Love's Journey
by Carrie Car

Part I

Chapter 1

The handsome middle-aged man stared out the kitchen window for a long moment, then turned back around and shook his head. "Does she always work this late?" he asked the young woman seated at the nearby table. The winter sun had dropped behind the small hills several hours earlier. Without even a moon for light, the darkness was eerie to the man who had lived in large cities all of his adult life. When he glanced at his expensive designer watch, Michael Cauble saw that it was almost nine oíclock in the evening. I had no idea so much work went into a place like this. "What on earth does she find to do in the dark?"

"UmmÖ" Amanda blushed. I know quite a few things she does well in the dark, but Iím NOT about to tell my dad. "Sheís probably working in one of the barns. I know that she had mentioned something earlier about the storage of the winter hay for the horses." She smiled at her father when he walked over to the table and sat down next to her. "And yesÖshe does work late quite a bit. Especially when sheís taken off for more than a day or so. I think she feels guilty." The rancher had spent the past two weeks shadowing Amanda, and hadnít done much of anything around the large ranch. She had told her friend that she didnít want her moping around the house alone, although Amanda thought that Lex was still feeling responsible for her poisoning right after Thanksgiving.

"AhÖ" Michael looked down into his coffee mug. "I was about half afraid that she was avoiding me." He realized with a shock that he WANTED to get to know Lex better. The executive was curious about the tall, quiet woman who had captured his youngest daughterís heart. He also felt a need to understand Amanda. Sheís a strong young woman, with such a beautiful heart. I really do need to thank my parents for that, too.

Amanda patted his arm. "NoÖit was her idea for you to come out and stay." Probably to make up for that misunderstanding at the hospital. "I think that she wants to try and become friends, at least." She and her father had only reconciled a couple of weeks earlier, when he had returned to Texas after Amanda had been hospitalized. "Gramma told me that youíve decided to stay in Somerville. Are you going to start your business up again?"

He smiled. "Not exactly. But I did have a nice long talk with Mom and Dad about the whole thing."

"Really?" She felt his hand clasp hers and squeeze. I was a little surprised when he didnít take Jeannie and Frankís offer to go back and stay with them in Los Angeles. "Are you going back to California, after all?"

"Actually, no. Iím staying here and starting a different kind of business. Dad even offered to loan me the money to get it started." Talk about a surpriseÖI know I disappointed them, but theyíve stood by me through this entire mess with Elizabeth. Michaelís wife not only cleaned out his bank accounts, but she had also spread vicious rumors that caused his business to collapse. She escaped the country before they could prove that she had anything to do with the attempted murder of Lex, or the accidental poisoning of their daughter Amanda.

She nodded. "UmmÖI could do the same thing, you know. Loan you the money, I mean." Amanda looked into his hazel eyes. "I could always stand to invest inÖ?" she paused.

Michael laughed and blushed slightly. This is so strange Ė my daughter offering ME money. "A photography studio," he murmured quietly, a little embarrassed.

Amandaís pale eyebrows shot skyward. "Photography studio? I had no idea." She studied her father carefully. "But do youÖ?" She could never remember seeing her father with a camera, much less being able to see him working with anything as complex as a studio.

"It was what I had planned to do for a career when I was in college. But then I met your mother, and she convinced me that I couldnít make as good a living with a camera as I could in high profile business management. Her father had offered to set me up in my own company, so I changed majors and forgot all about it." Michael dropped his gaze back to the tabletop. "Iím ashamed to admit that I allowed Elizabeth to talk me into doing a lot of things that I shouldnít have."

"Thereís nothing to be ashamed of, Daddy. I canít tell you how many times she did the same to me." Amanda stood up with a sigh. Like my entire life. She paced over to the window and stared out into the darkness. "It wasnít until very recently that I had the nerve to stand up to her."

He stood up and stepped in behind her. "I noticed. Even as angry as that made me, I had never been more proud of you." Michael put his hands on his daughterís shoulders. "But why then? Donít misunderstand me, honey. I know that youíve always had an inner strength that you didnít get from me. What finally caused you to use it?"

The young woman turned around slowly. "I finally found somethingÖsomeONE to fight for."

"Sheís really that important to you?" Michael saw the fierce determination in the green eyes. She looks so much like my mother. That must be where she got the strength. Lord knows my parents had more of a hand raising her than I did.

"Lex means everything to me. Sheís my world, Daddy." Amanda felt tears threaten to fall from her eyes. "I would do whatever it takes to protect her Ė even defy Mother." She looked down at the floor, then felt her chin gently grasped and raised.

"Iím still trying to come to terms with whom youíve decided to spend your life with, Amanda. But I realize that my approval doesnít matter, and that if I want to be a part of your life Iíll just have to try and get along with your tall friend." Michael smiled gently. "And I hate to admit this, but itís not as hard as I expected." He laughed. "Lex is a really nice person when sheís not threatening to throw me out of a hospital window." He had noticed earlier the ring that Amanda now wore, and had a pretty good idea where it had come from. Looks like itís mutual, if that ring is any indication. Iíll just have to ask Lex about it in the morning, he decided.

Amanda chuckled. "She does tend to be a little overprotective." The young woman had been hospitalized a few weeks ago when she had consumed a poisonous drug meant for Lex. Michael had found out his wife was behind the attempts to get rid of the rancher, so he left Elizabeth and raced to Texas to be with his daughter. Due to some incomplete information given to her by the police, Lex had confronted him in Amandaís hospital room. Believing that he had nearly killed his own daughter, she had to be physically restrained from causing the older man serious harm.

Michael nodded in agreement. "True, she isÖbut Iím not about to complain." He was about to say more when Martha breezed into the kitchen.

"Goodness! You startled me!" The short heavyset woman stopped suddenly and held one hand over her heart. "I had no idea that anyone was in here." She noticed the serious look on the young womanís face. "Is everything okay?"

"Hi, Martha. Everythingís just fine. We were just discussing Lex, and how she tends to work long hours after taking some time off." Amanda looked around the kitchen. She couldnít see any reason why Martha would be in the main house at this time of night. "What are you doing in here this late? I figured youíd be snuggled up at home watching movies." She had noticed the sheriffís car parked in front of the housekeeperís cottage sometime earlier.

Martha blushed. "I was, as a matter of fact. But I wanted to see if Lexie had come in for her dinner yet." She opened the refrigerator and sighed when she saw the plate that she had prepared earlier, still untouched. "I swear that girl is gonna blow away if she doesnít start eating again."

"Has she done this before?" Amanda asked, concerned.

"Only when sheís upset or worried about something. I just wish sheíd tell us whatís bothering her Ė maybe we could help." Martha closed the door to the appliance and turned around. She put her hands on her hips and looked at the blonde closely. "Do me a favor?"

Amanda stepped over to the upset woman and put a hand on her arm. "Of course I will. What is it?"

The housekeeper looked deeply into Amandaís eyes. "I donít care how you do it, but please get Lexie to eat all of her dinner. She barely touched her breakfast, and didnít bother to come to the house for lunch. Iím afraid sheís gonna make herself sick."

"Donít worry, Martha. I think that I can come up with something." Amanda turned to look at her father, who had been observing the scene quietly. "Iím going out to the barn and drag her back in hereÖkicking and screaming if necessary. Will you be okay here while Iím gone?"

Michael laughed. He could just picture his daughter manhandling the larger woman into the house. "Sure. Iím on my way to bed, anyway." He placed his hands on the small of his back and stretched. "I was up really early this morning helping Dad at his shop." He stepped over to Amanda and wrapped his arms around her. "Goodnight, sweetheart."

The light touch of his lips on her head caused a lump to form in Amandaís throat. "Goodnight, Daddy." She snuggled into his embrace gratefully. I never thought Iíd have a good relationship with him Ė he was so against my lifestyle. But maybe that was more Motherís influence, than his personal preference. "I love you."

"I love you too, honey." Michael felt tears of happiness sting his eyes. Iím so lucky. She should have hated me for the way that Iíve treated her. He pulled away slowly. "Iíll see you ladies in the morning."

"Goodnight, MrÖah, Michael." Martha slipped accidentally. Michael had told her that since they would be seeing so much of each other, to call him by his first name. It was something that took a little getting used to by the housekeeper. But after he had stubbornly called her Ms. Rollins, she decided that being on a first name basis with Amandaís father wasnít going to be too hard after all. Weíre practically in-laws, anyway she realized.

"Goodnight, Martha." He winked and then waved at the two women as he left the room.

Amanda sighed happily and smiled at Martha. "Want some company for your walk back? Iím gonna see if I canít hunt down a certain blue-eyed cowhand." She linked her arm through the older womanís. "Maybe I can tell Charlie goodnight, too."

"Oh, lord. You would, too." Martha laughed and led the younger woman down the hallway. "Between you and Lexie, I donít stand a chance, do I?"

"Nope." Amanda grabbed her coat that was hanging by the back door. "And you ainít seen nothing, yet."

***************

"Damn!" Lex put the tip of her thumb in her mouth. She had just hit it for the third time with the hammer, and the pain was beginning to annoy her. The rancher was trying to nail a board that she was holding over her head, with very little success. She pulled the digit from her mouth and studied it. The skin wasnít broken, but it was red and swollen, and she could see the beginnings of a bruise under the nail. "Great. Just what I needed." She could feel the weakness in her arms from holding them over her head for so long, as well as the shakiness from not having anything substantial in her stomach. Lex pulled another nail from her shirt pocket and positioned it on the corner of the wood. She raised the hammer to strike when a voice behind her caused her to jump.

"Lex? Do you need any help?" Amanda had walked quietly into the barn, and could see her lover working in the far corner.

The board shifted and fell, thumping the tall woman on top of her head. Lex dropped the nail with another curse. "Dammit! Stupid rotten piece of wood!" She threw the hammer down and dropped to the barn floor in disgust.

Amanda raced over and fell to her knees next to her partner. "Honey? God, are you okay?" She pulled the black cowboy hat off Lexís head and began to run her hands over the dark hair.

"Iím fine." Lex grumbled as she gently swatted the hands away. She closed her eyes and leaned back against the barn wall. "What are you doing out here? I figured that youíd be catching up with your dad."

"I was." Amanda scooted around until she was sitting next to Lex. She reached over and clinched the older womanís hand. "Martha is worried about you. She came in to see if you had eaten yet, and told me that you didnít have lunch, either." She squeezed the hand in hers until Lex looked at her. "I thought you said you would eat lunch when I went to pick up my dad?"

Lex couldnít hold the gaze, and looked down at their linked hands. "UmmÖI was going to. Guess I just got sidetracked and forgot about it." A small hand grasped her chin and forced her to look into concerned green eyes. "What?"

The blonde studied her friendís face carefully. "Honey, whatís wrong? Youíve never Ďforgottení to eat before." Amanda released Lexís chin and ran her hand down the angular face. "Youíre not eating, not sleeping, and it feels like youíve been avoiding me. Have you changed your mind about us? Is that whatís bothering you?"

"No!" Lexís blue eyes widened in upset. "Of course not, sweetheart." She reached around the smaller woman and pulled Amanda into a firm embrace, burying her face in the soft blonde hair and inhaling deeply. "Never! You mean everything to me, Amanda. Iím sorry if Iíve made you feel anything but completely loved and wanted."

"Then whatís the matter?" Amanda pulled back slightly so that she could look into the older womanís eyes. "Talk to me, please."

The rancher sighed and leaned back. "I donít know what youíre talking about." She closed her eyes to avoid the look she knew was aimed at her. Just drop it, please.

Amanda scooted closer and put her hand on Lexís face. "Are you sick? Maybe we should have Dr. Anderson check you out."

Lex batted the hand away and jumped up. "Thereís nothing wrong with me, Amanda. Stop worrying so much." She walked back to where she had thrown the hammer and picked it up. "Iím just busy, thatís all."

"Too busy to eat, or sleep?" Amanda stood up as well. She dusted her jeans off and released a heavy breath. "Why wonít you tell me whatís bothering you? Is it something that Iíve done?"

"No!" Lex grabbed the board and tried to hold it up with one hand. "Youíve done nothing wrong. Itís just me." She smiled gratefully as Amanda walked over and grabbed one end of the wood and held it in place. "Thanks."

She gave Lex an uneasy smile. "No problem." Amanda watched as her friend held the nail gingerly. She could see the discoloration on Lexís thumb. "What happened to your hand?"

The rancher grimaced as she hammered the nail into the board. "Had a fight with the hammer and lost." She pulled another nail from her shirt pocket and drove it into the plank as well. Lex nodded when Amanda gave her a questioning look. "That should hold it."

"Looks like it." Amanda stepped back and dusted her hands off. "Is there anything else I can help you with?"

"Nah. All I have left to do is bring in a load of hay and stack it in here." Lex wiped her forehead on her shirtsleeve. "That should hold the horses for a while. Iím tired of hauling in bales every other day." She stepped back and studied her handiwork. Lex had removed the shared wall between the two end stalls and built a small room that she could lock up. She wanted to make sure that if one of the horses got out, it wouldnít gorge itself on the hay and make itself sick.

Amanda stood next to her and looked up into the exhausted face of her lover. "Youíre not going to haul the hay over tonight, are you?" She reached out and touched Lexís arm. "Why donít you come back to the house and weíll have a little picnic upstairs? Martha made barbecue ribs, just like you like them Ė lots of sauce."

I really should finish what Iíve started. It would only take another hour or so, andÖLexís thoughts were stopped by the pleading look on the blondeís face. Damn. I can never tell her no. "Okay. Let me just put this stuff away, and Iíll meet you back up at the house."

"How about I help you clean up, then we go back to the house together?" Amanda bent over and picked up a spare piece of wood. Iím afraid that if I leave, sheíll keep working Ė and I made a promise to Martha.

Lex gave her friend a tired smile. "Donít trust me, huh?"

Amanda stopped what she was doing. "No. I mean, yesÖwhat I meant wasÖ"

"Itís okay." The tall woman waved her off. Lex picked up the rest of the tools and tossed them into a wooden tool tray. She picked it up and carried it over to the small room where the grain was stored, and could feel Amandaís eyes upon her. "You ready?" Lex asked, as she turned around and closed the door. She picked up her brown duster that was draped over an empty stall wall and slipped it on.

"Sure!" Amanda stepped up next to her lover and gently grasped her hand. She could see the weariness in the older womanís stance. Thereís more than one way to skin a cat, or trick a rancher. "How about a nice hot soak in the tub after dinner? Then maybe a massage?"

Lex allowed Amanda to lead her from the barn. "OkayÖbut you donít have to pamper me, sweetheart. I know youíre probably tired, too."

Amanda snuggled up close to her partner and inhaled happily. "Are you trying to ruin my fun?"

"UmmÖno." Lex looked down at the blonde. "Donít breath too deeplyÖIíve been working all day, and donít exactly smell like flowers."

"I happen to like the way you smell." Amanda giggled when long fingers raked across her ribs through the open coat she was wearing. "Aaaack! Stop that!"

The rancher looked away innocently. "Whhaat?" She used her free hand to adjust the hat on her head. "Damn, this wind seems to be getting worse." Lex pulled Amanda up the back steps and pushed the smaller woman through the door. "Get inside before you catch cold."

"Thanks, Mom." Amanda teased, as her friend followed quickly behind her and closed the door. She reached up and began to remove the heavy duster from Lexís shoulders. "Why donít you go on upstairs and Iíll bring the food up." She brushed the hair out of the tired blue eyes and caressed the older womanís chilled cheek. "Please?" she asked, when Lex looked as if she were about to argue.

God, I hate when she looks at me like thatÖdamnÖ Lex sighed heavily. "Okay. But only because you asked so sweetly." She bent down and kissed Amanda gently for a long moment. "See you upstairs." The rancher winked and left the young woman staring at her back as she climbed the stairs.

***************

"No! Dammit, thatís not a good enough answer!" Lexís voice continued to rise until she could be heard all the way into the kitchen.

Amanda looked up at her father sheepishly. The three of them had been enjoying a quiet lunch when the rancher had gotten a sudden phone call and excused herself to the office. "Sheís normally not that loud," the blonde apologized to Michael.

"She sounds a lot like me," he teased. Michael looked at his daughterís concerned face. "Honey, donít worry about it. Sometimes in business you have to raise your voice to make a point. Itís the nature of the beast."

"Donít try to bullshit me! You either bring that out here by the end of the day, or Iíll come and get it myself! You really donít want that, do you?" Lex threatened. She slammed down the receiver on the phone and threw the Rolodex across the room. "Jackass!"

The young woman flinched when a loud crash came from the other end of the house. Amanda jumped up and frowned apologetically at Michael. "Excuse me for a minute. I need to go make sure that she doesnít destroy the office." She patted his arm and rushed from the room.

Itís awfully quiet in there. Amanda paused outside the closed office door. Maybe sheís on the phone again. Another loud thump and muffled curse from the room changed her mind. She knocked lightly on the dark wood.

"What?!" Lex yelled from the other side of the heavy oak door. She swung it open with such force that Amanda feared that it would fly from its hinges. "Oh." Lex looked down at her friend, who had stepped back with a fearful look on her face. "God, AmandaÖIím sorry." She stepped back slowly. "Címon in."

"Are you all right?" Amanda asked as she looked around the room. The large leather office chair was lying on its side, and several items that belonged on the desk were strewn across the room. She bent down and picked up the phone, placing it on the deskís corner. "Lex?"

The rancher was standing by the window, looking out through the bare oak trees that surrounded the ranch house. You can see Marthaís house pretty good from here she mused. I never realized that before. Lex jumped when she felt a small hand lightly touch the middle of the back. "Hmm?"

Amanda waited until her friend turned around. "Whatís wrong? We could hear you all the way in the kitchen." She studied Lexís face carefully, looking for any clue as to her strange behavior. "Thatís not like you, honey. Is there something I can do to help?"

"Iím sorry. I didnít mean to disturb your lunch." Lex sighed, then turned back towards the window. "Everythingís fine. Why donít you go and check on your father?" She slid her hands into the back pockets of her jeans and tried to appear nonchalant.

"I donít think so." The blonde reached out and grasped one arm, almost releasing it when she felt the rancher tense. "Let me try to help you, Lex. I canít stand seeing you like this."

Lex fought the urge to shake the grip from her arm. "Thereís nothingÖ" she took a deep breath to calm herself. "Iím fine, sweetheart. Itís nothing that you need to worry about." I hope. I hate hiding anything from her, but itís really for her own good.

She stood and studied Lex for a long moment. "Uh-huh." Amanda could feel a heavy weight in the pit of her stomach from her loverís brush-off. Sheís upset, and wonít tell me why. It MUST be about me. "Okay. I guess Iíll leave you alone, then." She turned to leave the room.

"Wait!" Lex called, as she grabbed the younger womanís arm. "Donít go." The last words were barely audible. "Please." Donít you DARE screw this up, Lexington! She had to blink the tears from her eyes in order to focus on Amanda.

"Honey?" Amanda reached up and wiped the dampness from Lexís face. "Whatís going on?"

Lex closed her eyes at the younger womanís touch. "UmmÖ" She took a deep breath to speak. "I donít know why I let him get to me like that," she murmured quietly. Rotten bastard!

Amanda rolled her eyes. "Hubert again?" She pulled the tall woman into a firm embrace. Iíd love just five minutes alone with himÖteach him a thing or two!

"YeahÖ" Lex buried her face in Amandaís hair. She relaxed as her friend rubbed her back comfortingly.

"What has he done this time?" Amanda guided her friend to the den and pushed Lex gently onto the sofa. She sat down next to the tall woman and snuggled close. "Now that weíre comfortable, tell me all about it." She patted the flat stomach lightly.

The rancher looked down at Amanda and shook her head. "Youíre too cute." She wrapped one arm around the smaller woman and sighed. "I was hoping to get this taken care of before you heard about it."

Amanda looked up and saw a resigned weariness cross Lexís face. "What?"

"Heís filed a lawsuit against me to try and get control of the ranch." Lex laughed ruefully. "I guess Hubertís run out of money, again."

The blonde sat up quickly. "A lawsuit?!? On what grounds?"

"Morals." Lex intoned quietly. "He must have found a copy of the original contract I signed when I was given ownership of the ranch."

"MORALS? Thatís ridiculous! What could he possibly have to prove? Youíre one of the most morally-conscious people Iíve ever met." Amanda huffed indignantly.

Lex closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose with her free hand. "Part of the contract stated that I could not Ďcohabitate with another individual at the ranch without benefit of matrimony.í " She opened her eyes and looked carefully at Amanda. "Considering that Iíve never had an interest in men, that was the least of my concerns."

Amanda was confused. "Heís not serious?" She looked down at the antique ring that Lex had given her recently. "You could lose the ranch because Iím staying here with you?" I canít allow that to happen! She tried to stand, but was stopped by the gentle grip the rancher had on her arm.

"Hold on!" Lex pulled her lover back down. "Weíre not going to lose anything, sweetheart." She tugged Amanda onto her lap and lightly framed the small face with her hands, which caused the upset green eyes to meet hers. "You know that if I could, legallyÖIíd have married you already, right?" When Amanda nodded, she continued. "This house is as much yours as it is mine Ė youíve got the paperwork to prove it. And nothing that my worthless brother can come up with is going to change that."

"ButÖ" Amanda started to argue, but a light fingertip on her lips silenced her.

"No buts." The older woman shook her head. "As usual, Hubert is being a pain in the ass. Iíve got someone bringing out these so-called legal papers today, and weíll get it all cleared up." Lex smiled. "So donít worry about it, okay? I was afraid that it would upset you Ė thatís the only reason I didnít tell you sooner."

Amanda returned her smile. "I thought youíd have figured out by now that I get a lot more upset when I donít know whatís going on with you, than with whatever is actually wrong."

Lex nodded. "Yeah, I kinda forgot that."

"LEXINGTON MARIE WALTERS!" Martha stood in the doorway with her hands on her hips, a scowl on her usually fair face.

"Uh-oh." Lex looked at Amanda and frowned. She helped the younger woman off her lap and stood up slowly. "Whatís the matter?" she asked the housekeeper, who had stomped into the room and stared into the adjacent office.

Martha turned around and glared at the tall woman, who had stepped up next to her and peered over her head. "Arenít you a little old to be throwing a tantrum?" She looked up into the embarrassed face of her charge. "I could hear the ruckus all the way in the upstairs guest room."

The rancher looked away and studied the floor. "I know. Thereís no excuse for my behavior, Martha. Iím really sorry." Lex started to edge around the housekeeper. "Iíll get it cleaned up right away." A small hand on her arm stopped her. "What?"

"HoneyÖis there something you need to talk about? This is not like you at all." Martha waited until Lex met her eyes, then reached up with her right hand and cupped the younger womanís cheek. "You know Iím always here for you, donít you?"

"I know. I guess Iíve been on a pretty short fuse, huh?" Lex closed her eyes and released a heavy sigh. "Hubertís up to his old tricks, again."

The housekeeper turned and looked at Amanda, who had sat back down on the leather sofa, to give Lex and Martha a little privacy. The blonde nodded her head at the unasked question. "Well, that explains it, then," Martha chuckled. "You get the office cleaned up, and then come into the kitchen and finish your lunch. I saved it for you." She gave the tall woman a light pat on the ribs and then left the room.

Lex looked after the older woman with an affectionate smile on her face. Sheís something else. She looked over at Amanda, who was making a point of not looking back at her. "Amanda?"

"Hmm?" She was concentrating on a thread on the cuff of her jeans. "Did you say something, Lex?" Amanda looked up at her lover.

"Iím sorry about earlier, sweetheart." Lex crossed the room and knelt beside the sofa, laying her hand on Amandaís leg. "Sometimes I wonder why you put up with my moodiness."

Amanda grasped the hand and pulled it to her chest. "Thatís an easy one." She waited until she had Lexís complete attention. "Because I love you. Although I donít see how youíve been able to restrain yourself from doing that brother of yours serious harm."

The rancher allowed herself to be pulled back up onto the sofa, and into her loverís arms. "I promised Martha a long time ago that I wouldnít," she murmured into Amandaís chest. "When he was nineteen and I was twelve, I picked up a shovel and tried to remove his head from his shoulders. Martha stopped me, and made me promise not to kill him." Lex looked into Amandaís amused eyes. "Itís been one of the hardest promises Iíve ever had to keep."

"I can understand that. Are you sure you two are related? After meeting your grandfather, I donít see how Hubert can be a part of the same family." Amanda remembered a conversation that she had with Travis Edwards the morning before he left the ranch.

Lex had gone to check on the horses, which had left Amanda and Travis alone at the ranch house. They were sitting in the den drinking coffee when her curiosity had gotten the better of her.

"Travis," Amanda had learned quickly to not call him by his last name. "If you and your wife had been keeping tabs on Lex all these years, why didnít you try to reach her sooner?"

The distinguished older man turned away from the fireplace and looked directly into her eyes. "Several years ago, we had heard from Lester that Rawson had left and turned over the ranch to Lexie. Melanie called out here that very afternoon, hoping to speak to her. Hubert had answered the phone, and told her, not very politely, that neither Lexie nor he wanted anything to do with us, and to leave them alone. My wife was devastated." He closed his eyes for a moment. "It took her a long time to bounce back from that, so I decided that no matter how much it hurt us, weíd respect their wishes." He wiped at his eyes. "And to tell you the complete truth, I was so damn bitter about her being hurt like that, for quite some time afterwards I didnít want to have anything to do with them, either." Travis opened his eyes again, the pain still fresh from the loss of his wife. "Earlier this year, my Melanie became quite ill. We still received letters from Lester, so we knew that Lexie was doing okay, but I know that my wife would have gladly faced the pain again just for the chance to talk to our granddaughter. I was selfish, and didnít want to see her hurt Ė I just wanted to make her last months with me happy ones. So I would change the subject when she would bring it up."

"Thereís nothing wrong with trying to protect someone you love from being hurt," the young woman commiserated.

"NoÖbut my Lanie could see through me," he smiled. "One of the very last things she said to me before she passed away, was that she wanted me to talk to Lexington. She didnít want me to be alone after she was gone." He wiped at his eyes once again. "Because of my selfishness, my wife didnít get to see her granddaughter before she died."

Amanda stood up and crossed the room, touching his back comfortingly. "No one can blame you for that. I know Lex understands."

"I blame myself, honey. I should have tried to reach Lexington directly, not take her brotherís words as her own." Travis looked down at her sadly. "The one thing that kept running through my mind recently, was what if she had been killed by that recent fall? My granddaughter would have died thinking that she had no family that loved her."

"Youíre here now. Thatís the important thing."

Travis exhaled heavily and patted Amanda on the shoulder. "PerhapsÖbut it will haunt me forever that we didnít try harder to reach our granddaughter." He stepped away to look out the window.

The young woman watched as he peered out the front window. Amanda could feel the anguish from the older man, and realized where Lex had gotten her sense of honor and strong heart. Martha may have raised her, but she inherited most of her good qualities from this man. When Travis took one hand and brushed it through his thick gray hair, she smiled. Carbon copies, if you ask me. She turned towards the doorway when she heard the back door slam. "Looks like Lex finished with the horses in record time," she joked. "Must have a pretty good reason for hurrying back to the house." Amanda was rewarded by a large smile from the tall man.

"Heís a great guy, isnít he? I just wish Iíd have found him sooner." Lex leaned back against the sofa. "Howís things at the real estate office right now? Are you really busy?"

Amanda looked up into the eyes of her lover. Whatís going on with her? "Not really. I was thinking about taking the next week off, why?" She could read the indecision on Lexís face.

Lex sighed. "Grandpa asked me to drive up to Dallas early next week, and I was wondering if you would like to go." She studied the buttons on Amandaís shirt. "Iíd really like for you to go, if youíre not too busy."

"Honey, look at me, please." Amanda waited until Lex looked her in the eyes. "Iím never too busy to be with you." She ran her fingers down the clinched jaw, until the frown on her loverís face vanished. "What are you supposed to be going to Dallas for?"

"To see my grandmother." Lex murmured quietly.

 

Chapter 2

"Your dad was really understanding about us leaving this morning." Lex squinted against the bright early-morning sun, while she opened the truck passenger door for Amanda. She quickly closed the door and rushed around to the other side, climbing into the tall vehicle. "Brrr! I hate December!" The dark-haired woman rubbed her hands together after she turned the key in the ignition.

Amanda giggled. "I thought you were hot-natured? At least thatís what you told me the afternoon we met, when you gave me your coat." She was snugly bundled in the old leather bomber jacket that she had Ďborrowedí from Lex. "Daddy said he needed to be in town this morning, anyway. Gramma was going to help him find a suitable location for his new studio." Even though Anna Leigh had retired from the real estate business, she still took an active interest in the running of her office. Amanda was more than happy to work with her grandmother, which allowed her to take time off when she needed to.

Lex glared at her friend. "Smartass." She pulled the truck onto the road. "So your dad is going to open a photography studio, huh? Thatís a big step down from running your own corporation, isnít it?"

"Yeah. But heís really excited about starting over. Itís like heís a completely different person, now." Amanda reached over and wrapped her fingers around Lexís forearm. "Heís also looking forward to getting to know you better."

The rancher took her eyes off the road long enough to study her friend. "Are you sure about that? I think heís just a little bit afraid of me." She sighed and turned her attention back to the road ahead. Canít really blame him much for thatÖI did threaten to toss him out of a hospital window.

The blonde edged as close to her lover as she could without removing her seat belt. "Lex, heís not afraid of you. Heís just nervous, like you are." She ran her hand down the strong arm until she could tangle their fingers together.

"I dunno." Lex squeezed the small hand in hers. "Hell, AmandaÖI picked him up and shoved him up against a wall! Itís a wonder the man didnít file assault charges against me!" She shook her head in disgust.

"Stop that!" Amanda pulled on the hand, pulling it up to her chest. "Heís actually rather proud of you for that."

Lex turned her head again. "Youíre kidding!" She felt soft lips kiss her knuckles. "Proud of me? For threatening him?"

Amanda nodded. "Yep. He told me he was glad that I had someone who cared enough about me to protect me like that." She watched as Lex studied the road, her gaze going distant. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"About what? Your father?" Lexís eyes never strayed from the road.

"NoÖabout whatís causing you to zone out on me." Amanda rubbed Lexís hand against her own cheek.

The rancher shook her head to clear it. "Sorry about that. I was just wondering what Hubert is gonna try next, since his last scheme obviously isnít going to work." The courier for her brotherís lawyer had brought the legal papers by the ranch yesterday afternoon. Lex and Amanda had both studied the documents, and shared a good laugh.

Hubertís lawyer was actually one of his drinking buddies. The man had barely squeaked through law school, and only passed the bar by the narrowest of margins. From the way the papers had been worded, both men had been very intoxicated during the actual writing. Soon after the messenger had left, the attorney had called to make certain she had seen the papers. Lex threatened the man with a counter suit, and also disbarment.

"I donít think weíll hear from his lawyer again anytime soon," she assured her friend.

"Do you think heíll keep trying?" Amanda asked, concerned. "Would it be better if I moved back to town for a while?" She felt her lover tense, and immediately regretted her words.

"Only if you want to," Lex murmured quietly. Canít really blame her, though. I wouldnít want to be stuck in the middle of this damn feud, either. She concentrated on the road in front of them, afraid that if she looked at Amanda, she would lose her composure.

Both women were quiet for a few moments, and then Amanda broke the silence. "Lex?" She squeezed the hand that she still held. "I donít WANT to go back to my grandparentís house. I just wanted to make things easier on you."

Lex took a deep breath, but didnít look at her friend. "Youíre a grown woman, Amanda. I have no hold on you."

"Thatís where youíre wrong, honey." Amanda waited until she was sure Lex was listening. "From the first moment we met, you had a hold on me. And every single day, that hold gets stronger and stronger." She pulled their joined hands to her lips, and gently kissed her loverís knuckles. "I was just afraid that Hubert wouldnít let up as long as I lived at the ranch."

"Nah. He gets on these kicks when he runs low on money. It really doesnít have anything to do with you, sweetheart." Lex could feel her pounding heart finally beginning to slow. "The ranch is your home, for as long as you want it to be, all right?" She turned her head to look at her partner. "Donít let my worthless brother run you off."

Amanda grinned. "Itíll take more than Hubert to get rid of me." She felt the rancherís fingers tighten around hers.

The dark-haired woman smiled. "Thatís good to know." Lex leaned back and enjoyed the drive.

***************

"Whoa." Amanda blinked and then shook her head in amazement. "Are you sure that weíre at the right address?" She peered through her window again. "That makes my parentís house look like a shack." She didnít know which was more impressive Ė the large, two-story house, or the awe-inspiring acre of lawn, which was still a rich green.

Lex consulted the paper in her hand. "Itís the address that my grandfather wrote down." She looked back up at the house. "DamnÖthe Dallas Cowboys could play football on the front yard." She had parked the truck on the street, somewhat intimidated by the expansive circular driveway, which was dotted with Greek statues. "I thought that the oil business was bad."

Amanda laughed. "So did I." She looked over at her friend, who was staring at the mansion in wide-eyed wonder. "Are we going up?"

"OhÖyeah." Lex shrugged her shoulders. "It would probably help if I drove up to the house, huh?" She smiled at her friend and pulled the vehicle up to the front door. Once she turned off the engine, the rancher stepped out of the truck and circled around to open the door for Amanda.

"Thanks. Do you want me to stay here, orÖ?" Amanda was cut off when Lex pulled her out of the truck, not releasing her hand as they walked up the steps. Guess that answered that questionÖ

The tall woman rang the doorbell, then looked down at her friend. "Sorry Ďbout that. I just wanted to get up here before I lost my nerve." She was about to knock on the door when it opened.

A middle-aged woman with faded blonde hair opened the door. She was dressed in a black and white maidís uniform, but carried herself as if she owned the house. "Yes? May IÖ?" She looked at Lex and gasped in surprise. "Oh, my! You must be Miss Walters." She stepped back and gestured for the two women to step inside. "Please forgive meÖMr. Edwards is in the parlor. If youíll just follow me, please." The still shaken woman escorted them through a massive foyer, to a nearby doorway on the right.

Amanda leaned towards her companion and whispered, "She looks like sheís seen a ghost."

"She sure does. I wonder whatís up with that?" Lex bent down to whisper into Amandaís ear. "I didnít forget to button my shirt, or anything, did I?"

"Nope. And your hair looks good, too." Amanda grinned. Martha had cornered Lex in the kitchen Saturday afternoon and trimmed her hair. The rancher had grumbled and fussed, claiming that she didnít need a haircut, even though she had to continually blow the hair out of her eyes.

Lex smirked. "Gee, thanks."

"Mr. Edwards? Your guests have arrived," the maid announced, as she opened a pair of ornate double doors. She stepped aside and allowed the young women to pass by her.

Travis sat the book down that he had been reading, and stood up from his place on one end of a comfortably stuffed sofa. "Thank you, Nancy." He crossed the room quickly. "Lexie! Amanda! Itís great to see you both again!" Travis embraced both women at once. "You girls certainly made good time." He looked at Lex suspiciously. "I hope you didnít break any speed laws, did you?"

The tall woman looked at her friend. "No sir, I drove. Amandaís the one who likes to speed." A poke in her side caused Lex to flinch. "Ow!"

"Itís good to see you again too, MrÖummÖGrandpa." Amanda shot a glare at her best friend. "You have a beautiful home."

"Thanks, honeyÖbut itís a monstrosity." He winked at them both. "Come on in and sit down." Travis led them over to the sofa. "Weíve had it on the market for almost a year Ė itís more of a showplace than a home."

"How did you end up with it to begin with?" Lex asked, as she sat down. "No offense, Grandpa, but this place really doesnít suit you."

Travis laughed. "You have no idea, honey. But it came with the last business I bought, and I thought your grandmother might like it." He shook his head ruefully. "She thought I liked it, so she didnít raise a fuss. We both puttered around in this damn place for a couple of years before finally admitting neither one of us liked it." He swallowed a lump in his throat as he sat down near the sofa. "And since it was the last house we shared, it has somewhat of a sentimental value to me now. Just call me a crazy old fool."

Amanda stood up from her seat on the sofa and knelt next to the older man. "I donít think that youíre crazy at all. I know Iíd be the same way, if anything ever happened to Lex." She patted him on the knee and stood up, looking around the room to give Travis time to gather his wits. Amanda spotted a huge oil painting sitting over the fireplace. "WowÖLex?"

The picture was that of a young woman in her late teens. She was sitting in a garden, surrounded by sunshine and flowers. The pale blue dress that she wore brought out her azure eyes, and long dark hair framed her face. A mischievous smile quirked at the edge of her lips as if she knew a secret, but wasnít about to tell anyone.

"Amazing, isnít it?" Travis had stood up and put a hand on Lexís shoulder, as they all three studied the painting. "We had that commissioned right before Victoria graduated from high school." He smiled fondly as his granddaughter. "About the only difference between the two of you is height. She was only five foot six, but never backed down from anything." Travis winked at Amanda. "They both have the same smirk, donít you agree?"

"I donít smirk," Lex muttered with a frown. She stood up and stepped closer to study the painting. "You know, this is the only other picture Iíve ever seen of my mother, besides her wedding photo. But that was only a five-by-seven." She turned away to look into her grandfatherís eyes. "Do you have any more pictures that I could look at?"

Travis fought the tears that burned his eyes. "Of course, honey. We have quite a few albums in the library." He grinned at Amanda. "We even have a few dedicated to our only granddaughter." Damn Rawson Walters to HellÖkeeping us out of her life was bad enough. But to not leave any pictures of her mother out is downright criminal.

Amanda saw Travisí countenance darken. Uh-ohÖhe must be thinking about Lexís dad. "Pictures of Lex, huh?" She wrapped an arm around his. "I bet she was a cute kid."

"Oh, yes. Little Lexie was always getting into something." Travis brightened. "Even as a toddler, she could always find trouble." He patted the young blondeís hand. Sweet girlÖLexington certainly found herself a winner. "Why donít we go into the library, and Iíll dig out some pictures for you?" He led the two women into the foyer, and down the hallway.

***************

Amanda stepped out of the bathroom, fluffing her hair dry with a towel. She glanced over at Lex. The rancher was sitting cross-legged in the middle of the bed, pouring over yet another picture album. "Honey, why donít you take a nice, hot shower? You can look at that more in the morning." Her partner had spent almost the entire day looking at photographs, barely stopping long enough to eat. The younger woman walked over to the bed and touched Lexís shoulder. "Lex?"

"Huh?" Lex jumped slightly, and looked up. "Iím sorry, sweetheart. What did you say?" She blinked a couple of times, then rubbed her eyes tiredly.

"I said," Amanda sat down next to her and slid the heavy book away. "That maybe you should take a break and get a hot shower." She spared a glance over at the open page. One of the pictures had a young, dark-haired woman standing in the background. She held a chubby babyís hands as it stood shakily, taking a few steps. Both were smiling broadly at the camera. The caption under the photo read: Lexington takes Tory for a walk. "Oh, honey! You were an adorable baby!"

Lex blushed, and looked down at the picture. "Looks like I was well fed, anyway." She studied it with a slight frown. "Wish I could remember more about her."

"What do you remember?" Amanda huddled closer and eased an arm around Lexís shoulders.

"UmmÖ" The rancher sank into the touch unconsciously. "I remember being at the piano in our sitting room, with this beautiful woman who sang to me. She had long hair, and her eyes sparkled. We would play songs together, and then later I sat next to her in the den." Lexís eyes widened. "I felt the baby kick, and it scared me." She looked at Amanda in surprise. "Thatís a new memory for meÖfeeling Louis kick her before he was born." She smiled and embraced the younger woman. "Thank you, love. You just helped me remember something more about my mother."

Amanda returned the hug happily. "I donít think it was me, as much as all the pictures youíve looked at today. But Iím really glad you were able to remember something, honey."

"Maybe the pictures helped, but I think you had everything to do with it, sweetheart." Lex leaned back on the bed, pulling Amanda down on top of her. "You knowÖ" She worked her hand inside the towel that was wrapped around her lover. "Weíre in a separate wing from the master suite."

"Uh-huh." Amanda gasped as she felt a definite draft. "OoohÖ" She squirmed when large hands began to trace softly up and down her back.

Lex grinned at the look Amanda was giving her. "I think that you missed a spot," she murmured into the younger womanís ear.

The towel was quickly removed from her body, and Amanda found herself suddenly under Lex. "I did, huh? Where didÖOH!" Her body surged upward as a warm mouth began to nibble a path from her throat, down her chest. She tangled her fingers in the dark hair, and tried to pull Lexís head closer.

The rancher felt strong legs wrap themselves around her hips. "Feeling a little frisky, my love?" She pulled her head back just far enough to look into Amandaís eyes, which were bright with desire. Her head was suddenly pulled down roughly, as the blonde began to kiss her passionately. Insistent fingers began to unbutton the gray cotton shirt she was wearing, and small hands practically ripped the fabric from her body. Lex raised her hips when Amanda slipped her hands inside the back of her jeans, pushing the denim down the tall womanís legs.

"MmmÖ" Amanda moaned when Lexís bare skin touched hers. She raised her knee slightly, causing a moan to escape the woman above her. She was about to make a teasing remark when Lexís roving hand found a particularly sensitive spot, making intelligent thought impossible. "Oh, yeahÖmmmmÖ." Amanda returned the touch, feeling her lover tremble and arch forward slightly.

"God, AmandaÖ" Lex continued her assault on the smaller body beneath hers, until she could feel her partner writhe uncontrollably with pleasure. "I love you so much," she whispered, hearing the words echoed from Amanda, as the evening faded away.

***************

Lex awoke a few hours later, reaching for her watch on the nightstand to check the time. Three oíclock in the morning? Damn. She rolled her eyes and sighed. No sense in staying here and waking up Amanda Ė think Iíll go downstairs and grab another album from the library. She gently eased out from under the slumbering blonde, then slipped on a pair of shorts and tee shirt to sneak from the room.

When she stopped at the foot of the stairs, Lex could see light spilling out from the library. I could have sworn that we turned off all the lights earlier. Curious, she stepped into the room and saw Travis sitting on the loveseat, an open photo album on his lap. "Grandpa?"

"Lexie! What are you doing up this time of night, child?" Travis asked. He beckoned her over with one hand.

"I couldnít sleep." Lex sat down next to the older man and studied him closely. "What are YOU doing up this late? Are you all right?"

Travis smiled slightly. "Iím fine, honey. I just couldnít sleep, either." He looked around the room sadly. "This big old house is just a little too quiet, I guess."

She nodded in understanding. "Iím sorry, Grandpa. I know you really miss her." Lex reached over and grasped his hand. "I wish I could have known her."

"She was so proud of you. Just as I am, Lexington. Youíve grown into a remarkable young woman." Travis released her hand and put his arm around her shoulders. "Even though we werenít personally in contact with you, Melanie and I kept up through Lester. My dear friend would not only write us at least once a month, but would somehow get pictures to send, too." He turned a few pages in the album and smiled.

Lex leaned in close and looked down. "How didÖ? Thatís me!" She reached out with one finger and traced one of the pictures wistfully. "This was before Dad left, I think." She looked up into understanding eyes. "I knew Lester was always around with a camera, but I didnít realize I was the one he was taking pictures of." She looked back down at the photograph. "He told me that he had a new hobby, and was thinking about making a scrapbook for the ranch. Ornery old cootÖ" The picture was of Lex as she tried to break a wild horse. She was hanging onto a thick rope, as the angry animal tried to buck her from its back. She had a wild grin on her face, and what appeared to be blood running from her mouth and one nostril. "Damn horse slammed his head into my face, but I hung on anyway," she related proudly.

He glanced up at her and chuckled. "You are definitely Victoriaís daughter. She was just as tenacious, especially about the things that were most important to her." He sighed and turned back to the front of the album. Travis flipped through several pages, until he came to one with his daughter holding a newborn baby. "After you were born, Tory almost left your father. But she was stubborn, and decided to stick it out." Things sure would have turned out differently. Sheíd still be alive, and Lexie would have grown upÖHe covertly studied his granddaughter. Just as my Melanie told me, some things, no matter how painful, happen for a reason.

"Why did she almost leave?" Lex asked quietly, lifting her gaze to look her grandfather in the eye.

"Itís really not important, anymore," he hedged. No sense in hurting her, not after all these years. "Letís just say that she and Rawson had a difference of opinion, but were able to work it out." Travis pulled his granddaughter into a hug.

Lex wrapped both arms around him and squeezed. She pulled back after a moment and studied the photograph again. "He was mad because I was a girl, wasnít he?" She could remember a few times when she was younger, and Rawson would berate her for that very reason. Thatís why I tried so damn hard to please himÖbut in the long run, I donít think it mattered.

"HoneyÖit was more than that. Tory was upset by the fact that the same week you were born, Rawson took off for a three month rodeo circuit." Travisí voice held a note of bitterness. "He ran off to play cowboy, leaving her to run the ranch and take care of two children." He patted her on the leg. "The only good thing about that, was that Melanie and I were able to stay out there with her."

"I bet she enjoyed that," Lex smiled. I know I would have loved having them around.

Her grandfather chuckled. "She didÖand so did you. Lanie spoiled you rotten." Although we wanted to send Hubert away to military school, after we caught him trying to smother you with a pillow. That boy has always been rottenÖno matter how much love we gave him, he always threw it back in our faces. He paused for a moment. "Speaking of Rawson, howís he doing these days? Lester hasnít mentioned him in his letters for quite some time now."

Lexís smile faded. "I wouldnít know. Itís been over a year since Iíve heard from him." She looked down at her lap, unable to look the older man in the eye.

"Not even a card on your birthday?" Travis asked, shocked at the lack of compassion his daughterís husband showed for his own children.

"NoÖheís never been real keen on birthdays. The last time I heard from him, he asked me to wire him some money to Tulsa." She forced a smile onto her face. "Heís probably not staying in any one place too long, thatís all."

Travis shook his head. "Donít make excuses for him, honey. He isnít worth it." He stood up and offered Lex his hand. "CímonÖIíve got something to show you."

Perplexed, Lex accepted his hand and allowed her grandfather to pull her to her feet. "OkayÖ" She continued to hold his hand as they walked towards the back of the house. She watched as Travis reached into his pocket for a set of keys when they stopped at a rather plain-looking door.

"This was Melanieís work room. I locked it up when she became to ill to come downstairs." He unlocked the door and pulled Lex inside. When Travis flipped on the lightswitch, both of them blinked in deference to the bright light.

"Wow." Lex looked around the room in awe. It was very spacious, with several wide tables left out in the middle. A sewing machine sat by one window, obviously to allow someone to work by the sunlight that could stream through the expansive picture window. One wall was covered with clear drawers and shelves, which appeared to hold every kind of craft and sewing item imaginable.

Travis laughed at the look on her face. "She loved to work with her hands, making things. Most of the curtains in this house are your grandmotherís handiwork." He walked over to a large, antique steamer trunk and knelt down beside it. "Come over here, Lexie. Your grandmother wanted you to have this and the contents, too." Travis handed Lex a small key. "Go ahead and open it, honey."

Lex dropped to her knees beside him and accepted the key. "How did she know Iíd ever be here? For all you knew, I was just as hateful as Hubert." She felt a gentle touch on her shoulder as she tucked away the guilt she held from the missing years. Her hand shook as she unlocked the old trunk. When Lex began to lift the lid, a faint wisp of lilacs tickled her senses.

"She loved lilacÖ" Travis murmured wistfully. He inhaled deeply as tears sprang unbidden to his eyes. He reached up to help the young woman raise the heavy lid the rest of the way.

"Thereís a bundle of letters here on top," Lex commented, as she reached in and picked them up carefully. She glanced at the handwriting on the top note.

ĎDearest Lexington,

Since you are reading this, Iím happily assuming that your grandfather finally swallowed his pride and was able to reach you. Donít blame him, dearÖhis heart is in the right place, and he loves you as much as I do.

I had always hoped to be able to give you these cards and letters myself, but Iím afraid the good Lord has other plans for me. Donít be sad, honey. Iíve lived a long and happy life, and the only regret I have is that I wasnít able to see you grow up, and tell you how much you mean to me. Iíve never stopped loving you, Lexie. You were always a very special girl, and I know that time has not changed that fact.

One bit of advice I have for you is this Ė find your true love, and never let go. I was lucky to have found my other half over fifty years ago, and Iíve never regretted one moment that weíve had together.

Please do me one favor Ė take care of your grandfather for me. I know heíll rattle around in our Ďwhite elephantí after Iím gone, and I canít stand the thought of that happening. Give him a hug for me, and tell him that Iíll gladly wait for as long as it takes. Heíll understand.

I love you, LexieÖyou are my granddaughter, and Iíve always been so proud of you. Live your life well, and hold onto love with everything that you have. I promise you wonít be sorry.

All my love,

Grandma Lanieí

Lex sighed heavily, fighting the tears that were silently trailing down her cheeks. I remember herÖGrandma LanieÖoh, god. Donít fall apart, Lexington. The letter brought back faded memories of a small woman, dark hair and twinkling eyes, who doted on Lex at every turn. She used to sit me on the counter in the kitchen, and let me Ďhelpí her make cookies. I actually remember doing that! She jumped slightly when a large hand grasped her shoulder gently.

"Lexie? Whatís wrong, child?" Travis could see the tears streaming down the young womanís face after she had read the note. "Are you okay?"

She nodded and leaned into the older manís touch. "Yeah." Lex wiped at her eyes with the back of one hand. "Iím fine." She turned and looked up into Travisí face with a watery smile. "Reading that just brought back some memories, thatís all."

Travis pulled a linen handkerchief out of his pocket. "Here." He wiped at her face gently. "I hope that they were good memories."

"The best." Lex took a deep breath to get herself back under control. "I actually REMEMBER her, Grandpa. I remember sitting on the kitchen counter, watching Grandma mixing cookies. Up until now, I couldnít remember much about either of you. Just little flashes."

"Thatís wonderful, sweetheart." He gasped as Lex wrapped her arms around him and squeezed tightly. "Whatís that for?"

His granddaughter looked up into his eyes and smiled. "Grandma told me to." She finally stood up and offered him a hand. Seeing that Travis was on the verge of tears as well, Lex decided that a regroup was in order. "Why donít we both try to get a little sleep?" she asked as she pulled him to his feet.

He choked back more tears and nodded. "That sounds like a wonderful idea, Lexie." Travis pulled the young woman close to him and escorted her from the room, closing the door behind them.


Chapter 3

Lex sat in the rear seat while Amanda quietly held her hand. The rancher stared out the side window, studying the passing scenery idly. She was tired, and was not looking forward to the rest of this day. Lex had not gone to sleep after going back upstairs early in this morning. Instead, she spent the hours before dawn reading the bundle of letters and cards that her grandmother had saved for her. She bought me birthday cards and wrote me letters, for the past twenty-five years. I canít believe it. Just thinking about her grandmotherís tireless faith in her caused a lump to form in the dark-haired womanís throat.

I wish I could reach her. She was concerned about her lover Ė Lex hadnít said more than a couple of words to anyone since this morning. Amanda exchanged looks with Travis, who was facing them in the seat opposite. Heíd offered the use of his limousine, which he often used to travel through Dallas due to the vast amount of traffic. Tired of the strained silence, she decided to draw the older man into a conversation. "So, Grandpa TravisÖgot any good stories about Lex as a child? Iím sure you have some good ones." She felt the hand in hers clinch a little tighter, but no other signs of acknowledgement from the rancher.

"Oh, Iíve got quite a few." Travis smiled at the young blonde. He waited until his grand-daughter turned away from the window and looked at him expectantly. "When Lexie was small, she would go non-stop until she finally dropped. We used to find her asleep in some of the craziest places."

"Sheís still like that," Amanda offered cheerfully, glancing up at the woman in question.

Lex rolled her eyes. "Hrumpph," she grunted, but looked at Travis to continue.

Travis chuckled. "I remember once, when she was almost three, we lost her for the better part of an afternoon. Seemed like someone had left the back door unlocked, and she had somehow gotten out."

"Oh, no!" Amanda covered her mouth with her free hand. She could just imagine the dangers a large ranch could hold for a toddler unsupervised.

"Oh, yes! We were there because it was Victoriaís birthday, and sheíd invited Melanie and I out for the weekend. When weíd discovered Lexie missing, Iím afraid I accused her brother Hubert of doing something to her." He secretly thought that the boy had led his sister outside, in the hope that she wouldnít come back. It wouldnít have been the first time he tried to become an only child. Iíve never seen someone so young, be so hateful. Thatís boyís not rightÖnever has been.

"I bet that went over well," Lex commented, speaking for the first time in hours.

The older man nodded. "He said that if he wanted to get rid of you, that heíd have done it a long time before." Travis shook his head. "Anyway, we had the entire ranch out searching for Lexie. It was the beginning of June, and we were terrified that the heat would kill her. Every able-bodied man was involved in the search, both by horseback and by foot. Tory and Melanie were beside themselves with worry Ė they searched every nook and cranny of the house, but to no avail."

Amanda glanced at her lover, who was completely engrossed in the story. This seems to be pulling her out of that mood she was in. Good. Poor Lex isnít used to so much heavy emotion at one time. She knew that yesterday had hit the usually stoic woman hard, and that it was probably going to become even worse today. But Iíll make sure that she realizes that sheís not alone, and that itís okay to let go. Amanda looked at Travis. "The suspense is killing me! What happened?" She smiled to herself when she heard Lex chuckle.

"Well, it seemed that little Lexie saw her daddy leave the house and she decided to follow him. Rawson had told us that morning that he was going to ride to the far back pasture, but we didnít think anything of it. We found her closed up in the tack room, where she had been trying to drag a saddle out into the barn. She was sound asleep, evidently wore herself out trying to emulate Rawson." Travis looked at his granddaughter and chuckled. "She was a stubborn little thing, even at that age."

Lex snorted. "Me? Stubborn?" She looked at him innocently. "Never."

"Of course not," Amanda agreed. "A little headstrong, maybe even bullheaded, but never stubborn." She smiled cheekily up at Lex, who shook her head and glanced back through the window.

"Where are we?" Lex noticed with surprise that they had left the city behind some time ago.

Travis leaned back in the seat and smiled. "Outside of Dallas. Weíre going to a private cemetery, which has been in our family for over one hundred years."

The dark-haired woman turned her attention back to her grandfather. "Really? Why wasnít mother buried there?" Lex knew that Victoria was interred in the Somerville cemetery, since she placed flowers on her grave every year on her motherís birthday, as well as many of the holidays.

"Your father had made the arrangements before we even knew she was gone," Travis uttered quietly. "Melanie had called the ranch to see how she was, and was told by Martha that the services were set for the next morning." He angrily rubbed at his eyes. "After the service, Rawson told us that he didnít want to see us ever again. Thatís the closest Iíve ever come to killing someone."

Travis held his wife to him as they lowered Victoriaís casket into the ground. Little Lexington was standing nearby, wrapped around Marthaís leg in confusion. The young housekeeper was wearing a simple black dress, and had even managed to put the girl in something besides her usual jeans. The navy jumpsuit already had a smattering of dust on it, and nothing Martha did kept the child clean.

Rawson Walters stood at the foot of the grave, staring down as the casket reached the bottom. He patted his son on the shoulder and then turned to glare at his daughter. "Come over here, Lexington." He held his hand out to the girl.

"NoÖ" Lex whimpered, as she shook her head and held onto Martha tighter. "Iím scared."

"Get yourself over here, now." He waved an impatient hand.

Martha had only been working for the rancher for the past three months, but she had developed a fondness for the young girl. "Mr. Walters, if you want, I canÖ"

He shook his head. "No. Sheíll do as sheís told." Rawson took a step forward. "Come say goodbye to your Momma, Lexington."

Lex started to cry, and ran to her grandfather. "No! Mommaís not gone! Grandpa!" She attached herself to the tall manís leg and cried fitfully.

"Thatís enough, Rawson. Leave the child alone." Travis felt his wife kneel and take the crying girl in her arms. "Sheís too young to be put through this."

"Sheís old enough, Edwards. Iím not going to allow you to tell me how to raise my kids." The rancher stepped up next to his mother-in-law and reached for his daughter, causing the child to cry harder. "Stop that crying, girl. Now come with me and tell your mother goodbye."

Melanie Edwards pulled Lex to her chest tightly. "Rawson, let us take care of her. Youíve got a ranch to run, and itís no place for a small girl." She continued to pat her granddaughterís back comfortingly.

Rawson softened slightly, seeing his deceased wife in her eyes. God help me, Tory. I donít think I can do this. Then his eyes hardened and he reached again for his child. "Thanks for the offer, Mrs. Edwards." He had never felt comfortable calling her anything else. "But sheís my daughter, and she belongs at the ranch with me." Rawson gestured over his shoulder to the young housekeeper. "Martha has agreed to stay on and take care of the kids, and I think they should be with their father." He pulled Lex into his arms and began to walk away.

"WaitÖ" Travis followed him, leaving his grieving wife behind for a moment. "At least let us take the children for a short time, to give you a little time to yourself." As much as he disliked Rawson Walters, he could tell the younger man was devastated by the loss of his wife.

The rancher turned around slowly. "I donít think so. If I allow you to take my kids, Iíll never see them again. Your money would see to that." He glared at his father-in-law. "As far as Iím concerned, IíM the only family they have now. Donít confuse them by trying to see them again, you hear me?" He turned on his heel and stomped to where Hubert was standing. "Címon, boy. Letís go home."

Amanda looked at Lex, who immediately unfastened her seatbelt and moved across the car to sit next to the distraught man. She watched as her partner enveloped Travis in a strong hug.

"Itís all right, Grandpa." Lex pulled him tightly to her and rubbed his back. "Thatís all in the past. Weíre together now."

He pulled away and smiled weakly. "We tried to get custody of you soon after. Rawson was always leaving for rodeos, and Melanie was afraid that you and Louis wouldnít be safe at the ranch alone with your brother."

"But Hubert was only ten, right?" Amanda asked. "And Martha was there."

"TrueÖbut Martha was having to take care of little Louis, and also running the ranch house. We were concerned that she couldnít keep Hubert under control." Travis looked apologetically at his granddaughter. "We had only met Martha a few times, and she had mainly been hired to help Victoria. She was about Amandaís age, and we didnít know just how much she could handle." He patted Lex on the leg. "She was a feisty young thing, never allowing your daddy any slack when it came to you kids."

Lex smiled. "Sheís been a good mother to me, Grandpa. Iíd hate to think how I would have turned out without her around."

The car stopped at a wrought-iron gate and the driver entered a code, which caused it to roll open. The long white car drove slowly through, and then the gate closed behind it. Gravel crunched under the tires while they traveled down a tree-lined path. Headstones of different sizes stood neatly, many with fresh flowers beneath them.

"We have a man and his son who take care of the place," Travis explained. He had noticed the looks of surprise on both womenís faces, and decided to answer the question before they could ask. "When my great-great-grandfather passed away, he left a trust that would always take care of the family cemetery. Over the years, someone in our familyÖusually the first bornÖ would keep it going by adding to the trust." He winked. "My father did one better Ė he put a large amount of money in an account, and the interest alone pays for the upkeep and the caretakerís salaries."

The car pulled to a stop in a shaded area. To the right, a small fenced-in area stood, the waist high picket fence freshly painted white. Travis looked at his granddaughter. "Each sibling in my family has their own area, where they and their family are laid to rest." He took a calming breath and pointed. "Thatís mine. Your grandmother is there, as well as memorial markers for your mother and uncle."

Lex patted his other hand, which was still on her knee. "Okay." She looked at Amanda, then back at him. "Give me a minute, will you?" She started to get out of the car.

"Sure, sweetheart. I think Iíll take Amanda for a little tour. Thereís some headstones that date back to the Civil War here." Travis allowed the blonde to exit from the other side of the limousine. "Just holler if you need us."

"Thanks." Lex waved at them, then took a deep breath and opened the wooden gate. A large rose colored granite headstone, almost as tall as she was, stood in the center of the plot. It bore the name Edwards across the top in fancy script. Below that were two smaller names, one with a date.

Melanie Anne Perkins-Edwards.

Beloved wife, mother, and friend.

09-02-23 to 10-20-99

Travis Lee Edwards

11-15-20 to

To the left of the main headstone, was a smaller gray headstone.

In Memoriam

William Travis Edwards

Son and hero

08-08-43 to 04-17-66

To the right, another small gray headstone.

In Memoriam

Victoria Marie Edwards-Walters.

Taken too soon from her loving family.

06-06-45 To 04-09-75

The tall woman pulled a leather wallet from her back pocket, and glanced at a small photo that her grandfather had given her early this morning. Her mother was standing outside the ranch house, holding a three-year old Lexington on her hip. Beside her was an older, dark-haired woman, who was smiling at the camera. They had their arms around each other, the youngster between them. "Hello, Grandma," Lex murmured quietly. She knelt at the foot of the grave, and pulled a small weed from the recently piled dirt. "I guess you know who I am, huh?" She wiped a tear from her cheek. "Sorry it took so long to find you Ė I should have remembered you, and not believed my father." Lex studied the headstone and thought about all the things she wanted to tell the woman.

"Thatís an incredible story, Grandpa Travis." Amanda stood with the older man on the other side of the small cemetery. "So your aunt and her partner were buried here together? I guess thatís why Lexís and my relationship didnít shock you, huh?" She looked up at the distinguished gentleman. "I was a little worried about that, to tell you the truth."

Travis pulled her close with one arm, hugging the blonde to him gently. "Me too, Amanda. If my father had been alive, heíd absolutely have forbidden them any rights to the family plot. He was a very old-fashioned sort. Bigoted, self-righteous, and thought that anyone different from him was destined to an afterlife in Hell. I guess thatís why I turned out so differently. As much as I respected the man, I couldnít stand him."

Amanda pulled him away and back to where the car was parked. "You could never be like that."

"Maybe. But through the years, when weíd get reports from Lester about Lexie, I was a little nervous. I was afraid that if I ever got the chance to see her, Iíd act just like my father." Travis looked down at the sweet young woman next to him. "Luckily, you put all those fears to rest when I met you."

"Me? What did I have to do with it?" she asked, confused. Amanda strained ahead to see how Lex was faring.

He laughed. "Everything. The moment I met you, I could see just how much you cared for my granddaughter, and she for you. It certainly made accepting your relationship a lot easier."

The young woman blushed. "Oh." Amanda tried to shake off the uneasy feeling she now had. "She does mean everything to me, Grandpa Travis. And if youíll excuse me for a moment," she looked up to where her lover was sitting under a far away tree. "I think Iíll go check on Lex." She leaned forward and kissed the older man on the cheek, then jogged off to where she could see the dark head of her friend, bent down against an upraised knee.

Travis continued on quietly, until he was inside the fenced-off plot. He stood and stared at the headstone for a moment. "Well, LanieÖI donít think we have to worry about Lexington any more. Sheís in good hands, my love." He closed his eyes and silently communicated with the other half of his soul.

Amanda stepped up quietly to where Lex was sitting. The older woman was propped up against a large tree, and she had her forehead resting on one knee. Her dark hair fanned down across her face, and the blonde couldnít tell if she was even awake. "Lex? Are you okay, honey?"

"I dunno." Lex kept her head down, but lifted one hand in invitation. She felt it immediately grasped, and she pulled her friend down next to her. "GodÖ"

"What can IÖis there anythingÖ?" Amanda stammered, trying to somehow comfort the woman she loved. Suddenly she found her arms full of a crying rancher, as Lex turned and buried her face in Amandaís chest. "Oh, LexÖ"

Lex wrapped her arms around the smaller woman and cried, grieving for the loss as if it were fresh. "I was there, talking to herÖ" she choked out, gasping for breath. "And I swore that I felt a hand touch the back of my neck, and someone kiss the top of my head." She leaned back and wiped at her eyes with the back of one hand. "I could smell her perfume, Amanda. I remember it from when I was a little kid. She always smelled so good." Lex sniffled, and snuggled up to her friend again. "All these memories of her came rushing back. God, I miss her."

The blonde woman continued to rock her friend gently. "I know, babyÖitís going to be okay." She pulled Lex into her lap and continued to murmur words of encouragement to her.

Travis looked up the hill, to where the two women were sitting. "Lanie, Lexington asked me this morning to move back to Somerville with her. She wanted a chance to get to know me again, and even offered to put me up at the ranch." He looked back at the headstone sadly. "I donít want to leave you, though." He could almost hear her voice in his ear.

ĎNow you listen to me, Travis Lee EdwardsÖyouíve finally got a second chance with our granddaughter. Donít let your stubborn pride ruin that. I thought I had you trained better than that, my love.í

"Oh, sweetheart. Every day without you is an eternity. Although Iím glad you donít have to go through it. As much as it hurts me, Iíd hate for you to have to live with this emptiness." He closed his eyes and choked back a sob. "I donít think I have the strength to do this, Melanie."

"Sure you do." A quiet voice murmured from behind him.

