See part 1 for disclaimers.

Faith's Crossing

Part II

By Carrie Carr

Chapter 13

The last of the sun's rays reflected brightly off of the small lake, as Lex pulled the dark truck into a nearby parking space. "Looks pretty deserted." The rancher commented, not seeing

any other cars in the lot. As she stepped out of the tall vehicle, Lex pulled on her well-worn denim jacket, then closed the door and crossed to the other side.

"Yeah, but you should see this place in the spring and summer...can rarely find a parking space then." Amanda pulled a folded paper napkin from her purse, then climbed down out of the truck. Handing the item to Lex, she slipped on the coat she had brought - the old leather jacket Lex had worn in high school that she had 'borrowed' from the rancher. "Brrr...that wind is getting pretty chilly." Pulling the taller woman towards a paved path, she grinned. "C'mon...let's get moving, so I'll warm up."

Lex allowed herself to be guided down the well-traveled path. "What's this?" she asked, handing the napkin back to the smaller woman.

"Duck food." Amanda chuckled, opening it up to show two leftover flour tortillas. She linked her arm through the tall woman's and continued down the path that led to the lake.

Lex looked down at the young blonde fondly. "Do you come here often?" she felt the arm linked with hers tighten slightly.

"Yeah...this is kind of my thinking place - I usually bring old bread along and feed the ducks for hours at a time." She guided the older woman through a stand of trees, which opened up to a small cove. "When I was in school, I always spent my summers here - Mother never understood why." She pulled Lex over to a large log that was close to the water, then sat down next to her. "Mother and Dad would go to Europe, Jeannie would travel with them, or spend her time at one type of camp or another. I would beg to come here to visit Gramma and Grandpa..."

Lex pulled her close with a strong arm. "I don't really remember much about any of my grandparents." She said quietly. "Dad's folks died when he was just a kid, leaving him the ranch... I vaguely remember my mother's father. Tall and handsome - but after she died, I never saw him or my grandmother again." She straightened a little, then smiled. "They didn't care much for Dad - he's kinda rough around the edges."

Amanda put her arm around the older woman. "I'm sorry..." she felt sympathetic tears filling her eyes.

Lex leaned over and kissed the top of the blonde head. "Don't be...I'm not. Martha and the guys at the ranch more than made up for it - I had more attention from all of them than most kids ever get from two sets of grandparents."

"Really?" Amanda peeked up at the taller woman's face, which wore a wistful smile.

"Oh, yeah." She laughed. "Of course, most of the hands usually helped me get into trouble - poor Martha spent most of her time chasing me with a spoon and hollering, 'Get your filthy butt out of my kitchen and get into the tub!'" she paused thoughtfully. "Come to think about it, she still does that!"

Amanda giggled. "I bet you were a real handful growing up."

"I don't think so...but I'm sure Martha's opinion would differ." Lex watched as several ducks jumped out of the water and waddled towards them, quacking excitedly. "Looks like your friends missed you." She grinned at Amanda's delighted smile.

"Calm down, guys..." the younger woman was pulling the tortillas apart into very small pieces. After eyeing Lex cautiously, the ducks decided she didn't pose a threat, and continued their enthusiastic welcoming of her companion. "Sorry...they're a little excitable." Amanda looked over at Lex, who was watching a gray and white duck nibble on her boot tips.

"They're psycho - this crazy thing is trying to eat my boots!" She wiggled her feet slightly, causing her attacker to pause momentarily, then start back up again.

Amanda laughed. "That's all I have, guys...I'll bring a loaf of bread next time," she showed the ducks her empty hands, which caused them to glare at her for a moment, wagging their tail feathers in agitation.

"I don't think they're real happy with you right now." Lex teased, then stood up. "Let's continue our walk...maybe they'll get the hint." She offered her hand to Amanda, who accepted it gracefully.

"Thanks...that sounds like a great idea." Amanda allowed herself to be pulled to her feet. "Let's not use the you mind if we just walked along the shoreline?" she held the hand in hers tightly as they began walking.

They were on their second circuit around the small lake when Lex's cell phone rang. Jumping slightly, she stopped and pulled the small device from her coat pocket. "Hello?" listening for a moment, she frowned. "Martha, what's wrong?" She felt a small hand on her arm, and looked down into concerned green eyes.

"Lexie, I'm really sorry to bother you like this," Martha apologized, sounding very upset.

"Don't worry, we were just taking a tell me what's the matter." Lex forced herself to stay calm. Martha never calls me...I've never even heard this damn phone ring before.

"Go on, tell me."

"Honey, it's your brother. He called the house a few minutes ago looking for you." The housekeeper sounded quite agitated.

"Okay...did you tell him I was in town?" Lex didn't like where this conversation was going.

"No, not at first. I didn't figure it was any of his business." The older woman sighed. "I told him you weren't available...that really upset him." She chuckled in remembrance.

Lex laughed. "I'll bet. Then what?"

"He told me it was very important that he talk to you immediately - I told him again that you couldn't come to the phone. That's when he really started getting upset."

Dammit! Lex felt a headache fast approaching. "What did he say to you, Martha?"

"Oh, well he yelled and whined quite a bit," she laughed, "then he said, 'Forget it! I'll just come out there myself!' and hung up."

"He's on his way to the ranch?" Lex ran a slim hand through her hair. "Shit!" She looked at Amanda, who was looking back at her with a worried expression. "How long ago did you talk to him?" Lex was already pulling Amanda down the path towards the parking lot.

"I just hung up with him right before I called you." Martha said, not quite as angry as before.

"Good...I'm on my way - lock all of the doors, in case he gets there before I do, okay? Don't let him in for any reason." Lex and Amanda were back at the truck, the taller woman holding the passenger's door open for her companion. She closed the door, then quickly jogged around to the other side and climbed in.

"Why? Are you expecting him to cause trouble?" Martha sounded concerned. "What's going on, Lexie?"

Holding the phone with her shoulder, Lex put the truck in reverse and backed out of the parking space quickly. "I don't know what to expect - we found out that he's the one who's been taking money from the ranch." The rancher glanced at Amanda with a questioning look.

"Tell her to sit tight. We're on our way." The young woman answered the unspoken question.

Lex smiled at her companion and turned the truck south, on the road out of town. "Amanda says to hold tight..." she spoke into the phone.

"She's there? Let me talk to her, then." Martha perked up. "You shouldn't be talking on the phone while you're trying to drive, it's not safe." She could hear the roar of the truck engine over the phone.

"Yes, ma'am." Lex handed the phone to the smiling blonde sitting next to her. "She wants to talk to you."

"'s great to hear from you, although I'm sorry about the circumstances." Amanda chattered happily. She genuinely missed the older woman, even though it had only been a couple of days since she had last spoken to her.

"Amanda honey, how are you?" the housekeeper asked, sounding quite pleased with herself.

"Great! I've really got a lot to tell you when I see you again - so much has happened!" Amanda watched as Lex rolled her eyes.

Martha laughed. "Really? Well, I can't wait...were you able to get Lexie to go see the doctor? I swear, that girl argues with me sometimes just for sport!"

"Yesterday morning, as a matter of fact - her side was terribly infected, but Dr. Anderson took care of that." The younger woman reached over and caressed a muscular leg, causing a slight smile on the rancher's serious face.

"Blast it! I knew that would happen...but you say she's okay?" Martha sighed. "She never takes care of herself..." the older woman muttered more to herself than to Amanda.

"She's a couple of stitches, and Dr. Anderson made her promise to keep her ribs wrapped for another week." Amanda chuckled, remembering the argument with the old doctor. "He says she's gotten a little too thin, though..." This little bit of news got her a glare from the subject in question. "Don't give me that look...and keep your eyes on the road." Amanda scolded.

The housekeeper laughed. "If I could get her to sit still long enough to eat..." she turned serious. "But, I think that she's eaten more in the last week or so than the entire last month combined. And I have you to thank for that - she's happier now than I can ever remember seeing her. So thank you, Amanda - for giving my little girl back her heart."

Lex had turned to glance at Amanda, who had stilled suddenly. Even in the fading sunlight, she could see a deep blush on the younger woman's fair skin. Reaching over with one hand, she touched the small blonde's shoulder. " all right?" she asked, trying to keep one eye on the road, and one on her companion.

Amanda blinked, and grasped Lex's hand. "Yep." She gave the large hand a strong squeeze and smiled. "Martha, I think I got the best end of the deal." She told the housekeeper.

"I think you both did." The older woman chuckled. "How far out are you now?"

Lex had just turned off the main road, and Amanda could see the old bridge up ahead. "We're almost to the we should be at the house in about ten minutes or so."

"Great...I just started a fresh pot of coffee. I have a feeling we're gonna be needing it." Martha paused. "Hold on a minute, honey...I think I hear a car pulling up out front."

"Wait!!...Martha? Are you there?" Amanda heard the phone being set down.

"What?" Lex looked over at the younger woman as they started across the bridge.

"She thought she heard a car drive up, and sat the phone down to go look." Amanda listened intently to the phone, trying to hear any unusual noises.

"Dammit!" Lex sped up the truck, practically flying across the old wooden structure.

"Lex! Slow down! We're not going to be any help to Martha if you kill us!" Amanda had released the rancher's hand, and was bracing herself against the dash.

The older woman slowed the vehicle down reluctantly. "Has she come back to the phone yet?" Lex had a deathgrip on the steering wheel, the dashlights casting an eerie glow on her tense face.

"No...not - wait, I think I hear something." The younger woman chewed on her lower lip in concern.

"Amanda?" Martha sounded somewhat breathless. "You still there?"

"God, Martha...don't scare me like that - are you okay? We're almost to the house." Amanda held her breath, waiting for the answer.

"Oh heavens, yes...but I'm afraid Hubert is going to hurt himself trying to get in." She laughed. "Sounds like he's working his way around the house - banging on windows and doors as he goes."

The truck skidded to a stop in the long driveway, Lex parking beside a grossly expensive BMW convertible. She looked over at Amanda and gave her a worried look. "Do you want to wait here, or..."

The young blonde frowned. "Do you really want me to?" She unbuckled her seatbelt, looking at the taller woman for an answer.

"No...I'd rather you stay with me - I'm less likely to strangle Hubert if there are witnesses." Lex gave her a wry grin. She unclipped her buckle and opened the door. "C'mon, let's go get this over with."

They were almost to the front door with they heard a man's voice screaming from the back of the house, "Dammit, old woman! I know you're in there - open this friggin' door before I kick it in!"

Lex unlocked the front door and ushered Amanda inside, then closed and locked the door behind them. "Martha, we're here." She said in a normal voice, walking down the hallway.

The short, round housekeeper stepped out of the den, causing Amanda to yelp in alarm. "Oh sweetheart...I didn't mean to startle you." Turning towards the taller woman, "Lexie, I think that Hubert has about worked his way back around to the front of the house." Suddenly, a loud banging on the front door interrupted her.

"Goddammit!! Unlock this door, you old bitch, or I'll knock it down!" Hubert kicked the door ineffectually.

Lex opened the door, an angry set to her face. "Hubert! What in the hell is your problem?" she stood in the doorway, daring him to try and get by her. "And watch what you say about Martha."

