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 **
Two and a half hours after they arrived at the emergency room, Rebecca still had not seen a doctor. Her arm throbbed and she felt dizzy from her empty stomach. She rested her head against Shelby 's shoulder and closed her eyes.
“Can I get you anything, darlin'?” Shelby asked quietly.
Rebecca shook her head.
Shelby glanced around the waiting room. “This is crazy. You could be bleeding to death and no one seems to give a damn.”
“I told you it wasn't that serious. Even the nurse thought so. Can we just go home?”
Shelby sighed. “I'd feel better if a doctor said it was okay. Who knows if that nurse even knew what she was talking about?”
“ Shelby !” Rebecca looked around to see if anyone had overheard her. “She told us we'd be seen in order of importance. I'm sure they're just very busy.”
“It's bullshit,” Shelby grumbled. She stood and paced in front of her lover. The emergency bay doors swung open and a man was wheeled in on a stretcher. His hair was bright green and the matching paint on his face was smeared.
“Jus' slows down, guys. I ain't inna hurry,” he sang. He began to sing an off-key, R-rated version of Danny Boy.
Rebecca covered her mouth with her hand to keep from laughing out loud. “I'd forgotten today was Saint Patrick's Day. We used to have to dress up in green tops and jeans at Carson 's.”
“He's obviously celebrated enough for all of us. There's got to be someone who can look at your arm. Hold on, I'll be right back.” Shelby walked to the nurse's station and held a quiet conversation with the woman behind the counter.
Ronnie Bristol snapped off his rubber gloves and took a wide berth around the blindfolded mare. He stepped through the corral slats and ended up beside Lex. “The gray is malnourished, but otherwise in decent shape.”
“And the chestnut?” Lex asked. She walked beside him to the open tailgate of his truck, which held a large bucket of antiseptic water.
“I'm not sure.” Ronnie stuck his hands in the bucket and vigorously scrubbed up to his elbows. “I'd like to have Dr. Hernandez look at her before I say anything.”
Lex handed him a towel. “Come on, Ronnie. This is me you're talking to, not some clueless city kid. That spot on her leg is an infected bite, isn't it?”
He dried his hands and arms then tossed the towel into the bed of the truck. “It might be, yes.”
Lex nodded and thought about the implications. “Rabies?” The horse showed signs of the disease, especially the slight foam at its mouth.
“Damn it, Ronnie!”
He held up his hands. “Honestly, Lex. I don't know for sure. We have no way of knowing without a test, and you know what that entails.”
She knew all too well. The suspected animal had to be euthanized and its entire head sent to the Texas Department of State Health Services laboratory in Austin , where they could run the test. Anyone who had unprotected contact would have to start treatment. “Damn!”
“Hey, I swear I told you all I know.”
“No, it's not that.” Lex took out her cell phone and thumbed through her contact list. She put the phone to her ear and tapped her foot. “Come on, answer the damned phone. Hey, Shelby. Listen,” Lex stomped her foot. “Damned voice mail.” She listened to the prerecorded message and waited for the beep. “ Shelby , this is Lex. Call me as soon as you get this message, it's urgent. Uh, bye.” She placed the phone in its holster and sighed. “The chestnut took a pretty good bite out of Rebecca's arm earlier today. Shelby took her into town to get it checked out.”
“Lex, she needs to start treatment, just in case,” Ronnie emphasized.
“No shit,” Lex snapped. She stopped to take a deep breath then released it slowly. “I'm sorry. It's just that—”
He put his hand on her arm. “You're worried about her. For good reason. You wore your gloves when you handled the horse, right?”
“Yeah.” Lex frowned and closed her eyes. “Uh, Ron?”
“It can't be transmitted through blood, can it?”
Ronnie shook his head. “No, just saliva. Why?”
“I bandaged Rebecca's arm. Had her blood on my hands.” Lex looked at her hands, as if to see the blood still there. “Poor thing tried to be brave, but I could tell it hurt like hell. She cried, but never made a sound.”
He rubbed the back of his neck, a nervous gesture he had picked up from Lex. “If you were close, it's theoretically possible that you took in her breath, which could pass along the saliva. Dang it, Lex. I can't be one hundred-percent certain you're safe, providing the horse is been infected.”
“Yeah, I figured that much. Let me call Rodney and see if he has time to start the injections. I need to reach Rebecca and Shelby, too. Maybe they can run by his office before they come home.” She took out her phone and stared at it. “Damn it, Shelby . Call me!”
When her name was called, Rebecca almost knocked Shelby out of her chair when she jumped up. “Sorry.”
“That's all right.” Shelby stood and began to follow her.
The nurse at the door gave Shelby a dirty look. “Are you family?”
“I am,” Shelby snapped back. “Problem?” She put her hand on the door. “After you.”
With a disgusted snort, the nurse stepped in front of Rebecca. “Follow me, please.” She walked purposely down the hall and stopped in front of an open door. “Miss Starrett, if you'd take a seat on the table, we'll get your vitals.”
Shelby followed them in and stood in the far corner of the small room. She leaned against the wall and crossed her arms over her chest. It took a lot of self-control for her not to drag the nurse away from her partner when she accidentally bumped Rebecca's injured arm, causing her to cry out at the sharp pain.