Travis spun around quickly. "WhatÖ?"

Lex and Amanda stood together, arms around each other. "Thatís why you need to come home with us. Weíll help you." His granddaughter stepped forward and held out her hands. "I think thatís what Grandma wants, too."

He accepted her hands and pulled the young woman to his chest. "LexieÖ"

"Come home with us, Grandpa." Lex slowly escorted him back to the car. "At least for a little while, so I can find out more about my family."

The older man had no real answer for that. He allowed the two women to help him into the limousine, even though he was more than capable of doing it on his own. "I donít know, girls. The last thing you need is an old coot underfoot."

Amanda sat on one side of him, her partner on the other. "Youíre right." She waved off Lexís shocked reply. Give me a second here, love. "Thankfully, youíre not an old coot. So we donít have a thing to worry about, do we?"

"Sheís right," Lex agreed. "At least think about it, okay? Thereís no rush."

"That, I can do." Travis leaned back into the seat with a heavy sigh. Iím getting too old to be traipsing around the countryside, LanieÖmaybe theyíve got a point. "How long can you girls stay?"

Lex looked at Amanda, who shrugged. GreatÖleave the decision up to me. Guess Iíll have to be the bad guy here. She picked up Travisí hand and squeezed. "Iím afraid that weíll have to go back tomorrow. Iíve got a lot of things to do at the ranch, and Amanda has to get back to work." Lex was about to say something else when her cell phone rang, causing her to jump. "Damn!" She pulled the small phone out of her pocket and flipped it open. "Yes?"

"Lexie?" Marthaís voice sounded very far away, and there was an echo on the line.

"Iím sorry, Martha. We must be in a bad spotÖyouíre not coming in very clearly." Lex looked at Amanda, who wore a concerned look. "Whatís wrong?"

"ÖHubert called, and heÖ" The housekeeperís voice faded away.

"Martha? I donít know if you can hear me, but Iíll call you as soon as we get back to the house, okay?" Both Travis and Amanda watched as Lex pulled the phone from her ear and slammed it closed. "Damn thing." She jammed it back into her pocket and sighed.

"Whatís wrong?" Amanda asked, feeling Travis squeeze her hand.

The rancher shook her head. "I donít know. Martha said something about Hubert, and then I lost the signal."

Travis released their hands and patted each woman on the leg, then crossed over to the opposite seat. "Hubert? What in Godís name is that boy up to now?" He wanted to sit across from Lex so that he could see her face. At his question, she rolled her eyes.

"What ISNíT he up to?" Lex grumbled, leaning back with a disgusted grunt. "What a jackass."

Amanda rubbed her friendís leg in sympathy. "Shhh. Donít let him upset you, honey." She looked up at Travis. "Heís been trying to get control of the ranch through a lawyer."

"Why is he after the ranch? That boyís hated it since he was old enough to whine about it." Travis shook his head angrily. "And with some of the stunts that he has pulled, it makes me wonder if heís all right in the head." He looked at Lex seriously. "Be very careful, Lexie. Especially now."

"Whatís so special about now?" Amanda asked him. She gripped Lexís hand tightly.

The older man leaned forward until he had Lexís undivided attention. "When your mother passed away, you three children, and your father, were given equal amounts of her Trust." He waited until Lex nodded her understanding. "As soon as your father signed the ranch over to you, his share was divided up between you, Louis, and Hubert. When your younger brother was killed," he ached at the pain that flashed in the blue eyes across from him. "His share was divided between you and Hubert."

"So, basically Hubert and I are partners in the Trust now?" Lex asked, a little confused. All this legal stuff gives me a headache.

"Not exactly. The moment that your brother moved off the ranch, his share went back into the main Trust. You canít touch it, but neither can he. The only way he can get his hands on it again is either move back to the ranch, or if something happened to you," Travis finished quietly. He saw the look of fear on the blondeís face, and inwardly cursed himself.

Amanda shook her head. "You donít actually thinkÖ?" She felt Lex wrap an arm around her shoulders, and she leaned back gratefully.

Lex pulled her lover close. "Of course not, sweetheart. My brother is a big-mouthed jackass, who doesnít have the guts or the brains to do anything sinister. Right, Grandpa?"

"Iím wouldnít count him out completely, Lexie." A scene of a past cruelty from Hubertís childhood flashed in Travisí mind.

Melanie and he had been invited out to the ranch for Lexingtonís third birthday, since Rawson had taken the first two weeks in November off to buy cattle. They had been sitting in the den, enjoying a cup of coffee with their daughter, when Travis had heard a commotion upstairs. He excused himself to see what the problem could be. Hubert met him on the stairs, and continued to jog away without even looking at his grandfather.

The door to his granddaughterís room was slightly ajar. Curious, Travis opened the door and could see Lexington swinging in the closet, her hands frantically gripping a rope around her neck; the other end tied to the clothes bar. He rushed over and held her in one arm, while he used his other hand to pull the rope away from her throat. "Good god, Lexie! What in heavenís name is going on?" he cried, shaking in fear.

"N..nnÖnothiní," the little girl gasped. "Iím an outlaw, and I got caught." She wrapped her arms around his neck. "Donít cry, GampaÖIíll be gooder." Lexie hugged him tight. "Donít wanna be bad no moreÖ" she coughed, then began to cry.

Travis looked down and saw the rope burns on her tiny wrists. My godÖhe could have killed her! Somehow Lex had managed to wriggle the rope loose from around her hands, and pulled the noose away from her neck enough to breathe, until he had arrived.

"Grandpa? Are you okay?" Lex leaned over and put her hand on his knee. Damn, he looks really upset. "Whatís the matter?"

He looked up from his memories. "Sorry about that, Lexie." He shook his head slightly to clear it. "Iím fineÖbut donít turn your back on your brother, please."

She chuckled. "Donít worryÖIím not about to. Iíve got a lawyer now checking his claim to the ranch Ė the last I heard, he didnít have a snowballís chance in Hell of succeeding." Lex leaned back with a satisfied sigh. "You should have read that Ďlegalí document. Some of the words were spelled wrong, and most of it didnít make any sense."

"Do you honestly think that heíll stop there? He only got a small amount of money from your grandmother," Travis worried. "Maybe I shouldÖ"

"You should do nothing, Grandpa. Iíve been fighting with Hubert, one way or another, for as long as I can remember. I really donít want to get anyone else involved in this mess." Lex looked at her lover. "Itís bad enough that he knows about Amanda living there. I donít want him to target you, as well."

Travis frowned. "Whatís Amanda have to do with the ranch? I know she lives there, butÖ?" He looked at the blonde woman apologetically. "Iím sorry, honey. I didnít mean any offense."

"None taken," she smiled. "Lex gave me power of attorney over her, and all of her holdings. Including the ranch." Amanda snuggled a little closer to her friend. "Talk about surprised. You could have knocked me over with a feather."

Lex fought the urge to kiss the blonde head under her chin. "I just wanted to make sure that if anything happened to me, Amanda and Martha would be taken care of." A silent message passed between her and Travis. That goes for you too, now. Iíll do whatever it takes to protect my family.

Iíll make sure of that, Lexie, he vowed wordlessly. I wasnít there for you when you were growing up, but Iíll damn sure be here for you now.

 

Chapter 4

Lex was fuming. They had to cut their trip short, and she was driving the truck back to the ranch silently. She gently rebuffed her partnerís attempts at drawing her out of her bad mood, more than happy to sit and stew over Hubertís latest scheme. She gripped the steering wheel tighter as she thought back to the conversation with Martha.

"Lexie! Iím really sorry to bother you, but Charlieís here, and heÖ" Martha rambled breathlessly.

The rancher laughed. "Yíall arenít planning on eloping, are you?" She dropped heavily onto the bed in the guestroom. Amanda crawled up behind her and began to massage her neck gently. "MmmÖ"

Martha shook her head, then realized that Lex couldnít see her. "No! I meanÖ" she sputtered. "Oh, Lexie! You stop that!" The housekeeper released a dramatic breath. "Heís here on official business, honey."

"Whatís wrong?" Lex jumped to her feet, causing Amanda to almost tumble to the floor. "Are you okay? Has something happened at the ranch? I knew I should have never left you there alone..."

"Iím fine, honey. Judge Packer issued a subpoena, and youíre supposed to appear in his court tomorrow morning. Itís about the lawsuit that HubertÖ" she was interrupted by an explosive curse.

"That sorry SON OF A BITCH!" Lex yelled, as she paced back and forth beside the bed. "I swear Iím gonna wring his worthless neck once and for all!"

Martha pulled the phone away from her ear. She rolled her eyes and spoke sternly into the handset. "Lexington Marie! You watch your language!" She knew that the only way to calm the irate woman was to chastise her, and she wasnít disappointed.

Lex stopped her pacing, as a wave of shame washed over her. "Iím sorry, MadaÖI didnít mean to upset you." She sat back down wearily, propping her elbow on one knee and cradling her head with her hand.

"I know you didnít, honey. But I hate to see you get all worked up like that Ė itís not good for you." Martha leaned back into Charlieís strong embrace. "I donít understand why the short notice on the subpoena, though. I thought that those types of things usually took a while."

"Itís too cold to play golf, so Iím betting the judge is just bored. Or maybe he doesnít want to put up with Hubert and his buddy any longer than necessary." Lex closed her eyes when Amanda sat down behind her again and wrapped her arms around her. "Weíll be on our way back in the next hour or so, Mada. Should be home by the early evening."

The housekeeper paused for a moment. "Are you okay? You sound so tired, honey." She wracked her brain for a solution. "Maybe Charlie can talk to Judge Packer and postpone things for a day or two. You went out to the cemetery today, didnít you?"

"Yes, maíam. We were on our way back when you called earlier. But Iím fine, really. Iíll let Amanda drive if I get too tired." Lex felt an answering rub on her stomach, where the blondeís hands rested. "Tell Charlie that he doesnít have to wait up for us Ė consider me served. I donít want him to get into any troubleÖOH!" She grinned happily. "UmmÖcould you please fix up the new guestroom again? Weíre bringing someone back with us for a while."

"Mr. Edwards? Thatís wonderful, honey. Iíll make sure that itís all ready for him this evening." Martha turned slightly and smiled at her fiancť. "Donít worry, Lexie. Weíll take care of everything."

"Lex?" Amanda reached over and squeezed her loverís shoulder. She saw the faraway look fade as the blue eyes turned to study her. "It wonít help, you know."

"What?" Lex began to smile at the look on her friendís face. Sheís just so damn cute. When she noticed the blondeís lips moving, she shook her head. "Huh?"

Amanda wrinkled her brow. "I said, that thinking about Hubert wonít help matters any." She reached up and felt of Lexís forehead. "Are you feeling all right? Youíre not coming down with something, are you?"

From the back seat, Travis watched the interaction between the two women. He chuckled to himself at the way the blonde treated his granddaughter. Poor Lexie doesnít stand a chance.

Lex captured the hand on her forehead and pulled it to her lips, kissing it gently. "Iím just fine, sweetheart. Donít worry so much." She looked into the rearview mirror at the smiling man. "Whatís so funny, Grandpa?"

"You two." Travis leaned up to place a hand on each womanís shoulder. "Amanda, you remind me so much of my Lanie." He looked at the woman driving the truck. "She wouldnít let me get away with anything, either."

"What did you do about it?" Blue eyes twinkled in the mirror, waiting for his answer.

Travis laughed. "I sat back, grinned, and enjoyed the ride." He studied the face in the mirror carefully. She looks completely worn out. But I bet she wonít stop just because of that. "Lexie?"

She turned her head slightly. "Yes, sir?" Old habits died hard. Martha had taught Lex well.

"You think that we could stop for a few minutes? Iíd like to stretch my legs." Travis could almost hear his late wifeís gentle laughter. I know, my loveÖbut itís for her own good.

"Sure, Grandpa. You should have said something sooner." Lex looked at Amanda, who shrugged. "Do you have enough legroom back there?"

Amanda turned around in her seat. "Youíre more than welcome to sit up here." She gave him a stern look. "Like I offered before we started back."

He raised his hands in defeat. "NoÖnoÖIím perfectly comfortable back here. Just need to stretch for a few minutes."

Lex did not look convinced. "Uh-huh. Whatever you say, Grandpa." She exchanged glances with her partner, who shrugged. "Thereís a small town about two miles ahead." The dark-haired woman yawned, then cursed inwardly. I used to have more stamina than this. Damn! "I could use a break myself." She missed the look exchanged between her two companions as she fought off a yawn.

Travis patted his granddaughter on the shoulder. "Thanks, Lexie. Sorry to be such a bother Ė I know that youíre ready to get home."

"Youíre not a bother. I needed to fill the truck up, anyway." She steered the truck into a well-lit shopping center. It not only had a fast food restaurant, but a large convenience store as well. "This looks like a good place. You two want to grab some munchies, or a burger?" Lex stopped beside a gas pump and opened the door.

Amanda wrinkled her nose. "UmmÖI think Iíll see if they have some fresh fruit, or something." She closed her door and reached for Travisí hand. "Wanna help me?"

"Sure." He accepted her hand and looked over the hood of the truck. "Do you want us to get you anything, honey?"

Lex yawned again as she began to clean the windows, while the vehicle filled with fuel. "I think I could use a cup of coffee, Grandpa. If you two donít mindÖand maybe some Buttercups?" The vanilla pastry was a favorite of the rancherís Ė it was yellow cake with white creamy filling, and a buttery frosting on top.

"All right," Amanda acquiesced, but rolled her eyes. She pulled the older man through the doors of the convenience store, mumbling under her breath. "I swear sheís gonna turn into a blasted Buttercup if she continues to eat them all the darn time."

A short time later, Lex was sitting in the back seat of the truck, her arms crossed over her chest. "I canít believe you did that," she grumbled, a near-pout on her tired face.

The blonde looked into the mirror and stifled a giggle. She looks so darn cute when she pouts like that.

"Donít blame Amanda. It was my idea." Travis turned in the front passenger seat so that he could look at his upset granddaughter. They had waited until Lex was finished with the truck, and both climbed into the front seats when she went inside to wash her hands. "Is it so wrong for us to want you to get a little rest? Just lean back and relax, Lexie. Iíll wake you when we get to the ranch."

Lex sighed heavily. Grow up, Lexington. Quit upsetting your grandfather. She could almost hear Marthaís stern voice admonishing her. "Well, I could use a little nap," she acknowledged, as she smiled at the older man. "Sorry Ďbout that, Grandpa." The rancher closed her eyes, but not before she winked at the green eyes watching her in the rear view mirror.

***************

The day dawned bright but bitterly cold, as a strong north wind howled through the bare trees surrounding the ranch house. Amanda stood at the French doors in the master bedroom, trembling slightly when the high winds rattled the glass. Warm hands on her shoulders caused the blonde to jump slightly. "Oh!"

"Sorry, love. I didnít mean to scare you." Lexís low voice tickled her ear. "Whatcha looking at?" She peeked over the smaller womanís head.

"Nothing in particular." Amanda turned around and snuggled into the welcoming arms. "It even looks cold out there."

Lex chuckled and led her friend away from the glass and towards the fireplace. "I know. And I can think of a lot better things to do, than to drive into town and fight with Hubert and his cronies." She sat down on an oversized chair, pulling Amanda easily into her lap.

Amanda spun around and wrapped her arms around the rancherís neck. "Me too. Are you sure that you donít want me to go with you?" She looked deeply into the blue eyes that were so close to her. "I donít like the idea of you having to go there alone."

"I wonít be alone, sweetheart. Melís going to be there." Melvin Taft was the grandson of her familyís lawyer. He had passed the bar a couple of years ago. Because of his age, and the way the small town worked, he was having trouble getting new business. Lex had known him for years, and because of his integrity and good nature, had decided to retain the earnest young man as her counsel.

"Iím sure Mr. Taft will do his best, honey. But donít you think that youíll need some moral support?" Amanda was afraid that without someone there to keep her calm, Lex would lose her temper with her brother and get into serious trouble. "We can start on the Christmas decorations when we get back."

"NoÖIíll be fine." Lex pulled the younger woman close and began to gently nibble on her neck. She paused for a moment and grinned. "Besides, Martha is all excited about the decorating this year. It would be a shame to tell her sheíll have to postpone it." The housekeeper was more than thrilled with Amandaís living at the ranch. She had commented last night about how excited she was that someone would help with the decorations, and not grumble all day about it. And Iíve got to pick up someone while Iím thereÖno use in ruining a good surprise.

The blonde sighed and rested her forehead on Lexís shoulder. "I hate it when youíre right." Amanda gasped when a callused hand reached inside her shirt and began to tickle her ribs. "Hey!"

Lex stopped tickling, and removed her hand regretfully. "Thatís better." She nodded at the smile her partner now wore. "Unfortunately, I need to get going." She stood up, carrying Amanda with her. Strong legs wrapped around her waist, trapping Lex in place. "Itís gonna be kinda hard to drive like this, love," she teased. "And weíll probably end up falling down the stairs."

"Oh, okay." Amanda relented, releasing the hold her legs had on the rancher. She kept her arms wrapped around the taller womanís neck. "Iím gonna have to start wearing heels, if I want to be able to do this," she joked, trying to keep the emotion out of her voice.

"HeyÖ" Lex looked down at the green eyes as they filled with tears. "What are these for?" She reached down and caught the falling drops with her thumbs.

Amanda sniffled a bit, then blinked. "I donít know. Just being silly, I guess." She didnít want Lex to leave her sight, even for a few hours. "Be really careful, all right? And try to stay calm?" She pulled her hands away from the rancherís neck and stroked the tan cheeks gently. "I just have this awful feeling, Lex. Something just doesnít feel right about this whole thing."

The rancher smiled. "Itís just a hearing, to see if they have a case. Iíll probably be back before lunch Ė thereís nothing to worry about." Lex leaned down and covered Amandaís lips with her own. When they broke apart she whispered, "I love you, Amanda."

"I love you, too." Amanda rubbed her face against the taller womanís shirt, inhaling Lexís scent happily. She opened her eyes and looked up. "Is this a new one?" The heavy cotton maroon shirt was crisply ironed, and looked as if it had never been worn.

"Not exactly. But Martha told me that I wasnít going to meet with the judge looking like a common cowhand." Lex self-consciously stepped back and ran her hands down the front of her pants.

Amanda blinked, not sure of what her eyes were telling her. Lex is wearingÖslacks? Wow. She stood staring for a long moment, until the rancher waved a hand in front of her face. "UmmÖ"

Lex blushed, then ran a nervous hand through her hair. "I knowÖI feel ridiculous." She brushed the top of her thighs with her hands again. The black dress slacks were also made from heavy cotton, and fit her long legs very well. Even her black boots were polished to a high shine. "I hate trying to look like something Iím not. But Martha was really insistent that I show respect to the court, and said that my normal clothes wouldnít do that."

"You look great, Lex." Amanda stepped closer and wrapped her arms around the slim waist. She leaned up and whispered into her loverís ear. "Good enough to eat," and bit down gently on Lexís earlobe.

A surge of desire ran through Lexís body, and she felt her legs go weak as the younger woman continued to nibble on her neck. She was only able to stay on her feet by grabbing Amandaís hips and hanging onto them tightly. "Whoa." She chuckled and shook her head. "I canít believe how easily you can do that to me." Lex took a deep breath and backed up slightly. She grasped her partnerís hand and led her from the room.

***************

She had barely gotten through the door of the small courthouse when someone rushed up and grabbed her arm. Lex looked down at the dark headed man, who was several inches shorter than she was. "Hello, Mel. Been a while, hasnít it?" The rancher smiled at the frantic look on his face. "You need to slow down, before you fall down."

"Sorry, Lexington. Iíve just come from a meeting with your brotherís counsel. Not a lot of fun." He released her arm and held out his hand. "Itís good to see you, too. Thanks for giving me a chance." Melvin Taft shook his head. "Although, from what I can see, thereís not much work for me to do. This whole thing is a sham." He led her to a small office off the main corridor.

"I figured as much. Iím guessing that my lazy brother is probably low on money, thatís why the sudden interest in the ranch." Lex sat down at the offered chair, and stretched her legs out in front of her. "Howís your grandfather feeling? I heard that he was allowed to go home last week."

Mel smiled. "Heís ornery as ever. Wanted to send his thanks for the flowers, and told me to give you a big hug and kiss from him." The attorney blushed and looked down at the desk. "The way heís acting, youíd never think that he just had a quadruple-bypass." He picked an imaginary piece of lint from the cuff of his dark gray suit. "He also threatened me with a whipping if your case went any further today."

Lex laughed. "Sounds like Ronald. Heís a tough old bird, thatís for sure." She sat up and leaned forward. "Just what kind of case does Hubert have? I got a copy of the lawsuit brought out to the ranch, and it looked pretty harmless to me." Her mind knew that this was a waste of time, but Lexís churning stomach said something else entirely.

"It is. Judge Packer is a stubborn old guy, though. He will probably drag the entire mess out, just because he doesnít have anything better to do." Mel sighed. "And heís not real fond of my family, either. So Iím afraid that I could be a strike against you, Lexington."

"Maybe. But Iíll take my chances." Lex consulted the expensive watch on her left wrist. She stood up and brushed off the front of her slacks. "Itís about time to get this thing started, isnít it?"

The counselor picked up his briefcase and stood as well. "Yeah. Donít want to keep the old guy waiting. I hear that he once held an entire courtroom in contempt because HE was late, and everyone else was a little impatient." He allowed the tall woman to step into the hallway ahead of him, and they made their way to one of the three courtrooms. He was about to open the door, when a nasal voice from behind stopped him.

"ĎBout time you showed up, little sister." Hubert stood next to a middle-aged man, whose face was blotchy from alcohol abuse. "I was beginning to think that you wouldnít show up."

"Hello, Hubert." Lex turned and quietly studied her brother. He was wearing a very expensive suit, but the jacket was straining at the buttons to cover his growing beer belly. I canít believe this ass is related to me. She looked pointedly at his stomach, then smiled. "Maybe you should spend less time in the bars, and more time at the gym."

The big man lunged forward and grabbed her jacket lapels. "Bitch! I ought toÖ"

"Take it easy, Hubert. Sheíll get whatís coming to her." His lawyer pulled ineffectually at his own pants, trying to raise them over his equally large stomach. He reached over and grabbed his clientís shoulder, then offered his hand to Lex. "Iím Kirk Trumbull. Donít think weíve ever met."

Lex shook the sweaty hand, and then wiped her hand with a tissue she pulled from her pocket. "Probably not. I donít run in the same social circles as Hube." She smiled sweetly at her brotherís reddened face. Oooh..good one, Lexington. That really pissed him off. The door behind her opened, and an old man in a uniform stood somberly by.

"Howdy, folks. Theyíre remodeling the judgeís chambers, so he said weíll just take care of business in the courtroom." The bent elderly man pulled the door open wider, and waved Lex inside. "After you, miss."

The foursome had been sitting at their assigned tables for almost an hour, while Judge Packer read the lawsuit. Hubert and his lawyer both looked hot and sweaty, while Melvin scribbled notes and shuffled through papers rapidly. Lex sat quietly at the table with him, trying her best to stay awake.

GodÖthis is worse than being at the doctorís office. Why didnít the judge read the damn papers BEFORE we got here? She sighed again.

Mel looked up from his notes and smiled. "Itís okay. He probably just wants to reacquaint himself with the documents." He glanced over at the other table, where both men were loosening their ties. "They look really uncomfortable."

"HehÖGood." Lex smiled back. She could feel eyes staring at her, and looked up to see the judge studying her intently. I hope this means weíre about to get this mess started. Iíve got to get over and pick up Amandaís Ďsurpriseí soon.

Judge William Packer had been covertly watching both parties for the past ten minutes. He was amused to see that the plaintiff squirmed in his seat constantly, and his attorney didnít fare much better. Glad I had old Charles turn up the heat a bit Ė serves them right for bringing this nonsense into my court. He shook his head at the wording on the document in front of him. Iíve seen first year law students write better than this. Wasting my time, and the resources of the county. I ought to have those two fools locked up. He looked over at the young woman sitting at the other table. She looks so much like her mother. That could have been my granddaughter, if things had turned out differently.

Victoria Edwards had been the childhood sweetheart of his son, Timothy. They had even talked about getting married as soon as he got leave from the army. The young man had enlisted days before he graduated from high school, and Victoria had promised to wait for him. She was only seventeen, and he eighteen, when Timothy was killed in Vietnam. Judge Packer and his wife were devastated by the loss, and retreated from any contact with their sonís fianceeí. He had read in the paper a couple of years later when Victoria married Rawson Walters, and grieved again for what was to never be.

Looks like that oneís his fatherís son. He takes after Victoria in looks, but his attitude is all Rawson. Itís a shame. The judge was up on most of the town gossip, and knew that this was just another poor attempt from Hubert to hurt his younger sister. Poor Victoria is probably looking down on all of this, upset as anything. She was always such a sweet girl. He banged his gavel on the desk, causing four sets of eyes to cut in his direction. "All right. Letís get this show on the road."

Hubert jumped, and sat up a little straighter in his chair. "Finally. Thought weíd have to read the papers out loud for the old coot," he mumbled to his buddy, who chuckled slightly.

"Shh. Donít piss off the judge," Kirk admonished.

"Something you gentlemen want to say to the court?" The judge glared at the two men.

Lex fought to keep the grin from her face. Oooh. This might turn out to be fun, after all. She sat up and took a deep breath.

Judge Packer pulled his wire-framed glasses from his face and rubbed his eyes with one hand. "Mr. Trumbull, I assume youíre responsible for the contents of the document that is here in front of me?"

He stood and nodded. "I am, Your Honor. My clientÖ"

"Sit down. I didnít ask for a dissertation, just a simple yes or no." He glanced over at Lex, who smiled slightly in reflex. "Young lady, could you step up here, so I donít have to holler across the room? Iíd like to ask you a few questions."

Lex looked at Melvin, who shrugged and then nodded. "Yes, sir." She stood up and crossed the room, wincing at how loud her boots sounded on the tile floor.

He smiled. Spitting image of her mother. "This is just an informal hearing, but Iíd appreciate it if you would tell the truth, just as if you were under oath."

"Yes, Your Honor. I have no reason to lie." Lex gave her brother a dirty look once she was seated in the chair next to the judge. "Iím sorry that certain people have brought family business into your courtroom, instead of keeping it private."

Hubert snorted. "Bitch," he grumbled under his breath. He looked away when the judge gave him an evil glare.

"You understand the conditions of the agreement you signed eleven years ago, donít you?" Judge Packer studied her face carefully, to see how she would react.

Lex nodded. "Yes, sirÖI read it through completely before signing it." She felt a knot of apprehension tighten in her stomach. Iíll give the ranch to charity before I see Hubert running it. And NOTHING is more important to me than Amanda Ė Iíll gladly give everything up for her.

The kindly older man patted her arm where it rested on the chair. "Good. Your brother claims that youíve broken one of the conditions of the contract Ė specifically the morals clause." Like he has room to talk. Judge Packer saw the fear and pain reflect in her eyes. Itís a ridiculous clause, but legally binding. UnlessÖ"Do you have a man living with you, young lady?"

"No! UmmÖwell, my grandfather is staying with me for a while, if thatís what you mean." Lex saw a twinkle in the judgeís eye. What are you up to, you sly old devil?

"Sheís full of shit! That little harlotís living there, and theyíreÖ" Hubert stood up and pointed an accusing finger at his sister.

The judge banged his gavel on the desk. "Enough! Sit down, Mr. Walters, or Iíll have you removed!" He looked back at Lex, whose hands were white where they were gripping the arms of the chair. "Thereís a young woman staying with you?"

Lex swallowed heavily. "Yes, sir. Amanda Cauble has been living at the ranch for almost two months, now." Here it comesÖoh, god. I donít think I can handle this.

"Isnít she Jacob and Anna Leighís granddaughter?" At Lexís nod, he continued. "I believe I met her at a party they had a couple of years ago. Sweet girl." He put his glasses back on and gathered the papers up. "I see no validity in the charges, so I have no recourse but to dismiss this case."

Hubert jumped to his feet again. "Wait just a goddamned minute! Sheís living in sin Ė she practically admitted it! That voids the whole agreement, and the ranch is rightfully mine!"

Lex was about to argue when the judge shook his head. "The contract stated, Ďliving with another individual without benefit of matrimony.í Unless the law has changed since we stepped into this room, same-sex marriages are not recognized in the state of Texas. So, since two people of the same sex cannot be legally married, they cannot be condemned for NOT being married." He looked at Lex with a smile. "Give my best to your friend, Lexington. And tell your grandfather I said hello."

"I sure will, Your Honor. Thank you." Lex stood up and held out her hand. She smiled at the firm handshake she received, before the judge stepped down and left the room.

"This isnít over, you arrogant bitch! Iíll get whatís rightfully mine, one way or the other!" Hubert grabbed Lexís arm as she walked by his table to leave.

The bailiff started over, but Lex waved him off. I donít want to get any innocent people hurt, here. "Let go of me, Hubert. Iím not in the mood to kick your ass this morning." She grabbed his hand and bent his fingers back painfully. But then again, Hubert is anything but innocent! Ass!

He pulled his hand away with a muttered curse. "I shoulda finished you off years ago Ė then I wouldnít have this damn problem."

"You talk real brave, Hubert. But then again, you never did have any balls, did you? Back off, big brother. I still have the paperwork from the bank." Lex wouldnít feel right to turn in her only living brother for embezzling ranch funds, but he didnít have to know that. She pushed by him and left the courtroom, almost flinching at the hatred that was aimed at her back from Hubert.

***************

"Iím really glad that you agreed to join us for Christmas. Amanda is going to be so surprised." Lex almost laughed out loud when she thought of the look that would be on her loverís face. This is going to be priceless! I canít wait to see her face!

The man sitting next to her did laugh. "When I got your letter, I almost fell out of my chair! I havenít seen her in so long, and as much as I hate to admit it Ė sheís always been my favorite." He looked at the passing scenery with interest. "You really live out in the boonies, donít you?"

Lex looked around, then shrugged. "I guess. Never really thought about it much."

"I didnít mean anything by it, Lex. Just surprised that Amanda is living so far away from everything." He reached over tentatively and touched her arm. "Is she happy?"

"I hope so," Lex murmured. "I think she is." She thought about his earlier comment. "Why does it surprise you that Amanda lives out here with me?"

He bit his lip in contemplation. "Well, itís not because of you, but more of where you live. Sheís always been the type who needs a lot of people around. I was rather shocked to hear that she left Los Angeles for Somerville." He saw the concern race across the tall womanís face. "But, maybe she doesnít need the big city anymore."

Blue eyes met his for a moment, then turned back towards the road. "Why do you say that?"

"Because, just from what little I heard earlier today, sheís finally got a real home." He took a nervous breath when the truck came upon the old covered bridge. SoÖthis is it, huh? "Can we stop here, just for a moment? Iíd really like to see something." Even after they told me about it, I still need to see where it happened, to make it real in my mind. Poor Amanda Ė what she must have gone through.

"Sure." Lex shrugged. She pulled the large vehicle to a stop just before it reached the wooden structure.

He opened his door and jumped out, hurrying to the edge of the creek. "Oh, my god." The water was running fairly steadily from the earlier rain, and it reached over halfway up the banks. A strong hand on his shoulder caused him to jump. "This is whereÖ?" he asked the somber figure beside him.

Lex nodded. "Yeah." She pointed upstream. "A big tree came barreling down the creek, and took out the center of the bridge." She swung her arm around the opposite way, towards the far bank. "I was over there, repairing some downed fence, when I saw her headlights. The car was dumped in the water, and ended up down there." Lex put her hands in the pockets of her duster and exhaled heavily. "I pulled her out, then took her back to my house." She watched as the older man shivered from a strong blast of cold wind. "CímonÖI donít want to get blamed for you getting pneumonia."

"Okay." He followed her back to the truck. "Thanks for humoring me." Once they were inside, he grabbed her hand. "And thank you for what you did for Amanda. She means a lot to me, even though we havenít had much contact in the past few years."

"Youíre welcome. Although I think sheís the one whoís saved me," Lex finished quietly. She started up the truck and drove over the bridge, deep in thought.

***************

Amanda was sitting in the den, laughing over another humorous story from Travis. "And she didnít get in trouble for that?" she asked, wiping tears of mirth from her eyes. They had sat down to relax after getting the Christmas decorations out of the storage room. Martha had decided to wait until Lex returned from town, before she started with the decorations, so that the family would all be together.

"No. I had the hardest time trying to discipline the little thing. Sheíd do something that she knew was wrong, and then look up at me with those big blue eyes. Iíd melt every time." Travis leaned back in the chair by the fireplace and shook his head. "Lanie was always getting on me about that, too." He smiled when the young woman jumped to her feet suddenly.

"Lex is back!" She raced over to the front window and peeked out. "Darn! She pulled the truck around to the side, already." Amanda heard a chuckle and turned around.

Travis had a large grin on his face. "Go onÖmeet her at the front door, honey."

She blushed, but nodded. "Thanks, I will!" Amanda made her way to the front door quickly. She heard bootsteps on the porch, and swung open the door widely. "Hi! Iím so glad to seeÖ" her greeting died on her lips when she saw who was standing in front of her lover. "Uncle Morris?"

"In the flesh, Cutiepie!" Morris stepped forward and embraced his niece happily. "Merry Christmas!"


Chapter 5

The week before Christmas passed quickly while Amanda reacquainted herself with her favorite uncle. Morris was full of funny stories from her childhood, which embarrassed his niece, but endeared him to the quiet rancher. His partner Kevin arrived two days after him and both men proved to be quite helpful around the ranch.

"You really donít have to help, you know," Lex told the redheaded man for the third time that morning. "We consider you and Kevin guests." She tossed another bale of hay into the back of the old blue truck.

Morris laughed and dropped his bale beside hers. "Are you kidding? Iím stuck in an office all day with only animals for company. This is wonderful!" He had quickly become quite fond of his nieceís choice of partners. Although she didnít say much, when he did get Lex to open up and talk, he found the tall woman to be highly intelligent and very amusing. They certainly do make a cute couple.

Lex put her hands on the small of her back and stretched against them. "Well, okay. I do appreciate all the help. Just didnít want you to feel like you had to work."

"I understand. But weíre not the types to just sit around while everyone else is busy." He watched as the younger woman stretched and grimaced. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah. Just a little stiff." Lex waved off his concern and jumped over the side of the truck. She buttoned up the heavy duster she was wearing and smiled up at him. "Well? You coming with me, or do you want to ride in the back?"

He shook his head and followed her lead. "Oh, noÖthatís okay. I may live in Boston, but that doesnít mean that I actually LIKE cold weather." Morris climbed into the cab of the truck and shivered. "Almost makes me homesick, as cold as it is."

The dark-haired woman chuckled and started the old vehicle. "I know what you mean. I donít remember it ever getting this cold here before." Lex pulled her hat down lower and sighed. "At least the barn blocked most of the wind Ė Iím not looking forward to feeding the stock out in the cold this morning." I almost wish it would snowÖat least then it wouldnít be so bitterly cold. The thought of snow brought a smile to Lexís face. Her lover was talking just last night about having a white Christmas. She looked so cute. I wonder what Amanda is doing right now?

***************

"See anything interesting?" Michael stood behind his daughter and looked over her shoulder. He had driven in from town a little while ago, determined to give Lex and Amanda their Christmas gift from him early.

Amanda was staring out the kitchen window, the coffee mug in her hand forgotten. She turned her head slightly and smiled. "Not yet. But theyíve only been gone for about an hour." The blonde allowed her father to lead her from the window to an empty chair at the table. "Whereís Kevin?" The rugged, muscular companion of her uncleís quickly found a place in her heart. With his dark blonde hair and smiling blue eyes, the large man looked more like a Greek god than a chiropractor.

Michael sat down next to his daughter. "Martha has enlisted him in setting up the dining area." He shook his head ruefully. "I honestly donít remember him being that big. The man looks like a weight-lifter." He had a vague memory of Kevin the last time that he had seen Morris. Amandaís high school graduation Ė that was a mess.

They had been sitting in the noisy auditorium for over two hours, and Elizabeth had done nothing but complain. She fanned herself with her program, and released a heavy sigh every few minutes.

"I swearÖthis is absolutely ridiculous! Our daughter received her diploma half an hour ago. Why must we sit here for people that we donít even know?" She glared at her husband, who was pointedly ignoring her. "Itís bad enough that she invited half the damn country to this, but to be sequestered on the other side of the room from my family is completely unacceptable." The petite woman poked him in the shoulder. "Have you heard a word Iíve said?"

Michael turned slightly to look at his wife. "Iíd have to be dead not to have heard you, Elizabeth. Now be quiet. Youíre making a scene." He noticed that the people around them tried to ignore her as well. A quick glance to the other side of his wife showed his oldest daughter stifling a giggle. He gave her a stern look and she covered her mouth with her hand.

"Sorry, Daddy," Jeannie whispered, and then turned to the handsome young man sitting on the other side of her. She and Frank Rivers had announced their engagement a few months earlier, and had been practically inseparable ever since.

A short time later, the ceremony was over, and everyone crowded out to the front lawn to find his or her graduate and chat. Michael kept a light hand on the small of his wifeís back as he escorted her through the thongs of people. He finally spotted his youngest daughter near a small crowd, most of whom he recognized as his and Elizabethís families.

"Daddy!" Amanda waved excitedly, standing on her tiptoes to see over the group. Her large smile was infectious, and the people making their way towards her began to smile as well.

"Hello, honey." Michael barely got his arms up in time to catch the young blonde, who came rushing at him and wrapped her arms around his neck. He looked over her shoulder at the people left standing behind her: his parents, several other young people in the dark blue caps and gowns, and Elizabethís side of the family.

The Kingstonís were well represented by the three siblings of his wifeís. Paula Kingston-McAffee: at fifty she was the oldest, but most affluent of the group. Her regal bearing and quiet demeanor hid a sharp wit and even sharper tongue, and she had buried more husbands than the rest of the family combined. Standing next to her with a bored look on her face was Christina Kingston, formerly Marsh. Forty-two years old, she was a shorter version of Paula, but without the self-confidence her older sister exuded. The quietest and shyest of the Kingstons, Christina had just recently been through a nasty divorce Ė after finding her husband in bed with the pool boy. She was staring at the last Kingston family member with trepidation. Morris Kingston was the youngest member of the family at thirty-five, and had always been considered the black sheep of the family. He had eschewed the family ideal of corporate business, instead entering the field of medicine. Veterinarian medicine, to be exact. Morris was not a big man Ė in fact, he was shorter than two of his sisters were, and his bright red hair and freckles kept him from looking anything like the others.

Standing next to Morris was a tall, well built man. Dark blonde hair that almost came to his shoulders and clear blue eyes gave him the appearance of a muscular surfer. Kevin Southerland was originally from Wisconsin, but had met the easygoing vet through a mutual friend in Boston, where his chiropractic practice was located. When he saw the looks he and Morris were getting from the others, he unconsciously moved closer to the smaller man.

"Who in the hell are you?" Elizabeth pushed by everyone and focused her attention on the man standing next to her brother. He must be a deviant, too. Although looking like he does, he could have any woman he wanted. I just donít understand these people. She noticed with complete disgust as her little brother casually slipped his hand into the larger manís. God save me from perverts.

"Heís my partner, Liz. This is Kevin." Morris stood up to his volatile sister. "Please donít cause a scene, not here. Not now." He saw Amanda turn around and release her hold on her father, walking back towards the group.

Elizabeth ignored his pleas and raised her voice. "How dare you bring your sick perversions here on Amandaís special day!" She turned to look at her sisters for support. "Especially after what poor Christinaís been through lately Ė with her husband being as immoral as you are."

"Mother, please." Amanda stepped forward and placed her hand on her motherís arm. "Iím glad Uncle Morris is here." She looked at the tall man next to her uncle. "And Kevin, too. Heís a part of this family, now."

SLAP!

Amanda stood in shock, covering the red handprint on her face with her fingertips. Tears of hurt began to trickle from her eyes, as Jeannie rushed to her aid to stand between her and their mother. Jacob and Anna Leigh Cauble rushed forward as well, one on either side of their granddaughters.

"Dammit, Elizabeth!" Michael stormed forward and grabbed his wifeís arm, pulling her towards him roughly. "What on earth are you doing?" He looked around nervously. "Youíre focusing attention on us!"

She pulled away from him angrily. "Let go of me." Elizabeth pointed an accusing finger at her younger brother. "Get out. Youíre no longer part of our family."

"You donít know what youíre saying, LizÖ" Morris stepped closer, pain reflected in his muddy-green eyes.

"I know exactly what Iím saying. I donít want you, or your sick, perverted friends, anywhere near MY family. Leave now, Morris. Before I have you arrested." Elizabeth turned on her heel to leave. "Michael, weíre leaving now, as well." Her two sisters followed behind, Christina looking back ever so often to see her brother.

"Iím glad that Kevin doesnít seem to hold a grudge," Michael admitted to his daughter. "Between him and Lex, I donít think that there would be anything left of me once they got through."

Amanda laughed. "Oh, Daddy. Lex would never hurt you." Not now, anyway. She decided to change the subject. "So, you ever going to tell me what the big surprise is? Iím dying to know!"

Michael chuckled at his daughterís insistence. "Sorry, honey. Itís something for you and for Lex, so Iíd like to wait until she gets back and tell you both at the same time."

"Well, hopefully she wonít be much longer. With Uncle Morris helping, it should take a lot less time to feed the stock." Amanda stood up again and walked back over towards the window. "I hate for her to be out in this cold any more than necessary."

***************

Lex looked over at Morris, whose face was bright red from prolonged exposure to the biting wind. "Why donít you stay in the truck, and Iíll finish up this last bit? No sense in you getting sick." They were parked at the edge of a large stand of trees, which the hungry cattle and horses were using to block the wind.

"Nah. If we both work on it, weíll be out of here in a couple of minutes." Morris opened his door and climbed out. "Whew! That wind certainly takes your breath away, doesnít it?"

"Sure does." Lex jumped up into the back of the truck and started tossing bales over the side. "Iíd practically kill for a nice hot cup of coffee right about now." A loud crack and a fast whine over her head caused her to spin around. "What in the hell?"

Morris walked back over to the truck. "Was that what I think it was?"

CRACK!

Lex jumped over the side of the truck and tackled the older man to the ground, rolling them both closer to the vehicle. "Damn!" She slowly rose up and looked over the back of the bed. Nothing. Who in the hell is shooting, and are they shooting at us? She felt a gloved hand grab her arm and pull her back down.

"Are you crazy? Get down before they get another shot off." Morris released her arm when the blue eyes glared at him. "Donít give me that look. Iím not going to try and explain to my niece why someone put a bullet in you while I stood by and watched."

"Damn." Lex shook her head. "You two are definitely related, you know that?" She reached into her coat pocket and sighed.

He looked at her with concern. "Whatís the matter? Are you okay?" Morris searched her body with his eyes.

"Iím fine. But I think I left the radio in the front of the truck." Lex started crawling for the passenger door. A strong grip on the calf of her leg stopped her. "We need the radio, Morris."

CRACK!

Lex shook off the hand and continued her trek. "Stay down, Iíll be right back." Once she reached the door, she opened it slowly. So far, so good. She looked up and saw the handheld radio that Amanda had given her that morning sitting on the dashÖon the other side of the truck. Great. She opened the door further and began to climb across the ragged bench seat.

CRACK!

PING!

A bullet went through the windshield and continued through the back window.

"Shit!" Lex grabbed the radio and crammed it into her coat pocket, scooting backwards out of the truck. She dropped to the ground and scurried back to where Morris was leaning against the back tire. "You okay?"

He nodded. "YesÖother than being scared for you. Did I hear glass breaking?"

Lex sighed. "Yeah. A bullet went through the windshield. But at least I got the radio." She fished the small device out of her pocket and thrust it at the nervous man. "Here. Try to contact the house."

"Okay." Morris looked at the young woman who had a grim look on her face. "What are you going to do?" I donít think Iím going to like her answer.

"Iím gonna find out whoís out there, and why theyíre shooting at us." Lex started to crawl away but was stopped when Morris grabbed the shoulder of her jacket. "What?"

Morris shook his head. "Donít be foolish, Lex! If you leave here, youíll be a perfect target!" Fear for the calm young woman made his voice tremble. "Letís just sit tight and call for help."

She gently pried his hand away from her shoulder. "If they are after us, help wonít get here in time." She took off her hat and handed it to Morris. "Raise this above the truck every few minutes so that theyíll think Iím still here." Lex patted his arm and took a deep breath. "See you in a bit. Iím just going to try to find out what weíre up against." She left the safety of the truck and dashed into the nearby trees before Morris could stop her.

He watched as her tall figure cut through the thick trees, dodging the small brush with ease. Morris had put the small radio to his lips and called for the main house. "This is Morris. Can anyone hear me?" Suddenly another shot rang out. Just at the end of his sight, he looked on in horror as the lanky rancher fell face first into the undergrowth gracelessly. "God, no!"

***************

Martha was straightening up the den when she heard the squawk of the radio. "What on earthÖ?" She walked into the room and picked up the mike. "Main house, this is MarthaÖgo ahead."

"This is Morris. Can anyone hear me?"

She looked quizzically at the microphone and then shook her head. "I hear you just fine, honey. Whatís the matter?"

Dead silence was her only answer.

"Morris? Are you there?" She looked up as Kevin walked into the room. "Hi, Kevin. Could you go get Amanda for me, please?" Martha had a feeling that something just wasnít right. When she still didnít get any response from the man on the radio, she reached for the phone on the desk.

Amanda came rushing into the room, with Kevin and Michael closely behind. "Whatís up, Martha? Kevin said you wanted to see me?"

The housekeeper raised one hand to silence the younger woman while she was on the phone. "Charlie? Iím sorry to bother you at work, but I was wondering when youíre coming out to the ranch?"

"Whatís happening, sweetheart?" Michael murmured, as he placed his hands on his daughterís shoulders.

"Iím not sure," Amanda answered quietly, so as not to disturb the housekeeper.

Martha smiled. "Youíre just about to leave? Thatís great!" She listened for a moment. "No, nothingÖwell, to tell you the truth, Iím a little worried." The housekeeper looked at the others standing by the doorway. "I had received a call from Morris on the radio earlier, and now I canít seem to reach him."

Kevin started to surge forward, but Amandaís hand on his arm stopped him. "Did she say that Morris radioed in?" he asked the young blonde. "What did he say?"

"Thatís right. He went out with Lexie this morning to feed the stock, since she gave most of the hands the week off for Christmas." Martha held the phone between her ear and shoulder, and was straightening the desk nervously. "NoÖthey probably took the old truck." She looked up and met Amandaís worried eyes. "Right, honey. Okay, Iíll see you in a little bit. Drive carefully. I love you, too." She hung up the phone with a heavy sigh. "Heís on his way."

The tall man stepped up beside the desk. "You said that Morris called in? Did he say what was wrong?" Kevin looked as if her were about to race from the office in search of his partner.

Martha patted his arm. "Calm down, dear. Charlieís probably right. The truck broke down while they were feeding, and Morris was radioing in to let us know."

"If thatís the case, why didnít Lex call? Or why did we lose contact with Uncle Morris?" Amanda could feel the knot of worry begin to fill her stomach.

Michael put an arm around her and pulled her close. "Iím sure everything is just fine. Lex is a very capable woman, you know. Sheís probably trying to get that old clunker started right now."

***************

After seeing Lex fall, Morris dropped the radio into the dirt and began to quickly crawl towards the trees. Please be okayÖI really donít want to face Amanda, otherwise. Once he was in the trees, Morris stood up slowly and looked around. I think she went this way. He looked down ruefully at the hat he still held in his hands. Oh, wellÖ

"Damn," Lex wheezed painfully. She rolled over slowly until she could sit up. Stupid vines. Her boot had gotten caught in the ground covering, and she had been moving too fast to keep herself from falling. She coughed a couple of times and rubbed her stomach. Thank god no one saw that. She lay back down to catch her breath.

Morris continued to slowly make his way though the dense brush. I think that she went down right overÖthere. He broke through the foliage and saw the rancherís prone form. Oh, god. "Lex?" The concerned man stumbled over and fell to his knees next to the still woman.

"Morris?" Lex sat up quickly. "What in the hell are you doing here? I thought I asked you to stay by the truck." She unconsciously rubbed her belly where the breath had been knocked out of her.

"Youíre okay? Thank god!" The older man dropped the hat heíd been carrying and impulsively wrapped his arms around her neck. "I saw you just lying there, and I thought youíd been shot."

Lex laughed. "Shot? Why did you thinkÖ?" She picked up the discarded hat and dropped it back onto her head. That feels a lot better.

He leaned back and looked her over. "I was watching you jog through the trees, when I heard another shot. It was about the same time that I saw you fall forward." Sheís a bit dirty, but looks okay to me.

"UmmÖyeah. I kinda tripped." Lex lowered her head so that her hat hid her face. GeezÖ heís probably laughing his ass off. A gentle touch on the brim of her hat caused the embarrassed rancher to lift her head. Concerned hazel eyes looked back at her.

"Are you all right? That had to be a pretty nasty fall you took." Morris could tell that the younger woman was embarrassed. He watched with concern as she climbed to her feet.

"Yeah, Iím fine. Nothing hurt but my pride." Lex dusted herself off and sighed. "Since youíre here, you can help me."

Morris accepted her outstretched hand and climbed to his feet as well. "Sure. What are we going to do?"

Lex pointed to the west of where they were standing. "The shots were coming from that direction. If weíre real careful, we can circle around behind them and find out why theyíre shooting at us."

"Sounds like a plan. But how do you know itís more than one person?" Morris dusted himself off and buttoned up his jacket.

"Because I heard two different caliber of rifles. Iím hoping thereís only two." Lex explained. "You ready?"

"Lead the way."

They slowly made their way through the trees, careful not to make any loud noise to alert the shooters. After a ten-minute hike, they could hear voices. Lex raised her hand in warning and stopped.

"Sounds like two men," she turned around and whispered to her companion. Lex pointed to the left of their position. "Two stupid men, I think." She grinned at Morris.

Oh, boy. Sheís got that look again. "What are we going to do?"

***************

Charlie raised his hands. "Hold on! Letís calm down and try to talk this out rationally." He was standing in the den, surrounded by the other occupants of the ranch house.

"Talk it out? Weíve got two people that are missing, possibly seriously injured or worse!" Kevin almost shouted. "I think we should organize a search party immediately!" A strangled gasp from Amanda caused him to become silent.

The young blonde was sitting on the sofa, with her father on one side of her and Martha on the other. "We donít know that anythingís wrong, Kevin. The radio could have malfunctioned." Amanda sounded calm, but the look in her eyes showed just how worried she was.

"Thatís right. Lexie has been talking about replacing the whole radio system, because this one is so old. Between that, and that ancient truck she insists on driving everywhere, Iím sure everythingís just fine. Theyíre probably on their way back now." Martha patted the younger womanís hand.

Kevin wasnít so convinced. "They should have been back hours ago. Just how long does it take to feed cattle?" He rubbed his jaw nervously. "I still think we need to go look for them."

"Weíre all concerned, young man." Travis stood up from where he had been sitting. He had been making phone calls upstairs when he heard all the commotion in the den and came down to investigate. "But getting all bent out of shape isnít going to help matters any." And if you upset Amanda any further, family or not, Iíll thump you myself.

"Youíre right." Kevin nodded. He felt his cheeks flush in shame. "Iím sorry about that."

Martha rubbed his arm comfortingly. "Letís just listen to what Charlie has to say, then we can decide something, all right?"

At the big manís nod of agreement, the sheriff released a heavy sigh. "Good." He looked over at Amanda and smiled gently. "Sweetheart, how long does it normally take Lex to feed the cattle?"

"Usually between one and a half, to two hours." Amanda answered quickly. At least I feel like Iím doing something.

"Okay." Charlie nodded, then looked at his watch. "And how long have they actually been gone?"

Kevin checked his watch as well. "I can answer that one. Itís been over three hours so far." He pushed the sleeve of his sweater back down over his watch. "And almost an hour since weíve heard anything from them. Right, Martha?"

"That sounds about right, dear." The housekeeper winked at Charlie. "How about I rustle up some coffee and sandwiches? I think the lack of food is putting everyone a little bit on edge."

Amanda jumped to her feet. "Iíll help you, Martha." She followed the portly woman from the room with a sense of purpose.

"Okay, now that the women are out of the room, just exactly what are you going to do, Sheriff?" Kevin asked.

"Now wait just a damn minute! Those Ďwomení are more capable of handling things than you are! Iím not going to stand here and let you talk about my family that way!" Charlie pointed an angry finger at the younger man. "I know youíre worried, and upset Ė we all are. But thatís no reason to act like this."

Travis put his arm around Kevin and pulled him close. "Whatís say you and I go Ďhelpí in the kitchen? Iíve always enjoyed getting under foot." He led the younger man from the room gently.

Charlie rubbed his face with one hand. "I canít believe I went off on him like that," he mumbled. "I used to have more tolerance."

"You just beat me to it, Charlie." Michael acknowledged ruefully. "Do you really think that theyíre okay?"

"I have to, Michael," the sheriff admitted. "But knowing our Lex, sheís probably showing Morris the time of his life."

***************

After listening to the strangers talk for several minutes, she was able to determine that there were only two men, and they were probably drunk. "You stand behind this tree, and toss rocks and sticks over that way," Lex pointed to the right of where they were hiding. "Iím going to sneak around and see what our two friends are up to."

Morris looked at her with wide eyes. "Youíre kidding me! I hate to break this to you, Lex, but youíre unarmed. And they have BIG guns!" He shivered from the cold, and from the fear that something could happen to his nieceís lover.

She chuckled. "Címon, Morris. You know what they say about the size of menís guns," she teased, enjoying the look of shock on his face.

"You didnít just say that, did you?" he blustered.

Lex almost laughed out loud. He blushes just like AmandaÖcute. "Weíll discuss this more later," she whispered, patting him on the shoulder. "Iíll see you in a little bit." She rushed off into the trees before Morris could say another word.

He looked at the ground around him, and gathered up several good-sized rocks and sticks, placing them in his coat pockets. When he thought that the rancher had enough time to get into position, he took a rock and threw it as far as he could.

"Didya hear that?" One of the men asked his buddy. "Sounded like it came from over there." The overweight man pointed to the left of where they were crouched behind a small bush. He was wearing a green plaid heavily quilted shirt, and a dirty baseball cap that read, ĎBeer Drinkers Make Better Loversí. His denim jeans were dark with old dirt, and he scratched at his several day growth of dark beard and let out a loud belch.

The smaller man next to him waved his hand in front of his face. "Damn, Noel. Either drink another beer, or brush your damn teeth. Shit!" He lifted the can he was drinking from and drained it. His stained hunting jacket may have been a bright color at one time, but by now it was a dirty gray. He was also sporting an old brown cowboy hat that appeared to have spent one too many days out in the elements; the band darkened with long ago sweat.

Noel scratched his protruding belly and belched again. "I canít help it Ė musta been those beans we had for breakfast." He tried to take a drink from his can of beer, but came up empty. "Hand me another one, willya Dan?" Another noise, in the same area, caused him to raise his rifle and shoot. "Damn! Think I got Ďem?"

"I dunno. We ainít seen a deer since earlier this morning." Dan scratched at his crotch and passed a noisy gust of gas. "AhhÖ"

Lex listened to the two men from only ten feet away. GeezÖa couple of morons. At least now I know theyíre not after us. She edged closer to where they were sitting.

"Hey, Noel?" the small man looked in the paper sack that was sitting next to him.

The larger man picked at his nose. "What? Whereís my damn beer?"

Dan wadded up the sack in disgust. "Thatís just it. Weíre out of beer." He tossed the bag over to where the empty cans had been previously discarded.

"Shit! Now we gotta stop hunting long enough to buy more!" Noel slapped at his friendís head.

"I donít think thatís going to be necessary, fellas." Lex stepped out from behind a tree and glared at the two men. "Youíre trespassing on private property."

Noel tried to stand up, but a firm hand on his shoulder knocked him back to the ground. "Just who the hell do you think you are, lady?"

Lex crossed her arms over her chest and frowned. "I happen to own the property that youíre trespassing on, jackass." She held out one hand. "Now hand over the rifles before I have my men cut you down where youíre sitting." Oooh, sounding tough, Lexington. Now you can go home and tell Amanda that all those old movies ARE good for something, after all.

"MÖmÖmen?" Dan practically threw his hunting rifle at the angry woman. "D...donít let Ďem shoot, maíam!" He raised his trembling hands in the air.

"Good man." Lex checked the rifle and then clicked the safety on. She pointed it at the smaller man recklessly. "Pick up all that trash Ė and be quick about it." She glared at the big man. "CímonÖhand it over." The rancher caught the other gun easily.

A rustling nearby almost made them all jump. Morris stepped out of the brush and smiled at Lex. "Looks like youíve got everything under control, here." He dug the remaining rocks and twigs from his pockets and smiled at Lex.

She gave him a bright smile. "Sure do. You want to help me get these boys back to the truck? I think that Uncle Charlie might want to talk to them." She nodded at the still seated man, who growled and stood up.

"I thought you said you had men with you? I only see the one." Noel pulled up his pants, and belched again.

"I lied." Lex grinned, pointing his own gun at him. "Letís get moving. Iím missing my lunch."

Chapter 6

The two would-be poachers had been hauled away by one of Charlieís deputies, and Lex and Morris were comfortably ensconced in front of the fireplace in the den. Amanda was happily curled up with her lover on the sofa, watching as Kevin paced back and forth.

"Are you completely out of your mind?" The large man waved his hands in the air and turned to glare at the rancher. "You both could have been seriously injured, or killed! I canít believe you went traipsing around the woods after who-knows-what kind of people!"

Morris sighed and patted the empty space on the loveseat. "Kevin, please. Sit down before you hurt yourself." He didnít like the look that his lover was getting from the small blonde. Sheís getting ready to blow, and itís not going to be a pretty sight.

Kevin ignored the veterinarianís pleas. " Who do you think you are, goddamned John Wayne?" He pointed an angry finger at Lex. "Maybe you enjoy taking chances with YOUR life, but I donít appreciate you dragging Morris down with you!"

"Wait just a blasted minute!" Amanda jumped to her feet. "What did you expect them to do, sit by while someone took potshots at them?" Her face was flushed with anger. "Donít you dare take that tone with her!" Warm hands on her hips pulled the young woman back down onto the rancherís lap.

"Itís okay, sweetheart. Heís just scared, and upset." Lex looked over at the fuming man. "Iíll admit it wasnít the most responsible thing to do, but after that bullet went through the windshield, I thought a defensive move was in order."

"The WINDSHIELD? Dear god, you both could have been killed!" Kevin walked over and dropped down next to his partner, grabbing the smaller manís hand. He looked back up at Lex, his tone still angry. "You live out in the middle of nowhere, with snakes, wild animals, and god-knows-what-else. Why the hell donít YOU carry a gun, or rifle, when youíre running around?"

Lex dropped her gaze for a moment. "I donít like guns," she murmured quietly.

Kevin was not to be deterred. "Thatís ridiculous! Iíve seen your gun safe, Lex. Youíve got a nice collection of rifles, there."

"I have to have them, for the ranch. And most of them are my fatherís. But I donít like to carry a gun, okay? Just drop it." The rancherís voice had dropped to a low grumble. Lex felt a gentle touch on her face and she looked up into concerned green eyes. "Can we talk about this later, Amanda?"

The blonde nodded. "Sure, honey." Amanda turned around to look at Kevin. "If youíll excuse us, Lex and I are going upstairs for a little while." The look on her face dared her uncleís partner to say something.

"Thatís a good idea, Mandy." Morris rubbed his hand on Kevinís thigh. "I think weíll stay down here for a bit Ė that fire feels pretty good after being outside for so long this morning."

Travis met the two women in the hallway. "LexieÖare you okay? Youíre looking a bit pale." He stopped the tall woman by placing his hand gently on her shoulder.

"Iím fine, Grandpa. Guess being out in the cold like that drained me more than I thought." Lex felt Amanda squeeze her hand. "Weíve decided to go upstairs for a little bit. Thought we might come back down before dinner and finish the decorating."

"Good idea. Why donít you take a nice hot bath while youíre at it?" Martha piped in from the kitchen doorway. "You still look about half-frozen, Lexie."

The rancher grinned. "Yes, maíam." She began to lead Amanda up the stairs. "Wanna join me?" she whispered to the blonde next to her.

"Oh, yeah! I like the sound of that!" Amanda goosed the tall woman on the rear and raced up the stairs.

Martha shook her head as the two young women raced up the stairs, laughing. "I swear, itís almost like having kids around the house again with those two." She watched as Travis stared wistfully after them. Itís such a darn shame that he missed watching her grow up. But maybe we can help make up for it, now. "Travis? Why donít you come on back in here and have some coffee? We can trade stories."

"Thanks, Martha. I think Iíd like that." The distinguished gentleman smiled and followed her into the kitchen.

***************

Upstairs a short time later, Lex was lying in the large tub with Amanda reclined comfortably against her chest. Both women had been enjoying the quiet soak, and the rancherís eyes were closed in a near doze.

"Lex?"

"Mmm?"

"Iím really sorry about the way Kevin was acting." Amanda had been fretting over the big manís words ever since they came upstairs. "He was really out of line."

Lex pulled her lover closer. "Donít worry about it. You have no control over him, sweetheart." She leaned down and kissed Amanda on the neck.

The blonde tilted her head and moaned. "OoohÖthatís nice." Not to be sidetracked, Amanda continued. "I had no idea that you didnít like guns. When you were showing me the safe and how to use them, you seemed really at ease with it."

"I know how to use them. I used to practice until I could hit just about anything."

"Okay." Amanda turned slightly, until she could look up into the rancherís face. "Is there any particular reason that you donít like guns? I would think that living on a ranch it would be as natural as riding a horse. Especially being as secluded as you are out here."

The dark-haired woman closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Strengthening her resolve, Lex opened her eyes. "Letís get out of the tub, and Iíll tell you about it, okay?"

Amanda lifted her hand out of the water and caressed her loverís cheek. "If it bothers you, we donít have to talk about it, honey."

"NoÖitís not that. It was just something that happened a long time ago, and itís a littleÖ involved." Lex leaned into the touch, and then turned her head to kiss the wet palm. "Címon. Youíre starting to look like a prune."

"I hate to tell you this, Slim," Amanda teased, pulling Lexís hand out of the water. "But youíre not fairing much better."

They climbed from the tub and got dressed, and then Amanda sat Lex down near the fire. "Might as well be comfortable, right?" she asked her friend. She had stacked several pillows on the rug and waited patiently until the rancher had sprawled out among them.

"Youíve got a point, there." Lex opened her arms and allowed the smaller woman to snuggle into her embrace. "Comfy?"

"Oh, yeah."

Lex combed through the golden hair with her fingertips, staring into the fire. "Good. I guess youíre ready for a story, then?" When her lover nodded, she took a deep breath to begin. "UmmÖbear with me, Ďcause Iím not too good with this sort of thing, okay?"

Amanda entwined their fingers, kissing the tanned knuckles lovingly. "Just take your time, love. You can stop anytime you want."

"Thanks. UhÖokay." Lex swallowed hard. "You know that my old man wasnít around much when I was growing up, right?" Canít really call him Dad anymoreÖnot after all the things Iíve learned lately. He took a lot away from me, growing up. I donít think I could ever forgive him for that. Feeling the blonde head nod, she sighed. "When I was a teenager, I was a little on the wild side."

"And somethingís changed since then?" Amanda giggled. When she was met with perturbed silence, she quieted. "SorryÖgo ahead."

"Anyway, when I was fourteen, I went hunting with three friends. We had decided to camp out for several days, deep in the hills. The nearest road was a couple of miles hike. I guess we wanted to be big, tough grownups, cause we had brought some beer and some whiskey." Lex closed her eyes for a moment, reliving the events in her mind. "On the third day, we were all pretty much hung over, or maybe even still a little drunk, and had decided to split into two teams. The first ones to bag a deer, won."

The younger woman could hear the pain in her loverís voice. "Really, love. Itís not that important that you tell me. I can tell this is hurting you." She turned around and buried her face in the rancherís chest, wrapping her arms around Lex tightly.

Lex shook her head. "PleaseÖlet me finish." She waited until Amanda was still. "Where was I? Oh, yeah. Paul and Lawrence were in one group, and Alison was with me." She met the green eyes of her lover and smiled. "YeahÖI guess she was like my girlfriendÖwe went a lot of places together, even necked a bit in the barn."

"Really? At fourteen? You were an early bloomer, werenít you?" Amanda teased, trying to lighten the moment.

