See disclaimers in part one.


Destiny's Bridge

Part II

By Carrie Carr


Chapter 3


"So..." Amanda asked, trying to keep up with Lex's long legs, "Just how big is your ranch, anyway?" She adjusted the hood on the raincoat she was wearing, another 'hand-me down', this time from Lex.

The rancher adjusted the black hat on her head. "It's a little over a thousand acres. I've been slowly building it up over the past few years." She turned to talk to the other woman, then stopped when she realized Amanda was quite a few steps behind, puffing to catch up. "Why didn't you ask me to slow down?" She asked, as the younger woman finally caught up to her.

The little blonde smiled sheepishly. "I didn't want to bother you. I just kinda forced myself on you this morning." She tried to look down at her shoes, but a strong hand gently tilted her chin up.

"You are not a bother, and with my ribs like this, will most definitely be a big help to me." She wrapped a companionable arm around Amanda. "C'mon. I'll introduce you to my friends." She led them into a large barn with stalls on each side, and a clean concrete walkway running down the middle. There were ten stalls on each side, but only about half of them were occupied.

Lex noticed the unspoken question in Amanda's eyes. "I've been slowly trying to phase out the cattle, and I'm working on making this a horse-only ranch." She opened another door, where the feed was kept.

Amanda followed her in, fascinated by all the sights and sounds around her. "Are these all the horses you have?" she asked, as the other woman opened a large barrel and pulled out a full bucket.

"Well, these are the working horses." She handed the bucket to Amanda and grabbed an empty one and dipped it into the barrel. "The rest of the horses are in one of the far pastures. We bring in a few at a time, break them, then take them to the auction to sell." She led the small blonde back into the main part of the barn, and dumped her bucket into a trough in front of one of the stalls. Amanda pointed to the next occupied one, received a nod, and followed suit. They repeated this procedure until all ten horses were fed.

"Okay, boss..." Amanda brushed her hands off, "What's next on the agenda?"

Lex laughed, and pulled her gloves out of the pocket of the duster. She began walking to the back of the barn, then opened a door, which led outside. "Next," she held the door open for her companion, "We go to the hay barn and take the cattle and the other horses their breakfast." She pointed to another building about twenty yards away.

The rain had slowed down to a slight drizzle by the time they reached the large structure. Lex opened the large double doors and waited for Amanda to proceed her.

"Wow! This place is huge!" There were stacks of hay bales that almost reached the ceiling in some places, and a large battered blue pickup truck sat alone in the middle of the room. Amanda flipped the hood off of her head and looked towards the tall woman. "Now what?" she followed the rancher to the side of the truck.

Lex got in on the driver's side. "Just let me back this up to the hay, and we'll get started loading." The truck rumbled to life, and she quickly put it in reverse and slowly rolled it back towards the hay. Once the old vehicle was in position, she grabbed another pair of gloves, slipped out from behind the wheel and moved towards the rear. Dropping the tailgate down, Lex climbed into the back and grinned. "Well? You gonna stand there all morning, or are you gonna help?" she tossed the extra gloves to the smiling blonde.

Amanda slipped on the gloves and jumped up into the rear of the truck beside her. "I'm here...what do you want me to do?"

Lex pulled off the duster and laid it over the side of the truck, leaving her in a dark blue tee shirt. Amanda couldn't help but notice the play of muscles along her back before she straightened up and turned around. "We need to load up the truck with bales of hay, then take it over to the next pasture."

She was about to grab one of the bales when a gentle hand grasped her arm. "Do you think it's wise for you to be hefting these things around?"

Lex shrugged. "Not much choice, Amanda. With all this rain, we gotta make sure that the cattle have enough to eat. Otherwise, they have a tendency to knock down the fence looking for something to munch on." She quirked an eyebrow at the young woman. "And I've already had my quota of fence building this week."

Amanda smiled and removed her hand. "At least let me help you." She grabbed the other side of the bale Lex had her hands on, and together they pulled it into the truck. "See? That wasn't so hard, was it?"

Lex shook her head and grinned. She hated to admit it, but the young woman really was a big help. I don't think my ribs would appreciate me tossing these around like I usually do, anyway. "No, but you may be singing a different song by the time we get finished today."

Amanda gave a slight frown. "I'm a lot stronger than I look, you know." She reached for another bundle of hay.

Lex stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. "I'm sorry, I really didn't mean anything by it...I just don't want you to hurt yourself." She looked a little lost. "I really do appreciate all the help...don't think I could do it by myself today."

Amanda reached up and wrapped her hand around Lex's arm. "I'm sorry, too. I guess I've spent so long trying to prove myself, that getting defensive about my size is second nature now. You're the only person besides my grandparents who has actually believed in me." She reached for the bale. "So...are we going to stand here chatting all day, or are we going to get those animals fed?"

Lex smiled and helped her drag the bale down to the bed of the truck.



The rain started up again in earnest after they unloaded the last of the hay. Both hurried back into the truck, heaving a great sigh of relief to finally be out of the weather. Lex leaned back in the seat and closed her eyes. "How much longer is this damn rain gonna last?" she sighed, taking a moment to catch her breath. She wasn't going to tell Amanda, but her ribs were really beginning to bother her again.

Amanda pushed the hood off her head. "I know what you mean. I keep expecting to see the animals begin pairing up."

The dark woman stifled a small laugh. ""Yeah...and at this rate, we may want to book passage for ourselves, as well." She turned her head and opened her eyes. "Thanks again for all the help. I'd probably still be piling hay in the truck if you weren't here."

The blonde blushed. "Well, I thought I'd better begin to earn my keep somehow." She smiled. "What's next on the program?" Hopefully lunch figures in pretty soon...I'm starving! Her stomach must have agreed, because it took the opportunity to announce itself.

Lex raised an eyebrow at her. "Well..." she drawled, enjoying the blush on her companion, "I was going to suggest lunch, but I didn't know if you were hungry or not." She smirked, as Amanda's blush deepened. "Besides, Martha gets kinda upset if I'm late - and I don't want her to break any more spoons." She sat up and started the truck.


Lex and Amanda came in through the mudroom again, hanging up their soggy coats and the taller woman hanging her drenched black hat up as well. They had rinsed their feet off outside, trying to keep on Martha's good side. As they stepped into the kitchen, the housekeeper turned around and sighed, hands on her hips. "I'm so glad you're back, Lexie...your brother called, and he's in some sort of tizzy...wants you to give him a call as soon as possible." She shook her head. "Didn't even ask how you were, just demanded that you call."

Lex's jaw clenched. "Was he rude to you again, Martha?" she remembered the last time she saw Hubert here at the house.

He had come out to the ranch about some minor thing - sat down in Lex's office, and demanded that the housekeeper 'fetch' him some coffee. When she brought it, he took a sip and yelled, "Where's the cream and sugar? Can't you do anything right, old woman?" Unfortunately for him, Lex happened to walk in at just that moment. She stalked to the desk and pulled him over it by his neck. "You sonofabitch! Apologize before I snap your worthless head off!!" Martha had to forcibly pull her away, or she would have surely done just that.

Martha shook her graying head. "No honey, he wasn't. I think you scared him out of all good sense the last time." She looked over at Amanda, who seemed a little confused. "C'mon, dear. Help me set the table for lunch."

Amanda gave her a grateful smile. "Sure. Just let me go upstairs and clean up a little." She looked back at Lex, who smiled and nodded.

"Go on. I'll go into the office and get that phone call out of the way." She watched the small blonde leave, and shook her head. "Did Hubert give you any clue as to why he called?"

The older woman sat down on a nearby stool. "Yes. I just didn't want to get into it while Amanda was here...she's such a sweet thing." She paused, gathering her thoughts. "He said his old friend Rick called him," here she wrinkled her brow in distaste, "and told him Amanda would be staying out here for a while." She paused, seeing the rancher suddenly go pale. "Apparently, Mrs. Cauble had called him to let him know she wouldn't be at work for a week or so." She could see Lex visibly trembling now, fighting her anger.

"Amanda works for Rick?" barely spoken.

Martha nodded. "Yes. Didn't she..." here she paused. "Oh, that's right. You were asleep when we talked about that last night. Seems like Ricky thought it would be fun to send Amanda out here on a wild goose chase."

That explains a lot of things. "Okay, that makes sense. I'll deal with him later." She could have been killed because of his pettiness --- Bastard! "So, what's Hubert's problem?" She took a deep breath to calm down.

Martha was almost afraid to say what Hubert had 'related' to her. But she had never lied to Lex, and wasn't about to begin now. "He said he didn't want a repeat of the 'Linda fiasco.' " She held her breath, waiting for the eruption. But it didn't happen. When Martha looked into Lex's eyes, she saw quiet defeat there. Oh, no...please don't give up, Lexie...that's what he wants.

Lex sighed. "Okay. Thanks Martha. I'll just go give him a call and get it over with." She left the room without another word.

Amanda met her in the hallway. "Hey, 'bout ready for some lunch?"

The older woman stopped and turned. She looked pale and drawn. "I'm really not all that hungry right now. You and Martha go ahead, I've got to call my brother back." She turned and continued down the hall.

The small blonde looked after her quizzically. "Okay." She continued into the kitchen, where Martha was busy at the stove. "Martha? Is Lex all right?" she walked over to the counter and picked up three plates and some silverware. "I just met her in the hall, and she wasn't looking very good."

Martha shook her head. "No dear, she's not. That older brother of hers has always been a thorn in her side...he's always resented the fact that Rawson put her in charge of the ranch instead of him - after all, he's seven years older than she is. And he always guilts her into whatever he wants."


Lex closed the office door behind her and let out a deep breath. Might as well get this over with. She sat behind the heavy oak desk and dialed the number for the house in town.

She had signed the house in town over to Hubert several years ago making him move out of the ranch completely. He really didn't mind, since all he really liked about the ranch was the money it gave him. He was much happier in town, with all his 'friends - guys that usually spent the majority of their time harassing women and jumping into one 'get-rich' scheme after another. And using her trust fund money that had been left to her by her mother, she began remodeling, almost gutting the second floor entirely, turning her old bedroom and Hubert's into a large guestroom, and combining the spare upstairs room with the master bedroom. She had also built a nice cottage just off from the main house for Martha, since the older woman had absolutely refused to move into the guest room (she felt it wasn't her place), and deeded it along with twenty acres to the surprised woman (the housekeeper adamantly refused any more than that). Hubert had been furious - he had never liked the woman, since in his mind she was a replacement for his mother - whom he remembered fondly.

Hubert had been eleven when Martha came to work for them, taking over the household duties for Victoria, who had become bedridden five months into her pregnancy. He resented the heavyset woman, mainly because young Lex adored her so. And after his mother's death, she stayed on - and Lex attached herself onto her apron strings like glue. She treated the older woman like a mother, which aggravated him and his father to no end. Little Louis had worshipped the woman - calling her 'Mada' and she treated both the younger children as if they were her own.

Lex sighed as she waited for Hubert to pick up the phone. On the fourth ring, he finally answered.

"Hubert Walters..." a somewhat nasal voice intoned.

"Yeah, Hubert...this is Lex. You wanted to talk to me?" She picked up the letter opener on the desk and began to casually clean her fingernails.

"'Bout damn time you called..." he complained. "Or did your 'maid' forget to give you my message?" he asked, trying to anger her.