The nurse murmured an apology before she wrote on the chart. She patted Rebecca once on the knee. “The doctor should be in shortly.”
Once they were alone, Shelby pushed off from the wall to stand beside Rebecca. “Hang in there, darlin'.” She put her arm around Rebecca's shoulder and held her the best she could. It broke her heart to feel the warm tears on her shirt and the silent sobs that came from the woman she loved. “Sssh. It's gonna be okay.” She kissed the top of Rebecca's head and rested her cheek against her hair.
The door opened. A middle-aged woman, dressed in faded green scrubs and a wrinkled lab coat stepped in. Her short, salt-and-pepper hair curled behind her ears and was in disarray. She adjusted her black-framed glasses and looked at the chart. “Miss Starrett?”
Rebecca raised her head away from Shelby and wiped her face with her good hand. “Yes, that's me.”
“I'm Dr. Kale.” She held out her hand to Shelby, who gave it a firm shake.
“Shelby Fisher. I'm Rebecca's partner.”
Dr. Kale set the chart on a rolling cart. She moved to the sink and washed her hands, dried them and then pulled on a pair of disposable gloves. She stepped close to Rebecca and held out her hands. “May I?”
Rebecca held out her injured arm and bit her lip in anticipation.
“So, horse bite, huh?” Dr. Kale gently unwrapped the gauze from the injury. Once it was exposed, she nodded. “Nicely cleaned. I don't believe stitches are necessary, but we'll need to start you on antibiotics, just to be safe.”
“Okay.” Rebecca looked up at Shelby, who rubbed gentle circles on her back. “See? I told you it wasn't that bad.”
Dr. Kale laughed. “I didn't say that. It's good that you came in, if only for the antibiotics. Animal bites are the world's worst at getting infected.”
Shelby grinned and nodded at her. “That's what I said, doc. Thanks for backing me up.”
Fifteen minutes later, Shelby escorted Rebecca from the hospital, two prescriptions in hand. “I liked that doctor. She was all right.”
“That's because she couldn't take her eyes off of you,” Rebecca teased.
Shelby stumbled. “What?” She stopped and looked at her lover. “You're crazy.”
“Maybe. But it's true. Dr. Kale spent more time looking at you than at my arm.” Rebecca giggled before Shelby opened her door. “Not that I can blame her. You are cute.”
“Hush.” Shelby swatted her on the rear. She was uncomfortable with the thought of the doctor being attracted to her, but was grateful for the painkilling shot Dr. Kale had given Rebecca before they left the exam room. She hurried around the truck and climbed in behind the wheel. On the seat between them was her cell phone, which had a rapidly blinking red light in one corner.
Rebecca rested her head against the back of the seat and closed her eyes. “Could we drive through somewhere and get a burger, or something? I'm starving.”
“Sure. We need to call and let Lex know we're on the way, though. She's probably bored to death out at our place.” She picked up her phone and looked at the screen. “Missed a call from her.”
“Maybe it's about the horses.”
Shelby nodded as she listened to her voice mail. “Huh.” She hit the speed dial for Lex. “Hey, boss. Sorry about missing your call, but,” her voice trailed off as she listened. “Damn it. Is he sure?” She looked at Rebecca and felt an ache in her chest. “Yeah. Thanks. Um, what's the address?”
“What's up?” Rebecca turned her head toward Shelby .
“Okay, I appreciate it, Lex. We'll see you in a bit.” Shelby tossed her phone onto the seat. “Ronnie checked out the horses.”
Rebecca sat up. “Are they going to be okay?”
“The gray and the filly are all right, but the chestnut might not be.” Shelby turned in her seat to face her. “That bad spot on her leg might be an infected animal bite, and she's showing possible signs of rabies.”
“Oh, my god.” Rebecca looked at her arm. “Does that mean that I—” she choked on the words. “I could have rabies?”
Shelby scooted across the bench seat and put her arm around her. “You may have been exposed, yeah. But since we don't know for sure, it's a good idea to go ahead and start the treatments. Just in case.”
Rebecca started to cry. “I'm scared, Shelby . I don't know if I can handle this.”
“You're not alone, darlin'. I'll be with you every step of the way.” Shelby kissed the side of her head. “You're gonna be just fine, I promise. We're heading over to Amanda's brother-in-law, Rodney. He's expecting us.”
Amanda parked in her usual spot beside the house. Lex's truck was gone, which normally wouldn't surprise her, but her wife had planned on spending a quiet day at home with Eddie and Mel. “I wonder where she is?”
“Ma'am?” Lorrie looked up from the scrapbook she was studying. “Where's Momma's truck?”
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Amanda muttered. “Let's see if Mada knows.”
Lorrie tucked the book into her backpack. “Cool. I want to show her these albums.” She climbed out and was on her way down the walk before Amanda could open her own door.
Amanda rolled her eyes and followed at a more leisurely pace. The cottage door opened when Lorrie hit the bottom step and Martha waved to Amanda. “Hi.”
“Hello, there,” Martha greeted. She accepted a one-arm hug from Lorrie. “Did you have a nice time, sweetie?”
“Yes, ma'am. Aunt Jeannie had all sorts of cool things, and I even got to see a game that my father played in. It was really awesome.” Lorrie turned to Amanda, who had joined them on the porch. “And their wedding pictures, too,” she added with a giggle.
