word,” Rebecca said. “I mean, I know that Amanda thinks the sun rises and sets with you, so you can't be all that bad.”
Lex snorted when she tried to hold back her laughter.
“But, geez. When I was trying to figure out why boys weren't as interesting as girls, you were running that huge ranch all by yourself. Even now, you seem to have it all together, while I just muddle along. I can't even hold down a decent job.”
“Whoa.” Lex pulled Mac to a stop so she could give Rebecca her undivided attention. “I only run the ranch because I didn't have a choice. Hell, if it had been up to me, I wouldn't even be here.” She took off her hat and wiped her forehead against her shoulder. “And that would have been the worst thing in the world for me, because I would have never met Amanda.”
Rebecca raised her head and met Lex's gaze. “She means a lot to you, doesn't she?”
“She means everything to me,” Lex gently corrected. She brushed the dust from her hat and turned to face Rebecca. “Don't sell yourself short. We all do what we need to do and there isn't any shame in that.” She grinned and put the hat back on her head. “Besides, anyone who could live with Shelby , day in and day out, is pretty damned special.” Lex's cell rang and she took it off her belt. “Walters. What? All right. We'll try to send it toward the house.” She put her phone back. “That was Shelby . Jack tried to lasso the filly, but lost his grip on his rope. We need to head west to either cut it off, or guide to back to its momma.”
“All right.” Rebecca adjusted her boots in the stirrups. “Thanks, Lex. I'm sorry about all of that. I'm not real sure where it came from.”
Lex shrugged. “We all have doubts, just don't let ‘em eat you up inside.” She set Mac out in a trot. “Not like Amanda would let me,” she muttered to herself, chuckling.
“Damn it, Jack. That was a stupid-assed thing to do,” Shelby snapped, as they followed the terrified filly. Its coppery-red coat shone in the sunlight as it raced away.
“You said you wanted to catch it. I never miss with my rope.”
She pointed to a group of trees ahead. “Maybe next time you'll have the end tied off, instead of thinking you could hold on. Circle up there so it'll keep going toward the house. We don't want it hung up in those cedar.”
He slapped Coco 's hip with his gloved hand. “Heeyah!”
“Dumbass,” Shelby grumbled. She saw two riders ahead and raised her hand over her head, getting acknowledging waves. Her cell rang. “Yeah. Jack's going around to keep her out of the cedar, maybe y'all could run up ahead.”
Lex raised her hat in the air in acknowledgement before taking off at an angle.
Shelby kept her horse behind the sorrel filly. She spotted the rope trailing behind and urged her horse into a canter. As she came closer, she put all her weight on her left leg, while lifting the right one over the saddle. When her horse was beside the rope, Shelby dropped to the ground and grabbed the end. She stumbled to her feet and pulled the rope taut.
The filly panicked as the rope tightened around her neck, and took off at a run.
“Fuck!” Shelby tried to run behind her, but ended up falling and being dragged. She grimaced as clumps of grass and rocks assailed her body.
Rebecca looked on in horror. “ Shelby ! Let go of the rope,” she yelled, kicking Patches into a gallop.
Instead of releasing the rope, Shelby wrapped it around her wrist. As she slid behind the filly, she twisted her body so that she was moving feet first, doing whatever she could to slow the animal's pace. “Whoa!”
“ Shelby , damn it! Let go!” Rebecca screamed, as she rode close to her lover. “ Shelby !”
Shelby spit out mouthfuls of dirt, but refused to release her grip. She gritted her teeth and, with renewed energy, dug her boot heels into the ground. “Goddamn it, horse. Whoa!”
Twenty yards ahead, Lex and Jack held their horses in the filly's path, blocking the entrance to the thick stand of cedar.
The filly started to slow at the sight. She felt the heavy weight pull on her neck which finally brought her to a halt.
Rebecca pulled Patches up beside Shelby and dropped from the saddle before the dust cleared. “ Shelby ?”
“Take the rope,” Shelby sputtered, shakily holding out her arm.
“To hell with the damned rope, Shelby . You could have been killed!”
Rebecca growled, but gently unwrapped the rope from her lover's arm. She tied it to her saddle horn just as Lex rode up. The filly continued to struggle, but Patches held firm.
“Is she all right?” Lex asked.
“I think so.” Rebecca returned to Shelby, who was still sitting on the ground, trying to dust herself off. “Have you totally lost your damned mind?”
Shelby spit off to the side and wiped her mouth. “Nope.” She rested her arms on her upraised knees and grinned. “Strong little thing, ain't she?”
Lex looked down at her and shook her head. “You're insane. Why did you feel the need to hang on to that damned rope?”
“I was afraid she'd get hung up on something and hurt herself.”