"Yeah, Martha gave me the message some time ago," she lied, "but I was busy." Two can play this game, Hube ol' boy.

"Busy? Doing what? Playing with your new little 'friend'?" he sneered. "That's what I was calling about...I don't want you dragging our family name through the mud again..."

Lex clutched the phone with an iron grip - she swore she could almost hear it moan under the pressure. "You bastard..." she growled.

Hubert laughed humorlessly. "What was the little trollop's name? Lulu? nah... oh, yeah, Linda! That was her name, wasn't it?"

"You know what her name was, Hubert...she dumped you, didn't she?" Lex couldn't help it.

"Oh, yeah...but that's okay, 'cause she played for the other team. Was she good in the sack, Lex?"

Creak. Lex looked at the stainless steel letter opener she had just bent in half with one hand. "I never heard her complain, but you wouldn't know anything about that, would you Hube?"

The older man realized that he had pushed his sister just about as far as he dared. "Okay, okay. Look... I just don't want your libido to get you into trouble again."

"What the hell are you talking about, Hubert?" Lex stood up, looking for something to throw.

"Aw, c'mon, Lex. Rick told me she's a cutie. She must be 'one' like you, 'cause she wouldn't even go out with him."

Lex laughed. "All that proves is she has good taste! Why is it if a woman isn't interested, men automatically think she has to be gay?"

Her brother wasn't so easily dissuaded. "C'mon, Lex - the little tart won't socialize with anyone from the office...just spends all her time with those two old farts."

Lex saw red. "Now you listen to me, Hubert - you will not speak of her or the Cauble's that way...they're good folks. A lot better than that riff-raff you run around with." She paused, to let her words sink in. "And," in a very low voice, "If I hear of you even thinking badly of any of them, I will make you regret the day you were born...Ya got that? " she slammed down the phone before he could reply. The walls began to close in on her. Gotta get out of here for a while... she silently strode down the hallway and out the door.


They sat together at the table in silence and ate their lunch. Lex was conspicuously

absent, although they could hear her raised voice boom through the house from time to time. They heard bootsteps down the hallway, and then a door slam. Both jumped up from the table and hurried over to the window, just in time to see a tall figure walking quickly through the yard. Lex went into the barn, and a few moments later left again - this time astride a beautiful bay stallion. Horse and rider quickly disappeared into the falling rain.

"Oh dear. He must have really upset her. She never rides Thunder unless she's going to ride really hard." Martha shook her head and stepped away from the window. "C'mon honey. Let's get these dishes cleaned up, and then we'll sit and visit for a spell. She's probably gone to check the fence by the creek again."

Amanda allowed the older woman to lead her away from the window. Please be careful...


Lex and Thunder rode hard for about thirty minutes, until she could feel the great beast begin to tire. Old boy, I'm gonna have to get you out more often. She also felt the need to slow down due to the complaints she was getting from her own body as well. Not the smartest thing you could have done, Lexington. They had ridden through the winter rye fields, and then through the stand of trees she and Amanda had walked through last night. She pulled the horse to a stop before they got to the road, not wanting to risk injuring either one of them in the mud.

Looking at the felled tree and halfway flipped jeep, Lex was surprised that they weren't both seriously injured. The jeep itself was leaning precariously on three wheels, the top of the tree sitting almost on top of it. Whoa...that was a close one! She reined the horse back towards the creek - Might as well see that in the daylight, too.

The old bridge was not in as bad of shape as Lex as previously feared. Only the middle section was gone, so it probably would not take that long to repair. She looked downstream, and saw the tail of the little Mustang sticking up out of the water. Hmm... an idea began to form in her mind... She turned Thunder around and headed back towards the house. Got some planning to do...


"....and then she hands me this piece of paper and says, 'Happy Birthday, Martha.' I tell you, I was never so surprised in my life. She even had me pick out everything to decorate it with. It sure was a big change from that little room in the back." The older woman wiped her eyes. She had just told Amanda how Lex had surprised her with the deed to her little cottage, where they were now sitting drinking coffee. Martha thought it was the best place to wait for the rancher, since they could sit in her living room and look out the huge picture window and see the main house and barn.

Amanda and Martha had spent the afternoon getting to know each other better. She had told the older woman about her grandparents, and some of her more favorite stories from her childhood, including the summer they found her car. Which sparked a small burst of tears when she realized that it was probably miles downstream by now. Martha had related several humorous stories about Lex, and how hard it was to raise a girl on a ranch full of men. She also told of the sad young girl who never fit in at home or at school, and how she slowly closed herself off from the pain of being different, and the loneliness of running a ranch.

"My grandmother said that Lex was about the sweetest person she had ever met. How did she get involved in the historical society?" Amanda had been wondering about this since her talk with Anna Leigh last night.

Martha laughed. "Actually, Lex did it mostly out of spite, at least at first." At Amanda's confused look, she continued. "Hubert had been really nasty towards all of us here at the ranch, and he decided he was going to become a big real estate developer. So, he had picked out the old Taylor house, and he was going to buy it and level it to the ground...wanted to turn it into a shopping center or some such nonsense. Anyway, Lex had gone into town to get the cast taken off her arm,"

"What??" Amanda gasped.

" Oh, she broke it instead of one of the horses..." she pushed her hair out of her eyes. "Where was I? Yes. She was coming out of the doctor's office and nearly tripped over your grandmother, who was hanging up a sign in the window. She was chairing a meeting of the historical society that evening to discuss the historical significance of Loren Taylor's old house. Lex read the sign, and asked Mrs. Cauble about the meeting. Then after she had gone to the meeting, she decided that it was important from a historical standpoint, not just an excuse to get back at her brother. And now she tries to help out whenever they need her. I think Mrs. Cauble uses her as 'muscle' to keep some of the more vindictive dissenters from harassing the ladies of the society, but I think Lex actually enjoys it." She smiled. "You should see her in her boots and jeans at one of their little tea parties. I don't know who has more fun, Lexie or the ladies. It's really a sight to behold. She's even hosted a couple out here, trying to get me interested."

Amanda giggled at the mental picture of Lex's dark good looks in a dainty tea party setting. She could just see the ladies with their fancy dresses and pearls, and Lex with her denim jeans and flannel shirt. "Oh, I bet that's a riot!" she laughed. "My grandmother has invited me to their meetings before, but I was afraid I'd be the only one there under sixty!" she laughed again. "Wish I would have taken her up on the invite... maybe I would have met you and Lex sooner."

The older woman smiled. "I don't know. Sometimes things are just meant to happen a certain way." She looked through the window. "And I think we should get back to the main house. Lexie just took Thunder back into the barn...she'll be a while brushing him down." She stood and took her coffee cup into the kitchen, Amanda hot on her heels.


Lex walked out of the barn and looked at the house. I've got a load of explaining to do when I walk through that door... It had been over two hours since she stormed out of the house, and now the tall rancher was...nervous. What do I say to her? She continued walking, berating herself for her childish actions. Running out of the house like my tail was on fire... real adult, Lexington. Martha would probably swat her with a spoon, and Amanda....Oh, boy... I can't believe I just took off like that...She slowly opened the back door and stepped inside. Hearing voices coming from the kitchen, Lex took a deep breath and slunk in.

Martha and Amanda were sitting at the table drinking coffee, and looked up when they heard bootsteps in the hall. "Did you have a good ride, dear?" Martha asked, standing up and going over to the stove. "I kept your plate warm, just in case." She turned and looked at Lex, who had the most confused look on her face. I do so love keeping her off balance. "Now you go upstairs and get some dry clothes on, and I'll have your lunch ready." When the younger woman opened her mouth to argue, Martha put her foot down. "Don't argue with me, Lexington've spent way too much time out in the elements the past couple of days, and I don't want you adding pneumonia to your other ills." She shook a chubby finger in her direction. "Now git!"

Lex looked over at Amanda, who had her hand over her mouth, stifling a giggle. She quirked a sardonic brow the young woman's way, then turned and left the kitchen.

"Oh, are absolutely vicious!" the small blonde laughed, unable to hold back her mirth. "The look on her face..."

Martha smiled and resumed her seat at the table. "She really is like an overgrown child, sometimes. I know she was expecting to get yelled at, so..." she shook her head. "She's already whipped herself about storming off, and I know her brother can be such an ass..." she picked the carafe from the center of the table and refills their mugs. " She was always tougher on herself than I ever had to be."

Minutes later they heard Lex's footsteps on the stairs. Martha stood up, walked over to the stove, and pulled out a plate piled high with food. She sat it at the empty space at the table just as the tall woman walked in. "Sit down and eat...don't let your lunch get cold." As the rancher silently took her place, Martha stopped and placed a gentle kiss on the top of her head. "Now I expect you to eat every bite of that, young lady!" she patted her shoulder and moved towards the doorway. "I've got some chores to do, so I'll see the two of you later." She walked out the doorway, humming to herself.

Lex pushed the food around on her plate. "I'm sorry for running out like that earlier." She glanced up at the young woman beside her. "I just needed to get out for a while, and I wanted to check the fence down by the creek to see if my patch job held up."

Amanda smiled. Martha was right. She is like an overgrown kid - cute. "That's okay. Martha and I really had a good chat...she really is a wonderful person." She looked at Lex's plate. "But she might come back and throw a fit if you don't eat your lunch..." she smiled. "So how's the fence?"

Lex took a bite of food and nodded. "The fence is fine. And the bridge looks like only the middle is gone, so it shouldn't be too hard to fix. 'Course I'll have to check the supports and make sure they weren't knocked loose." She continued to eat. I hope she doesn't ask about her car. I've got to get Martha to help keep her occupied while...

"How are your ribs? All that riding couldn't have made them feel any better." Amanda questioned, knowing that the rancher had probably pushed herself to the limit today.

"Hmm?" Lex was knocked out of her musings when the young blonde laid a gentle hand on her arm. "Ribs?" she swallowed another bite. "Oh. Ribs. Right." She smiled. "A little sore, but not too bad."

A light squeeze on her arm. "So, what do you have planned for the rest of the afternoon?" Amanda took a sip of her coffee. "Is there something I can help with?"

Lex finished her lunch, not even realizing she had been hungry until she had begun to eat. "Well," she leaned back in her chair, "I thought we'd take it easy for the rest of the day." She interlocked her hands and laid them on her stomach. "It's too muddy to do anything outside, and there's not much else to do. Besides, we've got a large collection of movies in the den...and I just recently finished wiring the surround sound system. Been wanting to try it out." She stood up and carried her dishes to the sink.

"Sounds like a plan to me." Amanda took her cup and sat it in the sink as well.

Lex looked around, then ran hot water in the sink. She looked to the younger woman and grinned. "Shhh..." she placed a finger to her lips, "I just gotta tweak Martha somehow." She stuck her hands in the now soapy water.

Amanda bumped her with a hip. "Scoot over...I'll rinse and dry. No sense in you having all the fun!"

They made quick work of the dishes, and had just put them away when Martha came into the room. "What are you two up to?" she asked, as both younger women spun around and looked extremely guilty.

Amanda hid the dishtowel on the counter behind her back. "Who? Us?"

Lex smirked. "Nothing, Martha. We were going to go into the den and watch interested?" She walked towards the housekeeper, trying to keep her away from the sink.

Martha reached up and checked her forehead. "What's the matter? Are you not feeling well?" She never takes the day off. I wonder why?