“Watch it,” Amanda teased. “Remember what I said.”
The threat of having a similar haircut was a good one, and Lorrie bit her lip and nodded.
“Do you have any idea where Lex and the kids are? I thought they were staying home today.”
Martha ushered them into her home. “Eddie and Mel and helping their Pawpaw with a jigsaw puzzle in the kitchen, and Lexie is over at Shelby and Rebecca's.” She patted Lorrie on the back. “There's fresh chocolate chip cookies, if you'd care to join them.”
“Thanks, Mada.” Lorrie headed that direction, leaving the two women alone in the living room.
Amanda pursed her lips and frowned. “Did Lex pawn off the kids on you? She made such a big deal out of spending time with them today.”
“No, hon. She took them with her, but sent them back with Helen and Roy when she found out she'd be there a while. And you know we love having them over here, so hush.”
“Oh.” Amanda followed her to the sofa and sat on the opposite end from Martha. “Helen and Roy? What on earth was going on over there? Is everyone all right?”
Martha sat back and shrugged. “Something about some stray horses, according to Helen. Poor Roy was tuckered out from all the excitement. One of the horses nipped a chunk out of poor Rebecca's arm, so Shelby took her to town, while Lexie stayed to keep an eye on the critters. Why, I don't know.”
“You know how she is. I'm surprised she hasn't brought them home with her, knowing Lex. I should call and check on Rebecca. It must have been a serious bite, for Shelby to seek medical attention. I hope she's okay.” Amanda tapped the arm of the sofa.
“Hon, why don't you run on over there and keep Lexie company? The kids are fine with us.”
Amanda hopped off the couch. “Are you sure? I feel like we take advantage of you.” At Martha's laugh, she shrugged. “Well, I do.”
“That's just plain silly. You know we love the kids. They're already growing so fast, we don't get to see them as much as we used to. Before we know it, Lorrie and Melanie will be off to college and little Eddie will be chasing girls.”
“Good lord, don't say that! The girls are too independent as it is.” Amanda ducked and kissed the older woman's cheek. “Thanks. I'll call and let you know how late we'll be.”
Martha waved her away. “Nonsense. We'll make up the guest bed for the girls, and Eddie can sleep with us if it gets too late. Go on, now.”
“All right. But call me if—”
“Yes, ma'am.” That tone always meant business, so Amanda blew her a kiss. “Tell the kids I'll see them later. I don't want to upset Eddie by seeing him and leaving so quickly.” The glare she got caused Amanda to laugh and hurry from the house.
She was halfway to her SUV when Lorrie's voice stopped her.
Amanda turned to see her oldest jogging to catch up. “Honey, you don't have to go. We're probably going to be stuck over at Shelby and Rebecca's for a while.”
“That's all right.” Lorrie tucked her hands into the front pockets of her jeans and walked in step with Amanda. “I really want to see Momma,” she admitted quietly.
Amanda stopped by the Expedition. “Sweetie, I love you more than anything in the world, but I also love your Momma. And I—”
“You're afraid I'll yell at her again?” Lorrie scuffed the toe of her sneaker along the front tire to etch the black surface with a lighter shade of dirt. “I was being stupid.”
“You think so?” Amanda stepped around to lean against the vehicle, a few feet away from her daughter. “Why did you do it, then?”
“I dunno.” When Amanda remained silent, Lorrie continued, “When you went to get lunch, Aunt Jeannie talked about when I was born. She said the stroke she had made her want to die, especially after my Dad was killed. And that she didn't even feel like my mom, ever.”
“She said that?”
Lorrie nodded. “She said it was because she couldn't do anything for me, not even give me a bottle.” She raised her head. “Was she really that sick?” The woman Lorrie knew now was perfectly healthy. It was hard to picture her helpless and unable to move.
“Yes.” Amanda rested her hand on Lorrie's shoulder, while they both looked off into the distance. “I knew she was sad and upset, but I had no idea she felt so…lost. I should have been more supportive of her.”
“She said you'd feel that way, that's why she never told you.” Lorrie turned and looked into Amanda's face. “It's okay, Mom. I didn't tell you to make you sad.” She grinned. “Did you know that Aunt Jeannie had a crush on Momma?”
Amanda blinked. “What?”
“Back then, I mean. At least that's what she said.”
“Oh?” Amanda shook her head. “Um, no. We've never really talked much about that time. I knew that Lex would spend a lot of time with Jeannie. That's why we have paved walks from the house to the barn, and to Mada's. Jeannie was in a wheelchair and your Momma wanted to get her out of the house. So she had the walks poured.”
“No wonder Aunt Jeannie liked her.”
Amanda bumped her with her hip. “She still likes her, goofy.” The both laughed, but Amanda sobered when she remembered how the conversation started. “Did Jeannie tell you what else your Momma did?”
“Although Momma was completely swamped with running the ranch, she'd stop whatever she was doing and come in for lunch. She'd feed you and bring you in to visit with Jeannie.”
Lorrie didn't appear convinced. “Every day?”
Sometimes, the girl was more like Lex than anyone else. The skeptical tilt to her head mirrored that of Lex, when she felt as if someone was trying to put something over on her. Amanda worked to keep the smile off her face. “Every day she could, yes. And when you'd wake in the middle of the night, crying, she was the one who would get up with you.”