"Yup. Wasnít real serious, just a couple of kids having a bit of fun." Lex smiled wistfully. "I hadnít thought about her in years." She shook her head. "Anyway, Alison and I got bored with the hunting, so we went back to camp to, ummÖwell, you know." She blushed. "We were both pretty comfortable in the tent when we heard a shot from a few hundred yards away. I figured we had lost the game, so I settled down to enjoy my own fun."

Amanda shook her head. "Oh, boy." She rubbed her face in the soft cotton shirt Lex was wearing, then looked up. "And then?"

"About ten minutes later, Paul comes screaming into the camp. We rushed back into our clothes and got out of the tent." Lex was quiet for a long moment. "He was covered in bloodÖit was all over him, Amanda." The last words were spoken in a near whisper. "I kept checking him over, but couldnít find anything wrong with him."

"Oh, godÖLawrence." Amandaís eyes filled with tears. "What happened?"

The rancher nodded. "I had to hit Paul to calm him down enough to tell me what had happened.

Lex kept shaking the hysterical boy, but he couldnít speak coherently. "Dammit, Paul. Whereís Lawrence?"

"HeísÖheísÖoh, godÖ" Paul kept trembling and wiping his hands on his bloody shirt.

SLAP!

The tall girl had hit him with her open hand. "Calm down! Where is he?" She looked over at Alison, who was just climbing out of the tent, buttoning her shirt.

"Lex? Whatís goingÖ? My god! Paul!!" she squealed, running towards the two. "What happened?"

"Iím trying to find out, AliÖget a blanket, will ya?" Lex led the older boy to a clear spot near the firepit. Paul was sixteen, and the oldest of the group. He was also the most mature, or at least Lex had thought so until this moment. She reached over to grab a canteen and sniffed the contents. Jack DanielísÖgood. "Here, PaulÖtake a swig of this."

"Th...th...thanks." He took a healthy swallow, and burst into tears. "Help him, Lex. Please." He fell into the startled girlís arms. "Oh, godÖ"

Shit. Now what am I supposed to do? "Sure, Paul. Just tell me where he is." She nodded her thanks to the cute little redhead who covered their friend with an open sleeping bag.

The boy pointed back behind them. "Back thereÖon the trail. HeísÖhurt. Bad."

"And you left him there?" Lex yelled, forgetting his fragile state. "Are you an idiot?" She pushed him away and raced over to her tent. "How bad is bad? What happened?" she asked, as she gathered up her rifle and the first aid kit.

Paul didnít answer, but wrapped his arms around his knees and began to slowly rock back and forth.

"Dammit, Paul! How bad is he hurt?" Lex wanted to go over and slap some sense into him.

Alison stopped her in mid stride. "Lex, heís upset. Let me stay here with him, and you go check on Lawrence, okay?" She ran a fingertip down the tall girlís chest. "But donít be too long, okay? Heís kinda creeping me out, if you know what I mean."

Lex nodded. "Yeah, okay." She leaned forward and kissed Ali lightly on the lips. "Be back in a flash." She raced from the campsite, not bothering to look back.

She had gone quite a way and still not seen anything. I swear to god, if this is some lame-assed practical joke, Iíll kill both of them. Lex rounded a turn on the little-used path and came to a large fallen tree, seeing a rifle lying on the ground in front of it. "Larry? Hey, man, where are you?"

No answer, except the subtle shifting of the woods around her and the occasional birdcall.

She stepped up to the tree, and could see a dark, wet stain over the top, spilling down the other side. "Lawrence? You there, buddy?" Lex leaned over the log, and almost threw up at the sight below her.

"He was dead, wasnít he?" Amanda asked quietly.

"Yeah." Lex choked out. "He had the wildest, curliest blonde hair. All the girls used to chase him around, wanting to run their fingers through it." She closed her eyes in memory. "But when I looked over that tree, it was gone. He had started climbing over the tree, and propped his gun against it. I guess a branch or something got caught on the trigger, and it blew the top of his head off." She swallowed the bile forming in her throat. Even after all these years, I can still see it.

Amanda saw the tears track down Lexís face. "Oh, honey. That must have been a nightmare for you." She placed one hand on the damp cheek above her, trying to offer comfort.

Lex nodded. "Yeah. And then I had to bundle him up to take him home. Paul was a basket case, and poor AliÖ" she shook her head. "Well, she was so busy trying to keep Paul together, so I had to make a travois to drag him down out of the hills. Took us almost a full day." She looked at Amanda sadly. "Needless to say, Iíve not gone hunting since."

How horribleÖand to be the one who had to bring him back. She was just a kid, herself. Amanda shifted around until she could pull Lex into her arms. "Címere."

She gratefully allowed herself to be comforted over the loss of her friend from so long ago. Martha had tried to reach her at the time of the accident, but she had refused to talk about it. The angry girl she was then would usually yell and race from the room. I was such a brat, then. Lex remembered when the worried housekeeper had beseeched her to open up Ė if not to her, then to a professional. When Martha was finally able to get through to her, it was never really resolved.

A week after Lawrenceís funeral, Martha had found Lex sitting in the office, tears tracking silently down her face. She had several guns lying across the desk and the cleaning supplies were nearby.

"Lexie? Why are you doing that, now?" The slightly overweight woman stepped further into the room, worry in her voice.

Blue eyes filled with grief looked up. "Dad told me I needed to quit moping around the house, and he said the best way was to jump right back in." The young girl angrily wiped at her face.

I need to give that man a stern talking to, Martha fumed. "HoneyÖwhy donít you come in the kitchen with me? Iíll make you some of your favorite cookies."

"NO!" Lex jumped up, slamming the rifle she had been cleaning back on the desk.

"Quit coddling her, Martha." Rawson stood in the doorway with an unreadable look on his face. "Finish what you started, Lexington." He crossed his arms over his chest.

Lex looked down at the desk, then at her hands. I can still see his blood on them. She rubbed her hands down the front of her shirt, covering her chest in the volatile substance. "Iím trying, Dad. Itís just thatÖ"

"Donít argue with me! Do what I told you to, and quit whining about it! The boy died because he was stupid!" The rancher walked into the room and brushed angrily by the startled housekeeper. "Thank god I taught you the proper respect for firearms Ė youíll never end up like him."

"Iím not arguing about it!" Lex couldnít get the images out of her mind. So much blood. His beautiful hair. The funeral had been a closed casket affair, and she had sat at the back of the funeral home with Martha. Alison had also been there, but wouldnít even look at Lex. They hadnít spoken to each other since that day, and Paul had been shipped off to live with his aunt in Austin. It was whispered around town that he had already tried to kill himself twice, and that he was actually under observation at a private hospital somewhere.

Rawson grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her. "Donít give me any lip, girl! Youíve been in this office all morning, and by the looks of it, you havenít finished one gun!" When he realized what he had been doing, he released her quickly. "Youíll stay right here in this office until every gun we have is clean." Her watery blue eyes were almost his undoing. Sheís looking more and more like her mother every day. The fear of what could have happened to her weighed heavily on his mind.

"Mr. WaltersÖ" Martha was worried about the youngsterís emotional well-being. She had never actually grieved for the loss, just went about her chores sullenly. "Maybe we should have Lexie talk to someone, like a counselor."

"Dammit, woman! I pay you to take care of the house, not tell me how to raise my kids!" Rawson spun around and glared at the concerned housekeeper. "No kid of mine is going to see a shrink!"

Lex couldnít believe what she was hearing. A psychiatrist? Does Martha think Iím crazy? She looked back down at the guns on the desk. In her mind, the desk took the shape of the fallen tree, and the guns disappeared and became blood. "NO!" she screamed, shoving by both adults and racing from the room.

Martha looked at Rawson with an unreadable expression on her face. "MR. WaltersÖ" she turned and left the room, in search of the young woman. Hearing the back door slam, she knew exactly where the teenager had raced off.

She walked past the barn, and saw the door to the hay barn slightly ajar. Lexís favorite hiding place was the loft, because she could hide behind the bales and still peek out at the ranch through the open window. Martha eyed the ladder to the loft and sighed. She never makes this easy, does she? After climbing to the top, she stopped and looked around. A slight sniffling from the far corner caught her attention. "Lexie?"

"Go Ďway."

"I wonít do that, honey. We need to talk about this." Martha slowly edged her way over until she could see the dark head.

Lex had both knees pulled up to her chest and was resting her forehead on them. "No," she mumbled, choking on the word.

The housekeeperís heart nearly broke at the pain her charge was going through. She stepped around the bales of hay and sat down next to Lex, shoulders touching. "Itís all right to grieve, baby. He was your friend." She reached over and put a gentle arm around the young girl. "Just donít let your grief consume you Ė Iím here if you want, or need, to talk."

"I still see the blood, Mada." The anguished whisper was barely audible. "So much blood."

"Oh, babyÖ" Martha almost cried in relief when the girl spun and buried her face in her chest. Strangled sobs burst from the younger woman, as she finally released the pain and grief she had been holding in. The housekeeper wrapped both arms around Lex and began to slowly rock with her.

"Lexington Marie Walters! Get your ass down from there this instant!" Rawsonís voice boomed. "I know youíre hiding up in that damn loft Ė youíve still got chores to finish!"

Lex pulled back suddenly from Marthaís grasp. "I gotta go." She wiped at her eyes and swallowed hard. "Iím sorry, Martha."

Martha watched as the girl wiped the emotion from her face. No, honeyÖplease donít do that. "LexieÖlet me go talk to him."

"No!" Lex knew that her father resented how close both she and Louis were to the housekeeper. She was afraid that one wrong word from Martha, and heíd send her packing. And Iíd never see her again. I canít do that to Louis, or to Martha. "Itís okay. But youíd better wait until he leavesÖI donít want you to get into any trouble." She leaned over and kissed the older woman on the cheek. "Thanks, Mada." Then she jumped to her feet and raced from the loft.

Lex sat snuggled in Amandaís arms for nearly an hour while the younger woman gently stroked the dark hair. A quiet knock on the door caused both women to jump slightly.

Martha opened the door and peeked inside. She saw the two women cuddled up together in front of the low fire, Lex lying in the smaller womanís lap. "Is everything okay up here?"

"Just fine, Mada." Lex regretfully pulled away from Amandaís grasp and sat up. "Címon in." She leaned back and ran a slightly shaky hand through her dark hair.

The housekeeper walked further into the room and sat down in the chair next to the rug. "I just wanted to let you girls know that dinner is ready." She studied them carefully. Lexie doesnít look too good. I hope sheís not coming down with something.

Amanda smiled. "Great! Iím starving!" Seeing that the older woman wanted to talk to Lex, she jumped up quickly. "Iíll see you both downstairs. I want to ask my father something." She bent down and kissed the startled rancher on the forehead. "I love you, Lex."

"I love you, too," Lex answered, as the younger woman bounded out of the room. She looked up at the housekeeper, who smiled widely.

"Sheís subtle, isnít she?" Martha joked.

"Must be taking lessons from you," Lex teased fondly. She climbed to her knees and crawled over to where the housekeeper was sitting. "We were talking about why I donít like guns."

Marthaís eyes widened. That explains why Lexie looks so washed out. "Really?" She looked down as the rancher sat back down next to her feet. "Are you okay?"

Lex nodded. "Yeah. It just brought out a lot of things that I didnít realize were still there." She glanced up at the worried look on the older womanís face. "I also remember that afternoon in the hayloft." Tears began to cloud Lexís vision when she felt a gentle touch in her hair. "I donít think I ever thanked you for that, Mada."

"HoneyÖyou donít have to thank me. I was just afraid that you were going to bottle all that up inside." Martha ran her fingers through the dark tresses, untangling the hair much like she did when Lex was a child. "I was so worried about you, then." Never really stopped worrying, did I?

"I was worried about you, too."

"Me? Why, sweetie?" Martha felt a strong arm wrap around her leg, as Lex laid her head into her lap. She continued to stroke the long hair.

The younger woman sighed. "I could see how much Dad resented our relationship with you. I was afraid that if you went up against him heíd just fire you, and Iíd never see you again." She turned her head to look up at Martha. "I couldnít have handled that."

Martha shook her head. "He might have been able to fire me, but nothing he could have done would have taken me out of your life, Lexie. You and little Lou were, and still are, my children. Your father could never take that away." She saw the understanding dawn in the tear-filled blue eyes below her.

"I know never say it enough, Mada," Lex sat up and looked the older woman in the eyes. "I love you. You have made such a difference in my life, and Iíd hate to see where I would have ended up without your guidance, and love." She wrapped her arms around the older womanís shoulders and pulled her into a fierce hug. "Thank you."

"I love you, too, Lexie." Martha felt the younger womanís lips on her cheek and smiled. "I couldnít have hand picked a better daughter, you know."

Lex laughed, and pulled back slowly. "Uh-huh. Even when Iím tracking mud into your freshly mopped kitchen?"

The housekeeper appeared to think about that. "WellÖ"

"Hey!" The rancher stood up and put her hands on her hips. "Whatís that supposed to mean?" She grinned down at Martha. "CímonÖletís get downstairs before the foodís all gone." She offered her hand to the older woman.

"Lexie!" Martha laughed, accepting the hand and allowing Lex to pull her to her feet. She was startled when the younger woman pulled her into another strong hug.

Lex kept her arm around Martha as they left the room. "Gotta take care of my best girl, you know." She kissed the top of the graying head and escorted the housekeeper down the stairs.


Chapter 7

"A little over to the left, Lex. No, noÖthatís too much."

The dark-haired woman sighed. "Howís this?"

"Good. Now put your hand rightÖyeah. Thatís great."

Amanda reached up and covered the hand that rested on her shoulder. "Thank you for doing this, Lex. It really means a lot to him, and to me." She was rewarded by a loving smile.

When Michael had told them at breakfast this morning what he wanted to give them for Christmas, both women were speechless. Amanda, because she never thought her father would accept their relationship so well that heíd actually treat them as a couple; and Lex, who absolutely despised having her picture taken. The older manís enthusiasm was contagious, and within an hour both women had changed clothes and were in the den, posing in front of the huge fireplace. Amanda had been placed in the Queen Anne chair from the sitting room, and Lex was standing behind her.

For her, Iíd do anything. Including getting back into these damn clothes. Lex was wearing the blue shirt that she had first worn at the dinner party in California, with the sharply pressed black slacks that she had worn to the courthouse recently. "Well, Iíd kinda like to have a picture of us together, anyway," she murmured quietly. "And Iím curious as to how good your father is with that camera."

Michael stepped away from the tripod he had set up. "Okay, ladies." He smirked at the look the rancher gave him. "If you can stop whispering long enough, Iíd like to get a few shots of you now." He shook his head at the frown on Lexís face. "Do you want to try and give me a smile?"

Lex sighed again. "Sorry." Smile, he says. Right. I HATE people who give fake smiles to cameras. She felt the hand on top of hers squeeze. A large grin suddenly covered the tall womanís face.

"Perfect!" Michael complimented, as he leaned down and looked through the viewfinder.

Several poses and half an hour later, Michael declared the photo session complete. "Wasnít that fun?"

"Loads," Lex grumbled. She had been standing in the same position for the past fifteen minutes, and her back was stiff and aching. The tall woman tried to unobtrusively stretch, but a turned head and a frown from her lover proved that she wasnít successful.

Amanda jumped up from the chair she was sitting in and gave her father a hug. "Thanks, Daddy! This was a wonderful surprise."

"Well, donít be too excited until you see the finished product. I havenít really tinkered with a camera in years." I canít believe Mom and Dad did this for me. Michael had placed all his equipment into his fatherís storage room years ago, and had gone in last week to dig through everything.

"I really appreciate you keeping all this stuff for me, Dad." Michael followed his father into the tidy storage room that was located above Jacobís shop. "I would have probably just thrown all of it away years ago."

Jacob chuckled. "Youíre welcome, son. But it was your motherís idea. She was hoping that youíd decide to take up photography again someday. You really had a knack for it."

Michael ducked his head in embarrassment. "I donít know about that Ė but I really enjoyed doing it." He watched as the older man pulled a tarp off a large stack of boxes in one corner of the room. "Iím not sure how much of this stuff is even any good, anymore. But it should hold me until I can afford new equipment." He studied the boxes carefully. They sure look in good shape, considering their age. Michael was so engrossed in the boxes, he didnít notice when Jacob walked over to the door and greeted Anna Leigh.

"Hello, beautiful." Jacob kissed his wife lightly on the lips. "Youíre just in time for the fun," he whispered.

Anna Leigh smiled and wrapped an arm around her husband. "Good! I really didnít want to miss this." She secretly hoped that Michael wouldnít be too upset with them, or to proud to accept what they had offered.

His back to the door, Michael opened the first box, marked Ďcameraí. He was expecting an old brown case, but instead saw another box. "What theÖ?" Pulling it free from the packing, he could see that it was a brand-new professional style camera. Michael spun around and saw his smiling parents standing by the door. "YouÖ?"

"Thereís no way you could start a business with all that old equipment, dear. And we want you to have the best opportunity possible to succeed. Your old stuff is still here. We stacked it behind the new boxes." Anna Leigh could see the indecision on her sonís face. "Please let us do this for you, Michael. Youíre the only son that we have, and weíre so thankful that youíve come home to us."

"MomÖ" Michael climbed to his feet and started towards the couple. "I donít deserveÖ"

Jacob raised his hand. "Baloney! Weíve always been proud of you, son. We may not have always agreed with your choices, but weíve never stopped loving you."

Michael closed the distance quickly and embraced them both. "I love you, too. Iím just sorry it took me so long to get my head back on straight." He pulled back and looked at them. "This is just a loan Ė I plan on paying you back every cent that youíve given me so far."

"How about a nice portrait, instead? We havenít had one done in I donít know how long." Anna Leigh smiled at her sonís enthusiasm. I havenít seen him this excited in years.

"Itís a deal! But Iíll also do any shots you need for the real estate office and Dadís business, too," Michael added excitedly. A sudden thought caused him to snap his fingers. "And now Iíve got the right equipment for Amanda and Lexís Christmas present."

"Speaking of finished products, can I talk to you for a minute, Michael?" Lex asked quietly.

He finished packing up his gear and nodded. "Sure."

The tall woman stretched again, almost groaning out loud when several vertebrae in her back popped. She put her arm around Amanda and grinned at the older man. "Thanks for putting up with my grumbling. I really donít feel comfortable in front of a camera."

"You were fine, Lex." A woman as beautiful as she is, afraid of a camera? Iíd like to know who did that to her. Itís not right. Michael could tell that something else was on the rancherís mind. "Do you have a question?"

"UmmÖyeah. Are you going to do portraits only, or will you be doing other things, too?"

Michael exchanged glances with Amanda. "Iíll probably jump at any business that I can get. Why do you ask?"

Lex smiled. "Well, Martha and Charlie finally set their wedding date for January twenty-second, and then told us that we could have the ceremony here at the ranch. I was wondering if I could, ummÖretain your services to handle the photography." I feel weird about hiring Amandaís father, but I donít want to upset either of them by going to someone else.

"No."

"Uh, okay." Lex nodded. "I justÖ"

"Iíd love to do it, but I refuse to charge for it, Lex." Michael almost laughed at the shocked look on both womenís faces. He looked the dark-haired woman directly in the eyes. "Theyíre family. And I wonít charge family for something that I enjoy."

The rancher held out her hand. "Thanks, MichaelÖI really appreciate that." Itís certainly something that I never thought Iíd hear from him. Her thoughts were interrupted when the older man pulled her into an unexpected hug.

Amanda laughed at the look on Lexís face. "This is going to be great!" And it will be the first Christmas that Iím actually looking forward to Ė no uptight parties hosted by Mother. A twinge of sadness touched her heart. I wonder where she is, and if sheís okay?

***************

The well-manicured hand reached out from under the shade of the umbrella and grasped the fruit-laden drink. "So, youíre telling me that because of Markís unfortunate Ďaccidentí, thereís nothing to link me to those terrible things that happened to my daughterís little Ďfriendí?" The elegant woman spoke quietly into her cellular phone. "Do they still want to question me about Amandaís poisoning?" Itís not my fault that Mark was that stupid Ė hiring a teenager to do a professionalís job. Idiot.

"No, maíam. Theyíve linked everything back to the late Mr. Garrett. Iíve checked with the authorities handling the case, and Iíve given them your statement. Youíre free to return from your Ďvacationí whenever youíre ready."

"Splendid! And just in time for the holiday, too. Iím sure that my family misses me terribly. Do you have any idea where my husband is?" Elizabeth watched with interest as a well tanned man in his mid-twenties strolled past her lounge chair. Nice. She followed him with her eyes until he dove into the nearby pool. I just love the Islands this time of year.

"Yes, maíam. Heís opening a small photography business in Somerville, and has just moved into the apartment above the studio."

Elizabeth almost spewed her drink. "Youíve GOT to be joking! I thought heíd re-build his company and start up where he left off. What about our house?" I knew I should have never married him Ė weak willed mamaís boy! Ran off at the first little sign of trouble. He doesnít deserve to run a corporation.

The voice on the other end of the line paused. "UmmÖthereís an auction to be held after the first of the year, and then the house itself will be placed on the market. Mr. Cauble still owes his creditors quite a bit of money."

"Even better! This is just SO much fun!" She laughed with glee, then sobered. "What about my youngest daughter? Is she still staying with thatÖwoman?"

"Iím afraid so, Mrs. Cauble. My investigators have found out that theyíre hosting a large party Christmas Day at the ranch. So I think that your daughter is there to stay."

"Not if I can help it!" She shrieked into the phone, then looked around to see if she had brought any attention to herself. "I will get my baby out of that deviantís clutches, one way or another!" She stopped momentarily to calm down. "Christmas Day? HmmÖIíll call you later, Jonas. I have a flight back to the States to arrange."

***************

Lex sat in the office, tiredly studying the computer screen in front of her. Michael had left earlier in the evening, claiming that he wanted to develop the pictures that he had taken. Amanda was in the kitchen with Martha and Travis trying to organize the kitchen and dining area for the big meal day after tomorrow. She leaned back in her chair and rubbed her eyes. Amandaís right. This stuff is getting too complicated for us to keep up with. Iím going to have to break down and hire a real bookkeeper. She opened the lower desk drawer and smiled at the professionally wrapped box. Tomorrowís Christmas Eve. Maybe Iíll give this to her tonight, after everyone has gone to bed.

She was about to pick the box up when she heard footsteps. Lex slammed the drawer of the desk closed and tried to appear interested in the data covering the computer screen. A quiet knock on the open door caused her to raise her head. Great. Just what I needed.

Kevin stood in the doorway with a small smile on his face. "Are you real busy?"

"UmmÖno." Lex waved him into the room. "Címon in and have a seat."

"Thanks." He walked in and closed the door behind him. The big man stood with both hands on the back of one of the chairs across from Lex. "About yesterdayÖ"

The rancher rose to her feet slowly. "I know you were worried about Morris. But I had told him to stay close to the truck, andÖ"

The tall blond circled around the desk until he was only a couple of feet away from her. "I know. He told me all about it." Actually, more like chewed me out last night. Iím just glad that he doesnít lose his temper more often Ė my ear still hurts where he grabbed it.

"Morris is a grown man, you know." Lex fought the urge to step back. She had to look up to see Kevinís eyes. Damn, heís big. I just hope heís a pacifist.

"I know that too, Lex." He held her gaze for a long moment, then dropped his eyes. "I tend to be a little overprotective of Morris, since I almost lost him last year." Kevinís blue eyes blinked back a tear.

Lex reached over and grasped his forearm. "HeyÖare you all right?"

Kevin nodded. "YeahÖjust some bad memories." He took a deep breath and walked back around the desk to sit down.

"Is heÖsick?" She asked quietly, afraid of the answer.

Understanding covered his handsome face. "NoÖnothing like that. We get tested once a year, even though weíve been exclusively together for over five years now. Both clean." Kevin leaned forward in his chair and braced his elbows on the top of his thighs. "He was coming out of a grocery store one evening, and several punks jumped him. They nearly beat him to death, just because they had seen the damn rainbow sticker on his car." He buried his face in his hands and mumbled, "It was on the car when we bought it Ė we thought it was funny."

The concerned woman hurried around the desk and put her hand on his shoulder. "Iím sorry, Kevin. Iíd be overprotective too, if something like that happened to Amanda." She rubbed his back until he looked up at her with a smile. Actually, Iíd probably be in jail Ė Iíd kill anyone who hurt her.

"Thanks." Kevin wiped at his eyes with the back of one hand. "Anyway, I just wanted to come in here and apologize for my behavior yesterday. Morris read me the riot act, and helped me realize what a horseís ass I was."

"NahÖIíve known lots of them, and you arenít even close." Lex pulled him up and clapped him on the arm. "Wanna go with me to get underfoot in the kitchen? I usually get cookies as a bribe to stay out of the way."

He laughed. "Sure."

Travis looked up from his coffee as his granddaughter stepped quietly into the kitchen. He was sitting at the table with Morris, while Amanda and Martha chopped vegetables for the next two dayís meals.

Lex caught her grandfatherís look and raised a finger to her lips. She saw him smile as she continued to sneak up behind the two women at the counter. Poking her head between them, Lex greeted loudly, "Hello, ladies! Whatís cooking?"

"Aaaaah!" Amanda screamed and spun around.

"Lexie! You brat!" Martha whirled around and slapped the tall woman on the shoulder. "I swear Iím going to have to turn you over my knee!"

Morris almost spewed coffee across the table, and began gasping for air. His partner rushed across the room and began to pound on his back. "Kevin," he wheezed. "Iím fine." He raised his hands to fend off the big manís helpful attack.

"OhÖuh, sorry Ďbout that." Kevin grinned and sat down next to Morris.

"LexÖ" Amanda waved the knife she had been using. "Itís not a good idea to scare someone who has a sharp object in her hand."

The rancher stepped back slowly, holding her hands in front of her for defense. "Umm, sweetheart? Why donít you just put the knife down, okay?" She looked at the housekeeper for sympathy. "Mada?" Hoping against hope that the childhood moniker would give her an edge.

"Oh, no. Donít ask me for help. Youíre on your own, this time." Martha leaned back against the counter and folded her arms across her chest with a smile.

Amanda sat the knife down on the counter and picked up a large bowl of ice water that she had been soaking an onion in. "Youíre right. Maybe you just need a little cooling off, instead." She continued to stalk the older woman, who unknowingly was being backed into a corner.

"HehÖ" Lex gave the blonde her most charming smile. "You really donít want to do that, love." Her eyes widened when she felt the wall against her back. Aw, hell. Now what?

"Give me one good reason why I donít dump this over your head, Slim."

Lexís eyes darted around the room, searching for an answer. "UmmÖ" She saw her grandfather cover his mouth to keep from laughing. Thanks for the help, Grandpa. "Because I love you?"

The younger woman raised the bowl menacingly and giggled. "Uh-huh. I love you, too. But I think that you need to be taught a lesson." She slowly brought the container towards Lexís head. "This is going to hurt me more than it does you," Amanda teased.

You got that right. Lex grinned wickedly, reached up, and tilted the bowl to dump over the blondeís head. "Oops!"

"Aaaaah! YouÖyouÖ" Amanda sputtered, as she wiped the wet hair out of her eyes. "Thatís cold!"

Lex leaned over and dropped a kiss on top of her loverís head. "Iíd better go check the horses. Love you! Bye!" She took off out of the kitchen without another word. The back door slammed a moment later.

"Iím going to have to kill her," Amanda muttered to the rest of the room.

Martha laughed and handed the younger woman a clean dishtowel. "Honey, the best thing that you could do, is make Lexie THINK youíre gonna get her back. Itíll drive her nuts, waiting for something to happen."

"Thatís true. Little Lexie isnít the most patient person in the world." Travis stood up and held out a chair for Amanda. "If you play it just right, you could keep her guessing for quite a while."

Morris looked at his partner, who nodded and smiled. Good. At least we got that cleared up. He reached across the table and placed his hand on Amandaís. "Donít be too rough on her, Mandy. You did corner her."

"Donít worryÖI wonít make her suffer too much," Amanda assured everyone around the table. "Not for too long, anyway."

***************

Lex had stayed out in the barn and brushed all twelve horses until they shined. "I canít believe I dumped that water on her like that," she mumbled to herself as she walked back into the house. And then you went and hid in the barn like a little kid, an inner voice chastised. "Shut up." She opened the back door then peeked into the kitchen. All dark Ė now Iím REALLY gonna be in trouble.

She trudged slowly up the stairs and stood in front of the closed master bedroom door. Oh, shit. She must be really pissed off. Lex opened the door and stuck her head inside. "Amanda?" The room was dark, except for the light coming from the low burning fireplace and from under the bathroom door.

Lex crept over to the bathroom door. Hearing the faint sound of the shower, she smiled to herself and quickly removed all her clothes, then slowly stepped through the door.

Her loverís voice could be heard over the sound of the shower. She was singing the chorus fromÖAlanis Morissette? Lex shook her head. She IS pissed. She stood outside the shower door and began to sing along.

Amanda spun around as the shower door opened, and a very contrite rancher stepped inside. She looks so cute when she thinks that sheís in trouble.

"Hi." Lex smiled bashfully. "UmmÖIím really sorry about the water." She reached over and gently took the bath sponge from Amandaís hand. "Can I scrub your back for you?"

"Sure." Amanda turned around until her back was to the other woman. She watched as a tan hand reached around her and grabbed the bottle of body wash. Moments later, the sponge dropped to the floor of the shower and warm hands began to gently soap her back. "MmmÖthat feels great."

Lex chuckled. "It sure does," she whispered into her partnerís ear. She stepped closer until their bodies were touching, then slowly ran her hands down the smooth skin and across the petite hips. She pulled Amanda even closer, and then her hands were tracing slow patterns across the younger womanís stomach, then up over her chest. "Howís this?" she murmured quietly, nibbling a path along the soft neck.

"NÖnÖnice," Amanda stammered, as her knees buckled. A strong arm wrapped around her waist and held her up.

"Turn around."

She felt Lex spin her around until she was facing the taller woman. The long body was also covered in soap, and the blue eyes above her twinkled with mischief.

Lex stepped forward again, and wrapped her arms around Amanda. She began to slowly rub their bodies together, making certain that no skin was left without a soapy covering. "I thought this would be better than that damn sponge."

"UhhhÖoh, yeah." Amanda could barely make a coherent word form due to the strong body sliding against hers. She felt herself being gently pushed towards the warm spray of water, as Lex removed the soap the same way she applied it. "GodÖ"

The rancher began licking and kissing down Amandaís throat, stopping ever so often to place a gentle bite in strategic places. "Gotta make sure I didnít miss a spot," she mumbled, dropping to her knees as she traced a path down the smaller womanís chest with her tongue. "HmmÖ" She placed a soft kiss in the delicate belly button, and then continued her assault on her loverís senses.

Amanda wrapped her hands in the dark hair and tried to slide down the shower wall. She was barely aware of Lexís guidance to the built-in bench before all thoughts were driven from her mind, and the water surrounding them faded away.

***************

Waking from a very sensual dream, Amanda rolled onto her side and almost bumped into Lex, who had her head propped up on her hand. The rancher had apparently been watching her sleep for quite some time. "Hi."

"Hey there, beautiful." Lex reached over with her free hand and brushed the hair away from her loverís face. She looked into the sleepy green eyes and smiled. "Did you have a nice nap? That was sure an interesting looking smile you had on your face."

"MmmÖyeah." Amanda stretched and yawned, causing the sheet to fall away from her body. I wonder how Lex feels about whipped cream and chocolate syrup? Whew! Talk about good dreams! "What time is it?"

Lex ran her hand down Amandaís exposed side and across her hip. "About twelve thirty in the morning. Why?"

The blonde scooted closer to the long body. "Just curious." Amanda rolled Lex onto her back and snuggled up against her, pillowing her head on the muscular shoulder beneath her. "You must be worn out, honey. Why donít you try to get some sleep? I promise that I wonít do anything to you." She was afraid that Lex had only stayed awake in fear of retaliation from the earlier kitchen incident.

"I trust you, love." The rancher combed her fingers through the blonde hair that spilled across her bare chest. "I was just enjoying watching you sleep."

"LexÖ"

"But since youíre awake, I want to give you one of your Christmas presents early." She tried to climb out of bed, but was stopped when the arm across her waist tightened.

"You donít have toÖ"

She leaned down and kissed Amanda on top of the head. "ShhÖhumor me, okay?"

Amanda nodded and regretfully released her. "Okay. But canít it wait until morning?"

"NoÖI really want to give it to you when weíre alone." Lex walked over to the dresser and grabbed a tee shirt and a pair of boxer shorts. "Iíll be right back."

"ButÖ" Amanda gave up trying to stop her friend and watched the tall figure disappear through the dark hallway.

Lex returned a few minutes later, holding one hand behind her back. She dropped onto the bed next to Amanda, who had slipped a nightshirt on and was now sitting up in bed. "Did you miss me?" she teased.

"Horribly," Amanda returned. "Whatís behind you?"

"What?" Lex spun around and looked towards the door. "I donít see anything."

Amanda rolled her eyes. "Smart aleck." She nodded her head at the hidden hand. "Maybe something that youíre holding?"

The dark-haired woman grinned and pulled a small, colorful package from its hiding place. "You mean this?" She handed the box to Amanda, who took it carefully.

"It doesnít have anything in it that would jump out at me, does it?" She studied the box from all sides.

"No," Lex scoffed. "Itís perfectly harmless." Then she added as an afterthought, "Sorta." She laughed as Amanda continued to look at the box from different angles. "Go onÖopen it."

Amanda looked past the package in her hand and into the sincere blue eyes of her partner. "Okay," she agreed quietly. The paper was torn away to reveal a black, velvet-covered, square jewelry box. "OoohÖ" She handed it back to Lex. "Open it for me? Please?"

Lex nodded, and opened the box towards Amanda. Inside, a heart-shaped necklace was nestled in black satin. Sparkling diamonds outlined the design, which wasnít much bigger than the rancherís thumbnail.

"Itís beautiful," Amanda whispered. She looked up and saw the emotions crossing her loverís face. "Oh, Lex."

"Youíve had my heart from the moment weíve met, Amanda. I just wanted to give you something to show you how much I love you." Lex pulled the necklace out of the box and opened the clasp. When Amanda nodded, she carefully placed the heart around the younger womanís neck. The rancher dropped to one knee next to the bed and raised her loverís hand to her cheek. "I would be greatly honored if you would agree to marry me, Amanda Lorraine Cauble. I know it wonít be legal, but Iíd love to stand before God and our families and place my grandmotherís ring on your finger again, pledging my heart and soul to you."

She opened her mouth to speak, but no words could express what was running through Amandaís mind at that very moment. She turned her hand over and ran her fingertips down Lexís clinched jaw. Oh, noÖshe thinksÖ "LexÖ"

The rancher stood up slowly. "UmmÖwell. I guess thatÖ" Her words were halted when Amanda leaped from the bed and into her arms.

"God, yes!" Amanda wrapped her legs around the tall womanís waist and clasped her hands behind Lexís neck. She began to kiss the rancher all over her face. "I will only take this ring off onceÖthe morning of our wedding, so that you can put it back on my finger when we exchange our vows. I love you, Lexington Marie WaltersÖand nothing, or no one, will keep me from marrying you!" She lowered her face until her mouth was a breath away from Lexís. "Now why donít we go back to bed? We have an engagement to celebrate." A passionate kiss from the woman holding her silenced Amanda, as she felt herself gently lowered to the bed.

Chapter 8

"What do you mean, Iíll have to take a later flight? Do you have any idea who you are dealing with?" the elegantly dressed woman continued to berate the young girl working the ticket counter. "I could BUY this damn airline!" She drummed her expensive red nails on the desk. "Let me speak to the manager, at once!"

"Yes, madam." The girl fearfully rushed over to a heavyset man at another desk. She bent down and whispered something in his ear, and he looked up to see the older woman fuming at the counter. He stood up and patted the young woman on the shoulder, then made his way over to where Elizabeth Cauble had begun to complain to a customer behind her.

"I finally take the first vacation Iíve had in almost fifteen years, and then a family emergency flares up! Then I get here, and the child they have working the damn counter tells me I CANíT be home for Christmas! What is this world coming to?"

The man she was talking to nodded in agreement. He wasnít really paying that much attention to what she said, but he didnít want the woman going off on him, next. Crazy old broad Ė her family probably PAID the airline to hold her up.

The manager loosened his tie a bit and addressed Elizabeth in slightly accented English. "Is there some sort of problem, madam? Consuela tells me that you wanted to speak to me?"

Elizabeth turned her attention to the man behind the counter. He was perspiring heavily, and she noticed with distaste that his jacket had sweat stains under the armpits as well. "Of course thereís a problem! She told me that I would have to wait several days for another flight. Let me assure you, this is NOT acceptable. I have a family emergency that must be handled immediately back in the United States!"

"I understand that you want to return home for the holidays, madam. But all of our flights to the United States are completely booked up Ė you should have made arrangements sooner." He didnít see the flush of anger cross the expensively dressed womanís face.

"You donít understand a damn thing! People like me pay your salary, you buffoon! I WILL be on the next flight! There is no room for argument!" Elizabeth slapped the counter hard to make her point. "I donít care who you bump, or how you do it Ė I have connections with this airline, and I will have your job!"

Lady, you donít want my job. I have to put up with bitches like you! "Please, madam. Iím sure we can come to some sort of agreementÖ"

She waved her finger in front of his face. "The only agreement that is acceptable to me is to get me ON THAT FLIGHT!" She turned around to look at the people in line behind her. "I will be at that bar," Elizabeth pointed across the way. "And will pay five thousand dollars cash for anyone's ticket on the next flight out to the United States!" She smiled sweetly at the man behind the counter. "Thank you."

He watched as she calmly walked through the airport towards the bar. Oh, boy.

***************

"Good morning, Mandy." Morris noticed an even brighter glow to his nieceís normally cheerful countenance. From the look on the face behind her, whatever it was affected them both. Lex practically floated behind the smaller woman. Looks like sleeping in did both of them a world of good.

Amanda kissed her uncle on the cheek and sat down across from him at the table. "Good morning to you, too. Whereís Kevin?" She grabbed two mugs from the tray on the center of the table and poured her and Lex each a cup of coffee.

"Morning, indeed! Some people laze around until almost lunchtime, and then have the nerve to say itís still morning!" Martha grumbled from the stove. She jumped slightly when long arms snaked around her waist and squeezed.

"Aw, címon, MadaÖitís only ten-thirty. And itís Christmas Eve." Lex kissed the top of the graying head. "Have you seen Grandpa yet? He wasnít in his room when we checked."

Martha turned around to look at the woman behind her. She looks okay, butÖ "Honey? ONLY ten-thirty? Are you feeling all right?"

Lex grinned broadly. "Iíve never felt better in my life!" She looked over at the blonde sitting at the table, and smiled even bigger. "Iíve got to go tend to the stock, but Iíll be back shortly."

"No you donít, Lexie. Thatís where Kevin and Travis have gone. They should be back any time now." Martha patted the tall woman on the hip and turned back to her cooking.

"Really?" Lex walked over and peered out the kitchen window.

Morris nodded at his niece. "Yup. They thought it would be a nice surprise for you, and I think both of them were going a little stir crazy."

"I can understand that. Iím a little antsy myself," Amanda agreed. She kept playing with the necklace resting against her throat. A light touch on her shoulder caused her to jump.

The rancher leaned down to whisper into her loverís ear. "Antsy, huh? I thought we took care of that last night." Lex kissed Amandaís ear and sat down beside her. "I really need to do a quick check of the west fence. Do you want to ride in the jeep with me?"

Amanda nodded. "Definitely! How long will we be gone?"

"No more than a couple of hours. The guys usually do it, but most of them wonít be back until the day after tomorrow." Lex looked down at the plate Martha had sat in front of her. "Thanks, MadaÖbut isnít this a little much?" Three pancakes, two eggs over easy, several slices of bacon, and two large biscuits filled the plate. "You donít honestly think that Iíll be able to eat all of this, do you?"

Martha patted her gently on top of the head. "You most certainly will, Lexie. I let you get away with skipping dinner last night, so the least I can do is make sure you get a good breakfast. Knowing you, youíll probably be late for lunch, too."

"Sheís got your number, honey," Amanda giggled, but was quickly silenced when a similarly laden plate was placed in front of her. "MmmÖthank you, Martha."

"Good grief, but itís cold out there!" Kevin stomped into the kitchen, followed by a smiling Travis. "How do you do that every morning, Lex?"

Morris quickly stood up and refilled the coffee carafe. "You certainly made good time this morning."

"We had help," Travis admitted, taking the chair on the other side of Lex. "It felt good to get out for a bit." He gratefully accepted the coffee from the younger man. "Thank you, Morris."

"Martha, IÖoops!" Ronnie Sterling rushed in from the mudroom, but stopped when he saw the kitchen full of people. "I didnít realize everyone would still be in here."

The housekeeper hurried over and put an arm around the young manís shoulders. "Iím glad you came in, honey. Sit down at the table and Iíll fix you a plate."

He sat down across from Lex, but had trouble keeping eye contact with the dark-haired woman. "Thank you, maíam. UmmÖLester said to tell you that heís about done, and to let him know when youíre ready." Ronnie quickly began eating the food Martha had given him.

"You help with the stock this morning, Ronnie?" Lex asked the young man, as she worked on clearing her plate. "Not that I donít appreciate it, Ďcause I do. But what made you think about doing it?"

"Lester told me to," he answered between mouthfuls of food. "Said that I should at least take care of the horses in the barn, and maybe hang around afterwards to help with the hay." Ronnie looked up at Martha with adoration. "He also told me that Martha would appreciate it, so here I am." The housekeeper had filled the void in his life left behind when he mother left him and his brother years ago. He would do anything she asked of him, and could usually be found around the main house looking for chores to do.

Lex watched the way Martha treated Ronnie. Guess she misses having someone to mother. An idea was forming in her mind, but she wanted to run it by Amanda before telling anyone else. "Well, Iím glad you did, Ronnie." She caught the look on the housekeeperís face. "Youíll be here tomorrow, wonít you?"

Ronnie hastily swallowed. "Tomorrow? SureÖIíll be glad to take care of the horses again."

"NoÖnot for that." Lex drained her coffee cup and sat it back down. "WellÖI mean, you can take care of the horses, too." She looked over at Amanda for help.

"I think that Lex means for you to be here for Christmas dinner. Weíre going to have lots of snacks all day, and I believe sheíll have the football games going in the den." Amanda smiled at her lover. "My family will be here too, so you can hear all of Frankís old football stories." She remembered how the teenager had followed her brother-in-law around at Thanksgiving, hero worship in his eyes. She knew that Frank was bringing Ronnie an autographed jersey for Christmas, but was sworn to secrecy. Not even Lex knew about it. Sheís going to love what heís giving her Ė I canít wait to see the look on her face!

The rancher stood and carried her plate to the sink, grinning at Martha the entire time. "Thatís right. Youíve got to help me cheer for the Cowboys Ė I think that Frank is rooting for the other team just to aggravate me." Lex saw the young man smile. "Meet me here for breakfast, and the two of us will take care of the stock afterwards, okay?"

"Sure!" Ronnie used to be intimidated by the tall woman, until he got to know her better.

They had been working together on cleaning the horse barn; Lex putting in fresh hay while Ronnie groomed the horses. "Ms. Walters, I really do appreciate everything that youíve done for me. Especially after what my brother almost did to you." Ronnie had been afraid that when they learned about Mattís involvement with the problems around the ranch, including almost killing Lex, that the rancher would send him back to the detention center without another thought.

Lex tossed more clean hay into the empty stall. "Youíre not responsible for the things that your brotherís done, Ronnie. Believe me, I understand completely." She grabbed another bale and cut the wire away from it. "And call me LexÖMs. Walters makes me sound old," she teased.

He continued to brush the paint pony. "SorryÖI keep forgetting. UmmÖcan I ask you a question?" Ronnie was still in awe of this woman who took him in, even after he was involved with the breaking in of her house.

"Sure. Canít guarantee youíll like the answer, though." She stopped and leaned against the pitchfork she had been using.

"WellÖyou keep telling me that you donít hold me responsible for the things that Matt has done and that you can relate to what Iím going through. I guess Iím just wondering how you understand." Ronnie finished with Stormy and left the stall, walking over to where the bales were stacked and sat down. He studied his boots as he tried to avoid Lexís gaze.

The rancher sighed. Guess we were gonna have this chat sooner or later. She sat down beside him and took off her gloves, dusting the knees of her faded jeans with them. "Itís easy for me to understand, because I have an older brother, too."

Ronnieís head jerked up. "Really? Does he live around here? Iíve never heard anyone talk about him."

It was Lexís turn to stare at her boots. "Yeah, he lives in town. WeÖumm, donít get along." Now THATíS an understatement, Lexington. Kinda like saying Elvis was just a singer.

"Thatís hard to believe. Youíre such a nice person." Ronnie blushed when he realized what he had said.

"I think that there are a lot of folks that would disagree with you," Lex laughed. "My brother being number one on the list." She patted him on the shoulder. "But I know from experience that just because youíre related to someone, it doesnít make you the same as them."

He smiled shyly. "Thanks, Lex." Ronnie paused for a moment, then looked back at the ground. "I know that you were expecting me to work full time during the summer, butÖ" he stopped, unable to continue.

"What is it, Ronnie? Arenít you happy here?" Lex never thought about anyone NOT liking ranch work. Maybe heíd rather be in town with his friends. Iím sure I could always find someone there toÖ

"No! I mean, yes! Aw, shoot." Ronnie took a deep breath and wiped a hand down his face. "Iíd still like to live out here and work, too. Itís just that I want to go to summer school."

Summer school? "I thought that you were making good grades." Lex remembered her conversation with Ronnieís counselor. The young manís grades had improved drastically in the past month, mostly due to the close attention that he was given by Lester and Martha.

Ronnie nodded. "I amÖbetter than I ever have before, as a matter of fact," he stated proudly. "But before we were released for the holidays, Mr. Hardin told the that I had improved enough to take some pre-college classes over the summer. All I have to do is get your permission."

Eric Hardin was one of the three school guidance counselors at Somerville High School, and he seemed genuinely concerned for the welfare of the students in his care. When Lex had met with him to re-enroll Ronnie in school, she had been impressed with how he had acted towards the young man. He continually involved Ronnie in the conversations, and even gave him his card with his pager number in case he was needed outside of school hours.

"And this is something that you want to do? Go to school all summer, too?" The longer Lex knew this boy, the more her admiration for him grew.

"Yes, maíam. If I keep my grades up, I can graduate early, and maybe even get a scholarship." His eyes sparkled with excitement. "But I already gave you my word that I would work during the summer Ė so I can understand if you say no. You probably think that Iím just trying to get out of work, anyway," he finished quietly. "Thatís what Matt always thought."

Lex put her hand on his shoulder and squeezed. "I donít think that at all." When he didnít look up at her, she continued. "Do you remember our agreement, Ronnie?"

Brown eyes slowly raised and met hers. "Yes, maíam." Iíd go to school, then work full time to earn my keep during the summer. I guess she really needs the help.

"Then whatís the problem? Your studies come first, thatís the bottom line. Besides," she nudged him with her shoulder. "Martha enjoys when you sit in the kitchen and do your homework in the evenings. Guess it reminds her of when I used to do the same thing."

Lex had been surprised at the housekeeperís knowledge, until Martha had revealed to her years ago that she had gone to college to become a teacher. When her own mother had become seriously ill, Martha quit school and returned to Somerville. Since it was just the two of them, she needed a job to help pay the escalating medical bills. A nurse at the hospital where her mother was being treated told her about Rawson Walterís need for a housekeeper and nanny for his children. His wife had become bedridden with a high-risk pregnancy and he was unable to take care of his home by himself. A month after taking the job, her mother passed away, but she continued on at the ranch. She had become so attached to the family, young Lexington in particular, that she never returned to finish school.

"Really? I can go?" Ronnie jumped to his feet. "Thatís great!" He wrapped his arms around a startled Lex and squeezed. "Thanks!" The young man pulled back, embarrassed. "UmmÖsorry Ďbout that."

Lex laughed and stood up. "Donít be. Iím glad you enjoy school so much." She wrapped her arms around him in a strong hug. "Iím really proud of you, Ronnie."

He returned the hug, then stepped back. "Thanks. That means a lot to me." The smile faded from his face. "Darn! I forgot."

"Whatís wrong?"

"The bus wonít be running in the summer Ė I wonít have a way to school." He sighed. "Oh, well. It was a good thought, anyway."

The tall woman thought for a moment then snapped her fingers. "Hold onÖIíve got an idea." Lex draped an arm across his shoulders and began to lead him from the barn. "I know a certain lady who drives to and from town every day. Bet we could talk her into giving you a ride."

"You think so? Can I ask her now?" he asked excitedly. "Iíll help her around the office in the afternoons until sheís ready to go."

"I think sheíd love the company for the drive in, my friend."

Ronnie looked down at his plate with a secret smile as Lex and Amanda left the kitchen. Matt was so wrong Ė sheís a wonderful person, and soís her girlfriend. Theyíre not perverts, at all. He took in the kitchen atmosphere happily. For the first time in my life, Iíve finally got a home.

***************

Sometime later, Martha was busily rolling out pie crust when the phone rang. She looked over at the young man that was busily writing a book report at the kitchen table. "Ronnie? Could youÖ?"

He jumped out of his chair and grabbed the phone before she could finish her sentence. "Rocking W Ranch, Ronnie speaking."

"Who is this? Let me speak to Lex, right NOW!" the voice on the other end of the phone demanded.

"UmmÖIím sorry, but sheís out checking the fence right now. Can I take a message?" He reached for a notepad and pen.

"NO!" The man paused for a moment, then reconsidered. "Yeah. You can tell her that she canít hide from me forever, and I WILL get whatís mine!" The connection was lost when he slammed down the phone in anger.

"Who was that, dear?" Martha wiped her hands clean and stepped over to where the teenager was standing. "Whatís wrong?"

Ronnie hung up the phone and shook his head. "Iím not sure. It was some really nasty guy. He said something about telling Lex that she couldnít hide from him, and heíd get whatís his. Strange."

Martha rubbed her hand over his shoulder in a comforting manner. "That must have been her brother, Hubert. Iím afraid heís not a very nice person."

"THAT was Hubert? Lex has told me about him Ė he even makes MY brother look good." Ronnie turned around to face the older woman. "Why doesnít he like her? Sheís a really good person." He knew why his brother hated the rancher. Lex had not only foiled Mattís attempt to steal her cattle, but had also helped capture him after he broke into the ranch house. Not to mention when he jumped her in the barn last month. She really kicked his butt!

"I donít know, honey. Heís been like that for as long as Iíve known him. Iím afraid itís just his nature." She rubbed her hands together. "Why donít you let me fix you some milk and cookies? Youíve been working on that report nonstop ever since the girls left."

"That sounds like a great idea." He went over to the refrigerator and pulled out the milk. "Can I ask you a question, Martha?"

The housekeeper turned from where she was filling a plate with sweets. "Sure, honey. Ask away."

He carried his milk to the table and sat down. "I was kinda hoping, if someone wouldnít mindÖ" Ronnie picked up a cookie from the plate Martha sat in front of him. "It is Christmas, after all, andÖ"

"What is it, dear?"

"Itís just thatÖwell, no matter what heís done, heís still my brother." Ronnie looked up into Marthaís concerned eyes. "And Iíd really like to see him."

The request was something that Martha had been expecting. She had become quite fond of the teenager in the short amount of time he had been living at the ranch. Family was important to him, even though he hadnít had much of a family life. Up until now, anyway. "You want to visit your brother, donít you?" He reminds me of Louis, sometimes. Lexís younger brother was Ronnieís age when he had been killed in a boating accident, and the housekeeper still harbored guilt over the fact that she hadnít been at the ranch when it happened.

Ronnie looked down at the table and nodded. "Yes, maíam. I just want to let Matt know that heís not alone for the holiday." He looked back up and smiled slightly. "It doesnít have to be on Christmas day. Maybe on Sunday?"

"Iím sure Lexie will be glad to drive you in. Weíll ask her when she gets back, okay?" Martha walked over to look out the large window over the sink. I hope they get back soon Ė it looks like it could get nasty out there.

***************

Amanda studied the strong profile across from her. They had been driving around for almost two hours, yet the rancher hadnít uttered more than a sentence or two. She turned her attention through the windshield at the gathering clouds. The forecast for the evening called for a chance of rain, possibly mixed with sleet by tomorrow. Not a white Christmas, but at least itís cold. Thatís more than I can say for the holidays I spent in California. "HeyÖ" She reached over and grasped Lexís arm.

"Hmm?"

"Whatís up? Is there anything I can do to help?" Amanda waited until the rancherís eyes locked with hers. "You seem really preoccupied."

Lex smiled, then looked back to the road, which ran next to the fence. "Sorry about that. I was just going over some stuff in my head. But I would like to talk to you about it." She raised her hand from where it rested on the gearshift and dropped it to squeeze Amandaís leg. "Martha seems pretty attached to Ronnie, doesnít she?"

Whatís going on in that head of hers? Amanda covered the strong hand on her leg with her own and nodded. "Sure seems like it. Does that bother you?"

"Nah. I was just thinking out loud, thatís all." She slowed the jeep in order to navigate several deep ruts in the road. I thought I told those guys to get this damn thing graded after the big rains weíve had recently. Gonna have to kick some butts when they get back Sunday. Lex sighed and shook her head. Back to the conversation at hand. "Marthaís a lot better with him than some of those guys down at the bunkhouse, donít you think?"

"WellÖyes. Although theyíve all been really nice to me. But I think that Ronnie needs a womanís influence right now." Amanda had to release Lexís hand to brace herself against the dash after the jeep suddenly lurched. "Are you sure this is supposed to be a road?"

"Iím sure." Lex downshifted and used all of her strength to fight the steering wheel. "Hang onÖIím going to take a little detour, and try to find an easier way around this mess." The road ahead was nothing more than deep muddy ruts, and even the jeep would be hard-pressed to navigate it safely. She steered the old jeep through a break in the roadside brush. Several low-lying branches slapped at the windshield, and Lex barely avoided an overturned tree as she guided the vehicle along. "Aw, shit!" She slammed on the brakes as a large, angry-looking animal glared back at them from a short distance away.

Amanda leaned forward and peered through the windshield. "That looks like aÖ" The animal was almost as large as the jeep, itís dark hide shining menacingly in the afternoon gloom.

"Brahman bull," the rancher helpfully supplied. "And heís not one of ours, either. Which means weíve got a broken fence somewhere." Probably belongs to old man Braxton. His farm is next to ours, and he never takes care of his damn fence. Lex put the jeep in reverse and tried to back away. The tires spun ineffectually in the slick mud, and the whining noise caused the bull to lower his massive head and shake it from side to side. She turned in her seat and looked through the back window, trying to see what was holding the vehicle in place.

"UmmÖhoney?" Amandaís eyes widened as the animal pawed the ground. She unconsciously leaned back in her seat. "Lex?"

The jeep continued to rock back and forth, as Lex held down, then released the accelerator. "Damn! I might have to put something under the tires before we canÖ" A strong grip on her arm stopped her in mid sentence. "What?" She turned around and saw what was causing her friendís nervousness.

"He looks like heís about to come after us," the blonde observed fearfully. "He could hurt himself, couldnít he?" Amanda worried about what would happen to the animal if he tried to ram the jeep. She didnít realize that because of the way the vehicle was parked, it would most likely hit her side first.

"If heís stupid enough to charge, then he deserves toÖShit!" Lex looked at where the bull was standing. "AmandaÖunbuckle your seatbelt."

Picking up on her loverís concern, Amanda did as she was asked. "What are you doing?"

Lex had released her seatbelt and slowly opened her door. "Iím going to try and push us out of this damn mudÖand I need you to scoot over here to drive." Thatís one way to get her away from that side of the jeep, in case he charges.

"Excuse me? Do you see that angry beast out there?" The younger woman pointed towards the bull, which was still shaking its head and pawing the ground. "Are you out of your mind?" She moved over to the driverís side. "I donít think that those horns are ornamental." Each bony protrusion looked to be about twelve inches long, but still dangerous enough to cause damage.

"No, really?" Lex tapped the top of the jeep. "This thing is covered with canvas Ė do you really think that weíd be safe if our friend decides to play?" She bent down to check the condition of the rear tire. "DamnÖ" The wheel was buried almost halfway in red mud. "This is gonna take some digging."

Amanda grabbed the arm of the heavy coat that Lex was wearing. "Wait a minute! Why donít we just sit tight for a bit, and see if he goes away?" The bull had quit stomping, and now stretched his head forward to sniff towards the jeep.

The rancher shrugged out of her coat and tossed it in the back of the vehicle. "I donít trust those animals. Saw one climb the stands at a rodeo once, just for the hell of it." She grabbed the shovel she kept in the jeep for rebuilding fences. "Let me dig some of the mud out of the way, then you pull the jeep forward when I say, all right?"

"I donít like this, Lex." Amanda put the old vehicle in gear while keeping her eye on the bull. "Heís looking at me kind of funny."

"Maybe he thinks youíre cute," the rancher grunted, as she scraped the clay-like mud away from the wheel.

The blonde rolled her eyes. "Very funny." She turned her head and leaned outside to watch the tall woman work, only to notice with alarm that Lex was no where to be seen. "LEX!"

"What?" A dark head peeked out from behind the jeep. "Are you okay?"

"Donít scare me like that!" Amanda chastised then leaned back into the jeep shakily.

Lex edged her way back around to the driver side door. "Iím sorry, sweetheart. I was just gathering up some loose wood to put under the tire." She started to put her hand on her partnerís shoulder, but the mud caked around her fingers changed her mind. "Iím gonna go to the front of the jeep. When I give the word, I want you to drop it into reverse and step on the gas, okay?"

Amanda sat up. "What? Why the front of the jeep?" She had just assumed that Lex would push from behind or maybe even from the left side door.

"Do you want to drive TOWARDS that?" Lex pointed at the bull, which was still glaring from his position some twenty feet away. "If he starts heading this way, blow the horn to warn me. Then weíll think of something else."

"Okay." Amanda put the jeep in reverse, and watched as Lex slowly moved around to the front of the jeep. "I donít like this," she mumbled. "Stubborn, pig-headed lunatic Ė playing hide and seek with El Diablo out there."

The rancher stood in front of the jeep and smiled. "You ready?" she mouthed to the woman behind the wheel. At Amandaís nod, Lex braced her hands against the hood and winked. "Now!"

Amanda stepped hard on the accelerator, which caused the tires to spin momentarily then take hold. The jeep lurched suddenly, racing back several yards before ramming into a tree and coming to a stop. "Oh, no."

The force of the retreating vehicle caused Lex to fall face first onto the muddy ground. She slowly raised herself to her knees and shook her head to clear it. "WellÖthat worked." The sudden blare of the jeepís horn caused her to climb to her feet rapidly. She turned around and came almost nose to nose with the bull. "Oh, shit."

"Oh, shit!" After the uncharacteristic words spilled from her mouth, Amanda jumped out of the jeep, brandishing the shovel that Lex had used earlier. "Iím coming, LexÖhold on!"

"No!" Lex raised one arm behind her in warning to keep her friend away. She kept eye contact with the animal, which was continuing to edge closer to her. "Stay back, Amanda. Please," she finished in a near whisper. "Get back to the jeep."

Amanda dropped the shovel and against her better judgement, did as she was asked. She then watched in horror as the huge beast lowered his head and stepped right up to where her partner stood. "GodÖno."

Lex heard Amandaís whispered plea. She closed her eyes and braced herself for the worst. Iím sorry loveÖ I really donít want you to see this.

The bull snorted and lowered his head, until his nose almost touched the ground. He brought his head up and butted Lex in the stomach, pushing her back slightly.

"Huh?" The rancher opened her eyes and looked at the bull, who bumped her again gently. "Iíll be damnÖ" She reached up and scratched the animal between the eyes.

Sheís PETTING him? Amanda released the breath she had been holding and leaned forward onto the steering wheel. A thump on the hood caused her head to pop back up. "Good lord."

Lex had walked back over to the jeep, the bull following behind her like a fifteen hundred-pound puppy. "UmmÖlook what followed me home." She gave the blonde an embarrassed grin. "Can I keep him?"


Chapter 9

"SoÖLex ends up walking all the way back to Mr. Braxtonís farm, because the bull kept trying to follow her," Amanda related with a chuckle. She had been pressed into telling the story of yesterdayís adventure with the love struck animal, much to her partnerís embarrassment. After the huge Christmas dinner, everyone had migrated from the large table in the sitting room to the den. Amanda was snuggled into the rancherís arms, Lex having dropped to the floor by the fireplace in mock misery.

Lex shook her head. "It wasnít half as dramatic as Amanda tells it," she reassured Martha who had a very worried expression on her face. "Mr. Braxton told us that his granddaughter had raised the bull from a bottle Ė thatís why he was so friendly." She propped her chin on her loverís shoulder and took in the shocked looks from around the room. "He wasnít even full grown yet Ė just a baby, really."

"Trouble just seems to find you," Martha sighed. She leaned back against Charlie, who was sharing space with her on the loveseat. The sheriffís arms squeezed her gently and he leaned down to kiss her cheek.

Amanda giggled. The arms around her tightened in warning, which caused her to giggle louder.

"My sister is a perfect example of that," Jeannie agreed. "Sheís been getting into trouble since she was old enough to walk." Her husband chuckled, but refrained from adding any comments.

Anna Leigh laughed at the indignant look on her granddaughterís face. "Thatís a fact, for sure!"

"Gramma!" Amanda squeaked.

"Itís true, honey, and you know it." Jacob smiled at the young woman apologetically. "Our summers were always full of excitement with you around." He looked around the room at the indulgent smiles. "She had this knack of being in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Lex raised her head. "Oh, really? Care to elaborate on that, Grandpa Jake?" An elbow to her ribs caused the amused woman to grunt. "What?"

"Iím going to get you for that, Slim," Amanda murmured. She looked down at their entwined hands, and suddenly forgot what she was angry about. The antique ring on her left hand glittered brightly.

It was Jeannieís turn to giggle. "Maybe we should tell Lex about the time that Mandy ran away from home." The rest of her family moaned in remembrance.

"That wasnít my fault!" The blonde exclaimed. "It could have happened to anyone!"

"Uh-huh." Jeannie looked at Anna Leigh, who shook her head and grinned. "Let me see. She was aboutÖ" She looked upward, as if in deep thought. "Ten or eleven, I think. We were here, for some sort of family reunion or somethingÖ"

Michael cleared his throat. He had been quietly enjoying the conversation, but decided it was time to join in. "I believe that it was for Mom and Dadís anniversary, wasnít it?" He looked at his parents for confirmation.

"Thirty-fifth." Jacob related proudly, pulling his wife closer and kissing the side of her head gently.

The younger woman nodded. "Right! Okay, where was I?" She ignored her sisterís outraged look. "Anyway, Mother and Mandy had gotten into an argument, although I canít remember now what it was about."

Amanda sighed. "She was angry that I had been climbing the tree in the back yard Ė kept telling me it wasnít ladylike." A snicker from behind her caused the young woman to turn around slightly. "Watch it."

"Sorry," Lex whispered. "But you were a kid. How can she get on to you about something like that?" She was amazed at how well Amanda grew up, considering her family background. Guess I have Jacob and Anna Leigh to thank for that. Theyíve definitely been a great influence on her.

"Ahem." Jeannie glared at the couple, and then flipped her auburn hair back over her shoulder. "Excuse meÖIím trying to tell a story here."

Lex chuckled. "Sorry Ďbout that, Jeannie. Go ahead." She raised one hand from where it was tucked against her partner and waved at the other woman in a shooing motion. "Weíll behave. For now," she finished in a quiet whisper, just loud enough for Amanda to hear, and cause her partner to giggle again.

"Thank you," Jeannie nodded regally. She ignored the roomful of chuckles and snickers, and continued her story. "Mandy was so upset with Mother, she decided to run away from home. So she packed up a paper sack with some things and took off through the back gate. No one realized that she had left, so she had several hours head start on the rest of us."

Travis had been listening intently. "Where on earth would a young girl run off to in Somerville? Thereís not that many places to go." He looked over at Amanda, who looked as if she wanted to hide. This looks like itís going to get good.

Michael shook his head. "Amanda was always resourceful as a child Ė she seemed to find the darndest things to get into." He looked to his oldest daughter to continue the story.

"Thatís the darn truth, Daddy." Jeannie went back into storyteller mode. "Iím not sure how she found it, but Mandy ended up down at the train yard. She must have decided to play hobo, because she jumped into one of the empty cars fell asleep."

"Oh, no." Marthaís eyes widened at the scene in her head. "It wasnít attached to a train, was it?"

Jeannie nodded. "It sure was. I guess they didnít have many problems with people stowing away, because no one ever checked the cars for stowaways. Mandy was completely exhausted and didnít wake up until the train stopped. She must have really raised a fuss - one of the men who was working on one of the cars found her falling apart."