The tall woman grabbed her hand and held it in her own. "I'm fine. It's just too nasty to do any work outside, and I thought Amanda would enjoy the break." She pulled the older woman into a surprise hug. "You care to join us?"

Martha returned the hug. She sure is touchy-feely lately... Not that I'm complaining. "No thank you, honey. If you're going to relax today, I think I'll go over to my place and get some things done, if it's alright with you?"

Lex stepped back. "Martha, you don't have to ask me if you want to do something - you know that."

The heavier woman smiled. "I know you say that, dear...but you run this ranch, and I respect that."

Lex thought about that. "Not exactly."

The graying head snapped up. "What do you mean by that?"

Lex motioned for Amanda to follow her out of the kitchen. "You're the one that runs this house, Martha...I just work the ranch." She stepped out behind the small blonde before Martha could say another word. Just as they reached the entry to the den they heard, "Lexington Marie Walters!!! I'm gonna take my spoon to your backside!!!"

They looked at each other and smiled. Lex led Amanda into the den. One corner had a massive fireplace. What is it with these folks and fireplaces? A huge entertainment center with a big screen TV took up an entire wall. There was a large comfortable looking leather sofa, with a heavy oak coffee table in front of it, and leather plush chairs on either side of the sofa. Lex pointed Amanda to another wall, where a bookcase full of videotapes and CD's awaited her perusal. "Go on...pick us out something to watch. I'll go beg Martha's forgiveness, and nab some sodas and popcorn."

Amanda wandered to the bookcase, in awe at the selection of videos. Comedy or drama? She smiled when she saw that the movies were grouped alphabetically, except some that were grouped by series. Mel Brooks? She has the entire collection of Mel Brooks?? She laughed. Indiana Jones, Die Hard, Star Trek...someone's an action junkie... She continued to browse through the titles, looking for something lighthearted. Sleepless in Seattle? While You Were Sleeping? Hmmm..... Ah! A Fish Called Wanda... I love that movie!! She pulled the tape from it's allocated spot, and sat it on the coffee table.

Lex walked into the room with a tray loaded with goodies. "Hope you like butter on your popcorn." She sat the tray on the coffee table. "Did you find something to your liking?" She noticed the tape on the table and picked it up. "Ah...that's one of my favorites." She took the tape and crossed the room to the entertainment center, placing the tape in the VCR. She grabbed the remote control from atop the TV and sat down on the sofa next to Amanda. "I figure we could just set the bowl between us and share," she looked at the younger woman uncertainly. "I brought some extra bowls if you'd rather..."

Amanda scooted closer to her and grinned. "Nah...why dirty up more dishes? Unless you think we can get away with washing these too?"

Lex shook her head. "Uh-uh...I'm lucky to have escaped the kitchen with my rear intact as it is!" she mock shivered.

Amanda barely bit back a giggle. "Was she really angry?"

The older woman leaned back and propped her sock feet on the coffee table. "Nah...but she did threaten." Using the remote, she turned on the TV and surround speakers. She looked over at Amanda. "Might as well take your shoes off and get comfortable."

The smaller woman grinned and complied. She put her feet up next to Lex's, and then settled back to enjoy the movie.


A couple of hours later, Martha went in search of the two. There was no sound coming from the den, and the only light was that of the fireplace. Peeking inside the door, she saw Lex slumped back against the sofa sound asleep, her feet propped on the coffee table. Well, at least she wasn't wearing boots this time. But the biggest surprise was her companion. Amanda was curled up against the rancher asleep, her head pillowed on a broad shoulder, and her arm wrapped tightly around the dark woman's waist. Lex had her arm gently over Amanda's shoulders, her head leaning up against the blonde's. Martha smiled, and tiptoed back to the kitchen to begin dinner.

Amanda woke a little time later, somewhat disoriented. She was warm and quite comfortable, at least until she realized where she was. Amanda thought about getting up, but when she glanced at the still sleeping woman next to her, she didn't have the heart to disturb her. She looks so tired. The young woman was still studying her companion when she felt the arm around her tighten.

Blue eyes blinked open, looking for the moment as confused as she herself had been upon wakening. Lex quickly removed her arm. "Ummm...I'm sorry about that..." she struggled to sit up. "I didn't mean..." she looked a little panicky.

Amanda smiled, and gently patted her stomach. "Don't worry about it - I kinda climbed all over you like you were my own personal mattress." She sat up and stretched. "That was a good nap, though."

Lex cautiously stretched as well. "Yeah, it was. Guess I was still pretty tired from last night."

Amanda looked at the clock on the wall. "Me too. It's early evening, don'tcha think?"

Lex looked at her, puzzled. "Yeah, I guess so. Why?"

"Well, if it's okay with you, I'd like to call my grandparents and see how they're doing."

The older woman stood up and smiled. "You don't have to ask permission to use the phone." She held out a hand. "C'mon. I'll let you use the phone in the office so you'll have some privacy."

Amanda accepted the hand and allowed herself to be pulled up. "Thanks."

Lex escorted the younger woman into the office and around the desk. "Siddown. Just push a button for an outgoing line. We have three lines coming in, but the computer is hooked up to the third." She turned to leave. "Take all the time you need. I'll be in the kitchen harassing Martha." She winked and walked out the door.

Amanda's eyes followed the dark woman out the door as she picked up the phone to call out.

The phone rang twice, and her grandfather answered. "Hello?"

"Grandpa Jake? How are you feeling?"

A deep chuckle. "Just great, Peanut. We just got back from the movies about twenty minutes ago." He noticed the happy lilt in her voice. "How are you doing, sweetheart?"

Amanda let out a happy breath. "I'm doing much better today, Grandpa. I helped Lex feed the horses, and then we took hay to the cattle." She paused, thinking about earlier today. "After lunch we sat down and watched a movie."

He laughed. "Sounds like you've had a busy day."

"Well, not really. I'm trying to keep Lex from overdoing it because of her broken ribs." Oops! Now how do I explain that?

Jacob cursed. "Broken ribs?" Anna Leigh came into the room. "What's the matter, sweetheart? Is that Mandy?" she grabbed another phone. "Mandy? Is everything okay?"

Amanda hid her face in her hand. Tim to bite the bullet, I guess. "I'm fine. Lex broke a couple of ribs yesterday."

Anna Leigh sighed. "Is she all right?"

"She's sore today, but I think she'll be okay."

"Peanut, how did her ribs get broken? Was she in an accident?" her grandfather asked.

Amanda rubbed her eyes. "Okay, I'll tell you, but you've got to promise to stay calm, okay?"

Both Jacob and Anna Leigh complied. "Okay, sweetheart, go ahead and tell us." Anna Leigh said, taking the cordless phone and perching on the arm of the chair Jacob was sitting in, grasping his hand.

"You remember when I told you I was on my way to Lex's yesterday, because of an appointment sheet Rick gave me?" she asked them.

"Yes... And I'm still pretty hacked off at the little turd." Anna Leigh grumbled.

"Okay... well, anyway, I followed his directions, and finally found the road to Lex's place. I was crossing the old wooden bridge, when a tree came out of nowhere and crashed right into the bridge!" she paused here, unsure if she wanted to go on.

"Go ahead, Peanut... I know it's hard.." her grandfather encouraged.

"Umm... the bridge broke in half, and my car fell into the creek." Silence. "I must have hit my head, because the next thing I remember is being tied on Lex's back, and she's pulling us across the creek." She only heard breathing from the other end of the phone, so she continued on. " From what I understand, once we were about halfway across the creek, Lex was hit by some debris, which slammed into her chest, and gave her a nasty gash."

Jacob finally spoke up. "Are you okay? Why didn't you tell us this last night, Peanut?"

"I'm fine...I didn't want you to worry....and I have to admit, I was kinda woozy last night."

Anna Leigh sighed. "Mandy, please don't feel that you have to cushion us from things...I'm just very glad you're alright." She paused. "And Lexington really means a lot to me as well...I'm glad she'll be alright."

"Thanks, Gramma...she means a lot to me too..." Amanda feels tears tickling her eyes. "She's very special to me..." She had to tell someone how she was feeling...her grandparents knew she was gay, and had always been very supportive of her. "I only met her yesterday, yet I feel like we've been together forever...Is something wrong with me?"

Jacob chuckled. "Honey, I felt the same way the first time I saw your grandmother. She became my whole world the first time our eyes met..." he kissed the hand he was holding.

Anna Leigh joined in. "That's true, sweetheart. I felt as if we were destined to meet. My mother once said, 'Two old souls meeting again for the first time...' Is this what you felt when you met Lexington?"

Amanda had to tell the truth. "I feel more complete around her, Gramma."

Anna Leigh laughed. "I understand completely, dear. Does she know how you feel?"

"Oh, good Lord, no! I'd probably scare her out of ten years!" Amanda gasped.

"I don't think so, sweetheart." Anna Leigh answered.

Amanda was at a loss. "What do you mean by that?"

Jacob, who had been silent so far, chuckled. "Oh, Peanut... I keep forgetting you haven't lived here...Lexington certainly shook up the town gossips a couple of years ago... But I think you should ask her about it." He gave her a minute to think about that. "Let me put it this way...I don't think anything you could say would shock her."

Anna Leigh took over. "True...the poor girl has been through a lot in the past couple of years...Do you care for her, honey?"

Amanda choked back a sob. "More than I thought possible, Gramma. She's become such a deep part of me in such a short amount of time..."

Her grandmother clucked. "Now you listen to me...I think she's a wonderful person, but she has a tendency not to think that way..."

Jacob spoke up. "Is there anything we can bring to you, Peanut? I'm sure we could find a way to get it across that damn creek."

Amanda laughed out loud. "No, Grandpa Jake...Lex and Martha have made sure I have everything I need. But thanks for asking. I guess I'll let you go now..."

Both grandparents laughed. "Okay, sweetheart, but let us know if you need anything, okay?" Anna Leigh asked. "Give us a call again tomorrow. We'll just be goofing off around the house."

Amanda smiled. "Okay... I love you both... I'll talk to you tomorrow...Goodnight." She hung up the phone, somewhat relieved that she had told them the truth about her accident. They took that well. Guess since I'm still alive and kicking it doesn't sound so bad.


Lex wandered back into the kitchen, a smile still gracing her dark features.

Martha turned from the pantry, her eyes twinkling. "Did you enjoy your movie dear?" She began to carry an armful of items across the kitchen, only to have the tall woman cross the room and take them out of your hands.

"What do you mean by that?" Lex followed the housekeeper like a lost puppy. "Where do you want this stuff?" She was continually amazed at how Martha could take such an array of foodstuffs and turn them into wonderful meals. I would have starved to death a long time ago, if it wasn't for her.

"Just sit it on the counter there." She patted Lex on the back. "And I didn't mean anything by what I said - just asked a simple question. Why are you getting so defensive, honey?" She turned and studied the young woman.

"I'm not defensive!" Lex snapped, then sighed. "Yeah, I guess I am. Sorry Martha. You didn't deserve that." She leaned on the sink and stared out the window, vaguely noticing the rain had finally stopped. "This can't be happening..."

Martha walked up and wrapped an arm around her. "What's that, sweetheart?"

Lex turned and looked down at the slightly wrinkled features. "I'm not sure...but this feels different."