“Yes, really. She'd rock you, walk with you, and sing to you. Whatever it took to get you back to sleep.”
At that, Lorrie relaxed. “Yeah, I remember sitting in her lap and her reading to me.” She rested against the SUV and sighed. “Can we go see Momma? Please?”
After a short argument with Ronnie, Lex found herself on the road to town. While she knew she needed to start the treatment shots that would protect her against the rabies virus, she didn't want to go without talking with her wife. Unfortunately, Lex's cell phone battery was dead. And her charger was in the truck that Helen and Roy had taken home, while Ronnie's was left on his office desk. He promised to wait for the arrival of the sheriff, who Lex had contacted before her phone died. Jeremy would have to decide what to do with the strays before they were either reunited with their rightful owner, or enough time had passed so they could be auctioned.
She turned on the radio, not surprised to find it on an easy listening station. She often teased Roy about his taste in music, which leaned more toward soft rock and light jazz, while her satellite radio was tuned to country. She hit one of the preset buttons and laughed as a Disney tune came through the speakers. “He's as bad as I am.” After another push, she found a station that played pop music from the eighties. “Good enough.”
Lex hummed along softly to the music and enjoyed the scenic drive. The trees sported fresh leaves and the new grass beside the road grew in near-fluorescent matching green. Soon, she would have the men check out their other pastures to see if they had enough grazing for the cattle to be moved.
She soon crossed into the Somerville city limits. It didn't take her long to get to Rodney's office. The big surprise when she arrived was the familiar Ford Expedition she parked beside. “Crap. What's Amanda doing here?” Lex had barely gotten out of the truck when Amanda met her in the parking lot. “Hey.”
Amanda put her hands on her hips. “Hey?”
“Uh, hi?” Lex breathed a sigh of relief when her wife laughed. “I was going to call you, but the battery on my phone died.”
“And your charger is in your truck, not Roy 's,” Amanda added in an exasperated tone. She moved closer and touched Lex's arm. “Are you all right?”
Lex nodded. “I'm fine, I promise.” She wrapped her arms around her wife and held her. “How did you know to come here?”
“We were on our way to meet you at Shelby and Rebecca's, when Jeannie called.”
“Your sister is a damned gossip,” Lex muttered.
Amanda laughed. “No kidding. But for once, I'm glad.” She stepped out of Lex's embrace, but kept one arm around Lex's hip. “Rebecca's already been treated, but Rodney had to give her an extra something for the pain, and she's resting in one of the examination rooms. After her shot, Shelby went in to stay with her.” They walked together into the office.
Lorrie was seated in the waiting room and rose to her feet when she saw Lex. “Momma!” She crossed the room quickly and embraced both parents. “Aunt Jeannie said you might have rabies.” She didn't bother trying to hide her fear as she huddled close to them.
“There's a very slim chance of that.” Lex kissed the top of her head. “I'm here to get a shot to prevent that from happening.”
“I'm sorry for being mean to you, Momma. I promise to never do it again.”
Lex closed her eyes for a moment to dispel the lump in her throat. “It's all right, sweetheart. We're okay.”
The interior door opened and Ellie appeared. “Lex, I'm glad you're here. Rodney is ready for you.” When Lex broke away from her family and started past her, Ellie gave her a quick hug. “You just can't stay out of trouble, can you, cuz?”
“Nah. What fun would that be?” Lex turned to Amanda and Lorrie. “I'll be right back.”
As much as she wanted to be with Lex, Amanda didn't want to leave Lorrie alone, and three people were a crowd in the tiny exam rooms. “We'll be here.”
Monday morning, Shelby stepped out of the bathroom towel-drying her hair. She was surprised to see Rebecca still in bed, since she needed to be at work not long after her. Although she wasn't a morning person, Rebecca was responsible enough to drag herself out when she needed to. “Hey, darlin'. You're gonna be late if you don't get up.” She draped the towel on a chair and put on her underwear and jeans. “Rebecca?”
Shelby eased the blanket off Rebecca's face. “What's wrong?” She touched her flushed cheek. “You're running a fever.”
Rebecca closed her eyes at the gentle touch. “I feel like I have the flu.” She shivered and wrapped up tighter in the covers.
“Want me to call the feed store for you?” Shelby asked as she sat beside her.
“No, I'll get up. I can't afford to miss work. I've only been there a week.” Rebecca sat up. Her flushed cheeks paled and she covered her mouth. She flung the covers off and raced for the bathroom, barely reaching the toilet before she began to retch.
“Damn.” Shelby followed her and dampened a wash cloth. She knelt beside her lover and held her hair away from her face. With her free hand she dabbed the cloth along Rebecca's neck. Rodney had warned her of the side effects of the shot, but when neither of them felt anything the day before, she thought they had gotten lucky.
Rebecca coughed and spit into the toilet before flushing it, then leaned back against Shelby . “Oh, god.”
“Let's get you off this floor.” Shelby stood and carefully helped Rebecca up. She kept her arm around her waist while Rebecca shakily brushed her teeth. “You can't go to work like this. Let me give them a call, I know they'll understand.”
“No, just give me a minute. I'll—” The toothpaste didn't set well with her queasy stomach. Rebecca shoved away from Shelby and ended up in front of the toilet, gasping for breath between the dry heaves.