"I wasnít falling apart," Amanda countered. "I was just a little bit scared, thatís all." She smiled ruefully. "How was I supposed to know that the darn thing would end up in Houston?"

Charlie laughed. "Good grief! Thatís quite a trip." He tightened his grip on Martha and looked over at Amanda. "What did you do?"

"IÖummÖcried for my daddy," Amanda murmured, embarrassed. "But the guy who found me was really nice, and he took me into their office to call my family." She shook her head. "Unfortunately, I couldnít remember the number to Grammaís house, but they did call the local police and got hold of them that way."

Ronnie looked over at Michael. "I bet she was in a wad of trouble, wasnít she?" He knew that if he had pulled a stunt like that, his father would have probably beaten him within an inch of his life. At least heís in prison now. Iíd hate for him to show up here sometime and cause trouble. A secretive smile crossed the young manís face. Maybe he and Matt will become roomies Ė that would be funny.

"Thatís putting it mildly," Michael agreed. He looked over at his parents in partial shame. "Iím afraid that I didnít handle the whole thing very well."

After driving for almost two hours, the entire family was on edge. Elizabeth had refused to come, stating that she had more important things to do than chase down her errant child. She had even suggested that they ask the authorities to put Amanda on the next bus northwest, to teach the young girl a lesson. Michael, tired of arguing with his wife, accepted his parentís offer of a ride to the large city to pick Amanda up. By the time they arrived at the train yard, he was livid.

The office to the freight train company was small, and through the window, they could see Amanda sitting beside an old oak desk, curled up in a chair that had lost most of its stuffing years ago. She had one of her old dolls pulled up to her chest, and she appeared to be asleep. Michael opened the door and stood for a moment, battling with himself over whether to pull the young girl up and into his arms, or give her a good spanking. "Amanda."

Green eyes, puffy from crying, opened in confusion. "Daddy?" Amanda practically leaped from the chair and into her fatherís embrace. She tucked her head into his neck and began to cry again. "Iím sorry, Daddy."

The executive flinched as the denim-covered legs wrapped around his waist. He could smell grease, and knew that his expensive suit would be forever ruined by his daughterís filthy embrace. "ShhhÖitís all right, honey. Weíve come to take you home."

"Thatís right, Peanut," Jacob added quietly. He stepped up beside them and patted Amanda on the back gently. "You sure gave us a scare."

Amanda sniffled and pulled her head back to look around. "Whereís Mother?" She tried to wipe at her face with her sleeve, but Jacob stopped her by handing his granddaughter a handkerchief.

"Sheís back at the house, dearest." Anna Leigh stepped forward and held out her hands. She could see the look of disgust as it crossed her sonís face. I wish he would quit worrying so much about appearances, and think about the horror his daughter has just gone through. "Come with me, Mandy. Weíll go into the ladies room and get you cleaned up a bit." The child quickly jumped into her arms and hugged her tight.

Michael watched as his mother carried his daughter to the facilities on the other side of the office. He looked back at his father and sighed. "I donít know who Iím more angry with, Elizabeth or Amanda. I want to turn both of them over my knee." He brushed at the grease stains on his jacket. This is never going to come out. Oh, wellÖat least sheís safe.

"Now son, donít do anything drastic." The older man put his arm around his sonís shoulders and led him outside. "Yes, she deserves to be punished for running away. But remember, sheís just a child, and sheís been through an awful scare." He watched as Anna Leigh stepped out of the small building. Amanda still had a death grip on his wifeís neck, and her small legs were wound tightly around the petite womanís waist. His heart broke at the sobs still emanating from the child.

"So have we." Michael brushed his fatherís arm from his shoulders and stalked towards the pair descending the rickety stairs. "Amanda LorraineÖyou are in some serious trouble, young lady." He ignored his motherís look and pulled the child from her arms. "Stop that crying, and come on. Weíll talk on the way to the car." Michael grabbed Amandaís hand and partially dragged her back to his motherís Lincoln Town car. "I canít believe you pulled such an irresponsible stunt! Do you have any idea what could have happened to you?" He swatted the young girl on the rear with his open hand, hard. "I ought to send you to a private school, where you wonít get into any trouble!"

Amanda began to cry harder, holding one hand behind her to protect her pained bottom. "No, Daddy! Please! Iíll be good!" Another strong swat and she stumbled forward, the hard graveled ground shredding the skin on her palms. "Please, DaddyÖstop!" She held her hands to her chest, sobbing.

"Thatís quite enough, Michael." Anna Leigh brushed by her son to scoop the almost screaming child into her arms. "Get in the car."

Michael felt his blood boil. How dare she tell me how to discipline my own daughter! He stepped forward to take Amanda away from his mother when a strong hand on his shoulder stopped him. "Son, donít even think about it." Jacobís normally friendly demeanor turned into ice. "You can sit in the front of the car with me, while your mother takes care of Amanda."

"Yes, sir." The executive knew when he had lost. He stopped for a moment and thought about what he had almost done. His fear of what could have happened to Amanda had caused him to hurt his daughter. I should just be thankful that sheís safe. He shook his head and climbed into the car.

Michael felt the shame of his actions slam back into him, as if the incident had happened yesterday. I canít believe how I treated her then. And yet, she still loves me. He looked up into Amandaís eyes. "Iím sorry, honey," he whispered. Her green eyes showed nothing but love and compassion.

"Hey! How about some cobbler?" Martha jumped up from her place next to Charlie and rubbed her hands together. "Iíve even got some homemade vanilla ice cream to put on top of it." She led everyone from the room, except for Michael, Amanda and Lex.

The rancher stood behind Amanda, who had quickly crossed the room to stand face to face with Michael. She placed her hands on the younger womanís shoulders in a comforting gesture. "Do youÖ?"

"Yeah. Iíll be right there, love," Amanda whispered, gently dismissing her partner. Lex nodded and left the room quietly. "DaddyÖ"

"WaitÖhear me out, okay?" Michael held up his hand. "Iíve done a lot of things in my life Iím not very proud of. Most of them have to do with the way I raised my children." He saw the tears begin to fill Amandaís eyes. "But, throughout it all, Iíve loved you. I guess I just didnít show it too well. Forgive me?"

Amanda took another step forward and wrapped her arms around him. "Thereís nothing to forgive, Daddy. Iíve always loved you, too." She felt his arms circle her and leaned into the embrace. "Iíve never felt anything but love from you. Weíve had our differences in the past, but Iíd like to think that we can move on from here." After a few moments, both had calmed down and stepped back. "Want to join me for some cobbler and ice cream?" Amanda winked at her father.

"Sure, honey. Sounds good to me." Michael followed his daughter, thinking to himself just how lucky a man he was. Iíll spend the rest of my life making it up to you, sweetheartÖI promise.

***************

A heavy pounding from downstairs awakened Lex from a sound sleep. "Huh? What the hellÖ?" She sat up in bed and ran a hand through her disheveled hair. The groggy rancher spared a glance at her lover who had been unceremoniously dumped from her comfortable spot when Lex had practically sprang out of bed.

"Lex? Whatís going on?" Amanda murmured, rubbing her eyes like a sleepy child. She stretched and sat up also. "Is that someone at the front door?" The loud noise continued while Lex crawled out of bed and slipped on her boxer shorts and tee shirt.

"Yeah, sounds like it." The older woman glanced over at the alarm clock next to the bed. "This had better be good to get me up at two-thirty in the damn morning." Although I have a pretty good idea who it is, the worthless ass.

"Let me get dressed, and Iíll go with you." Amanda started to get out of bed, but stopped when her lover raised a hand.

The rancher shook her head. "Nah, itís probably nothing. You just keep my place warm." She started towards the closed door when a voice from the hallway caused her to smile.

"Lexie? Are you awake?" Travisí concerned voice could be heard beyond the door. "What is that awful noise?"

Lex opened the door and bit back a grin. Her grandfatherís normally neat hair was standing up in every direction. Looks like heís been sleeping a lot better since he moved in here. "I donít know, Grandpa. I think itís just someone at the front door." She stood beside him and put her hand on his shoulder. "Why donít you go back to bed, and Iíll take care of it." Stifling a yawn, Lex walked past Travis and started down the stairs. A moment later, two bodies were right behind her. "Címon, yíallÖI think I can answer the door by myself."

Travis patted her on the back. "Iím sure you can, honey. But Iím really curious as to who would be out here this time of night." He continued to follow the tall woman down the stairs, Amanda right behind him.

As they neared the door, Lex could hear muffled curses from outside. "Gee, what a surprise," she grumbled under her breath as she opened the door. "Merry Christmas, Hubert."

"Kiss my ass, Lex!" The big man pushed his way past his sister and spun around to face her, oblivious to the two people standing at the foot of the stairs. "What the hell is this?" He shook his fist in her face, almost cutting her with the wadded up piece of paper he held.

"Looks like a piece of paper to me, Hube." Lex graced her brother with a smirk, enjoying taunting the older man. She never saw him reach for her.

The enraged man grabbed Lexís shoulders and shoved her up against the closed door. Hubert leaned in so close that she could smell the tequila on his breath. "I should have gotten rid of you when I had the chance, little sister. Youíve been a thorn in my side my entire life!" He shifted his hold so that his left arm was against her throat and he could pull back his right fist.

Taken by surprise, Lex reached up with both hands to try and pry his arm from her windpipe. He had her off balance, and the startled woman was hard pressed to keep her footing. She could feel herself getting dizzy from lack of oxygen, and spots began to fill her vision. DamnÖ

"Not so fast, son." Travis had stepped behind his grandson and grabbed his poised hand. "I think youíve caused enough trouble for one lifetime, donít you think?" Dear god, I want to tear into him!

"Who the hell do you think you are? Back off, old man!" Hubert released his hold on Lex, and spun around to confront the man holding his arm. "YOU!?"

Amanda rushed over to where Lex was now kneeling, gasping for breath and rubbing her aching throat. "God, LexÖare you okay?" The blonde dropped to her knees and put an arm around her partnerís shoulders. She could feel Lex fighting to draw air back into her lungs.

"Yeah," her lover croaked. "Just caught me off guard. Help me up, will ya?"

Travis loosened his grip on the bigger manís hand and stepped back a pace before he took a swing at his grandson. He gets more like Rawson every day. What a shame. "Hello, Hubert. Itís been a while." He looked over at Lex, who was being helped to her feet by Amanda. "Are you okay, honey?"

Lex nodded. "Just ducky." She cleared her throat and glared at her brother. "This is becoming a habit with you, Hubert. What the hell are you doing out here this time of night? Canít you visit during the daytime like a normal person?"

"Bitch." Hubert started forward but was stopped by a surprisingly strong hand on his shoulder. "Let go of me, you old fart Ė before I forget that weíre related and kick your ass."

"I really donít think you want to try and do that, buddy." Kevin growled from the staircase. He was wearing only a pair of flannel pajama bottoms, and in the dim light his normally open face was marred by anger. The muscles in his arms bulged as he gripped the banister to control his temper. Morris was standing behind him with an equally outraged look on his handsome face. They had heard the commotion and decided to come downstairs to investigate.

Hubert glared at the newcomers. "Who the hell are you?" JesusÖthat guyís huge!

"Theyíre family, Hubert. Now, you gonna tell me what your problem is this time, or do I have to try and guess?" Lex had regained her voice and flashed a grateful smile to the men on the stairs. I know I can handle him, but itís nice to have some backup, just in case.

"Family? They look like a couple ofÖ" The blonde cut off Hubertís nasty retort.

"Why donít we all go into the living room where itís more comfortable?" Amanda offered, wrapping a protective arm around her loverís waist. "Itís a bit chilly here in the hall." And Lex looks as if sheís about to remove Hubertís head from his shouldersÖalthough that could be an improvement.

Lex led the way, shaking her head when Hubert pushed past them to step into the den. "After you, brother dear," she murmured, her throat still aching from the abuse it had taken.

The angry man took off his coat and tossed it on the back of the sofa. "Why donít you rustle up some coffee, sweet thing?" he sneered at Amanda. His bloodshot eyes raked over her scantily clad body. The brightly colored robe barely concealed the long tee shirt she wore. What a waste Ė all she needs is a good man to steer her on the right track. Hubert dropped down onto the nearby chair and glared at his sister. "You gonna tell me why you did it?"

"Back off, Hube. What was it that I was supposed to have done?" Lex was fighting herself, wanting to make the older man pay for his condescending remarks to her lover. Promise or not, if he keeps looking at Amanda like that, Iím gonna pull him out of that chair and kick his ass.

He wadded up the paper and threw it at the dark-haired woman. "Read for yourself."

"Is everything okay in here?" Morris asked, standing in the doorway. Kevin stood behind him, a proprietary hand on his shoulder.

Amanda smiled at her uncle. "Just fine. This is Lexís brother, Hubert." She pointed to the large man sprawled out on the overstuffed chair.

Lex caught the balled up paper and opened it. A counter suit? Oops. Looks like Melvin has been working some overtime. "Couldnít this have waited until the morning?"

"You rotten bitch," Hubert jumped up from his seat. "Are you trying to ruin our familyís reputation? This is bullshit, and you know it!"

She chuckled humorlessly. "What reputation? I think that you and Dad took care of that a long time ago." Lex stepped forward until she was nose to nose with her brother. "Now you listen to me. I want you out of this house, and off MY property in the next five minutes, or Iíll have your sorry ass thrown in jail for trespassing. You got that?"

Hubertís face turned deep red, and he clinched his fists. "Iíll get you for this, Lex." He grabbed the coat that his sister shoved at him. The upset man stomped from the room, slamming the front door on his way out.

"Well, that was fun." The rancher walked over to the front window and watched as her brotherís expensive car raced from the front drive. What an ass. Lex turned away from the dark view when she felt a gentle touch on her back. She read the concern in Amandaís eyes and smiled to reassure her. "He sure knows how to liven up a holiday, doesnít he?"

Travis stepped up beside the two women, fury still clouding his handsome features. "That boy ought to be horse whipped," he grumbled, raising a hand and lightly tracing the angry red marks on his granddaughterís throat.

"Itís okay, Grandpa." Lex captured his hand and squeezed it. "Doesnít even hurt."

The two men standing by the sofa looked at each other and shrugged. Neither one of them knew what to say after that little scene. The veterinarian cleared his throat. "Why donít we all go back upstairs and try to get some sleep?" Morris suggested to the group. "As much as I enjoy everyoneís company, three oíclock in the morning is a bit early."

Lex fought back a yawn. "Sounds good to me. Although I really should stay up and get all the books organized before Monday." While over at the Braxton farm, Lex had listened to the old man brag about his granddaughter. She had recently moved back to the farm with him after living in Wisconsin working as an accountant for her motherís company for the past few years. She had tired of the snow and ice, and decided to move back to Texas where her father lived. For the time being she was helping out in her fatherís office, but wanted to start building her own clientele so she could work independently.

"Thatís right. Mr. Braxtonís granddaughter is coming out Monday morning, isnít she?" Amanda was glad that they were handing over the books to a professional. Lex was getting too stressed trying to manage the books AND the ranch, and Iíve been too busy at the office to help out much.

Travis put his arm around Lex and steered her towards the door. "You can work on all that stuff later. For now, why donít you go upstairs get some rest? I heard from Lester last night, and he said all the ranch hands were back Ė so theyíll take care of the stock today."

"WellÖIÖ" Lex shook her head. "Thereís quite a bit to do around here today, Grandpa. I canít expect them to do all my work for me." She leaned into his strong body as a wave of fatigue washed over her. And I need to go down to the bunkhouse and talk to the guys about not getting the roads graded before they left. Somebodyís in trouble for that one.

"Thatís what you pay them for, isnít it? Lexie, youíve got to quit working yourself into the ground. Youíve got a ranch full of men who are more than capable of doing the work, or you wouldnít have them around. Let them do their job, sweetheart." He turned slightly and winked at Amanda, who was having a quiet conversation with her uncle. The young woman smiled and waved discreetly in his direction. Travis continued to lead Lex from the room, pulling her closer and talking quietly in her ear. "Youíve finally found someone to share your life. I think that Amanda deserves more of your attention, donít you?"

Lex closed her eyes momentarily. "She deserves everything I could give her. Itís just that I donít want to get lazy. And that would be easy to do if I let the guys do all the work around here." She opened her eyes and realized that they were standing by her bedroom door. How did he do that? I donít even remember walking up the stairs.

Travis laughed at the look on her face. "See? You are tired." He brushed the hair away from her eyes and smiled. "You could never be lazy, honey. I have a feeling thatís more of Rawson talking than you. God knows, that man thought he was the only person in the world who ever worked for a living."

"Thanks, Grandpa." Lex leaned in as he kissed her forehead. She wrapped her arms around him and squeezed. "Iím really glad youíre here."

"Me too, Lexie. Now go back to bed, and Iíll see you later, okay?" The older man placed another gentle kiss on her head and then walked back towards his own room.

Amanda met Travis in the hall. "Is everything okay?"

He nodded. "Just fine, honey. Just had to talk some sense into my stubborn grandchild. I donít know where she gets it from," he teased. "Youíre looking a bit tired, yourself. Iíll see you in the morning." Travis accepted the young womanís hug with a smile. "Or maybe afternoon."

"That sounds like a great idea Ė Iíll see if I can keep her in bedÖ" Amanda blushed when she realized how that sounded. "I mean, Iíll try to make sure that Lex gets some rest. Goodnight." She waved at the chuckling man and quickly escaped to her own bedroom.

Chapter 10

"So, would you be more comfortable working in our office here at the ranch, or at your office in town?" Lex asked the woman sitting across from her. "It doesnít matter that much to me, as long as you can make some sense out of the whole mess." They had spent the better part of the morning in the den discussing everything from accounting to grandparents.

The older woman chuckled. "Youíd be amazed at some of the bookwork Iíve seen since Iíve been back. I think my father has given me all of his worst clients, hoping that I can do something with them." Janna Hotchiss ruffled one hand through her short blonde hair. She was almost five years older than Lex, and almost as tall. Her blue eyes were several shades lighter, and her face seemed years younger because of her open smile. "If you donít mind, I think it would be easier for me to work at my granddadís house, that way Iím close by if I have any questions."

Lex nodded. "Sure. But youíre welcome to use my office, if you want." She smiled as Amanda walked into the den, carrying a tray with coffee and mugs.

"I may, a bit later. But for now, Iím going to work on your books at odd hours, and thereís no sense in disturbing you. Once I get everything figured out, Iíll put it on a disk and load it on your computer, okay?" Janna smiled at Amanda, who handed her a cup of coffee. "Thank you."

Amanda returned the smile and sat down next to her partner. "Youíre welcome. Why will you be working odd hours? Is everything all right?"

Janna laughed. "Oh, sure. Everythingís fine. I just tend to be a bit of a night owl. All this peace and quiet tends to feed my insomnia, and I work better at home." She stretched out her denim-covered legs with a contented sigh. "Youíve really got a beautiful home, Lex. Iím trying to get Granddad to do something with that old house of his. Weíre lucky to have indoor plumbing."

"Heh. Thanks. Iím going to redo the outside this spring, though. Iíve never liked stucco." The rancher propped her feet on the coffee table, dropping them almost immediately when Amanda pinched her leg. "Ow!"

The blonde glared at her lover. "Thatíll teach you to act uncivilized," she whispered. Turning her attention back to their guest, Amanda smiled again. "Iím afraid I havenít met your father, Janna. Do you enjoy working with him?" She caught the hand that was sneaking across her thigh and held it tightly.

"Heís pretty easy to work with, but I want to get out on my own, again. Working with him makes me feel like a little girl, you know?" Janna leaned forward. "Iíll probably be looking for office space soon. You wouldnít happen to know of anything available, would you?" She had talked with Amanda for almost an hour while they waited for Lex to return from the bunkhouse, and learned most of the history between the two women.

"Not right off the top of my head, but Iíll check when I get into the office in the morning." Amanda had postponed going back to work this morning at Lexís request. The rancher had wanted her opinion on the new bookkeeper, and trusted her partnerís instincts about people. "If youíre in town tomorrow, maybe I can show you something then."

Janna drained the rest of her coffee and stood up. "That sounds great." She picked up a heavy briefcase that was on the floor next to her chair. "Lex, Iíll call you if I have any questions. I helped balance the books at a dairy farm up north, so at least Iím familiar with your type of business."

"At least you know about bulls," Lex teased, as she walked their guest to the front door. "And believe me, Iím very glad you do. Your Ďpetí nearly scared ten years off my life."

"Heís just an overgrown baby," Janna joked. "But I do appreciate you bringing him home. Iím going to hire someone this week to rebuild his pen." She sighed. "I should have named him Houdini instead of BJ." She held out her hand to the dark-haired woman. "Thanks for giving me this opportunity, Lex. Iíll do my best for you."

Lex shook the hand offered to her. "Thank you. UmmÖsince Iím not really doing much this week, how about if I come over and look at that pen for you? Maybe we can work out a bit of a trade."

The older woman nodded. "Sure. That sounds great to me, if itís not too much trouble. I know BJ would love to see you again," she teased. "Seriously, come on over any time. Iíll let Granddad know to expect you." Janna stepped off the porch and waved as she climbed into a battered old truck. She had explained to them earlier that her car was in the shop, and her grandfather had kindly loaned her his old Ford F-150. The battered old vehicle was several different shades, due to minor wrecks that he had throughout the years. The elder Braxton would go to the junkyard and get a new part, not bothering to have it painted to match. Anyone looking at the truck would be hard pressed to decide what its original color was.

"Sheís sweet." Amanda commented, walking up behind Lex and wrapping her arms around the rancher. She buried her face in the taller womanís back, inhaling deeply. "MmmÖ"

Lex turned around and hugged her lover. "Uh-huh," she murmured, sinking her nose in the blondeís hair. "Weíve got an hour or so to kill until lunchÖwanna go fool around?"

Amanda bent her head to grant Lex easier access to her neck, where the taller woman was placing gentle kisses. "MmmÖahhÖwe really shouldnít." She felt her knees weaken when Lex sucked on her earlobe. "UmmÖwell, maybe if we just go into the den, andÖooohÖ"

"Heh. Thought that was a convincing argument," Lex chuckled, as she scooped Amanda up in her arms and carried the smaller woman into the den, without losing contact with her throat.

***************

Michael Cauble stepped into his darkened shop and locked the door behind him. He had spent the morning at his parentsí house looking through old photograph albums, and realized with shame how few of the family pictures he was actually in. I was always too busy to spend time with my children while they were growing up he sighed to himself. As he headed up the stairs towards his loft apartment, he noticed the light on in the room in the back that he used for an office. I donít remember leaving that light on. At the doorway he gasped in shock. "What the hell are YOU doing here?"

"Iím hurt, Michael. I thought youíd be more happy to see me, dear." Elizabeth Cauble uncrossed her well-defined legs and stood up. She had a new tan, and her blonde hair had a decidedly lighter tint to it from the last time he had seen her. The expensive business suit had been tailor made for her body, and it showed. "Iíve been waiting all morning for you. Where on earth have you been?" She started towards her husband with a disarming smile on her face.

He continued to step back away from the grinning woman. "Get away from me! Youíre crazy!"

The smile dropped from her face and a cold stare replaced it. Elizabeth stopped and shook her head. "Stop your sniveling, Michael. Youíre acting foolish." She reached out and tapped him on the chest. "Iím not crazy at all. Thereís nothing wrong with a woman wanting to see her family, is there? I just canít understand what youíre doing in this little hick town, playing with those ridiculous cameras. You know thereís no money in it."

"For the first time in almost thirty years, Iím doing something I can be proud of. But I guess you wouldnít know anything about that, would you?" Michael brushed her hand away from him and started for the front door. "I want you out of here, Elizabeth. Now."

She laughed. "Iím sure your mother had something to do with this, didnít she? She never did appreciate how hard you worked to build up the company. Although you would have never made it had my father not helped you to get started."

"You leave my family out of this." He spun around and stalked back over to his wife. "Go back to California, with your gigoloís and pool boys. Youíre not welcome here."

SLAP!

"You pathetic little worm. Had you been more of a man, I wouldnít have had to look elsewhere forÖ" she smiled knowingly. "Satisfaction." Elizabeth shook her right hand gingerly. He always did have a hard head. "Iíve come to this rotten little town to talk some sense into our youngest daughter. From what Iíve heard, sheís still living with thatÖwoman."

Michael rubbed his face where she had slapped him. "That Ďwomaní has a name. Lex has been better for Amanda than I could have hoped for. Iím not ashamed to admit that I was wrong about her Ė why canít you?" He shook his head. "Go home, Elizabeth. Before the police realize that youíre back in the country, and have you locked up."

"Fool. The police donít want me. All of that trouble was Mark Garrettís idea, not mine. Because of his untimely demise, theyíve closed the case. Although, if heíd done his job right, our daughter would be home with me, where she belongs." She brushed by him and started for the front door. "Besides," Elizabeth opened the door and inhaled the cold air with a smile, "If they wanted someone to blame, theyíd probably look to his employer. You." She waved a hand in his direction. "Goodbye, Michael. Iíll drop back by before I leaveÖwith Amanda. One way or another, Iíll get her out of that pervertís filthy clutches."

"Crazy bitch." He muttered, as his soon-to-be ex-wife strolled away. "I think Iíd better make a phone call." Michael walked into his office and sank into the rickety leather chair. He shakily picked up the phone and began to dial.

***************

Anna Leigh hung up the phone with a heavy sigh. "No good is going to come from this, I just know it," she murmured quietly. She looked around the cheerful kitchen and shook her head. And things were going so well, too. The sound of soft footfalls behind her caused a small smile to cross her face.

"Whatís that, sweetheart?" Jacob curled his arms around his wife and nuzzled her neck. "Did I hear the phone ring, earlier?" He had been out in the shop behind the house, working on a wedding present for Charlie and Martha. Lex had told him what she wanted for the couple, and he had happily agreed to build it. Not even his wife knew about it, yet.

"Iím afraid so, dear." She turned around and buried her face in his shirt. "Michael called."

Jacob pulled his wife closer. "Is everything okay?" He was beginning to get a bad feeling about this.

She shook her head. "No, itís not. Elizabeth is in town."

"WHAT?!" He pulled back suddenly. "Why is that crazy woman here?"

"She told him that sheís come to take Mandy home with her," Anna Leigh reported. "He said that Elizabeth was waiting for him inside his studio when he got home."

He sat down in a nearby chair and pulled his wife with him. "Take Amanda with her? Has she completely lost her mind?" Jacob began to gently run his fingers through her hair, trying to relax her.

Anna Leigh sat on Jacobís lap and leaned her head against his shoulder. "Michael seems to think so. She acted like nothing had happened between them Ė and she said that the police have closed the case against her." She wrapped her arms around his neck and sighed again. "Iím frightened, Jacob. Do you think that sheíd do something to Lexington, trying to get Mandy away from her?"

"I donít know, love. But I think weíd better inform Charlie about all of this." Jacob kissed her on top of the head and closed his eyes. "Was Michael going to call the ranch?" I swear to God above, Iím not a violent man. But if that woman so much as goes near those girls, Iíll wring her scrawny little neck myself!

"Yes, he was going to call as soon as he got off the phone with me. What are we going to do?" She took a deep breath and enjoyed her husbandís cologne. "Poor Mandy. This is just going to devastate her."

Jacob gently combed his fingers through Anna Leighís hair. "I know. But sheís a strong young woman, and weíll be there to support them both. Iím sure Elizabeth will make some sort of token appearance, but thereís not much she can do. Letís just wait and see, all right?"

"Youíre right, my love. Iím certain everything will be just fine. Thereís nothing our Mandy canít handle."

***************

"Aaaaahhh!! Stop it! I canít take anymore!" Amanda gasped, fighting for air. The large body on top of her shifted slightly. "No! Please!!"

Lex rolled off the slender body beneath her, and flopped onto her back gracelessly into the thick hay. "Told ya I could make you scream for mercy," she teased. "Teach you to dare me."

"Okay, okayÖI give up." Amanda rolled over as well, propping her head up on one hand and leaning over the grinning rancher. "You are so merciless!" She blinked and ran a fingertip down her loverís face, fighting the losing battle to keep from becoming lost in Lexís blue eyes.

"And donít you forget it, Blondie," Lex chuckled. She stopped smiling and concentrated on the beautiful woman above her. "Aaaah!" A cold hand wormed its way beneath her shirt and caressed her bare stomach.

Amanda laughed. "Watch it who youíre calling Blondie, Slim. Two can play at that game, you know." She looked down into the smiling face beneath her and smiled tenderly. "God, youíre beautiful." She forgot the game and leaned down to kiss the rancher gently.

"MmmÖ" Lex allowed her own hand to work its way under the sweater that Amanda wore, finding soft skin to caress. "I love you, Amanda." She ran her hand up the smaller womanís back, feeling the body above her tremble from her touch.

"I love you, too." The blonde began to unbutton the denim shirt slowly. "I never knew that loading hay could be so much fun," she murmured.

Lex chuckled. "Me either." She gasped as Amanda began to blaze a trail of kisses down her chest. "God, babyÖthat feels soÖ"

"IS ANYONE HERE?" Kevinís deep voiced boomed, causing both women to sit up suddenly.

"Shit!" Lex quickly yanked her hand out of its warm spot and fought the buttons on her shirt. She watched in amusement as Amanda brushed the hay out of her blonde hair and stood up.

The younger woman pulled her sweater down and peeked over the bales of hay. "Weíre over here, Kevin. Whatís up?" She offered her hand to her lover and pulled Lex up.

"Weíve been looking all over for you two," Kevin chastised as he walked closer. The two were only visible from the waist up, because of the bales of hay that were stacked in front of them. "What exactly were you up to?" He noticed with some amusement that they were both covered in bits of straw. Probably the same thing Morris and I were up to the other day. Iím almost ashamed to have disturbed them.

"UmmÖwe were justÖ" Amanda blushed.

"Fooling around in the hay," Lex offered dryly. "Whatís going on?"

It was Kevinís turn to blush. Does she have to be so damned matter-of-fact about everything? "Uh, yeah. Well, your father called a little bit ago, Amanda. He and Martha talked for a while, and then she sent Morris and me out to look for you."

Amanda stepped around the bale. "Did she say what was wrong? Is he okay?" She felt Lexís comforting presence step behind her, which caused her body to relax.

"No, she didnít say. But from what I could gather from the conversation, your father is fine, just a little worried." The big man shook his head as the young woman gathered up her coat and raced from the barn. "I didnít mean to upset her," he apologized to Lex, who was slipping on her heavy duster.

Lex slapped the old cowboy hat against her thigh and pulled it on her head. "I know, Kevin. Donít worry about it." She walked over and opened the barn door. "Letís go see whatís going on, okay?"

He nodded. "Yeah. Sorry that I disturbed you."

"No problem." Lex slapped him on the shoulder gently. "CímonÖmy curiosity is about to get the best of me." She hurried out into the cold, Kevin rushing to keep up with her long strides.

Amanda stormed into the kitchen out of breath. "Martha, what happened? Is my father okay?"

"Oh, honey. Heís just fine," the housekeeper directed the younger woman to a chair and pushed her down gently. "Sit down and catch your breath. Do you want some coffee?"

"No, thank you." Amanda squirmed out of her coat and draped it behind her on the chair. "Kevin said he called?" She took a deep breath and blew it out slowly.

Martha poured a cup anyway, and sat it down in front of the anxious young woman. "Yes, he did. Seems like he had a visitor at his studio today." She looked up as Lex and Kevin bustled into the room.

"LexieÖhang up your coats and have a seat. I was just telling Amanda about the call from her father today."

"Yes, maíam." Lex grabbed Amandaís coat and quickly hung them up by the back door. She walked back into the kitchen and sat down next to her lover. "Hey there. You okay?" She grasped one of Amandaís cold hands and began to chafe it between her own.

"Iím fine. Just waiting for Martha to finish her story," Amanda hinted towards the housekeeper.

"Oh, yes. Sorry about that, honey." The older woman bustled over towards the table and sat down, coffee cup in hand. "Well, thereís no real easy way to say this. It seems that your mother is in town."

Lex jumped up from the table. "WHAT? Has she lost her mind? What in the hell does she want in Somerville? Hasnít she caused Amanda enough grief? That crazy oldÖ" Her pacing was stopped when a small hand grasped her arm.

"Sit down, honey. Let Martha finish." Amanda pulled the rancher back down, not releasing the iron grip she held on the larger womanís hand.

The housekeeper smiled inwardly. Sheís sure got Lexieís number, all right. Never seen anyone calm that girl down so quickly. "Ah, yes. Where was I?" She nodded at Kevin, who had indicated with a wave of his hand that he was going back out to get his partner. "He said that she was waiting for him inside his studio, although how she got in is anyoneís guess." Martha shook her head. "Iím afraid sheís out to cause you some trouble, honey."

Amanda frowned. "What kind of trouble?" She felt Lex tense beside her.

"Sheís determined to take you back to California with her," Martha answered quietly, afraid to look at the young women. She looked down and studied the coffee in her cup.

"WHAT?!?" Lex jumped up again. "What the hellÖ"

"Honey, please." Amanda pulled Lexís hand, trying to calm her down.

The rancher could not be quieted. "Iím sorry, Amanda. But your mother is dangerous. Weíve got to do something about her." She tried to pull her hand away, with no success.

"Nothing has been provenÖ" Amanda tried to reason with Lex.

"Thatís bullshit! We all know she was behind you almost DYING! Good God, AmandaÖ how much more does she have to do to you before something is done?" Lex ranted, waving her arms frantically. She started for the doorway. "Iím going into town and find her! Thereís no way Iím standing by while that crazy woman plots lord-knows-what against you."

Amanda jumped up from the table and grabbed the back of Lexís shirt. "Stop it! Please!" Once the rancher stood still, she wrapped her arms around Lex and held on tightly. "PleaseÖ"

Lex took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Good job, LexingtonÖcalling her mother crazy, AND threatening her. Looks like you havenít changed that much, after all. She slowly turned around and wrapped her arms around Amanda. "Iím sorry, love. I shouldnít have said all of that."

"No, donít apologize." Amanda giggled nervously. "She IS crazy. I just donít want you getting into any trouble on her account. Sheís just not worth it." She looked up and saw the disgusted look on her loverís face. "Stop it. Youíve done nothing wrong." Amanda leaned up and kissed Lex lightly on the chin. "Thanks for trying to protect me."

"Yeah, for all the good itís done," Lex grumbled, still upset with herself. A gentle hand on her cheek caused her to look down.

"ShhhÖno more beating yourself up, all right? If I wasnít afraid of what sheíd do, Iíd be glad to see you confront my mother. But she scares me, especially after what my father told me about her." She remembered the look on her fatherís face when he related the confrontation with Elizabeth.

Michael was sitting on the edge of Amandaís bed, holding her hand. She and Lex had agreed to spend the night at Jacob and Anna Leighís house, and the rancher was downstairs with the family to give him some time alone with his daughter. He continued to fight his feelings of guilt over Amandaís illness, thinking that if heíd been a better father to her, none of the recent events would have happened. Unable to look her in the eye, he watched as his thumb gently stroked her knuckles.

"Daddy?" Amanda reached over with her bandaged hand and held his still. "Whatís wrong?"

He shook his head, ashamed. "Iím so sorry, sweetheart," Michael whispered. "I had no idea she would go this far."

Amanda struggled to sit up in bed. "What do you mean? Itís not your fault." She leaned back against the pillows and sighed. "I canít believe sheíd do something like that, thoughÖhiring someone to hurt Lex, just because I love her." Tears began to slide quietly down her cheeks.

"No, babyÖ" Michael forgot all about his self-pity and pulled his daughter into his arms. "This had nothing to do with you, not really." He began to gently rub her back. "Sheís unbalanced. Actually has been for quite some time. The night that I left, she seemed like two different people. She ranted and raved one minute, even going so far as to slap me. The next minute, she was all sweetness and concern, telling me that we had to keep our family together. To tell you the truth, she scared the hell out of me."

"What do you mean?" She burrowed her face into his chest, the cologne he wore bringing back happier memories.

Michael sighed. "For the past couple of years, your mother had become moreÖdistant, I guess. We rarely spoke to each other, and could go weeks without even seeing one another. I knew that she had begun seeing other men, but I ignored it."

She leaned back slightly to look into his face. "Really? If things had gotten that bad, why were you two still together? Did you still love her?"

"I donít know if I really did ever love her, Amanda. Itís hard to explain, but I suppose I wanted the power and prestige that came along with her family. Elizabethís father only had one son, and heíd been a disappointment to the old man. When I came along, he took me under his wing and helped me build my firm almost overnight." Michael shook his head. "I knew then that something was wrong with your mother. I told myself it was just a mean streak, and that I could overlook it, if it meant staying in good with her family."

"You married Mother for her money?" she asked quietly.

He looked down at the quilt on the bed, unable to meet her gaze. "Pretty much." Michael swallowed hard. "My parents never had a lot of money, Amanda. At least not as much as I thought I needed. Motherís family was wealthy, but she refused to have anything to do with them, since they were so against her marrying my father in the first place. I would get a taste of that wealth when Iíd go spend a week every summer with them, but all it did was make me want more."

Amanda reached up and touched her fatherís cheek. "Well, thatís a relief."

"Huh?" He blinked, unsure of what she had said.

"Itís good to know that you didnít marry Mother for her personality." Amanda grinned at her father. "I was afraid that you just had terrible taste in women."

Michael laughed, then pulled her close to him again.

Amanda caressed the rancherís cheek, feeling the body in front of hers began to relax. "Iím afraid of what my mother might do, Lex. Please stay away from her."

Martha was afraid to upset either woman any more, but she wanted to ease their minds. "I called Charlie while I was waiting for the two of you to return," she offered, seeing both of them relax a bit. "Heís got a man keeping an eye on her." No sense in telling them that she spotted poor Jeremy, and waved at him. Charlieís still angry about that.

Amanda nodded. "Good. That means that we can put all this aside, and not worry about her tonight." She looked up into Lexís eyes. "Címon, love. Let it go for now, please?"

"Okay." Lex leaned down and kissed Amandaís forehead. "But I swear to you, if she steps one foot on this ranch, Iím gonnaÖ" Her words were halted when soft lips claimed hers. "MmmÖwhat was I saying?" she asked when they finally broke apart.

"You were saying that youíd go on to bed, and worry about all this in the morning," Martha added with a smile. She walked over and pulled a few strands of straw out of Lexís dark hair. "You might want to take a shower while youíre at it. Seems you brought half the barn in here with you."

The rancher blushed and ducked her head. "UmmÖyeah. Weíll take care of that. Thanks." She stepped away from Amanda for a moment and embraced Martha. "Thanks, Mada. I love you," Lex whispered, kissing the stunned woman on the top of her head. "See you in the morning." She walked away and grabbed Amanda, moving out of the kitchen before the housekeeper could say a word.

"That little turd," Martha remarked out loud. I swear she does that just to throw me off guard. She shook her head and turned off the kitchen light, realizing with a smile that Charlie would be at her cottage within the half-hour to watch a movie. "Iíll get her back some other time."

***************

Muted conversations could be heard throughout the restaurant, which was the best place to eat in Somerville. No one paid any attention to the couple sitting at a partially hidden table in the back, as the room was filled with families trying to get away for an evening. The womanís expensive business suit was a bit out of place, but the handsome younger man across from her looked right at home in the upscale steak house. He was dressed in dark slacks and a crisply pressed blue shirt, and his silk tie had been loosened for comfort.

"Can I get you anything else, Maíam?" the young waitress asked. She was almost afraid to ask, since the woman had already proven to be a difficult customer. She had sent her steak back twice, before finally giving up and complaining that sheíd just have to settle for a poor dinner.

Elizabeth waved an elegant hand. "NoÖnot at the moment. You can leave us, now," she quickly dismissed the woman, eager to get back to the conversation at hand. She looked back across the table at her companion. "Well? Iíve told you everything I know Ė now tell me what can be done about it. Thereís no way Iím going to allow that bitch to keep influencing my daughter. I donít care what has to be done, I just want Amanda back where she belongs."

"Ms. CaubleÖElizabeth," he corrected himself after she gave him a look. "I can see that you have some problems here, and I think that I can help you resolve them. Itís just going to take a little time." He reached across the linen-covered table and took her hand in his. "Believe me, Iím very good at what I do. You will get results."

A shiver of excitement raced down her spine as his dark eyes gleamed. "Excellent. My daughter has spent far too much time already with thatÖwoman. The sooner we get her out of that perverted household, the better off sheíll be. My sources tell me that sheís actually Ďengagedí to that worthless cowhand." Elizabeth wrinkled her nose at that idea. "Can you believe that? Itís not like they can really get married, anyway. Ridiculous."

The man patted her hand. "Yes, it is. Iím sure once we get her back to California, away from all these negative influences, sheíll be just fine." He leaned forward so that no one else could overhear the conversation. "I do have your permission to proceed by any means necessary, correct? I donít want to plan something out, only to be told by you later to back down."

"Of course. All I ask is that my daughter not be hurt. I really donít care what happens to anyone else. Especially that rancher." She squeezed his hand and then released it. "AndÖI donít want to know any details. The less I know, the better."

"You can count on me, Elizabeth. Discretion is one of my best qualities," he assured her. "Iíve never had any complaints, yet."

Elizabeth smiled seductively at him. "I hope thatís not your only good quality. Iíd really like to continue this discussion somewhere moreÖprivate."

He stood up and dropped a wad of bills on the table. "I donít normally mix business with pleasure, ElizabethÖbut I do see the need for a more quiet setting to umm, discuss our options."

She allowed him to help her out of her chair. "My point exactly. Letís go back to my hotel room Ė I believe I may have a bottle of brandy for a nightcap." Itís a good thing that I lost ĎBarney Fifeí before I checked into the hotel Ė I knew staying in Parkdale was a much better idea. I canít allow those hicks in on our plans. No, that wonít do at all. Elizabeth smiled as he escorted them out of the restaurant. I just love surprises.


Chapter 11

Amanda watched with trepidation as the tall figure stomped across the bedroom. "Honey, calm down."

"Of all the harebrained, idioticÖ" Lex struggled for an appropriate word. "Dipshits," she grumbled as she yanked open the top dresser drawer and began to search through it, flinging socks and underwear in every direction. "What kind of morons are they hiring these days?" She continued digging through the drawer, tossing more items out. "Where is my other damned sock?"

"LexÖ" The blonde gave up and sighed. "Youíre going to drive yourself crazy if you keep going like this." Not to mention driving ME crazy. Amanda walked over to the dresser and fished out the errant sock. "I wish youíd reconsider." She bit her lip to keep from laughing at her lover. I bet she has no idea how incredibly cute she looks right now.

The rancher was clad in only in a navy silk bra and matching underwear, and one knee-high dark sock. She accepted the sock from Amanda and sat down on the bed to put it on. "Thanks." Lex stood back up and grabbed the jeans she had tossed on the bed. "Whatís wrong with me wanting to give you a ride to work?"

"NothingÖif you were planning on staying in town all day. Or even if there was something that you had to do there this morning." Amanda finished putting the drawer in some semblance of order, then stepped over to where Lex was zipping up her jeans. "Iím not a child, you know. Iím perfectly capable of taking care of myself."

"I know that, Amanda. Itís justÖ"

Amanda raised her hand. "Just what? Are you afraid that Iím going to run off with my mother to California?" She looked into the somber face above her. "Canít you give me a little more credit than that?" Her sharp tone softened immediately when she saw the hurt cross Lexís face. "Iíd never leave you, honey."

Lex swallowed hard and nodded. "I know that Iím acting ridiculous. I just donít trust her, thatís all." She reached over and caressed the younger womanís face with one hand. "Who knows what lengths that sheíll go through to take you back with her? We already know sheís a bit unstable." More like a LOT unstable Ė the crazy old broad. I swear, if she wasnít Amandaís mother, IídÖ

"You donít actually think that sheídÖ" Amanda looked up in shock. "For Godís sake, Lex. Sheís my mother!" she tried to wrap her mind around what her lover was saying. "She wouldnít do anything to me."

"We donít know that for sure." Unable to look the smaller woman in the eye any longer, Lex turned around and walked over to the French doors that led to the balcony. It tore her up inside to have any sort of argument with Amanda, and she knew that she was asking her friend to take sides. How can I ask her to think this way about the woman who gave her birth? The rancher looked out through the darkness. How can I not? The woman is dangerous. "She purposely lost the deputy that had been assigned to keep an eye on her. How are we supposed to know what sheís planning on doing next?" Iím really going to have to ask Charlie what his criteria is for a deputy these days. The guys he has now couldnít keep up with a lame heifer wearing a bell around its neck.

Amanda threw her hands up in disgust. "You talk as if sheís some sort of criminal mastermind, or something!" Afraid of the angry words that were racing around in her head, she started to leave the room. Think about it, Mandy. She is! Who else would have tried to poison someone just to keep them away from their daughter? Thatís more than criminal Ė thatís sick. I think I owe Lex an apology. She walked over to where the tall woman continued to look out into the early morning gloom. "Iím sorry I yelled at you." Amanda reached out tentatively towards the stiff back that was inches away, but held back from touching the silent rancher. How do I fix this?

"NoÖIím sorry for what I said." Lex turned around and was quickly embraced by the smaller woman. "Sheís still your mother, and I had no right to say what I did about her," she whispered as she buried her face in Amandaís hair.

"But youíre right," Amanda pulled back to look up into her loverís face. "We do need to be careful. But I refuse to hide away in fear of what Ďmightí happen." She reached up and cupped Lexís face in her hands. "We canít let her dictate what we do, honey. I donít think sheís going to do much of anything, except maybe try to talk me into going back with her. And thatís just not going to happen." She stood on her tiptoes and kissed Lex tenderly.

Lex was the first to pull back, and she smiled down at the woman in her arms. "I think you convinced me," she teased. "Now, let me finish getting dressed, and Iíll drive you into town." Before her partner could object, she continued. "Iíve got some things to take care of, and I might as well get them done today. Truce?" Her heart hammered in her chest while she waited fearfully for the answer. Please let me do this, love. I canít just sit around and wait for her to make a move.

The younger woman rolled her eyes. "You just donít give up, do you?" But she couldnít keep the smile off her face.

"Nope. Not when it comes to you, sweetheart." Lex kissed the tip of Amandaís nose and went in search of her boots.

***************

She stood in line behind the tall man, wrinkling her nose in distaste as she overheard the conversation in front of her. It was obvious that he was trying his best to get the woman behind the counter to go out with him, and even more obvious that he was failing miserably.

"But Barbara," he almost whined. "Itís the New Yearís Eve dance. Most of the town will be there." He leaned forward and looked pitiful. "I told you that I was sorry that you got into trouble helping me. We would have been just fine if my stupid sister would have kept her nose out of things."

The teller shook her head. "I canít, honey. If Mr. Collins finds out I went out with you, I would lose my job for sure!" She looked around the bank to see if they were being watched. "Youíll just have to find someone else, thatís all." Even if he is the most eligible bachelor in town Ė heís not worth losing my job over.

He stepped back and straightened his tie. "Your loss, Barb. Guess youíll just be alone Friday night." The arrogant man turned around and almost ran into the older woman standing in line behind him. "Youíd best watch where youíre standing, lady. Iím an important man around here."

The petite blonde woman glared up into his blue eyes. "I would advise you to be careful as to who you threaten, young man. You never know what could happen." She studied his handsome face for a long moment. He looks very familiarÖI wonder. "Do I know you?"

"I donít think so, lady." Hubert pushed by the well-dressed older woman on his way out of the bank.

"May I help you, maíam?"

Elizabeth shook her head slightly and stepped forward. "I need to cash a bank check."

"Certainly. Do you have an account with us?" Barbara smiled at the well-dressed woman.

"No, Iím afraid I donít. But my husband probably does. Michael Cauble." Elizabeth gave the young woman a regal smile. "I know my in-laws do. Will this be a problem?"

Barbara shook her head. "Of course not, Mrs. Cauble. Iíve known your husbandís family for years. Isnít his mother just a doll?"

"Ahem. Yes, of course. Anna Leigh is aÖdear," Elizabeth forced herself to say.

She placed the note on the counter. "That gentleman seemed very familiar. Does he live around here?"

The teller smiled a bit and nodded. "Yes, maíam. Thatís Hubert Walters, he runs a book keeping office just down the street. Do you know him?"

Walters? Of course! That pervertís brother. HmmÖthis could be useful. "No, Iím afraid not. But I do know of him." Elizabeth smiled sweetly as the teller counted out her cash. "Thank you."

"Thank you, maíam." Barbara shook her head as the older woman left. "That was interesting," she murmured quietly.

***************

"How about I pick you up for lunch?" Lex asked casually. They were sitting in the truck outside the real estate office. "The Crossing has a chicken-fried steak that practically melts in your mouth."

Amanda took her hand off the door latch and shook her head. "LexÖ"

"No, really." The dark-haired woman raised her hands in self-defense. "Itís too heavy of a meal to eat at night, and Iím not in town that often during the day." Lex looked towards the building, which was still dark. "UmmÖdo you want me to walk you inside?"

"Donít be ridiculous! Iím usually the first one here. Itís almost nine oíclock in the morning. Letís not get into this again, okay?" Amanda sighed. "Lunch sounds good, as long as you let me buy."

Lex smiled and nodded, then sneezed. "Itís a deal." She pulled a handkerchief out of her coat pocket and blew her nose. "Sorry about that."

The blonde pulled the royal blue scarf from around her neck. "Maybe you should stop by Dr. Andersonís today while youíre in town." Amanda took the wool material and draped it around Lexís neck, tucking the ends inside her partially opened coat.

"Nah. Itís probably just allergies," Lex argued. She suppressed a sudden chill as she fought the urge to cough. What a crappy time to catch a damned cold. "Thanks for the scarf, though."

"It looks better on you, anyway," Amanda teased. "Besides, I plan on spending all day in the office, and youíll be the one out running around in this weather." The morning sun had already disappeared behind dark clouds, and the wind had picked up and was blowing in from the north. She noticed with dismay that her normally warm-natured partner still had her heavy duster on. She usually takes it off and tosses it in the back seat, saying that it gets in her way when sheís driving. Maybe I should call the doctor for her. "UmmÖIíll see you around twelve-thirty, then?"

"Sure. Let meÖ" Lex had to clear her throat before she could continue. "Let me at least walk you to the door." She ignored Amandaís heavy sigh and climbed out of the truck.

Amanda met the taller woman by the front of the vehicle. "You are so stubborn," she grumbled, but smiled when she was relieved of her new briefcase. The soft black leather case had been a Christmas gift from Martha and Charlie, and had a gold plate over the handle with her name engraved upon it.

"And this is a surprise?" Lex joked, as she put a steadying hand around her companion. "Careful hereÖlooks to be a patch of ice on the sidewalk."

"Thanks." The blonde snuggled closer to her lover, grateful for the warmth. "And no, Iím not surprised at your stubbornness Ė I just thought that I had you trained better than that by now, thatís all."

Lex laughed. "Gee, thanks. I suppose Marthaís been giving you tips, huh?" She stood quietly by as Amanda unlocked the office door. "UmmÖcan I come in for a minute, and borrow your phone? I need to check on something." Like making sure that the place is empty, for one thing.

Not fooled for an instant, Amanda allowed her friend to step inside the quiet building first. "SureÖand donít forget to check the bathroom for the boogieman, too." She walked past Lex, who had stopped in the middle of the entryway in surprise. "Iím going to get the lights, then Iíll be in the kitchen starting coffee."

One of these days, LexingtonÖthe tall woman shook her head and followed quietly behind Amanda. Youíre gonna learn not to underestimate her.

***************

"Do you see what I mean?" Elizabeth seethed. "That woman follows my Amanda around like a lost puppy. Itís not going to be easy to get rid of her." She was sitting on the passengerís side of the dark sedan, parked less than a block from the real estate office. They had been waiting for Amanda to drive up for over an hour, and the usually calm woman was beside herself when they saw the large truck pull into the parking lot.

He reached over and squeezed her hand. "Donít worry, Liz. I told you I could handle everything just fine. Why donít you let me drop you off somewhere, and Iíll continue to follow her and see what sheís up to?"

Elizabeth shook her head. "Actually, I think Iíd rather stop in and have a quick visit with my daughter. Iíll give you a call later, and we can discuss our day over dinner." She smiled triumphantly when the tall figure emerged from the building. "Finally!" After waiting until the truck pulled out of the parking lot, she opened her door and stepped out of the car. "Remember, I donít care what happens to that woman, as long as my daughter is back with me." She closed the door and walked towards the now well-lit building.

"I knowÖI know." He shook his head and started the car, following the green truck at a discreet distance. Iíve got a few ideasÖ

The morning sun fought its way through the dark clouds, the overcast gloom still held more than enough light for Elizabeth to navigate the sidewalk easily. She stood outside the real estate office for a moment, taking time to check her reflection in the glass door. Her short blonde hair was perfectly in place, as usual, and she smiled to herself. She pushed the door open and stepped inside, frowning slightly at the aroma of freshly made coffee. Doesnít anyone drink tea anymore? Iíll certainly have to break Amanda of this distasteful habit immediately.

"What did you forget?" Amanda had heard the electronic bell on the door, and poked her head out of the kitchen. She assumed that it was Lex who had come back into the office, and was shocked to see who was now standing in the entryway. "Mother?"

"Hello, dearest." The older woman walked towards her daughter, arms open wide. "How are you?"

Amanda fought the unreasonable fear of seeing Elizabeth and accepted her motherís embrace. "Iím doing great, Mother. I had heard that you were in town." She struggled to lose the fearful look on her face as she stepped back. "How are you?" Now that the shock had worn off, she felt more in control. "Iím sorryÖwhere are my manners? Please, why donít you come into my office and have a seat? Can I get you some coffee?"

"Tea would be nice, if you have it," Elizabeth studied her daughter carefully. She looks wonderful. A lot better than I expected, considering where sheís living right now.

"Of course, Iím sorry." Amanda stepped back into the kitchen for a moment. "Iím afraid we donít have a tea service, but Iíve got a nice selectionÖif you donít mind having it from a coffee mug."

Elizabeth suppressed a shiver. Barbarians, the entire lot of them. "That would be fine, dear." She looked around the large room. Several of the desks were cluttered with photographs and knickknacks, making the entire office seem messy to the distinguished woman.

The younger woman stepped from the kitchen area, a mug in each hand. "Here you go." She handed the one that had a tag hanging from its rim to Elizabeth and smiled. "Letís go sit down in my office, and catch up." Amanda walked to the back of the building, different thoughts racing through her head. She must have been watching the building, waiting for Lex to leaveÖI wonder what sheís up to? She stepped into her office and motioned towards one of the chairs in front of the desk. "Please, sit down, Mother. Can I get you anything else?"

"No, really. Iím fine." The older woman sat gingerly in the overstuffed chair, crossing her legs delicately at the ankles. She took a moment to look around the uncluttered room. The heavy oak furniture was overly masculine, but the room was clean, and only a few pictures on the bookshelves behind the desk gave it a personal air.

"How was your holiday?" Amanda asked politely, still unsure as to what her mother wanted. She sat down behind her desk and leaned back in the leather chair. "I wish you could have been here sooner, we had a nice family get together out at the ranch." The bell from the door rang again, and Amanda pictured Wanda bustling in. They joked about racing each other to the office every morning, taking turns in opening up the business for the day.

"I see you won again," Wandaís curly head poked inside the office. She noticed that Amanda wasnít alone, and flushed. "Oh, Iím terribly sorry. I had no idea that you had company." She started to back away from the door when Amanda waved her inside.

"Wanda! Come in and meet my mother." Amanda stood up and smiled. At least Iím not alone with her Ė Lex should be happy to hear that. "Mother, Iíd like for you to meet Wanda Skimmerly. Wanda, this is my mother, Elizabeth Cauble."

Elizabeth stood up and faced the woman who had stepped into the office. "How do you do?" She held out her hand and almost gasped at the strong handshake that she received.

"Oh! Itís my pleasure, Mrs. Cauble. Itís so nice to meet you." Wanda shook the older womanís hand enthusiastically. She looked over at her boss, who had a large smile on her face. "You didnít tell me that your mother was in town, Amanda." She allowed Elizabeth to remove her hand, and noticed with a slight frown when the regal woman surreptitiously wiped her hand on the back of the chair. "Well, Iíll let you two get back to your visit, then." Wanda forced a smile to her face and started towards the door. "It was a pleasure to meet you." Not! Snotty old hag Ė Amanda definitely takes after her fatherís side of the family.

"Iím sure," Elizabeth dismissed the woman somewhat haughtily. She turned her attention back to her daughter. "I know you must be terribly busy, dear, so I wonít keep you from yourÖwork. But I do plan to be in town for a bit longer, and Iíd be delighted to spend some time with you before I go back."

Amanda frowned slightly. Just what on earth is she up to? "UmmÖsure. Iíd like that." An idea formed in her mind. "Why donít you come out to the ranch for dinner tomorrow? We have plenty of room, and you could even stay the night." Lex will probably kill me, but I think itís a good idea to have Mother where we can keep an eye on her.

"That sounds wonderful, Amanda." Elizabeth placed her half-full mug of tea on the corner of the desk. "WillÖSHEÖbe there?"

"If you mean Lex, of course she will." The younger woman crossed her arms angrily over her chest. "Is that going to be a problem for you, Mother?"

Elizabeth ran her hands down the front of her knee length fur coat. "Of course not, dear. I just donít want my presence to upset yourÖfriend." She walked around the desk and pulled Amanda into a hug. "Iíll call you tomorrow for directions, all right?" She placed a dry kiss on her daughterís cheek and breezed from the room.

"Oh, boy. This just made lunch with Lex much more interesting," Amanda sighed to the quiet room.

***************

"Please, Janna. Do this one little favor for me." Ted Hotchiss begged his daughter. "Hubertís a good friend of mine, and sends quite a bit of business my way. Iím not asking you to marry him, or anything." They were sitting in his office, arguing about the upcoming New Yearís Eve dance. He knew that once his daughter met a few people in the friendly little town, that sheíd be less likely to move back to Wisconsin. Ted loved his daughter dearly, and he hated the notion of her living so far away from him.

Janna ran her fingers through her short blonde hair. "I donít know, Dad. Iím really not in the mood to go to some silly dance." She stood up to look out the office window. "Heís not expecting this to be a date, is he? Iím certainly not interested in anything like that, especially right now." The main reason she had moved from Wisconsin was to get away from the painful memories of a broken love affair. Not even her father knew all the particulars, but she had made it perfectly clear that she was not interested in being Ďset upí on a blind date.

He stood up and put his hands on her shoulders. "Of course not, sweetheart. I just thought that you might enjoy getting out for an evening, and Hubert promised me that heíd be a perfect gentleman." Ted wanted his daughter to stop spending all of her time at her grandfatherís farm, and more time socializing with the citizens of Somerville. It had been a surprise when his friend had offered to take Janna to the dance.

"I just donít know what Iím going to do about Janna." Ted looked over the table at his close friend. They had enjoyed a leisurely lunch at the small cafť situated between their two offices. Whereas Ted specialized in personal accounting and taxes, Hubert worked more with the businessmen, making certain his clients enjoyed all the loopholes and bottom line deductions to keep their businesses profitable. The older man never quite understood how his friend had stayed out of prison with all his Ďcreative bookkeepingí. For some odd reason, they had always gotten along extremely well, and would send clients one anotherís way. "She spends far too much time at that damn farm, and now sheís gotten into the habit of taking extra work home with her."

Hubert leaned back in his chair and shook his head. "Whatís wrong with taking work home?" He reached over to take another drink from his tea glass. "Everyone does it Ė Iíd thought youíd be proud of her for working so hard for you." He liked Ted, although he thought that the older man was too honest for his own good. They had many good-natured arguments about ethics Ė mostly Hubertís lack thereof.

"Thatís part of my problem. Sheís taking in work from outside my office, because she wants to develop her own client base. I canít really blame her for that. As a matter of fact, she came in the other day, and told me that your sister just hired her to work the books for the ranch." Ted looked over at his friend, who had paled considerably. "I thought that you did the bookwork for the ranch. What happened?"

That bitch! Iím going to kill her! Hubert took a deep breath to calm himself. "Yeah, I used to handle the books, but my dear sister got power-hungry and thought that she could do a better job." He thought for a moment, then smiled. "But, thatís all water under the bridge. Tell me more about your daughter." Thereís more than one way to get my hands on those papers. All I have to do is show a little interest in a lonely girl. Piece of cake. His grin widened as he went over all the possibilities in his head.

"You can even meet him there, so you can leave whenever you want." He kissed the top of her head lightly. "This would mean a lot to me, Janna. And I honestly think youíll have a good time at the party."

"Okay, Iíll go. But Iím not wearing some silly little dress." She turned around and smiled at her father. I can never tell him noÖbut I refuse to consider this a date!

"Great! The theme is similar to a barn dance, so most everyone will be wearing boots and jeans." His smile reflected his happiness. Wouldnít it be great if they hit it off?

She hugged him and then kissed his bearded cheek. "Super. At least I donít have to go shopping for this little shindig."

Ted laughed. "Oh, I donít know about that, honey. Why donít you let me buy you something Ė sort of a thank you for helping out a friend?"

If there was one thing that Janna hated more than wearing a dress, it had to be shopping. "Aw, Dad. You donít have to, you know." She shook her head in defeat. "But I guess Iíll let you, just this once."

"Excellent! After we pick something up for you to wear, Iíll take you by his office to introduce you. Hubert really is a nice guy Ė weíve known each other for years." He wrapped his arm around Janna and began to lead her from the office. "Better yet Ė Iíll have him stop by here on the way home. Maybe the three of us can go out for dinner."

"Sure, DadÖwhatever you say." She didnít have the heart to burst his small bubble of happiness. Poor DadÖheís just so clueless in some matters. She didnít realize until much later that evening that she never found out Hubertís last name.

Chapter 12

"You WHAT?!" Lex jumped to her feet and slammed her hands down on the table, rattling the place settings and causing the water to slosh from the glasses.

Amanda reached across the table and covered the rancherís fingertips with her own. "Please, LexÖsit down. Youíre causing a scene." She looked around the room and met the curious stares with a determined look of her own. "Please?"

The upset woman followed Amandaís gaze around the room, glaring at anyone who met her eyes. Lex looked down at their linked hands and sat down in a huff. "I canít believe that you invited her to dinner, at OUR house! Have you completely lost your mind? Or maybe youíve forgotten what she almost did to you. I donít want that lunatic anywhere near you!" Her tirade was interrupted by a fit of coughing, and she reached for her water to wet her dry throat. Damn.

"Are you about finished?" Amanda asked quietly. "Because if you are, Iíd like to finish telling you what I had to say."

Another brilliant move, Lexington. Looks like youíre batting a thousand today. "UmmÖ yeah. I think Iíve managed to put both feet in my mouth today," Lex apologized quietly. "Iím sorry, sweetheart." She took a deep breath and looked down at her salad, which she had barely touched. A gentle squeeze of her fingers told her that she had been forgiven, again.

"First off, youíve got an appointment at Dr. Andersonís office this afternoon." When the rancher opened her mouth to speak, Amanda raised her hand to silence her. "No arguments. Secondly, I thought weíd be better off having Mother at the house, where we can keep an eye on her, than out running around God knows where. Thirdly, I thought we could go visit my grandparents this evening, that way you wonít be out in this weather anymore than necessary." Contrite blue eyes almost made her lose her composure. I hate it when she looks at me like that. I can never stay mad at her for any length of time. "Okay, now you can talk."

"Gee, thanks," Lex muttered. "But I guess I deserved that." She blinked several times and tried to swallow, but her throat hurt too badly. "Youíre right. Having your mother in sight is a very smart thing to do Ė I guess I overreacted, huh?" She sniffed, then pulled out her handkerchief and wiped at her nose. "Guess I canít talk you out of the doctorís visit, huh?"

Amanda shook her head. "Nope." She raised her hand to place it against her loverís brow. "Youíre burning up, Lex. I think we should go on to the doctor, right now. Forget about lunch."

Lex batted her hand away gently. "Itís hot in here. And, Iíd like to remind you that YOU didnít eat any breakfast Ė so weíre staying for lunch." She stuck out her lower lip slightly. "Besides, Iím hungry. And Dr. Aís office always closes for lunch, so no one would be there, anyway."

"God! You can be such a brat, sometimes," Amanda muttered almost to herself, and shook her head. "Okay, you win. First lunch, then the doctor. But Iím driving."

"Heh. Okay." Lex smiled up at the waitress, who had placed a steaming plate in front of her. "Thank you." She looked down at the food with near reverence in her eyes. The large, oval-shaped plate was covered with a large deep-fried steak, which was smothered in white gravy. Fluffy mashed potatoes accompanied the meat, and a separate bowl was filled to near overflowing with green beans.