"Get the hell outta my way, Lex!" He tried to push past her, but was stopped when Lex put her hand in the middle of his chest. Hubert was only an inch or two taller than his younger sister, but he outweighed her by at least thirty pounds.

"Why?" Lex pushed her brother back a step. "What business do you have in this house?" She stepped out on the front porch with him. "I believe we settled that when I gave you the house in town - you didn't want anything to do with this 'old, dirty ranch', or so you said then."

Hubert stood quietly, remembering. He'd always hated the ranch, even as a child. Illogically, he felt that this place killed his mother, since she had started going into labor here at the ranch, and it took longer than it should have to get her into town to the hospital. Then, of course, his father bypassing him and teaching his younger sister how to run it - it still hurt, all these years later. Looking at Lex now, he realized just how much he missed his mother, she looks so much like her. Shaking his head slightly, Hubert glared at his little sister. "I still don't...but I seem to be having some trouble accessing the bank records, and I thought I may have left some papers here last time I did the books."

"I should hope you're having trouble getting into the account...I changed it." Lex leaned back against the doorframe, casually crossing her arms across her chest.

"What?!?" Hubert yelled, stepping up to the smirking woman, grabbing the front of her denim jacket with both hands, and pulling her towards him. "You can't do that!"

Lex reached up and grabbed the angry man's wrists, squeezing them painfully. "Let go of me," she muttered quietly, "or I'll break 'em...then we'll let the sheriff deal with you." Seeing the comprehension flicker across his angry features.

Hubert released her, pushing the tall woman back slightly. "Bitch." Taking a couple of steps back, he ran his hand through his dark hair. "Why didn't you call the law when you found out?"

"Because, no matter what else I think of you, you're family." Lex answered wearily. "Why did you do it? Couldn't you have just asked?"

The big man let out a derisive snort. "Yeah, you could lord that over me like you have everything else?" he shook his head. "You're so damn high and mighty...always acting like you're better than everyone else. I don't have to explain anything to you - besides, you can't prove a thing."

"What do you want from me, Hubert?" Lex dropped down onto the porch swing gracelessly. Bracing her elbows on her knees, she sighed. "I'm not going to press charges, but I think it would be a good idea if you stayed away from the ranch for a while."

A movement in the doorway caught his eye. "Oh, you'd like that, wouldn't you?" Glancing at the small blonde moving towards them. "Is this your latest plaything? I'll have to hand it to you, she's...URK!"

Lex jumped up and pinned her brother against a nearby support post, her forearm against his throat. "Say what you want to about me, you asshole - but...never...let me hear you talk about Amanda that way again..." she enjoyed the look of fear on the big man's face as she held him against the post, his face getting redder by the moment. She felt a gentle touch on her back.

"Lex? Let him go, please?" a soft voice pleaded behind her.

The tall woman flexed her arm, causing Hubert to stand up on his toes, gasping for air. "I've had it with you - I didn't want this ranch, but by god I'm going to work it with everything I am, and no two-bit bean counter is going to change that." She felt Amanda place her small hand on her shoulder. "Especially not the likes of you!" Shifting slightly, Lex shoved her brother off of the porch.

Hubert stumbled to the driveway, holding his throat and gasping for breath. "This...isn't... over, Lex." He panted, backing his way clumsily toward his car.

The rancher braced her hands against the porch rail, Amanda standing beside her. "Go home, Hubert..." she sighed heavily, watching as her brother got into his car and drove away. Bowing her head, Lex closed her eyes against the exhaustion that was left behind as her rage crumbled away.

"God, Lex..." Amanda whispered.

The older woman felt the words as if they were physical blows. Afraid to turn around, she took a deep breath. "Yeah...I completely lost it..." she felt the smaller woman duck under her arm and snuggle close.

"Was he always such a jerk?" the young blonde asked, turning to look up into the anguished face above her.

"Huh?" Lex blinked, then wrapped her arms around the smaller woman in reflex.

Amanda smiled at the unconscious gesture. "Good you have kept from killing him before now is a complete mystery to me."


Both women turned around to see Martha standing in the doorway, arms crossed. "You two gonna stand out there all evening mooning over each other, or are you coming inside for coffee?"

Smiling wearily, Lex wrapped an arm around Amanda and pulled her towards the door. "Well, how can we resist such a gracious invitation?" Allowing the younger woman to enter before her, Lex stopped in front of the smirking housekeeper.

Martha looked up into the twinkling blue eyes. "What?" Then she stopped in shock as the tall woman bent over and placed a gentle kiss on top of her graying head.

"Thanks." So softly uttered she almost didn't hear.

"For what, honey?" the older woman heard her own voice crack.

"Everything." Lex murmured, then followed Amanda into the house.

Martha watched them go, wiping a tear from her eye with the corner of her apron. "Rotten kid..." she grumbled, "just when I think I have her figured out, she says something like that." She sighed heavily, then closed the door behind her.


Chapter 14

The three women spent the next several hours sitting in the kitchen, with Amanda catching Martha up on the happenings of the last couple of days. She tried to gloss over her involvement in the incident with Rick, but Lex wouldn't let her.

"Wait...wait! Back up, Amanda!" the rancher looked over at Martha. "She neglecting to tell you the best part." Watching the young woman blush, she continued. "Rick started toward Mrs. Cauble, so I stepped in behind him to try and get his attention," she gave a sheepish grin, "He, ah...elbowed me in the ribs..." Lex cleared her throat, "and I dropped like a rock."

"Good lord, child!" Martha reached across the table and placed her hand on the tall woman's arm. "Are you all right?"

Lex nodded. "Yeah...just kinda took my breath away for a few minutes..." she gave the young blonde next to her a warning look. "Anyway, there I was, on my knees trying to catch my breath, when I see Rick moving towards the desk again. He got about two steps when he went flying backwards!"

Martha looked back and forth between the two younger women. "How?" she was practically on the edge of her seat.

"Amanda did some sort of karate, or something..." Lex looked at the younger woman for confirmation.

"Kickboxing...actually." The young woman muttered, embarrassed.

The housekeeper's jaw dropped. "You? Kicked him?"

"Nailed him right on the chin," Lex supplied helpfully. Amanda slapped her on the shoulder. "What?"

"I just wanna die..." the small blonde mumbled, covering her face with her hands.

Martha stood up, chuckling. "Don't feel bad, honey...I think it's great that you can defend yourself." She kissed the top of the young woman's head. "Now..." she waited until she got both women's attention, "I think it would be best if you two stayed the's been a long day, and there's no sense in your driving back to town this late."

Amanda looked at Lex, who shrugged her shoulders. "That sounds like a great idea...let me give my grandparents a call so that they won't worry." She stood up. "I'll just use the phone upstairs, if that's okay."

Lex smiled. "Sure...I'll be up in a minute." Her eyes followed the young woman as she left the room.

"Lexie?" Martha was charmed by the smile on the dark woman's face. "Honey?"

"Hmm?" Lex answered. "Oh! Umm...sorry about that." She straightened up in her chair. "What's up?"

Martha stepped over until she was standing next to the younger woman. Absently running her hand through the dark hair, she murmured, "I was so proud of you this evening, Lexie."

The rancher leaned into the contact unconsciously. "Really? I thought you would be disappointed - I almost strangled my brother on the front porch, Martha." She released a heavy sigh. "Dad was right..." she closed her eyes wearily.

"About what, sweetheart?" the housekeeper continued her gentle ministrations.

"He said my temper would cause nothing but trouble...and he was right - first Lou, and now Hubert." She fought back the tears that threatened to fall when she thought about her youngest brother.

"How can you say that?" Martha sat down in the chair next to the anguished woman. "Louis was killed in a boating accident - you weren't even there!"

Lex looked at the housekeeper, tears threatening to spill from her shining blue eyes. "And if I hadn't lost my temper with him, he would have never gone in the first place."

It was the middle of summer, and Lex was angry because she was stuck in the office at the ranch, when she would much rather be down at the creek swimming. It had been over a year since her father had left her in charge of the ranch, and the teenager was getting more and more stressed out every day. Running the ranch, putting up with the snide remarks of her older brother Hubert, and trying to keep one eye on her younger brother Louis, all combined to make the serious young woman a bundle of nerves.

After an especially trying argument with Hubert over the working of the latest herd of cattle, Lex had escaped to the office for some much needed peace and quiet, when an excited Louis rushed into the room.

"Lex! There you are! I've been looking all over for you!" he exclaimed breathlessly. Where Lex and Hubert favored their mother with their dark good looks and blue eyes, Louis took after their father Rawson - short, small frame, dark blonde hair, and dark hazel eyes.

"Not too hard to figure out where I am," she muttered, "I seem to live in this damn office."

"Yeah," Louis agreed sadly. He missed his playful sister, who seemed to have disappeared in the past year or so. "Hey! I've got a great idea! A bunch of us are going to the lake this afternoon - why don't you come with us?"

Lex ran an impatient hand through her hair. "I can't...there's too much to do around here." She looked at her younger brother. "Just who is 'a bunch of us'?"

Louis couldn't meet her eyes. "Uh...well...five guys from school, and Jim's brother Randy, who's gonna drive us out there."

"Randy? The kid that just got out of juvenile detention? No way!" Lex stood up and paced around the desk. "He's what? Sixteen?" she looked at Louis, who was beginning to mirror her angry posture. "I absolutely forbid it!"

"You don't own me, Lex! I wasn't asking your permission - I just wanted to let you know where I'd be." He began to walk backwards towards the door.

"Dammit, Lou...use your head! You need a 'responsible' adult around if you guys are going to the lake...not some kid who just got out of jail!" She was interrupted by a horn honking in the front of the house.

"They're here...I gotta go." Louis started for the door.

"Lou...I won't allow it!" she reached for his arm.

Jerking away from her, he cried, "You' mother, Lex! I don't need your permission to go anywhere - Hubert already said I could go!" He turned back to face her. "I'll see you tonight." The young man raced out of the office.

Lex started after him, but the phone on the desk stopped her. "What!?" she yelled into the receiver, taking her anger out on a poor helpless salesman who happened to call at the wrong time.

The rancher was still simmering in the office when the phone rang again, several hours later. "Hello?"

A stranger's voice asked, "Lexington Walters?"

'Great, another salesman,' she thought. "Who wants to know?" Lex growled.

A short pause, then a sigh. "This is Richard Saylor...I'm one of the rangers that handles Somerville Lake."

'I knew it! They're in some sort of trouble...' she grumbled to herself. "Is this about my brother, Louis? What kind of trouble did he get into?" she asked resignedly.

The man cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Miss Walters, we need you to come down to the lake...there's been an...accident."

Lex jumped to her feet. "What kind of accident? Is my brother...?"

"The boat your brother was riding in capsized when another boat broad-sided it..." the ranger spoke gently, "I'm afraid your brother was killed..." he paused. "Do you have someone that can drive you to the lake? We need a relative to make a positive identification."

"I'll be right there." Lex hung up the phone numbly.


Looking back, Lex realized that was the day she shut herself down - only going through the motions of day to day living, until Hubert brought Linda home. For a short while, Lex allowed herself to feel, until she was handed her heart back to her in pieces. Then it became easier to hide inside a bottle than to face the loneliness. After she sobered up, Lex decided to just quit caring - you couldn't get hurt if you didn't care. She never really mourned the death of Louis, choosing instead to shut off all of her emotions - until a certain green-eyed blonde entered her life.