Rebecca slapped her shoulder. “So, instead, you try to get yourself killed? That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard of. Damn it!” She stomped away, muttering under her breath.
Jack joined them. “Nice catch,” he told Shelby . Then he turned to Lex. “It was my fault, boss. I thought I could rope her and bring her in easy. The filly had other ideas.”
“Yeah. Do you think you can get her back to the corral without any problems?”
He nodded and stretched from his horse to untie the rope from Rebecca's saddle horn. “I'll take care of it. Sorry about that, Shelby .”
“No harm done,” Shelby assured him, as she slowly climbed to her feet. She brushed the dirt from her jeans. “Looks like I've got some fence patchin' to do,” she muttered, as Rebecca continued to pace a distance away.
Lex grinned. “Better you than me. If you're all right, I'll follow Jack and help get the new horses settled in the corral.”
“Sure. Just put ours in the barn, if you don't mind. I'll be up shortly.”
“Take your time. I think you scared a few years off Rebecca.” Lex saluted her and turned Mac to follow Jack and the filly.
Shelby followed Rebecca, who seemed intent on walking the entire length of field where she had been dragged. “Rebecca?” When her lover continued on as if she didn't hear her, Shelby picked up her pace. “Hey.”
Rebecca stopped and picked up Shelby 's hat, shaking it to get the worst of the dirt from it. She turned around and held it out, showing the tears tracking down her cheeks.
“Aw, darlin'.” Shelby took the hat and tossed it to the ground. “Come here.” She pulled Rebecca close and held her. “I'm sorry. But I figured she wasn't strong enough to do any serious damage to me, and I didn't want her getting hung up and hurting herself.”
“It was still a stupid thing to do,” Rebecca chastised, resting her cheek against Shelby 's shoulder.
Shelby nodded. “I know. But if I thought I had been in any real danger, I would have let go of the rope.” She chuckled. “Good thing there wasn't any cactus around, huh? I'd look like a porcupine.”
Rebecca giggled and slapped her on the chest. “You're impossible.”
“And you chose to put up with me. What does that say about you?” Shelby teased.
Rebecca looked up into her face. “That I'm very lucky to have you,” she softly answered. She drew Shelby 's face down and kissed her, then pulled away and swatted her. “Don't scare me like that again, Shelby Fisher.”
“Yes, ma'am.” Shelby kissed her again.
While she waited for Shelby and Rebecca to return, Lex climbed through the corral slats to give the mares a closer look. She took slow, cautious steps to keep from spooking them. It hadn't been very hard to get them into the corral, as they found the bucket of feed she lured them with quite fascinating. Now that they had eaten, the two mares eyed her warily, while the filly stayed close to its mother's side.
Jack leaned against the side of the four-horse trailer. “You need any help, boss?” he asked, his voice just loud enough for her to hear. He worked a length of rope in his hand as he watched.
Lex shook her head. She stepped up to the gray mare and cautiously extended her hand toward its head. “Easy, girl.” She grinned and began to scratch beneath the mare's jaw. “Like that, do ya?”
The chestnut on the other side snorted and slung her head to the side, but didn't move away from her foal. She also kept a very watchful eye on the human who gave her companion attention.
“Yeah, you're nervous, aren't you?” Lex asked the chestnut. She ran her hand along the neck of the gray, grimacing at the tangles in its mane. While she scratched with one hand, she used the other to stroke the ragged coat. “I think we'd better get you into town and have Ronnie check you out. Some of these sores look infected.” A sideways glance at the chestnut verified that it was in as bad of shape, including a particularly nasty looking spot below its left front knee.
Jack brought the three halters he had fashioned out of the rope. “I figured we'd be making a trip to the vet today.” He held one halter out to Lex.
“Good idea, thanks.” She had no trouble placing the halter on the gray. Lex accepted another halter and moved closer to the chestnut. The animal snorted, bobbed its head and backed away, the foal following her. “Come on, this won't hurt.” Lex stopped trying to catch the gray and turned when she heard new voices.
Shelby and Rebecca arrived on the back of Patches. Shelby swung down from behind her partner. “Thanks for the lift, darlin'.”
“Let's not make a habit of it, though,” Rebecca answered. “I'm going to put Patches away if you don't need me.”
“Sure.” Shelby patted the paint's shoulder.
Lex stepped out of the corral and joined Shelby . “I was wondering if you were having to walk back,” she teased. “Your horse beat us to the barn.”
“Figures. And I didn't want to strain Patches.” When Lex laughed at her, Shelby backhanded her in the stomach. “Shut up.”
“Heh.” Lex cleared her throat. “If it's all right with you, I think we ought to take the horses to the vet.”