Once she was through, Rebecca felt as weak as a kitten. She didn't even argue when Shelby undressed them both and got into the shower with her. Shelby even surprised her by braiding her clean, wet hair once they were in the bedroom. “When did you learn to braid hair?” she asked as she fell back against the pillows.
Shelby grinned and tucked the blanket up around her chin. “No offense, darlin', but a woman's hair ain't all that different from a horse's tail, you know.”
“Ugh.” Rebecca gave her a weak glare. “Remind me to swat you when I'm feeling better. That was bad.”
“I'll sure enough do that,” Shelby happily agreed. “I'm gonna call the store for you, and then give my boss a holler. I'm sure she won't mind me hang around here today ‘til you're feeling better.”
“You don't have to do that. I can probably take care of myself.”
Shelby lightly touched the end of her lover's nose. “Too damned bad. I'm also gonna call the doc and see if there's anything I should do for you.” She kissed Rebecca on the forehead. “You just lay there and rest. I'll run check on the horses after I make my calls.”
“Better watch out, Shelby ,” Rebecca warned.
“Someone might think you're getting soft, for being so sweet to me.”
Shelby leaned close and whispered, “Only for you, darlin'.” She gave her another light kiss on the head. “And I don't care who knows it.”
“Melanie, finish your breakfast so you can wash up. Momma will soon be back from the barn to take you to the bus.” Amanda wiped Eddie's face, causing him to fuss.
“No!” Eddie swatted the tray of his high chair and tried to squirm away from Amanda.
Amanda sighed. “Stop fidgeting. I'm not going to kill you.”
Lorrie, who had finished her breakfast earlier, came into the kitchen. “Can I go help Momma? My backpack is by the door.”
“Sure. Could you please remind her that she's taking you to the bus? I have to get Eddie bathed and ready for his checkup at the pediatrician this morning.”
“Yes, ma'am. Come on, Freckles.”
The dog that camped underneath Eddie's high chair, raised her head but didn't move.
“Greedy.” Lorrie hurried out before Amanda changed her mind. Once she was off the porch, she glanced at the kitchen window before taking off toward the three-foot picket fence at a run. When she reached the gate, she placed her hands on top and vaulted over. As she landed on her feet, Lorrie raised her hands in the air to the imaginary cheers. “Thank you, thank you,” she exclaimed while she trotted to the barn.
She stepped into the barn and looked around. The horses were enjoying their meal, but her mother seemed to be absent. She was about to call out when she heard an unusual sound in the tack room. Following the noise, Lorrie peeked around the open door and panicked. “Momma!”
Lex sat on a bale of hay, throwing up in a bucket. Her hair was matted against her forehead with sweat and her face was unusually pale. She raised her head. “Go back to the house, Lorrie. I'll be up there in a minute.” Her voice was low and rough. “Please.”
“Can,” Lorrie moved closer, “can I help you?”
Lex swallowed as she shakily placed the bucket to the side. She took a clean handkerchief from her back pocket and handed it to Lorrie. “Could you wet this for me, please? I don't think I can get up just yet.”
“Sure. Don't move.” Lorrie hurried to the sink in the front of the barn. She returned and handed the wet cloth to Lex, who wiped her face and mouth.
Lorrie squatted beside her. “Momma?”
“Are you dying?”
Lex almost snapped at the question, but stopped. Although Lorrie had grown up in the last year, she was still young. “No, sweetheart. I'm not.” She cleared her throat. “Your uncle Rodney warned me that I might get a little sick from the shot he had to give me. I'll be fine in a day or two.” She closed her eyes and focused all her energy on not throwing up again.
“Maybe I should go get Mom,” Lorrie stood and offered.
“No!” Lex softened her tone. “She's got enough going on this morning. Run up to the house and make sure your sister is ready to go. I'll meet y'all at the truck, okay?”
Lorrie stared at her, as if she were about to argue.
“Go on. I'm fine, now.” Once she heard the outer barn door close, Lex slowly stood and took the bucket to the sink to wash it out. She cleaned her hands and splashed water on her face.
Amanda gathered Eddie's diaper bag and two small toys for the trip to his pediatrician. She carried him and his bag down the stairs in time to hear the back door open. “Sounds like Momma's back from the bus stop.”
“Momma, go.” Eddie kicked his legs. “Want Momma.”
“Of course you do.” Amanda pulled up short when she saw Lex. Her wife was pale and sweating, although the March morning was nice and cool. “Honey?”
Lex brushed her hair out of her eyes and sat on the bench by the door. “Hey. Kids are off to school.”
“Momma!” Eddie squirmed until Amanda let him down. He toddled to Lex and tried to climb in her lap. “Up!”
“Easy, buddy.” Lex slowly raised him to her knee, facing her. “Are you ready to go?”
He bounced a few times and giggled. “Momma, go.”
Amanda sat beside them. “You don't look very well, honey. What's the matter?”
Lex sighed. She considered brushing off her wife's concern, but knew Amanda wouldn't stand for it. “Just a little queasy this morning. Rodney said it was possible with the shot. I just didn't expect to be losing my breakfast in the barn,” she wryly finished.
“Oh, no.” Amanda rubbed Lex's back. “I'll call and reschedule Eddie's appointment.”
Amanda sighed. “Because you're sick, and I'd like to be here to help you, goofball.”