Martha leaned over and pulled the younger woman into her arms. "Sweetheart, blaming yourself for that does no was an accident, plain and simple. No one was to blame, especially you." The housekeeper kissed the top of the dark head. "Let it go..." she held the rancher closely to her as Lex sobbed, finally releasing all the grief she had held in for so many years.

Amanda stood quietly in the doorway, feeling guilty for witnessing such a private scene. God...I vaguely remember that summer - I had no idea who that boy was that had been killed. Poor Lex. Amanda wasn't very fond of the water, so she and her grandparents rarely went to the lake when she visited in the summer...but she remembered hearing them speak of the tragedy right after it happened. Sparing one final glance in the kitchen, she turned and walked silently back up the stairs, tears of compassion in her eyes.

"Sorry, Martha...I don't know what came over me..." Lex pulled back and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "It's been almost ten years - why did I fall apart now?"

The housekeeper brushed the hair out of the younger woman's eyes. "Baby, you finally gave in to your feelings enough to grieve." No sense in telling her how afraid I've been, wondering what would happen if she ever did open poor little girl. She picked up a napkin from the table and wiped Lex's face with it, like she used to do when the rancher was a child. "Now you go upstairs and get a good night's sleep."

Lex took a deep breath, then gave the older woman a shaky smile. "You're right, as usual. I'm pretty worn out." She leaned over and kissed the graying head. "Thanks."

Martha waved her off. "No need to thank me, child...that's what I'm here for." She stood up, embarrassed.

Smiling to herself, the tall woman stood up as well, then enveloped the stocky woman in a strong hug. "Well, thanks anyway." She felt the small arms give her a squeeze. "I love you, you know." The rancher whispered, just before she released the older woman.

"I love you too..." Martha replied. She stepped back and turned Lex towards the doorway. "Now go on upstairs before Amanda thinks you've run off!" she swatted the smiling young woman on the rear.

"Yes ma'am." Lex hurried from the kitchen and up the stairs.


Taking and releasing a deep breath, Lex stood in the darkened doorway of the master bedroom, the only light in the room coming from the low burning fireplace.

"Amanda?" she called out quietly, unable to see if the younger woman was asleep on the bed. A movement near the fireplace caught her eye.

"Over here." Amanda sat up from her curled up position in one of the stuffed chairs.

Lex crossed the room quickly, dropping to her knees at the blonde woman's feet. "You okay?" she asked, placing her hands on the small legs.

Even in the dim light, Amanda could see the rancher's red and puffy eyes. Reaching out with a gentle hand, she brushed the unruly hair from Lex's face. "I'm fine...but you're looking a little rough around the edges - what's say we take a quick shower and go to bed?" she continued to run her hand through the dark hair.

"Mmm..." Lex closed her eyes and absorbed the loving touch. "That's the best offer I've had all day." She gathered her wits about her and stood up. "C'mon...I'll scrub your back." She pulled Amanda up beside her, wrapping both arms around the smaller woman.

Amanda enjoyed the warm security of the strong arms she found herself in. Closing her eyes, she was content to stand and absorb the love that emanated from the older woman. "I could stay here forever," she mumbled, not realizing she had spoken out loud until she felt Lex squeeze her a little tighter.

"I hope so..." Lex murmured in her ear, "because I have no intentions of ever letting you go." She pulled her head back slightly so she could look into Amanda's eyes. "I love you." Leaning down, Lex gently covered the younger woman's lips with her own, placing a soft, re-affirming kiss on slightly parted lips.

Amanda leaned into the kiss, accepting the gentle, almost hesitant touch from the taller woman. Finally breaking off to breathe, she leaned her cheek against the rancher's heaving chest. "Let's go get that shower..." she gave Lex a quick kiss on the chin. "If you're real good," she led the dazed woman towards the bathroom, "I'll practice my massage techniques on you." She swatted Lex on the rear and closed the bathroom door.


Chapter 15

The sun was barely peeking over the horizon when Lex opened her eyes the next morning. She lifted her head from it's warm nest, snuggled behind Amanda with her nose tucked in the sweetly fragrant blonde hair. Gently disentangling herself from the younger woman, Lex climbed out of bed, tucking the dark comforter back around the small body. Damn, I feel great! She marveled to herself, unsure if it was due to the release of long-held in emotion or the wonderful full body massage she had received from Amanda's talented hands. Dressing quickly, Lex left a short note on the pillow next to the sleeping woman, then crept quietly out of the room.

Bounding down the stairs, Lex saw a light coming from the kitchen, so she made a slight detour in her direction. Seeing Martha at the counter humming to herself as she rolled out the biscuits, the rancher crept up behind the unsuspecting woman with an evil smile on her face.

"Good morning, Sunshine!" she bellowed, scooping up the shocked housekeeper and spinning her around the room.

"Aaaaahhh!!" Martha screamed, then reflexively grabbed the tall woman around the head, coating Lex's dark hair with flour and bits of dough. "Put me down, you crazy brat!" she huffed, "I'm getting airsick!"

Laughing, Lex stopped spinning the older woman around, allowing her small feet to touch the ground. Realizing what Martha had been doing, she cringed when she saw the housekeeper remove her hands from where they had been clinched in her thick hair. "Ugh..." she gave the small woman another devious grin. "So, I'm guessing I look pretty good in white hair?" she casually reached behind her back and rubbed her palms across the flour-covered countertop.

Martha snickered. "I'm sorry about that, just startled me." Seeing the look on the younger woman's face, she shook her head and pointed a finger directly at the tall woman's chest. "Now, wait just a minute..." she backed up several steps, with the rancher closing in on her.

"What's the matter, Martha?" Lex chuckled, hands still behind her back.

The older woman put her hands in front of herself defensively. "Don't be doing anything that you might regret..."

Lex laughed. "Me? Never!" she closed in on the smaller woman, cornering her against the stove. Just as Lex was about to raise her hands and rub flour in Martha's hair, she felt two small arms wrap around her from behind, trapping her arms to her sides.

"Can't leave you alone for a minute, can I?" a soft voice whispered in her ear.

Martha laughed, and wiped another blob of flour onto the rancher's nose. "Thanks, sweetie." She grinned at Amanda, then edged past the two women and went back to her biscuit making.

Lex twisted, then picked the young blonde up and cradled her in her arms. "Good morning, traitor."

Amanda looked up into sparkling blue eyes, then noticed the flour and dough in Lex's hair. "Umm...good morning?" she used one hand to brush flour out of the taller woman's hair. "You helping Martha cook breakfast again?" she teased.

Lex rolled her eyes. "No..." she mock-glared at the housekeeper's back. "This was completely unprovoked. All I did was come in and tell Martha good morning!" she gave the woman in her arms a slight pout.

"Ha!" Martha snorted. "Don't believe a word of it...the little brat snuck up on me and started spinning me around the room!"

"You didn't..." Amanda looked up for confirmation.

"Well..." Lex blushed slightly.

"Ah...Lex?" Amanda grinned, her hands locked behind the rancher's neck.

"Mmm?" the older woman looked deeply into her eyes, a tender smile on her face.

"You wanna let me down now?" the smaller woman asked, seeing the look of total love on her companion's face.

"Not really..." Lex admitted. "I could do this for the rest of my life." She said quietly. "And I hope to." Even quieter.

Amanda stopped breathing. "Me too." She finally responded. "I can't think of anyplace I'd rather be..."

Martha glanced at the two young women in the middle of the room. "Hey! Would you two either sit at the table, or go somewhere else right now? How am I supposed to cook with you two giving each other puppy-dog eyes in the middle of my kitchen?" That got the intended response. Both young women blushed furiously.

Lex gently allowed Amanda to stand on her own feet. "Sorry about that...sorta forgot what I was doing."

The younger woman gave her a gentle pat on her good side. "Don't was fun." She saw that Martha was diligently working on the biscuits, with her back turned to the couple. Amanda reached up and pulled Lex's head down gently. "Let me give you a proper good morning." She gave the taller woman a long, passionate kiss, ending only when Martha cleared her throat.

"Excuse me, wouldn't you two be more comfortable upstairs?" the housekeeper asked.

"Oops!" Amanda chuckled. Then she looked directly at Martha and grinned. "Probably. But I'm so hungry I could eat some of Lex's pancakes!"

The housekeeper laughed, and Lex scowled. "Remind me to bring you breakfast in bed one morning - that'll teach you to tease me!" she gave the smaller woman a light pat on the rear, then sat down at the table. "Need any help, Martha?"

"Oh, could be a big help and go find something else to do for about twenty or thirty minutes..." the housekeeper hinted, trying to keep Lex out from under her feet.

Amanda walked over and pulled the tall woman out of her chair. "C'mon...let's go for a walk..." she led Lex out of the room, with Martha's laughter floating after them. The young woman led the tall rancher down the long hallway, pulling her into the darkened den.

"I thought we were going for a walk?" Lex asked, as the small woman pushed her gently onto the couch.

Smirking, Amanda turned on the stereo, placing a CD in the drive. "Changed my looks pretty chilly outside this morning, so I thought we could just sit in here and enjoy your wonderful stereo system." She pushed play, and turned the volume down until it became background sound. The lights from the stereo cast a soft glow in the room, allowing Amanda to see the gentle smile on her lover's face.

"Think so? Why don't you come over here and get comfortable?" Lex murmured, watching the pale lights flicker across the young woman's face.

Amanda grinned, then walked slowly across the room to climb up into the rancher's lap, straddling her muscular legs. Wrapping her arms around Lex's neck, she whispered, "You're right... this is much more comfortable." She placed a soft kiss on the older woman's lips, then snuggled under her chin.

Lex chuckled, then wrapped her arms around Amanda, pulling her close. "Happy to be of service, ma'am." Closing her eyes, Lex relaxed - somewhat shocked that she was able to sit still for such a long length of time, without the urge to be up and doing something. You're a bad influence on me, Amanda...she thought wryly, enjoying the feel of the young woman in her arms.


Half an hour later, Martha peeked into the den discreetly, finding them after hearing the sounds of The Corrs floating down the hallway. Seeing the two women curled up on the large sofa, she smiled to herself. They look so darn cute, all snuggled up together like that. She crept quietly into the room, trying not to startle them. "Lexie?"

The rancher opened her eyes slowly. "Hey, Martha." She whispered, trying to keep from disturbing her sleeping companion. "I guess breakfast is ready?"

"It sure is...think you can tear yourself away?" Martha teased.

Lex grinned. "Well, if I have to, I guess..." she looked at the older woman with a wry smile. "'course, after breakfast I'm gonna need to wash my hair, for some strange reason."

Martha crossed her arms across her chest. "Not my fault. You shouldn't sneak up on an old woman like that..."

"You're not an old woman," Lex snorted, causing the bundle in her arms to moan, and snuggle closer. But the comment made her pause for a moment. Lex studied the older woman seriously, seeing for the first time the wrinkles on the once-smooth skin, and the hair that was becoming more gray than brown. When did that happen? Have I been so self-absorbed that I never noticed?

"Honey? Is everything okay?" the housekeeper noticed the far away look in the younger woman's eyes.