Shelby put her hands on her hips. “Why are you askin' me?”
“Well, they're on your property. Your place, your rules.”
“Oh. Uh, sure. I was thinkin' of doin' that anyhow. Be okay to use your trailer?”
Lex nodded. “We could ask Roy and Helen to take the kids home in my truck. Then you and I could haul the strays into town, and I could pick up my horses when I drop you off.”
“Yeah. No problem.” Shelby turned to Jack, who had stood quietly by Lex. “Would you mind runnin' up to the house so Roy will know what we're gonna do?”
“Sure.” He turned and ambled away.
Shelby took off her hat and wiped her forehead against her shoulder. “Heck of a way to spend a day off, ain't it?”
“What's a day off?” Lex asked with a grin.
Rebecca came from the barn. “What's the plan?” She stood beside her lover and grinned as Shelby 's arm looped around her hips.
“We're gonna load up the strays and take ‘em into town. Shouldn't take too long,” Shelby added when she felt Rebecca tense.
Lex ignored Shelby 's glare at her knowing smirk. “I can handle taking them to town, Shelby. No sense in ruining your weekend.”
Shelby turned to Rebecca, who gave a slight nod. “Nah. They were on our property, so the least I can do is help. Right, darlin'?”
“Right.” Rebecca patted her on the side before taking a step back. “I'll let you two handle it, while I take care of the horses. Lex, do you care if I give yours a little feed?”
“No, that would be great. Do you need any help?”
Rebecca laughed at her. “I think I can handle two extra horses. But thanks for the offer.” She gathered the reins of Mac and Coco and led them to the barn.
Lex moved closer to Shelby and lowered her voice. “Did I offend her?”
“Nah. I think you made extra points for askin',” Shelby answered quietly.
“Yeah? Cool.” Lex tipped her head toward the house. “I'm going to run up and tell the kids goodbye.” Lex ignored Shelby 's laugh as she walked away. She was miffed at the other woman's teasing, until she realized how little it mattered. “Gotta quit being so damned sensitive about these things,” she grumbled as she removed her gloves and tucked them into her back pocket. When she hit the top step, the back door opened.
“Momma! Aunt Helen said we're gonna go home with her and Uncle Roy,” Melanie informed her. “Can't I go with you? I'm a big girl, you know.”
Lex lifted Melanie into her arms. “You sure are, princess. But all we're going to do is take the stray horses to the vet's office. I'll be home before you know it.”
Melanie's pout reminded Lex of Amanda, although she was smart enough never to admit it out loud. “I won't get in the way, I promise.”
“I know, sweetheart.” Lex kissed her cheek. “I need someone to help Aunt Helen with Eddie while Uncle Roy gets some rest. Do you think you can do that?”
The pout disappeared. “I can, Momma. I promise.”
“That's my girl!” Lex kissed her again and set her down. “Have you been good?”
“Yes'm. I drew a picture for the ‘frigerator. Do you wanna see?”
Lex nodded. “Sure. Then I'd better get back out there, so I can get home faster.”
Shelby closed the trailer in time to hear a pained yelp come from the corral. She latched the door and jogged toward the sound. She saw the chestnut mare staring from the middle of the corral and the filly trotting around her. Rebecca stood with her back to the railing. “Rebecca? What happened?”
“I'm okay.” Rebecca held one arm close to her body and crawled through the slats on the corral.
“What happened?” Shelby asked again. She reached for Rebecca's arm. “Lemme see.”
Rebecca shook her head. “I was just being stupid.” She had tears in her eyes and bit her lip as Shelby gently held her arm.
The skin on Rebecca's forearm was torn and bleeding sluggishly. Shelby led her toward the house but didn't release her grip. “Let's get this cleaned up and see what we have.”
“It's just a bite,” Rebecca argued as they walked. “The mare looked half-asleep, so I thought it would be easy to put a halter on her.” She stumbled but Shelby 's hold kept her from falling. “Damned thing snapped at me before I knew what was happening.”
Shelby helped her up the steps and opened the back door. “It happens, darlin'.” She led her to the kitchen sink.
“What happened?” Lex asked. “I was just on my way out there.”
“Chestnut took exception to a halter,” Shelby answered. She started a slow stream of water over the injury, wincing along with her lover as Rebecca hissed at the pain. “Sorry.”
“I'm okay,” Rebecca whispered while she tried to keep from crying.
Lex stood behind them, anxious to help. “Where are your first aid supplies?”
“Bathroom cabinet,” Shelby answered.
Rebecca closed her eyes at the continued rush of the cold water. She was unable to stop a pained moan from escaping.
“Hang in there, baby. I'm almost done.” Shelby turned off the water and accepted a clean towel from Lex, who had brought the supplies from the bathroom.