“That's ridiculous. I'll be fine.” Lex couldn't stop the shiver that came upon her. “I'm going to go upstairs and take a shower, and you and this little guy here,” she bounced him on her knee, “can go into town. If I need anything, I can always call Martha.”
“Oh, yes. I can see that happening.” Amanda held out her hands to Eddie. “Come on, cutie. Are you ready to go?”
Eddie laughed and bounced harder. “Go!” He grabbed Lex's shirt. “Momma, go?”
“No, Eddie, you go with Mommy. I'll see you when you get back.”
“Momma,” Eddie leaned against her and didn't let go. “Go, Momma.”
Amanda picked him up. “Would you like to drop by and see Hunter?” Jeannie's son was an endless fascination for Eddie.
“Baby. Go!” he cheered, happy once again.
Lex stood and kissed Amanda's cheek. “You heard the young man. Go!”
“All right.” Amanda touched Lex's cheek. “Promise me something, please?”
“Call Martha if you need anything?”
Lex growled. “Well played, sweetheart. All right. I promise. Eddie, be good for Mommy, okay?”
He laughed. “Ha! Good.”
Amanda poked Lex gently in the stomach. “He's definitely your kid.”
“Ha.” Lex poked her tongue out.
By lunch Lex no longer felt sick to her stomach. She sat at Martha's table and finished the last of her roast sandwich. “That was great, Martha. Thanks.”
“You're quite welcome, honey. I'm glad you liked it.” Martha refilled both their tea glasses. “Have I thanked you lately for giving Charlie something to do? The man was driving me crazy around here.” Her husband had retired as county sheriff and had become increasingly bored. Once Roy had been given a walking cast, Lex had asked Charlie to drive him around the ranch, much to everyone's relief.
Lex wiped her mouth and sat back in her chair. “It was actually Amanda's idea. Once Shelby got a feel for things, it didn't make sense for Roy to keep riding with her. Besides, I think Helen was getting ready to bury him behind the barn.”
“I wouldn't be surprised,” Martha agreed. Her demeanor changed. “Are you sure you're feeling okay? You still look a mite peaked.”
“I'm okay.” When she received a familiar glare, Lex held up her hands. “Okay, so I feel like I've been run over by a truck, and my arm hurts like hell where he gave me that blasted shot. Happy?”
Martha sighed. “Of course not, Lexie. Why don't you go lie down in the guest room?”
“No, that's not necessary. Shelby 's at home with Rebecca today, so I really should—”
“You really should take care of yourself,” Martha finished for her. When Lex rolled her eyes, Martha waggled a finger at her. “Did you happen to consider that your body is still trying to get over pneumonia? That horrible shot couldn't have helped any. And you have to get another one, when?”
“Exactly.” Martha stood. “So, you've got a choice. Either my guest room, or your own bedroom. Take your pick.”
Lex was about to argue more, but a lethargic wave rolled over her. “I think I'll head on home, while I can.” She got to her feet and pushed her chair in. “Thanks.”
Martha gave her a hug and escorted her to the front door. “That's what I'm here for, sweetie. To keep you in line when Amanda's not around.” She rubbed Lex's back before pushing her onto the porch. “Go home, Lexie. And get some rest.”
“Yes, ma'am.” Lex saluted her. “I'm only agreeing because I had already decided to do it, you know.”
Rebecca tightened the blanket around herself and closed her eyes. She no longer felt nauseous, but her arm ached so badly it made her dizzy. Shelby had propped her on the couch with the television remote before she left to pick up a few things in town. “I should have never mentioned chicken noodle soup.”
Her eyes slowly closed and she relaxed, until her cell phone rang. “Hello?”
“Becca? Honey, your brother called me and said you weren't at work today. What's wrong?”
“Mom?” Rebecca sat up. “How did Terry know?”
Kathy Starrett sighed. “I haven't a clue. But don't try and change the subject. Are you ill?”
Rebecca bit her lip to keep from blurting the first thing that came to her mind. No, Mom. I called out my second week of work for the hell of it. “I woke up sick this morning, but I'm feeling better, thanks.”
“Are you running a fever? I hear there's a nasty virus going around.”
“No, it's not a virus.”
Kathy could not be dissuaded. “How do you know? Have you seen a doctor?”
“Honestly, Becca. I hate you living out there in the middle of nowhere. You need someone to take care of you.”
Six years. For six long years, Rebecca had been hearing the refrain. She had always had a great relationship with both parents as she grew up. Even after she had moved in with Shelby , they had tried very hard to be supportive. But, as the years passed, they realized Rebecca wasn't going through a “phase,” and that she planned on living with a woman. Over the last couple of years, their tolerance had begun to wane. “Mom, Shelby takes very good care of me.”
“I'm sure she tries, dear. But she's not family.”
As Rebecca's blood pressure continued to rise, the throbbing in her arm intensified. “She's as much family to me as Daddy is to you,” she snapped.
“There's no need to take that tone with me. I'm only worried about you.” Kathy paused a moment. “While I'm sure you feel strongly about,” she almost choked on the word, “ Shelby , you have no real commitment like your father and I do. Enough about her. You never answered me. Have you seen a doctor? If it is a virus, you may need antibiotics to get over it.”
“Yes, Mom. I've seen a doctor. That's why I'm sick.”