"Youíre welcome, sugar," the bottle blonde winked at Lex. "Yíall just let me know if you needÖanything else, you hear?" She placed a similarly laden plate in front of Amanda with another sweet smile.

Amanda looked down at the plate in shock. "Uh, yeah. Thanks." She picked up her fork and poked at the drowned steak. "Good lord. This is their LUNCH plate?"

The rancher nodded, her mouth already full. "Mmm-hmm." She chewed for a few more seconds, then swallowed. "Iíll have to bring you in for dinner, sometime. We could almost share a plate, then."

"Oh, boy." The younger woman shook her head. "This is liable to take a while." But she dug in with gusto. "MmmÖ" She sampled a bite. "This is good!"

"Yup." Lex grinned, and continued to eat happily. Maybe sheíll be so full from lunch, she wonít remember the doctorís appointment.

After they devoured their lunch, Lex found to her chagrin that Amanda didnít forget a thing, and found herself sitting in the doctorís office after all. She leaned her head back against the colorful wall and closed her eyes. I hate to admit it, but maybe Amanda was right. I feel rotten.

The receptionist had told them that Dr. Anderson had been called out on an emergency, but the young doctor that he had brought into the practice as a partner would see them shortly. It took all of Amandaís skills of persuasion to keep the rancher from bolting from the office since Lex didnít know the new doctor at all. The blonde woman looked over at her partner, who appeared to be dozing against the painted corral scene. She smiled at the woman behind the counter and then took a seat next to the rancher. "Honey?"

"Hmm?" Lex turned her head and opened her eyes slightly. "Whatís up?"

"Dr. Connors will be ready for you in just a minute." Amanda leaned forward and placed her hand gently on her loverís pale face. "You look miserable, love. Is there anything I can do?" She was worried at how quickly Lexís illness seemed to escalate, and how fast it had drained the normally strong woman.

Lex leaned into the touch and closed her eyes. The small hand that stroked her face was cool and the action seemed to relax her. "Youíre doing it." She forced her eyes open and smiled slightly. "Just having you here with me makes being in this place bearable."

Amanda leaned forward and gently kissed the fevered brow across from her. She was interrupted from saying anything as the door across the room opened, and Laura cleared her throat.

"If you two can behave yourselves for a few minutes, Dr. Connors will see you now." The redheaded nurse smiled as Amanda helped her companion to her feet. "Lex, as much as I enjoy seeing you, I wish youíd stay out of this office," she teased.

"Youíre just jealous," the tall woman rasped as her sore throat made talking difficult. She gratefully accepted Amandaís guiding arm around her waist. This is ridiculous. Iím as weak as a newborn calf.

Laura laughed as she opened the door to an examination room. "Right. Just donít tell my husband that Iíve got a secret crush on you, okay?" She winked at Amanda and helped the smaller woman direct Lex to the paper-covered table. "Now sit your cute little self up on the table so I can get all the boring stuff out of the way."

After taking the grumpy womanís vitals, Laura shook her head. "Itís probably a good thing that Dr. Anderson is delivering a baby," she teased, as she gently patted Lex on the arm. "Because heíd probably holler at you for being out in this weather with that fever." Before she could say any more, the door opened and a short, bearded man stepped into the room.

"OhÖ" He stopped and looked at the women. The smile faded from his face as he noticed Amandaís hand on Lexís arm. "Excuse me. Iím Dr. Connors." He reached for the clipboard in Lauraís hand and studied it quickly. "Lexington?"

"Thatís me," Lex rasped, then cleared her throat. She held out her right hand. "Nice to meet you, Doctor."

He accepted her hand, but released it quickly. "Yes, wellÖ" Dr. Connors looked at the blonde woman with barely disguised distaste. "And you are?"

"IímÖ"

Lex cut off the smaller womanís answer. "This is myÖ" she smiled. "Fianceeí, Amanda Cauble." She was pleased to note the look on the doctorís face. Asshole.

"UmmÖ" He blinked several times, then extended his hand. "Nice to meet you, Miss Cauble." He smiled at her. Fianceeí, huh? Sheís still a bit young Ė probably just a phase sheís going through. "If youíll excuse us, Iíd like to examine my patient."

Amanda felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise. What a complete jerk! No way Iím going to leave Lex alone in here with him. "I think Iíll stay here, thank you." She crossed her arms over her chest and backed up against the wall. "Iíll keep out of your way."

Dr. Connors sighed. "Right." He pulled on a pair of latex gloves and took a penlight from his pocket. "Open up so I can take a look at your throat," he directed Lex. He continued his examination for several minutes in silence, only speaking enough to get information from his patient. With a final heavy sigh, he peeled the gloves from his hands and tossed them into the waste bin. "Iím going to give you a shot, and then youíll be ready to go. Drink plenty of fluids, and donít call back unless something drastic happens."

"I assume Iím going to live?" Lex asked sardonically, as she buttoned up her shirt. "What do I have?" She sneezed several times, which triggered a bout of coughing. Amanda rushed over and rubbed her on the back.

"Nothing more than a cold, Lexington. Quite a few folks have come in with the same symptoms." He handed her a tissue. "Take a few aspirin for the fever, and you should be fine in a few days." Dr. Connors had cut the examination short, since heíd seen many of the symptoms from other patients this morning. "You could have probably survived with over the counter remedies without coming to me. Iíll leave your paperwork up front." He turned on his heel and left the room quickly.

Amanda started to leave the room after him, her face red with fury. "That littleÖ" the hand that grabbed the back of her belt stopped her.

"Hold on, there!" Lex pulled Amanda towards her. "Let him go." She wrapped her long arms around her lover and kissed the younger woman on the neck.

"MmmÖ"Amanda leaned back into the embrace, and tilted her head to one side. Her eyes closed in reaction to the rancherís lips on her skin, and she sighed quietly. "OkayÖIíll allow him to live, for now." She turned around and linked her hands behind Lexís neck; her heart aching at the red-rimmed eyes that looked back at her. "CímonÖI want to take you over to Grammaís house, and you can get some rest."

Lex shook her head. "No." She leaned forward and rested her forehead against Amandaís chest. "Can we just go home? Iíd really feel better if I was in our bed." She hated the admission, but her aching body wanted nothing more than to collapse in their king-sized bed. "Please?"

"Sure, sweetheart." Amanda waited until Lex sat back up, then kissed the warm forehead. "Letís go home."

***************

"Howís she doing?" Travis asked Amanda, when the young woman sat down at the kitchen table. He was worried about his granddaughter. The normally vibrant woman had appeared weak and frail when they had gotten home earlier this afternoon. Her wan smile had not fooled him in the least, and he was on the verge of calling his personal doctor in Dallas to get another opinion on her condition.

Amanda smiled at his concerned face. "Sheís sleeping, now." The shot that the doctor had given Lex had seemed to make the rancher even more tired. By the time that they had gotten home, Amanda had to practically drag her lover upstairs. "Iím sure sheíll feel a lot better after a nice nap." She really wasnít too convinced of Lexís good health, but Amanda knew that Travis would worry himself sick otherwise.

"Sheíll be just fine, Travis." Martha patted the older manís shoulder in a comforting manner. She had been sitting at the table with him most of the afternoon, fending off his offers to pay for the majority of her upcoming wedding. "Our Lexie always gets hit hard with a cold, but she bounces back in no time at all."

The back door opened and Charlie came bustling into the kitchen. "Afternoon, folks." He leaned over to place a kiss on Marthaís cheek, and noticed Amanda sitting at the table. "Hello there, honey. What are you doing home this time of day?" He took his hat off and sat down next to his soon-to-be wife.

"I brought Lex home, Charlie. Sheís got a coldÖat least according to that quack doctor we saw earlier," Amanda finished grumpily.

Martha laughed. "Iím sure the young man knows what heís doing, dearÖDoc Anderson wouldnít have him around, otherwise." She stood up to get a fresh pot of coffee.

The blonde woman snorted her disagreement. "Iím not so sureÖbut his bedside manner could certainly use some work." She remembered the look on his face when he realized that she and Lex were a couple. "He barely checked Lex out before telling us that all she had was a cold. But what really burned me was when he insinuated that we were wasting his time Ė what a turd!"

"Sounds to me like he could have used a lesson in manners, all right," Travis chuckled. "Iím surprised that you didnít offer to teach him," he teased Amanda.

"UhÖwellÖ" Amanda blushed and suddenly found a loose thread on the placemat in front of her very fascinating.

"You didnítÖ?" Charlie covered her nervous fingers with his hand. "Amanda?"

She looked up at the expectant faces around her. "I started to chase him down after he left the examination room, but Lex stopped me."

Travis sighed in relief. "Thatís good."

"But I did see him as we were leaving, andÖummÖgave him a piece of my mind," she finished quietly, utterly embarrassed.

"What did you say?" Charlie asked.

"She called him a rude little man with notions of self-importance," a tired voice called from the doorway. "And I think she questioned his parentage, too." Lex leaned against the doorframe, appearing disheveled in the black sweatpants and tee shirt she was wearing. She walked into the kitchen and sat down next to Amanda. "I thought that I was going to have to hog-tie her to get her out of the doctorís office."

Amanda reached up and brushed the hair out of Lexís eyes. "I wasnít that bad, was I?" Not waiting for an answer, she continued, "What are you doing out of bed? I thought that you were sleeping."

The rancher shook her head. "I was, for a bit. ButÖ" She lowered her voice. "I guess I got a little lonely." The admission embarrassed Lex. She wasnít used to being so dependent on someone else, and having to admit she needed Amanda was a weakness in her eyes.

"Since youíre here, why donít you have a little bit to eat, then Iíll help you back upstairs." Knowing her friendís quiet admission was actually a plea, Amanda smiled. "If you donít mind the company Iíve got some reading to do, and Iíd rather do it upstairs where itís nice and quiet."

Lex could see the gleam in her loverís eyes. "UhÖyeah. Okay." She knew that sheíd have to come up with a good way to thank Amanda, later. "Sounds like a great idea to me." She turned to ask Martha something, but was silenced by a plate of food that was placed in front of her. "UmmÖthanks, Mada."

"Youíre welcome, Lexie." The housekeeper sat back down next to Charlie and laughed. "Donít look at me like thatÖI just happened to have a plate ready for you, thatís all."

Travis chuckled. "Donít try and argue with her, honeyÖIíve been trying all day, and I know when Iíve been beat." He had finally conceded defeat in their earlier discussion. The housekeeper had continued to kindly refuse his offers of hosting a grand wedding, stating that all she wanted was a quiet, family affair. Travis figured that as long as his granddaughter had any say in the matter at all, it would end up being much more than that.

Martha reached across the table and patted his arm. "Itís not that I donít appreciate your offer, Travis, because I do. I just wouldnít feel right, you paying for everything." She looked back at Charlie. Although when he had told her that she was family, and it was the least he could do, she almost cried. Such a sweet manÖa lot like my Lexie, in fact.

"Oh, noÖdonít be getting me into the middle of this." The lawman held out his hands. "Iíll gladly go with whatever you decide, sweetheart. We can rent the biggest church in town, or elope. As long as the end result is the same, I donít care." Charlie winked at his bride, causing her to blush.

***************

The evening already seemed horribly long, and it had barely begun. Lex had been relegated to tour guide and was politely showing their guest around the large ranch house. "This is the den," she announced, allowing the smaller woman to step ahead of her into the room.

"Itís veryÖlarge," Elizabeth commented, noticing the heavy wood furnishings. "Did you decorate it yourself?"

Lex chuckled. "NahÖitís been like this for as long as I can remember. Iíve just never had the inclination to change it." She directed her charge to the far wall. "I did pick out this painting, however. Thought it went well with the room." The bold western scene covered a good deal of the wall, the running horses almost coming alive.

Elizabeth leaned closer to look at the print. The small brass plate on the bottom of the frame read, ĎDash For the Timberí. "Remington, I see." She looked back at her host with an almost civil smile. "Very nice."

Whoa. The rancher almost fell back in shock. Was that a smile? "Thank you. Iím afraid that itís just a copy, since the original is in a museum. But Iíve always been fond of his work." Lex had been on the verge of screaming for help, when this unexpected side of Elizabeth came out. "Would you like to see the sitting room? We can wait in there for Amanda."

"Certainly." The older woman nodded and allowed Lex to lead her across the hall. The furnishings pleasantly surprised her. "Oh, my. What a lovely room." The words had escaped her mouth before she realized that she had spoken out loud. "Thatís a lovely pianoÖdo you play?"

"Yes, maíam." Lex answered quietly. "Or, at least I did when I was younger. I havenít touched it in years." Her eyes gravitated towards the large framed picture that was sitting on the piano, a recent gift from Travis. The eleven by fourteen picture was of Victoria and a very young Lexington at the piano, one of the last photographs taken of them before Victoria passed away. She watched as Elizabeth gently picked up the frame, and studied the photo intently.

The older woman looked up and met Lexís glance. She glanced back down, then up again. "Is thisÖ?"

Lex stepped forward and took the picture from her carefully. "My motherÖand me." Her voice caught. "Right before she died."

"Oh." Elizabeth watched the tall woman place the frame back in its place. "I see." No fake platitudes left her mouth, but she was respectfully silent for a long moment.

"Why are you here, Mrs. Cauble?" Lex was tired of the game. "I know youíre not here for the cooking."

Elizabeth nodded her head. "No, Iím not. Iím here for my daughter, Ms. Walters." She sat down on the antique loveseat near the window. "I donít know what hold you have on her, but Iím determined to break itÖone way or another."

"Uh huh. What do you plan on doing? Kidnapping her in the middle of the night? Or maybe trying to bribe her with trust funds and inheritances?" Lex ran one hand through her dark hair and sat down on the other side of the room. "Sheís happy here. Why canít you just leave her alone?"

"Happy?" The elegant woman almost spit out in disgust. "How on earth can she be happy? Look around you, young woman. This place is a dump! Youíve hidden Amanda away in this pitiful excuse for a house Ė away from all her friends and family. Locked her away from any type of social lifeÖ" Elizabeth stood up and pointed an accusing finger. "YOUíVE turned her against her own mother, and led her into god-knows-what-kind of deviant behavior. And you have the nerve to tell me to leave her alone?!" She was shaking, now. "Donít you DARE take that attitude with me! IÖ"

"Dinnerís about readyÖ" Amanda stepped into the room and saw her mother, red-faced and pointing her finger at Lex. "Whatís going on here?"

Lex stood up and brushed her hands against her thighs. "Nothing. We were justÖ"

"Having a little discussion, dear," Elizabeth finished. She glared at Lex behind her daughterís back. "Lexington was just showing me around the house."

"Right." No sense in upsetting Amanda over nothing. Lex stepped around Elizabeth and put a possessive arm over her friendís shoulder. "Did you say that dinner was ready?"

Not believing either woman, Amanda nodded. "Just about." She snuggled close to Lex. "It was a good idea to give Martha the night off," she whispered, watching her mother stalk down the hallway. "I bet sheís having a better time than we are." Lex had told Martha that Elizabeth was coming to dinner, and that Amanda wanted to cook dinner for her. The housekeeper had taken the hint, and offered to cook dinner for Travis, Charlie and herself. The men had other ideas and decided to take her out instead, for an evening of dinner and dancing.

"Youíre probably right. I heard Grandpa on the phone earlier, talking to your grandparents. I think theyíre all going to meet up at the Crossing, then out to some small club to dance the night away. We may not see them until morning." Lex kissed the ear she had just murmured into.

"And that would be a bad thing?" The younger woman asked. "Mother told me earlier that she couldnít stay tonight."

What a shameÖI already short-sheeted the guest bed. Lex chuckled to herself. She grunted when a well-placed elbow hit her in the stomach. "What was that for?"

"Whatever youíre thinkingÖícause I know it wasnít nice."

Lex grumbled, but followed her lover into the kitchen. Elizabeth stood in the center of the room, her arms crossed over her chest.

"Itís about time you two got in here," she chastised her daughter. "I suppose this is where weíre going to eat?"

Amanda directed her mother to a nearby chair. "Yes, Mother. Why donít you have a seat?"

The older woman allowed herself to be seated. "Fine. I should have known that you wouldnít have a proper dining room," she sniffed. Elizabeth watched as Lex took the chair across from her, pulling it out just far enough to swing her leg over. Heathen.

"Lex! Behave!" Amanda scolded, but secretly smiled.

"What?" Lex took her napkin and was about to tuck it under her chin, but the look from Amanda quickly changed her mind. "I donít know what youíre talking about." She dropped the linen cloth into her lap.

Elizabeth studied the place settings critically. "No salad forks? Didnít I teach you better than this, Amanda Lorraine?"

Tired of listening to the matron complain, Lex laughed. "Salad forks? Címon, Mrs. Cauble, lighten up! Have you seen whatís on the menu tonight?" She pointed to the middle of the table. Several dishes filled with meatloaf, green beans, and mashed potatoes with gravy covered the large wooden table. A small basket covered with a cotton towel held steaming hot rolls.

"It doesnít matter. A proper table ALWAYS has salad forks," the older woman huffed.

"Iím sorry, Mother. But this isnít a dinner party, just a family meal. I would appreciate it if you would just try to enjoy yourself, and quit finding fault with every little thing that I do." Amanda sat down next to her mother and glared across the table. "Weíre all going to relax, right?"

Lex nodded. "Sure." She picked up the bowl of green beans and gestured towards Elizabeth. "Mrs. Cauble?"

The dinner went quickly, with very little small talk among the three women. Lex was the only one who spoke, mainly to complement Amandaís cooking skills. The other two women were unusually quiet, each waiting for the other to say something. Amanda had just stood up and taken Lexís and her plates to the sink, when her mother let out an exasperated sigh.

After over thirty minutes of forced niceties, Elizabeth could take no more. "Amanda, I think itís time that you stop this charade and come to your senses." She had watched her daughter treat the rancher almost as a spouse, and was tired of it.

"Excuse me?" The younger woman turned around and glared at her mother. "Charade?" Amanda tossed down the dishtowel and stalked back towards the table. "What in the hell are you talking about?"

"You heard me. Iíve seen how youíre acting, and Iím sick of it." Elizabeth stood up to confront her daughter. "Sheís a woman, for godís sake! You canít possibly be happy here!" She took a step forward and pointed her finger in Amandaís face. "Itís sick, perverted, and unnatural!"

Lex stood up, intent on getting between the two women. "Now wait just a minute, Mrs. Cauble." She stepped around the table. "Just calm down, and we can all discuss this rationally."

Elizabeth turned around and reached into the pocket of the wool blazer she was wearing. "Shut up! Youíve already ruined your own lifeÖleave my daughter alone!" She pulled her hand out of her pocket, holding a small revolver and aiming it at the taller woman. "I should have gotten rid of you a long time ago, you godless bitch!"

"NO!" Amanda saw the gun in her motherís hand, and reached for it. She heard the loud report, and saw in horror as a dark stain blossomed on her loverís chest.

Lex looked down in shock, and saw the blood covering her shirt. Her knees buckled and she crumbled to the floor. "DamnÖ" She put both hands over her chest to staunch the bleeding, but could feel herself getting weaker with each beat of her heart.

Amanda shoved her mother aside, and fell to her knees next to the prone rancher. "NoÖ" She saw Lex fight to keep her eyes open. "Stay with me, LexÖplease."

"TiredÖ" the rancher mumbled as her eyes began to close.

"No, please!" Amanda begged, as she grasped one of Lexís bloody hands. "Wake up, honeyÖplease." She reached up with her other hand and brushed the dark bangs away from the closed eyes. "Wake upÖ" Amanda began to cry softly as she felt the body beneath her go limp. "WAKE UP!" She cried.

"What?!" Lex woke with a start, and looked around feverishly. "Amanda?" She blinked several times and grabbed her chest. No holes. That was one hell of a nightmare! The shaken woman sat up and took a deep breath. "Wow."

"Are you all right?" Amanda asked worriedly. She reached over and turned on the small lamp next to the bed. "You were thrashing around something horrible, love." She could see that Lex had perspired heavily, and her dark hair was stuck to her head and face.

Lex blinked a couple of more times, and nodded. "Yeah. Just one doozy of a bad dream." She looked over at her loverís concerned face. "Sorry I woke you."

Amanda climbed out of bed and headed for the bathroom. "Itís all right. I was just worried about you." She stepped back out of the bathroom with a damp washcloth. "I was afraid your fever had made you delirious, or something." She sat down next to Lex and began to wipe the ill womanís face. "You still look a little paleÖmaybe I should call the doctor."

"No, Iím fine." Lex took the washcloth away from Amanda and kissed her knuckles. Dying can make anyone turn pale, I think. She shivered. "The dream just got to me, I guess."

"Can you remember any of it?" Amanda asked quietly. The terror was just now beginning to fade from her loverís face. "You donít have to talk about it if you donít want to, you know."

The rancher shook her head and leaned back against the headboard. "I think this dinner with your mother has me a little rattled." She closed her eyes, and for a split second relived that horrible feeling of aching cold, and fear.

Amanda saw the pulse quicken in her partnerís throat. "Lex?" She reached out to touch the silent woman, and was surprised when Lex sat up and wrapped both arms around her.

"I diedÖin my dream," Lex whispered. "It seemed so real." She took several deep breaths and then sat back slowly.

"How didÖ?"

"Your mother came to dinner," Lex took Amandaís hands in hers and watched the knuckles whiten as the smaller woman clinched them tighter. "We argued, and sheÖ"

"What?"

Lex inhaled deeply, not taking her eyes from their linked hands. "She shot me. I died on the kitchen floor."

Amanda took an unsteady breath. "Dear godÖno wonder you were fighting in your sleep." She forced the rancher to look up at her. "But it was only a dream, honey. Youíre okay." She reached up and caressed the heated cheek. "Your fever is playing havoc with you, baby. Itís all right." Amanda pulled Lexís head to her chest, rubbing one hand over the sweat-soaked back, and combing her fingers through the damp hair. "CímonÖletís get you into a cool shower. Itíll make you feel better, and hopefully help the fever, too."

"Sounds good to me." Lex allowed her friend to pull her to her feet.

"And as soon as I see my mother tomorrow, Iím canceling dinner."

The rancher shook her head. "No. Donít do that." She smiled as Amanda wrapped an arm about her waist and led her to the bathroom. "Iíd really like to see what she has up her sleeve."

"Are you sure? We can do this later, when youíre feeling better." Amanda pulled the damp tee shirt from Lexís body then turned to start the water in the shower.

"Iím sure. But I wouldnít mind you frisking her before she came in the house," Lex teased.


Chapter 13

The next evening, Elizabeth followed Amanda out to the ranch, parking her white Saturn rental car behind her daughterís Mustang. Lex stood on the front porch and watched the two women walk towards the house. She fought off the unease that washed over her when she spied Amandaís mother. The rancher noticed with relief that the older woman wore dark slacks and a red silk shirt, not the business suit from her dream. That helps, she thought wryly as she smiled and waved back at her friend.

Elizabethís knee-length fur coat was unbuttoned, and she enjoyed the cold wind that whipped around her. The drive out to the ranch hadnít been that long, but the breeze was a welcome change from the stifling heat of her carís interior. She followed her daughter across the well-kept yard, glancing discreetly at the large home they were walking toward. GoodnessÖitís much bigger than I expected. She observed the silent figure standing on the front porch and squared her shoulders. Staking out her territory, is she? Well, Miss-Big-And-Tough, I donít scare so easily. This is one fight I plan to win.

Lex did her best to ignore the glare that she received from her lover, knowing that she was in trouble for standing outside without a jacket on. Her fever had broken early that morning, and despite a lingering tightness in her chest, she was feeling much better. At least I put my boots on Ė she should be satisfied with that. Since sheíd promised Amanda that sheíd try to be friendly, Lex held her hand out to the woman climbing the steps. "Welcome to the Rocking W Ranch, Mrs. Cauble." Lex watched with amusement as Elizabeth considered her outstretched hand.

"Thank you, Ms. Walters." Elizabeth slowly accepted the offered hand in a firm grasp and gave it a shake. I wonder how long she can be civil, before her lack of breeding comes to the fore? This may be more fun than I thought.

The rancherís smile didnít quite reach her eyes. "Please, call me Lexington, or Lex." She cleared her throat and released the older womanís hand. "Iím glad you could make it."

Amanda stepped around Lex and gently grasped her motherís arm. "Come inside, Mother." She escorted Elizabeth into the house, although her parting shot was aimed at the tall form beside the door. "None of us need to be out in this cold any longer than necessary."

"Ouch," Lex grimaced as she followed the two into the house. She closed the door behind her and watched as Amanda led their guest into the sitting room. I think that the temperature just went down twenty degrees in the house. Gonna be a fun evening. She quietly cleared her throat and fought the urge to sneeze.

Martha stepped out of the kitchen and waved Lex over to her. "I take it our guest has arrived?" she asked quietly. After Amanda had related the rancherís nightmare to her, the housekeeper had tried to put Lexís mind at ease, telling her there was no way sheíd allow them to host such an important guest alone.

Lex nodded. "Yes, maíam. Amanda took her into the sitting room." She peeked into the kitchen. "Whereís Grandpa?" He had promised her that morning that heíd be glad to be a part of the eveningís dinner party, especially after hearing of Lexís bad dream. I didnít know whether to be angry or relieved when Amanda told the entire household about the nightmare Iíd had. Guess things just work out, sometimes. Lex was glad that her dream had been completely wrong so far, and that Elizabeth seemed to be behaving herself.

"He ran back upstairs to change. I think he wants to make a good impression tonight." Martha regarded the woman next to her. "How are you doing, Lexie? You still look a little pale." She didnít believe for a moment that the younger woman was feeling any better.

"Iím okay. Just a little tired from lying around most of the day." Lex looked into the kitchen again. The table appeared to be set to perfection with the good china, and a beautiful white lace tablecloth completed the look. "The table looks really niceÖWhere did you get the covering for it?"

The older woman patted Lex on the side. "Your grandfather suggested that we use it. It was packed away upstairs in the storage room. Mrs. Edwards gave it to your mother as a wedding gift, and your father packed it away after she passed on." She looked up into the quiet face above her. "I knew about it, but after all these years, Iíd forgotten. Iím sorry, honey."

Lex wrapped an arm around the housekeeperís shoulders. "No need to apologize, Mada. I think thereís a lot of stuff upstairs we need to go through pretty soon." She kissed the older woman on the temple. "Iíd really like your help, when we do. You could probably tell me a lot about the stuff thatís up there."

"Iíd be glad to, honey." Martha returned the hug and then stepped back. "Now go see to our guest. Dinner should be ready in about half an hour."

"Yes, maíam." Lex grinned and hurried back down the hallway. She stood outside the doorway to the sitting room for just a moment. Címon, Lexington. It was just a dream. Sheís not crazy enough to do something like that Ė get over it. She took a deep breath and stepped into the room. "Sorry about that. I wanted to go and check on the dinner."

Elizabeth was sitting on the loveseat near the front window, and turned to face Lex. "I see. Are you cooking tonight?" The look on her face showed just what she thought of such an idea. "Forgive me for saying so, but you donít look like you know your way around a kitchen."

"Mother!" Amanda scolded from her chair nearby, "that was uncalled for!"

Lex raised a hand and smiled. "Itís all right, sweetheart." She turned her attention to their guest. "Youíre right, Mrs. Cauble. Martha wonít let me near the stove Ė she says that we donít have enough insurance on the house."

"Really? Is Martha your cook?" Elizabeth leaned forward slightly, hoping for ammunition in her battle for her daughter.

"Not exactly." Lex didnít want this woman to look down at Martha, and she knew she would if she thought the housekeeper was some sort of domestic help. "Martha is the woman who raised me after my own mother died. Sheís about the only family Iíve had."

The older woman nodded. "Of course. So, she lives here and takes care of you? HowÖinteresting."

Amanda jumped to her feet. "She actually has her own house, back behind this one. Martha runs the house for Lex, so that sheís free to take care of the bigger demands of the ranch. I really donít like what youíre insinuating, Mother." She started towards the loveseat, but was intercepted in the center of the room by Lex.

"Hold on there, love." The rancher wrapped her arms around the smaller woman and pulled her close. "Calm down."

Elizabeth stood up. "Really, Amanda. You need to learn to control yourself." She brushed nonexistent wrinkles from her slacks and sighed. "I need to freshen up. Is thereÖ?"

Lex turned and pointed towards the door. "Past the stairway on the right. Do you want me to show you the way?"

"Thatís quite all right. I travel all over the world, I think I can find your lavatory." Elizabeth left the room with an authoritative air.

"Okay, now that sheís goneÖWhatís up with you?" Lex looked down into Amandaís face, which was still flushed with anger.

Amanda buried her face in her loverís shirt and sighed. "I guess Iím just a little defensive when it comes to you." She looked up into concerned blue eyes. "Every word out of her mouth sounded like a dig against you, Lex. I wonít stand by and let her get away with that."

The tall woman walked over to the loveseat and sat down, pulling Amanda down into her lap. "Sshh." Lex stroked the blonde head for a few moments until she felt the body she was holding relax. "She just seemed a bit curious to me, sweetheart. Maybe youíre just a little sensitive where sheís concerned."

"NoÖ" Amanda shook her head, "before you came into the room, every little thing she said was just one step away from being nasty. Sheís trying to ruin how I see youÖbut itís not going to work."

"Of course not," Lex agreed. "What was that you said about her insinuating something?"

The blonde sighed. "She had said earlier, that the only reason you have me here is because you wanted someone to wait on you hand and foot Ė that youíre the type who uses people for their own twisted purposes, and then dumps them." Amanda turned her head so that she was looking directly into Lexís eyes. "I asked her where she got such a ridiculous idea. She said itís what she saw when we were in California."

Lex laughed. "I think she saw what she wanted to, sweetheart. But youíve gotta admit, we were pretty inseparable. Sheís probably just jealous." She hugged the smaller woman to her, then stood up. "CímonÖletís go wait for her in the kitchen."

"Okay." Amanda ran her hands through her hair to comb it and then shook her head. "Iíll try not to rip her head off at the dinner tableÖbut itís not going to be easy."

Elizabeth joined them in the kitchen a few minutes later. The older woman stood in the doorway with a superior air as she watched her daughter puttering around the stove. She crossed her arms over her chest and glared at Lex, who was standing next to the small blonde. "Ahem." Her gaze took in a small, slightly overweight woman next to the tall rancher.

"Excuse me, Mrs. Cauble. I didnít see you standing there." Actually she had, but Lex enjoyed the look of consternation that crossed Elizabethís face. She put her arm around Martha and led her over to where the glaring woman was standing. "This is my mom, Martha Rollins." Lex grinned at the surprised smile that spread over the housekeeperís face. "Martha, Iíd like you to meet Amandaís mother, Elizabeth Cauble."

My, myÖshe looks like sheís swallowed a horse apple, the housekeeper observed. She held out her hand and smiled. "Itís a pleasure to finally meet you. Amandaís a very welcome part of our family, and Iím so glad that you could join us tonight."

Elizabeth gave the woman her best Ďsocialí smile. "Yes. Thank you for having me here on such short notice." She smirked slightly. "Lexington tells me that you raised her. You must be so proud of what sheís become." A dirty, perverted cowhand that seduces naÔve young girlsÖevery motherís dream.

"I certainly am." Martha smiled up at the dark-haired woman, and then looked towards the stove to see Amanda frown. This woman certainly has a burr under her saddle blanketÖand poor Amanda looks like sheís about to explode. "Lexie has worked very hard to make this ranch something that we can all be proud of. Iíve never seen it so prosperous, and Iíve been here twenty-five years."

Amanda had been on the verge of interrupting her motherís catty comments until she heard Marthaís words. She relaxed her grip on the spoon that she was using to stir the simmering pot, and took a deep breath to calm herself. I think that Mother has finally met her match. Martha sure wonít take any flak from her, and Lex seems to be actually enjoying herself. Very weird.

"Why donít you two ladies sit down, and Iíll bring you each a glass of wine?" Lex steered Martha to the table and pulled out a chair for her. She waited until the housekeeper was settled and then went to the refrigerator for the bottle of wine. "Iím not real sure how good this stuff is, but my grandfather claims itíll be perfect for tonight."

"Youíre being too modest, honey," a deep voice boomed from the doorway. "Youíve got a wonderful eye for wine." Travis stepped into the kitchen wearing dark slacks and a multi-colored sweater which accentuated his sparkling blue eyes. His thick silver hair and recently grown mustache had been neatly trimmed, and he looked much younger than his seventy-nine years. He met his granddaughter halfway across the kitchen and hugged her gently. "You look a lot better this evening, Lexie."

She returned his embrace and laughed. "Thanks, Grandpa. Youíre looking pretty sharp yourself." She pulled back and gestured with one arm towards the table. "Let me make the introductions. Mrs. Elizabeth Cauble, Iíd like for you to meet my grandfather, Travis Edwards."

"Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mrs. Cauble." Travis bowed slightly and gently shook Elizabethís outstretched hand. "I can see where Amanda gets her beauty."

Elizabeth found herself doing something very out of character. She blushed like a schoolgirl. "Youíre too kind, Mr. Edwards," she demurred. "And please, call me Elizabeth."

Heís laying it on a bit thick, but I think itís working. Maybe sheíll back off and leave Amanda alone if sheís busy flirting with Grandpa. Lex felt a cold chill run down her back. Ugh! Iím gonna owe him big time for this one! She exchanged amused glances with Amanda as she moved over to the stove to help. "We about ready to get this show on the road?" she whispered. It had been Amandaís idea for the two of them to serve, which left Martha free to enjoy the dinner. The younger woman didnít want to give her mother any more ammunition to make the evening miserable, so it was decided much earlier that Martha would not have anything to do with household chores tonight.

"Yep. The pastaís strained, the sauce is ready, and the bread will be out of the oven in about a minute." Amanda playfully bumped her lover with a hip. "Think you can handle the salad? Itís in the fridge."

Lex stepped behind Amanda and leaned over to place her lips next to the blondeís ear. "I think I can handle more than the salad, sweetheart." She placed a soft kiss on the ear and stepped back. "Iíll prove it to you, later."

Amanda fought to keep standing, as her knees almost buckled beneath her. "Iíll get you for that," she growled quietly.

"Iím counting on it," Lex winked, and quickly removed the salad from the refrigerator.

***************

The dinner went better than Lex could have imagined, although she thought that she was going to have to tranquilize Amanda on more than one occasion. The younger woman took exception to almost every word that left her motherís mouth, no matter how innocent it sounded. Travis continued to bewitch their guest with his southern charm, and Martha had even gotten into the spirit of the evening and presided over the meal as if she were the lady of the manor. After a couple of hours of small talk, the night was drawing to a close, and Elizabeth had regretfully announced that she had to get back to her hotel.

"I want to thank you again for such a lovely evening," Elizabeth extended her hand to Martha, who along with Travis had escorted her to the front door. Amanda had gone upstairs some time earlier, citing a terrible headache.

Martha smiled warmly and shook her hand. "It was entirely our pleasure, Elizabeth. Iím just sorry that Amandaís not here to tell you goodbye." She allowed the other woman to open the door.

"Yes. We had a wonderful time, too," Travis smiled at the two women. "Itís so nice to have finally met you, my dear." He reached forward and pulled the blushing womanís hand to his lips. "Please donít be a stranger. How long do you plan to be in Somerville? Weíd love to have you out again."

Elizabeth smiled sadly as she pulled her hand back delicately. "Iím not certain. It really depends on my daughter. Iíd love to spend more time with her, but not if it makes Mandy feel uncomfortable." She took both of Marthaís hands in her own and squeezed. "I appreciate you making me feel so welcome, Martha. If I donít see you again before I leave, I want you to know how much your hospitality means to me. You have an open invitation if youíre ever in Los Angeles, so that I can return the favor." She turned quickly and hurried from the porch, fighting the freezing wind until she could get to her car.

The housekeeper sighed and closed the door. "That went pretty well, I think," she quipped to the handsome man nearby. "I donít believe I would have made it without your help, Travis. Thank you."

"My dear Martha," he draped one long arm around her shoulders and guided her back towards the kitchen, "it was entirely my pleasure. Weíre all family here, and thereís no place Iíd rather be." They passed the staircase and paused for a moment.

"I hope Lexie can calm Amanda down. She certainly was in a state, wasnít she?" Martha looked up at the handsome older man. "CímonÖI think I still have some of that coffee cake left over from breakfast. What say we have a quick snack?"

Travis laughed, but allowed her to lead him into the kitchen. "That sounds like a marvelous idea. But if you keep feeding me like this, Iím going to have to start jogging in the mornings to make up for it," he teased.

***************

Lex watched the younger woman pace back and forth around the bedroom. She had been trying to calm Amanda ever since they had gotten upstairs. "Sweetheart. I thought the dinner went really well. I mean, at least no blood was spilled, or anything." She hoped that joking about her own misgivings would help. Her throat was sore, and she felt a definite chill as her fever came back.

"She was just playing with us, Lex." Amanda spun around and stomped over to the dresser. "Donít tell me you fell for her sweet and innocent act!" She pulled open a drawer, glanced down, and slammed it shut. What am I looking for?

"WellÖshe did seem pretty nice tonight. Maybe she just wants to have a better relationship with you." Lex stood up and crossed the room, stopping directly behind her lover. "Donít get me wrong, love. Iíll never forgive her for whatever role she played in your poisoning, but it seems like she has honestly missed you." She reached out and placed one hand gently on Amandaís back. "Part of me canít blame her for wanting to protect you, since I feel the same way."

Amanda spun around and snuggled into the rancherís arms. She shook her head as she buried her face in the denim shirt. "No. You donít know her like I do, Lex. Sheís up to something, I just know it." She looked up into her loverís concerned face. "Iím worried about what she may do. The last time they tried to poison youÖwhat ifÖ?"

Lex caressed the worried face below her. "SshhhÖnothingís going to happen to me, sweetheart. She may be a bit crazy, but your mother isnít stupid. If something happened to me now, sheíd be the main suspect. We know that, and she knows that." She leaned down and placed a light kiss on Amandaís forehead.

"That wonít stop her from plotting, you know," Amanda murmured. She swayed slightly as warm lips continued to kiss her face.

"You could be right," Lex agreed, as she led Amanda over to the bed. Time for a little diversion, I think. She nibbled on a convenient earlobe and whispered, "But thereís not much we can do about it tonight. Why donít you let me fix you a hot bath, then Iíll give you a nice, long massage."

Long fingers began to slowly unbutton Amandaís blouse, causing the silk garment to fall quickly to the floor. "MmmÖ" The blonde leaned her head back as Lex continued to place gentle nips along her throat. She felt herself being pushed onto her back as her lover carefully peeled her jeans down her hips and off her legs. Warm hands traced fiery paths across Amandaís bare skin, causing her to writhe and moan softly. "LexÖ"

Lex continued her diversion by caressing the smooth skin beneath hers in long, generous strokes. "Close your eyes, love. Just relax and enjoy the ride," she whispered, right before she bent her head and sucked gently on tender flesh.

***************

"Are you sure youíre up to this?" Amanda questioned her lover. "Iíd be just as happy spending New Yearís Eve at home with you." She looked in the mirror at Lex, who was brushing her hair and trying to appear alert. She had dark circles under her blue eyes, and Amanda suspected that the older woman was still fighting off a fever.

The rancher nodded, then tossed the brush onto the counter. "Iím sure. I promised your family that weíd meet them there, and your grandmother owes me a dance." She stepped forward and placed her hands on Amandaís shoulders. "Have I told you how beautiful you look this evening?" she whispered in a nearby ear.

Amanda wore the same outfit she had worn a couple of months before at her parentsí house in Los Angeles. The black denim skirt and shimmering green blouse complimented her figure, and the heart-shaped necklace rested perfectly in the hollow of her throat. She looked up and covered Lexís hands with her own. "You have. Thank you."

"Good. Because Iíd hate for one second to pass by that you didnít know how absolutely thankful I am that youíre here with me." Lex ran her hands down Amandaís arms until she could link them together across the younger womanís stomach. She pulled her lover towards her and squeezed. "I never want to take you for granted. You mean too much to me."

"Oh, Lex." Amanda turned around so that she could look up into her partnerís face. "I feel the same way." She raised her hands and clasped them behind Lexís neck, pulling the older womanís head down gently. "And Iíve never felt anything from you but love," she whispered, as she leaned up and covered Lexís mouth with her own.

A knock at the bedroom door caused them both to groan and pull apart slowly. "This better be important," Lex growled. She regretfully stepped out of the bathroom and opened the bedroom door. "Oh, hi."

Travis stood in the doorway with a large smile on his face. "Good evening, Lexie. Martha sent me up to see if you girls were about ready." He was wearing new denim jeans and a light blue button-down shirt, and even sported a pair of scuffed cowboy boots.

"Weíre ready." Lex held open the door. "Come on in, Grandpa. Iíve just got to hunt down my boots."

Amanda stepped out of the bathroom. "Theyíre under the bed," she announced helpfully. "Hi, Grandpa Travis. You sure look spiffy tonight." She waited until Lex got down on her hands and knees to look under the bed, and swatted the rancher on the rear.

"Hey!" Lex cried. "Watch it, Blondie." She stood up with the boots in one hand. "You really donít want to start something now, do you?"

The blonde quickly hid behind Travis. "UmmÖno." She put her arms around him and grinned. "Iím protected."

Lex walked slowly towards the pair. "Uh-huh." She dropped the boots and continued her advance. "Is that true, Grandpa? Would you protect her from me?"

"Lexington Marie! Quit horsing around and finish getting dressed!" Martha scolded from the doorway. "And leave your poor grandfather alone." She stepped into the room and placed her hands on her hips. "Donít make me take a spoon to your backside, young lady!"

Amanda giggled and released her hold on Travis. "Thatíll teach you to pick on me." She stepped away from the smiling man and stuck her tongue out at the tall woman.

"Oh, really?" Lex took two quick steps and grabbed Amanda, picking her up and spinning her around.

"Aaaah! Lex! Put me down!" the younger woman wailed, wrapping her arms around Lexís neck. "Martha, make her stop!"

The housekeeper shook her head. "Kids."

Travis held out his arm in a courtly fashion. "Shall we wait for them downstairs, Martha?"

"I do believe we shall," Martha agreed, taking his arm and allowing Travis to escort her from the room.

Chapter 14

The New Yearís Eve dance was being held at the Knights of Columbus Hall. The large open floor plan was perfect to use as a dance floor, and several civic groups worked together for days before the big event to make certain everything went smoothly. Next door to the Hall was the Ladiesí Auxiliary, which also opened up to serve refreshments and have chairs available for those who wanted to just sit down and visit.

Lex parked the truck in the Auxiliary parking lot, since she knew that Travis would rather meet up with old friends than dance. "Here we are, everyone." She looked at Martha in the back seat. "I wonder when weíll see yourÖ" A knock at the driverís side window caused Lex to jump. "Damn you, Charlie," she grumbled. She watched as he opened Marthaís door for her.

"Hi there, beautiful. I was wondering when you were gonna get here." Charlie helped the housekeeper out of the truck and ignored the nasty look he was given by Lex. "I could have just picked you up at the house, you know."

Martha laughed. "There was no sense in you driving all the way to the ranch. Lexie didnít mind an extra passenger for the ride in."

"Thatís right," Lex agreed, as she climbed out of the truck. "Weíd have been here sooner, but everyone was having too much fun picking on me."

Amanda walked around the truck and wrapped an arm around her friend. "Poor baby. Youíre so mistreated." She exchanged glances with the others. "Brrr! Letís get inside before we turn into ice sculptures!"

"Good idea. Lexie shouldnít be out in the cold, anyway," Martha agreed. She led the way as the entire group started towards the Auxiliary building, where loud music and laughter floated out the open doors.

The expensive carís windows were steamed up as the happy group walked by. No one noticed who was inside, as they were talking excitedly amongst themselves.

"Oh, HubertÖ" The blonde woman snuggled closer. "Youíre so strong," she whispered in ecstasy.

He quickly unbuttoned her shirt. "You ainít seen nuthiní, yet, sweet pea." He worked feverishly on the buckle to her belt, as the excited woman stretched across the tiny back seat of the expensive sports car. "Come to Daddy, sugar pie."

Lex stood in the doorway of the Ladies Auxiliary until her eyes adjusted to the bright light. Damn, thereís a lot of people here. She felt her grandfatherís hand on her shoulder. "Hmm?"

"I see a couple of folks that I havenít talked to in ages," he murmured in her ear. "You kids go have some fun, and Iíll catch up with you later." A quick kiss on her forehead, and his tall frame blended into the crowd.

A gentle hand on her arm brought Lex out of her musings. "Looks like Grandpa Travis is in good hands," Amanda quipped, seeing the older man being embraced by several people his age. She looked up into her loverís face and saw a momentary sadness. "Are you okay, honey?"

The dark head bent down and Lex looked into Amandaís eyes. "Yeah. Just thinking." She looked back over at her grandfather, and at the people that had quickly surrounded him. His face was lit up with happiness, and he was already being herded toward a table full of friends that welcomed him with boisterous laughter.

"About what?" Amanda steered her partner back away from the doorway to a quieter spot in the corner of the huge room. She raised one hand to Lexís face to bring her attention back to her. "Talk to me, Lex. Whatís going on in that head of yours?"

Lex sighed. "I thought I was doing him a favor, bringing him out to the ranch." She indicated where Travis was sitting, laughing at something one of the other men had said. "But look at him, Amanda. Heís having a great time. Maybe he needs to be here in town, with his friends, instead of cooped up with me out in the middle of nowhere."

Amanda grasped Lexís hand and brought it to her face, kissing the knuckles gently. "Has he said anything to you to indicate that heís unhappy?" When the older woman didnít answer, she shook her head. "No, of course not. Honey, he seems happy at the ranch. But if you want, we can talk to him later, and see if heíd like to have a place here in town, okay?" Amanda stood on her tiptoes and kissed Lex on the cheek. Realizing where they were, she quickly looked around, relieved that no attention was on them. "Now, címon. Letís go see if we can find my grandparents and harass them for a while."

Sheís right, Lexington. No sense in borrowing trouble. Lex smiled down at her partner. "Yes, dear." She wrapped an arm around Amandaís shoulders and started to lead her from the building. "Letís go check out the dance. Theyíre probably in there." Before they could get through the doorway, a blonde woman stormed in.

"Why donít you go back to your car, and see if you can finish on your own? God knows you werenít getting anywhere with me," she complained to the person behind her. "Now I remember why I quit going out with you."

Hubert followed closely behind. "Címon, Barbara. It must have just been too cold out there, thatís all. Gimme another chance." He tried to grab her arm, but bumped into someone instead. "Get out of myÖDamn! What the hell are you doing here?"

"Hello, Hube. Having woman troubles?" Lex teased. She had a pretty good idea what was going on. I thought I recognized his car out in the parking lot. "Maybe you should get that checked out."

"Bitch." He pushed by his sister in search of Barbara. "Iíll take care of you later."

Lex laughed. "I doubt it, Hube. But have fun trying." She looked down at Amanda. "What?"

"That wasnít nice, Lex. Funny, but not nice." She grabbed Lexís arm and began to pull her through the doors. "Letís go find Gramma, before you get into trouble." Amanda led her partner across the sidewalk to the open doors of the Hall. Loud music assaulted their ears before they even stepped inside. "Good lord. Weíre going to go deaf in here," she grumbled.

"What?" Lex joked, only to have an elbow dig into her ribs. "You have no sense of humor, Amanda." She shook her head and followed her lover into the loud building.

***************

Janna kept her eyes on the front door as she sipped her punch. She had staked out a nice spot near the back wall to watch the action, and was waiting patiently for some sign of her date. The tall woman was not looking forward to spending the evening with Hubert, no matter how handsome he was. Doesnít do a thing for me. When she saw him chase an upset woman into the room, she smiled. Thereís my out. Janna frowned when she saw him exchange heated words with Lex. I wonder what thatísÖaw, hell. Now I know why he looked so familiar. And why he was suddenly so interested in me. What an ass.

Hubert made his way across the room until he was standing in front of Janna. "Hello there. Whatís happening?" He tried to appear casual, but his disheveled appearance only made him look comical.

"Your shirt tail is out," Janna deadpanned. "And your fly is unzipped." She set her cup of punch down and crossed her arms over her chest.

"What?" He looked down and frowned. "Shit." Hubert quickly tucked in his shirt and zipped his pants. "SoÖyou been waiting long?" He brushed his dark hair back with one hand and straightened his jacket.

She raised an eyebrow at his attempt at being debonair. "Long enough to see you at the front door." A wicked smile flitted across her face, then quickly disappeared. Letís see how he gets out of this one. This could be fun.

"Yeah? So?"

"Who was the woman, Hubert? Or did you forget that we were meeting here tonight?" Janna did her best to keep an angry look on her face.

He looked around a bit, then shrugged his shoulders. "Oh, her. That was my sister. Sheís a pain in the ass, butÖ"

Janna shook her head. "No, not Lex. I know her. Who was the woman that ran into the building right before you did? She didnít seem too happy with you."

"UhÖwellÖ" Hubert looked down at the floor, and then at the decorations over her shoulder. "That was Barbara. We used to go out some." He stood up straight and puffed out his chest. "She was upset because I didnít bring her to the dance. Iím considered quite a catch around here, you know."

"I see. And the reason she was partially undressed wasÖ?" She almost laughed at the look on his face. Squirm, you pathetic bastard. I remember hearing from Lex and Amanda just what an ass you really are. They just never mentioned you by name.

Hubert cleared his throat. "Okay. Now you know. I was trying to save the poor woman some embarrassment, but I guess I can tell you." He leaned forward and rested his hand on the wall behind her until they were almost breathing the same air. "She practically jumped me in the parking lot. The woman is a nymphomaniac. I fought her off the best I could, but it wasnít easy."

The amused woman couldnít hold it back anymore, she laughed. "Fought her off, huh? Then how do you explain that you were chasing her into the building?"

"UmmÖwellÖI wasÖ" He backed off a step and looked completely flustered.

"Never mind." Janna pushed by him in disgust. "I donít know how you and my father can be such good friends. Youíre such a pig!" Her parting shot was loud enough for several of the people nearby to overhear, and they looked at Hubert curiously.

He glared at the faces staring at him. "What the hell are you looking at? Mind your own damn business!" Hubert took a deep breath and went in search of Barbara. HellÖmaybe I can salvage this night after all. I knew I wasnít gonna get any out of Tedís little girl. Might as well get me some before the year is out.

***************

Lex had picked a small part of the dance floor well away from the crowd, and she was slowly swaying to the music with Amanda nestled close. Not many paid any attention to the couple, since everyone was too busy having fun themselves. The few narrow-minded people that even looked as if they wanted to say something were quickly shut up by a nasty look from the tall woman. She looked down at the woman snuggled close to her. "Having fun, sweetheart?"

"Mmm-hmm." Amanda nodded, then looked up to see her loverís face. "I really am. Thanks for suggesting this, Lex. I know youíre not feeling too well, butÖ"

"No buts. Iím feeling fine, and I thought we should do something special for our first New Yearís Eve together." Lex leaned in even closer. "Although I have a few ideas about how we can celebrate at home, later," she finished in a sexy whisper.

Amanda trembled slightly. "Oh, boy. That sounds good to me," she responded. Lexís voice was even deeper due to her cold, and it was all Amanda could do to keep from attacking her partner right there on the dance floor. "UmmÖitís kinda warm in here. You wanna stop and get something to drink?" Maybe go swimming in the punch bowl? WhewÖwhat she can do to me with just a few words.

The rancher laughed, but steered her lover off the dance floor. "Sure. Iím feeling a bit warm myself. How about we go back over to the Auxiliary building, and see what kind of munchies they have?" She gently pushed through the crowd, her sights set on the front door.

"Good idea. I worked up an appetite with all that dancing," Amanda yelled at the tall back, not relinquishing her hold on Lexís hand. As they stepped out the door into the cold night air, Amanda was grabbed from behind and her hand was jerked out of Lexís. "Hey!"

Lex spun around and was shoved in the back, her unseen assailant manhandling her around to the back of the building. Three men stood in the semi-darkness, one of them holding Amanda by the upper arms. "What the hellís this all about?" Lex asked, as she blinked several times to get used to the darkness.

"Let go of me!" Amanda yelled, as she twisted and turned to break the manís hold.

"We donít like your type around here," one of the men growled. "It ainít natural."

The rancher started forward, but a hand to her chest pushed her back. "Whatís not natural? Two people dancing?" Lex took a deep breath and frowned. "Youíre drunk. Why donít you climb back into your bottle and leave folks alone?" She kept a close eye on the man holding onto Amanda. Careful, BubbaÖIíll tear you apart if anything happens to her.

The man who had spoken to her shoved Lex hard against the back of the building. "Shut up!" He was several inches taller, and at least fifty pounds heavier than she. "Some of us were talkiní, and decided you should be taught a lesson." He and the man next to him moved towards Lex.

"Aaaah! You little bitch!" The man holding Amanda fell to the ground, both hands clasping his crotch. The small woman stepped away quickly, her hands held up in a defensive gesture.

The distraction was all Lex needed, as she kicked one man in the crotch and punched the other one in the throat. "Címon!" She reached for Amanda and led her back around to the other side of the building, where several people had stepped out for some fresh air.

"Hold on there, ladiesÖoh! Sorry, Lex." A man in a light-colored cowboy hat and a sheriffís office jacket grabbed the rancher. "Whatís the hurry?"

Amanda pointed to where they had come from. "Some menÖ" she puffed, her breath coming out in steamy puffs, "tried toÖ" She gratefully leaned into Lexís body for support.

"Iím glad to see you, Jeremy. Some rowdy drunks took exception to us dancing," Lex explained. She looked down at her lover. "Why donít you go inside, and Iíll justÖ"

"I donít think so," Amanda stepped back and crossed her arms over her chest to protect herself from the cold. "Iím not going anywhere without you."

Lex shook her head. "I donít know why I even try, sometimes." She looked at the deputy, who had an amused smile on his face. "Donít start with me. Iím good friends with your mother." Not that they ran in the same circles, but Mrs. Richards did serve on the Historical Committee. It was a good bluff.

He held out his hands in a defensive manner. "I didnít say anything. UmmÖyou want to show me where the trouble was?" He started for the back of the building.

"Sure. Theyíre probably gone by now, though." Lex followed him, with Amanda close behind her.

***************

"Are you girls okay?" Charlie asked breathlessly. He had seen where Lex and Amanda were visiting with the younger womanís grandparents, and rushed over to the table to check on them. The sheriff tipped his hat to the other occupants of the table. "Oh, excuse me folks. Anna LeighÖJacob. How are you folks this evening?"

Anna Leigh smiled at the flustered lawman. "Weíre doing just fine, Charlie. Why donít you sit down and join us?" She looked around for his fiancťe. "Whereís Martha? Isnít she with you?"

He sat down at the table and released a heavy sigh. "Yes, maíam, she is. Sheís over at Mrs. Clarkís table, talking about wedding stuff. I had to run for my life," he joked.

"Why were you asking if the girls are okay?" Jacob asked, looking from Charlie to Amanda quizzically. "Did something happen that we donít know about?"

Lex saw the panic in her loverís eyes. Oops. "It wasnít that much, really. Just a couple of drunks took exception to us dancing, thatís all."

"Uh-huh. And what exactly did these drunks do?" Anna Leigh asked. She looked closely at the two younger women, trying to see any bruises or scratches. "You two look okay to me."

"Weíre just fine, Gramma," Amanda assured her. "Lex and I changed their attitudes, didnít we, honey?" She reached over and squeezed the rancherís hand. Donít scare them, Lex. Please.

Looking at the faces around the table, Lex smiled. "We sure did. Nothing to it, especially when Amanda is involved." The grip on her arm tightened, and she gave her partner a confused look. "What?"

Amanda smiled sweetly, and glanced down at the older womanís knuckles. They were still a bit red where Lex had punched one of the men. "Especially when I am involved? What is that supposed to mean?"

"UmmÖ"

"Now, Peanut," Jacob saw the frustration on Lexís face. "Iím sure she didnít mean anything bad. Did you, Lex?"

Lex shook her head. "Yes, sir. I mean, no sir. I meanÖ" She covered Amandaís hand with her own, and turned her attention back to her lover. "Sweetheart, I meant that you seem to always think clearly, and get us out of any trouble." She looked around the table with a self-effacing smile. "Unlike me, who charges into all sorts of things without thinking them through." Like now. "Thatís what I meant."

"Uh-huh." Amanda enjoyed watching her normally taciturn partner try to talk her way out of trouble. Deciding that Lex had squirmed enough, she smiled. "Okay, Iíll let you off the hook for that one, Slim." She saw the older womanís eyes focus on something across the room. "What is it?"

"Iím not sure," Lex murmured. "I thought I saw someone I knew." She stood up and placed a quick kiss on Amandaís head. "I think Iíll go over and take a look, if you donít mind."

The blonde looked up and nodded. "Sure. Do you want me to go with you?"

"Nah. You stay here and visit, and Iíll be right back, okay?" Lex wasnít sure of whom she had seen, but she didnít want to entangle Amanda in what could possibly be a nasty fight.

"You want some company, Lex? I need to get back to Martha, and Iíd like to have a word or two with you on the way." Charlie stood up and put his hat back on.

The tall woman nodded. "Sure, Uncle Charlie. Címon." Lex gave one last wave to the table and followed him through the crowd. "Okay, whatís up?" she asked as soon as they were out of range.

He turned to look at her. "I was going to ask you the same thing. Jeremy told me about what happened earlier. Are you okay?"

"Yeah. But by the time we got there, the guys were gone. Funny thing is, I didnít recognize any of them. I thought I knew most of the people in this town." Lex pulled the lawman over to a quieter spot so that they could talk without yelling. "Something didnít feel right about the whole confrontation, Charlie. It was almost as if they were out to get me, personally. And I thought I saw Amandaís mother in here a few minutes ago."

The sheriff rubbed the back of his neck as he thought. "Do you think that she could have had something to do with it?" he asked. "Why would she have a few drunks try to beat you up? Doesnít seem like her style."

Lex sighed. "No, it doesnít. But Iíve lived in this area my entire life, and never made a secret of who I am. Iíve gotten a few dirty looks, and even some nasty words flung my way, but no one has ever tried something like tonight. It seems just a little too coincidental to me." She looked over his shoulder at the people around them. "Hell, Charlie. I grew up with these people. You can't tell me that theyíre just now getting upset at the fact that Iím gay."

Charlie put a comforting hand on her shoulder and squeezed. "Iíll tell you what. You just point her out to me, and Iíll try to keep an eye on Amandaís mother tonight. Maybe sheíll hook up with those fellas again, and I can arrest them."

"No. Sheís too smart for that. You go take care of Martha, and Iíll see if I can find Mrs. Cauble and have a little chat with her." Lex narrowed her eyes. "If she does one thing to hurt Amanda, Iíll make her regret ever coming to Somerville." She started to walk away, but was stopped by the hold Charlie had on her shoulder.

"Donít do something youíll be sorry for later, honey." He looked into the stormy blue eyes and squeezed her shoulder again. "Sheís not worth it."

She focused on his face and willed her anger down. "She may not be, but Amanda sure as hell is. I wonít let anyone, or anything hurt her. Donít ask me to stand by and let that happen, Uncle Charlie." Lex gently brushed his hand away and stepped back into the crowd before he could say anything else.

***************

Her eyes searched the room, looking for something, or someone. She finally spotted a tableful of people, and slowly pushed her way through the crowd towards them. Once she made it to the table, she stopped and waited for them to notice her.

"Oh! I didnít know youíd be here," Amanda said to the new arrival. "Wonít you sit down?"

"Thank you. I had been contemplating going home when I noticed you sitting here. I hope you donít mind."

Jacob stood up and pulled out a chair. "Not at all, young lady. Have a seat."

Janna sat down, a little nervous at just showing up uninvited. "Thank you."

"Where are my manners?" Amanda blustered. "Janna, Iíd like to introduce you to my grandparents, Anna Leigh and Jacob Cauble." She smiled at the woman who had just joined them. "Gramma, GrandpaÖthis is a good friend of ours, Janna Hotchiss. Sheís helping us out with the books for the ranch."

"Itís a pleasure to meet you, Janna." Anna Leigh reached over and shook the newcomerís hand. "Hotchiss. Arenít you Tedís daughter?"

"Yes, maíam. Iím living out at my granddadís right now, but I work in my dadís office." Janna felt at ease at once.

Jacob reached over and patted her arm. "Wonderful! Itís great to meet a friend of our Mandyís. Are you here alone, dear?"

She tensed a bit at the question. "UmmÖwell. I am, but I wasnít supposed to be." Janna looked to Amanda for support.

"Is everything okay, Janna? You look a bit flustered," Amanda asked. She couldnít quite figure out what was causing the older woman to turn such an interesting shade of red.

"Yeah, just peachy." Janna smiled at the expectant faces. "I was supposed to meet a friend of my dadís here, but that didnít work out too well."

Anna Leigh nodded. "Thatís a shame. Are you all right, dear? Is there anything we can do?"

Janna smiled at the older woman. "Iím great. At least as long as you donít mind me hanging around with you for a while."

"Not at all. Lex wandered off somewhere a few minutes ago, but hopefully sheíll be back soon." Amanda looked past their table at the throng of people, trying to catch a glimpse of her lover.

***************

"Hello, Mrs. Cauble. Fancy seeing you here." Lex stepped into the older womanís eyesight.

Elizabeth took a step back. "Oh! Well, Lexington, I had no idea that youíd be here this evening." She could feel the anger radiating from the younger woman, and it frightened her.

The tall woman leaned in closer. "Cut the bullshit, Elizabeth. Your little friends didnít scare me." Lex took another step until they were almost breathing the same air. "Back off, and leave us alone. Iíll do whatever it takes to protect Amanda Ė even take on the likes of you."

"As will I." Elizabeth pushed the rancher back with one finger. "Donít think for a moment that you can get away with seducing my daughter. I will do everything in my power to tear her away from your perverted clutches Ė remember that."

"Big talk from someone who always hires muscle to do their dirty work," Lex growled. "Leave us alone, lady. You donít want to make me angry."

The older woman laughed. "Please. Your pathetic attempts at toughness donít frighten me in the least. I was picking my teeth with the likes of you before you were potty-trained."

Lex took a deep breath to control herself. "Lady, you have no idea how good it would feel to knock you into next week. But for some strange reason, Amanda still loves you. So Iíll do my best to abide by her wishes."

Elizabethís reaction came swiftly and the sharp crack of a slap resounded. "Donít threaten me, you two-bit cow chaser. Leave my daughter alone, or you will be sorry!" Elizabeth walked away, leaving Lex to hold her cheek where the blow had landed.

Oh, boy. I think things just got a lot more interesting, Lex thought to herself, as she watched Elizabeth retreat into the crowd.


Chapter 15

"Where have you been? I was about to send out a search party to look for you," Amanda joked to Lex, as the taller woman sat down next to her at the table. Her left cheekbone bore a red welt, and Amanda reached up to touch it gently. "What happened to you?"

Lex smiled a greeting to the others at the table, then turned her attention back to her partner. "Iíll tell you about it later, all right?" She noticed Janna and grinned. "Hey there. Glad to see that you could make it tonight." They had talked earlier in the week about meeting up at the dance, but the older woman had seemed less than enthusiastic about attending.

"Thanks. My father set me up with someone, but it didnít work out." Janna was worried about how much she should tell the rancher. He must have found out somehow that Iím doing the books for the ranch, I canít see any other reason why heíd insist on taking me. "A good friend of his wanted to meet me here tonight."

Amanda turned away from Lex to focus on Janna. "Really? Is it someone we know?"

Janna nodded and then locked eyes with Lex. "Your brother, Hubert."

"That son-of-a-bitch!" Lex slammed her hand on the table and jumped up. "Heíll do anything to get his filthy hands on my bank account!" A light touch on her arm caused the rancher to sit back down. "Iím sorry, Janna. I didnít mean that the way it sounded." She gave the concerned faces around the table a contrite look. "Iím sorry about blowing up like that. Itís just that he always seems to hit a nerve with me."

Jacob waved her off. "No need to apologize, Lex. We understand the problems that youíve had with your brother." He smiled slightly when he felt his wife squeeze his thigh in agreement.

"No, thatís all right. Iím really sorry about all this. I never knew his last name, so I didnít think anything about it." Janna felt ashamed that she caused the rancher such upset. "I would have never even agreed to meet him here, had I known who he was. But donít worryÖwe never got around to discussing my work. And even if we had, I would have never divulged any information to him." She looked down at the paper tablecloth, and began to tear away at the damp spot underneath her cup of punch with her fingernail. A light touch on her hand caused her to look up.

"Janna, no one blames you for Hubertís duplicity. Weíve all been witnesses to the manís shady dealings, and understand completely." Anna Leigh squeezed the younger womanís hand and smiled. "So if I were you, I wouldnít worry about it so much. Heíll get what he deserves, sooner or later."