"Damn,'s been twenty-five years, hasn't it?" she asked, still a little shocked at the amount of time that had passed.

Martha perched on the other end of the sofa and chuckled. "Hard to believe, isn't it? I told you I was getting old."

"No, not old...but you've spent half of your life babysitting me...a little more than you bargained for, I'll bet." Lex gave her a sardonic smile.

"And well worth every single minute of it," the housekeeper replied. "Although, I could do with less excitement, if you don't mind. This past week or so had been a little bit too much, even for you." Martha stood up. "Now why don't you wake up Sleeping Beauty there, and come and get some breakfast?" she chuckled and left the room.

Lex let her eyes follow the older woman from the room, a fond smile on her face. Gotta do something special for her...maybe Amanda will have some ideas. She looked down at the young woman securely attached to her. Leaning close to Amanda's ear, Lex whispered, "Amanda?"

"" the small woman mumbled, burying her face deeper into Lex's chest.

The older woman grinned. "Sweetheart, you need to wake up..." she kissed the blonde head.

"Don't wanna..." Amanda growled, squeezing her arms tighter around her captive.

"Breakfast is ready."

"What?" Amanda's eyes popped open, and her head lifted away from Lex's body.

The rancher laughed, pulling the small woman close. "You are absolutely priceless, Amanda."

"What's that supposed to mean?" She looked at Lex crossly.

"That means," the older woman placed a gentle kiss on Amanda's lips, "I don't know," another kiss, "what I would do," a longer, more passionate kiss, "without you."

"Mmm..." the younger woman curled up against her. She was about to continue when her stomach growled. Ignoring the loud rumble, Amanda threaded her hands through the dark hair, forcing the older woman's back against the sofa.

Lex sat back and enjoyed the gentle assault, until Amanda's stomach rumbled again. Seeing that the young woman had no intention of stopping, the rancher decided to take matters into her own hands, in a manner of speaking. She dropped her hands from the young blonde's shoulders, moving them down slowly until they came to rest on Amanda's hips. Leaning forward slightly, Lex stood up, carrying the small body with her.

"Whoa! The couch is moving!" Amanda exclaimed, opening her eyes and looking around. She had unconsciously wrapped her legs around the rancher's lean waist, and looked down at their entangled bodies with a flush of embarrassment. "Umm...guess I should let you go, huh?"

"Well...I could just carry you into the kitchen like this, if you want." The older woman told her with a sexy smile. "Or, I could carry you up the stairs, and give you a different kind of breakfast - although I would leave it to you to explain that one to Martha..." she smirked.

Amanda unwrapped her legs from the tall woman's body reluctantly. "As much as I would love to go back upstairs with you, I don't think either one of us wants to face Martha's wrath if we don't have breakfast." She pouted slightly. "But, we may need some way to work off such a wonderful feast, don't you agree?"


"So, what kind of mischief are you girls going to stir up today?" Martha asked. The three women were sitting around the kitchen table after breakfast, relaxing with a cup of coffee.

Lex looked at Amanda, who shrugged good-naturedly. "Well, I thought we'd spend today and tonight here..." seeing the younger woman smile in agreement, "then I have to get packed for our trip next week."

"A trip? Where are you going?" The housekeeper asked, secretly happy that they were staying at the ranch for another day. It's just too quiet when Lexie's not around...

Amanda placed her coffee mug back on the table after draining it. "That's right! We haven't had a chance to tell you yet..." She smiled as Lex refilled both hers, and Martha's coffee cups with the professionalism of a seasoned waitress. "My parents are having this big dinner party next week in Los Angeles, and I've convinced Lex to go with me. Besides, I'm going to need some help packing up my stuff and sending it to my grandparent's house - since I've decided to move to Somerville for good."

"That's wonderful news, honey!" Martha laid a small hand on the young woman's forearm. She then looked over at Lex with a surprised grin. "How are you planning on getting there?"

The young blonde looked at Martha, confusion etching her lovely features. "Fly, of course...why do you ask?" She looked over at Lex, who had paled suddenly.

Oh, shit! I didn't even think about how we were going to get there, Lex panicked. "Yeah, Martha. You didn't think we'd walk, did you?" she tried to keep her tone light.

"Riiight...I guess it was a pretty silly question, wasn't it?" Martha spared a glance at Amanda, who was looking at the rancher with a concerned look on her face.

Lex sighed. " wasn't silly. I hadn't really thought about the form of transportation that we would take to get there..." she looked at Amanda with an embarrassed smile. "I...uh...have a little...trouble...on airplanes."

"What kind of trouble?" the younger woman reached over and entwined their hands. "Do you get airsick?"

Martha chuckled. "We should be so lucky." She then quieted after the dark-haired woman glowered at her.

"'s not that." Feeling the gentle pressure on her hand, Lex continued, "I get a little... anxious...on airplanes." She looked at the housekeeper for help.

"I'd say more than anxious, sweetheart." The older woman looked at Amanda. "We had to practically knock Lexie out with tranquilizers the last time...not the best experience, let me tell you."

Amanda leaned in closer to the rancher. "What is it about flying that bothers you so much?"

Lex looked down at the table, unable to meet those intense green eyes. "I'm not could be one of several things - the enclosed space, the fact that we're thousands of feet up in the air with nothing holding us up, or maybe it's just the sickeningly perky flight attendants. I don't know." She smiled at the younger woman.

"Maybe you just need something else to occupy your mind." The smaller woman offered.

"Such as?" a wicked grin.

Amanda blushed. "Umm...let's try another tact." She cleared her throat. "Maybe your anxiousness is due to something that happened before. Have you had any bad experiences on an airplane?"

Lex smiled at the look on Amanda's face. " mean other than the food?" she teased, receiving the expected slap on the arm for that remark. "No...nothing that I can think of...I've only flown three times - each time was more of a disaster than the last."

"And yet you're willing to put yourself through all of that again?" Amanda was shocked.

The rancher shrugged her shoulders. "Yeah. I figure it's about time to face my fears... Right, Martha?" she looked at the housekeeper, who had a perplexed look on her face.

She's certainly got it bad... "If you say so, sweetheart. I know you've really been bothered by this for a long time." Martha looked at Amanda. "She swore after the last time that she'd never fly again."

"Why? What happened the last time?" the small blonde asked, looking from Lex to Martha.

Lex rolled her eyes, as the housekeeper laughed. "They say..." she looked pointedly at the older woman, "that I hit a flight attendant...but I don't remember it. The medication I had been given to help me with my jitters was really something else."

Martha interrupted. "You did! They said it took three security guards to get you off of the kept hollering that he..." laughing, she had to stop and catch her breath, "grabbed your...rear!" The housekeeper hooted. She looked over at Amanda, who had one hand over her mouth, trying to stifle her giggles. "The tranquilizers made Lexie really woozy, and she had stood up to grab something from one of the overhead compartments - they said she started to tumble back, and the flight attendant caught her."

Amanda lost it. "Oh, god...that poor man!"

Lex gave her an indignant look. "Hey! It was my butt he was groping!"

The housekeeper wiped the tears of mirth from her face and eyes. "And for that you broke his nose? I met the poor man later...believe me, honey - you weren't his type. I'm just thankful that he was so understanding, and didn't press charges against you."

"I've always wondered what you told him to keep me out of jail..." Lex mumbled. To her amazement, the older woman blushed.

"Well, I...uh...appealed to his kind and generous nature..." Martha stammered, somewhat embarrassed at the length she went to protect the young woman.

Lex put her elbow up on the table, and propped her chin on her open hand. "Oh, this I gotta hear..." she grinned at Amanda, "Please...continue." She waved her other hand regally.

"Brat." Martha snorted, then took a deep breath. "Okay...well...we got you settled in the car," she grinned at the young blonde across from her, "slept like a baby for almost two days, too...Anyway, the poor man was in the airline security office, screaming about lawyers, court, and Amazon psycho women who should be locked away for the good of society." She gave Lex a knowing grin.

" did you calm him down?" Now Amanda was curious as well.

"Well, for starters...I cried...Then, I told him how Lexie took care of me in my decidedly waning years," she rolled her eyes at her audience, "and that she was all I had left in this world after her daddy up and left us." She gave them a devious smile. "After all, it really wasn't a lie now, was it?"

Lex laughed. "Martha, only you could make a man feel bad for getting beat up on an airplane."

The older woman stuck her tongue out at Lex. "Yeah, well...after I also explained to him that she was heavily tranquilized and had no idea what she was doing, he understood." Then she looked at the dark-haired woman with undisguised glee. "He told me his little poodle was the same way when they had to sedate her for long trips." Both she and Amanda cracked up.

Lex sat there looking at the two near-hysterical women, a deep blush on her face. Once they calmed down, she looked at Amanda with serious eyes. "Woof." Which set both women off again. Standing up, she tried to preserve as much dignity as possible. "I'm going upstairs for a shower, if you two ladies don't mind." She got to the doorway and turned back towards them. "Try to stay out of trouble, okay?"

Amanda and Martha looked at each other, paused, then burst into laughter again.


Chapter 16

The next few days were a whirlwind of activity for both women. They spent two days at the ranch with Martha, with Lex explaining to Amanda that she really wanted to do something special for the older woman, but was at a complete loss as to what.

"Let me see what I can do." The younger woman assured her. "Now, let's go get you packed." She drug the unwilling rancher upstairs.

"Uh...Amanda?" Lex was ashamed of her wardrobe, or more to the point, the lack thereof. "Maybe we should just buy some clothes when we get there." She mumbled as the smaller woman made her way to the closet.

Amanda stopped at the closet door, her hand reaching for the knob. "Why?" she turned and looked at the taller woman with a tender smile. "Have you suddenly outgrown all of your clothes?"

Lex snorted. "Not yet...although I'm sure I will soon if Martha keeps stuffing me three times a day." With a resigned sigh, she walked over to the closet and opened the door, causing the light inside to come on.

"Whoa..." Amanda exclaimed. The closet itself was only ten feet deep and six feet wide - but it had two wooden poles on each side that went the length of the closet. The rear wall was covered by large oak shelves, which had folded shirts and sweaters in the individual cubbyholes. But what surprised the younger woman the most was how empty it was. Only the right side of the closet had any clothes hanging in it - and even these didn't fill the space all the way to the end. Shirts were on the top pole, with jeans and apparently a few pair of khaki slacks as well on the bottom pole.

Putting her hand on Amanda's shoulder, the tall woman sighed again. "Yeah. I told you I don't have many clothes - no sense in it, really." She shrugged. "Who's gonna see me, anyway?"

"Honey, I have yet to see you dressed badly. You've got to be the best dressed rancher that I have ever seen." Amanda winked. "Besides, I don't think Martha would let you out of the house if you weren't all clean and pressed."

The older woman laughed, and pulled Amanda into an one-armed hug. "Oh, yeah...we've argued about that for years - she keeps insisting on ironing my jeans and denim shirts. I keep telling her that the cattle really don't care what I look like." She followed the young woman into the closet. "And just how many ranchers have you seen?" Lex teased.

"Well, to be honest, you're the first one I've ever really met. But," she turned and faced the older woman, "I've watched a lot of TV - and you are most certainly the best looking cowhand I've ever laid eyes on!" Amanda stood up on her tiptoes and wrapped her arms around the tall woman's neck.