Dead silence on the other end of the line.
Kathy's voice was subdued. “Are you…pregnant? I know that most of your peers are married with children, but have you thought this through?”
“What? Mom! No!” Rebecca gathered her thoughts. “Um, Saturday, we found three abandoned horses. I was trying to get a halter on one of them and it bit me.”
“Bit you? Becca, you should be more careful. There's no telling—”
“Yeah, I know. I went to the emergency room to have my arm looked at, then Amanda's brother-in-law gave me a shot—”
“Wait. Your friend, Amanda? The one that lives on a ranch? Her brother-in-law gave you a shot, for what? And is that even legal?”
Rebecca gritted her teeth. “If you would let me finish, Mom, I'd tell you.”
Kathy's feelings were hurt and she didn't bother to hide it. “Fine.”
Rebecca purposely ignored her mother's curt reply. “Okay, where was I? Oh. Amanda's brother-in-law is Dr. Crews. He has that office over on Willow Street . Anyway, since we don't know anything about the horses, Dr. Crews started me on the rabies vaccine. That's what made me sick this morning. Shelby and Lex had to get shots, too. But Shelby was just a little achy today. Not throwing up like me. I'm not sure how Lex is feeling.” When her mother didn't say anything, Rebecca was afraid she had hung up. “Mom?”
“Oh, I can talk now?”
“Mom, don't be like that. I'm sorry, but you kept asking me questions without giving me time to answer.” Rebecca decided to play the pity card in the hopes of getting out of trouble. “And I'm not feeling good.” She let a slight whine slip into her voice. “I'm sorry, Mom.”
It worked. “Oh, honey. That's all right. Do you need me to bring you anything?”
“No. Thanks, anyway. Shelby should be back soon. She went in to town to get a few things.”
“She left you alone?”
“I'm not dying, or an invalid. As a matter of fact, I was thinking about going out and checking on our horses.” Which, of course, was a lie. Rebecca had no urge to move from the couch.
“Don't go near those beasts!” Kathy snarled. “What if they attacked you again?”
Rebecca couldn't help but laugh. “Horses don't attack people. Besides, the sheriff quarantined the horses. He's hoping to find the owner, or see if the one who bit me gets sick.”
“Anyway, thanks for calling to check on me, Mom. I promise to call you soon, okay? Love you.” Rebecca disconnected the call and turned off her cell, in case her mother called back. “Terry, next time I see you, I'm going to give you the biggest wedgie you've ever had!”
Shelby was on her way out of town when she took a wrong turn and ended up at the sheriff's department. “Well, since I'm here, might as well have a quick chat with Sheriff Richards.” She went inside and signed the visitor's log, then studied a bulletin board covered with information while she waited.
“Good afternoon, Ms. Fisher,” Sheriff Jeremy Richards greeted. He shook her hand and gestured to the open interior door. “Let's go into my office.”
“Call me Shelby,” she requested, as she followed him through the door. “Ms. Fisher makes me feel like a school teacher, or somethin'.”
He laughed and guided her through to his office. “Have a seat, Shelby . How's your partner feeling?”
“Rebecca was a mite sick this morning, but she was feeling better when I left for town.” She dropped into one of the visitor's chairs across from him. “Thanks for asking. Speaking of which, has that mare showed any more signs of rabies?”
Jeremy leaned back in his chair. “Ronnie called me this morning. While the filly and the gray still seem healthy, the chestnut has begun to show signs of deterioration. But we still don't know for sure.”
“Damn it!” Shelby slapped her thigh. “Any luck on finding the owner?”
“No. I can't find a brand on file that matches the description on them, and no one in the state has reported them missing. In two weeks I can put them up for public auction, if you're interested.”
Shelby stood. “What about the chestnut? You can't auction a diseased horse. Can we go ahead and have it destroyed, so we can test it for rabies?”
“We can't destroy the mare until we're certain she's terminal. It would open the county up to a lawsuit, if the rightful owner came forward. I'm sorry, Shelby . But until the vet tells me that there's no hope for her, my hands are tied.”
“That's complete bullshit, Sheriff! How long will Rebecca have to worry?” Shelby placed her hands on the edge of his desk and leaned over it. “Are you going to wait until the fucking horse falls over dead?”
Jeremy pushed his chair back and got to his feet. “Calm down.”
“Don't fucking tell me to calm down! My partner is at home right now, sick, because of having to start the damned rabies vaccine. She cries herself to sleep at night, worried that she's going to die.” Tears burned her eyes and Shelby 's demeanor changed. “Please, Sheriff. I'll do whatever it takes.” She softened her voice. “What if the horse got loose? Disappeared? The county wouldn't be liable then.”
He shook his head. “I can't authorize that, Shelby .”
“Wait.” Jeremy rubbed his face and glanced at the open door. He walked around the desk and closed it then stood beside Shelby . “Look. I know you're a good friend of Lex's. Hell, she's like a sister to me. The thought of her going through those blasted shots so soon after she got out of the hospital scares me.” He sat on one guest chair and gestured to the other.
Shelby sighed and sat on the edge of the chair. “Yeah. I don't even want to know how freaked Amanda is about all of this.”
“No kidding. She's a fireball, that's for sure.”
“Ha. That's puttin' it mildly.”