Lex nodded her agreement. "Sheís right. Iíve had to put up with my brotherís one-track mind for years, and he just seems to be getting worse. Donít worry about him." She looked at her watch and smiled. "If you folks will excuse us, Iíve got to show Amanda something." Lex stood up and grabbed her loverís hand to pull her away from the table.

"You do? UmmÖsure!" Amanda waved to the table and allowed herself to be gently dragged from the crowded room. "LexÖwhere are we going?"

"Hold on." The rancher put off answering the question as she grabbed their coats from where they hung on the wall. She helped Amanda with her coat, exited the hall, then continued her trek through the parking lot.

Amanda frowned until she realized that Lex was dragging her towards the center of town. "WhatÖ?"

"Sshh! Just címon!" Lex helped her lover step over a knee-high, steel-cabled fence. She led Amanda along until they were standing in the middle of the large gazebo that was centered in the town square. The tall woman checked her watch again, and turned slightly towards the west. She pulled Amandaís back close to her and stood quietly, both of them looking off into the dark night. Lex had one arm wrapped around her lover and the other pointing out into the darkness. "Watch right over there," she whispered.

Suddenly a loud blast was heard from the direction in which Lex was pointing. The night sky lit up, as fireworks were shot into the air. Car horns went off, and they could hear voices yelling into the night, as the clock struck midnight.

Amanda felt tears of awe in her eyes as a soft voice whispered into her ear. "Happy New Year, my love."

The smaller woman spun around in Lexís arms and covered the rancherís chilled mouth with her lips. She threaded her fingers in the dark hair and pulled the strong body closer. When they finally broke apart long enough to breathe, Amanda sighed and leaned into her partnerís chest. "It certainly is," she agreed belatedly.

Lex chuckled, quite proud of herself. "Did you like it?" Unable to resist, she placed a soft kiss on Amandaís forehead.

"Like what?" the younger woman asked dreamily. She then realized what the question was. "Oh! Yes, I did. And the fireworks were nice, too," Amanda teased, snuggling even closer. Remembering something, she looked up into shaded blue eyes. "Are you going to tell me what happened to your cheek? It looks like someone hit you." She reached up and gently traced the aforementioned body part with her fingertips.

"UmmÖyeah. Someone did." Lex took a deep breath, stalling for time while she figured out a way to tell Amanda what had transpired earlier.

The younger woman cupped Lexís face in her hands. "Who? Tell me, so I can go straighten them out right now!" She could feel the anger begin to take over. "I mean it, Lex. No one lays a hand on you and gets away with it!"

The rancher reached up and covered the smaller hands on her face with her own. "Take it easy, love. Itís all right." She pulled one of Amandaís hands to her lips and kissed it gently. "I kinda lost my cool, and probably deserved it."

"I donít think so. Who was it?"

"Uh, wellÖI ran into your mother, and went off on her about the drunks, intimating that she was somehow connected to that incident. I think she took exception to that, and slapped me. It didnít even hurt, really." Lex felt an almost tangible ache when Amanda pulled away from her. Now youíve done it, Lexington. How often can you insult her family and get away with it?

The blonde walked over and braced her hands on the gazeboís railing. "My mother slapped you?" She looked off into the late night darkness, trying to sort out her feelings. A burning anger began to simmer in her stomach. "That bitch! Iíve got a few things to say to her!"

Okay, I guess that means sheís not mad at me after all. Lex stepped forward and put her hands on Amandaís shoulders. "Sweetheart, calm down." She waited patiently until her lover turned around and looked at her. "Let it go, love. Sheís not worth it."

"But you are." Amanda looked up into the one face that she never wanted to see hurt. "You are worth anything and everything to me. Did Mother admit to sending those men after us?"

"No. But she did make it pretty clear that sheíd do whatever it takes to break us up." The tall woman released a heavy breath, the vapor visible in the cold evening air. "Iím sorry, Amanda. Iím afraid I didnít handle it very well."

Amanda stepped forward and snuggled in her loverís arms. "If sheís still breathing, then you handled it a lot better than I would have." She leaned up and kissed Lex on the chin. "I love you, Lexington Walters. And no one, including my mother, can ever change that."

"I love you, too," Lex returned quietly. "Iím just sorry youíre having to go through all of this because of me." Her lips were quickly covered with a cool finger.

"Because of my mother, not because of you. Donít take the blame for her warped sense of ideals. I certainly donít, not anymore." Amanda replaced her finger with her lips for a long moment. "Thanks to you, I donít let my mother dictate my life any longer." She looked down at their closely entwined bodies. "Now, letís go back inside before we freeze like this."

Lex grinned. "And the problem with that would be?" But she pulled away and started back toward the Ladies Auxiliary, leading Amanda along with their joined hands.

***************

Anna Leigh turned to her husband as the young women bid them goodnight and made their way through the Auxiliary building. They were the last people at their table, since the others had made their excuses earlier. "Iím worried about this entire mess, my love." She watched across the room as Lex embraced Martha and fended off the housekeeperís questioning. "Iíve never liked Elizabeth, but I tolerated her because she was Michaelís wife. Do you really think that she could be behind all the trouble the girls have had tonight?"

"I donít know, dearest." He smiled in remembrance at his wifeís outrage when they found out exactly what had happened to Lex and Amanda earlier that evening. Charlieís deputy had stopped by the table after the young women had left, and reported that he was unable to find the men that had attempted to assault the rancher. After Lex and their granddaughter returned from their jaunt outside, she sat both women down and demanded to hear the details firsthand.

"They what?" Anna Leigh had gasped in horror. "And no one stopped them?" She couldnít believe that three men could accost them right outside the Knights of Columbus Hall, and no one would lift a finger to help.

Amanda reached over and squeezed her grandmotherís hand in reassurance. "No one else was outside, Gramma. Everyone was inside dancing. We just stepped out at the wrong time."

Jacob looked over at Lex, who had an amused smile on her face. "Whatís so funny, Lex? You could have been seriously hurt."

"Nah. I was more concerned about Amanda, but I shouldnít have been." She winked at her lover, who lowered her face in embarrassment. "Isnít that right, Rocky?" She wrapped her arm around Amanda and pulled her close.

Anna Leigh looked from one to the other, completely confused. "Rocky? What on earth happened, Mandy?"

The younger woman raised her head and sighed. "One of the guys was holding me back, and the other two looked like they were about to attack Lex." She felt the arm around her tighten in support. "So, I, ummÖdisabled the guy holding me, and that gave Lex enough of a distraction so that we could get away."

Anna Leigh still looked a bit confused. "Disabled? What did youÖ?"

"She hit him where it hurt the most," Lex added helpfully, smirking at the pained look on the faces of the men sitting at the table.

Charlie and Martha had joined the Caubles after the younger women had gone outside to see the fireworks. Charlie had been quiet up to that point, but even he had to shake his head and groan. "Remind me never to get you mad, Amanda."

"Weíve got to do something, Jacob. I wonít stand by and let that woman ruin Mandyís happiness." Anna Leigh watched Lex and Amanda leave the building. "Maybe we should have insisted that the girls come home with us instead of driving all the way out to the ranch. Lexington was looking so pale and worn out."

Jacob pulled his wife close and kissed the top of her head. "I know, my love. Iím worried too. But I think Mandy wanted to get her home so that she could take care of her. Weíll just have to be ready to offer our support where we can. I think Iím going to give Charlie a call tomorrow, and see if thereís something we can do to help."

***************

"That girlís going to be the death of me yet," Martha lamented to her fiancť as they watched Lex and Amanda leave the building. "She should never have left the house this evening, as sick as she is."

Charlie shook his head and put his arm around her. "Probably not. But you know as well as I do, when Lex gets something into her head, nothingís gonna stop her. And she wanted to bring Amanda to this dance tonight."

Martha sighed and nodded. "I know. Doesnít mean I have to like it, though." She snuggled into his embrace. "Do you think that Amandaís mother will cause them any more trouble? Iíd like to hunt that woman down and tear into her good for slapping my Lexie like that."

"So would I, sweetheart. Iíve got a couple of deputies keeping an eye on her, just to see if she will lead us to the men that harassed the girls earlier. Hopefully sheíll make a mistake, and we can lock her up." He led Martha over to an empty table and gently pushed her into a chair. "Do you want me to take you home, orÖ?"

"I donít know. I guess I should have gotten a ride from Lexie, to save you the trouble." Martha hated for Charlie to be out on the winding country roads this late. "Didnít you tell me that the Wades were still out of town?"

He nodded. "Yep. They wonít be back until some time next week. Sheís visiting with her sister and enjoying the nice warm weather in Florida." Charlie noticed the smug look on Marthaís face. "What are you thinking, honey?"

She ran her hand down his arm, until their fingers were intertwined. "Iím thinking, that thereís no sense in us driving all the way back out to my place tonight when youíve got a perfectly nice house here in town." Martha looked up into the sheriffís eyes. "How about we leave the dancing to the younger folks, and go snuggle up in front of the fire with a good movie?"

"Sounds like a great idea to me, sweetheart." Charlie helped her back to her feet and grinned. "I was gonna offer, but didnít want to ruin your reputation by asking you to stay the night with me."

Martha slapped at his arm playfully. "Charlie Bristol! "What reputation? Iíve been seen with you for years. Itís probably already shot to heck!" She laughed as he wrapped an arm around her and led her through the thinning crowd.

***************

"Give me a break, Barbara. Iíve already promised that it wouldnít happen again. What else do you want from me?" Hubert had finally caught up with the bank teller and had her cornered in the hallway just off the kitchen of the Auxiliary. "You know you like what Iíve got, baby. Letís go back to my place, and Iíll prove it to you."

She shook her head. "No!" Barbara tried to push by him, but was stopped by his hand.

Hubert leaned in closer. "Why not, babe? You were sure hot enough for me earlier." He couldnít believe this. The way things are going, Iím not even gonna get laid tonight! Damn women!

"I saw you talking to that tall blonde woman, earlier. Whatís the matter? Did she turn you down?" Barbara sneered. "Maybe she heard what a washout in bed you were, huh?"

"Shut up, you stupid bitch!" He slapped her hard across the face, then grabbed her shoulders. "You donít know what youíre talking about!" Hubert had begun to shake her when a hand grasped his arm. He turned around to glare at the intruder. "What?"

"Why donít you let the lady go, Hubert?" Ice blue eyes pinned his venomously.

"What the hell do you want? I thoughtÖ"

Janna laughed humorlessly. "Thatís what you get for thinking. Now back off before I do something that youíll be sorry for." She glanced over his shoulder at the other woman, who had a look on her face that she couldnít quite identify--fear, and something else.

Hubert released his hold on Barbara, and turned to face Janna. She was almost as tall as he was, and her lack of fear made him uncomfortable. "Yeah? Like what? You gonna tell your daddy on me?"

"Worse." She leaned in close and had to clench her hands to keep from pounding on him. "Iíll kick your ass, THEN Iíll tell my daddy." Go ahead, you jackass. Give me an excuse. When she had seen him chase the other woman into the hallway, Janna knew that something was up. Now Iím glad that I followed him.

He laughed. "Right. Like a broad can hurt me." Hubert saw Barbara attempt to leave and reached back to stop her. "I ainít finished with you yet, babe. Stay put."

Barbara whimpered, but did as she was told. She covered her sore face with one hand, and did her best to blend into the woodwork of the wall. "NoÖ"

"Go home, Hubert. Maybe you could buy yourself a dirty magazine on the way and occupy yourself for the rest of the evening," Janna taunted. She moved sideways just as he swung at her. "CímonÖyou can do better than that."

"You bitch!" he bellowed, as he charged the laughing woman.

She stuck her leg out and tripped him, causing Hubert to slam headfirst into the wall.

He moaned and rolled over onto his back. "Bitch," he growled. Then his eyes rolled back in his head and he passed out.

"Oops." Janna glanced over at Barbara, who gave her a tentative smile.

***************

Heavy drizzle had begun to fall after the midnight festivities, which was the main reason the rancher had given for wanting to leave early. The drive home was quiet, since Martha had decided to stay at the dance with Charlie, and Travis had been invited to spend the night in town at a friendís house. Amanda watched her lover closely. Lex had begun coughing again after they watched the fireworks, and the younger woman could tell that her fever was back as well.

"I really had a nice time tonight, Lex," Amanda enthused. "The fireworks were a real treat. Do they do that every year?"

Lex smiled and nodded. "Sure do." She reached over and grasped the younger womanís hand. "Iím glad you enjoyed yourself. I did too." She cleared her throat and sniffled. "Sorry to take you away so early."

Amanda squeezed her hand. "Donít be. All that dancing wore me out. Besides, Gramma and Grandpa would have stayed up all night visiting if we hadnít left when we did. We could have spent the night with them, if you didnít want to make the drive home."

"Nah. Theyíve got a pretty full house right now, and Iíll sleep better in our bed." Amandaís uncle and his partner were staying at the Caubles, since they had to take an early flight out the next morning. Lex had enjoyed visiting with them, but she was really looking forward to snuggling up with Amanda in their large bed at home. I wonder if we can get away with spending the entire day in bed? She fought back a sneeze, then coughed. Damn. This is getting REAL tiresome.

"Youíre probably right. And if weíre at home, Martha can help me make sure you stay in bed." The younger woman watched as a thoughtful look cross her friendís face.

Lex glanced at her with an evil grin. "Sweetheart, you wonít need Marthaís help to keep me in bed." She almost laughed when she saw the blush cover her loverís face. Quickly turning her eyes back to the road, she tried to appear innocent.

Amanda shook her head and covered her face with one hand. "Oh, boy. I canít believe I left myself open like that." She heard Lex sniffle again, and sighed. Maybe I should have kept her in town tonight and called Dr. Anderson. That quack that examined her before didnít help at all. Stealing another glance, she noted that her partnerís face had grown pensive. "What are you thinking about?"

"Hmm?"

"You looked really out of it there for a minute. Whatís going on?"

The rancher bit her lower lip in thought. "I was just thinking about Ronnie. Do you think heís happy out at the ranch?" The placement of the young man had been worrying Lex for several weeks now. She was afraid that he wasnít getting enough attention, and had an idea on how to remedy that problem.

Her friend squeezed her hand again. "Heís very happy, Lex. Who wouldnít love living at the ranch? I know I do." Amanda cocked her head and looked carefully at the older woman. "Whatís up?"

"Iíve been thinking for a while about his situation, and how to make his home with us more permanent." Lex sighed. "I donít know what Martha would think, though."

"Iím sure Martha would support whatever idea you had, honey. Youíre already his legal guardian. Are you wanting to do something different?"

Lex shook her head. "No, not exactly. I mean, yes." She took her hand away from Amandaís and rubbed her face. "You know that it would be nearly impossible for me to get custody of Ronnie. Heís seems so happy with Martha, and I know she adores him."

Amanda nodded, finally understanding where the conversation was going. "And you think that heíd be better off with Martha, than with the men at the bunkhouse, donít you?" She reached over and squeezed Lexís thigh in support. "Have you mentioned this to her?"

"No. I wanted to run it by you first, to see if I was barking up the wrong tree."

"I think itís a wonderful idea. And I also think that maybe Martha has been thinking the same thing. She keeps finding things for him to do around the house, probably to keep him occupied and away from the ranch hands." She could feel the heat emanating from Lex through the rancherís jeans, and studied the shadowed face.

"Really?" Blue eyes caught hers for a moment, then quickly went back to studying the road ahead. "I know sheís about to get married, and will have Charlie to take care of. But I was kinda hoping that sheíd like to have another kid around to pamper, too." Lex blinked and used one hand to rub her eyes. "She seems the most happy when she can do that."

"Are you sure you donít want me to drive?" Amanda asked. She suddenly realized that Lex was still wearing her heavy duster, even though the temperature inside the truck had to be over eighty degrees. She was half tempted to take off her own jacket, but didnít want to unbuckle her seat belt. So she unbuttoned it and left it open.

The rancher turned her eyes from the road for a moment. "Nah. We should be home in another ten or fifteen minutes, anyway." She cleared her throat and reached for the cold cup of coffee she had picked up before they left the town. "Ugh! This stuff is even nastier than when I first bought it."

Amanda reached over and touched the tall womanís shoulder. "I warned you about that, when you decided to buy it."

"I couldnít help it. Iím so damned worn out, I needed something to keep me awake."

The younger woman traced her hand down the strong arm and squeezed. "You should have told me, Lex. I could have driven home if you were that tired." She struggled to see through the windshield, since the wiper blades were having trouble keeping up with the precipitation. It looks like a bit of snow mixed in with the rain. Nasty.

Lex shook her head. "Itís all right. To tell you the truth, I didnít even think about it." She turned her head for a moment to smile at her lover. "Guess Iím still not used to having someone to help me out. Iíll try to do better in the future, okay?" She squinted as bright lights from the rear view mirror assaulted her vision, and reached up to adjust the glass to compensate.

"Whatís the matter, honey?" Amanda tried to turn around in her seat to see behind them.

"Some damned fool behind us has his high beams on. Which doesnít do a bit of good in this weather." Lex frowned as the vehicle behind them edged closer. What appeared to be a large flatbed truck was now so close that she couldnít see their lights. "Idiot. These roads are too narrow and twisted to be driving that close."

Amanda gasped as they were bumped from behind. "Are they crazy?" She reached up and grabbed the handle over her head. Another strong bump caused the truck to swerve slightly. "Lex!"

The rancher stepped on the accelerator, opening up the distance between them and the vehicle behind. "Hang on, Amanda. I donít thinkÖ"

Suddenly the big truck was beside them, fighting for space on the tiny two-lane road. A bright spotlight flooded the interior of Lexís truck, making it impossible for her to see the road in front of her. The other driver swerved his truck into their lane, almost knocking the green Ram pickup off the shoulder.

The road had been built up high, and the sides sloped down severely to protect the road from excess water runoff. The truckís tires were fighting for purchase in the muddy grass, and they were dangerously close to slipping down toward the tree-lined fence several yards away. "Oh my God!" Amanda screamed, as she looked through her window at the side of the road which slanted off sharply.

"Damn!" Lex fought the steering wheel as they were sideswiped again. The wet roads hampered her control even more, and she felt the truck slide sideways as they were hit again. "Brace yourself! We might end upÖ" She was interrupted when her side window was shattered. A heavy brick sailed into the cab of the truck, bringing a shower of glass and rain. Lex almost screamed in pain as it bounced off her right forearm. Voices screamed obscenities through the broken window. She blinked rapidly to try and get the debris from her eyes, and took a moment to raise her right hand and shakily wipe at her face.

Amanda did scream, as another strong blow from the other truck caused them to pitch off the road. The battered green truck began to slide sideways down the steep embankment, the wheels unable to attain any traction. Their momentum caused the vehicle to break into a sharp spin, and the last thing she saw was the airbag as the truck slammed through the fence and into the trees below.

Chapter 16

The first thing she realized when she woke up was how cold it was. The second, was that her face felt stiff and somewhat sticky. She tried to wipe at her face, but the pain in her arm stopped her from moving. "GodÖwhat happened?" Pieces of memory hit her hard, and she looked across the dark cab of the truck at her companion, who was completely still. "Honey? Can you hear me?" Tears sprang to her eyes when she didnít receive an answer. She glanced outside, and noticed that the rain had thankfully stopped. Unsure of how long she had been unconscious, she tried again to move. "Aaah! Not smart," she chastised herself quietly. Her leg seemed to be stuck in the crumpled mess under the dash, and her arm was pinned between her body and the door. Blinking a few times to clear her head, she decided that the sticky feeling was blood, and that the airbag had smashed her nose.

Broken glass covered them both, and ice appeared to be forming on what was left of the windshield. A tree branch was lodged through the grill of the truck, no doubt the reason that the vehicle was dark and not running. No sounds were evident around them, except for the sound of water dripping. I HOPE itís water, the conscious woman worried. She tried again to disentangle herself, only causing more pain. Another look at her lover made her almost cry out in anguish. Iíve got to get loose, and check on her. What if sheísÖNO! Iím NOT going to think like that. I canít.

The other figure moaned slightly, but didnít stir. Bits of glass and what looked like leaves were in her hair, and her entire body was wet from the rain.

"Címon, love. Wake up and look at me with those gorgeous eyes. I canít reach you, and I need to know that youíre okay." She hated hearing the tremble in her voice, but couldnít help herself. "PleaseÖ"

No response from the woman across from her, just silence.

A sudden tiredness washed over her, making her eyelids droop. NoÖI need to stay awake. She reached across the seat as far as she could, her fingertips inches away from making contact with her lover. Maybe if I rest for just a minute, then I can get loose. She closed her eyes and allowed sleep to claim her.

Sometime later, Amanda reawakened as a light rain began to fall into the cab of the truck. She was able to raise her left arm slowly, and brought it to her face to wipe the moisture from her eyes. She blinked several times and looked around. The water that was dripping from the top of the window had begun to form icicles and she trembled in response. Weíve got to get out of here, before we freeze to death. She looked over at Lex, who was still slumped over the steering wheel. "Lex, please wake up. I need your help." Amandaís head and body ached, but she knew that she had to stay awake and try to rouse her companion. "Lex!" Her voice sounded eerily loud in the darkness.

"Ugh." The tall woman groaned loudly. "ímanda?" she rasped, still not moving. "Are you hurt?"

Amanda felt like crying, she was so happy to hear Lexís voice. "I think so. I canít move my arm, and my leg is pinned under the dash." She stretched as far as she could, but still couldnít reach the rancher. "How about you?"

"I donít know. I canít seem to feel much at the moment." The older womanís voice was beginning to fade. "We need to call for help. The cell phone is in the glove compartment," she finished quietly, as she lost consciousness once again.

"No! Lex, wake up!" Amanda felt like crying. She looked in front of her and tried to pry open the glove compartment with her one free hand. The dash had crumpled so badly, that it was stuck closed. "Great." Okay, I need to think. The injured woman turned her head as far as she could, trying to see the road from where they were. If I canít see the road, then chances are, anyone on the road canít see us. And with this being New Yearís Day, no oneís going to be driving by anyway.

The momentum of the crash had buried the truck deep in the trees, and the passenger side was severely crushed. Amanda knew that she wouldnít be able to work herself free without some help, but she was afraid that Lex was more seriously injured than she appeared. She told me that she couldnít feel anything. Which could mean because of the cold, shock, orÖ"Stop it this instant, Mandy Cauble! No sense in borrowing trouble," she argued out loud. "I must be losing my mind, talking to myself."

"Amanda?" Lexís voice broke slightly, but sounded stronger than before. "Who are you talking to?" She shifted and slowly turned her head towards her lover. "Damn, that hurts."

"Oh, God, Lex! Iím so glad that youíre awake." Amanda watched as the dark head lifted from the steering wheel and tried to see her. Blood covered the rancherís face from her nose and a large gash on her forehead. The airbag must have hit her pretty hard, too. "Honey, maybe you shouldnít be moving around. You could have serious injuries." And that head wound looks like itís still bleeding. Just how long have we been here, anyway?

Lex reached up with her right hand to touch her face. "I must look like hell," she joked, trying to lighten the mood. "How are you, sweetheart? Does anything appear to be broken?" She reached across the cab blindly, and was gratified to feel Amandaís hand grip hers strongly.

"Iím not sure. Iím kinda stuck."

"What do you mean, stuck?" Lex questioned. She tried to raise her left arm, but the pain radiating from her shoulder changed her mind. "Damn!" Thatís just dandy. Possible broken nose, my shoulder feels dislocated, and between the headache and the pain in my back, we could be in some serious trouble here. She dropped her head back down onto the steering wheel and tried to keep from crying out.

Amanda felt the hand in hers tighten. "What is it?" Even in the semi-darkness, she could tell that her lover was in a lot of pain. "Lex?"

"Yeah?" She fought to control her breathing, willing the pain into the back of her mind. After a moment, the worst had subsided, and she was able to concentrate again on their situation. "Sorry about that." Lex turned her head, but still couldnít see through her eyes. Damn busted nose Ė Iíll have to wait Ďtil the swelling goes down before my eyes will be of any use. "How are you stuck, Amanda? Youíll have to describe to me what youíre talking about."

Unable to see the exact state of her partnerís face, Amanda couldnít see that Lexís eyes were swollen shut. Maybe her head injury is worse than we both realize, if she canít see. A gust of wind blew more rain and debris into the cab, causing Amanda to tremble violently. "MmÖmÖmy leg is s...st...stuck, and s...soís my arm."

"Stuck? How bad is it?" Lex squeezed the younger womanís hand tightly. She thought for a moment. "Can you open your door?"

"I donít think so. ThÖthereís a huge tree right outside it." Amanda tried to keep her teeth from chattering. Neither one of us can last very long out in the open like this. "I tried to get to the phone, but the dÖdamned dash is all crushed in." She felt tears of frustration welling in her eyes. Pull it together, Mandy! Lex needs you! "SÖsÖsorry. I donít know whatís come over me," she apologized quietly.

Lex squeezed her hand again. "Youíre doing great, sweetheart. Iím going to let go for a minute, and try to unlock my seatbelt, okay?" Accomplishing that, Lex heaved a sigh of relief. "All done. Now Iím going to try and slide over to you, so we can figure out how weíre going to get out of here."

Amanda shook her head, then realized that the other woman couldnít see her. "I donít think Iím going anywhere, Lex. I canít pull my leg out from under the dash. When I try to move, it hurts too badly."

"Okay, love. Itís going to be all right. Just tell me where you hurt." Lex leaned towards Amanda, ignoring the pain the movement caused.

"UmmÖwell. My leg, of cÖcourse." Her teeth continued to clatter together. "And my arm. BÖbÖbut that could just be Ďcause itís stuck, too." Amanda watched as Lex slowly stretched out across the seats, using her good arm to pull herself closer. "Maybe if I can get unbuckled, I could help you." She reached out and brushed her fingers through the damp dark hair, dislodging several shards of glass. "Weíre a mess, arenít we?"

The rancher chuckled. "Yeah." She stopped when her head ended up in Amandaís lap. "You want to help me find the glove compartment? Maybe between the two of us, we can get it open." The pain in her back and shoulder was coming back full force, and Lex didnít know how much longer sheíd be able to stay conscious. She felt Amandaís hand run down her face and over her right arm, until their hands were locked together.

"Between the two of us, we can accomplish anything," the blonde murmured quietly. "Letís see about getting ourselves out of this mess, huh?" She pulled their hands up to her face and kissed Lexís knuckles. "I love you."

***************

The ringing phone woke him from a sound sleep. He rolled over toward the nightstand and grabbed it, glancing at the alarm clock as he did so. Four oíclock in the morning? God save me from holidays. "This is Sheriff Bristol, can I help you?"

"Iím sorry to bother you, Sheriff," the womanís voice on the other end of the phone apologized. "This is Tina, the night dispatcher."

"Go ahead, Tina. Whatís going on?" Charlie sat up and ran a hand through his hair. A gentle touch on his back told him that Martha was awake, too.

Tina cleared her throat. "I just got a call from Lexington, and it seems theyíve been in an accident." She tried to put him at ease. "Iíve got several units on the way, with a tow truck and an ambulance."

Charlie felt the blood rush from his face. "Where is she?" He turned and looked at Martha, worry etched in his features. "Do we have any details, yet?"

"No, sir. I just finished dispatching everyone out on it, and I wanted to let you know. She ummÖdidnít sound too good, Sheriff." Tina recalled the conversation in her mind.

"Sheriffís office, this is Tina. How may I help you?" She answered the phone as she always did, quickly and professionally. The static on the other end of the line almost caused her to hang up, but she waited for a moment to make certain. "Iím sorry, is someone there?"

"This is Lexington Walters. My truck wasÖoff the road, andÖtrapped inside. We need some help."

Tina sat up immediately. She knew that the sheriff treated the Walters woman like his own daughter, and she didnít want to make any mistakes. "Okay, Lex. Can you tell me where you are?"

"Weíre a couple milesÖfrom the turnoff to our ranchÖoff the roadÖtrees." The phone continued to break up, and the voice sounded weaker.

"Are there any injuries? Can youÖ?" Another voice took over the phone, interrupting her questioning.

"Iím sorry, this is Amanda Cauble. Weíre bothÖand we needÖPlease! Weíve beenÖhours." Her voice was strong, but near panic. "Hurry."

Tina tried to keep the young woman on the phone, but the connection was lost. She immediately notified the deputy on duty, as well as several others. She also contacted the fire department and the ambulance service. The next call was the one she wasnít looking forward to.

"Youíve done a fine job, Tina. What is the location of the accident?" Charlie was already up and almost finished dressing. He listened to the directions, and quickly hung up the phone.

Martha felt an uneasiness in her stomach. "What happened?"

He rushed back over to the bed and sat down next to her. "Honey, thereís been an accident. Lex and Amandaís truck went off the road, and they called in asking for some help." He took Marthaís hand in his. "Iím on my way out there now, to see whatís going on."

"Iím going with you," she said, struggling to get off the bed.

"No, sweetheart." Charlieís heart broke at the look on his fiancťeís face. "I need you to call the Caubles for me, and then Iíll have a man pick you up here and bring you to the hospital."

Martha shook her head. "I need to be with my little Lexie. She needs me!" Tears of frustration began to fall from her eyes. "Donít make me beg you, Charlie. I have to be there."

Charlie reached up with one hand and wiped the tears from her face. "Martha, listen to me. Itís an accident. We donít know how serious it is. Why donít I call the Caubles while you get dressed. Iíll drop you off at their house on the way, then you can help keep them calm." He knew that if Martha were charged with taking care of someone else, sheíd forget her own pain.

She nodded. "Youíre right. Theyíre going to need me." And Iím going to need them. Dear Lord, please watch over my little girl. Both of them. She quickly climbed off the bed and hurriedly dressed.

***************

The sheriffís cruiser skidded to a stop on the wet pavement, and he was out of the car before the engine died. He looked around at the scene before him: firemen were milling about, trekking back and forth from the road down the steep embankment. Several of them were carrying equipment with them, while others set up emergency floodlights so that they could see in the misty darkness. Charlie grabbed one of the men as he made his way towards the accident. "Has the ambulance already left?"

The man turned around and shook his head. "No, it hasnít gotten here yet, Sheriff. Seems that Troy did a bit too much celebrating, so one of your men is driving it out here."

"Whereís Troyís brother? I thought they both owned the damned thing." He continued to walk towards the center of activity, trying to ignore the fear of seeing the familiar green truck wedged in the surrounding trees.

"Heís out of town. But donít worry. Weíre still trying to get the victims from the vehicle, so we donít need it yet anyway. Theyíre wedged in those trees so tightly, Iím not sure how weíre going to get them out of there." He saw another fireman wave, and he waved back. "If youíll excuse me, Iíve got to get down there."

Charlie was about to say something, when another man stepped in front of him. "Jeremy! What the hellís going on around here? Have we made contact with Lex and Amanda? Are they all right?"

"Hold on, Sheriff." Jeremy held up a hand to forestall anymore questions. "Richardís down there now, keeping them company. Theyíve got some injuries, but we canít tell just how severe they are at the moment. Amandaís in quite a bit of pain, and Iím afraid that Lex is unconscious." He put a companionable arm around the older man and led him further down the slope. "Iíve got them attaching a winch cable to the back of the truck, and weíre gonna try to pull them out of the trees."

"Whatís taking so damned long? We should have had them out of there and halfway to town by now!" Charlie slid, and would have fallen, if the younger man hadnít had an arm around him.

Jeremy slipped a bit as well. "Weíre having a lot of trouble because of the mud, and the location of the truck. Amanda was able to give us some details about what happened." He looked Charlie in the eye. "It wasnít an accident. They were forced off the road by a large truck. Iíve already got men looking for it." He stopped them several yards from the wrecked vehicle. "Are you sure you want to go down there?"

The sheriff nodded. "I have to, Jeremy. Let me know when youíre ready with the winch, all right?" He clapped the young man on the shoulder and slipped down towards the driverís side of the truck. Stepping around a couple of firemen, Charlie was able to see into the cab of the vehicle. A deputy waved at him from the other side and left, giving the sheriff a little bit of privacy. He peeked in the window and saw Lexís still form lying across the seats, her head in Amandaís lap. Rescue workers were using chain saws to remove the worst of the mangled trees, so he had to speak up to be heard. "Amanda!"

"Charlie?" The blonde head raised up and smiled in relief. "Iím sure glad to see you." She was covered in a firemanís coat, and her hand continued to stroke the dark head on her lap.

"We should have you out of here any time now, sweetheart. How are you doing?" He couldnít see much of Lex, as the still woman was covered in an emergency blanket.

A fireman apologetically interrupted. "Iím sorry, Sheriff. But weíre about to try and pull them out of the trees. Youíll have to stand back."

Charlie nodded. "Okay, thanks." He gave Amanda a confident smile. "See? I told you. Just sit tight, honey. Iíll see you in a couple of minutes."

She nodded tiredly. "Okay." Amanda leaned down as far as she could and whispered, "Weíre almost out of here, love. Just a few more minutes, okay?" Her tears tracked down her face and landed in the dark hair. "Just a few more minutes."

***************

He paced back and forth in the waiting room, ignoring the pleas of the others around him. His well-cut hair was in disarray, and his shirt appeared to be buttoned inside out. "What the hell is taking them so damned long? They were brought in over an hour ago!" A firm hand on his arm caused the frantic man to stop and turn around. The hazel eyes across from him were filled with understanding, and worry.

"Please, Michael. Try to calm down. All youíre doing is upsetting your parents." Morris had never gotten along with his brother-in-law, but he hoped that they could mend their differences and at least be friendly. Upon hearing of the accident, he and his partner Kevin had cancelled their flight out immediately, and they both rode to the hospital with the Caubles.

As much as I hate to admit it, Iím starting to like this guy. Heís certainly been good to my folks. "Youíre right, Morris, thanks." Michael allowed the younger man to lead him over to a nearby chair. He looked around the small waiting room. His parents were seated next to the door, with Martha on the other side of Anna Leigh. Both women were talking quietly between themselves, and the sheriff stood vigil at the doorway, gazing unseeingly down the open hallway. Kevin and a recently arrived Travis were sitting near the windows. The big man had a supportive hand on his friendís back, trying to comfort him.

Jacob looked up and gave his son a tired smile. He squeezed his wifeís shoulder and stood up to stretch. "Why donít we go get everyone some coffee, son? Itís probably going to be a while before we hear anything."

"I donít know, Dad. Iíd ratherÖ" The younger manís refusal died on his lips. He looks like he wants to talk about something. "Sure. I could use a bit of a walk, anyway." Michael followed his father from the room, wondering to himself what was on the older manís mind.

They had walked all the way to the vending machines at the end of the long hall in complete silence. Unable to wait any longer, Michael stopped Jacob. "Whatís on your mind? I donít think that itís coffee."

"Youíre right. It wasnít. But I wanted to get you out of that room before you drove everyone crazy." Jacob put his hand on the smaller manís shoulder. "Weíre all concerned, son. But pacing around and throwing a fit isnít going to help the girls." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of change. "Letís get the coffee, and then weíll go back and wait. Calmly," he added with a smile.

"Yes, sir." Michael started feeding the machine money, when Charlie walked up behind them, carrying a cardboard box.

"Thought you fellas might need a hand with carrying that back," he offered. "Travis wanted to go and make a few phone calls, so I thought Iíd join you."

Jacob nodded. "Good idea, Charlie. I didnít think about how we were going to bring it all back." He took a cup from his son and placed it in the box.

The three men quickly gathered up enough drinks for everyone, and started back to the waiting room. Jacob carried the box, while Michael and Charlie teased him about his imitation of a waiter.

The room was deathly quiet when the three men walked in. At first, Jacob feared that the doctor had come in during their absence with bad news. Everyoneís attention was riveted to the center of the room, where Morris was arguing quietly with a small-stature woman.

"Öyou shouldnít be here," he finished angrily.

"I have as much right to be here as you do. Probably more, you little freak!" she snapped. Hearing a commotion at the door, she turned around and gave an insincere smile. "Isnít this lovely. Room service."

Jacob stepped around his son, who had stopped dead in his tracks. "Hello, Elizabeth. Iím surprised to see you here."

She raised one hand up to study her fingernails. "You shouldnít be. It was MY daughter that was brought in earlier." She finally acknowledged her husbandís presence. "Well, Michael. Did you take time out from your tinkering with your little cameras to drop by? Or did your mommy bring you?"

"You BITCH!" Michael shouted, as he charged forward and wrapped his hands around Elizabethís throat. "I should have killed you when I caught you in bed with the pool boy!" He was about to throw her to the floor when Kevin grabbed him from behind.

"Let her go, Mike. Sheís not worth it." The big man wrapped one arm around Michaelís chest and the other around his waist. He stepped back slowly, never releasing his grip.

Elizabeth watched her husband relax in the arms of her brotherís lover. She rubbed at her throat and smiled. "Isnít that quaint. The next thing youíll be telling me is that youíre one of Ďthem,í too," she taunted.

Michael stepped out of Kevinís grasp and straightened his clothes. "It would certainly be better than living with the likes of you," he spat. "But no, Iím not. Not that it would matter any." He combed his hand through his hair, visibly calming down. "You have some nerve, showing up here."

"Whatís that supposed to mean?" she asked, looking around the room. "Amanda is my daughter, too."

Charlie stepped forward. "Where were you a little after midnight, Mrs. Cauble?"

She looked at him as if he had lost his mind. "Are you trying to insinuate something, Sheriff? You donít actually think I had anything to do with my daughterís accident?"

Before he could answer, a nurse walked into the room and looked around. "Are there any family members here for Walters?"

Martha jumped up. "Iím her mother," she answered worriedly. She felt Charlieís comforting presence behind her immediately. "How is my Lexie?"

"If youíll come with me, please. The doctor would like to speak to you," the nurse requested. She quickly led them both out of the room without another word.

Elizabeth watched as they left the room. "How dare they talk to them first!" She started to storm from the room, when Michael grabbed her arm.

"Where do you think youíre going?"

"Iím going to find the doctor and give him a piece of my mind." She jerked her arm out of his grasp, and glared at her husband.

Anna Leigh jumped in between the arguing people "You will sit yourself down this instant, or Iíll personally toss you out of this hospital!. Weíre all concerned about Mandy. But Iíve had enough of your superior attitude and ridiculous remarks. So just sit down and shut up!" She privately enjoyed the look of fear that crossed the younger womanís face.

Jacob put his hands on his wifeís shoulders and directed her to a chair. "Címere, my love. Donít let her get to you." He put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. "Remind me never to make you angry," he teased quietly, trying to lighten her mood.

Anna Leigh smiled as she leaned into his embrace. "And donít you forget it, mister."

***************

They were led down several hallways to a closed door where a man in surgical scrubs stood. He gave the couple a tired smile and held out his hand. "Iím Dr. Phillips," he said in a deep voice. The doctor appeared to be about the same age as they were, and he wasnít much taller than Martha. "Are you the parents?"

"We certainly are," Charlie acknowledged, returning the manís handshake. "How is our girl?"

"Sheís still unconscious, but her condition is stable. Weíve reset her broken nose, and re-aligned her dislocated shoulder. She has quite a few stitches in her forehead, but the wound was clean, so there should be very little scarring." Dr. Phillips rubbed his hand over his face. "The force of trauma to her head has me a bit worried, but once she regains consciousness we should know more."

Martha felt tears burn her eyes, but refused to let them fall. "Can we see her?"

He nodded. "Certainly. But she wonít know that youíre here. Why donít you come back later this afternoon?"

"I canít go anywhere without seeing my Lexie, first," Martha forced out. She turned and looked at Charlie. "Why donít I sit with her for a while, and you go hunt down Travis? Iím sure heíd like to know how she is."

Charlie nodded. "I sure will, sweetheart." He kissed her on the top of her head and smiled at the doctor. "Thank you, Dr. Phillips." The sheriff left quickly and started back down the hallway in search of Travis.

Dr. Phillips held open the door for Martha, and allowed her to pass before him. She stood just inside the doorway, the sight in the room almost her undoing. Lex lay in the bed, her head wrapped in gauze. Her nose had been splinted and taped, and her eyes were swollen with dark bruises beneath them. She was hooked up to a heart monitor, and the intravenous drip had been taped to the top of her right hand. Her left arm was pillowed against her chest and had been strapped down to prevent any unnecessary movement.

"Oh, my poor baby," Martha murmured, walking up to the bed and lightly stroking Lexís right arm. She turned back and looked at the doctor, who was still standing in the doorway. "She will be all right, wonít she?"

He nodded. "Iím sure sheíll be just fine, maíam." Dr. Phillips smiled once more, and then left the older woman to herself.

Martha sat down in the chair next to the bed, her eyes not straying from the still form on the bed. "Iím right here, honey," she whispered, "and Iím not going anywhere, okay?" She kept a firm grasp on Lexís forearm and swallowed back her tears. "Why donít I tell you about some of my thoughts about the wedding? Some of the women from the Ladies Auxiliary had some wonderful ideas."

***************

"NO! Iím not going anywhere until I see her!" She tried to cross her arms over her chest, but a splint hampered her right arm. So she did the best that she could, and glared at the kindly woman trying to give her a shot.

The nurse gave an exasperated sigh. "Weíve got to get your ready for surgery, young lady. That leg of yours wonít heal properly without it." She started forward with the needle again. "Now just behave yourself, and Iíll go try to find out how your friend is."

Amanda shook her head. "Youíre not sticking me with that until I can see for myself that Lex is all right." She looked up hopefully as the door opened, and a man dressed in hospital scrubs stepped into the room. "Finally! Now maybe I can get some answers." The initial pain medication they had given Amanda for her leg was wearing off, and the pain was beginning to come back full force. She was relieved when the attending physician had explained to her that her arm was just severely bruised, and that the splint could be removed in a few days. Her leg, however, was another problem. The compound fracture of her lower leg was so severe that they wanted to rush her into surgery, so that they could pin the tibia back together.

"What seems to be the problem, Miss Cauble? We need to prep you for surgery so that we can take care of your leg." The doctor had heard her argue with the nurse, and mentally shook his head at the young womanís stubbornness. "As soon as we get you ready to go, we can give you a few minutes with your family."

She acted as if she hadnít even heard him. "Iím not going anywhere until I know how Lex is!" Amanda felt tears of frustration burn her eyes and decided to change tactics. "Please? Sheís the most important person in the world to me, and no one will tell me anything!"

"Let me see what I can find out, okay? In the meantime, please let my nurse take care of you." He stepped away from the bed, then turned back around. "Your family is waiting to see you. Let me show some of them in, and then Iíll be back with some information on your friend, all right?"

"Thank you, doctor." Amanda resigned herself to the nurseís ministrations, and leaned back onto the bed with a heavy sigh. Stupid leg. If it didnít hurt so darned bad, Iíd search the hospital myself! I may have to, anyway.

The doctor showed Michael into the room, with Anna Leigh behind her son. Jacob stayed outside with Elizabeth, to make sure that she wouldnít barge in and upset Amanda. The pair stood inside the doorway until the nurse had finished with Amanda, then stepped forward quietly. "Hi, sweetheart," Michael whispered. He reached out and combed her hair back from her face. "You sure gave us quite a scare."

Amanda reached up and wrapped her good arm around his neck, pulling her father down close to her. "Oh, Daddy!" She began to cry into his neck.

"Sshh. Itís okay, baby. Iím here." He sat down on the bed next to her and held Amanda gently.

Anna Leigh reached over and stroked the tousled blonde head. "Thank the good Lord that youíre going to be okay, Mandy," she murmured quietly.

The young woman pulled away from her father and composed herself. "Have you heard anything about Lex? They wonít tell me a thing." She smiled through her tears as her grandmother wiped her face with a handkerchief. "Thanks."

"They came and got Martha right before they told us about you," Michael supplied. "But we havenít heard any news, as of yet." He looked down at his daughter. Her right lower leg was wrapped in gauze and encased in an air splint. "Theyíre telling us youíre going to need surgery for your leg, but in time it should heal up as good as new. Iím just glad that youíre going to be okay. From the sound of it, you got really lucky." He looked back up into her eyes. "Your mother is outside. She wants toÖ"

"Hasnít she done enough?" Amanda asked forcefully. "We could have been killed!" She looked over her fatherís shoulder at Anna Leigh. "I donít want to see her."

The older woman nodded. "Iíll be more than happy to tell her, Mandy." She watched as her granddaughterís eyes began to close. "You just worry about getting better, and weíll take care of everything."

"Thanks, Gramma." Amanda fought to keep her eyes open. "Please find Lex for me," she pleaded. "I have to knowÖ"

Michael eased her back gently. "We will, honey. Iíll be back in just a minute, okay?" At his daughterís slight nod, he allowed his mother to take his place on the bed and stepped from the room.

"Itís about time you got out here! I demand to see my daughter!" Elizabeth pushed by Jacob roughly, intent on barging into the room. Kevin, who had been standing quietly by, stopped her progress.

"Youíre not going anywhere, Mrs. Cauble." He held onto her arm and refused to let go.

Her face darkened with rage. "Get your hands off me, you filthy pervert!" She glared at her husband. "Tell him to let me go, at once!"

"Iím not going to do that, Elizabeth. Youíre going to have to leave." Michael enjoyed watching his wifeís face turn an ugly shade of purple. Maybe sheíll have a stroke, and give us all a break. "Amanda doesnít want to see you, so you might as well go on back to your hotel."

"Doesnít want to see me? Of course she does! Iím her mother!" She looked up as a couple of hospital security officers started towards the group. "Gentlemen, I could use your assistance, please."

One of the guards nodded. "Yes, maíam." He traded looks with Kevin, who slowly released his hold on the irate woman. "If youíll just come with me, weíll show you the way out."

"What!? Do you have any idea who I am?" she shrieked, as two of the men flanked her and began to lead her away.

"Yes, maíam. Youíre someone whoís dangerously close to going to jail, if you donít quiet down," the officer stated calmly. They continued down the hallway, her voice rising as she tried to talk her way out of trouble.

Morris watched them leave, an amused look on his face. "God, I wish I had a video camera for that!" He sighed, then turned his attention back to his brother-in-law. "Howís Mandy?"

"Sheís okay. They had just sedated her when we went in, so sheís a bit out of it right now," Michael reported. "Has anyone heard any word on Lex?"

Jacob shook his head. "Charlie was looking for Travis earlier, but he didnít have any information for us."

"Well, weíd better find out soon. Amandaís refusing to go into surgery until she finds out something. And knowing my daughter, sheíll do just that." Michael shook his head at the young womanís stubborn streak. "Sheís driving the nurses nuts."

"Sounds like our girl," Jacob chuckled. "Letís go see what we can find out, so sheíll let the doctors do their work."

***************

Lex became aware of a gentle touch on her arm. "Amanda?" she croaked, her throat dry. She tried to open her eyes and panicked when she couldnít see. "Amanda!"

"Ssssh, honey. Everythingís okay. Just stay still and quiet." Martha leaned forward and brushed her fingertips against the young womanís cheek. The fever that Lex had been fighting all week was back in full force, heightened by her exposure to the elements.

"Mada?" Lex whispered, turning her head slightly. She tried again to open her eyes. "Whereís Amanda?" A cool touch at her lips caused her to open her mouth slightly, as the housekeeper gave her a chip of ice.

Martha continued to feed Lex tiny bites of ice. "Shhh. Save your strength. Amandaís going to be just fine. Her leg was broken in the accident, so theyíve got her up in surgery right now taking care of it."

The injured woman tried to sit up. "Accident? Surgery? Iíve got toÖ"

"Youíve got to lie back, and take it easy. Anna Leigh has already arranged for you two to share a room, once Amandaís out of recovery." She chuckled and shook her head. "Let me tell you, Lexie. That girl is a spitfire."

"What did she do?" Lex asked. Memories of the accident flooded her mind. She was having trouble breathing through her nose, then remembered that it had been smashed in the wreck. God, I hate broken noses. Her head felt as if it were about to explode, and she knew it would be a day or so before the swelling around her eyes went down enough for her to see. Could have been a lot worse, though. "How badly was Amanda hurt?"

The housekeeper pulled the hospital bedding up around the young womanís chest. "Just the broken leg, and a bruised arm. They were trying to get her ready to go into surgery, but she threw a fit and refused to let the nurses anywhere near her."

"Why?"

"She was worried about you, sweetheart. No one told her where you were, or how you were doing. Iím afraid she gave the staff a hard time." Martha brushed her fingers against Lexís cheek again. "How are you feeling? You had us all a bit worried, honey." She used her free hand to brush the tears away from her own face.

Lex tried to shift around on the bed. "Hurts like hell, Mada." She sat still and listened. "Whatís wrong? Why are you crying?" She reached out with her right hand until she felt the housekeeperís arm. "Donít cry. Iím okay, see?" Lex started coughing, which brought renewed pain to her aching shoulder and head. "Damn."

Martha pushed the call button on the bed. "Take it easy, honey. Iíll get the nurse in here to give you something, okay?"

"NoÖnot Ďtil I can see Amanda." Lex frowned. "Or can at least hear her," she amended hoarsely. The rancher let her head fall lightly against her pillow, and sighed. "Thanks for being here, Mada."

"No place else Iíd be, baby. Now you stay still, and weíll wait for Amanda together, all right?"

Lex nodded. "Yeah." She felt sleep pulling at her. "Wake me when they bring her in?"

The housekeeper swallowed the ache at seeing the young woman so vulnerable. "I sure will. Rest for now." She continued to stroke the pale cheek with her hand.

"íkay. Thanks, Mada. I love you." The last words were barely a whisper, as the dark haired woman dozed off.

"I love you too, my precious girl." Martha leaned down and kissed the warm cheek, then sat back to wait.


Chapter 17

Amanda woke up slowly, and the first thing she saw was her grandmotherís concerned face. She smiled weakly at the older woman. "Hi." Her voiced sounded scratchy, and she welcomed the small cup of water and straw that Anna Leigh held for her. After taking a few tentative sips, Amanda gave the older woman a stronger smile. "Thanks."

"Youíre welcome, honey." Anna Leigh couldnít keep her hands still as her nerves were on edge. She fussed a bit with the blanket, straightening and brushing off the same area several times. She had chased her son and husband from the room earlier, asking them to go pick up something to eat. Morris and Kevin promised to take care of the two men, and return shortly with lunch for her as well.

"Gramma?"

The older woman looked up into the eyes that looked so much like her own. "Iím sorry, Mandy. Do you need more water? How about another blanket? Maybe I canÖ" One of her nervous hands was clasped gently.

"Whatís the matter? I donít think Iíve ever seen you like this." Amanda had a fairly good idea what her grandmotherís problem was. "Iím okay, Gramma." She looked down at the foot of the bed, where her right leg had been placed in traction. Still feeling groggy from the anesthesia, she grinned. "Still have everything I came in here with," she teased. "Thatís always a good thing, right?"

Anna Leigh laughed, then covered her mouth with her free hand to fight back her tears. "Dear Lord, Mandy. This is not a joke. You both could have been killed!"

"But we werenít." Amanda looked around and saw the linen curtain that marked off her part of the room. "Whereís Lex? How is she? I need to see her." She reached for the side rail of the bed. "Help me sit up, please, Gramma?"

The beige curtain slowly moved back, and a smiling Martha appeared. "Goodness, honey. You sure do raise a ruckus," she teased. "How are you feeling?"

Amanda smiled back at her. "Iím doing okay, still feeling a little groggy, though." She sighed in relief when she was helped to a near sitting position, and she could see across the dimly lit room. "Oh, Lex," she murmured, trying not to wake the woman resting in the opposite bed.

"Sheís doing just fine, Amanda. Iím afraid she got a bit anxious waiting for you to come down from surgery, and the nurse had to sedate her." Martha stepped over and placed a hand on Anna Leighís shoulder. "The swelling in her eyes should be down enough tomorrow so that she can see again, thank goodness. Iím afraid our Lexie isnít one for feeling helpless," she joked to the young woman.

"Now thatís an understatement." The space between the beds appeared to be vast, and Amanda wracked her brain trying to figure out how to get her leg from the traction that it was in. "Is there any way we can be pushed closer together? Iíd like to be able toÖ"

"Iím sure something can be arranged," the housekeeper murmured. Martha exchanged looks with Anna Leigh. "What do you think?"

For an answer, Anna Leigh stood up and slid her chair to the other side of Amandaís bed. Both women worked quickly, and soon had the beds no further than a foot apart. "Iím certain that the nurses will have something to say about this," the elegant woman commented, "but theyíll have us both to answer to!" She watched as her granddaughter slowly reached over and touched the sleeping womanís arm.

"LexÖ" Amanda whispered, feeling relief at finally able to make contact with her lover. She looked at the two women standing by the foot of her bed. "Thank you, both of you." Tears pooled in her eyes. "You donít know how much this means to me."

Anna Leigh gently patted the young womanís uninjured leg. "I think we have a pretty good idea, Mandy. Why donít you try to get a little rest? Lexington will probably be sleeping for hours, yet. The nurse was afraid that sheíd hurt herself, so I think the sedative she gave her was a strong one."

Amandaís lips curled into a faint smile. Knowing Lex, thatís probably the only way they got her to rest. Then a frown of concern appeared as she studied the rancherís face. She looks so pale. She looked up at Martha. "She is going to be okay, isnít she?"

"She sure is, sweetie. Looks a lot worse than she is. Iíd forgotten how scary a broken nose can look," the housekeeper sighed. Poor child looks like a wounded raccoon.

"Maybe Iíll just close my eyes for a minute," Amanda said, tilting the bed back to a more comfortable position. "I just donít want her to wake up and think that no oneís here." She closed her eyes, but kept her grip on Lexís arm.

Martha smiled at the sight. She patted Anna Leigh on the arm and sighed. "Why donít we let these girls get some rest, and go see how the rest of our family is doing?"

"That sounds like a wonderful idea, Martha. Iím sure theyíre busy harassing half the staff by now." Anna Leigh spared one final glance at her granddaughter, then followed the housekeeper from the room.

***************

"What do you mean, it didnít work?" He sat up and rubbed his eyes. The hangover from all the alcohol he had consumed the day before was making him sick to his stomach.

"You stupid jackass! Canít you do anything right?"

"Donít be yelling at me! We almost killed ourselves for you! As it is, Iím gonna have to put the truck in the shop. You told me it would be easy. Didnít think the damned broad could drive that good." Bobby reached to his nightstand and grabbed the half-empty beer he had left there last night. Taking a long swallow, he blinked and rubbed his eyes. "Itís too early to argue about this, anyway."

"Quit your whining. Itís after one oíclock in the afternoon. How hard is it to run someone off the damned road?"

The bleary-eyed man pulled the phone away and stuck his index finger in his ear, wiggling it around. "Not so loud, for crissakes! Jeez! Try to do a person a favor, and get yelled at," he muttered.

The person at the other end of the phone sighed. "Okay, fine. Iím sorry I yelled at you. But you told me last night that you could handle her for me. You didnít even do anything to her at the dance!"

"How were we supposed to know that her little girlfriend could fight so dirty? Bennyís still aching from last night." He almost chuckled at the memory. Better him than me. "I was gonna go after them, but you told us to make sure nobody saw us. Stupid dykes."

"Okay. Donít worry about them. Iíll think of something else."

Bobby nodded, and drained the rest of the beer. "Thatís cool. Iíve gotta get the truck fixed, though. If the old manÖ"

"Wait! You idiot! If you take the truck in to get repaired, theyíll know it was you. And then theyíll trace you back to me. I canít afford for that to happen."

"Well, what am I supposed to do? Itís not even my truck."

A long pause was followed by another heavy sigh. Do I have to think of everything? Idiot. "Rent a truck for now, and just give me the bill. Once everything dies down a bit, then take the damaged truck out of town to be worked on. Iíll pay for that, too. Do you think you can handle that?"

"Yeah, yeah. I got it. You donít have to get all bent out of shape."

"Donít screw this up, idiot. Iíve got enough things to worry about without having to baby-sit you, too."

Bobby yawned, and scratched at his belly. "Yeah, right. Just donít be asking me for any more favors." He hung up the phone and shook his head. "Somebody needs to get laid. Waaay too uptight."

***************

The touch on her arm was so light, that Lex thought she was imagining it. Struggling to see through her still-swollen eyes, she was gratified to see that it wasnít a dream. Amanda was sleeping in the bed next to hers, and she had her fingers curled around the rancherís forearm. The lights in the room were dimmed, so it was hard to see everything, but Lex strained her eyes to see the younger womanís right leg raised in traction. "Oh, sweetheart. Iím so sorry," she murmured.

"Mmm?" Amanda tried to roll over in her sleep, but was stopped as a wave of pain flashed through her leg. "Ow!" She felt eyes on her and looked across at her loverís pained gaze. "Lex! Why didnít you wake me?" She quickly tried to scoot closer, never releasing her grip on Lexís arm.

"I just woke up, myself," the rancher admitted. Lex blinked a few times to try and clear her vision. She struggled to a sitting position and swung her legs over the side of the bed, much to her partnerís shock.

"What are you doing, Lex? You canít do that, honey." Amanda almost hit the call button for the nurse. "Youíre going to hurt yourself!"

There was barely enough room between the beds for the tall woman to stand, but she somehow managed it. "Hush," Lex whispered. "My eyes still arenít working that well, and I need to see you." Luckily, the IV was hooked up to her right arm so that she didnít have to maneuver around it. Her bare feet hit the tile floor, and she gasped. "Damn, thatís cold."

Amanda chuckled. "Teach you to not listen to me," she grumbled. She watched as Lex fought to keep the pain from showing in her face. Her poor face. She looks like she lost the title fight. Even in the faded light she could see what the effort was costing her lover. "You really should be lying down."

"I would, but these beds arenít big enough." Lex settled for sitting on the edge of Amandaís bed, and reached up with one hand to caress the younger womanís face. "Iím so sorry about your leg, sweetheart. Is there anything I can get you?" She had to lean down to make out her partnerís features.

"Yeah, this." Amanda wrapped her unencumbered arm around the dark-haired womanís neck and pulled her face down gently for a kiss. I was afraid of this. She could feel the heat from Lexís body as she pulled her close. Sheís still running a fever. How on earth am I going to get her back in her own bed?

"Ahem."

They both turned their faces towards the door, and smiled. "Hi, Grandpa," Lex greeted. She was thankful for the low lighting in the room, so that he couldnít see her blush.

Travis walked further into the room, shaking his head. "I was going to ask you how youíre doing, but I can see for myself," he teased. "Is there a reason, besides the obvious one, why youíre not in bed, Lexie?"

"UmmÖ"

He waved his hands. "Never mind. I donít think I want to know." Travis reached over and turned Lexís face towards him. "Good Lord, child!"

She grabbed his hand and held it. "It looks a lot worse than it is, Grandpa. Iím fine."

"Uh-huh." Deciding to change tactics, Travis looked down fondly at Amanda. "How are you doing, honey? Your grandmother told me that the surgery went well."

Amanda nodded. "Iím feeling pretty good. They didnít find the problems they expected, and only put a pin in my leg as a precaution. I should up and around in no time."

A pin in her leg? My God! What have I done to you? Lex felt tears burn her eyes. Maybe if I were a better driver, none of this would have happened. She could have been killed, and itís all my fault. Her self-recriminations were cut short by Amandaís gentle touch.

"Lex? Hey, whatís the matter?" The blonde didnít like the lost look on her loverís face. "Are you okay?"

Lex nodded and smiled. "Yeah, Iím fine." She felt a strong hand on her good shoulder. "What?"

"I think youíve been out of bed long enough, young lady. Donít make me pick you up and tuck you in," Travis threatened. When he saw his granddaughter open her mouth to argue, he shook his head. "Nope. In bed. Now. Or Iíll go get Martha."

The rancher exchanged looks with her partner and sighed. "You would, wouldnít you?" Hearing his chuckle, she rolled her eyes. "Okay, you win." Lex bent down and kissed Amanda gently on the lips. "Iíll be back," she whispered.

"Not for a while you wonít, young lady." Travis gently helped Lex to her feet and to her own bed. "Iíd hate for Martha to spend the night up here, thinking that you canít be trusted."

"Grandpa! Donít you dare!" Lex blustered, as he swung her legs back onto the bed, and covered her with the blanket. "Martha worries enough as it is."

He nodded. "My point exactly, Lexie." Travis turned serious and lightly touched her head. "This could have been a lot more serious, I know. But youíve still got a concussion and a fever, and you need to take it easy, all right?" He cleared his throat, which had closed up at the thought of what heíd almost lost. "Humor an old man, will you? Just for a little while?"

Iíve been pretty selfish, havenít I? Seeing the tears sparkle in his eyes, Lex nodded. "I will, I promise."

"Good. Thank you." Travis leaned over and kissed the top of her head. "Now get some rest. Charlie wants to come in a little later and ask you a few questions, but he thought heíd better wait until you were feeling stronger." And he also knew that Martha would have his hide if he came in any sooner with official business. Iím so glad that sheís been here to take care of Lexie for all these years. Such a remarkable woman. He straightened up and made his way back to the door. "You girls both get some rest. Iíll be back later to check on you." With a wave and a smile, he was gone.

"Heís certainly got your number," Amanda giggled. "Threatening you with Martha like that."

Lex turned her head and looked at her lover. "Itís not like Iím afraid of her, or anything," she huffed. "I just didnít want to worry him, thatís all."

Amanda laughed. "Uh-huh. Bwawk, bwawk," she teased. "Big chicken."

"Brat."

***************

She was sitting in the back booth at the diner, reading the paper and not paying attention to anything around her. Hearing a body drop into the seat across from her, Janna looked over the paper at the intruder. "What in the hell do you want?"

"I wanted to apologize for the other day," Hubert answered contritely. His forehead still sported a nasty bruise from where he banged it on the wall. "Iím afraid I was drunk, and out of line. Iíd like for us to be friends, if we could."

"Do you really think thatís possible, Hubert? Calling me a bitch and trying to take my head off isnít the best way to impress me." She folded up the paper and sighed. Bad enough I had to get this lecture from Dad, but now I have to talk to SuperJerk, too?

He gave her a charming smile. "I know, and Iím really sorry. Alcohol makes me do, and say, some really stupid things." Hubert leaned forward slowly. "Your dad and I go back a long ways. I donít want our differences to jeopardize a friendship Iíve come to depend on dearly. Heís like a brother to me."

Uh-huh. He sends you business, and vice-versa. Why am I sitting here talking to a man who canít even treat his own SISTER with respect? What a complete asshole! Janna leaned back in her seat to get some space. "Right. Speaking of family, have you seen your sister? I hear she gets out of the hospital tomorrow." Letís see how he handles this one. Janna had gone to the hospital the day before to visit Lex and Amanda after their automobile accident. She had called the ranch looking for Lex, and the young man had answered the phone had given her the news.

"UmmÖno, I havenít. My sister and I donít get along, and I donít want to upset her unduly." His outside demeanor calm, Hubert fumed inwardly. How dare she bring up that bitch to me? All Iíve heard about all day was Lexington this, Lexington that. If one more person asks me how sheís doing, Iíll shove my frigginí fist down their throat!

"I see. Well, sheís looking pretty good right now, all things considering." The more Janna was around this man, the more disgusted she became. "Anyway, I donít think it would be a good idea for us to be around each other, Hubert. Thereís just too much history, donít you think?"

Hubert stood up. "Your loss, babe. Just donít go messing up what I have with your old man, and Iíll be happy." He straightened his tie and stomped from the diner, leaving a trail of curious glances in his wake.

Asshole. Janna shook her head and opened up her paper again. She heard someone clear their throat discreetly, and looked over the paper in annoyance. "What?!" Standing beside her table was Barbara, the woman she had Ďrescuedí a couple of nights before. "Oh, Iím sorry. Would you like to sit down?"

"Thank you," Barbara murmured, as she slid into the booth across from Janna. "I saw Hubert leave, and he didnít look happy." She privately enjoyed the angry look on his face as the livid man stormed from the building. He had almost run into the light post outside, and Barbara had to cover her mouth to keep from laughing out loud.

"Yeah, well, heís a jackass." Janna noted the other womanís blush. "Iím sorry. Youíll have to excuse my language. Iím not used to being around a lady." She studied Barbara for a moment, then decided. "Would you like something to eat?" the accountant asked, as she waved for the waitress.

Barbara nodded. "Sure." She looked up as the server stood by the booth. "Iíd like a chefís salad, and a glass of tea."

"Salad? That canít fill you up. Why not a hamburger instead? My treat."

The bank teller shook her head. "Oh, no. I couldnít let you do that."

Janna smiled at her. "Címon, please?" At the other womanís reluctant nod, she gave the waitress a triumphant smile. "All right! Bring the lady your burger platter, and a large glass of tea." Once the server had left with the order, Janna looked at her watch and turned her attention back to her tablemate. "So, what brings you here this time of day? I thought that the bank gave you folks a decent lunch hour."