Lex unconsciously put her arms around the smaller woman and bent her head to meet her halfway. "Why, thank you kindly, ma'am." She drawled, placing her lips gently on Amanda's, allowing the young woman to take the lead.

"Mmm..." Amanda murmured, leaning into the strong embrace. She felt the large hands slide down her back slowly then tucked themselves into the back pockets of her jeans. Breaking off the kiss to breathe, Amanda leaned her forehead into Lex's heaving chest. "Much better..." she felt the chuckle rumble through the rancher, and smiled to herself in response. After giving one last squeeze to the lanky body, Amanda regretfully stepped back a pace. "Whew...okay. Let's see about getting you packed." She looked at the row of neatly pressed pants. "Most of these jeans look brand-new... have you been shopping lately?"

"Not exactly." Lex looked at her feet, embarrassed. She felt a small hand lift her chin gently. Looking into the questioning green eyes, she let a small smile appear. "I keep wearing the same couple of pair because they're comfortable - it drives Martha crazy."

"You're so bad." Amanda chastised, then stepped back and pulled several pairs of jeans off of the pole, as well as one pair of khakis. "Here...hold these..." she started shuffling through the hanging shirts, then stopped. "Hey! Where did you get this?" she asked, running her hand across the soft material. "Doesn't look like something you'd wear chasing cattle."

"Oh...I forgot I had that shirt." Lex touched the fabric with tentative fingertips.

Amanda grinned at her. "This is perfect! It'll go great with these," she pulled a pair of pants from the rack, and handed them to the rancher. Wandering to the back of the closet, the young woman grabbed a pair of shiny boots, and as an afterthought snatched a pair of scuffed Nike's from a nearby shelf. "I didn't know you owned anything like these." she teased, holding the sneakers in the air.

The dark-haired woman scowled at her. "Smartass." Holding the items in her hands aloft, she asked, "Are all of these clothes really necessary? We're gonna be there what? Four or five days at the most?"

"Absolutely! And you should consider yourself lucky..." the young woman walked past her, "I'm really packing you up light!" She stepped back into the bedroom. "Do you have a bathing suit?"

Lex laughed as she grabbed a suitcase from one of the high shelves in the closet. "Yeah, somewhere. But I haven't worn it since high school...why?"

Amanda helped Lex carry the clothes and suitcase over to the bed. "My folks have a huge swimming pool with a attached hot tub - thought it might be fun to try it out with you."

"A hot tub, eh?" Lex stepped up behind the blonde, until her body was in complete contact with Amanda's. Moving the reddish-blonde hair to one side, Lex began placing small kisses on her lover's soft neck. "I don't think your family would approve of what I could do with you in a hot tub." She felt the petite woman tremble slightly.

Amanda felt her knees begin to weaken. "I really don'" she raised an arm behind her head, taking a handful of thick dark hair in her fist and enjoying the sensation of gentle lips nibbling on her throat. "what my family thinks...ahh..." strong hands began working their way underneath the front of her shirt.

"Ahem." Martha stood at the doorway, hands on her hips and an almost stern expression on her face. "You two are never going to get packed at this rate."

Lex sighed then turned around, pulling Amanda in front of her. "And this would be a bad thing?" she could feel Amanda's giggle where her hands were still splayed on the flat abdomen.

"Don't get sassy with me, Lexie. I can still take you over my knee." Martha stepped into the room, walking towards the couple.

"Watch it, lady...or I'll sic my bodyguard on you!" Lex threatened, ducking down behind the now-blushing Amanda.

"Hey! Don't get me involved here..." Amanda laughed, feeling the strong arms around her squeeze her tightly.

Martha grinned. "Looks to me like you're already pretty much involved, honey."

"Heh...she's got ya there, sweetheart!" Lex murmured in her ear, tickling her stomach.

Amanda slapped her hands. "Stop that!" she growled good-naturedly.

Lex propped her chin on Amanda's head. "Is there something we can do for you, Martha?"

"Actually, I came up here to tell you that Dr. Anderson called in your prescription of tranquilizers for your flight...he said that you can pick them up in the morning on your way to the airport."

"Thanks, Martha...but I'm going to try and do without them..." Lex sighed.

"Are you sure you want to do that?" the housekeeper asked.

The rancher released Amanda and sat down on the bed. "Yeah...I don't want to be drugged out when I meet Amanda's family." She ran a hand through her dark hair.

"Honey..." Amanda sat down next to her and grasped her hand. "I don't want you to put yourself through hell just because of them..." she gently stroked the strong arm with her free hand, "Believe me, they're really not worth it."

Martha sat down on the other side of Lex. "Okay...what about this," she rubbed the rancher's back gently, "Why don't you take the medication with you and then you'll have it, just in case?"

Lex opened her mouth to argue.

"Sshhh...she's right." Amanda stopped her. "And," she linked her arm with the dark haired woman's, "we both might need sedatives around my family - they tend to be a little high strung."

" that's where you get it, huh?" Lex teased. "Ow!" she rubbed her arm where Amanda had slapped her.

"Serves you right, Lexie." Martha chuckled, standing up. "You girls going to be ready for lunch soon?"

"I can always eat!" Amanda confessed gleefully, getting to her feet.

"Ha! Big surprise." Lex mumbled, then found herself pushed back onto the bed. "What?" she asked the two retreating figures.


After lunch, Lex packed up the truck and then she and Amanda prepared to leave the ranch. Standing on the front porch, Martha tearfully hugged each woman.

"Now you girls try and stay out of trouble." She had just embraced Amanda, and stepped back to look into the shining green eyes of the younger woman. "Take care of yourself, okay sweetheart?"

Amanda pulled the housekeeper into another strong hug. "I'll take good care of her, I promise." She whispered into the older woman's ear, then kissed her on the cheek. Pulling back slightly, she smiled.

Lex rolled her eyes and grinned at Martha. "I'll call you as soon as our plane lands...don't worry." Seeing the tears on the round wrinkled face, she pulled the older woman into a fierce embrace of her own. "Hey...are you gonna be okay out here by yourself while I'm gone?"

"Heavens yes...thought I'd get those new curtains made for my house while you were away." She stepped back and gave them both a devilish smile. "And I thought it would be nice to have Charlie out for dinner a few nights this week - I know he must get tired of the food at the boarding house."

Lex winked at Amanda, then gave Martha a no-nonsense stare. "Maybe I should stop by the boarding house later tonight and find out what his intentions are."

"You wouldn't dare!" Martha yelped, not seeing Amanda quickly cover her mouth to hide a grin. "Lexington Marie! How could you even think about..." the housekeeper paused, hearing the slight giggle behind her. Seeing Amanda trying to control her laughter, she turned back in time to catch Lex grinning widely. "Oh, you!"

Laughing, the tall rancher pulled Martha back into another hug. "Sorry, Martha...I just couldn't resist." She placed a gentle kiss on the older woman's forehead. "Charlie is like a second father to me...I hope you two will have some wonderful dinners while I'm gone." She leaned down and whispered into Martha's ear, "I love you, you know...but try and behave yourself until I get back, okay?" She left another kiss, this one on a weathered cheek, and then stood up straight. "This isn't getting us any closer to town," Lex sighed, releasing Martha regretfully. "I'll also carry the cell'll be long distance, but call me if you need anything."

Martha practically pushed her off of the porch. "Stop worrying...I'm a grown woman, Lexie. Now go on, and have a good time."

Amanda followed Lex down the steps. "Well, I can't guarantee fun, but I know for a fact it won't be boring!" she chuckled.

Lex opened the passenger's side door for Amanda, then helped her into the truck. "Guess I'll have to invest in one of those little steps for the truck." She teased, closing the door before Amanda could reply. "See ya in a few days, Martha!" she yelled, waving at the housekeeper as she crossed to the driver's side of the large vehicle.

The rancher watched through the rearview mirror as Martha waved at them, until they were out of sight of the house. Releasing a heavy sigh, she turned her attention back to the road.

"Lex?" Amanda placed a small hand on her arm. "Honey? Are you okay?"

Blinking, the rancher turned back towards her companion. "Yeah, I'm okay..." she gave Amanda a small smile.

Not to be deterred, Amanda let her hand drift down the strong forearm until she was able to intertwine their fingers. "Sure you tell me what's bothering you."

Lex pulled their joined hands to her lips, and kissed the delicate knuckles. "I don't like the idea of Martha staying out at the ranch for so long all alone...especially with Hubert acting like such an ass."

Amanda chuckled. "Hmm...from what I've seen, I don't think she'll be alone, sweetheart."

"You think so?" Lex turned slightly, and gave Amanda a more genuine smile. "I sure hope so...he's been trying to get her to marry him for almost as long as I can remember." Turning her eyes back to the road, she sobered. "I know she loves him, but she seems determined to stay with me."

"Why don't we call Charlie tonight and talk to him? Maybe he'll keep an eye on things while you're gone." Amanda was concerned at the look on Lex's face. She's going to make herself sick worrying about all of this. "I think she's just worried about you being alone..." she gave the hand in hers a sturdy squeeze. "and I don't think that's going to be a problem anymore."

Lex smiled again. "Yeah?"

"Oh, yeah...most definitely." Amanda replied, love shining from her eyes.


Chapter 17

Once the truck had made it safely back into town, Lex looked over at Amanda with a questioning glance. "Would you mind too terribly much if we went straight over to the boarding house? I can't concentrate on anything else until I know that Martha has been taken care of." She asked, with an apologetic smile. "I promise it won't take too long."

Amanda squeezed the hand she had been holding throughout the entire drive. "Good idea...I'd feel a lot better too."

Ten minutes later, they pulled onto a quiet residential street in one of the older sections of town. Large two story wood-framed homes populated the block, several of them sporting historical landmark signs in their front yard. Lex pulled the truck up to a house situated in the middle of the block, with a sheriff's department car sitting in the driveway.

"Wow," Amanda sighed, allowing Lex to help her from the truck, "It's beautiful!" She followed the rancher up the stone walkway to the front porch. "Charlie lives here?"

Lex stopped on the porch and smiled. "Yep. He lives here with Mrs. Wade and her son, David." Seeing the unasked question in the green eyes, she continued. "Mr. Wade passed away about ten years ago, and Mrs. Wade needed a boarder to help make ends meet, and take care of things around the house. Charlie was living in a tiny efficiency apartment on the other side of town, away from the Sheriff's Department - and he'd been good friends with the Wades' forever, so he jumped at the chance for a nice room and home-cooked meals." Smiling, Lex knocked on the door.

Moments later, the door opened and a tall young man about twenty-five opened the door. "Lex!" he yelled, swinging the door inward and stepping out onto the porch, "It's been way too long!" he scooped her up in a bearhug, swinging the poor rancher around in a circle.

"Dammit, Dave...put me down!" Lex yelled, wriggling unsuccessfully to get out of his grasp.

Dropping her back to her feet, David grinned, his white teeth shining against his ebony skin. Looking at Amanda, his smile faded a little. "Uh-oh...I didn't realize we had company."