The housekeeper nodded knowingly. "And you're scared?"

The rancher blinked, then swallowed hard. "Terrified," she whispered, "I don't think I could go through that again." She paused, "I don't know if I want to go though that again." Lex shook her head. "Mute point, anyway." She took a deep breath and audibly blew it out. "Anyway, I came to ask a favor of you. I need you to keep Amanda occupied for a couple of hours tomorrow - I'm working on a little surprise for her."

Martha accepted the change in topics, for now. "Okay, I'm sure I can come up with something, but you have to tell me what you're up to first." She stood back and placed her hands on her ample hips, trying to assume a threatening manner.

Lex almost laughed at the older woman's attempt at toughness. She cleared her throat. "Did she tell you about the car she was driving yesterday?"

Martha nodded. "My heart nearly broke in two when she realized that it was probably gone forever." She noticed the gleam in the rancher's eyes. "What?"

Lex smiled. "I don't know how, but her car is still in the same place it was when I pulled her out of it last night. By tomorrow the creek should be down enough for me to tie it to the jeep and pull it back to the house."

Martha smiled. "You're not..."

The dark-headed woman nodded. "Yep. Figure I can hide it in the maintenance shed until I get it cleaned up enough to run - then we can take it into town and have the seats and carpets cleaned."

The housekeeper smiled. "You are devious, aren't you? She'll be thrilled. But how long do you think you can keep this a secret? That little girl is pretty darn sharp."

"I know. That's why I'm going to need your help - she really wants to help you out around the house, maybe..."

Martha waved her arm. "Okay, I'll try to keep her busy. But are you sure it's a good idea to try and pull that car out alone? Broken ribs do not heal overnight, even for you." She had always been amazed at the girl's recuperative powers. Must be a high metabolism. "And that reminds me, you are going to go upstairs right now and let me re-bandage those ribs and put some more salve on that scrape, aren't you?"

She knew when she'd been beaten. Lex sighed. "Yes ma'am. Right behind you, ma'am. Whatever you say, ma'am."

Martha lightly backhanded her in the stomach. "Enough of your lip, young lady! You're not too big for me to use my spoon on, you know." They both laughed as they went upstairs.


Amanda hung the phone and stared at it. Both her grandparents seemed quite fond of the young rancher, and it appeared that they had known her for some time. She turned her attention to the desk - uncluttered, the only object that looked out of place was a u-shaped piece of metal. Amanda picked up the item and studied it. Looks like...a letter opener? She tried to straighten it out, but even with both hands the steel would not budge. I have a pretty good idea when this happened. The thought of that kind of strength mixed with anger should have frightened her, but for some reason Amanda felt strangely comforted. She heard footsteps above her and smiled. I wonder what those two are up to now. Then she heard a scream. What the... The small blonde was out of the office and running up the stairs in a flash. She skidded to a halt at the master bathroom door.

Lex was standing in the bathroom shirtless, her back against the wall. "Damnit, Martha! Have you been storing that mess in the freezer or something? That stuff is ice cold!" she whined, trying to fend off the determined housekeeper, who continued to spread the salve on her injured chest.

"Stop your complaining Lexie...I'm almost finished."

They both turned to see a breathless Amanda standing at the door. "I heard a scream," she puffed, "Is everything all right?" she leaned against the doorframe, trying to catch her breath.

Martha laughed. "Lexie was just being a big baby."

"Hey, you'd scream too if she was trying to turn you into a human popsicle!" the tall woman complained.

Amanda laughed and shook her head. "I thought something horrible had happened." She couldn't help but notice the strong body still leaning against the wall. Down,'d just give her another reason to scream. But then something her grandparents had hinted about drifted into her mind. Hmmm...Maybe...? She realized belatedly that someone was speaking to her. "Sorry, what?" Amanda turned her attention back to Martha, who had directed a question to her.

"I was just wondering if you were still interested in helping me around the house. I've been wanting to re-arrange the cabinets and pantry, and I was going to draft Lexie into helping me, but I don't want her putting any strain on those ribs."

The person in question snorted, then gasped as Martha pulled the bandage tightly against her chest. "Ouch! You trying to kill me?" she grumbled.

The housekeeper gently slapped her on her good side. "Hush! I'd be finished a lot faster if you didn't squirm so darn much." She pulled the material tight again, getting a groan. "There. Amanda, could you hand me the safety pins on the counter, please?" she held out a hand.

The young blonde stepped further into the room to pick up the requested items. She handed them to the heavyset woman, and then picked up the flannel shirt that had been lying next to them.

"Stay still, or I'll end up poking you, Lexie." Martha admonished her patient. "I swear, you're worse now than when you were a child!" she finally completed pinning the bandage and stepped back.

Amanda moved forward and held out the shirt to Lex. She was trying very hard not to smile, but by the look on the tall woman's face, she had failed miserably. "Here, put this back on, it'll help warm you up." Although it feels pretty warm in here right now, to me anyway.

"Thanks." Lex took the shirt with trembling hands. I gotta grip a grip, here... She slowly pulled the shirt on, but her hands were shaking so bad she couldn't seem to get it buttoned. What's going on with me? This is ridiculous!

Amanda noticed the difficulty Lex was having, but assumed it was due to pain or the aftereffects of the cold salve. "Here," she stepped closer, "Let me give you a hand." She took over the buttoning duties, finishing the job quickly.

Martha smiled to herself and left. Mute point, eh Lexie? I don't think so. Neither woman noticed as she slipped quietly out the door.

Lex looked down into Amanda's face. Being this close, she could see golden flecks sparkling in those bright green eyes. She almost stopped breathing when the young woman edged closer.


Both women jumped. Amanda stepped back, startled by what she had almost done. Stupid, stupid, stupid! Where's your head, Mandy?

The tall woman was berating herself as well. Great! Probably scared her to death, just look at her face! She moved past the little blonde, heading towards the bedside table. "Excuse me...I'd better see who that is." The phone had only rung once, and she was reasonably certain that Martha had picked it up. Saved by the bell - if I'd stayed in there much longer, I would have scooped her up and tossed her on the bed. She ran a shaky hand through her hair as she picked up the phone.

Martha was speaking calmly to...Hubert...figures. He's always had impeccable timing. "Hello, Hubert. What do you want now?" Lex could hear the housekeeper release a soft sigh. "It's okay Martha, I've got it." The other phone clicked quietly. "Well? Did you call for a reason, or are you just trying to piss me off?" She growled, her nerves on edge.

"Nice to talk to you too, sis. Do I have to have a reason to call?" his nasal tones oozed insincerity.

"You always have. Now what have you called to complain about today?" She could feel her body clench up, causing her newly wrapped ribs to ache.

Her brother laughed. "You are such a hardass, dear little sister. Okay, as a matter of fact, I do have a reason for calling."

"Are you going to tell me sometime tonight?" her teeth ground together.

"Chill, sweetie...I just came across some property on the county books, and I think we could pick it up for a song. I just need a little extra capital to get the ball rolling."

Lex was about to let him have it, when she felt a gentle hand on her arm. She took a steadying breath. "Why would I give you money for another one of your real estate schemes? I told you months ago I wasn't going to lend you any more - what makes you think I'd change my mind now?"

Amanda led her gently to the bed and sat her down. She slide her hand down the tense arm gently prying Lex's fisted hand open placing her own hand in it.

"I just thought you would help me out, since I was willing to help you out." He wheedled.

Lex's voice trembled with suppressed rage. "And just how are you supposedly helping me out?"

"Well, since you've got a 'houseguest' out there, I'm offering to try to keep it quiet for you. No sense in your little 'friend's' reputation getting damaged, right?"

Lex shot off the bed. "You sonofabitch!!!" she exploded, "If you cause any trouble for Amanda or her family, I will personally take care of any aspirations you may have about fatherhood, brother or not!" she paced back and forth across the room, her face flushed with anger. "So don't you dare try to blackmail me for your idiotic little schemes, you little shit!" She turned off the phone and slammed it onto its base, then turned and looked over at Amanda. "Sorry about that."

The small woman was sitting on the bed, eyes wide. "What was that all about?" She was about halfway afraid of the answer.

Lex walked over and sat down in one of the chairs by the fireplace, defeat in her posture. "Why don't you come over here and sit down - it's kind of a long story."


Chapter 4


There was a cheerful fire burning in the fireplace. Martha must be some sort of magical sprite...When does she find the time to do stuff like this? Amanda shook off her musings and sat down in the chair opposite Lex. Whatever it is she has to say, it can't be good - she looks like she's expecting to be hit.

Weary and resigned, Lex wiped a hand over her face. "I'm not sure where to start." She muttered, looking into the flames of the fire, studiously avoiding the sweet face across from her. Well, it was fun while it lasted.

Amanda cleared her throat. "You really don't have to tell me anything, if you don't want to. I mean, it's really none of my business."

The older woman took a deep breath and finally met the intense green gaze directed at her. "Yes, I do. It does pertain to you in a roundabout way."

Amanda's fair brow wrinkled. "But I just met you yesterday. And I don't even know your brother. What could he do that would have an effect on me or my family?"

Lex looked down at her own hands, clenched together in her lap. "He threatened to spread the word around town that you were staying out here with me."

"So?!? What's the big deal? For god's sake, saved my life!!!" Amanda was beginning to realize where this conversation was heading, and she could almost feel the fear and pain radiating from the older woman.

"He would probably 'forget' to mention that you are stranded out here..." Lex paused for a moment, thinking. "I've got the supplies. I can start first thing in the morning, and probably get at least a walkway built across the bridge by the late afternoon. You can call your grandmother to come and pick you up."

Amanda slipped out of her chair and knelt at Lex's feet. "Tired of me already?" she gave the rancher a timid smile.

Lex looked down, and became lost in those twin pools of green. "No, of course not!" the denial came out sharply. "I just don't want your name dragged through the mud - my brother is quite good at that." This last statement was said much softer. Without her conscious permission, Lex's hand found it's way to Amanda's cheek.

The young blonde placed her hands on Lex's thigh. "I really don't think you should start to work on the bridge until your ribs have had more time to heal. I'm perfectly happy here."

Lex removed her hand. "Your reputation might be tarnished. Hell, if my brother has anything to do with it, it would be ruined!" She looked away, unwilling to show the young blonde too much.


"It's kind of a long story."

"So? I don't see us in any hurry to go anywhere. Unless you don't want to talk about it."

The older woman sighed. "A couple of years ago, when Hubert was still living here at the ranch, he had gone to Las Vegas on an alleged 'business trip.' A week later, he came home with a young woman he had met at the blackjack tables, who had given him some hard luck story about being dumped by her fiancé." A small smile crossed her lips. "They hit it off immediately, and Hubert invited her to come home with him to 'his' ranch." Here she laughed. "He must have really played it up - the ranch was only about half the size it is now, and we hadn't begun remodeling yet. Needless to say, it was a little...rustic." Lex slipped out of the chair and onto the floor next to Amanda. "I guess Linda felt a little betrayed by Hubert's exaggerations, because she started coming on to me." She looked over at Amanda, expecting shock or disgust, not the gentle smile she was receiving.

"Hmmm...go on."

"Well, she told me that she and Hubert had decided to break off their relationship, and were going to be just friends. I was young, I believed her. Shame she forgot to tell Hubert." A sad smile. "So, she stayed here at the ranch with me for about six months." Mentally bracing herself, Lex quietly added, "As my lover."