“What can I do to help?” Lex asked.
Shelby led Rebecca to a chair. “I'm not sure. This doesn't look terribly deep, but still.”
“I've been nipped before,” Rebecca countered. “You're making a bigger deal out of it than necessary.”
“Hush,” Shelby ordered. Her hands were shaking too badly to open the first aid kit, so Lex took over. Shelby watched as Lex's sure hands covered the wound in antibiotic ointment. “I think you ought to come to town and see a doctor.”
Rebecca was quiet until Lex finished wrapping a gauze bandage around her arm. “Don't be ridiculous. It's not that serious.”
Shelby growled, but didn't argue. “Well, I don't want you staying here by yourself. Why don't you come to town with us?”
When Rebecca's face darkened, Lex quietly stood and washed her hands at the sink, then gathered the leftover supplies. “Holler when you're ready.” She left the room to give them privacy.
“I'm capable of being here alone, even with a horse bite.” Rebecca took a deep breath and held it for several seconds, before releasing it slowly. “You're not usually this overprotective. What's going on with you?”
Shelby opened her mouth to disagree with her, but stopped. She sighed and removed her western hat. Her short hair was matted against her head with sweat and she ran her fingers through the strands before replacing the hat. “I've always cared about what happens to you, Rebecca.” She looked at the floor, embarrassed at having to voice her feelings. “Hell, my life wouldn't be worth livin' without you, you know that.” Feeling braver than she ever had before, she raised her head. “I love you, darlin'. And just thinkin' about somethin' happenin' to you scares the shit out of me.” She smiled when Rebecca blinked in surprise. “Yeah. So, please let a doctor check out your arm, okay? Save me from makin' a fool outta myself in front of everyone?”
Rebecca laughed and put her good arm behind Shelby 's neck and kissed her. “All right. You win, this time.”
Lex returned to the kitchen and smiled at the couple who sat so close together they were almost one. “I'm going to put the gray back in the corral with the others. I called Ronnie. He's on his way out to look them over.”
Rebecca tried to stand, but Shelby 's firm grip on her hand kept her seated. “That's not necessary, Lex. I'm sure she only bit me because I spooked her.”
“Maybe,” Lex conceded. “But something doesn't look quite right about her, and I'd feel better if we had a vet's opinion.”
“Sounds good to me.” Shelby gave Rebecca's hand a squeeze before she got up from the table. “I'll help you.”
Lex was about to brush off the offer, when she considered the look on her friend's face. Shelby obviously needed to talk. “All right, thanks. Rebecca, is there anything I can do for you?”
“Yes. Please drag Shelby out of here,” Rebecca teased. “I'm going to go change my shirt, since this one is trashed.”
Shelby laughed. “I'm goin'. Holler if you need anything.”
Rebecca swatted her on the rear. “I need to change my shirt. Now go on.”
“Yes'm.” Shelby tipped her head and followed Lex out of the house. Once they were halfway between the house and the corral she said, “Do you think I overreacted?”
Lex slowed her pace. “No, not really. I've seen lesser bites than that get seriously infected. Probably wouldn't hurt to have a doctor look it over.”
“Yeah. That's what I thought, too.”
They stopped at the corral and watched the three horses, all acting differently. The gray stood near one corner, seemingly relaxed. The sorrel filly stayed close to its mother, while the chestnut mare stomped its left front hoof, over and over.
Shelby propped her arms on the rail and rested her chin on them. “Wonder what she did to her leg?”
“Hard to tell, since she won't let us get too close.” Lex joined her and draped her arms over the top rail. “The filly seems to be the only one in decent shape.”
“Too skinny, though,” Shelby added. “How long will it take the vet to get here?”
“Not sure. Why? You got something else to do?” Lex grinned at her friend's heavy sigh. She knew exactly what was bothering Shelby, but she didn't know if the other woman would have the nerve to say it out loud. “What?”
Shelby turned and glared at her. “You're a right smartass sometimes, ain't ya?” When Lex's grin widened, she shook her head. “All right. I want to take Rebecca into town and get her arm looked at. Is there anythin' wrong with that?”
“Nope.” Lex turned and leaned against the corral with her elbows braced along the top rail. “I was just wondering when you'd get around to saying it.” She laughed as Shelby growled and pushed away from the corral. “Go on. I'll keep an eye on things for you.”
“Thanks.” Shelby headed for the house. She turned and walked backward. “Sorry for snappin' at you.”
Lex waved one hand at her. “Don't worry about it. Take care of Rebecca.”“I sure will. See you later.” Shelby spun and jogged toward the house.
To be continued in Part 8
Return to the Academy