Lex stood off to the side, watching as green eyes sparkled with amusement. "Sorry about that, Dave..." she motioned the younger woman forward with a wave of her hand. "This is Amanda Cauble...Amanda, this brut is David Wade." She almost laughed at the chagrined look on the young man's face.

"Oh, shi...uh, I mean...hello,'s nice to meet you." He held out a large hand tentatively.

Amanda grasped his hand firmly. "It's nice to meet you too, David. Have you known Lex very long?"

"Over half of my life, I think...and please call me Dave." He ushered the two women into the house, and into a spacious living room. "Have a seat, ladies. Can I get you something to drink?"

Lex waited until Amanda sat down on one end of a navy blue loveseat, then dropped down beside her. "Nah...we were hoping to chat with Charlie for a few he around?"

The young man leaned against the nearby sofa. "Yeah, I think he's upstairs getting cleaned up - he should be down in a few minutes." He was about to continue when a very petite older woman walked into the room.

"Lexie Walters! I thought my old ears heard your voice! Get yourself over here right now!" she demanded, opening her arms.

Lex dutifully rose from the loveseat and crossed the room, bending low to embrace the older woman. "Mama just keep looking younger and prettier every time I see you."

The old woman slapped her arm. "Don't be spreading your bull around me, Lexie. I've had to hear it for too many years to be believing it."

Kissing the wrinkled cheek, Lex escorted the older woman to a chair. "I'm sorry it's been so long, but it's been pretty hectic at the ranch." She apologized.

Mrs. Wade slapped at her again. "You better quit treating me like some sort of senile invalid...I can still whip your fanny, young lady!" She noticed Amanda sitting quietly on the loveseat. "That your latest catch?" she pointed at the young blonde woman, who instantly blushed.

"What?!" Lex spun around in the middle of the room, stopped before she could finish walking back to her seat.

Dave laughed. "Charlie told us how you fished a young lady out of the creek - we figured this must be her." He explained, enjoying seeing Lex turn several shades of red as well.

"Where are your manners, girl?" the older woman queried. "Or should I just refer to her as 'the catch of the day'?"

God...where's a good rock to crawl under when you need one? "Sorry...Mama Wade, allow me to introduce you to Amanda Cauble. Amanda, this is Dave's mother, Mrs. Ida Wade."

Amanda stood up and walked over to the chair. "Pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Wade." She held out her hand.

"Good lord..." the older woman scoffed, standing up. "C'mere." She embraced the surprised blonde in a strong hug, which was enthusiastically returned. "Call me Mama, honey. Everyone else does."

Amanda laughed. She's got to be one of the few adults I've ever found that is actually shorter than I am. "Okay...thanks, Mama Wade. Dave tells me you've known Lex for a long time?"

"Goodness, yes...ever since little Davey brought her home after school - must have been fifteen years ago. Have a seat, and I'll tell you all about it."

Lex stood up. "C'mon, Dave...I think that's our cue to leave. Want to show me how that work in the garage is coming along?" She pulled the poor man out of the room before he could respond.


"Mama! Mama!" ten year old David came running into the house, his clothes torn and blood running from his nose and split lip.

Ida stepped out of the kitchen, then ran to catch her young son in the hallway. "Davey! What on earth happened to you?" She dropped to her knees and began wiping the blood away with the edge of her apron.

Panting, he began, "There were these boys...took my backpack...started hitting me..."

Ida clasped her son to her chest gently. "Shh...calm down, baby. You're safe now."

He struggled to get away from her. "You don't...understand...Mama..." he finally pulled free, and grabbed her hand. "C' gotta help her..." he started for the door, dragging Ida behind him. "Please...I think they hurt her pretty bad..."

Ida allowed her son to pull her out of the house, and down the street. "Who are we going to go help, honey?" she asked, as he practically ran down the sidewalk, pulling on her arm.

Half a block away, lying under the sparse shade of a half-dead tree, lay a young girl. She was curled up on one side, her knees pulled almost to her chest, and she wasn't moving. Davey yanked away from his mother's hand, and ran the rest of the way to where the girl lie. He squatted down beside her and began to run his hand gently over her dark hair.

"See? I told you I'd get some help...c'mon...wake up!" he brushed the hair out of her eyes, seeing the blood on her pale face. "Mama? Please?" The young boy turned back around to plead with his mother.

Ida hurried over to the young girl, who looked to be twelve or thirteen years old. She was wearing jeans and a denim shirt, and well-worn cowboy boots. "Davey, who is this girl?" Ida dropped to her knees next to the unmoving form.

"I dunno, Mama...when those boys started hitting me, she stood up to them and told them to stop. So they started hitting her. She told me to run, and I told her I was gonna get help." Tears were running down his dark and dirty face, leaving muddy tracks behind. "She's gonna be alright, isn't she?" He bit his lip to keep from crying out loud.

Turning the girl carefully onto her back, Ida frowned. "Davey, I want you to go to Mr. Conner's house, and get him over here right away...I'm going to need some help in getting her to our house." Now I just have to figure out who this brave child is...I hope she'll be able to tell me soon. Seeing her son staring at the girl, she shook his shoulder. "David! Hurry!" Then she sighed as the young boy took off again.

They finally got the still-unconscious girl to their house, and comfortably ensconced in the guestroom. The dark-haired child hadn't moved, but they cleaned her up and found that she was sporting a rather nasty gash on the back of her head, but no broken bones. She had called Sheriff Bristol to come over and see if he knew the girl, since Ida had never seen her before.

Charlie was understandably shocked when he saw the young girl sleeping in the Wade's guestroom. "Dear lord!! Lexington?" he stumbled over to the bed and sat down beside her.

Ida stood beside the lawman, seeing the tears in his eyes. "I guess you know our little hero here?"

He looked up at the small woman and smiled. "Hero? She looks like she's been in one hell of a fight...Martha's going to be furious!" he tenderly brushed the dark hair from the closed eyes, one of which was already sporting a dark bruise.

Ida patted him on the shoulder. "Well, she was...several older boys were beginning to beat up my Davey when she came along and took them all my son has a serious case of hero worship."

The young girl began thrashing her head back and forth, and started to cry. Charlie scooped her up in his arms and held her tight. "'re okay..." he whispered in her ear.

Lex opened her one good eye, confused. "Uncle Charlie?" she rasped, blinking to clear her vision.

"Yeah, it's me, honey. You feel okay?" he let her lie back on the bed, but still kept his arm under her shoulder.

" head hurts, and I can't open my eye..." her lower lip quivered a little. "Where are we?" she saw the small dark-skinned woman behind Charlie. "Where's Martha?"

Ida stepped forward slowly, so as not to frighten the girl. "My name's Ida Wade, and you're in my house. Do you remember what happened?"

Lex shrugged her shoulders slightly.. "Sorta...I saw some guys following a little boy home from school, so I decided to see what they were up to. I kinda got mad when they took his backpack away and started hitting him." She looked up at Ida. "Is the little boy okay? They got a few hits on him before I could stop them."

Ida laughed. "Oh honey, he's just fine." She stepped to the doorway and ushered in a small boy who was looking at the bed with wide-eyed wonder. "Lexington, I want you to meet my son, David." She gently pushed the young man towards the bed.

He stepped up to the bed and smiled. "Wow! You sure have a pretty eye!" said with the innocence of a child. "Your other eye probably looks real pretty too...thanks for stopping those boys today."

Lex looked at him and smiled. "Your welcome. Thanks for getting your mother to come and help me." She glanced up at Ida. "Thank you, Mrs. Wade...I'm real sorry I couldn't stop those guys from hurting David." She then looked at Charlie. "Can I go home now, Uncle Charlie? I really want to see Martha."

Charlie looked up at Ida with a grin. "Sure, sweetheart. Let's get you into the car - I'll even turn on the lights and siren, how's that?"


Ida looked up at Amanda, who had a gentle smile on her face. "After that, Lexie would walk Davey home from school...although I think the fresh baked cookies had as much to do with it as anything else." She laughed. "She even made sure he went to college, helped him get a scholarship and he's got a business degree, and runs his own shop." She finished proudly.

Dave and Lex stepped back into the room. "Aw, Mama..." he grumbled.

Lex laughed, then walked over and sat down next to Amanda. "Mama Wade been telling her tall tales again?" She smirked at the look of outrage on the older woman's face.

"Hrumpph! I'll give you tall tales, young lady!" Ida grumped. Before she could continue her tirade, Charlie walked into the room.

"Well, well...isn't this a pleasant surprise?" the lawman drawled, taking the chair nearest Ida. "Good evening, Ida. These kids giving you a hard time?"

Dave laughed. "She gives as good as she gets, you know that." He bent down and kissed her gray head. "I'd love to stay and visit, but I'm expecting a late delivery to the store." He gave a wave to the two women sitting on the loveseat. "Amanda, it was great meeting you - don't be a stranger around here. And Lex," he grinned, "You'd better start showing up over here a little more often, or else."

Amanda laughed. "Thanks, Dave. I'll get her over here more, I promise." She pointedly ignored the glare coming from her companion.

Ida stood up. "I'll walk you out, honey." She wrapped an arm around her son's waist as they left the room.

Charlie looked at Lex. "Everything okay out at the ranch?"

The rancher sighed, then stood up and walked over to the fireplace. Leaning on the hearth, she turned back towards Charlie. "Yeah, pretty much...I do have a favor to ask of you, though..."

Charlie could barely keep his jaw from dropping. She's asking for help? Now that's a change! "Sure, it."

"Amanda and I are flying to California tomorrow to pack up her stuff, and I'd appreciate it if you would stay out at the ranch while we're gone."

The lawman watched as Amanda stood up and joined Lex by the fireplace, giving her a gentle rub on her back.

"Why? Not that I mind, but Martha has stayed out there by herself before." He looked at the undisguised sadness in the tall woman's blue eyes. "What is it?"

"Hubert is up to his usual tricks...although I really don't think he has the balls to do anything." Lex sighed. "But he was pretty pissed off when I chased him off of the ranch the other day - so I'm not sure what he may do." She ran a hand through her dark hair nervously.

Uh-oh...they're at it again. Charlie remembered breaking up several altercations between the siblings when they were growing up. "Umm...was there a particular reason you chased him off? He's not going to try and press charges against you again, is he?"

Lex laughed. "" she shook her head. "I don't think he'll come running to you this time..." she gave Amanda a grin. "But I'd appreciate it if you'd stay out there, just in case."

Charlie grinned. "Well, it'll be a hardship, but I guess I can do it. How long are you planning on being gone?"

Amanda gently pulled Lex back over to the loveseat. "We fly out tomorrow morning, and will be coming back Sunday afternoon. I've got to be back in the office on Monday."

"Have you picked up the sedatives yet?" Charlie teased, "Or do you just need to borrow some handcuffs for the flight?"

"Charlie..." Lex growled.

He laughed, and winked at Amanda. "Or I could get someone from Animal Control to dart her before she boards..."

Lex stood up, glaring. "Charlie, I'd hate to make Martha a widow before you could talk her into being a bride."

Looking surprised, the lawman blushed. "What makes you think...she's never...ah, hell."

He looked down at the floor.

Teach him to pick on me, Lex smiled to herself. "C'mon, Charlie...would it really be so bad to live at the ranch?"

Exhaling heavily, he looked up. "You wouldn't mind?"