Total silence. Lex thought she could hear her heart pounding throughout the room.

"So, what happened? Why isn't she still here?" Amanda gave the strong leg under her hand a slight squeeze.

Lex blew out a breath. "Hubert had moved to the house in town, and Linda began asking me to take her on trips. I tried explaining to her that this was a working ranch, but she always cried about being bored, and tired of living out in the middle of nowhere." She shook her head sadly. "Later on, I realized that she was just a little gold-digger, and the luster wore off when she found out I really didn't have the kind of money that Hubert had hinted at." She ran her hand through her hair. "I came in from tagging the cattle one evening and found all of her stuff gone." She laughed bitterly. "The note said, 'Been a great ride, going to Atlantic City for a change of pace.' " It still hurt, all these years later. I thought it was love...what a joke I must have been to her. "Hubert was pretty vocal in town about what 'went on' here at the ranch. And now he's telling me that if you stay here, people may think the same of you." She felt her hand grasped, and looked into Amanda's eyes. "I don't want your grandparents to hear nasty rumors about you...I'm sure they've already heard all the stories about me."

Green eyes sparkled with unshed tears. "I am so sorry you had to go through something like that." She squeezed Lex's hand. "I really don't care what anyone says about me. And my grandparents have never cared much for gossip." She longed to take Lex in her arms and hug the hurt away. "So, if you don't mind, I think I'd like to hang around here for a need help with the chores, don't you?" she paused, letting her words sink in. "And I don't walk out on my friends just because someone 'may' say something derogatory about me."

Lex returned the squeeze. "Are you sure? My brother can get pretty nasty."

"Puleez! He's the very least of my worries." Her stomach growled. "See?"

Lex laughed and stood up, pulling the younger woman up with her. "So I hear. Let's go invade the kitchen...Martha probably has dinner cooked by now."

Amanda allowed Lex to help her to her feet. On impulse, she wrapped her arms around the tall woman and squeezed. She felt warm arms surround her as Lex returned the action.

"Thanks...friend." A whisper so quiet, Amanda thought she might have imagined it. Then she was released and led towards the door.

"C'mon. Let's go get underfoot...Martha just loves when I do that!!!"


Dinner was quite an animated affair. Amanda and Martha traded humorous stories back and forth, while Lex sat back and absorbed it all quietly. I can't believe she's still here. Lex had been about half-afraid that the younger woman was going to run off screaming into the night after hearing her story. She watched as the two women interacted. Should have known. Martha adores her...she was always a good judge of character. The heavyset housekeeper had disliked Linda immensely, although she always made sure to be sickeningly polite to Martha whenever Lex was around.

"Lexie?" the housekeeper tapped her arm. "You with us, honey?"

The rancher smiled. "Uh, yeah. Just thinking." She turned her attention to Amanda. "You gonna help Martha here in the kitchen tomorrow?"

"Uh-huh...after we feed in the morning, why? Do you have something planned that you need my help with?"

"No, not really..." Lex hedged, "I was going to ride one of the horses down and get the jeep."

Martha, knowing what else she was going to do, piped up. "You're not going to overdo it, are you? Those ribs aren't healed, you know."

Lex raised a dark eyebrow. "Of course not. I'm just going to take a leisurely ride down the road, attach the jeep's wench to a tree and then let it do all the work. If it hadn't been raining so damn hard last night, I would have done it then." She smiled at the housekeeper. "The road should be in good enough shape by tomorrow to bring it back to the house."

Martha looked less than convinced. "Promise me you will not put any undo stress on yourself, sweetheart. I have no desire to try and find a way to get you to the hospital."

Amanda spoke up. "Are you sure you don't need my help?"

"Nah...I was going to check part of the fence first...won't be back until late afternoon, at the least. You'd be bored to tears." Lex tried to appear nonchalant.

The housekeeper stepped in. "She's right, honey. When Lexie goes out on her horse, time has a tendency to slip away from her." To Lex, "Take your cell phone, just in case you happen to get into trouble, please?" When Lex rolled her eyes, Martha slapped her arm. "Watch it! Or we'll both go with you!"

The dark woman put up her hands in surrender. "Okay, you win...I remember the last time I got you up on a horse."

The gray-haired woman chuckled. "That wasn't a horse, it was a four-legged messenger from Hades!! I like transportation that doesn't bite, thank you very much!"

Lex started laughing. "She didn't bite you, she nuzzled your pocket looking for treats!"

Martha joined in. "If you didn't spoil those horses so bad, that would have never happened!" she got up and began clearing the table.

Amanda giggled. "Don't feel bad, Martha...I don't ride much either...horses are way too tall! It's a long way to the ground!"

Lex continued to laugh. "Maybe I'll find you a pony with a seatbelt!" Tears of mirth streaked down her cheeks. She could just imagine the small blonde on a shaggy Shetland pony, buckled into a saddle resembling a child's car seat. She clutched her ribs. "Ow..."

"Serves you right, making fun of me!" but Amanda was smiling also.

"I wasn't making fun of you...I was...uh...simply making a helpful suggestion!" Lex snorted, trying to curb her laughter.

"Oh, you!" Amanda threw her napkin into the laughing woman's face.

Lex stood up and carried her dishes to the sink, Amanda following right behind her. The taller woman gently bumped Martha with her hip. "Since we've goofed off all day, let us at least do the dishes." Seeing the housekeeper's resolve weakening, she added, "Please?" putting on her best pleading look.

Martha sighed, but backed away from the sink. "Okay, you win. You know I can't resist that look..."

Amanda took up her position next to the triumphantly grinning rancher. "Yeah...we'll take care of everything. Why don't you go relax?"

The housekeeper gave in gracefully. "Not a bad idea - I think I'll go home and take a long soak in a hot bubble bath." She pulled off her apron, slung it over her shoulder, and sashayed out of the room, swinging her hips with an exaggerated motion.

Lex and Amanda looked at each other and burst out laughing. They made quick work of the dishes, Lex washing while Amanda rinsed and dried.

The smaller woman placed her hands on her back and leaned into the counter with a groan. "I think Martha may have had the right idea. I think I've found some muscles that didn't exist before today."

Lex finished putting the dishes away. "No problem. You can use my tub. It even has jacuzzi jets in it." She draped a casual arm around the small shoulders. "I've got some bookwork that will keep me busy for an hour or so." She led Amanda up the stairs. Once inside the master bedroom, Lex released the younger woman and made her way to the large oak dresser. She pulled several sleep shirts and tee shirts from one of the drawers. "These should be more comfortable than those sweats." She handed the items to Amanda.

"Thanks. But I have no complaints with my other wardrobe." She took the clothes with a smile.

Lex raised an eyebrow at her, then turned her attention to digging through the massive walk-in closet. "Ah-ha! I knew it was in here somewhere." She pulled out a bright flowery terrycloth robe, which looked about two sizes too small for her, and handed it to Amanda with a flourish. "My great Aunt Loretta sent this to me for Christmas last year," a sheepish smile," and I couldn't throw it out." She eyed the smaller woman, "Now I'm glad I didn' looks more like you, anyway."

That much was certainly true. Amanda looked at Lex, and then at the robe. "Mmm...I don't know..." she giggled. "Thanks. I appreciate the loan."

Lex shook her head. "No keep it. That way when I write to Aunt Loretta telling her it's useful, I won't be lying." She smirked. "As it was, I told her on the phone after Christmas that I was enjoying it." She steered Amanda towards the bathroom. "And I was...everytime I pictured myself in it, I had a good laugh." Pulling a towel from a cabinet, Lex tossed it to the young woman then headed for the door. "there should be some bubble stuff by the tub." A shrug of her broad shoulders when the blonde looked at her questioningly. "I enjoy a good soak every now and then myself." She smiled and closed the door behind her.


Steam quickly filled the bathroom as Amanda lounged gratefully in the huge tub. She leaned back and closed her eyes, letting the water cover her aching body up to her neck. Poor could anyone treat her that way? At least that explained what my grandparents were trying to tell me. Amanda vowed to bring that exact subject up the next time she spoke to them on the phone. Letting her mind wander, she thought back to when she was in high school, and finally figured out she wasn't 'like the other girls'.

Amanda was sitting in the back row of the science lab, listening to her friends giggle and carry on about the Junior Class dance. It was going to be patterned after an old-fashioned sock-hop, and the girls had been actively planning their wardrobes, and placing bets on who would go with whom.

"I'll just die if Charlie doesn't ask me!" Francine whispered melodramatically. She had a crush on the lanky basketball player, and had been shamelessly flirting with him for months.

Karen, the sturdily built brunette sitting next to her grinned. "Bobby already asked me." She poked Francine in the ribs. "And I didn't have to practically fall on top of him in study hall to get his attention, like some people I could name, but won't."

Francine returned the poke. "I couldn't help books were falling out of my hands, and I lost my balance." She whined, flipping her dark blonde hair over her shoulder. She was taller than Karen and Amanda, and her coordination was still trying to catch up with her body. Francine looked over at Amanda, who was just staring at the front of the class with a slightly dazed look on her face. "What about you, Mandy? Have you gotten anyone lined up for the dance?" She waved her hand in front of the smaller blonde's face. "Hellllooo? Earth to Amanda Cauble...."

Amanda jumped. "Sorry, guys.... What were you talking about?" She loved her friends, but sometimes they could be so... immature.

Karen nudged her with an elbow. "WE were talking about the know, that thing where everyone gets together and then moves around to music? Where were you just now?" She leaned in closer. "Who are you going with? Has Ronnie talked to you yet?"

Amanda sighed. "No, he hasn't. But I don't know if I even want to go..."she caught herself staring back at the front of the class, where Judith Patterson was sitting. She was fairly new to the school, and Amanda had taken it upon herself to show the new girl around. They were fast becoming friends, although Judith didn't care much for Karen and Francine, so they usually would just meet after school to study, or go to the local mall. Last night, Judith had held Amanda's hand, and told her she was gay, and that she'd understand if Amanda wanted to break off their friendship.

That had certainly opened Amanda's eyes. It made her sit back and think about her own feelings. She'd never really been interested in boys like her friends. Amanda thought that maybe she just wasn't as mature as they were, and that she'd grow into it after a while. She thought about asking her mother, but a discussion like that would probably send Elizabeth Cauble straight to the emergency room. Her mother had a problem discussing sensitive matters - and if her younger daughter were to ask about sexuality, she'd most certainly have a stroke.

"Mandy! You have to go...everyone's going to be there!" Francine saw where Amanda's eyes were pointed. "Is it because Judith can't get a date?" she lowered her voice, "She's weird, Mandy...I don't know why you're friends with someone like her."

"Don't say that!" Amanda snapped, turning her head and glaring at her. "She's not weird, she just doesn't like to sit around all day and giggle about guys." The bell rang, and the girls picked up their books and followed a large group into the hallway. "Look. I'll call you later, okay?" she quickly made her way through the crowd and caught up with Judith.

"Hey, Judith!" she pulled on the back of the girl's sweater. "Want to come over tonight and help me study for the chemistry exam? Mom and Dad have a banquet to go to, so the house will be quiet."

The redhead stopped and turned around. "Are you sure you want to be alone with me, Amanda?" She had a sad look on her face. "I don't want you to be uncomfortable."