Jeremy laughed along with her before sobering. “So, if that mare just happened to get worse, then the vet would put it out of its misery. Not that I'm advocating anything, mind you. Just having a conversation.”
Shelby gave him a curt nod. “Right.” She slapped her hands down on her legs and got to her feet. “Thank you for takin' the time to see me, Sheriff. I appreciate it.”
He shook her hand. “Anytime. Give me a call if you need me.”
“Yeah. I'll do that.”
The slight dip of the mattress woke Lex. She rolled onto her side and looked into the eyes of her wife. “Hey.”
“Hey, yourself.” Amanda mirrored her pose. “How are you feeling?”
Lex considered the question seriously before she answered. “Better, I think. What time is it?”
“A little after six.”
“Wow. Guess I was more tired than I thought.” Lex realized the house was quiet. Too quiet. “Where are the kids?”
“The girls went to town with Martha and Charlie to see a movie. Eddie was exhausted from his visit at Jeannie's and is sacked out in his room. He'll probably wake up at midnight, ready to play, but I didn't have the heart to keep him up.” Amanda brushed her fingertips along Lex's cheek. “You're hot.”
Lex weakly grinned. “Nice of you to notice.” Her grin faded as the light touch turned into a caress. “Mmm.”
“I need to get you something for the fever, honey.” But Amanda didn't seem in any hurry to move.
Lex's hedonistic moment was interrupted by the phone. “Figures.” She rolled away from Amanda and picked up the phone. “Walters. Yeah, Ronnie.” She sat up and swung her legs off the bed. “Really? When?” She felt Amanda sit behind her and touch her back. “All right. Let me know as soon as you hear, okay? Yeah, I know. Thanks.” She hung up the phone and turned to her wife.
“Yep. He went out to check on the chestnut mare and found her lying in her stall.”
Amanda felt a moment of sadness for the loss of life, but then focused on the bigger picture. “And?”
Rubbing her face, Lex exhaled slowly. “He's on the way to the testing lab in Austin , with the, uh, specimen.”
“It's getting late. Wouldn't it be better for him to go in the morning?”
Lex chuckled. “Remember who we're talking about here, sweetheart. Ronnie has never been one to wait around.”
Amanda leaned against her. “That's true.” She kissed below Lex's ear. “Hopefully we can find out something before y'all have to get another round of shots.”
The warm tickle that ran down her spine had nothing to do with fever, and everything to do with the woman draped against her. Lex tried to focus on the conversation. “Um, huh?”
“How about,” Amanda reached around Lex and started to unbutton her shirt, “we get this off of you,” she placed another light kiss, this time on her wife's back, “and get you ready for bed?”
Amanda laughed at her. “After you're ready for bed, I'll run down and grab you something to eat.” She climbed off the bed and gently pushed Lex backward, until she was lying down. “Soup, or sandwich?”
Lex glared at her as she was tucked under the covers. “ Sandwich , I guess.”
“Peanut butter and jelly?”
The glare was replaced by a childlike smile. “With milk?”
“Of course.” Amanda adjusted the blanket over her and kissed Lex on the forehead. “Be right back.”
“Thanks, Amanda. I appreciate you calling.” Shelby closed her cell phone and tucked it in the back pocket of her jeans. She scratched Patches' nose. “Looks like we'll find out one way or another by tomorrow. Have a good night, girl.”
She left the barn and made her way across the yard. At the foot of the steps she turned and looked out across the acreage she and Rebecca owned. It was ten acres of mostly hills and trees, with less than two acres of flat land suitable for grazing. Shelby felt a deep pride at the improvements she and Rebecca had made over the years. “The best is yet to come, I reckon.” She dusted off her jeans and went inside.
Rebecca turned and looked over the edge of the couch when her partner came into the living room. “How are the horses?”
“They're fine, darlin'.” Shelby sat next to her and put her arm around Rebecca. “Patches said she missed you, but understands.”
“Ha. You've spoiled her more than I have.” Rebecca snuggled into her embrace. “I'm feeling better. But tomorrow I have to get the next shot, which will probably make me sick again.”
Shelby hugged her. “Well, maybe not. I got a call from Amanda while I was in the barn. She wanted us to know that Ronnie found the chestnut mare dead, this afternoon.”
“Oh, no. That's horrible. Did he have any idea what caused it?”
“No. He ran a few tests, but then decided to load up the um, specimen and head for Austin .”
Rebecca rubbed her hand over Shelby 's stomach. “You don't have to sugar-coat it for me, hon. I know what they have to do to test for rabies.” She sighed and rested her head against her lover. “I feel bad for the filly, though.”
“She was gettin' close to weaning age, anyhow. And the vet had the chestnut quarantined, so they were already separated. So, hopefully we'll hear something before your doctor's appointment tomorrow afternoon.”
“Maybe.” Rebecca sniffled and tried not to cry. “I'm scared. If the horse died, it probably died from rabies. I don't know if I can go through being sick for the rest of the month, Shelby .”
“Hey, now. We don't know nothin' yet. Let's try to keep a positive attitude, alright? By this time tomorrow, we'll have an answer. Whatever it is, we'll handle it.”
Rebecca nodded. “Thanks, honey.” She settled more comfortably in Shelby 's arms. “I love you.”
Shelby kissed the side of her head. “Love you too, darlin'.”
To be continued in Part 9
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