"Mind?" Lex sputtered, "Why the hell would I mind?" She looked at him in disbelief. "Martha is a grown woman, and I certainly have no hold on her."

"Well, yeah...I know, but...I mean, she's..." he continued to stammer.

The rancher stood up and crossed the room quickly, then knelt at Charlie's feet. "You know, growing up...I had this ongoing dream...a fantasy, I guess." She waited until the flustered man's eyes met hers. "In my head, and I guess in my heart too, Martha was my mom - my real mom..." she gave him a gentle smile, "and you were my dad..." Seeing the shocked happiness on his face, she continued, "Hell, two practically raised me anyway - my own dad never really gave a damn to what I was doing. I just wish Martha would quit worrying so much about me, and take care of her own happiness."

Charlie smiled at her, a trace of tears in his gray eyes. "Honey..." he glanced at Amanda, "I don't think she has a thing to worry about anymore." He leaned forward and kissed her forehead. "Now I guess I'd better go on upstairs and pack a bag...since I'll be out of town on vacation for a few days." He winked at Lex, then stood. "And if I had ever had a daughter, I would hope she'd be like you." He enveloped the dark-haired woman in a fierce hug. "Have a safe trip, sweetheart." Charlie kissed the top of her head and turned to leave the room. "Take care of our girl, Amanda..." he waved to the young blonde still seated on the loveseat as he left the room.

Lex sniffed, wiped her eyes, and then looked over at Amanda. "C'mon, let's go...we still have to get you packed."


Chapter 18

Amanda sat in the den, watching the fire crackle in the fireplace, a gentle smile on her face. They had finished dinner over thirty minutes ago and Lex had apologetically left the house shortly thereafter, after having received a mysterious phone call. She was so cute about leaving... worried that I'd be upset, she mused.

"Mandy? Where are you, dear?" Anna Leigh's voice echoed down the empty hallway.

"In here, Gramma..." the young woman said in a normal tone. She turned around on the sofa as her grandmother stepped into the room. "Hi."

The older woman stepped over to the sofa and sat down beside Amanda. "Is everything all right, dear? Lexington certainly left in a hurry - you two didn't..." Have a fight or argument, she finished to herself, worried.

Amanda patted her grandmother's leg. "Oh, no...Lex just got a phone call, and left to take care of something. She said she would be back in an hour or so."

Anna Leigh leaned back against the sofa with a sigh. "Thank goodness. I was afraid that you two had an argument about this trip."

"What would we have to disagree about? Lex seems really excited about going." Amanda turned sideways, so that she could get a better look at her grandmother's face. "Has she said anything to you?"

The older woman gave her a gentle smile. "Well, she did mention she's a little afraid of embarrassing you." Seeing the look of shock on Amanda's face, she continued. "Shhh...wait, let me try and explain." Anna Leigh chewed on her lower lip for a moment, thinking. "Earlier while you were upstairs, Lexington came into the kitchen, asking if I needed any help." Seeing Amanda's smile, she nodded. "Yes, I know. Anyway, I could tell that something was bothering her, so I asked."

"You look a little distracted, dear. Is something wrong?" Anna Leigh studied the quiet form leaning against the counter.

Lex looked up at the concerned tone, and saw only gentle understanding in the older woman's face. "Umm...actually...could I ask you a question? I'd really like your...opinion, on something." She dropped her eyes back to the floor.

Sensing Lex's discomfort, Anna Leigh turned away from the stove and led the younger woman over to the table, guiding her into a chair. "Sure, sweetheart. What is it?"

"Well..." unsure, Lex paused, until she felt the older woman squeeze her hands reassuredly. "I would ask Amanda, but I don't want to upset her. She's got enough on her mind right now." She looked down at their connected hands, startled at just how dainty Anna Leigh's looked in hers.

"Lexington...look at me please." Anna Leigh waited patiently until the shadowed blue eyes locked with hers. "Honey, there's nothing you could ask of me that you should be embarrassed about."

The rancher took a deep breath, momentarily closing her eyes. "I feel like such a hick..." she opened her eyes and gave the older woman a shaky smile. "I don't want to worry Amanda, but I'm a little concerned about this damn...dinner party...we're supposed to attend."

Anna Leigh looked at the younger woman, confusion on her delicate features. "Concerned? Why should you be concerned, Lexington? It's just a dinner...not a Costume or Fashion Ball." She teased.

Lex snorted. "Oh god...that would be a real nightmare, wouldn't it? Although I'm gonna feel like I'm in some sort of costume anyway." She looked into the green eyes that reminded her so much of Amanda's. "You know I love your granddaughter, right?" Seeing the older woman nod, "And that I'd do anything for her?"

"Of that, I have no doubt, dear." Anna Leigh squeezed the suddenly cold hands that were laced with hers. "But...?" she prompted.

Lex sighed, and looked down again. "I want to be there to support her, but I really don't have anything good enough to wear to this sort of thing. And..." another heavy sigh, "anything we buy I'm gonna be real uncomfortable in, and then they'll know what a bumpkin their daughter is hooked up with." She gave the older woman an intense look. "I don't care what they think about me...but I'll be...damned...if I'm the cause for even one second of embarrassment for Amanda." She released Anna Leigh's hands and stood up abruptly. "What am I going to do, Mrs...uh, I mean, Anna Leigh?" she paced back and forth across the bright kitchen like a jungle cat. "I'd die before hurting her."

"Sweetheart, I don't think that's going to be necessary." Anna Leigh stood up and put her hand on the disturbed woman's arm. "Don't worry...we'll figure something out." She rubbed the tense arm soothingly. "Now, why don't you go on upstairs and drag my granddaughter down for dinner? It should be ready in about ten minutes."

The tall woman gave her a grateful smile. "Thanks for listening, Anna I know where Amanda got her heart from." Lex left the older woman standing in the kitchen before she could come back with a sharp reply.

Amanda felt tears well up in her eyes. "I thought she was just nervous about flying..." Oh, Lex...what am I going to do with you?

Anna Leigh caught Amanda's hand. "Honey, I didn't mean to upset you...I just thought that you should know. Lexington was a little embarrassed about the whole thing."

"I can't believe she didn't trust me enough to talk to me about this." Amanda muttered, an errant tear making its way down her face.

"Oh, Mandy..." her grandmother brushed the tear from Amanda's cheek, "It's not an issue of trust...Lexington was afraid of upsetting you. She knows how worried you are already about this trip, and she didn't want to add to your anxiety."

"That goofy cow-chaser...when is she going to figure out that she's a whole lot more important to me than any stupid dinner party?" The young woman whispered, more to herself than to her grandmother. Wiping her eyes with the back of one hand, Amanda sniffed. "That's it! I'm calling Mother right now and canceling...I refuse to make Lex feel this way." She started to stand, but found her progress halted by a strong grip on her arm.

Anna Leigh pulled the upset young woman back down to the sofa. "Mandy, wait...I really don't think that's a good idea." She waited until she had Amanda's complete attention. "How do you think it will make Lexington feel if you cancel out now?" When her granddaughter gave her a questioning look, she continued, "She'd probably feel that she was right, and that you're embarrassed because she's not used to being in that type of environment."

Amanda opened her mouth to disagree, and then understanding dawned on her face. "Oh god...she would, wouldn't she?" Knowing that her tall, dark, and brooding blue-eyed lover, for all her kiss-my-butt attitude, was emotionally very insecure. "Oh, Gramma...what can I do? I can't hurt her that way... but I don't want her to feel belittled or not good enough for my family, either." Then a devious smile broke out on her face. "Oooh...I think I've got an idea."

Uh-oh...Elizabeth had better watch out - Mandy's got that 'take no prisoners' look on her face. "Ah, sweetheart? You're not going to do anything that you might regret later, are you?"

Amanda laughed. "Of course not! I just have to plan my wardrobe, that's all." She leaned over and wrapped her arms around Anna Leigh's neck. "Thanks,'re the best!" she kissed the older woman's cheek then stood up. "If you don't mind, I'm going to go upstairs and finish packing."

Anna Leigh stood up as well. "No, not at you need a ride to the airport in the morning?" The nearest airport was an hour and a half away, and she didn't know if the young women wanted to leave a car there for the entire week.

"No, Lex said she wanted to just leave her truck at the airport, so no one would have to make a three hour round trip drive to take us and then pick us up." Amanda stood at the doorway. "But I really appreciate the offer, and I know Lex would too. I'll see you and Grandpa in the morning, right?"

"Oh you think we'd miss seeing you two off?" Anna Leigh scoffed. "Your grandfather would never forgive himself otherwise." She crossed the room to meet the young woman at the door. "Try and get some rest tonight, sweetheart - the next few days will run you ragged, otherwise." She pulled her granddaughter into a strong embrace.

"I will, Gramma...I promise." Amanda returned the squeeze. "I love you." She felt a gentle kiss on the side of her head.

"I love you too, dearest. Goodnight." She watched as the beautiful young woman walked down the hall and then practically skipped up the stairs. She's up to something, Anna Leigh smiled to herself, and I can't wait to see what it is.


Chapter 19

Lex pulled the truck up to the Juvenile Detention Center, looking at her watch. I really should have told Amanda where I was going, but then she would have insisted on coming with me - and I know that she wants to spend as much time as possible with her grandparents before we leave. Releasing a heavy sigh, the tall woman stepped through the doors of the two-story brick structure, the white walls almost brown with the passage of time. The foyer was brightly lit, with several heavy doors sprinkled around, and a small Plexiglas service window off to the left of the entry doors. The rancher blinked a couple of times to adjust her eyes to the almost shining room, then quietly stepped up to the open window.

A middle-aged woman in a sheriff's department uniform smiled up at Lex from the desk stationed behind the window. "You must be Lexington Walters..." she greeted. "Come on inside, Sergeant Roland is waiting for you in his office." She pointed to the heavy door to the right of the window, "Go on, I'll buzz you in."

Lex walked over to the door, cringing at the loud sound her boots made on the sparkling tile floor. She put her hand on the doorknob, then opened it when she heard the tinny buzz. Letting the steel door close behind her, the rancher got a slight chill down her back when she heard the audible click, knowing she was locked in until someone let her out. Damn...I really hate this feeling. She shook her head, trying to dispel the growing unease she felt.

"Ms. Walters! Thank you for getting here so quickly!" a deep voiced jarred her from her thoughts, as a short heavy-set man in his mid-fifties stepped out of a nearby office. "Please, come in and have a seat." The smiling man escorted Lex into the office, pointing her towards a chair in front of a severely cluttered desk. "I'm Sergeant Roland, by the way...I'm in charge of this facility." He shook her hand before sitting down.

Lex smiled, and leaned back slightly in her chair. "Is this in reference to that boy that was with the cattle thieves we caught on my property?" she prodded, wanting to get out of this 'facility' and back to Amanda. Oh, I've got it bad, all right...can't even be out of her sight for more than a few minutes...totally disgusting, she smiled to herself.

Sergeant Roland nodded. "Yes ma'am, as a matter of fact, it is." He spent a few moments digging through the multiple piles of paperwork on the desk. "Ah! Here we go!" he opened up a plain brown folder, shuffling through the papers in it. "Sheriff Bristol said you were interested in putting the boy to work at the Rocking W, is that correct?"