The little blonde smiled. "How can I be uncomfortable around you? We're friends, aren't we?" she leaned in closer and whispered, "And you'd be surprised at how much I think we may have in common." Amanda stepped back again. " coming over, or what?"

Judith smiled. "I'd love to. Somebody's got to get you past this semester of chemistry."

After that, the two girls developed a deep friendship. But it wasn't until the end of their junior year that they got more serious about their relationship. Hours were spent in each other's rooms, snuggling and kissing. But they had both agreed early on that they didn't want to just jump into bed.

"Just because we're girls, doesn't mean it won't count." Judith said, when Amanda asked her why they had never taken that final step. "You may find someone later on that you want to share that special moment with, and I care too much for you to ruin that."

"But Judith, I really care about you!" Amanda looked into the dark hazel eyes below her. She was sitting on Judith's lap in her bedroom, where they had just finished Judith's term paper. "Have you ever...umm...been with someone?" She was embarrassed to ask, but was curious as well.

"Yes, I have. Last year, at my other school." Judith traced a light pattern over Amanda's face with her finger.

"Did," she faltered, "did you love them?"

Judith wrapped her arms tightly around the smaller girl. "I thought I did. But now, I don't think so. I really cared for her, and she cared for me...but there were no 'fireworks', if you know what I mean."

Amanda snuggled into Judith's neck. "Yeah." Then she sat up, alarmed. "Summer's almost here!" she looked panicked.

"So? What's the big deal about the summer? We'll have more time to spend together." Judith was confused at the look on the blonde's face. "What's the matter?"

Large tears welled up in mist-green eyes. "I spend every summer with my grandparents in Texas." Several tears fell. "We'll be separated all summer..."

Judith gently brushed the tears from Amanda's face. "Okay...we'll just have to write back and forth like crazy, and maybe call each other once a week." She hated to see Amanda in pain. "It'll be okay, really."

Amanda wrapped her arms tightly around Judith, not wanting to let go. "We only have about a month before I leave..." she kissed the other girl's neck. "Please Jude, make love to me tonight. I want to be loved by you as much as possible before I have to leave."

Judith hesitated. "Amanda, there's nothing in the world I would rather do, but do you think it's wise?" She brushed the fair hair away from the bright green eyes. "I do care about you a lot, but this is a major step."

Amanda could only nod. "Yes...please." She kissed Judith tenderly. "Let's go to bed. I've already told Mom and Dad you were spending the night - they think we're watching movies." She stood up and pulled the other girl to her feet. "C'mon...I've got some serious studying to do." Amanda led Judith to the bed, then pulled her into an embrace. "And I intend to work at it all night."

Amanda smiled to herself. That was one heck of a study session. Looking back at that time in her life, she was so glad she had met someone like Judith, who had given her what she had so desperately been missing. They never called it love - but it sure was fun! Her grandparents were so cool about it, too.

Amanda had been at their house for over a week, and every day she seemed sadder and sadder. Anna Leigh figured it had to do with someone back in Los Angeles, because the young woman would spend hours a night writing letters, then mailing them off the next morning.

Anna Leigh took Jacob aside one morning, before Amanda had come downstairs. "Sweetheart, I'm terribly worried about Mandy. Something is definitely bothering her. Has she said anything to you?"

Her handsome husband scooped her into a hug. "No love, she hasn't. I think she's missing someone back home." He knew the signs of lovesickness. He himself was nearly incapacitated with it when Anna Leigh had gone overseas with her parents, back when they were just dating. He leaned down and gave his wife a sweet kiss. "Do you want me to talk to her?"

Anna Leigh returned his kiss, wrapping her arms around his neck. "No. I think this should be one of those 'woman-to-woman' chats...I'm sure that it would be easier." She pulled his head down for one more kiss. "And if we keep this up, she'll get quite a show...I hear her coming down the stairs."But she didn't release him, just turned around in his arms. "Good morning, sweetheart." She directed her greeting towards the staircase, where a sleepy-eyed young woman appeared.

Amanda rubbed her eyes and smiled. "Good morning." Seeing her grandparents all snuggled together reminded her of Judith, and she felt a wave of sadness wash over her.

Jacob noticed the change and squeezed Anna Leigh a little tighter. "Well, ladies...I'm off to the shop. Got to finish that table for Mrs. Wilcox." He released his wife, and kissed his granddaughter on the head, as he walked through the kitchen.

Anna Leigh opened her arms, and Amanda stumbled into her embrace. "What's the matter, Mandy? You seem so sad. Is there something Jacob or I can do?" She kissed the blonde head.

"Oh, Gramma..."she cried, her head tucked under her grandmother's chin. "There's nothing you can's something I have to handle myself." She backed up and wiped her face.

"Oh, honey...we love you. If there's something we can do to help, even if it's just to listen, we're here for you." She gently guided the sniffling young woman to the kitchen table. "Would you like some breakfast? We had donuts...Jacob had a yen for Apple Fritters."

"No thank you, Gramma. I'm really not very hungry." She sat down at the table and sighed.

Now Anna Leigh KNEW something was wrong. Her granddaughter could out-eat the football team on a good day... "Okay, that's it." She sat down at the table next to the young woman, taking one of her hands and squeezing it. "You can't go on like this any longer...please talk to me..."

Amanda began crying again. "I really don't think you want to hear this."

Anna Leigh lifted Amanda's chin with her hand. "Honey, there is nothing you can say that I don't want to hear. Nothing will change the fact that we both love you dearly."

Amanda looked into her grandmother's eyes, and saw nothing but truth and love. Maybe it was time to tell someone. "I've met someone, Gramma." She felt the older woman squeeze her hand. "And I care for them very much... we've only been together for a little more than a month...and I miss her so..." Not exactly the best way to tell someone, but she already felt like a huge weight had been lifted from her chest.

Anna Leigh was not too surprised. She knew that love had no boundaries... Look at her and Jacob. He was from poor, but loving home. She was raised by nannies in mansions all over the world. 'Poor child...I know she could never speak of this with her own parents.' She and Jacob raised their son Michael with all the love and support they could, but somehow it wasn't enough. He was so unlike the both of them, business came first, family second. His wife, lovely woman that she was, would rather be shopping in Paris than raising a family. 'How this dear girl turned out so well, I'll never know.' But part of her did know... she and Jacob practically raised Amanda... they tried with her older sister Jeannie, but she was more her mother's child. "Would you like to tell me about her, sweetheart? If she has your heart, then I'm sure she's a wonderful person."

Amanda took a deep cleansing breath and smiled. "She is wonderful, Gramma... and I know she would love both of you. They had continued their letter writing throughout the summer... during that time, they had become much better friends, and decided that while the affection they had for each other was deep, it certainly wasn't love. When school started again in the fall, they still spent most of their free time together. Judith met a girl at the local college, and fell deeply in love, but she still remained her close tie with Amanda. They still went places together, determined to keep their friendship.

Wasn't that long ago that I got her last letter, either...Judith and Emily had two children, with one on the way...and Amanda had been present at each christening. She looked back on her first love fondly, and with a great deal of appreciation.


Lex stared at the computer screen and then rubbed her reddened eyes. I've got to be missing something somewhere. She had been searching her accounting program for over an hour, trying to find missing funds - almost ten thousand dollars worth of missing funds. She flipped over to her Internet account and sent an email to her bank, requesting that they send her the bank statements for the last several months, since Hubert usually handled the paperwork end of the ranch. She also vowed to do a personal head count of the stock, since it appeared they were losing more than normal. And she was not about to confront her older sibling until she had something to go on. Maybe I'm just tired - She looked at the clock and blinked. "Amanda's probably upstairs bored to death by now..." she mumbled, as she shut down the computer and left the office.

After navigating the stairs, Lex stopped at Amanda's room. Empty. She shrugged her shoulders and went into her own room. Strange...she's not in here either. Confused, Lex knocked gently on the bathroom door. "Amanda?" No answer. Now getting concerned, Lex slowly opened the door. Total silence. She walked towards the tub area, where she spied a damp blonde head poking out of the bubbles. She could see that the young woman was sound asleep, the only sound in the room was the gurgling of the jacuzzi. "Amanda?" quietly spoken, she tried not to scare the poor woman to death.

No response. "Amanda."

The young blonde's eyes popped open, as she sank under the water, startled. She whooshed up out of the water immediately, gasping and sputtering. "Wha...???"

Lex hurried over to the tub and knelt down. "Hey, careful there." She grasped Amanda's shoulders without a second thought. "Didn't mean to startle you like that." The dark woman eased Amanda into a sitting position.

Amanda coughed a couple of more times, then stilled. "Sorry about that. Didn't realize I had dozed off." She enjoyed the closeness of the other woman. "How long have I been in here?"

Suddenly realizing where her hands were, Lex pulled back and stood up. "Umm...almost two hours." She put her hands in her back pockets, trying to calm her pounding heart. "I'll just let you get dried off're probably feeling pretty waterlogged." She began backing up towards the door.

Amanda smiled and brushed bubbles off of her own forehead. "Thanks...I'll be out in a minute." She watched with some amusement as the usually sure-footed and composed rancher backed directly into the doorframe, a slight flush to her dark features.

"Yeah..." she beat a hasty retreat into the bedroom, slamming the door behind her.

Amanda giggled slightly as she let the water run out of the tub. So...I guess I'm not the only one who can feel this...electricity...between us. She quickly dried off and then looked at her sleepwear options. I go modest, or do I tease her a little more? She picked an oversized nightshirt that would hang a little past her knees. Modest. She's looking a little too shook up...maybe tomorrow night. With a smile, she pulled the shirt over her head.

Stepping out into the bedroom, the small blonde saw Lex sitting in the light of the fireplace, slouched down in one of the overstuffed chairs.

"All yours." She moved to the other chair and sat down, toweling her hair dry. "Thanks for the loan of the tub...I'm most definitely relaxed now."

"I'm glad. You're welcome to use it anytime you want." Lex shifted slightly in her chair. "I'm sorry I barged in like that, but when you didn't answer me, I got a little concerned." A little concerned? Try scared to death!

Amanda looked over at the older woman. Her face was bathed in shadow, and the firelight turned her usually bright eyes almost black. "You look pretty worn out yourself."

Lex sighed, and ran a hand through her hair. "Yeah. Been a long day." She twisted her head to one side, and her neck popped. "Think I'll take a quick shower and then jump into bed." She stood up slowly.

Amanda stood up with her. "Do you need any help?" At Lex's raised eyebrow, she blushed. "Ummm... I mean, with taking off your bandage?" Lex's other eyebrow shot up into her bangs. "Oh, damn! You know what I mean!" the young woman didn't think she could get any more embarrassed.

Lex took pity on her. "Nah...I can get if off okay, and I'll probably just leave it off for the night."

"I don't think that's a very good idea. What if you roll around in your sleep?" Martha's horror stories about punctured lungs and internal bleeding had scared her. Being concerned for her hostess while she had been out riding, Amanda had quizzed the housekeeper about Lex's health. "I really don't think you should go to bed unprotected."

Lex chuckled. "I don't think I am in any danger that I would need 'protection' in bed, am I?"

Amanda covered her face with her hands. "Ah, probably not..." she looked at her bare wrist. "Would you look at the time?" Fake yawn and stretch. "Mmmm....guess I'll let you get your shower... I'll be across the hall if you need me to help you wrap your ribs." She started for the door. "Goodnight." And she hurried out of the room, still red as a beet.