After the incident with Hubert on New Yearís Eve, Janna had driven the other woman home. Over coffee at Barbaraís house, they found that they actually had a lot in common, and quickly became friends. Several hours and a pot of coffee later, Janna had learned all about Barbaraís life in the small town, and how she had been tricked by Hubert to help him get his hands on the ranchís money.

Janna leaned forward and studied the woman across from her. She still had a red splotch on her cheek from where Hubert had slapped her, but it was fading. "You did what? Isnít that illegal?"

The bank teller nodded. "I think so. I didnít know at the time that I was doing anything wrong. Hubert told me that he was helping his sister at the ranch, and that since she was so busy, he was just signing the checks they needed for business transactions. Then, when Mr. Collins came in and said that Ms. Walters was missing money, I got scared." Tears welled up in her expressive brown eyes.

Janna reached over and patted her arm. "Thatís okay. You were just too trusting." A mischievous smile appeared on her face.

"What are you thinking, Janna?"

"Do you have any proof that Hubert asked you to cash those checks for him? Or is it just your word against his?" The bookkeeperís mind was racing, and she had an idea about how to rid Lex of her biggest headache.

Barbara sighed. "I donít think I have anything, but I can look around. Why?"

The blonde woman grinned. "Well, if we work this just right, we might be able to rid this town of him, once and for all."

The buxom waitress brought over Barbaraís lunch, and left the check with Janna. "Here you go, honey." She winked at the tall blonde and went back behind the counter, leaving the accountant tracking her with a confused look.

"Did she justÖ?" Janna asked her friend.

Barbara laughed. "Oh, yeah. Francine likes Ďem tallÖand blonde. Sheís harmless enough, though." She looked at the woman across the table. "Does that bother you?"

"UmmÖno. It just caught me off guard, thatís all." Janna shrugged her shoulders. "Does it bother you?"

"Nope," the bank teller answered. "Youíll find, in this town anyway, most people have grown pretty tolerant over the years. Especially since several of the more upstanding citizens are gay." She leaned across the table with a conspiratorial gleam in her eye. "The mayorís son, for one. And," she whispered, "one of your biggest clients, Lexington Walters. Sheís funded more social programs around here than several people put together. And sheís on the Historical Committee Ė theyíve saved three old homes in as many years, thanks a lot to her influence."

Janna smiled. "Sheís a great person, and so is her partner, Amanda. Iíve really become fond of them in a short amount of time. Theyíre the first people here to really make me feel welcome."

The other woman smiled. "I know. Beneath all that bluster and bravado, Lexington is just the sweetest person Iíve ever met. But donít tell her I said that, okay?" Barbara looked around the diner to see if anyone was paying attention to her. "Can I tell you a secret?"

"Sure. Itíll go no farther than this table, I promise."

"Iíve had a crush on Lex since high school," she murmured, looking down at her plate. "I think thatís the reason I put up with her brother for as long as I did, because I was hoping he would be like her." She shook her head. "Sad, isnít it?"

Janna reached across the table and grasped Barbaraís hand. "No, itís not. I can see why youíd feel that way. Hubert and Lex look a lot alike, but thatís where the resemblance ends. "

"Well, Iíve certainly learned my lesson." Barbara touched her cheek and sighed. "Iím just glad that you were there the other night, or thereís no telling what Hubert might have done."

Squeezing the hand that she was holding, Janna smiled. "Iím glad too, Barbara. I got to thump a jerk, and made a really good friendÖall in one night." Her grin widened when she felt Barbaraís other hand cover their joined ones. "Very glad."

***************

"You canít stay, Ms. Walters. We released you from the hospital this morning, and itís past visiting hours," the doctor argued. Although the woman standing before him was battered and bruised, he couldnít help but feel a little intimidated. She had stubbornly removed the splint and tape from her nose the day before, and her blue eyes seemed to be highlighted by the dark bruises beneath them. Once they had her fever under control, he could see no reason for her to stay, so he signed her release papers. "I can assure you that weíll take excellent care of Miss Cauble."

Lex sighed and took a step towards the frustrated man. Youíd think that having a medical degree would make him smarter. What an idiot. "I know youíll take good care of her, Doctor. But like I told you before, sheís my partnerÖmy loverÖmy better half. Whatever you want to call it, sheís the most important person in the world to me. And thereís no way in hell that Iím gonna leave her here alone, you got that?" She realized that she was scaring the doctor with her aggressive attitude, so she leaned back against the wall and slowly crossed her arms over her chest. Lex had conveniently lost the sling for her shoulder the moment she had been discharged.

They were standing in the hallway outside of Amandaís room. The doctor had been on his rounds when he caught the rancher sitting by her friendís bed. He had pulled her out into the hall so that his patient wouldnít be disturbed. "Iím sorry, but you have no authority to stay after hours." I hate these kind of people. They always want equal rights, even though they are an abomination to God. "This is a Christian hospital, young woman. Donít make me have security throw you out."

"Now you listen to me, you little pissant!" Lex pushed herself off the wall and looked down at the physician. "Iím not in the mood to put up with your bullshit, but Iíll be glad toÖ"

"Lexington Marie!" Martha quickly stepped in between the two upset people, gently pushing the tall woman back. "Whatís going on here?"

Lex glared at the doctor over the smaller womanís head. "This damned quack is telling me I have to leave Amanda!"

Martha swatted the younger woman on the hip. "Watch your language, young lady! Now go and cool off!"

"ButÖ"

"No buts! Now git!" Martha glared at her charge and pointed down the hallway. "Go grab yourself something to drink, and come back in a few minutes."

"Yes, Mada." Lex gave the physician one final dirty look, and walked dejectedly down the hallway.

The housekeeper turned her attention back to the doctor. "Now, whatís this nonsense about my daughter not being able to stay here?"

"Your daughter?" He looked at the tall form now at the end of the hallway, and then back to the sweet woman in front of him. Impossible. She must take after her father. "Iím sorry, Mrs. WaltersÖ"

"Rollins," Martha corrected, "but you can call me Martha." She enjoyed the look of confusion on his pinched face. He appeared to be about her age, but looked as if he had never smiled before in his life. "You were saying?"

He straightened his lab coat and nodded. "As I was telling your daughter, since she was discharged this morning, she has no reason to be up here after visiting hours."

"I see." Martha studied him for a long moment. "Are you married, Doctor?"

"Yes, I am. Although I donít see how that relatesÖ"

She waved a hand to silence him. "Do you love your wife?"

The doctor looked insulted. "Of course I do! What kind of ridiculous question is that?"

"What if your wife had been injured in a car wreck? Would you want to stay with her and make sure sheís all right? Or would you simply stay around only during visiting hours, and run home as soon as you could?" She placed a hand on his arm and smiled sadly. "Just because my daughter loves another woman, that doesnít make their love any less real." Martha patted him on the shoulder and turned to walk down the hallway.

He watched her walk away, a thoughtful look on his face. Shaking his head, the doctor took a deep breath and continued his rounds.

Martha found Lex in the main foyer, staring out through the glass into the gloomy night. A light rain had begun to fall, and the chill caused the tall woman to tremble slightly. "Whereís your coat?" Martha asked, placing one hand on the small of Lexís back and rubbing gently.

"I dunno," Lex mumbled. She turned around and looked into Marthaís eyes. "Why does everything have to be so damned complicated?" she asked, tears in her eyes. "I just want to stay and keep Amanda company. Itís not like I was in the way, or anything."

"I know, baby. Some people are just a little more dense than others," Martha commiserated. "But you really should go over to the hotel and get some rest. It wonít do Amanda any good if you collapse the same day that you were released."

Lex bit her lip and looked down at the ground. "I know. But I canít stand the fact that sheís still here, and Iím not." She turned to look back outside, unable to meet Marthaís gaze. "Itís my fault sheís here, Mada. If I was a better driver, orÖ"

"Now you wait just a damned minute!" Martha grabbed Lex by her good shoulder and spun her around. "Donít start with the Ďwhat-ifsí. If you werenít such a good driver, you both could be dead right now." Her voice cracked on the last part of the sentence. "And that is completely unacceptable to me, so just hush!" She pulled the rancher into her arms and hugged her tight. Pulling back slightly, Martha smiled gently. "Now, go back into that room, and tell Amanda goodnight. Youíre coming back to the hotel with me, and going straight to bed."

Lex knew it was pointless to argue with Martha, once her mind was made up. "Yes, maíam. Iíll be back in a few minutes." She kissed the graying head. "I love you, Mada." Her eyes held a few unshed tears, but she smiled.

Martha fought back her own tears. "I love you too, sweetie." She pushed the tall woman towards the hallway. "Now go say goodnight, so I can tuck you into bed."

Lex had started to leave, but turned back around. "You wouldnít!" Seeing the ingenuous smile on the older womanís face, she shook her head. "You would." She sighed as she turned and started down the hallway. "I should know better by now," Lex mumbled, as she walked away.

Chapter 18

The drive to the ranch was too quiet, Anna Leigh decided. She turned around in her seat and smiled at the two women behind her. "My offer still stands, Lexington. Itís not like I use it that much, anyway."

"Thatís really nice of you, but I wouldnít feel right." Lex was sitting on the right side of the Suburban, with Amandaís injured leg propped across her lap. She knew she was being ridiculous. Anna Leigh had offered the use of her Cadillac until Lex could find a new vehicle, but the rancher was nervous about getting back behind the wheel again. Maybe if I start with my old Jeep, it wonít be so bad. While Amanda was in the hospital, Lex allowed everyone else to ferry her around. She hadnít even been back to the ranch yet. I hope they didnít have any trouble getting everything set up.

Jacob drove slowly on the winding road, mindful of his cargo. The day had turned out cold, but sunny, and up ahead they could see where the truck had been forced from the road. Dark tire marks covered the two-lane blacktop, showing just how far the struggle had gone.

"Could you stop for a moment, please?" Amanda had watched the different emotions cross her partnerís face. She decided that the sooner they got past this, the better off they both would be. Martha told me that Lex wouldnít even drive between the hospital and the hotel. I donít know whatís gotten into her, but itís going to stop. She reached over for her friendís hand and squeezed it tightly. "Looks a lot different in the daylight, doesnít it?"

The rancher nodded. "Yeah, it sure does." She struggled to keep herself from trembling. I almost got you killed here, Amanda. How can you be so calm?

"My goodness," Anna Leigh exclaimed, seeing the earth torn up along the side of the road. She could see where the truck had begun to spin in the mud, and where it slid down the embankment and into the trees. Other tracks were evident, presumably from the emergency vehicles that arrived later. She looked back at her granddaughter and shook her head. "You must have been terrified."

Amanda appeared thoughtful for a long moment. "It was frightening. But I had faith that Lex would get us through it, and she did."

Lexís head snapped around to face her lover. "Like hell I did! You were almost killed, Amanda Ė donít make me out to be some sort of hero." Her eyes lowered to the leg in her lap. "Look what I did to you."

"No!" The younger woman put her hand under Lexís chin, and forced eye contact. "Honey, if it wasnít for your driving skills, weíd probably both be dead. Donít do this to yourself, Lex. Life is too short for us to go around beating ourselves up over everything." Amanda leaned forward and kissed her tenderly. "I love you. Let it go, please?"

"Iíll try," Lex agreed, clearing her throat. She ran her fingertips down the soft cheek inches from her own. In a voice hoarse with emotion, she murmured, "I love you, Amanda." Taking a deep breath and releasing it, Lex looked toward the front seats. "Well? Are we gonna go on to the house, or sit here all day and watch the leaves fall?" She sat back in her seat and grinned at the wink she received from Jacob through the rear view mirror.

"You got it, kiddo!" He exchanged grins with his wife and continued on to the ranch.

When the Suburban pulled up to the front of the house, Amanda noticed a ramp had been built over the front steps. It was made of wood, and a fresh coat of paint caused it to stand out. "Lex? What didÖ?"

"I made a few phone calls," Lex explained as she climbed out of the vehicle. She ran around to the back of the Suburban and pulled out the wheelchair that she had rented for her friend.

The younger woman was in a cast that was up over her knee, and she was told to keep her leg elevated for the next couple of weeks. Amanda allowed Jacob to help her from the vehicle and place her in the chair. "Thanks, Grandpa." She looked back at Lex, who started pushing the chair up the ramp. "Umm, honey? How are we going to make it up the stairs?" She was charmed by the smug grin on her partnerís face. Sheís definitely up to something.

"Weíre not."

The front door opened and Martha stepped out onto the porch. "Welcome home, Amanda!" She bent down and kissed the blondeís cheek. "With you home, maybe Iíll finally see more of Lexie," she whispered.

"What do you mean? Hasnít sheÖ?" Amanda looked up at the housekeeper in confusion. No wonder Lex was able to be up at the hospital so much of the time Ė she never left! Her broken leg had to stay in traction for over a week, so that the doctor could make sure no infection set in. Since Lex had been released the fourth day after the accident, she had been at the hospital almost constantly. Amanda would fall asleep to the soothing voice of her lover talking, and awake the next morning to Lexís blue eyes gazing down fondly on her.

Lex pushed the chair through the door, and stopped outside of the den. "You about ready to lie down, sweetheart?"

Amanda turned around as best she could and gave the tall woman a questioning glance. "Uh, yeah. I am kinda tired. But how are we going to get upstairs?"

"Like I said," the rancher pushed the chair through the den door. "Weíre not." Instead of the leather sofa and loveseat that usually occupied the den, the large four-poster bed from the master bedroom stood to one side of the room. "You can even watch TV while youíre lying down," Lex explained. "I had some of the guys from the bunkhouse move the bedroom downstairs." She wheeled Amanda over to the bed and set the brakes on the chair. "All out, first floor Ė bedroom and housewares."

"Youíre a nut."

The rancher nodded. "Yup. Now címon, get your cute little rear into this bed." She partially carried Amanda to the bed, trying to ignore the twinge in her shoulder from the strain. "Itís past time for your pain pill, anyway."

Anna Leigh and Jacob stood in the doorway, watching in amusement as Lex pampered their granddaughter. "Do you want to take bets on how long Lexingtonís going to get away with all this?" she quietly asked her husband.

"TwoÖthree days, tops," he joked. "I donít remember this room having a door on it." Jacob pulled the bifold door partially closed. "Pretty nice, though."

Lex turned around and smiled at the couple. "I figured that being right off the front door, weíd need some sort of privacy," she explained. "The doorway was too wide for a normal door, so Roy did the next best thing."

"He fussed over it for almost two days," Martha related, bringing in a tray laden with mugs. "Anyone for hot chocolate?"

Jacob relieved her of the tray and set it down on a nearby table. "Wonderful idea, dear lady!" He looked around and realized that someone was missing. "Whereís Travis?"

Martha frowned. "He went upstairs earlier. I figured heíd be down here by now." She turned to the rancher.

"Iíll go check on him," Lex volunteered, before the housekeeper could say anything. She kissed Amanda on the forehead. "Be right back."

***************

Her long legs ate up the distance of the long staircase, and Lex quickly found herself in front of the guest room door, which was closed. She reached up and lightly knocked on the wood, waiting patiently for an answer. "Grandpa?" When there was no response, she rapped her knuckles against the frame a bit louder. Worried now, Lex slowly opened the door and peeked inside.

Travis was lying on the bed, his eyes closed. Although a quilt covered his tall frame, she could see that his hands were across his stomach, and no movement could be seen.

"Grandpa?" She continued into the room, fear and worry seeping into her voice. "Címon, handsome. Everyone is downstairs." Lex stood by the bed with a puzzled frown. She reached down to his head, her hand shaking slightly.

His eyes popped open with a shock, as his granddaughter pulled the headset away from his ear. "Lexie! You scared me half to death!" Travis sat up and pulled the thin device from his head. "I didnít know you were home."

Her heart slowly resumed its normal rhythm. "Scared you? I thought for a minute you wereÖ" Lex couldnít even voice the thought out loud.

"Heavens, no!" Travis laughed. "I was just listening to some music and relaxing. Iím afraid I nearly drove poor Martha to distraction in the kitchen earlier, while we were waiting for you to come home. So I decided to give her a break and come up here." He stood up and wrapped his arms around the agitated woman. "Iím sorry I worried you, sweetheart."

Lex returned the hug with a heavy sigh. "No, Iím sorry, Grandpa. Guess my nerves are a bit on edge, thatís all." She pulled back slightly and grinned. "The downstairs Ďbedroomí looks great. Amanda sure was surprised."

Travis led her from the room, his arm never leaving his granddaughterís shoulder. "Iíll bet. Martha sounded like a field general, making sure everything was in the right place. I donít think the men will ever be quite the same," he joked.

"Iím sure you had nothing to do with it, right?"

"Not me. Iím just an old man. Not much I could have done." He flinched as her elbow hit a particularly ticklish spot on his ribs.

The tall woman laughed and shook her head. "Oh, no. Youíre not going to make me believe that. Martha told me on the phone this morning, that she couldnít have done it without you."

Travis felt like the little kid whose hand was caught in the cookie jar. "She tends to exaggerate, donít you think?" He stopped near the den door. "Well, weíre here. Letís go say hello." The older man was through the door before his granddaughter could say another word.

"That sneak! Iíll get him for that." Lex grinned and followed her grandfather into the room.

***************

Amanda snuggled deeper into her loverís arms. "That was fun." It had been several hours since her grandparents had left, and the fire had burned down to embers. Although it was still early in the evening, they were lying in the large bed, both content to just enjoy the peace and quiet.

"Yeah," Lex agreed. She buried her face into the blonde hair and took a deep breath. "But this is better," she sighed happily. "Iíve really missed this," the rancher quietly admitted.

"I have too." Amanda was lying on her back Ė or more truthfully, on Lexís front. They had found that it was more comfortable to have the rancher propped up against the headboard, and the younger woman sitting between her outstretched legs, leaning back. "Which reminds me. Martha made a comment about not seeing much of you lately." She craned her head to see her partnerís face. "What was that all about?"

Lex swallowed nervously and had trouble meeting Amandaís gaze. "UmmÖ" Gentle fingertips pulled her face down.

Amanda stroked the strong jaw beneath her hand. "HoneyÖdonít tell me youíve spent all this time in town?"

"Well, IÖ"

"Lex! Itís been almost two weeks since the accident. Why?" Amanda finally caught the rancherís eyes. "Please, talk to me."

The older woman sighed. "Do you really think I could have left you in the hospital alone? What if our positions had been reversed?"

"Weíre not talking about me, love."

"But we are, donít you see?" Lex squirmed around until they were sitting face to face. "You are the most important thing in my life, Amanda. Thereís no way in hell that I could have been that far away from you." She looked down at the bedspread. "It took all I had to leave the hospital long enough to shower and change clothes."

Amanda cupped her loverís face with her hands and forced her to look up. "Oh, honey." Her heart broke at the tears that formed in the blue eyes. No wonder she looks so worn out. The only sleep sheís gotten is when Iíd catch her dozing in the chair across from my bed.

Lex wiped angrily at her eyes and took a deep breath to collect herself. Idiot! Now youíre upsetting her. "I really did try to lie down a couple of times," she protested. "But every time Iíd close my eyes, Iíd see you lying alone in the hospital."

Pretty hard to argue with that, since Iíd probably do the same. Time to change the subject, I think. "Well, weíre home together now. Thatís the important thing, right?" Amanda saw relief flood Lexís face.

"Right." Happy that the subject was closed, Lex yawned and snuggled back down in the bed. "Goodnight, sweetheart." She kissed the top of Amandaís head and closed her eyes.

***************

She slammed her hand down on the table, causing the silverware to jangle. "This is completely unacceptable!" Elizabeth looked around the restaurant, relieved that no one noticed her little outburst. "My daughter could have been killed!" They were having dinner at the steak house, feeling secure because their table was situated near the back of the restaurant, and partially hidden by plants.

"Calm down, Liz. I had nothing to do with the accident." He reached across the table and took hold of her shaking hands. "Do you honestly think I would stoop to something that poorly planned?"

"No, I suppose not." She glared at him. "You DO have a plan, donít you? Itís even more imperative that I get my daughter away from thatÖwoman. God only knows what could happen next."

The handsome man released her hands and leaned back in his chair. "Ranching can be a very dangerous business, you know. Just about anything could happen out in the middle of nowhere." He winked at his employer and smiled. "Donít worry your pretty little head, Liz. Iím on it."

Elizabeth leaned across the table and pinned him with a nasty look. "Donít you DARE be condescending to me!"

Raising his hands in a defensive manner, he shook his head. "No, noÖIíd never do that. I just think that your time could be better spent, than worrying about that rancher. Iím handling the details as we speak." He reached into his back pocket for his wallet and dropped several bills on the table. "Letís go back to my room, where we can discuss this moreÖfreely."

"Good idea. The less we talk about it in public, the better." Elizabeth allowed him to pull her chair away from the table and escort her from the room.

At the next table, the eyes of two women widened as they realized what they had overheard. Barbara, whose back was to the now deserted table, leaned forward and whispered to her companion. "Oh, my God! Do you think they were talking aboutÖ?"

"I think so," Janna agreed. "I didnít recognize either one of them, either. But the way that lady was talking, sheíd have to be Amandaís mother, wouldnít she?"

Barbara turned around in her seat, and casually glanced toward the exit. "Oh, yes! Thatís definitely her Ė I remember her from the bank." She turned back around. "What are we going to do?"

"Well, for starters, weíre going to call and warn Lex." Janna tossed her napkin onto her plate and stood up. "Iím sorry about cutting dinner short," she apologized. "But we can always go somewhere else, later."

"Thatís fine with me," the smaller woman agreed, rising from her chair. "Do you want to go back to my place to call Lex, and then have some coffee?"

Janna smiled as she dropped money onto the table. "Sounds good to me. Címon." She placed her hand lightly on the other womanís back, protectively escorting her from the room.

***************

The cold wind cut through his thin coat as the man cautiously navigated the old bridge. He tightened his hold on the collar, wishing again that he had thought further ahead. His boots slipped on the damp wood, and he nearly dropped what he was carrying. Thankful for the thick gloves on his hands, he wished again that he had waited until early morning. Too damned cold to be out in this mess, he thought to himself. Iíd much rather be sitting in front of a nice warm fire.

He proceeded on his way, staying just to the side of the dirt road. Didnít realize it was so damned far to the house. The strap over his shoulder slipped, and he pulled it back up. This better be worth it. After another fifteen minutes, the ranch house came into view. No lights were visible from inside, and the only light at all was from atop a tall pole at the back of the house. He walked to the back of the home, careful to keep out of the light.

Seeing the two large structures down behind the main house, the chilled man decided to spend the remainder of the night out of the elements. Tomorrow morning will come soon enough, he thought as he opened the door to the barn. Warmth hit him in the face and he smiled. This is more like it. No sense in being uncomfortable until then.

***************

Janna hung up the phone and sighed. She had just called the hotel that Lex had been staying in, and was told by the night clerk that the rancher had checked out early that morning. "They must have taken Amanda home today," she told Barbara, who was sitting on the sofa, and watched as her friend tried to stay calm. "I donít know whether I should call the ranch now, or wait until the morning."

"It is getting late," Barbara admitted. "But that man had said that he already had something working, didnít he?" She patted the empty spot next to her and smiled. "Why donít you come over here and sit down, so we can talk about it?" They had been with each other almost every day for the past couple of weeks, and she was determined to move their relationship to the next level.

"AhÖokay." Janna crossed the room and sat next to the smiling brunette. "What?"

Barbara shook her head. "Nothing." She reached over and placed her hand on the blondeís thigh, which was bouncing nervously. "Itís after eleven oíclock already. Why donít we try calling them first thing in the morning? If Amanda just got out of the hospital, sheíll probably need all the rest she can get."

"Youíre probably right. Maybe Iíll stop by the ranch on the way home, and see if anyoneís up." Janna tried to stand up, but the other womanís hand held her in place. "What?"

Charmed by the nervousness in the bookkeeperís tone, Barbara squeezed the leg she still held. "Itís really late, and the storm is getting worse. Why donít you stay here tonight?"

Janna flinched. "UmmÖwellÖIíd really feel better if I checked on them."

"Iíve got a perfectly good guest room, Janna. Thereís no sense in you driving all the way out there this time of night, is there? Itís late, itís dark, and you canít possibly do anything right now, anyway." She leaned forward slightly until they were inches apart. "I promise thatís all Iím thinking about," Barbara smiled, "for now."

"WellÖummÖ" Feeling the heat in her face, Janna took a deep breath. "If youíre sure it wouldnít be any trouble." Sheís right. If I go storming out there, all Iíll end up doing is scaring them all to death. It would be a lot better if I just called them early in the morning.

Barbara reached out with her free hand and ran her fingers through Jannaís short blonde hair. "Trust me. The only trouble Iím going to have is staying in my own room tonight." She leaned forward and kissed Janna lightly on the lips.

***************

Amanda woke up to an empty bed. She glanced over at the nightstand, and saw by the clock that it was after midnight. Blinking several times to adjust her vision, she finally spotted Lex standing beside the large windows, staring out through the half-drawn blinds. "Lex? Is everything okay?"

The rancher turned around and started back to the bed. "Yeah, I think so. I thought I heard something, but thereís nothing out there that I can see." She sat down next to her lover and brushed her fingers through the messy blonde hair. "Sorry if I woke you."

"You didnít. At least, I donít think you did." Amanda leaned into the touch and sighed. "MmmÖyour hands are cold." She smiled and captured the hand as it tensed to pull away. "I didnít say I didnít like it." She brought Lexís hand down and placed it inside her nightshirt, hearing the older woman gasp as she touched warm skin.

"Tease." But Lex allowed her fingers to roam, causing her partner to inhale sharply in return.

The blonde head nodded. "Only when youíre involved, honey." Amanda jumped as the long digits found a particularly sensitive spot. "OoohÖummÖ" She squirmed slightly and exhaled. "Whoa."

Lex grinned and continued her exploration. "Like that?"

"Uh-huh." Amanda felt her shirt being lifted over her head. "AhhhÖI think your hand is warm, now," she mumbled.

"Maybe. But I need to warm up the other one, too," Lex countered, as she removed the shirt and began to blaze a trail of kisses down the younger womanís body. "Are you cold, sweetheart?"

Amanda shook her head, but couldnít answer. She tangled her hands in the dark hair and guided Lex to more sensitive areas. God, Iíve missed this, was her last coherent thought as the tall woman continued to attack her senses and lovingly worship her body.

Some time later, Amanda was curled on her side, snuggled up to Lexís warm body. They had placed a thick pillow between her knees, so that her good leg wouldnít lie across the rough cast. She ran a playful fingertip across the perspiring womanís stomach, causing her to flinch. "I thought you said you werenít ticklish?"

"Iím not. You just surprised me, thatís all." Lex continued to comb her fingers through the blondeís damp hair. Another poke from her companion, and she grunted. "Hey! Cut that out."

"Youíre such a big baby," Amanda teased. She raised her head and kissed the bare skin that her head was resting on. "But Iíll stop, for now." She dropped her head and lay quietly for a moment, thinking. "You said earlier that something woke you up?"

Lex nodded. "Yeah, I thought I heard something. But when I looked outside, I didnít see anything. Guess Iím getting paranoid in my old age."

The younger woman giggled. "Oh, yeahÖyouíre practically ancient," she quipped. "But I donít think youíre paranoid, Lex. Iím sure something woke you." Amanda sat up. "Maybe we should call Charlie."

"Nah. Iíll check around the house in the morning. It was probably a fox, or maybe a deer." Seeing her lover yawn, Lex pulled Amanda back down into her arms. "Letís get some sleep, huh? Weíll worry about it tomorrow." But sleep was elusive for the exhausted woman, as she continued to worry about what trouble Amandaís mother would create next.


Chapter 19

Lex stepped out into the cold morning and shivered. She navigated her steps carefully on the icy ground as she made her way to the barns. The frozen rain from the night before had left a nasty accumulation of ice, and more than once the rancher had to slow down to keep from falling. Damn nasty out here this morning. Maybe Amanda was right. She had left her partner in the cozy kitchen, comfortably ensconced in a padded chair, with her leg propped on another.

"I swear, Lex. You do these things just to drive me crazy, donít you?" Amanda had been arguing with the tall woman for almost an hour, trying to keep Lex from leaving the house. "You have a bunkhouse full of able-bodied men, and yet you persist in trudging out in the nasty weather to check on your horses. Would it be so awful to stay inside and let them handle it?"

Lex sighed. "Iím a lot closer to the barns than they are, sweetheart. It would be ridiculous for me to ask them to try and drive up here, just so I donít have to go outside." She set her coffee cup down on the kitchen counter. "You wouldnít want me to risk their safety just for my comfort, would you?" She looked over at Martha, who shook her head. "What?"

"Honey, as much as I hate to admit it, I have to agree with you on this one." The housekeeper made her way over to the table and sat down next to Amanda. "Sheís right, you know. Thereís no sense in any of the men risking themselves for the drive to the house when Lexie is perfectly able to check the barn."

Amanda nodded grudgingly. "I know. I just hate when sheís right," she whispered. "Sheíll try and make a habit out of it."

"Nothing to worry about in that department," Lex teased, as she leaned down and gave the smaller woman a light kiss. "Youíll make sure of that." She started for the door, then turned around. "Iíll be back in about ten minutes. Itís too damned cold out there to play around." She winked and slipped from the room.

The rancher opened the door to the horse barn and quickly dashed inside. "Whew! That wind can take a personís breath away!" she exclaimed to the animals, who leaned over their stalls and stared balefully at her. "Morning, everyone."

A shifting sound could be heard from the tack room, and Lex stopped in her tracks. What theÖ? Searching around for a weapon, she reached for the nearby pitchfork and held it out in front of her. "All right. Whoeverís in there, come on out."

There was no sound for a long moment, then the door began to open slowly. A slightly built man stepped into the doorway, holding something in his hands. A well-worn hat hid his face, and he was wearing an old denim jacket. "Put down the tool," he commanded in a no nonsense tone.

***************

Martha poured herself another cup of coffee and was about to sit down when the phone rang. "Itís a bit early, isnít it?" she grumbled as she picked up the phone. "Rocking W Ranch, Martha speaking."

"Hi, Ms. Rollins," Janna returned. "I hope itís not too early."

"No, dear. Everyoneís up before the chickens around here," Martha joked. She exchanged wry glances with Amanda, who shook her head. "What can I do for you this morning?"

The bookkeeper sighed. "I really need to talk to Lex, maíam. Itís rather important."

"Well, sheís gone down to the barn, honey. Do you want me to have her call you when she comes back?" At Amandaís questioning glance, she shrugged. "Or would you like to talk to Amanda? Sheís right here."

"UmmÖwellÖyeah." Janna didnít want to upset the younger woman, but she felt that she needed to warn them about the danger they might be in. "Thank you, Ms. Rollins. Iíd really appreciate that."

The housekeeper stretched the phone cord to where Amanda was sitting. "Here, honey. Itís that nice young woman whoís working on the books for Lexie."

"Thanks, Martha." Amanda smiled at the housekeeper. "This is Amanda. Whatís going on, Janna?"

"Iím really sorry to bother you this early in the morning, but I thought you ought to know," Janna jabbered nervously. "Barbara and I went out to eat last night, andÖ"

Amanda smiled broadly. "Oh, really? Youíve been seeing quite a bit of her, from what Iíve been told," she teased. "Iím sorry, go ahead."

Janna sighed. "Weíve become really good friends. Anyway, it was really quiet in the restaurant, and we overheard this couple at the next table talking. Barbara said she recognized your mother, and there was a younger guy with her we didnít know."

"Itís hardly news to me that my mother is dating," the young woman sighed. "From what I understand, she never really stopped."

"No, itís not that. I donítí think that theyíre dating." Janna took a deep breath, then released it slowly. "She was tearing into the guy because she thought he had something to do with your accident. The way it sounded, heís working for her."

Seeing the blood rush from Amandaís face, Martha sat down next to her and grabbed her hand. "What is it, dear?"

The blonde shook her head. "NoÖshe didnítÖ"

"No. He said that he didnít have anything to do with it. But," Janna paused, unsure if she should say anything.

"What? Please, Janna. Just tell me."

"Your mother said that it was more important than ever to get you away from Lex. He told her that he was handling the details right then. Even made some sort of comment that all sorts of things could happen at the ranch, since it was so far from town, and all."

Amanda dropped the phone in shock. Could she really be that cold-blooded? I know Iíve said she would in the past, but still. My own mother? She barely listened as Martha took over the phone conversation.

"No, dearÖsheís just a bit shocked, thatís all. Yes, Iíll let her know. Thank you for calling, Janna. Good bye." The housekeeper hung up the phone and sat back down next to Amanda. She waited until the tear-filled green eyes met hers. "Oh, honey."

"My own mother, Martha," Amanda whispered. "Why is she doing this to us?"

Martha leaned forward and pulled the younger woman into her arms. "Sshhh. Everythingís going to be just fine. Iíll give Charlie a call, and let him know whatís going on, okay?"

The blonde head nodded. "Thatís probably a good idea. I just wish Lex were back from the barns. She needs to know about all this."

***************

"What in the hell are you doing here?" Lex asked, still holding the pitchfork in a defensive manner. She backed up slightly until she could feel the bales of hay behind her. Guess thatís far enough. I canít believe this!

The man stepped forward and raised his hat away from his eyes. "Thatís no way to talk to me, girl. Now put the damned fork down!" He took several more steps, until the pronged tool touched his chest. "Iím not telling you again." His hazel eyes were tired, and he sported several daysí growth of beard.

Her hands shaking, Lex lowered the implement until the points were on the ground. "Why are you here?" Her legs gave out and caused her to drop down on the hay behind her. "What possible purpose could it serve?"

"You act like youíre surprised. Donít tell me you havenít been expecting this visit." He began to walk around the barn, looking around. "Looks like youíve done pretty good. How much money have you sunk into this place?"

"Enough to turn it around. What do you want?"

He laughed. "You know, I was sure surprised when I came in here last night and felt how nice and warm it was. You treat these damned horses better than you do people." He sat on a barrel on the other side of the room. "But you always did, didnít you? People didnít mean that much to you at all, did they?" He reached down into his boot and pulled out a large hunting knife.

Lex jumped to her feet and pointed an angry finger in his direction. "Donít you be telling me about how to treat people!"

"Sit down! Iím talking to you, girl!" He pointed the knife at the agitated young woman. "You always did fly off the handle." The older man began to clean his nails with the point of the knife. "Maybe someone should teach you some manners."

***************

Martha hung up the phone and turned around. "Charlie said that Janna had already called him. Heís got a couple of men on the lookout for your mother, and the man sheís been seen with. Heís on his way out here now."

"Thatís a relief," Amanda sat back in her chair and pointed at her propped up leg. "I really wish there was something I could do, though. I feel completely helpless like this!"

"Youíll have plenty to do, sweetie. If you can keep Lexie even halfway calm, Iíll be impressed." The housekeeper opened the refrigerator and pulled several items out. "Now if that girl would just get back to the house for breakfast, Iíd be happy."

Amanda laughed. "You know how she gets when she starts messing with her horses. Nothing can pull her away until sheís finished." She pulled herself closer to the table. "If youíll bring me that bowl, Iíll be glad to mix those ingredients together for you."

The older woman finished measuring the flour and dumped it into the bowl. "Thank you, dear. That would be a big help." She brought the large glass dish over to the table and placed it in front of Amanda. "Here you go. Just let me know when youíre done, honey. Iíll go ahead and start the sausage to cooking."

"Sure, no problem." Amanda glanced at the clock on the wall. I wonder whatís taking Lex so long? She said that sheíd be back soon.

***************

"What is it you want? Money?" Lex was becoming increasingly aware of how long she had been in the barn. Amandaís gonna be coming unglued if Iím not back to the house soon, she worried. "Iím sure I could give you enough to make you leave."

He bristled at the disgusted tone in her voice. "Your brother was right," he growled. "You are a snotty excuse for a person." The man stood up slowly and brushed off his jeans. "Money doesnít mean anything to me. Youíre the reason I came here, you know." He buttoned up his coat and pulled his hat down over his head. "Why donít we go on up to the main house and finish this up there?"

I donít want him anywhere near Martha, or Amanda, but weíre not accomplishing anything here. "You still havenít told me why youíre here. Has this got something to do with Hubert?"

"All in due time, girl. Letís go. Itís too damned cold to be messing around out here." The man bent down and placed his knife back in his boot. He motioned for her to precede him from the barn. "Hurry up. Iím not getting any younger, you know."

"All right." Lex led the way to the house, taking careful steps to avoid falling. I wonder if thereís some way to get rid of him before Amanda sees him? Damn.

She opened up the back door and stepped inside, hanging up her coat and hat.

"Lex! Itís about time you got back," Amandaís voice carried from the kitchen. "Come on in here and have some coffee."

Double damn. There goes that idea. Lex turned to the man behind her. "Try and act civilized, will you?" She walked into the kitchen with him close on her heels.

Amanda turned around in her chair to greet her lover. "I was beginning to get worried, honey. What tookÖ?" She stopped when she saw the unsmiling man standing behind the rancher. "Who isÖ?"

Martha spun around from the stove and froze. The spatula she was using fell loudly to the floor. "Oh, my."

"Amanda, Iíd like you to meet Rawson WaltersÖmy father." Lex turned around and glared at the older man. "Dad, this is my fiancťe, Amanda Cauble." She got a secret satisfaction at seeing him blanche at her choice of words. He had never accepted his daughterís lifestyle, and refused to acknowledge that she was gay.

"Nice to meet you, Mr. Walters." Amanda reached up and offered her hand to the still quiet man. "Lex has told me all about you."

He accepted the young womanís hand and shook it firmly. "And you still wanted to shake my hand? Youíre a brave woman, miss." Rawson released her hand and pulled his hat from his head. "Mind if I sit down?"

Amanda smiled. "Please, go right ahead."

Lex stood next to Martha, looking as if she would bolt from the room at any given moment. She felt a gentle hand on her back, and turned to smile at the housekeeper. "Big surprise, huh?"

"It sure is, honey. Are you okay?" Iíll chase that man out of here with my broom if he does one thing to upset these girls.

"Iím fine. A bit shocked, but fine. He was in the horse barn Ė scared the hell out of me." Lex watched as her partner continued to charm the rodeo rider. How does she do that? "I nearly ran him through with a pitchfork," she admitted sheepishly.

Would serve the man right, the way he treated her all those years. Martha patted her on the back. "Well, I donít see any holes, so you must have done all right," she teased.

"Lex? Why donít you come over here and join us?" Amanda asked. She knew that her lover was shook up at the arrival of her father, but hoped that her presence could keep Lex a little bit calmer.

The rancher walked unhappily over to the table and sat down next to Amanda, reaching over and grasping the younger womanís hand. "Here I am." She glared across the table at her father. "Are you ever going to get around to telling me why youíre here?"

"Donít get sassy with me, girl. I brought you into this world, and I can take you out of it." Rawson leaned forward and pinned his daughter with angry eyes.

"Give me a break. My MOTHER brought me into this world, old man. YOU were just a sperm donor."

The slap was unexpected, and it knocked the chair that Lex was sitting in to the floor.

"You watch your mouth! I wonít have my daughter talking like a common street thug!" Rawson rose from his chair and stood over the prone woman.

He was suddenly pushed away by Martha, who had a large frying pan in her hand. "Donít make me use this on you, Mr. Walters. You leave my girl alone."

"YOUR girl? Youíre delusional, woman! Youíve always treated Lexington like your own. Thatís probably whatís wrong with her!" The ex-rancher raised his hand as if to strike Martha, as well.

"Stop it!" Amanda tried to stand up, but was gently held down by pressure on her shoulders from behind. She turned around and saw a grim-faced Travis, who had seen the whole thing.

"Thatís more than enough, Rawson," he commanded quietly. "You raise your hand to another woman in this house, and Iíll personally throw your sorry hide out of here." Travis pushed by the angry man and helped his granddaughter to her feet. "Are you okay, honey?"

Lex rubbed her jaw, which sported a red and swollen knot. "Just ducky, Grandpa." She stepped past him and glared down at her father. "If you EVER even THINK about hitting Martha again, Iíll kill you," she threatened in a low voice. Pushing by the smaller man, Lex walked over and stood behind Amanda, placing her hands on the blondeís shoulders. "Thereís a guest room across the hall from the master bedroom. Youíre welcome to stay there for the night, but I want you out of our house by tomorrow morning." She silently helped Amanda into the wheelchair and wheeled her from the room.

Rawson turned around and stared at Travis. "I see youíve finally won. Youíve poisoned my own flesh and blood against me, old man."

Travis put his arm around the housekeeper and led her to the table, helping her gently into a chair. He turned his attention back to the other man. "You did that yourself, years ago. Iím just very thankful that Martha raised Lexie, not you." He watched as the younger man stomped from the room. "I will never know what my daughter saw in him," Travis muttered.

***************

After Lex helped Amanda to the bed, she began to pace the room. "Why now? After all these years, why did he suddenly decide to come back?"

"Lex, come here." Amanda raised one hand and beckoned to the frantic woman. "Please?" She waited patiently until her lover crossed the room and sat down on the edge of the bed. "Howís your face?" She tried to reach out and touch the reddened cheek, but Lex pulled away.

"Itís fine. Donít worry about it." Lex didnít feel like being comforted. She felt like climbing the stairs and giving her father a dose of his own medicine, which made her even madder. Why do I let him get to me that way? Heís always been able to hit the right buttons with me.

Amanda wrapped her fingers around the rancherís arm and pulled her closer. "Hey." She couldnít remember ever seeing her lover like this. The look on Lexís face was beginning to scare her. "Honey?"

Lex shook her head to clear it. "Hmm?" She blinked several times, and realized that Amanda was trying to talk to her. "Iím sorry, sweetheart. Are you okay? Can I get you anything?"

"Iím fine. Itís you Iím worried about."

"Whatís to worry? Iím just trying to decide whether or not I want to go upstairs and throw my father through a window Ė nothing serious," Lex answered sarcastically. "When I saw him raise a hand to Martha, I honestly wanted to kill him." She tried to stand up, but was pulled back down onto the bed by Amandaís strong grip. "God." Her whole body began to shake as she lost her composure and began to cry.

Pulling her lover forward, Amanda stroked the dark hair as Lexís face burrowed into her chest. "Let it go, love," she murmured, slowly rocking back and forth. A knock at the door finally forced them apart. "Come in," Amanda requested hoarsely.

"Is everything all right in here?" Martha asked as she stepped into the room. She held a small icepack and carried it over to where the two women were. Her sad brown eyes tracked to Lexís as she placed it on the rancherís face. "Thatís going to leave a bit of a bruise, Iím afraid."

Lex smiled and covered the older womanís hand with her own. "Itís okay, Mada. Doesnít even hurt," she lied. Her jaw ached, but the pain was nothing like the pain in her heart. "Are you okay? Iím sorry about earlier in the kitchen. I should have neverÖ"

Martha fought back her tears. "Oh, baby. You have nothing to apologize for. I was so proud of you." She looked over at Amanda, who had a loving smile on her face. "How are you doing, honey? You look a bit tired."

"I was. But stretching out on the bed has helped." Amanda wanted to try and lighten things up a bit. "At least now I know where Hubert gets his charm from," she joked.

The rancher laughed. "Isnít that the truth? I always thought I was the odd one, being around those two so much." She grinned at the older woman standing next to the bed. "Guess I turned out the way I did because of you." Lex watched as a deep blush covered Marthaís face. "Iím probably the only hell you ever raised, huh?"

"You were a handful at times, thatís for sure," Martha reminisced. "But you were basically a good child, even when your wild streak showed through."

Amanda patted the bed on the other side of her. "Why donít you sit down with us for a while, and tell me some stories?" She grinned at Lex, who looked nervous. "Aw, címon. You couldnít have been that bad, could you?"

"UmmÖIíve got some things I need to check on," Lex stammered, wanting to get out of the room before Martha started her tales. "You ladies go ahead and chat for a bit." She leaned down and kissed Amanda lightly on the lips. "Iíll be back in a little while." The tall woman jumped up from the bed and practically raced from the room.

"Chicken," Amanda yelled after her. She turned to Martha and they both burst into laughter.

***************

Rawson stood in the middle of the guestroom and looked around. This used to be Lexingtonís room. At least, part of it was. Sure made a lot of changes around here. He had first gone into the master bedroom by mistake, and seeing the dresser and bed missing from the room had worried him. Then he remembered the young woman downstairs in the cast, and realized that his daughter had temporarily moved the bedroom downstairs. She seems like a nice enough kid, although I donít know what she sees in my daughter.

He walked over to the window and looked outside. "The land hasnít changed much," he murmured.

"Thatís about the only thing that hasnít," a voice called from the doorway. Rawson turned around and saw his daughter standing at the door, her arms crossed over her chest. "I see you found the guest room okay."

"I did. You sure changed up the place since Iíve been gone." He motioned to the sitting area. "Want to try again?" He walked over and sat down in one of the chairs, waiting to see if the young woman would take him up on his offer.

Lex sighed, but stepped purposely into the room and sat across from her father. "Okay. So talk." She leaned back in her chair and crossed her legs, trying to appear nonchalant.

He studied her for a long moment. "Youíve put on some weight," he commented. "Gotten taller, too."

"I grew up."

"Yeah, I guess you did at that." Rawson tried to find in her face the young girl that he had left so many years before. She doesnít even really look like Victoria, anymore. Well, she does, but itís not as noticeable. The woman sitting before him was stronger, more tan, and carried a quiet dignity that had been missing from the teenager he remembered. "You look good, Lexington." Except for the bruise on her jaw that I gave her. I never could control my temper. Iím so sorry, girl.

Having never heard a compliment come from her father, his comment startled her. "Umm, thanks. Marthaís taken really good care of me." She uncrossed her legs and leaned forward. "I donít want to hear another nasty remark about her, do you understand? Sheís the only family I ever really had."

The rodeo rider nodded. "I guess I deserved that, didnít I?" He looked down at the floor and sighed. "I know I wasnít much of a daddy to you, girl, and for that Iím truly sorry."

"Why?" Lexís voice cracked on the single word. "Was I such a terrible person? What made you decide that I wasnít worth loving?" The question had been on her mind for as long as she could remember. Hoping sheíd finally get an answer, Lex waited until his tired hazel eyes raised and met her gaze.

"IÖ" Rawson began to speak, but choked on the emotion in his throat. "I always loved you," he rasped. "I know I never did show it much, and I never could bring myself to say it. But I have always loved you, Lexington." He silently cursed the tears that threatened to spill from his eyes. "I didnít know anything about raising a little girl. And then, when you got older, you reminded me so much of your mother, it nearly killed me."

The young woman bit her lip to keep from crying. "Do you know how long I waited to hear that from you, Dad?" She stood up and crossed the room to the window, looking out at the bleak winter landscape. "I spent most of my life trying to be good enough for you. I thought that if I was smarter, or stronger, or the best at everything I did, that youíd love me." She sniffled, but refused to turn back around. "Nothing I did ever pleased you. And when I needed you the most, you left me."

Rawsonís heart broke at the pain he had caused his daughter. He could see by her stiff posture that she was trying to control her emotions. "I donít know what to say."

"I went through my life thinking that I had no family. My grandmother died thinking that I hated her!" Lex spun around and pointed an accusing finger at the silent man. "How could you do that to me? How could you lie to a little girl, telling her that her family was dead? You bastard!" She started to leave the room, but Rawson jumped up and grabbed her arm.

"Listen to me!" He spun her around, fearful of the look in his daughterís eyes. Rawson quickly released the hold he had on Lexís arm. "Please."

Looking as if she wanted to hit him, Lex nodded. "All right. Go ahead." She retreated back to her chair and sat down, looking at the floor.

Scrubbing a shaky hand down his face, Rawson walked over to his chair and sat down. "I was afraid," he admitted quietly. "Afraid that if you knew Victoriaís parents, youíd want to live with them."

"What did it matter? You didnít want me around anyway," Lex argued. "At least thatís how it felt to me." She watched in surprise as a tear fell from her fatherís eye, and he wiped it away angrily.

"You were the only link I had to Victoria, Lexington. You were a miniature version of her, with my mouth and attitude. As much as it pained me to see you, I couldnít bear the thought of losing you." He looked into her eyes. "Iím sorry, girl. I never meant to hurt you."

Lex felt her anger dissipate. Sitting in front of her was an old man that she really never knew. "I believe you. I donít know if I can ever forgive you, but I believe you." She stood up and walked to the door. "Iím not the little girl who would do anything for her fatherís acceptance, any more, Dad. Iíve finally found someone who has shown me what love is all about." Lex started to close the door behind her and stopped. "Youíre welcome to stay as long as you want." And with that the door closed quietly.

Rawson watched his daughter leave. I think I blew it, Tory. He cradled his face in his hands and wept for his loss.

Chapter 20

"Iím sorry, Liz. This woman leads a charmed life, and she has too many friends with the local law enforcement." He pulled out a fat envelope from his coat pocket and handed it to the fuming woman. "Itís all there, but you can count it if you want."

Elizabeth took the offering. "Donít I mean anything to you? You promised to help me!" She allowed the fake tears to spill from her eyes. "I must have my daughter back with me."

The handsome man ran a gentle fingertip down her cheek. "Címon, babe. We both know that it was just sex. Good sex, but only sex." He smiled. "You are a little hellcat in bed, thatís for sure."

"Well, Iíve had better," she retorted. "My pool boy showed more enthusiasm."

He laughed. "Iíll bet. But how many years ago was that?" He caught her hand before she could slap him. "Tsk, tsk. That temperís gonna get you into trouble, sweetheart."

"You bastard."

"How did you know?" the man joked. "Anyway, Iíve got to run. Thereís a plane to Europe that Iíve got to catch, and Iíve got a bit of a drive ahead of me." He walked over to the door and opened it. "Give it up, Liz. Your daughter is happy, and youíve got more money than youíll ever know what to do with. Go buy yourself a boy toy and have a good time." His laughter followed him down the hallway.

She slammed the hotel room door closed. "Coward!" she yelled.

"How am I supposed to get my baby back, with that woman still around?" Elizabeth ranted, throwing her glass of wine against the wall. "I suppose Iíll have to take matters into my own hands," she murmured. Smiling at the red stain as it dripped to the floor, she laughed. "Of course! I donít know why I didnít think about that before! Itís just so simple!"

Elizabeth tapped a blood-red nail against her front teeth as she worked out the details in her mind. "YesÖthat will work beautifully." She grabbed her purse and left the room.

***************

Rawson had been at the ranch for three days before he admitted the reason for his visit. Everyone was sitting at the kitchen table, trying to get up enough energy to leave the table after a huge lunch. Martha stood at the sink washing dishes, listening with half an ear to the conversation behind her. Amanda had complained about not being able to help, so Lex stood up and began to bring dirty dishes from the table to the sink.

"You never did say what brings you back this way," Travis probed. He and Rawson had come to an uneasy truce the day before, and he was curious as to why his son-in-law had returned after so many years.

Lex stopped clearing the table and stood nearby. "Iím a bit curious, myself," she muttered. She shook her dark head, then continued to carry dishes to the sink. "Probably after money, as usual," she grumbled to Martha, who swatted her on the rear.

"Hush up! You show respect, young lady, or Iíll take a spoon to you!" The housekeeper looked over her shoulder to make certain no one at the table was listening. She reached up and gently grasped the younger womanís chin, forcing the blue eyes to look into her own. "Lexie, I know youíre carrying around a load of hurt, but you need to let it go. Try to enjoy the fact that your daddy is back, and leave the past where it belongs."

"Iíll try, Mada," Lex promised," but thatís a lot to ask of me."

Martha caressed the tall womanís cheek. "I know, baby. But youíve got a really good life now. Donít let the bitterness ruin that."

Lex nodded. "I wonít. I can promise you that."

"Good girl. Now get back over there and keep Amanda company. I think sheís chompiní at the bit to be up, herself."

"Yes, maíam." Lex kissed the older woman on the forehead and stepped away from the sink. She resumed her place at the table and draped her arm across the back of Amandaís chair.

Rawson looked at the expectant faces around him and sighed. "I reckon you all deserve to know why Iím here," he sighed. He locked eyes with his daughter. "I hate to admit it, but money was part of the reason."

Lex quirked one eyebrow. "Part of the reason? Thereís more?" She flinched as Amanda poked her in the ribs.

"Iím sure what Lex meant to say, was that sheís glad youíre back, no matter what the reason." Amanda turned her head and glared at her lover. "Right, honey?"

"No, she didnít; I think she said what she meant to. But thanks for trying, Amanda," Rawson interrupted. "Yes, Iím low on money, again," he admitted. "But I also realized about a month ago just how much time had passed since Iíd seen my kids, and I missed them."

His daughter laughed humorlessly. "Gee, it only took you, what, eleven years to figure that out?" Lex stood up. "Give me a break! After all this time, and you just now missed us?"

Amanda grabbed her arm. "Sit down, please?" She waited until her partner was seated, then tried to keep the conversation going. "Have you seen Hubert yet?"

The older man shook his head. "No. I didnít know exactly where heíd be, but I knew that Lexington would still be here at the ranch."

"You made sure of that, didnít you?" Lex accused. "Placed the responsibility for it, and everyone involved here solely on my shoulders."

"I knew you could handle it, girl. Never any doubt in my mind." He sat back in his chair.

Lex clenched her fists under the table to keep her control. "You never even asked if that was what I wanted, Dad." She calmed somewhat when she felt Amandaís hand grasp her leg and squeeze gently.

He waved his hand in the air. "You didnít know what you wanted, Lexington. I spared you the trouble of trying to figure it out for yourself. Youíd have come back, eventually. Ranching is in your blood."

"Maybe. But it would have been nice to be given a choice. Not just waking up on my birthday to find you gone, and the papers to the ranch on the table." She glared at her father. "And the fight with Hubert afterwards almost put me in the hospital."

Travis had sat quietly through the whole exchange. "He hurt you?"

"Yeah. He said that I tricked Dad into signing the papers, and proceeded to beat the crap out of me. Martha heard the noise and came running, and whacked him with a cookbook until he ran." Lex smiled at the memory of the large man being chased from the house with the fiery housekeeper screaming after him.

Martha blushed. "I couldnít find my broom," she admitted. "I thought he was going to kill poor Lexie before I could get him off of her." She shivered at the thought. Lex had been lying in the kitchen floor with blood everywhere. Hubert was straddling her waist and slamming her head repeatedly against the floor.

"It wasnít quite that bad," Lex told the shocked room. "His high school ring had cut the side of my face, and my nose was bleeding. Looked a lot worse than it was." She smiled. "But he lost three teeth, and I think I broke his nose and a couple of his ribs."

Rawson shook his head. "Iím sorry that happened, Lexington. But it made you stronger, didnít it?"

"Thatís the biggest load of bullshit Iíve ever heard!" Travis bellowed, unable to keep his temper in check. "Is that how you justify leaving a young girl in charge while you went off to play?"

"Like youíre any better than me, old man?" Rawson challenged, standing up and leaning on his hands at the table. "You spent most of Victoriaís childhood in a boardroom or visiting oil fields!"

Travis laughed. "I was never gone for months at a time, Rawson. And I certainly didnít leave my wife a few weeks after my child was born!"

"You must not have had meddling in-laws, like me," the younger man countered loudly. "I couldnít get away fast enough."

A loud whack caused both men to stare at Lex, who had slammed her hands down on the table. "Thatís enough!" Her voice shook with suppressed anger. "I will not have our house turned into a battleground." She stood up and pointed an angry finger at her father. "Donít you dare raise your voice at my grandfather. Iíll write you a check, and you can cash it in town."

"How dare you!" Rawson yelled at the fuming woman. "Donít you take that tone with me, girl!"

"Iíll take whatever tone I want with you, Rawson," Lex growled. "Itís my house, and my rules."

He walked around the table until he was face to face with his daughter. "I gave you this damned house! And this is how you repay me?"

Lex stepped back, afraid that she was about to take out her anger on her father. "I never asked for it!"

"What the hell was I supposed to do? What could I have given you?" Rawson yelled, reaching up and grasping her shoulders.

"Your love," Lex whispered hoarsely. Tears fell freely from her eyes. "Thatís all I ever wanted from you." She turned around and left the room.

Rawson watched the young woman leave. "I think Iíd better leave."

"No, not yet." Amanda caught his arm and held it. "Let me go talk to her, okay?" She had been sitting at the table in her wheelchair, and spun the vehicle around and wheeled herself from the room.

***************

Amanda stopped in the doorway of the sitting room and looked inside. Thank goodness! I donít know what I would have done if sheíd gone upstairs. Her lover was standing near the piano, studying the pictures on the wall. "Mind if I come in?" she asked quietly.

"No," Lex mumbled without turning around. "Itís your house, too."

"Thanks." Amanda maneuvered the wheelchair into the neat little room. "Are you okay?"

Lex released a heavy breath and turned around. "Yeah." She sat down on the piano bench so that theyíd be more at eye level. "You didnít have to chase after me, you know."

The blonde smiled. "I know. But I was worried about you." Amanda wheeled closer and touched the older womanís arm. "Your father is talking about leaving."

"Figures."

"Lex, listen to me." Amanda waited until she had her partnerís attention. "I think thereís something else wrong."

"Like what?" Lex asked, trying to keep from sounding too interested. Do I even care?

Amanda looked at the pictures behind Lex. "Didnít you notice?" She pointed to the wedding picture of Rawson and Victoria. "Look how strong and tan he is in that picture. The man sitting in our kitchen is pale and thin."

The older woman wasnít convinced. "So? Rodeoing is a hard life, sweetheart. You donít always know where your next meal is coming from." Lex had thought that her father looked a lot more frail, too, but was afraid to think about what could be causing his new look. "And I havenít seen the man in over ten years Ė people change."

"Maybe. But you said yourself that itís been a long time since heís been home. Why now? If he wanted money that badly, he could have just called, or written. Isnít that what heís always done in the past?"

"Yeah," Lex admitted grudgingly, "butÖ"

"Do me a favor?" Amanda asked.

Lex looked at her lover cautiously. "What?"

"Just talk to him? Calmly. Maybe try to find out more about why heís here." Amanda squeezed the arm beneath her hand. "Please?"

"Why should I? What good will it do?" the older woman asked.

Amanda sighed. "What would have happened if I hadnít given my father a second chance? I would have lost the relationship I have with him now."

The rancher shook her head. "Completely different circumstances, Amanda. At least you knew that your father loved you."

"And yours loves you! Heís just not real sure how to express that love."

Knowing that sheíd lost, Lex blew the hair away from her forehead in disgust. "I donít think so." When she saw the younger woman open her mouth to reinforce her argument, she raised a hand in surrender. "Okay, Iíll talk to him. But Iím not going to guarantee anything, all right?"

"Okay." Amanda smiled as Lex stood up. "Thank you."

"Yeah, yeah. Donít thank me just yet." The tall woman stood in the doorway. "Do you need any help?"

Amanda shook her head. "No. I think Iíll just sit here for a while, if thatís okay with you."

Lex quickly crossed the room and kissed the blonde soundly on the mouth. "I love you."

"I love you, too. Now go talk with your father." Amanda patted Lex on the rear and watched her leave the room. GodÖI hope I didnít just make a huge mistake.

***************

Lex stopped in the kitchen doorway, seeing that Travis and Martha were alone in the cozy room. "UmmÖdo you know where he went?" she asked.

"Heís gone down to the barn, honey," Martha directed. "Told us he needed some fresh air. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah, Iím okay. Just want to talk to him for a minute." Lex waved at the pair and grabbed her coat by the back door. Hope he had enough sense to put on a coat. Crazy old fool. She shoved her hat down onto her head and hurried from the house.

Her boots covered the well-traveled path to the barn, and in moments she was standing in front of the huge wooden door. Well, here goes nothing. Lex opened the heavy door and closed it behind her, standing inside the doorway until her eyes could adjust to the dim light. She saw her father leaning up against one of the stalls, and mentally steeled herself for the ensuing conversation.

Rawson looked up at his daughter as she stepped up next to him. "Nice bit of horseflesh youíve got here," he commented, nodding towards the stall.

"Thanks. I raised Thunder from a colt and saddle broke him myself." Lex reached over the railing and scratched the dark horseís nose. "Hey, big guy," she murmured to the animal.

"Really? Thatís pretty impressive, Lexington." He turned around to face her directly. "But, even as a little tyke, you could do just about anything you put your mind to." Rawson grimaced suddenly and bent slightly at the waist.

Lex reached over to help him, but pulled her hand away as he straightened up. "Are you okay?"

He nodded. "Yeah. Old rodeo injury Ėthe cold brings it out." The older man made a show of looking around the barn. "Youíve really done a lot to the old place, girl. Did you spend all of your inheritance?" Rawsonís voice was matter-of-fact, without a touch of rancor.

"No, not really. Iíve made some pretty sound investments over the years. Not to mention the money Iíve made by training and selling horses." Now that she was attuned to it, Lex noticed her fatherís appearance. He looks as if heís aged twenty years. Maybe Amanda was right. "Iím going to the back pastures in a bit to drop some hay Ė would you like to come along?"

The look of surprise on Rawsonís face was priceless. "UmmÖsure. You need the help?"

The young woman smiled. "Nah. Not really. But Iíd enjoy the company." She patted him on the back. "Címon. Letís go find you something a bit warmer to wear than that old denim jacket."

They walked back up to the house in companionable silence. Lex left her father in the hallway while she raced up the stairs to rummage for a heavier coat.

Rawson saw Amanda sitting at the kitchen table with Martha, and he walked over and squatted down beside her wheelchair. "I donít know what you said to my girl, but I wanted to thank you."

"I really didnít say that much," the blonde admitted, "but youíre more than welcome." She took his hand in hers and looked directly into the older manís eyes. Her voice was low and steely. "Lex is a very sensitive woman, Mr. Walters. I will do anything it takes to protect her, donít you forget that."

He nodded. Nothing but respect shone in his eyes. "I wonít. I think Iíve hurt her enough for several lifetimes, donít you?"

Amanda smiled. "I think a lot of things have hurt her. But Iíll do everything in my power to make sure nothing else ever does."

Lex burst into the room, her face flushed and a heavy coat in one hand. "I think this is one of your old ones, Dad."

"It just might be. Does look a bit familiar, at that." He stood up and placed a hand on Amandaís shoulder, squeezing it gently. "See you when we get back, young lady. You try and get some rest."

"I will," Amanda squeezed his hand with hers and looked over at Lex. "You two have fun." She smiled as her lover winked and pulled her black hat down on her head before she left the room.

Martha watched the pair leave, shaking her head. "I never would have believed it," she murmured. "Those two going out together, after all these years." She smiled at the blonde across the table. "Reminds me of when Lexie was about ten or so. She used to follow him around closer than a shadow, never missing a step. Youíve done real good, honey."

"I really didnít do that much, Martha. I just asked Lex to give him a chance." Amanda lowered her voice. "Does he look all right to you? I know I donít know the man, butÖ"

"I think heís tired of the rodeo life, thatís for sure. He looks so worn down." Martha took a sip of her coffee while she gathered her thoughts. "I think heís come home to stay, if Lexie will allow it. The roadís no place for a man his age, especially as hard a life as heís had."

Amanda nodded her agreement. "Iím hoping that sheíll see it that way, Martha. Iíd hate for Lex to lose out on knowing her father again. Itís just that she can be so darned bullheaded!"

The housekeeper laughed. "I know. And believe me, youíve done more to temper that girlís attitude than anything else ever could. Iíll always be thankful to you for that, dear."

"Itís a labor of love," the younger woman admitted. "Sheís given me quite a bit, too."

***************

She walked into the hardware store and grabbed the first clerk she could find. "Excuse me, I need some assistance."

The young woman looked at the customer quizzically. You could say that again. That look in her eyes gives me the creeps. "Yes, maíam. What can I do for you?"

After being directed to the proper location in the store, Elizabeth looked at the items on the shelves. "How am I supposed to carry all of these?" She saw an older man pushing a shopping cart and smiled. "Ah, perfect!" When he turned away, she quickly tossed his items from the cart and began to fill it with what she needed.

The man turned around and saw his box of nails and heavy twine sitting on the floor, his cart nowhere in sight. Shaking his head, he picked the items up and continued on his way. "Crazy people these days Ė stealing baskets right out from under a manís nose."

"Are you sure you donít need anything else, maíam? I could always help you carry that out to your car, if youíd like." The young man set the last item in her shopping cart and smiled at the well-dressed woman. "Thatís quite a few cans."

Elizabeth waved him off. "Well, Iím going off to my cabin for a few weeks, and I like to be prepared," she lied easily. "Why else would I want this much?" She pushed the cart out into the parking lot and opened the trunk of her rental car. It took her several minutes, but she was finally able to situate all of the gasoline containers in the trunk for easy filling. "Iíll take care of that woman, once and for all," she muttered.