Lex nodded. "That's right...but only if he is interested - I have no desire to force the kid to work for me if he doesn't want to." She ran a hand through her hair. "And..." she leaned forward in her chair, "I don't think anyone should be judged or punished for something that someone else in their family has done."

Having heard the town gossip about the Walter's family, the lawman could only nod his head. Having that skunk Hubert for kin certainly is proof of that theory, he mused to himself. Reading a page from the file, he said, "Well, it looks like Ronnie is an average student, quiet, and has never been in any type of trouble before - would you like to talk to him before you make your decision? If you both agree, we'll have to get him assigned as your ward, so that you both would be covered legally." He closed the folder.

"I'd be appointed his legal guardian?" Lex questioned, unsure of her feelings. I didn't do a very good job with the last boy in my care, she silently berated herself.

"Yep." Sergeant Roland stood up. "Why don't we go talk to Ronnie, and then we can discuss all the boring legalities." He escorted a silent Lex out of the room, guiding her down the eerie hallway until they reached another steel door. "Do you have any weapons that need to be checked?"

Making a show of patting her pockets, Lex smirked. "Hmm...I seemed to have left my sword in my other pants."

Sergeant Roland shook his head. "Charlie warned me about you," he grinned, "and he said to give him a call if you caused too much trouble." Using a key, he opened the door. "Follow me, please."

Lex followed the still chuckling man into another hallway, suppressing a shudder as the door clicked behind them. Good thing I never went in for a life of crime...I'd never survive being locked away like this, she thought to herself.

Understanding what was keeping his 'guest' quiet, the good sergeant decided to play tour guide. "Most of the boys we have stay in what we refer to as the Clubhouse. It's an open bunk area that can hold up to twenty kids at once - right now we only have seven." He smiled proudly. "And they're all pretty good boys, mostly just got in with the wrong crowd, or their families didn't have time for them, sorta like Ronnie." He opened a door on their left-hand side, a few steps before the end of the hallway. "Here's one of the visitation rooms - make yourself comfortable, and I'll go fetch the boy."

Lex was pleased that this door didn't automatically lock when it closed. Yeah, like it matters... where in the hell can you go from here? She wandered around the small room, which had a table, two wooden chairs, and comfortable looking loveseat that hugged one wall. The walls were unadorned, but she was able to look out a small glass and wire meshed window, seeing the dark and empty street outside.

She was still staring out of the window when the door opened. Turning slightly, she quietly studied the young man who stepped in ahead of Sergeant Roland. He's not much bigger than Amanda is, she mused. Slight of frame, his sandy blonde hair was much shorter than she remembered, only coming down to the top of his collar. He was wearing was appeared to be new jeans, and a clean white button-down shirt.

Lifting his head, Ronnie finally gathered enough courage to look this strange woman in the eyes. Whoa, she's tall, was his first thought, intimidating him somewhat. He felt the sergeant's gentle hand on his shoulder as he was guided to a chair.

"Why don't we all have a seat and get acquainted?" the heavy lawman said, waiting until Lex took the other chair at the table before sitting down on the loveseat. "Ronnie, this is Ms. Walters."

The young man, who had been studying the table silently ever since he had sat down, glanced up again as the woman stood up and offered her hand to him.

"Ronnie?" She gave him a firm handshake, treating him like an adult. Wow, she's got beautiful eyes, was his only coherent thought, before he blushed and swallowed.

Lex looked into the young man's light brown eyes, which conveyed sadness and more than a little fear. Poor kid looks scared to death, she thought sadly. I wonder if it's me, or the circumstances?

"You're the lady from the house, aren't you?" His eyes widened, as he scooted back in his chair. "D...don't mad at - Matt made me g...g...go!" He covered his head with his arms, and began crying softly.

Guess that answers that question, doesn't it? Lex stepped back away from the table, a hurt look on her face. She glanced over at the sergeant, who shook his head sadly.

Roland stepped over to the table, placing his hand lightly on the boys' back. "Shh... it's okay, son. She's not here to hurt you." He looked back up at the rancher, a helpless look on his lined face.

Lex sat back down across from the now-sniffling young man. "Ronnie, look at me." She commanded in a low voice. Waiting until he complied, she looked directly into his tear-filled eyes and continued, "Yeah, that was my house you were in - but I'm not mad at you, okay?" She gave him a kind smile. "I don't blame you for anything your brother did, do you understand?" Pausing to let her words soak in, she added, "I know how you feel, 'cause I have an older brother too." She watched as the boy wiped his eyes on his sleeve, and gathered his wits about him. "Do you like it here, Ronnie?"

Ronnie partially cocked his head at her, confused by the question. Looking over at the sergeant, who had resumed his place on the loveseat, he replied, "Uh,'s not that bad. I have guys my own age to talk to, and they gave me these nice clothes." Giving the lawman an apologetic smile, "I miss going to school, though...we have classes here, but it's just not the same."

Lex stood up and walked over to the window. Turning around, she crossed her arms across her chest and leaned back against the cold glass. "What do you want out of life, Ronnie?"

The young man seriously considered her question for several minutes before speaking. "I want to finish school, then I hope to go to college." He gave her a shy smile. "No one else in my family has ever graduated from high school - I'd kinda like to be the first."

Lex stepped back over to the table, sitting on the edge. "How hard are you willing to work for your goals?" She purposely sat close, so that he would have to look up at her.

"I really want to finish school - I'll work as hard as I need to." Ronnie's light eyes sparkled with a strong resolution. "I'm...not...going to be like my brother!" he exclaimed.

Barely suppressing a smirk, Lex looked his straight in the eye. "You willing to come and work on the ranch for me? You'd stay in the bunkhouse with the other hands - riding the bus to school, and then working on the weekends."

"You're kidding, right?" Ronnie asked, shifting his gaze between the two adults. "I'd be working on a ranch?" Disbelief colored his tone.

"Yep...and you'll get paid for the work you do - all you have to do is keep your grades up. I'll make sure that you have clean clothes, food, and a roof over your head. What do you say?" The tall woman held his gaze.

"Really? I can go to school and get paid?" He marveled, a smile lighting up his youthful face.

"That's sure can." Lex nodded, then stood up. "Deal?" she held out a hand.

Ronnie flinched when he saw her hand coming towards him. "Sorry." He slowly stood and returned her grip. "When do I start?" he smiled.

Sergeant Roland cleared his throat. "Well, it'll take a few days for the paperwork to go through...think you can handle it in here until next week?" he saw the rancher nod her head in confirmation.

"Sure...I'm supposed to go and visit Matt tomorrow anyway." He gave the lawman a mischievous grin. "Can I tell him?"

Lex laughed. "It's okay with me, Ronnie." She pulled a card out of her coat pocket. "Here's my home number, and my cell phone number. I've got to go out of town for a few days, but call me if you need anything, day or night, okay?"

"Thanks, Ms. Walters." The young man beamed up at her. "I won't let you down, I promise."

Placing a hand on his slight shoulder, Lex chuckled. "I have complete faith in you, Ronnie...and you can call me Lex - since you'll be working for me."

"Yes, ma'am." He grinned at her, then turned serious. "Thank you for giving me this chance - I won't forget it." He held out his hand solemnly.

Lex returned his handshake. "You're welcome...I can always use another good hand at the ranch." She tried to downplay the reason for helping him, since she wasn't completely certain why herself.

"Well, c'mon, Ronnie...let's get you back to the Clubhouse." Sergeant Roland put a companionable arm across the young man's thin shoulders. He winked at Lex as he led the boy out.

Oh, god...what have I done? Lex sat down on the loveseat and placed her head in her hands. What right do I have to take care of that boy? Am I doing the right thing? What if...

Her thoughts were halted when Sergeant Roland opened the door. "You ready to get out of here, Ms. Walters?"

Lex released a heavy sigh and rolled her eyes. "Call me Lex, Sergeant." She stood up and followed him back down the long hallway.


Amanda looked at the mantle clock for the third time in as many minutes. Twelve-thirty, she sighed to herself, shaking her head. The young woman had finished her packing, put her bags in the front hall, taken a shower, and played cards with her grandparents during the course of the evening. Where on earth is she? Amanda wondered, pacing back and forth in the darkened den. The crackling of the fire in the fireplace was the only sound in the room, except for the occasional mutterings of the blonde woman bouncing from place to place.

Jacob and Anna Leigh had gone to bed hours before, trying to get their granddaughter to do the same. When she had refused, they good-naturedly teased her about 'letting her wayward child stay out too late,' and then wished her a good night. I know she's a grown woman...I know she can take care of herself...I know there's a perfectly good explanation for her not being here with me right now, she thought to herself, dropping her now exhausted body onto the sofa. "God, Lex...where are you?" she sighed aloud.

"Right here." A voice from behind her uttered quietly.

Amanda squealed, then vaulted over the couch, giving Lex an armful of anxious blonde. "I'm glad you're okay..." she murmured into the rancher's neck, wrapping her legs around the slender waist. "I thought...when you didn't..." she sniffled.

Lex carried her mumbling bundle to the sofa and sat down. "Shh...everything's okay..." she whispered, rocking back and forth gently.

Amanda finally calmed down, then pulled away slightly to look up into Lex's shadowed face. "Sorry...guess I'm just really tired..." she gave her lover a wry smile. "And I'm a little nervous about tomorrow...I'm afraid of how my family is going to treat you."

"Don't worry about me...I'm a big girl." Lex gave her a tender smile, wiping the tears from the younger woman's face. "I'm sorry it took me so long tonight - I had a lot of paperwork to sign." Kissing Amanda lightly on the nose, she asked, "I tried calling a couple of times, but the line was busy. Is everything okay here?"

"Uh, yeah...everything is just fine." Amanda hid her face in the older woman's chest, embarrassed by her earlier emotional outburst.

"Amanda...sweetheart?" Lex put her hand under the young woman's chin, gently forcing her to look up. "I'm really sorry that I caused you to get so upset..." she gave her a loving smile. "Aren't you even curious where I went?" Knowing her friend's very inquisitive nature.

The blonde chewed her lip thoughtfully. "Well, I figured if it was any of my business, you'd tell me when you got ready to."

Uh-oh...time to soothe some ruffled feathers, I think. "It was stupid of me not to tell you earlier - but I thought that if you knew, you'd force yourself to go." Lex looked deeply into the green eyes a breath away, almost drowning in their depths. "And, I knew how much you wanted to spend time with your grandparents before we left." She cupped the beautiful face in her hands. "You have me so tightly wrapped around your little finger, I can't tell you no. One look into your eyes, and I've fallen. One touch of your hand, and my heart stops. I can deny you nothing, but would gladly forsake everything to see your smile."

Amanda opened her mouth, closed it, and then shook her head in disbelief. "You know, for being the strong, silent type," she ran her hand lovingly across Lex's jaw, "You can bring me to my knees with just a few words." She looked down, smiling at the proof of her statement. She was on her knees, straddled across the older woman's legs. She stood, pulling her tall lover up beside her. Pulling Lex's head down for a tender kiss, Amanda murmured, "Let's go to bed. We can talk tomorrow." And she led the willing rancher down the dark hallway and up the stairs.


To be continued in part 3

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