Lex watched her go with an amused look on her face. I really should be ashamed of myself, teasing the poor woman like that. But somehow, the camaraderie they shared seemed right, like they had done it for years. Strange. She shook her head and walked into the bathroom, shedding clothes as she went.

Amanda had just finished brushing her teeth, and was brushing her hair when she heard a knock on the door. "Come in," she yelled, sticking her head out of the bathroom.

A sheepish Lex walked in, wearing a robe and carrying a large elastic bandage. "Hey. Your offer still open?" she smiled slightly, looking like a lost child. "I can't seem to get this damn thing on straight."

Amanda sat the hairbrush down and moved into the bedroom. "What's the matter? A torn sheet not good enough for you?" she teased, trying to get the older woman to relax.

"No, it's not that. I just remembered that I had this from the last time I broke a rib. But don't tell Martha. I've kinda kept that little accident a secret from her."

"Really?" Amanda quizzed. "I'll help you, but you've got to tell me what happened." She hitched an eyebrow at the dark woman.

Lex shrugged. "Nothing, much. It happened last year. She told me not to try and ride a certain horse, but I didn't listen. He threw me into the fence, and I broke a rib. No big deal." She looked a little worried. "Promise not to tell?"

Amanda laughed at the look on the rancher's face. "Oh, Lex. You look like a little kid who got caught stealing from the cookie jar." She moved towards the tall woman and took the bandage from her hands. "Okay, I promise. Now get over here and I'll get you fixed up."

Lex turned her back slowly to the younger woman, then silently removed her robe and laid it on the bed, leaving her in just a pair of flannel pajama bottoms. She took a deep breath and then released it slowly.

She's beautiful...Amanda heard her mind whisper. She willed her shaking hands to steady, as she began to wrap the bandage around Lex's body. Such broad shoulders, and her skin is so soft. She had to lean into the strong back to wind the bandage around Lex's ribs. The younger woman bit her lower lip, trying to control her feelings. Once she finished the wrapping, she gently draped the robe back over Lex's shoulders. "All done." She said, hoping her voice didn't betray her.

Lex was having control problems of her own. She could almost feel the heat coming off of the smaller woman, she was standing so close. "Thanks." She turned around, barely missing the longing in Amanda's eyes. "Guess I'll let you get to bed now." As she made her way to the door, Lex turned to look at her guest. "See you in the morning." She walked out and closed the door behind her.

Amanda stood at the bed and stared at the closed door. Oh, boy...Lex, my friend, I think we're gonna have to have a little talk, real soon.


The next morning, Lex and Amanda finished feeding the horses, and made their way into the hay barn. After Lex had backed the truck up to a tall stack of baled hay, she climbed out and looked around for Amanda. There was no sign of the small blonde anywhere. Now where in the hell did she go? She was about to put the tailgate down on the truck when she felt something dropping on her hat and shoulders. "Hey!" Lex looked up and brushed the straw from her body.

A slight giggle was the response. "Yep! It's hay," Amanda cheerfully admitted, readying herself for another throw. She had climbed up to the top bale, mainly because she had always wanted to, and couldn't resist.

"I thought you didn't like heights." Lex took off her hat and shook the hay free. "Now climb down from there before you get hurt." She put her hands on her hips and mock glowered at the young woman.

"No, I don't like moving heights. I get motion sickness." Amanda plopped down on the bale, her legs swinging back and forth. "Besides, this isn't that high - maybe twelve to fifteen feet, at the most." She was about to make her way down, when the bale suddenly shifted, and the young woman began to fall.

Lex saw the movement, and dropping her hat, rushed to position herself under the falling woman. "Ooof! " she grunted, catching Amanda in her arms, cradling her as if she were a child. "Are you okay?"

Amanda looked up into frightened eyes, and felt the woman holding her tremble. "Yeah." Then realized where she was, and how she got there. "Oh, god...are you okay??"

Lex looked into Amanda's eyes, barely breathing. "Uh-huh." She couldn't seem to take her gaze away from the younger woman's face. Words failed her, as she felt Amanda's arms wrap around her neck.

Amanda didn't think. She gave into her gut feelings, wrapped her arms around the taller woman's neck, and pulled Lex's head down to meet hers. When their lips met, the blonde was amazed at how soft the rancher's lips were. As she deepened the kiss, Amanda felt a strong feeling of belonging, and her heart raced.

Lex was having some strong feelings of her own. When their lips met, she felt a gentle tickle in the pit of her stomach, and when the smaller woman deepened the kiss, a jolt of electricity shot throughout her body, causing her legs to give out. Lex collapsed back into a soft pile of hay, never releasing the woman in her arms.

They spent a few moments just enjoying the kiss, until Lex pulled away slightly to breathe. "Wow." She gasped, still trying to catch her breath.

Amanda laid her head on Lex's chest and took a deep breath. "Sorry...I'm not sure what came over me." She looked into sparkling blue eyes. "I can't believe I did that."

"Are you sorry that you did?" Lex held her breath, afraid of the answer.

"God, no!!" Amanda reached up to caress a tan cheek, trying to calm the erratic beating of the older woman's heart. "It's just that I don't usually make it a habit to throw myself, this time quite literally, at someone I've only know a couple of days." She could feel the rancher struggling to pull air into her lungs. "Are you sure you're alright? What about your ribs?"

A relieved Lex turned her head slightly and kissed the small palm cupping her face. "Never been better." Seeing several things crossing Amanda's face, Lex kissed her forehead and gave her a gentle hug. "If that's how you're going to react after falling from a stack of hay, remind me to bring you in here more often."

"Works for me...I've always wanted to roll around in the hay." Amanda gave her an embarrassed smile. "Ummm...I mean..."

Lex understood. "Relax. Let's just take things slow and easy, okay? No need to rush."

Amanda's answering smile lit up her entire face. "Yeah...I guess we'd better finish up the chores, huh?" She felt Lex's breathing return to normal. "And Martha is expecting me pretty soon."

She's to be responsible. "True. But first..." Lex leaned down and captured Amanda's lips again, feeling small hands tangle themselves into her hair. This feels waaay too good...better stop now while I still can. She ended the kiss slowly, trying without much success to back off. "Whew...I, ummm...."

Amanda brushed the dark hair out of Lex's eyes. "Yeah, that goes for me, double." She climbed off the rancher's lap, and offered her hand to the still seated woman. "Here, since I got you down there, might as well be the one to help you back up."

Lex smiled, but accepted the hand and allowed the younger woman to pull her to her feet.

Not releasing the large hand that swallowed hers, Amanda pulled the older woman into a very gentle hug. "Thanks." She stood on her tiptoes and kissed the strong chin.

"For what?" Lex returned the hug, enjoying the feeling of the smaller woman in her arms.

Amanda pulled back a little, so she could see the rancher's face, partially bathed in shadow. "For working on your fence in a thunderstorm....for pulling a complete stranger out of a raging creek, and for catching me when I fall."

Lex kissed the top of her head. "Anytime." Her voice broke on the word. She released the younger woman, but kept one arm draped casually over her shoulders. "C'mon. I imagine the cows are about to mutiny."



Sometime later, Amanda was standing in the stable, watching as Lex saddled up the powerfully built Thunder. "Are you sure you don't need any help? I mean, Martha would probably understand if I was a little late today." She reached up and rubbed the large horse's head, as he butted her gently in the chest.

"Nah. Not that I wouldn't enjoy the company, but I really don't want Martha to try and reach some of those higher cabinets by herself." She tightened the cinch and looked over at the younger woman. "Her and stepladders don't always get along." She finished with the saddle and patted the horse on his flank. "Last time she fell and twisted her ankle...I thought she had broken it, and it scared the hell out of me." She smiled. "And she's a worse patient than I am." Lex led the huge horse out of the stall. "I'd really appreciate it if you could kinda keep an eye on her, if you don't mind." She turned and reached for the saddlehorn, but a hand on her arm stopped her.

"I don't mind at all...but you have to do me a favor in return." Amanda grasped her coat with both hands, pulling the taller woman close.


"Try to stay out of trouble, and please be careful." She saw Lex open her mouth to argue, and covered it with her hand. "Please? Don't hurt yourself trying to get that old jeep out of the mud - it's not like we can go very far anyway."

Lex pulled her into a quick hug. "You're starting to sound a lot like Martha," she stepped back and gently chucked the blonde under the chin. "I promise, I'll behave." She climbed into the saddle, causing Thunder to dance sideways. "I'll also be checking some of the fence line by the creek, so I may not be back until dark." It all depends on how easy it is to get her car out of the creek and into the maintenance shed.

Amanda patted her leg. "Okay. Just give us a call on your cell phone if you have any problems." She walked beside the huge horse as Lex moved him out of the stable.

"Yes ma'am." Lex tipped her hat with a smirk. "Do you want a ride to the house?"

Amanda looked up at Lex and then to the house, which was only about twenty yards away. An unexpected thrill raced down her spine, as Lex held an arm out to her. "Sure." She allowed the dark woman to pull her up behind her, in an eerily familiar manner. Wrapping her arms around the tapered waist, Amanda leaned into the strong back with a small sigh. "Now this is the way to ride horses."

Lex chuckled, and kneed the stallion forward. "Really? Are you sure you don't want a seatbelt?" She felt the small arms around her waist tighten slightly.

"Nope...this is perfect."

They rode the rest of the way to the house in companionable silence - the only sounds being Thunder's heavy hooves falling to the ground.

Lex pulled the massive horse to a stop by the back porch, and gently gave Amanda a hand down. "There ya go, ma'am. Door to door service, as promised." She joked, feeling a light slap against her leg.

"Thanks," Amanda curtsied, "that terribly long walk would have worn me out!"

Lex laughed as she backed Thunder away from the porch. "Anytime," tipping her hat again, this time giving the younger woman a wink before turning the big horse away.

"Be careful!" Amanda called after her, wincing as Lex sent Thunder into a strong gallop.


Lex charged Thunder through the fields, leaning over his neck with a smile. Feeling only a slight ache in her ribs due to the activity, she laughed out loud to the wind blowing into her face. "It's a beautiful day, isn't it boy?" The racing horse snorted in disagreement. Low dark clouds had begun to cover the sky, threatening to erupt at any moment, and the cool breeze blowing through the surrounding trees brought a damp chill to the air. To Lex, the day had never been more beautiful. I must be doing something right...'cause someone up there has certainly dropped a wonderful gift right into my lap. "Yaaaaa!!!" She urged the horse on, both of them absorbing the brisk air around them with joy.

Coming within sight of the jeep, Lex reigned in the large horse, walking him around to cool him off. "Doesn't look like we'll have much trouble here, huh big fella?" she aimed him towards the still running creek. "Let's take a walk down to the creek before get started, okay?" she patted his neck and they walked slowly towards the loud roar.


Amanda walked into the kitchen, her cheeks slightly flushed and a big smile on her face. Martha turned around from the pantry and grinned. "Well, must have had a good time feeding the stock. That's an interesting look on your face, honey." She watched at the younger woman blushed.

"Oh, yeah...I had a great time." Amanda realized what she said too late, and lowered her head trying to control her heated face.

Martha walked over to her and pulled a few errant stalks of hay from her hair. "Mmm...looks like it."