She drove around the small town for almost half an hour, searching for a gasoline pump that wasnít full service. "Good God! Have these people lost their minds? Not one decent convenience store in sight!" She finally came upon a dingy grocery that also served gasoline. As she got out of the rental car, a freckled-faced young man raced outside to greet her.

"Good afternoon! Would you like some help with that?" He zipped up a lightweight jacket as he stepped closer.

"NO! Donít you backwater bumpkins understand the concept of self-serve? Do I have to draw you idiots a goddamned picture?" she practically yelled, her eyes wide.

The boy stopped several feet away, his face suddenly pale. "UmmÖgosh. No, maíam." He began to back away from her, fear surfacing in his brown eyes. "IíllÖahhÖleave you to it, then." The young man spun around and ran back into the store.

"I should say so!" Elizabeth giggled. "Pathetic morons. Act as if theyíve never seen a lady want to fill her own tanks," she laughed. "That reminds me, I need to buy myself a bottle of champagne to celebrate Ė it wonít be long now until I get my daughter back!"

***************

Lex stole a glance at the man seated next to her in the old truck. He was quietly looking out his window at the passing scenery, a small smile on his face. She had offered to let him drive, but Rawson refused, saying that he hadnít been behind the wheel of a vehicle for almost ten years. So Lex had stubbornly buried her fear of driving and climbed behind the wheel. Now she was glad that she had. "It hasnít changed that much, has it?" she asked.

He turned and smiled. "No, not really. Itís amazing how quickly I remember this old road." Rawson gasped as they hit a deep rut. "I think it still has the same potholes."

"Probably," Lex agreed with a grin. "Weíre going back to the back pasture, which I added a couple of years ago. Itís got the best grazing for the horses, and I switch it out with the east pasture every other year." She pulled up to a wide gate and stopped the truck. "Let me justÖ"

Rawson opened his door. "Let me get that for you, Lexington. Itís the least I can do." He jumped out of the truck before she could stop him.

She watched as her father worked the clasp on the gate and swung it open, a triumphant smile on his face. Would it really be so bad to have him at home? I know he never approved of my lifestyle, but he seems to get along with Amanda all right. Maybe heís mellowed, like I have.

"Whew! That thing was heavier than it looked!" he exclaimed as he climbed back into the truck.

"YeahÖthe horses kept pushing the last one down, so I had this one built out of steel."

The older man grinned. "I bet it worked, huh?"

Lex nodded. "Pretty much. UmmÖcan I ask you a question, Dad?"

"Sure. Donít know what kind of answer youíll get, though." Rawson turned and watched a slight smile cross his daughterís face.

We are a lot alike, thatís for sure. Lex parked the truck so that she could give him her undivided attention. "Would you like to stick around here for a while? Maybe get to know one another again?"

He blanched. "No!" Seeing the hurt cross her face, he realized that she deserved an honest answer. "What would you want with an old rodeo man, girl? Youíve gotten along just fine all these years without me."

"Iíve acted like a spoiled child these past few days, Dad. Iíd like to try and make it up to you, if youíll let me." Lex reached across the seat and took his hand in hers. "Please? You know Iíve never asked much from you, but give me this, will you?"

"You donít want me, Lexington. You want who you remember." Dammit, girl! Donít let me do this to you! I donít want to let you down, again.

Lex shook her head. "No, I donít. I remember a man who was gone more that he was home, someone who I could never do enough to please," she corrected, somewhat bitterly. "But Iím a grown woman now, and Iíd like a chance to know who you are now, not try to find the man who deserted us as kids."

Rawson cleared his throat. "You donít sugarcoat things, do you?"

"Nope. Guess I learned that from my old man," she replied quietly. "Stay, at least for a little while. If you get tired of us, you can leave."

"I wonít be staying too long, anyway," he mumbled.

***************

Amanda heard the back door slam and bootsteps thump their way down the hall. She smiled and straightened the quilt that was lying across her lap. Martha had helped her into the bed earlier, so that she could prop her leg up and get a little bit of rest. Lex stepped into the room, her black hat still low over her eyes. "Hi, honey. Did you have a nice visit with your father?"

"Yeah, I guess." Lexís voice was hoarse. She stood next to the doorway as if she were unsure of what to do.

"Why donít you come over here and tell me all about it," Amanda offered, patting the space next to her. "Marthaís gone back to her place for a while, and your grandfather went upstairs for a nap.

Lex sniffled and sat down on the bed. A moment later, she stood back up and paced over to the windows, looking out over the barren landscape. "Heís going to stay, for a while," she related quietly, "but he wants to stay down at the bunkhouse, with the men."

"Well, thatís better than nothing, isnít it? Did he say how long heíll stay?" Noticing the stiff set of her loverís shoulders, Amanda wished more than ever that she were able to stand up and walk over to where Lex was.

"Probably only a few weeks." Lexís voice caught on the last word.

Seeing the upset in Lexís posture, Amanda tried to maneuver herself back into her chair, causing the vehicle to turn over. "Blast it!"

Lex spun around. "Hey!" She rushed over to the bed and sat down. "Calm down, sweetheart." She wiped away a stray tear from the younger womanís face.

"Iím sorryÖitís just so aggravating right now," Amanda sighed. She looked up into the rancherís face, seeing the red, puffy eyes and dried tears on her cheeks. "Whatís wrong? Did something happen? You said he was only going to stay a few weeksÖDid he give you a reason for leaving so soon?" Her heart broke at the anguish in her loverís eyes. "What?"

"Heís dying, Amanda. He wanted to see us one more time before he died. He was just going to say hello, and then leave without telling me."

Amanda cupped the older womanís face in her hands. "Oh, babyÖIím so sorry."


Chapter 21

The eveningís dinner had been a subdued affair. Although Lex hadnít told anyone else of her fatherís illness, the family seemed to have sensed that something was wrong and acted quite somber. Travis was actually civil to his son-in-law, and Charlie and Martha sat next to each other silently as well. Amanda had finally livened up the group by telling Rawson the story of Jannaís bull, and how Lex had a new admirer of the bovine persuasion.

The rodeo rider had looked at his daughter with pride, although he shook his head at her questionable bravery. "I donít know if I would have been quite that calm, Lexington. Iíve seen what those beasts can do to a body." He reached for his glass of water and chuckled. "I reckon Iíd be coming back to the house and cleaning out my britches, at the very least."

Lex laughed. "I was anything but calm, Dad. I just didnít know what else to do." She winked at her lover. "When Amanda came charging out of that jeep waving a shovel, I didnít know whether to be proud of her, or scared to death for her."

Rawson studied the blonde with a thoughtful eye. "Just what did you think you were gonna do?" he asked her.

"Ah, wellÖI donít really know. I wasnít thinking," Amanda admitted. "I only knew that I couldnít just stand by and let him hurt Lex." Trying to change the subject, she looked over at Martha and Charlie. "What do you two have your heads together about? Should we be worried?"

The sheriff chuckled and shook his head. "We had come to a decision, and were trying to figure out the best well to tell everyone." He nodded at his fiancee. "Do you want to do the honors, honey?"

"I might as well, since youíve teased everyone about it," the housekeeper replied. She met the gazes from around the table. "As you all know, the date for the wedding is coming up next week. But, with all the excitement weíve had lately," she smiled lovingly at Lex, then Amanda, "Charlie and I have decided to postpone the whole affair for a while."

"What?" Lexís head snapped around and she pinned Martha with a distressed look. "For how long?"

Martha shrugged her shoulders. "Long enough, I suppose. Itís not that big of a deal."

Rawson frowned. "Wedding?" He had thought the housekeeper incapable of those kinds of feelings, since she had outright refused his pitiful attempts at romancing her years before.

Victoria had been gone for over a year, and the rancher saw how capable the young housekeeper was with his children. He had come in from the barns late one evening, and was pleasantly surprised that she had kept a plate warm for him.

"Youíd best clean up and have some dinner, Mr. Walters. The children are already tucked in nicely, and itís getting late." She gently pushed him to the kitchen sink and draped a small towel over his shoulder.

He looked over his shoulder at the housekeeper. "Uh, thanks, Martha. I reckon I am a bit hungry at that." Rawson quickly washed up and sat down at the table. "Have you already eaten?"

The young woman shook her head. "Not yet. Thought you might like a bit of company. Donít know of many people who like to eat alone." She stopped before she sat down with him. "Unless youíd rather IÖ?"

"No, no. Sit down." He smiled as she joined him. As she began to eat, Rawson studied her covertly. Sheís not bad to look at, and she sure can cook. I reckon sheís got her eye on me, but is afraid to say anything. Well, I could do worse. With his mouth partially full of food, he attempted conversation. "This is pretty good, Martha. What do you call it?"

She almost laughed. "Um, meatloaf. Iím glad that you like it." What is going on in that head of his?

Rawson nodded. "Yeah, I do." He stopped eating for a moment and looked across the table. "Are you happy here, Martha?"

The question caught her off guard. "Yes, of course I am. Is there something the matter?" She was worried that maybe he was going to replace her. "Donít you like the job Iíve been doing?"

"Oh, well, ummÖyeah. Youíre doing a fine job. I was just worried about you being so far away from town. You must get mighty tired of being out here away from everyone." This wasnít going at all like he thought it should. "Not much chance of you meeting someone to settle down with."

Where on earth did THAT come from? "Mr. Walters, Iím not in the market for a husband, if thatís what worries you. I really donít want that sort of complication in my life." Martha set her fork down and looked him in the eyes. "What exactly are you getting at?"

The rancher had the decency to blush. "UmmÖwellÖI just thought that maybe you were lonely, thatís all." He dropped his gaze to the half-eaten food on his plate. "Youíve just been so nice to me lately, I figured that you and me, wellÖmaybe we couldÖ"

"You and me?" Suddenly, It all made sense. "As much as you honor me thinking like that, Mr. Walters, Iím afraid I donít have those sorts of feelings for you," Martha explained gently.

"We get along okay. The kids seem to like you, and lord knows I donít think the house would survive without you here." He couldnít see what the problem was. He was in good health, and she did seem to love his kids.

Martha shook her head. "But thereís no love, Mr. Walters. And, if I ever do decide to get married, I would have to be in love. Donít you see that?"

He looked up into her brown eyes and shrugged. "Yeah, I guess. Just thought Iíd offer." Rawson dismissed the conversation with a shrug as he turned his attention back to the plate in front of him. Oh, well. Canít say I didnít try. He refused to bring up the subject again. As the years passed and he saw his two younger children treat the housekeeper more like a mother, the conversation came back to haunt him. In his eyes, he wasnít good enough for her, but his kids were.

"Thatís right, I forgot to tell you. Martha finally said yes to Charlieís proposal." Lex smiled broadly at the couple across the table.

"Proposal?" Rawson was still awestruck at the news. "How long has this been going on?" he asked the sheriff. Right under my own nose, maybe? Thatís why I wasnít good enough for her; sheíd rather have a professional man. Women. Never did understand them.

Charlie blushed. "For as long as I can remember, to tell you the truth." He smiled at his fiancee and shook his head. "Iíve been after her for years, but she didnít want to leave the ranch."

Lex laughed. "More like she thought I needed a babysitter," she joked.

"And whatís so funny about that, young lady?" Martha countered. "Do I need to remind you of some of the trouble youíve been in?"

Rawson turned to look at his daughter. "Trouble?" For some reason he couldnít seem to form any coherent sentences.

"Itís not as bad as she says," Lex assured him.

Amanda laughed. "No, itís probably worse!" She grinned at Martha. "Wanna tell us some stories?"

The housekeeper chuckled. "Sounds like a good idea," she agreed, ignoring the outraged look she received from Lex.

**************

After dinner, Rawson reminded Lex that he would feel more comfortable staying at the bunkhouse, so he packed up his meager belongings and was about to leave when she came upstairs and tried to stop him.

"Címon, Dad. If you wonít stay here at the house, at least let me give you a ride up there. Itís cold, and the sunís already gone down for the evening."

He shook his head. "Iím perfectly capable of walking, girl. I got this far, didnít I?" Rawson snapped. Seeing the hurt expression on her face, he softened his tone. "Iím not dead yet, Lexington. Thereís no need to pamper me."

Lex swallowed the lump in her throat. "I realize that, you ornery old man. But Iíd really feel better if youíd let me do this one little thing for you." She reached for the pack that he had placed on the guest bed. "I like to show up down there at odd times, anyway. Keeps Ďem on their toes."

"All right," he sighed. "But I donít want them knowing about me being sick, you got that?" Rawson pulled on his heavy coat and allowed Lex to carry his bag from the room. "The last thing I want from anybody is sympathy."

"No problem. You might want to let Lester know, at least. Heís damned good at keeping secrets." Lex wasnít about to tell her father of the old manís friendship with Travis. No sense in upsetting him any further. They had walked down the stairs in silence, and she stopped momentarily at the den door. "Let me just tell Amanda where Iím going."

Rawson shook his head. "Youíve got it pretty bad, donít you?" he teased. Seeing her blue eyes flash with anger, he raised one hand. "Hold on there, girl. I didnít mean anything by it." He smiled. "I think Iíll go on outside and wait in the Jeep."

Lex smiled back and nodded. "Okay." She tossed him a set of keys. "Go ahead and get it started, if you donít mind. The heater works pretty well." Watching as her father left the house, she then took a deep breath and shook her head as she stepped into the den. "Stubborn old man."

"Hi, honey!" Amanda greeted from the bed. She hated lying down so much, but her leg was beginning to ache and the pain medication always made her fall asleep. "Did I hear your father?"

"Yep. Heís bound and determined to stay at the bunkhouse with the men," Lex sighed as she walked over to the bed and sat down. "So I talked him into letting me drive him up there."

Amanda chuckled. "I bet that went well," she teased. "Heís almost as stubborn as a certain rancher I know."

Lex picked up her loverís hand and brought it to her lips, placing a soft kiss on the knuckles. "Oh, really? Do I know this person?"

"Uh-huh." Amanda nodded, and began to squirm slightly when she felt Lex nibble on her fingers. "OoohÖGod, Lex! Youíd better stop that, before IÖ"

"Before you what?" the dark-haired woman asked ingenuously, turning the hand over and kissing the inside of Amandaís wrist.

The younger woman sighed. "Hmm?" Amanda shook her head and pulled her hand away. "Be good."

One dark eyebrow quirked. "I thought I was," Lex murmured. She grinned and stood up. "But, Iíve got to get going, before Dad takes off walking." She looked at her partner, who had reclined comfortably against the headboard. "Is there anything I can get you before I leave?"

Amanda shook her head. "Nope. Iíve got the phone right here. Martha, Charlie, and your grandfather have gone to her house Ė I think Grandpa Travis is trying to make them set a new wedding date."

"I donít think I like leaving you here all alone." Lex ran one hand through her hair as she thought for a moment. "I know!" She quickly walked into the adjacent office, coming back out with two items in her hands. She handed Amanda one of the handheld radios. "Keep this by the bed."

"Thatís really not necessary, honey," Amanda objected, but accepted the offering anyway. "Youíre not going to be gone that long."

Lex shook her head. "Humor me, will you? Iíd feel a lot better if I could keep in contact with you."

"Oh, all right. Iíd really like to keep tabs on you, too," the blonde admitted. "No telling what kind of trouble you can get into."

"Brat." Lex leaned over and gave Amanda a long kiss. "Keep the bed warm for me, okay? Iíll be back in a flash."

***************

Bright eyes glittering with insanity watched from the nearby trees as the Jeep left the ranch house, and a tiny giggle escaped from the figure dressed in solid black. "Perfect! Looks like everyone has gone for the night." She had seen Amandaís Mustang parked at the Caubleís house in town, so she assumed that her daughter was spending the night at her grandparents. She had no way of knowing that Anna Leigh had driven the car back a few days before, so that they could store it in their garage while Amanda recuperated.

Walking stealthily back through the trees, Elizabeth went back to pick up her car. She had parked it in a clearing nearby to keep it from being seen from the road. Iíll take away that bitchís house, so Amanda will HAVE to come home with me! She stopped momentarily when the black knit hat she was wearing became hung up on a low branch. "Dammit!" she squawked, as she wrestled with the tree, "Let go of me!" Finally breaking free, the angry woman dusted off her dark clothes and continued to the clearing. Maybe Iíll burn the trees, too! That would teach them!

Elizabeth continued to ramble to herself as she climbed into her rental car. Once thereís no pretty house to live in, Amanda will want to come home. I just wish thatÖwomanÖwould be inside when it burns. Unnatural bitch Ė seducing my poor innocent little Amanda like that.

She drove down the dirt road slowly, trying to navigate without her headlights. Such a barbaric place, this is. No theater, no museums, and not one decent tea service to be found within a hundred miles! "How do they survive?" she asked the empty car. A heavy rut in the road nearly threw her into the steering wheel. And these roads Ė abominable! "It wonít be long, my dear. Iíll have you home in no time!"

***************

"Look, about what happened back there," Rawson started, unsure of why he was trying to apologize.

Lex waved him off. "Donít worry about it, Dad. Iím just a little sensitive where Amandaís concerned." She grimaced as the Jeep bounced roughly. "Iím sorry."

He sighed. "I know Iíve never quite figured you out, Lexington. Why you like women, I mean." The older man looked back through the side window, not wanting to see the hurt on his daughterís face. "I figured I must have done something wrong, raising you around all those men."

"No, it doesnít have anything to do with how I was raised, Dad." Lex rubbed at her tired eyes. "I was born gay. Just like you were born the way you are." Whoever thought that Iíd be having THIS conversation, now? GodÖI wish Amanda were here. Sheís so much better with this kind of thing. "I just donít want Amanda to be hurt by your attitude towards me, thatís all."

"Sheís got spunk, that one does," he chuckled. "Came right out and threatened me earlier today." Rawson looked back at his daughter. The dashboard lights highlighted Lexís strong profile, and the bruising around her eyes was slowly fading away. "Iíll say one thing for you, girl."

"Whatís that?"

"Youíve got damned fine taste in women," he admitted. "Youíd better take good care of her."

Lex smiled broadly. "I plan on it, Dad." She fought to keep the old Jeep on the road as they slid up to the bunkhouse in the mud. "Piece of cake," she bragged.

Rawson shook his head. "Crazy kid." He stepped out of the Jeep, then poked his head back inside. "Thanks for the ride, Lexington."

"You want me to come in with you for a minute?" she asked, reaching for her seatbelt.

"Nah. Iím a big boy. Think I can find a bunk without any help from a snot-nosed kid." His tone was light, and a large smile covered the older manís face. "Iíll be back up at the house sometime tomorrow, if thatís okay with you. Maybe help you with the stock again?"

She returned his smile. "That sounds great, Dad. Get there early, and you can have breakfast with us."

He nodded. "I just might do that, girl. Now get on back to the house and take care of that little lady." Rawson slammed the Jeep door before Lex could send back a retort.

"Ornery old man," she muttered, backing the Jeep up and turning it around.

***************

She parked the car behind the house to stay out of the dim light that shone from the side lamppost. It took a few minutes more, but she was able to back it in so that she could leave quickly. Excellent. Itís still nice and quiet around here. Elizabeth got out of the car and closed the door gently. This shouldnít take too long. Itís an old house. She walked to the back of the car and unlocked the trunk, pulling out one of the canisters filled with gasoline. "These are much heavier than they look," she muttered. Her nose wrinkled with disgust. "And good God, the smell!"

The small woman wrestled the gas container as she began to splash the contents against the sides of the house. I hope Amanda appreciates all the trouble Iím going through for her. Perhaps I should have paid someone to do this for me. She giggled. NoÖIím having too much fun.

She had two containers left by the time she made it to the front of the still-dark house. This rickety old porch will burn nicely. I canít wait to see the look on that pervertís face when she comes back to see her precious house in ashes. Elizabeth poured one out over the porch, the wooden railing, and the swing. Now, how am I going to light this, and keep myself clear? She giggled again and picked up the final canister. Iíll leave myself a nice little trail.

After she had poured a trail of gasoline from the house to the driveway, Elizabeth reached into her pockets for the book of matches she had brought from the hotel. "Where did I put those?" she asked herself quietly, patting down all of her pockets. "I know I brought them with me." Shaking her head in dismay, she quickly jogged back to the rental car. "Must have left them in here," she muttered, opening the door and looking on the seats. "Aha! There they are!" She picked up the errant matches and looked at them closely. "Shame on you, hiding from Mother that way. Weíve got work to do!"

As she closed the car door, headlights appeared at the driveway. "NO! Not when Iím so close!" she screamed, racing for the front of the house with the matches in hand.

Lex pulled into the driveway and parked the Jeep near the front. When she stepped out of the vehicle, she sniffed. "Gasoline? Donít tell me this thingís got a leak." She reached into the back seat and grabbed her flashlight, then opened up the hood and peered inside. "The smell is really strong," she mumbled, leaning down to check the hoses.

"You bitch!" Elizabeth screamed, racing to the Jeep and slamming the hood onto the unsuspecting womanís head. "Youíre going to mess up my plans! Canít you do anything right?" She slammed the hood again, happy when the tall woman collapsed against the vehicle. Lexís limp body fell to the ground, landing in the puddle of gasoline that Elizabeth had left behind.

Amandaís mother dusted her hands off and laughed. "That will show you whoís in charge around here!" She stopped laughing and suddenly looked around, panicked. "My matches! Where are my matches?" The crazy woman turned around and began to crawl around on the ground, searching for the small book in the dim light. "Where are you, my babies? Mother needs you," she whimpered, her hands patting the ground all around her.

Inside the house, Amanda woke from a fitful doze. "Lex?" she murmured, looking around the house. It was still dark and quiet, and she couldnít figure out what had caused her to wake up. What time is it? She looked over at the clock on the nightstand and frowned. She should be back by now. Worried, Amanda picked up the small radio and clicked the key on the side. "Lex, can you hear me?"

When she didnít receive an answer, she picked up the phone. "No, Iím not going to bother everyone at Marthaís, just because Lex is running a little late." Amanda yawned and dropped her head back down onto her pillow. Iíll give her a few more minutes, she decided.

"DamnÖwhat hit me?" Lex groaned, rolling slowly over onto her back. And why is there such a strong gasoline smell here? She blinked a few times to clear her head. The last thing I remember is checking under the hood.

Elizabeth tore her gloves from her hands and continued to search the ground by feel. The rocks and sticks were cutting into her delicate skin, but she was beyond caring. "Come to Mother, sweetheart," she cajoled, still trying to find the matches. A moan nearby reminded her of the rancherís presence. "Sheís going to ruin everything!" Her hands skidded around frantically on the frozen ground.

Lex sniffed her coat and frowned. The gasolineís on the ground? She reached her fingers into the nearby pool and pulled them back up to her nose. "What in the hell is going on here?" Her mind was still foggy from the blow she had taken to the back of her head. The manic mumbling of the woman close by caught her attention. Elizabeth Cauble? Whatís she doingÖ? Oh, shit! Lex struggled to climb to her feet, unsuccessfully. "Damn!" She collapsed back to her knees. "Have you lost your mind, woman?" she yelled, trying to get the other womanís attention.

Sheís awake? I thought that deviant would take a longer nap than that. Elizabethís hands finally landed upon the errant book of matches. "Yes!" She snatched them from the damp ground and wiped the residue on her dark slacks. Standing up, the crazed woman raised them so that Lex could see. "Stay back! Youíre not going to ruin my plans this time, you pervert!"

"Mrs. Cauble, please." Lex leaned against the Jeep and tried in vain to get her legs to support her. "You donít want to do this. Amandaís inside!"

"Do you really think Iíll believe that? Just how stupid do you think I am?" Elizabeth stepped closer to the house. "I saw her car in town Ė sheís staying at those whining idiot grandparents of hers."

The rancher shook her head. "No, Elizabeth. Sheís here, I swear it! They took her car so that it could be stored in a garage while her leg heals." Lex slowly pulled herself up on the Jeep. "Please, donít do this!"

Elizabeth laughed. "Youíll say anything to protect your precious house, wonít you?" She held the matches out in front of her. Not realizing she was standing in a puddle of the volatile liquid, the ranting woman struck a match and tossed it to the ground.

"NOO!!" Lex screamed, stumbling towards Amandaís mother.

"YES! Now my daughter will come back to me!" Elizabeth cackled. "Burn in hell, you deviant whore of Satan!" she yelled, as the flames rushed towards the petroleum doused home. The ground beneath her erupted into flames, and she screamed in fear as the heat began to lick at her clothing. "NOOOOO!" She began to dance around wildly, beating at her body in fear. "Help me!!"

Lex charged forward and slammed the smaller woman to the ground, rolling her clear of the fire. Her own coat quickly caught on fire, and she fought to rip it from her body.

"Get off of me, you pervert!" Elizabeth yelled, slapping at Lex and hampering her efforts to free herself from the burning coat.

"Stop it, dammit!" Lex finally yanked the smoldering jacket from her body. "Shut the hell up, you crazy old broad!" She punched the screaming woman full in the face. Leaning over the unconscious woman and breathing heavily, Lex turned her head towards the house. "Amanda!" she screamed. She jumped to her feet and stared for a moment at the front porch, which was completely engulfed in flames. "NO!"

Amanda tried to roll over in her sleep, which caused her to wake up again. "Ow! Iíve got to learn not to do that," she mumbled. A strange noise could be heard from outside the house. "Whatís going on?"

The sound of the side window breaking caused her to scream. She could now see a flickering brightness outside as a heavy smoke began to fill the room. "LEX!"

Lex grabbed her hat from the under the hood of the jeep and tucked her hair beneath it. Grabbing the shovel from the back of the vehicle she raced to the side of the house, using it to break through one of the denís windows. "Hang on, Amanda!" she yelled, as she backed away to get a running start. "Iím coming, sweetheart!"

The blonde sat helplessly on the bed, her wheelchair just out of reach. The heavy smoke was starting to get to her, and Amanda began to cough as she heard Lexís cry. "Hurry! ItísÖ" she coughed again, leaning forward on the bed and covering her mouth with the quilt.

A heavy body burst through the broken window, landing a few feet from the bed. Lex stood up and coughed, reaching forward and wrapping Amanda up in the quilt. "Hold on, baby." She struggled to carry the smaller woman to the window, the heavy cast hampering her efforts. "Shit." The flames were already around the window.

"What?" Amanda asked, her voice muffled by the thick quilt. "Oh, no."

"This is gonna hurt, sweetheart. Iím sorry." Lex leaned over and kissed her lover between the eyes. "Iíll have to just throw you through the window. When you hit the ground, roll out of the quilt, and away from the house."

Fear filled Amandaís eyes. "What about you? Iím not goingÖ"

Lex shook her head. "Iíll be right behind you, I promise." She stood as close to the window as she dared. "Are you ready?"

Amanda pulled the quilt away from her face and grabbed the tall woman around the neck, pulling her in for a demanding kiss. "Now I am," she rasped. She allowed Lex to bundle her back up, and braced herself for the throw.

With all her strength, Lex threw Amanda as far as she possibly could, praying silently that it would be far enough. She fell to the floor spent, and looked up as she heard the ceiling begin to creak ominously.

"Dear merciful God!" Martha screamed, as she raced up to the main house. She had happened to look out her front window, and saw the flames reaching up into the nighttime sky. She stayed behind and called the fire department, while Travis and Charlie went ahead to see what they could do.

Charlie started to go around to the front of the house, when he saw a bundle fly from the side window. Moving in closer to investigate, he almost screamed as the wad of cloth rolled towards him. A blonde head poked from the smoking mass, and he grinned. "Amanda!" he quickly dragged her further away from the inferno as gently as he could. "How did youÖ?"

"LEX!" Amanda screamed at the house, fighting to free herself from the quilt. She cursed her broken leg, which seemed none the worse for wear. "Dammit! Weíve got to help Lex!"

"Calm down, honey," the sheriff tried to placate her. He looked up at Travis, who dropped to his knees beside the frantic young woman.

"Sheís still in there!"

Charlie paled. "God, no." He shook his head at the totally engulfed house. "TravisÖ"

The older man nodded. "Iíll take care of Amanda. You go see about my granddaughter," he begged. Keep her safe, dear God. He looked up to the sky. Melanie, my love, if you have any pull with the Man upstairs, use it now.

Martha dropped down beside him and pulled a crying Amanda into her arms. "Hush, now," she murmured, "Everythingís going to be all right." She began to gently hum, as she rocked the sobbing woman on the cold ground.

The fire had almost overrun the second floor of the house, and because of the heat, Charlie couldnít get close enough to see inside. He felt tears of loss trail down his face, as he looked up at the bright flames. The French doors to the master suite burst open, and a mattress flew from the opening and to the ground below. "Jesus." The lawman stood frozen for a long moment, then regained his wits and bolted for the smoldering bedding. A body lay spread-eagle on the mattress, not moving.

"Ugh." Lex rolled over onto her back and looked up into the smoky sky. "Damn, that hurt," she wheezed, rubbing her chest where the breath was knocked from her. She tried to sit up, but was held down by a firm hand. "Hey!"

"You just lie still for a minute, you crazy kid!" Charlie half-laughed, half-cried. "You could be seriously injured." He looked up at the road when he heard sirens approach. "Here comes the fire department," he announced unnecessarily.

Lex coughed and tried to catch her breath. "Amanda?" she questioned in a hoarse wheeze.

He nodded. "Sheís just fine, honey. Martha and Travis are with her now."

"Please," Lex gasped out between coughs, "Iíve got to see her." She tried to sit up again, and this time Charlie helped her.

"You are one stubborn woman, Lex Walters." He held her in a sitting position for a long moment and couldnít help but notice how she continued to hold her chest. "Did you hurt yourself, honey?"

She shook her head. "Nah. Just knocked the breath out of me." Lex reached up for him. "Gimme a hand, will you? I really want to go check on Amanda."

Charlie pulled her to her feet and shook his head. He reached up and yanked the black cowboy hat off of Lex. "How on earth did you keep this old thing on?"

"Iím probably related to Roy Rogers," Lex joked, as the older man put a steadying arm around her waist. "Didnít you ever see any of his movies? I haveÖ" she looked to the house, which was still burning brightly. "I had them all." She stumbled over to where the others sat and dropped to the ground next to her lover.

Amanda practically crawled into Lexís arms, crying. "Oh God, Lex. I thoughtÖ"

Lex pulled the younger woman into her arms, as she watched the firemen try to get the blaze under control. "Sshh. Itís okay, sweetheart. Weíre both fine." She looked up at Charlie when she finally acknowledged something. "Elizabeth Cauble started this whole mess," she told him. "I left her on the front lawn."

Amanda pulled back and looked into Lexís face. "Is sheÖ?"

"Unconscious. IÖummÖhad to punch her in the face," the rancher related quietly. "Her clothes caught on fire, and I couldnít get her to calm down enough to put them out. I think sheíll be okay." Lex gave the sheriff a serious look. "You might want to be real careful with her. I think sheís gone off the deep end."

Charlie cocked his head. "How do you know?"

"She was talking to a book of matches." Lex shook her head. "I told her that Amanda was in the house, but she didnít believe me." She looked down into the sad green eyes. "Iím sorry, love. I didnít want to hurt her."

The younger woman pointed to what was left of the house. "Donít you dare apologize! Look what my motherís done! Sheís destroyed your house!"

"She burned OUR house, sweetheart. And it can be rebuilt. Just like WE want it to be." Lex reached over and caressed Amandaís cheek. Weíre together. Thatís all that matters."

Chapter 22

"You know, that coat hanger isnít gonna help much," Lex offered helpfully over her shoulder. She was standing at the bedroom dresser, and watched in amusement as her lover tried in vain to relieve herself from the constant itch of her leg cast. Amanda had been put in a walking cast, so at least she could get around more easily. "Just try not to think about it." Lex had stopped brushing her hair and was now looking at herself critically in the mirror.

Amanda glared at her, but continued trying to reach a distant itch inside the plaster. "Easy for you to say," she grumbled from her position on the bed. It had been over three weeks since the fire, and for the time being they were staying in the guestroom at Marthaís house. Lex had wanted to get a hotel room in town, but the housekeeper wouldnít hear of it. Amanda looked up at her friend, who was busy studying her forehead in the mirror. A thin red line was all that was left of her injury from the automobile accident, and the doctor had promised her that would eventually fade completely as well. "Itís not even noticeable," she commented.

Lex turned around and smiled. "It isnít, huh?" She walked over and sat down on the bed. "I feel like Frankensteinís monster," she admitted ruefully.

"Nope, not even close." Amanda closed her eyes and leaned into the gentle touch of her lover, as long fingers began to stroke her cheek. "MmmÖthat feels good."

"I bet I could make you feel even better," the rancher growled, pushing the smaller woman onto her back and nibbling lightly on her neck. She had almost tugged Amandaís shirt free from her body when a loud knock at the bedroom door interrupted them. "This had better be good," Lex grumbled, pulling the shirt down and rolling onto her back. "Come in," she ordered loudly.

Martha stood in the doorway. "Donít you two ever get enough?" she teased, enjoying the blush on the two womenís faces.

"Never," Lex grinned, being the first to recover from her embarrassment. She sat up and swung her legs over the side of the bed. "Whatís up?"

"Amandaís grandmother is on the phone for her," the housekeeper related. "Do you want me to tell her youíre busy, honey?"

The blonde rolled to the far side of the bed and stood up. "NO!" She used her fingers to comb through her hair. "I mean, ummÖno thank you, Martha. Iíll go talk to her." She shook her head as she limped from the room.

Lex patted the bed beside her. "Why donít you come over and have a seat? You look like somethingís on your mind."

"Do I?" Martha asked, but sat down next to the younger woman anyway. She studied Lexís face for a long moment.

"Mada? Is something wrong?"

With a shake of her head, the housekeeper dismissed the dark thoughts from her mind. Sheís a grown woman, and sheís going to be just fine. "No sweetie. I was just thinking."

"About what?" Lex took the older womanís hands in her own. "Are you nervous about this afternoon?"

"Good heavens, no!" Martha exclaimed. "Well, maybe just a touch." She looked down at their joined hands and smiled a bit sadly. "This will change things, you know."

The rancher nodded. "Yeah," she agreed quietly,. "it will. But for the better, I think." Lex reached up with one hand and gently forced Martha to look into her eyes. "Do you know how proud youíre making me today? Itís like Iím getting the best parts of my family together, finally." She fought down the lump that was quickly growing in her throat. "And while youíre gone, I promise to take better care of your house than I did my own," she teased, trying to lighten the moment.

Martha half-laughed, half-cried. "Youíd better, child!" She wiped a stray tear from Lexís cheek. "Donít you be going all mushy on me now, you hear? Iíll fall apart for sure!"

"Nothing to worry about there, Mada. Iím not the mushy type."

"Right. And Iím the Queen of England," the housekeeper joked. "Iím a little concerned, leaving you right now, though."

Lex raised one eyebrow. "You are? Why? Itís only for a few weeks."

With a heartfelt sigh, Martha brushed the hair out of the younger womanís eyes. "Because I know how much trouble you can get into in just a few hours, Lexie. And to leave you alone for three weeks? I shudder to think about the possibilities."

"I wonít be alone," Lex argued. "Amanda will be here with me."

"That thought scares me even more, honey. The two of you together are a perfect trouble magnet!" She stood up and brushed off her apron. "Well, I guess Iíd better get changed. We need to leave here shortly."

The rancher stood up. "Donít worry, Mada. Everything is going to be just fine. Iím sure Amanda and Anna Leigh are working out the details right now," she joked, putting her arm around the smaller woman. "Although when those two put their heads together, you should be very afraid."

***************

The afternoon was clear and unseasonably warm, almost perfect for the first Saturday in February. Lex had been relegated to chauffeur and pulled Marthaís Ford Explorer into the parking lot at the First Methodist Church of Somerville. The small church was in a quiet residential neighborhood and was just perfect for the small ceremony that both Charlie and Martha had requested. Lex had intended to have it at the house, but had the location moved after the fire. She jumped from the vehicle and helped Martha and Amanda from their seats. "If you ladies want to go on inside, Iíve got something to check into."

"What is it?" Amanda asked, after Martha had headed for the church. "Is something the matter?"

"I think I see Hubertís car," Lex sighed. "I swear, if he tries to mess this up for them, Iíll throttle him where he stands." She looked her partner over. Amanda was wearing a lilac blouse with a knee-length black skirt. "You look absolutely beautiful, Amanda."

The blonde smiled. Amanda felt ridiculous wearing her outfit with the walking cast, but one look from Lex and she forgot all about it. "Youíre changing the subject, but thank you." She looked around and noticed the shiny BMW in the back corner of the parking lot. "I wonder what heís doing here?"

Lex shook her head. "I donít know, but I intend to find out." She turned around to leave when Amanda grabbed her arm.

"Please donít start any fights, Lex. Not today."

"Donít worry, sweetheart. Iíll be good." Lex kissed her lover lightly on the lips. "Why donít you go on inside and see if everything is going smoothly? Iím going to go have a chat with my dear brother."

Amanda watched her go. The tall woman looked especially nice in her new black slacks, and a gray cotton shirt, and her shiny black boots creaked softly as she walked around to the front of the church. Once Lex was out of sight, Amanda shook her head and slipped through the side door. She stood for a moment until her eyes adjusted to the light, then walked to where Anna Leigh was supervising the arranging of flowers. "Hi, Gramma!"

"Hello, honey! Youíre certainly getting around a lot better these days," Anna Leigh commented, as Amanda wrapped her in a fierce hug.

"Thanks. Iím feeling a lot more useful now." Amanda stepped back and looked around the small chapel. The Ďsmallí wedding that the couple had requested had quickly escalated into a larger affair because of the number of people that wanted to attend. "Youíve really done a wonderful job with the flowers, Gramma. It looks great in here."

Anna Leigh smiled. "Thank you, dear. I hope that Martha didnít mind Ė I really want this day to be special for her." She looked at the door where Amanda had come in. "Whereís Lexington?"

"Sheís trying to circumvent a potential problem," the younger woman explained. "Whereís Grandpa?" Amanda asked, allowing her grandmother to lead her to a pew and gently sit her down.

"He and Travis are helping Charlie stay calm. I think theyíre in one of the left vestibules, telling marriage horror stories."

The front door to the chapel opened, and a harried woman rushed in. "Oh, goodness! Weíve got to get someone out in the main hall Ė theyíre going to kill each other!" she exclaimed, waving her hands about. "Whereís the sheriff?"

"Calm down, Myra." Anna Leigh reached out and grabbed the hysterical woman by the arm. Myra Norman was a member of the Ladies Auxiliary, of which Martha was a proud member. Quite a few of the ladies would be attending the wedding while others worked to set up the reception at the hall. "Who are you talking about?"

"I think I have a pretty good idea," Amanda muttered, standing up. "Iíll go check it out." She began hobbling down the main aisle, grumbling under her breath. "Dammit, Lex, you promised!"

Once she stepped out of the chapel, Amanda stopped and looked around. She heard noises coming from behind a swinging door to the right of her, so she quickly limped towards the door.

"Goddamn it! Let me go!"

"Take it back, you worthless bastard! Or I swear Iíll throw your sorry ass through that window!" Lex had her brother pinned to the wall, his feet barely touching the ground. She shoved him harder. "I said, take it back!"

"Screw you! Sheís nothing but a domestic whore!" he growled, fighting to pull Lexís hands off his chest. His nose and mouth were bleeding, and one eye was beginning to close.

"LEX!" Amanda screamed from the doorway. "What are you doing?"

The furious rancher turned her head towards the sound of Amandaís voice, giving Hubert the opening he needed. "IÖ" She doubled over in pain as he broke free and his knee connected with her stomach.

Hubert laughed and swung his leg into Lex again, causing her to fall to the floor. "Teach you to fuck with me, little sister!" He pulled his foot back again, but was stopped as a heavy object slammed into his back with force. "Aaah!" The big man fell forward and slid down the wall, gasping for breath.

"Iíve had about enough of you!" Amanda growled. Her leg ached where she had used it as a battering ram, but she felt extremely satisfied to see Hubert lying on the ground, moaning. She knelt down as best she could next to Lex. "God, honeyÖIím so sorry! Are you all right?"

Lex rolled into a sitting position. "Yeah, Iím fine. Just had the breath knocked out of me." She saw her brother lying a few feet away. "Good lord, Amanda. What did you hit him with?" She saw the tiny lines around the younger womanís mouth, which meant that she was in pain. "You didnít."

"I did." Amanda smiled slightly. "And Iíd do it again, too. What wasÖ"

Two sheriffís deputies burst into the hallway and stopped. "UmmÖwe were told there was a disturbance in here," the first one said, looking around. "Lex? Are you all right?"

"Yeah." The dark-haired woman struggled to her feet, pulling Amanda up with her.

"I want to press charges," Hubert whined, trying to wipe his bleeding nose with a handkerchief. He pointed at Amanda. "That little bitch nearly killed me!"

Lex took a step towards the man. "Watch your mouth, asshole!" She was pulled back by Amanda.

"Itís okay, honey. Let it go. Heís not worth the trouble." She smiled and moved closer to Hubert, who scooted away from her.

"Keep her away from me!" he screamed, holding one arm in front of his face. "I want police protection!"

One of the deputies looked at Amanda, then at the large man still sprawled out in the floor. "Do you expect me to believe that this sweet looking woman hurt you?" He looked at Lex. The only injuries on her that he could see were her skinned knuckles. "Do you want to file assault charges, Lex?"

Hubert finally stood up. "HER? Thatís total bullshit! Look at me!" The blood had begun to dry on his chin, but still dripped sluggishly from his nose. He rushed at Lex, tangling his hands in her pressed shirt and slamming her back into the wall. "You fucking bitch! I'm so glad they messed you and your whore up in that accident. It would have been worth every penny if only they'd killed you like I paid them to." Not realizing why Lex was smiling, he shoved her harder. "What the fuck are you grinning about?"

The two deputies quickly pulled Hubert off his sister and cuffed his hands behind his back. "I think weíve heard about enough, Mr. Walters. Why donít you come with us?" One of the lawmen began to inform Hubert of his rights as he led the screaming man away.

"This isnít over yet! Iíll see you and your little whore dead, do you hear me?" Hubert threatened as he was pulled through the swinging door.

Amanda wrapped one arm around Lexís waist and shook her head. "I canít believe that Hubert would try and have his own sister killed," she murmured quietly.

"I can," a sad voice spoke up from behind them. Travis stood at the other end of the hallway. He had come searching for Lex in Marthaís behalf, and had witnessed the final confrontation between the siblings. "God help me, Iíve known for years how much that boy hated you. I never would have thought that heíd have stooped to that level, though." He joined the two women and escorted them back to the chapel. "Iím so sorry, sweetheart. I feel like I could have prevented all of this by doing something years ago."

"Donít apologize, Grandpa. Hubertís shortcomings are no oneís fault but his own." Lex put her arm around the older man and pulled him close. "Letís keep this little scuffle between us for now, okay? I donít want to ruin Martha and Charlieís wedding."

Travis nodded. "I agree. We can tell them about it later." He stopped and turned to face the two women. "I almost forgot! Martha asked to see you, Lexie. She didnít say why, though."

Shrugging her shoulders, Lex smiled. "Who knows? Probably some last minute instructions on how to behave myself," she joked. "Guess Iíd better go see what she wants." She turned to look at her partner. "Do you want toÖ?"

"I think Iíll let Grandpa Travis escort me to my seat, so I donít have to fight the crowd." Amanda struggled to her tiptoes and kissed Lex on the cheek. "Go take care of Martha. Iíll see you in a little while," she whispered in the tall womanís ear.

***************

A quiet knock on the office door caused Martha to stop fussing with her bouquet and turn around. "Come in." She smiled broadly at the young woman who entered. I always figured that Iíd be the one giving her away, not the other way around. Sheís certainly grown into a beautiful young woman. "Hi there, honey. What have you been up to? Your shirt is wrinkled."

"UmmÖ" Lex stood silently as Martha fussed over her clothes, allowing the older woman to tuck the front of her shirt back into her pants. "Just taking care of some garbage," she muttered.

"Uh-huh." Martha stopped her fussing and looked up into the blue eyes. "You never could lie to me, Lexie. But Iíll let it go this time." Grabbing Lex by the hand, she led her over to a brightly cushioned sofa and sat down. "You know, I never thought Iíd be doing this."

Lex smiled. "Nervous?"

The flowers in Marthaís hands shook slightly and her voice was uncharacteristically quiet. "NoÖyes. Well, not really. I guess Iím more worried about what happens next."

"Címon, Mada. Donít tell me you and CharlieÖ" Lex didnít expect the light slap on her leg.

"Thatís not what I meant, young lady! I swear, your mind is in the gutter more often than not." The housekeeper rubbed the strong thigh where she had slapped it and turned slightly so that she could look Lex directly in the eyes. "Iím not sure where this puts us, my getting married and all. You know I want to continue taking care of the house for you. At least, once you get another one built," she joked. "But, Iíll also have a husband to look out for."

The rancher grabbed Marthaís free hand and squeezed it. "All I want is for you to be happy. If that means you staying in your house and taking care of Charlie, then Iím all for it. Itís time you lived your life for yourself, not for me." Lex used her spare hand to reach up and touch the older womanís cheek. "You are the mother of my heart, Mada." Her voice cracked on the last sentence. "Thatís not going to change just because youíre finally taking some happiness for your own."

Martha nodded. "I couldnít be more proud of who youíve become if I had given birth to you myself, Lexington Marie. Youíve really grown into a wonderful woman." She almost lost her composure when Lex leaned over and placed a tender kiss on her brow. "Now, are you ready to give me away? I think itís about time I make an honest man out of Charlie."

"Yeah," Lex sniffled. "Letís go get you hitched." She pulled Martha up by their joined hands and led her from the room.

***************

Lex almost stumbled when all eyes turned to her and Martha as they entered the chapel. A squeeze on her arm gave her the strength she needed to continue down the aisle towards a decidedly nervous Charlie. "Sorry about that," she murmured to the woman next to her.

"Youíre doing just fine, Lexie," Martha answered over the beautiful organ music that was playing. "Just try not to step on my feet, or weíll both end up on the floor."

The laugh that escaped Lex was loud, and she blushed as her eyes met Amandaís. Iím not ever gonna hear the end of this one, Iíll bet. She stopped in front of the minister and the sweating sheriff. Charlie was wearing a very nice looking dark suit, and Martha looked beautiful in a crŤme colored silk dress that fell just past her knees.

"Who gives this woman on this happy occasion?" the white-haired cleric asked. The usually long and boring ceremony had been altered slightly by the couple, because they didnít want it to be too formal. He waited patiently for the dark-haired woman to answer, as did the several dozens of people attending.

The rancher stood quietly for a long moment, then blinked. "Oh! UmmÖI guess I do." She smiled at Charlie and gently gave him Marthaís arm. "Take good care of her, Uncle Charlie." Lex placed a soft kiss on the older womanís cheek. "I love you, Mada."

He nodded solemnly and held Marthaís hand in his. "You know I will, honey." The couple turned to face the minister as Lex walked back over to her seat next to Amanda.

"That was real smooth, Slim," the blonde teased quietly. She giggled at the blush on her loverís face. "Youíre not going to be like that at our ceremony, are you?"

Lex paled. Lord! I didnít even think about that! "Shhh! Marthaís probably got a wooden spoon in her pocket with my name on it," she whispered.

Before they realized it, the ceremony was over, and Charlie kissed Martha soundly on the mouth. They turned and waved at the crowd, which had begun to applaud wildly. The newly joined couple walked down the aisle together, stopping every so often to accept congratulations from well wishers. Lex and Amanda followed behind them, the tall woman trying to wipe her eyes casually.

"That was lovely, wasnít it, girls?" Anna Leigh asked them as they followed the crowd outside. "Iíve never seen Martha look so beautiful."

"She certainly is," Lex agreed, smiling broadly as the couple pulled up short beside Charlieís official car. Colorful crepe paper covered the brown sedan, and the windows had been decorated with white shoe polish. "Well. Will you look at that?" She laughed as the sheriff shrugged his shoulders with a good-natured laugh and helped Martha into the front seat. "I wonder whoÖ?"

Travis walked up behind Lex and put his hands on her shoulders. "Shameful, isnít it?"

"Oh, yeah," Amanda giggled, noticing the white specks on the older manís shoes. "Who would do something like that?"

"Itís just not safe to leave your car anywhere, anymore," Jacob agreed. He had walked up with Travis, and was holding what was left of the roll of crepe. "Hooligans, Iím sure. Thereís no other explanation for it." A playful swat from his wife told him that he had not been believed. "What?"

Anna Leigh shook her head. "You two are worse than a couple of teenagers," she sighed. Grabbing her husbandís arm, she began to pull him away. "Darling, what am I going to do with you?" she asked.

"Whatís your excuse?" Lex asked her grandfather. She crossed her arms over her chest and tapped a foot. "Well? Iím waiting."

"WellÖIÖ" Travis looked at Amanda. "I could use some help here."

She shook her head. "Oh, no. You leave me out of this."

Lex wrapped the older man in a hug and laughed. "I should have known it would be a bad idea to let you stay with the Caubles. Jacobís a bad influence, isnít he?" She winced as Amanda slapped her on the arm.

"Hey! Thatís my grandfather youíre talking about!"

"The nut never falls far from the tree, does it, Grandpa?" Lex asked, ducking to keep from receiving another blow. "Oooh! You missed!" she teased Amanda, jumping away.

The small blonde waved a finger at Lex, who was backing away from her. "Youíve got to sleep sometime, Slim. And Martha wonít be around to protect you." She continued walking to the parking lot, smiling to herself as she passed the sputtering rancher.

"Thatís not fair! I didnít do anything to you!" Lex jogged to catch up to her lover. "Amanda! Címon!" She ignored her grandfatherís laughter behind her.

***************

"I think the ladies outdid themselves, donít you?" Michael Cauble asked Lex, who was sitting in a corner sipping on some punch. He could see his daughter talking to the bride, and was curious as to why the tall woman was on this side of the room by herself.

The rancher nodded. "Yeah. They did really well, especially considering the short notice I gave them." She pointed to a nearby chair. "Why donít you take a load off?"

He smiled and sat down. "Thanks, I believe I will. Are you okay?"

"Iím fine." Lex took another drink of her punch. "Is something on your mind, Michael?"

"Actually, there is." He looked at the tablecloth, then back up into the startling blue eyes across from him. "I went and saw Elizabeth at the hospital yesterday." His wife was still being treated for the burns she received several weeks earlier. Although Lex had managed to extinguish the flames from her clothes fairly quickly, she had still gotten second-degree burns on her legs and hands.

Lex nodded. "I see. Howís she doing?"

Michael shook his head. "Physically, sheís going to be just fine. I donít know if I would have had the presence of mind to do what you did. I probably would have let the bitch burn."

"Unfortunately, I didnít really think about it, or I might have done the same."

"I donít think so. Youíre too decent. It took me a long time to figure that out, but itís true. You could no more let her burn, than if it had been someone you loved." He sighed. "Theyíre going to be transporting her to the state hospital in Austin sometime next week. At least the family wonít have to be subjected to a trial."

She leaned back in her chair slightly, causing the front legs to raise from the floor. "I just hope they have the good sense to keep her there. I donít want Amanda to have to go through any more grief because of that woman Ė Iíd kill Elizabeth first."

He nodded. "I understand. Lex, Iím so sorry about what happened to your house. If I can do anything at all to helpÖ"

"Itís okay. I was thinking about remodeling again, anyway." Lex smiled as Amanda walked up to the table. "Howís it going?" She stood up and helped the younger woman to a chair. "You really need to stay off that leg right now, Karate Kid."

Amanda blushed, but took the offered seat. "Um, thanks." She turned her attention to her father. "Hi, Daddy. I was wondering if you were going to come over and say hello, or if you were going to be working all day." Her father had been placed on retainer by Lex to take the wedding pictures. He had refused payment, but was enjoying showing off his new camera equipment.

"Yes, well. I wanted to make sure I did a good job. The boss I have is tough," Michael teased, winking at Lex. He leaned over and whispered loudly, "Although I hear that HER boss is even worse!"

"Daddy!" Amanda shook her head, laughing. "Did Gramma find you yet?"

Michael shook his head. "NoÖwas it something important?"

"Knowing the women in your family, MichaelÖIíd say everything is important, at least to them," Lex added wryly. She flinched as Amanda lightly slapped her leg. "See what I mean?"

"Iím not going to get myself into that mess," he countered. "I think I hear my mother calling me." Michael jumped to his feet and left the table, patting his daughter on the head as he walked away.

Amanda watched his retreat with a happy smile. "So, what were you two talking about so seriously before I came over here?" she asked Lex. "Did I interrupt something?"

"No, not really." Lex reached over and grasped Amandaís hand. "He was telling me about his hospital visit yesterday. Theyíre going to transport your mother to Austin next week."

"Oh. I guess I should go by and see her, shouldnít I?" The younger woman looked down at the tablecloth. She felt her hand being squeezed and looked into her loverís eyes.

"Only if you want to, sweetheart." Lex ran her free hand through her hair. "Iíll, ummÖbe glad to go with you, if you want." The last place she wanted to be was anywhere near Elizabeth Cauble, but Lex didnít want Amanda to think that sheíd have to go on her own. "Your dad said that her burns were going to heal okay, but he didnít mention how she was, otherwise."

The younger woman shook her head. "I really donít want to. But I think I should." Amanda took a deep breath and swallowed the lump in her throat. "Can we go after the reception? Iíd like to get it over with, if you donít mind."

Lex nodded. "Sure, love. Whatever you want." She looked across the room and stood up. "Looks like the happy couple is about to leave. Shall we?"

"Sure. Letís." Amanda allowed Lex to pull her up and escort her to where everyone had gathered.

Martha stood up on a chair, so that everyone could see her. "Attention, everyone! Charlieís telling me that we have a flight to catch, so Iíve got to make this quick." She motioned for Lex and Amanda to stand beside her, and waited until they were in place. "I know that the tradition says Iím supposed to toss my bouquet over my shoulder. But since itís my wedding, and my bouquet, I say to heck with tradition!" The large group laughed with her. "I want to give this to someone who could really use it, especially since most of you ladies are already taken." The housekeeper looked down at Lex, who shook her head slightly and frowned. "Donít worry, child. I wouldnít dream of doing that to you." She stepped down from the chair and handed the bouquet to Amanda, enveloping the younger woman in a hug. "Take care of my baby for me, Amanda. Sheís still the most important thing in the world to me," she whispered.

"You can count on it, Mada," Amanda whispered back, kissing the older womanís cheek. "Have a safe trip," she finished loud enough for everyone to her. "Iíll try and make some use of these flowers while youíre gone."

"You see that you do, young lady." Martha crooked her finger at Lex. "Címere, Lexie."

The rancher stepped forward slightly. "Yes, maíam?" She was surprised when Martha wrapped both arms around her and squeezed her tight. "You behave yourself while Iím gone, you hear? I donít want to have to commandeer that cruise ship and row it back to Texas."

"Yes, Mada." Lex grinned at the attempted scowl on the older womanís face. "I love you, too." She kissed the slightly wrinkled cheek and stepped back. "Now get going, before Charlie has a fit." She had noticed how the sheriff kept looking at his watch.

The newly married couple quickly said their good-byes and hurried through the door, stopping suddenly. "What theÖ?" Charlie looked at Martha, then back at Lex, who was standing at the doorway with a large grin on her face. "You little sneak!"

A large white limousine was parked in front of the Ladies Auxiliary Hall, with the words, ĎJust Marriedí written across the back window in large letters. The driver stood beside the door, waiting to help the couple inside.

"Donít blame me," Lex raised her hands defensively. "Itís not my car." She pointed at Travis, who was standing close by. "Talk to him."

Charlie walked over to Travis and looked up into the taller manís face. "I donít know what to say, Travis. This is just too much."

"Nonsense, my friend. You wouldnít let me pay for the wedding, at least let me get you to the airport in style." The older man smiled and placed a hand on the sheriffís shoulder. "Youíve helped take care of my granddaughter when I couldnít Ė at least let me do this for you."

"But itís an hour and a half drive to the airport!" Charlie couldnít believe the generosity of his friend. "Lex is like a daughter to me Ė you donít owe me a thing."

Travis nodded. "I know. But itíll give us all peace of mind to know that youíll get there safely. Do you really want Lexie to follow you? She would, you know."

The sheriff laughed. "Lord! Donít I know it!" He sighed. "All right. I imagine I canít say no to an offer like that. Thank you, Travis."

"Youíre more than welcome, my friend." He motioned behind them where Lex and Amanda were standing. "Besides, youíve got it easy. Iím the one that has to stay behind and keep an eye on those two."

"Ah. I never thought about it that way." Charlie reached out and shook the other manís hand. "Take care, Travis. Weíll see you in about three weeks."

***************

They stood outside the closed door, Lex nodding in acknowledgement to the deputy who sprang up from his chair at their approach. "Oscar. You missed a fine wedding," the tall woman reported, shaking his hand.

"I drew the short straw," he admitted. "Although I heard there was a bit of excitement there, too." He tipped his hat to Amanda. "Maíam."

"Hello," the blonde greeted quietly. "Can weÖ?" she pointed to the closed door.

The young deputy nodded. "Yes, maíam. You go right ahead. Just holler if you need anything, all right?"

Amanda took a deep breath. "Thank you." She looked up at Lex. "Come in with me?"

"Sure, sweetheart." Like Iíd let her face the old battle axe alone. Lex followed her lover into the room and closed the door behind them.

Elizabeth Cauble lay quietly on the bed, the only outward signs of her confinement were the restraints that were wrapped around her forearms, just above her bandaged hands. When she heard the door open, she turned her head and saw her youngest daughter standing by the door. "Amanda, darling. I knew youíd come." She raised one hand slightly and beckoned the young woman forward with a smile.

"Mother." Amanda stood next to the bed, just out of reach. "How are you?" She felt Lex move in behind her and was thankful for the warm hands that dropped onto her shoulders.

"Much better, now that youíre here." Elizabeth eyed her daughter critically. "You look pale, Amanda. Iím sure youíll get your tan back in no time, once weíre home." She finally noticed the person standing behind her daughter. "Lexington Walters. I surmise by your being here, that thereís no hard feelings?" She smiled triumphantly. "It was so kind of you to bring my daughter to me."

Lex frowned. "What are you saying, Mrs. Cauble?"

The restrained woman waved her hand as best she could. "Why, Lex. I can call you Lex, canít I?" When the other woman nodded, she continued, "The best woman won. My daughter is here to take me home, and youíre being ever so gallant about the whole thing. I admire that."

Amanda shook her head. "No, Mother. Thatís not why weíre here. I just wanted to see how you were doing."

"Nonsense! I was just waiting for you, so that we could go home together. You have no place to live, so you have to come back to California with me!" She was getting more agitated by the moment, her eyes taking on a crazed look. "Weíll be so happy, you and I. Thereís so many things to do in Los Angeles. Not at all like this backwater hellhole."

Tears in her eyes, Amanda reached over for the nurse call button. "Iím sorry, Mother. Thatís just not going to happen. My life is here, with Lex." She reached over and gently brushed the hair away from Elizabethís eyes. "Goodbye, Mother. I love you." The distraught woman turned away from the bed and hurried from the room, Lex right behind her.

"Youíll come back to me, Amanda! Iím your mother, and we belong together!" Elizabeth yelled at the retreating pair. After the door closed, she dropped back against her pillow and smiled. "Sheíll be back. Iíll see to that."

***************

After being directed by Amanda to Ďjust drive,í Lex steered the Explorer through a leisurely circuit around the small town. She finally pulled the vehicle to a stop at the small park near the Caubleís home. Unbuckling her seat belt, the worried rancher turned to face Amanda. "Itís kinda nice out today. Would you like to go for a walk?"

Amanda nodded and opened her door. "I think Iíd like that, Lex. Thank you." She climbed out and was waiting as Lex made her way around the vehicle.

"I know we donít have anything for them today, but letís go visit your friends." Lex held out her hand and was relieved when it was accepted. She wordlessly escorted her lover to the lakeside, smiling a little at the antics of the waterís denizens. "Looks like they remember you," she teased quietly, as several of the more adventurous ducks waddled up to Amandaís feet.

"Yeah," Amanda smiled. A giggle escaped her when one of the ducks began attacking her cast. "Stop that, you goofy thing."

Lex shooed the creatures away gently and led her partner over to a nearby bench. "Címon. Letís get you off that leg for a bit, okay?"

They sat side by side for quite a while, enjoying the warm sun on their faces and the peacefulness of the small lake. No one else was around, and the ducks had even gotten the idea and left the two women alone.

"Sheís right, you know," Amanda murmured at long last.

"Who?"

"My mother. Because of me, we donít have a place to live." She looked down at her cast, which was still covered by the dark stocking. Small bits of leaves and grass were clinging to it, and she bent down to pick them off. Her line of vision was suddenly filled as Lex dropped to her knees in front of the bench.

"Thatís not true, Amanda. If itís anyoneís fault, itís mine. The night that my father came home, you had told me that she was up to something. I chose to ignore it." Lex looked up into the sad eyes of her lover. "Not even Charlie took it as seriously as he should have, because of me."

Lex had returned downstairs after talking with her father, only to be met in the den by Charlie and Martha. Amanda was sitting up on the bed, her legs covered with a colorful quilt. "Whatís going on, folks? What are you doing out here so late, Uncle Charlie?"

"Itís mostly my fault," Martha sighed. "I was going to tell you earlier, but with your father showing up and allÖ"

"Has something happened?" Lex sat down next to her lover and took her hand. "Amanda?"

The younger woman squeezed her hand. "Janna called earlier, honey. She and Barbara were having dinner and overheard Mother talking with a strange man."

The rancher chuckled. "Must have been strange, to be seen with her." She jumped when her leg was slapped.

"Iím serious, Lex!" Amanda shook her head. "Evidently, he works for her. According to Janna, heís planning on doing something to try to separate us."

"She called our office, too. So I thought Iíd take a little drive out here and check things out," Charlie explained.

Lex turned around and faced the sheriff. "Címon, Charlie! You know as well as I do, that I can take care of things here." She stood up and placed one arm around him and the other around Martha. "But since youíre here, why donít you two go watch a movie? No sense in wasting a trip. If itíll make you feel better, Iíll check things out in the morning."

The rancher shook her head. "I was so damned arrogant, thinking that I could protect you from anything. That fire almost killed you!"

Amanda reached down and brushed her fingers against her loverís cheek. "It almost killed both of us, love. When you didnít follow me through that window, I thought for sure I had lost you."

Lex reached up and cupped the younger womanís face with her hands. "It would take more than a house fire to keep me away from you," she murmured. "Iíd gladly walk through the fires of hell to get back to you."

"You almost did," Amanda sniffled, fighting back the feelings of helplessness that the memories brought back. "What made you think to jump from the second floor on a mattress?"

"Saw it in a movie, once," Lex admitted sheepishly. "Wasnít sure if it was gonna work, or not."

The blonde shook her head, tears falling from her eyes. "GodÖyouíre going to drive me crazy, yet!"

"Hey," Lex wiped the tears away with her thumbs. "It worked. No problem." She allowed herself to be pulled back up onto the bench, and found her arms suddenly full of Amanda. Concerned, Lex wrapped her arms around the smaller woman and squeezed tightly. "Whatís the matter?"

Amanda buried her face in Lexís chest, taking a deep breath and pulling her loverís scent into her lungs. "One too many close calls, I think." She felt herself calm down. "Sorry about that."

Lex rubbed Amandaís back gently. "No problem. I think Iím about ready for a vacation, myself." She leaned back against the bench, allowing Amanda to snuggle against her side. They both looked out at the calm lake. "You know, I was talking to your grandmother at the reception."

"Really? About what?"

"She was telling me of this nice little house for rent in their neighborhood. Furnished, and everything." Lex looked down and smiled at the small woman next to her. "Dadís happy at the bunkhouse, and he can keep the guys in line for me and take care of things at the ranch. Since the construction on the new house is about to start, why donít we just stay in town for a while?"

The blonde looked up, trying to gauge the emotions flitting across Lexís face. "Are you sure about this? Donít you want to supervise the construction?"

Lex shook her head. "Nah. Iíd just drive them crazy, and theyíd never get it done. We can go out on the weekends and check up on it. Iíll probably go out during the day when youíre at work, anyway." She reached into her pocket and pulled out a small keyring. "Want to go check it out?"

"You rat! You had this planned all along, didnít you?" Amanda laughed. She stood up and stretched. "Come on. Letís go look at a house."

The rancher laughed and allowed her lover to pull her off the bench. She snaked one arm around Amandaís waist and stood looking at the lake for a long moment. The sun sparkled off the calm surface, which was only marred by the occasional duck floating by. "Looks like weíll be spending more time here with your little friends," she joked.

"Looks like it," Amanda agreed. She turned until she could hug Lex. "As long as Iím with you, I donít care where I am." Her hands linked behind the tall womanís neck as she pulled Lexís face down to meet hers in a loving kiss.