Amanda covered her face with her hands. "Oh, god..."

The housekeeper felt pity for her and relented. "Sweetheart, calm down. There's nothing to be ashamed of...I'm glad you two have hit it off so well." She wrapped her hand around Amanda's arm and pulled her towards the table. "Sit down while I get you some coffee." She grabbed a couple of mugs from the cabinet, filled the carafe and then sat down at the table beside Amanda. "Did Lexie get off to the creek okay?" she asked, pouring them each a cup.

"Umm...yeah, she did. She told me that she would be checking the fence also, and not to expect her back before it got dark." The young blonde took a small sip of her coffee.

Martha appeared surprised. "She told you she'd be late?" she gave a slight shake of her graying head. "She never actually tells anyone when she'll be back. I usually just fix her a big breakfast, and plan dinner for dusk on days when I know she'll be riding fence patrol."

Amanda just stared into her mug. "Well, maybe she just said that because she we'd be worried, since she's still hurt."

"Honey, that's never bothered her before." The housekeeper patted her hand, "Not that she's unfeeling, it's just that she normally doesn't think about little things like that." She took a deep breath. "Not like she can, having to run this place all alone."

Amanda looked up. "But I thought her brother helped her." Her brows furrowed in confusion.

The heavyset woman scoffed. "Hubert? Help? Not in this lifetime, sweetheart. Sometimes I think his sole purpose in life is to aggravate poor Lexie, and of course to mooch money off of her." She took a sip of coffee and sighed. "He's seven years older than her, and never done an honest days work in his life. Oh sure, Lexie lets him keep the ranch's books, and he has that accounting office he runs in town, but he's no good." A quirk of her lips. "He's hated Lexie ever since her daddy signed the ranch over to her, not to mention he's just plain mean." She took another sip of coffee. "I normally wouldn't be telling anyone this, but I trust you, and I want you to be aware of just how nasty that man can be." She paused, studying the young woman across from her.

Amanda had a pretty good idea where Martha was heading with this conversation. She met the wise brown eyes across from her. "Lex told me about Linda." She saw the housekeeper's posture relax somewhat. "Hubert threatened Lex last night - about my staying here. So she decided to tell me why he was so...hostile." A sad look crossed her face. "Did Linda actually dump Hubert for Lex?"

Martha took a deep breath. "Oh yes. You see, Hubert is quite handsome - tall, dark, with blue eyes like Lexie's...only his are crueler. Women just seem to throw themselves at his feet, until they get to know him - then the smart ones run like all get out." She finished her coffee and began wiping the table with a damp dishcloth. "He's also got Lexie's temper - they both got that from their daddy, but he never learned to control it like she did." Took her until she was almost twenty-five, but she finally got it under control. "I think Linda finally got tired of Hubert taking his mad out on her, and so to get back at him she latched onto Lexie."

Amanda frowned. "She didn't love Lex, did she Martha?"

"Oh, I think she did, in her own little way...she just wanted a little fancier lifestyle than what Lexie could give her." Martha remembered grimly the month long bender that Linda's desertion had wrought with the impressionable young woman.

Lex would get up before dawn - feeding the livestock and handling the general ranch business before the rest of the hands even stirred. Martha could sometimes coax the sullen woman to eat breakfast, but not often. Then Lex would lock herself in the office, drinking until late afternoon, when usually a carload of 'friends' would pick her up and take her into town. They'd spend the rest of the afternoon and all of the evening, bouncing from bar to bar, generally raising hell, and even once or twice having the law called on them. After the bars would close, these so-called friends would bring Lex home, and Martha would usually find her passed out on the porch swing the next morning.

After this had gone on for nearly a month, Martha quit pleading for Lex to come to her senses, and took direct action. One morning after finding Lex once again sprawled unconscious on the front porch, the angry housekeeper mixed up a large bucket of extremely muddy water, and dumped it on the unsuspecting rancher.

"Whoa!" Lex sputtered, "What the hell did you do that for?" her head was spinning, and she imagined she was about to toss the contents of her stomach all over the porch.

"If you plan on letting this ranch run itself into the ground and sit out here smelling worse than a pig farm, I thought that maybe you'd want some mud to wallow around in." She dusted off her hands and walked towards the door, turning around, continuing her tirade. "So either clean yourself up, or find a new babysitter - 'cause I'm not gonna tolerate one more minute of your self-pitying garbage, you hear me?!" She shook a finger at Lex.

"Yes ma'am." A chagrined Lex mumbled to the housekeeper, mud dripping down her face.

Martha almost laughed out loud at the figure before her. Blue, bloodshot eyes stood out starkly in the mud-covered face, which was puffy from the alcohol abuse. The tall frame, which had lost too much weight, stood quietly on trembling legs.

"I'm sorry, Martha." Lex took a couple of steps forward, until she was standing less than a foot away. "Please don't leave me." She whispered, her eyes filling with tears. "I'll get my act together, I promise."

She looked like a beaten child, so Martha wrapped her arms around the younger woman and pulled her into her ample bosom. "Oh sweetheart...I was just so angry, watching you throw your life away like that." She rocked the now sobbing woman gently, then pulled back and used her ever-present dishtowel to wipe her charge's face. "Now get this porch cleaned up, go upstairs and take a long hot shower, and come into the kitchen for a big breakfast. I'll tell the boys to handle the chores for the next couple of days, 'cause you're gonna eat and then go straight to bed." She wiped a spot clean on Lex's forehead, and gave her a gentle kiss. "Now go on, and be quick about it." She turned and moved back into the house, grumbling under her breath about crazy kids and how she had to go and change into a clean apron.

After that, Lex rarely drank, except for the occasional beer or two with the hands on poker night. But she never touched hard alcohol again. Martha knew the young woman had scared herself, and she herself was glad that Lex had promised her to stay clean. Hubert had teased her, saying she was too weak, not being able to handle her alcohol. He constantly belittled her, trying to knock Lex off the wagon. But Lex just put up with his taunts, saying she had given her word, and that he wouldn't know anything about keeping a pledge to someone.

"Martha?" Amanda became concerned at the look on the older woman's face. "Are you alright?" she grasped the hand that had been absently wiping the table.

The housekeeper shook her head and gave Amanda a small smile. "Sorry 'bout that, dear...I got a little lost in my memories." She placed her other hand on Amanda's. "C'mon. Let's get to work on those cabinets."


Lex stood at the edge of the creek, mesmerized by the still rapidly flowing water. She shifted her gaze slightly downstream, happy to note the little Mustang was still in the same place, It's rear bumper just barely visible above the water line. Lex looked behind her, mentally calculating the path she would use to pull the car from the water. How to get it from there to here... that's the sticking point. One of the chains from the jeep should be long enough, but how in the hell do I get the chain on the car? She looked at the water, and then down at herself. Well, I could just tell them I fell into the creek. She smirked, imagining the looks on their faces. not a good thing to do...Martha would use a spoon on me then! She relegated that problem to the back of her mind, deciding to worry more about it when she got the jeep out of it's muddy nest. Turning away from the churning waters, Lex walked back over to the patiently waiting Thunder, and rode back towards priority number one.

An hour later, an angry and mud-covered Lex finally drove the jeep towards the creek. Even with using the wench attached to the front of the vehicle, Lex still had to dig and push to extricate the buried jeep. She had removed her ever-present black cowboy hat and duster to save them, but she was almost solid mud from the tip of her head to the sole of her boots - and she was mad enough to spit nails.

The tall rancher backed the equally mud-coated jeep to a large tree ten yards from the bank of the creek, until it was almost touching the heavy oak. Lex wound a length of chain around the trunk of the tree, and the other end around the back axle. She then pulled a longer stretch of chain from the jeep, and attached it to the steel cable that she unwound from the wench. Lex then tied one end of rope to the chain, and the other around her waist. That's it...I've got to be certifiable - jumping into this damn creek not once, but twice in one week. Martha is gonna have me committed. She looked down at her clothes, barely distinguishable under the mud. At least I can use the excuse that I needed to get the mud off of me, so I rinsed off my clothes - don't have to tell them it was in the creek.

Lex slowly waded into the creek, noticing how much the current had slowed down since Friday. "Damn, but that's cold!" she grumbled, as the water slowly made it's way to her shoulders. Once again, she let the current do most of the work, moving her downstream. When she got near the partially submerged car, she took over, her strong stroke cutting through the water easily. Gently bumping the car, she grimaced. Easy, Lex...don't put anymore dents in than it already has. She pulled herself up on the trunk, and began dragging the rope across the creek, finally getting the chain into her hands. I get to play Jacques Cousteau, and try to find the damn axle. Taking a deep breath, Lex slid off the rear of the car and slipped under water. Being

familiar with cars, it only took her a minute to wrap the chain around her target and return to the surface. All to get back to the jeep. The rancher pulled herself back across the creek, a strange sense of déjà vu invading her senses.

It took Lex over two hours to pull the small car from the creek. At times she feared the old oak would fall and crush both vehicles, as well as her. And although the huge tree creaked and complained, in the end it stood strong. Her jeep didn't fare much better, and once the little Mustang was safely ashore, she patted the bedraggled jeep on the hood and promised it a nice cleaning. The old vehicle was Lex's pride and joy, having rebuilt it herself while in high school.

After securing the waterlogged Mustang to the jeep, Lex walked over to the patiently waiting Thunder, and removed his saddle and bridle. "Okay, old buddy, I'll race ya home!" He snorted and started towards the trees, content to take the shortcut back to the barn. The rancher returned to the jeep and fished her cell phone out of the pocket of her coat. She dialed the number for the ranch hoping Martha, and not Amanda would answer.

On the third ring, her wish was answered. "Walters residence."

"Martha, it's me." Lex smiled into the phone, imagining the shock on the older woman's face. She rarely used the cell phone, saying she'd rather speak to someone face to face.

"Lexie? Honey, is everything okay?" the housekeeper sounded a little nervous.

"Everything's wonderful, Martha. I got the jeep, and I'll be making a stop at the maintenance shed before I get back to the house." A not so subtle hint.

"Good lord, sweetheart. Don't scare me like that - I thought for sure something was wrong when you called." Martha sighed heavily.

"Sorry - wasn't trying to scare you. It's just that I sent Thunder on ahead, and I didn't want you to worry when you saw him and not me. The road's still pretty muddy, and I thought it would be too dangerous for him to be led behind the jeep." Lex tossed the saddle, blanket, and bridle in the back of the jeep. "I should be in sight of the house in about an hour or so." She hinted, hoping Martha could keep a certain blonde away from the windows.

"That sounds great, Lexie. I thought Amanda and I would go over to my place for a while...I've got some pictures she might be interested in seeing." She laughed, knowing that Lex knew exactly what pictures she had in mind. Also knowing that the road to the maintenance shed was not viewable from her house. "We'll be back in a couple of hours, that should give you time to take care of your horse and get yourself cleaned up too."

Lex laughed too. "Uh...well, I was pretty muddy, but it's mostly cleaned off now." She climbed into the jeep. "I'll see you at the house later, then. Bye, Martha." She disconnected the call before the older woman figured out what she had said. I'm gonna be in so much trouble for that. She grinned to herself. It was one of her favorite past times, teasing the housekeeper to keep her on her toes. But she gives as good as she gets, that's for damn sure.


To be continued in part 3

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